In the early months of 1985, national headlines recounted lurid tales of an impending right-wing bloodbath in the United States. In New York City Bernhard Goetz admitted to the shooting of four Blacks who he believed were about to assault him on a subway car, and he promptly became a national hero. In the Washington area and in Florida, police arrested several individuals for bombing a number of abortion clinics, and in March someone fired a shot through the living-room window of the bête noire of abortion foes, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. At about the same time, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were tracking down and sometimes shooting it out with a violent, anti-Jewish, neo-Nazi secret society called the “Silent Brotherhood,” which was accused of committing murders and armed robberies in the Far West and was said to have constructed a nationwide underground network of like-minded citizens.
The sages of the Northeastern establishment waxed gleeful at these reports. After listening to Ronald Reagan talk for four years about Soviet-supported terrorism, they now divined that the real terrorist threat came from the extreme right, which the President and his allies like the Reverend Falwell were said to have insufficiently repudiated. After years of dribbling down their chins over Huey Newton and Che Guevara, liberal pundits now began to whine about the wickedness of “taking the law into your own hands.” After a full year of inventing excuses for not denouncing Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, they now stepped forward boldly to spit in the ugly face of extremism. Once again, American liberalism had proved itself to have the intellectual rigor and moral integrity of a street-comer card shark.
And yet the liberals may have some reason for their mewling. For all of their feeble efforts to implicate Reagan and Falwell in the outbreak of right-wing violence, the establishment left perhaps sensed that the new militants were in reality distinctively different from what has become the establishment right and that they may represent a new force in American politics, something almost unique in American history. The left believes, through its own bloody history, what conservatives find extraordinarily difficult to accept: that a cause becomes forceful when its adherents are willing to shed blood for it, and that the shedding of blood, by itself, galvanizes a cause, solidifies its followers, and induces its enemies to look about them. It is one thing to give money to a favorite candidate or a tax-exempt foundation; it is another to kill someone who disagrees with you. The former is a hobby; the latter, a revolution.
Of course, there has been violence from the right before in American history — most recently in the Klan bombings and shootings of the 1960’s and to a lesser extent in the antibusing activism of the early l 970’s. Those extremists, however, were quickly absorbed into less desperate movements led by George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and Ronald Reagan, just as left-wing extremists were absorbed by the New Deal of the l930’s and the McGovern campaign of 1972. What appears to be different about the pro-life bombers, the neo-Nazi conspirators, and the anonymous fans of Citizen Goetz, however, is that they are popping up precisely at the moment when the most conservative President of this century has just won a second landslide electoral victory and when a version of political conservatism seems to be gaining some momentum in the national mind. Proclivities to right-wing violence should have been mollified by the current trend, but they weren’t. And it is this thought that really frightens the brahmins of the liberal establishment: there just might really be some thing loose in the dark corners of America that doesn’t care about the symbolic flag-waving, is not bought off by the direct mail of Washington-based populists, and wears a lean and hungry look that cannot be placated by the normal give-and-take of consensual politics. And if that something is there, then the American left — and indeed many American conservatives — do have something to worry about.
American conservatism, especially in its political manifestation, has centered on the defense of a commercial society and the ideas, values, and institutions associated with it. Certainly there is more to philosophical conservatism than this, but the ideas of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, the New Humanists, and the Southern Agrarians have never played much part in our practical politics. The commercialist and bourgeois elements in conservatism have attracted many businessmen and that dwindling portion of the citizenry that still admires and respects business. The principal value that most American conservatives have always defended is the private gratification of individual interests. Hence, the strong libertarian and pro-business thrust of American conservative ideology from the Gilded Age to the present, rather than (as in Europe or Latin America) an ideology based on religious or ultranationalist themes. Yet it is precisely on such themes that the new militants of the right are dwelling, and it may be that they or similar groups are in the process of articulating something that has never existed in America: a national myth, rising above and overshadowing private interests, to which a revolutionary right can adhere and for which its adherents would gladly spill their own blood and that of others.
It should be obvious that the new militants are not particularly exercised by the pocketbook issues. The “Army of God” and similar groups that allegedly kidnap abortionists, blow up their clinics, and perhaps take occasional potshots at Supreme Court Justices speak for themselves. What they want is a government which is publicly and seriously committed to a moral and religious principle — the sanctity of unborn life — and which actually thwarts the gratification of certain human appetites (the desire to have unlimited sexual fun without any of the responsibilities nature has imposed). Bernhard Goetz, whatever his lawyers may tell us, was probably less motivated by fear for his wallet or dread of the pain of being beaten up again than by a desire to reassert his own dignity by standing up for himself. Certainly the anecdotes told about his efforts to rescue other victims of crime on earlier occasions reinforce the belief that he was not acting purely out of self-interest, and that is undoubtedly one reason why so many Americans express admiration for him. Nor is the Silent Brotherhood concerned about balancing the budget, human rights in Afghanistan, or the other abstractions that seem to titillate mainstream conservatives these days. In the home of one of the alleged members of this group, the FBI discovered a manifesto entitled a “Declaration of War”:
By the millions, those not of our blood violate our borders and mock our claim to sovereignty. … Our heroes and our culture have been insulted and degraded. The mongrel hordes clamor to sever us from our inheritance…. All about us the land is dying. Our cities swarm with dusky hordes. The water is rancid and the air is rank. Our farms are being seized by usurious leeches and our people are being forced off the land…. They close the factories, the mills, the mines, and ship our jobs overseas. Yet the people do not awaken.
Although there is some economics (and no small amount of bigotry) in this declaration, its central message — “we have become a people dispossessed” — has nothing to do with OSHA regulations and bloated bureaucracies. It is hard to unravel fully the tangled passions that go into such a manifesto. But it may be assumed that here — in frenzied caricature — are some of the frustrations felt by middle Americans when their cherished symbols are threatened. San Antonio, for instance, used to be known as the “Alamo City,” after the famous monastery nearby where American volunteers faced death from the bayonets of Mexican invaders. Present day Mexican invaders, armed with ballots, found the appellation degrading, and so the Texas metropolis is now known as the “River City.” Similarly, in 1979 Atlanta, under the pressure of local Black politicians, changed the name of its “Forrest Avenue,” named after one of America’s greatest warriors, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, to “Ralph McGill Boulevard,” after one of America’s most swinish verbalists.
And every time a local government sets up a manger scene at Christmas or makes some other small public affirmation of the Christian identity and heritage of America, it is besieged by the ACLU to take it down. It is now almost impossible to have prayers on public occasions unless there are at least three clergymen of different faiths to make clear that we are not really a Christian nation but merely a conglomerate engaged in public relations.
All of these phenomena are instances of what the manifesto of the Silent Brotherhood prefers to call “dispossession,” the chipping and stripping away at the traditional identity of America by militant minorities and special interests aided by spineless and hypocritical elements of the majority. What the homicidal crackpots of the Silent Brotherhood have perceived, and what is utterly lost on some pundits, fund-raisers, and politicians who claim to speak for the mainstream right, is that, denuded of its historic, national, and religious identity, a people dies and becomes a population, a demographic and economic statistic whose character and identity are then defined in terms of exit polls and consumption patterns; that unless the real identity of a nation is conserved, the issues of budgets, bombs, and bureaucrats are irrelevant to its survival.
What may be evolving in the subway cars of New York and the basement laboratories of bomb-happy pro-lifers is a nativist and largely underground right-wing movement motivated by something other than getting and spending. To be sure, what became known as the “New Right” in the late l 970’s was also moved by nonmaterial goals, but by the end of 1984 it was surely clear that parts of the Republican establishment, Northeastern academic neoconservatives, and Mr. Reagan’s Kitchen Cabinet had co-opted the New Right and channeled its energies into support for the establishment framework of politics and policymaking. The conventional explanation was that economic issues took precedence over social issues. By opting for political violence, the new militants have ensured that they will never enter that framework. They or their successors may engage in politics, but it is likely to be a politics far more bitter, confrontational, and even violent than anything yet con templated by any of us on the mainstream right, old or new.
Nor is the establishment capable of absorbing the militancy of the far right. The political framework of the establishment is essentially bourgeois in its design and functioning; it is able to assimilate and gratify private aspirations for material gain, whether of the left or the right, as long as left and right are based on constituencies with such aspirations. The bourgeois framework cannot absorb or respond to political forces that lack economic ambitions, are willing to kill people merely in defense of a national or religious or cultural identity, and reject and contradict the very nature of the bourgeois order. Irving Kristol has written that bourgeois society “roots itself in the most worldly and common of human motivations: self-interest,” that it is “the most prosaic of all possible societies” and has little use for the heroic, the transcendent, and the romantic-utopian; and Kristol is correct that mainstream conservative politics in America is characteristically bourgeois.
The new militants, unlike the mainstream right, reject the old bourgeois order and, unlike the militants of the left, equally reject what is superseding the bourgeois system, the managerial regime of salaried technocrats and bureaucrats who promote a humanist and cosmopolitan myth. Although the militants of the right are themselves from the lower or middle income strata, they lack the economic and social autonomy that characterizes bourgeois businessmen and farmers, and one source of their frustration is that they are economically and socially dependent on the anonymous and impervious managerial system. Conservative rebels against the managerial establishment have generally sought a base in the bourgeois remnants of American society and have often succeeded in modifying or slowing down the liberal-managerial agenda. It has been possible to do so by appealing to bourgeois self-interest and common sense, but it is not possible through such an appeal to challenge the establishment and its agenda frontally. It is not possible because there is no conservative myth in modem political culture that rises above private aspirations or mobilizes masses on a right-wing but nonbourgeois level. But the new militants are closer to the vision of Solzhenitsyn than Milton Friedman. Bourgeois self-interest is less important to them than the heroic, the transcendent, and the roman tic. They do not seek to modify or to parley with the establishment, but to destroy it.
It is because they are postbourgeois and antibourgeois, because they have so little attraction to the prosaic ambitions of bourgeois civilization and so much scorn for the baubles of the managerial regime, that the new militants or their successors may be able to achieve what no other force on the American right has ever been able to do, to formulate a myth of the right around which it would be possible to mobilize a massive popular challenge to the myth of the left that has animated Western politics for the last two centuries and which has now even insinuated itself into contemporary conservatism. “Myths,” wrote Georges Sorel, “are not descriptions of things, but expressions of a determination to act…. A myth cannot be refuted, since it is, at bottom, identical with the convictions of a group, being the expression of their convictions in the language of movement; and it is, in consequence, unanalysable into parts which could be placed on the plane of historical descriptions.” The frightening significance of the perpetrators of recent right-wing violence does not therefore consist in their “descriptions of things,” but in their “determination to act,” in the irrefutable power of their convictions, and in the possibility that they may be able to conjure up that most formidable of all specters in the nightmares of establishments, a revolution from the right, a rejection of both bourgeois comforts as well as of managerial humanism and social engineering, and an affirmation of our national identity and its destiny. And if indeed this is the rough beast that moves among the fragments of our heritage, then we are well advised to sleep uneasily. cc
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