Today
Sun 25 July 2021

Hardeep Matharu with a personal account from the psychological frontline of the culture wars exploring the inner appeal of hate, division and xenophobia

For many, this year has been weighed down, struggling with a heaviness it hasn’t been easy to shake off. Following four destabilising years, the pandemic has brought a different level of disorientation. The ground beneath us has shifted, out of our control.

A line in a book I read recently, Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, struck me. With Donald Trump on his way out, I wanted to understand the workings of an ‘us and them’ politics and what the rise once more of these hollow strongmen says about our societies.

“Fascism is not a new threat, but rather a permanent temptation.”

In these words was a reminder that the darkness of division is not a force to be found outside of ourselves, but its potential to flourish within. The question wasn’t ‘what makes Trump act like this?’ or ‘why do people support him?’ – but rather ‘why do I not?’ and ‘could I?’ 

Writing in 1945, George Orwell articulated brilliantly this uncomfortable truth. “What vitiates nearly all that is written about anti-Semitism is the assumption in the writer’s mind that he himself is immune to it,” he observed. “The starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be ‘why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’, but ‘why does anti-Semitism appeal to me? What is there about it that I feel to be true?’ If one asks this question one at least discovers one’s own rationalisations, and it may be possible to find out what lies beneath them.”

While some dismiss comparisons between our current political problems and the 1930s as exaggeration, there is no doubt that fascistic elements have reared their heads in a number of societies in recent years – many of them democracies. Rather than jack boots and paramilitary movements on the streets signifying the return of heavily militarised states, the frontline of the conflict between the authoritarian and the liberal mindset has shifted.

Whether it is easier to be a fascist or a democrat is not as clear-cut a consideration as we may like it to be.

In a digitised information age, there is a psychic war being stoked and raging within ourselves; a ‘soft’ fascism being nudged into our hearts and minds – at the hands of social media companies, corporations and rogue actors intent on weaponising people’s worst instincts – and their most human of vulnerabilities – for personal and partisan gain. 

It is a battle in which we are all on the frontline. Searching for simple answers in an increasingly complex world to feel better, more secure, about who we are, we are bombarded non-stop with information and ideas. Through algorithms and constant comparisons on Facebook and Twitter, we are encouraged to doubt and distrust. Marginalisation and victimhood fester. 

“Foreign politicians blame Russia for meddling in elections and referenda all over the planet,” observed Vladislav Surkov, a close advisor to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, last year. “In fact, it’s even more serious than that: Russia is meddling in their brains and they don’t know what to do with their changed consciousness.”

Do we?


The Battle Lines

America may have sent Donald Trump packing, but the recent US Election did not represent a decisive repudiation of his toxic brand of authoritarian populism. 

In the UK, Boris Johnson’s Government – a ‘rump Trumpocracy’ – has shockingly denigrated accepted norms such as the rule of law and political accountability in ways never seen before. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi’s plans to ‘return’ India to its rightful civilisational destiny as a Hindu nation continues each day. The future for the country’s minorities, particularly Muslims, and where this will lead is a devastating development in the world’s largest democracy.

In these globalised societies – in which improvements in life outcomes have gone hand-in-hand with gross inequality – leaders feeding people lies have become commonplace. A political discourse has been normalised, designed to stir emotions and evict rationality, that has found an all too receptive audience in many.

Much has been said about the tactics – digital and otherwise – used by the Leave campaigns during the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK: fuelling fears of brown and black immigrants, an angry xenophobia, and hopes of a lost Great British identity which would return if the exceptional UK cut itself free from Europe’s oppression. But, what must also be appreciated is that these messages resonated – there was something within the people to whom they appealed which meant that the fear, anger and misplaced hope they whipped up made sense. 

Such concerns, I would suggest, go beyond feelings about Britain on the world stage, a Westminster elite, or the immigration system – they spoke to people’s feelings about themselves and their lives; to their need for a more spiritual sense of who they are.

The appeal of conspiracy theories has similar echoes. In the wake of the Coronavirus, which has fundamentally unsettled our lives as we knew them, QAnon – which falsely posits that Donald Trump is saving the world from a cabal of cannibalistic paedophiles – has flourished.

As Stanley writes in How Fascism Works: “Conspiracy theories… provide simple explanations for otherwise irrational emotions, such as resentment or xenophobic fear in the face of perceived threats. The idea that President Obama is secretly a Muslim pretending to be a Christian in order to overthrow the US Government makes rational sense of the irrational feeling of threat many white people had upon his ascension to the presidency.”

The emotional pull of such ‘explanations’, preying on our need for archetypal myths and storytelling, means that whether it is easier to be a fascist or a democrat is not as clear-cut a consideration as we may like it to be.

Just as Plato recognised democracy’s inherent vulnerability to a demagogue winning power and destroying the system by appealing to people’s darker instincts, Stanley rightly points out that being a democratic citizen requires “a degree of empathy, insight and kindness that demands a great deal of all of us” and that there are “easier ways to live”.

For him, a central question is: “How do we maintain a sense of common humanity, when fear and insecurity will lead us to flee into the comforting arms of mythic superiority in vain pursuit of a sense of dignity?”


The Battle Within

This year has carried a mental and emotional weight for me; throwing up difficult questions, rooted in past and present. A type of psychic warfare has at times felt very real, speckled with black holes filled with fear, anger, regret, frustration, injustice, victimhood and sadness.

In these moments, Gollum, the corrupted hobbit in Lord of the Rings, came to mind – a character fighting a psychic war within himself.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic – about the all-consuming nature of power compelling and crushing individuals – Gollum emerges after his former self, Sméagol, kills a friend for the ominous One Ring. In the second film of the trilogy, 2002’s The Two Towers, Gollum and Sméagol are shown having a fight.

“You don’t have any friends,” Gollum tells Sméagol, eyes wide and full of malice. “Nobody likes you.” To which a sad and disturbed Sméagol replies: “I’m not listening, I’m not listening… I hate you. I hate you.” “Where would you be without me?” Gollum rants back. “I saved us. It was me. We survived because of me.” In the end, Sméagol sends Gollum away. But, those familiar with the story will know it doesn’t last.

Gollum and Sméagol fighting with each other in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The genius of the film’s direction lies in the same physical character being depicted as two distinct personas within consecutive frames which move seamlessly through both perspectives – showing them to be distinct and one and the same.

Taunting the naïve but basically good side of himself, Sméagol, Gollum is shown to be ruthless and nasty, but the audience also sees what he could be; his potential to choose something better – and in this lies a poignant presentation of the complexity of what it is to be human. 

When he was asked why the story’s protagonist, Frodo, isn’t able to destroy the One Ring – the central quest of the series eventually, unwittingly, achieved by Gollum who destroys both the ring and himself in his obsessional need to possess it – Tolkien said that Lord of the Rings wasn’t a fairy tale with a ‘hero’ who triumphs over evil, but about a choice of values. By showing mercy towards Gollum earlier on in the story, those around him ensured that he survived and, in the end, only Gollum is able to destroy the ring. “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement,” the wizard Gandalf advises Frodo in the trilogy’s first film. “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

At any given juncture, when destabilising feelings rise up and the ground beneath us starts to shift, we can fall into our black holes or decide not to let their darkness in. Which one we choose can have repercussions for us all.


Learning From History

In the Nuremberg Trials, the world confronted the horrors unleashed by Nazi Germany, carried out by men and women who could be described as ‘ordinary’.

Ivor Perl was 13 when the first trial began 75 years ago. He and his brother, who survived Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, were the only members of their Orthodox Jewish family of 11 who were still alive at the end of the Holocaust. 

In 2015, Ivor – now in his 80s – was asked to give evidence in the trial of Oskar Gröning, a former SS guard known as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz. He initially refused, before changing his mind. 

“I was absolutely horrified,” he recounted. “An old man was wheeled into court with a nurse on either side of him. I wanted to hate him but I just saw an old man. I could feel something draining away from me. I can’t describe what I felt, but it wasn’t hatred.” 

Ivor chose not to allow vengeance to flow to a man who had shown no such mercy himself – it was a choice to learn the lessons of the history he had lived through.

Oskar Gröning arrives at the courtroom in Germany during his trial in July 2015. Photo: Ronny Hartmann/DPA/PA Images

Three years after the end of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, affirming the dignity of all people. The aim was to enshrine in law the notions of equality, justice, tolerance – essential for the functioning of liberal democracies, but which the world had seen substituted for darkness in the name of blood and nation.

Perhaps the strongmen who have found their moment in recent years will begin to lose their grip; maybe they won’t. Donald Trump will be leaving the White House, but his millions of supporters will continue to carry within themselves the feelings which his darkness spoke to. Meanwhile, the unhealthy ends to which social media platforms can lead and the days of Big Tech giants monetising our personal information are far from over.

Recalling seeing Gröning in the courtroom, Ivor Perl said: “I don’t want revenge. I want people to learn from history.” Using our awareness of hardships of the past to inoculate ourselves against the virus of hatred seems like a good place to start.

For the black holes within us are there to be filled and, when our psychic conflicts seek to load them with fear, hate and anger, we all have to choose. Real power – to cultivate darkness or light – lies within us. We give it away at our peril.

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