“Since World War II, the lunatic fringe in the United States had always included a few hundred freaks with swastika tattoos; now there was an increasingly organized white-supremacist movement in America, one that had several points of contiguity with both Congress and the White House. This was novel, and terrifying; yet it was often referred to in the mainstream press as merely ‘edgy’ or ‘controversial.’”
Alarmingly, this turbid wave of discontent and dysfunction is much more than that. Widespread tools of social media are proving decidedly efficient in dispensing hate and confusion. That’s the argument in the book “Anti-Social” by Andrew Marantz, a writer for The New Yorker.
A Jewish American, Marantz took time in recent years to immerse himself in the vitriolic, bizarre and constantly churning world of the contemporary American Right. Call it the “alt-right” or the “alt-light,” or make hair-splitting delineations between white nationalists or white supremacists — taken together, it all amounts to a feculent miasma of bigotry, misogyny, antisemitism, violence, misinformation, vicious canards and conspiracies —and plain old meanness.
Marantz attended parties, meetings and rallies. He describes lots of ebullient celebrations where tech enthusiasts could be found circulating among self-styled nouveau-fascists. At every venue, booze was in abundance. And there were a whole lot of rallies. He got to know some of the prime movers of extremist ideologies being promulgated on a network of websites and podcasts.
It is shocking to consider the number of followers some of these media offerings have. And anyone with minimal technical know-how and the right apparatus can become a pundit ensconced in their own pulpit. One outspoken person in this story, a guy named Mike Cernovich, told Marantz, “All you need is a smartphone and balls, and you can do real journalism.”
Many outsiders were completely oblivious regarding the significant political impact of this peculiar assortment of noisome disrupters. According to Marantz, “During the long 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump seemed to draw on pools of dark energy not previously observed within the universe of the American electorate.”
These new purveyors of reactionary attitudes and rightwing viewpoints had materialized out of obscurity. None of them alone could have had much influence on the political sphere, but together they comprised a festering marsh of informational muck and mire.
Their rise had consequences, Marantz writes. “It was hard to imagine Trump winning without them.”
Marantz had many face-to-face discussions in which the exchanges were apparently friendly enough. However, on a number of occasions, Marantz was asked, “Are you a Jew?” The Jewish Question, or “JQ,” remains a lingering strain of malevolence in this mephitic landscape. In spite of his flawed ethnicity in the eyes of his interlocutors, most of them were quite willing to be interviewed and share their opinions. Cernovich had been a blogger of the “Manosphere,” which “promoted various forms of antifeminism.” For Cernovich, garnering attention of any kind was worthwhile. Two of his mottos are “Conflict is attention” and “Attention is influence.”
The Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, provided a spectacle reminiscent of the torch parades that were highlights of the Third Reich. Chanting “Jews will not replace us,” the line of angry whites — mostly all young men — gave brutal authenticity to this contagion fed by the tenebrous side of social media, becoming a “race to the bottom.” The fiasco of Charlottesville culminated with a lunatic driving his car directly into a crowd of counter-protesters. A young woman named Heather Heyer was killed. The corrosive organizer of the rally called Heyer “a fat, disgusting Communist.”
Marantz writes of how those who adopt the perspective of the alt-right in its various dimensions can fall away from friends and family. He describes the journey of Mike Enoch, who has a blog and an anti-Semitic podcast. His father talks with Marantz about his disbelief and sorrow in losing his son to such crudity.
Another story told involves a woman named Samantha, who becomes completely enthralled to a group calling itself Identity Evropa — founded by white nationalist Nathan Damigo, who had once been a U.S. Marine. Samantha worked as a bartender. Through her boyfriend, she became acquainted with rightwing extremism. She became obsessed. Her loving brother kept in touch. He called her “Vanilla Isis” and said, “I know you have a good heart. Just don’t forget who you are.” Like someone waking from a bad dream or breaking an addiction, Samantha flees from extremism and makes her way back to normal life.
The myriad individuals depicted in this book are a strange crowd, adept at traipsing the fields of technical gadgetry and gimmickry while spouting all sorts of cruelty, prejudicial untruths and silliness. Many of them are pretenders with a pose and a shallow grasp of learning. But the internet and airwaves can confer authority on even the most outrageous charlatan who is arrogant enough and loud enough to draw the interest of those who feel overlooked, unappreciated or infuriated. Hitler was once considered a comic figure with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and a coterie of risible misfits. That joke dissolved in death and terror on a vast scale.
In closing, Marantz informs the reader that the heyday of at least some of the kooks he features may be dimming into insignificance, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, formerly of Breitbart, who lost a book deal and a patron after Buzzfeed News revealed an “extensive flirtation with Neo-nazism.” The internet and the once-vaunted promise of a new age of democracy and learning we now know to have an egregious flipside. It did not take too long for ominous shadows to make their appearance. The techno-utopianism emanating from Silicon Valley must be tempered with a sober and intelligent understanding of the antisocial environment that has spawned so plentifully on the internet.
“The bigoted propagandists of the alt-right are wrong about almost everything, but they are correct about this much: the United States of America was founded by white men, for white men. The problem with the bigots is not that they acknowledge this aspect of the country’s history; the problem is that they cling to it, doing their utmost to revive the horrors of the past, instead of taking up the more difficult task of piecing together the future,” Marantz writes.
Marantz invokes the late American philosopher Richard Rorty and argues that a new moral vocabulary is desperately needed to help us find our way to an inclusive democracy. Informed citizens must beware of meretricious notions that appeal to misguided conceits and narrow-mindedness. They must cultivate a conscientious vigilance. They must have the intellectual acuity and courage to work actively for a decent world.
In an epigraph at the beginning of his book, the author quotes James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We want the arc of history to bend toward justice, truth and equality. There is no guarantee.
“It does not bend itself,” Marantz concludes. “We bend it.”
Read more in the Nov. 18-24, 2020 issue.