Foreword Reviews

Reviewer Brandee Gruener Interviews Joe Mulhall, Author of Drums in the Distance: Journeys Into the Global Far Right

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Are you looking for a dose of inspiration today? Meet Joe Mulhall, a humble but fearless not-so-average Joe who’s out there doing battle against neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, and alt-right radicals set on spewing hate against women, Black people, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized groups. His employer, HOPE not hate, was founded in England in 2004 to take on the fascist British National Party, and has since expanded to infiltrate and expose hate groups internationally—because hate knows no borders.

Drums in the Distance cover
And they have been remarkably successful, as we learn in Joe’s Drums in the Distance: Journeys into the Global Far Right. In her review for the September/October issue of Foreword, Brandee Gruener calls Drums a “blend of journalism, history, and memoir [that] serves as a dramatic warning of the resurgence of racialized violence and the normalization of extremism in public life and politics around the world.”

With the help of Icon Books, we connected Brandee and Joe for the following hopeful conversation.

Your book expresses alarm over the growing power of the radical right during your decade working with the anti-fascist organization HOPE not hate. How do you manage to hold on to hope when you spend so much time observing hate groups? What do you remain hopeful about?

It can be easy to become very pessimistic after spending so much time monitoring the far right, especially when they have had so many victories over the last decade but on the whole I still remain very hopeful about the future. The thing about the far right is that they remain in a minority almost everywhere so the only way we can really lose to them is by deciding not to oppose them. In the course of a decade working for HOPE not hate, I’ve been lucky to travel around the world and everywhere I’ve gone I’ve met amazing, inspirational, and brave people fighting back. I also find hope in history. The battle against fascism is nearly one hundred years old and so far it has always been defeated when it’s been properly opposed. Knowing that it has been beaten before and will be beaten again fills me with hope!

How successful do you believe far-right groups, especially those you refer to as “alt-lite” instead of “alt-right,” have been in mainstreaming their views in recent years? Is it difficult to raise the alarm over groups that have changed their image and rhetoric to be more palatable?

One of the major dangers I discuss in the book is that in most countries the far right won’t march back into power as they did in the 1930s. Instead, the real danger is that the politics of the far right become normalised and their ideas enter the mainstream. We shouldn’t view the far right as a tumour that hangs off the body politic that if removed leaves everything fine. In reality, it’s a gangrenous limb that can poison it. In numerous countries around the world the cordon sanitaire that marginalised far-right ideas has become worryingly porous and we’ve seen mainstream politicians seek to replicate their positions with a view to outflanking them. This never works and only serves to normalise unacceptable and discriminatory politics.

While you’ve had successes in disrupting hate groups, politicians espousing many of the same views have been elected around the globe. Does the alt-right influence or merely reflect political debates over nationalism, culture, and immigration? What do you believe attracts people to that kind of politics, and what might convince them to turn away from it?

Sometimes far-right movements emerge and radicalise people towards their politics. In other cases far-right groups emerge to service an existing constituent of people with discriminatory views. Often the far-right latch onto anything they think is already popular. We saw this with the huge turn towards Islamophobia by the far right in the decade after 9/11. They understood that anti-Muslim politics sold. The short answer is that it’s a bit of both—movements like the alt-right both reflect societal nationalism and racism but also contribute to shaping and forming its style, lexicon, and rhetoric.

In terms of what attracts people to these movements, that’s an extremely difficult question without a single monocausal answer. It’s a whole range of reasons including both cultural, economic, and often personal reasons. However, one thing we do know is that the far-right often prey on communities where people are desperate and/or angry. They turn and provide simple answers for complex questions. They provide scapegoats and enemies.

The way we turn people away from this politics is to provide hope to the people who become attracted to this politics. It’s not enough to merely show the perniciousness of the far right—though this is of course important—but we also have to provide real and lasting improvements to communities that the far right target. The big thing is that political elites need to listen and re-engage with communities that have been ignored and ostracised for too long but also provide a vision of change that people believe in. When people get that they won’t find hope in the utopian nonsense of the far-right.

You talk about social media’s power in globalizing the far-right’s views. Do you believe deplatforming hate groups is the only solution to reducing their reach? Where should social media companies draw the line? On balance, do you see any positives to social media?

The short answer is that while it’s not a silver bullet that fixes the issue completely, deplatforming does work and should be used as one tactic amongst many in the fight against the far right. At present, online speech that causes division and harm is often defended on the basis that to remove it would undermine free speech. In reality, allowing the amplification of such speech only erodes the quality of public debate, and causes harm to the groups such speech targets. This defence, in theory and in practice, minimises free speech overall.

Removing hateful content online can actually create a safer and more open online space where more people feel comfortable to engage. When done correctly, deplatforming can actually maximise freedom of speech online for more people, especially those currently marginalised and attacked such as women, Black people, disabled people, and LGBT+ people. Many that oppose deplatforming underestimate the potential for social inequalities to be reflected in public debate, and disregard the nature and extent of these inequalities in the “marketplace of ideas.” As such, the position of some “free speech” advocates can be paradoxical. They claim to be committed to valuing free speech above all else, propagating an unequal debate that further undermines the free speech of those who are already harmed by social inequalities.

That said, I certainly don’t think deplatforming is the only way to fix this issue on social media. When content breaks a platform’s policies around hate speech it must be removed. However, what is actually required is systemic change rather than the takedown of individual pieces of content. It’s about encouraging systems that minimise the harm of certain forms of speech and shifting the scales from amplifying harm to reducing its spread by applying systems and processes to reduce the promotion and targeting of hate and abuse. This will create a more level playing field for all people participating online.

All of this requires robust legislation as time has proved the social media platforms won’t deal with this issue until they are made to do so. That doesn’t mean social media can’t be amazing, it can be! At its best it brings people together and gives a voice to the voiceless. But that doesn’t mean we should let major tech platforms continue to engage in such harmful behaviour.

You reference the dangerous nature of your work and your guilt over how it has negatively impacted others at times. When writing this book, how did you decide what was safe to include and what was better left out? Have you rethought what stories to tell, perhaps in another book in the future?

It was really hard to work out what was safe to include and I had to leave out loads of stories about operations and infiltrations for various reasons. Safety had to come before the book so I could only really tell the stories that are completely over. Any of the colleagues and anti-fascists I discuss in the book signed off their inclusion and had the opportunity to say if they didn’t want something included and some names have been changed to protect people. There is certainly another book worth of stories and I still work for HOPE not hate and we continue to do our work but it might be some time before its safe to tell them. Some will never be told and the only people who will know about them are those of us who were involved.

Ultimately what do you hope readers will take away from your book? What actions do you think the everyday person can take to counter hate and intolerance?

I hope the book isn’t depressing or makes the threat seem so large that it demotivates people. I wanted the book to raise the alarm about the dangers of the far right but also show that people all over the world are standing up, fighting back, and winning. Hopefully, it motivates activism rather than just scares people. The good news is that fighting back doesn’t have to involve infiltrating far right groups or doing anything dangerous at all. The vast majority of anti-fascist activism involves talking to people, be that family or neighbours. It’s about having discussions, knocking on doors, distributing leaflets, engaging with people, helping people down your street or in your community. Anyone and everyone can do that!

Brandee Gruener

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