Cultures of Twentieth-Century American Extremism

AHA Session 113
Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
Beverly F. Gage, Yale University

Session Abstract

“Cultures of 20th Century American Extremism” explores the ideologies, assumptions, and habits of mind of various organizations that have operated outside the mainstream of American political culture in the 20thCentury – in short, cultures that can reasonably be called “extreme.”  The roundtable’s emphasis is explicitly cultural:  it seeks to understand the narrative strategies and rhetorical tactics extreme groups have employed to understand themselves and the world around them. There is also a sub-theme on the role of violence in culture formation and political activism.

We feel a panel on the cultural components of domestic, violent, political extremism is an apt roundtable for AHA 2014, especially given the conference theme of debate and disagreement.  Participants will give ten-minute presentations on their respective topics of interest, and then incorporate audience questions and discussion to explore similarities and differences in the various groups’ ideologies and interventions in (or separation from) mainstream society.  Some of our animating questions will be:  what cultural longings drew individuals together into these intensely-committed communities?  What similarities existed in methods and stories?  What assumptions did they hold about modernity, society, and “mainstream America”? How did violence function in their political activism and in their forging of an enclave community? How did religion (or other transcendent ideologies) empower these groups?  What can the history of these groups teach us about American culture and society today?

The organizers have designed the roundtable to reflect political, methodological, gender, and career diversity.  The roundtable includes papers on far-left environmental extremists from the 1970s (Earth First!), far-right anti-communist extremists (the John Birth Society and “New World Order” conspiracy groups), and ostensibly apolitical military extremists.  Our roundtable includes two men and three women representing public and private universities from the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest and Southwest -- as well as one of the military academies. Our group includes one full professor, two associates, and two assistant professors working in the fields of environmental, political, military, cultural, and women’s history.  The expected audience for the panel is any scholar -- historian or otherwise --  interested in the intersections of culture and violence, the limits of political discourse in American society,  the role of religion in politics, and the conception boundaries that separate the "mainstream" from the "extreme."

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