The myth of the academic "anti-fascist industry"

Contrary to Daniel Hannan, the study of why some people continue to support the far-right is not driven by a leftist conspiratorial agenda.

It’s been an interesting week for those who share an interest in the British far-right. The resignation of the two most prominent leaders of the English Defence League, Stephen Lennon and Kevin Carroll, has once again thrown the movement into flux. A group that enjoyed a second wind following the murder of Lee Rigby, when the EDL’s Facebook following increased ten-fold to over 120,000, is now fighting to survive, and seems destined to be replaced by a collection of small offshoots and provide recruits to the British National Party, which last week appealed to the EDL’s disillusioned foot soldiers to help with its campaign next May to save at least one of its two seats in the European Parliament.

Yet the most striking aspect of these events was not Lennon’s resignation, which had clearly been on the cards for some time, but the involvement of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank which brokered the move and wants to take the partnership further. For reasons outlined in the Guardian, I found the event uncomfortable viewing. It wasn’t really clear what we were watching: the conversion of a man who clearly held the same views; a think-tank which was avoiding tough but fair questions; or a public relations campaign that was only interested in promoting the new alliance. But then things became even stranger.

First, Quilliam began hurling insults at those who wanted to know more about the process. Despite openly conceding he had first met Lennon on the morning of the press conference, this did not stop Quilliam’s Head of Outreach taking to social media to brand those asking questions as "trendy wine bar types" and "armchair warriors" who "don’t live in the real world". Between pushing his book, Quilliam’s Chairman, Maajid Nawaz, also spent much of last week dismissing "regressive leftists". This was an odd response from a man who is standing for a centre-left party at the next general election, but also from the head of a self-defined research institute that would like the world to take it seriously. In the world of research we expect to be asked tough questions and to have to defend our projects in front of our peers, not through insults but by showing openly what we have done, with what data, and how we got from A to B to C. Some (but not all) think tanks simply don't bother to uphold these standards.

Then, Quilliam were joined by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who also attacked a left-wing "anti-fascist industry", which he contends is full of people like me: who apparently have a vested interest in inflating the "far right threat", are forced to "throw their definition wider and wider" (presumably to include the EDL which is not far-right?), and "predictably complained that Robinson’s conversion is not genuine". Hannan’s response is unsurprising. This is the man who thought a British Tea Party would be a good idea, and who views the BNP as a far-left group. The latter is a common mistake by right-wingers who overlook the fact that while far right groups often advocate left-wing economic policies, they only do so to protect the native racial group, not a social class. Race and ancestry are paramount; everything else is secondary.

But it is also a deliberate ploy by some on the centre-right to distance themselves from their more extreme ideological cousins who live two doors down, on the same street. In this respect, Hannan follows the likes of Charles Moore who claimed the EDL is non-violent, and Andrew Gilligan who, after Woolwich, tried to dismiss a documented rise in attacks against Muslims following the attack. Both were proved wrong. Moore’s view of the EDL as "the instinctive reaction of elements of an indigenous working class" now sits uneasily alongside its founder’s admission this week that – as we suspected all along - his creation is overrun by neo-Nazis and extremists, while both police and academic reports confirm that there was a significant spike in anti-Muslim attacks. The beliefs that underpin these right-wing commentaries on the EDL and Islamophobia are unsavoury – but they are also bankrupt.

Yet these responses also reflect a deeper view of research on extremism, which is troubling. The likes of Hannan, Quilliam and far-right extremists who troll my Twitter share a view of a world where there is a global conspiracy at hand; an army of Marx-loving professors who only live to scare people about the far right so as to silence their criticisms of immigration and multicultural society, or raise difficult questions about their research. This is all nonsense, of course. My own entry in the far-right’s equivalent of Wikipedia states that I am "a globalist cultural Marxist political agitator". Some days I wish my life really was that exciting, but the reality is quite different. The ivory towers are far more boring these days. I’ve also never even joined an anti-fascist group, or even Labour for that matter. Moreover, fanatical anti-fascists would find it difficult if not impossible to survive in higher education, where our papers and grant applications are routinely reviewed by other academics and research councils, all of whom have little time for anything other than objective, independent and rigorous research. In short, if I were a raving anti-fascist who penned dubious studies about threatening groups that were actually not all that important, I would be out of a job very quickly. Indeed, I sent Hannan a list of my own peer-reviewed publications and asked which ones he would like to discuss. I received no response.

True, most academics are guided by only a few core research questions, which means that we tend to remain within the same areas for years at a time. One question that guides some of my research is why, despite European history, do some people continue to support the far-right, which is particularly puzzling in Britain where citizens often list opposition to fascism as a defining characteristic of their national identity. This was sparked not by some ideological influence but my grandfather’s accounts of watching Mosley’s Blackshirts in the east end, then my experience of witnessing the curious rise of the BNP and a sense that, despite attracting considerable interest, we still lacked an adequate explanation of why millions of citizens in Europe continue to support openly racist or anti-Muslim groups. None of this is dependent on whether or not these things are in the news, and nor is it driven by some leftist conspiratorial agenda, however hard that may be for some to believe. 

Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He tweets @GoodwinMJ
English Defence League supporters march down Whitehall towards Downing Street on May 27, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.