THE HFG REVIEW OF RESEARCH (Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1996)
THE POLITICS OF VIOLENCE
Brotherhoods of Race and Nation: An HFG Conference
As noted by Karen Colvard in "Violent Challenges to the State," the HFG foundation sponsored a number of meetings and research projects on terrorism during the 1980s. Given the times, most of this work was about left-wing movements. In light of the growth of ultra-right violent activity in recent years, both in the U.S. and in Europe, it seemed appropriate for the foundation to devote some of its resources to support for those who are studying the extreme right. In addition to funding several research projects in this area in the last two years, we staged a conference in November of 1995 in New Orleans. The orienting theme of the meeting was the increasingly transnational character of the contemporary radical right wing. Conferees, an array of anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and political scientists, included Les Back (Goldsmith's College, University of London), Michael Barkun (Syracuse University), Tore Bjorgo (Norwegian Institute of International Affairs), Katrine Fangen (University of Oslo), Mark Hamm (Indiana State University), Jeffrey Kaplan (Arctic Sivunmun Ilisagvik, Alaska), Wolfgang Kuehnel (Humboldt University, Berlin), Laszlo Kuerti (Eoetvoes Lorand University, Budapest), Helene Loow (Stockholm University), David Rapoport (UCLA), and Leonard Weinberg (University of Nevada).
Movements which are small and isolated in their own countries gain solace and often practical assistance from like-minded groups abroad. Disaffected individuals with access to a computer and a modem can become part of a global network of activists united by antipathy to "nonwhites." Through such media as "White Noise" music festivals and CDs, glossy journals, and simple newsletters, activists can exchange ideas and experiences, and, in the process, form ideological and social linkages which transcend national boundaries. To what extent (if at all) does this activity reflect a decline of nationalist sentiment among radical right-wing movements? Is nationalism being supplanted by a transnational racial identity, or does the appeal of nationalism retain its primacy in these circles?
Inevitably, the three days of conversation ranged well beyond the question of transnational linkages. Computer "bulletin boards" dedicated to far-right-wing interests have been operating for some time, and ultra-right ideology is increasingly available on the internet in the form of World Wide Web sites and discussion groups. A recurrent issue was the pragmatic significance these new modalities of dissemination have for violent right-wing activities. Several participants cautioned against inflating the importance of the adoption of the computer by ultra-right activists or overestimating the significance of white-supremacist music. While both may hold potential for influencing attitudes and recruiting believers, it was observed, neither in itself has the power to organize, and organization is more important than sheer numbers for terrorist activity. Computer games in which the player targets opponents of non-white or Jewish ethnicity were discussed. Do such games facilitate real-world attacks by allowing the player to "practice" racism or, alternatively, do they serve as substitutes, diminishing the desire to enact the real thing, as might be predicted by (largely discredited) theories of catharsis?
Much of the discussion concerned the connection between extreme-right electoral politics and hate-group activities. Three possible relationships were considered. The growth of far-right political parties might diminish extra-legal, violent activities if "street" activists perceive the former to be effectively pursuing their common goals. Or the former may promote violence by lending legitimacy, whether explicitly or implicitly, to such activity. Thirdly, the two domains might simply operate independently.
A related issue was the connection between popular attitudes and ultra-right activity. Do hate groups flourish only where public sentiment is generally concordant with their ideology? It was noted that voting patterns are not necessarily a reliable indication of the immediate potential for large-scale ultra-right movements; fascist regimes came to power in both Germany and Italy despite the fact that prior to the triumph of fascism far-right parties had never gained more than 20 percent of the vote.
The meeting confirmed the development of a supra-national identity among some denizens of the far right, based on a conception of a cultural and genetic tradition of "whiteness." It was also apparent, however, that ultra-nationalist movements persist and are far from moribund, as exemplified by the "Christian Patriot" movement in this country and various European political parties based on extreme national chauvinism.
The so-called militia movement in the U.S. is somewhat difficult to characterize in terms of xenophobic nationalism vs. an international "white consciousness." Participants are motivated by a conviction that the United States is at risk of coming under the sovereignty of a "New World Order" imposed by United Nations forces. It is likely, however, that for some this fear reflects the aversion to the "foreign" that is traditional in ultra-right ideology, while for others it is the envisioned loss of liberty, regardless of the identity of the agents of this deprivation, that underlies affiliation with the militia movement.
The papers drafted for this conference are currently being revised in preparation for publication by Northeastern University Press in 1997. The collection is being edited by Tore Bjorgo and Jeffrey Kaplan.
Joel Wallman is Program Officer at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
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