Thursday, December 28, 2017

On polite Nazis and the violence of speech

Originally published at Overland

Picture fifteen men aged between 20 and 40, their heads shaven, wearing black bomber jackets in place of black shirts. See them walking down your street and you’d have no doubt that they were on an expedition.

Some of them have come from out of town – a pair of them from as far as Mantua, over two hundred kilometres away. From near and far the men have travelled to Como, a small town north of Milan, to break into a meeting of Como Senza Frontiere (‘Como Without Borders’), the local umbrella organisation of the many groups that support migrants in one of the country’s final stops en route to Switzerland and Northern Europe.

Once in the room, the men file around the table and stand behind the seated members of the (mostly female) group while their leader reads out a prepared statement. The last 90 seconds are captured in a video shot by one of the attendees, and it’s a stream of barely intelligible, broken slogans.
Foolish legislators of an immigrationism at all costs … unable to see that their diseased logic sacrifices the peoples of the entire world at the altar of an alienating, turbo-charged capitalism, amplified by the propaganda megaphone of pseudo-Christians ensnared by the globalist rhetoric … replacing them with non-people, children of uncontrolled modernity in the name of progress.
His rant over, the leader folds his copy of the statement – others had been circulated around the room – and declares: ‘Now you may go back to discussing how to ruin our country.’

I shall spare you the details of debate that this episode has sparked among the Italian political class i in the aftermath, save to say that the bulk of the right – which for the last twenty-five years has openly courted the most extreme fringes of the neofascist movement – has refused outright to call it an act of violence. It was, in the words of far-right parliamentarian and former minister of youth policy Giorgia Meloni, ‘intimidation at worst’, and nothing compared to the actual violence of far-left demonstrators ‘who destroy entire cities and burn down our cars’.

To be sure, the group was unfailingly polite. ‘We don’t owe you any respect,’ one of the men said while leaving the room – as if in the midst of a very calm argument with his parents – only for another to chime ‘ciao e grazie’. Goodbye and thank you. This behaviour was calculated so that, following the public condemnation of the act by various sectors of the civil society, the group could respond with statements such as this:
We are shocked that our public reading of a document has triggered such a wide debate on the return of Fascism and the black shirts. There was no aggression. There was no violence. We merely read out a communiqué.
We live in an era of polite Nazis. I use the word advisedly, since responsibility for the action was claimed by the Fronte Veneto Naziskin, a group with historical ties to the supporters of the Hellas Verona football club. For decades now, our stadiums have acted both as incubators of far-right movements and places in which various forms of violence are funnelled and tolerated. Early reports indicate that several members of the group who broke into the meeting of Como Senza Frontiere are subject to orders prohibiting them to access sporting venues, on top of the predictable precedents for crimes that fall under the designation of violenza privata – harassment, threats, this sort of thing.

We know, then, that the group was not incapable of violence but rather that it chose not to be violent. The men called attention to this choice every step of the way. They stood in the room – wearing the uniform of the thugs we have seen at countless demonstrations and football clashes – while their audience was expected to sit. They read out a statement while their audience was expected to listen. They gave permission for the meeting to resume once they were finished, as if any such permission was either needed or theirs to give. And, yes, they said goodbye and thank you.

This tactic is the offline equivalent of the ones deployed by the far-right online. To break into conversations, in the name of freedom of speech and plurality. To demand attention, in the name of tolerance. To seize platforms and occupy discursive spaces already staked out by others. All of which require the ability to establish a threatening presence first: the equivalent of standing in a room while everyone else is made to sit.

The violence during the reading out of the anti-immigration statement was latent but always palpable, in the form of an unspoken question: ‘what would happen if any one of us confronted any one of these hardened men?’ Equally, the demand of attention online is accompanied by various forms of intimidation: from the graphic expression of misogyny, antisemitism, islamophobia and other racisms, to doxing, to veiled or direct threats of rape or harm. What matters – on the internet as much as in that room in Como – is that violence be seen not as absent but merely suspended, by means of a decision that is unilateral and liable to being withdrawn at any time.

They came from out of town – some from another province – just so they could be table in person a statement at a meeting. If you didn’t know the context, you might mistake it for a high-minded gesture.

The error in believing that fascism can be defeated through debate stems partly from the failure to see violence in speech, and in the exercise of speech. Few would fail to recognise that violence when watching the 90-second video, and the fixed stares of those fifteen men, whose every gesture signified: ‘We could hurt you, but choose not to. For now.’ Let this visual document be your mental reminder, then, that when fascists demand to be heard and to draw people into debates, it is so they can eventually reproduce this scene: one in which their audience is captive, subdued, obedient, silent.