Books, Reviews

Jeff Sparrow’s Fascists Among Us

| |

If, when you think about the murders that took place at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch on March 15 this year, a huge bewildering “why?” rises up in your mind, you should read Jeff Sparrow’s small book, Fascists Among Us

This is succinct, steady writing, well-informed and organised. With the advantage of having recently completed a book on the rise of the right (Trigger Warnings), Sparrow has managed to deal with the problems associated with writing about such a sensationally awful event. In response to calls to restrict media coverage, he makes a case for open discussion to clarify what is at stake. The man responsible for the 51 deaths he calls Person X, in keeping with the call made by NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern not to accrete celebrity to a name. And this is not a true-crime-style book that reconstructs the events (which is difficult to do without exploiting curiosity and thereby dishonouring those killed).  

Sparrow does not write much about how Person X carried out his crime. What he does is take us into the manifesto that was written and posted just prior, arguing that it is available to those who would seek it, and so must be understood by those who need to condemn it. This is urgent analysis, which it would be mad for us not to consider. Bad people have always done awful things, yes, but Sparrow most helpfully steps us through why this awful thing is of our time. 

He picks up on Person X’s self-description as an “actual fascist” to show how ideological belief in hierarchy and the need to violently eliminate social equality has underpinned the various manifestations of fascism. For Australians brought up with the notion that this is a society valorising egalitarianism, these ideas ought to be outlandish. That they are espoused by small groups whose appearance is unattractive and whose behaviour seems ridiculous has also contributed to our collective lack of response to these “fascists among us”. 

Such look-away tolerance, however, is not indiscriminately applied in this laissez-faire Aussie society. As Sparrow points out most reasonably, if a person of Islamic faith or middle-Eastern appearance had posted online to a hate-group a message saying he was about to attack his perceived enemies with a promise to live stream via Facebook, there’s every likelihood authorities would have been alerted. “He did not stand out,” Sparrow writes in that characteristically straightforward tone, “simply because Islamophobia can be found everywhere”.  Openly encouraged, in fact.

The fascist is someone who wants to hate and will settle on the most useful target, as Sparrow’s brief history of the movement suggests. This is not tangential to his argument; he finds the references to people such as Oswald Mosley and French philosopher Renaud Camus in Person X’s manifesto. His analysis disrupts the simple conclusion that this was an Islamic hate crime: it was, but the target is strategic, rather than specific.  Anti-Islam sentiment, which became virulent and widespread in the wake of 9/11, is an effective weapon in the fascist arsenal. The swing from abusing Asians to vilifying Muslims is an arc that will knock down anyone who is the enemy in the thinking of those like Person X whose intention is destruction. It would likely draw angry self-righteous bluster from those whose opinions dominate conservative right-wing media outlets to suggest they condone the terrorism of Person X. However, what Sparrow calls the “infrastructure of exclusion” is embedded deep in government policy and there seems to be no will to dismantle it. And fascism relies on the same ideas, so, by not challenging the validity of the bigotry, we also unwittingly provide infrastructure for extremism.

There’s another disruption to complacent thinking within Fascists Among Us: Person X identifies as an eco-fascist, writing with a romantic flourish about the need to protect nature and the environment. As Sparrow reminds us, this is straight out of the Nazi songbook. Get out into the woods and forests, build your muscles, procreate – and don’t let your purity of living be threatened by invaders. Within this call for protecting nature, you don’t have to look far to see the hypocrisy. Hitler’s call to nature in the name of racial purity was accompanied by wanton destruction and brutal industrialisation.

As he moves towards his Conclusion, Sparrow identifies examples of unwitting tolerance of fascism. While Person X was aiming to reach out to the small number of online aficionados deranged and dangerous enough to imitate him, at the same time, here as across the world, both physical and verbal violence escalated. We appear to be normalising abusive bigotry, as an acceptable response to disagreements. The way Donald Trump uses language, his rubbishing of the rules of diplomacy and decency, has played a big part in the changes to our social discourse, which is now also unconstrained and unregulated via social media. 

Enabled by governmental propaganda, Australian sneering at “tree-huggers”, for example, has stepped up, it seems, from grumbling to aggressive, from private to public. And since Sparrow wrote his book, we’ve seen images of Victorian police displaying aggressive intolerance and white nationalist signalling without fear of reprisal. Brave new world.

What Sparrow concludes is important. Person X’s manifesto would be best ignored, if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what was written there is “disturbingly familiar […] many mainstream parties have now adapted to racist populism”. Optimistically, Sparrow writes that exposing the fascism embedded in these ideas can challenge them, because “the ideas of the far right remain, after all, deeply unpopular […] Islamophobia might be widely tolerated, but very few normal people find notions of natural hierarchies and redemptive violence at all appealing.”   

He finishes with a call-out for urgent responses to community despair in order to provide hope, quoting Naomi Klein’s argument that it’s “possible to think of climate change as not merely a threat but also as an opportunity, since any serious attempt to address the environmental crisis necessarily confronts many other social problems.”

It’s a hopeful end to a book that lays out the cards on the table without flinching. The jokers exist, but there are ways to minimise their part in the play, says Sparrow. Listening to politicians and pundits, it does seem difficult to hold to that hope, but this small book itself is encouraging.

Fascists Among Us: Online hate and the Christchurch Massacre, by Jeff Sparrow, is published by Scribe, $19.99.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *