Many were appalled at a cover last week of the communist daily Morning Star, which hailed the massacre in Aleppo as a ‘liberation’. Less noted was the celebratory headline reporting the Home Office’s proscription of neo-Nazi street group National Action. Home Secretary Amber Rudd stated that ‘National Action is a racist, antisemitic and homophobic organisation which stirs up hatred, glorifies violence and promotes a vile ideology’. She is absolutely right, but those who oppose this group – virtually everyone with an ounce of moral integrity – has reason to question whether this is the most moral or effective means of destroying the hatred that fuels it.
I had the pleasure of encountering this group when National Action were kind enough to come to Bath early this year. One of the five or so young men handed me a flyer promoting national socialism, with the slogan ‘Don’t be a coward. Stand up for your race!’. Shocked and intrigued, I struck up a conversation with one of them, who openly defended national socialism. He informed me that National Action took inspiration from the Nazi Germany of the 1930s and 40s, while being more sheepish about the mass murder of Jews and other perceived untermensch (I suppose everyone has a limit). What I learned from this approximately 20 minute conversation was that an open ear is always better than a blanket of censorship, because only this way may one understand that which motivates the most eyebrow-raising of views.
The young man, I would guess a few years older than me, having initially gracefully distanced himself from the Holocaust, did express concern about world Jewry, which he stated was responsible for a disproportionately high control of world politics, banking, film, and other spheres of power and influence, and was armed with statistics to prove it. Indeed the statistics seemed notably high. Alright, but that is no reason to direct blame at individual Jews, mate, surely? This is where anti-Semitism and tolerance diverge.
The approach that every decent person would take would be to reject any link between these statistics and the idea that Jews should be deprived of rights, dignity, or any equality afforded to other people. I have no idea whether they are true, and there is no good reason to care. The alternative conclusion is that the statistics justify suspicion of Jews. It should be obvious to anyone with any fibre of moral character that the former conclusion is better: that way, good, innocent people are not unjustly treated by a tyranny that has lost its anchoring in human rights. To some, however, the choice is not quite as clear. The arguments in favour of the former conclusion are vastly more logical and decent, and must be presented; shutting out the debate is no substitute. Similarly, when he also launched into a tirade on how other races have differently distributed and lower-average IQs, about how Aboriginals are stupid, and why intellectually inferior races should be deported, it was a demonstration of ‘facts’ about IQs (I have no idea whether they are true, but no doubt racists want them to be true) being used to justify discrimination.
Ordinarily, anyone accused of racism, fascism, or Nazism will reflexively deny such allegations and try to disprove them. In contrast, the man’s straightforward, unashamedly fascist approach was actually disarming. It made it surprisingly difficult to argue because almost every debate that anyone within the Overton window – say, views that wouldn’t get you rejected from most jobs – prepares for is with people also within that window. Hence, you may disagree on, say, economic policy or social issues, but there are always parameters to this debate, for example that that racism and anti-Semitism are always morally and factually wrong, and scarcely anyone ever prepares for debate where these parameters are not included. Whereas a provably true accusation of racism is usually enough to defeat an opponent’s point, in this instance it is the whole point. This is a whole new theatre of debate. It would be as if someone suggested that 1+1 does not necessarily equal 2. Everything numerical that you know is based upon this fact and you wouldn’t even know how to proceed outside of this assumption with the knowledge that you have.
Hence when some young people who are low-hanging fruit for neo-Nazism see this new alternative that rejects the fundamentals of anti-discrimination, it appears new, contrarian, and exciting. The only facts in this theatre are presented by the neo-Nazis, because nobody on the other side is used to rebutting them. Whether you like this kind of argument or not, it is happening right now, on social media and on message boards, and letting it go unrebutted is dangerous. Proscription is a decreasingly useful tool in the age of the internet. For instance, when Facebook removes a page that toes the line between cultural conservatism and outright nationalism or Nazism, these ideas do not go away; instead, an almost identical page will spring up in its place. This silly game of whack-a-mole will not succeed, particularly with a group as adept at social media as National Action; just as Anjem Choudhry’s bunch of Islamist charmers see an existing group proscribed by the Home Office, they would set up a new group. The grounds for proscription are also sketchy. I have never read of the group, odious as its rhetoric is, attempting to use violence. Arguably the physically sickening slogan ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ used by Thomas Mair in his monstrous murder of Jo Cox, and adopted by the group is an incitement to violence, but a ban will not rid its members of white supremacist beliefs. So when the government decides in its wisdom that such a group is bad, scary, and no, you can’t go there, doesn’t it sound suspicious? It allows National Action to project the image that the government has no answer to these arguments, and can only suppress neo-Nazism by denying neo-Nazis the right to speak the truth to power. This is obviously nonsensical and cannot be allowed legitimacy.
Only by talking to them and listening to the arguments can the root cause be identified. Neo-Nazis are not a different species; their brains are probably not wired differently. They observe the same things as we do and perceive them differently, and perversely use them to justify the most horrific of beliefs. For example, the man at one point decried how many liberals demand diversity in predominantly white countries but not in others. This touches upon a more rational objection to the idea of diversity as a virtue; why should any colour-blind person give a damn about what proportion of society X has content of melanin Y? What consequence does it have? The danger is that this kind of frustration is used as a gateway by neo-Nazis to invite dislike of diversity itself, and hence racism. Just as he used statistics to support racial segregation and discrimination, so some may, for example, inflame perfectly respectful debates about Islam, and its growing cultural role, into anti-Muslim bigotry. The job of principled conservatism is to capture any concerns and provide logical outlets that reject hatred and bigotry. Otherwise the recruitment of the next band of fascists will go unchallenged.
It is also important to present a character and image that is obviously superior to that of the neo-Nazis. This is where National Action thrives. Last year, the group visited Liverpool, one of the country’s most proudly left-wing cities. The welcome they received from the extensive anti-fascist network, both locals and others scrambled from further away, is a case in point. The group of young men clad in black coats and balaclavas did not get further than Lime Street station; they had to be barricaded inside lost luggage by police. On the other side of the impressively resilient police line was a crowd of indignant anti-fascists, many hurling bananas and trying to fight their way past the poor coppers. National Action stood calmly, taking in the scene. Now imagine that you are a young person, perhaps someone on the fringes of the alt-right, and are worryingly susceptible to neo-Nazism. Who among the two group would seem the more reasonable and civil? Indeed, the man I spoke to was unfailingly polite and listened to what I had to say (I do not know how he would have been if I were not white, or he heard some of my admiration for Zionism). Indeed, lampposts in central Liverpool can be found with stickers from the likes of Antifa that, in font and tone, could have been left by their sworn enemy. In fact, a counter-march by the anti-fascist network featured many donning black caps, black coats, and black balaclavas that covered most of the face. It calls to mind the time in Animal Farm when ‘the creatures looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which’.
There are some who are scared of what could happen should neo-Nazis be taken on. The same justification is used as is used to justify the no-platforming of any extreme character: that more people will hear what they have to say, and the ideology could thrive on oxygen. This is sincere and has laudable intentions, but is to be firmly rejected. This country has a proud history of allowing the far right to subject their message to scrutiny. Oswald Mosely was allowed his marches and enjoyed platforms to speak his message; no reputable politician has any truck with his legacy today. Meanwhile, then-British National Party leader appeared on BBC Question Time in 2009 – to the opposition of some anti-fascist groups – and his gutter-worthy views were torn to shreds before the nation’s eyes. In the case of National Action, to be scared of taking on neo-Nazis because they might win is to admit that their arguments are better and will be seen as such, which is clearly ridiculous. The same chap suggested to me that people who are genetically similar will form stronger bonds with each other as a justification for racial segregation and repatriation, citing closeness among families as an example. He had no response to the suggestion that unrelated adopted children form equally strong bonds with their step-siblings and parents. Similarly, I later learned that National Action returned to Bath in May. A video from this occasion that went semi-viral and can easily found online shows a one of their ill-witted number trying to ascertain the racial status of a mixed-race girl who appears white. Unable to argue, the group left and was roundly derided by passers-by.
Such naked exposure of their foul beliefs works fantastically well; meanwhile, the image of state suppression is exactly what National Action might relish. If people truly want to close the book on the filth of anti-Semitism and hatred, it will involve open exchange of ideas – something, incidentally, that the Nazis hated – and we may have confidence that it will succeed.