Aug 10 2007
the entire program
GUEST: Scott McLemee, essayist with Inside Higher ED
In April of this year, a man by the name of Kenneth Kronberg committed suicide in Virginia by throwing himself off a freeway onto on-coming traffic. It was revealed later that Kronberg was closely associated with eight-time Presidential candidate Lyndon Larouche. Kronberg had run a recently defunct printing press that printed LaRouche-related material. On the morning of his death, a memo was circulated to LaRouche supporters chastising members who failed to raise enough money, implying that they ought to consider “committing suicide.” The followers of Lyndon LaRouche have in recent years seen an upswing in recruitment, particularly among young, college students. Today we’ll hear about the “LaRouche Youth Movement” from the author of a detailed article on the subject.
Read Scott McLemee’s article online at http://insidehighered.com/views/2007/07/11/mclemee
A video of LaRouche’s followers singing “Al Gore is a Nazi” at the Democratic State Convention in San Diego, April 2007:
Sonali Kolhatkar: I have seen these kids with the Lyndon LaRouche movement tabling right outside the local movie theater that I go to every now and then in Pasadena and what’s really interesting is that they seem to have these political signs with them and political literature that, at first glance, certainly attracts anybody who finds themselves on the left these days or who’s a critic of Bush. But they, when you dig deeper, I guess, have a completely different agenda. What is the agenda of the LaRouche youth movement?
Scott McLemee: Well, it occurred to me that, a lot of your listeners, if they hear Lyndon LaRouche are going to think, well that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time and when they remember it they may think back to in the mid-1980’s when LaRouche was buying air time on t.v. to talk about how Henry Kissinger was a Soviet agent and also, they got 700,000 signatures on an amendment that would require AIDS patients to be quarantined. And so, back in those days, you tended to think of LaRouche as someone on the right wing. Nowadays, as you say, there’s a sort of appeal to the left. You see anti-Bush, anti-Cheney slogans at their tables. You see things criticizing Joseph Lieberman, things against the war and so on. So, it’s a little bit puzzling and the tendency is to want to say well, they’ve changed in some way. But, in reality, the way I like to think of it is that the LaRouche movement is kind of a psychotic fantasy disguised as a political organization. And, so the positions that they take publicly are always, in a way, kind of a distraction from the basic idea which is that LaRouche is the greatest genius of the present times and is actually a secret power behind the scenes politically. And, so the appeal now is to get young people in to, basically, to bolster his ego, to come up with money, raise funds for the movement and also to kind of put some new life into an organization that did a lot of recruiting in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s but that, since the early 1990’s, really ran out of steam. And, so they made a decision about 7 or 8 years ago to begin recruiting heavily on college campuses. So, that’s really what you’re seeing at those tables now, is this new kind of layer of people who’ve been recruited.
Sonali: So, let’s talk about this youth movement, As you said, in the past 7 or 8 years, there has been this effort to recruit young people. How successful are they and how do they recruit young people? How do they operate on college campuses?
Scott: Well, that’s a good question and there are other people who are sort of digging into this who might be able to come up with exact numbers. And, I can’t, I’ve compared notes with some other people who’ve kept an eye on them over the years and our sort of estimate, at this point, is that there are maybe two or three hundred people who are full-time and what they call “deployments” who go out and who work these tables all the time and are raising funds at traffic intersections and so on. And they have maybe an equal number of people who sort of hang around and they come to classes and they’re sort of involved in what you might call the periphery of the organization. LaRouche, back in 2003, I think, had a speech in which he said, well, if I can get 1,000 young people, then I can change American politics. And it doesn’t really look as if he’s come, you haven’t heard that number, 1,000 recruits, mentioned anytime lately. So, presumably, they’re well shy of that. But, they do, clearly, have enough people to go out and make public interventions. Here in Washington, D.C., they are a little bit of a joke for residents around here because they’re always at Capitol South, which is right near the Capitol Building out, you know, singing their songs and raising funds.
Sonali: Let’s talk about the LaRouche philosophy on music. I want to actually, in a few moments, play a clip of some young LaRouche supporters singing, but what is LaRouche’s idea on music and how it could change the world, if you will?
Scott: Well, this is where you get into the – there are public doctrines and there are public things meant for people passing by to become interested in and then there’s sort of an inner doctrine. LaRouche is nothing if not an ambitious thinker. He has a sense that he has a philosophy that pretty much explains everything that’s happening in human history. And, there is a good side and a bad side to this. The good side consists of followers of Plato who are city builders and are pro-technology, and the bad guys are the (unintelligible) who, according to LaRouche’s somewhat peculiar reading of these things, want everyone basically to live in a kind of an animalistic, feudal state with only a few kind of aristocrats lording over the world. Now, the core doctrine here is that creativity is something that the LaRouche movement helps foster. And, young people who, say, come out of high school or are in their early years of college and they feel underserved, I guess, by the culture that they’ve grown up in and the educational institutions they’ve gone to will be approached by someone at a LaRouche table and asked if they can perform certain kinds of mathematical operations. And, if they can’t do this – they can’t, say, double the area of a square – which is pretty easy to do if you know some basic mathematics, but a lot of people don’t have that, and so they feel a little inferior. And so the next thing you know, you’re being invited to come to the class. And, as you get deeper and deeper into it, you learn that there’s a system of mathematics that you need to learn and understand, and if not actually understand it, at least sort of nod in approval of. And, of course, mathematics is basic to music. You know, the notes on a scale have mathematical relationships among them and so, you need to learn what is the good music and the good music are Beethoven, Bach and certain classical composers. Jazz, rock, hip-hop, some classical composers that LaRouche doesn’t like, these are all bad and evil and you must not ever pay any attention to them. And so, there is a lot of emphasis placed on learning these doctrines, but also, because you are, sort of, being drawn into something that becomes a full-time commitment. They place a lot of emphasis on classes in which you don’t just learn these doctrines but you sing and you learn to sing at the proper pitch, the pitch that LaRouche has decided is absolutely necessary for the human voice, to sing with the note A to have a certain frequency. This all, all of it, to an outsider, looks extremely bizarre, but after you’ve gotten in and been in for a little while, evidently, you know, people can get used to almost anything.
Sonali: And, I understand that the folks who recruit other young people to join them from college campuses encourage them to quit school and work full-time for the movement?
Scott: That’s after you’ve been in for a little bit. There is, the other thing that I haven’t really mentioned here is the apocalyptic scenario. Certain groups are always predicting the end of the world and, you know, the return of Jesus or whatever is coming next week. The LaRouche movement, from its inception, which is about 40 years ago, has predicted a gigantic, global, apocalyptic economic collapse, which in fact, is underway right this minute. And it’s been underway right this minute for 40 years running now. So, if you are serious, and you really want to save mankind and to save mankind you really have to get (unintelligible) to power, then what are you doing in school? You’re being selfish. If you’re going in to pursue a career, that’s selfish. And, you know, do you really want to save humanity? Do you want to save mankind? Do you want to create an economic system which is just and which allows people in the third world to have advanced technology or are you only out for yourself? These are questions that all of us are asking ourselves in one form or another, many of us anyway, at an early age. And we come up with the best solutions that we can but the LaRouche organization has the, I don’t want to say virtue or benefit, but it certainly gives you a package. And once you’re in then you are basically told you are saving the world and so why would you want to do anything else?
Sonali: I’m speaking with Scott McLemee. He is an essayist with Inside Higher ED at which he published an article in July about the LaRouche youth movement. And, Scott, I want to play the sound for you from a recent event. In fact it was the Democratic state convention in San Diego this April where a large number of young LaRouche supporters had gathered to sing a little song:
(audio) “…they were singing sigheil and calling out. They’re so foolish. They’re just children. And, what were they chanting? Oh, the LaRouche people are chanting Al Gore is a Nazi. (singing)
Sonali: And those are the voices of youth supporters of the LaRouche youth movement singing, “Al Gore is a nazi” at the Democratic state convention in San Diego earlier this year. My guest is Scott McLemee and he has written about the LaRouche youth movement. So, they certainly look, when you see the YouTube video, like a large group of young people but what’s really interesting is that they’re quite diverse. There’s a lot of youth of color as well among LaRouchites.
Scott: Well, yes, that’s true and they have always had a very kind of complicated relationship with different constituencies and with different political backgrounds. I’m trying to think of a simple way to explain this. They’ve recruited all over the world. There are branches of the LaRouche movement in Latin America and various European countries and Asia. I know there’s one in Malaysia. There’ll all very, very – quite small. The idea is that LaRouche’s ideas will, generally, save the world. It will genuinely save, you know, everyone on the planet, They’re good for everybody. At the same time, there’s a long history of quite friendly relations in the 1970’s and 80’s, in particular, with far right-wing groups, including Klansmen and Neo-Nazis and various types like that. And so, it really is a puzzle and it’s really one of the mysteries that’s always fascinated me about this movement of how those things, how the members sort that out, how you can have an organization with a significant number of Jewish members who were recruited in the 1960’s, who then end up sitting down in meetings with people who are the leading holocaust deniers in the United States.
Sonali: In fact, let’s talk about that. LaRouche has certainly been accused of being an anti-Semite. He also has a prison record. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1988 for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and tax code violations and it seems as though none of this seems to faze his supporters.
Scott: They have been well briefed in the story and the denial.
Sonali: Briefed or indoctrinated?
Scott: Indoctrinated, I guess, is the right word. There have been people who have been following this organization, kind of trying to report on it since certainly long before I ever heard of it. And so, the record is available, the record can be read. And of course now, thanks to the Internet, an awful lot of the record is available to anybody who’s curious and I think that is actually creating some problems for them. But, what they simply do is argument ad hominem. They say, well, so-and-so who broke this story is actually a drug peddler or, you know, their so-and-so is a sexual deviant. And, you know, you get a lot of peer pressure going and people, after awhile, just feel embarrassed to even ask about it. So, on the other hand, now, because there are a number of people who’ve been in the organization and left it, and in some cases, a lot of people just don’t want to talk about it anymore, it’s an embarrassing part of their lives. But there are a few people who’ve created websites and discussion groups who remember things and they talk about them and they put up documents and they put up quotations from things where LaRouche made various anti-Semitic statements and said fairly racist-sounding things about jazz and rock music and so on. And, you know, a fact is a stupid thing. You can’t always make a fact do what you want it to.
Sonali: Now, Scott, does the LaRouche movement, particularly the youth movement, qualify, in your mind, under the definition of a political cult?
Scott: Well, there’s a lot of argument and debate over the validity of the concept of cult and there are people who don’t like that term at all. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find grounds for calling it anything but that, however. It is, more to the point, it’s a cult of personality. And, the important element at any given point is not so much the political positions that they take, although that gives them something to take around to people, to try to connect up with them and recruit people and draw in funds and so on. But, the core issue here is the greatness of Lyndon LaRouche himself. So, while to us, it looks as if he’s changed political positions over time, the core belief has always been pretty much the same, which is that LaRouche had a gigantic burst of genius in the 1950’s and is, at present, possibly one of the greatest minds of the last 500 years.
Sonali: When I look at the youth movement, when I read your article and, you know, also see some of these kids out on the streets tabling, you know, the instinct is to just deride them, to write them off. But then, at some level, these are intelligent kids, and you, in a way, have to feel a little sorry for them, or maybe that’s too patronizing. I mean, I’m not sure how to think of the youth movement.
Scott: Well, that’s a very fair statement and I think that is an appropriate response in a lot of ways, both the tendency to want to say this is silly and I’m not going to spend any time on it is understandable. But, a certain amount of compassion really is called for with this. And, you know, there’s a tendency for a lot of people to look at something like this. You know, you hear the Lyndon LaRouche tabernacle choir singing about how Al Gore is a Nazi and you just think, well, this is kooky America. This is the deep, strange America that’s a little bit surreal. And, there’s something to that certainly with LaRouche.
Sonali: What do you say to those people, particularly on the Left, who feel that this kind of a movement, just somehow, you know, because they can be so high-profile – they interrupt events and stuff and they show up and do these sort of spectacle-type things – what about those people on the left who feel that the LaRouche youth movement really gives us a bad name?
Scott: Well, that’s the question you have to ask and I don’t really have an answer to. I once would have had a clear sense of this, is whether or not they are a cat’s paw, whether or not they are actually doing the work of people on the far Right by doing these kinds of things, making Progressives look ridiculous and insane. There’s a case to be made that they did actually do that at one point in the 1970’s. Now, I think it’s really much more driven just by the ego needs of a very old man. And, so, it’s not maybe deliberate. It is embarrassing and awkward and very strange. But, aside from all that, as you say, there’s an element of deep sadness about this because I went to an event some years ago here in Washington D.C. right after the 2001 election that was supposed to be addressed by LaRouche. I was very curious. I wanted to see what a meeting, a gathering of them would be like in person. And I went to it, and there were a few people from the movement who were fairly well-dressed and professional looking and then you had all these people who were, you immediately could tell they had been long-time supporters and they were middle-aged. And, they looked kind of twitchy and sad and jerky and they had all kinds of nervous tics and so on. And, you know, when you don’t make your fund-raising quota in this group, all of your secrets that you have confessed in previous kinds of discussion sessions with them, are brought out against you. And you are attacked for various failings that you’ve had, you’re attacked for sexual indiscretions and so on. So, there’s a lot of psychological violence within the group. Actually, LaRouche has written documents about this which you can find on the world wide web in which he basically says that it’s necessary to strip away all of the delusions that we live under and those delusions are best stripped away in a group setting where your comrades are turning on you and just tearing you apart. Imagine doing that for year in and year out and imagine what’s left of a person after that. Now, what’s happened more recently, is LaRouche has decided that all of those people he’s subjected to that over the years were not bringing in enough money and the youth movement is the great new hope. And so, the old-timers, the Boomers are being told they are completely worthless human beings and that the youth movement is the great future. But once the youth movement fails their quota, a member of that gets, it sounds like, some things I’ve read, pretty similar treatment, so there is a deep sadness and it’s, I guess, really horror to this.
Sonali: Scott McLemee is an essayist with Inside Higher ED and I’ve been talking to him about the LaRouche youth movement. His article about it will be linked through our website later today which you can find via KPFK.org
Special Thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing this interview.