Candace Owens Plays Fast and Loose with Nazis

I don’t actually live in a liberal echo chamber, but I didn’t know who Candace Owens was until I read one of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto (thoughts on that here). Many commentators have dismissed the shooter’s positive regard for Owens as mere trolling. I was inclined to believe that until I learned from no fewer than five friends (thanks for pushing me to write this post) she had been invited by House Republicans to comment on the present state of white nationalism in this country. It did not go well. Comments she made in London in late 2018 were introduced by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA). The video itself is worth watching, but here’s the quote in full:

I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word ‘nationalism’. I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want. … Whenever we say ‘nationalism’, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler. You know, he was a national socialist, but if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted—he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize. He wanted everybody to be German, everybody to be speaking German. Everybody to look a different way. That’s not, to me, that’s not nationalism.

Perhaps we can largely bracket the questions of diversity and Republican opportunism. For instance, no reputable theoretician of diversity has ever seriously claimed a single Black or queer or disabled or migrant person speaks for their entire community. So it would be wrong to characterize her as a spokesperson for any given group to which she may incidentally belong. Indeed, I glean from other remarks Owens has made she would balk at the suggestion she is being used a prop or that she is merely speaking from a place of “epistemological privilege”. So we should assume Owens is there to speak in good faith in her capacity as an expert on World War II, white nationalism, political theory, or… something. But comments like this suggest that isn’t the case. It’s almost too grim to even entertain the idea she is speaking from a well-informed place.

I have criticized progressives for their underdeveloped and underwhelming Nazi comparisons in the past. (The U.S. government separating families at the southern border may be egregious, but the Nazis did more than that.) So this isn’t about scoring partisan points. I think most people search back in history for Nazi parallels because they signal a certain kind of virtue: Well, we’re not that bad! or Things are terrible, look around! Owens is clearly making an argument finely attuned to the former.

Doubtless her defenders will suggest it was (a) petty for Lieu to dredge up old remarks and (b) she wasn’t technically wrong about the whole nationalism thing. Perhaps she has a cursory knowledge of Hannah Arendt! (But none of the clarifications she has made since then have been comforting—especially her assertion that Hitler was deranged. He wasn’t.) She nestles a larger political argument in false modesty. And since I am a student of religious ethics, not a rhetorician, my eyebrows rose considerably when faced with that larger claim.

So long as she and her defenders can maintain Owens was simply speaking about her own point of view, they will frame this as a “free speech” issue. They will claim she has a radical intellect that Democrats want censured because they can’t stomach the idea of a black woman carrying the GOP’s water. This is a bad argument. No one begrudges Owens her opinions. Indeed, I take seriously the idea that Owens herself means no harm because I assume if she knew her comments are steeped in antisemitic stereotype she would issue an apology and refrain from feigning authority on white nationalism. Time will tell.

But for now we can occupy ourselves by unpacking this larger claim because this is where she invites genuine criticism. Maybe she never quite finished The Origins of Totalitarianism? I suspect if she did she would be a lot more careful in her consideration of an “elitist” conspiracy against “nationalism”. Whatever their flaws, “elitists” are people and nationalism is not. But what “they” want is some here undefined “globalism”. So for her purposes it suits Owens to link these hidden elites with Hitler. President Trump, his Congressional allies, and by extension, herself, can’t possibly be as bad as Hitler! He oversaw the slaughter of millions and they clearly aren’t!

Again, for her defenders, the larger point will slide on this technicality. This should disturb them. It should trouble GOP donors and politicians who make a good show of supporting Israel and other Jewish causes. I suspect Owens is smart enough to know she was playing fast and loose with the term “globalize” in the context of Hitler’s ambitions for Europe. He never would have thought about it in those terms. But that’s not really the point. For Owens and the GOP members that summoned her, the point is to show the problem in the United States today just isn’t as bad as it was then… so what’s all the fuss about? She seems selectively not-outraged by the apologists and inciters who temporarily occupy space 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Is Anonymity Defensible? – or – What Should We Do about White Martyrs?

A number of reputable media outlets refuse to identify the perpetrators of mass violence by name. This attempt to limit the “celebrity” of mass killers is presented as a public service, but my doubts are growing. I often see this editorial decision of professional newscasters become a mantra for some on the American political Left. They claim the principled response is to “ignore” or “forget” the person(s) responsible. Currently I’m seeing versions of this sentiment repeated in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks. Without fully intending to, I am concerned progressives are contributing to the legitimacy of those who would claim to be part of a massive transnational white supremacist movement.

It may not be possible to draw a single causal line from Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) to Anders Breivik (the right-wing Norwegian gunman) to Brenton Tarrant (one of the Christchurch attackers). But the reporting is out there: Breivik and Tarrant were in touch at some point. And like McVeigh before them, they share a deep concern with the legitimacy of their actions. All three of these white nationalists aspired to catastrophically undermine the liberal political order they find so inhospitable to the white race. To the degree they were willing to pay a price for their actions, they are a representative collection of white martyrs.

Anonymity grants mystique. My concern is that this mystique is attractive to a certain segment of the Internet’s many users. Disaffected white men are easily radicalized. Yearning for a sense of belonging to something greater than the self animates many fine people seeking admission to the Armed Forces. Indeed, McVeigh once wrote a letter criticizing the distinctions between his conduct and that of the American military.

White supremacists around the world aren’t in a vacuum. They pay attention to each other. Breivik sweeping justifications for his actions clock in around 1500 pages. Tarrant’s 74-page typo-riddled manifesto doesn’t stack up to Breivik prose. (Perhaps this animates his disclosure there was a relatively longer treatment, but he supposedly deleted it.)

Before the 2016 election, I might have said we risk drastically overstating their appeal when we willfully collapse them into a single or cohesive group. I was sensitive to the argument sustained media attention would inspire copycats. But white nationalists are/were in the White House. Tarrant has personal antipathy for Donald Trump, but he sees him as a useful means to an end.

So does Steve Bannon, the President’s one-time “Chief Strategist.” And so does Stephen Miller, one-time advisor to Jeff Sessions. Casting himself in the shadow of Vladimir Lenin, Bannon has quipped, “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Miller’s contempt for immigrants is well-documented. Both men have had the ear of the President of the United States. They both fundamentally believe “the West” is under assault. Their concerns are existential and their rhetoric approaches the apocalyptic.

In short, they believe they’re already fighting a war. If they’re akin to generals and a respectable public face, then McVeigh and Breivik and Tarrant are their soldiers. Martyrs are good for building a brand. Rather than dignify them with silence, one option is to shame them often and loudly. Bannon’s tub desecration is worth revisiting. Miller’s run-in with a D.C. sushi purveyor is the stuff of comedy gold. And McVeigh, Breivik, and Tarrant are so deeply worried about being taken seriously that it borders on the pathological. But it would be a mistake to say they are sick and therefore not our collective social problem. They may exist on the fringe, but they are actively cleaving to existing modes of conferring legitimacy to armed conflict.

I take this to be most recently communicated by Tarrant. In his manifesto, he anticipates comments and concerns from detractors. His hypothetical critic states: “You are a bigot,racist,xenophobe,islamophobe,nazi,fascist!” His reply is worth considering in full:

What the fuck did you just fucking say about me, you little bitch? I’ll have you know I graduated top of my class in the Navy Seals, and I’ve been involved in numerous secret raids on Al-Quaeda, and I have over 300 confirmed kills. I am trained in gorilla warfare and I’m the top sniper in the entire US armed forces. You are nothing to me but just another target. I will wipe you the fuck out with precision the likes of which has never been seen before on this Earth, mark my fucking words. You think you can get away with saying that shit to me over the Internet? Think again, fucker. As we speak I am contacting my secret network of spies across the USA and your IP is being traced right now so you better prepare for the storm, maggot. The storm that wipes out the pathetic little thing you call your life. You’re fucking dead, kid. I can be anywhere, anytime, and I can kill you in over seven hundred ways, and that’s just with my bare hands. Not only am I extensively trained in unarmed combat, but I have access to the entire arsenal of the United States Marine Corps and I will use it to its full extent to wipe your miserable ass off the face of the continent, you little shit. If only you could have known what unholy retribution your little “clever” comment was about to bring down upon you, maybe you would have held your fucking tongue. But you couldn’t, you didn’t, and now you’re paying the price, you goddamn idiot. I will shit fury all over you and you will drown in it. You’re fucking dead, kiddo.

His denigration looks familiar to anyone aware of the present state of discourse on sites like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit. Read aloud, it sounds like the kind of banter you’d hear in multi-player shooter games like Fortnite (which he references elsewhere). At one point Tarrant denies wanting primacy of place in the movement he is trying to build. All glory to the cause, he suggests. But his need to be taken more seriously than those who merely talk the talk drove him to targeting Muslims and killing 49 people. He is necessarily more committed to the cause than losers hiding behind the Internet. In turn he becomes useful to stoking the fears that make the political agenda of white nationalists like Bannon and Miller possible.

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Trajectories in the American Gun Debate after the Christchurch Mosque Attacks

Painting with the broadest possible brush, we can be forgiven for thinking the state of our moral discourse is broken. Conservatives feel progressives indulge in a politics of outrage. They fit particular events into pre-made frames of reference. From that conservative point of view, a progressive declaration of pain in response to, say, a mass shooting at New Zealand mosques, isn’t seen as authentic. It is a pre-fabricated utterance. “We can’t react with emotions in these difficult times.”

But when the pendulum swings in the progressive mind toward concrete policy prescriptions, it’s portrayed as a power grab: An assault on the fundamental rights of Americans enshrined in the Constitution. Absent from this conversation is the definition of “militia,” the fair point that the Founders couldn’t have even imagined the firearms available in 2019, etc.

So from the progressive point of view, then, it is the conservative that rushes to fit events into particular (ahistorical) frames.

International white supremacists are actively exploiting these resentments. And you’re going to start seeing arguments made more and more frequently in progressive circles that the only way to meet violence is with violence. (This generally fits with what Donald Trump has said about Democrats that he won’t say about white supremacists. Democrats are “the really” violent ones: Just pay attention! Whereas there are “very fine people” in white supremacist circles [consider Charlottesville, Steve King, etc.]. It is barely concealed projection/incitement.)

One of the New Zealand shooters claims to be a “lawful, uniformed combatant” with the gamut of rights and protections of “civilized” Western nations. But for all his claims of nationalism as a necessary corrective, he doesn’t actually represent a legitimate nation-state. And he’s lukewarm on claiming a Christian motive for the enactment of violence, so we can’t even cast this in light of militant discipleship.

He tips his hand only at a couple points in the manifesto. But he wrote he wanted to survive the attack so he could deplete the state of resources. The current liberal order allows for the kinds of demographic shifts he finds so egregious in the first place. The New Zealand shooter in question expects to be met with the same level of care and concern of Anders Breivik, the right-wing terrorist who targeted a left-wing youth political retreat in 2011. Ultimately he believes this is weakness rather than justice. He was not deterred by the possibility of a lengthy (but not indefinite) incarceration. (New Zealand abolished indefinite detention in 1989.) He spits with contempt on the progressive ideal of restorative justice that informs Norway’s rejection of life sentences.

His express goal is to inspire transnational violence. He wants American conservatives and progressives to become intransigent on the question of guns. From his point of view, Muslims do not belong in “white” countries. But the history of Europe is what we might call cosmopolitan. His own ahistoricism stacks quite neatly on a certain conservative point of view.

The New Zealand shooter hopes the center doesn’t hold. If it was reasonable yesterday to believe liberals are just sensitive and conservatives want to symbolically own the libs by revealing their own hypocrisy, he wanted to make this an unreasonable assumption today. He wants progressives to get as worked up as he, a white supremacist, already is. If these two factions “go to war,” it’ll afford white supremacists–if they win–an opportunity to bring the political order into accord with their exclusionary worldview.

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Christianity and the Christchurch Mosque Attacks

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This is a screenshot from page 15 of one of the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto.

Elsewhere, the writer mentions this is slapped together over a two-week period. He had a 240 page version he claims he deleted. Evidently it had a lot more detail and nuance.

But there’s plenty of “nuance” in the 74 page document.

It is clear the writer has particular concern for declining birth rates in Europe (and European colonies). The author goes to great lengths to communicate affinity for the “traditions” of Europe.

But as with most white supremacists, Christianity is divisive. Indeed, based on this line alone, we could be forgiven for thinking he skirts the issue. The author is trying to build a multinational coalition with the goal not of purifying New Zealand. The expressed goal is to stoke racial resentments here in the United States. The author wants liberals and progressives here to call for the abolition of the Second Amendment. He wants conservatives to take up arms and defend the last beacon of hope in a multicultural world.

Christians who support non-whites and immigrants are part of the problem for the author of this manifesto. They have been made weak by ideology. “The last virtues of a dying nation are tolerance and apathy,” he wrote at one point.

He calls for strict separation of racially homogeneous nations as an act of “diversity”. He invokes a rainbow: It is beautiful because the colors are distinct from one another. He claims no hostility for Muslims being Muslims in their respective homelands. But he cannot countenance white converts and he has no timetable or benchmarks for assimilation.

Indeed, he chose one of the sites because it had been converted from a church into a mosque. He expressly chose New Zealand to create a rippling effect that would reach us here in the United States.

Christians preaching and enacting the love of strangers are a thorn in the side of transnational hate movements. He can’t share the depths of his disdain or it would be counterproductive for his purposes. He’s trying to dig the trenches a little deeper on the issues that already divide us.

He wants progressives to be mad about conservatives retreating to the “thoughts and prayers” refrain.

He doesn’t feel the ethical weight of Jesus’s commands to love others. That much should be clear on the other side of his heinous actions. And he feels those of us who do are suckers who can’t see the forest for the trees. Their racial imagination is terrifying because it endows “nations” with a higher moral status than human beings.

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