OCTOBER 25, 2020
CONTEMPORARY FASCISM HAS MOVED faster than conventional book publishing can turn out the books to explain it. Two recent releases highlight markedly different approaches to the contemporary far right and a fundamental disagreement over how to contain its spread.
Sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s Hate in the Homeland comes from the world of anti-extremist social science. Talia Lavin’s Culture Warlords emerges out of the online anti-fascist scene. Both attempt to lay out the far-right landscape for their respective readerships and expose a growing divide between liberals and radicals who disagree about how to fight back.
Hate in the Homeland claims that in order to understand the far right (Miller-Idriss avoids the term “fascism”), we need to understand the spaces in which it germinates. These range from the conceptual space of the mythical “homeland,” or future white ethnostate, to online spaces to subcultural gathering places, such as far-right-sponsored mixed martial arts tourneys and concerts. Miller-Idriss tries to trace an alternative architecture of space to go with the “alternative facts” that animate so much of the right. The most effective recruiting tactics, Miller-Idriss argues, aren’t direct promulgations of their ideas. Rather what works is to associate what people like — humor, fashion, food, and other avenues of lifestyle — with the far right’s ideas. The bulk of the book is taken up by descriptions of far-right inroads in these areas.
Miller-Idriss calls for a “public-health approach” to extremism, a wholesale importation of metaphors from the world of medicine: early detection, inoculation, hygiene, and a hierarchy of experts who can identify the pathology and etiology of extremism. They pass their insights on to responsible actors in the spaces in which extremism might flourish, from online fora to colleges to MMA gyms. These actors act on the clinical recommendations of the experts, keeping an eye out for symptoms and doling out rhetorical inoculations and treatments.
The desire of youth (especially young men) to be heroic drives them into the waiting arms of the far right. That ideologies of hate, fear, and power might be genuinely attractive to some people in their own right is not an idea Miller-Idriss entertains. But this approach inscribes a severely limited sphere of the political, rejecting the idea that globalization or liberal governments might be genuine irritants to the new recruits. A thoroughgoing understanding of the history and politics that have led us to this point will involve casting a critical eye on numerous liberal sacred cows. Among them is the legitimacy of “local law enforcement,” who Miller-Idriss cites as necessary partners in countering extremism. She is cadgy as to what, exactly, law enforcement should be doing. But civil libertarians and American Muslims will be familiar with the script: the strategy of Countering Violent Extremism, often abbreviated CVE, a program instituted by the Obama administration.
A target of the right for its supposed “political correctness,” the program was assailed by the ACLU and by targeted religious communities, mainly Muslims, for encouraging surveillance, spying, and intergroup entrapment within communities marked as afflicted by “extremism.” Applying these techniques to white communities that generate terrorist violence would be simultaneously an encouragement for government overreach, a step forward for liberal equal opportunity ideology, and a theater of the absurd. As the Kenosha shootings and other acts of white terrorism have made clear, white violence often comes from self-professed upholders of the system as it exists, the opposite of anti-system “extremists” as understood by liberal academic extremism experts.
As Facebook’s simultaneous crackdowns on far-right QAnon-aligned groups and anarchist groups illustrate, the anti-extremism approach is politically ambidextrous. It is less concerned with preventing violence or protecting marginalized groups than it is in quashing challenges to the status quo, wherever they come from. Miller-Idriss and other liberal anti-extremists sound the alarm bell over the Overton Window moving right. Alas, they do little or nothing to prevent it from happening. They can only watch and document as far-right regimes take power and establish themselves as the “new normal,” the status quo that requires defense from “extremists.”
Anti-fascists themselves have less recourse than do anti-extremists to official channels to tell their story, but they do get published sometimes. Ironically, Talia Lavin’s Culture Warlords, one of the more prominent works to emerge from the anti-fascist milieu, shares a Hachette Books catalog with a new book by Andy Ngo, a twitter “journalist” and right-wing drummer-up of the antifa panic. The publishing industry evidently sees profit in both sides of the conflict.
Lavin’s Culture Warlords, in keeping with being published for mainstream audiences, largely serves as a tour guide to the world of the far right on the assumption that it is not well known to most readers. The framing is a narration of her own efforts to infiltrate internet-based fascist and racist communities. Lavin had become an object of hate for the online right when she wrote critical articles about it. She relays to us, in the manner of the millennial confessional essay, many of the things said about her and how they made her feel. Primarily, they made her feel angry. Her anger took the form of an almost obsessive desire to learn about these people — both in terms of understanding their characters and learning their real names so as to out them to the world as fascists. The latter action is called “doxxing,” and more than any kind of physical brawling, it is the main offensive weapon for contemporary anti-fascists.
At least as far as what’s presented in Culture Warlords, Lavin doesn’t get especially far in her efforts to dox fascists. In fact, she goes so far as to protect the identity of one she discusses extensively, a popular underage YouTube ranter called “Soph.” What she gets out of her experience posing as a nubile white supremacist on an all-white dating site or as an enthusiastic Christian nationalist in other online settings is a look at the online right in a relatively unguarded state. Lavin focuses on those who hate identities to which she lays claims, that is, antisemites and misogynists, including “incels.” At this point, it will probably come as a surprise to few readers that the internet is full of hatred for Jews and women, to say nothing of people of color, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who wants the world to be gentler.
Lavin and Miller-Idriss converge in seeing the far right as motivated by the alienating factors of modern life. Lavin does not lack sympathy for the loneliness of incels, for instance. But she does more than most anti-extremists to connect the present fascist right to its predecessors as part of long histories of racism, antisemitism, misogyny, and fascist organizing in this country. More than a coping mechanism for ennui, fascism is a political strategy and movement. Anti-fascists grasp something that fundamentally eludes anti-extremists: that fascism is foremost a political problem, not an individual problem, and needs to be treated as such.
Though Lavin’s book may lack policy recommendations, her work contains the truth that the fight against emerging fascism is a mass political struggle, not a technical problem for experts to solve. Not everyone can punch Nazis, or dox them. Indeed, recent events have made clear that many of the upholders of white supremacy will not come to us in the reassuringly exotic form of the neo-Nazi. They will arise from the ranks of quotidian supporters of the structures of white supremacy, such as that of the police. It’s going to take much more than guidance programs for the youth and enhanced surveillance to counter the rising tide of the far right.