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How liberal solidarity unravelled Without anything to fight for, politics can easily descend into posturing

Imagine daring to refer to Bannon as 'Steve'! Credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

Imagine daring to refer to Bannon as 'Steve'! Credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images


March 4, 2021   5 mins

The late Christopher Hitchens used to tell a tale about a band of kidnappers in Northern Ireland who, during the height of the Troubles, pulled a man from a car at gunpoint with a menacing question: “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

“Jewish Atheist,” the man said.

Dumbfounded by the answer, the kidnappers eventually muttered: “Are you
 Catholic
 Jewish Atheist or a Protestant Jewish Atheist?”

Contempt for ambiguity: it reigns when war is real — but also when the extreme politicisation of non-violent social behaviour makes “war” an inescapable metaphor. As in the culture wars of today.

It came for me last year, after I published a book that didn’t sit neatly on either side of the political fence. War for Eternity traces the activities of three high-status far-Right operatives: Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, former Trump White House advisor Steve Bannon, and unofficial guru of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Olavo de Carvalho. It probes the depths of their anti-liberalism, exposes Bannon’s efforts to align the United States and Russia and suggests these figures’ opposition to political consensus contains more fervour and spookiness than even alarmist commentators suspected.

Summarising the content of the book makes it sound like a classic hit-job (and in the US, it was marketed this way). And yet I do not call the people I study names, do not hide the fact that my relationships with some of them grew casual and friendly, and occasionally show interest in their lives beyond topics of obvious political consequence. Moreover, I strived to take them seriously as thinkers.

With a tone more empathetic towards the Right, and a conclusion aligned with the Left, the book seemed a perfect fit for no one — and therefore destined for trouble. If you’re going to write a book on politics, industry wisdom demands you affirm the views of some large constituency. Find an entertaining way to tell a critical mass something they already believe and you can count on sales and positive reviews. Write with an unclear political profile, and at best you’ll be ignored. At worst, you’ll be treated to a brand of contempt reserved for misfits who obscure battle lines in ways transparent enemies do not.

Granted, I don’t think an opposition between style and substance is a recipe for ambiguity. Certain content speaks for itself: readers’ capacity for discernment is not as fragile as some assume. Nevertheless, the thick editorialising endemic to commentary on political extremism makes for boring writing, belittles readers’ intelligence and seldom persuades anyone to think in new ways.

But the approach is risky at a time when accusations of ambiguity can stand alone as slurs. American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams experienced this during the reception of his recent memoir Unlearning Race, in which the Left-leaning, mixed-raced author criticises race-based political and social mobilisation. The spear-tip of a scorching Bookforum review was the allegation that Williams’ was “politically incoherent.” Dig a bit and you’d see that the reviewer wasn’t actually confounded by William’s arguments; he thought that author was simply (and quite coherently) wrong. But “incoherent” and “wrong” will appear synonymous to those certain of their own virtue and insight.

Still, even insincere branding as “politically incoherent” seems a kind of luxury. More often, cultural authorities respond to ambiguities with frantic attempts to classify in familiar terms. J.D. Vance’s memoir and its Golden-Globe nominated Netflix adaptation provide a recent example.

Hillbilly Elegy chronicles the economic and social traumas of Vance’s childhood in post-industrial Ohio, and the book and its author became oracles for the American centre-Left following the 2016 elections, when understanding the white working-class was in vogue. It didn’t take long, however, for critics to identify the book’s less savoury features: its inattention to racial dynamics in greater Appalachia and its alleged moral of individualistic self-improvement. For these critics, the book’s deficiencies didn’t temper its virtues — they erased them. By the time of the film’s release in late 2020, Hillbilly Elegy had been decried as a Right-wing imposter that exposed poverty in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons. It was a small step thereafter for critics to dismiss the film, as the New Yorker did, as little more than “a libertarian’s dream”.

Like Hillbilly Elegy, my book hasn’t had a straight-forward reception. In the UK and the US, it was generally welcomed by the anti-establishment Left and Right, but the political centre judged it more harshly. Centrists complained that I was too chummy with the subjects I was supposed to be taking down — I called Steve Bannon “Steve” — and that analysis of my subjects’ ideas was itself a form of adoration. Few mentioned an opposition between my language and the content of the book, though this was sometimes amusingly implied. Guardian journalist Luke Harding wrote that the book “infuriated” him because its presentation allegedly obscured the consequences of the ideas I profiled, consequences he came to understand — as best I can tell — by reading the book.

Because for much of the Anglo-American cultural establishment, form is content. Symbolic politics reigns as language and rhetoric become the key indicators of ideological virtue and political identity. Things must be called out, fascism described as fascism — so that gullible readers are never duped, and so that nobody will wonder whose side the author is on. And a book that doesn’t proclaim its opposition to Steve Bannon cannot in any meaningful way be critical of him.

It’s striking, then, that the same book was received so differently by the Left and Centre Left in another context. It may have begun with a gift from Olavo de Carvalho — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s guru and the third main subject of my book. Whereas Bannon was ambivalent in private and mum in public about my book, and Russian Aleksandr Dugin messaged me calling it “much better than anything else” and publicised positive reviews, Carvalho went berserk. From the time of its release and until the present — across BBC interviews, Twitter threads and hour-long YouTube rants spread to his nearly one million social media devotees — he described the book as pure lies. He called me a fake scholar, out to harm him and Bannon, and christened me with a baffling, Trump-style nickname: “Tiger balm.”

What followed? Universal praise in Brazil’s mainstream media and features in all its major papers. The book was quickly translated to Portuguese and is already selling into its second printing. Olavo vaporised whatever potential the book had to appear politically ambiguous. In Brazil, it was an anti-Olavo book, and his and President Bolsonaro’s many opponents jumped to my side.

It was personal for many of those opponents. Olavo, though he turned down offers for a ministerial post in Bolsonaro’s Right-wing populist government, uses his social media megaphone to drive popular support for the Brazilian president’s anti-establishment agenda, skewering bureaucrats, scientists, academics and the media with the filthiest prose you can imagine.

Those targeted surely feel solidarity with each other, and with me, but there may be other reasons why I got a different read in Brazil. The country’s Left is fundamentally unlike that of the UK and US. While the latter is increasingly defined by social capital, prominent Brazilian leftists are murdered in the streets and coerced, sued or otherwise threatened in their positions as government representatives or journalists. Fighting for survival leaves less space for games of posturing. Content matters more than style if you are in an actual, rather than a symbolic, struggle. And in Brazil, I’m yet to hear a reviewer complain about the names or labels I use.

Christopher Hitchens reminded us, however, that there are serious prices to be paid when battle lines attempt to bisect the dynamism of human life. Outliers and dissidents are erased, figuratively and literally. But as demands for regularity spread into the realm of ideas, it is intellectual risk-taking that stands to suffer most. Uncomfortable readers are better readers, we are told, but seldom do we allow ourselves the discomfort that comes from pausing our familiar methods for classifying thoughts, words and people. As curiosity and patience give way to certainty and closure, the consequences will inevitably be grim.


Benjamin Teitelbaum is an American ethnographer and political commentator. He is author of War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right.

BenTeitel

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Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
3 years ago

Interesting article. Ambiguity is indeed uncomfortable. It’s lazy to attach yourself & follow one dogma or another. I suppose on the whole I consider myself to be centre right. However, I like the thought that I could be swayed with good arguments and discussions and I’m able to shift my position either way. I am comfortable being uncomfortable.

I think most of us are sitting on the fence, unconvinced and uncomfortable with being labelled & to be able to rethink our position . That is to me is not only ok but also politically healthy.

jackarandarainbow
jackarandarainbow
3 years ago

Its not that I consider myself far right, its that Teitelbaum Turnip describes Bannon as “far right” and since I happen to share many of Bannon’s views on woke media, education and civil service, that would include me and my views by definition of the views I have developed over tine according to my experience.

Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago

Thank you for a thought provoking piece. I would like to add two point about polarisation I hope you will find useful.
Each of us has two contrasting needs- self assimilation and self assertion. The former is trying to fit into a larger group to belong. The latter is to want to assert our individuality. Tribal politics is about self-assimilation. Ideological politics of the left portrays self assimilation as the necessary opposition to selfishness of individualism. People reflexively assume that self-assertion must lead to selfishness Abdi’s therefore a moral failing. Actually most horrors have been unleashed by regimes of collectivist self-assimilation where everyone is asked to erase one’s individuality for some perceived greater good. Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot…all demanded self assimilation from their followers: individual dissenters were eliminated. Beware the siren call of the collective.avoid the temptation to belong over riding your need to be true to yourself.
My second point is that opinions are not something we have but somethings we should form; the latter also allowing us the much needed corrective of reforming an opinion as we learn more. Dogma is our failing and doubt our redeemer. Mark Twain said: it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It is what you know for sure but it just ain’t so.

Ray Mullan
Ray Mullan
3 years ago

Credit for the joke should go to the late Harry Towb, a native of Belfast and a Jew himself, who told it way back in the ’70s. While Hitchens himself was not at all short of a sense of humour, his comic timing in this case was dubious to say the least — the superfluous qualification of ‘Atheist’ might have suited his principles nicely but it screws with the telling and, most execrably, kills the punch in the punchline.

By the way, there was also a scurrilous variation at the time, which I will not attribute to Towb, whereby the response was curtailed to: ‘Jesus, I must be the luckiest Arab on the Shankill’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ray Mullan
Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  Ray Mullan

An atheist friend moved to NI in the late 1990s had told me his co-workers decided he must, after all, be a protestant because the Pope would not approve of atheism…

Well Noted
Well Noted
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark H

Even among babes in the nurseries?

michael harris
michael harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Ray Mullan

In the late 50s Queen’s University Rag Magazine had a cartoon. Two drunk Orangemen (bowler hats, sashes and all) had a half naked fakir (turban and bed of nails) by the throat, broken bottles poised to strike. ‘Aye, but are ye a Protestant Hindu or a Catholic Hindu?’
Jews, pace my father, were regarded as sort of honorary Protestants.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
3 years ago
Reply to  Ray Mullan

This is an old joke which goes back to the 1920s or 30s, when an embarrassing old aunt asked about the religious affiliation of the family’s new maid. On told she was a Jewess, she followed up: “Aye, but is she a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” But the question has more sense than appears. The Jewish community in Belfast are predominantly Unionist, and therefore “Protestant Jews”, where the communities in Dublin and Cork are, or at least were, nationalist and therefore “Catholic Jews”. Belfast had a Jewish Lord Mayor nearly a century before it had a Catholic Lord Mayor – Sir Otto Jaffe, who was a member of the then Irish Unionist Party. The Jewish Lords Mayor south of the border, Robert and Ben Briscoe in Dublin and Gerald Goldberg in Cork were all Fianna Fail members with backgrounds in the republican movement.

Greg Maland
Greg Maland
3 years ago

An old joke: “There are 2 kinds of people in the world, those who think there are 2 kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t”.
We live in a time where there is a tremendous pressure to be very explicit about where one stands, whom we are aligned with, and whom we oppose. There is little tolerance for people who resist this, and who are more interested in truly exploring ideas in all their nuance and complexity.
How often, really, does all virtue and truth line up neatly on one side? In my experience, never.

jackarandarainbow
jackarandarainbow
3 years ago
Reply to  Greg Maland

Truth is the only virtue.What you mean by virtue is political ideology, that which is according to chairman Mao, “the only truth”..

Well Noted
Well Noted
3 years ago
Reply to  Greg Maland

Maybe the misalignment is due to the dual, animal-human nature of human nature. That is, our animal nature is uncured by any kind of discipline or authority for it is the strong force of nature in our DNA, to survive and thrive, that rules the earth. Our human nature, however, is anchored in flesh, so that the great dramas of the humanities, e.g., war, romance, and peace, are of a bi-spiritual, animal/human nature, the weak force that requires Family Supremacy alliances for political and physical survival. Animals at birth, then humanized by stern discipline of loving parents, we acquire an ancestral culture of traditional family values with proven survival value if only in the reason we fight our wars, out of love of new life rather than fear of the Glorious Leader. Our physiology follows the dualism with the left/right, hemispheric divide that just so happens to create two parallel universes, each supported by one hemisphere that doesn’t know the other exists. Whether one is out in left field or in his right mind depends upon an external source of legitimate, family authority, so that intrafamily friction and predation do not destroy family cohesion. The failure of virtues to align on one side or the other relies upon the “I,” cursor, sliding along the left/right scale of political thought depending upon changing scenarios, all politics having begun at the breakfast and dinner tables of our childhood homes. No?

M Spahn
M Spahn
3 years ago

In the linked Bookforum review, the author seems to think “incoherent” means “any and all dissent from my woke Manichean worldview.” Appalling that a graduate student at Yale thinks that way, but here we are.

jackarandarainbow
jackarandarainbow
3 years ago
Reply to  M Spahn

regarding the material world as evil is woke?

G G
G G
3 years ago

I surprisingly haven’t heard of your book despite being Brazilian and politically dissident myself. I really appreciate this article – but your guess about Brazilian leftists is profoundly mistaken. The press leans massively towards American-Style liberal leftism and adherents of this stance are typically rich and very similar to American elite liberals. People who are murdered for their activism belong to a very different category, but despite their being the ones doing actual work, they still find themselves subject to journalists’ ideological views. Olavo de Carvalho’s ideas beyond his temper tantrums on social media receive no attention from the press whatsoever and I dare say almost no journalist criticizing him has read any of his books – and perhaps not even yours. They probably only praised you based on Olavo’s reaction. For them, Olavo is but a joke and despite his recent achievements they still refuse to take him seriously, which would require them to read his books and understand them, which they can’t do. No wonder the Brazilian right is gathering ever more support.

Hannah Baldock
Hannah Baldock
3 years ago

“Prominent Brazilian leftists are murdered in the streets’ This is a highly contentious, unsubstantiated assertion. Some 9,000 people were jailed and tortured, most of them leftists, during a 20-year military dictatorship in Brazil that ended in 1985. In the 21st century, Brazil has been governed by the left wing Workers Party (PT) from 2003 to 2016. For two terms by former steelworkers’ union chief, Lula Da Silva, a very popular president before he was jailed for corruption and money laundering and from 2011 by Lula’s hand-picked successor, former Marxist urban guerilla group member Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached for breaking budgetary laws in 2016. But where are leftists being murdered in the streets in BRazil ? People of all kinds are murdered in BRazil due to deep-seated problems of racial and socio-economic inequality and, in urban areas, power struggles between drugs gangs, the military police and local populations. Left wing environmental activists like Chico Mendes have indeed been murdered by powerful vested interests for defending the rights of indigenous peoples and fighting the deforestation of the Amazon. But the idea that mainstream left wing politicians are being murdered in the streets ? Jair Bolsonaro himself, 64, suffered a deep and life-threatening wound to his intestines and lost 40% of his blood when he was stabbed in the stomach on the election trail in Minas Gerais in 2019. So it is disingenous and misleading to just claim that ‘leftists being murdered in the streets’.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Can Dugin be considered right wing? He was a Communist, he believes in all kinds of odd ideas and champions orthodox religion, but he doesn’t believe the native, ethnic people of a place shape its history or culture. His thoughts seem woolly and a bit bonkers.

G G
G G
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

The concepts of left and right vary widely from country to country. Dugin’s pro Putin stance perhaps puts him in the political right, but his ideas aren’t easy to assign to a category. Look up the concept of 4th political theory.

Well Noted
Well Noted
3 years ago
Reply to  G G

As far-fetched as it may sound, it is possible that there are only two geopolitical powers in the world, and all lesser academic categories such as liberalism-socialism-communism-Marxism are all the same thing in different wrappers for different occasions, different circumstances, different purposes, at different phases of will to power. The unnamed first, is Judeo-Christian, Western civilization, by far the most advanced and creatively involved in raising people out of poverty and tyranny, as well as being virtually the sole authors of the greatst literature, art, and music ever set into permanent forms. That political dichotomy is set upon the traditional family values that makes each generation perched upon the shoulders of those whose knowledge of their times allowed them to survive and pass onto us the gift of life, thus establishing the mommy-daddy-me, nuclear famlily as the family trinity by which the base of mommy and daddy hold high the babe as the purpose of their lives, to stand upon their shoulders not as descendents but as ascending orders of humanity that need no social engineering but only the transgenerational learning curve of coexistence in human affairs. It’s just a way of thinking that irons out a lot of academic wrinkles and falsehoods that may be obscuring our vision of some really elegant remedies for the cycle of eternal warfare.

David Waring
David Waring
3 years ago

Meanwhile the extremes of the political spectrum are rubbing their hands with glee as 3rd world politics becomes rooted in western democracies.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

Life is full of ambiguity, but you will not find any here.

Martin Price
Martin Price
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

So why are all the comments agreeing with you Jeremy?

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

You are very predictable 😉

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

It has been said about academia that infighting is so nasty because the stakes are so small. Politics seems a version of that, except that the machinations of elected officials manage to impact most of us in various ways.

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
3 years ago

I sometimes wonder if intellectual curiosity, which can so often lead to ambiguity, is beaten out of us at school or if we have been bullied into choosing sides when we can see both sides of an argument.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

A great Spanish philosopher once said in the midst of the civil war there, directed at both sides – “vencerĂ©is, pero no convencerĂ©is” – you will conquer but you will not convince. That is how I feel trapped between the raging mobs of the modern internet.
This authors books is on my reading list, although that is very long.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
jackarandarainbow
jackarandarainbow
3 years ago

Were you beaten at school?

Ray Mullan
Ray Mullan
3 years ago

Apologies for the double posting — this can be removed if possible.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ray Mullan
Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago

As the Right and anyone who isn’t woke enough is removed from Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and other social media platforms, you will see an even bigger split occur.
People used to use the same social media platforms but then split off into different echo chambers through joining groups or receiving feeds that tended to re-affirm their opinions. But they still came across other views held and shared by friends & family, and other featured content that they would come across.
Now they are forced to leave Twitter, etc for places like Parler, Gab, Telegram and Rumble, so people of opposing views inhabit different worlds, that don’t even have the possibility of coming into contact with each other.
I think social media that is dominant must be treated as a form of public forum – and open to free speech and varying political opinions. Or if they wish to censor/edit, they should be defined as publishers and so become responsible for all of their content and any resulting libel, slander and copyright infringements.
There is an argument that as private companies they can do as they wish. In that case, why can’t Tesco’s ban people who hold certain political opinions, why can’t Vodafone and BT refuse service to the same people, and why can’t the water and electric utilities refuse service, while buses and taxis refuse to transport them?

Last edited 3 years ago by Richard E
jackarandarainbow
jackarandarainbow
3 years ago

Would opposition to the woke BBC, anger and disgust with owners of social media and deep loathing of media lies and woke schools and universities make me far right? You know, like this guy Teitelbaum describes Steve Bannon as “far right”. Because if Bannon is “far right” that would be to insist that I am also far right, unless I relinquish my respect for Bannon. What is this far left woke Teitelbaum Turnip doing here? Unherd could have asked him not to use the term far right, I suppose, so its a bit like its OK by unherd.com for far left Turnips to use derogatory attributions.