Thursday, June 11, 2009

An American Nazi and the Rhetoric That Welcomed Him

Shortly after one p.m. yesterday, Twitter became useful. I got a beep on my phone and, thinking it was another observation about how good lunches are, was surprised to see a condensed txt-spelled Web2.0 notice: "Shots at Holocaust Museum." From there, I went to a couple of websites and message boards and began compulsively refreshing, joining in Google searches and sending in email tips.

I'd like to tell you a story about that — about how a handful of Google searches and grassroots reporting pointed up the tacit complicity of the soi-disant liberal media in the creation of and reporting on an American Nazi, and how their toleration, inattention or cowardice creates a national discourse that increasingly imports militant fringe rhetoric that demonizes millions of Americans.



1:00 p.m.
An 88-year-old American WWII veteran who styles himself James von Brunn tries to enter the Washington, DC, Holocaust Memorial Museum. When he's seen with a suspicious bag, he withdraws a .22-caliber rifle, shoots and kills an African-American security guard named Stephen T. Johns. Shortly thereafter, other security guards shoot and wound von Brunn.

1:00 - 2:00 p.m.
FOX News begins its coverage with a crawl that suggests the event is an act of terrorism. On-air personalities speculate about whether the shooter is a radical muslim. Talk flows to liberal permissiveness and moral relativism.
Von Brunn's name and evidence of his whiteness are released. Shortly thereafter, FOX's crawl re-brands the event as a "shooting" and on-air personalities drop discussion of domestic terrorism.
Google searches turn up von Brunn's popularity (going back years) on, the nation's largest white supremacy website.
Searches of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine reveal hundreds of entries on a site called, to which von Brunn seemed to be the sole contributor.
Von Brunn's website includes this brief biography (emphases mine):
In 1981 von Brunn attempted to place the treasonous Federal Reserve Board of Governors under legal, non-violent, citizens arrest. He was tried in a Washington, D.C. Superior Court; convicted by a Negro jury, Jew/Negro attorneys, and sentenced to prison for eleven years by a Jew judge. A Jew/Negro/White Court of Appeals denied his appeal.
The denial probably stemmed from the fact that von Brunn's legal, non-violent citizen's arrest involved his attempting to hold the Fed board hostage with a hunting knife, a revolver and a sawed-off shotgun. Even during his incarceration, he refused to temper his story, sending this racist and deranged appeal for a pardon to then Naval Secretary Jim Webb.

2:15 p.m.
Usage of the Wayback Archive turns up a letter from a Retired Rear Admiral Jno G. Crommelin, mentioned in the appeal to Webb, in which he praises von Brunn, saying (emphases again mine):
"He has taken very courageous and patriotic actions to try to alert the U.S. citizen to the real organization of the Federal Reserve System and its great danger to the survival of our once White Christian constitutional republic, the cornerstone of Western Civilization.

It is my conviction that James von Brunn deserves the gratitude and assistance of every White Christian citizen of these United States. And I believe he would have this support were it not for the cabal which controls not only the Federal Reserve System but also the nationally effective communications media."
These comments tonally reflect von Brunn's obsession with the Federal Reserve system, "International Jewish Finance," the perfidy of the Jew, race betrayal, the enslavement of white Christian America, etc. Even as of midnight, no major media outlet was reporting on the Crommelin letter, which showed a damning and disturbing mindset at the highest levels of the American military.

2:25 p.m.
A WHOIS domain registry search for von Brunn's turns up a contact email address for a While Steve-O doesn't appear to be von Brunn, his screenname certainly isn't encouraging. The number fourteen refers to the American Nazi/white-supremacist credo, the Fourteen Words, coined by Neo-Nazi David Lane in a borrowing from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." The eight-eight in his name represents the letter H's numeric order in the alphabet. Thus, "88 = HH = Heil Hitler," a popular formulation in Nazi/white-supremacist tattoos and graffiti. Even as of midnight, no major media outlet was reporting on this potential webmaster or suggesting that von Brunn — a strikingly prolific and computer savvy 88-year-old — might have had help.

3:10 p.m.
More web searches reveal that von Brunn was also a 9/11 Truther and a Birther (i.e. he believed in an unrevealed conspiracy to destroy the World Trade Center, and he believed — despite ample, verifiable documentary evidence — that Barack Obama was not born in the United States).
More importantly, his works were posted on and cheerleaded by posters there. This is important because FreeRepublic (a/k/a "Freep") is arguably the largest and most popular conservative message board online. And, while it has included sitting congressman and even former White House Spokesperson Tony Snow among its members, a regular reader of the site will have no difficulty picking out violent and militant rhetoric from Nativists, Christian Dominionists and Bircherites. Consider that they enthusiastically supported Rosanna Pulido for congress — not despite but because she made comments likening muslims at prayer to dogs sniffing butts, Mexicans to the "New Ku Klux Klan," Barack Obama to a race (and, peripherally) America betrayer and enslaver of fellow blacks, and gays to plain old fudgepacking. Lest you think these the misguided enthusiasms of just a random member and not representative of the general tone of Freep, please enjoy this post from its founder and administrator, Jim "Jimbo" Robinson (once again, emphases mine):
Unfortunately, we are saddled with a communist sympathizer in the White House. I don’t know whether or not he’s an actual card carrying commie, but he’s definitely an America-hating, anti-capitalist Marxist leftist who thinks communism is the way to go. Now I remember when America used to fight against communism. It wasn’t that long ago. Many of us on FR are veterans of wars against communism and some of us believe that American citizens who are communists are the enemy within, ie, the domestic enemy we’ve sworn to defend against. American citizen? hmmmm… that may be a loophole for Obama.

At any rate, the oath is to defend our constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I can imagine that this places an enormous strain on our Secret Service agents. It’s obvious to anyone with a brain that Obama is an enemy of the constitution. So should the SS defend the constitution or defend the anti-constitution commie?

So now comes the problem. If you feel it’s your duty to call Obama a traitor and use salty language in your proposed resolution, ie, suggest the commie be keelhauled, walked off the plank, run up the yardarm, tarred and feathered and run out of Dodge, etc, etc, etc, you may be facing a visit from your friendly Secret Service. And even though your visiting agent may agree politically, and may take his oath to the constitution seriously, he’s still sworn to protect the officeholder and it’s his duty to take all threats seriously. And that may include serving me with a subpoena to turn over your IP address. Now I’m duty bound to protect your privacy to the best of my ability, but I cannot defend against stupidity.

Best advice I can give is to keep it to yourself. Don’t post anything that may embarrass you later, or end you up in the slammer.

Ever vigilant.

Keep your powder dry.
Now, in case you're not used to reading this kind of garbage, Jimbo believes that Barack Obama is probably a foreigner, is a Marxist communist, and is suggesting to the Secret Service that, in order to uphold their oaths to the constitution, they should consider letting Obama get shot and killed. All of which might seem like tepid tacit nonsense to you until you understand the context of the post, which was that he wrote it to discourage members from making overt and explicit threats on the president's life. Hence the horror of his comments about his efforts to keep these people private, his unwillingness to turn over information about them, and his exhortation that they keep their powder dry. (Because who knows when they'll need to start shooting negroes other than the president?)

3:30 p.m.
Completely unsurprisingly, FreeRepublic begins scouring its site and deleting the account history of "wannabegeek," the user who posted von Brunn's material regularly. At the time, you could literally refresh wannabegeek's profile to bring up his post history and watch post after post vanish. However, Google Archives still have results of his posts up, including yet another Obama=Foreign screed.

4:30 p.m.
In a moment that pretty much brings the political blogosphere to a standstill, FOX News anchor Shepherd Smith acknowledges the Department of Homeland Security report that his network ridiculed and dismissed as a tool of left-wing propaganda (despite its being commissioned by the Bush Administration) "was a warning to us all, and they were right."

Said report suggested that right-wing violence would be on the rise and that parafascistic and paramilitary groups would probably seek to recruit veterans. The internet resumes its churn of hatred shortly thereafter, as Freep posters ask questions like, "I wonder how often Shep gets himself checked for AIDS.... just asking," and offer insights like, "shep another florida butt boy RINOesque type like charlie crist.... Joe Scarborough also comes to mind....though I dont consider him a queer."

4:45 p.m.
Roughly an hour after it began, MSNBC reports von Brunn's popularity on FreeRepublic and the possibility that he might have posted there. It also mentions that FreeRepublic is deleting all relevant posts. This disclosure comes over an hour after FreeRepublic began expunging its records.


Now, an apology — first, for the digressions. I realize the story has rambled, but the important thing to remember about someone like von Brunn is that while he might have acted alone, his actions and words work in concert with internet, television, radio and real-life commentary that not only accepts but encourages thoughts like these. Second, for the timestamps. At first, I was too caught up in looking for new updates to pay much attention to when things were happening. But, after 2:00 p.m., I started noting what I saw and when I saw it. They may still be confusing to you, though, because in each case, when I saw something pre-dated its appearance in mainstream news outlets by hours — if not, by now, a day.

As of now, still no reports have come forth about von Brunn's connection to the webmaster of the site that hosted his work. Aside from a mention on MSNBC, no one has followed up on how FreeRepublic responded to a heinous crime by deleting posts in support of the person who committed it, an act which could erase informal semi-networked connections between criminally like-minded individuals. Similarly, yesterday, Shepherd Smith had the courage to counter his network's earlier propaganda blast by defending the Department of Homeland Security report that predicted this behavior, then went on to condemn many of the emails sent to him by angry and unhinged FOX viewers.

Yet FOX has dropped this story, and no one else has picked it up. What's been reported and commented on are but a fraction of the wealth of communications between interrelated hate groups and what they are willing to say to members of the media critical of them. While these threads aren't necessarily woven into the investigation of von Brunn, they're part of the fabric of the underground militant society in which he found comfort.

The abandonment of these stories and the lateness of the developing stories that were reported yesterday are both owed to the same causes: three at times complementary levels of disinterest.
1. The Internet Isn't Sexy.
It's not. Nobody wants the job "Internet Investigator." It's fine and fun when you're a teenager and trying to get into a girl's Photobucket album to see if she's got pictures of herself in her underwear, but it's humiliating if you're working for a media conglomerate. Googling things is an intern's job. Journalists go undercover; they get handed things in manila envelopes. They get to leave the office — which means they can smoke and work on growing their crow's feet and their wince against a hard-biting wind — and cultivate sources and contacts. They wash backs and have their own washed in turn. It's enough to give you some serious Woodward. Internet research isn't.

2. The Internet Is Still Considered Unreliable.
This verdict is at once fair and unfair. Most websites are relatively stable and unlikely to disappear; even if they do, they are traceable via other means, like the Wayback Machine or archived Google searches. Besides, any journalist can back up his sourcing. Print-screen images hosted on his own site can depict the source site as it was found. Either that, or the journalist can find the web intern, have him hit "Save As" on the evidentiary webpage, then rehost it on his publisher's server. Granted, there might be paramilitary militia groups out there using webpages like recruiting cells, and they might decline being crawled by Google and disappear the instant they get a spike in traffic from a news link. But this seems like a pretty extreme example. The bottom line is that the internet still has a sense of transience. Like a college kid whose research paper links only to online sources, the journalist doing work online still has to face the stigma of not having flesh-and-blood sources, which can discourage writing about such "ephemera" as websites and message boards. Better to do real journalism and link together eight anonymous quotes about the president wearing too subservient a hat when he went to Old Men in Hats Day at the Bocce Supertorium when he visited Italy.

3. The Media Omits Fact to Avoid Offending Conservatism.
The so-called "liberal media" is terrified of being called, well, just that. In a perverse attempt to maintain authority by cautiously avoiding any story that would smack of partiality, newspapers and mainstream media sources abrogate their own authority by abandoning news. Stories that exist in the open to anyone with a search engine go unreported by major outlets because running with a story critical of the far right — especially "unprovoked" — smacks of liberals going witch-hunting. This can apply to conservative outlets as well: the DHS report that suggested domestic terrorism would be the product of extremist American conservatives was collected and drafted by the Bush administration, and those officials were not immune to invocations of the Dolchsto├člegende — of "stabbing troops in the back." Further, look at the grudging reluctance Shepherd Smith has to display just to say he concurs with a study critical of far-right conservatives, conducted by a conservative presidency and proved valid on a handful of dire occasions — including yesterday. Thus we come to the sort of mordant comedy found in today's headline on MSNBC: "Domestic Hate Groups on the Rise." Anyone paying attention knew that already. Hatred's gone mainstream for a while; it's just that MSNBC can now report it, because someone with a gun finally gave them a big enough excuse.
Consider Richard Poplawski, the 22-year-old Pittsburgh man who gunned down three police officers. This story was sensationalized as a cop-killer story, and in some versions details leaked out about his racism. For instance, he was a member of, and had a Myspace page featuring Nazi iconography. But that's not why he gunned down the police. He shot them because he believed they were coming to confiscate his guns and put him in FEMA "concentration camps" as part of a takeover from the New World Order. Why? He learned about this from Republican Congressman Ron Paul, on Glenn Beck's TV show on FOX News.

But no supposedly liberal mainstream journalistic organ would go after Beck or Paul for spreading demonstrable falsehoods and extreme right-wing talking points, in part to avoid the stigma of partiality — instead of embracing responsibility — and perhaps, in MSNBC's case, to avoid offending a guest. Perhaps Paul's frequent appearances on that network kept it from reporting von Brunn's enthusiasm for the congressman. Either Brunn or someone who appears to be Brunn repeatedly posted his essays — including this exhortation to "Gas the Jews" — on Ron Paul '08 message boards. Indeed, you can keep making connections within this conspiracist community until you grow bored, like a game of Six Degrees of John Birch that never ends:
Von Brunn's essays were repeatedly posted on Ron Paul message boards (ostensibly by von Brunn himself), echoing much of Paul's language about domestic liberty, "International Finance," The Federal Reserve, The UN, the Trilateral Commission, The Bilderberg Group, Bohemian Grove etc., all of which have at times been far-right dog-whistle rhetoric for "The International Jew";
Von Brunn's older essay threads were celebrated on; endorsed Ron Paul as their official candidate in '08; you can find pictures of Paul posing with Stormfront's founder, and a KKK organizer worked as campaign coordinator for Ron Paul;
Paul is also good friends with Alex Jones, another (former) recurring guest on Glenn Beck's show, who also trades in sinister implications about the UN/Trilateral Commission/Bilderberg Group and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands;
While Jones' comments on this subject are much tamer, von Brunn and Ron Paul share the same contempt for "The Negro."
If you're willing to throw Glenn Beck into the mix, one can play connections like this far longer. Beck is willing to contradict himself from day to day, to ingratiate himself with guests. Thus you find the hilarity of last night's interview with Henry Binswanger, a randroid from the Ayn Rand Institute whose last name sounds like the kind of ritual sexual self-abuse he practices to keep women from stealing his orgone waves:

In previous interviews, Beck had decided Barack Obama was a fascist. (Beck held up Henry Ford as a proud example of an American anti-Fascist, fighting FDR's wave of New Deal "Nazis." Henry Ford, of course, was an anti-Semite whom Hitler gave the highest honor a civilian could receive from Nazi Germany.) But the existence of van Brunn naturally sent great waves of discomfort through Glenn Beck's psychological koi pond. How could Obama be a fascist if van Brunn was also a fascist and would have been willing to kill Obama? No matter, reasons Binswanger, delivering a European history lesson from whatever alien plumber's manual his parents selected his name from: all fascists are also communists. See, they just agreed in the 1930s to pretend they're different; and anyway it's not a big deal because von Brunn was actually a leftist, because racism is actually collectivism, which is just Communism, which is fascists. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Obama's a self-loathing Jew.

The point, though, is not that Beck is a cretinous demagogue creeping steadily toward inciting Americans to violence or that Paul is a virulent racist. Both are pretty much a given in any discussion. What's scarier but less obvious is how they amplify — or, depending on what they're saying at the moment — exemplify the far more dangerously remote and previously isolated theories of the militant far right, giving them airtime on shows whose recognition gives a patina of legitimacy to just such conspiracies. They in effect nationalize and mainstream what previously lurked in the American hinterlands for good reason. One man's rhetoric invokes another man's RAHOWA. In the process, just by overhearing the commentary, we're all indoctrinated into the usage of these terms and these abuses of history.

Unfortunately, most mainstream journalists and journalistic outlets are cowed by the prospect of being accused of engaging in counter-conspiracy by reporting on these dog-whistle terms and loose associations — a charge easier to level because of the transience of internet sourcing. Thus ahistorical lessons and the malicious mischaracterization of minorities, gays, liberals and immigrants go unchallenged in the public sphere. And while many good blogs try to pick up the slack — TPM, CrooksAndLiars, ThinkProgress, Digby/Hullabaloo, etc. — people stubbornly cling to the notion of the ethereality of the internet as inexorably conveying illegitimacy. Which leaves us with books, of which there are precious few that directly engage words printed online or uttered on the radio and TV.

Thankfully, journalist and respected blogger David Neiwert has a new book out detailing how the rhetoric of the militant right has been "transmitted" and mainstreamed by talk radio, 24 hour news and post-9/11 paranoia. The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Rightbuilds on his experience growing up in rural, conservative Idaho (and later reporting on it in In God's Country), his award-winning domestic terrorism reporting, his work for (where he recently posted about von Brunn) and his indispensable blog Orcinus.

While it would be very easy merely to demonize people like Beck, Paul and others, Neiwert doesn't indulge in that for long. A reasonable person reading the book understands that Beck and Paul are unreasonable: they argue from non-evidence, with skewed motives, for irrational purposes. As fun as simply railing at them can be, it doesn't make for a very thoughtful or necessary book. Moreover, Beck's boobery and Paul's argyria-fueled ravings are less important than the hateful national discourse they foster.

Democracy, as Neiwert notes, is a political structure dependent on listening. What Beck, Paul, O'Reilly et al. promote is eliminationism. They promote ideas and rhetorical tactics that shut down debate, erode commonality, paint the opposition as too unforgivable to treat with and seek to eliminate them from consideration or from the soil entirely. Ann Coulter tells you you can't reason with a liberal, and Rush Limbaugh tells his audience that we won't solve our problems until we've hunted down and executed every liberal but two, to keep in a museum as curiosities.

This last disgusting proposal probably seems to Limbaugh like merely a brutally funny evocation of how useless and counterproductive liberals are, but the concept is redolent of the idle Nazi speculation on what to do with the few existing specimens of Jewry they had left after fixing their own problems. He's highlighting the intractability of any joint solutions with liberals, but to someone else, this sounds like the solution, whether they consider it final or not.

Naturally, to anyone reared on the internet, talking about eliminationism dangerously abuts Godwin's Law, but there are simply no other terms to describe the nationalist lust of Lou Dobbs' army of WWII-vet senior citizens (evidently from the 101st Anti-Ironist Division) demanding that their reward for stopping Hitler should be protecting federal funds by putting immigrants into camps, then into buses — then driving them into the Gulf of Mexico. There are no other terms for Dominionist Christians who view homosexuals as cancers that must be excised from the body politic lest they spread their disease to the innocent. There are no other terms for those like "Jimbo" Robinson who believe Obama is a crypto-muslim; nor for those like Michelle Malkin who believe muslims must be incarcerated or purged before they join hands with their brothers overseas, activate cells in this country and light America ablaze with the holy fire of Allah.

Well, there's always a useful word like morons, but Neiwert's too good for that. What he succeeds in doing is drawing parallels between the engines of hatred that powered our past injustices and how they're at work again, how they're fueled by the ideas of the fringe right making the leap to the national stage in the mouth of women like Malkin and men like Beck, Paul, O'Reilly, Dobbs.

Hence Neiwert profiles the Minutemen Project, who faked an execution of an immigrant, evoking the same eliminationist tactics of early 20th century lynchings. Or the post-9/11 accusations that liberals constituted a socialist "fifth column" within that would join our enemies without to destroy our great national character, a virtual shot-for-shot remake of Nazi propaganda and militancy about socialist trade unionists and filthy Jews. Or Bill O'Reilly speculating about the financial ties of Jewish financier George Soros and then adding: "They ought to hang this Soros guy." Bear in mind, that quote was from over three years ago, before Glenn Beck and Ron Paul's recent implications that the Jewish Soros wants to establish socialism (just like the Soviets, who in far-right rhetoric are almost always all Jews) in America to further his "internationalist" (wink wink) New World Order aims.

Neiwert reports on the power this kind of rhetoric has because the "liberal media" likely realizes these topics are too hot to touch: blasting some of these guys in the mainstream is counterproductive, because the faithful will plug their ears, while the opportunists will find any opening to fight back and discredit their critics. Beck and Paul are true believers, but chances are that if you asked O'Reilly or Rush or a dozen others — in private, away from something that could be rated by Arbitron — they'd probably be very forthcoming about how some of their fans are a little frightening and how, no, they have no interest at all in the collapse of the current social order. For most of them, while they're vulturous assholes, they don't really mean this: they're just ever in search of the next zinger that can sell an entire book.

Which brings us to some of the problems detailed above. Neiwert's solution, and it seems the only practicable and legal one, is increased TV and online media vigilance, checking every claim and recording every outrage. Not only will those facetiously co-opting the ideas of the far right and the parafascistic have immediate inducement to stop transmitting those ideas, the repeated response from vigilant journalists will help to reinforce the real historical record, real anthropological science, real studies on the completely normal, natural behavior of homosexuals, the real loyalty and sincerity and industry of millions of immigrants.

More importantly, every time the feckless liberal media allows these terms and beliefs to go unchallenged — or to let them fester for hours or days before rebuttal — they pass into the record essentially as-is, just as surely as unreported deletions from the record allow complicity in crimes to disappear from it. That message boards like FreeRepublic can bowdlerize their tolerance for ultra-right racist, anti-Semitic views and not be called on it only lets them maintain a respectability they neither earn nor deserve. Worse, because they remain as they are, popular and unchallenged, they preserve an incentive for right-wing pundits and politicians to export Freep's "facts," fears and hatreds into the mainstream. Allowing their standards of debate and documentation to go unassailed only gives it free passage into national consciousness.

The problem, as Neiwert shows, is how easily the co-optation of this kind of rhetoric combined with an unchallenging acceptance of its national dissemination validates the truly dangerous militants. It mainstreams what they might before have doubted and vindicates their resentment. Von Brunn was — still is, presumably, if he lives — a horrible man who committed a despicable act. But he can believe, after hearing the radicalized rhetoric of the far right — after hearing Limbaugh and Malkin and especially, especially Glenn Beck:

"I'm not alone."

"WE surround THEM."

And from there it's not so far a leap anymore to believe that if he takes a shot, a thousand more will take up arms.


Update #1
Shortly after completing this, I caught this article at TalkingPointsMemo that shows that someone in the press indeed was interested in the name of the webmaster of von Brunn's site. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, von Brunn transferred ownership of the site to a Steve Reimink (Steveo1488) on June 1 of this year, which would be exactly the sort of thing you might do if you were planning on being killed in a hail of law-enforcement bullets but wanted your website to live on anyway. There is one interesting twist, though. A woman named Patti Thompson shares the same phone number as Mr. Reimink and appears to be his girlfriend. Guess whose Michigan campaign she worked for as a coordinator in 2008?

Ron Paul's.

Update #2
I don't feel good giving any kind of rating to Neiwert's book, given how much I've relied on it — and his blog — to make arguments here. I think that says enough about my esteem for both of them. If anyone else is interested in checking the book out and arguing some points here, I'm happy to try to tackle a broader review or do a counterpoint in another post. And if you're just interested in checking it out to check it out, here's a nakedly consumerist link: