Hostis humani generis
Common enemies, the VOX-Pol Lecture Series, ISIS out-groups, and more
CNN used to have an extremely mid weekend talk show called Smerconish—wait I’m being told this still exists for some reason. Starting over.
CNN has this extremely mid talk show called Smerconish, and when I used to watch more news on the actual TV, I used to see a recurring promo in which its titular host plaintively bemoans the passing of the good old days—when Americans could unite “against a common enemy.”
Oh look, here it is.
Smerconish didn’t invent the “common enemy” phrase or concept (he is far too mid for such a legacy), but the casual invocation of this trope as a form of lightweight marketing copy always sat poorly with me, this idea that all our social problems could be solved if only we had A REALLY GOOD ENEMY.
The idea that all of humanity could overcome its differences and unite if only it were faced with a “common enemy” is a pretty bleak idea, which is only made bleaker by the fact it definitely wouldn’t work.
It’s hard to know from the promo whether Smerconish is referring to the post-9/11 era as the “golden age” of American unity, or if he’s going back to the Communists, or something else entirely. I can’t be bothered to track down the original clip, and it hardly matters. Every example clearly illustrates the failure of the concept.
The age of anti-Communism was hardly distinguished as a period of national unity. For one thing, such good-old-days illusions are fantasies that cannot be separated from White cultural hegemony. Life in America was very starkly divided on racial lines during the height of anti-Communist fervor. But even within White world, things were not exactly idyllic, between Joseph McCarthy’s “weaponization of government” witch hunt, and the rise of the John Birch Society.
The post-9/11 era offers a slightly more compelling fantasy fugue of a world united against aggression, until you look at it for five minutes, and the whole thing falls apart. After the September 11 attacks, most of the world very briefly seemed to come together in near-universal condemnation. It did not take long at all for the wheels to come off. Within days, if not hours, hate crimes against Muslims surged, a trend that continued for years. Then the United States openly embraced torture and endless extrajudicial detention, and then it exploited 9/11 sympathies to wage a pointless war on false pretenses, ultimately fueling the rise of a terrorist group even worse than al Qaeda.
I was prompted to write this newsletter after seeing a Bluesky post from deep-dystopia-knower Leroy Lynch, linking to an article by Curt Collins that traces the history of the “alien invasion causes humanity to finally unite” trope. The article is definitely my kind of literary history, a fascinating journey through a parade of sci-fi classics and obscurities, which I highly recommend. (Leave your favorite alien invasion story in the comments. Personally, I think Childhood’s End captured a lot of interesting stuff, if not an technically an “invasion” story.)
Surely an extraterrestrial invasion would be different, we tell ourselves. Surely, aliens would lead humanity to unite. Surely the Cylons or the Visitors or the Martians would finally fill the role of “hostis humani generis”—the enemy of all humanity. But the truth is, an alien invasion would play out much like any other human story, a lot like the aftermath of 9/11. A brief moment of shared outrage, followed by a sharp descent.
Fundamentally, you can’t solve the problem of enmity by finding a perfect enemy. Or put another way: We can’t unite against anything until we can unite for something.
The VOX-Pol Lecture Series
The VOX-Pol Lecture series is now live on YouTube! Check out the whole playlist to see some of my amazing colleagues discuss various aspects of extremism research, from definitions to practitioner safety, the Christchurch Call, and more. Below, you can see me discussion issues surrounding the definition of extremism, which will help set the stage for my forthcoming paper on Lawful Extremism.
Recent research papers
If you’re wondering how some of the concepts discussed in this newsletter, in the video above, and in my book play out in a detailed analysis, check out this recent paper by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, based on internal ISIS documents obtained and translated by the author. As with in-groups, there are important variations in how extremist movements treat out-groups.
A large-scale Facebook study finds that appeals to communal harmony from religious authorities were more effective than messages about how all religions oppose violence, or messages about the costs of terrorism. The communitarian messages received higher positive engagement and also produced an increase in attitudes opposing violent extremism. Positive effects persisted even after subsequent exposure to violent extremist propaganda.
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