Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Racism, political violence and false equivalencies (5)

A third issue on which Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby and Digby had an exchange this past week has to do with a particular supporter of the Tea Party movement, Pam Stout from Idaho. Stout was featured a couple of months ago in a news article in March, Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right by David Barstow New York Times 02/15/10. George Packer referred to her in a blog post of 02/23/10, American Progress New Yorker. Packer's piece, in turn, sent the Howler into high dudgeon against him in Narrative and Condescension! Why does Pam Stout reject sound ideas? Our highest Lord Packer explains Daily Howler 03/04/10. This excerpt from Somerby's polemic gives a good flavor of it:

How does Pam Stout see the world? What do others around her think? We’d be curious to see her interviewed. But within the aeries of High Manhattan, a high noble lord had a different reaction to Barstow’s report in the Times. At the New Yorker, his highness, the noblest Lord of Packer, condescended to ponder the mind of the hapless commoner Stout. In this passage, our highest lord shows how his noble kind has undermined progressive movements for lo, these many years...
Well, later the Howler got his wish. As he notes in the 03/31/10 Howler, David Letterman interviewed stout on his show last week. Here's Somerby's reaction:

Go ahead—take a look at that tape. If you prefer (and many will), you’ll be able to find some ways to insist that Stout is a snarling racist. (Though you’ll have to struggle a bit.) If you’re alternately disposed, you may notice that Stout could play the title role if some producer ever decides to cast Santa Claus as a woman. For our part, we aren’t inclined to agree with Stout’s views — at least, with the emphases she places. And the interview only ran nine minutes. And, of course, it only involved one member of a large movement.

Question: Can you watch that interview and imagine that Stout is a decent person? By now, many liberals quite likely cannot.
That is actually the lead-in to Somerby's ill-conceived argument why Digby was like Newt Gingrich in a particular comparison.

Digby takes up Letterman's interview of Pam Stout in Radical Auntie 04/01/10. She doesn't specify that it's a response to Somerby's Digby-Gingrich comparison. But it also functions effectively in that role. Digby provides the video and extensive quotes from Pam Stout's softball interview with Letterman. Here is Digby's evaluation:

She was the best tea party representative I've ever seen --- a perfect face for the angry Bircher club to which she also belongs, the Friends of Liberty[.]

I was blown away by this interview and frankly, a little bit chilled. She's mild-mannered, reasonable, utterly sincere, decent and true. Yet, she watches Beck because he "makes her think" and she reveres Jim DeMint, the most radical of all the rightwing Senators. This lovely woman believes in the raw, violent politics of the Hobbesian jungle in which it's every man for himself. I'm sure she doesn't see it that way. Her politics aren't grounded in real life but in abstract concepts. She certainly doesn't seem defensive or even aware that her political heroes are considered radical extremists. But then if you only watch Fox news, listen to talk radio and live in the town known for its proximity to Ruby Ridge and the Aryan Nations compound you probably don't realize that your views are not held by the majority of Americans.

Stout is finding great meaning in her life with her politics and that's great. But I think she is a perfect example of the danger of the right wing noise machine and its amazing ability to speak to that need. She belongs to something. She's connecting with people. It's giving her life purpose. And because she's living in that media/movement cocoon she truly believes that almost agrees with her. It's very powerful stuff. And considering what it is that's giving her so much meaning, it's pretty frightening as well.
Based on Barstow's article and especially on the interview with Letterman, Digby's comments seem like a fair conclusion. Her reference to Ruby Ridge and the Aryan Nations isn't meant to be compliementary. But it's a reasonable way of pointing out the implications of someone who thinks Glenn Beck's far-right conspiracy theories and his eliminationist rhetoric against Democrats and "progressives" are mildly thought-provoking and perfectly sensible.

But based on the way Stout presents herself, the words she herself uses to describe her politics, I would certainly assume she's a hardline rightwinger in her politics.

You can see Somerby's response to Digby's comments on Pam Stout in his 04/02/10 Daily Howler post. Somerby points out that, well, gee, lots of people find Glenn Beck thought-provoking. And he thinks she might have an interesting story of how she got to be a hardline rightwinger. In fact, he avoids addressing the obvious: the woman is clearly a hardline rightwinger. How in the world can it be condescending or otherwise inappropriate to point that out when we're talking about her at all only because of her own political activities and looking at the way she describes herself?

I would make a general observation that applies to Pam Stout, as well as many others. Books and articles that analyze the rank-and-file of any political movement typically labor under the disability that the are unlikely to have the time or resources to do detailed investigations of their subjects. For instance, Chris Hedges in his very unfortunately-titled investigation of the Christian Right in the US, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America (2007), has some of the best case studies I've seen anywhere of various adherents of the religious-political trend he's studying, based on in-depth interviews with his subjects. But even with those, I found myself wondering to what extent he actually independently verified some of their claims about their own past.

This is a particular challenge when studying groups that have big social incentive to fudge their own attitudes in public. The Michigan Militia has been falling all over themselves to distance their group from the Christian terrorist wannabe Hutaree Militia. There's a fairly obvious incentive in that they don't want the FBI thinking they are connected with people formally charged with conspiring to assassinate cops.

Christian Right groups for a long time have advised their supporters campaigning for local offices to downplay their Christian Right ties and ideologies in those races.

And the Tea Party movement is presenting itself as a movement of newly-politicized citizens suddenly concerned about the direction of the country. (Under our Kenyan-Marxist-Islamic President!) If you are, say, talking to the New York Times or going on national television as a representative of that movement, that self-presentation of the movement creates an incentive to fudge any previous political activity in which you've been engaged. That doesn't mean I think Pam Stout is lying. It does mean that I wonder why Bob Somerby seems so mightily impressed with her description of her own past if it hasn't really been vetted by the press. Particularly given her present, self-confident, seemingly savvy presentation of her hard right political ideology.

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