A Christian friend whose opinion I respect very much has written me privately to object to the way I wrote recently about the New Zealand shootings, and the approach I have in general to writing about these issues. Earlier this week I had a similar conversation with a different Christian friend who was concerned in exactly the same way. I will not post details of those conversations here, for obvious reasons, and I will respond to my letter-writer privately, but if these friends are having the same reactions, I bet many of you are too. I should clear the air.
The specific thing that alarms them was the post I made a week ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch shooting, in which I cited parts of the killer’s manifesto, and wrote:
Here’s the chilling part: Everything Tarrant identifies as qualities of a disintegrating Western civilization is true.
It was clear in context of the entire post that I was not advocating for the killer. In fact, I wrote earlier in that same piece:
I will say here clearly that any reader who in any way attempts to justify this atrocity in New Zealand will NOT be posted. It was a despicable act, and if you pray, join me in praying for the souls of the murdered, and the families they left behind.
That said, some comments on the manifesto (you can read a general NYT report on it here). I read it in the same vein as I read the bloodthirsty Islamist fanatic Sayyid Qutb’s work: as something that we have to understand, because it articulates quite clearly what we’re up against — and that it’s not mere psychotic raving:
The Muslim writer Shadi Hamid makes the same point I was trying to make, but does so as a liberal, on Foreign Policy magazine’s website, days after the massacre (versus one day after the massacre). He writes:
It’s not quite right to say the suspect charged with killing 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, last week was “crazy,” or “mad.” He was not “insane.” He had thought quite clearly about why he did what he did and what he hoped to accomplish, captured in a 74-page manifesto. The arguments and motivations laid out in the document need to be taken seriously and not merely dismissed as the ravings of a fanatic. That’s the only way to reckon with the gravity of what happened and to confront a threat that will be with us for decades to come.
It is reasonable that we would want to cast such an attack outside the realm of rationality, to tell ourselves that expressions of evil are random and unpredictable; it’s the same impulse many had when faced with the brutality and terror of the Islamic State and other jihadi extremists. To rationalize evil as something irrational makes it easier to take on horrifying news. But to do that here would be a mistake.
Hamid goes on to say:
I support a strong response to the New Zealand attack. But for too many this seems to involve treating white nationalists—a group that, according to some, includes a sizable chunk of the U.S. Republican Party—the way Islamic extremists have long been treated: as a hostile outside force that must be destroyed.
Here’s the core of Hamid’s essay:
During the West’s extended war against jihadism, many of us implored policymakers to think more broadly about the grievances, policy failures, and other drivers that made acts of violence more likely. It wasn’t enough to say that “they hate us for who we are,” even when they did. Some of the grievances that Osama bin Laden and his associates cited (however cynically)—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. support for dictators, and debilitating sanctions inflicted upon Iraqis—did not become illegitimate merely because they were uttered by a terrorist. And, for a time, the fact that extremists cited grievances that many ordinary Arabs and Muslims shared helped build up a reservoir of sympathy and even support for groups such as al Qaeda.
Just as it was with Islamic extremism, it is advisable to dismiss the grievances of white nationalists that are silly or conspiratorial but less so to dismiss the ones that reflect something real. In one section of the manifesto, the shooter cites seven factors that contribute to “radicalization.” Not only are some of them not untrue, but they would also probably draw agreement across the political spectrum, such as the “loss of worker rights,” “environmental degradation,” and the “collapse of Christianity.” We might wish it weren’t so, but these three things may very well make radicalization more likely, all other things being equal. In some sense, they already have.
Read the whole thing. Please, please do. Hamid is telling the truth, though it’s a truth that is more palatable when delivered by a Muslim than by a white Christian like me.
As Hamid writes in the essay, analysts like him have tried for years to point out to Westerners that they will never understand Islamic radicals, especially radical Islamic terrorists (not the same thing!), if they insist on framing the terrorists’ motivations only in terms that make sense to them. Thus did we, in the early 2000s, have a common view, at least on the US mainstream right, that Al Qaeda and their kind carried out their acts of terror because Arab polities were denied the full fruits of liberal democracy and capitalism. The unspoken assumption was that the natural human condition is peaceful and cooperative, and that Islam (and all religion), in its natural state, was a force for peace.
None of this was true, or at least not true in the sense that Western policymakers wanted to believe. I recall very well how, when critics brought up the fact that Iraq was deeply divided along religious and tribal lines, and that democracy would not come easily to the Iraqis (if at all), those critics were denounced — often by mainstream conservatives! — as racists for denying that Arabs were capable of democracy.
That’s not what these critics were saying at all, but the “racist” canard was used to silence an important debate on culture, history, politics, and social conflict. It turned out that the critics were exactly right — and Iraq, then later Syria, paid a terrible price for our arrogance. You could be cynical and say that the Western neocon policymakers knew exactly what they were doing in denouncing their critics as racists. I don’t believe that is the case. It is profoundly within the American imagination to think that liberal democracy is entirely consonant with human nature. I remember, to my shame, believing the Bush administration propaganda, circa 2002, that as soon as the dictator was taken out, the Iraqi people will flourish, as they were meant to do.
As I have written here before, deep and humiliated reflection on how I had gotten the Iraq War so wrong caused me to see and to admit that I, personally, had been driven by vengeance for 9/11. I would not have been able to accept that reality directly back in 2002, during the march-up to the Iraq War, because I would have recognized it as crude, unworthy, and no justification at all for war. So I cloaked my ugly (but all too human) rage and desire for vengeance in a raiment of idealism — and that process required me to marginalize all those who insisted that the reality was more complicated than crusaders like me and my tribe wanted to believe.
It is hard for me to overemphasize how deeply the grand illusion of the Iraq War, which I initially supported, affected me, and still does. It reoriented the way I approach the world, in this particular way: it has compelled me to think a great deal about why people convince themselves that some things are true, and some things are false, despite evidence otherwise. In short, it made me profoundly doubt our capacity to reason, mostly because it is so very, very difficult to shake off our hidden motivations.
This 2003 essay by Paul Berman, published in The New York Times, is one I go back to frequently. It’s about Sayyid Qutb (d. 1968), the philosopher who inspired Al Qaeda, and who is more or less the godfather of contemporary Islamic terrorism. Check out these passages:
Qutb (pronounced KUH-tahb) wrote a book called ”Milestones,” and that book was cited at his trial, which gave it immense publicity, especially after its author was hanged. ”Milestones” became a classic manifesto of the terrorist wing of Islamic fundamentalism. A number of journalists have dutifully turned the pages of ”Milestones,” trying to decipher the otherwise inscrutable terrorist point of view.
I have been reading some of Qutb’s other books, and I think that ”Milestones” may have misled the journalists. ”Milestones” is a fairly shallow book, judged in isolation. But ”Milestones” was drawn from his vast commentary on the Koran called ”In the Shade of the Qur’an.” One of the many volumes of this giant work was translated into English in the 1970’s and published by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, an organization later widely suspected of participation in terrorist attacks — and an organization whose Washington office was run by a brother of bin Laden’s. In the last four years a big effort has been mounted by another organization, the Islamic Foundation in England, to bring out the rest, in what will eventually be an edition of 15 fat English-language volumes, handsomely ornamented with Arabic script from the Koran. Just in these past few weeks a number of new volumes in this edition have made their way into the Arab bookshops of Brooklyn, and I have gobbled them up. By now I have made my way through a little less than half of ”In the Shade of the Qur’an,” which I think is all that exists so far in English, together with three other books by Qutb. And I have something to report.
Qutb is not shallow. Qutb is deep. ”In the Shade of the Qur’an” is, in its fashion, a masterwork. Al Qaeda and its sister organizations are not merely popular, wealthy, global, well connected and institutionally sophisticated. These groups stand on a set of ideas too, and some of those ideas may be pathological, which is an old story in modern politics; yet even so, the ideas are powerful. We should have known that, of course. But we should have known many things.
I did not read all of In The Shade Of The Qur’an, or even most of it. But I read enough about it, and about Qutb (hanged by Nasser as a revolutionary) to understand how little we in the West really got about Qutb, who was a deep religious thinker. To read Qutb is to confront a man who is a bone-chilling ideologue, the kind of man who would not flinch to see innocents massacred. But — and this is the part Westerners refuse to see — Qutb makes a kind of sense, given his premises. And those premises are rooted in the reality of the situation the Arab Muslim world found itself in in modern times.
The point is not that Sayyid Qutb was right. I believe he was very, very wrong, dangerously so. The point is that you can’t understand why Sayyid Qutb’s philosophy appeals to young men if you bring a Western mindset, with Western prejudices, to your confrontation with him. I recall reading him and being completely appalled by it, but compelling myself to set aside my reactions and try to understand how these words would sound to an intelligent young man who believed his religion was true, and who was trying to make sense of why, even though he and his people had the True Faith, the Arab Muslim world suffered so much, and the unbelievers (Christians, the West) had triumphed. A lot of what Qutb says about the disintegrating qualities of modernity are simply true. Hell, Marx and Engels were telling the truth in The Communist Manifesto when they observed that industrial capitalism dissolved social bonds, customs, and institutions that had long been thought sacred.
That doesn’t make communism true, any more than Qutb’s analysis makes revolutionary Islamism true! But it does compel we who would fight these bloody, soul-crushing philosophies to try genuinely to understand why those ways of thinking and being in the world appeal to so many people, and set their minds on fire.
This is why I keep saying that we would do well to pay close attention to the real-world factors that are driving white nationalism and violent white supremacy. When I said in my post that
Here’s the chilling part: Everything Tarrant identifies as qualities of a disintegrating Western civilization is true.
… what was “chilling” about it is that the factors the malefactor used to build his case for race war are actually real things. None of these things justifies shooting people, or racism in general. But, as Shadi Hamid writes about Tarrant’s grievances:
Not only are some of them not untrue, but they would also probably draw agreement across the political spectrum, such as the “loss of worker rights,” “environmental degradation,” and the “collapse of Christianity.” We might wish it weren’t so, but these three things may very well make radicalization more likely, all other things being equal. In some sense, they already have.
Yes, and I would add the fears, however exaggerated, that native European populations have of being overwhelmed by foreigners at a time when their own birthrates are plummeting. You and I might find it weird and offensive that people would feel so tribalist about race, but this is something normal within human nature. Not having these reactions is the unusual thing.
I was just having a conversation with one of my children this morning about how society constructs narratives. He finds the kind of racism that was completely common in our part of the world when his grandparents were his age to be incomprehensible. He genuinely does not understand it, because he has never lived with it, and has been taught all his life that it’s wrong. I explained to him that when I was younger, I had a lot of resentment against that generation of our ancestors over what they believed, and how they acted based on those beliefs. Much later — as a matter of fact, as part of the process of thinking through how I had given myself over to the pro-Iraq War narrative — I was finally able to put myself in the position of my parents’ generation of rural Southern whites. They inherited the white supremacy narrative, and what’s more, they were raised in an environment in which that narrative was never challenged.
There was no television. There were newspapers, but poor people didn’t really read them. There was radio, but race was a taboo subject. If white churches talked about it at all, it was to deploy the Bible to justify the white supremacist ideology. In short, for the overwhelming majority of rural Southern whites born in the 1920s through the 1940s, there was no sense that white supremacy was a contestable narrative, or a narrative at all. It was just … reality.
I was telling my son this morning about the extreme anxiety that came with the breakdown of that narrative in the 1960s and 1970s. My generation was the first in our town to go to fully integrated public schools. Heaven knows we were not paragons of racial tolerance, but it’s more than a little amazing to me to think about how strange segregation and the beliefs that supported it seemed to white kids of my generation — even though it had only ended a few years earlier. And now, to my own children, it might as well be something from another planet.
This is not the natural condition of humankind. This is an incredible achievement, bought with violence and struggle and sacrifice. It infuriates me to see how progressives today extol racist ideology when it benefits non-white people. It infuriates me because I know well how my generation, and subsequent generations, of white Southerners were liberated from white supremacist ideology by appeals to universalism, and to the universalist teaching of Christianity, our ancestral religion. Falling into racial/ethnic tribalism is the easiest thing in the world. It makes evolutionary sense. Tribalism has to be unlearned, and unlearning it is one of the greatest achievements of civilization.
So, when I see progressives using that achievement to attempt to grant race-based privileges to non-white groups, it makes me angry because it is unjust, and it makes me deeply anxious about social stability, because I know how fragile this universalism is. When I was born in 1967, some of the leading citizens in my town were members of the KKK. I didn’t discover this until my adulthood, and it was a real shock, because all that recent history had been so deeply buried. Historically speaking, we have barely begun to live as a country as if race ought not matter, and that people ought to be judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character — and now the Left is trying to destroy that social peace in the name of a twisted concept of social justice. As you’ve read in this space many times, whenever anti-white advocates (which include progressive white people) win their victories on college campuses and within academic and media institutions, I always say that they have no idea what kind of demons they are calling up.
These demons include evil people like Brenton Tarrant. I’m not trying to say Tarrant’s existence is entirely the fault of others. He and he alone is responsible for his evil deeds. My point is that no terrorist — not Brenton Tarrant, not Mohammed Atta, no one — arises out of nowhere. If we want to understand how these evil men are fabricated, we have to do our best to enter into the world through their eyes.
When a people — any people, of any race or religion — feels existentially threatened, they are going to be highly susceptible to fear-based appeals. I’ve been there myself. In the days immediately following 9/11, like many other New Yorkers, I was scared to death, and prepared to believe rumors. On the day Katrina hit, I was living in Dallas, but was so afraid for my family back in south Louisiana that my boss sent me home from the office, because I was quietly freaking out. This is how people are. You’re like this too.
Prosperous Western people who have been educated in Western institutions find ideologies like Tarrant’s white supremacy to be abhorrent. As we should! But they never stop to think about how and why this kind of ideology appeals to people. They don’t want to do this because they understandably fear that to let down one’s guard is, in some sense, to risk sympathizing with the evil ones. I get that — but it has to be done, or we’re not going to see these threats coming, much less figure out how to stop them.
I have friends of a number of ethnic backgrounds, but I would be very surprised if any of them cared about the preservation of their own race. In my case, I don’t care what race the future spouses of my children are, as long as they are serious Christians. I am deeply anxious about the loss of Christian faith, and I know well how much its survival depends on families upholding religious traditions in meaningful ways.
The Jewish religion is not like Christianity or Islam; it is passed on in part through bloodlines. The survival of Judaism in the United States is seriously threatened now by intermarriage with Gentiles. I completely understand why Jewish parents would not want their children to marry outside of Judaism — even though this belief runs counter to our secular liberal culture. This is an excruciating dilemma for Jews, who have been among the greatest beneficiaries of liberalism, which has done a good job in fighting anti-Semitism. But now, having largely triumphed over anti-Semitism, liberalism is also dissolving Judaism in the West. Look at these numbers if you doubt me.
Why is it so difficult to imagine that Italians, French, Hungarians, and others in Europe are frightened to see their own native populations rapidly declining? Why is it so hard to imagine their fear in the face of their own population declines — which is their fault for choosing not to have more kids — when immigration into their countries is increasing? Last week I wrote in this space (“Disintegration And Its Discontents”) about watching a few years back black residents of my hometown parish (county) react to a proposal for a new reform plan of government with anger and race-driven paranoia. I wrote:
Their anger and anxiety made no logical sense — until you thought about how much they endured under white supremacy, and how they were watching their political power slip through their fingers, because their population had declined so starkly in a single lifetime.
There was no way they could get what they wanted, politically. They just did not have the numbers within the polity to sustain the power they once, all to briefly, held. The new system was not designed to disempower them at all. They had simply failed to show up for the future, same as the native European populations today (though in the case of Europeans, it’s a matter of sub-replacement fertility; in my home parish, it’s a matter of long-term economic in-migration of whites and out-migration of blacks). The point is, managing this kind of loss within a community’s members, and not just treating them as history’s sore losers, requires a lot of political skill, including the ability to empathize with the displaced, and in a more meaningful way than simply pulling a long face and saying, pro forma, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Some of you hate it when I say that the unabashedly racist 1973 French novel The Camp Of The Saints is worth reading as part of a broader attempt to understand the social and political reality of this moment of historical crisis. When I finally picked it up in 2015, as Europe was struggling with the exodus of refugees from the Middle East, getting through it was hard, because it’s not especially well written, and there are passages that are truly ugly. The one thing I gained from the novel was an appreciation for the way its author, Jean Raspail, absolutely nailed the weakness and mendacity of European elites in the face of mass migration. In the book, they did everything they could to minimize what the coming invasion meant, and then to rationalize their refusal to defend their countries by saying in various ways that the invaders gave Europe a chance to redeem itself for the sins of its colonial past, and so forth.
In that sense, this 1973 novel could have been written today. It matters because in the book, the protagonist and his confederates, seeing that all is lost, go on a murderous rampage once the invasion force of economic refugees lands on the French coast in their vast flotilla. If Europe is lost, they’re going to take down everybody they can in an orgy of apocalyptic violence.
What good (“good”) will such a fictional scenario do us? Raspail’s scenarios are hyper-exaggerated, but they compel us to see ourselves and our historical situation in a light that we resist. Raspail’s portrait of a European elite that simply will not deal with the existential crisis upon the nation, and that is itself so consumed by self-hatred that they are willing to yield to a very different kind of invader than in ages past, is one that no small number of Europeans hold. As with the black citizens of my home parish who found themselves losing political power, those native-born Europeans who feel more and more threatened by migrants are bound to react with anger and even racism. This is a normal human response. To recognize that normal human beings are prone to react this way when confronted by a crisis like this is not necessarily to say that they are correct to act that way. It’s only to say that it is predictable, and any politician who doesn’t grasp that fact is a self-deluded fool.
It is a frustrating fact of life that sometimes, bad people and immoral works of art tell us truths that are important to our survival. We have to develop the skill to separate art from the artist and truth from the liar. Sayyid Qutb and Karl Marx, for example, have the blood of many innocents on their hands. But their ideas wouldn’t have moved so many people to action if they were entirely nonsensical, and not based on kernels of truth about society, about history, about human nature, and so on.
The longest political standoff in Sweden’s history ended on Jan. 18 with the government looking much as it had before elections were held four months earlier. Stefan Lofven, leader of the moderate Social Democrats, was again named prime minister, while the nationalist Sweden Democrats continue to be isolated in Parliament. The new four-party alliance hailed its agreement as a victory against insurgent forces of racism and intolerance.
In reality, the deal merely papers over the discontent that’s been eating away at Swedish liberalism since the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis. An influx of migrants has stretched the country’s social services to near the breaking point—a situation the governing agreement fails to address. Sweden Democrats received almost 18 percent of the September vote, and their sidelining in the government could further alienate that substantial and growing voting bloc.
More, about the city of Malmo, which has the highest percentage of immigrants relative to the population:
Nationalists around the world have cited Malmo as an example of what can go wrong in a welfare society. Gang violence has long been a problem, especially in crowded, run-down areas. In Almgarden, a neighborhood about evenly split between white Swedes and immigrant families, 41 percent of residents voted for the Sweden Democrats, among the highest percentages of any district in the country. “People think all criminality stems from immigration,” says Almgarden resident Jeanette Palsson. Some of her neighbors have become increasingly hostile. “We have friends who we struggle to hang out with, especially outside, because they’re openly racist.”
More than a dozen cameras were put up last March along a kilometer-long stretch in Rosengard, the high-crime neighborhood that encompasses Almgarden. These have helped curb violence. There was a stabbing a few months ago; officers apprehended the killer within 15 minutes thanks to the surveillance, says Malmo police superintendent Stefan Wredenmark. “We have journalists coming here all the time, and when they see this area their reaction often is that ‘this isn’t a war zone,’ ” he says. “It used to be a no-go zone, but it’s not anymore.” While certain types of highly visible crimes, including deadly shootings, have gone up, “the number of reported crimes—the general crime rate—is going down,” says fellow superintendent Glen Sjogren.
For longtime Malmo residents like pensioner Yvonne Vigstrand—as well as other Swedes attempting to cling to the values that made the country a beacon of liberal democracy—that comes as little comfort. She opposes the Sweden Democrats, but she can understand how there was a surge in support for the nationalists. Now they just add to the climate of fear in Sweden. “Nothing has ever happened to me, so I have no reason not to feel safe,” she says. “But I won’t go out late at night.”
Now, to be sure, the Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant appears (from what we know so far) to have been an extremist who never himself suffered from any negative migration fallout. He seems like an unstable and socially maladapted man who found in a racist crusade a channel for his rage and inner turmoil — just like many of the men who become Islamic terrorists. The point here is not to justify any of this, but to understand the social conditions that play a role in producing alienated men with a politically or religiously motivated desire to commit mass murder.
No society is ever entirely free of psychopaths, but there are things societies can do to make it less likely that those who are mentally disturbed can and will act out their deadly fantasies. More prosaically, there are things societies can do to make it less likely that its members who have reason to feel alienated, lost, or displaced will react to their losses by resorting to malice, bigotry, and even violence. This is a massive political challenge. In Sweden, for example, the left-wing idealists, by continuing to bring refugees in as a way to prove their virtue, are straining their system to the breaking point, and creating conditions that will inevitably lead to backlash — a backlash whose forms will be nationalist, even racist.
If you won’t listen to me, listen to Shadi Hamid: the wrong way to deal with the threat from violent white nationalism is merely to treat it as something to be destroyed, simple as that. We need to take seriously the sense of siege that many whites feel, as the result of high migration levels to their particular communities, and in the face of diminishing numbers (and concomitant loss of political power). We need to take seriously the collapse of Christian belief, and what it means in terms of depriving people of a faith that ameliorated suffering, gave them a sense of meaning and purpose, and restrained malice. We need to take seriously the vulnerability of working class people in an age of globalized capitalism and technological advancement taking their jobs. And so forth.
And we damn sure had better stop deepening and widening our lines of fracture via this “identity politics are fine for me, but not for thee” strategy that so very many on the Left unthinkingly embrace. Identity politics on all sides are a Thing today because instability frightens people, and causes them to fall back on tribal loyalties. Liberal democracy is a fragile achievement. It might not survive the trials of our present age. Making a real effort to understand how marginalized people see the world — even marginalized people we are predisposed to dislike, even hate — is an important part of defending social stability, on which our own liberty and prosperity depends.
Now, there is the matter of timing. Another friend pointed out that it wasn’t right for me to be saying that things in Tarrant’s manifesto were true while the bodies of his victims were still warm. That’s a fair criticism, one I’ve received before with reference to other hot takes. Part of it is a hazard of the medium. When a horrible event like the Christchurch massacre happens, I try to think of something truthful and useful that I can say that doesn’t mirror what everyone else said. As I replied to my critical friend, acknowledging his point, the Unabomber’s manifesto said some true things about technological society, but it’s probably better to wait until David Gelernter, one of that monster’s victims, to get out of the hospital before pointing that fact out.
One last point: it’s not just guilt over the Iraq War, and how I allowed myself to see only what I wanted to see in the walk-up to that event, that drives me in cases like this. Some years back, before I live where I now live, I was involved with an institution that faced a threat to its existence. I and one other person there saw the problem early on, and told the leaders of the institution what was happening, and what was likely to happen if they didn’t act to address the threat. They refused to do it, and angrily blamed us for exaggerating the problem. Nothing we could do worked, so we stood down and withdrew. Before long, everything we told them would happen did, in fact, happen — and the result was so catastrophic that it destroyed the institution.
It was a small thing in the history of the world, granted, but the institution (which I’m not naming, to protect the privacy of those who worked with it — you wouldn’t know it anyway) meant a lot to me. The leadership did not want to hear what my colleague and I were saying back then, because if we were right, then some of their moral convictions, and their views on how the world worked, would be brought into question. People they thought were good would actually turn out to have been bad, and vice versa. And, the leaders would have had to have made decisions that they didn’t want to make. It was much easier for them to say that we were wrong, and were bad people for pointing these things out. So that’s what they did — and it brought down the entire small organization.
I don’t bring this up to say, I told you so! There’s no point in that. There is no vindication in having been right. A small institution that I and others loved and cared for is no longer here, because key people — good people, too! — allowed their emotional unwillingness to face inconvenient truths drive their decision-making, in the face of clear and unambiguous facts that told a different story. Though a number of years have passed since all that went down, I think about it a lot, because that whole thing broke my heart irreparably. Just last week something brought it to mind, and I somewhat reproach myself, wondering if I should have not have shut up after being rebuffed, but instead shouted at the leadership to get them to recognize the existential instability they were introducing into the institution. Anyway, I tell you this so you’ll know that this is one factor that drives me to say things in this space with imprudent timing. Doesn’t make it right, but it explains it, in part. Which, nearly 6,000 words ago, is what I set out to do with this post.