As a political round up of the summer, Deputy Comment Editor Jake Porter argues that attacks on academics such as Mary Beard prove the far right operate in a world devoid of facts.
To contend that this year has been eventful would be an understatement. Trump’s disastrous presidency, the shock of the UK general election result, the fractious and deadly state of the world’s environment; 2017 has certainly had no shortage of news to report on. However, this summer has seen a spate of attacks on academics that may have passed the general public by.
‘The far right’s habit of loudly denigrating narratives they disagree with belies an ulterior motive’
Taking place mainly on Twitter, these spats have been initiated by far-right commentators, who have questioned established historical truths – such as the diversity of Roman Britain – and resorted to abuse to enforce their point. Although some of these incidents have been reported in publications such as the Guardian or Independent, an underlying pattern between these attacks and their true function seems to have remained unnoticed.
Intellectuals are often abused during periods of far-right ascendancy; some might say that these attacks on the authority of historians are nothing new. I contend that the far right’s habit of loudly denigrating narratives they disagree with belies an ulterior motive, one that explains and condemns their worldview.
— Roman Society (@TheRomanSoc) August 8, 2017
For each of these Twitter rows, the essence of the argument has been more or less the same. Possibly the most well-known example was sparked off by the depiction of a Romano-British family in a CBBC cartoon; the eminent classicist Mary Beard received heated abuse for the suggestion, relatively uncontroversial in contemporary academia, that Roman Britain was ethnically diverse. Reactionaries posing as sceptics felt it prudent to reference her weight, age and gender, piling on aggressive insults that have no place in reasoned debate.
‘Researcher Mike Stuchbery received abuse directed at his … identity as a ‘Libtard’… for contending that George Orwell… would have supported organisations such as Antifa’
A misogynistic attack on her credentials followed, with users erasing her academic title by referring to her as ‘Ms Beard’, choosing not to do the same to an opposing – male – academic involved in the row. Similarly, the ex-teacher and historical researcher Mike Stuchbery received abuse directed at his weight and identity as a ‘Libtard’ – an ableist and regressive insult – for contending that George Orwell, who literally fought against fascists in the Spanish Civil War, would have supported organisations such as Antifa.
The abuse piled on by prominent far-right voices and their supporters is perhaps unsurprising; more noteworthy is the substance and purpose of the narratives they propose.
Another notable spat involving Beard and Arron Banks, a prominent UKIP donor, rested on Banks’ premise that ‘the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration’. This questionable contention appears to have been formed through a mix of dated and ahistorical media, such as the blockbuster film Gladiator, and childhood memories of school that date back nearly forty years.
‘These attacks serve to distort history… to paint a whitewashed narrative that excludes the impact and existence of non-whites in European history’
Likewise, the argument that Orwell would have surely denounced Antifa seems to have been predicated on the basis that the commentator has ‘read all of Orwell’s books’, a slightly dubious assertion given the conclusions that he has reached. The implicit ignorance, purposeful or otherwise, of these reactionary hate pundits could seem, on the surface, simply unfortunate. But I contend that a more insidious game is at play within the theatrics of these Twitter spats.
"This woman" sticks to her guns! https://t.co/pL1QFRBYGX
— mary beard (@wmarybeard) August 17, 2017
These attacks serve to distort history, to manipulate the objective into a warped subjective, to paint a whitewashed narrative that excludes the impact and existence of non-whites in European history. Banks knows exactly what he’s doing when he depicts the fall of an empire as being due to immigration; the parallels he is trying to create are obvious, and dangerous.
‘These people are tools, in every sense of the word… they serve as a cog in the wheel of an oppressive, white nationalist, patriarchal machine’
This narrative serves to validate and empower the toxic ideology of the far-right, promoting a new (and objectively false) history that underlines the hateful, bigoted worldview of the so-called ‘alt-right’. They may depict themselves as anti-establishment rebels, bravely fighting against the ‘political correctness mob’, but there is nothing rebellious or edgy about what they think or what they do. To pertain to the aesthetic of the outsider, when one’s whole argument rests on making an ‘Other’ of people of different races and religions, could not be more conceited.
‘Do not allow them the fantasy of believing themselves to be anything other than fascists’
These people are tools, in every sense of the word. They serve as a cog in the wheel of an oppressive, white nationalist, patriarchal machine, and an absolute establishment that cares nothing for them, whose interests focus solely on sustaining itself. These people, arguing pathetically with respected academics, serve the purposes of this machine in perpetuating an ahistorical narrative, and fermenting discontent in a society that sorely needs to be unified.
Laurie Penny put it beautifully when she said that ‘you cannot be a rebel for the status quo’. These far-right commentators, far from being radical outsiders, are nothing more than reactionary stooges; it is critical that we see them as such, and do not allow them the fantasy of believing themselves to be anything other than fascists.
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