7/22: a review of On Utoya

Either Guy Rundle has an odd sense of humour or his proofreading skills are not what they should be. In the first of his three contributions to On Utøya, an e-book dealing with Anders Breivik and the massacre in Norway last July, he permits himself a moment of meteorological wistfulness: ‘The penultimate weekend of July 2011 was a warm one in Norway, with clear blue skies.’ Thus begins ‘July 22, 2011: Anders Breivik as a group of one’. Jumping forward to ‘Commonwealth of Fear: The Right and the manufacture of hate in Australia’, we find Rundle in more sardonic mood:

‘Monday morning September 11 was a clear and bright day …’ the official US Government report into the 9/11 attacks began, in unusually evocative fashion for a dry official document (it was rumoured that John Grisham had been brought in to give it a polish).

From ‘a clear and bright day’ to ‘clear blue skies’: is this a conscious rhyme or an unconscious one? An ironic aping of the ‘hokey’ register of shattered innocence (as Rundle describes it), or an inadvertent stylistic parallel? In the end, it doesn’t really matter, for regardless of the author’s self-awareness in this instance On Utøya leaves the reader in little doubt that Rundle and his fellow contributors are determined to establish the massacre on Utøya as an alternative to 9/11 – a new Ground Zero at which the Left, or the section of it represented here, can shed its tears with impunity, which is to say without a hint of pro-Western (and especially pro-American) feeling.

Edited by Elizabeth Humphrys, Tad Tietze and Rundle himself, and including contributions from Jeff Sparrow, Antony Loewenstein and Richard Seymour, On Utøya purports to analyse the underlying causes and media aftermath of the 2011 attacks in Norway, when 77 people, mostly young adults, were killed by Anders Behring Breivik, a rightwing extremist whose obsessive hatred for multiculturalism and ‘cultural Marxism’ is set out in a massive manifesto, 2083: A Declaration of European Independence. On the surface, the book’s thesis looks simple enough: the Norway massacre was an act of terror and its perpetrator a neo-fascist whose ideas were strongly influenced by a number of not-very-intelligent writers on the anti-immigration Right. Personally, I find this uncontroversial, as indeed will many others. (Almost invariably, Breivik is described as a rightwing extremist in the mainstream press, while the Wikipedia entry for the Norway attacks describes them as ‘two sequential terrorist attacks against the government, the civilian population and a summer camp in Norway on 22 July 2011’.) For the contributors to On Utøya, however, these observations are so explosive that there has been a systematic campaign to cover them up. That, indeed, is their real thesis: not that Breivik is a terrorist and a fascist whose views on multiculturalism overlap with those of some rightwing writers; but rather that those rightwing writers, in conjunction with the mainstream media and the governments whose power it underwrites, have sought to divert attention from this reality. As will become clear, it is extremely important for the authors of On Utøya to establish this as fact, for it is only by exaggerating attempts to downplay the ideological nature of the Norway attacks that they can fit those attacks into their own ideological narrative.

In order to see how the trick is worked, it is necessary to take each of their points in turn. First, let’s take the supposed controversy over whether or not the bomb in Oslo and subsequent mass shooting on the island of Utøya are deserving of the label ‘terrorism’. To my mind, there is no question that Breivik’s actions were terroristic, if by terrorism we mean fear-inducing violence in the service of a political cause. But the contributors to On Utøya posit a crisis of assimilation in the media. They make much (as they must) of the commentators and bloggers who leapt to the conclusion that the Oslo bomb was the work of Islamic terrorists. That bomb, though lethal (it killed eight people, which makes one wonder why the authors have settled on ‘Utøya’ as shorthand for the massacres), was a decoy intended to confuse the authorities, and in this regard it is undoubtedly the case that many media outlets leant a helping hand. But this was as much a function of how news works – of the way in which 24-hour news has been joined by 24-hour analysis – as it was of any media bias. Nevertheless, in the minds of the authors, media bias it most certainly was. Moreover, the authors seek to demonstrate that this bias led mainstream media outlets to downplay or deny the ‘terror’ designation when new information came to light. As Humphrys puts it: ‘Once the jihadist terror linked to Al-Qaeda was identified as poor guesswork, a reshaping of the event as something other than “terrorism” began in earnest.’

Attendant upon this deliberate ‘reshaping’, the authors argue, was an emphasis on Breivik’s mental instability. The authors go on at length about this, suggesting that the characterisation of Breivik as ‘mad’ served to draw attention away from the terroristic nature of his actions. Certainly a number of rightwing writers were at pains to stress the theme of madness, while even centrist writers such as Peter Hartcher (writing in the Sydney Morning Herald) and Simon Jenkins (writing in The Guardian) seemed strangely certain that Breivik’s actions were devoid of ideological significance. But in insisting so rigidly on the opposite view (‘Breivik is not mad’ it is baldly stated by Humphrys and Rundle in their introduction), the authors reveal their polemical hand. For if they can establish that Breivik is sane and that any attempt to argue otherwise is a case of wilful obfuscation, they can also suggest that his lethal actions were a clear interpretation of certain positions and that the commentators who put forward those positions are merely trying to cram the cat back into the ideological bag. This is especially important to establish in the absence of any fascist organisation to which Breivik can be linked directly. Though he was in contact with various rightwing groups, Breivik was not a member of a far-Right party. But by insisting on Breivik’s sanity, the authors reject the ‘lone wolf’ thesis, which they regard as an effort at depoliticisation. ‘[T]hough it had not been organised by a far-Right group,’ write Humphrys and Rundle in their introduction, Breivik’s act ‘marked the transition of a section of the current European far Right to lethal violence against political enemies.’ Later, Rundle writes of a ‘chilling and extraordinary escalation of Right-wing violence’, implying that ‘Utøya’, though a spectacular act, was nevertheless part of a pattern of violence and, as such, predictable. Or here is Tietze in the first of his three essays, ‘Depoliticising Utøya: Anders Breivik as “Madman”’:

The Norwegian mass killings created a serious problem for the Right in both its mainstream and less acceptable forms. Here was a situation in which its more or less open incitements to civilisational clashes were being turned into deeds in a cold, clinical, premeditated manner by an enthusiastic supporter.

Note the ideological mission creep: not just the far Right but the ‘mainstream’ Right is now responsible for Breivik’s actions. But the crucial point is that for Tietze et al. the ‘terrorist-as-madman meme’ is the Right’s ideological response to the ‘problem’ posed by the Norwegian killings.

In fact, the argument that because Breivik is insane he is politically insignificant is based on a non sequitur, as, indeed, is the opposite thesis. As of this writing, Breivik’s sanity, or lack of it, is an open question. But whether he is mentally ill or not tells us little about his political beliefs. It is possible to be mad and politically motivated, just as it is possible to be perfectly sane and to misinterpret, or over-interpret, the views of political writers and commentators. Essentially, this is a legal question – a question of Breivik’s culpability – not an ideological one. Anyone with a skerrick of common sense can see that Breivik’s extreme rightwing views emerge from a particular socio-political context: the rise of far-Right parties in Europe; a generalised anxiety about mass immigration; a suspicion of Muslims in particular. To a great extent, the question of madness is, in whoever’s hands, a red herring. Yes it is employed by some rightwing commentators to absolve themselves of responsibility. But it is also, and just as brazenly, used by the authors of On Utøya to smear their rightwing enemies.*

The second pillar of the authors’ argument concerns the nature of Breivik’s beliefs, which they take to be unambiguously fascistic. Clearly, Breivik is some kind of fascist. As Seymour puts it, ‘The predominant theme of Breivik’s manifesto, as with most fascist texts, is the overriding importance of the nation state.’ Though he rejects racism, or says he does (Seymour dismisses Breivik’s eschewal of racial politics as ‘tactical’), he is obsessed with an idea of cultural purity. His victims were members of the Norwegian Labour Party, who were guilty by dint of their support for multiculturalism, religious diversity and cultural relativism. Breivik’s manifesto is a call to arms: Europe, the heart of Christian civilisation, is under attack from without and within; it is up to European ‘patriots’ to defeat the twin evils of multiculturalism and ‘cultural Marxism’ by force of arms. The Norway massacre was an attempt both to advertise and to kick-start this ‘indigenous’ insurgency.

Again, the description of Breivik as a fascist will strike many as largely uncontroversial, though academics have argued for decades, and will go on arguing, about what constitutes ‘fascism’. But for a number of contributors to On Utøya there has been a systematic attempt to downplay the ideological nature of Breivik’s beliefs. In ‘What is Fascism, Now?’, for example, Anindya Bhattacharyya refers to the media’s ‘systematic obfuscation of Breivik’s fascism’. For him, the emphasis in the mainstream media fell largely upon the divergences between Breivik’s fascism and its more traditional exponents. He goes on to suggest that one reason for this is the embarrassment of European leaders who share Breivik’s views on immigration but who of course cannot countenance any association with the most hated and hateful of ideologies.

As well as insisting on Breivik’s fascism, at least one contributor to On Utøya feels the need to reject the idea of Islamic fascism (or ‘Islamofascism’) that has taken hold on the liberal Left in the last ten years. In ‘Your “Terrorists”, Our “Lone Wolves”: Utøya in the shadow of 9/11’, Humphrys writes:

[A]s the far from progressive security expert Daniel Benjamin at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies states: ‘There is no sense in which jihadists embrace fascist ideology as it was developed by Mussolini or anyone else who was associated with the term …’

Why it matters that Benjamin is ‘far from progressive’ I can’t say (shouldn’t that be a point against him?); but I do say that he’s talking nonsense, and that Humphrys’ reliance on such a weak quotation is revealing of a certain desperation. For the fact is that there is plenty that links fascism and Islamic extremism: a cult of violence and death, for a start, plus a contempt for art and the life of the mind, a hostility to certain aspects of modernity, a deranged relationship with the past, anti-Semitism, anti-Freemasonry and a disordered attitude to sexual ‘deviance’. In fact, at least two of the items on this list cause a problem for the Breivik-as-fascist thesis, since he is pro-Israel and was once a member of the Freemasons. Not that I think too much should be made of this. Indeed, the best thing in On Utøya is an essay by Antony Loewenstein dealing with the growing sympathy towards Israel on the far Right, whose traditional anti-Semitism has been pushed to one side by the glorious vision of an ethnic state taking a hard line on Muslims. The point is that fascism changes form but it doesn’t change its essential character.

Why, then, are the contributors to On Utøya so at pains to stress Breivik’s fascist vision while downplaying the fascistic aspects of Islamism? The reason, I think, is very simple. They are trying to mould ‘fascism’ back into a shape to which they, and only they, have the answers. Leon Trotsky, to whom the authors refer continuously in this connection, saw fascism as an outgrowth of capitalism, and if the authors are to paint Breivik not as an aberration but as a symptom of all that is wrong in society they must establish his fascist credentials while also denying the ‘fascist’ tag to anyone who doesn’t fit this picture (as, of course, the Islamic extremists, with their obsessive hatred for the US, do not). To this extent, Breivik’s obsessive references to ‘cultural Marxism’ are a gift to the authors, who can paint his views as the direct descendant of the century-old war between fascism and the Left. Humphrys and Rundle in the introduction:

The teenagers who gathered at Utøya that day could not imagine that they would be enrolled in the ranks of those murdered by the Right – the teachers and trade unionists of Latin America, the workers of interbellum Germany, the civil rights activists of the US deep South, anti-apartheid fighters, and countless others, across the globe. The attempt to dissolve these deaths into psychology, into the true crime genre, into anything but politics, is an insult to their memory, a true nihilism.

I leave it to the reader to decide for herself who is ‘dissolving’ the events in Norway into their own ideological narrative here.

This brings us to the final point: the responsibility of rightwing writers (and others) for Breivik’s ideas and actions. This is the authors’ strongest suit. It is undoubtedly true that Breivik was influenced by some popular rightwing voices, whose ideas are extensively excerpted and plagiarised in his sprawling manifesto. Many of those writers have been eager to deny that they are in any sense responsible for Breivik’s actions, which in a legal sense they are not. But it is the case that certain writers have contributed to the febrile atmosphere of hyperbolic argumentation from which Breivik and his squalid manifesto emerge. Some of these writers are semi-serious intellectuals – Daniel Pipes and Mark Steyn, for example – while others – Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Pamela Geller – can barely read without moving their lips. Nevertheless, their ideas are influential and should be challenged in the strongest terms. Quite apart from anything else, arguments from demography tend to treat communities as homogeneous (a sure-fire route to bigotry), and also tend to underplay the mutable nature of ideas and beliefs. Commentators who throw statistics around in order to prove that Europe is being ‘Islamised’ are at the very least guilty of unsubtlety.

But of course it isn’t enough for the authors just to admonish these far-Right writers. In order to bolster their ideological narrative, they must show that Breivik’s ideas are mainstream – a logical projection of the West’s innate savagery. To this end they train their polemical guns on soft-Right commentators such as Christopher Caldwell and also on the ‘faux radicalism’ of writers on the liberal Left who have dared to criticise Islamic fascism and defend what Humphrys sneeringly refers to as ‘crude’ Enlightenment ideas such as free speech. Sparrow is the most vociferous here, suggesting that ‘Islamophobia’ comes cloaked in the ‘vocabulary of contemporary liberalism’. Channelling Lenin, he suggests that liberals essentially act as ‘useful idiots’ for the anti-immigration Right.

Again, it is clear what is going on. By smearing those who, post-9/11, rallied to the cause of civil society, the authors are seeking to replace what they see as the ‘official’ version of history with their own more radical interpretation. For them, 9/11 was both the consequence of imperialism and the excuse for its further pursuance by the West. Al-Qaeda may have got its tactics wrong, but its cause, as Humphrys asserts in her essay, was at least based on genuine grievances, and the subsequent reaction of the US and its allies only served as further proof of this. Thus, anyone criticising Islamic extremism is, in their view, on the wrong side of history – a useful idiot for the evil empire, the dark heart of which was so spectacularly revealed on 22 July 2011. Breivik is not an aberration. He is the product of a resurgent Right which is itself an outgrowth of the imperial West, and just about everyone to the left of Ann Coulter and the right of John Pilger is to blame for his crimes.

For the authors, then, ‘Utøya’ is linked inextricably to 9/11, and though fewer people died at Breivik’s hands than at the hands of Mohammed Atta and his gang, the ideological implications of the Norway attacks are even more sinister. The whole point of this book, in other words, is to squeeze both 9/11 and 7/22 into a narrative of broadly Western oppression. Stressing the threat posed by the European far Right and downgrading the threat from extremist Islam, the authors seek to use Utøya as a way to press their simplistic worldview.

If you think I exaggerate, you should read this book. Believe me, you’ll be able to get through it in one sitting, if you don’t feel the need to shower between chapters. But before you do, let me add one thought on the theme of political responsibility as it pertains to our friends on the ‘radical’ Left.

I accept that ideas have consequences, that words are weapons and should be handled with care. And I think the authors of On Utøya are right to criticise the rightwing commentators on whom Breivik draws in his manifesto. But I wonder if it occurs to them that they, too, are very slightly responsible for what happened in Norway last July. For is not the Left’s conspicuous failure sufficiently to criticise Islamism one reason why the extreme Right has made such gains in recent years? By dismissing any criticism of Islamism as Islamophobia in disguise, the hard Left cedes key territory to the far Right, which has no interest in separating Islamism from issues of immigration and multiculturalism. Sparrow says that Islamophobia is ‘structurally identical’ to the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. Perhaps it is, but anti-Semitism, too, is recrudescing in parts of Europe, and one reason for this is the increasing radicalisation of young Muslims by Islamic extremists. The Left should be opposing such radicalisation and showing solidarity with its many victims. Instead, all we get are strenuous apologetics.

This book, with its shady argumentation, magnificent non sequiturs and sly elisions is a moral and intellectual disgrace. I fancy that its authors regard themselves as the revolutionary element in politics; but they are no less reactionary than the rightwingers they denounce. Only the truth is revolutionary. One doesn’t have to be a Leninist to believe that Lenin was right about that.

Elizabeth Humphrys, Guy Rundle, Tad Tietze (eds), On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism and Europe, Elguta Press; US$6.99; 237 kilobytes

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First published at The Ember.