Mystery Cults and the Alt-Right

The chain of referrers on this is longer than the paragraph I wanted to share: via Salty Current and Josh Marshall, I was alerted to this tidbit of wisdom by John Herrman.

It is worth noting that the platforms most flamboyantly dedicated to a borrowed idea of free speech and assembly are the same ones that have struggled most intensely with groups of users who seek to organize and disrupt their platforms. A community of trolls on an internet platform is, in political terms, not totally unlike a fascist movement in a weak liberal democracy: It engages with and uses the rules and protections of the system it inhabits with the intent of subverting it and eventually remaking it in their image or, if that fails, merely destroying it.

I’m more in the camp of Josh Marshall than Herrman, though.

And yet, I think the Times article by John Herrman basically misses the mark in thinking that racist groups’ reaction to this banning was planned or showed some deeper understanding or even sympathy with the authoritarian nature of these platforms. […]

The mix of provocation, harassment and trolling is a major part and in some ways the totality of what the digital far-right is about. That’s why racist activists are so eager to give speeches at Berkeley. They get a reaction. Fights start. They create polarization. If some racist freak holds that speech is his backyard or basement with ten friends, who cares? No one does. No one even knows … That is truly the unique hell of online racist provocateurs: no one even knowing they’re ranting. A new version of Twitter for racists only will be the digital equivalent of the same thing.

You can’t change culture without engaging in it on some level, and you’re in the culture-changing business if you want to move from being a fringe to an accepted part of culture. Hence the focus on dog whistles and the worship of memesas a way of wedging fringe ideas into popular culture.

Kek, in the Alt-Right’s telling, is the “deity” of the semi-ironic “religion” the white nationalist movement has created for itself online — partly for amusement, as a way to troll liberals and self-righteous conservatives — and to make a political point. He is a god of chaos and darkness, with the head of a frog, the source of their memetic “magic,” to whom the Alt-Right and Donald Trump owe their success, according to their own explanations.

In many ways, Kek is the apotheosis of the bizarre alternative reality of the Alt-Right: at once absurdly juvenile, transgressive and racist, as well as reflecting a deeper, pseudo-intellectual purpose that lends it an appeal to young ideologues who fancy themselves deep thinkers. It dwells in that murky area they often occupy, between satire, irony, mockery, and serious ideology; Kek can be both a big joke to pull on liberals and a reflection of the Alt-Right’s own self-image as serious agents of chaos in modern society.

Most of all, Kek has become a kind of tribal marker of the Alt-Right: Its meaning obscure and unavailable to ordinary people — “normies,” in their lingo — referencing Kek is most often just a way of signaling to fellow conversants online that the writer embraces the principles of chaos and destruction that are central to Alt-Right thinking.

This combination of religious “mystery cults” and secular bigotry is potent and tough to scrub away. Fortunately, it can be diluted.

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.…

The problem with going more abstract, as Lee Atwater famously suggested, is that the emotional punch of the original is watered down, and in the natural drift of language you can lose control of where it goes. “States’ Rights” was a code-word for defending bigotry, but since then other interest groups have started using it for their own ends. At the same time, social justice advocates work hard to educate the public on what the dog whistle really means, changing it from covert to overt. Pepe the Frog is a great example of this. The memes that don’t escape into popular culture, such as the rebranding of the OK symbol, aren’t of much concern because “no one even knows” they exist and they fail to “disrupt [public] platforms.”

But if this bigotry has strong religious connotations, I have to ask: where’s the atheist community in all this? Shouldn’t we be leading the charge against this attempt to remake society in a racist image, due to our familiarity with the underlying tactics?