Norway and an analysis of cultural racism

Keep thinking about those aerial shots of that little wooded island, almost the same shape as a heart, and the reporter explaining that the sea was being searched as it was likely that the children were shot at as they tried to swim for safety.

Much like any other big event these days, there is information overload. Thousands of different tweets, blogs, newspaper articles, television and radio, mainly all trying to respond in the way we all do when senseless acts of violence take place, by crafting some sort of sense from it, trying to decide what exactly the lesson is that we will assert “must be learnt”. We don’t seem to have got to the stage of a complex psychological examination of motives (although I have seen a statement that a deviance from morality was evident rather than mental health issues – the classic mad/bad debate ready to be examined again). So, while it is difficult to speculate with any certainty about the killer himself, it is still possible to look at the psychology and social realities of the wider world he inhabited and the world which reacted to his terrible acts.

I have found myself following two main strands of thought. Firstly, wondering what the initial responses tell us about how post 9/11 the social media primes us to interpret these events, which is being explored at length in many interesting ways elsewhere. There was the shambolic initial coverage in which it was assumed it had to be the hand of Islamic fundamentalists (ironically) – an initial clarion call which is now only echoing in scattered far right conspiracy theories. It has been diluted, in places, to the claim that Anders Behring Breivik’s actions were actually somehow brought about by the state – he was a desperate man, driven to lashing out blindly by socialists who would not listen to his grave concerns about immigration. Tasteless thoughts to be springing up so freshly after the bloodshed of so many socialist young people but the speed reflects the digital age and the thoughts dominant strands of thinking in the current culture of the right wing press. Taken at a surface level, it is a startlingly liberal account of how terrorism evolves (liberal if you ignore the meta-politics) for writers who would not normally reflect on, for example, the role of Western aggression in the formation of Islamic terrorists. Of course, Norway is not a mirror image of the world of fundamentalist Islam – walking around your town seeing people of a different colour to you apparently living in comfort is hardly an equivalent formative experience to watching your whole village being bombed out of their homes, although on both sides a singular account (either that the West makes Islamic terrorists or that immigration makes far-right terrorists) would be simplistic.

Secondly, I have been thinking about what (if at all) this does to illuminate the reality of the far right these days -again something which is being given a lot of consideration, although in a lot of places, at least in the mainstream press, this has been mainly in terms of whether or not there really is a secret international far-right organisation of “knights”. Hopefully it is sensible to discount the sleeper cell theory (as much as it has occasionally played on my mind, ridiculously, possibly as a consequence of the culture of fear, combined with a few surprisingly hateful comments I have experienced in the past year as a consequence of being more politically vocal – I suppose it has at least given me a taste of what life must be like for your more paranoid EDL member).

There do seem to be a handful of more disturbed people in the far right posting things about heroism and/or conspiracy theories regarding a white muslim carrying out the violence and then framing the racists – and really, when you read what some of the extremists say it is terrifying, in part because we seem to live in a time where fascists have learnt all the rules in tastefully covering up rampant hatred, where you get website rationalisations of the very “secular” EDL juxtaposed seemingly without any ironic intent alongside photographs of young members consumed with animalistic rage roaring at the camera. What, I have found myself wondering, does this mean – is the country covered with hotspots of hidden brutal planning, where only the odd socially inept outcast leaks out the real beliefs (Griffin telling BNP members that it is necessary to campaign for voluntary repatriation to get public sympathy springs to mind)? Or is it the case that most of the far right are actually right wingers with a love of militant displays and deeply prejudiced beliefs but no real thirst for wide scale combat? Probably there are as many different interpretations of what the various far right groups stand for as there are members.

So, while there were definitely international links with various far-right organisations, and certainly groups like the EDL will be pumping out statements of condolence to reflect the genuine horror of many members whilst playing down any hint of support in their lunatic fringes (exclamations about why anyone would think the EDL are involved when the children were white spring to mind), it would be naive to think that watered down versions of far right thinking are not everywhere. Times of international tension and economic crisis are inevitably catalysts for extremism. Racism has mutated to fit with the times, and seems to have become acceptable across swathes of polite society (if it ever wasn’t?) so long as it is linked to culture and religion without (generally) the biological claims of the past. Traditional racism still exists but these days there seems to be a widespread attitude where a baby of muslim heritage would be considered innocent and equal at birth, only to be corrupted by being raised in a culture of terrorism and fundamentalism. Traditionally the mainstream right have scooped up support by playing on prejudice and fears of this nature (along with scapegoating of various other social “threats” such as the unemployed and the unions) but there is really only so long tired rants about the excesses of Blair and Brown can be wheeled out before they become dated, and the credibility of the current government stands massively undermined by the News International scandal. Right wing working class tories have little interest in sustaining the elites they prop up, and I believe there is a genuine danger that the growing critique of the wealth of bankers and the super-rich combined with neo-liberal attacks on the welfare state may make voters look right to organisations which superficially oppose these whilst retaining the scapegoating element that allows a coherent self without complex re-examination of views in a world where the culture of individualism is stronger than ever and ego is supreme. These organisations almost certainly lack either the robust infrastructure or the intellectual horse-power to massively reorganise society, but this does not make them impotent and utterly discountable.

The main issue is that there is no obvious solution. The media has been dominated for years by the right wing meaning beliefs about the self in opposition to the other are a normalised pattern of thinking for many, seemingly as organic to the individual as any other long held socialised belief. The new cultural racism is a part of this but it stretches much wider – since becoming more active post-Cameron I have found that in spite of being a very moderate thinker, speaking out about social issues involves crashing into walled up beliefs with little if any impact on anyone who wasn’t already listening. It doesn’t reflect everyone but in huge numbers of cases people don’t want to be challenged or ask questions, they want their beliefs to be available in a simple to understand tabloid form with just enough indignation to convince themselves that they are somehow challenging a status quo or rocking the very establishment they actually form the foundations for. Ironically, whilst the far right accuse education of being some sort of liberal power base where young minds are spoon-fed dirty socialist politics, the reality is that the (laudable) goal of mass achievement has led to a situation in which young people are actually being taught in very singular content-focused ways without the kind of wider understanding necessary for liberal thought to have chance to take root.

I suppose it is inevitable that there are more questions than answers.


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