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Delight In Small Fuck-Yous: Natasha Lennard's Non-Fascist Life
Stephanie Sy-Quia , June 2nd, 2019 09:05

Stephanie Sy-Quia reads Natasha Lennard's Being Numerous: Essays on the Non-Fascist Life

Photo by Josh Sorenson

Natasha Lennard’s collection of essays begins with a moment of slightly incongruous rapture: on Inauguration Day, 2017, alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer received a “sublime right hook” to the “left jaw”. You are likely to have seen it on video: Spencer is asked about his lapel pin (Pepe the frog) (yes, he had lapels, he was wearing a suit, he has been dubbed the ‘dapper white nationalist,’ first by a searing Mother Jones profile, but then reprised, with a cosmetic use of inverted commas, by the Daily Mail). Then a figure in the all-black, face-covering uniform we have come to associate with anti-fascist, or Antifa, activists, “jumps into frame, deus ex machina, with a flying jump”. The moment’s memeification was instantaneous, and within hours it had been set to backing tracks of Americana as diverse as Bruce and Beyoncé. “A thing of kinetic beauty”, Lennard writes, “the punch was made for an anthem’s beat; the punch was made for sharing”. The punch is used as the peg for an exploration of the virulent chastisements she received online for rejoicing in the punch, the mainstream media’s response to the punch-as-anti-fascist-counterviolence, and thereby a larger exploration of the “old canard of violence versus non-violence” on which she has spent, in her own words, much of her writing career.

The most important takeaway from this series of essays, some of them drawn from her contributions to publications such as The Nation and The New Inquiry over the past couple of years, is that Lennard argues persuasively and cannily for the use of violence in protest. At times she does this by referring to figures within the mainstream liberal’s comfort zone: Dr. King is quoted early on, to ease us into things (“[We are dealing with] the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order‘ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”). At times her takedown is concise and wonderfully acerbic, as in:

“Liberal centrists cling to a paradoxical progress of conservation; its believers seem to long for the halcyon delusions of pre-November 8th, 2016. The chants go up: “America was always great” (it never was); “Not my president” (he is). The New York Times proclaims, “Truth can’t be manufactured” (it can, it is, and the Times should know); the Washington Post’s new tagline reads, “Democracy dies in Darkness” (it dies in broad daylight, too).”

It should be noted that Lennard is a seasoned member of New York’s “fractured anarchist scene, which briefly held itself together with school-glue solidarity” in the long shadow of the Occupy movement. As such, she exhibits a degree of contempt for the pussyhat-wearing, protest-novitiate left, those knocked out of the bourgeois insulation from civic life by the election of Donald Trump and the reemergence of all those he has emboldened (“a gruesome pastiche of nineteenth-century American and twentieth-century European race hate”); those who see the 45th president as a cause and not a symptom; those who have note been paying attention until now. “It is a great liberal tradition to stand on the wrong side of history until that history is comfortably in the past”, she writes; “It is only in the past, or in other countries, that violent militancy against white supremacy constitutes legitimate resistance. [...] We imprison today’s protestors and canonize yesterday’s insurrectionists”. She meticulously details the justifications for Antifa’s tactics (they cover their faces and wear all-black so as not to be identified and slapped with “bogus felony charges” by a technototalitarian state) and counters the dominant squeamishness around rioting, a force which she values over smashed shop windows: “Collective fury, inscribed onto urban terrain in the form of property damage, can be an assertion of presence and power in the face of authorities who would rather these young people remain invisible, silenced, imprisoned, or dead”. (NB ‘young’ - this is a model of protest for those who, though the stakes are high, tend not to be anyone’s caretaker).

For all its paradigm-shifting, the book’s weakness may be its erudition. Wittgenstein and Foucault are cited often and leaned on heavily, their presence tempered with an occasional viral culture analogy – the striped dress furore of 2015 is applied to an exploration of aspect perception. Far more fine (and tonally cohesive) is the essay ‘Policing Desire’, which explores how radical sexual ”queer constellations” can be recuperated into “more bourgeois desiring machines”. But in returning to the Spencer punch (which she does, throughout the book), she may be undermining her own grievances about a left which concentrates on the wrong things, satisfies itself with a shallow appreciation of the issues at hand and a pat-on-the-back hashtivism. It is all well and good that Spencer suffers a bruise on his jaw, but it accomplishes nothing, other than that our mass reaction of glee becomes the news story.

These small acts of retributionary violence recur on the flotsam of life on the internet, and seem to be one of our main ways of meeting the threat of a re-emergent (or newly-acknowledged?), global white nationalism: consider Egg Boy, the seventeen year-old Australian who smashed an egg on the bald pate of senator Fraser Anning’s head in the wake of New Zealand’s Christ Church mosque attacks in April. (Anning had claimed that the attacks were due to Muslim immigration.) At the sight of young Will Connelly sending beams of yolk off Anning’s numb skull, the internet rejoiced – and then immediately crowdfunded £43,000 for any legal fees which may arise from the incident. These were not needed, and Connelly got away with a police caution. The process was identical to the Spencer punch: memeification, virality, backing to music. It diverted our attention away from the issue, dulling us into ugly humour. (The same applies for the Milkshake Men vs. Tommy Robinson.) What do we gain from these moments “made for sharing” in the wake of an act of domestic terrorism, or the threat thereof? (What does it mean to emphasise Richard Spencer getting punched, after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, as Lennard does?) What do these videos excise, how do they help us recover from and re-orient ourselves against murderous hate with aims of ethnic cleansing and genocide? What does it really soothe, to laugh at punches thrown and eggs smashed? Who are we kidding?

There are the obvious answers. That we delight in these small fuck-yous. That we feel, briefly, that we have triumphed. (I would venture that this does not bode well for the fight against fascism.) That it is humiliating for the milk- and egg-splashed to be seen all over the internet. But there are also reasons to hope, too. The virality of these memes can reach those who may not read the news, and provide an entry point into the issue: why might one want to throw a milkshake at Tommy Robinson, you ask? So you read up on him and what he has to say for himself. (Which, admittedly, could swing both ways, but still). Or they could have even wider opportunities for intercultural understanding: the 2008 incident where George Bush had two Iraqi shoes thrown at him during a press conference in Baghdad is a bit of an outlier among my other examples, but it was nonetheless very widely discussed (virality avant la lettre). What I remember from it (and I was a preteen at the time) was first, the hilarity, and then, the understanding, which neither myself nor any of my peers had had before, of shoes’ perceived uncleanliness (logical enough) in this particular cultural context. And, finally, all these moments condense an issue into a single moment of oppressed versus oppressor, threatened versus threat, mano a mano. They can push people out of private life and into the streets, help in furthering their commitment to civic life, and this is the most important work there is.

Being Numerous: Essays on the Non-Fascist Life by Natasha Lennard is published by Verso Books