"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s easy to interpret the verbal bile of recent American politics as a new height in prejudiced and conspiracist thinking: a new hate. In the last few years, Sarah Palin has created the concept of Obama’s “death panels,” Glenn Beck has argued that George Soros was a collaborator with the Nazis during WWII — even though Soros is Jewish — and Donald Trump staked his presidential campaign on the idea that our president, black as he is and Muslim as his name seems to be, had not sufficiently proven his rights to citizenship in our country. More recently, Newt has taken to calling Obama the “food stamp president,” a title that is as racially charged as it is inaccurate.
But Arthur Goldwag, author of the new book “The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right,” argues that the racist and conspiracist approach of today’s far-right pundits is largely the same as it was 50 years ago. Their language and theories are taken (sometimes verbatim) from right-wing populist vitriol at early times in American and European history, dealing in tropes well-worn by pre-WWII American Nazis, Joe McCarthy and fanatical anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic Protestant preachers of the 19th century.
Salon spoke with Goldwag — who has worked at Random House and the New York Review of Books and is the author, previously, of “Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies” — over the phone about today’s hate, the persistence and remarkable uniformity of American prejudice, and our potential for change.
Why is this resurgence of the “old hate” happening now?
We’re going through a historic shift in this country. We were on an incredible run of prosperity in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, thanks to the New Deal social compact, thanks to big unions, thanks to very strong regulation – thanks to all the things that Glenn Beck’s followers think are the most evil things in the world. Fairly unskilled, uneducated people were able to earn a good living, and send their children to college. And that’s changed. Income inequality is growing. If you look at American history, the bottom has dropped out of rural people’s lives every five years, but there used to also be a manufacturing class that made a decent living. There used to be a route for people that weren’t well educated to make a decent living. There isn’t anymore. There’s a lot of anxiety about our individual positions in our society, and our country’s position in the world. If you’re not educated to be able to understand it, and you’re trapped in a disadvantaged life, you might become really, really angry.
So these resurgences of hatred, and conspiratorial narratives, are related to a basic type of class-consciousness – a stripped-down awareness of unfairness.
Yes. It’s an old stereotype (it’s also a true stereotype) that rich Southerners drove wedges between poor whites and poor blacks so that they wouldn’t see that they were all in the same place. That’s very connected to the anger people have today. One of the most infuriating things about Obama to people is that he walks into the White House like he belongs there. But their anger is not really about him. It’s about them: their place in the world. Because he does belong there. But their kids will never go there, because they’re poor and feel they’re without open avenues.
What can we learn from the idea that the new hate is largely the same as the old? Is there a lesson there that can help political discourse move forward with more tolerance and rationality, or is this an endless cycle depending on where the political pendulum is? Or, is it a reminder not to panic, we’ve seen this before?
I’m going to say all of the above. I think it is reassuring to recognize that the scary fringe people that are cropping on the margins of the Internet now really aren’t that much more horrible than people that were cropping up in the past. It was harder to read them before, but they were there. A propaganda novel called “The Turner Diaries“ was written by a white supremacist named William Luther Pierce in 1978. It was self-published, he broadcast his speeches over a short-wave radio, and the book was passed from hand to hand. People at Christian identity compounds read it to each other, and it had a kind of talismanic quality. Now you can just download it on the Internet. And you can see pictures of him and you can watch him giving speeches on YouTube. One of the tricky things about the new hate is that you have access to all of the historic material at once. You can see Robert Welch giving a speech, then you can see Louis Farrakhan giving a speech, then you can see Hitler giving a speech. It’s all instantly available and reinforces each other.
But the types of people who espouse hatred on a broad scale have always been there, and won’t be going away. I look at that like psychology. You’re never going to cure a neurotic. But if you get the neurotic to recognize that some of the things that scare them and agitate them are things that they construct themselves, then maybe they can move forward.
In this case, that means calling out hatred for what it is, and not allowing it to “hide in plain sight,” as you say in the book.
Yes. A useful example is that Ron Paul was a figure in the John Birch Society. It’s no secret. He was a local leader, and he had real associations with white nationalists and very marginal people 20 years ago. But he’s been exposed for that past behavior, and now he can’t rely on it as a type of base appeal – he can’t go too near racism because it’s too dangerous for him. The New Republic brought it to light four years ago, and it became a third rail for him. And that’s a very salutary thing. Once you’ve shown a light on these types of things, they can’t be used anymore. As long as somebody’s pretending that their appeal isn’t racist, they can keep saying, “I’m just terribly concerned because I think you need to be a natural-born citizen to be the president of the United States.” But that’s bullshit and it’s racism and xenophobia and nativism. And once you name it, you can’t go there anymore and still be in the mainstream. If you’re David Duke, you can’t pretend to not be David Duke.
You also say in the book that mainstream discussion has moved farther toward the radical right, and that the new hate is in some ways more accepted than the old. So there seems to be a sweet spot where people in the public eye can avoid the really unacceptable activities – like membership in the John Birch Society – and can still make appeals to racist impulses in their base. But how is it that racist conspiratorial thinking could be more mainstream now than it was at time periods when we, as a country, were more xenophobic and more nativist, as a whole?
Well, I’m not sure that it is. But Ryan Lizza, the other week in the New Yorker, wrote about a study showing that in recent years the mainstream right has moved much farther to the right than the left has moved to the left. You have mainstream people pandering to the base by picking up some of these memes and some of these archetypes from 40 years ago – and much older. It was really horrifying when it first seemed like anti-Islamic sentiment was becoming mainstream.
As far as the snarky racist things that mainstream pundits are able to say about Obama – using the word “ghetto” and so on – that’s just pandering to the lowest common denominator. There’s crappy racism in American society, but every year there is a little bit less of it. Political correctness creates a burden, and coded messages and dog whistles become more of the main operating mode.
But sometimes open discrimination works. Pamela Geller had a tremendous amount of traction in 2010 when she led the charge against the Islamic community center near ground zero. She had the New York Post covering her, and even Harry Reid got scared about the “ground zero mosque.” Newt Gingrich jumped right in and talked about banning Shariah. Anti-Islamic sentiment is so vile. And as a Jewish person, I find it appalling that there are Jewish activists and politicians who don’t see that it is exactly the same thing that was said against us. If you’re Jewish, you know what it is to be completely demonized. It was appalling when the Anti-Defamation League didn’t condemn the attacks on the community center.
How does it work for a publication like Newsweek to take seriously a question like “Is Obama the Antichrist?” as they did? How are they able to do that without being shamed by all serious publications?
Some of it is that they don’t even realize how real that question is to some people. They think, “Oh, this is a funny little item, and we’ll talk to Matt Staver,” the guy they interviewed with that question. Well, Matt Staver’s a real, intense religious fanatic. But people in the mainstream don’t know a lot about that world. The worst thing that most people hear is a few seconds of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh when they’re in a taxicab. But if you spend time at Media Matters or the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Watch” blog, and so on, or, if, God help you, you go to a white nationalist conference as I did in Washington in September, you know that these ideas have real currency.
My worry isn’t that Newsweek would approach some right-wing guy and get a quote from him, but that they would do it without knowing just how right-wing he is.
Paranoid and fear-based politics tend to rise up at times of national uncertainty – economic distress, political turmoil, and changing social norms all seem to contribute. You pointed out that there are striking similarities between the type of irrational anger faced by John F. Kennedy and the type now faced by Barack Obama. But you say that today, this hatred is “hiding in plain sight.”
Yes, it’s the obvious elephant in the room. For example, the “birther” issue. I couldn’t have imagined it before it began. There’s a judge in Georgia right now who’s demanded that Obama come and explain why he should be in the Democratic primary. A Republican judge said, “I want the president of the United States to come here and make a case for himself.” This is so intensely racist.
One of the most interesting parts of reading your book was learning how anti-communism, anti-Masonry, anti-Catholicism and raced-based discrimination are all tied together, and almost always have been linked to anti-Semitism. The existence or successes of other minority groups were blamed on Jewish people, or these groups were called out as Jews – even the Jesuits. It seems like the only group associated with evil conspiracies to take over the world and not linked to Judaism is Muslims. Is that true?
It’s true, and it’s weird. God knows most Jews were not bankers, and God knows most Jews were not rich. Jews were really poor people. But there were enough rich Jews to make the stereotypes stick, and rich Jews, like others, used the power of finance. You can find writings in the ancient world about the horrors of usury. As many people understand it, usury is a terrible form of magic: you’re making something out of nothing. The Templars were bankers, and all of the things that were said about Jews were said about them too, and they were also associated with the devil. There are mysteries that are just as profound as theological mysteries. People actually get through their lives without being personally affected by the mystery of the trinity, but if you buy a house for the first time and you discover that this $300,000 house is going to cost you $1.5 million, that’s pretty startling, and people think, “How is the bank making so much money out of money?” It makes sense to me that a rural populace in the mid-18thcentury would have latched onto anti-banker, anti-Semitic ideas. They were told to hate Jews anyway, for purely religious reasons. What’s crazy is that 100 years later, these ideas have the same power.
You point out cases in which prejudiced public figures on the left and the right meet at the point of their hatred or paranoia, as with neo-Nazis and Louis Farrakhan. Are there notable newer examples of this today?
Well, you can find that with 9/11 Truthers, and also if you hang around with Ron Paul people. I went to a John Birch Society meeting a month ago, and the people there were surprising. They were all people living off the grid, and they were pot smokers and Ron Paul people. I don’t even know that they would have identified themselves as conservatives. The John Birch Society recruiter there clearly had a lot of experience doing outreach to these types of people.
It seems that people may not even really understand where they are in that case. They may not know what the JBS is in a historical sense – they just know that it’s “alternative.”
I think that’s true. Extremely ideological organizations rely on the fact that you don’t know the whole story. They feed you political talking points and emotional talking points, and you don’t know the rest. I think that’s part of the Ron Paul phenomenon.
It seems there can be a tendency to latch onto a politician whose identity is “alternative” rather than one whose identity is more politically clear.
I think that’s true, and I think that’s a product of resentment and anxiety. It’s a way of individuating yourself. It’s also a not very successful way of escaping from cant that you know is cant. “Oh, the Democrats promised this, the Republicans promised that, but this guy’s a real outsider.” People say they are the true insurgent, and they turn out not to be much of an insurgent, or their insurgency has little to do with what you want from them.
In the book you discuss how right-wing populism has historically demonized academic scholars, and also how it has used selective “scholarship” – misappropriating information and repeating widely discredited ideas. This is, of course, something we can see clearly in characters like Glenn Beck who performed whole episodes of his show writing on a chalkboard and has developed his own recommended canon. How does it work to disparage “experts” and the “elite,” but also rely on this type of pseudo-academia?
Richard Hofstadter discusses this in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” There is a whole world of alternative scholarship, and for fanatics it functions like a fantasy world where they can only be right. That’s a psychological phenomenon rather than a political phenomenon to me. People do this in other parts of their lives as well. It’s called denial. You create an alternative reality where you don’t have to believe what you don’t want to. But we can believe Glenn Beck because he has footnotes! They always have footnotes. And Beck’s footnotes refer to Eustace Mullins. Eustace Mullins is one of the most vile, racist writers that you can imagine. I think Hitler would have been ashamed of a lot of what he wrote, but Glenn Beck’s “scholarship” relies on him.
Why doesn’t it matter that radical right-wing sources have been discredited over and over again? As you point out, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – a known forgery – still informs endless right-wing conspiracies – including Beck’s infamous episodes on George Soros. Maybe this information is just too far removed from the original source. But what about Sarah Palin’s creation of Obama’s “death panels”? The correct information was available, but many people didn’t care. Is it all willful ignorance?
Yes. There is a quote from a New York Times Magazine article [“Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush”] quoting an aid to the president who said that writers were in the “reality-based community,” but that the world didn’t run on reality anymore. There are people who believe they can push through “facts.”
And in surprising ways, that seems to work. If I want to say that person X is wrong, and there is a base of people that will come along with me on whatever trip I have to take to get there, then I’ll do that.
Because that person isn’t just wrong; they’re evil, they’re satanic. Take Newt Gingrich, for example. I truly don’t know what his agenda is, other than that it’s about bringing power to Newt Gingrich. And in order to get power, he will demonize whoever is against him.
Running in the back current of your book, is the distinction between genuine populist interests – improving the lives of working people – and hateful, populist rhetoric.
Yes. As Richard Hofstadter made clear, there is a difference between moral politics and ends-based politics. He said that positivist historians – those who assume that people are voting their economic interests – miss out on something. It’s a fallacy to say that people think economically all the time. Human behavior is not based on maxima. People are superstitious, and people are moral. And sometimes when you feel that your values are not being followed, you get angry.
Another interesting difference between the old hate and the new is that today’s right-wing racists make apologies for language that is too overt. A great example of this that you cite is from the man who runs a website called Jewwatch.com. He said, “It has never been my intent to defame the Jews” – a wild thing for him to say. Why do openly anti-Semitic or racist groups talk this way now? How does this work with their base supporters?
White supremacists repeatedly use a tactic where they claim that they are really just conservative, white-loving, white people. They say: “I don’t hate black people, I love my own kind. What’s wrong with loving your own?” And one of the things that comes with loving your own is obsessing over dark races moving into America and the low white birthrate. It’s about “blood and soil.” Millions and millions of people died because of “blood and soil”.
Another thing that these groups go out of their way to say is that it would be “absolutely wrong” to say terrible things about people that weren’t true. But, if I say that Jewish people are greedy and criminal and are trying to destroy the world, and if it’s true, then there’s nothing anti-Semitic about it. Beyond that, people really have a hard time being mean to people’s faces. If you meet one of these people, or they’re publicly confronted, they sometimes bend over backward to be polite to you. It’s really terribly inconsistent and weird.
What people “really” believe in is an implicit and explicit theme of the book. At the end, you say that leaders of these various hate and conspiracy movements did not really believe the theories they put forth. With entertainer-type pundits – Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter – this seems to make most sense. They profit regardless of their true beliefs. But what about their followers, who don’t necessarily stand to gain anything?
In some cases, people know that something isn’t true, but they “know” that it’s morally true. They may know there aren’t really going to be death panels, but socialism is evil and it will kill people, and so there might as well be death panels. I really don’t think that people believe most of these theories. It’s a type of pornography. There is a sadomasochistic element to the level of hatred found with many of these groups and on their websites. In the book I write about the story of Maria Monk, who claimed to have escaped from a sex den in a Catholic monastery. Her story was false, but at the time it was a real turn-on for people. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler writes about the Jew waiting to rape the Aryan maiden. People don’t believe these things, but the ideas are so upsetting that they are appealing, and they also have a level of spiritual truth.
You discuss the connection between hateful language and real violence – whether it be JFK’s assassination in 1963 or the Tucson/Gabrielle Giffords shooting of 2011. Do you believe politicians have a responsibility to speak out against rhetoric that can encourage violence?
I think it’s demagoguery to blame the politicians when some crazy person shoots somebody, but politicians are culpable. And no, it’s not nice when some lunatic shoots some nice Jewish congresswoman in Arizona and all of the sudden you’re up in Alaska and you’re being blamed for it. It feels terrible. But, if you’re a politician don’t be a demagogue, encouraging hatred. If you’re Glenn Beck then it’s your job, and you’ve got to tough it out when someone gets killed. You can’t pretend you didn’t say this awful stuff. There was just a politician in Kansas who quoted a Psalm in relation to Obama saying “and may his wife be a widow.” When he was called out on it, he said that he only meant, “may his term be short.” That’s so disingenuous and it’s so wrong, and we shouldn’t be doing it. If you say, “Gee, I wish that person would die,” and they die, you should feel guilty.
Do you think there is a possibility to move away from this type of language? You say at one point that hatred is a Pavlovian response – implying that it comes about as a result of training, and that perhaps we can be trained out of it. It seems that on the mainstream level, maybe we have been trained away from hatred.
I was born in 1957, and I lived in Virginia, and there were colored-only water fountains. I can barely imagine that, but I saw them with my own eyes. If we move away from race and consider gay rights, it’s all happening very fast. Gay marriage is almost mainstream. There will be people who go to their graves screaming about it, but it’s a fact. We can change. People who learn in church that it’s wrong will change when a relative or friend comes out to them, because it’s very hard to hate people you know. The cure for racism is exactly what the Southerners were so terrified of 50 years ago: race mixing. When our families are multiracial – or mixed in religion, or include gay people – the same type of hatred can’t go on.
But there will always be haters, and there will always be fanatics, and it’s the role of the press and the role of writers and the role of thoughtful people to call it out. It’s our job to remind people that even though you’re angry and somebody’s appealing to your worst instincts, you do have better instincts too. You can be better than that. That’s my hope anyway.
Katie Ryder is a freelance writer and a contributing editor for Guernica. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, NewYorker.com, and others.More Katie Ryder.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)