DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. 12 days ago that turned deadly attracted white separatists and neo-Nazis along with a large crowd of counter-protesters. Also among the crowd were men in camouflage, heavily armed, some carrying assault-style rifles. These were members of the American militia movement, who say they were there not to support white supremacists but as a third force to keep the peace between opposing sides and ensure the right of free speech.
Our guest, Mark Pitcavage, has been studying militia groups for decades. He's a senior researcher at the Center for Extremism (ph) at the Anti-Defamation League. He says these groups strongly supported Donald Trump for president and many prepared for armed confrontation in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton win. But Trump's victory surprised the anti-government groups and sent them in search of a new target for their anger. We turn to Mark Pitcavage for some background on militia groups and how they're changing in the era of President Trump. Mark Pitcavage, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Let's talk about militias. I guess by definition, they are armed groups. How long have the current active militia groups in the country been around?
MARK PITCAVAGE: Well, the militia movement arose in 1994 in opposition to federal gun laws, the election of Bill Clinton, NAFTA and particularly deadly standoffs with federal law enforcement at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas in the early 1990s. So it's been around over 20 years now.
DAVIES: And what do they stand for?
PITCAVAGE: The militia movement is an anti-government extremist movement. It's part of a broader movement that's sometimes called the patriot movement, which also includes the sovereign citizen movement and the tax protest movement. The foundational belief of the militia movement is a conspiracy theory, an anti-government conspiracy theory that posits that the rest of the world has essentially been taken over by a globalist tyrannical government.
They often refer to it as the New World Order. And our own government is actually collaborating with the New World Order to slowly strip us of our rights and freedoms, starting with our right to keep and bear arms because once we lose that, we won't be able to defend any of our rights. And once the American people are rendered defenseless, we too will be absorbed by and become slaves to the New World Order like the rest of the world.
DAVIES: Well, I mean, not to get into a deep argument here but they look at other countries in the world and assume they're all acting in concert?
PITCAVAGE: This is a very nebulous conspiracy theory. So they often sort of avoid getting into details. But they basically believe that. They will often instead of referring to each and every individual country, they'll use the United Nations as a proxy or just simply refer to the globalists or the New World Order, you know, or the conspiracy, something like that.
DAVIES: OK. And they fear that the United States government will take our rights away and make us beholden or enslaved by the New World Order. What kinds of specific government intrusion do they seek to stop or prevent?
PITCAVAGE: Well, the militia movement has a heavy emphasis on guns. So particularly any sort of federal firearms regulation is something they really oppose. But they actually oppose most government regulations, most government intrusions of any sort of sort that they might even notice. The most extreme version of this is their sister movement, the sovereign citizen movement, which basically rationalizes ignoring all laws, rules and regulations. The militia movement is not quite that extreme.
But it's quite intensely anti-government.
DAVIES: Right. So give us a sense of the lay out of the militia movement.
PITCAVAGE: The militia movement really consists of three main segments today. The first are traditional militia groups, the paramilitary groups that run around in the woods with guns, stereotypically. The second segment of the militia movement, which started around 2008, is called the Three Percenters. And they may or may not form militia groups. They have the same ideology as the militia movement. Their name comes from a myth or a mistaken apprehension about the American Revolution, which was that only 3 percent of the colonists fought against the British.
And, of course, they view themselves as the equivalent of modern day patriots fighting against the government, not the British. And then the...
DAVIES: The idea being you don't need everybody, you need a dedicated but small group. Right.
PITCAVAGE: That's exactly right, that sort of a Bolshevik sort of idea, a vanguard of the revolution, if you will. And the third segment is actually a single but very large group called the Oath Keepers. And they view it as their goal in particular to try and spread militia ideology among current and former military personnel, police and first responders.
DAVIES: And what oath or oaths do the Oath Keepers keep?
PITCAVAGE: They refer to the oath that they take to uphold the Constitution. And the premise of the Oath Keepers is a list of orders that they will refuse to obey should the government give them. And these orders all relate, in one way or another, back to New World Order conspiracy theories about disarming people and putting them in camps and so forth.
DAVIES: But the activities that they pledge to - the orders they pledge not to obey include...
PITCAVAGE: Well, they're essentially, I mean, to disarm the American people, to round people up and put them in camps. In one way - directly or indirectly, they all allude to common militia movement conspiracy theories. So the orders are never actually going to be handed down that they will refuse to obey because those conspiracy theories are basically fantasy.
DAVIES: And do the Oath Keepers, I mean, they have weapons. Do they drill? Do they practice? Do they prepare for armed confrontation?
PITCAVAGE: Well, the Oath Keepers, even though they're a single group, are pretty loosely organized. And some groupings of Oath Keepers around the country do more training and are sort of more like a local militia group while others are not. You know, the militia movement in general tends to view itself as defensive in nature. So they're not usually preparing to overthrow the government. They're usually preparing for the day when the New World Order finally steps in or when the federal government finally crosses some sort of red line.
One of the problems for law enforcement and the government is that because of their ideology, some people in the militia movement often decide the government has already crossed that line and then they begin plotting or planning some sort of violent act or terrorist plot...
PITCAVAGE: ...To go against the government.
DAVIES: To what extent have we seen violence propagated by members or former members of militias?
PITCAVAGE: The militia movement has a high association with violence. It has since its earliest days in the mid-1990s. In fact, just this past week, there was a man indicted in Oklahoma, a Three Percenter, for allegedly plotting to blow up a building there. And several months back, there were three militia members arrested in Kansas for plotting to blow up an apartment complex that primarily housed Somali Americans, i.e. Muslims.
You know, you can sort of go on back - plots against government officials, plots to raid National Guard armories, plots against infrastructure, plots against police as well as spontaneous violence from time to time, too.
DAVIES: They seem to, at times, appear to provide what they call a security or a protection for someone who they perceive needs it like the military recruiting stations in Tennessee after there'd been an attack there.
PITCAVAGE: Yes. This is something they occasionally do. They also - the Oath Keepers also did this in Ferguson, Mo. following some of the unrest there. Because they are paramilitary groups, they often like to conceive themselves as being legitimate forces. Some even claim to be the true militia in the Constitution and in federal and state law, which is not actually true. But they will often, you know, volunteer to provide security at a county fair or a state fair.
They'll volunteer to do search and rescue for a missing child. These are also good public relations aspects. And occasionally, as with Ferguson or at recruiting centers after the Chattanooga attacks, you know, they will show up to be sentinels, you know, at least until people ask them to leave.
DAVIES: It was fascinating to me that they decided to provide some, quote, "protection or security" to recruiting offices in Tennessee after there was an attack there because they're the anti-government group. They're there to protect the government's military recruiting office. It gets kind of weird, doesn't it?
PITCAVAGE: Well, it does, except that one of the secondary enemies of the militia movement in recent years has been Muslims. Although the militia movement is not white supremacist, it has, in recent years, become unambiguously anti-Muslim in nature. And as I mentioned, there are often armed protests in front of mosques by militia groups. And so this was sort of a way for them to respond to the call from what they believed was, you know, this sort of attack from outside from the greater Muslim conspiracy, so to speak. And so it wasn't too surprising that they would show up to do that.
DAVIES: And what have the militias' attitudes been towards white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups?
PITCAVAGE: It's a little complicated. There is some overlap between the militia movement and white supremacists, particularly through adherents of a racist and anti-Semitic religious sect called Christian Identity, which has a long history in the United States, and a lot of white supremacists have come from that.
But for the most part, from the founding of the militia movement to the present day, the militia movement has tried to distance itself from associations with or accusations of white supremacy. And there are some of - you know, a few, but there are some people of color within the militia movement. So they have tried to distance themselves.
And in fact, you know, until recently, when they became so anti-Muslim, you know, you could sort of say they were - they generally tended to speak out against bigotry in general. But they have not hesitated to speak out against Muslims, unfortunately.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Mark Pitcavage. He is senior research fellow at the Center for Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Mark Pitcavage. He is a senior research fellow at the Center for Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. He studied militia groups in the United States for many years.
So what do the militias do? I mean, do they have monthly meetings? Do they do drills and training in the woods with weapons? What do they do?
PITCAVAGE: In terms of their activities, you know, a lot of what the militia movement does, is - to a greater or lesser degree, involves weapons or paramilitary training. They'll spend a lot of time, effort and money to accumulate all sorts of weapons and gear. And some of them are also survivalists too, so that could include food supplies and other survival gear.
From militia group to militia group, they may be greater or - involved to a greater or lesser degree in paramilitary activities. Some are actually quite intense, holding regular FTXs - field training exercises - where they may train on subjects such as reconnaissance, sniper training, cold-weather training, search and rescue, a wide variety of things, sometimes using U.S. military manuals to guide them.
They engage in other things too. They may meet at a local restaurant or library, you know, once a month to talk about political things or talk about strategies online through social media, or through websites or message forums. They'll engage in a wide variety of activities from recruitment or spreading their ideas, to networking or strategizing with other groups. So, you know, all in all, it's a pretty wide array of things.
DAVIES: You know, it's also occurred to me that if you're really talking about resisting the government in the event of some terrible crisis, you know, hand-held weapons are not going to go very far. I mean, do they deal with explosives or trying to talk about getting heavier weapons - you know, grenade launchers, tanks, artillery?
PITCAVAGE: They often fantasize about, you know, all sorts of ordnance, and military gear and vehicles. Some realities set in. First of all, a lot of that is prohibited. Automatic weapons are prohibited. Explosives are prohibited. Now, some will acquire those regardless, right? They'll break the law to get them.
They will sometimes try to get vehicles, but vehicles get very expensive. There actually have been a couple extremist groups to buy some armored cars. You can actually buy them on the open market. They won't come armed, but you can always arm them yourself. But that's really expensive, and these people are not, by and large, rich. And they sank a lot of their money into simply buying regular weapons and gear.
DAVIES: How do the militias recruit people?
PITCAVAGE: Well, the militias recruit people the way most fringe groups or even mainstream groups, you know, tend to recruit people. People are most likely to be recruited through someone they know - through a coworker, a relative, someone who lives near them who exposes them to the ideas of the movement, the conspiracy theories - and if there's some sort of like-mindedness may, you know, invite them to a meeting. They will also sometimes hold public events - what they hope will get attention. You know, and people may inquire after that.
And of course, these days, online is very important. Some will do passive recruiting by maintaining a website, or uploading field training exercise videos to YouTube or conspiracy theory videos to YouTube, so that, you know, someone who comes across them might play those videos and be interested. Whatever the latest technology is, the militia movement tends to use it.
When the militia movement first formed in the mid-1990s, they were using fax networks. And they were using VHS tapes, where they would make VHS tapes about the militia movement, or conspiracy theories or what have you, and encourage people to copy those tapes and spread them around. And whenever any sort of new type of technology - you know, the Internet, social media on the Internet, anything - comes along, they will quickly find ways to try and exploit that technology too.
DAVIES: How did militia groups respond to the election of Donald Trump?
PITCAVAGE: Well, the militia movement, by and large, was ecstatic because they had really come out strong for Donald Trump. And in fact, in September and October, we were actually tracking sentiments of the militia movement - people who were darkly talking about revolution should Hillary Clinton somehow be named the winner.
As it turned out, we needn't have worried. Hillary Clinton did not win the election. Donald Trump did. And they were very excited. And then they remained strong supporters of Donald Trump as president. But his - at the same time, his election sort of poses problems for the future of the movement because everything about the movement was aligned very strongly against the federal government. What do you do now that the head of the federal government is someone who you consider one of you - right? - the - someone you support.
And there was a real chance that the militia movement, which had grown for the past eight years or so, you know, might slide, that - because of the lack of energy, because of the lack of a desire to go after the federal government now, at least compared to before, that people might drop out or become less active. And, you know, while there was always the possibility of some sort of fallout between the militia movement and the federal government, you know, that didn't happen. They would have to do something in order to survive, to find some sort of new enemy.
DAVIES: So who did they focus on, if not the federal government?
PITCAVAGE: Well, during, like, the period between his election and the inauguration, we were sort of looking at several of their traditional secondary enemies. The militia movement happened to be strongly anti-immigrant. It happens to be against black lives matter. And as I've mentioned, it's anti-Muslim. And so we were looking at all of these. And it was really the anti-Muslim sentiments that we were afraid would really come to the fore.
But, in fact, the militia movement surprised us because the militia movement started, instead, going after the antifa and elevating the antifa to a new enemy for themselves.
DAVIES: And explain what the antifa is.
PITCAVAGE: The antifa is a collection of groups, networks and individuals, mostly from the far left or from the anarchist movement, who sort of specialize in confronting white supremacists on the streets. When white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan hold public rallies, demonstrations, protests, these people will show up to counter protest, typically in much larger numbers. And some of them will actually physically confront the white supremacists and assault them.
The idea is to chase them off the streets. It gets back to - they believe that the Nazis were able to take power because the Nazis won the battle of the streets. And they're determined to not let that happen in the United States.
DAVIES: And they sometimes show up at events - what? - dressed in black. Do they carry protective gear, weapons, that kind of thing?
PITCAVAGE: I mean, it's a lot of variation. Some will. Some, who come from the anarchist movement, like, may dress up like anarchists. Black bloc members sometimes do. Some people just wear whatever they want to wear. Sometimes they'll have some makeshift protective gear. There's a lot of variety there. It sort of depends upon the individuals involved. The militia movement had largely been, you know, unaware of the existence of the antifa because the antifa targeted white supremacists.
But because the antifa came to the conclusion that the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency was racist in nature, they started protesting at Trump-related events and rallies too. This brought them to the attention of the militia movement, who sort of became aware of the antifa for the first time. And it was hate at first sight. This was a new enemy for them. And they very quickly picked up the banner against the antifa.
DAVIES: And so what kinds of activities do they undertake in opposition to the antifa?
PITCAVAGE: Well, essentially what they try and do is to just as the antifa try to confront the white supremacists, they try to confront the antifa. So they will show up to any of a variety of events that they think the antifa might show up for or they might even organize their own events that they hope will - sometimes in conjunction with others that they hope will bring out the antifa. And what they've also done is sort of built the antifa up into an even bigger sort of more formidable force than it actually is. In their minds, they call the antifa domestic terrorists.
And it's common to hear them claim that antifa are actually being trained in Syrian terror camps overseas. And furthermore, they don't see this as a grassroots movement. They see the antifa being orchestrated and funded by some sinister force. Typically, George Soros, the liberal philanthropist, is pictured as sort of the puppet master of the antifa using them to help overthrow the Trump administration. So in their minds, they have really built the antifa up into this elaborate enemy worthy of combating.
DAVIES: And just so we cover this, do they have any evidence to cite for this notion of antifa being trained elsewhere or being funded by George Soros or anybody else?
PITCAVAGE: No, there's no evidence for that at all. But, you know, the militia movement are past masters at coming up with elaborate conspiracy theories. And so this was just natural for them to do the same with the antifa.
DAVIES: Mark Pitcavage is a senior researcher at the Center for Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. After a break, he'll tell us more about the leftist groups known as the antifa and about the role militiamen played at Charlottesville. Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews the first book published by Lena Dunham's Lenny imprint. And Kevin Whitehead tells us about a new CD by jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're talking about the American militia movement, a collection of armed anti-government groups. We're speaking with Mark Pitcavage. He's a senior researcher at the Center for Extremism of the Anti-Defamation League. He says militia groups have kept their distance from white supremacist groups. And over the past year, they've targeted their anger at confrontational leftist groups known as the antifa. Militias have been appearing at rallies of right-wing groups saying they want to protect their free speech rights from interference by leftists.
So they've been showing up at various rallies where they believe or suspect antifa folks will show up. The interesting dilemma that this presents is that, you know, it's white supremacists who the militias don't care for and want to - don't want to associate with who attract the antifas at events. So the militias show up to counter the antifas, but they don't want to be seen as associated with or supporting white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. That kind of presents a dilemma, doesn't it?
PITCAVAGE: Yes, it does present a dilemma for them. The militia don't want to be tarred with that brush of white supremacy. And so they've evolved a strategy where they try and present themselves at these different events and protests and so forth as a third force. They are neither with the white supremacists, they say, nor are they with the antifa. But they're there to protect everybody's rights. They're there to help maintain public order. This allows them both to exercise their fantasies of being sort of a quasi-military or quasi-law-enforcement body as well as to try and have their cake and eat it too regarding confronting the antifa and disassociating themselves from the white supremacists.
DAVIES: Right, and protecting first - free speech is, you know, consistent with the group that says it's all about protecting our rights.
PITCAVAGE: Well, they're not showing up at left-wing events to protect the free speech of people from the left. They're only concerned about, quote, unquote, "free speech" from people on the right. It's kind of important to point out. So it's not like they are free-speech crusaders. You know, much of this is very calculated and tactical in nature. And the real goal is to sort of be able to oppose the antifa.
DAVIES: Tell us a little more about the antifa. And how widespread are they? How organized? Do they have publications? What do they do?
PITCAVAGE: Well, the antifa originated in Europe in the 1960s and '70s, in opposition to the neo-Nazis that were emerging at that time and with the desire to confront them on the streets - not to cede the public square to them. And by the 1970s at the latest, these ideas had come across the Atlantic to the United States and Canada. And the antifa have been a presence in this country ever since. And it's a very loose network. You have some groups that are more or less full-time antifa, often locally based like Rose City Antifa in Oregon or By Any Means Necessary in Detroit.
And then you have a lot of other people or groups or networks that will engage to lesser degrees with antifa activities from time to time but may also be involved with other causes as well. And they're very well-networked. They have to be to sort of publicize these extremist events and get people to come to them. But they're not well-organized or orchestrated. It's very loose. It's very sort of voluntary participation. If people want to participate in one of these, they can. And so I sometimes hesitated even calling them a movement. That's why I sometimes just sort of call them a collection or a network.
DAVIES: Do they have rules or policies about things like weapons or how much violence to use and when to use it?
PITCAVAGE: Individual antifa groups might have some notions about what should be permissible and what's not. But, you know, this is a very loose movement. And many of them are anarchists. So they're not necessarily, you know, compiling huge rulebooks in terms of what to do or not to do with these things.
DAVIES: Do they ever carry weapons?
PITCAVAGE: They tend to carry - you know, they may carry makeshift weapons, if allowed, or things like pepper spray. They don't typically carry, like, knives or firearms. You know, so, you know, usually, if they get into it, they're getting into it with someone with fists or pepper spray or hitting them with a stick - something like that.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Mark Pitcavage. He is senior research fellow at the Center for Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. He has studied militia groups in the U.S. for many years.
You mentioned that militias had grown a lot over the last eight years. Why have they grown over the past eight years?
PITCAVAGE: There was a general resurgence of the extreme right that started roughly 2008, 2009. Part of it was due to the recession and the foreclosure crisis. And a lot of it, particularly for the militia movement, was due to the election of Barack Obama. For white supremacists - were energized by the election of Barack Obama because he was African-American, and they hate African-Americans. For the militia movement, it was not because he was black. For some, it was because they thought he was a Muslim. But for most, it was because they were very easily able to put him at the center of their New World Order conspiracy theories and to sort of personalize all of those theories and all of that anger at the government in the person of Barack Obama himself. And so he very quickly became a focal point or even a symbol for the anti-government extremists to focus on.
Moreover, at the time this was happening - 2008, 2009 - this was really when social media had finally taken over the Internet and become the dominant force that it's been since. And so the anti-government movements in general - the sovereign citizen movement, the tax protest movement and the militia movement - were able to do a lot of growing and spreading through social media. The militia movement started on MySpace in terms of spreading this. And then when Facebook overtook MySpace, they started doing it there and then also on YouTube and a little bit on Twitter. They were not as big on Twitter as some of the other social media platforms.
But they were able very - to spread their ideas and their conspiracy theories to audiences that had never come across them before, including a lot of young people, with one of the results being that over the past 10 years, a number of the people in the militia movement who had been arrested on various charges were actually in their 20s - right? - reaching a younger demographic than was the case in the 1990s, for example.
DAVIES: So let's talk about what happened at Charlottesville, at the Unite the Right rally. Do we know how - why there was a militia presence there at this set of events - how that happened?
PITCAVAGE: Well, we expected, as the weeks lead up to the Unite the Right event, that there would be some sort of militia, Three Percenter or Oath Keeper presence, even though the event was organized and primarily attended by white supremacists. Because the opportunity to confront the antifa would certainly be there, we thought they might show up. And a couple months earlier when there was a big white supremacist event in Pikeville, Ky., a number of Oath Keepers did show up for that. So there had been recent precedent.
In this particular case at Charlottesville, we did not track Oath Keepers themselves. They seem to have stayed away. But we did find representatives from several different militia and Three Percenter groups who were there in full uniform and armed and so forth.
DAVIES: Yeah, yeah, describe what they wore, what they carried.
PITCAVAGE: What they all carried was varied because, you know, they're not an actual military force with uniform regulations. But they had a variety of military-style gear and protective gear. Most of them carried weapons, long arms, assault-style weapons. We saw a lot of those. Virginia is an open carry state. And there was no attempt to prohibit weapons at the event. So that was allowed.
DAVIES: How did they see their role at Charlottesville?
PITCAVAGE: Well, they saw their role the same way they had been positioning themselves at previous events over the spring and summer as the sort of third force where they were there and they were going to protect everybody's rights and they weren't with the white supremacists but they were definitely against the antifa.
DAVIES: Right. And were there any reports of the militia members themselves intervening to break up fights or keep the peace?
PITCAVAGE: There were several reports of that where because law enforcement was not getting involved, the people on the militia there were actually breaking up a few fights, which is very - it's very problematic when you're in a situation where somehow these private armies are now the ones trying to break up fights and maintain order. That just elevates a movement like the militia movement when it's actually the constituted authorities who should be doing those things.
DAVIES: Yeah, and, you know, I have to say, it strikes me that if you're there to prevent violence or keep the peace and you're carrying a long gun, like a semi-automatic weapon, you know, that's much too lethal to use in a hand-to-hand encounter. What did they think they were going to do by carrying these weapons?
PITCAVAGE: I'm not sure if they really thought it out in a rational way. A rifle is not something that's going to be particularly that useful in a close up, hand-to-hand type of situation. But they love carrying guns.
DAVIES: It was certainly striking to people and media at Charlottesville to see these guys with - so heavily armed right out there on the street in such a tense situation. Under Virginia law, police could not have prevented them from coming armed, right?
PITCAVAGE: Well, I'm not an attorney or expert in Virginia law, so I can't speak to the exact circumstances there. I will say that it's very common across the country for law enforcement and authorities trying to handle a public event like this, where you'll have right-wing and left-wing people sort of aiming at each other, for all weapons, actual or makeshift, to be prohibited from the assembly and event areas. And so people will typically have to go through metal detectors.
People will not be able to bring guns, knives, riot batons, pepper spray and mace. Generally speaking, even signs will only be allowed unattached to any sort of pole or stick because those are frequently used as weapons too in clashes at these events. And so generally speaking, great efforts are made to make sure that no one comes into an event area with weapons they can then use against anybody else. Now, that was not done here.
I can't speak to how much of that was because of legal restrictions versus other decisions made. But it certainly was problematic.
DAVIES: You followed these groups for many years. Give us a sense of how troubled you are about their growth. I mean, they don't seem like they're very numerous. To what extent do they pose a threat to our democracy?
PITCAVAGE: Well, it's true that the militia movement, even its broad sense with Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, is not very large. It's a fringe movement. And most people in the United States are not going to be susceptible to militia movement ideology. And we've seen that the militia movement has been around 23 years and they've remained a fringe movement during that whole period of time. And they've tried to capitalize on different changes in American society, like they tried to capitalize on the Tea Party but had very little success.
But the problem is it doesn't take very many people to cause a whole lot of harm and misery if they decide to resort to violence. And that is something that comes regularly out of the militia movement. And so they don't actually threaten the democratic foundations of our society in the sense that they could actually bring them down. But they seek to attack the democratic foundations of our society, you know, when they do decide to forgo normal political and social processes for achieving their aims and engage in violence instead.
DAVIES: Mark Pitcavage, thanks so much for speaking with us.
PITCAVAGE: Oh, it was my pleasure.
DAVIES: Mark Pitcavage is a senior researcher at the Center for Extremism of the Anti-Defamation League where he's followed militia groups for many years. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new CD from jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. There's a new publishing imprint in town. It's called Lenny, and it's a joint venture between Random House and Lena Dunham, the creator and star of "Girls," as well as the show's producer and writer Jenni Konner. The first book to be printed under the Lenny label is a collection of short stories called "Sour Heart," written by Jenny Zhang, a poet and writer who emigrated with her family from China to Flushing, Queens, when she was 5. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The most famous line from "Girls," Lena Dunham's show that ran for six seasons, occurred in episode one of the first season. That's the moment when Dunham, in character as aspiring writer Hannah Horvath, makes this declaration to her parents.
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LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I think that I may be the voice of my generation or at least a voice of a generation.
CORRIGAN: That line has been deconstructed to death. Dunham haters ripped it for its narcissism. Dunham, herself, insists it was a throwaway meant to be just a joke. The one uncontested certainty about that line is that voice - raw, needy, original, feminist, loud, funny, bold and obscene - is what Dunham is all about as an artist.
Little wonder, then, that in launching a new publishing venture called Lenny books, Dunham says she wants to showcase young writers because of their voices, which brings us to Jenny Zhang and her debut short story collection, "Sour Heart," the first book to be published under the Lenny imprint. Zhang definitely has a voice, or as we used to say in Queens, which is the chief setting for the seven stories in this collection, she sure has a mouth on her.
Zhang's stories, like Dunham's, are mostly told through the perspective of girls, except the girls in these interconnected tales are the daughters of Chinese immigrants who've landed in the dumpy, outer-borough reaches of New York City in the 1990s. The parents - artists and professionals back in China - are hanging on by their fingernails in America, moving every few months with their kids from one illegally shared tenement apartment to another.
Some of this New York immigrant experience material is timeless. For instance, in the first story, called "We Love You Crispina," a girl reflects back on her family's struggle and says, everyone said it was normal to go through hell our first year in America, but no one prepped us for our second year. That's a line you could imagine emanating from the mouth of some cheeky kid in the Lower East Side circa 1909.
But most of Zhang's situations and language are far more violent and sexually explicit than the classic immigrant tale. These girls aren't sheltered. How could they be when they're sleeping on mattresses on a floor shared by their parents and three other families? They're tough and knowing, and they sound like it, although you can also hear vestiges of a childish vulnerability in their voices.
In one of the most moving and graphic stories here, called "The Empty The Empty The Empty," a 9-year-old girl named Lucy complains that her immigrant parents are always taking in strays. Zhang, by the way, tends to write in paragraph-long sentences, perhaps as a way of conveying the near-panicked intensity of her girls. So here's only a snippet of Lucy's extended monologue on those strays.
(Reading) We were running the world's first zero-dollar-a-night hotel and let all kinds of randos (ph) in. Sometimes it was a young family recently emigrated from a small village in Hunan who all smelled so bad, I had to stick cotton balls up my nostrils. Or else it was a young Taiwanese woman my mother met in the supermarket, who had all kinds of weird facial tics we weren't allowed to even react to because my mother said this woman had lived a traumatic life beyond anything you could ever imagine. And I said, well, I can imagine anything, so that doesn't count.
Despite her hard attitude, Lucy ends up being bullied by another girl into tying up and trying to have sex with her terrified fourth-grade boyfriend. It's a grotesque scene, but one in which Zhang deftly swirls in Lucy's resentment at her crowded, immigrant home life with her lost feeling of being all on her own to figure out how to be an American adolescent.
Most of Zhang's other stories in "Sour Heart" are also simultaneously tough to read and yet worth it. There's something very compelling about young girls in fiction and in life who speak up - and if their voices are rude, funny, even offensive sometimes, all the better. Given this fierce debut, I'll be giving the other voices Dunham finds a careful listen.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Sour Heart" by Jenny Zhang.
On tomorrow's show, a remarkable story about the psychological cost of war. When Marine Sergeant Thomas Brennan was wounded in Afghanistan, veteran war photographer Finbarr O'Reilly was there to capture the images. Their joint memoir about Brennan's brain injury and the trauma they both experienced is called "Shooting Ghosts." I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Adam Stanishevsky (ph). Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MULATU ASTATKE'S "CHIFERRA")
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