The practice of hijacking a salient, emotional issue for political purposes has been a staple in American politics for years. U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy used fear in relation to the real threat of Communism to smear his various political adversaries as traitors. Presidential First Lady and future Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton referred to inner-city gang members as “super-predators” to rally support for her husband’s tough-on-crime policies. It happens so often that most people have become desensitised to the manipulation of the public in this manner. But some instances are especially repugnant, and Candace Owens’ performance at the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Hate Crimes and The Rise of White Nationalism falls into that category. You can watch it in full here.
There are many things to criticise in Owens’ speech. However, the most shocking part was her opinion that there was no need for a hearing on white nationalism in the first place. In her own words:
“The hearing today isn’t about white nationalism or hate crimes, it is about fear-mongering, power, and control…the bottom line is that white supremacy, racism, white nationalism, words that once held real meaning, have now become nothing more than election strategies…”
Less than a month after a white supremacist murdered 50 Muslims in a Christchurch Mosque, and less than a year since another killed 11 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania – not to mention the far more numerous smaller-scale incidents – it is unbelievable that someone would be so arrogant as to argue that the ideology behind those atrocities is nothing more than a red-herring used by Democrats to score political points.
Owens’ statement to the Judiciary Committee was reprehensible. It is profoundly disappointing to see so many respected individuals and groups standing up for her. A transparently incompetent witness should not be asked to speak on the serious topic of hate crime before the United States House of Representatives. It was her cynical denial of the plain fact that hate crime is a serious matter that was the worst aspect of her appearance.
The caricature of the Left that Owens’ peddled at the hearing did, however, contain a grain of truth. Parts of the Left often do indeed abuse labels like “white supremacy”, “fascism,” and the like. They deploy these terms, instrumentally, against their political opponents. In turn, this practice allows charlatans like Owens to get away her broad, over-generalised characterisation of progressive politics as a whole.
Let us consider a few examples of this phenomenon.
Take the case of Andy Ngo of Quillette magazine. Ngo lives in Portland Oregon, where he regularly attends political rallies and protests as a reporter. He focuses mostly on the violent tactics used by the group Antifa to shut down peaceful demonstrations by those who they deem to be fascists. For this heinous crime, he has been accused of being virtually every type of right-wing extremist you can imagine: most-commonly as being a fascist or fascist sympathizer, in addition to being physically attacked on several occasions. Just days ago, while Ngo was filming the Portland Antifa anti-ICE protest, he was pepper sprayed, punched in the abdomen, and had his camera equipment defiled. While this attack took place, he was repeatedly called a ‘fascist’.
While Ngo has certainly written some columns which are open to criticism, by no fair-minded standard could he be considered a fascist. And even were his views were truly radical in nature, it still would not justify the vicious attacks he has endured. We should be worried by politically motivated violence and ‘street politics’, whoever perpetrates it. Attacks on journalists are attacks on democracy.
There are many good reasons to criticise Right wing populist politics. But not every populist is a Nazi. Measured and persuasive criticism flies out of the window, when when Right wing populists and dissenting liberals are lumped together with Hitler and Mussolini.
A similar dynamic was at work when British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton agreed to be interviewed by George Eaton of the New Statesman. In the interview, Eaton consistently tried to bait Scruton into making racist claims. He did not do so. But that didn’t stop Eaton from selectively quoting and misrepresenting Scruton’s words to make it seem as if he had said some truly reprehensible things.
One (of many) examples of Eaton’s conduct is evidenced by his tweet, containing a quote that, when taken on its own, shows Scruton making the racist statement that all Chinese people are essentially replicas of each other. But when it is read in context, it is clear that Scruton is talking about the Orwellian policies that the ruling party in China have instituted. Further, this point was specifically geared towards addressing the plight of the Uighur Muslims, who the Chinese government have interned in the millions in concentration camps to “cure” them of their faith. Scruton did in a separate section of the interview uncomfortably refer to high-levels of immigration into Europe from Muslim-majority countries as a “Muslim invasion.” That was a poor choice of words, to put it mildly. But, now we have the full context, it is clear that the discussion of the conduct of the Chinese government was made in the context of criticism of the persecution of Muslims:
“There’s something quite frightening about the Chinese sort of mass politics and the regimentation of the ordinary being. We invent robots and they are them. In a sense they’re creating robots out of their own people by so constraining what can be done. Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing. Maybe I don’t know enough about it to be confident in making that judgement but the politics is like that and the foreign policy is like that and the concentration camps have come back, largely there to re-educate the Muslims and so on.”
The day of the article’s publication, Scruton was fired from his position as a Tory government advisor, and Eaton posted a celebratory picture on his Instagram, champagne and all, with the caption “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government advisor.”
Scruton is a man who is often difficult to pin down. He has indeed published some controversial, and, to many, objectionable opinions. But this does not justify staging an interview with him for the sole purpose of coaxing an offensive statement or two out of him. It certainly provides no excuse for twisting his words.
The Reader’s Editor of the New Statesman has now produced a thoughtful overview of the affair. George Eaton appears to be on gardening leave. However, there will inevitably be a certain number of people who only saw the original interview, and will have read none of the criticisms and corrections that followed it. Similarly, there will also be those who will regard the whole business as evidence of duplicity, and in consequence will have lost all faith in the Left’s integrity, and will likely be pushed further to the ideological right for that reason.
Closer to home, for Quilliam, was the labelling by the Southern Poverty Law Center – a widely respected, self-described “anti-hate” organization – of our colleague Maajid Nawaz as an “anti-Muslim extremist”. They eventually retreated and apologized, but not until a court settlement cost them over $3 million. Anti-Muslim bigotry certainly exists in the United States, and is in fact a growing problem. However, to label someone who has dedicated his life to fighting hate of all types as an agent of those same sentiments only serves to cheapen the meaning of the term, undermine the SPLC’s authority, and in consequence, providing cover for true anti-Muslim bigots.
Both the denial of the serious nature of far right extremism, and the dubious practice of deploying accusations of right wing extremism strategically against political opponents undermines the fight against hatred. The polarisation that we face comes at a particularly dangerous time. Since the end of the post-civil war era in the United States, when the Ku Klux Klan virtually controlled the southern half of the country, far-right extremism was a disconnected and fringe phenomenon. However, the events of the past several months have revealed that the dynamic has changed. Radicalising material which was once only rarely encountered is now available on demand. Just as Islamist terrorists use modern information sharing technologies to connect others to their larger movements, the same dynamic is now occurring on the far-right.
It is vital that we take the necessary measures to counter this new, more highly developed form of far-right extremism. But in order to do that effectively, we must condemn any and all bad-faith accusations of extremism made against those with more conservative opinions than ourselves.
Failing to do this not only does a disservice to those conservatives who are subjected to unfair smear campaigns, but also serves both to embolden and to legitimate far-right extremism.