Scapegoating and the Millennium (8/99)

The approach of the year 2000 has stimulated widespread discussion of apocalyptic fears and millennialist expectations. Yet, often lost in the discussion is the important ongoing role that specific types of apocalyptic and millennialist thinking play in shaping the demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracies used by various right-wing political and social movements.

A remarkable number of myths and symbols in Western culture flow from Christian Biblical prophecies about apocalyptic confrontations and millennial transformation. The Book of Revelation warns that the end of time is foreshadowed by a vast Satanic conspiracy involving high government officials who betray the decent and devout productive citizens, while subversive tools of the Devil gnaw away at society from below.

The anticipation of a righteous struggle against evil conspiracies has become a central apocalyptic narrative. This is certainly evident in popular films such as Armageddon and the TV series Millennium, which name the tradition while mainstreaming the ideas. Films like Mad Max and Terminator reinterpret apocalyptic visions while obscuring their origins. The X-Files film and TV series are quintessential apocalyptic narratives. Buffy the Vampire Slayer stomps incarnate evil in a weekly TV series.

What is entertainment for some, however, is spiritual and political reality for others. The irrational fear of powerful conspiracies – conspiracism – has flourished episodically throughout US history. Usually, right-wing groups have fanned apocalyptic fears to create a powerful political weapon. The results can be devastating. There have been crusades against sin, waves of government repression, and campaigns to purge alien ideas and persons. Starting in the 1620s, witch hunts swept New England for a century, and fears of Freemason or Catholic plots swept the nation in the 1800s. This century has produced allegations of a Jewish banking cabal behind the Federal Reserve, and the anticommunist purges of 1950s McCarthyism.

Could it happen again now? Holly Sklar, author of Chaos or Community: Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics, argues that it might: "The demonization of immigrants, welfare recipients, people of color, and single mothers is already tolerated to an alarming degree in mainstream political debate. Now as we head toward the millennium, we also face the rising fervor of those driven by visions of culture war and apocalypse."

Cast of Characters

Contemporary interpretations of apocalyptic millennialism can be sorted into three related, overlapping tendencies. In the view of some Christian fundamentalists, we are in the apocalyptic millennial "End Times" or "Last Days" prophesied in Revelation and other biblical books. An often secularized apocalyptic world-view of impending crisis is reflected in diverse political movements. There is also a generic sense of expectation and renewal, generated merely by the approach of the calendar year 2000, a milestone in recorded history.

These fears and expectations influence three broad, right-wing movements in the US:

  • Activists in various sectors of the Christian Right with varying views regarding whether the year 2000 marks the End Times. This includes attempts by Christian hard-liners to purify society as part of a religious revival, such as the homophobic statements by Trent Lott and advertisements calling on homosexuals to "cure" themselves. The most aggressive activists engage in theologically-motivated violence against abortion providers.
  • Right-wing populists, including survivalists, gun rights activists, anti-elite conspiracists, and participants in the Patriot and armed militia movements. Conspiracist scapegoating is rampant in this sector. A popular speaker is Robert K. Spear, who believes the formation of armed Christian communities is necessary as we approach the End Times. Preparing to survive the coming apocalypse has led to a subculture that stores food and conducts self-defense training.
  • The far right, including neo-Nazis and persons influenced by far-right versions of the Christian Identity religion. Identity beliefs were behind the assassination of Denver talk show host Alan Berg, the tragic shoot-out between federal agents and the Weaver family in Idaho, and possibly the brutal dragging death of a Black man in Jasper, Texas.

The approaching millennium creates an apocalyptic milieu in which demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism could have serious consequences. If we are to limit the potential short-term damage and understand the significance of the long-term dynamic, we need to better understand the thinking of those who live in the shadow of the Apocalypse.

Millennial Flashpoint

For most Christians, the year 2000 will be a time of celebration, reflection, and renewal. Contemporary Christian fundamentalists interpret Revelation as a prophetic warning about tumultuous apocalyptic events that herald the second coming of Christ. Most also believe that when Christ returns, he will reign for a period of 1000 years – a millennium.

Yet, the turn of the calendar doesn’t necessarily have theological significance. Norman Cohn, in The Pursuit of the Millennium, chronicles how Christian apocalyptic fervor appears at seemingly random dates. A major US episode of Christian millennialist fervor occurred among the Millerites in the 1840s. Any date in any calendar system (Judaic or Islamic, for example) can be understood as significant given the creativity of numerologists.

But the rotund numerological significance of the year 2000 has spawned diverse millennialist expectations, with apocalyptic warnings now coming from contemporary Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and New Age prophets.

Visit a large bookstore and scan the titles in the religion, prophecy, new age, and occult sections and you will see a cornucopia of books anticipating the year 2000. Surfing the Web reveals a pulsating multimedia cacophony of millennial expectation. The range of topics and style reflect what Michael Barkun has called an "improvisational style" of millennialism and apocalypticism.

Dueling Traditions

In Anti-Apocalypse, academic Lee Quinby argues, "Apocalypticism in each of its modes fuels discord, breeds anxiety or apathy, and sometimes causes panic," and that "this process can occur at the individual, community, national, or international level.

"What makes apocalypse so compelling," argues Quinby, "is its promise of future perfection, eternal happiness, and godlike understanding of life, but it is that very will to absolute power and knowledge that produces its compulsions of violence, hatred, and oppression."

Yet, not all contemporary Christian interpretations of Revelation promote demonization. Within Christianity, there are two competing views of how to interpret the Bible’s apocalyptic themes. One view identifies evil with specific persons and groups, seeking to identify those in league with the Devil. This view easily lends itself to demonization. A more positive form of interpreting apocalyptic prophecy is promoted by Christians who see evil in the will to dominate and oppress. Apocalyptic thinking, in this case, envisions a liberation for the oppressed. The two interpretations represent a deep division within Christianity.

Even some relatively conservative and orthodox Christians look to the prophetic tradition of siding with the poor and oppressed. These themes can be found in both the New and Old Testaments, in the tradition of the Social Gospel in Protestantism, and in Catholicism’s Liberation Theology. It can be found in today’s Sojourners group and the tradition of "prophetic anger" coupled with "evangelical populism." Social justice activist Daniel Berrigan uses biblical apocalyptic discourse to challenge oppression, corruption, and tyranny.

Philosopher RenĀŽ Girard argues that the New Testament can be used to help unravel scapegoating. Author and activist Cornel West identifies himself with a prophetic tradition rooted in African-American Christianity and the struggle for Black civil rights. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached from this tradition when he spoke truth to power.

In fact, some of the most vocal critics of apocalyptic demonization and conspiracist scapegoating come from within Christianity. One such critique is Gregory S. Camp’s impressive Selling Fear: Conspiracy Theories and End-Times Paranoia. Camp warns of the "very real danger that Christians could pick up some extra spiritual baggage" by credulously embracing conspiracy theories. As early as 1993, Bruce Barron wrote a stinging rebuke of apocalyptic Christian conspiracism in the Christian Research Journal when reviewing Pat Robertson’s The New World Order and Gary H. Kah’s En Route to Global Occupation.

Even skeptics can attempt to be respectful of Christianity, as is author Tim Callahan in Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? as he debunks the idea that the Bible can be used as a crystal ball. The danger comes not from Christianity, but from Christians who combine Biblical literalism, apocalyptic timetables, demonization, and oppressive prejudices.

The Logic of Oppression

The poisoned fruit of conspiracist scapegoating is baked into the American apple pie, and the ingredients include destructive versions of apocalyptic fears and millennialist expectations. This is true of the sector of the Christian Right that is consciously influenced by Biblical prophecy, or more secularized right-wing movements for which Bible-based apocalypticism and millennialism have faded into unconscious, yet influential, metaphors. To fully comprehend the subtext of many US right-wing movements, we need to review the interactive dynamics among demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism.

Demonization: It often begins with marginalization, by which targeted individuals or groups are placed outside wholesome mainstream society through political propaganda and age-old prejudice. The next step is objectification or dehumanization, labeling a person or group of people so they become perceived more as objects than as people. Dehumanization often is associated with the belief that a particular group is inferior or threatening. The final step is demonization; the person or group is seen as totally malevolent, sinful, and evil. Needless to say, it’s easier to rationalize stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and even violence against those who are dehumanized or demonized.

Demonization fuels dualism that divides the world into good versus evil with no middle ground. Dualism promotes hostility toward those who suggest coexistence, toleration, pragmatism, compromise, or mediation. James Aho observes that our notion of the enemy "in our everyday life world" is that the "enemy’s presence in our midst is a pathology of the social organism serious enough to require the most far-reaching remedies: quarantine, political excision, or, to use a particularly revealing expression, liquidation and expulsion."

Scapegoating: The ritualized transference of evil onto a demonized "other" and the expulsion of that "evil" is a familiar theme. In Western culture, the term "scapegoat" can be traced to an early Judaic ritual described in Leviticus. The term has evolved, however, to mean "anyone who must bear the responsibility symbolically or concretely for the sins of others," Richard Landes explains. "Psychologically, the tendency to find scapegoats is a result of the common defense mechanism of denial through projection."

However, you can’t directly apply a psychological model to society. As psychiatrist Susan Fisher explains, the mechanism of scapegoating within a family doesn’t necessarily work the same way as scapegoating on a social level where "the scapegoated group serves more as a metaphor."

Socially, it’s a process whereby the hostility and aggression of an angry, frustrated group are directed away from a rational explanation, and projected onto targets demonized by irrational claims of wrongdoing. As a result, the scapegoat bears the blame for causing the conflict, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of innocence and increased unity. Scapegoating can be used as a rationale to justify the retention or acquisition of unfair power and privilege.

Scapegoats are often identified by demagogues – leaders willing to use emotionally-manipulative appeals coupled with simplistic and subjective explanations. The arguments used may seem obviously artificial, but given the unresolved anger and frustration of the persons being mobilized, any attempt at explaining and perhaps resolving the conflict seems better than indifference and inaction. Demagogues often portray the scapegoat as not merely culpable but actually evil and involved in a sinister conspiracy that threatens to sabotage society.

Conspiracism: It’s very effective to mobilize mass support against a scapegoated enemy by claiming that the enemy is part of a vast, insidious conspiracy against the common good. In conspiracist discourse, the supposed conspirators serve as scapegoats for the actual social conflict.

The conspiracist world-view sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events. It makes irrational leaps of logic in analyzing factual evidence in order to "prove" connections, and constructs a closed metaphysical world-view highly resistant to criticism. By blaming a small group of individuals for vast or horrific crimes, conspiracism serves to divert attention from the institutional locus of power that drives systemic oppression, injustice, and exploitation.

In Western culture, conspiracist narratives are significantly influenced by biblical apocalyptic prophecy. In Arguing the Apocalypse, Stephen O’Leary contends that the process of demonization is central to all forms of conspiracist thinking. Leonard Zeskind argues it is impossible to analyze the contemporary political right without understanding the "all-powerful cosmology of diabolical evil." To Zeskind, conspiracy theories are "essentially theologically constructed views of events. Conspiracy theories are renderings of a metaphysical devil which is trans-historical, omnipotent, and destructive of God’s will on earth."

Many current "conspiracy theories directed against the government are part of a rhetorical strategy genuinely intended to undermine state power and government authority," notes S. L. Gardiner. But this occurs in a "metaphysical context" in which "those in control are implicated in a Manichean struggle of absolute good against absolute evil. That they are the agents of the devil is proved by the very fact that they control a corrupt system." The fear of a subversive conspiracy to create a collectivist one world government, however, spans a continuum of beliefs from religious to secular.

A Grain of Truth

There are certainly mentally-unbalanced individuals who promote paranoid-sounding conspiracist theories. However, it’s simplistic to imagine that these often anti-social people periodically join together to form large mass movements around shared goals. It is also naive to assume that power elites or government agencies are exclusively populated by paranoid leaders who see subversion behind social change and, therefore, unilaterally activate repressive state agencies.

Conspiracist scapegoating certainly involves psychological processes, but it has played an objective role as a useful social and political mechanism in actual power struggles throughout US history. Conspiracism can occur as a characteristic of mass movements, between sectors in an intra-elite power struggle, or as a justification for state agencies to engage in repressive actions. Conspiracist scapegoating appears not just on the political right but in center and left constituencies, as well. An entrenched network of conspiracy-mongering information outlets spreads dubious stories about public and private figures and institutions, using a variety of corporate and alternative media.

In highlighting conspiracist allegation as a form of scapegoating, it’s important to remember:

  • All conspiracist theories start with a grain of truth, which is then transmogrified through hyperbole and filtered through pre-existing myth and prejudice.
  • People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, which has concrete consequences.
  • Conspiracist thinking and scapegoating are symptoms, not causes, of underlying societal frictions, and shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Scapegoating and conspiracist allegations are tools that can be used by cynical leaders to mobilize a mass following.
  • Supremacist and fascist organizers use conspiracist theories as a relatively unthreatening entry point in making contact with potential recruits.
  • Even when conspiracist theories don’t center on Jews, people of color, or other scapegoated groups, they create an environment where racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice and oppression can flourish.

To be continued.

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Reseach Associates (PRA), is also on the advisory board of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. Future installments in this series, adapted from an article in PRA’s Public Eye newsletter, will focus on the evolution of conspiracism, contemporary right-wing movements, and apocalyptical millennialism.