In this Series, our Head of Ideology Research Unit Balša Lubarda speaks to some of the people helping to make CARR the ‘one-stop shop for knowledge and resources on right-wing extremism’.
This post discusses the work of Bàrbara Molas, CARR’s Head of Publishing and former Head of Doctoral Fellows. Bàrbara is currently finishing her doctoral studies at the Department of History, York University, Toronto (Canada). She specializes in far-right intellectual thought, Christian nationalism and transnational history, particularly the impact of Francoism in Canada.
You recently left your role as the Head of Doctoral Fellows at CARR. What is it that you took from that experience? What’s next for you at CARR?
Being the Head of Doctoral Fellows at CARR was a wonderful experience. Not only did I get to read our Doctoral Fellows’ amazing work before it was published, but I also got to share my impressions with them and chat with them in a more in-depth manner about their topics and methodologies – from which I learned greatly. After a year in that role, I now transition to Head of Publishing, from which I also hope to keep helping our Doctoral Fellows especially.
As a historian, you are often expected to produce unsettling predictions of how the future is going to unfold. Perhaps based also on your research, how do you understand the role of historians in a prosperous society?
As a historian, I believe our job is to be able to identify patterns over time. As much as this sounds rather structuralist, I do study how reactionary thinking was able to permeate progressive circles through appealing discourse in the past in order to warn contemporaries of exclusionary narratives that misuse liberal tenets in the present. For example, I analyse how ultra-conservative sectors in Canada would talk of multi-culturalism in the 1930s to attract wide audiences while advancing new parameters of exclusion on the basis of ethnicity – they would promote what I have somewhere else called ‘white multiculturalism’. I see this happening today, when the populist right uses liberal tenets like equality and social justice for reactionary purposes. In doing so, they appeal to audiences that otherwise would support progressive or even leftist political choices. Learning about the successes and failures of the radical right of the past in influencing such groups helps me see how we can identify dangerous discourse among the cacophony of contemporary politics.
“I use this term to define the nation-building project of interwar reactionary groups in Montreal which promoted the establishment of an ethnically plural society, while stressing that only groups of European (and Christian) origin could be considered ‘Canadians’.”
Your work on ‘white multiculturalism’ offers an interesting assessment of how concepts become decontested in some of the least expected ways. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Of course. ‘White multiculturalism’ is an oxymoron, and let it be clear that these are my words, not those of my historical actors. I use this term to define the nation-building project of interwar reactionary groups in Montreal which promoted the establishment of an ethnically plural society, while stressing that only groups of European (and Christian) origin could be considered ‘Canadians’. In promoting a plural nation, they were challenging the historically ‘binational’ character of Canada, defined as composed by the ‘two founding nations’ or groups of British and French descent only – with the rest of groups being classified as ‘New Canadians’ or ‘other ethnic groups’. Their purpose was to ‘uplift’ other European minorities while creating a new ‘other’, which specifically included Canadians of African, East Asian, and Jewish descent. Even though it was a project for structural and institutional inequality, it managed to captivate some audiences who thought of it as as a progressive narrative of government – as, ultimately, it did incorporate new sectors of the society into the national fact. It is important to stress that their sense of pluralism cannot in any way be compared (or thought to precede) multiculturalism as we understand it today – that is, in liberal terms.
You are currently finishing your doctoral thesis at York University, in Toronto. Would you mind telling us a bit about your doctoral project?
In my dissertation, I focus on the conceptual origins of the ‘third force’ or the idea of a trichotomic Canada – as opposed to a binational character (see my answer to question 3). I explain that, even though we thought that the conceptual origins of multiculturalism were rooted in postwar liberal understandings of pluralism, they were in fact first voiced among radical-right ideologues in the interwar period. Further, I demonstrate that the idea of establishing a multicultural Canada was not initially pursued by the political elites of British and French descent (as historians tend to argue), but was first promoted by ethnic minorities of other European descent. My analysis builds upon semiotics in order to explain that the idea of a ‘third force’ was first conceptualized as part of a conservative nation-building ideal, and then evolved when progressive sectors of the society adopted the concept (the core idea) but changed its purpose (the margin idea) – I use Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen to explain this. So, it must be clear that I am not arguing that the origins of Canadian multiculturalism lie in reactionary ideals, but that the radical-right vision of a trichotomic Canada in the interwar period and postwar liberal multiculturalism are connected through a history of a concept, that of the ‘third force’.
“’White multiculturalism’ is an oxymoron, and let it be clear that these are my words, not those of my historical actors.“
You were involved in establishing the first Spanish Civil War Virtual Museum, and in the creation of the first online database of European museums addressing historical violence and persecution. What do you think is the role of museums in addressing the mainstreaming far right we are currently experiencing. Is there something in particular you would like to see changed?
Museums are essential in making sure that memory is addressed effectively. When I say effectively I mean that museums should not attempt to create memory but reflect it. However, that is rarely the case. Ultimately, museums are tools for remembrance, and so it is important that we make sure that they take into consideration as many voices as possible. It is when memory is one-sided that radical groups (which are usually most succesful with populist rhetoric) and their simplified discourse on reality gain legitimacy. There is also the problem of remembering fascism and other totalitarian pasts. By remembering it, are we enhancing it? I don’t think so. I disagree with those who think that, for example, there shouldn’t be a Museum of Fascism in Italy. However, I see the problems in setting up that museum in Predappio, the birthplace of Benito Mussolini and essentially a contemporary ‘mecca’ for neo-fascists. I think there should be a museum, but the location should suggest that such a museum must exclusively be a place for research and understanding, rather than a place of praise. Ignoring the past never helped deal with trauma. That is especially true for Spain, where in the 1970s our political leaders decided that it was better to ‘forget and forgive’ (la transición) almost forty years of dictatorship. The result? No museums. This cannot continue this way, as it is only by remembering that one can start to understand the roots of trauma and begin the healing process. This is why we began this virtual museum project.
Recently, you have become a member of CARR’s Ideology Research Unit. How do you think your work can teach us about the importance of ideology in today’s world?
I hope to contribute by insisting that it is only because perception exists that conscious action occurs. In other words, ideology, or our mental representations of reality and our place in it, is essential in determining our expectations, our behaviour, our life. I cannot think of any field in the social sciences that can do without taking into consideration ideology. The tricky part, however, is that ideology is not always openly or plainly expressed. It is by analysing texts, systems of knowledge, or action, for example, that we can only begin to grasp its nature. And this is a fascinating task which I am sure each one of us in CARR’s Ideology Research Unit will strive to successfully achieve.
You can read more about Bàrbara’s work on far-right intellectual thought, Christian nationalism and transnational history, and the impact of Francoism in Canada here.