Jeff Sparrow, Fascists Among Us: Online hate and the Christchurch massacre (Scribe 2019)
The central character of this book is the man who murdered 51 people in Christchurch mosques in March 2019. He is never referred to by name, but is called ‘Person X’ throughout. This is partly in deference to Jacinda
Ahern Ardern’s plea, ‘Speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them.’ But it is also a strategy to turn the reader’s attention away from the murderer’s personal psychology and towards his broader social and political context, to see him not as some kind of lone madman, but as part of a small but thriving fascist movement, ‘an anonymous young man who emerges from the shadows, gun in hand, already committed to an evil ideology.’ To use the terms of Jennifer Maiden’s The Cuckold and the Vampires (my blog post here), Jeff Sparrow is interested in the macrocosm rather than the microcosm
Person X (as I will also call him) wrote a 74-page manifesto that was (and probably still is) available on the internet, linked to the video he made of his rampage. Journalists mostly dismissed this manifesto as unhinged ravings. Jeff Sparrow has read it, and argues that it expresses ‘with stark clarity’ a distinctive political platform. I don’t have even the slightest urge to read that manifesto, but I’m grateful to Jeff Sparrow for reading it for us.
Sparrow argues that Person X’s manifesto wasn’t intended for a general audience, but was/is part of a conversation and a culture which this book sets out to explicate. Person X is a real fascist – not a generic right-wing extremist, but a follower of actual fascists, particularly Oswald Mosley, who unlike Hitler and Mussolini survived the Second World War and preached a Europe-first fascism for the post-war era.
One of the distinguishing features of fascism is the upholding of violence not just as an acceptable means to an end, but as a good thing in its own right. Sparrow gives a fascinating account of the repellent debates among the online fascist groups, mainly in the USA but also in Australia. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 in which men with tiki torches chanted, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ and anti-racist Heather Heyer was killed, most of these groups decided that their movement wasn’t ready for mass action in the streets. Donald Trump’s famous ‘fine people on both sides’ comment wasn’t enough to fortify them – and Trump himself was no fascist, though he provided a favourable context for fascism to grow. Many of the keyboard warriors weren’t up to having their photos made public, and the sheer size and energy of counter-demonstrations whenever they planned a further demonstration made them look ridiculous.
So they generally withdrew to the internet, where they infiltrated – or rather coalesced with – troll culture and ‘shitposting’. They would post horrific things in a way that you couldn’t tell if they were serious or just joking, aiming to ‘own the libs’. They became expert in developing and circulating memes. This was Person X’s home ground, and – Sparrow argues – the stuff in his manifesto that some commentators took to be incoherent ravings was really in the vernacular of The Daily Stormer and 8chan. He wasn’t prominent in Australian fascist groups, but he was known as an active participant. (Sparrow’s account of Australian fascism should bring a blush to the cheeks of many journalists who have described key fascists as activists and given them a platform.)
Person X’s murderous spree was a deliberate intervention in the debates among fascists. Acknowledging that the time was not ripe for organised action, he offered a model of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism. He took the form of the ‘autogenic mass killing’ – a lone man with a gun who lashes out – and recast it as a political act. It’s not violence against significant political targets, like assassinations or even the 9/11 attacks, but it sets out to intensify the existing sense of crisis (including the climate emergency crisis), and push towards total destabilising of society and the recovery of some sort of ethnic purity:
Person X presents a systematised manifesto calling for racist terror in the name of a social disruption he thinks will culminate in ethnic cleansing and genocide.
It’s an evil program, the wickedness of which is not diminished by its self-evident impossibility. But impossible programs still attract followers, irrespective of their wickedness.(page 92–93)
And already when Sparrow was writing this book there had been a number of imitators who explicitly mentioned Person X and his manifesto in their own utterances.
Fascists Among Us was written and published well before the events in Washington on 6 January this year. It does seem that the strategy of organised street violence hasn’t been relinquished as thoroughly as Sparrow believed. But his warning that it’s important to understand people like Person X stands. This is a short book, a quick read, and though Person X has been tried and sentenced, Donald Trump is no longer President of the USA, and almost certainly the debates and practices of fascists in Australia and worldwide have moved on, it offers important insights into a clear and present danger.
Ahem…Ardern – Jacinda Ardern.
I was recently in the land of the north NSW Clarence River where Person X was from – including on the drive north along the riverside to the village of Lawrence driving across a stream bearing Person X’s patronymic. It’s also near Grafton where Brian James – pen-name of John Tierney – spent some years teaching – which featured in disguised form in The Advancement of Spencer Button. Our AirBnB “landlord” in Lawrence was a kinsman of Nancy Cato – so rivers running was certainly topical or germane/connected at least to your opening remarks…
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I’d like to remove a “from” – from the first sentence – you choose, Jonathan! As well as correcting Grafter to Grafton! And The Advancement of Spencer Button (not Dutton)! Bloody hell! (I blame the wine – and a dodgy finger on the key-board!)
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Thanks for picking up my blunder, Jim. It’s now fixed. And yours, which were probably autocorrect being helpful, are also now fixed.
What a mess now tidied – thanks: Though yet another leaps to my eye – “It’s also near Grafton where…” – not “when”…etc). By the way and far removed from this – I am now reading Raewyn Connell’s 2019 The Good University. About 30+ pages in. With such a title you might expect something dry with charts and statistics – though if you know (know of) Professor Connell you will not be surprised to find that it is erudite, literary and an almost (if not) thrilling read. Prof. Connell’s father helped personally fund the foundation trial TDP Dip. Ed. I studied at Sydney in 1970. The principle of social justice runs strongly in the Connell family spirit.
‘When’ has now become ‘where’, Jim. Raewyn was a neighbour of mine in Annandale. Weirdly the only one of her books I’ve read is Southern Theory, which was actually well above my pay grade. But the quality of her writing kept me in there
I’m glad you read this, Jonathan. I’ve seen the promos for it, but I just felt too heartsick to read it myself.
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I’m probably showing my age, Lisa, but it reminded me of Marshal McLuhan’s use of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story about the whirlpool to say that if you coolly study the force that is set to destroy you, you can find a way to safety
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