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"Jason Meursault" is not a stranger to the pages of OpEd News. He appeared here last month to discuss his concerns about the end days of the Trump administration.
Now Meursault, an expat American living abroad for more than four decades, is tackling other tough issues, including white fear and racism and the growing threat of extreme right-wing violence, which was foreshadowed a decade ago by officials at the Department of Homeland Security.
The idea for this interview sprang from the mostly white Jan. 6 MAGA riot at the Capitol and calls to label the violence domestic terrorism. As he thought about what happened and conducted research, Meursault realized he needed to talk about more than extreme right-wing violence or domestic terrorism.
He deployed his analytic skills as he answered questions via email. Meursault has worked in various Middle Eastern countries as an academic, international educational consultant, analyst of international affairs, and as a US defense contractor in a number of countries known in one way or another in their association and spats with terrorism -- Libya, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, Bahrain, and Turkey.
Meursault explores the enemy within in this interview, which first ran at my Substack newsletter, What's Going On.
You are a white expat American who has lived aboard for more than four decades. Tell me about some of the reasons for your decision to live and work overseas.
I wanted some time "off," ahead of going back to grad school to do a Ph.D. A 10-month opportunity came up in Iran, so I went for the experience, money, and adventure. More than 44 years later I guess I am still looking for the end of 10 months.
You had the option to build a life for yourself outside of the United States. Many Americans who feel they do not have a future here don't have that option. How do they avoid becoming a victim?
Speaking from the experience of both family and friends, the option of leaving the comforts of what you know ("Home," in every sense of the word) is not one that comes naturally. It didn't to me either.Then Iran came up, and I just said, "f*ck it, let's skip the foreplay." And wow did I. I have a friend and colleague who in another lifetime headed up serious crime and violence for the state of Tennessee. We were reminiscing a few weeks ago - his comment was that he missed "the running and gunning" and the adrenaline rush that came with it; I had to agree that I became an adrenaline junky during the Iranian revolution 1978-79, especially when I learned I could have an important part to play.Options don't appear on a table like a deck of cards you can fan out and examine. Options are quite often what you don't consider as real and viable - oftentimes, options are in and of themselves unfamiliar possibilities. That was leaving the States for me.Americans who see themselves as victims victimize themselves first. They create environments in which they view themselves as doomed to failure, the system is rigged against them, etc. Then it all spirals south - socially, economically. They have to have someone to blame. The government is an easy target, as is who they feel the competition is to hold them at disadvantage.
Studies show that the death rate for white Americans is going up. What does this tell you?
Yep. Tells me that the end result of marginalization, isolation, fear of irrelevance, and victimhood is "death by despair."
A new public health study released by University of Toronto researchers found that rising mortality in white Americans is partly due to perceptions that they are losing social status.The paper, titled "Growing sense of social status threat and concomitant deaths of despair among whites," highlights this population health phenomenon that has been unfolding for the past two decades.Mortality rates seldom rise unless a society is subjected to something disastrous, like a major economic crisis, an infectious disease epidemic, or war. But there has been an increase in working-age mortality rates for just one group in the United States since 1999, and that's non-Hispanic whites.
So the death rate is increasing for white Americans, many of whom can't or won't go elsewhere to improve their condition. Do these realities have anything to do with the mostly white, MAGA riot at the Capitol and the extreme rhetoric coming from some individuals and groups? Or is racism the only thing that explains what happened?
Many of whom "won't" go elsewhere to improve their condition. This is a conscious (or maybe subconscious) choice, "not to." Probably because they don't feel they should "have to." Sort of, "I am here, I don't have it, so I will support someone or a movement that promises to give it to me." What do the MAGA folk always say when asked why they voted for Trump? "He delivered on his promises."These people slay me. On the one hand, they buy into the message that the liberal left wants to institute a socialist state and that's not good for America or within the vision of our founding fathers. On the other hand, they want life and the means to a livelihood "given" to them via a government that listens to them and addresses their needs. These same people will be first in line to b*tch if they don't receive a stimulus check. They are not consistent in their values and in what they think they believe; they are seriously confused... but out of chaos can come a notional "order" -- Trump gave them that, even if only the belief in that.Racism certainly played a part in the Capitol riot, if only subtly. Angry white Americans fear the eraser end of a pencil -- marginalized, isolated, growing irrelevance, search for identity in order to survive, and then identifying as victims. The real fear is erasure. Their rhetoric has no basis in logical thought and understanding. Ask them what they are angry about... seriously, do a Jay Leno and go jaywalking out on the streets one night and ask each passerby wearing a MAGA hat or T-shirt what he or she is angry about. The go-to replies will include, "We're losing our country, our jobs, and our livelihoods to immigrants (legal and illegal, but you'll hear the descriptive "illegal" 10 times out of 10)." Add into the mix Trump and right-wing-encouraged xenophobia, and these people forget their roots, where they originally come from. Unless they're living in a teepee on an Indian reservation and smoking a peace pipe in a tax-exempt casino, then they too came from somewhere "else."
Based on your research, you've concluded that there are four categories to explain the escalating white violence in the United States. You've listed marginalization, isolation, fear of irrelevance, and victimhood. What do you mean?
They are separate as individual "categories," but together they form a progression, with "victimhood" becoming the end result... which then spawns a reaction, in the case we are talking about, extreme violent reaction.Going through the above progression, as a healthy white male, did I feel?1- Marginalized (yeah, you bet).2- Isolated (possibly).3- Irrelevant (yeah, society was evolving in ways I thought unfair and I was part of the "old").4- A victim? (No, I created my own opportunities and removed myself from mainstream American Society. Initially for adventure and money -- but I found a way of life I could survive in and even thrive).So while I understand, I can not condone the direction extremists want to take to undermine the fabric of American society and culture. "Us" versus "them" is really the "Haves" versus the "Have-Nots." As the pendulum swings in one favorable direction, the direction in its wake is perceived as very unfavorable.Another recent phenomenon is that Americans are increasingly leaving the United States. (Was I a visionary?):Click HereClick Here
What similarities and differences do you see between the terrorism carried out abroad and the domestic terrorism that flared on Jan. 6 at the Capitol?
Recruitment is based on the dissemination of propaganda that is then used to target those likely to feel dissatisfied with government, the disenfranchised -- the have-nots, and the left-behind. The targeted segment(s) of the population are then "groomed" toward recruitment in whatever movement is afoot as an "acceptable alternative" to the government they are dissatisfied with. This strategy is nothing new, as it was used to great success during the rise of Hitler and Nazism. It is a strategy also used by Al-Qaeda and ISIS. You can analyze terrorist groups according to their target population and base of operation, four basic types of organizations are delineated: Domestic-based xenofighters, foreign-based xenofighters, domestic-based homofighters, and foreign-based homofighters.
How do you explain any differences that you see?
Unfortunately, I see no real differences -- only similarities. And don't think international terrorists wouldn't like to feed off homegrown US domestic terrorism, like as an extended main course.World War 2, Mussolini piggy-backed his brand of Italian Fascism onto Hitler's German Nazism. Recall the more recent years of the Red Brigade (Italy), the Red Army Faction (Germany), and the Japanese Red Army (Japan), the IRA (Ireland), and on the fringe the PLO (representing then a non-state) -- while national and nationalistic in scope they all networked with one another to evince their respective agenda menus and arrange their financial support to carry out programs of mayhem, terror, and death, both domestically and internationally. Muammar Qaddafi, for one example, was an equal opportunity funder of international and domestic terrorism; he financed both sides of the Irish conflict in the late 70s. His terrorist training camp up the Libyan coast toward Tobruk in Al-Derna was multi-national in the make-up of both its training staff and trainees.
Increasingly, the mainstream answer to extreme behavior by white groups is to say the rioters, the insurrectionists, the seditionists, the conspiracy theory crowd are dangerous. And that we need to treat them as domestic terrorists and put them in their place. Do the violent people need to be confronted strongly by law enforcement and the U.S. justice system?
In a word, "Yes." And in a slightly longer answer, "Yes, but carefully." You don't want the US to be slapped with the label that it imprisons Americans for exercising their First Amendment rights. What would the Nazis and Fascists and even the Russians and Chinese today have done to such people? Sure imprison them... likely, execute them. No US administration or State government can do that. Alternatives? Fine them? They have no means to pay. Imprison them at the tax-payers' expense? How long will that last, keeping in mind that it could last a very long time. I hate to say it, but perhaps negotiation toward appeasement holds the answer, but the two sides are so diametrically opposed that I really think that that is a non-starter.Back a step and let's ask the question: "Dangerous to whom or what?" I could care less if they merely represented a danger to themselves, but they seek to impose their values, their wills on other Americans in the hope to "recruit" them to their way of thinking and courses of action. This is straight from the Al Qaeda and ISIS playbooks... and this makes them dangerous. Toward a bigger picture, the ultimate danger is to the social, economic, and political fabric of the United States of America.
You sent me an article about President Grant. He essentially waged war against domestic terrorists of his day, white violent extremists. Eventually, though, the fight lessened, giving the extremists the room they needed to rebuild and fight another day. Any lessons here for our current predicament?
I am all for dialog, as long as the conversation is two-way. The 75,000,000 who voted for Trump are not going away; neither will they go into hibernation for the next 4 years. They are also NOT typically characterized as being very open to dialog. Does a new Administration marginalize and isolate them even further? A mistake, in my opinion (as I once told Billy Carter in a restaurant in Benghazi, Libya in August 1979, when his heavies wanted to clear the restaurant, "Hey! We are all Americans, aren't we?") Or does the administration seek to appease? Probably not a good option either. And then to enter into a nationwide dialog would also require a very public acknowledgment of a divide that exists. I'd say it's too soon after the recent election and the Biden people have their hands full with the economy and a really mismanaged pandemic.
You've pointed out that people with military and law enforcement backgrounds are sometimes drawn to or recruited into the far-right extremist ranks. This reality cuts both ways. It gives the extremists or terrorists skilled warriors. It also opens the door for skilled undercover law enforcement agents to walk in and take down dangerous groups. It can also create a sense of paranoia in the ranks. Is he really with us? Does the open door for law enforcement plant the seeds of demise for violent extremist organizations?
That scenario could play out, as you describe, but I don't buy it. Why? Because military and law enforcement types are used to order, law -- chaos and the unexpected that chaos breeds are not options. But sometimes in order to achieve a basis for "restoring" order, you have to put up with a bit of chaos, maybe even cause it a little to demonstrate the "need" for law, order, and rule by force. The "martial law" idea that was being bandied about in early January was more than just a rumbling.
Politicians sometimes say that changes in society will protect those who have suffered discrimination, while not harming those who have benefited from privilege. Is this true? Aren't there only so many pieces of pie to slice and share?
The pie can be looked at as finite if you understand limits within the context of an economist -- that all resources are scarce, fixed in supply. We can increase our knowledge of "supply" through discovery, but we can't really change the actual supply itself.Americans lost a sense of how America was "built." From the pioneering days to the days of developing and then moving from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy to now an economy based on technology, the pie was viewed as infinite, in the sense that resources could evolve new products and services through advancements in science, technology, finance, production and the necessary ingredients of imagination and creativity. We have lost that. And when I say "we," I don't mean any one color, gender, or creed... "we" as Americans collectively.I will say that "we" shrunk the size of the pie through outsourcing jobs to adjuncts and other countries, thereby increasing their sense of the pie they can share and at the same time shrinking that pie for Americans at large. "Made in America" used to be a source of pride. "Made in America" is very scarce indeed.
You say Americans have lost their sense of renewal and discovery. But aren't people pushing for environmental change, even the Green New Deal, displaying that old American zeal for change and reinvention as a way to share the pie with more people and create a better life in this country? Is it possible environmental change will meet some of the needs of aggrieved white Americans who ironically mock the environmental movement?
As for Americans having lost their sense of renewal and discovery, "discovery" for starters occurs as the result of intellectual curiosity. How many conservative news talk-show hosts/anchors exhibit any real intellectual curiosity? They mouth and parrot what the Murdoch-types have fed them, the end result being the brainwashing of America. (And I keep telling people that Murdoch is an American for convenience -- if ever there was a case for "birthers"...)Why is "Make America Great Again" a movement that is so widely embraced? Because it has gotten around through the conservative talk show hosts that America has lost its "greatness"... frankly, I hadn't noticed. But it was a Trump campaign slogan that got picked up and embraced by the conservative right-wing extremists to the point that after a while they gathered quite a following whose theme was that "we can only make America great again through the imposition of our values."What has America reinvented? But I will grant you that there is plenty of room for retooling.The environmental thing is interesting to me in that there should be no question that we need to address it as a planet, and yet we quibble over responsibility and direct decisive action. Again, it is resistance to change that hurts us economically, while the change-makers like Musk and Bezos kick themselves in the asses all the way to the bank. The environmental movement would certainly create new economic opportunities, but the GM autoworker would have to understand, accept, and then embrace change in order to evolve and remain viable, relevant. I would say there is a movement afoot in this direction, but not enough of one RIGHT NOW to make a long-term impact.
Are there lessons white people who feel like victims, who feel aggrieved, can learn from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?
In terms of his hopes and optimism for a better future, yes. His "I Have a Dream" speech is one not enough white Americans have heard or read.. they need to... that same "dream" will one day be theirs. In terms of King's method of non-violence, he borrowed that from Gandhi. So yeah, I'd say that white America has a lot left to learn, mostly about themselves and their becoming.
What do you mean by "their becoming"?
"American Becoming." What he is turning into. Don't confuse evolution and transformation."Evolving" is oftentimes a conscious choice and "devolving" can oftentimes be unconscious (as in one is unaware that it is happening).Any prospect of change brings along with it "confronting the unknown, the different," at least notionally to begin with... and then embracing the need for change... and then affecting that change -- that is conscious. One assumes that this would be a positive progression. Then there is the opposite, which is the process of "devolving." This occurs when consciousness is unaware of potentially positive alternatives and through inaction or negative reaction "becomes" rather than "evolves." The Irish writer James Joyce nailed it when in his frustration he typified Ireland and the Irish version of Everyman as "moribund." This encapsulates today's American "Everyman."