Saturday, August 12, 2006

Cracks In The Wall, Part II: Listening to the Leavers

by Sara Robinson

Who Follows? Everyone, Sometimes
After all these decades of research and inquiry, it can be said fairly that we're starting to get a decent handle on what makes people gravitate toward authoritarianism.

Alice Miller points to abusively authoritarian child-rearing practices, which teach the child anger and fear, and train out compassion or respect. George Lakoff points out the ways in which Strict Father conservatives try to apply this same logic to government. Emmanuel Todd points out that a nation's family structures are almost always mirrored in its political structures, as well as its tendency towards imperial ambition. Several observers, including Kevin Phillips, point to the authoritarianism inherent in certain religions, and in the regions of the country they dominate; other historians have contrasted the relative levels of social hierarchy countries that were colonized by Catholic versus Protestant countries.

Felicia Pratto and Jim Sidanius, who developed social dominance theory and the SDO scale, might tell you that, for some of us, at least, such tendencies appear so early in life that it's hard to credit nurture alone. Milgrim and Zimbardo both found that while most subjects participated more or less eagerly in their experiments, there were a few who were so offended by the scenarios that they outright refused. Nurture plays a huge role; but humans under stress have gravitated toward strong-man dictatorships since the beginning of history; and we've never been too short of would-be high-SDO strong men eager to step up and oblige us.

Taken together, this chorus seems to paraphrase the Bard: some are born authoritarian, some achieve authoritarianism, and some have authoritarianism thrust upon them. Most of us fall somewhere along a wide continuum of willingness to follow authoritarian leadership. Our place on that scale is determined by the culture and religion we grew up in, how our parents treated us, our education and life experiences, and our inherited temperament. These things conspire to make a few of us desperate to follow, and a few others obstinate in their outright refusal of all authority. The vast majority of us fall somewhere in between, open to seduction only in certain circumstances.

We know something about those circumstances, too. We know, for example, that fear can transform the behavior of otherwise rational and not particularly authoritarian people. Fear creates physiological changes that impair the brain's ability to reason, and drives people to fall in behind whatever leader presents himself without asking too many questions. Like all herd animals, we are biologically driven to close ranks tightly behind the alpha in times of trouble. Resisting that impulse sometimes means fighting our own evolutionary imperatives. And, as we are now too well aware, unscrupulous leaders will not hesitate to create, manipulate, and perpetuate fear in order to activate that instinct and keep their followers at heel.

Thus, some people who've never been natural followers sometimes get caught up in authoritarian religion and politics in the wake of deep personal losses: unemployment, divorce, a death in the family, arrest, and so on. Entire populations (or, at least, a good fraction of the whole) can take the same path when faced with large collective losses. Kevin Phillips, in American Theocracy,, points out that the South's authoritarian streak (which always ran deep) grew rigid and hard after their loss in the Civil War. Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God, points out that fundamentalist movements commonly begin in communities that perceive themselves under economic, political, or geographic siege. The way America came together under FDR after Pearl Harbor is the stuff of national legend. And the Bush Administration has exploited this tendency shamelessly in the wake of 9/11.

Cut loose from our moorings, in over our heads, we all look for something solid to hold onto. No matter how strong we are, we've all got areas where we are brittle and vulnerable. It's hard for any of us to say for sure that we'd walk away from an authoritarian leader who promised us precisely the right kind of salvation in precisely the wrong moment. This is something to bear in mind whenever we deal with authoritarian followers: they have simply responded to an impulse that exists -- at least to some degree -- in all of us.

Pushed To The Wall
For the past five years, I've been a member of a large and busy online community of former fundamentalists. Through years of discussion, we've learned a lot from each other about how and why people become fundamentalists -- and also how and why they find themselves inspired to leave authoritarian religion behind. We've noticed patterns in the various ways people are seduced into fundamentalism; and also a predictable progression in the steps they go through in the agonizing months and years after enlightenment dawns. We've also discovered that we seem to fall into readily-identifiable subgroups, and that each of these subgroups wanders down somewhat different paths and uses different techniques as they approach the wall, determinedly hoist themselves over it, and then set about coming to terms with life here on the reality-based side.

Two or three times a week, we find new members on our doorstep. Safe in the anonymity of the Internet (and often under cover of night -- these missives are typically time-stamped in the wee hours of the morning, usually posted furtively after weeks or months of lurking) we're often the first people they've ever whispered their doubts out loud to. Their introductions are often heartbreakingly miserable: "I can't believe this any more -- but my husband will leave me if he knows." "My whole family is fundie. I can't tell my parents I've stopped going to church -- it will kill them if they ever find out." "I'm a deacon at my church. If I start asking these questions, I'll lose my whole community."

These people know that the tiny flicker of enlightenment kindling in their minds is about to set their entire lives ablaze. And yet -- with a courage that I always find astonishing -- almost all of them forge ahead anyway. Some race for the wall. Others pace back and forth for months, planning their escape. A few disappear for a while, but return again a year later, having put their lives in order and ready to go at last.

We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity. On the scale of relative trauma, it's right up there with a divorce after a long marriage; and it requires about the same amount and kind of grieving.

Over the years, I've talked to scores of former fundies about the moment that the light first sparked. Through their stories, I've discerned a few patterns, most of which map very neatly onto John Dean's list of traits for authoritarian followers. What follows is far from science; it's more akin to clinical experience, or a scouting report from the front on battlefield conditions. The degree to which any of this might apply to non-religious authoritarians is open for discussion -- though my reading of Altemeyer's work is that all forms of authoritarianism come from the same deep character traits, and so it seems sensible that politically-based authoritarian followers might undergo a recognizably similar process. It's a topic for discussion, anyway.

Depending on why they became fundie in the first place, the moment of exodus generally dawns in one of the following ways:

1. Betrayal by Authority
Dean notes that authoritarian followers voluntarily choose their leaders, usually on the basis of how strongly those leaders support the follower's belief system. Cultural or political leaders who don't support the belief system (for example, federal court judges, scientists, progressive celebrities) are seen as illegitimate authorities, and become targets of followers' aggression.

We've all come up against these people, and have been totally confounded with their "my leader can do no wrong" attitude. They believe outrageous lies, and forgive all manner of sins. Democratic strategists keep trying to run campaigns that will reach these people on the basis of evidence and fact -- and are perplexed to find their attempts at education totally rebuffed. George Bush may have lied us into a war, wrecked our economy, saddled our great-grandchildren with debt, savaged the poor, and alienated the entire world; but he is Our Leader, and we will always take his word over anyone else's. We do not accept you as a legitimate authority. We don't care what you have to say, because you have no standing at all in our little world.

Mere political or cultural betrayal, no matter how destructive, does not cut through this piece of the wall. The guilt-evaporation process applies to both followers and leaders: you must forgive all wrongs committed by someone inside the fold. Our leader didn't lie; he was misunderstood, his words distorted by our enemies. Besides, he would never lie to us. Besides, he is just following orders -- or God's will, which is beyond our understanding. Besides, our own forgiveness depends on our ability to forgive, and so we will -- never mind the contradictions.

And yet, even so: There is one -- and only one -- sin so heinous that it cannot be rationalized away by the authoritarian thought process. It is this: the leader's main job is to protect his abused and terrified horde from personal harm (or, for that matter, any sudden negative change to their immediate status quo). A leader who wantonly allows one of his followers to intimately experience such harm breaks that contract. It is in that moment of betrayal that some followers come to their senses, and start looking for a reckoning.

It's important to note: the betrayal must be an intensely personal breach that has a deep, immediate, life-changing impact on the individual follower. Fundies don't think in abstracts. Big national debts, epic political prevarications, and other people's suffering (even on a global scale) do not impress them. But there are plenty of authoritarian parents across the country who proudly sent a son or daughter off to war -- and later received that precious child home under cover of darkness, in a wooden box, with minimal explanation. That's the kind of personal and profound loss I'm talking about. For many of these patriotic parents, it was also the searing moment of deep betrayal that broke the spell and shoved them off in the direction of the Wall.

Among fundies, the most common perpetrators of these betrayals are parents -- particularly fathers -- and pastors. As the most intimate authorities in their followers' lives, they're at close enough range to inflict the kind of high-impact personal damage that's necessary to create the first crack. Many of the ex-fundies I know made their break in the aftermath of sexual abuse, ruinous financial treachery, public humiliation, or power grabs that threatened their marriages or children. They saw, in devastatingly vivid color, what their leaders were capable of. Their endless loyalty was shattered, because they realized it was not being returned in kind.

Such betrayals break through because they offend several of the follower characteristics Dean lists. The betrayed follower is no longer bound to submit to or give loyalty to an unworthy authority. Nor are they bound by the rules, because the authority charged with enforcing them has broken them. (While this was forgiveable in the abstract, in this case the consequences are too personal and acute to ignore.) They are brought face-to-face with the contradictions and hypocrisies in a shocking and unforgiveable way. Having felt the sting of the leader's aggression, they may realize the true cost of aggressively defending that leader -- and thus become more acutely sensitized to intolerance, bullying, and mean-spiritedness.

Perhaps most importantly: having their own boundaries so heinously violated makes them suddenly aware (as most authoritarian followers are not) that they have their own legitimate emotional, physical, and social needs; and that they deserve to have those needs respected and met. Once that self-awareness is awakened, the soon-to-be-ex fundie can be seen making a beeline for the Wall.

2. Permission from Authority
A cute twist on the above scenario is the fundie who gets subtle or overt permission from an established authority to go over to the Wall and push on it.

These authorities aren't easy to come by. Everything in authoritarian society is set up to identify heretics and preachers of false doctrine, and eject them forcefully from the community immediately upon discovery. Still, the occasional and quiet non-authoritarian can be found in positions of leadership within a fundamentalist community -- for example, young pastors from more liberal seminaries, Christian counselors with some secular psychological training, missionaries who have returned from exotic far-away places, or church-affiliated social services people whose sense of compassion has overwhelmed their fear of church leadership.

Because these people are operating under color of Established Authority, if they suggest that it's OK to ask questions, the followers will accept that as valid permission to open their minds. One recovering fundie recalls a fateful meeting with a Christian counselor: "He told me that fundamentalist Christianity was toxic," she said. Her exodus began with that brief comment. Later, she remembers finding still more affirmation: "I told my Christian college professor that I no longer believed that there was one way to spirituality, and was now pro-choice. He applauded me." Since she accepted both these men as valid religious authorities, their encouragement gave her the freedom to approach the Wall with a clearer conscience.

Such authorities are rare birds -- both because fundies don't breed many of them, and also because they quickly banish the ones they discover in their midst. But for the brief season they are allowed to operate, they can plant the seeds of open-mindedness in hundreds of willing followers, facilitate education, bypass zealotry and dogma, promote open examination of hypocrisy and contradiction, and enhance self-awareness.

3. Life Gets Bigger
Fundamentalist parents work overtime to keep their children from "the things of this world." Your average Yuppie helicopter parent is a slacker compared to these people, who obsessively vet all incoming media, homeschool, seek out Christian colleges, chaperone all "courtship" activities, and otherwise ensure that their children receive no information about the world that doesn't support their belief system.

This willful narrow-mindedness continues on into adulthood and right through life. Church members spy on each other with the enthusiasm of Stasi informants; deacons call miscreants in for disciplinary meetings to keep the faithful on the path of righteousness. One wonders if Jesus intended them to take the metaphor of shepherd and sheep quite so literally, but they do.

This anti-intellectualism appears on Dean's list in several guises: Moderate to little education, narrow-minded, intolerant, dogmatic, uncritical, inconsistent and contradictory, prone to panic. They are precisely what you'd expect from people who've had minimal exposure to the world, and hence lack the basic skills -- including flexibility, risk-taking, and spontaneity -- that most of us rely on to deal with it.

Still, the world is big and insistent, and sometimes it comes flooding through that wall of denial despite their best efforts. The most common culprit is education -- either formal, or informal -- that allows the follower to see with clarity that the outside world is not nearly so evil as they've been told. This education can take many forms -- some obvious, some not so obvious.

Many, if not most, fundie youth who end up at secular colleges soon find themselves enjoying the view from the top of the wall. This happens so reliably that most fundie parents regard secular universities as the worst nightmare this side of hell. They know they're not gonna keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen State U.

Travel, especially outside the country, is another major eye-opener for people who have long believed that their way is the only way. We're not talking bus tours and chain hotels here -- it needs to be a style of travel that demands plenty of individual interaction with local people and their language, customs, and culture. Homestays, where the connections can become personal, are particularly potent -- which is why missionaries-gone-native feature largely on the list of permissive authorities discussed above.

Authoritarian upbringing is not designed to foster a sense of personal competence. But any kind of training that builds a creative skill -- especially one that will be valued by the secular world -- will tend to increase the follower's sense of self-worth. Even if s/he gives all the glory to God (an expected modesty among fundies), mastering one's craft imparts a sureness and independence of mind that reduces susceptibility to authoritarian logic. Knowing your stuff cold, even in one limited area, imparts confidence to call people on their bullshit in other areas.

Events that bring fundies together, one-to-one, with people from other groups in common cause can be very effective at lowering defenses. For one woman in our group, the door through the wall was an innocuous Christian women's sewing circle. She writes:
"I got involved in a small community volunteer sewing group and was around some women from different churches…It started to open my eyes to the possibility that other people might have a good thing going too…Basically it was that they were loving, caring women just wanting to reach out and touch someone's life with their sewing ability, and they weren't some evil people on the dark side like my pastor tried to tell us in sermons about those outside our church and belief system.

"When my husband wanted me to stop going because someone had seen me going to this interfaith ministry center which they graciously let us use for the sewing meetings and the pastor thought it would look bad for me to be seen there, I realized how foolish that was. Weren't we just trying to help others regardless of our religious beliefs? I also had a good talk with the woman in charge of the group and she seemed understanding about my concerns and assured me that we weren't there to discuss religious topics so it shouldn't be a problem."

Political action plays a role here, too. On the rare occasions that authoritarians make common cause with more progressive folk -- usually on non-partisan local issues such as land use and utility management (but not schools!) -- there's an opportunity to find common ground and build a foundation of trust on it.

Placing authoritarian followers in relaxing, non-threatening situations where they can safely explore the common ground they share with others can be a liberalizing experience. Most fundies are taught to keep outsiders at a discreet arm's length. They generally won't accept invitations to visit non-believers in their homes, unless they're intending to proslytize. But meetings on neutral ground, based around shared concerns and values, can lead to individual friendships that will in time increase their general trust in outsiders -- and, more importantly, put the lie to their leaders' insistence that reality-based folk are pure evil.

For some in our group, the first glimmer was the stunning realization that "the Jews" included "my friend Rachel, who I met at the gym". "The gays" included "my kids' dance teacher". "The French" included "that darling family we met on the train last summer". And those "frivolous" women who have abortions included "my neighbor, who already had four kids and a husband with no job". Through repeated exposure, these followers' superb sense of loyalty attaches itself to someone outside the circle -- and, in very short order, their awareness of the smallness of that circle becomes too stifling to endure.

4. Resolution of Fear
Once in a while, our little cyber-halfway house takes in a befuddled spouse whose wife or husband -- heretofore a sane, decent, and resolutely secular individual -- has suddenly, without warning and for no apparent reason, pitched themselves headlong off the religious deep end. These partners are usually distraught: there's a familiar body in the house, but the person who once inhabited it has vanished. In their place is someone they have never met; can no longer have a rational conversation with; and can't imagine spending another week with, let alone their entire lives. (Too often, these terrified spouses are also afraid for their children -- and watching their retirement funds disappear into church coffers at an astonishing rate.) They're looking for advice -- anything that will bring back the beloved person they knew.

On further questioning, it almost always comes out that the wayward spouse has recently (usually within the past year) sustained a loss or trauma that simply overwhelmed every resource s/he had. Afraid, alone, and often clinically depressed, this poor soul was a sitting duck for the depredations of an authoritarian religious leader.

This is hardly news, of course: it's also why cult leaders prey on college students, travelers, the inner-city poor, single mothers, prisoners, and other people under stress and cut off from their support systems. What's important to note is that this also works (at least sometimes) in reverse: identifying and addressing the stress and restoring the support system can create the conditions for the broken self to heal, and eventually perhaps usher the return to the reality-based world.

We tell the grieving spouse to identify the initial source of the loss, and do whatever it takes to help their partner address it as directly and concretely as possible. We stress that this is a five-alarm family emergency (though they usually already know that, it helps to have it affirmed) and getting appropriate help for the underlying issue needs to be the first priority -- whether this involves professional counseling, medical treatment, or moving the spouse to another town, far away from the leader and church. We stress the importance of family and social support networks, and of taking steps to protect themselves legally in case the worst should happen.

We give this advice because we've seen it work among ourselves. Most of the adult-onset fundies in our group joined up because they were in a similar place of sheer overwhelm. Leaving was not even possible until this sense of panic and loss subsided, and the sense of personal competence (already higher in people who weren't raised in authoritarian homes) began to reassert itself. When it did, those people found that it got easier to question authority, and eventually to contemplate moving on.

And it's an ongoing battle, at least for a while. That three-to-five year transitional period is full of stress-inducing unknowns; unsurprisingly, recent ex-fundies are strongly tempted to deal with unfamiliar situations by reaching for the old familiar tools. In those cases, too, we need to look for the underlying causes of our distress, and find ways to address the fear directly rather than resort to the old superstitions. Anything that ratchets down the fear factor makes it harder for authoritarianism to get and keep its hold on people's minds.

5. Turning Points
Ironically, though, even though stress is a path into authoritarianism, it can also provide a path out. A number of our members decided to make their break during these same kinds of traumatic stress events -- especially major life transitions. The death of a parent, a move, a job loss, marriage, parenthood, mid-life crises, and widowhood have all come up as key exit points for people who left. Typically, these situations dramatically illuminated the ways in which the predictable authoritarian answers were no longer working for them. They needed more help than their leaders could offer, and decided it was time to look outside the wall for it. Or a natural breaking point occurred -- their old life was past, and they quietly resolved to reach out and see what a new one might hold. In major life transitions, everything is up for grabs -- even for authoritarian followers.

Next Steps
This report from the front is admittedly incomplete: I'm looking forward to hearing from readers about various other conditions that led them (or people they knew) towards daylight. We cannot create truly effective solutions to the problem of authoritarianism until we understand not only the situation that drive followers into that system, but also the situations that open the door for them to leave it.

In my next post, coming Monday or Tuesday, I'll build on the above observations (and any others that crop up in the comments) to draft a rough outline of specific approaches we might use to begin disarming and constructively engaging the authoritarians in our personal and political lives.

Thanks again to everybody who has posted such terrific comments. Keep 'em coming: this is a mutual-education effort, the beginning of a dialogue I hope we'll all keep having until we collectively get this figured out.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cracks In The Wall, Part I: Defining the Authoritarian Personality

by Sara Robinson

We need to stop this. We have gone on too long assuming that our right-wing opponents are, in all times and places, unchangeable and unchanging. Yes, their arguments are confoundingly short on evidence and fact. Yes, their logic loops are closed up so tight as to be frustratingly impervious to reason. Yes, they absolutely do mean to do us -- and our democracy -- grievous harm.

Here's the good news. That Great Wall that separates our little reality-based community from The Fantasyland Next Door is not a monolith. Nor are the inmates of that Otherworld necessarily locked in there for all time and eternity. There's evidence -- from scientists, from experience, from history -- that there are cracks in that wall. They are small and subtle, to be sure (that's why nobody's ever noticed them before): at this point, they are mere hairlines, faint traces that are hard to spot without a good flashlight in the hands of someone who knows where to look. But, as someone who's spent much of her life pacing one side or the other of this wall, I am here to tell you: there are places where it fails. People do cross it, and survive to tell the tale. And, rather than continue to wallow in our frustration, it's high time we mapped those cracks, find effective ways to widen them, and eventually exploit them to help both afflicted individuals and our larger culture break through the insanity.

It will be slow, thoughtful, methodical work. What I'm offering here is just an opening tour of the rockwork, an explanation of where the cracks are and why they formed. At first, actual opportunities to exploit these weaknesses will be small and fleeting. But my hope is, with time and practice, we'll get more observant, and more creative, and more adroit in taking advantage of them when they appear. That's the goal of this series.

This first installment summarizes some pertinent ideas culled from John Dean's new book, Conservatives Without Conscience. These are some of the basic ideas and definitions I'll be using as a springboard in the posts that follow.

Dean wrote this book with the express goal of using his own status as a bestselling author to popularize decades of social science research that should be -- but isn't -- common knowledge among politically-literate Americans. If I had to bet, I'd guess that grousing, joking, analyzing, and commiserating over the confounding nature of the non-reality-based community probably accounts for a quarter of all the words ever produced in Left Blogistan. For several years now, we've been trying to puzzle this riddle out on our own, with limited success. But, happily, it turns out that social psychologists have had the map to the right-wing authoritarian mindset nailed down for years. Dean wants us all to know what they know.

Research into "authoritarian personalities" began in the aftermath of WWII, as scientists tried to figure out how otherwise civilized people succumbed to the charisma of Hitler and Mussolini and allowed themselves to be willingly led into committing notorious atrocities. The inquiry continued through Milgram's famous experiments at Stanford in the early 60s; later, some of it became subsumed in the work of The Fundamentalism Project convened by Martin Marty at the University of Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s. Long story short: there is now over 50 years of good data on these people coming from every corner of the social sciences; but since almost none of this has been common knowledge outside the academy, nobody on the progressive side has really been putting it to use. Dean clearly wrote the book hoping to change all that.

The bulk of Conservatives Without Conscience is based on the research of Dr. Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba, a social psychologist specializing in the psychology of authoritarianism. Altemeyer received the prestigious Association for the Advancement of Science prize for behavioral sciences for this research, and it is widely accepted in academia (though, as you might imagine, not so much among conservatives!). What follows is my brief synopsis of Dean's brief synopsis of some of Altemeyer's findings.

Leaders and Followers
Authoritarians come in two flavors: leaders and followers. The two tiers are driven by very different motivations; and understanding these differences is the first key to understanding how authoritarian social structures work.

Leaders form just a small fraction of the group. Social scientists refer to this group as having a high "social dominance orientation (SDO)" -- a set of traits that can be readily identified with psychological testing. "These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, and who enjoy having power over others," says Dean -- and they have absolutely no qualms about objectifying people and breaking rules to advance their own ambitions. High-SDO personalities tend to emerge very early in life (which suggests at least some genetic predisposition): you probably remember a few from your own sandbox days, and almost certainly have known a few who've made your adult life a living hell as well.

High-SDO people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy:

Typically men
Intimidating and bullying
Faintly hedonistic
Cheat to win
Highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
Tells others what they want to hear
Takes advantage of "suckers"
Specializes in creating false images to sell self
May or may not be religious
Usually politically and economically conservative/Republican

Dean notes: "Although these collations of characteristics…are not attractive portraits, the are nonetheless traits that authoritarians themselves acknowledge." In other words, these guys know what they are, and are often quite unabashedly proud of it.

High-SDO people are drawn to power, and will seek it ruthlessly and relentlessly, regardless of the consequences to others. Many cultures (including ours, up until a few decades ago) have found these people so dangerous that they've evolved counterweights and backstops that conspire to either keep them away from the levers of power, or mitigate the damage they can do (and I'll discuss some of those in the last installment). However, modern America seems to have lost all vestiges of this awareness. Now, we celebrate our most powerful social dominants, pay them obscene salaries, turn them into media stars, and hand over the keys to the empire to them almost gratefully. They have free rein to pursue their ambitions unchecked, with no cultural brakes on their rapacity. They will do whatever they can get away with; and we'll not only let them, but often cheer them on.

We’re now at the point where these sleek Machivellian manipulators are recognized around the world as the face of American business and governmental authority. While the bulk of "Conservatives Without Conscience" goes on to explain the ways in which various members of the Bush administration have demonstrated classic high-SDO behavior, I'd also argue that our willingness to accept high-SDO leadership also accounts for toxic bosses, incompetent business planning, crooked accounting, political graft, and many of the other dysfunctions that afflict American corporate life as well.

And yet, while these leaders are compelling, they will not be the main focus of my discussion of authoritarians. As I said: these personality traits emerge as early as three or four, and people who have them are almost always well beyond the reach of change. They have always been with us, and probably always will be. Since they represent a very small slice of the population, dealing with them effectively will, in practice, largely involve strategies to recognize them, isolate them, and prevent them from aggregating large hordes of followers.

It's those followers that we need to look at -- because they are sometimes capable of change, if you know where the leverage points are. The next two parts of this series will focus exclusively on them; for now, let's look at what Dean and Altemeyer have to say.

While the high-SDO leaders are defined by Dean as dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, and amoral, right-wing authoritarian followers have a different but very complementary set of motivations. The three core traits that define them are:

1. Submission to authority. "These people accept almost without question the statements and actions of established authorities, and comply with such instructions without further ado" writes Dean. "[They] are intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example, they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions. Still, their submission to authority is not blind or automatic; [they] believe there are proper and improper authorities…and their decision to submit is shaped by whether a particular authority is compatible with their views."

2. Aggressive support of authority. Right-wing followers do not hesitate to inflict physical, psychological, financial, social, or other forms of harm on those they see as threatening the legitimacy of their belief system and their chosen authority figure. This includes anyone they see as being too different from their norm (like gays or racial minorities). It's also what drives their extremely punitive attitude toward discipline and justice. Notes Dean: "Authoritarian aggression is fueled by fear and encouraged by a remarkable self-righteousness, which frees aggressive impulses."

3. Conventionality. Right-wing authoritarian followers prefer to see the world in stark black-and-white. They conform closely with the rules defined for them by their authorities, and do not stray far from their own communities. This extreme, unquestioning conformity makes them insular, fearful, hostile to new information, uncritical of received wisdom, and able to accept vast contradictions without perceiving the inherent hypocrisy.

Conformity also feeds their sense of themselves as more moral and righteous than others -- a perception that's usually buttressed by the use of magical absolution techniques that they use to "evaporate guilt," in Dean's words. Because they confessed, or are saved, or were just following orders, they can commit heinous crimes and still retain a serene conscience and sense that they are "righteous people." On the other hand, when it comes to outsiders, there is no absolution. Their memory for even minor transgressions is nothing short of elephantine (as Bill Clinton knows all too well).

Dean lists other traits of right-wing authoritarian followers, most of which flow directly from the three core traits above:

Both men and women
Highly religious
Moderate to little education
Trust untrustworthy authorities
Prejudiced (particularly against homosexuals, women, and followers of religions other than their own)
Uncritical toward chosen authority
Inconsistent and contradictory
Prone to panic easily
Highly self-righteous
Strict disciplinarian
Severely punitive
Demands loyalty and returns it
Little self-awareness
Usually politically conservative/Republican

Remember this list, because these specific characteristics form the foundation of the discussion that will unfold in the next two posts. It is these traits that we will find the cracks in the wall.

As a final point: Dean's book puts to rest once and for all the right-wing shibboleth of "liberal fundamentalists" and "liberal authoritarians." Altemeyer and his colleagues have found, through decades of research, that authoritarians almost universally skew toward the far reactionary right on the political scale. This very much includes Stalinists and other "left-wing" totalitarians: though these men used socialist rhetoric to create "Communist" political orders, they're classic examples of high-SDO leaders taking control by whatever means they had at hand, and using them to create archetypal far-right authoritarian states. Dean and Altemeyer make it clear that authoritarianism is, by long-accepted definition, overwhelmingly a right-wing personality trait.

Dean is also emphatic that authoritarianism, in all its forms, is completely antithetical to both classical conservatism (he still considers himself a Goldwater conservative), and to the founding ideals of America. We must be clear: when right-wingers threaten liberals, they are directly threatening the seminal political impulse that created our nation. An operative democracy depends on having a populace that is open to new ideas, able to think for itself, confident in its abilities, willing to take risks, and capable of mutual trust. America was founded as the world's first radically liberal state. History has shown us that the nation's best moments, past and future, are created by people with a strong liberal orientation.

Authoritarians aren't merely constitutionally incapable of this kind of cultural and political openness; they are actively hostile to it, and seek to stamp it out wherever they find it. Everything in their souls drives them to dismantle the democratic impulse, and bring people under the heel of hierarchical authority -- which is why history has also shown us that the nation's worst moments, past and future, are created by people with a strong right-wing authoritarian orientation.

In my next post, I'll move away from Dean's book, and into a deeper look at the psychology of right-wing followers. We'll take a brief look at some of the reasons people are drawn into right-wing authoritarian belief systems -- and a longer look at the events that cause some of these same followers to eventually choose to abandon those systems.

It's in those reasons that we'll begin to find the cracks of daylight. See you Saturday.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dave's Not Here

By Mrs. Robinson

For the four years Orcinus has been in existence, Dave's been known to take off for a week or three now and again. Always before, he'd just put out the "gone fishing" sign, lock the place up, and paddle off into the Pacific sunset, leaving an open thread and a six-pack on the porch for any friends who dropped by.

This time, for the first time, he's decided to leave the keys with a housesitter -- someone who can keep the conversation going while he's off communing with whales.

Hello: I'm Sara Robinson -- the notorious and ubiquitous Mrs. R -- and I'll be your blogger this month. Stick around and put your feet up. I'll do my best to keep the posts coming, the quality high, and the trollish horde from making a mess on Dave's rug.

In keeping with the dominant themes of this blog, which include the patterns and prognosis of far-right movements, I'd like to begin my tenure with a short series on John Dean's newest book. "Conservatives Without Conscience." Dean has been everywhere right, left, and center in recent weeks flogging the book, so I'm probably safe assuming most of you are well-acquainted with his basic arguments. What I'd like to do over the next week or so is delve a little deeper into the book's specific points -- the ones that never quite got covered on the book tour -- and then apply some of Dean's truly fascinating research to the various issues Dave addresses here at Orcinus, as well as some other stuff I've been involved with.

Often, the discussions here have taken a dark and daunting turn. It's been sobering to watch the shadow of proto-fascism creeping across the soul of the America we thought we knew. We find ourselves besieged by authoritarians everywhere we turn, in every possible flavor -- political, economic, cultural, religious, military, sexual, you name it, we've got it. Where on earth did these people come from? How did they amass such power? Why do we seem to be breeding so many of them? And -- most importantly -- how can you negotiate with people who live inside such tightly closed logic loops that they are impervious to fact, and regard any compromise as weakness?

These are the questions that make our heads hurt. While Dean's book offers potent answers the first three questions, it doesn't attempt to answer the fourth one. But between his analysis, plus Dave's astute observations of the behavior of right-wing extremists, plus my own long experiences with people recovering from fundamentalism, I think I'm seeing the outlines of at least a few possibilities that could change the dynamics of the situation going forward. These people may be a special kind of crazy -- but Dean's gift is in revealing the patterns and logic that underlie the craziness. Once we understand that, we just might finally find the tricks that will break the spell.

That's my hope, anyway. At the very least, we can maybe move the dialogue forward a bit, out of rage and despair and on toward more practical solutions. More on Friday: see you then.

Gone spyhopping

I'm off for a ten-day break from all electronic contact in the San Juans. I have another long trip coming up later in August as well.

I've done this kind of thing before and have usually just left the blog idle. My thinking has always been, well, this is a writer's blog, and my readers are accustomed to this kind of absence. It's part of the package.

But it has, on the other hand, always seemed unfair to regular visitors here. And with the length of these two trips, it seemed especially unfair.

So I've decided, for the first time, to invite a guest blogger to post here. Rather than look for someone else who's already blogging (thereby forcing them into double duty) I've decided to invite one of my regular commenters: the estimable Mrs. Robinson.

Longtime readers know that Mrs. R is a thoughtful and skilled writer, deeply and well informed from a variety of sources, and pretty funny as well. She also happens to be a former professional writer and editor who shelved that career awhile back, and it's seemed to me she's ready scratch that itch again.

So, please welcome ... Here's to you, Mrs. R.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Nasty liberal bloggers

Well, Lanny Davis isn't the only ostensible "centrist" Democrat out there worrying about the effects of those nasty liberal bloggers on the national discourse -- alongside, of course, a whole batch of right-wingers who are themselves known to have to wipe the flecks of foam from the corners of their mouths. Unsurprisingly, most of their alleged evidence of a problem is itself highly problematic.

As the folks at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting have documented, the hand-wringing is reaching epic proportions.

And the funny thing is, those "nasty" bloggers just happen to be more popular because they reflect a broad public consensus -- which is to say, they are far more mainstream than they are "leftist":
In fact, you can find the kind of Democrats Diehl likes on the Internet—at sites like Bull Moose, for example. It’s just that they tend to be much less popular than the sites of Democratic bloggers who—like the overwhelming majority of Democrats—oppose the war in Iraq.

What's especially amusing is the way these political reporters have internalized right-wing talking points -- which are part of a specific political propaganda strategy based on projection -- about the alleged nastiness of liberal bloggers, a la the latest Malkin-O'Reilly teamup.

That is, all that "joking" talk about killing off liberals and rounding up ragheads is just "normal politics," but if liberal bloggers use some swear words or hardball political tactics, then gosh almighty, they've just come unhinged!

There was a local permutation of this recently from P-I columnist Joel Connelly, an ostensible "centrist" Democrat (he also coauthored the autobiography of one of my political mentors, Cecil Andrus) who waxed wroth on behalf of GOP senatorial candidate Mike McGavick, who he deemed the "victim" of "poisonous politics."

Mind you, as Goldy explains, McGavick is facing a shareholder lawsuit for entirely legitimate reasons, soime which ostensible "Democrats" should find disquieting as well:
Further adding to the outrage is the fact that McGavick had already made millions at SAFECO, and had a generous termination package in place. By rewriting his termination agreement after he announced his voluntary retirement, handing McGavick many millions more than he was contractually due, SAFECO has potentially performed an end-run around our campaign finance laws, indirectly dumping truckloads of cash into this Senate race via McGavick’s own unlimited, personal contributions.

Worst of all, Connelly concludes that the problem, again, is those nasty liberal bloggers:
The anti-McGavick campaign has been a mean, low-down attack on a stand-up guy.

On the Web site, which helped spawn the lawsuit, founder David Goldstein held forth last Thursday: "McGavick's midlife conversion to 'civility' is a joke to anyone who remembers the vicious campaign he ran on behalf of Slade Gorton."

Not true, Goldie, and you didn't even live here then.

Well, Goldy is more than capable of defending himself, and he does so here. But I'd like to add a word or two to this; perhaps Goldy didn't live here then, but many of us who did, and who were in fact covering politics back then, had exactly the same assessment of Gorton's campaigns.

The truth is that Gorton, in his final two campaigns in 1994 and 2000, developed a singularly nasty and divisive style of politics that deliberately pitted the rest of the state against those awful "Seattle liberals." It worked to perfection in 1994, but not so well in 2000.

The 1994 campaign had a genuinely ugly underside to it that was little reported on at the time but no less real. I had an up-close view of it, since I was on the editorial board of the Bellevue Journal American back then and monitored the race closely. I also participated in the board's simultaneous interview of Gorton and his opponent, then-King County Councilman (and now county executive) Ron Sims.

In the interview, Gorton repeatedly referred to Sims as representing "inner city" interests; he must have said "inner city" or "urban" a dozen times or more. It didn't take a genius to figure out he was doing this precisely because Sims was a black Seattleite. It was the kind of pitch -- carrying an unstated racial charge, but one that the candidate could deny -- that would work especially well on the far more conservative Dry Side of the state, though he obviously was trying it out in GOP-leaning suburban Bellevue, too.

It was a kind of subtle nastiness, but nasty nonetheless, and certainly divisive. And it worked so well in 1994, he obviously thought he'd try it again in 2000. That time, against a white suburban tech-firm executive named Maria Cantwell, it didn't work so well.

McGavick's plea for civility, in reality, is just as certain a way of evading the issues as if he went after his opponent, Cantwell, personally -- a strategy that the McGavick people probably realized would come up dry anyway. Now all McGavick is running on is how uncivil and nasty the Cantwell people are.

In the meantime, how does McGavick stand on those endangered orcas whose ESA status is under assault from his financial supporters at the Building Industry Association of Washington? I've e-mailed McGavick's office asking for his position on the orca listing, but have not heard back from them. But, judging from the anti-ESA position he stakes out on his Web site, I'd have to guess that he opposes protecting those killer whales.

You know, if political reporters were genuinely concerned about nasty personal politics obscuring the debate over serious issues, they would be asking Republicans like McGavick these kinds of issue-oriented questions -- instead of regurgitating right-wing talking points about the alleged nastiness of liberal bloggers and making that the story.

[Daryl at Hominid Views has more.]

UPDATE: Connelly, in an e-mail, points out that McGavick was not involved in the '94 and '00 campaigns. My point was that Gorton had a history of running nasty campaigns. Moreover, as Daryl details, Connelly's recollection of the '88 campaign is somewhat at odds with the record.

Orca territory

[click for enlarged image]

Nature writer Brenda Peterson has an excellent piece in the most recent issue of the National Park Conservation Association's magazine focusing on the Puget Sound's endangered orcas. Regular readers here may enjoy noting that it provides a slightly different perspective on the annual OrcaSing event at Lime Kiln State Park I described here. (Peterson, it's clear, actually heard the concert on land.)

She mentions something of special note that I managed to neglect discussing in my feature story on orca recovery for Seattle Weekly: the imminent removal of dams from the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula, which it's hoped will provide a fresh bounty of salmon for the orcas:
Clearly, things need to change if orcas are to remain in the waters of the Pacific Northwest for future generations. Fortunately, there is reason for hope, including a growing demand to restore healthy populations of salmon to the waters off the coast.

"The removal of two dams on Washington’s Elwha River, beginning in 2009, will be one of the most significant river restoration projects of our time and a boon for resident orcas," says Josh Walter, Northwest rivers coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association.

These dams should have come down a long time ago, and would have if not for the running interference from former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, whose fetish for blocking conservation and recovery efforts of all stripes played a big role in his ultimate defeat in 2000. With Gorton out of the way, state and federal officials were finally able to complete a removal plan in 2004.

As it stands now, it will probably take at least another decade before we start to see the Elwha River salmon return to any significance, and a full 30 years before they beging to near their historical levels. We just have to hope it's not too late to help the orcas by then.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The martyrdom of Mel

The brouhaha over Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic slurs emitted during his DUI arrest ("The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world") is just one of those inevitable Hollywood train wrecks, like John Belushi dying young and Liz Taylor getting divorced.

I mean, think about it: Combine a superstar with more money than God, a reputation for erratic and aggressive behavior linked, supposedly, to a drinking problem, and a track record of closeted anti-Semitism. Well, what did you think was gonna happen?

Of course, Gibson has been getting slammed, particularly by Jewish leaders, who found Gibson's initial apology -- which tried to pin the blame on the demon rum -- somewhat wanting:
The U.S. Jewish Anti-Defamation League said that the apology was not enough and that Gibson should be ostracized by his peers.

The group's national director Abraham H. Foxman said, "It appears that the combination of liquor and arrest has revealed his true character.

"We believe there should be consequences to bigots and bigotry. One way to combat bigots is to put a price on bigotry.

"I would hope that if this is in fact true, that his colleagues condemn him and distance themselves from him."

What was immediately clear was that Gibson had a real problem that would affect his bottom line, including his forthcoming role as a producer of a miniseries about the Holocaust:
His most immediate issue is with Walt Disney Co., which is distributing "Apocalypto" and which also, through its ABC television network, has a development deal with his company to make a miniseries about the Holocaust.

Several prominent critics of "The Passion" have stepped forward to suggest that Gibson, who denied there was an anti-Semitic undercurrent in his movie about the last hours of Christ's life, has now shown his true colors.

"Mel Gibson's apology is unremorseful and insufficient," said Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who added: "His tirade finally reveals his true self and shows that his protestations during the debate over his film 'The Passion of the Christ,' that he is such a tolerant, loving person, were a sham."

Foxman called on Hollywood executives to "realize the bigot in their midst" and "distance themselves from this anti-Semite."

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, urged Gibson to drop the Holocaust project, saying it would be "inappropriate."

Rather predictably, there's been a knee-jerk defense of Gibson in the right-wing blogosphere, as SZ at World O'Crap has detailed. Locally, as TalkCheck has been documenting, radio talk-jock (and former GOP gubernatorial candidate) John Carlson has been telling us that Gibson's rant "wasn't really anti-Semitic."

And what do you know? All of them manage to blame liberals for the problem. Amanda at Pandagon notes:
Forgive me for being a little skeptical of the idea that Mel Gibson got his wild ideas about a Jewish conspiracy from overdosing on Al Franken. As badly as Chavez wants for the criticisms of neoconservatives to be an extension of the long history of rumor-mongering about how Jews secretly control the world, the truth is that criticisms of neocons do not in fact have the markers that coded references to this legend have. In order for her little theory to work, Chavez has to imply that neoconservatism is a mythical entity, as fictional as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But the hawkish direction of the Republican party is hardly a myth and it did in fact result in the invasion of Iraq. Anti-Semitic legends generally have the Jews plotting in secret to take over the world; critics of neoconservatives don’t think there’s anything going on in secret and generally have the wealth of articles and policy proposals and conservative rhetoric to point to as evidence of this change in the direction of American conservatism. Oh yeah, and no one seriously thinks either that all neocons are Jews or that all Jews, or even most Jews are neocons.

I've been waiting to see how Gibson's apologies have shaken out before commenting. Obviously, his first attempt came well short of owning up to the problem.

But his followup apology, on the surface at least, appeared to go much further:
"Hatred of any kind goes against my faith," he said in a statement issued through his publicist Alan Nierob.

"I'm not just asking for forgiveness," Gibson said. "I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing."

Gibson said he's "in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display" and hopes members of the Jewish community, "whom I have personally offended," will help him in his recovery efforts.

"There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or expresses any kind of anti-Semitic remark," Gibson said.

"But please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith."

However, the response has been somewhat mixed:
"Anti-Semitism is not born in one day and cannot be cured in one day and certainly not through the issuing of a press release," Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said in a statement. Gibson should read about Jewish persecution and the Holocaust, among other things, Hier added by telephone from Israel.

"When Mr. Gibson embarks on a serious long-term effort to address that bigotry and anti-Semitism, he will find the Jewish community more than willing to engage and help him," he said.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the process requires hard work. "You can't just say I'm no longer a drunk; you can't just say I'm no longer a bigot. You need to work hard at it, and we're ready to help him," Foxman said.

There's a good reason to balk, for now: Gibson has in the past used evasive word games to avoid making clear exactly where he stands regarding a number of ideas that are typically part of an anti-Semitic worldview, and at other times he has grown aggressive and caustic in denying that he is even remotely anti-Semitic.

Those past denials have all been blown up now, and in retrospect look cynical and manipulative. What would make his current apologies any less hollow -- especially since the wording is so similar?

You see, lots of bigots deny that they "hate" the targets of their bigotry. They limit the notion of "hate" to a purely personal and visceral one, and thus find themselves blameless. Many of them are capable of having friendships with members of the target group, but they usually rationalize these friendships as "exceptions" -- and then readily prop them up as proof that they are not bigoted. This, despite their holding beliefs that are part and parcel of agendas that are truly hateful: racist, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, whatever.

A closer look at Gibson's apologies, moreover, reveals one big component missing: What about Mel's dad?

Now, the question here isn't about how Mel feels about his 86-year-old father, nor is this an attempt to drive a wedge between him and his father. (Indeed, it has been by pretending that this is the case that Gibson has so far evaded any serious attempt to answer the very serious questions that linger regarding his associations with anti-Semitic beliefs.)

Rather, it is a question about Gibson's own beliefs: What does he believe about the size and scope of the Holocaust? What does he believe about the role of the Jews in world affairs, both historically and currently? Does he in fact believe in the kinds of conspiracy theories that his DUI rant suggested?

This is largely because of what Gibson has said in the past, particularly when compared to what his father has written and said.

Take, for instance, his 1995 interview in Playboy:
PLAYBOY: How do you feel about Bill Clinton?

GIBSON: He's a low-level opportunist. Somebody's telling him what to do.


GIBSON: The guy who's in charge isn't going to be the front man, ever. If I were going to be calling the shots I wouldn't make an appearance. Would you? You'd end up losing your head. It happens all the time. All those monarchs. Ifhe's the leader, he's getting shafted. What's keeping him in there? Why would you stay for that kind of abuse? Except that he has to stay for some reason. He was meant to be the president 30 years ago, if you ask me.

PLAYBOY: He was just 18 then.

GIBSON: Somebody knew then that he would be president now.

PLAYBOY: You really believe that?

GIBSON: I really believe that. He was a Rhodes scholar, right? Just like Bob Hawke. Do you know what a Rhodes scholar is? Cecil Rhodes established the Rhodes scholarship for those young men and women who want to strive for a new world order. Have you heard that before? George Bush? CIA? Really, it's Marxism, but it just doesn't want to call itself that. Karl had the right idea, but he was too forward about saying what it was. Get power but don't admit to it. Do it by stealth. There's a whole trend of Rhodes scholars who will be politicians around the world.

PLAYBOY: This certainly sounds like a paranoid sense of world history. You must be quite an assassination buff.

GIBSON: Oh, fuck. A lot of those guys pulled a boner. There's something to do with the Federal Reserve that Lincoln did, Kennedy did and Reagan tried. I can't remember what it was, my dad told me about it. Everyone who did this particular thing that would have fixed the economy got undone. Anyway, I'll end up dead if I keep talking shit.

The theory he's referring to crops up all the time on the Patriot/militia far right, particularly among the tax protester/anti-New World Order set (see here for a sample). I first heard it from the Montana Freemen, who seem themselves to have taken it from the notorious anti-Semite, Marvin 'Red' Beckman.

Indeed, the whole "New World Order" theory set is riddled throughout with anti-Semitism, in no small part because that's where it largely originated. Even Pat Robertson's attempts at peddling a slightly sanitized version of it was discovered to have anti-Semitic roots throughout.

When he released The Passion of the Christ, Gibson claimed he is not anti-Semitic by arguing thus:
"Neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic. Nor do I hate anyone, certainly not the Jews. They are my friends and associates, both in my work and my social life. Anti-semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs, it is also contrary to the core message of my movie."

But as I've said, anti-Semitism comprises not merely hatred of Jews -- it is also constituted of a willingness to believe the ancient "blood libel" and deicide charges. Holocaust denial is also a significant component.

Then, after the furor erupted over The Passion, he gave an interview with Peggy Noonan that included evasive answers about Holocaust denial:
"I have friends and parents of friends who have numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine, several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century, 20 million people died in the Soviet Union."

Well, as I pointed out at the time:
It's important, of course, to understand that this is exactly the storyline pushed by Holocaust deniers, namely, that yes, there were many Jews killed in Europe during World War II, but they were only a small part of the total who died in the war, and the "6 million" number is grossly exaggerated. Not only is this exactly what Hutton Gibson told the New York Times, you can find the exact same views at such Holocaust-denial organs as the Barnes Review, the Institute for Historical Review, and the Adelaide Institute.

Of course, these are all organizations with whom Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, has direct and open associations. He gives speeches before them and writes for their various publishing organs. Hutton Gibson speaks at Holocaust denial conferences and has continuing significant associations with such anti-Semites as Frederick Toben of the Adelaide Institute.

Even before The Passion was released, he made headlines by telling the New York Times that 9/11 was actually a Jewish plot:
The actor's father, Hutton Gibson, told The New York Times he flatly rejected that the terrorist group led by Usama bin Laden had any role in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Sept. 11.

"Anybody can put out a passenger list," the elder Gibson told The Times.

"So what happened? They were crashed by remote control."

He and the actor's mother, Joye Gibson, also told The Times that the Holocaust was a fabrication manufactured to hide an arrangement between Adolf Hitler and "financiers" to move Jews out of Germany to the Middle East to fight Arabs.

"Go and ask an undertaker or the guy who operates the crematorium what it takes to get rid of a dead body," Hutton Gibson told The Times. "It takes one liter of petrol and 20 minutes. Now six million?"

Said Joye Gibson: "That weren't even that many Jews in all of Europe."

Just as the film was being released, Hutton Gibson gave an interview that included this gem:
To a Jew a Christian commits idolatry every time he looks at a crucifix and says a prayer. You know there in control and they're going to get in control the way things are going. Because they get all of our people...They killed several generations of us Americans (referring to WWWI, WWII)...The Jews weren't in the army much in WWI that because they were fomenting a revolt in Russia. America had no right to fight in foreign wars (in reference to WWI and WWII).

Gee, sounds rather like people who claim that "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world," doesn't it?

Ah, but what does Mel Gibson think about all this? In the same interview with Noonan, he makes clear that he believes everything his pop says:
"My dad taught me my faith, and I believe what he taught me. The man never lied to me in his life."

Amid the Passion uproar, Mel Gibson was interviewed by Diane Sawyer for ABC's "Primetime," during which he offered these thoughts about the Holocaust and his father:
MEL GIBSON: Do I believe that there were concentration camps where defenceless and innocent Jews died cruelly under the Nazi regime? Of course I do, absolutely. It was an atrocity of monumental proportion.

DIANE SAWYER: And you believe there were millions, six million, millions?


DIANE SAWYER: I think people wondered if your father's views were your views on this.

MEL GIBSON: Their whole agenda here, my detractors, is to drive a wedge between me and my father and it's not going to happen. I love him. He's my father.

DIANE SAWYER: And you will not speak publicly about him beyond that.

MEL GIBSON: I am tight with him. He's my father. Got to leave it alone, Diane. Got to leave it alone.

Why, exactly, do we "got to leave it alone"? Because of some ridiculous Hollywood-script-style notion that a father-son relationship is some kind of sacred thing?

As I observed before:
What has been startlingly absent from Gibson's denials so far has been any kind of repudiation of his father's beliefs regarding the Jews and the Holocaust. Merely claiming that one is not anti-Semitic doesn't cut it -- because many, many Holocaust deniers likewise deny that they are anti-Semitic (just as many white supremacists deny that they hate blacks). They only want the truth, they claim -- when in reality, their entire purpose is to bury the truth.

And later:
So while it's fine for Gibson to claim vehemently he is not anti-Semitic, that isn't persuasive evidence in itself, given the wealth of evidence suggesting that he is in fact. What's been strange about Gibson's denials hasn't so much been what he has said, though that's problematic enough. It's what he hasn't said. At no point has he ever actually explained his own thoughts regarding these controversies. His spokesmen have simply said that he and his father "don't agree on everything." And Gibson has warned interviewers away from interfering with his relationship with his dad.

Until Mel Gibson comes clean and gives a full public airing to these issues, it's going to be hard believing anything he says isn't just another cynical PR cover story. And whatever reconciliation he says he's seeking is going to quietly creep down the memory hole.

Unlike most Hollywood train wrecks, which are all about the cult of celebrity anyway, this one, in stripping away the mask of celebrity, actually has meaning beyond mere gossip columns and tabloid titillation. Because the questions it raises cut to the nexus of the culture wars, where truth is constantly under assault by people who want to erase memory and revise history.

As the right-wing conventional wisdom now circulating settles into the system, it'll gradually become Mel Gibson who is viewed as the victim. After all, everything can be blamed on those nasty, unhinged liberals. Even all the wars in the world.

'Strawberry Days' are here again

Just a reminder to my regulars: We'll be discussing my most recent book, Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community, as part of the Sunday book salon discussion at Firedoglake today. The first part of the discussion last week, hosted by Jane Hamsher, was a pleasant success.

I'll be joining the discussion at 2 p.m. PDT today. See you there!