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Popularity and Populism

Two books explore extremist movements based on personality and 'producerism.'

This August, a distinguished-looking, 65-year-old man who has described himself as a "prince of peace" walked out of federal prison after 11 years behind bars. The world should be afraid.

Just how afraid becomes clear from a reading of Brother Love: Murder, Money and a Messiah, a book by journalist Sydney P. Freedberg, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the case.

It is the harrowing tale of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the cult leader whose black supremacist Nation of Yahweh has been linked to 23 murders, including those of a temple dissident beheaded with a dull machete and several whites whose ears were hacked off as trophies.

Born in Oklahoma as Hulon Mitchell Jr., the man who later would achieve international notoriety as Yahweh Ben Yahweh attended law school, dropped out, and moved to Atlanta. He joined the black separatist Nation of Islam, becoming Hulon X, and got to know civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. to Stokely Carmichael to H. Rap Brown.

But, Freedberg writes, Mitchell left the Nation in the late 1960s after being accused of skimming money and sexual improprieties, only to resurface as one Father Michel, a.k.a. "the King," a prosperity preacher who promised miracle cures for an array of ailments.

In 1978, after a stint preaching in Oklahoma, Mitchell, now known as Brother Love, arrived in Miami, a city seething with racial tensions and black rage.

Before long, he had embraced the loosely knit Black Hebrew movement, strains of which have existed in America since the 1800s.

He wrote a book — You Are Not a N-----! Our True History; The World's Best Kept Secret; Yahweh God of Gods — and embraced increasingly supremacist theories. "God is concerned about us, the so-called Negroes only," he wrote. Caucasians were "white devils."

Black Hebrews generally believe that they, not Jews, are the descendants of the Bible's lost tribes of Israel, and that God is black. Like their counterparts on the white supremacist right, many believe that Jews are the spawn of Satan who secretly pull the strings in American society. Many expect to return one day to Israel.

Eventually, Mitchell decided he was Yahweh Ben Yahweh — "God, Son of God," in Hebrew — and began to build up his Nation of Yahweh organization, marked by the white robes and turbans worn by its members.

Along the way, as Freedberg describes it, Yahweh allegedly molested prepubescent girls as young as 10, including his own relatives; led "midwife classes" for young women that were sometimes conducted entirely in the nude; slept with a series of women associated with his Miami temple even as he made their spouses promise chastity; and performed acts on the men including gruesome amateur circumcisions.

At the same time, throughout the 1980s, the Nation grew, organizing satellite temples around the country and building up an empire of apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants, retail stores, houses and a fleet of hundreds of white-painted cars, vans and trucks — holdings Yahweh once claimed had reached $100 million.

Fund-raising quotas were imposed on members, and violators were beaten, forced to sit in steel chairs for days and had food withheld by temple enforcers.

As the Nation of Yahweh turned into more and more of a personality cult, with beatings administered to temple members and outsiders alike, a dissident group began to coalesce. Ultimately, a key dissident was kidnapped and beheaded.

Two days later, a dissident couple was attacked as they returned from telling police about the war within the temple. The man was shot dead. The woman had her throat cut in an unsuccessful beheading.

"Yahweh got them," the former Hulon Mitchell exulted, according to his nephew. "Yahweh called these n------."

The beheading, the shooting murder, an incredibly brutal mob killing of a man inside the temple, and, most remarkably, a series of grotesque murders of "white devils" whose ears were taken back to the temple as war prizes — none of it seemed to prompt decisive action from the authorities.

Even the very public firebombing of a street of houses and the terroristic takeover of a South Florida housing complex failed to provoke action against the Nation for almost a decade.

In fact, Yahweh turned himself into a civic hero. Black leaders in Miami shouted his praises, saying he was bringing discipline to the ghetto. White leaders fell over themselves to embrace the black messiah who brought such order to their troubled city.

The orgy of misplaced praise culminated on Oct. 7, 1990, which Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez christened "Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day."

A short time later, after an investigation that began more than a year before Suarez's infamous declaration, Yahweh and 15 followers were arrested and tried on federal racketeering charges.

Prosecutors said Yahweh had ordered followers to "kill for Yahweh" and had watched from the podium as a mob of 50-plus followers beat a man to death inside his "Temple of Love."

Represented by former federal Judge Alcee Hastings and helped a long by a series of dubious decisions by the judge in the case, Yahweh was found guilty only of a conspiracy charge, rather than the racketeering charge tying him to the murders. Six others were found guilty of the same charge, and the other nine were freed.

Given the often extensive testimony that Yahweh had called for the beheading of apostates, played with the severed ears, celebrated the murders and even ordered the mob killing, prosecutors were stunned.

U.S. District Judge Norman C. Roettger, Jr., had one more surprise in store. As he turned to sentence Yahweh, he said little of the destruction the "prince of peace" had wrought. "The Nation of Yahweh under the leadership of this defendant ... tried to be a good citizen," Roettger intoned as he imposed a lesser sentence.

"Thank you," an understandably grateful Yahweh replied.

Today, Yahweh Ben Yahweh is free on parole, although a judge recently called Yahweh "an extreme risk" to the community and denied his attempt to force authorities to allow him to return to leadership of the Nation of Yahweh. He will be on parole until 2008.

The Nation, meanwhile, reportedly still has some 1,000 followers, hundreds of whom attended two conferences in Montreal this spring — although, with most of the cult's property lost to creditors since Yahweh's jailing, it's not clear where its members live. That they still have money, though, is certain. The two conferences in Canada, along with a third planned for this fall, were booked at a cost of about $200,000 apiece.

In many ways, Freedberg's excellent book is a dismaying chronicle of sloppy police work, hobbled prosecution, almost incredible pandering by the Miami political establishment and black leadership and, finally, mind-blowing judicial decisions. As a reader, it is hard to know who to be angriest at.

Brother Love, documenting the metamorphosis of a personality cult into an incredibly violent hate group, ends with a quote from the black messiah that should now send chills down Americans' collective spine: "When the morning comes, we'll be ruling the earth! Won't that be a glad day? Won't that be a glad time?"

-- Mark Potok

Right-wing Populism in America:
Too Close for Comfort

By Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons
New York: Guildford, 2000, 386 pp., $21.95

It's easy to dismiss fanatical white supremacists and other far-right zealots as fringe characters who play a peripheral role in American politics. But right-wing populist movements in the United States have long been part of our nation's social fabric, and they have influenced our values and policies to a much greater extent than most people recognize.

Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons argue this case persuasively in their illuminating new study, Right-wing Populism in America: Too Close For Comfort.

Deeply rooted in American political traditions, populist movements in general are "a response to the tensions and inequities of U.S. society" which exploits anti-elite resentments by mixing reactionary and progressive-sounding appeals, the authors explain.

Fueled in large part by real grievances, such movements can follow widely divergent paths. Much depends on the extent to which they actually challenge entrenched hierarchies, or whether they demonize oppressed groups and target those who are alleged to be part of a sinister, secret cabal.

Essential to right-wing populist ideology, the authors say, is an interpretative framework known as "producerism," which posits a noble, hardworking group of middle Americans who produce the goods and create society's wealth while constantly in conflict with "parasites" at the top and the bottom of the pecking order.

The key image that comes to mind while reading this volume is that of a vise — with diligent, tax-paying producers squeezed from two sides, exploited by greedy financiers and plutocrats while at the same time being bled dry to finance dubious social programs that are wasted on an unworthy underclass of lazy ne'er-do-wells.

"The sense of being cheated undergirds the producerist worldview and provides a powerful mobilizing framework for right-wing populism," writes Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass., and Lyons, a historian. They note that the producerist model easily lends itself to scapegoating and conspiracy theories.

Accordingly, America's woes have been attributed to the machinations of "Jewish bankers" or other evil powers from on high and the shameless mooching of "welfare cheats," ethnic minorities, non-English-speaking immigrants, and assorted freeloaders from below.

Tapping into a deep vein of discontent, Klansman-turned-Republican David Duke fashioned a producerist pitch when vying for statewide political office in Louisiana in the early 1990s.

Railing against "internationalists" and "Zionists" who allegedly control the news media and dominate the U.S. government, Duke said it was "time for the white middle class or any middle class person in this country that's productive and works hard, it's time for us to say 'no,' we're not going to finance illegitimate welfare birthrates anymore."

In a chronological sweep dating back to the pre-Revolutionary era, the authors show how the producerist narrative has figured prominently in defining moments of American history, including Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, the War for Independence, the rise of Jacksonianism in the early 19th century, Ku Klux Klan terror after the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt's Progressivism, and the emergence of the Christian right and other contemporary New Right movements.

The Jacksonians, for example, are typically remembered as champions of "the common man" because they criticized banks and monopolies and helped to eliminate property requirements so that white males of all classes could vote and run for office.

But in keeping with the producerist motif, the Jacksonians also supported slavery and the mass killings of Indians, while denouncing the abolitionist movement as a British plot to undermine the United States.

Like President Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt delivered blustery diatribes against corporate monopolies. He was also aggressively white supremacist.

A leading proponent of race-suicide theory, Teddy the Rough Rider fear-mongered about how white civilization was in big trouble because of falling birthrates among white women, especially upper- and middle-class women. Echoing the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction era, President Roosevelt beseeched white America to undertake a collective renewal in the face of grave threats to the race.

In celebrating violence as a spiritual purifier, Roosevelt and the Progressive groundswell in the United States paralleled a new breed of right-wing mass movements that sprouted across Europe between 1880 and 1914.

Relying on charismatic politics and mass activism, repressive populist groups embraced a romanticized nationalism that glorified self-sacrifice, warned of cultural and physical decay, and foreshadowed the European fascist movements that emerged after the First World War.

Describing fascism as "the most virulent form of right-wing populism," the authors assert that the threat of a fascist takeover is not the main danger posed by far-right populists in America. In addition to day-to-day violence and the pervasive psychological toll from bigotry and scapegoating, the threat of right-wing populist groups lies in how they interact with other political forces and with the U.S. government.

"Such movements," Berlet and Lyons contend, "help pull the entire political spectrum to the right and make mainstream forms of brutality and injustice look more acceptable by comparison."

As the authors analyze the myriad manifestations of contemporary right-wing populism in America, another danger becomes clear. While purporting to champion the interests of "the people," right-wing populist leaders steer grassroots discontent away from positive social change by channeling anger against the weakest and most vulnerable elements in society.

After the civil rights movement peaked and the New Left began to unravel in the late 1960s, GOP strategists realized that by appropriating populist language they could harness the grievances of white middle- and working-class Americans in a manner that would ultimately further the interests of the rich, the well-born and the economically powerful.

President Ronald Reagan skillfully employed populist rhetoric to advance deceptive policies that primarily benefited wealthy elites.

By invoking anti-corporate language as they trumpet certain "leftist" themes (opposing globalization and free trade as bad for workers, for example), right-wing populist organizations hope to attract support from a broad spectrum of people who are not readily aware of their repressive agenda.

In the end, according to the authors of this important book, right-wing populism reinforces existing ills by deflecting attention away from the structural causes of economic and social injustice.

-- Martin A. Lee