Wednesday, 23 November 2016

This Machine Calls Fascists

“Stop using cuddly terms like ‘alt-right’, and call them what they are! They’re Nazis! That’s what they are! Actual Nazis!”

There’s a lot of this around at the moment – referring to the current populist right-wing movement in America, which is partly to thank (or to blame, depending on your perspective) for the recent election of Donald Trump as American President.

“Call things what they are,” goes the argument, “don’t be fooled. Say the name, and you are one step closer to slaying the beast!” Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced; I don’t think it is quite as easy as that. Because, unpleasant as they are, I don’t believe that today’s ‘alt-right’ truly are Nazis, in the traditional sense.

It is absolutely correct to look at Donald Trump and his alt-right followers and see more than just echoes of the European fascist movements of the 1940s. There are big similarities there, it would be totally wrong to deny that. But there are also some interesting differences – which those who claim to prize truth and transparency over kid-gloved euphemising somehow never mention.

In an excellent article for, Dylan Matthews interviews five experts on fascism, and explains why the label still doesn’t quite fit Trump and his cadre. Although plenty is ‘borrowed’ from fascism by the exponents of the new alt-right movement, notably absent (so far, at least) has been any desire for palingenetic abolition of society’s democratic institutions (I believe the contempt in which ‘the establishment’ is held in alt-right circles is a nod to this, but certainly nowhere near fascistic enough as to count). Similarly, there is a definite lack of what Matthews describes as a Sorelian "valorization [sic] of violence", in which violence for its own sake is considered virtuous or life-affirming.

I also think there are marked strategic differences. Nazism, in the old sense, had a particular way of doing things; the alt-right have adapted to a world where – thanks to the internet, social media, twenty-four-hour rolling television news, etc. – the media is unrecognisably different from when Hitler’s Nazis were on the march. It is not possible to be an old-style Nazi in a world like this; even when there is a crossover with true Nazis in the beliefs or the aims of today’s alt-right, their approach to realising those aims is very un-fascist.

Roger Griffin, author of The Nature Of Fascism, and professor of history and political theory at Oxford Brookes University, is quoted in Matthews’ article as saying “You can be a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not be a fascist.” This, for me, sums up Donald Trump and the alt-right; they may be appalling far-right populists, but they don’t quite fit the definition of actual Nazis.

What’s interesting to me, however, is how insistent some people seem to be that we do call them Nazis.

There is a compulsion to define everything in our world by what we already know. To look through our history books, and say “See? This is like that! These people are those people. They must be…” But this is not like that; our societies and our understanding have changed beyond all recognition from the fervour of the 1930s and the 1940s in which fascism thrived. And even if they share some of the same aims, these people are not those people. They have a different approach to the world. That is not to say that they are not dangerous people, or that we do not live in turbulent and troubling times – but it is not the same.

If the alt-right movement – despite certain similarities with ‘old-school’ Nazism – is a new phenomenon, then it is right that it should have a new name. Possibly ‘alt-right’ still isn’t the best term to use, since it seems to sanitise and normalise the repugnant attitudes of the sect – but then, neither is an ill-fitting descriptor from seventy or eighty years ago, and half a world away.

Whatever we call the movement, it would help if we could try to define it fairly soon. The alt-right is in the ascension, emboldened by Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, and the accompanying increase in media coverage. Is it not possible that the rise of the alt-right could be at least partly due to the fact that they are looking forwards and forging something new, whilst the rest of us look back, rifling through history texts in the hope of finding the correct nomenclature?

Yes, language does matter. So why make do with an historical term which only sort-of fits, to describe a new political faction which has its own distinctive characteristics? The alt-right isn’t just Nazism with a new haircut; in fact, it isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. Personally, I think we need to acknowledge that, if we are going to defeat it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

On the prospect of a Trump Presidency…

I think I started to drift off to sleep around half-past-four this morning – just as it was starting to become clear that it was looking like Donald Trump's night, in the US Presidential Elections.  I woke again a few hours later, still half expecting to see that results had swung back to Hillary Clinton, who had just edged it after a very narrowly-fought race.  And then I checked my phone…  Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.

I'm not sure the initial shock of the result has worn off, yet (as I write, this news is barely twelve hours old, after all).  When Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, just a few months ago, the result took a while to sink in; the prospect of a Trump Presidency is orders of magnitude more frightening than 'Brexit' could ever be.  People today are feeling nervous, anxious, worried and scared.  They have every right to.

There are also people trying to calm everybody down, of course.  They say that Trump won't enact the more extreme things he has said he'll do; that he will 'soften' as a character, now that he doesn't have to chase votes any more; that the enormity of the responsibility he now has will change him…  I'm afraid these soothing words do little to quiet my concerns.

Even if all the calming words are true – even if Trump himself is nowhere near as bad a President as we had feared – he has unleashed something in this campaign, something which cannot just be put back in its box.  The people who cheered Trump's incendiary speeches and divisive rhetoric at his rallies and campaign events haven't formed those views overnight – such prejudice and unpleasantness has been around for years – but in the President-elect, they realised they had found a mainstream focal point for their anger, hate and bitterness.  He was a figure around which to unite.

Trump's candidacy emboldened all manner of racists, misogynists, anti-semites, homophobes and the pedlars of paranoid conspiracism and small-minded victimhood.  They felt their opinions – once widely recognised as being unacceptable – becoming legitimised. They were on the up, and they grew in confidence, making more and more outrageous demands and sounding more and more bloodthirsty with each passing day.  They are still in the ascendancy now, and growing bolder than ever.

Even if Trump 'mellows' once he gets the keys to the White House, these people won't just go away.  They won't just stop shouting.  And having been promised policies which ban Muslims, remove gun-free zones in schools, and build border walls with Mexico, their anger won't simply dissipate if Trump fails to follow through on these promises; it will intensify.

I worry that a President Trump who doesn't do all the extreme things he has said he'll do will be as dangerous as a President Trump who does do those things.  He has legitimised bigotry by stoking these flames, and he has sent a message to his supporters that it is OK to think that way.

Even if he backtracks on the wilder points of his policy proposals now, those ideas don't just disappear.  The rage, and the hatred, won't just disappear – it will grow.  That genie doesn't go back in its bottle in a hurry.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

#F1 – Radio blah-blah

Last weekend's Mexican Grand Prix will be remembered more for what happened on the radio, and on the podium, than what happened on the track.

For those who didn't see it, in the closing laps of the race Sebastian Vettel in fourth place was closing down Max Verstappen in third, and in trying to keep the Ferrari driver behind him Verstappen pushed too hard and ran wide, cutting the corner.  Verstappen had clearly 'gained an advantage' by running outside the limits of the racetrack, and even his own team boss came on the radio advising him to give the place up to Vettel – but Verstappen did not yield the position, and no official instruction came from Race Control telling him to let Vettel through.

Verstappen crossed the line in third, but was retrospectively penalised, before he had a chance to stand on the podium.  Sebastian Vettel was belatedly award third place – but, by this point, Vettel himself was the subject of heavy criticism, for his angry outbursts over team radio after Verstappen had refused to give up third place to him on track, and particularly his use of foul language.

Personally, I have no problem with a driver swearing on the radio.  In the heat of battle, when you're giving everything to beat the next guy and bring home points for your team, your emotions pour out of you; when you are frustrated, you show it.  We've all done it.  I'm not a global superstar in a multi-million pound arena, but I compete in local sports leagues – and I do get exasperated when things aren't going my way, and in the heat of the moment I sometimes let those feelings out…

What I can honestly say I've never done, though, is to aim that at anyone in particular – be that a competitor, a teammate, or a match official.  Vettel was out-of-line in what he said; he went beyond simply venting his frustration, and he directed his tirade at both a rival driver and race director Charlie Whiting.  That's not on – and he, too, was rightly punished.

But for me, these events have thrust the issue of broadcasting team radio communications back into the spotlight once again.  It's a fascinating part of watching racing, and it lets us see another side of drivers who, in interviews, are always so composed and 'rehearsed'.  But it can also be a double-edged sword, in that respect…

I have remarked before on the difference between Lewis Hamilton's language in interviews and his demeanour over team radio.  Out of the car, Hamilton is always careful to say all the right things – always thanking his engineers, paying tribute to 'the team', and so on.  But in middle of racing, with a hundred other things going on around him at two hundred miles-per-hour, he isn't thinking of maintaining his carefully polished media image, and we sometimes hear him snap at his engineers on the pit wall, getting cross that they're either not giving him enough information, or that they are distracting him by talking when he's trying to race.

And it isn't just Hamilton.  I often feel that the way drivers speak to their engineers over the radio differs markedly from the pro forma lip service they pay the team in interviews and press conferences, when they know the eyes of the world are upon them.

One of the reasons I've not taken to the relatively recent development of having a 'celebrity' interviewing the drivers on the podium after the podium ceremony is how staged and 'fake' it all feels.  They don't talk about racing; they rattle off some prepared jokes, and repeat the same platitudes about 'atmosphere' and 'fans' that we've all heard a thousand times before.

But I, and many others, want to see real people and real racing.  And real people get angry.  Team radio has given us some memorable racing moments, and not just this last weekend – who remembers "Leave me alone! I know what I'm doing!" for example? – but I do worry that maybe it results in putting drivers under a microscope a little too much.

In these situations, it is almost as if we are broadcasting the driver's internal monologue to the whole world.  Other sports don't do this – sportsmen might get angry, but their thoughts and words are not broadcast live, 'in the moment', like that.

I don't want to 'sterilise' drivers, in pursuit of the perfect image, or because teams are worried about offending people.  I don't want every last drop of passion and emotion wrung out of them, in case they say the wrong thing.  Bland automatons in shiny race suits are the last thing this sport needs.  I don't think that's what anyone wants – but too much scrutiny of radio communications could mean we end up there, all the same.

The stewards were right to punish Sebastian Vettel for his outburst.  He crossed the line, and that behaviour cannot be acceptable in F1.  But I very much hope this won't lead to yet another area of racing feeling too 'scripted'.  Let's keep racing – and drivers – real.