Indirect complicity and the need for an internal overhaul of professionalism within journalism

Michaela Bax-Leaney

Des Freedman touches on an interesting point in his commentary on how failures in media policy have contributed to the rise of populism – the indirect complicity of the mass media. However, I think there is more to it than the few lines Freedman devotes to it, particularly in his discourse about looking forward and ‘resolving’ the issues he identifies in the current mass media systems in place in the U.S. and the U.K.

As Freedman notes, giving populists like Trump and Le Pen airtime, even negative or critical airtime, gives them a platform.  And it is imperative to remember that no one is owed a platform. One may say and believe what they like, but no one is owed influence and amplification. Freedman writes about how “elite” news media was shocked by the results of the 2016 election in the US, and the results of the Brexit referendum, and vowed to shift their coverage, but has that coverage shifted in any meaningful way? Freedman argues, and I would agree that the answer is largely no.

We did witness, in the last vestiges of the Trump administration, cable news outlets opt not to air certain speeches or statements due to the sheer quantity of lies present, but those instances were few and far between. For the most part, as Freedman notes, the revised coverage was reduced to aghast disgust; I found this particularly irksome in coverage of the insurrection at the Capital by CNN. As the hosts watched the events unfold in real time, they could do little more than remark on how shocking, unprecedented, and despicable it all was.

Freedman also takes issue with journalistic notions of objectivity – indeed, journalism itself is undergoing an internal reckoning about objectivity and its roots in white supremacy. Yet I would argue that it goes beyond this; that electoral and political systems are just as much to blame, and in fact they are intrinsically linked with the systemic problems present in mass media.

Freedman references Silvio Waisbord, who himself has dedicated much of his study to reinventing notions of professionalism within journalism, and the pitting of professional journalism (the outlets Freedman primarily references – The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post – all of whom have their practice rooted in strict notions of professionalism including the procedure and ethics that guide how journalism is done) against militant journalism (employed by what he dubs “neo-populist” governments as a way to combat the elitism of professional journalism) (Waisbord 2013).

It is certainly a massive undertaking to reimagine the journalistic enterprise, particularly because what is so key to the success of the function of the journalist is relative freedom from government regulation. Thus, dictating any particular media policy becomes inherently fraught. I think the conversation must shift to a wide-scale recognition of the indirect complicity of news media, and how that coupled with a dire need for democratic reform has led to the massive success of populist outlets (Brieitbart, Rebel News) and the demagogue candidates they endorse.

QAnon has successfully packaged a particularly virulent populism – but they certainly aren’t the first

Michaela Bax-Leaney

As Miro Dittrich observes in his interview with Vice, one of the elements which makes QAnon so pervasive and ‘successful’ is its ability to adapt to other conspiracy narratives, in particular in its ability to adapt itself to local situations. And I would argue that it is therein that lies the formula for success employed by populist, often far-right movements.

These movements have largely mastered the ability to tap into a few broad, general themes that function on both a large, often global scale, but also translate well to hyper-specific situations. By tapping into people’s feelings of disenfranchisement, loss of control, and fear, these movements are able to achieve a cycle of self-affirmation once followers have been brought into the fold.

For example, to Kalmar’s article. Say the Hungarian worker has recently been laid off, and sees the exodus of refugees flocking to Europe for safety. The post hoc fallacy suggesting that the two facts have a causal connection – the worker is now going to be competing against this “flood” of migrants for work – acts as an entry point for the more noxious facets of these populist theories. But if they (those fighting against the elites, that is) were right about the first point, what’s to say that aren’t right about the Soros myth, or vaccines as a vehicle for microchips.  

And while QAnon has certainly done it remarkably well, as Dittrich notes, it is hardly the first of its kind, particularly in the antisemitic roots of the conspiracy. And it is the very thing that makes QAnon attractive to new followers that makes it so very difficult to combat. After all, if a group of global elites is trying to manipulate circumstances – be it in reference to a global child sex trafficking ring, or simply a local by-election – how can efforts to combat that misinformation be trusted? Thus, rather than emphasizing how to change the minds of QAnon followers, perhaps as Mirko suggests in his interview, efforts are better directed towards improving media literacy in the first place.

European multiculturalism is not a new concept – but the rejection of it is

Michaela Bax-Leaney

As the notion of a homogenous ethno-cultural has become an increasingly central identifier for those on the right, the calls to defend that identity from perceived external attacks have too grown in kind. However, as we know from those such as Paul Hanebrink and Patrick Geary, that sense of identity – the “pure European” – is rooted largely in falsehoods, and the concept of a “pure” European does not exist as the far-right espouses it to be.

As Göle reminds us, Islam is hardly a new phenomenon in Europe; medieval Spain and Portugal were former Islamic states, Bosnian Muslims are ‘native’ to (or at very least have lengthy historical roots in) Europe, and the Ottoman Empire also comprised a large part of Europe up until World War I. As Onishi reports, Camus argues that previous migrants came to France out of love, but surely these new migrants – read, Muslims and people of colour – arrive in France with hatred in their hearts and plans to replace French culture with their own.

The problematic implications here aside, thought certainly not insignificant, his central premise is one we know to be false. The idea that French and European culture is inherently white and Christian is an inaccurate overgeneralization. And as Stone notes, even as we have constructed it, this white Christian European identity may not be all that great to begin with when we consider the treatment of Jewish refugees, and the enduring legacy of these attitudes. This is particularly pronounced in Hungary and Poland, where the religious and the right have coalesced and continue to fight for the ‘preservation’ of the white Christian right.

The Nouvelle Droite – a unification of means above values

Michaela Bax-Leaney

In the explorations of the French and Portuguese iterations of the Nouvelle Droite, Marchi and Bar-On touch on overlapping themes, but there is one in particular which they approach, but don’t necessarily flesh out in full. Both articles suggest that while the ND had many ideological, value based similarities as it crossed European borders, what can in particular be seen as a unifying theme of the ND was the means in which those ideological foundations were built and spread across Europe.

Marchi in particular explores how writings and media were used to popularize the messaging of the ND, despite differences from within – for example, ideological divisions within the Portuguese ND over the return to Africa.

Yet despite internal divisions, the ND remained united in its ideological journey, a journey which is indeed rather unique, as Bar-On notes.

Marchi writes that “the radical right had to expand its analysis across all the fields of human knowledge…these tools would allow the right to achieve the cultural hegemony previously enjoyed by the extreme left.” Again, the ND here is united in its methodology as a means of achieving the goal of hegemony, and a reinvention of the right.

Even the act of compiling these values into a cohesive movement is a particular strategy, despite the potential differences contained within these value sets and intellectual movements. In particular, the strategic point of co-opting the ideas of the left in order to beat the left.

This is represented in the formation of the GRECE (Research and Study Group for European Civilization) a transnational entity focussed on creating a hegemony of the right. However, there were numerous and sometimes contradictory ideas represented within that body, both due to ideological shifts over the passage of time as well as simultaneous internal divisions, as Bar-On explores.

Bar-On also writes that the rejection by the ND of nationalist narratives – what he calls one of the “time-honoured pillars of the right” – is one of the more shocking elements. Yet as we’ve seen in previous weeks (Motadel, Ben-Ghiat), perhaps we should not be so shocked. Motadel, Ben-Ghiat, and others have made a compelling case that the right, despite rhetoric to the contrary, is far more transnational than they would have others believe them to be.

Again, a significant takeaway from these articles is that while the rhetorical points of the right, the ND included, can be debated, what is arguably more significant are the unifying means by which that rhetoric becomes popularized.

Re-imagining life in the wake of Nazism

Michaela Bax-Leaney

Holocaust studies as we know and engage it with today, as Michael Rothberg points out, is rooted in a relatively recent set of ideas – as early as the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet what is even more recent, in my mind at least, are meaningful discussions about the nuances and practicalities of daily life in post-war Germany. What does one do in the wake of the Holocaust? How do people, and how do nations, come to terms with those events?

Werner Sollors documents one way in which the American military and bureaucratic machine attempted to deal with what they dubbed the task of ‘denazification’ – through the use of the fragebogen. But as Sollors notes, these widely distributed surveys were woefully unfit for the task at hand.

This is perhaps not surprising given that, as Mary Fulbrook argues, even those who were implicated in war crimes were often not charged, or were charged very leniently. Fulbrook raises an interesting standard around the notion of culpability, noting that there simply is no one size fits all way to address the task of denazification. The legal system as it existed well into the 1970s and 80s, and the American fragebogen, are both stark examples of the failures of the Allies in the post-war period.

I think Helmut Walser Smith touches on a nuance in which the aforementioned authors were lacking – the hard and yet often most meaningful instances of this labour of forgiveness and reconciliation were done by local actors in their own communities. The Nazi Party rose from the wounded Germany pride (to be sure, this was coupled with virulent antisemitism and xenophobia, which is not to be minimized), a pride that had been wounded by the actions of outsiders. It makes sense that in order to rebuild those human connections, that difficult and extraordinarily necessary work was best done in communities, for the same reasons Rothberg gives for those initial conversations about the legacy of the Holocaust were had internally. However, Rothberg also makes the important point that, particularly as the political compass of the Western voter shift right, that there is also a way to engage in those conversations cross-border.

America might be “uncancelled,” but the Republican Party of old can’t say the same

Michaela Bax-Leaney

The 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo via the New York Times/Erin Schaff.

Liz Cheney and the nine other house representatives who voted in favour of impeaching Trump highlighted a stark divide in the Republican party, but it is a divide that has been forming for years. It is a complicated, multi-faceted divide, resulting from fractures on dozens of issues, but the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, entitled “America Uncancelled” highlighted those differences in perhaps the clearest terms yet. If not gone then quickly fading are the libertarian roots of the GOP – the Liz Cheney brand of Republicanism, as it were – advocacy for less spending and smaller government.

Instead, in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, the GOP is leaning into its new identity, cemented in anti-immigrant, nativist grievances focussed on wielding a culture war rather than one rooted in policy. But what is perhaps most interesting is the wholehearted embrace of the European model of far-right populism, including forging ties with other foreign populists. While this might seem like a contradiction from a party that has made a point of reinventing itself to convey “America First” messaging, this international populist allegiance makes more sense than one might imagine.

In fact, David Motadel, a historian at the London School of Economics, made the case in 2019 that the far-right is far more internationally minded than their rhetoric would initially lead us to believe. Motadel wrote of the alliance between members of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party from France, Matteo Salvini’s Italian Northern League, to members of Nigel Farage’s Reform Party (known at the time as the Brexit Party). This alliance was formed of members of Europe’s leading far-right nationalist groups, and yet it spanned international borders.

And it would appear that this brand of internationally minded nationalism has found its way into the GOP, where it has been warmly received. Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, was a featured guest at last year’s CPAC and gave a video message to attendees this year, alongside far-right Spanish and Croatian politicians. A former right-wing South Korean politician told the crowd that he had also lost his election due to voter fraud from the left.

The Trump brand of conservatism saw close ties forged with Jair Bolsonaro, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Polish president Andrzej Duda, all of whom have embraced far-right populism in their own countries. 

But nationalists have always found one another, and there are clear examples of the forging of these bonds throughout history, particularly throughout the interwar and post-war years in Europe. In 1934, Benito Mussolini’s Comitati d’Azione per l’Universalità di Roma convened the 1934 Conference of Fascist Parties in Montreux, Switzerland. The goal was to form strong transnational bonds in order to resist socialism and liberal democracy. At the Nuremberg Party Rally in 1931, the Nazis hosted fascist youth from Spain, Italy, Romania, Japan, Siam, Bolivia, and Iraq.

There was the World Nationalist Congress in the 1970s, formed by neo-fascist Americans, and which hosted peers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, and others, lobbying for the release of Nazi war criminals, and proclaiming support for “all White Nationalists throughout the world,” writes Motadel. The policy of the British National Party in the 1960s was that it was “as much concerned with the fate of our people in Melbourne as those in Manchester, or those in Stockholm and those in Sheffield” declaring that this international cooperation was integral to the formation of a united nationalist world movement.

Historian Florian Bieber argues that as long as the worldview of the far-right is dominated by real and perceived external threats, those within will always seek to form ties with their fellow resisters – in this case, those resisting the “threat” of the liberal brand of internationalism, and its corrupting influence on the white, so called Judeo-Christian identity of which many within the Western far-right see themselves as not only members, but defenders. 

And while these alliances certainly seem paradoxical, there is a near inevitability to their formation. They will certain not be without their own internal friction, but it is clear that far-right lawmakers and their supporters in the U.S. see the future of conservatism in expanding the role of government to combat the threat of liberal ideology, and to do so they are embracing the ties that bind – even if those ties span the very borders they so virulently seek to defend.

Women joining the far right is far from new

Michaela Bax-Leaney

There is consistent and repeated historical precedence for the participation of women in far-right movements. And yet, as we again find ourselves witnessing more and more women flock to the far-right, the thought pieces inevitably crop up. Why, we ask, why are women drawn to these movements? Surely it must be an anomaly, or the result of some perfect circumstantial storm. Yet in doing so, we undermine not only the autonomy of women, but also their culpability for these actions.

Furthermore, we need only look to the past, as historians López and Sánchez, Lower, among many others continue to show us – women have long participated actively, of their own volition, in the causes they support, and those causes have and continue to include ones on the far-right. We saw this in instances such as Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Phyllis Schlafly, in the 2020 miniseries Mrs. America, as the dramatized (and real life) Schlafly railed against the Equal Rights Amendment and in large part contributed to the formation of the ‘Moral Majority.’

Yet as López and Sánchez write, these stories seem to continually confound us because they seem to reject every understanding within women’s and gender history. If, as they say, we have reached a point in historical scholarship where woman-centred narratives are being sought out and told, it is often under the assumption that these narratives in some way tie back to the fight for women’s liberation. But women and their history deserve more nuance, and frankly more accountability than that, with historical and modern discourse recognizing the context and precedence for participation by women in causes other than the liberal feminist movement of the day. Furthermore, that this participation is not necessarily inherently linked to their gender.

Women of the far right and the historic appeal of fascism

Michaela Bax-Leaney

Two women gathered at a rally in support of former President Donald Trump. “2017.03.04 Pro-Trump Rallies Washington, DC USA 00401” by tedeytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Many of the infamous images of insurrection from January 6th feature men – Podium Guy Adam Johnston, Viking Guy Jake Angeli, and the man with his feet propped up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk Richard Barnett all come to mind as the obvious examples. Yet there were also plenty of women there that day.

There was Gina Bisignano, who, to quote HuffPost reporter Ryan Reilly, “stormed the Capitol in a Louis Vuitton sweater.” There was Dawn Bancroft and Diana Santos-Smith, who as NBC News reported, were arrested in connection with a video in which they claimed to have been in search of Pelosi in order “to shoot her in the friggin’ brain.” Ashli Babbitt, the first reported casualty of the day, was a virulent QAnon conspiracy theorist, the New York Times reported

Following the 2020 U.S. election, a New York Times exit poll found that 55 per cent of white women voters cast their ballots for Trump, compared to 44 per cent for Biden. While there is plenty of discourse back and forth over what exactly to make of that number, and semantic debates about its accuracy, there is a simpler truth that the number tells us: the alt-right appeals to white women, and not just a few of them. 

In looking to the historic participation of women in fascist regimes, we see that there is precedent for the appeal of fascism and the far right to white women in particular, despite these being causes that, some would argue, are detrimental to their interests.

As historians Sofía Rodríguez López and Antonio Cazorla Sánchez note, in seeking to understand the motives of women, too often that understanding relegates women to “merely supportive roles,” when the reality is that women were active and enthusiastic contributors to their causes. And those causes, as López and Sánchez explain, included active and enthusiastic support of fascist regimes such as in Francoist Spain.

Led by Pilar Primo de Rivera (center left), a group of Spanish women Falangist leaders, representing the Nationalists, were welcomed in Berlin by members of the Nazi Women’s Workers’ Division.

And yet while there are documented instances of this participation, López and Sánchez argue that these remain understudied. This is in large part due to the fact that the study of ordinary conservative women tends to exist in opposition to the values of gender-focussed historians. While the actions of women in leadership may be reviled, they can still be understood as some form of feminism.

Analogous to today might be someone like Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. While not a fascist, Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the highest court in the U.S. sparked many discussions about the dichotomy she embodies. She is only the fifth woman to serve on the court, out of the 114 justices in U.S. history, and yet for many women she represents a powerful threat to the rights of women, particularly around reproductive rights. But a degree of understanding is extended to her because, despite all of that, she is still a woman seizing power in a male-dominated arena; there’s an air of feminism to it.

Yet as the historian of Nazi Germany, Claudia Koonz, showed us in her book, Mothers of the Fatherland, ordinary women were both drawn to and complicit in fascism.

Feminist scholar Catharine R. Simpson writes that although “many societies deprive women of power over themselves, women still have power to exercise. Women, though Other to men, have their Others too.” She calls to mind the ownership of Black slaves, both men and women, by white women in the U.S., as well as Koonz’ point that women in Nazi Germany did participate in genocide, both actively and passively.

Italian historian Daniella Rossini describes how, in Italy from 1911 to 1912, there was a marked shift within the Italian feminist movement to more closely align themselves with Italian nationalism, throwing their support behind the colonization of Libya. Rossini argues that the war, and the promise of a new Italy, strengthened those bonds, and soon Italian women found themselves part of a regime which in turn sought to stifle them.

In shifting focus to the present day, many have theorized what appeal 21st century iterations of the far right hold for women, and notably white women. Annie Kelly argued that QAnon held a natural appeal for mothers, given the rhetoric within QAnon advocating “Freedom for the Children.” In the Guardian, Angelique Chrisafis, Kate Connolly, and Angela Giuffrida found that these allegiances are attributable to financial hardship, which disproportionately affects women, and populist messaging warning feminists that immigration will result in a women’s rights backslide.

But what is certain is that it is not a new phenomenon, and when seeking to ascertain motive and understanding, we should be reminded of the wide range of experiences and circumstances which have historically brought women into the fold of the far right.

Lesbianism – the asterisk of queer histories and fascist policies

Michaela Bax-Leaney

Dan Healey, whether intentionally or not, articulates it perfectly in his article: “lesbianism was never considered a threat.” The vast, vast majority of historical literature, even those which specifically employ a queer lens, treat lesbian sexual relationships as at best non-threatening, typically as an afterthought, or they go entirely unmentioned. The literature we’ve explored this week, assessing fascist policies which policed notions of gender and sexuality, is no exception.

Even in general discussions about gender and sexuality, the sexual desires of women are portrayed as somehow different, and almost always as lesser, than those of men. Boundless literature explores male comradery, and the homoerotic undertones present in militaristic contexts, such a Kuhne in his analysis of Nazi-era masculinities. Little exists exploring the sex lives of women when those men departed for the front lines.

It seems natural to explore those notions of masculinity extensively, as both Kuhne and Healey do; all those men, spending day after day together, sharing these intimate moments – how else are they to satisfy the innate sexual urges men experience? Or so goes the narrative. Meanwhile, the sexual desires of women are constantly left unconsidered. There is an assumption of womanhood, especially historical womanhood, as sexually passive.

Lesbianism often remains an asterisk in the literature because we do not view women’s sexuality as equal to men’s, thus lesbian relationships are implicitly understood as less legitimate.

As Healey outlines, in Soviet Gulags and broader society lesbianism was determined to be a “psycho-neurological pathology,” and that lesbians were more susceptible to hysterics and neuroses. Thus, they must be treated “using psychiatry.”

While lesbianism was an innate deficiency, male homosexuality was criminal but understandable, a way for men to gratify base sexual desires.

Even the difference in the language that is used – sodomy, describing a base, purely physical act, while the term Healey prefers for woman-on-woman sex is “lesbian love.” It pedals a misogynistic narrative in which men are not responsible, nor able to control primal sexual desire, while women are only capable of desiring love and connection. Clearly women, Healey implies, are actually seeking to replicate familial dynamics, and it is rather a psychological ailment or defect rather than simply an itch that needs to be scratched.  

Healey also depicts lesbianism as passive. He writes in a way which frames sex more broadly (men fighting for available women in the Gulags) and lesbianism specifically as something that happened to women, and by other women who had taken on male characteristics. The understanding is that men were choosing homosexuality as an outlet for those inevitable desires, especially in instances where women were separated from male prisoners. Yet somehow, lesbianism could not be a result of the same thing – the desire of women to satisfy sexual urges upon being segregated from men. Nor could it be the product of any authentic love or desire by women for other women.

And finally, while Healey at least devotes equal breath to the homosexual relationships of both men and women, lesbianism is too often treated as an asterisk. When we lack the sources at face value (though there is often a breadth of sources, and historians remain insistent that these proclamations of love and desire by women for other women are platonic in nature), incredibly concerted efforts are made to locate archival material detailing the experience of male homosexuality, such as Healey’s employment of Ann Laura Stoler’s tactic of reading against the archival grain. Too often that is deemed to be representative of the experience of all queer people, including queer women. Misogyny becomes permissible when we speak about historical queerness, and those discussions nearly always focus on the experiences of white cis-gendered gay men.

Anti-democratic consumerism and the myth of sacred origin

Michaela Bax-Leaney

Something the struck me, as I watched those assembled at the Franco rally in Spain, was the remark by Tom, the man who appears to have dedicated his life to the Spanish dictator, declaring to reporter Carla Parmenter that he did not like democracy. Perhaps this was a juvenile assumption, but I had always assumed that the vast majority of people – everyone aside from those with despotic ambitions, really – believed democracy to be the ultimate goal. Even the American far-right declared that the armed insurrection against the seat of government was in pursuit of the protection of the democratic process. This is of course untrue, but it served as the rallying cry nonetheless. And yet here were veritable hordes of people declaring democracy to be corrupting and sinfully indulgent.

However, in reading Baranowski and Crumbaugh, it began to make more sense. As both authors outline, entities such as Strength through Joy pedaled the notion in fascist European nation states that short-term sacrifices must be made in exchange for an overall improved standard of living in the long-term, a standard of living which would provide creaturely comforts in moderation to those worthy, those deemed racially pure. This appears to tie into the points Miller-Idriss made in her presentation, describing the myth of sacred origin, in which a marker of the far right is an inherent aspirational quality which harkens back to some long-gone golden age, in which morality and rule of law prevailed above all. This imagery and iconography also invokes strong Nordic, mythic figures in this sacred origin, appealing to desires for strongman leadership and the valorization of violence. Circling back to the Franquistas in Spain, it becomes clearer where the desire to abandon democracy has its roots.