I own a copy of Mein Kampf. It cost me 94 cents in a Cambridge bookstore. I also own pamphlets and a book or two by some of the more violent anarchists of the 19th and 20th centuries, and many other books about totalitarian and authoritarian leaders (Lenin, Caesar, Napoleon) and the theories they loved. My favorite nonfiction book is The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. I have seen “Birth of a Nation” and have a biography of D.W. Griffith on my to-read list. I am also white and a 20-something. I look like the guys that commit mass shootings. And I should make clear before you begin to think I should be under surveillance that I am not an extremist but I am terrified by them and this fear has forced me to spend the last five years teaching myself about the political rationalization of extremism and the how cultures define and deal with evil.
All the news surrounding the Christchurch massacre I listened to and read mentioned the murderer’s manifesto. I was intrigued by it (for reasons mentioned above) and decided I was going to read it when I got out of my night class.
In class we spent the first hour and change discussing how the media covered the massacre and whether news organizations should release the video and manifesto. Then we did an activity to see how easy it was to find said manifesto. I was the second person in class to find it; it took a minute and a half.
I skimmed the first three pages. When I read the epigraph I muttered, “Fucking hell.” It was “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas, a poem that I have taped over both of my beds.
The next two pages were full of…nothing worth having me try to discuss rationally. None of the manifesto is.
The reason I am writing this blog post is because I imagine a lot of people of the last few years have been confronted with a similar dilemma: Don’t I have to engage with the other side to have healthy political opinions? Don’t I have to go down the hard, jagged road that is made up of differing opinions that challenge my notions about the world? Isn’t that what being openminded means?
It is; but those clashes need to be balanced and rational on both sides.
Let me explain:
I am generally progressive with some libertarian (not American Libertarian, those guys are just Republicans that want their possession convictions expunged) leanings. I have friends that are right-of-center and a few that are even a few miles from there.
Whenever we discuss politics, we don’t try to proselytize. Conversations about politics are not supposed to be about trying to convince someone to switch teams but rather they should be about taking into account various ideas and debating the merits of each idea. Most people don’t have this luxury but most people also choose irrational, stupid, and shallow friends or think that their opinion is the best one and that no others can possibly exist in a debate. (Always be remember to be nice to insecure nerds, they are usually great conversationalists.)
During our conversations I’ve been shown videos of Jordan Peterson and Milo Yiannopoulos lectures and have been lectured on the stock market and have in turn showed Vox videos and leant them books by Malcolm Gladwell and articles by Jane Mayer. While we don’t agree with each other often we are at the very least respectful towards each other opinions.
Now what does all this have to do with the manifesto?
The manifesto, like all racist manifestos, and unlike my friends, doesn’t allow discussion and, more importantly, is outside the realm of rational discussion. For some reason some people think that a healthy society is one that acknowledges all opinions. If we had a society like this, we would have gone deaf a long time ago. What we should strive for is a society that acknowledges all humane opinions. Once you advocate for the murder of innocent people, you are voluntarily removing yourself from the table. There is always room for more opinions, but not ones that are inhumane. You will gain nothing more than a headache by reading the manifesto. Also by reading it you are doing exactly what a guy who murdered 50+ people wanted you to do. Think about that.
If I read the manifesto, I’d be acknowledging it and would be looking at evil straight in the face. Instead I am just leaving it where it lies, hoping it will return to the fringes and leave the mainstream conversation.
Some of you must be wondering, How do you then justify your copy of Mein Kampf or your viewing of “Birth of a Nation”? Like this: When I watch or read media that I know to be evil, I go into it with a certain goal in mind. I am not reading Hitler’s anti-semitic screed to engage in a rational debate, I am reading it to read the ravings of a madman and to explore his writing’s place in history. His screed is a historical document that has had years of condemnation attached to it that make it worth engaging with in a scholarly context.
The manifesto has none of that. It is another bullet and is more dangerous at this moment than people like Kellyanne Conway think it is. Engaging with white supremacists is okay in a distanced way, much like how you deal with zoo animals. “Timmy, look at that man screaming about black people and calling women ‘lobsters’ and rolling around in his own shit. Isn’t he strange lookin’? Good thing they got these plexiglass windows!”
It is healthy to glance at the sun enough to realize that you need sunglasses; it is not healthy to stare at the sun.
In front of me is a bookshelf (and my dinner which has gone cold as I type this) full of books by authors such as Toni Morrison, Carl Jung, Walter Benjamin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Claudia Rankine, and even Isadora Duncan. All of these authors and the other 100+ authors whose books are laying in stacks around my apartment spend/spent their lives trying to offer new and healthy ways of looking at the world. I for one would rather spend my time learning about how nuanced and interesting the world is than read a racist manifesto by a mass murderer. Although I own some evil books, I spend most of my time searching for the good in the world. You can’t find good in evil. Good exists in opposition to evil. In fact, the world is a good place with an evil problem, not the other way around.
We should never look directly into the sun, but that’s okay because we can always look out and see hundreds of different faces passing us by, talking, laughing, and, hopefully, smiling.
(Author’s Note: I have made the conscious decision for reasons stated above not to link or quote the manifesto. I have also left out the title of the manifesto and tried to limit the amount of far right wing media discussed because it’s not worth promoting. For similar reasons I did not include pictures of my evil books. While everyone says “the more pictures, the better” this post is about reading and should be read uninterrupted. I am also open to debating the stances taken in this essay with anyone willing to have a rational discussion. I will return to writing funnier and more interesting articles in the next few weeks.)