Historically, few things have been more frightening than violent extremism. It has been the muse behind some of the most heinous acts of savagery in human history. War, genocide, slavery, terrorism, and nearly every barbarous deed imaginable will find its roots in extremism of one stripe or another. The reactions to bellicose extremism have been as diverse as its manifestations. In some cases extremism was met in kind with an equally combative opposing ideology, in others, with assertive pacifism and systemic pressure. Regardless of the reactions to it, extremist ideology engenders the worst in human kind by manipulating its best qualities and deepest fears.
The film Imperium, starring a very grown up Daniel Radcliffe, explores the extremism of the modern white nationalist movement in the United States. *WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD*. The film follows Nate Foster, an up and coming FBI agent in a period of frustration with this current position. His job is unsatisfying. He feels like he is not making a real difference in the work he is doing and has started to question his choice of career. One of his superiors, Angela Zamparo, offers him a solution to his existential ennui. She had suspicions that a local white nationalist group was planning a terrorist attack. In order to gather enough evidence to thwart it and arrest the conspirators, she needed an undercover agent to infiltrate their ranks and uncover the truth. The suspicion starts with Dallas Wolf, a right wing talking head that uses his online radio show to promote the white nationalist agenda, spout conspiracy theories, and reinforce the narrative white superiority. In order to get to him, Nate needed endear himself to a local group of skinheads that were close to him. Nate shaves his sandy brown locks, acquaints himself with white nationalist ideology, and gets to work.
While undercover, Nate meets white supremacists of various stripes. Some of the people he met were violent, tattooed skinheads; others were robe-wearing Klansmen, Nate even finds Nazi armband wearing survivalists preparing for some great race war they imagined was coming to America. The most striking of all the characters he meets, however, has to be Gerry Conway, an urbane, educated, and shockingly normal man. He lived in an upper middle class neighbourhood, had a wife and children, attended church, and didn’t like having alcohol at family gatherings. Without giving away anymore of the film’s plot, Gerry turned out to be the most dangerous out of all of the potential marks that Nate meets while he undercover.
Imperium is a case study in the pathology of the roots of extremism and how wider society approaches it. It explores the tactics uses for recruitment, the arguments and language used to legitimize white nationalist extremism, and even attempts to present the audience the worldview of its subjects from their perspective. The film seeks to make the audience understand two key aspects of white supremacists and the communities in which they operate. The first is the normalcy of white supremacy, and the second is the approach used to entice new membership. It does this not only to remind us that racism is bad, but to ask us to think more critically about racism and where its true danger lies.
What I found to be the most chilling aspect of the film’s subject matter was the normalcy of white supremacy. It repeats over and over that not all racists shave their heads and wear combat boots or white hoods. The film makes a point to discuss the occupations of various unnamed characters: teacher, doctor, district attorney, judge, police officer, etc. Imperium also takes the time to show how “normal” these racists are. They have picnics and community gatherings complete with lemonade and swastika cupcakes. The characters constantly mention their connections in law enforcement and the military. They relish the ability to extend their reach into every avenue of society, impacting the very systems that mainstream society needs to function. This is not to say that white supremacists have some massive underground organization that permeates everything we do. The film is trying to illustrate the point that people with this kind of ideology are widespread. Not all of them are tattooed hooligans roaming the streets in a half drunken stupor in search of another brown skinned person to brutalize. Those with the most impact aren’t popular talking heads that flood the airwaves with racist confirmation bias. The most visible are not always the most dangerous; it is the insidious nature of white supremacist ideology. The white supremacists that are truly dangerous are those that prevent “others” from accessing life essentials such as housing. They are the police officers performing random street checks on blacks at higher rates. They are the judges giving out disproportionately harsh sentences to people of colour. They are the teachers that give lower grades and hand down harsher discipline to children of colour. They follow black customers around stores. They call the police on black teenagers when they are walking home from the corner store. Not only are white supremacists, everywhere, but what they do and how they think are completely normal to them, and at a first glance, they would seem normal to everyone else as well. That truth is terrifying.
The second point that this film wants us to understand is the tools used by white supremacists to legitimize and normalize their ideology. One of the tools that are often used is the imagined climate of victimhood. In Dr Lawrence Britt’s 14 Points of Fascism, manufactured victimhood is often mentioned. A key component of manufactured victimhood is the idea that there is some foreign devil or identifiable other that is responsible for the social and economic woes the target recruit experiences (real or imagined). There is a manufactured crisis that requires the urgent cohesion of an in group in order to stave off complete destruction. The only way to salvation is violent resistance against the perceived threat. The film mentions the concept of victimhood multiple times. One example from the film is the conversation in the café regarding some imaginary “Jew tax” on foods. The argument is that they can’t buy any food without having to give a portion of that purchase to some magical Jewish oligarchy that controls all of the world’s wealth (yea…I’ll get the tin foil hats). In the real world, this imagined persecution is supported by the continued reinforcement of negative stereotypes in news services and popular entertainment. There is a constant newsfeed about the dangerous Muslims, Blacks, and Hispanics bent on raping, killing, and stealing from good and decent white people. There has been a discussion about a global agenda to commit white genocide, organized by the left in collusion with their melanised overlords. White supremacists go to great lengths to paint themselves as victims in order to justify their acts of physical and systemic violence as necessary tactics for self-defence and kinship survival. This violence allows them to establish and maintain a social order that affords them entitlement to rights and resources while simultaneously denying them to members of perceived out groups.
There is also the utilization of disarming language as a means to obfuscate the sinister nature of their agenda. Using words like pride, preservation, heritage, rights, and justice, white nationalists try to frame their oppressive movement as a form of resistance against oppression they claim to experience. In the Neo-Nazi rally scene of the film, the marching group demands rights for Whites. They frame their movement as a means to protect the heritage and achievements of their people, holding it high as a justification for their acts of exclusion and violence. Many white supremacists paint themselves as the champions of racial equality, co-opting social justice language and mutating concepts of equality in order to mask their racism. Throughout the film they refer to “the movement” and how important it is to fight for rights, jobs, and representation that they are losing. When Nate meets Vince Sargent for the first time, they have an extensive conversation about boycotting the imagined Jewish oligarchy and the practice of using economics as a tool to fight the oppression they experience (I can’t believe I am writing this). In the real world, this twisted form of activism is found in White Supremacists like David Duke, former Grand Dragon of the KKK, who refers to himself as a “white civil rights activist” (I kid you not). Phrases like “take our country back”, “I don’t see colour”, and “political correctness” are all terms that are used to hide aggressive, and often dangerous right wing maxims. The use of this approach makes having the necessary conversations about white supremacy and its dangers difficult, as it can easily frame genuine analyses of systemic ills and entitlements as hypocritical prejudices. This robs real social critiques of their validity, on the surface at least, using liberal principles against themselves, and arming less discreet racists with the language to justify their prejudices. Broken windows, threatening letters, and outright physical assault are giving way to aggressions that are masked by polite and well-constructed facades that, like an alligator’s back, disguise the real danger.
Imperium shows us that the dangers of the alt right fascism are not always apparent, and often strike without warning from unexpected directions. It also challenges us to be more socially literate. It behooves us to read through facades of social justice language to the root of the message. This applies for both alt right fascists and for social justice activists with less than pure intentions. Our understanding of what social justice is should be nuanced and sophisticated if we are going to have a diverse society that is based on harmony and aequitas between all of us. Those of us who see and understand the nuances of the tactics used by fascists have a responsibility to uncover them where we find them, and teach others to do the same. When we can do so fearlessly and without pause or reservation, we will find the change that we desire and a world that is better for all of us. Until next time, be good to yourselves, and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
More about the Film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4781612/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2
Right wing extremism and its dangers: http://www.newsweek.com/2016/02/12/right-wing-extremists-militants-bigger-threat-america-isis-jihadists-422743.html