An Interview with Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss

An Interview with Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Fletcher Forum (FF): Let’s start by talking about your latest book called The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany. Could you briefly explain what your book is about?

Cynthia Miller-Idriss (CMI): The book was an accident, meaning that I didn’t set out to write it. I had finished writing an earlier book about youth identity in Germany called Blood and Culture, and I was at a conference in Berlin in February 2009 and this book was about to be published when my editor asked me to find some photos that might be useful for the cover photo. So I took an evening off the conference to look at an anti-fascist archive that I had previously worked with. They document material on the culture of the far-right, and they put me in touch with three photographers who track the far-right at public events like protests, marches and festivals across the country. In turn, these photographers gave me access to their archive and I looked through ten years’ worth of photos to find one that would be appropriate for the cover.

At that point, I had been away from Germany for five years. There was a transformation that had happened during the period I was gone, where that sort of hard racist skinhead look had disappeared and I saw all these new kinds of clothing styles that looked very mainstream, like Abercrombie and Fitch, showing up in all these different photos. I just started digging into it and it became an obsession. I just couldn’t let the project go and it went from being a topic for an article to a much bigger book.

I had stumbled upon these new forms of commercialization while I was looking through these archives and as a cultural sociologist, I was initially fascinated in it as a case of how youth culture transforms through the use of coded symbols. But as I began doing the research and writing the project, the far-right became much less a subcultural niche and much more mainstream across Europe and North America. It began to then be a book that I felt had much broader implications than just a subcultural study of something happening half a world away.

FF: What exactly is a “far right youth culture” and how has it changed over the years?

CMI: On the surface, the far-right youth culture has turned into a gameplay of resistance against authorities and adults but I argue that this is still really dangerous because as you’re consuming those messages and wearing them, it also socializes you into dehumanizing migrants and minorities. It helps shape your identity and what you’re committing yourself to. I use the term ‘far-right’ because in Germany, there is a legal distinction between the phrases ‘right-wing extremism’ and ‘right-wing radicalism’. The former refers to actions that are against the constitution – these are illegal offences for which you can be arrested. The latter refers to fringe, right-wing ideas that are not quite illegal but they’re still actions that are monitored because they are still troubling to society and may stray into illegality. In the German context, I didn’t want to use either of those terms so I found it better to use the term ‘far-right’, which better captures the whole range of behaviors.

The clothing that I study is deliberately marketed to youth who are in and around far-right scenes with messages, symbols or iconography that either directly invokes or indirectly evokes themes that appeal to the far-right. On the one hand, you have a lot of Nordic symbols and references, which are a way of talking about whiteness without directly referencing race. On the other hand, there are also direct references to Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. In other words, there is an ideological component to these messages but one of the things that I argue in the book is that young people may have some sort of a disposition to find those messages appealing but they also find this sense of rebellion through the coded symbols fun.

The clothing itself, through the symbols and gameplay, become a mechanism through which youth can rebel against authority. They can simultaneously mark themselves as part of an insider group and something to which they belong, but also a way to lash out against adults and against control. That’s the kind of coding and manipulation that becomes a constant re-creation of getting around what adults tell them they can’t do, like wearing a swastika.

FF: Let's circle back to the differences in terminology you mentioned earlier. In the German context at least, though there is a grey area in between right-wing extremism and right-wing radicalism where you can get away with certain things and not others. This idea of a far-right youth culture, as you’ve described it, seems to fall a lot in this grey area. Do we see a similar culture with far-right movements in the United States?

CMI: It’s different in the US in a couple of different ways. One, we have much stronger free speech protections. Europe in general and Germany in particular has much stronger public support for policies on censorship and that comes from World War II and the Holocaust in the sense that the nation agrees that there are just some things that shouldn’t be allowed because free speech is less important than certain democratic protections like the protection of minority rights. There are many more constraints on free speech in Germany than there are in the US.

I think that notion has really been challenged in the US since the Charlottesville rally, where people such as academics, policymakers and legal authorities are struggling with this idea of limiting free speech and delineating free speech from hate speech or dangerous speech. In other words, I think the idea that we typically have is that free speech becomes hate speech when it incites hatred or violence. For a long time, we had a very liberal view of when that would happen. After Charlottesville, I don’t think there’s been direct action to quite change that notion but certain spaces, such as university campuses, have now had a sense that these types of speech are preventable because it is creating an unsafe environment for students.

FF: How did the cultural commercialization start and how does it relate to the global resurgence of far right organizations and ideologies worldwide?

CMI: The commercialization that I study around the clothing really started in 2002. A brand called Thor Steinar came on the market in Germany and it was highly contested because they combined two banned symbols that were associated with the Nazi party independently into a new logo for their brand. From a cultural studies perspective, they interestingly won all of the lawsuits against the logo on a semiotic argument that the combination of two banned symbols creates a new symbol that no longer directly references the banned organization. So right off the bat, it was intellectual in a different way and the company laced their clothing with all kinds of evocative references to symbols and messaging that appealed to the far-right.

This was a highly profitable market and the brand started building physical stores that are now found throughout Europe. Other brands quickly followed in their footsteps and now you have over a dozen brands that market, in different ways, ideological positions on their clothing items. What distinguishes them from what we had previously in far-right scenes are the quality and price of these items. The clothes are very well-made and well-stitched. They’re expensive, much like J Crew or Abercrombie and Fitch in price point. What we had before was just someone selling cheap, screen-printed cotton t-shirts that would fall apart after a couple of washes out of the back of their car at a concert.

These new products are also more modern in their styles and colors so you could blend in better with other young people and feel more mainstream while still expressing your ideology. This makes far-right style more palatable to people who might have the same beliefs and opinions but won’t necessarily commit to shaving their head and wear a bomber jacket or combat boots, which kind of marks you in every place you go as someone on the far-right.

FF: Speaking of clothing brands, in addition to those that are overtly involved in far-right activities, there are also brands that have been co-opted by far-right groups due to their symbols or imagery they use, whether intentionally or otherwise. What is the line between consuming a culture or a product, say by purchasing a seemingly harmless t-shirt, and becoming indoctrinated or radicalized into it?

CMI: The co-opting of brands is actually where all of this really started. In the first place, I’m always careful when I refer to “racist skinheads” as an aesthetic because this was also co-opting the look of the British leftist skinhead during the 1980s and the 1990s. However, at that time, they were already co-opting brands for symbolic resonance. For example, they wore New Balance shoes in Germany because the ‘N’ supposedly stood for Nazi. The Lonsdale shirt is where it really all began. So if you wore a Lonsdale shirt and zipped up your bomber jacket halfway over it, the letters ‘NSDA’ were visible, which evoked ‘NSDAP’ or the five letters of the Nazi party. I assume that these tactics gave the founders of some of the more overt far-right clothing brands the idea of tapping into this market and profiting off it.

There have been various reactions to the co-opting. I feel bad for Lonsdale because they’re horrified to be associated with this stuff. They launched a whole anti-racism campaign and tried to get folks on the left to reclaim the logos by wearing Lonsdale t-shirts. One of the things I always tell people is that you never know, from seeing one brand or another, whether this represents someone’s ideology or not because they could also be trying to disrupt this symbolic connection by wearing these brands. I think there’s a kind of randomness to the co-opted symbols so you can’t always infer someone’s ideological position from their consumption of that product, nor can you stop buying a Lonsdale t-shirt or New Balance sneakers because of that. As regular consumers, I don’t think anybody should be trying to avoid brands unless those brands are deliberately profiting from it without trying to interrupt the process because for the most part, brands are either ignoring it or countering the effect.

FF: Your research looks at culture and aesthetics as a gateway into far right ideology for young men. Where do you situate young women in this scenario?

CMI: That’s a great question because there are definitely women in the far-right movement, but this particular development around the aesthetics is much more male-oriented. The clothing companies have, almost exclusively, products for men. The women’s lines are much more limited and interestingly, the iconography is also different.

For example, I analyzed a t-shirt in the book that does appear in both the men and women’s line of a far-right clothing brand. This t-shirt had a German phrase on it that had multiple meanings behind it, one of which being something that could be translated as a direct challenge to police. It was something like, “I’m ready for contact and adventure.” In the men’s version of the t-shirt, that phrase is overlaid with spattered blood so it kind of plays on this idea of contact and adventure by linking it to violence. However, the women’s t-shirt has an overlay of puckered lips, so it’s sexualized in the women’s line.

I think that reflects the fact that a lot of women do get involved in this movement through boyfriends or partners, and the direct appeals to women are less. Women do vote for far-right parties but at lower rates. They are less involved in the violent aspects of the movement such as fighting or attacks against migrants. There are exceptions but for the most part, the men are more heavily involved. So for women, I would say that the aesthetics play less of a role of being a gateway into the movement than it does for men.

FF: What is the most pernicious aspect of the shift in far-right aesthetics that, as you mentioned, now relies more on symbols and iconography rather than a straightforward declaration of belief?

CMI: I think the most pernicious part is that in many ways, it softens dangerous speech by making it more humorous. The thing that shocked me the most in the interviews that I did when I showed young people a series of different images of products with far right symbols and iconography was how much they laughed at a couple of them. One of these images showed the back of a t-shirt with a stick figure hanging from a noose with the phrase “Dancing in the Air.” It turns out that this phrase was also the name of an anti-far right, anti-fascist, anti-racist concert, so you can see how the t-shirt plays on that phrase by linking it to this image of someone twitching or dying as they’re being lynched.

To me, it was one of the most horrifying images that I showed, particularly because of the history of lynching in the US but the people I spoke to almost all laughed at it. They thought it was a funny, clever play on words. That, to me, is dangerous – that aspect of dehumanizing through humor that can desensitize young people to these horrifying things.

From a teacher’s perspective, it’s also much harder to identify which students need intervention or support because they blend in better. There’s much less of an obvious far-right identity, from an aesthetic perspective, so that parents and educators are less likely to know who might be suitable for deradicalization or who needs to be engaged and challenged. These softer styles have a much broader appeal, which makes it easier for people to hide themselves more in everyday ways.

FF: In some countries, laws are used to mitigate the public presence of far right organizations. Do you think legal mechanisms are still effective in light of the movement’s increasingly empowered status and less recognizable culture, or do we need new strategies for dealing with the resurgence of the far right?

CMI: My feelings on this evolved after Charlottesville because I had very much argued in my book that bans are ineffective in part because they sometimes backfire and make the far right even more appealing. I think they have directly contributed to the game-playing culture that has made the coding and the manipulation so much fun for so many young people. But then when Charlottesville happened, I started to understand more personally, as an American, how bans might serve a second purpose – to make a community within a place, like a university or school, feel safer.

In other words, I don’t think bans are an effective strategy to combat the far-right, but there might be good reasons to implement those bans anyway as a way of drawing the line in the sand for what a community stands for. This can be a marker to make sure more vulnerable minorities and students of color feel protected or supported on campus, even in the face of these kinds of egregious things.

What has the potential to be effective is something I’ve seen in Germany but not yet in the US, which are strategies to try and flip the script on the far-right. There was a big protest march last year in a town in Germany. It was a far-right march and this anti-fascist group decided to use that march as a fundraiser by having a walkathon. The group put out a call to action on social media, asking people to donate to anti-racist groups for every step a neo-Nazi took during the protest and many people responded by pledging some amount, like 10 cents per step. In fact, they actually raised a lot of money for anti-racist work but they also used the march against the racists by turning it into a fundraiser and furthering anti-racism activist work.

One of the overall arguments in my book is that entry points to extremism are emotionally rooted. Young people are attracted to extremist movements, I argue, for the emotional appeal of being part of something bigger than themselves or to lash out against communities and adults who they feel have let them down. That’s true for foreign fighters in Europe and the far-right – ideology often comes after the emotional attraction. Yet all our interventions have been so rationally and ideologically based. Its not a bad idea to correct dangerous or misunderstood beliefs but it’s not going to draw these people out of the movement if what they were drawn to was an emotional sense of belonging, purpose and meaning.

We have to be thinking much more seriously about these issues, especially for young men in particular as well as what has gone wrong in our education systems and communities that young people are not getting what they need. We have to be thinking about how to use creative strategies to mobilize anti-racist work. If we can start coming up with those kinds of strategies, as well as basic empathy curriculum trainings, we can start to address these challenges more effectively.

Image: A portion of Dr Cynthia Miller-Idriss' book cover

The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany


Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Professor of Education and Sociology at the American University in Washington, DC, and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Her primary research areas are on the cultural dimensions of radical and extreme right youth subcultures and school-based responses to radical and extreme youth engagement, and on knowledge production and internationalization in higher education.

Her most recent books are The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany(Princeton University Press, 2018) and Seeing the World: How US Universities Produce Knowledge about the World (with Mitchell Stevens and Seteney Shami, Princeton University Press, 2018).

Miller-Idriss also writes frequently for mainstream audiences on issues of youth radicalization, nationalism, education, and parenting, most recently for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, and Fortune.

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