In Christopher Rufo’s new bookAmerica’s Cultural Revolution, the conservative writer and professional shit-stirrer argues that a malevolent woke ideology, promoted by misguided Left-wing activists, has taken over America’s core institutions, “effectuating a wholesale moral reversal” under the rule of “diversity, equity, and inclusion”.

“The wider effects on public discourse have been chilling. Many… have started to self-censor… In theory, progressives campaign in the name of diversity and inclusion. In practice, they destroy open debate and suffocate those who hold different views… In theory they say they want to protect their democratic rights. In practice, they destroy all trust in democracy.”

Except this isn’t Rufo. This, in fact, is the extremism expert Julia Ebner, writing in her new book, Going Mainstream: How the extremists are taking over, on how the fringes of the far-Right have taken over the mainstream. I simply substituted “progressives” for “the enemies of progressive liberalism” and “diversity and inclusion” for “free speech”. The alarmism was all her own.

We have reached a curious juncture in the culture war where the most entrenched combatants on either side have come to believe that the most deranged ideas of their enemies have politically and culturally triumphed, conquering the mainstream. Both believe that their sacred way of life is under existential threat from dangerous and deviant ideas that have marched from the margins to the centre. Both believe that some form of counter-revolution is needed to stop the rot. Both, bewitched by the excesses of their adversaries, have succumbed to the very derangement and loss of perspective of which they accuse the other side.

The crucial difference between Ebner and Rufo, however, is that Ebner bills herself as an expert and academic, while Rufo is explicit and unapologetic about being an activist with political aspirations. I won’t comment on Ebner’s credentials as an academic or extremism expert, but she’s certainly not a conventional one. For a start, it is rare for an extremism expert to be the subject of a long and lavish feature in a leading national newspaper. “I infiltrate incel groups posing as a man: my life undercover,” ran the headline of a recent Times magazine piece on Ebner, accompanied by two glossy photographs of her, brandishing her weapon of choice: an Apple laptop.

Clearly, the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of going behind enemy lines is a big part of Ebner’s appeal. Equally clearly, it isn’t something she feels particularly bashful about: “Views based on data + undercover research,” her Twitter bio says. In an earlier bookGoing Dark, Ebner put on a blonde wig to disguise herself (she was meeting a far-Right activist in a café in Vienna). This was one of five fake identities she used as part of her research for that book. “There is an adrenaline rush in doing any kind of undercover work,” she told a Guardian journalist in 2020.

In Going Mainstream, Ebner deploys three new fake identities: a French-British mother of two toddlers who is “opposed to Black Lives Matter, climate change action and Covid vaccines”; a white American incel who is “is fed up with feminism”; and a pro-Russia Bavarian whose “social vacuum” is filled with German QAnon and anti-vaxxer groups on Telegram. As Ebner explains, she uses these aliases to “infiltrate movements that I wouldn’t be able to join using my real identity”. One might well recoil at the use of “infiltrate” here, since Ebner doesn’t so much infiltrate any particular “movement” as marvel at and “fact-check” the misapprehensions of the extremists she comes into contact with.

In any case, this still leaves the larger question of whether Ebner has any right to deceive these people, however odious they may seem. There was an (arguably more ethical) alternative: like most researchers and journalists, she could have just requested to interview the extremists. This may well have given her a much richer perspective into their lives.

In choosing to do “undercover research”, as she calls it, Ebner is fundamentally and irrevocably at odds with the academic community in which she now finds herself. She is currently doing a PhD at Oxford, where she studies online radicalisation. And deceiving human research subjects is not only frowned upon in academia, but is strictly forbidden and potentially career-ending for the academic who engages in it. It has been this way for some time, certainly since the controversy that engulfed the American sociologist Laud Humphreys, who went undercover for his book on men who visit public restrooms in search of sex with other men. More recently, Peter Boghossian came under trenchant criticism for hoodwinking the editors of several academic journals as part of a hoax intended to expose the intellectual lunacy of grievance studies. Boghossian resigned from Portland State University in September 2021.

Ebner, who is scarcely a junior researcher, must surely know the stakes here, yet the insouciance with which she discusses her undercover approach is quite extraordinary. “Adopting a fake identity,” she writes in Going Dark, “is not unlike developing the character in a novel.” Or acting. According to The Times, Ebner’s spell as a children’s TV actor — she played “the part of a villainous bicycle thief called Lady Lila in an Austrian children’s TV show, Tom Turbo” — helped her “to develop her research abilities”.

As evidence for her thesis that “extreme ideas have conquered the mainstream”, Ebner doesn’t so much conduct research as selectively gather material from news websites and progressive NGOs and think-tanks to confirm it. The picture she paints of contemporary Britain is particularly bleak, and if you had never visited these shores and with only Ebner’s book to go on you could be forgiven for thinking that the UK is a freak show of racist football fans, misogynist cops, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and despicable “Terfs”. In her discussion of racism in English football, she cites an Economist article on how non-white players performed better when stadiums were empty during Covid lockdowns. “Experts linked this to the absence of racist abuse during games,” she relays, accepting this finding at face value and neglecting to add that the research was carried out in Italy.

But the cardinal error at the heart of Going Mainstream is that it conflates Right-wing populism and even liberal opposition to radical progressivism with the beliefs of violent extremists and mass-killers. Tucker Carlson, for example, is accused of purveying the so-called “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, an idea that “has inspired multiple deadly terror attacks in recent years”, including the 2019 Christchurch massacre in which Brenton Tarrant murdered 51 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Carlson, of course, has never sought to justify, much less called for, the use of mass-murder to halt migration to the West, but in Ebner’s rendering there is little daylight between Carlson and Tarrant, the former simply the mainstream incarnation of the latter. Ebner doesn’t flatly say this, but she assuredly implies it.

Insinuation is also the means by which she seeks to tarnish gender-critical feminists. “Transphobia is not limited to online commentators,” she writes, citing the Labour MP Rosie Duffield as an example of a “high-profile” politician who has “lent legitimacy to anti-trans attitudes”. Immediately after quoting Duffield’s comment that trans women are “male bodied biological men”, Ebner seamlessly transitions to Vladimir Putin and his “defence of traditional family values”. Duffield, apparently, is on Team Putin. As for Ebner, it’s very clear whose side she is on, because she takes pains to tell us. “As a cis-gender woman I refuse to yield to those voices who want to sow divisions in the feminist and LGBTQ communities,” she writes.

Ebner’s elisions and exaggerations also extend to the political power and cultural prestige of those she denounces as extremists. “Andrew Tate is an example of toxic masculinity that has made it to the mainstream,” she writes, despite him being a globally reviled figure, albeit one with a huge online following. Similarly, she describes “dangerous” Jordan Peterson as “an establishment figure”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he been ritually vilified in legacy media outlets and faced numerous cancellation efforts.

Towards the end of the book, Ebner approvingly cites her fellow extremism expert Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who in 2018 published a book with a near-identical thesis. Last month, Miller-Idriss came to public attention for an article she had written on “the intersection of extremism and fitness” and how neo-Nazis were using gyms and combat sports to lure in new recruits. The piece was roundly mocked, prompting Miller-Idriss to respond on Twitter by insisting that “I was a high school & college athlete. I work out several times/week. Fitness is key to my own well-being…” In Going Mainstream, Ebner has her own Miller-Idriss moment when she suggests that the UK parenting platform Mumsnet is a hotbed of extremist radicalisation. “Many parents who come to Mumsnet for knowledge, advice and support find themselves in a breeding ground for transphobia,” she remarks, citing one user called “Mike” as an authority for this statement.

While much of Going Mainstream is taken up with curating and correcting the most extreme views of anti-progressives, Ebner also interviews — using her real name — radical activists on the Left, including the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion’s London offshoot and a Black Lives Matter activist from Brooklyn called “Dr J”. Here she praises their idealism and bravery and resilience. There is no fact-checking. There is only credulous deference.

As a guide to how people become extremists, Going Mainstream offers scant illumination because it’s rooted in a tremendous epistemic arrogance that sees extremism as a deviation from the cosmopolitan liberalism to which Ebner subscribes. From her perspective, people become extreme because they have fallen prey to disinformation or are working through some psychological issue, and that, were it not for this, they would be on the side of the angels. And until they realise this, she seems certain that they should be “deplatformed” and that “harmful content” on social media should be removed.

It is here that her tactics bear a striking resemblance to Rufo’s, who, as a recent appointee of Governor Ron DeSantis to the board of New College of Florida, hopes to dismantle its gender studies department. Both Ebner and Rufo would no doubt be horrified at this: their political views and judgements are radically at odds with each other. But in their alarmism, selectivity and censoriousness, they are surely kindred spirits, transfixed and perennially triggered by the Twilight Zone-like unreality of the extremists they’re obsessed with.

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