In Organizing, Messaging Matters
A Focus on how Far Right Ideology is Symbiotic with Terrorism will Open More Doors
By focusing intense negative energy primarily on guns, we are not only polarizing massive amounts of potential allies (particularly in the US) but we are also letting the driving ideology behind mass killings, the actual cause, go unchallenged. At best, any challenge to right wing terrorist ideology gets diluted with a liberal focus that when picked apart delves into some deep dive into the arbitrary minutia of US gun laws that most people, including those promoting them, do not understand. Worse yet, liberal platitudes often remain as empty as the conservative “thoughts and prayers”. The common rallying cry of “the government needs to act” is almost always focused solely on guns and not the ideology pulling the trigger. The government here is actually part of the problem, not the solution. While this sounds bizarrely conservative, on this issue it is accurate, especially under Trump.
Even the mental health card can be ping ponged back and forth, sometimes espoused by both sides of the spectrum as a central cause. While certainly mental health is a factor in some of these acts of violence, it is often used by establishment politics as a brush to paint over perfectly sane terrorists who are driven by right wing political ideology.
New analysis from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter extremism organization, has found that the theories like those espoused by the Christchurch killer are “seeping into the mainstream”. More and more, from Parkland to New Zealand, and most recently in El Paso, mass killers are driven by this same ideology: Right wing racism, terrorism, fascism, and Trumpian anti establishment rhetoric.
Despite this, ask yourself how much time and energy have you seen pundits and politicians, even on the left, devote to focusing on “gun control” vs attacking the theories and ideologies behind the actual terrorism. Even those on the left do not do a good job of even calling this violence what it is, terrorism. A pivot to a more realistic discourse is not outside the realm of possibility. Just glean the media responses to the Orlando nightclub shooting. ISIS is mentioned often in the first sentence of news reports, or even in the headline, as they should be. They take the blame. Their ideology of conservative religious terror was much more of a driving factor to those murders than the guns used to commit them. Contrast that to how the same news network covered Christchurch, you have to dig for any talk of ideology, and there is almost more discussion around censoring social media (as if a live-stream feed was somehow the enemy) than there is linking the killer to the ideology that actually pulled the trigger.
What does this tell us? From a neoliberal standpoint, gun control is opportunist; a way to take the moral high-ground without significantly challenging any of the ills of society which are currently rotting like an open sewer. I would argue this is the case because they themselves are to blame for most of it. From poverty, austerity, and their failure to offer an honest counter narrative to disaffected poor and working class Americans, to their failure to address racism in any substantive manner and how it is related to the political economy of this country. Even the immigration waves from Central America are directly related to their policies of foreign intervention in favor of elite classes. Of course guns are a more convenient target.
Speaking as an organizer I can tell you that this vapid outrage simply winds up an already liberal base, further distracting and polarizing them away from dealing with real root cause issues. On the flip side it polarizes gun owners who are and/or could be open and supportive of broad spectrum left issues such as single payer, unions, and concepts like immigrants are not to blame for this country’s problems, the rich are. This polarization; which causes liberals to view all gun owners, racist or not, as the enemy and Nancy Pelosi as the ally and conservatives (to borrow from Barack Obama) to “cling to their guns and religion”* is why we A) lose/fail to secure power and B) do not address root issues.
Hillary Clinton, a career neoliberal politician, literally had her finger on the trigger which started a war that killed upwards of a million people (for none of the stated reasons) and also increased terrorism and helped birth ISIS. Yet she was then taken seriously when she actually cast a stone from her glass house onto an anti Iraq war leader and democratic socialist politician from a rural state. Outside of identity politics and red scares, the other favorite weapon of the liberal crusade against Sanders was guns. It was a weapon that worked so well that her super PAC “Correct the Record”, which, until then, was only used to go after Republicans, launched vicious attacks on Sanders and his record on gun rights. How she was able to lay into Bernie Sanders during the 2016 campaign over gun laws and get any traction, demonstrated a monumental failure on the part of the left and liberal left to grasp the issue of gun ownership as a whole. Something is very wrong here. Her losing the election to Trump is simply par for the course (yes, Bernie would have won).
Right or wrong, there is a gun culture in the US unlike any I have seen. There is a deep rooted belief that that the government shouldn't control what people can and can not do with guns. That, in and of itself, is not an unreasonable belief. Without making a judgement call on the negative aspects on US gun culture, I will say even if one finds it repulsive, turning that freighter around is not going to happen overnight, let alone all the unique legal 2nd amendment precedents and aspects of it all.
In other words, time spent squabbling about how many bullets can go into a gun’s magazine, that can be quickly reloaded at will, in what state, what at times seemingly arbitrary minutia would describe an “assault weapon”, or how much power the cops have to take guns away from people without any due process, is really not going to make us safer. Significant change, even if progressives are all on the same page on the issue, is also not going to happen for years and years to come. Meanwhile we are in danger of losing our entire country to some extremely dark forces.
Current outrage around guns comes at the expense of root cause issues, dissipating them into a cloud of ineffective gun control liberalism. This then further polarizes and does not organize. At this point in time, we lose fights with this polarization that we simply do not have to.
People who do not own guns, or even hate them, will heed messages around root causes and political ideology of right wing terror well. More importantly, that messaging will resonate infinitely better to a critical base of working class folks, including independent or misguided republicans, than the vapid gun bashing.
I personally am for the government taking away guns of abusers and unstable individuals, as long as due process has been served. I also think this should further extend to individuals who openly espouse violent racist, and right wing views openly, which many of the terrorists in recent memory had done. If an open ISIS supporter publicly declared jihad against infidels and walked into a gun shop, it would likely raise a flag. The fact that these other right wing terrorists so brazenly espouse their violent poison and have full access to guns, is actually a problem with a solution that you might even get most gun owners behind. Gun laws restricting access to abusers generally work and are not particularly seen as controversial to the people we are trying to reach. Obviously no one would support an ISIS ideologue having access to guns, so we shouldn’t support home grown US terrorists either. The problem is making that connection. Obviously the media and government are not going to do it for us, and we need to do a better job of it ourselves if we are ever going to save this country.
Stop Making Everything Divisive and Start Using More Inclusive Language and Organizing
This gets to a deeper and unfortunately even less popular opinion among the US left; we have to stop making everything about ourselves. And when we do need to make something about identity, or other often non-mutable characteristic, we should never use language painting entire identities (especially those that people can not change) with broad brushes. So called “woke posturing” is poison even within the left, just imagine how it looks to people we actually have to organize. We even tend to go off the rails with calling people out on identities that are even mutable.
A feature article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on “fataphobia” quotes the central feature of the piece nonchalantly saying that she was “not surprised that the person who shot up the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, was also a fitness instructor” , continuing: “I was not surprised by that because people who are Nazis, people who are white supremacists, people who are trying to think of the perfect race are also super fatphobic. … Oftentimes it’s very eugenic”. Now maybe this person has never been to a local right wing rally, but I can assure you that uniform physical finesses is not a resounding characteristic of the modern US white supremacist movement.
Now in all seriousness, from an organizing standpoint, if you are an apolitical finesses instructor how would you react viscerally to that kind of politic? Defensive, even contrarian of course.
Without even making a judgement call on whether or not fitness instructors lean pro Nazi in any meaningful way, this level of conjecture should make any organizer cringe. Now imagine if half of the country were fitness instructors, and even further, say they couldn't change that particular fact about them. Then you have a problem. You get the point that I am driving at here.
Normal people simply do not go, “oh wow, I am also a fitness instructor, I am really fucked up, time for me to reexamine my political ideology and immediately side with the people who shallowly attack me”. Just because we see a minority of people actually do this within so called woke (and often elite) circles, I assure you, that line of logic will not work on average people in a state like Pennsylvania.
Of course we are not going to move everyone in the right direction on issues and no organizing outside of our comfort zones is monolithic. That being said, I assure you that we can, and should, be doing a much better job at moving millions of people in the right direction away from the dark forces threatening our country.
Groups that do deep organizing outside of student and other insular communities, particularly in the US heartland, deserve our utmost attention, support, and respect. Of course the US labor movement has its own problems, including an attachment to establishment liberalism (believe me, I have been fighting that my entire career). Both labor and community groups, however, who organize inclusively across racial lines, meet people where they are at, and work to move them from a position of respect, are the ones who can change the tide. Whether it starts on the shop floor or helping them in a fight with their health insurance company, these doors can be open for organizing. If you start this kind of organizing, you will generally find that many working class folk have correct instincts regarding our current rotten system and with the right guidance and credibility, we can move workers in the right direction while simultaneously and successfully challenging all things reactionary.
Learning how to dialogue and engage with people is critical and we need to do a better job at it, otherwise we will continue losing to the growing darkness.
Heval Militan is a labor organizer based in Pennsylvania