Skip to main content

When Right-Wing Extremism Moves Mainstream

The number of hate groups in the United States continues to rise, says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Potok discusses how the rhetoric of hate groups has increasingly entered the mainstream in the wake of the nation's changing demographics and the election of President Obama.


Other segments from the episode on March 25, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 25, 2010: Interview with Mark Potok; Review of the DVD release of the film "Bigger than Life."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
When Right-Wing Extremism Moves Mainstream


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The radical right caught fire last year as a broad-based, populist anger
at political, demographic and economic changes in America ignited an
explosion of new extremist groups and activism across the nation. That
finding is published in "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and
Extremism," a special edition of the Southern Poverty Law Center's
magazine, Intelligence Report.

The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. My guest,
Mark Potok, is the editor of the center's magazine and directs the
center's Intelligence Project. Potok reports that angry anti-immigrant
vigilante groups soared by nearly 80 percent last year. In 2009,
militias and the larger Patriot movement grew with 363 new militias and
related groups, an increase of 244 percent.

We're going to talk with Potok about new developments in extremism,
including the threats against Democratic congressman who voted for the
health care reform bill. Several congressman have received death
threats, including Bart Stupak of Michigan, who thought the bill didn't
do enough to prevent federal funds from being used for abortion but
voted for the bill after the president's executive order re-affirming a
ban on federal funds for abortion.

The majority whip, James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American
congressman, received a fax with the image of a noose. A Tea Party
activist posted the address of Virginia Congressman Tom Periello's
brother, thinking it was the congressman's address, and suggested that
protestors drop by. After the posting, a gas line to the brother's home
was cut. A brick was thrown through the office of Louise Slaughter,
chair of the House Rules Committee, who also received a voicemail
message referring to snipers.

Another development this week was the release of an alarming poll. Mark
Potok, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me quote a new Harris poll that says
that two-thirds of Republicans think Obama is a socialist; 57 percent
think he's a Muslim; 40 percent of Republicans agree with the birthers
in their belief that Obama was not born in the United States and is
therefore not eligible to be president; 38 percent of Republicans say
President Obama is doing many of the things that Hitler did; 24 percent
of Republicans say Obama may be the anti-Christ. What do you hear when
you hear that?

Mr. MARK POTOK (Poverty Law Center): I hear a very scary situation
developing. I mean, the idea that people really have swallowed these
stories in such enormous numbers is something remarkable.

I mean, I covered, as a reporter, the militia movement of the 1990s,
which really produced an extraordinary amount of criminal violence. And
even back then you did not hear this kind of talk so broadly spread
through this society. I mean, it really is remarkable to hear this kind
of talk, often coming from leaders, from ostensible leaders.

GROSS: Now, where do you think these ideas are coming from, you know,
like the birther idea, the idea that Obama's like Hitler or that he's a
socialist or a communist, or worse yet, the anti-Christ?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think a lot of these ideas do originate on the
radical right, but they are also being flogged endlessly by Republican
officials. You know, even those who are considered sort of responsible
Republicans have by and large completely abstained from any kind of
criticism of this talk. So even way back when, when Sarah Palin was
talking about Obama setting up death panels and so on, you know, what we
heard was a deafening silence from the mainstream of the Republican

GROSS: I'm wondering if you're hearing things from elected politicians
that you haven't heard before in terms of extremism?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think right away of Steve King. After a man in
Austin, Texas a couple weeks ago flew a plane into an IRS building in
Austin, you know, Steve King, who is a congressman, a Republican out of
Iowa, basically excused the attack, said, well, you know, the IRS is a
terrible thing, if it had been gotten rid of as I thought it should be
years ago this never would have happened, which to me sounds an awful
lot like saying, you know, if that person wasn't standing in front of
the murderer's gun, they never would have died.

You know, it's that kind of thing. I think the other day we also heard,
well, in February we heard Tom Tancredo, a former Congressman from
Colorado. You know, when he addressed the Tea Party convention in
Nashville, he made an incredibly off-color – if that's the word - speech
in which he talked about the problem, you know, Obama was a socialist
and so on, was destroying the country. The problem was that fools had
elected him and that what we needed was a literacy test. And you know,
this of course in the context of attacking a black president. You know,
given our history, where we had literacy tests for something like a
century to keep black people from voting, I think that's plainly an
openly racist attack.

GROSS: You mentioned Congressman Steve King from Iowa. After the health
care vote, he said to a group of anti-health care reform protestors: If
I could start a country with a bunch of people, they'd be the folks who
were standing with us the last few days. Let's hope we don't have to do
that. Let's beat that other side to a pulp. Let's take them out. Let's
chase them down. There's going to be a reckoning.

Now, I doubt he literally means let's punch them out, let's, you know,
let's start violence here, yet it is violent rhetoric. Are you hearing
that kind of rhetoric a lot from elected leaders who are using violent
images in their speeches to protestors?

Mr. POTOK: Yeah, I think we've heard some of that. I think what has been
most remarkable, though, is the willingness of politicians to say things
that are completely false and have the object of really defaming a
particular group of people or the government in general and perhaps the
Democratic Party.

So, you know, when a Michelle Bachman, the congresswoman from Minnesota,
comes out and starts to talk about how Obama in effect is secretly
setting up political re-education camps, presumably to turn our children
into small Marxist robots, you know, that goes essentially unchallenged.

You know, I suppose there are a few chuckles in the press about it, but
there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who hear this woman
speak and believe she is telling the truth. So I think that is the kind
of thing that's driving a lot of this, and there's also very real
reluctance on the part of politicians to make any kind of criticism of
these remarks.

You know, some of the violent talk is definitely coming from the real
fringes. I mean, a guy named Mike Vanderboegh, for instance, who was a
long – an Alabama militia leader, is the person who put up on his Web
site over the last few days a whole screed calling on people to throw
bricks through the glass windows of Democratic Party offices.

And as we now know, people complied. You know, and we don't hear a lot
of condemning of that. We don't hear a lot of condemnation of the
incredible remarks that were made towards several congressman over the
weekend during the Tea Party affair, you know, being called all kinds of
ethnic slurs and homophobic slurs and so on, being spit on.

GROSS: So the person you just mentioned is a former militia leader. So I
guess I'm wondering if you think that the extremist groups like this
militia leader have influence that is penetrating into the mainstream?

Mr. POTOK: I think they wouldn't have much influence were it not for the
kind of aiding and abetting that they are getting from so many
mainstream figures.

You know, we haven't mentioned Glenn Beck yet, but I mean, Glenn Beck,
of Fox News of course, spent three shows speculating on whether or not
it was so that FEMA had constructed a whole set of secret concentration

Ultimately, in his fourth show, you know, he, Glenn Beck, decided it was
not true and quote-unquote "debunked" it, but the real point was that
for three entire shows he hawked this idea. You know, Glenn Beck has
close to three million listeners, and a lot of those people follow him
religiously, really believe that these things are true.

Now, you know, the idea of FEMA concentration camps goes all the way
back to the militias of the '90s and really about 20 years before, into
earlier anti-Semitic groups like the Posse Comitatus. You know, but the
point is, is that this is really a far-out idea that has not a scrap of
basis in reality but which is plugged again and again, you know, to the
point where, as I say, where probably literally millions of Americans,
certainly hundreds of thousands, either believe this is true or suspect
it may be true.

GROSS: Yeah, and the idea of these FEMA concentration camps is that the
true patriots will be rounded up, martial law will be declared, and the
patriots will be herded into these secret concentration camps run by

Mr. POTOK: That's right, all this in the service of the so-called new
world order. You know, the next step in the horrible descent into
slavery will be that the United States will be subsumed into some kind
of one world government or new world order, you know, this is a mad –
this is the boogeyman of the radical right going back 100 years or more.
I mean, these kinds of things were being said about the League of
Nations and even before.

But this is a very long-time fear of the radical right, that we are all
headed toward being slaves in a sort of Bolshevik one-world government.

GROSS: President Obama has been called a socialist, a communist.
Democrats have been accused of staging a government takeover of our
lives with health care reform, and I guess I'm wondering if you think
that that kind of rhetoric connects it all with the extremist hate
groups that you've been following.

Mr. POTOK: I do, because this idea of the government as a socialist
entity, as a Marxist entity, I think very much originates in these far
radical right circles.

You know, I mentioned Mike Vanderboegh, an Alabama militia man, a few
minutes ago. Mike Vanderboegh wrote just a few days ago that the quote-
unquote "collectivists" who now control the government, you know, better
leave gun owners alone, or if they, quote-unquote, "wish to continue
unfettered oxygen consumption."

In other words, you know, he's saying that the government is run by
Marxists, and they better watch it or they will die. You know, that talk
gets mediated a bit before it reaches the ostensible mainstream, but
yes, this is the kind of idea that animates most of these groups. They
really do see the government as an evil enemy.

GROSS: So you've described patriot groups as seeing the government as
the enemy. What were the patriot groups like during the administration
of George W. Bush?

Mr. POTOK: Well, the patriot groups basically disappeared during the
Bush administration. You know, there were a few out there, over 100, but
they were quite quiescent. They said very little, and what was not said
was, you know, Bush is destroying the nation via the Patriot Act and so

It's funny how much protest we hear now about things like the Patriot
Act from the radical right. You know, that was said in certain quarters
of the radical right. Certain thinkers, certain intellectuals on the
extreme right, you know, certainly were critical of the loss of various
kinds of civil freedoms, but by and large these groups kept their mouths
shut during the Bush administration and did almost nothing.

GROSS: And how do you interpret that?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think that the reality – look, I mean, the first
Patriot movement very much saw the Clinton administration, another
relatively liberal Democratic administration, as the enemy. Of course
they were animated as well by real things like gun control, like Waco.

The radical right today, you know, once again these militia groups are
very much, I think, responding to the idea that it's a Democratic
administration, and that means certain things.

Even in the absence of evidence, they believe that that means the
government is definitely coming for our guns. At the same time, I think
the proposed health care reforms really ratcheted things up in that it
gave the militias an even stronger idea that the government absolutely
planned to essentially take over the entire economy, as well as our
personal liberties and so on.

You know, I think one other thing probably is worth saying about the
militias today. In the 1990s, the enemy of the militia movement was, of
course, the federal government. That is still true today, but today, the
face of the federal government is the face of a black man. So I think
that that really has ratcheted up the whole matter and has introduced
more strongly an element of racism into the militias than that which we
saw back in the '90s.

You know, I think that Jimmy Carter said not long ago that behind all of
this ruckus, behind all this anger and fear and frustration, stands
race, and I think there's a lot of truth to that. I think there are a
lot of other elements, but at the end of the day, the biggest thing that
is really changing in this country is the fact that we're going through
a major demographic evolution.

This country will not be run by white people anymore. So for the first
time we're coming close to really being a genuine multi-racial democracy
in which no one group predominates.

GROSS: Let's look at your report on the year in hate and extremism. Just
give us an overview of the increase in the number of hate and extremist
groups in the past year.

Mr. POTOK: The basic overview is that we saw an absolutely astounding
growth in all kinds of groups on the radical right, right across the
board, really three different kinds of groups. If you put them all
together, the number of groups that we cover, that I think are fairly
termed extremist groups, went from 1,248 groups in 2008 to 1,753 last
year. That's about a 40 percent rise.

It really was quite astounding, and it capped a long, much slower rise
in the number of hate groups over the last 10 years or so.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law
Center's Intelligence Project. The center tracks and exposes the
activities of hate groups. Potok also edits the center's magazine,
Intelligence Report. The current edition is headlined "Rage on the
Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Potok. He's the
director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project and
editor of their magazine The Intelligence Report. The current issue is
called "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism."

You say the most dramatic story, in terms of the recent rise in hate and
extremist groups has been the rise of the anti-government Patriot
movement. So you say there were 363 new Patriot groups in 2009. What is
this movement?

Mr. POTOK: The Patriot movement is the larger movement of which militias
are essentially the paramilitary wing. So in other words, we've been
through this before. The 1990s saw a very large Patriot movement.

GROSS: This was during the Clinton administration.

Mr. POTOK: That's right, during the Clinton administration, and you
know, fundamentally these are groups that are not mainly animated by
race or by animosity towards Jewish people or gay people. What they are
really about is seeing the government as an enemy, as a kind of
conspirator against the freedoms of American people.

The other real characteristic of the Patriot movement is how intensely
it is motivated by conspiracy theories like the FEMA theory, like the
idea that martial law is about to be imposed, you know, and the
fundamental idea at the bottom of all of this is that we are headed into
a one world government that will destroy our freedoms and so on.

GROSS: And why do you think they came roaring back in the past year?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think there are really two answers to that question.
One is a combination of the many factors that we've seen coming together
that's driving the growth of all of these groups, and I think those are
non-white immigration, the changing demographics of the country, the
election of a black man.

It's certainly not all about race though. I mean, there is a lot of
anger over the role of the government in the bailouts of the auto
industry and the banks, a lot of anger that one could even look at as
kind of left-wing populist anger over the idea that these bankers got
multi-million-dollar bonuses after kind of screwing the rest of us. So
you know, these are some of the things that have played into this and
really helped these groups grow in an extraordinary way.

The other piece of it is that there was real organizing done last year,
very little noticed, very much under the radar. There was, I think, a
seminal meeting held last May in Jekyll Island, Georgia, which is at a
particular very fancy resort where the idea of the Federal Reserve was
first concocted early last century.

These people, led by a particular group called We The People, an anti-
tax group, convened and held a kind of bizarre ceremony in which they
purified the room in which the idea for the Fed was come up with and
then went on to hold, I think, a very important meeting, in which they
talked about how to kind of move this movement forward, move the radical
right forward.

One of the interesting things about the meeting was how kind of non-
denominational it was. I mean, there were Holocaust deniers there. There
were anti-Semites. There were also people who have none of those
feelings, who are all about the idea that the federal income tax is

Many people in tax protest world believe that they are so-called
sovereign citizens. This was an idea that was very much a part of the
militia movement in the 1990s as well. Well, that idea of sovereign
citizenship really comes directly from racist groups in the 1980s and
1970s, which came up with this idea basically that essentially God has
handed America to the white man.

So white people are the organic citizens of this country. We're the ones
who are connected by God to the land. Then that means that no one can
tell us what to do. It's God who gave us this country. There's no
government that can tell us to pay taxes or to have drivers licenses or
car registrations or any of those things.

The other piece of this idea is that the other people are so-called 14th
Amendment citizens - that is, people who were made citizens by the 14th
Amendment, which of course made citizens of former slaves. So you know,
it has this fundamental racist idea at its base, or at least much of the
tax protest movement does.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law
Center's Intelligence Project. He'll be back in the second half of the
show. The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. Potok
edits the center's magazine, Intelligence Report. The current edition is
headlined "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We're talking about the year
in hate and extremism, which is the subject of a special edition of the
Southern Poverty Law Center's magazine Intelligence Report. My guest,
Mark Potok, edits the magazine and is the director of the center's
Intelligence Project.

The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. Potok
reports that in 2009 the radical right caught fire, fueled by the
inauguration of an African-American president, changing demographics,
the government bailout of banks, and a variety of initiatives by the
Obama administration that they see as socialist.

Let's continue our look at the year in hate and extremism and look at
the nativist groups. These are – well, you explain what the nativist
groups are.

Mr. POTOK: Well, list a variety of groups as nativist extremist groups,
and we mean by that is these are groups that are not merely essentially
engaging in activism designed to restrict immigration in some way -
writing letters to congressman or holding rallies or whatever it may be.
These are groups that actually go out and either confront or harass in
some way people who they think are illegal aliens, so-called. Or people
who they think are trying to hire undocumented workers.

So then what I'm really talking about are the Minutemen-type groups,
people who go down to the border in some cases armed and trying to
interdict themselves, people crossing the border, or go to day worker
sites and confront and harass and, you know, yell ugly things at the
people they see there.

The growth in that sector has been remarkable as well. I mean I actually
thought that that was probably calming down after several years of
growth, but in fact we saw an 80 percent growth in the number of those
groups, or about 173 to 309 over the last year. That's by far the
biggest growth in the movement we’ve seen since it really exploded in
early 2005, when the Minutemen really took off.

GROSS: Now, you say that virtually all of the vigilante nativist groups
appeared in the spring of 2005. What happened then?

Mr. POTOK: What happened was the movement began what was initially
called the Tombstone Militias, a very small outfit started in Arizona by
a man named Chris Simcox. That went through various iterations, but in
April of 2005 something called the Minuteman Project occurred on the
border in Arizona, in which a lot of these groups and individuals came
together. That was sort of their biggest muster to date.

In the months and years after that, an enormous number of Minutemen
groups were created all over the country, not at all only on the border
but, you know, all the way up to the Canadian border, for that matter.
These groups aren't necessarily connected. There have been a lot of
splits in the movement, but they have very similar names. Most of them
use the word minutemen in their name.

GROSS: And what do they do on the Mexican border?

Mr. POTOK: Well, what they have done on the Mexican border mainly is to
carry out various kinds of so-called citizen patrols. These have ranged
from quite benign - people sitting in lawn chairs with binoculars and
reporting when they see people crossing the border to the Border Patrol,
to others who have actually gone out and held people at gunpoint.

GROSS: So one of the things you’ve taken note of in your overview of the
year in hate and extremism is the high degree of cross-pollination
between different sectors of the extremist groups. So what are some of
the ideas that are co-mingling now that used to just be represented by
separate groups?

Mr. POTOK: Well, just a couple of years ago, very few of the Patriot
groups thought anything about Mexico or what was going on there. But the
conspiracy theory, the idea that Mexico is planning to re-conquer the
Southwest, really was very big in the nativist groups - the anti-
immigration groups. We’ve seen in the last year, year and a half, that
idea spring right out into the Patriot groups and beyond that, even into
some of the Tea Party configurations.

So that is one example. We see conspiracy theories certainly traveling
in the other direction as well. The nativists, for example, have very
much adopted the idea, or at least many of them have, that there is a
new world order conspiracy, that there are concentration camps planned
and martial law coming soon. So that's the kind of cross-pollination
we’ve seen. And you know, at this point it's become a kind of wild mix
of these ideas.

It's hard to sort out, you know, which ideas are in which sectors of the
Tea Party movement or in which sectors of the nativists extremist
movement and so on. You know, but I think there has been a great deal of
mixing and I think we’ve seen that clearly in the Tea Parties as well as
some of the other groups.

GROSS: Now, when you say you’ve heard racism in the Tea Party, are you
talking about veiled things or overt statements? What are you talking

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think sometimes they are veiled - certainly the kind
of Obama in white face, Obama as a witch doctor, and so on. Yow know,
and then we get a little more right out there. You know, the idea of,
you know, we’ve got a lion - African lion in the zoo, a lying African in
the White House. You know, that kind of thing we’ve seen a lot of.

You know, another idea that is out there very strongly, I think, and
very broadly, is the idea that violence is needed from time to time to
defend the republic, so we’ve seen quite a lot of people either
paraphrasing or wearing T-shirts paraphrasing the Thomas Jefferson quote
about, you know, from time to time the tree of liberty must be watered
with the blood of patriots and tyrants. You know, I just think it is
worth remembering that those are the very words that were on the back of
Timothy McVeigh's T-shirt on the day that he blew up the federal
building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

GROSS: Now, the kind of language and the kind of signs that you’re
talking about, some people would say, look, these are extremist people
who have hooked on to the Tea Party, it's not representative of the
leadership of the Tea Party or of the majority of people within the Tea

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think that's probably right. I think the Tea Party is
a strange mix, but I think what is undeniably true is that you see these
kinds of strains running through the Tea Party. I don't think that you
can describe the Tea Party as uniformly an extremist group or certainly
a group that is racist, nor do I think it really is a group. I mean this
is a fairly inchoate movement. They are lots and lots of elements. It's
hard to keep up with how it's changing and developing.

But you know, at the end of the day, you know, once again, it was people
in the Tea Party crowd who spat on a congressman, who used various
racist and homophobic epithets over the weekend. And you know, I don’t
mean to say that those are all Tea Partiers. I don’t think that's true.
I think many people in the Tea Party movement in fact are almost
victims, are people who have been led to believe that, for instance, any
kind of national health care will mean the death of their grandparents,
will mean the loss of all kinds of health care and other things. So you
know, I think people have been frightened, and that's what you see a lot
of, not only in the Tea Parties but in many of these other groups as

GROSS: My guest is Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law
Center's Intelligence Project. The center tracks and exposes the
activities of hate groups. Potok also edits the center's magazine
Intelligence Report. The current edition is headlined "Rage on the
Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Mark Potok. He's director
of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project and editor of
their magazine Intelligence Report. The current issue is called "Rage on
the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism."

The new Harris poll says that 45 percent of Republicans agree with the
birthers and their belief that President Obama was not born in the
United States and is therefore not eligible to be president. Thirty-
eight percent say Obama's doing many of the things that Hitler did.
Twenty-four percent say he may be the anti-Christ.

As somebody who monitors extremist groups and hate groups, how concerned
are you about Obama's safety with all of these beliefs that he's doing
things that Hitler did and he may be the anti-Christ and he's not really
even our legal president?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think Obama's safety is a genuine concern. You know,
as we well know now, he received Secret Service protection long before
any other presidential candidate in our history, and that was right. It
is worth remembering that while Obama was still a candidate, before he
had even, you know, actually been elected, there were two different
racist skinhead plots to assassinate him - one in Denver, one in
Tennessee. These were admittedly half-baked plots, but it nevertheless
only takes one person to get through.

In addition, we had a guy who was found to be building a dirty bomb - a
conventional bomb with radioactive packing, in Maine, which he intended
to set off at the inauguration of Obama because he was so upset that
he'd been elected. We had yet another person, a lance corporal in the
Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, also arrested for plotting to
assassinate Obama.

The list really goes on and on. I mean, and it’s remarkable how
widespread that idea has become in certain corners. I think many people
will remember the reports of a school bus full of second and third grade
kids chanting assassinate Obama on the way to school in Idaho some
months ago. So you know, these things, I think, are very real concerns.
On the other hand, I think it's worth saying that law enforcement has
taken this very, very seriously.

You know, we just had someone arrested and charged who wrote a
particular poem that suggested the president should be killed. So you
know, I think it's a very real concern. It seems to me that officials
are taking it very seriously. But you know, that doesn’t stop the worry.

GROSS: Are some of these extremist groups less underground than they
used to be and more comfortable being above ground, being visible, being
out there?

Mr. POTOK: I think so. I think that many of them are kind of coming more
out into the open. You know, there is still some trepidation. I know
that many of the militia groups, for instance, are extremely loathe to
let broadcast news reporters anywhere near them. They don’t want to be
on TV marching around in the woods with their guns and so on. On the
other hand though, I think many of the groups are more and more willing
to say really remarkable things.

We talked earlier in the show about Mike Vanderboegh, you know, openly
suggesting on his Web site that bricks be thrown through the windows of
Democratic Party offices and then celebrating that brick throwing. So
there's been an awful lot of that.

You know, another case of people really coming out and saying things
that weren't said much in the past are really two cases, the case of two
neo-Nazi leaders: a man named Hal Turner and another name Bill White.
These are both people who had shows - Internet radio shows or, well, no,
Turner had an Internet radio show and White had a Web site.

But these are people who routinely did things like identify certainly
enemies, say so-and-so should be killed, it would be patriotic to kill
this person, and then providing that person's address. So that is a kind
of in-your-face call for violence that we really hadn't seen much 10, 15
years ago. It's really quite different now.

GROSS: Now, I'm glad you brought that up because then the question
arises - is that a criminal offense or not, to call for somebody's death
or to imply that they should be hurt in some way and then give their
address in a public way?

Mr. POTOK: It's a very close legal question. Let me say that, you know,
these calls are not really merely implying that a person should be
killed. You know, these have been things like it would be patriotic to
kill this human rights lawyer in Canada because he played a certain role
in a case up there. Here is his address. You know, in that particular
posting the headline was: Kill Richard Warman. Extraordinary stuff.

Now, legally there are two cases going on. One of these people was
convicted. Bill White was convicted of threatening a particular set of
people. But what he did that made it a fairly easy court case was he
personally contacted the people by telephone in addition to posting
material on the Internet about them, so those people, the victims, were
able to testify and did testify that they were terrified that they saw
the threat as what's known in case law as a true threat. In other words,
they truly believed that this person would come get them.

GROSS: So where is the line between legal culpability for a death threat
and just, you know, colorful language?

Mr. POTOK: Well, there are two ways you can go after people that make
these threats. Criminal incitement is a very limited kind of charge. To
be found guilty of criminal incitement, you must have incited someone in
a kind of immediate way and typically in an excited situation.

You know, in the case of a threat or what's called a true threat in case
law, what it really depends on is the idea, would a reasonable person
really have believed this was a threat, say, to kill a person? Or would
it have been seen by a reasonable person essentially as bar talk, you
know, I'd like to kill that son of a gun, that kind of thing?

GROSS: How much are you at the Southern Poverty Law Center following
social networking and Web sites? And I'm wondering if it’s making it
easier to follow extremists in hate groups, if it’s making them more

Mr. POTOK: Well, it is in some ways making them more transparent. I mean
it's remarkable - you know, one thing that is not as important as was
once thought are hate Web sites on the Internet. It turns out hate sites
really work like all other sites. If the content doesn’t change, you
know, people go visit them a few times. Essentially they act as a
brochure for your group. But when you look at the social networking
site, some of the neo-Nazi forums like, it is really a
remarkable thing to see.

First of all, some of them are very large. Stormfront has over 140,000
registered users. You know, this is a site run by a former Klan leader
from Alabama. But what is sort of fascinating is you will see
discussions of ideology, of organizing in the movement, of questions
like is the primary enemy black people or gay people or the Jews or
whatever it may be, discussions of should we go - you know, let’s go
join the Tea Parties. They may not be exactly like us, but we have a lot
in common.

So yes, these kinds of sites have made their world much more
transparent. In addition, we see sites like New Saxon, which is really,
it’s Facebook for Nazis. And you go up there and you will see these men
and women, you know, often looking for love and looking for friends and
so on. At the same time, they're posting pictures of themselves standing
with AK-47s in front of swastika flags and so on, and in some cases you
get remarkable insights. New Saxon has carried quite a number of
profiles of American neo-Nazis and other kinds of extremists in the U.S.
military, which is quite a frightening thing.

GROSS: Now, there is a demonstration scheduled for April 19th in
Washington. It's a Second Amendment march. What is this march about?

Mr. POTOK: Well, just what it says. I mean it is a kind of hardline
don’t-mess-with-our-guns march. It's an odd thing in the sense that the
Obama administration has really never threatened to pass gun control and
it seems very clear that there's no interest at all in trying to do
that. You know, but what's remarkable about the - so it's a bit
remarkable in the first place that the demonstration is happening at

It's being planned on a very wide scale. You know, also I think needs to
be said about it is that there are now people out there who are very
strongly advocating that people come armed to this demonstration as much
as they can do that legally. You know, in addition we see all kinds of
groups like militia groups and so on saying we're going too.

You know, I'm not suggesting that this is a militia event, but certainly
those people will be there, I think in very large numbers. It seems to
me the final thing to say about this is, of course, the organizers say
we are doing this on April 19th because that is the day that the first
shots were fired in Lexington in the Revolutionary War, which is true.
At the same time, I think it's very worth remembering that that is also
the day that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah building in Oklahoma
City, leaving 168 people dead.

You know, so I think the organizers would angrily reject the idea that
somehow they're celebrating what McVeigh did - the murder of those
people - and I'm sure they're not. But the reality is, is that, you
know, it serves as a reminder of where some of these kinds of angry,
angry ideas can lead.

GROSS: Mark Potok, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. POTOK: And thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Mark Potok directs the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence
Project. The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups.
Potok also edits the center's magazine, Intelligence Report. The current
special edition is called "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and

You'll find links to the articles in that edition on our Web site,

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Bigger Than Life': A Subversive Suburban Surprise


The film director Nicholas Ray, who died in 1979, made some of the most
important American movies of the 1950s, including the noirish "In A
Lonely Place" with Humphrey Bogart, the melancholy rodeo drama "The
Lusty Men" with Robert Mitchum," and the most influential teen movie of
all time, "Rebel Without a Cause" with James Dean.

Despite critical acclaim for his work, one of Ray's greatest films,
"Bigger Than Life," has long been unavailable on home video. It's just
been released on DVD and Blu-Ray, and our critic-at-large John Powers
says that this is one Hollywood movie that grapples with the deepest
conflicts of American life.

JOHN POWERS: You often hear that American filmmaking hit its peak in the
1970s, but I cast my vote for the supposedly buttoned-down '50s, a
decade flush with weird, dreamy movies in which dark themes swam beneath
the surface of the story like sharks.

A great example of this is "Bigger Than Life," a highly entertaining
1956 classic that reaches home video for the first time in a glorious
new Blu-Ray and DVD from Criterion. Directed by Nicholas Ray, who's best
remembered these days for "Rebel Without a Cause," this drama takes the
hoariest of bad-movie staples — the disease of the week idea — and
elevates it into something original: a tricky, complicated examination
of family, materialism, repression, and the explosive nature of the

James Mason stars as Ed Avery, a schoolteacher who lives in a small,
two-story house with his wife, Lou — that's Barbara Rush — and his young
son, Richie, played by Christopher Olsen. Although Ed's a good citizen,
he's frustrated. His house is covered with maps and travel posters for
places he'll never visit. His mantel boasts a deflated football from the
high school game when he had his one great moment of triumph. But that
was long ago, long before he and Lou turned into what he calls boring

All this changes when Ed develops a deadly strain of arthritis. His only
hope is the new miracle drug cortisone, and at first it does seem
miraculous. Ed not only feels physically better, he becomes downright
exuberant, rushing Lou to the store to buy her Gucci outfits.
Unfortunately, Ed's sense of himself keeps growing. His id runs amok,
revealing the thwarted grandiosity that's been buried within the
sensible schoolteacher.

Just listen to how he talks to the parents at his school's PTA night.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bigger Than Live")

Mr. JAMES MASON (Actor): (as Ed Avery) I see my point of view is new to
many of you. But ask yourselves, how do we describe the unfortunate
individual who carries his unspoiled childhood instincts into adult
life? We say he's arrested. We call him a moron.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as character) Well, I'm not at all sure
that I like to have my daughter Louise brought up that way, and by her

Mr. MASON: (as Ed Avery) My dear lady, your Louisa's a charming little
creature, but we must try to examine the problem without prejudice or
sentiment. The hard fact remains that your daughter at her present stage
of development is roughly on an intellectual par with the African

(Soundbite of gasps)

POWERS: Gobbling even more cortisone pills, Ed starts seeing himself as
a misunderstood visionary — a rebel with a cause — and in the process he
goes from Napoleonic to chillingly messianic. It's as if Ward Cleaver in
"Leave It to Beaver" decided to straighten out the Beav with an actual

Ed's transformation is both scary and oddly funny. He might've been a
teacher in "Twin Peaks." And it's superbly captured by Ray, himself a
troubled man who had few peers at exploring ferocious, often self-
destructive passions.

For starters, "Bigger Than Life" is a bravura piece of style. Ray evokes
Ed's inner disarray through the brilliant deployment of color, music,
widescreen compositions, and recurring images — in particular the
staircase in Ed's house that charts his emotional ups and downs. Of
course, he's helped by a tremendous performance by Mason, who neatly
goes from bottled-up quiescence to vainglorious preening to scary
megalomania. For Ray, who clearly saw himself in his hero, all these
various personas are aspects of the American psyche in the 1950s.

And because it was actually made in that decade by an artist who lived
the inner conflicts he was depicting, "Bigger Than Life" has a juiciness
missing from a period show like "Mad Men," which is so wised up about
its era that its themes are consciously deployed like chess pieces. In
fact, what gives this movie its power is that it embodies the suppressed
hysteria of the Eisenhower era, whose vaunted conformism contained the
seeds of its own annihilation.

Talk about ambivalence. Here, the nuclear family is seen as a refuge,
and a trap. Here father-knows-best patriarchy is seen as reassuringly
orderly, and tyrannical. Here we see how capitalist progress gives
ordinary folks access to fabulous goods - miracle drugs, designer
dresses - and unleashes ruinous desires.

Naturally, being a studio movie, "Bigger Than Life" had to disguise such
subversiveness. It winds up with an officially happy ending, even if
Ed's grin seems a bit, well, crazy. You see, he's caught in the endless
conflict between a profound longing for security, a security built on
repression and mediocrity, and a burning desire for liberation, to shake
off the constraints of civilization and live as libidinously as the

And if his story still resonates after all these years, that's because
it offers a heightened version of something we all feel. Torn between
being safe and wanting to live large, Ed isn't actually a weirdo or a
nut job. What he is is a modern American.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and his reviews and columns
appear on You can download podcasts of our show on our Web
site, And you can find us on Facebook and follow us on
Twitter at nprfreshair.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue