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Whatever Happened To…

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I confess that I hadn’t been following all that closely the controversy in New York City over the proposed construction of a Muslim cultural center not far from the site of the September 11 attack. Until, that is, I saw an item featuring the former Idaho fire brand, Bryan Fischer, suggesting that the country ought not allow the construction of another Mosque, ever, anywhere, at anytime.

Fischer, who used to run the Idaho Values Alliance (and is still listed on the group’s website) and served as the Idaho Senate chaplain, is cutting a wide swath these days. Fischer writes an on-line column, hosts a radio show and regularly offers up even more incendiary rhetoric that he did when he was defending a display of the Ten Commandments in a Boise park or objecting to books in the Nampa public library.

It was his latest column that grabbed my attention. Here’s the first graph:

“Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero. This is for one simple reason: each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.”

Ok, then.

Other recent Fischer commentary has focused on his claim that new Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is “a dangerous judicial activist.” He also questioned the new Justice’s sexual orientation. Fischer jumped on the bandwagon with Texas Rep. Joe Barton, who he said was right to call President Obama’s ability to secure a pledge of $20 billion in Gulf Coast clean-up dollars from BP “a shakedown.” And – this one got a lot of air in the blogosphere – Fischer made the charge that Hitler was a homosexual and that some how that “fact” leads to a connection between Nazism and gays in the American military.

Read it for yourself. You can’t make this stuff up, unless you’re Bryan Fischer.

Fischer summarized his Hitler/homosexual/gays in the military column with this:

“Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews. Gays in the military is an experiment that has been tried and found disastrously and tragically wanting. Maybe it’s time for Congress to learn a lesson from history.” Some history.

Fischer bases this view on a 2001 Hitler biography by a German historian Lothar Machtan. A New York Times reviewer, a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said of the book and its scholarship:

“Machtan employs innuendo and insinuation. He asks rhetorical questions designed to lead the reader to answer them in a manner that supports his argument, even when alternative explanations are at least as plausible. He introduces possibilities that are then assumed to be probabilities and, indeed, certitudes. By the use of quotation marks, he highlights what are probably innocuous comments so that they seem loaded with homoerotic meaning. In short, he has written a tendentious book that is more a brief for the prosecution than a work of balanced history.”

Sounds a lot like a Bryan Fischer column.

Just for the record, and leave it to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show to drive this point, no serious historian of Hitler and Nazis makes an absolute claim that Hitler was homosexual. One suspects it would be news to Eva Braun. Fischer and his “sources” also conveniently ignore the incontrovertible historical record that the Nazis rounded up and sent to the camps homosexuals, along with Jews, the disabled, gypsies and other “undesirables.”

And, even if the record was less clear, conflating the tragedy of Nazi German with homosexuality is the worst kind of, let’s say it, intolerance and hate speech.

Fischer’s latest contention involving the proposed New York Muslim center hangs on just as thin a thread. Fischer wrote on August 11:

“The imam who is heading this project, Feisel Abdul Rauf, has ties to terrorist organizations himself, and said in a ’60 Minutes’ interview shortly after 9/11 that ‘United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.'”

Truth be told, Rauf has long had a close relationship with the U.S. State Department and Bush-era State Department official Karen Hughes enlisted his help and shared the stage with him when that administration was attempting to enhance its public diplomacy activities in the Muslim world. For what its worth, on Wednesday the Times had a bit more nuanced take on the New York controversy.

Or, put another way, not only is Fischer guilty of demonizing another religion he hasn’t got his facts straight. Even his throw away statement that the Muslim center is planned “for Ground Zero” is wrong. As this map shows the two sites are at least two long city blocks apart. It is sort of like saying that Boise High School is on the Statehouse grounds. It just isn’t true.

Here is my historical point: America has always had its share of Bryan Fischers. They live now, as in the past, on the hot oxygen of hate masquerading as political speech or true religion and they thrive because the media let’s them get away with it.

In the 1930’s Father Charles Coughlin built a mass following with his radio program and newspaper. Coughlin preached a populist economic message, flavored with anti-Semitism. He raged against the Federal Reserve, Franklin Roosevelt, Communism and in favor of a return to what he considered the true meaning of the Constitution.

Another preacher-turned-politician Gerald L.K. Smith started out as a Huey Long disciple, but after Long’s death he attempted to pick up the Kingfish’s mantle in Louisiana and beyond. He built a sizable following in the 1930’s and 1940’s. You can find YouTube videos of Smith that sound strikingly like contemporary cable television coverage of a Tea Party rally. In one 1936 speech, Smith frothed against “corrupt, thieving politicians” and predicted that “the baby havin’, stump grubbin’, sod bustin’, go to meetin’, God fearin'” Americans were finally going to take over the country.

Before long both Coughlin and Smith flamed out. Smith couldn’t get any candidate for president in 1948 to accept his endorsement and, in fact, he was widely repudiated. Coughlin’s own Bishop eventually silenced his radio demagoguery. Both men lived into the 1970’s, mostly forgotten and remembered only, as recounted in Alan Brinkley’s fine book, as Voices of Protest.

Bryan Fischer is of the same ilk and I suspect he will eventually secure the same fate. The pity is that such folks gain credibility at all and that it lasts for any length of time.

I reserve a spoonful of blame for the Idaho media who gave Fischer a launching pad for what is now a national megaphone and hardly ever held him accountable. While he was riling things up in Idaho there was precious little reporting on who financed him, where he really came from and whether his ideas and accusations could withstand serious review.

Guys like Coughlin and Smith rose the same way. They were media sensations in their day, always available to comment on anything and masters of gaining media attention with flamboyant rhetoric and flimsy facts.

This famous quote is attributed to, among others, Mark Twain: “A lie can run around the world six times while the truth is still trying to put on its pants.”

Google “Bryan Fischer” and see how slowly the truth is catching up with him. It’s time the former Idahoan to get some of the scrutiny he lavishes on others and should have gotten when he was dishing out his brand of demagoguery in Idaho.

To paraphrase Bryan Fischer, the monstrosities contained in this man’s hateful rhetoric are dedicated to overthrowing common sense and fundamental human decency. No one should take him seriously. Some obviously do and that, too, is a monstrosity.