Critiques of “Day X” (NYTimes)

On my Facebook timeline yesterday, a photo popped up of myself at a protest of the 2017 inauguration of former President Trump. The photo was labeled, as the Facebook archive does, “5 Years Ago Today” and I was struck by the rapid passing of time, especially as covid compresses the experience of how time passes.

In terms of understanding the symbiotic relationship between profit-generating media and democratic processes, we learned a lot from how the media covered the 2016 election campaign. There was far too much pastiche for the far and extreme right (especially at The New York Times); too much misogyny from all sides directed towards Hilary Clinton; and too many reporters took far-right talking points seriously instead of seriously considering the very real threats to the continued functioning of our public media and democratic processes through this type of journalistic attention. (If you want to read a really compelling narrative about how journalists felt about their engagement, what it means to amplify the voices of those who represent a threat, and how journalists could perform their jobs differently, see this report by critical media scholar Whitney Phillips put out by Data and Society called The Oxygen of Amplification (2018).)

The “Day X” podcast not only amplifies a far-right extremist’s views by giving him airtime and including interview tape for a large part of episode three, it also fundamentally misunderstands some of the critical issues that undergird far-right and extreme-right politics.

There were three main critiques that i had of the podcast. First, there’s an unwillingness to understand one of the most obvious tenets of nationalism and how this intersects with national defense. Franco A., the former military officer who disguised himself as a refugee may have been planning a violent attack to potentially turn the public against refugee resettlement. (That happened anyway – while Franco A. was caught, other perpetrators were not, and radical groups like the Gruppe Freital, the perpetrators in Chemnitz, and individual perpetrators still managed to instigate violent acts against asylum-seekers, targeting both individuals and refugee housing.) The reporting team on this podcast seems to be flabbergasted that parts of the German military had been “infiltrated” * by nationalists. But national armies are inherently nationalist. Soldiers are not necessarily extremist, but the patriotic values that are inculcated through military training and patriotic defense (no matter how often Germans deny they feel patriotic feelings) are the definition of nationalism. While “Day X” uses a melancholy soundtrack to imply that “infiltration” of the army is a dangerous, dangerous threat, what it neglects to take into account is why people who find extremism attractive may be drawn to the hierarchical and nationalistic order provided by participation in the military of any nation. (We will look at this particular issue in a later post.)

Second, the podcast includes a rather long, evasive interview with Franco A. While the reporter declares that the team thought long and hard about whether to include this interview, I don’t agree with their choice to include this much tape. Franco A. is evasive, illogical, and taking these reporters for a ride. He lies about actions he later admits in court. Watch right-wing politicians talk with reporters and they will evade their questions in similar ways: the only way to thwart this kind of attention-seeking is not to provide extremists airtime.

Finally, as I hinted at in the kick-off post to this blog’s focus on far-right and extremist politics, the reporting team in the final episode (titled “Defensive Democracy”) comes off as rather superficial about both German history and German social trends. Their subtextual adherence to the Sonderweg thesis is strong. This thesis implies that Germany’s path to democracy followed a different trajectory than in all other places and correlates with the politics of Holocaust memory in Germany in very specific ways. The notion that Germany has atoned for the Holocaust by “coming to terms with the past” and explicitly educating the public about genocide; supporting the state of Israel to the point of not even permitting critique of Israel’s land-grabbing behavior and mistreatment of Palestinians; and supposedly being shocked when right-wing extremism becomes visible in a German context, permits two further ideas. One implication is that Germans have done everything right in terms of accepting their historical culpability, which means extremists can be explained away as somehow external to the system rather than originating within it. Second, the sheer disbelief that extremism could reappear in Germany, of all places completely misreads the development of the global and transnational forms of extremism that are particular to the global conditions in which we live today. Germany is not isolated from what happens in Europe or the United States or the rest of the world. There should be absolutely no shock – in a country that saw right-wing political movements gain representation in the early 1950s, the 1969 election, and throughout the 1990s in state elections – that at some point these movements would succeed in garnering federal representation and/or compel broad, ideological social acceptance. Indeed, this has been the aim of the Neo-Nazi National Democratic Party for decades: to make extreme ideas common in public space so as to reduce the social shock when citizens encounter extremist ideologies. (For more on this idea, see: Fabian Virchow (2004) “The groupuscularization of neo-Nazism in Germany: the case of the Aktionsb├╝ro Norddeutschland,” Patterns of Prejudice, 38:1, 56-70).

There are points in this podcast where the team attempts, but fails, to take some of these ideas into account. The critique of the German government’s tendency to label violent extremists who were connected online as “lone wolves” comes through loud and clear. Showing that at least someone on the team expressed concern at airing Franco A.’s interview means that – slowly, very slowly – journalists are reflecting on how they cover the far-right. But the overall effect I’m left with after a second listen is that these gestures are halfhearted and ultimately ineffective. The pull for sensationalism is too great. The worst thing we can do on the current media landscape is feed extremists attention and remain superficial in our understanding of where, how and why extremism arises. We need instead to think critically about how nationalism exists within rather than without state institutions.

For this reason, the next post will try to lay out some of the basic foundations of populist nationalist politics and what scholars know about it.

*I am skeptical about term “infiltration” and would like to find statistics about how often radicalization takes place within national armies.

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