Fighting Political Illiteracy

Fighting Political Illiteracy

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May 5, 2012

In his December 1990 report Right Woos Left, Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates examined neo-fascist overtures to antiwar activists, and the need to confront rightist ideologies and bigotry by discussing the dilemmas posed by the transfusion of right-wing theories and research into progressive circles. Based on these discussions, Mr. Berlet wrote the book Right-Wing Populism in America, which focuses on the roots of scapegoating conspiracism in the U.S. and how it is used to mobilize social and political movements. In November of 1993, he developed an analysis of the relationship between various forms of populism and fascism and the relevance of these movements to the candidacies of Buchanan, Perot & Le Pen.

A decade later, these same problems resurfaced in American antiwar circles whose academic discussions had been penetrated by poisonous ideas promulgated by LaRouchians and other anti-Jewish groups. More recently, organizations like Sierra Club went through soul-searching shakedowns as a result of White Christian Nationalist infiltration attempting to subvert their board into supporting anti-immigrant legislation. All of which points up the need for greater academic rigor and integrity in the face of the ongoing onslaught of fascist propositions promoted by nativists such as Pat Buchanan and the bastions of pseudo scholars that support him.

As author Sara Diamond observed,


After years of living as an anti-administration anti-establishment subculture, many in the progressive movement know what they are against, but have lost sight of what they stand for. This leaves persons susceptible to allying with anyone else that attacks the government. This happened against a backdrop of political illiteracy.


By exposing irrationalist philosophies, racialist aesthetics, and anti-capitalist demagogy, writers like Berlet and Diamond assert we can have this discussion without uncritically circulating the conspiratorial scapegoating fantasies of the far right. As Monique Doryland of the Bay Area Pledge of Resistance noted, “We have to be clear as progressive people that fascists, no matter what their camouflage, are not our friends.”

“The dilemma for left activists,” says Berlet, “is to sort out the various strains of fascist ideology circulating in the United States and the world. It is a dangerous folly to ignore the threat to democracy posed by critics of the current administration who also promote fascism.”

Whenever I am asked to advise or intervene in social conflict, I ask myself, “What’s the deal?” Because conflict is almost never what it seems. Most activists don’t do this. Most activists assume that conflict is based on misunderstandings or misguided good intentions, when in fact they usually involve malice and fraud. That’s why we always conduct background research on key players and their connections as the first step in developing an estimate of the situation.

Open source research (publicly available information) is the best place to start, and often provides leads for deeper digging. Few realize how easy and effective open source research can be, although it often involves visits to public agencies or other archives rather than relying on the limited amounts of information available online.

I was thinking yesterday about a colleague’s comment regarding the lack of imagination in our fellow citizens, and took a moment to consider where most of those who bother to communicate are in their intellectual development. Many have made considerable progress in their estimate of the situation, no longer attached to institutional conventions, but still return to ineffective tactics out of what seems to them a lack of options. Others, who have thoroughly abandoned hope for our society through established venues, are able to clearly express an understanding of what needs to be done, but find the isolation of this position too lonely, and indulge instead in less than coherent attempts at creating more popular infotainment. Some, seeing no social benefit for them personally of pursuing thoughtful discussion, even online, have opted for melancholia.

In his commentary on the role of media in public mental health associated with collective trauma, my colleague Paul de Armond noted that repeated exposure to disturbing incidents or news has severe psychological consequences. Applying this phenomenon to weblog communication, I think that the accumulated frustrations and sense of helplessness generated in part through the belaboring of our horrible state of affairs and absence of social leadership, has induced a collective state of disabling depression. While we are presently invigorated by the anti-globalization activism of Occupy and Indigenous nations, the euphoria of direct action is short-lived, and the subsequent tasks of enduring state repression and creating community under duress will challenge the best of us to our core.

The only answer I have for people is to become involved in their communities where they can talk with and work with others. They don’t have to take on criminal networks like Paul and I have, but they do need to experience success in meeting some social need.

As an associate scholar of the premier indigenous think tank in the world, I had occasion recently to observe that bias against think tanks in general — possibly because many of them are funded by and for  protecting the privileges of inheritors of unearned wealth, or for promoting anti-democratic doctrine — is nevertheless akin to failing to appreciate the value of gathering intelligence or coordinating the collection and distribution of information in warfare—an extremely short-sighted and self-defeating prejudice.

If we are to do battle effectively within the ideoscape, we need more think tanks –- albeit reoriented –- to shore up our capacity to organize as well as our will to resist. Otherwise, we cede the field of engagement to provocateurs, poseurs, and media pundits—-not an encouraging scenario.

Not that our readers themselves fall into the traps of anti-intellectualism, but it nonetheless is hardly a phenomenon exclusive to the right-wing. Progressive arrogance and ignorance are at least as damaging to our society.

It might help to think beyond institutionalized concentrations of scholars to the networked variety of think tank exemplified by the Public Good Project. And even as a brick-and-mortar institution of research and education, the Center for World Indigenous Studies is extensively involved in such scholarly networks spanning the boundaries of indigenous and settler societies, states and nations, as well as throughout both traditional and modern cultures.

Intelligence over emotion would be a good slogan.

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