Whether you’re a jihadi or a heavy metal fan, a fringe subculture offers dark temptationsby Keith Kahn-Harris / April 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
For some time, I’ve been dogged by a worrying suspicion: what if the bad guys are having a better time than I am? The world seems to be favouring those who embrace the worst human instincts—racism, sexism, venality, lying and hatred. And for all the resentments that lie behind this kind of politics, there’s also a gleeful joyousness in its expression. The party atmosphere at Donald Trump’s rallies (now on hiatus) is frightening but perhaps envy-inducing. In contrast, the pleasures available to me—a doubt-stricken left-liberal—seem negligible. In a recent column, Anne McElvoy skewered liberals for how “unattractively miserable” they seem when compared to Boris Johnson’s reckless ambition. She had a point.
If this apparent joie de vivre is an attribute of today’s mainstream right (and its equivalents in shriller sections of the left), how much more is it the case for the extremist fringe? In Julia Ebner’s Going Dark, a kind of travelogue of multiple extremist worlds, what comes across time and again is the richness of the experiential rewards available to those tempted into fringe subcultures. Ebner, a researcher at the counter-extremism think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), used fake identities to infiltrate a number of radical groups and networks. Although her infiltrations never went much beyond entry level, they are enough to gather a sense of what it might be like to be tempted into extremism.
Such temptations often appear to conflict with the stated purpose of such politics. The austere ideology and strict gender hierarchy of Islamic State are propagated through light-hearted online forums and hacking courses. Alt-right worldviews are developed within friendly, decentralised networks in which jokiness and conviviality dominate. Political activity is “gamified” within “troll armies” and hacked computer games. Even terrorist attacks like the one on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch in 2019 are streamed live and watched by supporters. Everywhere there is connection, community, support and friendship.
When you enter a milieu that distrusts everything you were ever told there are limitless possibilities for reconstructing the world as you want it to be. The most disturbing example of this mutability that Ebner discusses is the large QAnon conspiracy theory community. The conspiracy (which may have begun as an online joke) claims that a secret…