Thursday, May 18, 2017

How to become a famous white supremacist without even trying

As far as I can tell from following the media's coverage of Richard Spencer, being a white supremacist - nay, the worldwide leader of white supremacism - requires one qualification and one only: the ability to espouse white nationalist sentiments in grammatical sentences. None of the many think-pieces about him and his important intellectual evolution ever suggests that Spencer has done anything, at least anything beyond writing grammatical sentences espousing cookie-cutter white nationalist ideas. He runs a think tank that has no staff. He writes for magazines that have no readers. He has a decent number of Twitter followers, but not even half as many as this house cat. He has never held public office, and his entire career consists of being a student, then working at a series of publications with serially decreasing readership. Last weekend, he appeared for 15 minutes in a public square in Utopiaville carrying tiki torches with like 12 other dudes defending a Robert E. Lee statue by shouting about how great Russia is.

Nonetheless, he is super famous. More famous than any other white supremacist/neo-Nazi/alt-Right/whatever dude in America today. I bet you do not, off the top of your head, know the name of the leader of the KKK, which is a real white supremacist organization with a long history of doing much worse things than writing essays. But you do know the name Richard Spencer. Nor do you know the names of anyone associated with Stormfront, nor probably even the genteel eugenicists of VDARE, who write for publications that you have probably read. But you know Richard Spencer. (Ok, for those with slightly longer memories, maybe you also know David Duke.)

That makes no apparent sense. Especially if you agree with the general view of the media establishment that white supremacism is a huge problem, why do you know the name of only one self-identified white supremacist in the entire country? Here is why. What Richard Spencer has actually done to garner the rapt attention of the entire national media establishment, and through it, the nation, is to be a person who had the same upper middle class suburban upbringing as them, went to all the same elite schools, and yet somehow ended up espousing the opposite opinions. Not just moderately contradictory opinions, which are undesirable but at least comprehensible because the debate about, say, which welfare programs are good is still pretty open, but out-and-out opposite ones, over which debate is closed. He went to a fancy high school, UVa, UChicago, and Duke, but believes things that no one at these places even bothers to argue against anymore because the consensus against them is just so consensual. And the journalists burn to know, how is this even possible? How can someone who is supposed to be just like me end up disagreeing with me? This being an extremely pressing question of clearly national significance, they set about investigating it, in profile after profile after profile after profile exploring Spencer's childhood and interviewing his former classmates and colleagues. (There are more, but they're all the same "Meet the nutjob crazypants guy we purportedly hate but can't stop writing about.")

Now, there are of course a number of other white supremacists out there who have done about as little for the cause as Spencer, and even some who have done a lot more for it, but they have failed to sustain the media's attention in the same way. There is, for example, the guy who started Stormfront. His son got a little profile in the WaPo last year for leaving the movement, but I don't see The Atlantic and Mother Jones delving into the guy's childhood and interviewing his college classmates to discern how he became who he is. They aren't interested in the "human biodiversity" crowd. I don't think that even Dylann Roof, who shot a dozen people, got this sort of sustained think-piece treatment in the high-brow magazines. What was all these lesser white-supremacists' problem? Their problem was that they didn't go to elite schools and frame their ideas in predictable but slick and grammatical little essays, sprinkled with Nietzsche references. It's not surprising - and therefore interesting - that they became white supremacists, because they were kind of already you know those kinds of people, not our kind of people. And all of those kinds of people are kind of already white supremacists more or less, right? At least none of our kind of people is surprised when one of their kind is found to have acquired a prolific neo-Nazi internet persona and a large weapons cache. But when one of our kind expresses such sympathies, it's absolutely shocking and also endlessly fascinating.

In the past, becoming famous through white supremacy posed certain usually insurmountable difficulties for most people. You had to get pretty committed to it, join an unpleasant organization, rise in its ranks, and then either publish a hugely popular book repackaging your ideas in a totally new way, or, if you were not the literary sort, probably kill a lot of people. But now, it seems that all you need to do is get a couple elite university degrees and then post an essay online announcing your epiphany that the white race is the best race and Hitler had a pretty good idea. Within a week, Slate will be referring to you as the "spokesman" for all the white supremacists in America. Interview and speaking requests will pour in. And if an entire essay seems daunting, I suspect that even a few Tweets to this effect will suffice. Just make sure they're grammatical and occasionally reference writers from an Intro to Philosophy syllabus. The simpler your position, the better, because journalists don't want to argue with you; they just want to be able to categorize you, and then fly out to interview your fourth-grade teachers about what horrible error in your otherwise socially impeccable upbringing led you to arrive at this wrong position. It's super easy! You don't have to commit to much hard intellectual labor in the white supremacist literary archive or even believe what you say, because after a year of simple but inflammatory Twitter posts and tiki-torch appearances, when the media gets bored of you, you can probably just announce that you've converted back to respectable views (or even that you got woke!), and the cycle of media fascination and speaking engagements will start up again. The contract for the memoir will come through. And you'll be set.

So, if you are an unemployed and unattached young person with the requisite educational pedigree (attention humanities majors!), and are looking for a career change, or just a career, and one that doesn't require yet another round of graduate or professional training or a big time-and-student-loan investment, professional white supremacy advocacy maybe be an ideal route for you. Oh, the places you'll go, with our insular, self-obsessed media to enable you!


Andrew Stevens said...

While reading this, I said to myself, "Wait! I know Don Black." However, I admit to only knowing about him because of the WaPo profile on his son, so good points, well made.

educatedwhinge said...

It's a problem when you posit that America is a white supremacist society, but there just aren't very many of them. It's a real event when one of them calls press conferences! If you think all problems are caused by racist bad guys, it's nice to finally have an easily accessible racist bad guys who sits for interviews etc.