Wasn’t it poignantly ironic that in the very week that the international community paused to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, an elected member of the Anchorage Assembly had to walk back her ill-informed, thoughtless comments on Nazi-themed license plates seen parading around Anchorage? Jamie Allard remarked on Facebook, in the context of “free speech,” that in German, “Fuhrer” may simply mean “leader,” and that “Reich” means simply “realm.” Objection to those words, she opined, was but a progressive’s spin on their use.
Perhaps the best that can be said about Allard is that either she never had the opportunity to learn the truth of Nazi oppression and the Holocaust by taking a course in modern history, or she didn’t pay attention. Nor does she seem to have learned that history and culture contextualize language, and thus often, language is not neutral. As others have pointed out, those words have searing meaning. Allard implied that she knows Deutsch, but she doesn’t seem to know that those words are banned from much speech in Germany, and the use she defends here would likely lead there to meaningful fine and imprisonment.
Allard is not alone among elected officials pushing the bounds of acceptable behavior. State Rep. David Eastman, already censured by the Legislature in 2017 for insulting Alaska village women, advertised his pride in attending the Trump rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. He said on social media he felt it important that Alaska be represented in the charge, found false in more than 60 court proceedings, that the presidential election was corrupt and fraudulent. To believe, as the former president charged, that those courts, many of them headed by Trump appointees, found as they did only because critical evidence was withheld from them, suggests the believer is untethered from reality. Several groups have called on Eastman to be expelled from the Legislature or to resign.
In the meantime, Sen. Mike Shower has introduced legislation that would limit municipal voting by mail, ostensibly a way to prevent voter fraud. Sen. Scott Kawasaki has called the bill a voter suppression measure, not unlike many that have been introduced in other states.
Politicians willing to embrace extreme views might want to recall the career of one of Anchorage’s, and Alaska’s, most outré political figures, C. R. Lewis. Founder of a successful mechanical contracting firm, Lewis, an avid hunter, was politically a hard-right conservative. He served in the Alaska Legislature for eight years, 1967-1975, and ran unsuccessfully against incumbent U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel in 1974. He was a 30-year member of the John Birch Society, serving for a time on its national executive council. Lewis’s Bircher credentials defined him as a politician, and likely contributed to his electoral defeat in 1974.
Now a dim memory for most, the John Birch Society was an ultra-right, anti-communist advocacy organization founded in 1958 by Robert Welch, whose successful candy company made Junior Mints and Pom Poms. Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Society was a potent force in American politics. Welch was a rabid anti-communist and isolationist who mimicked Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s mostly unfounded charges that the American government was rife with Communists in high-power positions. He echoed McCarthy’s claim that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy,” writing a book advancing the charge, “The Politician.” Later, he determined that Eisenhower was not the principal villain, but only a front; he was in reality, Welch wrote, a pawn of a “master conspiracy” against American liberty and power with roots in the Illuminati.
Welch and the John Birch Society were an embarrassment to the conservative political establishment in the U.S. In 1962 William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review magazine and a major leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, renounced Welch as a kook who endorsed conspiracy theories far removed from reality. Barry Goldwater disavowed Welch in his 1964 bid for the presidency, as did Richard Nixon later.
As a steadfast Bircher, C.R. Lewis was an embarrassment for Alaska. His defense of Welch and his fanatical claims discredited him with a majority of Alaskans. Now Jamie Allard and David Eastman have become embarrassments. Politically, extremism didn’t end well for Lewis. It may not end well for Allard and Eastman, either.
Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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