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Fear and Loathing : We've been reading about extremist groups, but now we can read what they write themselves : EXTREMISM IN AMERICA: A Reader, Edited by Lyman Tower Sargent (New York University Press: $55 hardcover, $17.95 paperback; 380 pp.)

June 04, 1995|Katherine Dunn and Jim Redden | Katherine Dunn is a novelist and observer of social phenomena. Jim Redden is the publisher of PDXS, an alternative newspaper in Portland, Ore., and an investigative reporter who has researched extremist groups

The street in front of the White House is closed to traffic, staid commentators are in a tizzy, TV cameras are chasing talkative armed men through the woods. . . . What's going on? The political and media establishment is panicked by the sudden discovery that not all Americans approve of every aspect of their government.

The Republican victories in the November, 1994, election appalled liberal pundits and Democratic Party loyalists, who promptly denounced the GOP resurrection as if it were a terrorist attack. Then, when the murderous bombing in Oklahoma City slapped the nation with the distinct differences between metaphor and reality, the President, Congress and the mainstream media seemed shocked to discover that thousands of ordinary citizens view them as sinister enemies.

Before we are overwhelmed by the rhetoric of the 1996 presidential campaign, we need to remind ourselves that hostility toward government has been around since well before the Boston Tea Party.

Government conspiracy theories are a mainstay of popular culture. A nationally distributed magazine called "Paranoia" reports on numerous conspiracies in every issue, as does a weekly newspaper called "Contact." The popular television drama "X- Files" has as its premise an enormously complex government plot to cover up all sorts of bizarre activities by a shadowy cabal of international spooks.

The great majority of Americans believes that it is not just our right, but our duty to criticize government in all its forms. And citizens' complaints don't materialize out of thin air. Government--unintentionally and otherwise--does things to irritate people. Within memory, the federal government has withheld information from us about the Kennedy assassination, lied to us about the war in Vietnam, disgusted us with Watergate, insulted us with the Iran/Contra affair, picked our pockets with the savings and loan scandal, horrified us with the Waco fiasco--and now wonders what everybody's so mad about.

Rushing to help answer this question, New York University Press is pushing forward the publishing date of an anthology peculiarly suited for the times. "Extremism in America," edited by political scientist Lyman Tower Sargent of the University of Missouri/St. Louis, collects original source material from a broad range of fringe political groups. Read together, they may provide insight into not only the social concerns that fueled the 1994 Republican landslide but also the radical sentiments that may have led to the Oklahoma City bombing.

Sargent's book is drawn from the remarkable Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements at the University of Kansas. Compiled by Laird Wilcox, the country's unofficial archivist of volatile political movements, it includes material from about 8,000 radical and fringe organizations, including posters, flyers, pamphlets, books, newsletters, magazines, photographs, videotapes and taped and transcribed interviews.

Choosing seminal writings from dozens of organizations on the Far Right and both the Old and New Left, Sargent offers a sampling of direct, unexpurgated statements delineating the political stances of groups ranging from the right wing American Nazi Party to the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society, from the racist Aryan Nations to the Black liberation-oriented African People's Party, from ultra-conservative John Birch Society to the Communist Party of America.

Sargent has organized the tracts into chapters dealing with common themes: race relations, family values, education, taxes and so forth. The arrangement usually offers various right-wing views of the topic, followed by some representation of left-wing thinking on the same subject. Each section and group is introduced by Sargent's remarks placing the material in historical and political contexts. The writings are largely products of the last 25 years, primarily because that is the period covered by the Wilcox Collection.

As Sargent acknowledges, this anthology gives substantially more space to far-right organizations than to the left wing. The feminist presence, for example, is extremely limited. Very few black organizations are represented, and there is a notable absence of other minority groups. Sargent offers two reasons for this slant: The Wilcox Collection itself includes more far right- wing than leftist material, and, in Sargent's view, the new left has traditionally been discussed more seriously and in a more balanced fashion. The far right has more often been viewed as the ravings of a few lunatics, and is better known for what it is against than for what it supports.

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