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Extremist politics

The best of times, the worst of times

This is the best time ever to be alive and human. Global life expectancy has doubled in the last century, from 31 to 71. A century ago, 20% of babies died in childbirth, now it’s less than 7%. You’re far, far less likely to die violently than in the Middle Ages, the 19th century, or even in the 1960s. In the last 30 years, the percentage of the world living in abject poverty has fallen from 37% to below 10%. Global literacy has risen from 40% in 1950 to 86%. In 1900, girls in Sub-Saharan Africareceived 7% of the education (in years) that boys’ received, now they receive 82% – and its close to 100% in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The world is better off in terms of health, education, wealth, gender equality, democracy, and peace, than it was 50 years ago, and far, far better off than it was 200 years ago.

Yet if you ask people in the UK, Germany, the US, France and elsewhere if they think the world is getting better, only around 4% of people think it is. 

Why has the west got the blues? Why aren’t we celebrating the incredible progress we have made? Why do we say things like ‘2016 was the worst year ever’, based on two right-wing election victories and the death of some celebrities?

Firstly, I think it’s fair to say we are spoilt. We have been spoilt by 50 years of peace and affluence. We thought the 90s were normal, when the biggest problem the US faced was Bill Clinton’s zip, rather than a decade unusual for its lack of serious crises or major wars. When we returned to the historical norm of crisis and war, we were bewildered, and we wailed.

Secondly, while the world is doing better, the West, by some measures, is doing worse. Western countries are seeing less dramatic gains in measures like literacy or life expectancy, a relative decline in our global share of GDP versus emerging markets, and actual declines in domestic measures like real income, living standards, home-owning and inequality. The 2008 financial crisis eroded our faith in democracy and capitalism. Liberal capitalist democracy is less obviously the globally triumphant system it was in 2000. It doesn’t seem to be working very well in the US and elsewhere, and the percentage of those in the West who support the idea of military dictatorships is rising, particularly among millennials.

Third, migration has rapidly reshaped the demographics of western countries, with the share of immigrants in some populations almost doubling in the last 20 years. This has changed the look and feel of many European cities – they have become far more multicultural or, sometimes, more segregated. Unfortunately, this sharp rise in immigration in the last 20 years has come at the same time as a period of war and international terrorism in the history of Islam. Every terrorist attack in the West emboldens and amplifies far-right voices saying Western civilization is heading for Islamic destruction. 

Fourth, we’re growing up with the prospect of species-threatening climate change in the next few decades, and we don’t know what to do about it. Some scientists, including James Lovelock, tell us there’s nothing we can do – the world will, in the next 30-50 years, become largely uninhabitable, much of humanity will become refugees, and the human population will be literally decimated. It’s such a dark prospect, and we’re so obviously failing to deal with it, that we don’t really talk about it. But I think it profoundly shapes our emotional and psychic reality.

Finally, there may be an emotional crisis in the West – a rise in loneliness, and in emotional problems like depression and anxiety. I’m not entirely sure on this – I think the rise in those seeking treatment is probably because of greater awareness and access to treatment. Nonetheless, George Monbiot may be right, in his new book Out of the Wreckage, when he argues we’re facing a crisis in meaning brought about by a lack of an over-arching narrative or myth.

Instead, we look to social media for meaning and narrative. We out-source our thinking to pundits like Owen Jones or Glenn Beck, or to a handful of trusted Twitter heroes like Gary Lineker and JK Rowling, who never disturb us with new or contrary ideas, but instead comfort us by articulating what we already feel, and shape the incredibly complex world of global politics into simple narratives of good versus bad, heroes versus villains. This is a perfect recipe for emotional disturbance, social division and political disfunction. Twitter is making us stupid, and sick.

Such is the complexity of the ‘wicked problems’ we face, a part of me feels the allure of unplugging and dropping out. The public space has become too noisy, too bitter. We feel we must have an opinion on everything, yet much of what is happening is beyond our individual or collective control. Perhaps now is the time for a tactical Daoist retreat – the wise man ascends the mountain, and lets nature take its course. 

But I think a better response than Daoist retreat is Stoic engagement: you accept that much of the situation is beyond your control, you accept that some fairly dreadful things are going to happen this century, but you engage politically anyway, with firm resolve, and a hope and faith in the long arc of the cosmos towards wisdom and justice.

We must keep hope, and remind ourselves of humans’ natural bias to negativity. We must remember how often, over the last 2000 years, humans thought the end of the world was nigh, and were proved wrong.We must remind ourselves loudly of the victories we have achieved and are achieving, even if these victories happen thousands of miles away. We must remind ourselves how sudden technological innovations have utterly transformed human existence in the past, and are likely to do so in the future. We must consider the ‘long now’, and plan not just for five years in the future, or 50, but 500.

I think my country – the United Kingdom – needs a ‘Doomsday Trust’, like the Rand Corporation, to go away into a farmhouse in the countryside for five years and think deeply about the challenges our country faces from climate change – to face difficult questions about arable land, dependency on food exports, mass migration, relations with the EU, the possibility of social breakdown – and find a way to help our nation survive this century. That thinking can’t be done on Twitter.

We must re-learn to engage not just through social media, but through face-to-face neighbourliness – speaking personally, I must shake myself out of a period of withdrawal from community organizing and start to organize again, for the common good and my own good.

Finally, what about the crisis of meaning in western culture, and the need for a new narrative? I can only repeat my brother, Alex Evans, whose book The Myth Gap earlier this year called for a new myth to change our relationship to nature and each other.

I also think the new narrative will be a shift from the Cartesian / Hobbesian narrative of the individual rational ego competing with other humans and exploiting a world of inanimate matter and soulless animals, towards a narrative where our consciousness is extended and deeply connected to each other, to other species, and to all of nature and all matter. 

When I develop my consciousness into wisdom and love, you benefit, even if we never meet. When you suffer, I suffer, even if we never meet. When the corals bleach in Australia, I am poorer. When literacy rises in Nigeria, I am richer. We are literally one organism, one consciousness, one interlocking eco-system, one vast I AM. That, I think, is the astonishing and in some ways terrifying truth that humans have been groping towards for millennia.

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No, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi

With his unerring knack for the offensive, President Trump responded to last week’s Nazi rally in Charlottesville, in which a young woman was murdered, with a condemnation of the ‘violence on many sides’.

Trump’s unwillingness to condemn Swastika-bearing white supremacists shocked the world, and provoked condemnations from world leaders, his own party, even his own daughter and son-in-law. It also rapidly led to the mass resignation of his White House business council and arts council. Who doesn’t condemn Nazis? As Tina Fey put it, ‘I’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and I wasn’t confused by it.’

The question that has been troubling me, however, is this: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

Because it sounds from eye-witness reports like there genuinely was violence on both sides at Charlottesville. I’m not saying both sides were equally guilty, not at all. Only one side drove a car into protestors and killed a woman, and only one side was marching for the overthrow of multicultural democracy and the triumph of white supremacy.

But, if eye-witness accounts are to believed, some of the anti-fascist protestors went there for a fight, and they got one. Some have argued that their violence was justified and necessary – one side is defending liberal democracy and the rights of minorities, the other is trying to attacking them. Some have defended anti-fascist groups as the heroic defenders of liberal democracy. Michael Eric Dyson, sociology professor at Georgetown University, opined: ‘when you go to cancer treatment, the radiation is tough treatment, but it is meant to remove the cancer.’

But is the best way to defend the rule of law really to punch a Nazi in the face?

In a later outburst, Trump condemned the ‘alt-left’, referring I think to the anti-fascist movement, Antifa. From what I’ve read, Antifa is comprised of small local groups, who turn up to disrupt right-wing and far-right events, sometimes violently. They often wear black, and they often wear masks. They sometimes smash property during their protests, as they did during Trump’s inauguration. They are anti-capitalist, anarchist, and sometimes reject democratic politics in favour of direct action and revolution. Like white supremacists, they are a tiny movement that get a lot of publicity. 

Antifa are not morally equivalent to the alt-right. Far-right groups have been responsible for many more acts of terrorism in recent years than the far-left, which was more active in the 1970s. The far-right is also responsible for more deaths in the US than Islamic terrorism, over the last 15 years. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing extremists committed 74% of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2%. The far-left is clearly not as racist, patriarchal or homophobic as the far-right, although the far-left in Europe can be so anti-Zionist as to be anti-semitic. And the far-left has never had anything like the same power or proximity to power that the far-right has often enjoyed (including now). 

Still, the two sides have a few things in common. Both sides are made up mainly of young men and women – particularly men – in their late teens and early 20s, looking for a heroic cause to commit to. Both sides enjoy the feeling of marching together with their fellow warriors in a crowd, possibly for a fight. Here’s one Antifa protestor from Charlottesville: ‘We were marching down one of the streets, and energy was ecstatic. We were marching and chanting and engaged in this huge act of solidarity.’ And here’s an alt-right protestor reflecting after their torch march: ‘After the event and a long day of winning, we went back and threw an Alt-Right house party and celebrated our victory. We sang songs, laughed and most of all just enjoyed the mental high you feel after an incredible win.’  I imagine Antifa parties are a hell of a lot better, and might actually have some girls at them.

But here’s the key point. Both sides see themselves as engaged in a heroic struggle against a demonic enemy (fascism / multiculturalism), a struggle for existential survival that is so cosmically important it justifies violence.  Both sides seek to normalize street violence as a political tactic – and are encouraged by leaders who have recently come from the political fringe to the centre of power, like Donald Trump, who encouraged his supporters to ‘rough up’ protestors, or John McDonnell (a leading ally of Jeremy Corbyn) who congratulated his young followers for ‘kicking the shit’ out of Westminster during a protest. Violence is a rite of passage, a moral test, a rush, an act of will necessary to smash the old corrupt system and forge the pure new world.

Some in Antifa have told journalists it’s necessary to confront Nazis ‘in a language they understand’ – ie, violence. Perhaps you need a show of numbers, on the streets, to intimidate rather than allow Nazis to intimidate. Defenders of anti-fascist violence point to famous clashes like the Battle of Lewisham or the Battle of Cable Street (below is a mural celebrating it), where the far-right were supposedly beaten into submission.

I can totally see the argument for a show of numbers to prove there are more people opposed to fascism and racism than in favour. Numbers on the street matter – that’s why Trump is so obsessed with how many people turned out for his inauguration. However, surely large groups of people can stand up to fascists without resorting to violence. The Battle of Cable Street – a street-fight between communists and Nazis – was not a great day for British politics, it was a descent into the sort of extremist street-fighting that led to the collapse of Weimar democracy in Germany.

It’s not OK to punch a Nazi because it normalizes street violence as a political tactic, and when that happens, liberal democracy is real trouble.

I agree with Brian Levin, director of the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, who has studied extremism for decades and risked his own life at protests. He says: ‘No, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi. If white nationalists are sophisticated at anything, it’s the ability to try to grasp some kind of moral high ground when they have no other opportunity, and that’s provided when they appear to be violently victimized. That’s the only moral thread that they can hang their hats on. And we’re stupid if we give them that opportunity.’

Why let Nazis march at all? Are there not limits to what we should tolerate? Why should a liberal democracy allow extremist groups – Jihadis, Nazis – to preach violence against other groups and to call for the overthrow of liberal democracy? Perhaps – as Karl Popper argued – it shouldn’t. 

It’s a tricky one. It should be possible within a liberal democracy to consider and support alternative political systems, like communism, Islamic theocracy, or even ethno-states. In principle, one should also be allowed to put forward these ideas in public spaces. A famous legal case in the late 70s – National Socialists of America versus the village of Skokie – decided the American Nazi party had the right to march – a right the ACLU vigorously defended. But as soon as you’re promoting violence against other groups, a march should be shut down.

In Germany, neo-Nazis are still allowed to march, but it’s very carefully regulated – no Swastikas, no Nazi tattoos showing, no chanting, no military music, only one banner per 50 protestors, and no goddam assault rifles. 

When a neo-Nazi march is properly policed, you see the participants for the losers they are – two hundred pasty-faced nerds in polo shirts and chinos, carrying Roman shields. When it descends into a mass brawl, those 200 losers get the benefit of worldwide publicity, and it adds to the sense of liberal democracy breaking down – which is precisely what they want.

However, I don’t think the far-right will necessarily consider Charlottesville a success, once their euphoria has died down. The rally gave their opponents a martyr, Heather Hayer. The ‘Unite the Right’ strategy allowed the entire alt-right to be lumped together as Nazis. Trump’s apparent support for the Nazis has severely weakened him and may have led to the firing of his alt-right policy advisor Steve Bannon.

And it was a moment when far-right internet trolls finally showed their faces – they’re now being identified, fired from their jobs, hounded from their neighbourhoods, and are hopefully on the FBI list of potential terrorists. Rough justice, but what did they expect, this isn’t a game (although I think some of them think it is). 

When young white supremacists sob online about their careers and lives being ruined after they’ve been exposed, liberal Twitter laughs. But it is a tragedy when young people are seduced by a toxic ideology, and ruin their own and other people’s lives as a result. It’s a tragedy that 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub was seduced by Islamic State, and destroyed his own and countless other lives in Barcelona this week. It’s a waste of life, an increase in suffering, a failure of our society.

We can seek to control hate speech. We can shut down the accounts and internet sites where it’s allowed to proliferate. We can turn out on the streets in greater number than the extremists. We can identify and shame those who hide behind masks and online pseudonyms. We can help intelligence services tracking and infiltrating violent extremist groups. We can refuse to normalize violence as a political tactic.

But we also need to think how to defeat the arguments of extremist ideologies (far-left, far-right, Islamist), in order to save young people from throwing away their lives. One of the greatest tasks for any civilization is to pass on its values to its young men as they make the dangerous transition to adulthood. These young men think they’re defending western civilization. We need to explain they’re at risk of destroying it.

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