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NEA's Guide to the "Extreme" Right

Overview and Introduction to the Extreme Right: A State's Approach

They won't go away.

No matter how bizarre we believe their beliefs to be, no matter how illogical and inconsistent their goals appear, and no matter how often we reassure ourselves that "this, too, shall pass," the political, social, and religious forces that make up the radical right in contemporary American society will not go away.

The radical right today is a long, long way from the hysterical groups of 30 or 40 years ago.

Today rightwingers have grown immeasurably in skills and sophistication, as witnessed by their skillful direct mail fundraising operations and the sophistication of their political campaign skills, and perhaps most ominous of all, the various organizations of the radical right have learned to work more harmoniously together to accomplish mutual goals. They've learned what education workers have known for many years: that working together, we can do more than is possible alone.

Why NEA and Its Affiliates Must Go

The overriding goal of the radical right is to impose a new political, social, and religious order on the nation.

The ideal New America, for the radical right, would be one in which citizens conformed to the rightwing views on everything from foreign policy and constitutional interpretation to the selection of textbooks in our classrooms.

Unfortunately for the extremist point of view, free public education provides a strong defense against the frantic propaganda and namecalling that forms the core of rightwing assaults on the American consciousness.

America's public schools foster free intellectual inquiry and encourage students at every level of education to understand and respect the enormous diversity of the nation and the inherent freedom we enjoy to grow and learn and achieve.

NEA and its affiliates represent the overwhelming majority of the country's education workers. And we have become the radical right's primary target for one key reason: we teach the children.

The Association advocates more effectively for the improvement and the strengthening of public education than any other single body. We are almost 2 million strong; we are highly organized; we are politically effective. Time after time, these characteristics have signaled a death knell for the radical right's plan and dreams.

So -- if the radical right agenda for the nation is to gain any ground, then the number one organizational obstacle, the NEA, must somehow be discredited and weakened.

How the Game Is Played

There are three major aspects of the radical right assault on NEA and its affiliates:

1. The Big Lie. This approach calls for making outrageous charges and statements with no basis in truth -- and then forcing NEA (or any other opponents so charged) into a defensive posture, saying, "That's not so!" The opponent is therefore forced into spending time and money defending itself. Phony charges against NEA are endless -- and include such statements as "NEA wants homosexuals in our classrooms" and "NEA favors marijuana."

2. Attack on the Association Structure. This approach is the old "fifth column" tactic, whereupon members are told of alleged practices going on inside the organization that they won't like. The vehicle for this approach is usually a direct mailing to educators that stresses such ideas as "the Association is run by a handful of powerful staff," and "dues are funneled into the coffers of leftist politicians behind members' backs."

3. The Anti-American, Anti-God Angle. This tactic attempts to position NEA and its affiliates as not past of "The American Way," The charges involved in this approach call for labeling NEA as "Anti-God," and "deeply embroiled in a long-term communist/socialist conspiracy." The fuel for the "Anti-God" charge is, of course, the Association's continued support of the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state.

And central to all of these tactics is the engine of the radical right: the fundraising pitch. The sole purpose of the wild charge against NEA is to get the audience to respond to the information by parting with some cash to help the radical right organization of the moment "carry on its most important work." The financial shakedown is presented as a moral crusade to "save our children" or "save religious freedom" or "keep democracy safe for the working American."

Fighting Back

The radical right, for all its relatively new-found strength, has many areas of vulnerability.

Some of these are obvious: human logic and intelligence; the basic American appetite for an environment free of unwarranted restraints imposed by others; the United States Constitution.

But another weakness within the radical right's own infrastructure is the sheer absence of logic in their own positions.

For example:

The radical right says it is pro-life but it bitterly opposes gun control legislation and favors capital punishment.

The radical right demands that educators conduct value-free education -- but it is for school prayer, and radical righters want schools to use only textbooks supporting their values.

The radical right opposes welfare -- but it opposes government funding for programs like job corps and other job training programs.

The radical right demands that the size of government be reduced -- but it insists on higher and higher military budgets.

The radical right wants to get government off our backs and opposes programs like environmental protection and consumer protection -- but it demands government regulation of adult sexual behavior and reproductive choice.

The radical right believes that public education is destroying society -- but it wants to do even more harm to public schools by paying federal money to parents sending their kids to private schools.

But we must not for a moment believe that the sheer absence of logic and common sense views within the constraints of radical right "philosophy" will make it go away. Not at all -- because the genius of its efforts is that most of its appeals are direct to refined lists of individuals who share only some of its views. Very few people who've given money to one right wing cause or another realize that their funds are often used to underwrite further solicitation efforts for a whole host of rightist operations.

It's important for educators to understand the entire array of right wing views and to spread the word whenever possible.

As this section of the resource book makes clear, the major radical right operations are centralized in the hands of a relatively small group of people and organizations. It's important for us to understand that no matter how rich and powerful and broadly-supported the radical right, the actual numbers and impact are substantially different.

Our job is to spread the word about these people -- to our colleagues, to our friends, to our communities. Like many things that are discovered when rocks are lifted, the radical right cannot stand prolonged exposure to the light of day. Once the threat these people represent to our schools and students is fully revealed, we believe their power will be eroded.

Fighting the Radical Right in Your Schools and Community

If there is one secret to successfully preventing the radical right from interfering with public education in your community, then that secret lies in one word: Preparedness.

Assume the worst. Assume that, sooner or later, the radical right will surface in your schools, working to make them over to suit themselves. If you do this, you will take the time to prepare your colleagues in education for the possiblity by educating them about the tactics and goals of the radicals. You will take the time to work closely with a wide variety of organizations and individuals in your community, so that educators enjoy a favorable image in the community.And what constitutes preparedness?

NEA recommends these six steps:

1. Dynamic public relations programs at the state and local Association levels -- and local programs are the most important. Quality PR programs in the community and with our colleagues let everyone know our goals for education, and our accomplishments.

2. Active coalitions with the community on academic freedom issues are important. Plan ahead; know who in the community is prepared to support educators on academic freedom issues.

3. Political action means electing friends of education at the local, state, and national levels -- and that means commitments of time and money to do the job.

4. Lobbying is very important; you must let your legislator and local politicians know where you stand on important issues like school funding, academic freedom, and school employee rights.

5. Involvement in shaping educational policy is key at all levels of Association activity -- be it via work with state education agencies, state and local school boards, or via collective bargaining.

6. Strong professional development programs at the local Association level are extremely effective in alerting colleagues about the issues of academic freedom and censorship.

But an important consideration is successfully convincing our own Association members of the need to be alert to the attacks of the far right.

Association leaders throughout the country have faced this problem before -- and their solutions and ideas are part of the questions and answers that follow.

How do we deal with our own colleagues who agree with the position the radical right has taken on educational and social issues?

Opposing views on controversial issues all contribute to the vigorous and healthy debate of our society's free marketplace of ideas. But let's try to distinguish among the issues themselves and the tactics of debate on those issues. We can disagree with our colleagues on many important matters -- including those on which the Association has taken a public position -- without being divided along ideological lines into enemy camps. But when the sole support for a position rests on gross distortion of the truth, threats, and libelous accusations, then the tactics of debate are destructive, and they block reasonable efforts to exchange opposing points of view.

We may not convince our colleagues (or others who disagree with us) of the rightness of our position; but we can try to convince them of the wrongness of the tactics of extremist debate:scapegoating, emotional exploitation, manipulation of religion and patriotism to ordain own's own position (if you don't agree with me, you're anti-God and anti-American), unfounded claims, hyperbole, and gross generalization.

Often individuals holding deeply conservative views, when confronted with radical right lies and halftruths about teachers, public schools, and Association aims, disavow such tactics and become the most effective opponents of the ideologues of the radical right.

Without appearing defensive, how do we convince teachers -- and other members of the community -- that the charges against the Association are false and the products of an extremist vendetta?" After all, aren't some criticisms of the Association's positions legitimate?

Of course, it would be absurd to claim that either our Association, or public schools should be immune to criticism. Legitimate criticism and legitimate protest are essential to ensure that public schools remain responsible and responsive to reasonable and constructive criticism if we are to remain effective.

But it is also essential that we know the difference between the criticism of those who honestly want to bring about constructive change and the negative attacks of extremists whose aim is to smear and destroy, rather than to improve. Helping members perceive this distinction is a basic part of a good member education program.

Are there any particular signals within the community that should alert us to the imminence of an attack on the schools or the Association?

There are several. When one of the "stars" of the radical right, such as Phyllis Schlafly or the Gablers, appears in a community -- on a radio or television program, or at some community meeting -- that's a pretty sure sign that plans are underway for some kind of assault on the schools or the Association or both.

The formation of "concerned parents" groups, and the attendance of leaders of such a group at board meetings, for example, usually signal a possible censorship attempt. Of course educators welcome real concerned parents, but these particular groups, whose statements and speeches are almost always scripted by the national anti-public-school groups -- as was the Eagle Forum or the Pro-Family Forum -- are not friends of public education. Their purposes are not to help the public schools but to discredit and ultimately destroy them. The only way you can tell the difference between an honestly concerned parent group and a(sic) anti-public-school extremist operation is to study the tactics of extremism.

It is very hard to carry on a successful membership information campaign on the radical right when our members are besieged with a smear campaign against the Association itself. We have a hard enough time trying to deal with anti-NEA propaganda without getting into attacks on education and textbooks.

How can we do it all?

The attacks on the Association and public education are almost inseparable -- in both origin and motive. You cannot treat separately the two lines of attack and expect to be successful in countering either one.

Your education program must show your members that what appears to be a home-grown, grassroots protest against both the Association and the school is, in fact, scripted, advised, and often funded by a network of richly financed and cleverly managed national organizations. Materials available from NEA trace the connections among political power brokers of the radical right and leaders of the pro-family movement, the religious right, and right wing education critics.

How do we go about persuading the school board to work with us on policies to support academic freedom when most of the members seem more inclined to go along with the censors than with us?

Perhaps you cannot convince this board. And here, of course, is why dealing with the radical right must be an across-the-board Association concern. The political action leaders of the Association must have the information they need to identify and work to elect school board candidates who will work to protect the freedom to teach and to learn.