Search View Archive

A Brief History of Violence

David Neiwert, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Racialized the American Right (Pollpoint Press)

For the last two months, the nation has been witness to a nearly unprecedented number of mass shootings. As many as 75 people have been gunned down in 14 of these mass shooting events since March 5, 2009, when Davon Crawford murdered most of his family in Cleveland before turning his weapon on himself. There has been no distinct pattern to these tragic events. They have taken place in the South, the West, the Midwest, and upstate New York. The perpetrators, ranging from a white supremacist to an Asian immigrant, have not seemed to share much in common with one another. Likewise, no common motivation seems to have appeared in these cases. If one were to try and find some explanation, make some sense of the senseless, however, an excellent starting point would be David Neiwert’s latest, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Racialized the American Right.

Beginning with the case of Jim David Adkisson, the disciple of Michael Savage and Sean Hannity who took it upon himself to cleanse the nation of liberals and opened fire on the congregation of an Unitarian church, Neiwert introduces his argument by recounting a series of similar events that have taken place over the last 10 years or so. Here, he also examines some of the most extreme invectives from the likes of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Reagan—most of which involves them “jokingly” advocating violence against liberals. At first, this approach seems a bit generic, if not trite and clichéd. Bookstores and blogs are filled with texts decrying such quotations. Thankfully, Neiwert drops this approach fairly quickly, saving this book from merely being a rehash of Al Franken’s latest punchlines and begins tracing this rhetoric of hate back through the entire history of the United States, crafting a compelling argument along the way.

Neiwert sees, in the radical speech of contemporary right-wing pundits, echoes and traces of a small, but virulent, streak of hatred and violence that has always run just below this nation’s surface. He examines the way that mainstream white America (and its right wing) has dealt with various types of the Other—Native Americans, African Americans, the Chinese, the Japanese, illegal Mexicans, etc.—that it has encountered and finds some disturbing similarities. In nearly all of these situations, the ideologies of fringe hate groups (the Ku Klux Klan, William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts, etc.) have found their way towards mainstream acceptance via “transmitters,” respectable figures in the media (Father Coughlin in the 1930s, for instance) who speak the language of eliminationism and lend these ideas a legitimacy within mainstream culture. In nearly all of these instances, the rhetoric of violence has provoked actual violence, often widespread, against minorities in this country.

Fascism, and the impulse towards fascism, also falls under Neiwert’s eye here. The author notes that there is no widely accepted definition of fascism, but he comes to the conclusion that one of the factors most indicative of what most people call fascism is a tendency towards violence as practiced by Mussolini’s Blackshirts. America, of course, in its unsanitized version, has been no stranger to these impulses. Neiwert cites the systematic elimination of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, sundown towns and the predilection by some to commit inhuman atrocities against African Americans. He stops short of naming America as a fascist society, however, identifying us a para-fascist society instead—that is, a society that shares many of the same impulses as a true fascist state, but one in which domestic violence against the minority Other is neither mainstream nor institutionalized by the state. As Neiwert notes, however, it wouldn’t take that much of a leap to push us to the other side.

This is the danger of the eliminationist rhetoric being used by Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin and the rest. When the airwaves are saturated with allegedly respectable journalists and pundits calling, however “jokingly,” for violence against those who simply disagree with them, the atmosphere begins smelling of actual fascism rather quickly and one begins to see the recent spate of mass shootings in a slightly different light. True, these cases have not been directly tied to political motivations as in Adkisson’s case. But eliminationist speech has fostered an environment in which those inclined to see violence as the best solution for dealing with their problems hear the confirmation of this belief ringing in their ears on a daily basis.


James Arnett


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

All Issues