In many of the churches of Western Christendom, yesterday was All Saints' Day, or the Feast of All Saints, a day set aside to remember those who have died in Christ. It is ironic, then, that word of Willis Carto's death came yesterday. And it may be perplexing that I would break a long (unintentional) silence on this blog to note his passing. But to note his passing is not to mourn it.
Six months ago, I would not have known who Willis Carto was. But in the course of conducting research at the Reagan Library on the ratification of the Genocide Convention, Heather Odell and I came across a large number of letters sent to the White House (primarily in April 1985) to express opposition to U.S. ratification of the 1948 treaty that defines genocide and obligates states to prevent and punish its commission.
The letters came mostly from people who were members of or were influenced by a right-wing organization called the Liberty Lobby. Willis Carto founded the Liberty Lobby in 1958 as a means of promoting his extremist views. According to his obituary in the New York Times, "Mr. Carto raised funds to finance a right-wing military dictatorship in the United States, campaigned to persuade blacks to voluntarily return to Africa and, most influentially, started newsletters, a journal and conferences of academics and others to deny the scale, and even the existence, of the Holocaust." It is not hard to understand why his organization would have campaigned against ratification of the Genocide Convention. What is hard to understand is why so many Americans would have joined the campaign--the Times notes that there were 400,000 people on the Liberty Lobby's mailing list in the 1980s--and why eleven Republicans in the Senate would have opposed ratification to the bitter end.
Carto's views were, according to his friend Louis T. Byers, "those of a racial nationalist." He magnified his influence by keeping himself and his views out of the limelight and enlisting supporters through appeals to the Constitution (the Genocide Convention would supposedly require the U.S. to turn over its citizens to a World Court in violation of their constitutional rights), to historical objectivity (Carto's Institute for Historical Review and its journal published "scholarly" articles that questioned the accuracy of existing research on the Holocaust), and to American exceptionalism (the Liberty Lobby suggested over and over that America's greatness would be undermined by any form of obeisance to international law). Without understanding the larger narrative represented by the Liberty Lobby and the Institute for Historical Review, many Americans lent their names to Carto's worldview. The same sort of thing happens today when people argue that dominant groups--not racial minorities or women or the poor--are the primary victims of discrimination or that climate change is not happening because there was a harsh winter or, on the basis of a headline or two, that immigration endangers our society.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that support for racist organizations is always and only a product of ignorance regarding the larger narrative. After all, there are racists among us and, if we are honest with ourselves, we each harbor our own evil impulses. Carto's life should remind us of what evil impulses look like when given full expression. His obituary is repulsive. But the history of the Liberty Lobby and the Genocide Convention should also remind us that "principled opposition"--to civil rights, to help for refugees, to the right to health care, to conservation of the Earth--may sometimes be, in reality, nothing more than a rationalization of evil.