In recent days I have been somewhat dismayed by a number of left-leaning individuals who I respect and admire demanding an outright ban on representatives of the so-called alternative right – a millennial off-shoot of the far right – appearing in the mainstream media, or indeed on social media. One of the arguments being put forward for the ban is the claim that the alt-right cannot and must not be reasoned with. That there can be no discussion with its proponents, no challenging of their tenets. They must be silenced, voluntarily or otherwise, and ejected from any and all areas of public discourse. However, refusing to debate with crypto-fascists and closet racists does not not make one brave or principled. Rather, it simply means that you lack the courage of your own convictions. Turning your back on a war for hearts and minds among the citizenry allows the juvenile thinkers of the ultra-right to fashion an illusory image where their ideas are so strong, and the left’s so weak, that the latter dare not challenge the former. Far from exposing the ugliness beneath, the alternative right becomes more attractive to the curious and the ignorant, the rebellious and the malcontent.
Seeking out the debate rather than disdaining it does not mean that alt-right sympathisers should be given editorial carte blanche to publish tone-deaf and ethically dubious articles in national newspapers or to post offensive, hate-disseminating memes online. In the press such individuals should be subject to rigorous questioning by professional journalists, their beliefs exposed for the moral and factual vacuity that lies at their centre. While on social media the mechanisms for reporting and disciplining those engaged in abusive behaviour or criminal incitement should be strengthened and strictly enforced.
Airing far right or militantly conservative views did not lead to the anti-EU Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom or the presidential election of Donald Trump in the United States. A greater contributor to the “Leave” victory on June 23rd 2016 was Britain’s Victorian two-and-a-half party electoral system rather than the supposed xenophobia of a majority of those who voted. The repeated failure of first-past-the-post elections to accurately represent the spectrum of opinion among the British electorate made the Brexit plebiscite more a scream of frustration than an act of consideration. If the House of Commons had truly reflected the swathe of politics in the country, from UKIP to the Green Party, the build up of nationalistic steam would have found an adequate – and democratic – release. The fringe and the extreme would have been mainstreamed, eventually drawn to the moderating centre-ground of politics, and the UK might well still be a future and content – if never exactly happy – member of the European Union.
Likewise one can point to similar democratic deficits in the US as a contributory cause to the rise of Trump. Or indeed, the Tea Party movement before him, the placard-waving John the Baptist to his bouffant Jesus. Another antiquated system of first-past-the-post or winner-takes-all elections favouring a permanent two party legislature coupled with big money lobbyists, gerrymandering, corruption and so forth has resulted in frustrated American voters choosing to burn the village to save the village. Added to that has been the unique stupidity of the endless presidential electoral process, from Super Tuesdays to electoral colleges, the latter originating as an internecine-avoiding sop to slave-holding states in the south (it didn’t work then, it doesn’t work now).
Brexiting and Trumpism are symptoms of greater, more fundamental problems in two separate nation-states, some of which are shared, some of which are unique. It is the task of people of good will and vision to tackle these issues, while others must do the same in other countries around the world where systemic or institutional failings may encourage equally pernicious ideologies to rise up. Extremism – from fascism to racism – flourishes if left unchallenged. Denying its existence does not mean that it ceases to exist. Becoming that which you oppose, by espousing draconian laws and rules that your opponents would use against you if they could, is not just hypocritical but also dangerous.
Irish republicans, perhaps more acutely than any other holders of partisan belief, are well aware of the cyclical nature of history. We have seen it all before, and survived it all before. We know the value of a good fight and we know that friends and allies can be found in the most unexpected of places. It is why we struggle, why we seek to resist that which we oppose, while seeking to win others to our cause. And we are not afraid to pursue the enemy down into the dark. The fascists of today may sport manicured beards instead of shaved heads, runners instead of boots, but they are the same misguided or irredeemable acolytes of the same naked emperor that articulate democrats exposed decades ago. And who we must forcefully expose again.