Letter to the Editor: Matthew Feldman Responds to Peter Berard

February 14, 2021   •   By Matthew Feldman, Peter Berard

Matthew Feldman responds to Peter Berard’s review of Hate in the Homeland (October 28, 2020):


I WRITE TO OBJECT to the false dichotomy raised in your review of “Anti-Extremism Versus Anti-Fascism.” One obviously can be both, as is made clear by Professor Miller-Idriss’s experience, which is maligned in a scandalous review of October 25, 2020. “Not everyone can punch Nazis,” but, Mr. Berard implies, they really should. Does this pass for highbrow commentary in the Los Angeles Review of Books these days?


In contrast, “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.” Aside from the ad hominem slight to Professor Miller-Idriss’s distinguished record of pedagogy, higher education teaching, and community work; on her record of research alone — of highlighting how the extreme has “gone mainstream,” to quote the title of her 2018 monograph — I cannot imagine Mr. Berard actually wishes to compare receipts.


In any case, when it comes to reviews you’re supposed to play the ball, not the player. This sneering, utterly misrepresentative review does neither properly, and fails to explain the arguments or evidence adduced in Hate in the Homeland. Despite the big talk, the ideas expressed in this review are presented as if in crayon.


Before explaining why, I should like to raise two disclaimers circumscribing my response. Firstly, I have absolutely no quarrel with, and take no position on, Ms. Lavin’s book, Culture Warlords, reviewed alongside Miller-Idriss’s Hate in the Homeland. It is a book I muchly look forward to reading, and suspect it is similarly rather more nuanced than how it is presented by Mr. Berard. By contrast, secondly, I am familiar with Professor Miller-Idriss’s book in light of our work together at the largest network in the world analyzing the phenomenon allegedly under review, the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Despite our professional relationship I speak only for myself, even if I suspect an applied research organization like CARR — dedicated as it is in directing knowledge toward countering the rise of right-wing extremism — stands accused in toto for trying to understand something that must be smashed.


And this, surely, is the nub of the issue. In this view, when it comes to the radical right any attempts at engagement (say, through online interventions) or at working with intermediaries (such as internet platforms, to take but one neglected theme from Hate in the Homeland) must be rejected. Likewise, any distinction between fascism and the far-right is simply collapsed by Mr. Berard — a schoolboy error in the field — and buried among so many untimely meditations raised by Miller-Idriss about how we got in this mess, and what we can do to get out of it.


Listening to former extremists might be one avenue to avoid a rerun of the biennio rosso — which the left lost badly, it bears remembering — culminating in Mussolini’s rise a century ago. But historical lessons in all their complexity, like neutrally engaging with law enforcement officers, is off the menu. Authorities are simply “quotidian supporters of the structures of white supremacy” — even officers of color, apparently — and therefore even calling upon the police when being attacked by fascists is, one perhaps suspects, a little fascistic. More to the point, this wasn’t even Miller-Idriss’s hill to die on; with two references in the index, “law enforcement approach” is literally given more words in Mr. Berard’s review than in the book ostensibly under examination. Let us be charitable and call him a poor reader.


This lack of fairness fails to hide, I think, the real motivation for Mr. Berard’s attack piece. The arguments presented in Hate in the Homeland bear no relation to what is ultimately targeted: “liberal sacred cows.” If that’s the agenda, then the notion that right-wing extremism can be just beaten back by antifascists must, itself, be intellectually beaten back. Only the state has the capability, resources, and political legitimacy to stop radical right criminality. Take the recent case of Governor Gretchen Whitmer: chants of “ACAB” would not have saved her life. Hate in the Homeland offers a fitting counterpoint, from a country with still heavier historical baggage — for this is scarcely just an American problem — speaking to this reality:


In Germany, recent law-enforcement raids on far-right groups have turned up lists of tens of thousands of names of politicians, journalists, and activists deemed “enemies” to the cause, which include some of the targets’ home addresses and phone numbers along with titles like “We will get you all.”


On these widely shared lists were “scholars, political opponents, journalists,” as well as “antifascist activists.” Without those raids, and without successful prosecutions, innocent people would have surely died. And invariably when it comes to radical right political violence, it likely would have been the most vulnerable among us suffering the most. Put another way, Mr. Berard is flatly wrong to say counter-extremism is “less concerned with preventing violence or protecting marginalized groups than it is in quashing challenges to the status quo.”


That is not to say counter-extremism is satisfactory at present. That is not to deny that we all need to do better, as Professor Miller-Idriss’s entire study both stresses and demonstrates through example after example. Nor does that mean abandoning moral principles or glossing over law enforcement abuses — or social media platform abuses, or any other abuses for that matter. It is precisely that CVE holds the promise of evidence-driven, non-securitized interventions that it needs critical friends. More than just the “youth guidance programs” of Mr. Berard’s derision, at its best CVE uses experiential knowledge to educate, protect, and, yes, inoculate — meaning, for example, engaging with youth cultures on their own terms (again, a neglected subject at the center of Hate in the Homeland’s analysis). Or should young offenders and underage radical right activists be stomped upon as well?


Accordingly, the images summoned in the book and its disgraceful review are starkly different. And Professor Miller-Idriss’s “public health approach” — stressing education, multi-sector engagement, and deradicalization — cannot be reconciled with the image proposed by Mr. Berard: total war. I strongly suspect Mr. Berard places all 74 million Trump voters in the category “enemy combatant,” collaborators should be shamed at best, or better, given the manganello treatment. The sophistry here leaves untouched the fact that you still have to live alongside the people you’ve smashed afterward. If the smashing goes to plan, that is.


And yet “the fight against emerging fascism is a mass political struggle, not a technical problem for experts to solve,” Mr. Berard insists. None of foregoing is to cast aspersions on the work of many brave antifascists, who are necessary partners in what our times will soon demand: a popular front. But in this same spirit, it needs saying: the sooner we move past this juvenile black-and-white approach, the better for us all. That applies to the media as well.


Peter Berard responds (November 12, 2020):


I have respect for my readers’ time, and so unlike Matthew Feldman, I will be brief. The closest thing to an actual argument Feldman makes in his lengthy tirade against my article, “Anti-Extremism Versus Anti-Fascism,” is that I see violence, and only violence, as the appropriate means to deal with fascists. This isn’t that close to a meaningful argument, because I did not write that, did not imply it, in this piece or anywhere else, and do not think it. I showed Feldman’s rant to some organizing friends of mine and we all got a hearty chuckle at the inept caricature Feldman produced of me as soup-can-throwing insurrectionist. The sole piece of evidence Feldman produces to make this claim is, in fact, my writing that not everyone can punch Nazis, which he decided, based on nothing, means the opposite of what it says. He has nothing else.


Strawmanning; arguments from authority; a sputtering rage incapable of focusing on any one object of its ire: these features of Feldman’s letter are all familiar to anyone who has encountered a certain kind of liberal — typically ensconced in academia, legacy media, or think tanks — react to criticism from their left. The idea that they don’t have a monopoly on progress cuts to the quick of the self-image of liberals of the “End of History” vintage. The notion that the problems we face go to the roots of our social structure, and cannot be resolved by tinkering around the edges of the establishment — like the kinder, gentler “Countering Violent Extremism” surveillance program Feldman passionately calls for — threatens liberal academic experts with something scarier for them than any gulag: irrelevance. That’s why Feldman could be roused from his think tank to write paragraph after unedited paragraph about someone, me, that he insists is beneath the notice of an expert like him. And that’s why, after finishing this response, I’m going to go back to work in the same fashion I worked before getting this letter: unconcerned with Matthew Feldman.


Matthew Feldman responds (November 13, 2020):


My apologies to Mr. Berard, who seems to have missed the point of my rebuttal and responded instead with more ad hominem attacks. For the avoidance of doubt, and to spare Mr. Berard’s valuable time, I shall restate my position in terms as brief and simple as possible:


I was surprised the LARB decided to publish a review of two monographs by someone who seems determined to compare them while having failed to understand one of them. In service to his agenda, Mr. Berard fails to understand the arguments laid out in Hate in the Homeland. He has failed to understand the basic distinction between the far-right and fascism. He has failed to review the book with any insight into its themes or theses. It is for this reason that his wild assertions about this book are beneath a literary review.


Ultimately, then, my criticism remains equally of Mr. Berard’s unsuitability as a reviewer, and the LARB’s willingness to publish something so misrepresentative.


¤


Professor Matthew Feldman is a specialist on fascist ideology and the far-right in Europe and the USA. He has written widely on these subjects, for both academic and general audiences.


Peter Berard is a writer and organizer. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts. More of his critical work can be found at peterberard.substack.com.