Age-old hate

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - RICHARD COOKE

In Fe­bru­ary, a mem­ber of fed­eral par­lia­ment sat down with a small group of anony­mous white su­prem­a­cists and recorded an in­ter­view for a pod­cast called The Con­vict Re­port. It was pro­duced by an alt-right out­fit called the Din­goes, who re­leased it on an in­ter­na­tional white na­tion­al­ist me­dia net­work called The Right Stuff. What hap­pened im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards was just as sur­pris­ing: noth­ing. Ge­orge Chris­tensen didn’t apol­o­gise or back-pedal. He wasn’t rep­ri­manded or fired or even crit­i­cised much.

Buz­zFeed Aus­tralia ap­proached Chris­tensen, point­ing out the vast quan­tity of anti-Semitic, ho­mo­pho­bic and anti-Abo­rig­i­nal ma­te­rial that the Din­goes were re­spon­si­ble for. The Na­tion­als MP replied that, while the group was “a bit wild” and he didn’t “agree with all their views”, any at­tempt to sanc­tion him was guilt by as­so­ci­a­tion. Not long af­ter Chris­tensen ap­peared, The Con­vict Re­port had a new theme song. It was by a house band called Dachau Blues, and was ac­com­pa­nied by im­agery of an oven on fire, in case there was any am­bi­gu­ity.

How had this hap­pened? In May I con­tacted Chris­tensen’s of­fice, sug­gest­ing he must have re­alised the true na­ture of the group. Af­ter all, The Con­vict Re­port was dis­trib­uted along­side The Daily Shoah, the largest neo-Nazi pod­cast in the world. Chris­tensen said he had been en­cour­aged by for­mer La­bor leader Mark Latham ap­pear­ing on The Con­vict Re­port (per­haps that should have been a warn­ing sign), and had not known about the racist con­tent. He said he did not know the hosts had dis­trib­uted articles re­fer­ring to Jewish “rats” and the “Jewish Prob­lem”. “I re­ject and ab­hor anti-Semitism,” Chris­tensen told me. “I re­ject and ab­hor ra­cial nationalism.” There was still no sign of re­gret, though.

But some have re­gret foisted upon them. Days af­ter Chris­tensen’s re­sponse, the Din­goes in­vited lead­ing neo-Nazi and host of The Daily Shoah, Mike Enoch, to Aus­tralia. Chris­tensen fi­nally re­alised the scale of what he had done, and broke into a sweat. First, he tried to per­son­ally pre­vent Enoch from en­ter­ing the coun­try; as the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald put it, “the staunch free-speech ad­vo­cate now ar­gues that a visa ap­pli­ca­tion … should be knocked back”. Asked yet again about the anti-Semitism, Chris­tensen told the ABC, “If I had known that, there is no way I would have done that in­ter­view.” He de­scribed the Din­goes’ in­vo­ca­tion of Hitler as “insanity”.

Are the Din­goes and their ilk even worth writ­ing about? There’s no doubt they’re triv­ial and pub­lic­ity seek­ing, and have only a hand­ful of lis­ten­ers. They have at­tracted cur­rent and for­mer politi­cians to their pod­cast, but these politi­cians are also at­ten­tion seek­ers with small au­di­ences. Nev­er­the­less, the Din­goes are part of a new era of anti-Semitism fos­tered by the rise of so­cial me­dia. That fire will not go out, whether it’s “given oxy­gen” or not.

In the first weeks of the Trump pres­i­dency I met the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Matt Bai. He lamented, over a sec­ond drink, how much had changed. Even the na­ture of his hate mail. “I re­ally thought the anti-Semitism that my par­ents talked about had died,” he said. “Then, per­haps six months ago, this tor­rent started. I mean, it’s un­be­liev­able. It changed from a cou­ple of hate mes­sages a year to dozens a week. Jew this, Jew that. Where has it come from?”

Bai was not alone in notic­ing a dif­fer­ence. Over the course of the US elec­tion cam­paign, Jewish jour­nal­ists re­ceived such a vast num­ber of anti-Semitic tweets that the Anti-Defama­tion League (a Jewish non-govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion) pro­duced a spe­cial re­port on the phe­nom­e­non. It found that more than 2.6 million tweets con­tain­ing an­tiSemitic lan­guage were posted be­tween Au­gust 2015 and July 2016. Ac­cord­ing to the ADL’s es­ti­mate, these tweets were read more than 10 bil­lion times.

One jour­nal­ist, a “Never Trump” con­ser­va­tive called Ben Shapiro, re­ceived more than 7400 pieces of anti-Semitic abuse. Dozens of smears were di­rected at his new­born child. It was all ap­par­ently co-or­di­nated by a small num­ber of ac­counts, only a few thou­sand, but they were pro­lific in their out­put. The ADL study found that most were Trump sup­port­ers, and fo­cused their at­ten­tion on crit­ics of Trump.

While many of their tech­niques were all too fa­mil­iar – pic­tures of con­cen­tra­tion camps, yel­low stars, ovens and an­tiSemitic car­toons – they also utilised new kinds of ha­tred. The word “Skype”, for ex­am­ple, is a quasi-ho­mo­phone of “kike” that can­not be in­ter­cepted by con­tent fil­ters. So too the “echoes”, triple paren­the­ses placed around Jewish names or words as­so­ci­ated with anti-Semitic con­spir­acy the­o­ries. (These fresh ep­i­thets are all Din­goes staples.)

By June last year, (((echoes))) were com­mon enough to war­rant an of­fi­cial en­try in the ADL Hate Sym­bols Data­base. Google had to re­move a browser ex­ten­sion that ap­plied the stigma to Jewish names au­to­mat­i­cally. Is­raeli news­pa­per Haaretz re­ported that the sym­bol was be­ing used as a show of de­fi­ance as well: “to com­bat the on­line vit­riol, Jews and non-Jews alike are adopt­ing a con­tro­ver­sial new method which, some crit­ics say, is equiv­a­lent to pin­ning a yel­low ‘Jude’ star to one’s shirt”. This ar­ti­cle did not men­tion the orig­i­na­tor of the echoes: The Daily Shoah pod­cast, hosted by Mike Enoch.

That’s the trou­ble with writ­ing off hand­ful-sized au­di­ences as ir­rel­e­van­cies. Cranks have driven the his­tory of anti-Semitic ha­tred just as of­ten as em­per­ors. The pro­lific and in­flu­en­tial Holo­caust de­nier Ernst Zün­del, for ex­am­ple, be­gan his pub­lish­ing ca­reer with a pam­phlet claim­ing UFOs were Nazi space­craft from Antarc­tica. Some think Zün­del didn’t re­ally be­lieve the UFO stuff, and only wanted at­ten­tion for his racist the­o­ries; oth­ers think that the racist the­o­ries were a bid for at­ten­tion as well.

The democrati­sa­tion of me­dia of­fers an un­prece­dented reach to these kinds of peo­ple. In the 1980s, Zün­del was able to con­tact and in­flu­ence Arab heads of state with only a type­writer (al­beit un­der un­usu­ally fer­tile con­di­tions). Now his heirs can broad­cast to mil­lions with even less ef­fort. Many modern anti-Semites seem to be­gin their ca­reers as trolls or at­ten­tion seek­ers, and then har­den into

more doc­tri­naire ha­tred as they find an au­di­ence, ap­prov­ing or not.

It’s dif­fi­cult to tell if these be­liefs are sin­cere, or what a sin­cerely held be­lief even means any­more. The con­tro­versy sur­round­ing a YouTube celebrity called PewDiePie shows the dif­fi­culty in iden­ti­fy­ing “se­ri­ous” anti-Semitism. PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjell­berg, has more than 53 million sub­scribers and, ac­cord­ing to a Va­ri­ety sur­vey, is now more pop­u­lar among teens than Hol­ly­wood stars such as Jen­nifer Lawrence. In PewDiePie’s videos he plays games and makes jokes. In the of­fend­ing episode, the joke was em­ploy­ing two In­dian men on the out­sourc­ing site Fiverr to hold up a sign. It read “DEATH TO ALL JEWS”.

The sup­posed point was that you can buy any­thing these days, but the punch­line was an ex­treme taboo vi­o­la­tion. The Wall Street Journal launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which found other hate­ful im­agery, but PewDiePie de­nied fos­ter­ing big­otry. “Some have been point­ing to my videos and say­ing that I am giv­ing cred­i­bil­ity to the anti-Semitic movement,” he wrote in a blog post. “I am in no way sup­port­ing any kind of hate­ful at­ti­tudes.” Still, both YouTube and Dis­ney ended ad­ver­tis­ing re­la­tion­ships worth more than $14 million.

The PewDiePie in­ci­dent was in­ter­preted as a spat be­tween old and new me­dia. For some, it was joke taken far too se­ri­ously by a gen­er­a­tion of jour­nal­ists that doesn’t un­der­stand in­ter­net hu­mour and its mul­ti­ple lay­ers of irony. Oth­ers ar­gued the video was a racist ac­tion, re­gard­less of in­tent. This was a line taken not only by the ac­tivist left but also the far right. Prom­i­nent white na­tion­al­ist blog the Daily Stormer ar­gued it didn’t mat­ter whether PewDiePie’s anti-Jewish jokes were gen­uine or not: “the ef­fect is the same; it nor­mal­izes Nazism, and marginal­izes our en­e­mies”.

Guardian com­men­ta­tor Ja­son Wil­son and oth­ers have writ­ten about this strange qual­ity of modern on­line racism. It can ex­ist in a kind of quan­tum state, where it is ironic and non-ironic at the same time, ac­cord­ing to the po­si­tion of the ob­server. Take on­line racism se­ri­ously and you’ve been fooled. Dis­miss it and you miss the hid­den mes­sage. There is an un­usual prece­dent for this. While in Croa­tia a few years ago, I was told that when the re­gion was still part of com­mu­nist Yu­goslavia some stu­dents had used the songs and sym­bols of the Nazi-aligned Us­taše movement as a vari­a­tion on punk protest. What could be more of­fen­sive to the com­mu­nist au­thor­i­ties than ironic fas­cism? When those au­thor­i­ties crum­bled and the coun­try de­scended into war, the ironic fas­cists be­came real ones.

That’s a tra­jec­tory fol­lowed by more than one alt-right per­son­age. How se­ri­ously can we take peo­ple called “weev” or “Baked Alaska”? What if they broad­cast hate to au­di­ences

of hun­dreds of thou­sands of sus­cep­ti­ble young peo­ple? Real-life neo-Nazi ral­lies are now an ex­ten­sion of this dark car­ni­val, a kind of live trolling. They are be­decked not just with swastikas but also with ban­ners of a green car­toon frog called Pepe, who has be­come an­other ADL-recog­nised hate sym­bol.

Pepe also fea­tures in the logo of a Bris­bane-based elec­tri­cian called Smerff Elec­tri­cal. In it, he is wear­ing an SS uni­form and stand­ing out­side the gates of Auschwitz. Smerff is the only open cor­po­rate spon­sor of the Daily Stormer. On 6 June, A Cur­rent Affair ran a seg­ment on Smerff called ‘NeoNazi Sparky’, in which a re­porter bailed up the pro­pri­etor, Si­mon Hickey, and asked him about his record of Holo­caust de­nial. Af­ter the seg­ment aired, Smerff claimed they’d been flooded with calls of sup­port, and were booked out for a month. Whether they were telling the truth or merely trolling, it was im­pos­si­ble to say.

The Bris­bane Times quoted an ex­pert who said the best way to deal with far-right ex­trem­ists was not to be an­gry or shocked, but to laugh at them. In the past that ap­proach might have worked. Not now: the far right are laugh­ing too.

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