Affidavit of Chip Berlet — National Writers Union Lawsuit — Maltreatment of Rev. Kapya John Kaoma

Affidavit of Chip Berlet (John F. Berlet) in the matter of the National Writers Union lawsuit against Mr. Tarso Luís Ramos, Executive Director of Political Research Associates of Somerville, Massachusetts on behalf of his former employee,
the Rev. Kapya John Kaoma


During my employment at Political Research Associates, Mr. Tarso Luís Ramos, as Executive Director of Political Research Associates, was, on a consistent and regular basis, willing to cross professional and ethical boundaries previously established by the founder, Jean V. Hardisty, Ph.D.

One of the first clues manifested itself during the first new research project Mr. Ramos assigned the staff of Political Research Associates (hereinafter “PRA”).

It was compiling information for an individual involved in electoral politics in New York. The senior staff objected to a project that put the Tax-Exempt status of PRA at risk. Mr. Ramos scoffed at that concern.

Another example was when Mr. Ramos insisted on picking the exact color of a print publication cover from his cellphone while on a train. This after being told that this was not possible, since color selection for graphic arts and printing by people not in the same room only could be done using a “Pantone Matching System” booklet printed with certified color samples at both ends. It could not be done by looking at the colors on two cellphone screens unless the two phones had previously and recently been calibrated for color balance.

Within a few weeks it became clear that Mr. Ramos was not going to be persuaded by any evidence or expertise offered by the staff.

Mr. Ramos was often just mean-spirited and a bully.

I was once told by Mr. Ramos that I had to participate in a conference call with another staff member while Mr. Ramos was at home late at night. After Mr. Ramos asked a series of questions, both I and the other staff member began answering the questions posed by Mr. Ramos. When we asked Mr. Ramos what he thought, the phone was silent…Mr. Ramos had gone to bed leaving his phone live while we were talking .

After a few months under Mr. Ramos as Executive Director, staff were regularly being forced to work overtime (up  to 60-70 hours per week) to meet the unreasonable deadlines promised to funders. When we complained, Mr. Ramos told us we needed to “step up” our commitment to PRA.

At one offsite strategy meeting Mr. Ramos berated a staff member until the staff member broke down into tears—sobbing that his marriage was under serious stress due to unreasonable work hours demanded by Mr. Ramos. In response Mr. Ramos told the weeping staff member that the staff member needed to “step up” his commitment to PRA.

While using the existence of the handicapped-accessible library/archive at Political Research Associates for fundraising purposes, Mr. Ramos turned the library/archive into a storage room, and it became inaccessible and unusable for all visitors.

While coordinating a major research project, I was forced to sit through a conference call with members of the board of directors of the funding foundation, while they objected to the conclusions in the report and demanded a rewrite. I refused as a matter of professional ethics and journalistic principles.

Mr. Ramos then hired, without consulting me, a “Managing Editor” who agreed under the direction of Mr. Ramos to make the changes demanded by the Board of Directors of the funding foundation.

Before the call I objected to Mr. Ramos and warned that such a call was unethical.

During the call, the funders objected to the conclusions in the report—conclusions justified by the field research of two professional researchers who carried out site visits at colleges and universities in several states.

I refused to make the changes demanded by the funding foundation board of directors.

Ramos then hired (without my knowledge or consent) a “managing editor” whose job it was to carry out the inappropriate and unethical demands of the foundation directors.

When I pushed back and objected to the changes being made by the new Managing Editor, Mr. Ramos said I would be fired if I did not agree to let the new Managing Editor make editorial decisions that conflicted with mine.

Whole sections of the report were then substantially altered or cut over my objections.

Ramos and the managing editor then decided unilaterally which appendices and online materials would appear on the PRA Website.

I was no longer in charge of the project and had no right to a final edit. The outcome was that the study published by PRA was censored by the funder for being too sympathetic to Muslims–and it was Mr. Ramos who carried out the censorship and revisions.

Over my objections my name was used as the overall author of the report.

While I was employed at PRA the treatment of Mr. Kaoma by Mr. Ramos became increasingly inappropriate, disrespectful, and abusive. When I and other staff members (both individually and collectively) complained to Mr. Ramos that such behavior toward any staff was inappropriate, Mr. Ramos told us to “back off.”

Based on information and belief, I have learned that the Board of Directors of Political Research Associates, and its Executive Director, Mr. Ramos, are influenced by what I consider to be a political cult based on the work of the late Noel Ignatiev, a brilliant and respected scholar and activist, who undoubtedly would object to such inappropriate adoration. This in part may explain the shameful treatment of the Reverend Kapya J. Kaoma by Mr. Tarso Luis Ramos.

= = =

The affiant, Chip Berlet (John F. Berlet), has nothing further to add to this document at this time….






An Open Letter to Tarso Ramos of Political Research Associates

An Open Letter to Tarso Ramos of Political Research Associates”
“Please just apologize to your former employee Rev. Kapya Kaoma”
Dear Tarso,

Please just apologize to your former employee Rev. Kapya Kaoma for the improper publication of his book . Kapya  is an Episcopal priest. he would just forgive you your trespasses. He is busy with a new career as the rector of Christ Church in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Then just ask Kapya to drop the lawsuit by the National Writers Union.
We all need all the energy we have to fight fascism and Trumpism.

Chip Berlet
Former Senior Analyst at and Co-Founder of
Political Research Associates



Myth #10. The Legendary Tirade of Louis T. McFadden

Myth #10. The Legendary Tirade of Louis T. McFadden

Louis T. McFadden was a member of the House of Representatives in the twenties and thirties and is one of the heroes of the Federal Reserve conspiracy theorists.  A Republican from Canton, Pennsylvania, he was the chair of the House Banking and Currency Committee during the twenties, but was merely a Committee member by 1932.  He used his position in Congress occasionally to crusade against the Federal Reserve, a stance Gary Kah implies may have cost McFadden his life.

On June 10, 1932 the House was debating a bill which would would expand the types of securities the Federal Reserve could trade when conducting monetary policy.  McFadden used this opportunity to launch a twenty-five minute tirade against the Federal Reserve, and in so doing became a legendary champion amongst conspiracy theorists.  However, just because a claim appears in the Congressional Record does not necessarily mean it is true.  McFadden began…

Mr. Chairman, we have in this country one of the most corrupt institutions the world has ever known.  I refer to the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal reserve banks.  The Federal Reserve Board, a Government board, has cheated the Government of the United States out of enough money to pay the national debt. The depredations and the iniquities of the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal reserve banks acting together have cost this country enough money to pay the national debt several times over. This evil institution has impoverished and ruined the people of the United States; has bankrupted itself, and has practically bankrupted our Government.  It has done this through defects of the law under which it operates, through the maladministration of that law by the Federal Reserve Board and through the corrupt practices of the moneyed vultures who control it.1

Once the hyperbole and histrionics are deducted, there is little remaining of substance in the above quotation.  McFadden makes the claim that the Federal Reserve had cost the federal government enough money to “pay the national debt several times over.”  Is he correct?

Disbursements of Federal Reserve Net Income, 1914-1931 (in millions)
                        Total Revenues              $970.7                         Net Expenses                 363.3                                                    ——-                         Net Income                   607.4

Distribution of Net Income:                            Paid as dividends         102.0                            Payments to Treasury      147.1                            Retained by Fed           358.3

Source: Annual Report, 1995, Board of Governors, p. 358.

In this table we see that from 1914 to 1931 the Federal Reserve system collectively earned profits totaling $607 million.  About $102 million was distributed to member banks as dividends, and about $147 million was paid to the Treasury as a “franchise tax.” The Federal Reserve banks kept the remaining $359 million.  The national debt in 1932 was $19.5 billion, so even if the Federal Reserve had been paying all its profits to the government during this time, it would have been enough to pay only 3 percent of the national debt — a far cry from McFadden’s “several times over.”4  Moreover, the Federal Reserve’s total revenues for the period were $971 million, so if the entirety of the System’s revenues had gone straight to the Treasury, it still would not have been sufficient to make McFadden’s claim even remotely accurate.

McFadden then covered a wide variety of topics related to the Federal Reserve Board.  He accused it of assisting Trotsky’s efforts during the Russian Revolution, of being controlled by international bankers, of debasing the currency, and of many other fascinating transgressions.  He also invoked the testimony of Father Charles E. Coughlin, the Catholic priest who would later become famous for his radio broadcasts in support of Hitler’s National Socialist agenda.

We can study the accuracy of these claims, as well.  The first one is new to me, and I have not the slightest idea whether it is true, although given that McFadden had trouble with a claim which could be easily verified, it seems wise to invoke skepticism on his more fantastic accusations.  Generally, this accusation is consistent with the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” originally published in 1903 in czarist Russia.  It is supposed to be an “internal” document proving the alleged international Jewish conspiracy, but it is now known to have been a hoax.2  Henry Ford popularized translations of it into English in the 1920s and this may have been McFadden’s source.  The second claim is false, as I show in my article, Do Foreigners Own the Fed?  The claim that the Fed debased the currency is also false.  To “debase” a currency means to reduce its purchasing power, which happens when the general level of prices rises over time.  This is usually caused by excessive growth of the money supply, yet in 1932 the price level was lower than it was in 1914, indicating that the opposite of a debasement had occurred.

McFadden also made some important and accurate arguments.  During his speech on the House floor, he stated,

From the Atlantic to the Pacific our country has been ravaged and laid waste by the evil practices of the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal reserve banks and the interests which control them … This is an era of economic misery and for the conditions that caused that misery, the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Reserve banks are fully liable.1

What did McFadden mean by “economic misery?”  They year he spoke, 1932, was the very worst time of the Great Depression.  The unemployment rate was approaching 25 percent of the labor force, which to this day stands as record for the U.S. economy.  Homelessness, deprivation, and starvation, usually reserved for the ultra-poor in this country, were now stalking millions of former members of the middle class.  “Economic misery” was an understatement.Most economic historians would agree with McFadden that the policies of the Fed during this period were the primary cause of the Depression.  A mild recession in the summer of 1929 turned into a banking panic after the stock market crash in October of that year.  Banks, which owned stocks and made loans to customers for the purpose of acquiring stocks, suddenly found a large  portion of their assets nearly worthless as a result of the crash.  Many of them began to fail, taking with them the deposits of millions of families (at the time there was no deposit insurance).

This sort of thing had happened many times before, but the Federal Reserve was created in 1913 in part to mitigate its effects as the banking system’s “lender of last resort.”  In the midst of the first severe wave of bank failures in 1930, the Fed was deadlocked on what to do, eventually deciding to do nothing. Several more waves of bank failures followed and the Depression was well underway.  Thus, the crisis can reasonably be blamed on the erroneous policies of the Federal  Reserve Board (The classic book, A Monetary History of the United States by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, provides a detailed accounting of the Fed’s internal policy debates during this critical time).

In my view, however, McFadden goes too far in terming the Fed’s policies as “evil” or its consequences deliberate.  As Friedman and Schwartz showed, the Fed essentially made an honest error in judgment.  There is absolutely no evidence that the Federal Reserve intended to create the Great Depression.  Such a motive would have made no sense from the Fed’s point of view.  The Depression created a highly unstable economic and political environment.   Why would it have intentionally created the sort of conditions that would have seriously endangered its own existence?

Finally, after McFadden’s twenty-five minutes of ranting had expired, Senator Benjamin Strong of Kansas commented on the oratory he had just heard:

There is a disease that afflicts mankind which is very vicious. It warps the judgment, it narrows the vision, it even causes men to see red, to make mountains out of mole hills.  This disease has sometimes been referred to as B.A.  Ladies may refer to it as “tummy” ache, but out in the wide-open spaces men call it the “belly” ache, and I know of no man of my acquaintance that has this disease in so violent a form as the gentleman from Pennsylvania, Mr. McFadden.I have not the time to refer to the many charges he makes against the Federal Reserve system, but I call attention to the fact that for 12 years he has been the chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee of this House and did not see fit during that time to remedy any of the evils of which he now complains. It seems to me entirely out of place to wait until he is retired as chairman of that great committee and then assault all of the institutions of which it has control.


Strong’s statement suggested that McFadden’s rant was little more than political bluster.  If McFadden had really been the anti-Fed crusader some people today make him out to have been, then why did he not do anything about the Fed when he had the chance?  More likely, he was making political points with his constituents by placing blame for the Great Depression at the door of the Federal Reserve.  While this may have been justifiable, he went too far by implying the Fed intended to wreck the economy.



1. Congressional Record, June 1, 1932 to June 11, 1932, U.S. Government Printing Office.

2. Johnson, George (1983). Architects of Fear. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

3. Kah, Gary (1991). EnRoute to Global Occupation.  Layfayette, La.: Huntington House Publishers.

4. Office of the Public Debt, U.S. Treasury Department.

[Read more from McFadden on a conspiracist website]

Myth #9: President Kennedy was assassinated because he tried to usurp the Federal Reserve’s power. Executive Order 11,110 proves it.

Presidential Executive Order 11,110 is quite infamous among conspiracy buffs.  Jim Marrs, author of Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy, writes that the order instructs the Treasury secretary to issue about $4.2 billion in silver certificates as a form of currency in place of Federal Reserve Notes.1  Written by John F. Kennedy, Marrs also speculates this order was part of a larger plan by Kennedy to reduce the influence of the Federal Reserve by giving the Treasury more power to issue currency.  The order wassigned June 4, 1963.  A few months later, of course, Kennedy was killed, and conspiracy theorists hypothesize a link between the murder and E.O. 11,110.  They argue that the Federal Reserve was somehow involved in the assassination to protect its power over monetary policy.

The executive order modifies a pre-existing order issued by Harry Truman in 1951.  E.O. 10,289 states “The Secretary of the Treasury is hereby designated and empowered to perform the following-described functions of the President without the approval, ratification, or other action of the President…”   The order then lists tasks (a) through (h) which the Treasurer can now do without bothering the President.  None of the powers assigned to the Treasury in E.O. 10,289 relate to money or to monetary policy.  Kennedy’s E.O. 11,110 then instructs that

SECTION 1. Executive Order No. 10289 of September 9, 1951, as amended, is hereby further amended (a) By adding at the end of paragraph 1 thereof the following subparagraph (j):'(j) The authority vested in the President by paragraph (b) of section 43 of the Act of May 12, 1933, as amended (31 U.S.C. 821(b)), to issue silver certificates against any silver bullion, silver, or standard silver dollars in the Treasury not then held for redemption of an outstanding silver certificates, to prescribe the denominations of such silver certificates, and to coin standard silver dollars and subsidiary silver currency for their redemption,’ and (b) By revoking subparagraphs (b) and (c) of paragraph 2 thereof.

SECTION 2. The amendments made by this Order shall not affect any act done, or any right accruing or accrued or any suit or proceeding had or commenced in any civil or criminal cause prior to the date of this Order but all such liabilities shall continue anymay be enforced as if said amendments had not been made.

John F. Kennedy, THE WHITE HOUSE, June 4, 1963.

To understand exactly what Kennedy’s order was trying to do, we must understand the purpose of the legislation which gave the order its underlying authority.  The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (ch. 25, 48 Stat 51) to which Kennedy refers permits the President to issue silver certificates in various denominations (mostly $1, $2, $5, and $10) and in any total volume so long as the Treasury has enough silver on hand to redeem the certificates for a specific quantity and fineness of silver and that the total volume of such currency does not exceed $3 billion. The Silver Purchase Act of 1934 (ch. 674,48 Stat 1178) also grants this power to the Treasury Secretary subject to similar limitations.  Nowhere in the text of the order is a quantity of money mentioned, so it is unclear how Marrs arrived at his $4.2 billion figure. Moreover, the President could not have authorized such a large issue because it would have exceeded the statutory limit.2

As economic activity grew in the fifties and sixties, the public demand for low denomination currency grew, increasing the Treasury’s need for silver to back additional certificate issues and to mint new coins (dimes, quarters, half-dollars). However, during the late fifties the price of silver began to rise and reached the point that the market value of the silver contained in the coins and backing the certificates was greater than the face value of the money itself.2

To conserve the Treasury’s silver needs, the Silver Purchase Act and related measures were repealed by Congress in 1963 with Public Law 88-36.  Following the repeal, only the President could authorize new silver certificate issues, and no longer the Treasury Secretary. The law, signed by Kennedy himself, also permits the Federal Reserve to issue small denomination bills to replace the outgoing silver certificates (prior to the act, the Fed could only issue Federal Reserve Notes in larger denominations). The Treasury’s shrinking silver stock could then be used to mint coins only and not have to back currency. The repeal left only the President with the authority to issue silver certificates, however it did permit him to delegate this authority. E.O. 11,110 does this by transferring the authority from the President to the Treasury Secretary.2

E.O. 11,110 did not create authority to issue new silver certificates, it only affected who could give the order. The purpose of the order was to facilitate the reduction of certificates in circulation, not to increase them. In October 1964 the Treasury ceased issuing them entirely. The Coinage Act of 1965 (PL 89-81) ended the practice of using silver in most U.S. coins, and in 1968 Congress ended the redeemability of silver certificates (PL 90-29).  E.O.  11,110 was never reversed by President Johnson and remained on the books until 1987 when there was a general cleaning-up of executive orders (E.O. 12,608, 9/9/87). However, by this time the remaining legislative authority behind E.O. 11,110 had been repealed by Congress with PL 97-258 in 1982.2

In summary, E.O. 11,110 did not create new authority to issue additional silver certificates. In fact, its intention was to ease the process for their removal so that small denomination Federal Reserve Notes could replace them in accordance with a law Kennedy himself signed.  If Kennedy had really sought to reduce Federal Reserve power, then why did he sign a bill that gave the Fed still more power?

Marrs also makes some other factual errors in his conspiracy tale that  suggest he is not very familiar with the Federal Reserve or the financial system.  He writes that a source of tension between the Federal Reserve and the Kennedy Administration was the Treasury’s desire to allow banks to underwrite state and local government bonds, thereby weakening the “dominant” Federal Reserve banks. However, such a move, which was later permitted by Congress, would not have affected the Federal Reserve system because it had never been involved in underwriting bond issues.  Marrs also claims that Kennedy signed a bill that changed the backing of small denomination currency from silver to gold to “add strength to the weakened U.S. currency.”   This is completely false.  U.S. currency has not been on the gold standard since 1934, and silver certificates, as their name suggests, had never been redeemable in anything but silver. In addition, U.S. currency was not “weak” during Kennedy’s time: There had not been any significant inflation since the late forties, and the exchange rate value of the dollar was fixed according to the Bretton Woods agreement.

In the introduction to his book, Marrs advises the reader not to trust his book.  This appears to be good advice.


1. Marrs, Jim (1989), Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

2. Woodward, G. Thomas (1996), “Money and the Federal Reserve System: Myth and Reality,” Congressional Research Service.

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George Soros and Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories

The Genealogy of the Conspiracy Theory:

I am typing as fast as I can…

The “Blood Libel” targeting Jews in Europe
Protocols of the  Elders of Zion
Henry Ford and the Dearborn Independent
Father Coughlin
Nesta Webster
US Neo-Nazi Movements
Christian Identity
Lyndon LaRouche Networks (Research Affidavit on the LaRouchites)
William Lind and Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation
Anders Breivik, Terrorism, and Right-Wing Conspiracism (Citing Lind)
Trump Supporters and the “Deep State”
Leads to -> George Soros as a target

Cultural Marxism and Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories

 Dr. James Scaminaci:

Google Search:

Chip Berlet

Mobilizing Resentment

Scripted Violence

Superhero Complex

Terrorism, Politics, Mental Illness, and Superhero Complex




Wayne LaPierre and Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories

Wayne LaPierre, ubër leader of the National Rifle Association, is calling the massive national marches against gun violence on Saturday March 24 the stealth work of “Gun-Hating Billionaires” and “Hollywood Elites.”

In doing so, LaPierre has blown a dog whistle of conspiracy theories which some members of the NRA will decode as a reference to a supposed Jewish menace of the philanthropy of George Soros and the Jewish bankers claimed to be the puppet masters behind Hollywood and the Democratic Party.

LaPierre, leader of the National Rifle Association, is known among most reporters as a gun rights fanatic. Due to gun-shy editors, however, LaPierre is generally portrayed in the corporate media as a defender of the Second Amendment.

There is a difference. Most hunters and target shooters support reasonable restrictions on gun ownership. LaPierre honed his ideological fanaticism based on the anti-government conspiratorialist claims of the Armed Militia movement of the 1990s.

After the Parkland shootings, LaPierre released a statement that accused “Democrats of pushing ‘socialist’ agenda in wake of Florida shooting.” Now he has added this loathsome dog whistle of antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Most Americans will not see or hear the antisemitic subtext. But anyone who is studied the rhetoric of antisemitism in the English language will see it clearly.

Note that antisemitic conspiracy theories traverse from the political right to the political left in today’s media and political environment. But connect the statement by LaPierre with the attempt by Trump to hire an attorney who is a notorious conspiracist crank; and Trump’s use of conspiracy theories during his Presidential campaign.

And keep an eye of Fox News, the Der Stürmer, of US media giants to see how they cover the story as it emerges. Will LaPierre become the Julius Streicher for Trump

When Silence is Deadly Cowardice in the Union Movement

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka takes a strong stand against racist thugs and Wall Street greedsters when talking to some reporters; but then he and other leaders in the AFL-CIO decided to not name Trump at their recent national convention. Apparently this was for strategic reasons.

While in DC for several meetings I spoke with workers rights advocates both inside and outside union staffs, and progressive Democratic Party activists. I kept hearing complaints that some of the same folks that steered the failed 2016 election campaign for the Democrats are leaning on unions to not take on Trump by name to somehow give Democrats an advantage in the midterm elections.

For over thirty years clueless inside-the-beltway strategists have been minimizing the growing threat of the Christian Right and White Nationalism. At the same time several unions made conscious decisions to not alert their own members about the right-wing juggernaut for fear of alienating their members who vote Republican.

I personally ran into this brick wall decades ago after being asked to brief the leadership of the National Educational Association at the recommendation of state-level staff who saw what was happening out in the field. After hearing my presentation, which included a warning that the NEA was a primary target for destruction along with the entire public school system…the NEA bigwigs decided to do nothing.

Now it looks like it is happening again.

Outside the Beltway, too many parents cannot feed their children. They cannot protect themselves and their families from verbal abuse, threats, and violence from White Supremacist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, anti-feminist, homophobic thugs. Some of those under attack are in unions.

What will it take to get those union leaders choosing “strategic” silence to see that they are turning their backs on our democracy when it is not only under siege by authoritarian bigots; but being targeted by fascists playing with fire?

The Erosion of Civil Discourse

Monday, May 30, 2005

Anna Quindlen, in her Newsweek column of May 30, writes that among the legacies of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, is that “America has become a country that sets its young people the terrible example of closed minds. The terrorists want to kill infidels. We only aim to silence them.” Quindlen bemoans the fact that America has been “hijacked by those who cannot tell the difference between opponents and enemies, between disagreement and heresy, between discussion and destruction.”

As a country that aspires to be a constitutional democracy, this is more than just bad news. Democracy requires the type of informed consent that can only be achieved through vibrant and often tumultuous debate. Closed minds slam shut the door of civil discourse and block the path to civil society.

Oppose the war in Iraq and we become traitors. Challenge the increase in political repression and the decrease in civil liberties and we are allies of the terrorists. Call for basic human rights in the treatment of prisoners and we are soft on crime. Ask that immigrants and undocumented workers be treated fairly and we are throwing open our borders to criminals. Suggest that access to abortion is an integral part of reproductive rights for women and we become baby killers. Protest the demonization and scapegoating of gay people and we want to destroy the sanctity of marriage. Suggest that religious supremacy is toxic to pluralist democratic society and we spit in the face of God.

At the root of this problem is the wedding of dualistic demonization and moral supremacy. It’s not just the dualism of “I’m right and your wrong.” It raises the stakes to “I’m the guardian of the morality and the society that you seek to destroy for evil purposes.” That’s a box that’s hard to get out of. What sane person would debate the devil incarnate?

This paradigm is operational in both religious and secular spheres of society, from the speeches of our President and certain Congressional leaders, to the guiding lights of the Christian Right, to television talk shows, to the lack of debate on college campuses. I tend to see dualistic demonization most frequently used as a tool of the Political Right. When I see it used by the Political Left, I think it needs to be opposed as well.

If we want to preserve the idea of democratic civil society, we all need to agree to certain ground rules regarding the boundaries of acceptable civil discourse. I don’t mean good manners. Non-violent civil disobedience may be bad manners to some, but it is one of the tools democratic civil society needs to protect. I mean claiming the intent of my opponent is evil and destructive. I have no problems seeing evil in the world, nor in arguing that the outcome of certain policies would be destructive. But when any of us assumes our opponent is inherently evil and intentionally seeks to destroy all that is good–we have driven a nail through the heart of democracy.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Dissidents or Extremists?

When we lump together all political candidates and movements outside the “mainstream” as “extremists” of the left and right we are not only stifling a potentially valuable debate, but also using a theoretical model that has been seriously challenged in academia during the last 20 years. After World War II a number of scholars looked at the popular appeal of fascism and communism and concluded that mass movements threatened the stability of society. Shocked by the acquiescence of most Germans to the Nazi genocide of Jews and liquidation of other groups, these scholars saw warning signs in the Red Scare of the McCarthy Period, the Presidential campaign of ultraconservative Republican Barry Goldwater, Jr., and the Populist Party movement of the late 1800s. The scholars concluded that people swept along by social movements were psychologically-dysfunctional grumblers who couldn’t play by the rules of democracy, and instead turned to irrational behavior to make their voices heard. The idea that extremists of the left and right threatened society was a dominant frame in sociology and the other social sciences until the mid 1970s.

I was not a neutral observer. I joined the Civil Rights movement through my Presbyterian Church youth group while I was in high school in the mid 1960s. When I went to college it was clear that many young sociologists were unhappy with the idea that people who joined mass movements were psychologically dysfunctional extremists (or “wing nuts”) on the fringes of the political system. Many of us had joined these movements. An increasing number of sociologists became participant-observers of various left-wing social movements that cascaded out of the civil rights struggle: student rights, the movement against the war in Vietnam, women’s rights, the ecology movement, farm worker rights, gay rights. In part because more academics were actively involved in these movements of dissent, a new set of social movement theories emerged in sociology that looked at participants in social movements as intelligent and rational people with shared grievances. As dissident activists they sought social change through demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of mass organizing outside the boundaries of typical electoral or legislative campaigns.

Eventually I dropped out of college to be a full-time left-wing social movement participant, and spent time as a journalist in the underground/alternative media of the 1970s. I am still a progressive political activist, and it is still my job to convince you that my ideological goals are worthwhile and my policies would benefit the common good, but if I do that by unfairly labeling my opponents using stereotypes, demonization, or scapegoating, then I am cheating. These techniques are toxic to a democratic process.

As I became a serious analyst of right-wing social and political movements, I returned to scholarly analysis using sociology and social movement theory. While most of the groups and movements originally studied using this scholarly lens were on the political left, an increasing number of scholars used this lens to look at the political right. Among the early authors who studied the political right using social movement theories were Sara Diamond, Kathleen Blee, Jerome Himmelstein, and Rebecca Klatch. Now there are scores serious books on right-wing movements such as Rick Perlstein’s excellent book on the Goldwater campaign or Lisa McGirr’s illuminating study of the suburban roots of the New Right.

The picture of social movements that has emerged is complex. There are a wide range of ideologies and methodologies. Skillful leaders mobilize resources, test the political opportunities opened and closed by the state, frame ideas in ways that resonate with broader populations, and develop cultures that support and energize participants. At the same time, movement participants often ignore the proclamations of their leaders and pick and choose among various policy positions. Some movements institutionalize themselves with social movement organizations such as national headquarters, think tanks, and alternative media. Other movements never sink institutional roots and are like whirlwinds that appear suddenly in a burst of energy and dissipate leaving only memories and debris.

A central question we must ask when we look at any dissident social movement is whether it is ultimately reformist or revolutionary. We need to recognize that the First Amendment protects calls for revolution that are rhetorical and not part of an active conspiracy to overthrow the government. And we need to understand that populist reform-oriented dissident movements on the left and right are situated between revolutionary groups and mainstream electoral political movements. These are important concepts for ensuring respect for civil liberties.

All too often government agencies decide that the way to find terrorists or other protestors engaged in criminal acts is to send swarms of infiltrators and agents into dissident mass movements. This is a bad idea no matter whether the target is on the left or right. It chills free speech and disrupts constitutionally protected political activity. Labeling all dissidents as “extremists” can lead citizens into ignoring abuses of government power. Even the label “terrorist” has been overused. Vandalism is not terrorism. Non-violent civil disobedience is not terrorism. Today, if a follower of the non-violent methods used by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose to highlight a call for political reform by kneeling down to pray in the crosswalk of a busy intersection in Washington, D.C., they would fit one definition of terrorism circulated by the Justice Department.

Spin-doctors and political strategists use the term “extremism” as a hyperbolic rhetorical frame of reference to demonize their opposition by sticking labels on them. This shrill strategy shifts political debate away from a candidate’s policies, plans, goals and vision of the future—ideas that could help form the basis of informed consent for a voter in a democratic society. It also marginalizes the type of populist political dissent and creative opposition to the status quo that makes a society flexible enough to meet the challenges the future always delivers. It is time to rehabilitate dissent and reject labels that demonize dissenters and unfairly lump together all social and political movements outside the current—and temporary—political center.

Adapted from Yale Politic magazine, February 2005.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

That word: “Extremism”

The rhetoric used by some sincere and well-meaning human relations groups—”extremists of the left and right,” “religious political extremists,” “radical religious right,” etc. — can actually unintentionally undermine civil liberties, civil rights, and civil discourse by demonizing dissent and veiling the complicity we all share in institutionalized forms of oppression in our society: racism, sexism, heterosexism, antisemitism, Arabophobia, and Islamophobia.

In the 1960s the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at first bristled at being labeled an “extremist” by a group of clergy upset with his brand of activism. King’s response was contained in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

King wrote that he considered the label, and then realized that in their respective days, the Biblical Amos, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson had all been thought of as extremists by mainstream society. King responded, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

Two issues are raised by King’s clever reversal of the attack on him as an “extremist.”

First is that the term “extremist” has only relative meaning in terms of how far outside the “mainstream” norms of society a particular idea or act is located by some observer who claims a “centrist” position.

Second, King suggests it is important to determine whether any idea or action labelled as “extremist” defends or extends justice, equality, or democracy—or whether it defends or extends unfair power or privilege.

Ultimately, the concept of “extremism” is of little value in discussing prejudice, ethnocentrism, or the Christian Right. Sociologist Jerome Himmelstein argues the term “extremism” is at best a characterization that “tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels,” and at worst the term “paints a false picture.”

Some analysts use the term “extremism” in a way that implies that ideas and methodologies are always linked. This is not the case. We need to separate ideology from methodology. King’s ideas may have been outside the mainstream for his day, but he promoted non-violence; and while civil disobedience often involves a minor criminal act, it is not the same as an act of terrorism.

Given the way the term “extremist” is sometimes used, it can serve as a justification for state action that is repressive and undermines Constitutional guarantees. We need to use terms that are more precise.

Calling the Christian Right “extremists” tends to lump them together with members of organized hate groups. That’s a real problem, especially since most people in the Christian Right would willingly join in a coalitions to confront racist and antisemitic hate groups.

One of the reasons the term “religious political extremists” was picked, was that people tended to think the term covered everyone from conservative Christian evangelicals to armed neonazi terrorists. That’s just plain wrong. It’s time to stop using this type of language.

Adapted from Chip Berlet, (2004), “Mapping the Political Right: Gender and Race Oppression in Right-Wing Movements.” In Abby Ferber, ed, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. New York: Routledge.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Stop Labeling and Start Organizing!

More than a decade ago I sat in a conference room in Washington D.C. and was told I had to start using the phrase “religious political extremist.” This was the new way for people on the political left to frame our opponents on the political right. It made me unhappy. I already had problems with language such as “radical religious right,” “lunatic fringe,” and “wing-nut.” This new phrase just seemed wrong to me.

I’m uncomfortable when I hear people of sincere religious faith described as religious political extremists. What does that term mean? I worry that many people hear it as a term of derision that says we’re good and they’re bad. There is no topical content. It’s a label that says folks are outside the mainstream; and it lumps together leaders and followers, and blurs distinctions within the Christian Right that I think are important. Most conservative Christian evangelicals do not want to impose a theocracy on our country. I’d like to be able to talk to them about the issue of Christian dominionism within the Christian Right.

Polls show that most people in the United States do not agree with the narrow legislative agenda of the leaders of the Christian Right. Polls also show that most people think of themselves as part of an organized religion, and that as many as 100 million of our neighbors think of themselves as Christian evangelicals or “born again.” Why would an organizer start out by offending half their potential audience with language that is abrasive?

We need to challenge conservative policies as part of a progressive grassroots organizing effort based on civil and constructive dialog. The whole idea of grassroots organizing is to reach out to people who may not already think they agree with you. As a community organizer, when I heard discussions about slogans, I always asked: “What’s my next line?”

Let’s role-play. So here I am knocking on a door in Emporia, Kansas, and when the door opens I lead with “We have to stop the religious political extremists!” What’s my next line? (That’s assuming my nose wasn’t broken when the door was slammed in my face). Unless the person already agrees with me, there is no constructive next line.

I think it’s time to stop using phrases such as “religious political extremist” and “radical religious right.” A lot of my friends and allies use this language, but what are friends for if they can’t tell you when they think you are wrong? I also think that we should be asking folks in the Christian Right to stop pasting labels on those of us who are liberal or progressive. I’m an equal opportunity curmudgeon.

Over the next few days I will be expanding my arguments for this position.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Democracy is a Process

Democracy is a process that involves several components, all of which are necessary, but none of which is sufficient. This is how it works.

The majority of people,
Over time,
Given access to enough accurate information,
And the ability to participate in a free and open debate,
Reach decisions that will,
-Benefit the whole of society,
-Preserve liberty,
-Extend equality,
-Protect freedom, and
-Defend democracy.

Not all the time, and sometimes there are periods of backsliding–or much worse. And if the information is fraudulent propaganda, then the decisions are skewed. But if you don’t think this process works, then you don’t really believe in a democracy.

Democracy scares me sometimes, but that’s OK. Democracy is messy and chaotic.

The title of a recent book by sociologist Francesca Polletta on progressive social movements was titled Freedom is an Endless Meeting. That’s the joke line from 60’s civil rights activists who turned around the slogan “Freedom is an Endless Struggle”—probably while sitting in a meeting.

The point is, democracy takes work, and it is participatory or it is not real democracy.

That’s what this blog is going to talk about.

Investing in Ideas

Friday, June 17, 2005

For over thirty years conservative and right-wing foundations and funders have invested in ideas. They have poured over $2 billion into creating a right-wing network and infrastructure, and used that to build a large political machine and a huge populist mass base.

These funds have been spread across a range of ideologies and identities. Business conservatives, Christian evangelicals, libertarians, neoconservatives, military interventionists, anti-union activists, moral traditionalists, and others have been funded to pursue the ideas that facilitate action in the political and social arenas.

Most liberal and progressive foundations refuse to fund basic research, think tanks, alternative media, publishing, and conferences. That’s exactly what conservative and right-wing funders have targeted in a strategic way. And by funding a range of conservative ideas, it is now possible to hear a radio debate on some policy issue where there are three views from the political right, one liberal, and no progressives. That’s balance.

There is nothing new in this complaint. In the mid 1990s activist leader Suzanne Pharr asked Loretta Ross and me to help pull together some progressive strategy sessions at the Blue Mountain conference center in upstate New York. After one meeting we sent a delegation down to New York City to meet with representatives of over one dozen foundations and funders to explain how the political right had invested in the struggle over ideas. We talked about Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, and the importance of being able to field-test slogans, frames, and different ways of explaining ideas and telling stories.

We explained how right-wing funders had shifted away from short-term project grants toward unrestricted grants over many years to guarantee and enhance the survival rate of right-wing think tanks and alternative media. We explained how an echo chamber had been created for conservative and right-wing arguments to challenge progressive and liberal theories and goals. We explained how we were being outmaneuvered. We explained that we were losing. We explained what would happen if we continued to lose in terms of the attack on gay rights, women’s rights, and immigrant rights. We explained that racism and xenophobia would continue to be rebuilt as acceptable public positions. To be fair, a few funders shifted their focus. Most did not.

The Institute for First Amendment Studies, which monitored boycotts by the Christian Right among other things, went under. The reproductive rights magazine Body Politic stopped publishing. The human rights group Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity (itself a merger of two groups) ceased operations.

In the mid 1990s groups such as People for the American Way shifted focus to monitoring legislative and political maneuvers by conservatives in the nation’s capital. This is an important task, but groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, and Political Research Associates (where I work) could not raise the funds to hire more research staff to monitor and analyze the slew of right-wing campaigns being generated by the well-funded right-wing infrastructure.

In the early 1990s there were three progressive researchers who produced books and articles about the rise of the political right and the ascendancy of conservative Christian evangelicals into the political system: Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, and Fred Clarkson. Not one of them could make a living writing about the rise of the right. Compare them to Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, and the swarm of right-wing ideologues financed with stipends, grants, and fellowships to do research and write about the political scene.

A real democracy requires the type of informed consent that emerges as many competing ideas struggle for acceptance in the public square. In the culture war, one side has been disarmed.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Skepticism or Cynicism?

This past weekend my wife and I traveled to Williams College to attend the graduation of our niece, Abby. The main commencement speaker was Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for the New York Times. The speech was an impressive display of public speaking that matches Friedman’s reputation as a top notch writer. Williams College Commencement 2005

I say this, despite the fact that what Friedman writes in his columns generally drives me crazy. I could provide a big list of my complaints as a journalist on the political left, but instead let me quote from Friedman on what is the heart of real journalism:

“Always remember, there is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. Too many journalists, and too many of our politicians, have lost sight of that boundary line….there [is] a big difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible, but always being open to being persuaded of a new fact or angle. Cynicism is about already having the answers — or thinking you do — answers about a person or an event. The skeptic says, ‘I don’t think that’s true; I’m going to check it out.’ The cynic says: ‘I know that’s not true. It couldn’t be. I’m going to slam him….’ Always remember, real journalists are not those loud mouth talking heads you see on cable television.”

On this matter Friedman and I are in total agreement. I know journalists across the political spectrum who see journalism as a craft that demands adherence to a set of principles. Fairness and accuracy for starters.

For over ten years I have been teaching a summer course on “Strategic Research, Analysis and Reporting” at Z Magazine’s summer institute; a course developed and taught over the years along with progressive journalists Holly Sklar, & Abby Scher. This coming weekend I head down to Wood’s Hole on Cape Cod to teach another session. Here’s how we traditionally open the class:

“Progressives have a long and proud tradition of muckraking, and there are plenty of role models such as Ida M. Tarbell, Nellie Bly, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, I.F. Stone, Rachel Carson, Alan Nairn, Deborah Nelson, Laura Washington, Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, Frederick Clarkson, Trudy Lieberman and many more. If you haven’t heard of one or more of these journalists, get acquainted with their lives and work by doing your own research.”

We assume many of these names are unfamiliar to the mostly young audience, and hope they poke around and learn about their predecessors. All of these investigative journalists were skeptics, not cynics. Some could be acerbic or even harsh, but underneath the bravado was a clear sense that the point of their work was to make society a better place to live.

Skepticism helps us fix what is wrong with our society. Cynicism leads us to question if it is worth the effort. As we embrace skepticism, we need to reject–and criticize–cynicism.