I’m in the International Lounge right now, waiting for Right-Wing Radicalism: A Transatlantic Perspective to begin. The national attention on the conference has caused campus interest to skyrocket, and I know that many people who want to be here can’t, whether because of class or a general lack of space. So I’ll be liveblogging the entire thing, sharing any particularly interesting or provocative points and adding my own commentary where it exists. Enjoy!
2:23 pm: The conference is scheduled to begin at 2:30, so just a few more minutes now. Here is the complete agenda for the conference, along with some brief background info and a statement from the university about the controversy their logo caused.
2:35 pm: Nothing’s started yet, but we’ve hit the big time. Look here to hear Glenn Beck’s perspective on the conference!
2:43 pm: And away we go!
2:46 pm: The woman doing the introduction (UPDATE: she’s Professor Sabine von Mering) is addressing the swastika controversy. She says that the decision to include it was inappropriate and wrong and that none of the moderators or panelists had any knowledge of the posters. I’ve heard rumors that participants in the conference have received death threats over this issue, so hopefully that’s enough to satisfy everyone here.
2:52 pm: Professor Mingus Mapps is introducing the first panel, which focuses on the European perspective of right-wing radicalism. There will be time for questions at the end, so if you leave a good one in the comments, I’ll try to ask it and report back on the answer.
2:58 pm: Dr. Othmar Ploeckinger is talking about Mein Kampf, which he describes as a very famous book that is very seldom read. However, it was very popular during Hitler’s reign in Germany, and even before Hitler took power, it was widely read among a broad range of politicians and intellectuals.
3:04 pm: In the modern right-wing movement, Mein Kampf has remained popular among German radical groups. The book is now illegal to publish in Germany, but 74 of the 80 copies owned by the Munich library have been stolen in recent years (probably the easiest way to acquire it in the country).
3:12 pm: Professor Hans-Gerd Jaschke is discussing the history of right-wing extremism in post-Nazi Germany. The National Democratic Party, which was founded in 1964, is the most prominent extremist group in the country. It was forced to distance itself from the Nazi Party, which had been banned, but it retained many of the citizens that supported the Nazis. Now, it opens itself to neo-Nazis while employing a lot of the populist rhetoric that characterizes the far right in the United States. It currently holds seats in two German state parliaments.
3:16 pm: There’s also a separate, explicitly neo-Nazi counterculture movement that has been gaining traction among German youth. It’s characterized by a tendency towards violence and criminal activity. Over 19,000 criminal offenses from right-wing extremist sources were reported in 2008 alone, including 2 homicides and 4 attempted homicides (most are comparatively minor crimes such as inciting hatred, which can mean as little as publicly displaying the swastika).
3:23 pm: Professor Joachim Kersten is discussing right-wing extremism in Eastern Europe and Russia. Russia has seen 71 people killed in hate crimes in 2009 alone according to estimates by NGOs. Non-Slavic individuals are the the main targets. Poland has seen a rise in anti-Semitic sentiment, both traditional (“Jews killed Jesus!”) and modern (“Jews have too much power!”).
3:29 pm: Apparently, the decline of the Soviet empire has inspired a backlash of national chauvinism that has led to a lot of the hate. In Poland, the blame falls mostly on a particularly fundamentalist form of Roman Catholicism that has grown in popularity.
3:31 pm: Professor Peter Niesen is discussing legal restrictions on right-wing extremism. European nations are far more willing to ban extremist political parties or hateful speech, symbols, or assembly than the United States is. That pesky First Amendment!
3:38 pm: The German National Democratic Party (see above) faced ban attempts in the early 2000s, which were unsuccessful in large part because no one actually considered them a serious threat. In contrast, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Portugal have all banned former ruling parties who installed fascist regimes. In recent years, Rwanda and Iraq (Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party) have taken similar steps. The civil rights consequences of banning political parties are obvious, but it does help to protect young democracies from immediate subversion.
3:44 pm: Professor David Art is discussing anti-immigrant political parties in Europe. These parties are democratic and non-violent, and they’ve grown pervasive throughout Europe. Their economic policies tend to be leftist, and their rhetoric is populist. Some of them are very minor, but some have gained parliament seats (receiving up to 27% of the vote) and even become part of coalition governments.
3:46 pm: Why do some nativist parties succeed while others fail? It boils down to organization rather than cultural or electoral differences among nations. The voter demand exists throughout Europe, but most of the parties become “one-hit wonders” that implode due to leadership failures or fractions.
3:50 pm: The demographic profile of these parties is sometimes from blue-collar, under-educated voters (sound familiar?), but some parties draw heavily from university graduates as well (think Ron Paul voters). Professor Art emphasizes the fact that this movement isn’t a single group of the same people that cuts across national boundaries.
3:54 pm: Full panel discussion now. One panelist (I’m not sure who) challenges David Art’s point that it’s all about organization, saying he believes there needs to be a “populist moment” that serves as a spark. Unfortunately, Art didn’t get an immediate chance to respond.
4:01 pm: And he responds now! Apparently, broad social attitudes toward immigration are not actually a good predictor about the success of nativist parties. There’s a base, whether it’s large or small, in every European nation, and the real key is whether a well-organized party can form to exploit it. As for the “populist moment”, Art believes that any number of moments over the course of several decades can be interpreted as a populist moment, and it’s mostly in hindsight that a particular moment can be seen as the spark that lights the gunpowder.
4:04 pm: The panel is open to questions. One audience member asks how anti-Israel sentiment contributes to the rise of the right-wing in Europe. Apparently, some far-right parties have been surprisingly friendly towards Israel, possibly only to inoculate themselves against allegations of neo-Nazism.
4:18 pm: Break time! I’m getting some coffee.
4:33 pm: The second panel is about to get underway, and we have a special guest joining us! Right-wing radio personality and Boston Globe Boston Herald columnist Michael Graham is here, and though he sat out the first half of the talk, I’m excited to see what trouble he’s bound to make to defend the honor of the almighty Tea Party!!!!
4:39 pm: Professor Kathleen Blee is discussing racism among the far right-wing in the United States. Most people in racist movements are developed, not born; there are very few inter-generational racists, even among groups like the Ku Klux Klan that pride themselves on their long heritage.
4:44 pm: Usually, racist ideas are learned after joining racist groups. People are attracted by musical or cultural elements of a group and only then come to accept the racist ideology. This is particularly prevalent among anti-Semitic groups.
4:54 pm: Professor Pete Simi is talking about cycles of right-wing terror. In the 1980s, the death of right-wing extremist Gordon Kahl at the hands of law enforcement officers spawned the idea that the government was at war with the right wing, and several groups formed in order to fight back. This contrasts to the current rise of right-wing terrorism, which is viewed as more influences by larger national events, like the depressed economy and the election of Barack Obama.
4:57 pm: The most prominent events of the 1990s were the Ruby Ridge and Waco stand-offs, which both ended in the deaths of the targeted extremists. Again, the perception that “the government is against us” gave birth to a cycle of terrorism, which culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing. The 1990s had much more leaderless, unfocused resistance than the 80s.
5:00 pm: Modern right-wing terrorism is even more unfocused for a variety of reasons, most prominently the lack of a single galvanizing incident and the rise of the internet as a grassroots organizing tool.
5:03 pm: Chip Berlet, described on the website as a Senior Analyst for Political Research Associates in Boston, is talking about the Tea Party movement and the continuum to armed militias. He sees the Tea Party as being very demographically similar to the communities its members come from, except for their overwhelming conservatism.
5:12 pm: Though the Tea Party movement is often described as being libertarian in nature, a huge percentage of its members are anti-abortion and very religious. Berlet believes that the “movement” is actually a coalition of many smaller causes that haven’t yet gelled into a single coherent message. Consequently, it is impossible to predict the future of the Tea Party, because it’s a chimera that has never existed before.
5:15 pm: Notably, he says that “there is not a single shred of sociological evidence” that members of right-wing extremist groups are any less intelligent or “crazier” than the general population. He’s very explicit that he never conflated the Tea Party movement with Nazism, and that it is deeply offensive that members of the media have forsworn research in order to exploit that idea for political gain.
5:19 pm: Question time. Mr. Berlet mentions that most hate crimes don’t come from actual organized groups but instead from lone actors who could be neighbors or co-workers.
5:27 pm: A member of the Tea Party asks Chip Berlet about one of his articles, taking objection to his use of the term “teabag”. He says that the term comes from the movement himself and that he apologizes if she took any offense at his words. However, he also tells her that a simple Google search would have revealed that he is far more fair to the Tea Party movement than she is giving him credit for. Another Tea Partier is attacking him, trying to play “gotcha” with a quote from 1995. Berlet’s getting mad, with very good reason.
5:32 pm: The Tea Party parade continues. Some random woman is insisting that the guy behind Ruby Ridge wasn’t actually from the right wing. She’s talking about the “Waco bombing”, and the panelists are quick to point out that there was no actual bombing at Waco. It’s a shame how this has descended from a very fair, intellectual conference into a political attack from non-Brandeis audience members.
5:39 pm: Finally, a question from an “avowed socialist and leftist”. She teaches at UMass-Boston, and she’s decrying the turn that the conference has taken. She thinks that Berlet is being too forgiving to the Tea Party movement, pointing out the more unsavory elements of the Tea Party “doctrine”. Berlet says that in his experience, even the most extreme members of the right-wing movement are very respectful if they are approached respectfully.
5:40 pm: And we’re done. Poor Michael Graham never got the chance to ask his question. Boo-hoo.