Thursday 23 October 2014
As a preface, I should mention that yesterday I went to Skeptics in the Pub to see journalist Will Storr talk about his latest book. Titled The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, it is a collection of meetings with people who hold unconventional beliefs. These heretics provide Storr with a vehicle to explore human psychology and understand why they believe such wacky things. The hypothesis Storr runs with is predicated upon personal narrative and what he calls the ‘hero maker’. To paraphrase, he says that we each have an ongoing personal story, written by our brains, which we tell ourselves, and in it we are the hero and all of our decisions are easily explicable and justifiable. Furthermore, and this is something that I took away from the talk, when one challenges another’s belief – like Storr does in the book with David Irving and his Holocaust denial – one is often met with a very defensive stance and/or aggression, this is because their belief is seen as a big, if not central, part of their own story. It may even be their defining characteristic.
Irving likely sees himself as fighting back against the establishment and their incorrect history of the Second World War, to borrow a phrase which Storr used several times last night: he is his very own “plucky David fighting against a mighty Goliath.” I want to consider this when I am writing the rest of this entry because the members of groups like the League of St. George are still human. My brain may want to turn them into an other or an outsider, but they tell themselves their story, and they are defending or fighting for something which they truly believe in. They are as human as I am. Yes, there may be a few charlatans who know that what they are doing is bullshit and are in it for the money; however, for the most part I think these people are quite sincere in their belief. Their views may be racist, homophobic, sexist and as skewed as it is possible for them to be; regardless, they believe that they are the hero. Just like we all do.
At the end of the previous piece I had reasoned that it is odd to claim to be a Mosley nationalist lobby group when your website states that it is important to remember the lives of fervent antisemitic neo-Nazis, white nationalists and people who were actually members of the Nazi Party. Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I cannot help but think that there is far more to being a member of the League than just believing in ‘Europe a Nation’.
Like every other human being, I have heroines and heroes; I admire a lot of people, but I do not endorse all of their views just because I hold them in high regard. For example, I think that Isaac Newton is one of the greatest scientists ever to have lived, but that doesn’t make me a believer in alchemy or a Biblical literalist like he was. I admire Martin Luther King, his struggle for civil rights, and especially the policy of nonviolent civil disobedience, but that doesn’t mean that I am on side with his prolific adultery or, even, his Christianity. The difference which is becoming more and more apparent is that I am explaining where I disagree. The League of Saint George may really enjoy Hitler’s artwork, but surely they would say if that was the case. If I was to make the argument that I think highly of Hitler’s painting, I would preface and postface my statement with an unquestionable rejection of his antisemitism, his warped social Darwinism, and the many, many other despicable things he believed in and acted upon or was responsible for happening while he ruled over Germany. Where are these repudiations on the League’s website? They do not exist.
I can hear it now, somebody reading this and asking whether this means that one has to litter one’s own speech and writing with caveats. Not necessarily. Yet, when the unspoken or unwritten is something as disgraceful as the tacit endorsement of the Holocaust, then one had bloody well better clarify what they are saying and, more importantly, what they are not. Imagine you are entertaining a friend at home; they glance towards your bookshelf and say “Oh you have a book on Hitler? I really enjoy his paintings.” As the host, would you let that comment slide, or would you ask them to elaborate? How about: “A biography of Charles Manson! Fantastic, his collaborations with the Beach Boys were the soundtrack to my teenage years.” Or “I bought a video of the very best Jim’ll Fix It episodes today.” One should be pressed to expand further.
Antisemitism, when not uttered or acted upon in any way, is a victimless crime. This is impossible, of course, and as soon as one expresses such prejudice they run the risk of sacrificing the relationships they have with the people around them. Most would question their friendship and some would cut off all ties because it takes a certain kind of person to want to be associated with unconcealed bigotry. There is no explanation as to why the League reveres Nazis and white nationalists on their paltry website, so the only conclusion available is that the League of Saint George is a racist, anti-immigration, antisemitic, fascist group that idolises the Third Reich and really likes the Mosley’s; though, not so much their children, I haven’t seen them mentioned once yet, I wonder why?
I should acknowledge that I missed something of some importance in the previous entry which would have aided my understanding of the League and brought me to this conclusion sooner. I skipped over a section of a paragraph on their homepage because I was unaware of its meaning. It is italicised below:
The League of St George was probably the first British group since Mosley to established links with other European nationalists. Many of these contacts were made at the annual nationalist gathering in Diksmuide, Flanders, where in the 1970s the League gave physical support to the Flemish Amnestie campaign, and took part in demonstrations with the Flemish patriots, the VMO. Today, the League has contacts worldwide including Japan. [Emphasis theirs.]
I now know that Diksmuide hosts IJzerbedevaart (Pilgrimage of the Yser), which is a gathering of Flemings remembering those of their number that fell in the First World War. Postwar, this was hijacked by neo-Nazis because during the war this tradition was continued and organised by the occupying Nazis.
The VMO (Vlaamse Militanten Orde; Order of Flemish Militants) was, until the late 1980s, a neo-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-immigration, militant Flemish group led in their heyday by Bert Eriksson – a man we met last time on the League’s list of remembrance. A fanatical policy of theirs was to illegally exhume the bodies of those Flemish Nazi collaborators that were buried outside of Flanders, transport them back, and then have them reinterred within the region. Another was fire-bombing establishments run by immigrants, and attacking non-ethnic Belgians, leftists, and occasionally Walloons. At one time they openly associated with Flemish nationalism and at another they identified as a white power group; for example, in 1982, they sent a delegation to visit Léon Degrelle in exile in Marbella. Degrelle was the founder of the Rexist Party, a Walloon pro-Nazi collaborationist group, and was living out his life in Spain, supported and protected against extradition by Francisco Franco and, after Franco’s death in 1975, by the gangster and pimp Jesús Gil. This would have been against early VMO policy, but by the 1980s the group was being suppressed and could use any help and support it could find.
The VMO’s policies were disgusting. Why would anybody give them ‘physical support’, as the League brags? At no point were the VMO in favour of Mosley’s ‘Europe a Nation’ policy, so this ‘physical support’ was likely a result of being invited to Diksmuide. The most infuriating aspect of the League is that they do not come out, as it were, in favour of the policies that their website insinuates. Do they honestly expect to gain pro-‘Europe a Nation’ members which are for immigration and against antisemitism, for example? If this ever happened, then I would think that they may be a bit put off by the declaration that they should celebrate Hitler’s birthday. At a minimum, this poor cover is disingenuous and dim.
A large portion of the League’s history involves bungling mistakes, which were exposed through informants like Ray Hill in the mid-1980s. The group was meant to be an exclusive club for the intellectuals of the British far-right. Yet, they planned to safe house Italian terrorists until the ITV current affairs show World in Action aired an episode which exposed that plan. In 1996, through their links in South Africa, they recruited mercenaries to assassinate high-ranking members of Nelson Mandela’s government, but the South African Secret Service cottoned on and easily thwarted them. These are campaigns devised by the intellectuals of the far-right. It’s mad, and the scariest part is that they would have thought that they were doing the morally correct thing.
What’s more, their apparent leader, Keith Thompson, was a paid informant for Searchlight magazine between 1979 and 1982. Thompson sold them hundreds of League related documents ‘including membership and subscriber lists.’ His excuse? The owner of Searchlight, Gerry Gable, burgled his house. Thompson is still the leader and also runs Steven Books, an online bookstore which specialises in revisionist history (e.g. Holocaust denial) and is listed as ‘League Enterprises’. It’s a bit funny how Thompson never pressed charges against Gable for burgling his house.
The League of Saint George now has a hilariously dated Facebook page, with 230 ‘Likes’. For impact and scope, they are nowhere near groups like Britain First and the English Defence League. Several posts on the page indicate that it is run by Catherine Pakulski Parker-Brown. Her partner, John Pakulski, has ties to several other white supremacist groups and spent a period of time behind bars for stabbing to death a friend, Mark Sanderson, who he found ‘in a state of undress’ with Catherine after a party.
If a user’s privacy settings are weak, then Facebook can open a person’s life up to outsiders. Pakulski Parker-Brown has very open settings, and that is where I began to find a human aspect to this previously faceless group. For example, I can see that she also ‘Liked’ PETA and other animal protection groups. She likes Spike Milligan, Bruce Springsteen, Edgar Allen Poe, supports Britain’s troops, and veterans charities. Hates domestic abuse, supports her friend’s pages, and likes Peter Kay, Andrex and Aldi. Likes standing up for autistic people, painting, turtles, guinea pigs, Wallace and Gromit, horses, Jaffa Cakes, Jack Daniel’s Honey, Led Zeppelin. Apart from honey flavoured bourbon and the overrated PETA, I am in favour of a lot of those things. Then the things I dislike appeared again: ‘Stop censoring the English!’, ‘Ban all Islamic/Muslin hatred against our troops.make them illegal’, ‘Infidels of Britain’, BNP, ‘Boycott Halal’, ‘New British Union Youth’, ‘The Faustian Circle’. Our minds work in binary. It is either 1, we like someone or 0, we don’t. Admittedly, I started to feel a bit sorry for her when I was reading through her profile, I started to drift away from 0 to 0.1, 0.2. I reverted to type when the anti-immigration, racist hatred started up again. It’s so sad.
One can dedicate one’s life to a cause and fight relentlessly for it. We can be very exclusive and make sure that our friends only come from a specific group or circle; the alternative is to drop in and out of different groups of friends, family, and co-workers – this is what the majority of us do. We put on masks and tell ourselves stories as to why we act a certain way around different people. We create a reason for why we can enjoy Jaffa Cakes – a cake named after Jaffa oranges, which were originally grown in Jaffa in Israel, the Jewish state – and at the same time be antisemitic. Our brains can form a logical explanation for why we would campaign for the ethical treatment of animals, but want England for the ethnically English – specifically the white, non-Jewish English. It is easy for us to comprehend that we are fond of animals which are not native to the UK – like turtles (which originate from between the tropics) and guinea pigs (South America) – and at the same time want all humans which derive from different cultures to not be legally allowed to live in the same state as you. Our brains are wonderful at keeping our cognitive dissonance in check.
A quote from Christopher Hitchens springs to mind:
‘In the 1950s there was quite a widespread movement in the United States called the John Birch Society, founded by a man called Robert Welch. Mr. Welch made himself extremely famous by saying that President Eisenhower was a dedicated and conscious agent of an international communist conspiracy, and lots and lots of people believed that, and I wondered what their lives were like. You know, you get up in Pasadena, or – wherever you live – Chappaqua, Arlington, you think: “It’s another day. The President of the United States is being run by the Kremlin. I guess I’ve still got to go get the groceries, drop off the kids.” All this raging is going on inside your skull all the time. It doesn’t in one sense make any difference. It’s probably even therapeutic for some deeply disordered people.’
Everybody holds contradictory opinions and most of us do not even realise that they conflict. Our brains weave it all into our story and confabulate what we consider to be legitimate reasoning for quite possibly illogical actions and beliefs. This is what it is to be human. If you think that this does not apply to you, then you’re wrong. It does. It really, really, really does.
The far-right in Britain is almost dead. It has occasional flickers of life, such as the BNP winning some MEPs in the late-2000s, and UKIPs current, hugely puffed up, successes. At its source fascism, and especially populism, is a self-defeating ideology. It has to win it all at once or it will lose its authenticity. Whether it is UKIP or the League of Saint George, these groups trade on being anti-establishment and holding unpopular anti-establishment views, like antisemitism. Once they are voted in they become a part of the establishment by definition. Unless something – often an unforeseen event – gifts them rapid change, they then lose their base of support because they have become exactly what they have previously rallied against. I’m not saying that a far-right extremist group like UKIP could not win a majority in the UK, it could. It’s just that it will not do so in the current climate because the standard of life in Britain is good for the majority. And, if it did, it would have to be in a constant state of revolution, like Mussolini’s Fascist Party was, to stay in power; if they removed Britain from the EU, for example, UKIP would have to change its central message to retain any essence of support.
Ultimately, we have little to fear from these groups, but we still have to stand up to their bigotry. It will be a pointless dialogue/shouting match, the equivalent of talking to a wall, but the battle is not to convert, but to prevent the undecided becoming extremists. People need to speak up whenever the far-right want to intimidate or hurt minorities. The silent majority should recognise when it needs to become boisterous.
I started this by wondering why people continue to believe in discredited, far-right ideologies, and I’m still not sure, though I believe that I am closer to a general conclusion. One of the most difficult thought experiments is putting oneself in a position totally alien from our own. This is because we believe that we are logical, anything divergent is illogical. To totally understand why Pakulski Parker-Brown got to where she is today I would have to live her life. I can do some armchair psychology about her upbringing and intelligence, but I would be no closer to a complete conclusion. As Michael Shermer wrote in The Science of Good and Evil: “Nature is so intertwined with nurture that to say that a complex human characteristic like personality or intelligence or … morality is, say, 40 percent genetics and 60 percent environment (to arbitrarily pick two figures) misses something very important: inheritability does not mean inevitability of success and vice versa.” We create, polish, and justify our own values.
What she believes is immoral and inherently wrong, but she would think the same about me. If we ever spoke about it we would leave having only further convinced ourselves of our original positions. Nonetheless, I do believe that conversion is possible, but only through personal narrative. For example, one could convince oneself of a truth as powerful as the one previously held, so much so that it eventually usurps and becomes dominant. This is where I wish to explore next: how do people change their beliefs away from an extreme position?