Liam Duffy, an advisor on extremism and counter-terrorism based in London
Such is the (lack of) quality of discourse on the matter of white supremacism that I am almost completely resigned to receiving accusations of being one myself for what I am about to say, but: we are living through a moral panic. A White Scare is manifesting itself in the form of an irrational and disproportionate hunt to root out alleged white supremacy from public life, complete with the customary denunciations and shame induced public confessions — while the very real threat of white supremacist and far-Right violence is obscured and confused.
Human Nature Doesn’t Change
It shouldn’t be surprising that the White Scare has manifested at this moment. Great moral panics tend to arrive hand-in-hand with periods of upheaval, unease, and uncertainty, and — as much as we comfort ourselves that we are living through an age of increased transparency and rationality — we can’t outrun our own history or civilisational pathologies that easily.
The most notorious moral panic in history arrived as the people of early modern Europe were being pelted with freezing wind, rain, and snow during the Little Ice Age. As rodent and bug populations exploded, plague and pestilence periodically pummelled the population, compounded by the accompanying economic despair. The weary and bewildered people of Christian Europe were in need of salvation and scapegoats — currency in which the Catholic Church and the upstart Protestant challengers competing over Christendom were trading.
This tale of groupthink and scapegoating is so notorious that “witch hunt” is embedded in the language to the point of overused cliché, but it remains a crucial reference point to understand how we can all become prisoners to our baser instincts.
If the conditions of disease, economic downturn, climate uncertainty, and ideological competition sound familiar, it’s probably because you’re alive in 2020. But it takes more than just disruption for moral panic to set in — they are unleashed when a deviance is identified which threatens the values and moral order of society.
Ideals Run Amok
Satanism and witchcraft were the moral inverse of the beliefs of deeply superstitious and Christian Europe, while Communist infiltration haunted the imaginations of American Cold Warriors during the Red Scare, and tabloid Britain’s frenzy over “paedos” even led to attacks on paediatricians mistaken for child molesters.
In the modern West, antiracism has been elevated as one of society’s highest ideals — to the extent that American academic John McWhorter has compared it to a flawed new secular religion, complete with its very own scriptures and promises of salvation from the new original sin of “whiteness”. This new antiracism is not just the act of opposing racism, but comes packaged as a comprehensive ideology, while the New York Times bestseller list provides a handy run down of the doctrinal texts, such as White Fragility and Me and White Supremacy.
The rapid ascent of this ideal has come with its own folk devils — not witches or Marxists this time, but White Supremacists, who represent the antithesis of our highest ideals of antiracism. The barricades of this new moral panic are not manned by monks or Senator Joseph McCarthy, but by editors, journalists, corporate boardrooms, and moral entrepreneurs on social media.
Cosmetic companies are scrubbing mentions of whitening from their products and The New York Times is telling mothers to watch their white sons for signs of white supremacist recruitment. Such signs include saying “triggered”. Meanwhile, white people are taking to the media to declare that: “white supremacy lives inside me”. There is little reason to doubt the sincerity of these confessions — whatever the objective state of affairs — in the same way that many of the accused in early modern Europe gave sincere confessions of demonic possession to inquisitorial tribunals.
During the witch craze, village life buzzed with demonic folklore, and it was said that evidence of witchcraft and possession could be heard in everything from irregular coughing to people singing out of tune. Today, social media periodically descends into even greater depths of absurdity than usual, as coded white supremacist messaging is “discovered” in routine television broadcasts, from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing to the Army vs. Navy American football rivalry. These frenzied discoveries of a great white supremacist conspiracy consume the media and social media for days at a time, at least until the next scare comes along.
The fact that a line-up of commentators were so convinced that dozens of teenage army recruits were flashing the White Power symbol on national television — supposed evidence of widespread white supremacist infiltration in the military — and set out to potentially ruin these young soldiers’ lives and careers just as they were getting started, points to a dangerous detachment from reason and rationality. To anyone outside of this incomprehensible inferno, the obvious was later confirmed: they were playing the circle game from Malcolm in the Middle.
Moral panics can have positive effects, ensuring that deviant practices (in this case racism) are shunned and marginalised by the majority. The cost is very high, however, and this type of 21st Century demonological folklore shows every sign of getting worse as the whole approach of wild disproportionality and seeing white supremacist apparitions all around us is mainstreamed.
Beyond the psychological mechanisms at play, moral panics have more cynical engineers as well, as they also serve to gather recruits, isolate and even destroy perceived enemies or opponents, and give the impression of strength. It is little wonder the Church of early modern Europe participated so vivaciously.
Accusations of racism and white supremacy — the most serious charges of the moment — are increasingly being deployed against political opponents with less and less concern for truth. The accused is damaged, socially and professionally, regardless of the validity of the charges. The ability to do this isn’t just a demonstration of power by a new elite. The accusations serve the purpose of signalling membership of an in-group, the morally virtuous, and marking them off from those contaminated with noxious views. If this process was translated into Christian terms, the accusation is heresy and the penalty is excommunication.
The cynical deployment of this tactic was on stark display in the aftermath of far-Right terrorist attack against Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand: the fingers of blame extended from genuine extremists on the Right and implicated mainstream conservative commentators in the massacre. People facing these accusations endure something between a “trial by ordeal” and a Kafka trap, where denials are worse than futile — they are taken to be further “evidence” of guilt.
The Way Forward
This White Scare occurs against the backdrop of challenges to the liberal order expressed in different ways in different places — Brexit in Britain, the Gilets Jaunes in France, and of course Donald Trump in America. These phenomena have inflicted psychological wounds on those who man the moral barricades in our societies and have helped to propel them into panic territory that they could well pull us all into.
As New America co-founder Michael Lind writes, the reactions to these trends have led “hysterical elites to redefine ‘extremism’ or ‘fascism’ or ‘white nationalism’ to include ordinary populists, conservatives, libertarians, and heterodox leftists,” a seductive temptation that conveniently permits them to avoid any consideration of the legitimacy of the complainants’ arguments — let alone whether they should reconsider any of their own views.
Aside from the fact that it is farcical to connect libertarian culture war dullards, mainly interested in “owning the libs,” to the burning ethnic hatred and violence of white supremacists, this conflation of the various shades of ordinary Right-wing politics with white supremacism confuses and obscures an issue it is most important to understand.
In Britain, which has not quite reached the fever pitch of North America, recent far-Right demonstrations in London led to viral claims that the demonstrators were “Nazi saluting” the Cenotaph — Britain’s memorial to the war dead. There is simply no evidence of this other than grainy footage of people singing football chants with their hands in the air. There are huge and important distinctions between the ideology of groups like Britain First and actual Nazis, and lumping all of this together is both intellectually dishonest and unhelpful.
One can sleep tonight without too much worry, I like to think, that there are witches and demons roaming across Europe. But there really are white supremacists around today. The problem is that the White Scare, by polarising the situation and destroying the lives of innocents, is leaving the bad guys relatively untouched, if not actually bolstered. Those of us interested in extremism have a special responsibility to inject some much-needed proportion into the current mania, and we must lead on white supremacy, not be led by the latest media scare story.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.