Portland, Oregon, United States (Photo by John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Psychology of Extremism

Ngo’s book is the accurate reporting of a political reality systematically ignored by almost every newspaper and network

Beginning more or less with President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, when white nationalist and future Biden voter Richard Spencer was sucker punched by a masked rioter on camera while being interviewed in Washington DC, the violent militia and online harassment network Antifa has played an increasingly central role in the accelerating destruction of Western liberal democracy. 

Today connected to dozens of homicides, thousands of assaults, and hundreds of millions of dollars of property damage, the movement nonetheless continues to enjoy significant support from global corporate and political elites.

Social media companies allow Antifa accounts to orchestrate harassment and call for violence on their platforms with impunity; corporate media alternates erratically between celebrating Antifa and insisting that they don’t exist, and senior political figures including Republican Senator Mitt Romney and Iraq War proponent Jeffrey Goldberg compare the movement to the American soldiers who defeated Hitler.

Meanwhile, anyone reporting accurately on the reality of a movement which, despite anarcho-communist branding, functions in practice as a combination of the Sturmabteiling and the Stasi is subjected to a campaign of defamation and intimidation from pro-Antifa academics and journalists who tend to serve as apologists and spokesmen for the movement, rather than reporters on it.

Few have experienced this treatment more systematically than Andy Ngo, a Portland-born journalist whose detailed coverage of Antifa has made him into a target both of Antifa street activists and the mainstream coalition which supports them.

Beginning with an account of being assaulted by the group at a protest in Portland, an incident which put him in hospital with a brain injury, Ngo’s book Unmasked tells the story of a dangerously escalating spiral of political violence, which over the last four years has developed from sporadic opposition to the Trump Administration to well-funded and well-organised opposition to the rule of law. 

Ngo exposes the extent to which the media, mainstream politicians and parts of the American justice system have wantonly incited violence and aggravated social conflicts. By pushing preposterous comparisons between Nazi Germany and Trump’s America, then by relentlessly pushing the story that the death of George Floyd was a racist murder, the media encouraged Antifa to join forces with the Democratic Party and Fortune 500-backed BLM to riot across US cities, seizing the Capitol Hill neighbourhood in Seattle, and sustaining 120 days of rioting against the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland. Promoted in the media as “mostly peaceful protests” the events contributed to an incremental increase of least 4,000 violent deaths.

Antifa activists are criminals and the mentally ill, but they are supported by elite political and corporate interests. In Britain, Antifa organisers operate from the Mayday Room, an “organising and educational space for activists, social movements and radicals” in the City of London financed by multimillionaire art collector and Whitechapel Gallery chairman Alex Sainsbury. In the United States, among the arrests from the violence which attended the first months of Trump’s presidency was the son of Hilary Clinton’s Vice Presidential Candidate Tim Kaine. 

But the majority of the movement operates on the internet as a self-selecting thought police force, primed to attack anyone veering from the global ideological orthodoxy, or expressing positive sentiments about Antifa targets. This includes Andy Ngo, as Winston Marshall, a banjo player for the group Mumford and Sons learned last month to his cost. After praising Ngo’s bravery, Marshall was immediately targeted with what George Orwell described as the two minute hate, as Antifa members and sympathisers massed to defame and attack him. Brutalised, Marshall retracted his comments, and announced he was leaving the band.

As Rules for Radicals author Saul Alinsky put it, more describing the eternal operation of the scapegoat mechanism than proposing an original idea: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalise it, and polarise it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions people hurt faster than institutions.” Repeated tens of thousands of times on social media over the last few years, this ritual action testifies to a collective psychology aspect that eludes Ngo’s factual and ideological analysis.

Four hundred years ago, the heretical specters recycled to justify new persecutions were the “gazari” or  “Cathars” or waudenses” or Vaudois; today this position is occupied by fascists and Nazis. Then as now a new mass communication technology had scrambled existing symbolic economies and networks of moral authority, catalysed paranoia, and created an anxious new social landscape which sociopaths and centralising political forces exploited.

Andy Ngo is seen covered in unknown substance after Rose City Antifa members attacked him (Photo by Moriah Ratner/Getty Images)

In short, Antifa is essentially a cult which has swelled to occupy key chokepoints in society. Organised around a mythos that presents itself as secular, but in truth describes a demonology, the movement attracts the same personality types that invariably populate cultic milieus and exacerbates their flaws, above all, the profoundly damaged and the severely misdirected. 

This is also the most sympathetic diagnosis one could form of Talia Lavin, author of Culture Warlords. A Brooklyn-based Harvard graduate in her early thirties, Lavin is an unapologetic Antifa supporter, whose book supplies less a contribution to political analysis and more a horror story, in which reality submits to fantasy, hatred merges with desire, and the gap between the other and the self dissolves.

Lavin’s primary concern is less with fascism per se, than antisemitism. But her sense of antisemitism is emotional and personal, rather than critical, and wrapped-up in the mirror of traumatic and deranging experiences online. 

“The first time I experienced anti-Semitism,” she writes, “it was on the internet.” Hired as an editorial intern at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and put in charge of moderating comments on their articles, Lavin is upset to learn that one of the main drivers of traffic to the site is white nationalist forum Stormfront.

Interpellated by the frenzied messages that filled her inbox Lavin recounts experiencing “a deep hatred toward me, for being born where I was born, for growing up as I had.” She concludes: “this was a battle I had to wage.” 

But who is the enemy? Behind the screen of her computer, reading twisted messages from random strangers, Lavin sees antisemitism where a more detached perspective might have recognised insanity, a more subtle antagonist which cannot be confronted the same way. 

Culture Warlords describes infiltrating various online communities by using virtual personae

Lavin does sense this. “Once you start gazing into the abyss of the far right, pretty soon it turns its gaze right back on you. And its gaze is a fearsome thing, a twisted thing, one full of boredom and anger that have calcified into hatred.” 

But she does not internalise this lesson. Entering the same labyrinth of mirrors as her tormentors, everything acquires an uncanny double aspect. “These people see us as antagonists in the big character drama of their lives,” Lavin reports a colleague musing, two pages after she declares war on the trolls. “They choose, every day and every day more of them, to create alternate identities that embrace the swastika and the skull mask and the Totenkopf, the worst of history and the worst of the present melding seamlessly,” she remarks. She then does the exact same thing.

Culture Warlords describes infiltrating various online communities by using virtual personae: a down-and-out warehouse worker, an incel “radicalised into a deep hatred of women by his lack of sexual success”, and a “slender, petite blond huntress who’d grown up on a white-nationalist compound in Iowa, looking for suitors on a whites-only dating site… with the screen name “Aryan Queen.”

Lavin defines the goal behind this exercise as follow: “to nudge as many men…as possible to reveal as many personal details as possible, so that I could, ultimately, out them as white supremacists. I’d funnel their information to antifascist groups that sought to let neighbours and coworkers know about the reactionary and violent politics going on in their midst.”

Why does this she believe that this is remotely close to ethical behaviour? Lavin never asks this question, and nobody else associated with this book apparently has asked it either. Lavin describes men who write “about their cats, about their dinners of pinto beans and pork, about their love of Xbox gaming, about gas prices, the motorcycles they owned.” She writes back about how “much I hated Jews.”

“I began to enjoy deceiving them, taking an acrid pleasure in my own duplicity.” She is deceiving herself. Her research generates no understanding, only eroticised disgust. “i’m an antifascist and you’re about to be exposed,” she writes to somebody in Kiev, “filled with a mixture of loathing and fear and glee.” Elsewhere, she describes herself as “incandescent with the kind of anger that doesn’t just last an evening… anger hot and wet like blood in my mouth.” 

Lavin describes her own growing hatred, “a parallel hatred… studying the far right taught me what hatred looks like, and taught me how to hate.” She hates, also, people who reject her violent tactics. “I raged against white moderates—the people who don’t believe in de-platforming Nazis from every perch they get… The people who say: Ignore them! Let them march!” 

She imagines dragging people “by their hair into the light [to] let them scream”, of a “verminous miasma of hatred” and blames the objects of her hatred for her feelings. “I will never forgive them for making me hate them as much as I do, for folding a red loathing into my soul.” 

At the end of her book she is confessing to a mental illness. “For a long, difficult time, I had been in the grips of a depression… Every word felt painfully extracted from me: Rows of bad teeth grinned at me from the page. I hated myself, the world, and my words. Everything felt suffused with ugliness and I wanted to sleep all day.” 

There’s no question something has gone badly wrong. But the problem is not confined to Lavin, or even to Antifa who are a symptom rather than the cause. Ngo’s book is essential as the accurate reporting of a political reality systematically ignored or misrepresented by almost every newspaper and network. Lavin’s book has merit as a portrait of a tortured mind, and its author deserves sympathy as well.

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