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Racism in the Name of Research


Image: University of Manchester

*** This post contains book spoilers.   


I will preface this piece by stating that there is debate amongst academics on the notion of antisemitism being racism. I’m not going to do any deep dives on that here. For the purpose of this post, they are interchangeable.


So, Tommy Curran…


My mother-in-law said it best: how did you manage to create such a despicable, disgusting human being?


I am assuming that she asked this question on account of her knowledge of the writer. I would hate to think that anyone who knows me, could believe that I came by such a character naturally.


I’m white. I live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and I certainly have no experience as a recipient of racism. I’ve been a privileged human being since the second I was born. Lucky me, I guess. It’s sad to think that there are people out there who don’t appreciate their majority entitlement as the cosmic flip of the coin that it is. You won the lottery. Live your life and shut up.


I am a proud Australian, and whilst Tommy is American, there is plenty of culturally embedded racism here as well, which was why I was careful to have Damon – possibly the second most inherently patriotic character in the book – ponder or Brenton Tarrant’s actions in Christchurch. Indeed, we do breed our own psychos. Australia may not be the racial hotbed that the USA is, and it does come from different places, but it’s still in play. We also have a population of only 26 million. If we had a population of 333 million, there is no doubt that we’d have more to answer for. Some have asked why I didn’t simply make Tommy a home-grown villain? In the end, analysis of America’s politics was simply more interesting. US politics infects everything, and it is a fascinating phenomenon. Additionally, the Qanon Conspiracy movement, whilst it has global influence, is more entrenched in the USA.


Many political conspiracy movements are antisemetic at their core. Image: Doug Chayka

Nevertheless, I unfortunately do have some experience of what it is like to live amongst racist, and indeed, antisemitic perspectives, and I know where they come from.


Ignorance.


Contrary to what many might believe, ignorance, despite its apparent simplicity, is a very hard thing to understand, especially when you are trying to write a convincing villain who carries it at their core. You can make assumptions on how such people think, but without truly going behind the curtain, you’re unlikely to nail down a convincing motivation, and will wind up with a one-dimensional contribution.  


Ignorance is a dangerous thing, but people who are openly so, are less of a concern than their secretive counterparts. Indeed, it is those who are dishonest about their beliefs that pose the biggest threat. Like centipedes in the walls, they scurry in the depths of anonymous forums, where they cannot be identified, or held to account for proliferating levels of intolerance, and even violence, which can only be described as wicked. Few are outwardly honest in the real world. How could they be? It’s ironic that many of these people consider the world intolerant of their views, as they go about setting it on fire. Open recruitment. Secret meetings. Manifestos. Even documentaries with excellent production values. This is where extremism happens. It's another world. It’s a world where people pop the digital champagne when there’s a massacre somewhere. A world where love heart emojis are attached to posts about lynching and gas chambers. A world where people drop their façade in favour of unacceptable social and moral positions.


I have had people ask how Tommy’s friends, and especially his wife, could possibly be unaware of his extreme politics? Many people seem to find it unbelievable that a person could keep such a secret. These assumptions are understandable, but they are also ignorant in and of themselves, and extremely naïve.


Aside from the fact that Tommy’s dedication to White Supremacy is a recent development for him, brought about by both lockdown, and the spike of the Qanon conspiracy movement, I can affirm that many white supremacists do operate covertly, and they can do so for years. Additionally, the movement itself is a mechanism of brainwashing, and proponents can take interest at any time. When they do, there is an expectation that they hide their beliefs. The reasons for this are obvious. White Supremacy is considered, by many, to be a terrorist threat. When these people explode out of the shadows with semi-automatic weapons and blast a mosque half to hell, family members are often shocked. Questioning how such a person could hide their position from friends and family, is a bit like asking how serial killers do the same. White Supremacy is a dark, horrifying, and, in many places, illegal activity. People who find themselves aligned with such a movement, don’t jump off their laptops and share their new hobby with anyone, and people aren’t generally looking for it. The undertaking of activities related to the movement depend on secrecy. Without a clandestine directive, they simply can’t operate. When the stakes are high, people can keep all kinds of secrets. Affairs are no different, even as they are child’s play in comparison.


People lead double lives all the time. People with extremist views, have even more at stake than the average chameleon.


Have you ever met one? Odds are, you haven’t. You probably haven't met a self-professed paedophile either, but that’s not because they don’t exist. Make no mistake, there are plenty such people out there.


How do I know?


Because I pretended to be one.


The large majority of truly despicable and dangerous activity, on any level, occurs beyond indexable searching, on the dark web. This goes beyond the deep web (Tor, I2P, GNUnet - .onion: google it if you’re interested in learning. I had to be taught, and wouldn’t know how to find my way back now. I’m certainly no expert). Google indexes less than 1% of the internet. It sounds scarier than it is. Much of the deep web is harmless, even boring, until it’s not. If you want to learn more, you can do so here.  When you get to the dark web, however, shit gets real.


Child pornography. Human trafficking. Drug trafficking. The illicit. The illegal. The evil. You don’t see it on Facebook. Most regular people wouldn’t even know how to find it, and it’s not as easy as typing a search term into Google. You need to be set up to do it, with encryption software. Once you go underground, you need to lurk, watch, engage, and ultimately be trusted before you’re ever going to find the right threads. You need to talk like them. Act like them. Be them. Once you go that far, there’s no going back. There is also no way to un-see the dark underbelly at play in people who are bent on hatred. Yes, they do lie to their wives. They do share information on how to operate covertly, they do arrange meetings – often with locations being dropped at the last minute. They do move around, and they do share their frustrations about their inability to be honest about their position. Some even look to have affairs with like-minded individuals. Many of them love their families and their children, just like you do, and even engage in the movement precisely for this motivation, all the while keeping up the pretense of outward harmlessness.


The stereotype of the 'skin-head' is just that: a stereotype. They have good jobs, drive nice cars, and live in idyllic suburban houses with picket fences. They have barbeques, host birthday parties for their children, and donate to the salvos. Some of them, are even quite charming. I mean seriously, I could have sat down and shared a drink with one. They blend well. They are chameleons. Not all of them are violent, or have violent intentions. The ones who do, are deft at explaining why, and can be quite well-spoken. What a White Supremacist looks like, is often generic. In fact, they aren't even always white. The culture is complicated.


Enrique Tarrio, the leader of far right group Proud Boys, is a Cuban American, and certainly not a stereotypical fit for White Supremacy. Image: Mario Cruz/EPA-EFE

I had nightmares when undertaking this research, not only due to the nature of what I was specifically looking for, but what I unintentionally exposed myself to in the process. I'm not going to share too much about that. There is no need to scar you unnecessarily. Suffice to say, it was the similarities that were most horrifying. These people could have been my neighbours. My friends. After all, I'm an innocuous white chick, right? They have no beef with me. Enemies, hiding in plain sight, with the same taste in scotch, and the same concern for interest rate hikes. I wasn't expecting to find any common ground with these people, but I did, and it existed in the facade. This realisation was scarier than coming up against a hoard of American History X, Edward Norton-esque style psychopaths, which was most certainly what I was expecting when I went into it. In retrospect, a bunch of Derek Vinyards would have been more comforting.

           

Some have asked why Tommy didn’t have a first-person perspective. It is a fair question from a technical perspective. It’s unusual for such a prolific narrative influence to be kept at arm’s length through the perspective of other characters, and it likely seemed unusual for Damon, Ana, Casey, and Tabitha’s very raw perspectives not to be accompanied by what was perhaps the rawest of them all, but my choice to leave Tommy’s dark innards unexplored was a very deliberate move.


To make it clear, he did have a first-person perspective once upon a time. At the beginning of the manuscript, I did what came naturally. I had five characters, not four, and I wrote accordingly. 


As I delved into these threads, I was able to channel what was required to build a very convincing, if not unnerving, first-person voice for Tommy. I had over 70 pages of raw hatred that I wrote in an attempt to capture the mind of this lunatic. It was actually quite good. Perhaps, a little too good. Affronted and disgusted by what I had written, I decided to scrap it. Not because it wasn’t an interesting, and frankly terrifying peek into the mind of a deluded supremacist, but because in the end, it was a platform. There was no way to write Tommy’s true first-person perspective, without it potentially having unintended interpretations. In the end, I have no idea who might pick the book up one day and decide that he is the character that they connect with the most. Once you put a story out into the world, it no longer belongs to you, and words can be weaponised. It would have been irresponsible to keep him.  


So, I used my 70 pages as a profile on which to draw, not only for Tommy, but for the others. It is clear that Ana had her suspicions from the beginning, which is exactly how she finds the site. Ana is smart, and slow to trust. Her discovery of the site provided an avenue for the reader to understand Tommy through the eyes of the characters that they could relate to, rather than providing insights into an insanity that I don’t believe needs to exist beyond the threads of its location (or exist at all, for that matter). I didn’t want it living on my computer, even as I know i'll never erase it from my mind. I’m desensitised now, and I can never take it back. A lot of work, and vulnerable psychological exposure for something I decided to sacrifice. Talk about killing your darlings. 


A more uncomfortable admission must be acknowledged off the back of this seemingly righteous action, because as much as I was affronted, horrified, and disgusted by what I experienced, channeling Tommy wasn’t the challenge I expected. It didn’t come naturally, but it wasn’t quite as difficult as I assumed once I got passed the jarring content. Perhaps it’s years of passive exposure to racist attitudes, or maybe I’m just very good at disassociating, or compartmentalising. I did a lot of drama as a youngster, and was good at character layering. Whatever the reason, it was not pleasant, and I didn’t want the reminder.


I did however learn that our respective social positions are complicated, and just like good stories, our lived experiences are not black and white. These people truly are dedicated to their cause, and many of them must lead double lives to be involved. That is their choice, and their burden. It is widely accepted that covert racism is the most dangerous form, and it does exist. Failure to acknowledge this makes us all apathetic, and in the face of helplessness, or any ability to actively prevent hatred and violence beyond our own perspective, we owe it to our collective social conscience to be aware that this activity occurs, even if we don’t see it.

   

I would hope that anyone who reads Banksia Close recognises that extremism can exist anywhere, and in anyone. Rather than questioning how those existing on the periphery could be so clueless, it is perhaps better to ask how those on the inside could become so morally derailed. This does not only apply to violent political movements. It applies to any form of extremist behaviour, from panic buying to conspiracy theories.


Where extremist views were once isolated to individual cells, social media has brought mainstream access to disaffected individuals.

Fear, paranoia, politics, upbringing, bias, socioeconomic status, financial or marital stress. Everyone has a trigger, and social media has a lot to answer for, but there is still a root to find. Are people born into societies with wider class gaps more likely to engage in extremism? Are we all just pawns on a chessboard waiting to be moved by subconscious forces that we aren’t aware of? Does stress, at the height of something as socially corrosive as a global pandemic, have the ability to make us mutate into cells of division that can implode our social spheres? Such questions are apt for anyone who finds themselves psychologically vulnerable, whether they become extremists or not.  


These questions are timeless, and they will come again. It’s just a matter of time. When they do, don’t believe that you aren’t vulnerable to the rabbit warren. There are hundreds of them, and whilst they aren’t all extremist movements on the dark web, they can become dark enough to derail your life, and if it all goes down the way it so often does, you might not even know that you’ve lost the thread on your sanity. Awareness is key, so remove the blinders and stay alert. In our current society of misinformation, and instability, we are all vulnerable to the fall. Anyone can trip.

 


C.L.

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