William F. Buckley once famously quipped of Robert F. Kennedy’s continued refusal to come on Firing Line, “Why does bologna reject the grinder?”
Today, the motto of our purported mainstream journalists appears to be that the grinder should reject bologna because the grinder shouldn’t give bologna a platform. At least, that’s the only conclusion I can draw from the reaction of so many of them to the decision by the young right-wing journalist Lauren Southern to interview the controversial Russian intellectual Aleksandr Dugin for her YouTube channel. Apparently, this exercise in what can only be described as . . . well, journalism has made certain members of the professional pundit class lose their minds.
As just one example, the hysterical fainting couch inhabitants at Think Progress have already produced a masterpiece of malicious, selective quotation, and guilt by association implying that Southern’s decision to interview Dugin is motivated by a tacit agreement with him, up to and including his advocacy for genocide, that she relied on Richard Spencer’s wife for her research, and that you can tell this just because Southern took a picture with Dugin and had the gall to ask him open-ended questions, rather than using the interview to grandstand about how evil he is.
The cesspool of Twitter has added other accusations on top of this one: that rather than being a journalist, Southern is somehow a “fangirl” of Dugin whose interview and photo with the man were meant to legitimize him in Western eyes—in other words, that she’s a useful idiot at best.
With accusers like this, Lauren Southern scarcely needs defenders, but as she has been a friend of mine for more than three years now, I am happy to join the ranks. Southern deserves to have her motives understood, and the fruits of her actions both defended and examined on fair terms. Further, I believe her interview of Dugin poses questions that are more important than merely how one should treat Aleksandr Dugin himself in an interview—it raises a very significant question of when, and under what circumstances, a journalist’s function should be to hear evil out, rather than to prosecute it in the moment.
Let us dispense with the easy defenses first: No one has seen Southern’s full interview, so calling it “softball” after merely the first 10 minutes of what was apparently nearly a two-hour interview is ludicrously premature. In fact, even after the subsequent second part which she released on Monday, it’s still premature.
Moreover, the suggestion that Southern gave Dugin a uniquely kid-glove treatment is off. Southern is no longer the attack interviewer of her Rebel Media days. Her approach in recent years has shifted toward a more Charlie Rose-esque style of asking open-ended questions and then letting her subjects hang themselves with their own words. It is not only Dugin who has gotten this treatment. Southern gave the same treatment to a leader of the South African radical group Black First Land First. And good thing, too, because Southern almost certainly couldn’t have gotten an interview with that leader, nor the insane quotes it produced, without the appearance of being friendly and non-confrontational.
Further, far from being a Dugin “fangirl,” Southern believed that, as with the BFLF leader involved with the South African farm crisis, Dugin’s views are a subject that other journalists are too cowardly to cover. I spoke to Southern shortly after the first part of her interview with Dugin dropped, when she had already begun receiving criticism for it. She denied any reliance on Richard Spencer’s wife for her research, and told me bluntly what her purpose had been.
“Yes, Dugin is scary,” Southern told me. “That’s why I’m interviewing him. I know no one else will. They won’t be f—king journalists.”
It’s hard to argue with her. Despite his ostensible reputation for being the leading theorist of a regime regarded as the United States’ number one geopolitical rival, Dugin has received almost no recent attention from journalists outside of one late 2016 interview with the BBC (more “fangirls,” no doubt) and one suspects that his books remain entirely scrubbed from the curricula of our college campuses. Contrast this with the Cold War, when everyone who wanted to understand the enemy studied Marx and Lenin. If Dugin is that obviously crazy, why on earth wouldn’t every journalist want the world to know it? Why wouldn’t he be swarmed with interview requests?
Multiple reasons suggest themselves, but simple fear that Dugin would get the better of them in the kind of prosecutorial interview favored by fame-chasing media types is probably near the top of the list. And he might. While writing this, I also watched Dugin’s aforementioned 2016 interview with the BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse, who treated Dugin in a much more openly hostile way. Like any skilled propagandist, despite the language barrier, Dugin turned Gatehouse into a foil for moral equivalence, forced Gatehouse to editorialize on-air to contradict him, and was able to bend the subject effortlessly to make the cause of Russia appear to be reasonable, or based on legitimate grievances. And why wouldn’t he? Propagandists love a foil. This is why the endless cry of loser YouTube commenters is “debate me.”
On the other hand, I take pains to note, in the one debate where Dugin wasn’t dealing with feckless grandstanding journalists, but instead with a competent—if odd—fellow philosopher, he lost decisively against the Brazilian academic Olavo de Carvalho in 2011. Part of the reason was that Dugin failed completely to anticipate Carvalho’s actual argument, and when faced with it, could only sputter about Carvalho’s lack of seriousness and try to move the debate to friendlier terrain.
Southern knew, based on preparation, that an attempt to grill Dugin a la Gatehouse would only enable him similarly to muddy the waters, while clarifying nothing about what he actually believed. So, unlike her fellow journalists, who yearn to make themselves the story, Southern made the wise choice simply to get out of her own way. She, and her fellow interviewer, Brittany Pettibone, barely register as presences in the first part of their Dugin interview and do not appear at all in the second.
And it works. When faced with the open-ended questions that have been aired so far, Dugin suddenly is no longer the fast-talking, hyper-competent master propagandist. He stutters. He pauses. Without an obvious cue about which propagandist’s trick he needs, he’s forced to pour out his own mind, and what results is insane. Dugin seems to believe, based on the ten minutes we’ve seen so far, that nationalism is the world’s last defense not merely against third world immigration, but also against Skynet. He speaks of how AI will one day wipe mankind from the earth, except for “post-human” people who make the choice to augment themselves with cybernetics in the mold of the “Singularity” theory. As near as I can tell, he seems to think he lives in a South Park episode—the one where corporate ads pretending to be people try to take over all of society.
All of this, we get in response to Southern’s first question, at which point Southern, visibly weirded out, turns to Pettibone and quips, “Well, our problems are much greater than I could have imagined.”
It gets weirder after Pettibone asks her first question—what the future of conservatism in the United States is. Dugin effectively answers by saying that conservatism needs to embrace absolute cultural relativism, and reject racism altogether. By this, he doesn’t mean the same thing Westerners mean by racism, but rather all notions of hierarchy between human beings at all, as he goes to lengths to clarify in the interview. So if you think, say, pedophiles are bad people, you’re a racist by Dugin’s logic. Remember, we need absolute cultural relativism.
And that’s just the first video! In the recently released second video, Dugin speaks of being a “perspective feminist,” who believes that men and women live in literal separate universes, stutters even more, and gets less coherent. Ironically, even ThinkProgress’ own reporter admits that Dugin sounds insane rather than scarily convincing in the interview, so one wonders what on earth they think Southern did wrong in the first place.
Presumably, they think that Southern’s sin is in being in some secret agreement with Dugin because she says in a vlog posted after the interview that she found this particular answer “enthralling.” But to be enthralled is not to be persuaded, and in that same vlog, Southern expressed very clear skepticism of Dugin’s points, calling him a “cultural relativist.” She’s right. Her description of herself as “enthralled” while listening to Dugin, as she makes it absolutely clear in the video (and in subsequent tweets), is not the enthrallment of the acolyte, but rather of the shocked audience to charismatic, semi-cogent insanity, just as in the case of her interview with the equally repulsive aforementioned South African woman.
And, really, this brings us to the genuine benefit of Southern’s interview: It inoculates us against being either shocked or “enthralled.” Is there a risk that some people might think Dugin has a point somewhere in all that? Sure, but that is always the problem when one permits evil to give a full account of itself, on its own terms.
What is gained by risking that, though, is the emasculation of evil such that it is less able to seduce through the imagination. Maybe it’s just my inner high school Goth speaking, but I happen to think that most of the articles written by Dugin’s critics paint him as far more “enthralling” than anything Southern and Pettibone have released. In particular, an article by Robert Zubrin at National Review describes Dugin as a worshipper of chaos magick leading a Satanic cult to take down Christ. If you don’t want to make Dugin sound cool, maybe don’t make him sound like a cross between a Bond villain and someone who walked off a heavy metal album cover?
In contrast, the Dugin interview with Southern and Pettibone, and the attendant photo released to promote it, make him look . . . well, frankly prosaic. Even standing ramrod straight, he barely manages to stand taller than the 5-foot-7-inch Southern herself, and looks like just one more tired, old man. How this amounts to a fangirlish photo, and not a massive propaganda win for the West, being able to embody itself in the young, vibrant Southern against the shriveled, old Dugin, is beyond me. One anonymous commenter on Southern’s interview summed it up brilliantly: “Why is he so dangerous, was he packing a butter knife?” Others, meanwhile, observe: “I appreciate you interviewing this man, for diversity’s sake, but he’s a lightweight, sorry,” and “He sounds like he is making stuff up as he goes along.” Positive comments exist as well, but the general tenor is skeptical.
This is what happens when, rather than no-platforming someone, you let them speak as long, and as crazily, as they’d like. Southern did that because she realized that Dugin could not be confronted, but only allowed to talk himself into a corner. Journalists understood this principle once, as in the case of Christopher Hitchens’ interview with the neo-Nazi Metzger family, but today’s crop apparently has come to believe that their presence conveys a sanctifying presence on their interview subjects, if they do not anathematize those subjects for their presumptively credulous audiences. But evil—real evil—is too crafty for such empty suits. It will only expose itself when it feels safe to be itself.
Ironically, Southern and Pettibone have since inoculated themselves effectively against charges of sympathy with the Putin regime, having recently posted rather brutal footage of the Russian police breaking up an anti-Putin demonstration, and praising the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. One suspects that an interview with Navalny himself will not be far behind the Dugin interview, which is part of a larger series that Southern and Pettibone are in the midst of producing, endeavoring to explain the Russian political scene for a Western audience.
But ultimately, while I write this to defend a friend against vicious, disingenuous, cowardly attacks, this is about more than Lauren Southern, Brittany Pettibone, or even Aleksandr Dugin. This is about what courage looks like in the face of evil.
Sometimes, it looks like full-throated resistance or prosecutorial vengeance. But just as often, it looks like calmly letting evil speak its peace, only asking what you need to, and knowing that, in letting yourself experience the thrall of evil firsthand, you are showing others form antibodies against its capacity to enthrall, and exposing its nature to scalding, purifying sunlight. That Lauren Southern reflects that sunlight onto Aleksandr Dugin better than other journalists is to her credit, not her shame.
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