Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation
New York: Viking, 2019
For the past five years, New Yorker scribe Andrew Marantz has been working a steady beat, writing about Internet trolls and dank memes on the Far Right (which in his mind is still the “Alt Right”). Antisocial is a compilation of some of those writings, strung together with some outtakes and new material.
The immediacy of the old magazine pieces survives, so they still have spunk and readability for a page or two. Then our interest flags and we’re bored because, hey, it’s useless old news. It’s fun to take a trip down Memory Lane, but three years later we don’t need to read a blow-by-blow record of Marantz’s observations and conversations during the DeploraBall in January 2017.
That night-long pre-inauguration party at the National Press Club in Washington, DC is the great set-piece at the beginning of the book, but its placement there hurts the overall structure. It should have been edited down or moved to the back. Marantz didn’t do this because either he’s lazy (I doubt that) or his editors at Viking didn’t really edit much (which I believe; par for the course these days in commercial publishing), or, most likely, because this section gives the author a chance to cut loose, name-drop, and amaze us all as he enters the Belly of the Beast. Gavin McInnes! Roger Stone! Milo Yiannopoulos! Lucian Wintrich! Mike Cernovich! And Richard Spencer (who was banned from the DeploraBall, but whom Marantz encounters elsewhere)!
The sum of all this name-dropping is neither sociological observation nor investigative journalism, and is too often, alas, dreary and uninteresting. Perhaps that’s why the book isn’t exactly flying off the shelves at the bookstores. (Well, actually, it hasn’t even made it to the shelves of my local Amazonbooks or Barnes & Noble, nor does the New York Public Library system have so much as a single copy.) But the fact remains that Marantz’s take on things tends toward extreme superficiality, like that of someone whose grasp of metapolitics comes entirely from sporadic glances at BuzzFeed or The Guardian, and believes Richard Spencer is the leader of the Alt Right.
The DeploraBall happened in early 2017 and was generally regarded as an “Alt Lite” shindig. It had all the delicacy and acumen of a MAGA hat, yet it was an event where Pepe the Frog insignia were streng verboten; Pepe was thought too edgy. But Marantz’s mindset in Antisocial is even more antiquated than that: I’d place it at about, oh, mid-2015. Hence the big stars in his Right-wing firmament are people like McInnes, Yiannopoulos, and Cernovich.
Especially Cernovich. This book might be more accurately titled, Hanging Out with Mike Cernovich. We open the book with Marantz and Cernovich at the DeploraBall in Washington, DC; we close a year later when they’re at a similar event in New York. At other times they’re together in Chicagoland, or hanging out at the Cernovich house in Southern California. (I’m sure I’m leaving something out – oh yes, phone calls and texts all the while.)
Sadly and poignantly, Marantz imagines he’s a modern Virgil, leading us through the inferno of the performative Right . . . and maybe even fulfilling the promise of the subtitle, “Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.” But in point of fact he never even gets us to the First Circle of Hell, because he’s too busy partying with the likes of Cernovich, McInnes, Yiannnopoulos, and Wintrich – minor characters and online celebrities, known mainly for their pranking and trolling.
Marantz has little interest in substantive thinkers or veteran race-realists: say, Kevin MacDonald, or Jared Taylor – both of whom Marantz mentions, but never meets – let alone such dense writers as Ricardo Duchesne or Guillaume Faye (neither of whom, like Counter-Currents, gets mentioned at all). Marantz wants the sensationalistic, the lurid; he goes for low-hanging fruit, not ideas or demographics. When he describes Steve Sailer as someone who popularized “HBD” (human biodiversity) as a topic twenty years ago, and goes on to say that HBD largely focuses on the correlation between race and IQ, Marantz dismisses it all as a nutty topic beneath contempt. He apparently expects us all to moan and froth at the mouth like Pavlov’s dog. Because such thoughts are racist and bad.
In this respect, Marantz is like an old Borscht Belt comic, only his schtick is riffing on dank memes and Twitter trolls instead of his mother-in-law. And as it happens he’s a pretty good public speaker – sharp, knowing, and full of funny, self-deprecating anecdotes, much like the young Woody Allen, whom Marantz would resemble if he shaved his scraggly red beard and grew a bigger nose.
Two weeks ago, on the night before this book’s publication, I went to see him talk at the Brooklyn Public Library. He was in a one-and-one with Virginia Heffernan of Wired. They’d done podcasts together, and had their banter down pat. But it was Marantz who did most of the talking and held the audience in the palm of his hand. Admittedly he had a claque of family, friends, and New Yorker co-workers who laughed and applauded at every joke (though TV critic Emily Nussbaum was usually busy checking her smartphone). Basically he was doing standup, or a funny TEDx Talk. His little wisecracks were polished to a high gloss, and accordingly lacked any discernible point. For some reason he often punctuated them with non sequitur references to Socrates and John Stuart Mill. Even those got a laugh. So, D for substance but A+ for performance.
The most Woody Allen-ish line of the night was when Marantz told how surprised he was when he found that the Far Right was still talking about the Jewish Question:
I didn’t really expect to get into the Jew thing when I started this. I thought they’d at least updated their playbook a little. The new stuff. Transphobia, xenophobia, you know . . .
(Audience: Ha ha ha ha.)
At the time I took this to be mildly ironical, but now I realize he was dead serious, or as serious as he can manage. He doesn’t believe that race-realist or “Alt Right” issues have any substance at all. To him, they’re just vacuous cult beliefs. You know, like something Scientologists would do. (If you get clear, you can become an Operating Thetan!) For Marantz, the JQ doesn’t really exist, in the sense that it speaks to any reality worth bothering with. We can debate forever whether this is because he is actively deceitful, or just blanking out on inconvenient realities, the way Jews often do. I’m not sure it makes a difference.
Marantz is glib and can deliver mile-a-minute patter, but has no depth; he can’t describe what’s in front of his own nose. Through repeated exposure, however, he’s managed to perceive some basic facts about Right-wing media. For example, he’s learned that yesterday’s libertarian may very likely become tomorrow’s White Nationalist. This is a phenomenon Marantz calls the “libertarian-to-Alt Right pipeline.” (In the book he calls it “the libertarian-to-far-right pipeline” and credits the expression to Mike Enoch.) He regards it as worthy of deep investigation, but he’s not going to rouse himself to investigate the matter seriously. It’s just another throwaway line in his act.
Early in his Internet journo-ing – say, five years ago – Marantz was mostly interested in the natural history of the meme, and how ideas go viral. That would be 2014, a watershed year when “meme” still had its original Richard Dawkins meaning (an idea-virus that aggressively replicates itself over space and time) and did not yet invariably connote a comical image with a caption in capital letters. Marantz was then investigating such online media as BuzzFeed and Upworthy, sites that were short on substance but long on clickability. This led him to Emerson Spartz, the 20-something “King of Viral Media” (according to Forbes). Spartz had built a business devoted to discovering which memes and features would go viral, and which wouldn’t.
The content per se didn’t much matter. “As far as I could tell,” writes Marantz, “Emerson Spartz wasn’t using his memetic superpower either for good or for evil, exactly. He was using it mainly to monetize cat GIFs.”
All well and good and innocent enough, and Marantz might have continued on with this rather dry, techy subject matter. But then, in 2015-2016, Donald Trump happened. Trump was a bonanza for journalists of all shapes and sizes, however they might whinge and moan about him. It was a particularly happy development for Marantz, because he now had specialized knowledge. Thanks to Spartz, he understood “virality,” and he could see how it was being used and mastered by Trump fans and all the memeing malcontents who were coming to be known as the “Alt Right.”
So now Andrew Marantz tacked to a new course, and homed in on an irresistibly rancid subject: the viral meme as the seducer and assassin of youth. In Antisocial, he illustrates this notion through two extended case studies. One of them is factual, with actual, verifiable people; the other is so cliché-ridden and evasive that I initially took it to be a fictional composite. The “real” example is an intellectually omnivorous male person who worked in Web development, made podcasts, and gradually migrated from libertarian politics to the Far Right. The other example tells about a young woman in her 20s who was supposedly exposed to racialist politics through her boyfriend, and soon tumbled headlong into the Right-wing rabbithole.
The male tech-worker and podcaster is Mike Enoch of The Right Stuff. Marantz’s relentless, gratuitous pursuit of Enoch and his relatives is one of the most extraordinary and sadistic examples of modern ambush journalism. It’s also the creepiest thing in the book.
Under the guise of doing “investigative journalism” about the Far Right and the Internet, Marantz spent months trying to harass and humiliate Enoch. Finally, Marantz chased after Enoch’s parents and other family members with e-mails and telephone calls, and at least two visits to his father’s and stepmother’s house in New Jersey, and one to his mother’s place in Manhattan.
We see Marantz pawing through family photo albums and hearing recollections of how sickly Mike was as a child. Much is made of the fact that Mike had a mixed-race foster sibling and a half-Jewish wife. “So how did Mike turn evil?” Marantz asks in a hundred different ways. He coaxes cringing apologies from the parents for Mike’s behavior – and he gets them, too, because these are normal people who simply have no defenses against intruders who ask prurient personal questions. These are normal people who want to be well thought of by the world, even if that world is being represented by a wormy little magazine writer.
There was no substantive investigative purpose to this harassment of an obscure, peaceful family. Marantz just wanted to snap up juicy fact-goodies for his lurid narrative – fact-goodies that could be checked and rechecked by his magazine’s gauntlet of fact-checkers. But for all of Marantz’s stalking and fact-squirreling, Mike Enoch’s exact crime is never really explained. He made edgy, funny, provocative podcasts, and he helped give Andrew Marantz a great career boost. Neither of these is a hanging offense.
Now we come to the other lurid story, which Marantz in his library talk described as “The Red-Pilled Girl” who “Got Sucked into Websites.” The girl is one Samantha, a bright but unambitious girl who grew up in New Jersey and small-town Florida and now lives in an unnamed town in the South where she works various jobs as a bartender and a barista. Our nondescript girl in Nowheresville is introduced to the wacky world of the Far Right after she idly Google-searches “the day of the rope.” This is an expression her Chad-like boyfriend once used and which she’s evidently never heard before.
You can guess what happens next. Through the magic of the Internet, Samantha swiftly becomes a committed White Nationalist. The scales fall from her eyes and she realizes that she’s been living in a false mirage, as in The Matrix; and she now faces the stark horror of Red Pill Reality. Samantha joins Identity Evropa and soon becomes its women’s coordinator. This means she gets to do the Skype interviews when women apply to IE, and also maintains a lively set of Discord and Slack channels. She goes to fashy parties. Richard Spencer attempts to put the make on her, and persuades her to give a “Nazi salute.”
Finally – the story goes – she gets sick and tired of all the anger and hatred she sees in her Discord channels, so she quietly drops out of IE. Though dates are not given, this would appear to be toward the end of 2017, after the notorious Charlottesville weekend in August and the abortive NPI conference in November.
This timing calls into question her actual motivation. Rightist groups were under intense scrutiny from press and the antifa. There would soon be wholesale hacking and dissemination of IE’s Discord chats. So we have to think that Samantha was really afraid of being doxed: exposed to family, friends, and co-workers as a leader of an underground “hate group.”
So, fear of disgrace and punishment was Samantha’s likeliest motivation for quitting IE. And as an extra safeguard, she decides to sell herself to the other side. She sends an e-mail to Andrew Marantz at his New Yorker office at the World Trade Tower. She knows the name, and has the e-mail alias, because Marantz has just published his grueling, mean-spirited exposé of Mike Enoch (October 2017). This sort of treatment is not something Samantha wants to happen to her.
So for the next year-and-a-half, by Marantz’s reckoning – this would take us up to about mid-2019 – he and Samantha are very chatty with each other. And no wonder. Samantha’s adventures and evasions provide a nice, long, moralizing coda for Marantz’s upcoming book.
But how much of her story, as printed, is true? How much is spin from Andrew Marantz, or invention and prevarication from Samantha? And then there’s the question of concealment. To keep Samantha talking, Marantz evidently agreed not to reveal names, places, and incidents. (He was never so circumspect when invading the privacy of Mike Enoch and his relatives.) This lack of hard facts would never get past the fact-checkers at The New Yorker, and this must be why Samantha’s tale was never published in the magazine.
In its own way, Marantz’s less-than-factual Samantha story is as tawdry and sleazy as his attempts to humiliate Enoch and family, or his description of the participants at Cernovich’s buffoonish parties in Washington or New York. Like most of the book, these tales are mean-spirited and frivolous: non-stop point-and-splutter. Marantz mocks his subjects and derides them for having stupid, evil ideas. But he never engages in any substantive discussion of why those ideas are stupid or evil.