The first hint was a swastika and an SS symbol hastily spray-painted on a plywood barrier outside a building site on Newark Avenue in Jersey City. It was November 12 2016, the weekend after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Something was happening, though I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I had seen this kind of graffiti before. It’s an easy way for a punk with a can of spray paint and a bad attitude to thumb his nose at authority and common decency. It’s the kind of low-rent rebellion that snotty adolescents think is edgy. They were usually symbols without much content or meaning apart from inchoate antisocial anger. On that frosty day three years ago, I rolled my eyes, muttered a curse, and moved on. “Stupid little shithead.”
But then I saw it again. And again. Soon, I noticed graffiti swastikas, and other Nazi symbols, sprouting like blooms of fecal bacteria all over Jersey City, Newark, and New York. Some of my students at Rutgers University reported incidents of Islamophobic and racist attacks, even before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Something was happening; a virulent, foetid stream of hate that had long seemed dormant, or at least forced underground, for decades had returned to the surface of American life. The Nazis were back.
We have been awash in a Fascist, Alt-Right, neo-Nazi resurgence that has become ever-more apparent since the 2016 election. It started with graffiti and slogans, marched out of the most squalid reaches of the “Dark Web” and anything-goes social media sites like 4chan and 8chan, and into the streets of Charlottesville and cities and towns across the United States. This new generation of brownshirts wear the Fred Perry polos of the Proud Boys , or the fatigues and flak vests of the Oath Keepers, and they stand under the Stars and Stripes, the Vinland, and Kekistan flags. The look is new, but the message is very old; it is the same cant of hate, chanted by the same pathetic would-be “Teutonic heroes” for the last century and more.
It would all be so laughable but for the fact that their word has become deed. In the three years since the election, the United States, Canada, indeed the world has been battered by an onslaught of racist, antisemitic, and neo-Nazi violence unprecedented in its ferocity and scale. Just last week, a shooter attempted to gun down Jews at Yom Kippur services in Halle, Germany. He failed in his ambitions, but still murdered two people. Before that, in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Poway, Gilroy, and elsewhere, neo-Nazis have put their vile ideology into murderous action.
Last Sunday, the Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids found the synagogue festooned with antisemitic posters as he arrived to teach Hebrew school. In response to the news many of my friends in social media could only lament, “when will this end?”
I don’t know. But I do know that this is an old story, with deep roots in America and Canada. I should have known that the scrawled graffiti I saw in Jersey City three years ago was no mere sophomoric rebellion; I have seen this all before. As a journalist for the Montreal Gazette and Wired News more than two decades ago, I reported on the first manifestations of online hate that have metastasized into the festering horror we suffer today. It was the subject of a chapter of my first book, Fuzzy Logic: Dispatches from the Information Revolution.
Starting today, The Typescript will republish that chapter in a series over the next few weeks. Rereading that chapter today, it all seems too familiar. The Nazis are back; they never really went away.
ZOG Day Afternoon
It was 1994, and a virulent infection seemed to be spreading throughout the Internet. The echo of virtual jackboots reverberated throughout the on-line community, and in newsgroups like alt.revisionism and alt.skinheads, one thing had become clear – the Nazis had arrived . Long-time users who had always considered the Internet’s comfortable congeniality to be a given recoiled in shock and horror as white supremacists and neo-Nazis posted propaganda and sought new recruits… but they shouldn’t have been surprised.
North American ultra-rightists, particularly white supremacists, had been using computers and electronic bulletin board services for years to quietly circulate hate literature and correspondence throughout the United States and across the border into Canada for more than a decade. The Aryan Nations Liberty Net, established by former Texas Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Louis Beam in the early 1980s, actually pre-dates PeaceNet and the Alliance for Progressive Communications. Indeed, it may have been the first political computer network in North America. Canadian neo-Nazis were routinely using computers to bypass border controls on the importation of hate propaganda by 1984, and well-established BBS networks like Fidonet and WWIVnet had become popular forums for crypto-militiamen and virulent white supremacists alike.
The Internet has always been a reflection of off-line society, and there are no ideas on-line that aren’t expressed in society as a whole. However, the same tendency of the Internet – and, to a lesser degree, BBS networks – to enfranchise activists, progressive organizations and women, raised the voices of the ultra-right into the public consciousness. The voices were already there, but thanks to the Internet’s decentralized discourse, they could be heard at equal volume to everyone else’s. Thus, it was only a matter of time before this uglier reality of life off-line began to intrude on the civil environs of the Internet, and while white supremacists had been coming on-line in ones and twos for some time, the full chorus of their screed only became obvious in 1994.
A series of incidents at the National Capital Freenet had the Ottawa-based public access provider’s administration scrambling to find a response to the growing presence of racists on their system. At the centre of the controversy was a 22-year-old skinhead and self-proclaimed racist named Jason Smith, a member of a Canadian offshoot of the notoriously violent Detroit-based Northern Hammer Skins. Smith began posting messages on the can.politics and alt.skinheads newsgroups, attacking minorities and gays, and seeking recruits for his group and for the Heritage Front, Canada’s leading neo-Nazi organization.
His posts were a provocative call to action, exhorting all white Canadians to rise up against their Jewish and non-white “oppressors” in the name of white power. “It is time we stopped our apathetical [sic] views of ethnic diversity and assimilation and did something about it,” he wrote, “Stand up for yourselves, be proud of who you are, and your accomplishments. It is because of our very compassion and gullibility that we have come to this point. We are constantly trying to present a good face to the world, trying to be the ‘Good Samaritans,’ all at the expense of ourselves. Perhaps it’s time we were selfish?” In another post to alt.revisionism, he made the object of his hate clear: “The Jew is a parasite that must be detached from its host in order to heal the disease it has brought upon the people.”
The Freenet was in a bind. On one hand, it existed for the express purpose of guaranteeing Internet access to anyone who would want or need it. However, the hate-filled screed and personal abuse spewing from Smith’s keyboard was more than it could ignore. The matter was ultimately referred to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, with no result, and though Smith soon abruptly disappeared from newsgroups he had haunted for almost a year, it was never resolved. Smith’s National Capital Freenet account is still active.
Though the medium was new, the message is very old. Always careful not to cross the rhetorical line between advocating racism and inciting racial violence – a distinction of great importance in Canadian law – Smith was nevertheless the ideological descendant of a political tradition stretching back to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan in 1865, and probably much longer. Organized racism and fascism emerged in the 1980s as a rare and frightening social threat. Gone were the vaguely comical Nazi-wannabe costumes and pseudo-serious posturings of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, replaced by a violent militancy wearing Doc Martens boots and bearing automatic weapons and explosives. Violence, whether real or rhetorical, is a central element in the ultra-right’s discourse, and looms like a thundercloud over the Internet.
It would be misleading to suggest that the ultra-right is a single, monolithic ideological entity. It represents a broad spectrum of ideas and opinions, from the radical libertarian anti-government stand of the so-called “Patriots” to the violent racist terrorism of the Silent Brotherhood. It is not always explicitly racist or anti-Semitic, as in the case of the Montana Freemen, but often places undisguised bigotry at the centre of its theory and programme. Nevertheless, these differences are little more than variations in emphasis – scratch a militiaman and you’ll probably find a Nazi just under the surface.
The basic tenets of the movement are an unwavering opposition to government authority, a profound conviction that the “white nations” of North America and Europe are being held hostage by an international – usually Jewish – conspiracy of bankers, communists and internationalists, and a fundamental intolerance for anyone who does not conform to its ideals of ethnic and social purity. Central to the ultra-right’s belief system is the conviction that the American (and Canadian) government is a puppet of the Jewish conspiracy they call the “Zionist Occupation Government.” They believe ZOG is behind all of the social ills facing the world and is bent of the destruction of the Aryan culture and the “mongrelization” of white racial purity.
Clutching William Pierce’s novel The Turner Diaries close to its heart, the movement’s goal is to purge America – and Canada and Europe – of social and racial corruption. In Piece’s fiction, a fanatical band of white supremacists called The Order “cleanses” North America of Jews, Blacks, minorities and immigrants. Cities are devastated in thermonuclear strikes, and in Los Angeles on the “Day of the Rope” the garroted bodies of “race traitors” are strung from trees like Christmas ornaments. The Turner Diaries is fiction, but for this generation of ultra-rightists it is more… far more. For them, the book is a manual for race war, the inspiration for their militancy, a bible. The Silent Brotherhood, the terrorist gang that gunned down Denver talk-show host Alan Berg in front of his home in 1984, consciously modeled itself on the fictional Order, and the bomber of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995 read every page like revealed truth.
However, at the heart of the ultra-right discourse are “the 14 Words,” the movement’s rallying cry. Coined by David Lane, a Silent Brotherhood terrorist serving a 50-year sentence for conspiracy, racketeering and his part in the murder of Alan Berg, the slogan carries the weight of a mystical incantation: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Smith’s messages, sometimes “exposing” an alleged international Jewish conspiracy, with veiled exhortations to violence against gays, immigrants and minorities, waved the banner of white power and rarely departed from the 14 Words. In terms of form, style and content, they were indistinguishable from the pamphlets and flyers frequently handed out by white supremacist militants at county fairs and college campuses. However, Smith represented something different, something frightening in its novelty – a young, educated neo-Nazi with the means and the motivation to use the new technologies as a weapon in the war against non-whites. “The older generation who started the [white supremacist] movement is taking a back seat to the younger generation,” Smith said at the time. “I realized the potential of the Internet both for its networking capabilities and for its information distribution potential. The Internet provides an audience that I can’t ignore… it’s a good tool for propaganda.”
This was something new – a white supremacist militant staking a claim to the Internet. Smith was a power on the alt.skinheads newsgroup, pulling conversations into line, and intimidating those anti-racists who stumbled across it. Indeed, the forum covered the whole breadth of skinhead culture, from passionate discussions on bands, information on where to buy hard-to-get recordings and fashion. One discussion, that ran for several months, dealt with the important question of whether skinhead girls should shave their pubic hair – the general consensus was “yes,” but only one skinhead girl participated in the debate. At the time when Smith was the newsgroup’s de-facto leader and moderator (being an “alt.” newsgroup, it is not officially moderated), most postings were not explicitly racist, but he ensured that white power and neo-Nazi campaigning were never far from the surface. The goal of Smith and his colleagues was to mix hate with a palatable blend of high-technology, rebellion, rock and roll and a sense of community. “It’s a new approach. It has a lot to do with our generation,” said Milton Kleim, then the neo-Nazi National Alliance’s most prominent on-line propagandist. “The main factor in this move toward new technologies is a certain elite which is filtering up as social conditions in America degenerate and as Generation X individuals like myself and Jason move into the mainstream.”
Smith and Kleim were far from mainstream, but they were part – perhaps a big part – of a transformation that had begun to sweep through white supremacist ranks in the mid-1980s. The structure of the old movement was defined, if anything, by factionalism and disunity. Each Ku Klux Klan klavern (or local chapter) across North America operated more or less independently, and few of the putative national organizations, like the National Socialist White People’s Party or the National Alliance had more than a few scattered members outside of their head offices. With the recruitment of disaffected youth – often skinheads – and the emergence of the Internet as a mass medium, that began to change. The white supremacist movement on the Internet is both more intellectually sophisticated and self-conscious than ever before. “The movement has been very fragmented in the past, and to be truthful, it hasn’t always been a brains trust. But we are becoming more organized as time goes by,” Smith observed. “What happened was a lot of the older generation in their 50s and 60s who started this way back when are beginning to take a back seat to the younger generation. We’re generation X, we’re the most educated generation that has come along yet, and we see the errors that our forerunners made. We were educated in the same educational system as everyone else in this country, and so we now the perceptions and the way people… I was subjected to those same anti-racist and anti-fascist programs, those rights for gays programs, and the multicultural programs which try and get people to accept these things. We know exactly what the opposition is trying to do, because we were brought up with them.”
This new generation of ultra-rightist militants has sought to use the Internet to put Louis Beam’s doctrine of “leaderless resistance” into practice. This doctrine holds that an anti-government force needs to build flexibility and stealth into its very organizational structure… by having no formal structure.
A system of organization that is based upon the cell organization but does not have any central control or direction, that is in fact almost identical to the methods used by the Committees of Correspondence during the American Revolution. Utilizing the Leaderless Resistance concept, all individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization. (Louis Beam, “Leaderless Resistance,” The Seditionist, February 1992)
While on-line neo-Nazis typically share a phenomenal level of ideological consistency – most, if not all “speak the 14 Words” – there is no central organization. Smith and, to a lesser extent Kleim, operated as a freelance racist militant despite his affiliation with the Northern Hammerskins, whose whole Canadian membership doubtless numbered considerably less than a dozen. However, for a movement committed to leaderless resistance, the Internet was a godsend. A movement consisting of any number of small cells and regional organizations at the fringes of society would ordinarily have a tough time creating any cohesion.
Since the founding of the Klan at a Christmas party in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865 the ultra-right has sought to create a sense of solidarity, community and brotherhood through propaganda and ritual.* At the centre of the white supremacist’s political experience, however, is the all-important rally and cross-burning, a ritual opportunity for neo-Nazis to reaffirm their commitment to the movement, collect dues, sell souvenirs and memorabilia and frighten the wits out of their “race enemies.” Rallies, like the annual Aryan Fest at the Aryan Nations’ compound in Hayden Lake , Idaho, or the notorious gathering in Caroline, Alberta, in September 1990, and skinhead rock concerts and parties are mostly social events. Though they often draw handfuls of participants from distant locations, they are above all local – at best regional – events. With that in mind, these rallies, as frightening as they may be to non-racists, are inadequate as means of mobilizing mass support for the 14 Words. For the neo-Nazis of Smith’s generation, and the established organizations that want to reach out to them, the Internet offers an opportunity to break out of the movement’s historical parochialism.
The Internet is both cheap and easily accessible. Anything that can be printed can be placed on a Web Site, e-mailed to colleagues and fellow travelers, or posted on Usenet newsgroups – and at extremely low cost. The same economies of scale that prevented individual political activists and organizations across the political spectrum from reaching a broad audience using traditional media guaranteed in the past that there were relatively few neo-Nazi publications in circulation. However, the information revolution has liberated activists of all stripes from these media, and just as the Internet has encouraged a flowering of dissent and opened up the discourse of the left, it has stimulated the metastasization of the ultra-right discourse.
The ultra-right’s old guard has only grudgingly embraced the Internet. The National Alliance in the U.S. and the Heritage Front in Canada have established Internet presences – though the latter are generally promoted by American proxies, due to relatively stringent Canadian laws against hate propaganda. Indeed, the Internet has permitted Canadian and German racists to publish their opinions beyond the reach of their respective countries’ laws, while still reaching an audience at home. The National Socialist White People’s Party (formerly the American Nazi Party), the National Alliance, Heritage Front and others publish listserv newsletters and book publishers and skinhead record companies offer the literature and music of hate to anyone with a credit card. Yet the vast majority of ultra-right militants on the Internet are freelance propagandists like Smith, operating on their own initiative and pursuing a campaign of “leaderless resistance.” If they even belong to established organizations, their on-line activities are neither controlled nor explicitly sanctioned by the traditional leadership.
Photo by Adam Jones
[*] The history of the Ku Klux Klan has been anything but continuous. The original Klan was suppressed under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, only to be revived by William Simmons in 1915, following the box office success of D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of A Nation. That Klan collapsed in the wake of scandal and infighting in the mid-1920s, and was revived once again after World War II by white nationalists who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Today’s Klan is a fractious movement consisting of a number of squabbling organizations, each claiming to be the “true” heirs of the racist terrorists who met in Pulaski in 1865.