“History does not give a damn how well you meant.“

A Letter to my Liberal Friends

The road to fascism is paved with good intentions

“History does not give a damn how well you meant.“
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It should not have taken this long. Right now, there are a lot of well-meaning people, people who desperately want to believe in their own goodness, who only opened their eyes to the reality of modern fascism when the world woke up to Nurembergian images of screaming white boys in polo shirts with torches marching on a college town. There’s only so long you can run from reality before it recruits you. 

It takes a lot to let go of your belief in the system. Moderate conservatives and a fair few market liberals are still clinging with quasi-religious desperation to their faith that the shuddering, mortgaged machine of Western democracy will stop bad things from happening, at least in their town. Many of the same people have persuaded themselves over the years that the young men publishing manifestos and gunning down civilians in cold blood were simply mentally ill “lone wolves.” Many of them doggedly insisted daylight would be the best disinfectant for abhorrent ideas about race and gender, mistaking those messages for some sort of smear on the windscreen of society rather than a fucking tree fallen in the path.

Those people were wrong. That doesn’t mean they weren’t nice people. But in the words of Naomi Shulman, “Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics.’ They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away.”

Sometimes when we make excuses for allowing civil society to enable evil, we are not excusing evil—we are excusing civil society. Nobody wants to believe that the nation they live is capable of allowing this kind of poison to penetrate its bloodstream. Few of us want to believe that the mechanisms that have mostly worked to keep us safe—especially if we are white, straight, male, or middle class—are also capable of coexisting with a brand of fascism to which the prefix “crypto” is rapidly becoming redundant.

Those mechanisms have never worked as advertised. If you believed they did and would and could, you have made a dangerous error, and the very worst thing you can do right now is stick to your guns, because for a lot of angry white men out there, the guns they’re stuck to are anything but metaphorical.


Good intentions do not matter. Actions do. Monsters are on the move, and we must not give them quarter any more. If you think I might be talking to you, I probably am. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me:

The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream. 

The important question here is not, I repeat, not whether you are still a good person. In fact, asking that question right now is the surest way to arrive at the answer you don’t want to hear.

I am the last person—the very last—to claim that having once made a mistake means you’re morally unsalvageable. Six months ago I wrote an article that really upset people, an interview with the followers of now-disgraced alt-right spokesman Milo Yiannopoulos. I conducted in-depth discussions and attempted to understand the motivations of young proto-fascists on the new far right. What I found was that these people are often horrifyingly confused and misguided in a way that only white men ever get to be. The howling insincerity of leaders like Yiannopoulos who will say anything to shore up their personal power is only matched by the zeal of their followers who really mean it. I also found that people will construct intricate architectures of fake oppression to persuade themselves that they’re still the good guys. A lot of today’s Nazis don’t know they’re Nazis, because they still think Nazis are comic-book villains from history, and they’re not alone. Many people argued that in conducting those interviews, I normalized the message of neo-fascism. Staying in the room with that critique has been extraordinarily instructive. It has once and for all taught me that history doesn’t give a damn how well you meant. 

The important question here is not, I repeat, not whether you are still a good person.

Being called a fascist sympathizer when you’re not a fascist sympathizer really sucks. Having your good intentions ignored sucks. But fascism sucks a lot more, so I’m sucking it up, and I suggest you do, too.

The hard truth is that changing your opinions involves admitting you were wrong, and that’s an ego threat. It hurts. It is natural to want to avoid psychological pain, especially when the world is already so frightening, but it is very important that all of us face that ego threat right now, because we have a choice to make about what side of the line we are standing on here.

It’s alright—in fact, it’s entirely appropriate—to be worried about people calling you racist, or sexist, or homophobic. It’s not alright to be more worried about that than you are about racism, sexism, and homophobia, or economic inequality. Again, speaking personally, being repeatedly called out for not being good enough on race is horrible, and it’s absolutely less horrible than actually experiencing racist oppression every day, so it’s vitally important to stay with that discomfort. To stay with the horror and the shame and not allow yourself to be persuaded that the people calling you out are overreacting in any way.

This isn’t about me. The only reason I’m talking about my experience here is because I sincerely hope to reassure other people who might be in the same position, who might have fucked up, underestimated the effect of their words and actions, or made a wrong call, that the price of admitting a mistake is absolutely worth paying. That this is the sort of choice to change that actually determines moral character. Only cowards never change.

So stand up if you have ever dismissed the words and deeds of organized racists and violent misogynist movements as simply examples of freedom of speech and therefore by some arcane metric acceptable; stay standing if you have ever argued that the center-left needs to court anti-immigrant and anti-Black sentiment to win power. Stay standing if you have ever made an equivalence between people who smash windows in the name of the right of every individual to life and liberty and people who slaughter and threaten women and people of color simply for existing. Stay standing if you have ever believed that fascism and anti-fascism are morally equivalent when their proponents wear masks and march in the streets; if you suspect even now that this deadly culture war would not be happening if young women, people of color and people of non-Christian faith had not selfishly and relentlessly demanded their right to be treated as if their lives actually mattered. Stay standing. It’s more than time you stood up. Everyone is looking at you. What are you going to do?

The moral test for many of us right now is to decide just how much horror we can stomach before we start the process of personal and political change, without witness, without the hope or expectation of reward.

Because here’s what’s going to happen now. The far right know they overreached this time. There will be denouncements, rollbacks, a few arrests, a recalibration of the public face of violent misogynist white nationalism. Others will try to persuade you not to worry, that this was an aberration, that it won’t happen again. You will want to believe them. You will want to believe them, in part, because not believing them allows you to turn away and excuse yourself the shame of having underestimated the threat before it came goose-stepping to your doorstep in colors too familiar to ignore. You must not believe them. You must hold on to what you’re feeling today whenever you’re tempted to make another excuse or false equivalence. It hurts. I know. Try not to panic. 

 

 

With thanks to Jade Hoffman.

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and critic from London. She has contributed to The Guardian, The New Statesman, the New York Times, Time Magazine and many more. She is the author of six books, the latest of which, Bitch Doctrine, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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