(Cross posted in Religion Compass Exchanges)
‘Speaking with Forked Tongues: The Rhetoric of Right Wing Extremism Today’ –
International Symposium Held at the University of Northampton Reads Between the Lines
On the 26th of June 2009 a one-day international symposium on the language of far-right movements was held at the University of Northampton. The symposium’s title, ‘Speaking with Forked Tongues: The Rhetoric of Right Wing Extremism Today’, duly recognized and drew attention towards a major shift in the way organisations and groups of the far right in various countries present themselves and their policies to the public. Fascist and right wing groups parading and marching in our city streets, wearing distinctive uniforms, are no longer the usual picture, nor does the problem of right wing crime exhaust itself in a few skinhead thugs kicking in heads of immigrants and homosexuals, or setting fire to their homes. While the statistics on politically motivated crime in several countries show a sizeable number of right wing crime, the theorists and political leaders of the far right deliberately aim to style themselves and their organisations as sensible political forces speaking the truth to the people, and opposing the established ruling political elites, who are supposedly betraying the interests of their national communities (cf. for example Rules #5 and #6 of the ‘BNP Language & Concepts Discipline Manual’). They therefore try to present themselves as reasonable and ‘normal’ champions of the people’s cause, whose agendas are not at all extremist, but are in fact founded in ‘common sense’.
One of the symposium’s great merits was that it undertook to bring together people from different walks of life, deliberately reaching out beyond the proverbial ivory towers of academic discourse. Speakers included academic scholars from different disciplines, a politician and lawyer, writers and journalists, as well as former members, and relatives of members, of the LaRouche organization. The presence of a senior specialist police detective in the audience, furthermore, bore witness to the fact that British law enforcement authorities are taking an interest in the activities of the far right.
After an introduction and general overview of the day’s programme by Dr Paul Jackson, Mr Michael Ellis, who has been the Conservative party’s parliamentary candidate for the Northampton North constituency since 2006, and who has practised in the Midlands as a barrister for 15 years, talked about freedom of speech as being one of the integral civil liberties in democratic open societies, and about the conditions under which this general freedom can be limited in terms of jurisdiction. An open, democratic society must tolerate the expression and promotion of views and opinions by minorities, even though they may be offensive to others. British law and the practise of its jurisdiction will only prosecute such instances in which freedom of expression is abused to incite or cause unlawful behaviour, such as violence against targeted groups or individuals.
The far right has taken its lessons from a number of trials in the past, and the aforementioned shift in their self-promotion and propaganda is also a result of these experiences with the law. The leaders of these right wing movements have come to realise that they cannot hope to appeal to a wider part of the electorate if they allow themselves and their organisations’ members to be found guilty of unlawful conduct, and thus they have put a lot of effort into redrafting their strategies and the language of their propaganda.
This attention to language, however, is by no means an entirely new, previously unprecedented phenomenon – nor is it limited to the far right. Professor Roger Griffin, who teaches Modern History at Oxford Brookes University, in his talk titled ‘Lingua Quarti Imperii: The Euphemistic Tradition of the Extreme Right’ pointed out various euphemisms used regularly in the German ‘Third Reich’ and similar euphemistic expressions used by contemporary right wing groups. The title alludes to the term ‘Lingua Tertii Imperii’ (the ‘language of the Third Reich’) coined by the Jewish holocaust survivor, Victor Klemperer – implying that contemporary movements are in fact related to that tradition in terms of their ideologies and terminologies, and that their agendas, if they were allowed to be fully implemented, would amount to nothing less than some kind of ‘Fourth Reich’. One example of euphemistic usages in the official language of the Third Reich is ‘special treatment’ meaning ‘organised execution’, another ‘relocation’ referring to the practice of deportation to extermination camps. Professor Griffin pointed out that the word ‘special’, for example, is used regularly in various extremist discourses to mask a number of grim and vicious meanings.
He said further that journalists interviewing the leaders of parties such as the BNP need to get their questions right if they hope to elicit revealing answers. These people must not be underestimated, and anyone dealing with them will need to be well informed and thoroughly prepared, because they are after all well-trained in their euphemistic rhetoric.
The BNP, for example stress in their internal ‘Language & Concepts Manual’ that they are “not a ‘racist’ or ‘racial’ party”, but rather “a ‘patriotic’ or ethno-nationalist’ party”, the argument being that all races are great, but should stay where they supposedly belong – i.e. not in Britain. The campaigners are urged to simply deny and reject the allegation of racism rather than “fall[ing] into the media trap of trying to debate what racism is”. They are apparently well aware that arguing in terms of ethnic ‘purity’ does in fact constitute racism – but substituting ‘race’ for ‘ethnicity’ makes it sound more sophisticated and reasonable, avoiding the negative connotations of the older, tainted terminology.
This was also the topic of Dr Paul Jackson’s paper, in which he quoted the BNP’s leader Nick Griffin who once had urged party members to avoid causing ‘Pavlovian PC reactions’ by using such language. Dr Matthew Feldman’s paper looked into the far-right’s performance in the recent EU elections, and into how the far-right tries to sell their agendas as common sense. Earlier Dr Peter Davies had talked about Le Pen’s Front National, while Professor Janet Wilson had talked about right-wing propaganda in works of literature.
The afternoon’s programme focussed on the LaRouche organization. In the course of the papers presented by Mr Dennis King (author of Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism) and Mr Chip Berlet (a senior analyst at Political Research Associates), and the forum discussion chaired by Mr Yves Messer, with victim’s families and former members, it became apparent that this organization, with its hierarchies, institutions and publications, is a political cult with anti-Semitic and neo-fascist tendencies centring upon the views and teachings of one man, Lyndon LaRouche.
It is worth mentioning that Berlet’s and King’s perspective on, and approach to, the LaRouche movement is a matter of some controversy among former members of the organisation exchanging their views and experiences in blogs on the internet (e.g. on http://www.factnet.org). Some disagree strongly with seeing the movement as neo-fascist in any way, pointing out the recruitment of Jews and non-whites. For them the use of anti-Semitic language is merely one aspect among many others in the movement’s syncretistic discourse, but does not make LaRouche ‘a new Hitler’.
The latter statement would indeed constitute an ill-advised oversimplification, and neither Berlet nor King actually make any such assertion. Both, however, highlight not only the persistent presence of anti-Semitic allusions and allegations in LaRouchite publications, but also Lyndon LaRouche’s central status as leader and chief-ideologue – or as Berlet put it elsewhere, as a kind of ‘guru’ telling his followers what to think.
Furthermore, part of the controversy appears to hinge upon a popular misunderstanding that conceives of Nazism and fascism as being synonymous. There is, however, general agreement that the LaRouche organisation is a coercive political cult employing a number of manipulative techniques designed to gain and exert mind-control over its members.
Even though the concept of a Führerkult (cult of leader) calls to mind first and foremost Adolf Hitler, there is in fact no particular shortage of leaders throughout history who gathered around them a cult following. The leader styles himself, and is revered by his followers, as a messianic figure leading the way into a brighter and better future. Such political movements, usually totalitarian in aspiration, can arguably be termed political religions – not because they are religious in the traditional transcendental meaning of the word, but because they function essentially in the same way as the traditional religions and cults, and often strive to replace or re-interpret and integrate them.
During the concluding ‘Round Table Discussion’, the participants agreed that the symposium had been very successful and truly enlightening. The theoretical analyses presented by the various scholars had already, by the end of the day, served to provide the relatives of members (or rather, victims) of the LaRouche organization with insights into how the mechanisms of indoctrination and propaganda worked, and how and why their sons and daughters had been so quickly drawn into the organization and were now behaving so strangely, almost as if they were entirely different persons.
The first-hand accounts by former members of the organization highlighted the differences between its propaganda aimed at the outside world and its internal structures, hierarchies and communications. One former member, who had been a member of the cult for many years and had previously failed twice to leave, told the symposium’s participants how her pregnancy had given her both the incentive and the strength to finally turn her back on the LaRouchites. While the organization is officially opposed to abortion, she explained, members are not supposed to have children. Her superiors referred to her pregnancy as being a disaster, and urged her to abort – instead she decided to have the child and leave the cult for good.
The symposium was a very interesting and successful experience for all involved, and it is sincerely to be hoped that it won’t be the last of its kind. With extremist tendencies thriving and on the rise everywhere, a lively and well-informed discourse that reaches beyond the academic circles will certainly prove to be an immensely valuable asset for defending our open societies.