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Despite Fox News coverage, right wing conference not so scalding

Published: April 30, 2010
Section: Front Page

tea party: Political analyst Chip Berlet presents his paper “From Tea Parties to Militias” at Wednesday’s New Right Wing Radicalism Conference.
PHOTO BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

Political analyst Chip Berlet distinguished the differences between the American Tea Party movement and neo-Nazis at a conference Wednesday that had received attention from right-leaning media outlets concerned Berlet would conflate the two.

To read more on the media surrounding the conference see this page.

The New Right-Wing Radicalism Conference, sponsored by Brandeis’ Center for German and European Studies, was meant to primarily focus on neo-Nazism in Europe, with only three of eight papers presented discussing the United States. The conference was brought to the attention of Boston talk show host Michael Graham late last week when a Brandeis student sent him an e-mail with a photograph of a poster used to advertise the event which included a swastika. The story was then picked up by Fox News and was discussed by TV personalities Glenn Beck and Megyn Kelly.

All three were concerned that the event would falsely connect the Tea Party to neo-Nazis.

These concerns proved un-founded, as Berlet explicitly stated near the end of his talk.

“The claim that we would exploit the agony of the Holocaust for personal gain and agrandeizment is offensive to this conference, to the Brandeis community, and every decent person on the planet,” he said. “I have explicitly said before and I will say it again that the Tea Party is not an extremist group, nor is it a racist group. It is a legitimate political movement that deserves to be treated with respect.”

“People have a tendency to lump the Tea Party and neo-Nazis together because Hitler manipulated the middle class fear to get them to vote for him and thus legitimize him,” he said. “There are parallels between the movements in that example alone. The Tea Party is not a racist movement.”

Berlet also expressed similar viewpoints in a column that ran on the Huffington Post Thursday in which he called the media attention “a hoax.”

Those attending the conference were met with increased security when they arrived. The 120 people in attendance, including some Tea Partiers, were each handed tickets upon entering the International Lounge in the Usdan Student Center and were not allowed to bring backpacks into the room.

In his talk, Berlet described the demographics of Tea Party.

“The Tea Party movement is a largely mainstream demographic group,” he said. “it is a little more white, a little more better off, and a little more educated than the average American. But for the most part Tea Party members reflect the areas they live in.”

Though the movement had gained a large following, Berlet said it has yet to “gel as a social movement,” which makes its future unclear.

“People who say they know where the Tea Party is going don’t know what they are talking about,” he said. “All social movements don’t make sense to each other and don’t have a concrete platform.”

Despite this, Berlet chided liberals who are quick to dismiss the movement as a joke.

“Liberals have this idea that elite Republicans had this idea of ‘let’s create a Tea Party’ and that this is a fake grass roots movement,” he said. “It’s true this started as an Astroturf party, but within months it became a legitimate thing. When people say the movement doesn’t really exist and it’s a lot of hot air, there is no evidence that that’s true.”

“There is not a shred of evidence that says the people who join the extreme right wing are any more crazy or less intelligent than the rest of America,” Berlet said.

Berlet attributed the tendency of liberals to make fun of the Tea Party to two ideas within the party; “unplugging grandma” and “Obama is a socialist.”

According to Berlet, both of these ideas have roots in legitimate sources in the history of conservative discourse. The idea of “unplugging grandma” links back to the 1970s when conservatives opposing the legalizing of abortion argued that abortion was the first step toward euthinasia.

“This was a big thing used to bring Protestants into the anti-abortion movement,” Berlet said.

As for the idea that “Obama is a socialist,” Berlet said that though the current academic mainstream sees the connection between Hitler and Stalin to be totalitarianism, in the 1940s a large sect of political scientists saw the connection to be “Big government.” Berlet said the remnants of that school of thought are still alive in the Tea Party today.

“The media is ignorant for laughing at these things,” Berlet said. “They might not be in accordance with what we believe now, but at one point these ideas were very mainstream, and are no less legitimate now, even if you don’t agree with them.”

Berlet’s presentation was during the second half of the conference. The first half consisted of five professors who discussed neo-Nazism in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Topics of the first panel included the struggle in Germany to ban the National Democratic Party, the efforts of neo-Nazis to inject themselves into the mainstream, and the reasons behind Germany’s strict hate speech laws.

Graham, who had expressed his outrage at the conference before Wednesday, attended the second panel discussion devoted to the United States and reported about it on Fox News at 6:30 Thursday morning.

In an interview with The Hoot Graham said that, “I appreciated them making the distinction between the Tea Party and the neo-Nazis, but I don’t understand why the Tea Party was even part of a symposium where everything else was about neo-Nazis.”

“It’s like serving a seafood dinner with steak to prove that steak is not seafood,” he said. “[Brandeis] should be embarrassed that they did this.”

Professor Sabine von Mering (GRALL), who organized the conference, said she would not comment on the controversy, but that she thought the conference was “extremely successful.”

“I was pleased that after all the tension leading up to this, there was such a relaxed atmosphere,” she said.