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On Confected Radicalism: Quillette Cetera Episode 31

A conversation with Quillette founder Claire Lehmann.

· 13 min read
On Confected Radicalism: Quillette Cetera Episode 31
Claire Lehmann and Zoe Booth at their new recording studio in Sydney, Australia.

In this episode, Claire and I discuss the concept of confected radicalism, which refers to young activists who seek out radical causes despite the success of past movements.

Listen on Google Podcasts, Spotify, Apple.


Zoe Booth: Today I’m joined by the founder of Quillette, Claire Lehmann. We’re going to be talking about confected radicalism, which is raging against the machine when the machine’s already working. It’s hit the headlines recently during the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but it’s been around since the days of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

Hey Claire, welcome back to another episode. It’s been a few weeks.


Claire Lehmann: Yeah, it’s good to be here.


ZB: Today we’re going to be speaking about a really interesting article you’ve had published in The Australian today. It’s about confected radicalism. What does that mean exactly?

CL: Yeah, so, confected radicalism is this term I use for young kids, basically, who want to be radicals but they don’t really have anything to be radical about because a lot of the causes that they’re involved in have already been successful in decades past.

So, it’s a local news story but for international listeners, there was a very horrible, tragic double murder that happened last week. Two gay men were killed and the person who has been charged over the killings, I should say alleged killings, is a police officer, a serving senior constable, and this has led the board of to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras demanding that police not march in the parade or if they want to march they must march in plain clothes.  

This has been a big story in the Australian media.
Local media have been presenting it as if this is sort of the first time this has ever happened to a Pride march, and in my column, I pointed out that actually uniformed police have been banned at Pride marches all over the world. They were banned from a Pride march in Auckland a few years ago, and it’s got nothing to do with the murders, it’s to do with the politics of people running these marches and specifically the younger generation of activists who are coming through and who aren’t really that interested in building alliances or building bridges with mainstream organizations and institutions, but who want to sort of lean into this idea that they’re all about radical protest. 

So, the piece was about there being a different orientation to the activism. If you take gay and lesbian activists from the Boomer Generation or Generation X, they fought very hard to build alliances and find common ground with all sorts of different people. Whereas now, I look at Generation Z activists, and I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the staff members involved in this decision, and they’re not that interested in building alliances. It’s more about protesting and representing the marginalized. The partnerships manager for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras said that there’s no such thing as absolute inclusion and if you include some people, you have to exclude others.
Therefore, you have to make the right choice about who you include and so the whole thing for him is you have to exclude police. So, it’s a different orientation to activism of the past, which was about finding common ground.

ZB: So, the idea is that this is an issue of homophobia and that there’s an institutional or systematic homophobia in the police force. That’s what a lot of commentators and activists are saying, and they use the history, which is a tragic history, which is that New South Wales police have not protected gay people, especially gay men in Australia. As some people know, there was a series of gay killings, homophobic killings, I think in the eighties. So, we’ve got that history, but I mean, the man who is alleged to have committed these murders was a gay man, and he obviously wasn’t homophobic.

CL: Well, it wasn’t a hate crime, it was a domestic violence incident.

ZB: Yes, by all accounts it definitely looks like that. So, why shouldn’t the police be able to march?

CL: Well, I mean, the march organizers really can have whoever they like marching with them. But what I find interesting is that there’s this almost this need to have something to fight, this need for the police to be homophobic. They need to have something to struggle against because to be honest, an event like Mardi Gras has heaps of cash behind it. There’s a lot of political power associated with it. It is totally mainstream. They have corporate sponsorships coming out of their ears. 

ZB: There’s Westpac. There’s all the big banks. Pretty much everyone is represented.

CL: But there’s this tension where it’s like, do you celebrate the fact that it’s mainstream and that there is tolerance and acceptance and it’s totally normal, or do you want to reject the fact that the event is mainstream and go and try and become more radical and get rid of corporate sponsorships and get rid of police. It’s just this interesting tension. And to me, from what I’ve seen, it’s the older activists who want to keep it mainstream because they fought so hard to get it there to that point. Whereas younger activists actually want the struggle and don’t want the event and associated events to be as mainstream as they are.

ZB: So, this is something we’ve seen across my generation or younger, a little bit older too, across the world. There’s a really strong desire to have something to rail against. And perhaps it’s because life is pretty good for us right now, in the West at least. Women, look at myself, my grandma fought so hard to go to university. She went in her 60s. I could go as an 18-year-old. Things are pretty good for us here and I think we take that for granted, but there is a faction of the far left that really want to act like there’s a war they need to wage against capitalism, against patriarchy, against all these institutions.

CL: I wouldn’t limit that to the far left. I see it on the right as well, where there’s almost a psychological need for there to be issues that are existential. Like, if this issue is not solved, it’s going to be an existential crisis for humanity.

ZB: What is it on the right usually?

CL: Well, Immigration is one. I see a lot of chatter about, not as much in Australia, but in America in particular, you know, if they don’t secure the border, it’s going to be the end of America. We at Quillette have been critical of gender ideology, but I don’t see it as an existential threat to civilization.

ZB: A lot on the right do.

CL: So there’s a difference between criticism of a particular position or ideology or issue, whatever, and then blowing it up into a moral panic. And on both sides, you get this. There’s almost this psychological need for there to be something to panic about, this need to fight an existential struggle.


ZB: And I felt a lot of that as a younger person when I was at uni. One of my goals while I was at uni was “I need to attend a protest before I finish here.” It’s like a rite of passage. And I actually never did, although I was very much in those circles. When push came to shove, when there was a protest on, I never could fully commit because I always had one little niggling issue with the dogma of that tribe. And even now, I’ve attended a few marches against antisemitism and stuff like that. But, still there’s part of me that’s like, “Oh, I don’t like being here with the group, because I don’t 100 % agree on everything.”  I’m mobphobic. It makes me like an only child. 


CL: That’s why you fit in at Quillette

So, in this column, I use the term confected radicalism to describe some of this type of activism where there’s issues. If you take women’s rights, for example, I was born after the big struggles had been won. So,
I have a choice of whether I can accept that the struggles have been won and I can live my life and be grateful to the women who came before me and who got these achievements and these freedoms, hard-won freedoms, for people like me to be self-determining and to live fulfilling lives and to have economic independence and so on and so on. Or, do I want to deny all of that progress and invent new forms of oppression to be angry about. I think there’s a choice. 

You can say that there has been a lot of progress made. There’s still a lot of more progress that can be made. But unless you accept that we live in a time where progress has been achieved, how do you know what’s going to work for the future? If you can’t look back and see that this was done and it works and people’s lives are better because of it, how can you be trusted to make any effective changes in the future? 


ZB: Yeah. We should be looking at these things neutrally and just looking at the evidence. Steven Pinker, who’s contributed to Quillette, he’s written a lot about this, about how, after the Enlightenment, the world has improved, at least in the West, and in many parts of the developing world as well. I don’t know what’s controversial about admitting that, but for many people, it is controversial. I think I know what part of it is, and it’s that if you admit that the world’s gotten better, you have to reckon with why you don’t feel happy, and that takes individual responsibility. The fact that you don’t have the job you want or the relationships you have or that people are richer than you or more successful than you or happier than you, you can’t just blame that on capitalism or patriarchy. You actually have to reckon with yourself, which is hard for a lot of people. 


CL: Yeah, and a big reason why we can’t accept
progress on objective terms is because status is relative. So, I compare myself to one of my female ancestors who had 15 kids and who had to wash the family clothes by hand and spend all day carrying water into the house with buckets, if I compare my life to hers, I live like a queen.
But in this era, I can’t compare myself to a queen because, you know, their statuses and their quality of life has gone up as well. So, I think the issue is that in absolute terms, all of our lives are a lot better, but that doesn’t mean in relative terms, our lives have gotten better. So, you know, we still compare ourselves to our neighbours. We still compare ourselves to people we see on Instagram who have
better clothes and more overseas vacations or beautiful houses in Sydney. We are still constantly comparing ourselves and so we feel inadequate and we feel like we don’t measure up. But if we actually just took a step back and looked at things through absolute terms, we would realize that, hang on a minute, my quality of life in Australia is really quite good compared to poor people who are, you know, born halfway across the world who don’t have running water and who don’t have sanitation in their village and who don’t have abundant available food. So, it’s just about what your reference point is. And I think that in understanding that we’re all hardwired to just measure ourselves against our neighbour rather than our ancestors or people who aren’t in our immediate context, I think that can help to some degree. 


ZB: But even then a lot of these, you know, activists, I would say they would admit that they live well and that they’re privileged people, but they do feel the need to have this fight. A lot of them, as we were sort of discussing before, don’t necessarily have skin in the game. When we talk about having skin in the game, there’s Alexei Navalny who knew he was going to die for standing up for what he believed in. Or, our friend Drew Pavlou
who has the CCP on his back for criticizing China and standing up for the Uyghurs and Taiwan. Even yourself.  You saw something that was happening and you took a stand and created Quillette and published
authors that a number of other publications wouldn’t touch, and you have risked a lot and not everyone loves you for that. 


CL: Yeah, well, I don’t consider myself an activist and I wouldn’t consider my risk to be very great. But yeah, I get the point that you’re making and it is that some of these movements are actually quite safe. It’s almost like live action role play. I went through a period of time where I was reading about the New Left movement in the 1960s and 70s, particularly in Europe, and there were these radicals who hijacked planes and were like blowing up buildings, particularly in Germany. 


ZB: Is that the Frankfurt School?


CL: No, no, this is like Baader-Meinhof Gang. The Frankfurt school was earlier and they were academics, not terrorists. So, these activists, growing up, their parents were involved in the Second World War and their biggest fear was Nazis. They were so afraid that not all of the Nazis had been purged from German society that they went looking for them. They were like Nazi hunters and they thought that leaders of businesses in Germany were still sympathetic to Nazi ideology and so forth. There might’ve been some truth to that, but what ended up happening was that these far-left activists became allied with the Palestinian Liberation Group. So they went and hijacked planes, and one of these activists, he recalled being instructed to separate Jews on the plane from the rest of the civilians. He
became an activist to fight Nazis and here he was separating out Jews for punishment from other civilians. So, there’s this risk that if you are afraid of something and you fight it so hard, you actually run the risk of becoming what you hate. These Baader-Meinhof Gang members were doing the live-action role play of the actual resistance fighters in the Second World War, the people who went into the tunnels and actually fought real Nazis, and they wanted to be them. Those were the heroes to these people. And I feel like for a fair few kids today, they imagine themselves as being resistance fighters. They want to be heroes in their own story. They want Nazis to fight, but the problem is that there’s not that many of them around.
There’s not enough of them to fight. There might be a handful around. Sure, go on, fight them if you can find them, but the demand for Nazis exceeds the supply. 


ZB: Or there are actual Nazis, but they’re not the type of Nazis that they’re looking for. 


CL: Yeah. They look a bit different. 


ZB: Yeah. Like as we’ve written about on Quillette, there’s fascism in lots of different groups. For example, we published a really interesting piece by Andrew Hamel recently about rising antisemitism in Germany, which sounds terrible. As soon as you read that, you’re like, oh my God, there’s been a resurgence of Nazis in Germany and you imagine that they’re all tall, blonde, Aryan Nazis and unfortunately, it’s the case that when German Jews are surveyed, they identify that most of the people who’ve been attacking them are Muslim migrants. That’s something really hard to reckon with, especially for the left who are very pro-migration. I’m the granddaughter of Greek migrants. I’ve traditionally been very pro-migration, but when you’ve got migration from certain countries where antisemitism or other social ills are endemic,
of course, there’s going to be antisemitism. So, my point is that there’s fascism in lots of different sectors. 


CL: Yeah, yeah, and we have to just be intellectually honest about it. About that Andrew Hamill article we published, it’s very interesting because the German government actually tried to hide this fact, and so the suppression of statistics was basically a form of government misinformation. 


ZB: Because the government would have to answer for it?


CL: Well, they carry this huge responsibility to not let antisemitism get out of hand because of their history. So, they actually have to grapple with the fact that some of their policies may be leading to a resurgence in antisemitism and that’s very awkward and difficult for them.


ZB: Anyone wants to read that piece, it’s on and we’ve been publishing a lot about antisemitism and the war in Israel and Gaza. 


CL: I think one of my favourite pieces that we’ve published in recent months was the Izabella Tabarovsky piece. This has been a learning experience for me actually since October the 7th about how much the Soviet Union was involved during the Cold War in disseminating antisemitic propaganda and just how prevalent it is in the West. Like just the slogans, the ideas, the issues. I didn’t know how
much the Soviet Union hated Israel and how much of an effort it made to spread antisemitic propaganda after the Six-Day War in 1967. It was an interesting learning experience for me. 


ZB: Yeah, it’s a fascinating piece and we have a really good interview with Izabella Tabarovsky on our YouTube as well if anyone wants to check it out. 


CL: She’s a scholar of Soviet antisemitism. The thing about us in the West is that we’re very familiar with Nazi antisemitism. We grow up, we learn about the Holocaust. Well, hopefully we learn about the Holocaust and we learn about how dangerous that ideology is. But we have not similarly reconciled with the dangers of the Soviet version of the same thing. And I think we have a massive cultural blind spot when it comes to the Soviets. 


ZB: Okay. 


CL: Well, good to chat with you, Zoe. 


ZB: Yes, it’s been great. And let’s do it again soon. 


CL: Yep, let’s do it again soon.

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