Saturday, June 12, 2004

Extremism as entertainment

Here's a disturbing story about the way extremist behavior and beliefs have been creeping into popular entertainment -- in this case, the tawdry world of professional wrestling:
CNBC financial analyst fired for making Nazi gestures during wrestling match

The case involves John "Bradshaw" Layfield, who also was employed by CNBC as a contributor, which had picked him up last month after an earlier stint with Fox News:
In an apparent attempt to draw a crowd response during his match against WWE champion Eddie Guerrero in Munich, eyewitness reports said Layfield goose-stepped around the ring and raised his arm numerous times in an Adolf Hitler salute. Such actions are illegal in Germany, although no criminal charges were brought against the 13-year wrestling veteran after the show.

In a statement, a CNBC spokesman said Layfield was fired because, "We find his behavior to be offensive, inappropriate and not befitting anyone associated with our network."

WWE also responded to the incident through a statement on its web site: "WWE and John Layfield deeply regret Mr. Layfield's actions in the ring at our event in Munich and apologize if it has offended or upset our fans. Mr. Layfield has been reprimanded for his actions."

The WWE apology deserves to be viewed with some skepticism, however. After all, Layfield's act has been going on for some time, and apparently with WWE approval:
Layfield, 36, was recently elevated to a main-event position on the WWE's Smackdown roster after his character was changed to portray him as an anti-immigration zealot, with Mexicans usually the targets of his prejudice during weekly Thursday telecasts on UPN.

The people responsible for this behavior likely will claim that Layfield's character is only a fictitious creation, but the fact remains that lending this kind of hate-mongering any shred of legitimacy is extraordinarily irresponsible.

Going nuts

When examining cases of extremist violence, I usually restrict myself to measured terms that accurately describe the conditions that lead to such acts. But sometimes, the only thing that can accurately be said is that the perpetrator simply went nuts.

That was the case with last Friday's rampage with an armored bulldozer by an enraged Colorado man who destroyed a number of businesses in the little town of Granby before finally becoming trapped. The man, a 52-year-old muffler-shop owner named Marvin Heemeyer, then shot himself.

By now, of course, this story is more than a week old (I was out of contact when it happened), which means it has already faded from public memory. But there is a quality to it that is worth a longer look -- particularly in certain aspects of the reaction to it.

There was relatively little discussion of the incident among bloggers, but over at the right-wing transmitter site Free Republic, there have been several threads devoted to discussing Heemeyer's rampage. Many of those posting have, of course, expressed their disgust with Heemeyer. But others, interestingly enough, have tried to make him out a martyr.

One thread in particular is devoted to painting Heemeyer as a victim of tyrannical local government officials:
Local resident and former muffler shop owner Marvin Heemeyer had finally had enough of being pushed around and told to go to hell by local politicians and public servants, who refer to themselves as "public officials" -- the people in charge!

Many of the commenters of on this thread continued in this vein, comparing Heemeyer to the Founding Fathers and other "patriots." A poster at another thread compared Heemeyer to Carl Drega (and this same thread at one time contained a link to "The Ballad of Carl Drega," but it has been since removed).

Carl Drega, you may recall, made headlines in 1997 when he went on a killing rampage in the little New Hampshire town of Columbia. He murdered four people -- a judge, a newspaper editor, and two state troopers -- at with a shotgun at point blank range before he was himself shot down. At his property, investigators "found at least 600 pounds of ammonium nitrate 'in a fairly elaborate system of tunnels' built beneath and adjacent to" Drega's home.

In short order, Drega -- who was a devotee of a variety of right-wing conspiracy theories -- became a martyr figure for the far right, a "true patriot" who decided he'd had enough and struck out on his own against government tyranny. These kinds of martyrs are the stock in trade for radical right-wing propagandists, both among white supremacists and Patriot/militia "constitutionalists" -- for earlier versions, see Gordon Kahl, Robert Mathews, Randy Weaver, David Koresh, and Benjamin Smith.

Drega's tale was even touted in the title of a book by Vin Suprynowycz that was a collection of extremist anti-government essays. Since then, Drega's name crops up whenever the far right talks about local zoning and land-use issues.

It appears the same sort of hero status will be Marvin Heemeyer's fate. See, for instance, this longer essay at the conspiracist site (by the same author as the material that appeared at Free Republic) building a case for Heemeyer as a "Patriot" martyr.

Thus, it probably won't be surprising to see, in a little while, books and songs devoted to Heemeyer as the "little guy" who stood up to government tyranny by welding himself into a large machine and detroying his neighbors' businesses. Likewise, don't be surprised if we see a few more homemade "killdozers" cropping up around the landscape. Nothing inspires copycats, after all, like a good media event.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Coddling extremists

The GOP's little problem with extremism -- notably the neo-Confederate version -- has cropped back up in South Carolina, where one of the radicals who has been trying to take over the heritage-oriented Sons of Confederate Veterans, a fellow named Ron Wilson, is now running for the state Senate:
S.C. Senate candidate touts right of secession

Notably, Wilson is in the running for the GOP nomination:
Running as a Republican for an Anderson County seat in Tuesday’s primary, Wilson openly promotes the right of secession. He also wants to have "Confederate Southern Americans" designated a specific minority group, like Hispanics or African-Americans.

"Confederate Southern Americans are a separate and distinct people," Wilson said in a statement posted on the Internet. "As a people, Confederate Southern Americans are tired of being the 'whipping boy' for the rest of the country's racial problems."

Wilson has been significantly involved in recent years in the attempt to radicalize the Sons of Confederate Veterans by placing neo-Confederate ideologues in upper-echelon positions. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking this takeover attempt for some time now (a recent report follows up on this in-depth study of the matter); the SPLC also named Wilson as one of its "40 to Watch" catalogue of the nation's most powerful right-wing extremists.

And though Wilson and his apologists attempt to gloss over the extent of his activities as an extremist, one only need look at who's supporting his campaign now to get the bigger picture:
One Wilson contributor is Lexington County restaurant owner Maurice Bessinger, who gave Wilson $1,000. Several years ago, major food chains yanked Bessinger's barbecue sauce from their stores when it was revealed that Bessinger distributed pamphlets at his stores saying that slavery was God's will for blacks and that blacks were happier being slaves in America than free in Africa.

Wilson's opponents -- Bryant and Allen -- declined to discuss him. However, both acknowledged Wilson has a base of support with hundreds of Sons of Confederate Veterans members and their families who live in the Anderson area.

"Don't count Wilson out," said political scientist Neal Thigpen of Francis Marion University.

It will be interesting to see how national GOP officials respond if Wilson indeed wins the primary. It would be comparable, frankly, to David Duke's election to the Louisiana Legislature in the late 1980s.