The PEN Pod: Confronting a History of Hate with Seyward Darby
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Seyward Darby, editor-in-chief of The Atavist Magazine. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism. It traces the story of the women of the hate movement, focusing on three whose stories of radicalization are a keen insight into the rise of the far right in America. We spoke with Seyward about her impetus for writing the book, why women are largely written out of histories of far-right movements and fascism, and how the internet has contributed to the alarming rise of the alt-right.
This book has a long backstory of reporting that you’ve conducted over many years. How did you turn to the subject?
Quite simply, it was Trump’s election. Like many people, I was struggling in the immediate aftermath to make sense of things, to understand how we had gotten to the point where we were as a country. And around that time, there was increasing coverage of the alt-right, which is the name, at the time, that parts of the hate movement were using. And I was struck in that coverage by the almost complete absence of women.
The alt-right was frequently described as angry white men, a bastion of toxic masculinity—to be clear, it is a bastion of toxic masculinity—but it struck me as wrongheaded to assume that women would not be in the movement. And so, I started doing deep dives on the internet, looking for women who were voices in that space, and I discovered them quite easily. But then, I also discovered this long history—I shouldn’t say “discovered,” because there are people who’ve been researching this for years in the academy—but going back well over over a century, women have been very important actors in various iterations of the hate movement and have been vital in upholding white supremacy in the country. So that’s how it all started.
“The alt-right was frequently described as angry white men, a bastion of toxic masculinity—to be clear, it is a bastion of toxic masculinity—but it struck me as wrongheaded to assume that women would not be in the movement.”
You mentioned that in a lot of the dialogue around the far right, women have not been part of the story. Why is that?
I think that there are a couple of reasons. To begin with, the fact that the far right is so misogynistic, and overtly so. They’re all about bringing back the white patriarchy, or I should say entrenching it more, since it’s still there. They’re so openly misogynistic that I think there’s a sense of disbelief, when thinking about that space, that women would want to be a part of that. I think there’s this assumption that because it’s so clearly not in women’s interests as women to be in a space like that, it just doesn’t seem possible that they would join. So I think that’s part of it.
Related to that, there’s a long, oddly sexist history of writing women out of fascist movements. This includes even the Third Reich and women who were not just involved in the Nazi Party, but really helped the Nazi Party rise to power and led important propaganda campaigns. And after the fact, a few feminist historians have pointed out that some of these women quite literally got away with murder because people wrote them out of history. What’s odd about that is that it’s the same reason that women have been written out of a lot of history, and that’s sexism and assumptions about what types of roles women play, particularly in political and social movements.
“Going back well over over a century, women have been very important actors in various iterations of the hate movement and have been vital in upholding white supremacy in the country. So that’s how it all started.”
In the course of this book, you end up focusing on three women of the movement who all came to the far right in the post-9/11 era. What are the things that you identified that were common among them, besides the fact that they were all born in the same year?
Right, they were all born in 1979, which is an interesting and important year in the history of the hate movement because that November was when the Greensboro massacre happened in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was a massacre by far-right activists, Ku Klux Klan members, and neo-Nazis against leftist protestors and organizers, and that signaled a new era of the hate movement moving toward the end of the 20th century.
But what I found most interesting about all three of these women—and their stories certainly differ, they’re from different locations, they come from different family and cultural backgrounds—the reasons that they ultimately found the hate movement and found it to be something that they wanted to participate in, and in all three cases ultimately be spokespeople for, it wasn’t so much disdain for people who did not look like them. It was not some deep hatred for other people. It had far more to do with things that they personally were looking for in their lives. Camaraderie, a sense of value, power, having a voice, and the hate movement offered these seekers, essentially, things that I think everyone looks for at one time or another. Some people are more prone to looking throughout their lives than others.
“It was striking to me how mundane, for lack of a better word, their motivations were for getting involved in something that is deeply dangerous, odious, and certainly has a long and ugly history in the country. I think that the corollary to that is that the things that the hate movement espouses are really just amplifications of biases and prejudices that are deeply a part of the fabric of America.”
It was striking to me how mundane, for lack of a better word, their motivations were for getting involved in something that is deeply dangerous, odious, and certainly has a long and ugly history in the country. I think that the corollary to that is that the things that the hate movement espouses are really just amplifications of biases and prejudices that are deeply a part of the fabric of America. I like to think of it as kind of a well of white supremacy and white nationalism in the far right. They pull that out and make it very overt. But these women were not coming with a clean slate of how they imagined what America should be. They were just told that having it be an all-white country or having it be a majority white country was actually the right thing. And so, it starts with these mundane aspects of what anybody might be looking for in a group, in a cause. But then that cause ultimately draws on these things that are deeply upsetting.
For the women that you profile in the book, what is the end game for them? What is the vision that they have, and how do they get so drawn into it?
You know, it really varies per person. There’s a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh named Kathleen Blee, who has been studying the hate movement for some time. And when The New York Times asked her if there is a common profile of the type of person who gets into this movement, her response was, “That would be comforting.” I think that that’s true. Each person has a very individualized reason for deciding that this is something they want to be a part of. Again, maybe they’re looking for friendship, maybe they’re looking for power, maybe they’re looking for money. Certainly in the digital era, there are ways in which we see white nationalism becoming monetized on various platforms and even through merchandise. It’s a very capitalist project in its own way. I think that for each of them, the endgame is different in terms of what they individually are hoping to get out of being a part of the hate movement.
The hate movement itself, the vision has always been more or less the same, which is maintaining an order in which the country is a “white country.” And that means from a demographic standpoint, but also from a power standpoint—who’s in charge, who gets to make rules, who decides what culture should be. At a certain point, anybody who is in the movement buys into that to some extent. To a deep extent sometimes, maybe not, but they’ll make it their rallying cry for as long as they’re in the movement.
“The analogy I often use is that it’s a funhouse mirror. White supremacy is a building block of America as we know it, of the American project. White nationalism is just what white supremacy looks like when you see it in a funhouse mirror. It’s distorted, but really, it’s familiar. And I think that that’s another really important thing in considering how some of these ideas have become mainstream, is that they weren’t so different from things that were maybe coded or veiled or unacknowledged, already in the mainstream.”
The book shows how the hate movement, especially in recent years, made its way into the more mainstream conversation. How did that happen? And how are we seeing that play out, especially now amid the pandemic, amid a time of disinformation, and amid a movement of anti-Black violence?
Certainly a key reason for the mainstreaming of white nationalist ideas is the Trump administration and the rhetoric that Trump has been using since well before he was even a candidate. And then certainly as a candidate, he banked everything on this very exclusionary notion of what it meant to be American, taking inspiration and even slogans from isolationists and Klan politics in the early 20th century. I think certainly his rise to power, and the legitimacy that he conferred as a figurehead on this type of ideology, was crucial.
But I also think that the internet has been a boon for the far right. In the 1980s, when the internet was not even really the internet as we think of it, white nationalists were some of the very first adopters of the proto-internet because they knew that it was a way to communicate across distance, certainly, but also away from prying eyes. Hate has had a very, very strong presence on the web since the 1990s. In recent years, the explosion of largely unregulated, free-for-all kinds of spaces online has made it such that ideas that might be once considered fringe are right there for the taking, next to things that are not necessarily considered fringe. And so, I think that that’s a huge part of it.
I think the other thing is that again, and I can’t emphasize this enough—this is largely what my intro in the book is about—is that I think that there’s a misapprehension that white nationalism is odd or abnormal. Really, the analogy I often use is that it’s a funhouse mirror. White supremacy is a building block of America as we know it, of the American project. White nationalism is just what white supremacy looks like when you see it in a funhouse mirror. It’s distorted, but really, it’s familiar. And I think that that’s another really important thing in considering how some of these ideas have become mainstream, is that they weren’t so different from things that were maybe coded or veiled or unacknowledged, already in the mainstream. And so, I think that you combine all of those things together, and it’s a kind of dangerous cocktail.
What are you reading right now?
Right now, I am actually finishing up Peacekeeping by Mischa Berlinski. I had read his first book, Fieldwork, some years ago and really enjoyed it, and I’ve had Peacekeeping on my shelf for a while. So I’m really enjoying that. And then I read Beloved last weekend. I’d read Toni Morrison, but somehow had never read Beloved, and I tore through that in about a day and a half. I’m also working my way very slowly through War and Peace.
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