For all the obvious reasons, I spent some time this year refreshing my knowledge of a rough cluster of subjects centering around the dangers of extremism, particularly on the Internet. I haven’t finished reading all of these, but I’m on course to get them done by the end of the year. It occurred to me that it might be an interesting list for others.
My thanks to Shane Burley, whose article “The Best Books on Fascism in 2019” supplied much of this reading. Subscribe to his Patreon.
In no particular order:
Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, by Anna Merlan. You know how people rightly complain that some journalists don’t make an effort to understand the fringe? Anna Merlan really gets the subject of her work, and she’s even-handed. There’s a great chapter on conspiracy theories in Black America that acknowledges how easy it is to believe that the government deliberately breeched levees during Katrina when you know that the FBI tried to convince Martin Luther King to kill himself.
Key Thinkers of the Radical Right, edited by Mark Sedgwick. Fairly academic in tone but a very good dive into the last century or so of radical right theorists. It was really interesting to learn more about Spengler, given his influence on James Blish’s Cities in Flight series (which I need to re-read now). I also put a mental marker in the chapter on Julius Evola, because I want to think more about Rudolf Steiner’s influence on him (PDF).
William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, by Michael Muhammad Knight. I tripped over this while I was being moody about the Seattle protest zone getting tagged as a Temporary Autonomous Zone. The term was invented by Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, who of course turned out to be a literal pedophile, and while TAZ is a great concept I can’t mentally separate it from the creator. Anyhow, Knight’s autobiographical book turned out to be relevant in a million ways: look, there’s Wilson joining an Iranian religious order arising from the Traditionalist School! Look, there’s Knight coming to some kind of peace with his father’s white supremacism! And really the whole thing is a map to one corner of one hidden culture of the United States. Everyone should remind themselves that the patchwork of our society is and has always been much more complex. I want to read a lot more Knight.
Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, by David Neiwert. This is sort of cheating, I read it in 2017 when it came out, but it was worth re-reading so I did. Neiwert has been working the right-wing extremism beat for a very long time; this book comes out of decades of experience. (If you want a depressing read, go back and check out his blog series “Rush, Newspeak and Fascism.” He called it almost 20 years ago.) There’s some overlap with this book and Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, of which more anon, but I think they complement each other well.
Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, by Natasha Lennard. We’re all the way on the opposite side of the library from the academic shelves now. You need to read this to understand what it’s like being antifa, even if you don’t think those are the right tactics. It will jar your assumptions loose. It’s personal and raw and brilliant and meaningful.
Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, by Alexandra Minna Stern. Whereas Alt-America is sort of focused on effects, this book digs into underlying ideology. It also complements Key Thinkers of the Radical Right nicely; if you start out with that then read Stern’s book, you’ll recognize and have a deeper appreciation for some of the ideological players. By the by, as Burley notes in his recommendation, this book isn’t just about the Proud Boys — that’s a convenient title hook. It’s about white nationalism.
Active Measures, by Thomas Rid. This book is of course not about fascism per se, but it is about the weaknesses in our collective information ecosystem. I don’t think Qanon is a deliberate operation. I do think it accidentally took advantage of the vulnerabilities Rid discusses. I feel like you should read this side by side with Republic of Lies, because Rid’s true stories about disinformation campaigns are exactly the kind of rabbit hole that predisposes you to believe in other wild stories. It’s always a struggle for balance.
Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right, by Graham Macklin. I’m in the middle of this sucker right now. It’s six mini-biographies of six British far right leaders in the 20th century. If for some reason you weren’t going to read all of these books, this is probably a skippable one — I picked it up because I’ve always been interested in Sir Oswald Mosley, or more precisely, the climate that allowed him to do as well as he did. However, it’s still a good exploration of how fascist parties succeed or fail in a country fairly similar to the United States, plus it’s got some really good material on international fascist cooperation.
Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, by Kathleen Belew. Don’t skip this. It’s about the white nationalist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and it explains how we got here. In those decades, the movement was heavily influenced by Vietnam. These days, hey, we’re in the middle of another set of forever wars that aren’t terribly successful. It’s not surprising that we’re seeing similar effects.
Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, by David Neiwert. Mr. Neiwert gets two books on this list because I’m fiercely hungry for a book that talks about saving conspiracy theorists. (Still looking for more recommendations.) The first two thirds of this one is a recap of significant conspiracy-related violence in the last few years; if you’re up on current events you won’t be surprised. Although he lays out the evidence for Stephen Paddock’s conspiratorial beliefs really well, so that was nice. The last third, though, is a practical guide to talking to your misguided loved ones and it reads pretty solid to me. The quotes from CV Vitolo-Haddad land a little flat these days, but not much to be done about it, and I don’t think they affect the overall value of the book.