Brilliant Branding and the Far Right

Ask any conservative what the biggest problem they have with modern “liberalism” is and they will invariably tell you something about the left’s disdain for freedom of speech. To many, a sizable portion of Trump’s appeal was in his disregard for political correctness and his unrehearsed speech. A faction of, mostly, young liberals consider speech patterns encoded with racism and misogyny to be a form of institutionalized violence. People outside of this liberal group may consider the labeling of what was once considered regular speech as violent speech to be an exercise in imposing values on them which they do not hold. Liberals have, to a great extent, won the “culture war” of sensitive speech – a host of terms for different racial, disabled, ethnic, gender, and religious groups are widely considered offensive now where they were not even 20 years ago. Backlash against this, including by a variety of different political groupings to the right of the liberals who champion progressive speech, has been sustained and confrontational.

On the radical, or fringe, right openly declaring racism or other hateful ideologies has become too unacceptable and many groups of re-branded themselves to better fulfill their goals. Many declare themselves as part of the “alt-right” – a political grouping that has no real meaning and translates most accurately as “Trump-supporting.” Organizations like the NEI (Nazi ideology, operated by Richard Spencer) or American Renaissance (anti-black racism) are not immediately recognizable as hate groups if you glance through their websites. American Renaissance in particular is an excellent example of the modern “alt-right” re-branding strategy of hate groups. Their website repackages articles, columns, and blogs written by right-wing provocateurs like Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter as if they were writing for the American Renaissance website. Instead of saying overtly racist and hateful things about black people they refer to their ideology as “race realism.” By giving hate an intellectual veneer and a moderate web presence and it is easy to start agreeing with their agenda until you realize it’s hateful nonsense. All of this re-branding and sanitizing of language provides these groups with cover from the media, sympathetic minds, and politicians. Under the Trump administration they find themselves being elevated to near-respectability by being lumped-in with the rest of the amorphous “alt-right” and having their rallies and conferences covered by the media.

Erasing history, reverse racism, and a host of terms from Orwell’s 1984 have been rallying cries from the right on the issue of the liberal impulse to correct what are viewed as historical wrongs. And this is where the Nazis come in. Tearing down statues is another example, for many, of political correctness run amok. For Nazis and members of the KKK, the statues are a sinister marker of racial dominance and pride. It is either a brilliant maneuver or a stroke of luck that by having members of the extreme edge of the “alt-right” protest the removal of Confederate statues there are conservatives and Trump supporters who will reflexively come to their defense against the anti-free speech left. Finding these commonalities and dovetails increases these groups visibility and respectability and it is something which conservatives and Trump supporters should be careful of feeding in to.

The Death of Politics

In a corrupt, almost-Dystopian state, men armed with clubs, sheathed in body armor, masks covering their faces, and carrying banners with symbols representing their ideologies fought for control of city blocks. 

Distressing scenes like this are no longer found exclusively in the pages of novels or in the corrupt states of the Third World. In Greece throughout 2013, Nazi’s and Communists fought each other in the streets of Athens. 80 years earlier the two most destructive ideologies of the 20th century physically battled for supremacy across Europe – and much of Europe was eventually devastated by the fruits of those politics. Eight years after the worst moments of the American economic collapse, those politics have inched their way into the United States and embedded themselves firmly into the political discourse.

The election of Donald Trump was an indictment of the American political system and institutions. The institutions failed in their purpose and design, and the political system has been exposed as being aloof from the concerns of the American people. Decades of collusion between corporate interests, pressure groups, unions, and other special interests and the American government at the expense of populist policies have undermined American political institutions. Government and special interests have separated the political discourse from the good of society. People have become increasingly disillusioned with centrist policies that seem to benefit private interests and have turned toward the edges of the political spectrum. In our Republic this has increasingly resulted in legislative gridlock which further undermines faith in traditional and centrist politics. American politics’ weak center, with leaders lacking charisma and lacking a vision beyond maintaining the status quo, is giving way toward ideas of radical change. Wholesale changes in the economy have granted an urgency to this transformation.

In so many ways since the global catastrophe (it should never have been so meekly termed “The Great Recession”) the modern political world mirrors the upheaval of the 1930’s. Democracy is being discredited, powerful populists are emboldened in both domestic and foreign adventures, and tremendous uncertainty and economic pain are promised to be assuaged through resurgent chauvinistic nationalism. Modern anti-democratic regimes are not founded on extreme ideologies though, they are mostly run on the principles of petty theft. Disillusioned citizenries become the fertile soil for venal political structures to grow, which serve their leaders’ bank accounts well and not much else.

Anomie is a greater danger than ideology. The same vague, nihilistic lack of meaning that infects youth in the United States with pretensions of fighting grand battles against “political correctness”  or “fascism” also makes disenfranchised, disillusioned Muslim men join ISIS. The ossification of the American political system, uncertainty over the future of the planet due to global warming and technology, the slow death of religion, and the simultaneous rise and retreat of globalism all conspire to confound strong attachments of community identity and place.

The grand visions of the fringe left and the fringe right are particularly weak. In the ideological dictatorships of the 20th century, enormous things were promised – and done. Many people sincerely believed in the total transformation of societies. Efforts to end capitalism were pursued with vigor, as well as efforts to strengthen the will of the nation-state through complete purity. The vague and toothless goals of the current crop of ideologues are pathetic in comparison. Vague support for socialism and incoherent pleas for xenophobic nationalism squawk from so-called “thought-leaders” on the right and left.

The threats and aspirations are nowhere near as real, achievable, or present to modern societies as they were in the roiling 1930’s. The Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 was as close as anything ever seen to a pure military struggle between the ideological left and ideological right. Liberals and conservatives murdered one another on the scale of the hundreds of thousands. Fascism (in its form of extreme and holistic nationalism) transformed Spain under a repressive and rigid dictatorship while pockets of the Spanish Republicans created systems of anrcho-syndicalism. This was true, radical political change and experimentation that Spain experienced. The stakes were plain in the loss of life and destruction of property. Now, in the US, lightly armed mobs of liberals and conservatives do battle at political rallies with no chance of changing the political system and with little danger of the loss of life. Unfounded anxieties about fascist dictatorships and concerns over the elimination of white majoritarianism animate fights and debates. The internet has most certainly played its part in this. In anonymous forums, incubators of hysteria and sound-proof political echo-chambers, disillusioned youth come to terms with and attempt to reanimate dead ideologies. The sin of the political left: arrogance, and the sin of the political right: ignorance, are displayed perpetually.

Republicans’ and Democrats’ failed political parties are currently incapable of rehabilitating the political discourse in the country. They are quickly becoming the hollowed slaves of populism. Populism on the left and right has no real guidelines other than satisfying the whims of populace without a deeper understanding of the structures and priorities of the state. Republicans and Democrats are each committing different sins. Republicans are acting as appeasers of an unethical and ignorant policy while Democrats are undermining democratic principles by moving away from compromise and free speech.

The establishment Republicans are much like upper-class British appeasers in the 1930’s. If the Nazi Party hated Jews and Communists so openly, it didn’t hurt to back them, it was mutually beneficial. Of course the modern American iteration of faux-fascism is venal and not homicidal, but history will not judge the Republican leadership kindly.

So we end up, especially in the United States, with collapsed political institutions and ideas and nothing with which to replace them. America faces a British Empire moment. It must radically rethink its role in the world and the government’s responsibility domestically. If the government can follow a rational policy, instead of spending almost half of our wealth on maintaining the world order through military force, and focus on the wellbeing of private citizens, the institutions of power could reassert order. A common sense, centrist policy can take back the strength of old ideas from the fringes and focus on the problems of a new age, where so many are displaced in our society.

"Pricking Media Bubbles" with Trevor Noah and Tomi Lahren

There has been a lot of sober, respectful applause (especially from the left) concerning the debate between Tomi Lahren and Trevor Noah. Dialogue and discourse is the only way to make conservatives realize they are wrong – this seems to be the argument of many liberal observers. The idea that the left and right inhabit different media landscapes is certainly correct, but bursting those bubbles is not so simple. It certainly seems to make sense: if you want to engage people of different political positions, have their avatars (with large followings) debate.

But it is a sad commentary that Trevor Noah, a comedian, and Tomi Lahren, an enraged commentator  best known for two-minute anti-liberal screeds, are the political right and left’s surrogates. The type of discussion they had lacks the intellectual rigor of true debate, does nothing to bridge the gap between left and right, and exposes the two personalities as purveyors of cynical, insincere outrage. The two figures can come together and calmly discuss issues which, on their own programs, they rail on or against to provide the needed fix of outrage for their audience.

If Trevor Noah and Tomi Lahren are avatars for their sides of the political spectrum than they display the shallowness of political opinion. The reactions to the debate have also exposed the hubristic naïveté of the left. To think that a debate like that does anything except raise the profiles of the two actors involved is foolish, it does not bridge political divides. Sustained understanding of universal facts can draw people together and closer to the same opinions. The show also exposed the outraged populism that has consumed the right. Instead of reasoned debate about government spending there is outrage over Black Lives Matter and other social issues, which are societal issues more than governmental.

This was nothing more than an advertisement for the two, and it should not be seen as a model for bringing the country together. The two did nothing to burst media bubbles, but surely inflated their own sense of importance and moral righteousness.

Historical Figures and their Movements

Fidel Castro was a dictator. He got his position by overthrowing a different dictator. This should be noted in the first instance as it is pivotal to analyzing his stance as moral figure in political struggles. The pertinent question after his death, in terms of pop culture and not politics, is: Was Castro a hero for the working class or a decadent absolutist?

When people become famous, or become actors on the world stage, their image eventually becomes disconnected in some way from the controversies of their lives. Ghengis Khan is remembered as a brutal leader who murdered millions of people, but he is also lauded for his brilliant leadership; the merits of the Pax Mongolica and its positive impact on the development of the European Renaissance are also debated by academics. The closest example to Castro and his legacy is Che Guevara, a revolutionary who aided Castro’s rebellion against Batista. Guevara is both a hero of the liberal left and a pop cultural symbol of rebellion. His brutality is glossed over in a moral relativism which equates the sins of the left as the same as he sins of the democracies in the Cold War. If we are being morally honest, we don’t excuse the brutality of any individual or faction, we condemn them all. But for most people, their extent of knowledge of Che Guevara is his ubiquitous photograph on t-shirts. Castro lived to the age where a new generation that had already lost much of their visceral feelings toward his rule. From this perspective he did not reach a level of infamy that would poison his public image.

Public perception of individuals shifts from age to age when more, or less, knowledge is in the public mind about someone; and it especially shifts according to the current social environment. When young American liberals look at Fidel Castro and his legacy they see free healthcare and education, not repression and fear. Castro looks good to this generation, as Cuba has two achievements that wealthy modern America lacks. To an older generation Castro is the evil dictator who conspired with the Soviet Union to threaten the United States. In 50 years Castro will probably be forgotten altogether, not infamous or successful enough to remain in the public consciousness.

Castro was another dictator, no better or worse than any dictator who has ruled in the past. The west venerates democracy, and anyone who shuns democracy is a heretic to the new secular Truth. Castro is having his moment as his legacy is being debated, but he is just another brutal man who will disappear into the folds of history.

Technology and Information in the Western World

At the start of the 21st Century it was obvious that information (data, communications, news) was valuable as it had not been before. The ability to collect, utilize, and disseminate information reaped efficiencies and knowledge from the multitudinous amalgamation of modern society. Sifting and organizing this data became the paramount task for business and government, and the sifting is done with algorithms. Algorithms dominate modern life in subtle and pervasive ways and they are often placed on a pedestal: the better the algorithm the better your software. With all of this data and all of this organization of data, there is a loss of focus on the issues data is actually used to resolve. There is a dark side to the task of intertwining society and reducing every tendency and action to a data point – and it’s not Big Brother sifting through your personal life that is a problem.

People are the problem. Technology does not exist in a vacuum and it exists to aid people. Technology does not make all decisions for us. The proliferation of data has led to a problem that algorithms cannot solve. People must interpret and use the data, and if there is so much information available to the public, it is up to people to filter it themselves and decide what is important to listen to. There is also the problem of trying to force people to be better at reaching certain data points. For instance, children shouldn’t get a higher grade on an English exam, they should be better at analyzing and writing in the language. Likewise, people shouldn’t just read more information, they should be analyzing the available information more efficiently.

A narrative after the presidential election centers around the dissemination of fake news and its possible impact on the outcome. Much of the blame has centered on Facebook and social media for allowing the spread of fake news, but this criticism is misplaced. People must take some responsibility before we force technology to make decisions for us. The centrality of data and algorithms, information culture in its entirety, must be maintained as an AIDE and not as a LEADER.   Our reliance on technology cannot extend to giving up agency. If people cannot decide between believing fake news sources or not, and we need an algorithm to decide for us, then people are abdicating their right to self-government to mathematical constructs.