Thursday, December 6, 2018

Political Jesters

George Hawley:
In its online discourse, the Alt-Right often presented its racism in an ironic manner, raising questions about its sincerity. It was not always clear if an Alt-Right supporter spreading a racist or anti-Semitic message was being genuine or just saying outrageous things for shock value. Many of the young men posting images of Swastikas and gas chambers online appeared more interested in breaking society’s ultimate taboos than in making genuine threats.

At times, elements of the Alt-Right presented themselves as edgy right-wing court jesters, rather than serious ideologues. This provided an element of plausible deniability about the movement’s radicalism. Such sensibilities allowed the Alt-Right to make inroads among young people who despised so-called political correctness, but who were otherwise not especially ideological.
I remember asking one of my 4-chan native sons why I kept seeing memes about reconquering Constantinople; he said, "it's a way to advocate killing Muslims without being taken too seriously."

So, indeed, this ironic distancing from truly radical positions seems to be a hallmark of the online Alt-Right. As Hawley says, when this kind of politics has emerged into the non-digital world, the humor is lost and it is revealed as just a new sort of white nationalism. But it started with an ambiguous smile.

And none of this is new. Consider the Ku Klux Klan, with its silly name, absurd costumes -- the white hood is just one variant of a range that has included Indian war paint and dressing in drag -- and ridiculous titles for its leaders, like Poobah and Grand Dragon. According to Hawley, this was quite deliberate, and it had the intended effect of persuading many northerners not to take the Klan seriously.

Hawley's recent book is about the right, but of course there have also been political pranksters on the left. The Yippies are the first to come to mind. They were clowns who attracted attention by saying ridiculous things and nominating a pig for president, but it one sense they were completely earnest: they really wanted to radically change western civilization. As it turned out their leaders were not violent, but that wasn't clear to many people at the time; when Jerry Rubin said, "You have to be willing to kill your parents," was that a joke, a metaphor, or a call to action? The ambivalence was part of the appeal.

I've been pondering this, wondering if there is some general point. Do the jokes serve as trial balloons, sussing out who laughs and who doesn't? Are they a deniable way to toss out radical ideas that might get you hissed or jailed? And if others nod along,do they serve as a sort of bridge from personal fantasy to group action?


G. Verloren said...

Not especially ideological, despise political correctness, plausible deniability about the movement's radicalism, and racist or anti-Semitic messages?

That's a pretty perfect description of countless people who supported the Third Reich.

No one could just come out and earnestly state "We're going to commit genocide against The Jews, and violently conquer all our neighbors." The entire world would have sat up, paid attention, and taken action.

But the Nazis could "joke" about it. They could make utterly shocking statements designed to embolden their power base, but winkingly pass it off as mere jokery to give their potential opponents the seed of doubt necessary for them to not take things seriously and not get involved or take action until it was much too late.

No one wanted to believe that the Nazis were monsters literally out for blood. It was unthinkable to decent people. "They must be joking, right?", and "Surely they don't actually mean that".

People were desperate for it to not be true, despite all the evidence otherwise. No one wanted any of it to be real. They wanted to think that Germany simply wanted a little "breathing room". They wanted to think that the Anschluss was simply Germans "walking into their own backyard". They wanted to think that Neville Chamberlain had indeed achieved "Peace for our time", by agreeing to the dishonoring of a defensive military alliance and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia, in order to appease an expansionist warmonger.

Again and again, the Nazis told the world their exact plans, but they always couched their message in jest, so that a fearful world could take comfort in misplaced doubt, and pretend that everything was fine, and that nothing could possibly go seriously wrong in the grand scheme of things.

Nothing has changed. The Nazis of today use the same tactics as their forebears, and the decent people of the world fall for it again and again. Not because we are stupid or incompetant - but because deep down, we want to be fooled.

It's the psychological failing that allows stage magicians to work their craft. To paraphrase a certain film, "If people actually believed the things they saw on stage, they wouldn't clap, they'd scream. Think of sawing a woman in half."

If we're going to compare the "Alt Right" to jesters, it is vital to remember that historically, it was often the jester alone who could speak the absolute truth, because couching it an air of doubt and jokery allowed the audience to fool themselves into thinking it was false.

These people are actually the monsters they "joke" about being. They always have been, and they always will be.

Unknown said...

I'm reminded of the story that one of the assassins of Walter Rathenau once punched Goebbels and screamed, “It wasn’t for swine like you that we shot Rathenau!” People can end up working for things they don't expect.

I've read that the KKK's weird costumes and lingo were intended to terrify blacks, and worked. But a tactic can have two goals, of course.

Overall, I think there's a violence in satire that has to be recognized. Celts, Norse, pagan Arabs, and others certainly recognized it, as you (John) know better than most. (I've just re-encountered the Mabinogion passage where Arawn threatens to have Pwyll "satirized to the value of a hundred stags").

Perlstein is especially good on the violence of the pretend-innocent satire of the sixties left. Memorably cruel is the scene where Abbie Hoffman, unable with his usual antics to get a rise out of his police minder, smashes the department's cherished trophy case. (One could satirically point out that at that moment his message went from the ostensible "Peace and freedom!" to "Admit it, I'm the smartest kid in the room!"--which is probably what it always really was.)