On White Space

My collection of essays, White Space, appeared in November. It collects work from more than half a decade, largely writings on books. Among descriptions of novels and anthologies of poetry that I thought were worth remarking upon, there is much contemporary politics. And in this radicalising age, there is much there too on extremism of all kinds.

The subject is inescapable, as well as worth discussing. It is worrying in its own way, but also fascinating.

Several of the essays in the book first appeared here on European Eye on Radicalization. Two review books — Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Prey and Eliot Higgins’ We Are Bellingcat — and I will return to them in a second. But the most emblematic of them all is one on the domestic extremism of the European and American far-right. It was first published as ‘Far-Right and Self-Education’ in 2019, and focused as much on the psychology of these possible enactors of violence as on their actions.

This was prompted by a number of years — which have hardly ended — of accelerated, excited coverage of domestic right-wing extremism in Europe and America. After the election of Donald Trump and, to an extent, the vote in Britain to leave the European Union, many commentators from the mainstream press began to see Nazis under every bed.

An old joke before the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 — as documented in a new collection of decades’-old essays by the late Christopher Hitchens, A Hitch in Time — was that one could read all one wanted in the New York Times about torchlit processions and Nazi salutes, but only if those processions and salutations took place in German mountains or Austrian forests, rather than in, for example, Charlottesville, Virginia.

The exact opposite is the case now. Nazis are apparently everywhere — and I have reviews in the book of Michael Wolff’s and Michiko Kakutani’s somewhat ineffective bids to grapple with the dark heart (or not) of the Trump movement. But in 2019, as now, what was really missing was a sense of perspective. To my mind, that perspective could only come from relatively deep context — from books, in other words; and not just of one type.

I am grateful to EER for what I was able to put to paper. My point was largely a synthesis. I noted that extremists and murderers often seem to share not just an ideology, but a worldview. That worldview generally holds that they themselves, or the groups to which they belong, are under siege. This siege can only be lifted by dramatic acts, possibly by violence, and the people who cannot see that this is necessary — moderates, quietists — are either deceivers or deceived. The extremist believes his actions are necessary to confront the true nature of the world, and he has nothing but contempt for the mainstream society that cannot see.

This was spurred by some reporting, new at the time, about the now-banned British neo-Nazi group National Action. Its members believed they had been inducted into secret knowledge, in rooms above pubs where they plotted to murder members of Parliament. I referred to a couple of books where either characters, or authors, had fallen into the same fallacious, and sometimes murderous, reasoning.

But I also noted how these misleading and dangerous ideas first came to be, and how they were expressed. The style guide for the Daily Stormer — a neo-Nazi publication launched in 2013 with a larger following than was ideal — had been produced in public and showed a rhetorical game at work. Writers for that website would use grandiloquent language in full knowledge that it was ridiculous.

Because the Daily Stormer editors believed that even if most readers would roll their eyes at talk of noble knights for the race striking mighty blows against the corrupt and evil enemy, enough of an image would be created subconsciously to glorify these actions in the minds of some, and terrorism after all is always the choice of a minority. It would add a new dimension to life in the minds of potential recruits, and they too would soon be turned to believe that the mainstream was grey and drab, while the extremes were where the action — and the truth — was.

Other essays, on life under the Islamic State in Raqqa or on reporting of the realities of the Syrian and Iraqi wars, indicate the same things: that barbaric, bitter reality could be made worse and more brutal because some people — in hock to an ideology of supremacy — decided that they alone knew the truth of life, and the only way to make existence meaningful. They could only force it upon others at the end of a gun barrel.

In another essay first published by EER, I reviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Prey. The book suggests that women in Europe, and possibly in the future in America, are concretely at risk from the immigration of culturally conservative Muslim men, and purports to document a rise in sexual violence, in female disempowerment, and in decrease in female presence on the streets of major European cities.

Hirsi Ali’s claims were extremely controversial when first published — and also largely ignored, except when the opportunity to criticise presented itself — by much of the right-thinking press. I am grateful again to EER for the chance to discuss the book, its contents, and its contexts. To subject those claims to analysis, and to question those arguments of Hirsi Ali, which had to go unaccompanied by data because the relevant state authorities had not seen fit to produce any. It is a difficult argument to participate in, but a necessary one.

And finally, some optimism. In a world of radicalism and state violence, there are still slim points of hope. Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat are fine examples of how the digital revolution has not always empowered repressive states. With nothing more than Google Maps and ingenuity, citizen investigators can pin crimes on culprits and embarrass world leaders into silence. My essay for EER on We Are Bellingcat, Higgins’ book, gives a few cautiously optimistic reasons why these tools may yet make the future brighter than the one we still have reason to fear.

This piece on my collection of essays, White Space, was first published by European Eye on Radicalization.

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