Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Was BBC's Good Morning Ulster wrong to interview KKK's Frank Ancona? No, because free speech is a warts-and-all liberty

Frank Ancona, the Imperial Wizard of Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Frank Ancona, the Imperial Wizard of Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan

It's not often that the leader of the world's most infamous white supremacist group pops up on Radio Ulster. Frank Ancona, the Imperial Wizard of Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan – yes, he really calls himself that – claimed that he's been getting emails of inquiry from people in Belfast who support his "ideals".

Now, if Frank and his pointy-hatted chums are intent on making incursions into the racist wing of Ulster loyalism, I want to know about it.

The attempt to fly KKK flags in east Belfast is evidence that some sort of notional support already exists and could grow. Yet the decision to put him on Good Morning Ulster was immediately met with a flood of outraged texts and tweets condemning the programme for allowing the big wizard airtime.

Not that Ancona sounded especially threatening. Like his KKK brethren, who seem to enjoy mincing around in purple satin dressing gowns and waving fake swords a little bit too much – what is it with these men and their pantomime uniforms? – he was an absurd figure, as much as a dangerous one.

As ever, when you put these kind of people on the spot, they immediately reveal themselves to be the crazy, bitter, self-deluding headbangers they really are.

And, of course, he didn't go unchallenged: the interviewer called him out repeatedly on his nonsense and Catherine Clinton, a professor of US history from Queen's, was on hand to calmly and informatively place the whole thing in its proper context.

But none of that was enough to placate the howlers, who continued to agitate themselves into a self-righteous lather, repeatedly calling shame on the BBC for letting Ancona anywhere near a microphone.

This urge to censor makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Almost – but, admittedly, not quite – as uncomfortable as I feel when I hear the Imperial Wizard's foul and loopy bleats themselves.

Have we got to the stage where we are only prepared to hear those views we agree with? We're like babies, demanding that our news-feed must be pureed and sieved to take all the lumpy, indigestible bits out. Whatever happened to listening, reflecting and then deciding for ourselves?

The price of freedom of speech is occasionally hearing repulsive stuff from people like Ancona. As the writer Nick Cohen puts it, free speech is a "warts-and-all liberty". Sometimes it places you in the position of defending the right to express views that you and your friends find repugnant.

It's better by far, however, that such insidious rhetoric is out in the open, where it can be exposed and challenged, rather than seeping in below the level of public consciousness, where the poison can really do its work.

Take the current debate in Germany over whether Hitler's Nazi manifesto Mein Kampf should be allowed to be published there again. Yes, must be the answer, in spite of the book's virulent anti-Semitism: confront it, unmask it, examine it, don't hide it away to fester and re-emerge in some new and equally grotesque form.

You know the other reason I feel uncomfortable about this Imperial Wizard outrage? It's because I believe it's typical of a new movement gathering pace in Northern Ireland.

I call it secular fundamentalism, which, while it sounds like an oxymoron, is no more a contradiction in terms than its other, more common, name: liberal fascism.

Fuelled by social media, where right-thinking people like to form in huddles to get offended about things, it has really taken off in the post-conflict years.

Although its adherents would no doubt consider themselves enlightened and compassionate liberals, secular fundamentalists are just as rigid, intolerant and prescriptive, in their own way, as the old-fashioned religious kind.

"Not appropriate" is their rallying cry, which translates as "something we don't like, which should thus be banned". They police other people's language assiduously, but have no trouble wilfully misrepresenting any voices which dissent from their own agenda.

For instance, no doubt this column will be characterised as something like: "The KKK: a great bunch of lads." They are authoritarian and middle-class and patronising – it's the loyalist chavs, "the low and dangerous", as one texter to the BBC put it, that they're worried about Frank Ancona exciting, not their own quinoa-munching kind – and they're coming to a town near you.

That's if there's a Marks and Spencer Simply Food branch. If not, you may be spared. But it's only a matter of time.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

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