The following piece is a response to Life Among the Far-Right Rasputins, a review of the book War for Eternity by Ronald Beiner.
University of Toronto professor Ronald Beiner wrote a review of my book War for Eternity in the Winter/Spring 2021 issue of Inroads. My book explores the ideas and machinations of powerful far-right ideologues, most notably former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and Beiner’s take on it was split. On the one hand, he regarded War for Eternity as an important exposé, celebrating my work for revealing damning information about its subjects. On the other hand, he complained that it read like a piece of apologetics, owing to the relationships I formed with the book’s main characters and the labels I used to describe them, which he thought ranged from the inappropriately casual to the euphemistic.
In responding to his review, my purpose is not to contest each of his points I find questionable. That would be a fool’s errand, and besides, of the nearly 50 reviews I’ve read since my book’s release in 2020, Beiner’s stands out for its positive features, foremost among them his willingness to acknowledge and rest with paradoxes (most reviewers defined the book through its tone or its content, en route to full-scale condemnation or celebration). My interest in responding, rather, has to do with three assumptions that seem to underlie Beiner’s reaction. I say “seem to” because, as he was writing a review and not an actual book, he had neither the space nor the obligation to expand on his thoughts. Nonetheless, they are widely held assumptions that have to do with more than my book and any single review of it.
The first is that ideas that are complicated and complex are necessarily good. This assumption drove Beiner’s assertion that, in my book, I treat my subjects’ ideas as “admirably complex.” Beiner didn’t elaborate on or explain the phrase, perhaps because investing complexity with positive valence supports the popular idea that our political opposites are not just wrong but simpletons too.
The second assumption has no similarly concise statement in Beiner’s text. Its echoes are rather scattered throughout: when he recoils at reading that I received a hug from Steve Bannon, when he refers to “buddies” of mine who are outspoken White nationalists, and when he reminds the reader that I’m “friendly” with people who may be worse. The assumption here is that being friends or friendly (I’m both) with these people is a bad thing. Why? His argumentation suggests two reasons: that feeling sympathy toward someone can weaken your critical assessment of them, and that one’s desire for or maintenance of such friendships can reflect latent political and ideological yearnings. In other words, I am friends with these people because my politics are similar to theirs.
The final assumption I will highlight comes as Beiner is comparing my book with others: The Racist Mind by Raphael S. Ezekiel and Antisocial by Andrew Marantz. Beiner finds that, in those books, “there isn’t a page where one doubts that the author regards the folks that he’s interviewing as demented and dangerous.” The same can’t be said of my book, and that is a shortcoming. The assumption here is that it is wrong for an author to leave doubts as to their political identity, if even for a single page.
I hope I have provided a faithful accounting of these assumptions. I also hope I’m not the only person who considers them self-evidently flawed. We arrive at the first two assumptions by assuming that our political opponents exhibit the emotional and social dynamism of a cartoon character. We become threatened by the prospect not of intellectual complexity per se but of inconsistency in these people, and seek refuge in believing that their depraved politics signal depravity in all other aspects of who they are. Thinking in this way can make anti-right-wing activists ignorant of the actual challenges they face, and ought to rouse the suspicions of scholars for positing otherwise elusive regularity in social life. It is also a mandate for intellectual laziness.
Which brings me to the final assumption. What happens when we are unsure of an author’s political pedigree? Good things, I’d say. We become more alert and critical when we no longer trust our guide to peddle consensus. In fact, I wish I could play the role more convincingly (I’m a rather boring and predictable American Democrat, and I’m not always able to hide that). Uncomfortable readers are better readers.
There is something all too convenient lurking across these assumptions: attachment to generalizations and hostility toward the behaviours and curiosity that would threaten them.
While you’re here, click to read Ronald Beiner’s response.