Monday 23 April 2018

Facebook posts offer window to the soul of 'alt-right' supporters

Local resident Mailynn Shurtleff lights a candle during a vigil on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, after the recent far-right march and violence there. Photo: The Daily Progress. Photo: AP
Local resident Mailynn Shurtleff lights a candle during a vigil on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, after the recent far-right march and violence there. Photo: The Daily Progress. Photo: AP

Mary Fitzgerald

When the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has issued a formal 'early warning' in the past, it has usually related to conditions in countries roiled by ethnic and sectarian strife, such as Burundi, Nigeria and Iraq. The purpose of the UN alert is to flag up a possible civil conflict on the horizon.

Now the committee has issued its seventh alert in a decade and this time the warning concerns what is happening in Donald Trump's America.

"We are alarmed by the racist demonstrations, with overtly racist slogans, chants and salutes by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan, promoting white supremacy and inciting racial discrimination and hatred," the committee said in a statement.

The UN warning specifically refers to events earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia, when activist Heather Heyer was killed when a man named James Fields rammed his car into a group of people protesting against a white nationalist rally. Fields, who has been charged with murder, had earlier been pictured with neo-Nazi group Vanguard America.

Trump, whose election campaign was publicly backed by a range of white nationalist groups, faced widespread criticism for his mealy-mouthed response in which he blamed "both sides" for the violence.

Trump's equating of anti-fascist protesters known as antifa - who comprised some but not all of the Charlottesville counter-demonstration - with white supremacists reminded me of a Facebook post I saw that same week from someone I knew. This person, who lives in a major European city, had posted a photograph of a roadside banner which read 'United antifa against neo-Nazis and racists'. He commented: "The fascist antifa have arrived!"

The post took me by surprise so I asked him to explain what he meant. He answered referring to the violent tactics many antifa say they are justified in using against fascists: "They are as awful as the scum on the right they oppose and are supposedly so different from."

This same person, who is not American, was one of those who argued in the run-up to last November's presidential elections that Hillary Clinton and Trump "were both as bad as each other". The type that preferred to overlook Trump's clear bigotry and misogyny on the campaign trail and the very public endorsements he received from groups like the Ku Klux Klan. When I asked this person if he still believed that, he began lambasting "Killary" - as he described her - for her links to Saudi Arabia though Trump too has courted Riyadh, striking several deals on a recent visit. He concluded by saying: "There are no good guys."

Over the past year, I have observed this person's political commentary on Facebook and wondered about what has shaped his views in recent years. For context, this person is in his 30s and he has lived, studied and worked in several countries and has a PhD.

Apart from a steady stream of posts mocking Islam, his Facebook updates have included links to videos and articles from organisations and personalities linked to what is known as the 'alt-right' in the US. Discussing the chances of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections earlier this year, he wrote: "Le Pen will win I think. There is a massive amount of cowed voters who are afraid to admit they will vote for her in case they will be tarred with the tired old 'wascist' [sic] brush." When challenged by his friends on some of his posts, he often resorts to insults, dismissing critics as "sheeple".

One day he posted an Islam-related petition he had signed which had been organised by Dublin-born Anne Marie Waters, a founding member of the British branch of Pegida, the far-right anti-immigration and anti-Islam movement established in Germany.

Waters has praised far-right politicians including Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and she brands Islam as "evil". When asked about his signing of Waters' petition, this person - who is gay - answered: "I agree with her position on Islam" adding he "feared" the religion due to its position on homosexuality (sodomy is outlawed in Muslim-majority countries, some of which - such as Iran - treat it as a capital offence).

So this person's worries about how Islam views his sexuality has led him to a point where he is supporting figures linked to the far-right and equivocating over the blatant racism and bigotry unleashed in the US since Trump became president.

We live in revealing - and dangerous - times indeed.

Irish Independent

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