A Brief History of Dangerous Others

tags: conspiracy theories, conservatism, far right

Richard Kreitner is a writer on politics and history who contributes to The Nation, The Baffler, and Raritan, among other publications. His most recent book is Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union (2020). 

Rick Perlstein is a historian and author whose books include Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014), and, most recently, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980 (2020). 

Everything would have been fine but for the outside agitators: the hoary cliché has been deployed by those in power to insulate themselves from accountability at least since the scribes who wrote the Book of Chronicles described the archangel who came down from the heavens to make mischief: “And Satan stood up against Israel…”

Why do those in positions of authority blame disorder on outside agitators? Consider a useful case study from 1741, in New York City, a town of about ten thousand residents, at least two thousand of whom were enslaved Africans. A greater number of fires than usual were breaking out, including one that destroyed the governor’s mansion. A rumor spread that a black man had been heard to cackle, “Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch, A LITTLE, Damn it, BY-AND-BY,” beside some hot coals secreted beneath a haystack. Three days later, the City Council announced the existence of a “villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us,” enacting a wicked plot “to burn the King’s House and this Town, and to kill and destroy the Inhabitants.” A witch hunt ensued. Both the nature of the alleged crime and the number of alleged conspirators waxed daily until it became, according to the Crown’s indictment of the alleged ringleader, a “Negro Plot to burn the City of New York.” This supposed ringleader, however, was a white Englishman.

But not just any Englishman. According to the testimony of a single witness, John Ury was a Catholic priest sent by Rome to evangelize in New York, as part of a scheme “to extirpate all other Religions whatsoever, but especially the Protestant Religion.” In other words, an outside agitator, aiming to tear down public order itself. Outside agitators always do. Study well the language of those who accuse them: like an X-ray, they reveal the subdermal anxieties of the social body itself.

White colonists were terrified of the Africans they had enslaved. Two years earlier, a rebellion in South Carolina had ended with twenty-five English dead, so haunting authorities in that colony that its legislature passed a ten-year moratorium on importing human beings. The white New Yorkers were also, unsurprisingly, terrified of the surrounding Native population whose land they had expropriated—and that was where the anti-Catholic panic came in. For they were, in addition, surrounded by rival French colonists, who, more rustic than the English, were far more comfortable living among the indigenous population. These French settlers, according to the indictment of the supposed priest, fiendishly deployed the “pomp and pageantry of the Romish church,” which “powerfully appealed to the senses of the rude savage, who could not so easily comprehend the abstract truths of the protestant religion.” Thus would they induce Indians to join Africans as shock troops to overwhelm the English altogether.

This sounds like some emanation from a time before reason. Except in its uncanny similarity to the fears adduced some two hundred and seventy years later, in Occupy Unmasked, a 2012 film by Stephen Bannon, who would go on to serve as Donald Trump’s chief White House strategist. It explains the protests against Wall Street that erupted the previous year as the culmination of a plan hatched in 2005 by a cabal of eco-terrorists, Code Pink activists, and Black Panthers, who descended upon New Orleans, supposedly to help with the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, but actually “as a means to work together, finally, for the revolution.” A supposed movement insider explained the absence of African Americans in Occupy encampments: “Because they’re being readied for part two: and that is race warfare.”

Then, late this June, after two wealthy St. Louis attorneys pulled guns on activists who were passing peacefully by the couple’s mansion en route to a protest, the two lawyers had their attorney release a statement contending, according to The Washington Post, that “white ‘agitators’ were responsible for provoking the white couple.” Video of the incident clearly established that this was not the case.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books

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