Consciously or Unconsciously

Is the infamous white-supremacist novel The Turner Diaries a real threat, or just a shitty book for shitty people?

You have to be pretty good at what you do to get things exactly wrong. And you have to be better than that to survive the censors. Case in point, a passage about a hundred pages into Vladimir Nabokov’s dystopic fantasy Bend Sinister, wherein one Professor Hamm salvages Hamlet for the prevailing Orwellian Fascist jet-set. In Hamm’s paranoid exegesis of the play’s key scenes, the racially pure Fortinbras, denuded of his valid claim to the throne, engineers a near casualty-free coup. The only victims are that family of pretenders representative of “all decadent democracies,” in an outcome that will be seen as inevitable to the reader nimble enough to ferret out “the real plot of the play.” “Whatever Shakespeare’s intentions were, there can be no doubt that the keynote, the impelling power of the action, is the corruption of civil and military life in Denmark. . . Consciously or unconsciously, the author of Hamlet has created the tragedy of the masses and thus has founded the sovereignty of society over the individual.”

With that neat phrase “consciously or unconsciously,” words are divorced from their author and neutralized of their intent. Even if you are an uncommonly talented writer, a reader is within his rights to see the worst in you. Consciously, say the ghoulish Professor Hamms of the world, you write to contribute to the consensual humanist model of reality. Unconsciously you want to replace it with your own model. Consciously you desire the highest and best. Unconsciously you ache to lick Big Brother’s plus-size jackboots. Or as Bart Simpson’s nemesis Sideshow Bob has it, “Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals and rule you like a king!”

That the radical right rarely produces its own literature has not gone unnoticed. Part of the mean fun of Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas was being asked to imagine the impossible, a corpus of right-wing loonies composing poems parallel to the existing canon, succumbing to the same torments and petty rivalries. Is it, as has been widely and perhaps naively suggested, that the liberal left is better situated to imagine alternatives to the extant order of things? Or, in the case of realism, more willing to trace social fallout back to its origins in the human heart (and not, say, the government)? Is it that the conservative right so often functions as custodian to a stiff or idealized version of truth that forbids the looseness that novelistic invention calls for? Or am I falling prey to another conflation of ‘consciously or unconsciously,’ where I instinctively equate the values of the author I admire with my own? (Nabokov’s reported anti-­Semitism is surely a point for the opposition here.) Come to that, if we read printed thoughts for the length of a novel, do we eventually mistake them for our own ideas?

If this sounds like nonsense, good news: It is! There’s no shortage of unmistakably great novelists with unmistakably rancid politics. Céline heads up the pack, a bona fide Nazi collaborationist beyond rehabilitation and bigot by any definition. But we don’t read Céline for his political vision (unless you’re reading one of his untranslated anti-Jewish rants like Trifles for a Massacre, in which case, oh dear). We read him precisely because we recognize, seething beneath the surface of his universalized misanthropy—prior to its consequent transformation into actual racism—a bile we can more or less call our own, and which seems unlikely to trigger spontaneous goose-stepping on the part of the reader. Meanwhile, most contemporaryish writers spend a lot of time making themselves approachable, not so much telling you what you ought to believe as filling in what you already suspect, consciously or unconsciously. To empathize with me, you must already be me. For Proust—and many after him—reading books is a way into the alien worlds known as other people. Doesn’t it figure that some of those worlds would turn out to be hostile?

Maybe the question to ask at this juncture is the one ambiguously posed by J.M. Coetzee in Elizabeth Costello: Are there things that ought never be written about or read? Is there such a thing as obscenity, a book whose only blurb should be “You will not learn from such an experience. It will not be good for you”? If you haven’t thought of Ayn Rand yet, by all means go on not thinking of her. Or, better, take some comfort in the fact that the single textbook case of a conservative belles-lettres inspires nothing worse than materialism raised to the status of a minor world religion. Because there are far nastier things lurking in the American ‘consciously or unconsciously,’ and things are going to get rougher from here on out.

The Turner Diaries is almost unanimously reviled as the seminal novel produced in the U.S. by the white supremacy movement. Published in 1978 by William Luther Pierce, a lifelong Neo-Nazi descended from the Attorney General of the Confederacy, under the name Andrew McDonald, The Turner Diaries didn’t quite make the initial splash of its 1905 predecessor, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman. That book more or less single-handedly revived the Ku Klux Klan following its immortalization in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (to which we owe the hoods and burning crosses). But it became clear that Diaries had found its audience by 1995, when it was discovered in the possession of Timothy McVeigh. Pierce’s novel was republished in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, and has since been linked to numerous hate crimes. It is routinely identified as “the Bible of the racist right.”

Beginning in the far-fetched future of 1991 and purporting to be the found diary of Earl Turner, a member of an Aryan network called “the Organization” that seeks the wholesale destruction of that undifferentiated hodgepodge of the liberal media, police force, and Democratic government it calls “the System,” The Turner Diaries leaps from one vicious crackpot scenario to another in what is essentially a world takeover procedural. It is as though the fever dreams of the extremist right have taken the form of a Bond novel—that only tells the bad guys’ version. Following their militia’s commandeering of California, Turner and his cohorts achieve their goals in a grisly purge of non-whites, non-submissive women, and “race traitors” that is positively giddy in its evocation of lynchings, citywide riots organized along racial lines, and nuclear war. (There is apparently no contingency plan in the Nazi playbook for dealing with Red China beyond nuking it from space.)

This, then, is the speculative fiction answer to Mein Kampf and The Protocols of Zion. There is even some question as to whether it can be called a novel at all, if it isn’t more correct to view it as propaganda. Or more accurately, meta-propaganda, given that Turner views the leaflets his cell is tasked with printing and distributing with surprisingly realistic resignation: as feeble rejoinders to mass media, fringe to the norms of tolerance and equality that they rail against. Of course, the more lost the cause, the more noble the gesture in the eyes of its disciples, so we get several self-pitying tirades about Americans “marching in lockstep with the high priests of the TV religion,” the corruption of innocent youth by hippie mentality, Hitler’s bad rap, and so on. Meanwhile, the most effective propaganda doesn’t come from the Aryans’ side at all, but from the System’s attempts to appropriate public fear of the terrorist plots for their own ends, as they “cynically” deploy it towards “certain programs of their own.” It’s a fascinating moment of clarity brought to you by paranoia so pervasive it can’t help but recognize its own stratagems behind the scrim of homeland security.

In a sense, The Turner Diaries is a textbook case of the Utopian novel, working out its present-day manias against the future’s peerless green-screen. Like The Handmaid’s Tale or Fahrenheit 451, Pierce proceeds by extending present circumstance into a worst-case scenario, the instructive difference being that nothing could be worse than the Organization’s pogrom against “the Jewish-liberal-democratic-equalitarian plague.” The book perfectly fits the anxious criteria defined by Frederic Jameson in his brilliant ­deconstruction of Utopian science-fiction, Archaeologies of the Future: a manifestation of “that fear of losing that familiar world in which all our vices and virtues are rooted…in exchange for a world in which all these things and experiences—positive as well as negative—will have been obliterated.”

The motivating fear in this case is dismayingly predictable: the rising “cosmopolitanism,” a telltale code word for Civil Rights and pro-Israel foreign policy, and the seizing of all privately owned firearms by the System (“I’ll never forget that terrible day,” writes Turner in his first entry). The Organization strikes back with a concentrated effort to infiltrate human rights councils, purchase influential lawyers, and, through terrorist acts such as the decimation of FBI headquarters, provoke a media panic that forces the government to institute draconian measures of heightened security, including internal checkpoints and overzealous police presence in the country’s shaken capital cities, “thus alienating a portion of the population and generating sympathy for the terrorists.”

If this sounds like a chilling, pre-9/11 vision of things that are, fear not: Pierce’s rendition of the breakdown of society connects the dots between every single radical right-wing fantasy in a manner so brazenly submental that it sounds like parody. It could easily have been composed by one of Bolaño’s Nazi scribblers on an unusually uninspired writing day. Of one formerly upscale Washington neighborhood, we’re told: “Most of the high-priced shops have given way to ‘gay’ bars, massage parlors, porn stalls, liquor stores, and similar capitalist ventures… Ritual torture and ritual murder are rumored to take place, as well as ritual cannibalism, ritual sex orgies, and other non-Western practices.” Turner (whose own rituals include beginning his diary entries with a cheery “Wow!” or “What a day!”) oscillates between two equally repulsive narrative modes. First, there are the exhausting lists of atrocities carried out by his colleagues (as though the burning of synagogues and slaughter of leftist newspaper editors amounted to the hum-drummiest trivialities) as their terror campaign gradually balloons from scattered assassination squads to a global conspiracy. Second are the uniformly unpleasant set pieces that detail our diarist’s own awakening into Caucasian pride, as he is inducted into a secret society within the Organization (named, with the same dearth of imagination, the Order) and learns of the sacrifices that must be made if the populace is ever to be awakened from their somnolent liberal funk.

Hence we are treated to Turner’s disgust at being forced to disguise himself as a Jewish print shop owner, and personal milestones like gunning down random mixed couples (“Six months ago I couldn’t imagine myself calmly butchering a teen-aged White girl, no matter what she had done. But I have become much more realistic about life recently”). Throughout, the perverse rosiness of Turner’s vision of a racially pure tomorrow beggars belief. Two scenes stand out: a batshit encounter with a cadre of freckly 15-year-old girls merrily picking fruit on behalf of the camp-dwelling families left hungry by the collapse of regular food production, and an even more telling one, in which the Order convicts a libertarian in their midst on charges of mutiny: “He was a conservative, not a revolutionary.” Worse, he is a reformer with hope that mere tax reform and the restoration of free enterprise will be enough to heal the ailing U.S. economy. Not even John Galt deserves to inherit this brave new world.

The Turner Diaries is an obsessively paranoid and reactionary piece of Hitler fan-fiction, unrelentingly violent, numb to irony or satire, and possessed of no literary merit. Is it just a shitty book for shitty people, or does it pose a real threat? Among the pseudo-philosophical justifications of the Organization’s evil schemes appears the following:

The fact is that the ordinary people are not really much less culpable than the not-so-ordinary people, than the pillars of the System. . . . I cannot think of any segment of White society, from the Maryland red-necks and their families whose radioactive bodies we bulldozed into a huge pit a few days ago to the university professors we strung up in Los Angeles last July, which can truly claim that it did not deserve what happened to it.

It is the banality of pronouncements like the above that render The Turner Diaries a disposable artifact of isolationist megalomania, instead of anything resembling a practical blueprint for budding race warriors—because the attentive reader will note that Turner has just excluded everyone from his club. Moreover, he has condemned them to death. Borges’s “Sect of the Phoenix” imagines an invisible brotherhood to which all people secretly belong. Pierce’s annihilating neon-white Utopia only has room for Pierce. It is not just other races or religions that are tainted, it is all other people.

Pierce weeds out the enemies he perceives clustered about every rung of civilized society in a series of ‘notes to the reader’ from our future white overlords that get steadily creepier, defining, among other things, soon-to-be-archaic concepts like ‘Women’s lib’ (“a form of mass psychosis which broke out during the last three decades of the Old Era. Women affected by it denied their femininity and insisted that they were “people,” not “women”). Even Turner eventually goes out a martyr, strapped to a warhead aimed at the Pentagon, leaving William Pierce (or, rather, pseudonymous “Andrew McDonald”) to proclaim his victory over the planet he has reduced—as reported in a hasty three-page postscript set 106 years in the future—to all-but-uninhabitable rubble. Any novelty represented by the existence of such an earnestly hateful “adventure novel,” as Pierce referred to it, quickly vanishes amid the wacko wish-gratification.

Yet the violence enacted in direct response to Pierce’s novel, some of it by a group of Mormon white nationalists actually calling themselves the Order, means that I’m not merely given pause by the prospect I was once so glib about—far-right literature as corrective to the unchallenging contemporary armchair progressivism that gave us the Park Slope novel—I’m inclined to run to the other side for cover.

William Luther Pierce died of cancer in 2002. A one-man cottage industry of race hatred, he was responsible for novels, records, and even comic books on the general theme of white supremacy and government overthrow. Most of these, including an additional “Andrew McDonald” novel titled Hunter, appeared under the aegis of the National Alliance, a splinter group of the National Youth Alliance that in 1968 campaigned unsuccessfully on behalf of segregationist Alabama governor and frequent Presidential candidate George Wallace. But Pierce had been linked to reactionary groups as early as 1962, when he joined the John Birch Society while working as a physics professor at Oregon State University. While Black Power was picking up steam, Pierce was editing the ideological journal of the American Nazi Party. But it wasn’t until he organized the Alliance in 1972 that his literary activities began in earnest. Equal parts publishing firm and quasi-revolutionary vanguard, the N.A. specialized in Holocaust denial literature, agitated against American aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, and, in the 90s, expanded into comic books like the nutty Saga of White Will, about one high school racist’s journey to manhood. (An ad in the back reads “Hey, kids! Want to find out about the organization White Will plans to join when he’s 18? Write today.”) In the 80s Pierce even founded a zany Pantheist religion called the Cosmotheist Community Church, and married a suspicious succession of Hungarian women.

The second Andrew McDonald novel, Hunter (1989), is about a B-4 Phantom II pilot who assassinates mixed-race couples. Its hero is tacitly based on supremacist serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, best known as the gunman who paralyzed Larry Flynt from the waist down. But it was The Turner Diaries that sustained the N.A.’s fortunes, going strong at the time of Pierce’s death, thanks in large part to the publicity that resulted from the Oklahoma City bombings and a canny 1996 sale of the book’s rights to Lyle Stuart, one of the great sleazeballs of publishing, whose other properties included The Anarchist Cookbook, Naked Came the Stranger, and L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman?

As detailed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in their quarterly Intelligence Report, a minor avalanche of far-right and explicitly racist fiction followed the Diaries’ return to bookstores. An English translation of an early 70s French novel called The Camp of the Saints, written to protest the tide of Algerian immigration, was reissued by an anti-immigration hate group in 1995. Several Neo-Confederate “heritage”-focused works followed suit, like the treacly Old South fable The Last Confederate Flag by Lloyd Lenard, and Ellen Williams’s Bedford, a World Vision (on the subject of integrated public schools). In John Ross’s Unintended Consequences, a brutal Fourth-Amendment revenge fantasy that follows thematically from The Turner Diaries, a freedom fighter takes up arms against an overreaching government infected with the scourge liberalism. The Diaries’ science-fiction elements, meanwhile, were picked up by James McManus—not the poker writer of the same name—in his futuristic eugenics novel Dark Millennium, which follows one of the last surviving racists as he becomes President of Earth for life. Another Racist-in-the-Year-3000-type novel is Ward Kendall’s recent Hold Back This Day, where the last pure white man on earth defies the all-powerful ‘Chrislamhindbuddhism’ religion to form an all-white colony on Mars. Finally, Pat Shannan’s One In a Million features one man’s crusade to reinstate gold and silver as the only legal tender; reportedly, Shannan hoped to secure a movie deal by sending a copy of the book to Mel Gibson’s dad.

Are there things that ought never be written about or read? Elizabeth Costello asks this question—and answers in the affirmative—in a lecture about a novel about a Nazi hangman. Coetzee, by critical consensus, probably intends for her argument to be flawed; but leveled against Pierce, his heirs, and their responsive audience of thugs and domestic terrorists, it is apt. Here is a book that should never have been written, that I wish I could erase, along with the mentality that made it possible. Does that mean that others should be kept from reading it? Ideally, yes. Susan Sontag warned against the fetishization of Nazi art, whose nervy outsider status inevitably make it ripe for apologism and flirtations on the part of contemporary critics. The Turner Diaries is no flirtation, but a slavery liplock.

The ordinary reader is not going to be consciously persuaded into hate crime by a rushed, monotonous piece of hack science-fiction—but propaganda does not only work consciously, as Pierce was well aware. “If the protagonist learns something or comes to believe in something,” he wrote, “the reader tends to do the same thing, he changes too. So what you have is a powerful teaching tool.” Not especially complex reasoning, but not unlike the usual critical wisdom. It’s something you might hear in a writing workshop. And, to follow this argument to its conclusion, isn’t Pierce only doing consciously, and poorly, what other writers have tucked more fiendishly and artfully beneath the surface? Xenophobic hatred was the impetus for the work of H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories of New England society’s infection by the alien other have been increasingly embraced as kitsch. His catch-all term for the subhuman denizens of the Lower East Side, “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid,” is as undiscerning in its despicableness as Pierce’s “Jewish-liberal-democratic-equalitarian plague.”

We’re equally keen to overlook, if not covertly enjoy, the militantly Fascist posturing of Yukio Mishima—who has surely eclipsed Hermann Hesse as the angry young man’s author of choice—if only because it is appealingly juxtaposed with his distinct homoeroticism. And what about writers who narratively inhabit racist brainwaves, such as William T. Vollmann in “White Knights” or Padgett Powell’s “Typical,” both stories dedicated to lending authentic voice to unrepentant superpatriots? Is ventriloquizing prejudices you don’t outwardly espouse only the difference between consciously and unconsciously?

I could go on, asking fatuous questions and intentionally misunderstanding fiction’s nominalism, sterilizing my library against the germs of the National Front or the Aryan brotherhood. Perhaps the above handwringing will suffice for a demonstration of how far-right literature can do us harm: by causing us to read narrowly and misread widely. And misreading, as Nabokov’s Professor Hamm illustrated, is what propagandists depend upon. Misreading is the specialty of authoritarian causes; it constitutes the bulk of their output. Original panegyrics like The Turner Diaries are rarer—and perhaps this alone accounts for the lack of otherwise plentiful hate-speech and persecution in fiction—because they are, put succinctly, an embarrassment to their cause. They consciously expose an impotent stupidity, devoid of independent reasoning, that derives its aura of fear from remaining secretive, unconscious, a trope rather than a reality. The figure of the modern Nazi occupies a place of ephemeral omnipresence in popular culture. See, for example, how a gang of featurelessly evil white supremacists were spooned into the last half-season of Breaking Bad as last-minute antagonists, because who do we hate even more than cops or meth dealers? The human rights activist Stetson Kennedy discredited the Ku Klux Klan at their height in the 1940s by simply ensuring that their beliefs and practices became common knowledge. The fact that Stetson may occasionally have falsified aspects of his reports only enhances the value of a genocidal white nationalist like Pierce foolish enough to speak for himself. A representative literature, it turns out, is the worst thing that could happen to the movement.

Ultimately, the far right can’t survive close reading. Once we’ve seen the ideology so exposed, toothless and disfigured, tongue gnashing at modernity like a demon in a Bosch painting, it becomes clear how little it has to offer. It can only interrupt and imitate poorly, never contribute.  When we have them in their own words these would-be provocateurs lose their claim on our unconscious. I began by wondering at the relative absence of radical right-wing literature—but it’s too bad for the right that there’s any at all. The goal of these books is to reinforce the idea that whole races and beliefs are less than human. This is anathema to the nature of novels, which is always to humanize. For obvious reasons, the result does not work in the Nazis’ favor. In fact, coming away from Pierce and his brood of regressive Utopians, one has a much more realistic picture of what kind of people write them. They are humanized too; but that’s only a good thing if you are not a sorry excuse for a human being in the first place.