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.