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Extremism in America

One does not have to look far to be reminded that the most feared form of extremism among Americans today is that of radical Islamists.


One does not have to look far to be reminded that the most feared form of extremism among Americans today is that of radical Islamists. However, George Michael’s edited volume, Extremism in America, unveils a more colorful and diverse reality, one in which far-right anti-abortion activists operate under similar guises as extreme left radical environmentalists; where the Christian Identity Movement allies itself with “jihadists,” as a result of fanatical anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism; and where one well-known group –extremist to some– the Tea Party, attempts to infiltrate American society not with bombs but with votes. Extremism in America reminds us not of the sheer differences between extremisms but rather of their remarkable similarities. While their ideologies are undoubtedly heterogeneous, their rhetoric, tactics, and goals are nearly indistinguishable, demonstrating an utter lack of belief that their agendas can be realized within the system.

Michael’s introduction overviews the “long tradition” of political extremism in the United States, suggesting even that the nation itself was borne out of extremist ideology, with the colonists’ violent rebellion against the British. Michael likewise argues that the “ethnic cleansing” campaigns against the Native Americans, of the post-independence era, is comparable, in some fashion to white-supremacist extremism today, although I would argue that this is little more than an extension of the colonial mindset. An attempt at defining “extremism” follows, borrowing from the social deviance literature, followed by a consensus that extremist ideology is “beyond the pale” and “non-mainstream.” Finally, Michael takes a look at a rather puzzling phenomenon. While extremism is not –and never has been– uncommon in the American context, it nonetheless has never taken hold and garnered any significant support, which, according to Michael, is due in part to the form of the American political system: two-party, single member district plurality (SMDP).

A gamut of case studies follows, demonstrating the sheer breadth of American extremisms today and in the recent past. A piece on the Tea Party opens this examination, with Michael convincingly suggesting that this group, although only in its infantile stages, had roots not only back into the 1980s, but even to the 1830s, with the Anti-Masonic movement. Facilitated by recent innovations such as Fox News and the Internet, and influenced by the election of Barack Obama, many wonder if the Tea Party is “neo-Klansmen.” However, Michael falls back on his previous argument, that the American political system will stifle this divergent bunch, as well as noting that the country’s demographics are constantly shifting. Although thorough, this piece fails to provide any real theory as to how –and why– the Tea Party is still, in 2014, infiltrating the US political system through the electoral arena. As we see in the following pieces, this electoral participation is almost unheard of among American extremist groups.

A few less-than-stellar pieces follow. Zuquete’s work on anarchism attempts to draw parallels between revolutionary anarchists in America and those all over time and space. Mullroy writes of the New Black Panther Party, while Trivett explains the struggles of the little-known Chicano separatist movement in the American Southwest. Lutz and Lutz overview the current American preoccupation with Islamist extremism, illustrating a past reaching further back than 9/11, which is one often eluding common stereotypes. While innocent Arabs and Sikhs are victimized by racial and ethnic hatred and discrimination, the writers remind us that converts to Islam are oftentimes especially vulnerable to extremist tendencies and thus that radical Islamists might actually not look all that threatening – they may in fact look like ordinary Americans. This piece is particularly compelling for its evidence of an actual poverty of Islamist extremist activity in the United States, contrary to popular belief, as well as for its comprehensive overview of the history of American Islamist extremism.

While Lutz and Lutz show that the fear of Islamist extremism is relatively overblown,Winter demonstrates that antiabortion extremism is not only rampant in the United States, but even condoned, or at times supported, by politicians. In this also-compelling piece, we find the rise of the Christian Right in the post-Roe v. Wade era coinciding with the somewhat perplexing phenomenon of self-proclaimed “pro-life” individuals committing violent acts against abortion providers and activists in the form of murders, arsons, and vandalism. In a complementary piece, Liddick writes of the equally-perplexing issue of radical environmentalism and animal rights activism, of individuals who commit “ecoterror” and send envelopes full of razorblades to scientists who experiment on animals. In a sense, this ecoterrorism can be seen as the liberal equivalent of anti-abortion violence, having arisen during the same time period and utilizing analogous rhetoric. Hence, the juxtaposition of Winter’s piece with Liddick’s makes for yet another high point in this edited volume.

Michael concludes his volume by echoing yet again his dictum –that although extremism in America is common, varied, and visible, there is no risk of any of these groups taking hold of American society in the near future. Yet, he does leave us with a warning– as American demographics continue to change, extremism could become a greater threat if historic socioeconomic disparities, discrimination, and disenfranchisement are not alleviated.

If the goal of Extremism in America was to provide an introductory overview of the varying strains of extremist ideology in the United States, then this edition was successful in its intent. I believe that this book would be ideal for individuals interested in familiarizing themselves with the myriad of strains of American extremism. Yet, Extremism in America is certainly more of a casual read than an intensely scholarly one. Hence, for academics, it can provide a starting point for further research into any of these various movements, thus being of particular interest to sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, as well as historians.

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