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Contra Antisocial, gatekeepers won’t save us

Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by Andrew Marantz. Viking, 400 pages.

At the climax of Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, having been taken on a journey by New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz through several circles of digital hell, meeting a cavalcade of increasingly horrible entrepreneurs and propagandists along the way, the prose style suddenly shifts, and the reader is introduced to a pseudonymous woman, Samantha. The book’s penultimate chapter follows Samantha’s descent into organized white supremacy, from her initial disgust at learning that her then-boyfriend identified as a fascist, to her subsequent curiosity about what this could mean, to her forays into the online world of the so-called alt-right. Eventually, she becomes an organizer and recruiter for the clean-cut “identitarians” of Identity Evropa, recently rebranded as the American Identity Movement.

Unlike in most of the book, Marantz is absent as a first-person narrator throughout this extended passage, which includes a party held following a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—not the August 12, 2017, rally at which Heather Heyer was killed, but another one held a few months earlier. Samantha finds herself flirting with Richard Spencer, noting the adulation with which the young men around them speak of his work. “Do you get off on the fact that these kids treat you like a god?” she asks him. Later, some of these budding fascists get riled up and start greeting each other and Spencer with Nazi salutes, yelling “Sieg!” and “Heil!” back and forth in a terrifying call-and-response. “Richard, from across the room, looked straight at Samantha and raised one eyebrow,” Marantz writes. “He didn’t have to do more than that. His meaning was unambiguous: So? You’re too good to do it, too?” And then she does. “Her arm went up. She did it. God help her, she did it.”

As a piece of literary reporting, this passage is exquisite—it could only be the product of hundreds of hours of interviews, which Marantz takes care to note he conducted. Vividly detailed and deftly written, the story of Samantha’s radicalization (and her subsequent departure from the movement) reads more like a short work of fiction than journalism. But for all of the psychological texture Marantz is able to capture in this moment, he leaves unanswered some fundamental questions: Why would a woman who has already, for some period of time, dedicated her life to building up a white nationalist organization feel apprehensive about hailing Richard Spencer with a Nazi salute? And, really, why should the reader care about her moment’s hesitation? To put it bluntly: What exactly is surprising about a fascist doing fascist shit?

When Samantha finally leaves Identity Evropa and the alt-right, we learn, it takes her some time to admit to her friends where she’s been and what she’s done. “Whenever she tried to examine her most fundamental beliefs and desires—before the movement, during, and after—she didn’t find rage or self-love or a death wish or a lust for power,” Marantz writes. “She found nothing solid at all.” Unfortunately, she’s not the only one.

The lesson of the last few years of political upheaval, for Marantz, has been that the institutions of the establishment —the media establishment in particular—are necessary, if flawed.

Antisocial is on its face an attempt to document how the cynics and demagogues of the contemporary far-right exploited the myopia and self-absorbed utopianism of tech entrepreneurs to marshal political influence. “I spent about three years immersing myself in two worlds,” Marantz explains, “the world of the gate-crashers . . . and the world of the new gatekeepers of Silicon Valley, who, whether intentionally or not, afforded the gatecrashers their unprecedented power.” That is, among both the Mike Cernoviches and the Peter Thiels of America. But the book is perhaps best read as an accidental memoir—a revealing glimpse into how staff writers at The New Yorker understand what’s happening in the world, rather than an especially insightful account of what’s actually happening in the world. This is not to impugn Marantz’s reporting: he is clearly a talented journalist, one able to win the trust of people he finds distasteful or absurd and to write about them in a way that reveals their anxieties, their contradictions, and their picayune spats and resentments. But the conceptual framework Marantz uses to interpret all of this undermines the good reporting that Antisocial contains. “If we want to understand what is happening to our country, we can’t rely on wishful thinking,” he writes at the beginning of the book. “We have to look at the problem—at how our national vocabulary, and thus our national character, are in the process of being shattered.”

Despite the fact that these ideas—a national vocabulary and national character—are central to Antisocial, Marantz never really bothers to explain what he means by them, except to note that in the mid-twentieth century, they were “both reflected and shaped by the core institutions of the Fourth Estate.” Instead, he goes straight to mourning their disappearance. “It suddenly seemed quaint to recall that there had ever been such a thing as a great American consensus,” he writes.

In a sleight-of-hand maneuver, Antisocial seeks its intellectual heft elsewhere, turning to Richard Rorty, a philosopher who had a moment of posthumous viral fame immediately following the election of Donald Trump when dismayed liberals took to sharing a 1998 passage from his work that appeared to anticipate the predicament in which they found themselves: 

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. 

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . . .

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. . . . All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

Marantz, too, is moved by Rorty’s insight. In Antisocial, he leans heavily on the philosopher’s idea of “contingency,” essentially a fancy way to say that a more just and equitable society is not inevitable—that it is made and can be unmade. This is an important corrective to the prevailing liberal view most often articulated through the contextless recitation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous proclamation that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Setting aside the debate over whether Dr. King was making a theological argument or a political one, Marantz is rightfully adamant that this sentiment, as it is understood by white liberals, leads to paralysis and despair because it fails to account for contingency. And yet, for all of his purported reliance on this concept, Antisocial does not actually show us what contingency looks like in the world—that is to say, change, conflict, and struggle.

Instead, the conflict documented in Antisocial is largely interpersonal: rivalries between the subjects of his reporting, their resentment of the mainstream media, and the tension that arises between Marantz, a Jewish reporter for an establishment publication, and his many far-right interviewees. To his credit, Marantz doesn’t shy away from this tension, and he makes sure to signal his rejection of the both-sidesism manifest in the worst of contemporary journalism. “The plain fact was that the alt-right was a racist movement full of creeps and liars,” he writes at one point. “If a newspaper’s house style didn’t allow its reporters to say so, at least by implication, then the house style was preventing its reporters from telling the truth.” Feature writers at prestigious magazines have always been less beholden to these norms, but still, you can admire Marantz for being honest about his subjectivity and position—indeed, this is what is most interesting (and paradoxical) about the book. “Of all that I resented about the Deplorables,” he writes, “one of the things I found most irksome was that they forced me to think like an establishment shill.”

This admission, more than anything to do with the polarization of the mythical American conversation wrought by the internet, is the real thesis of Antisocial. The lesson of the last few years of political upheaval, for Marantz, has been that the institutions of the establishment —the media establishment in particular—are necessary, if flawed. His career has brought him to a place where he finds himself defending the institutions that as a younger man—perhaps one not so different from those he now confronts—he criticized. “All things being equal, it’s cooler to be a rebel than an establishment shill,” he writes.

But all things aren’t equal. Some norms—such as welcoming the stranger or respecting the dignity of women or resisting the urge to punch random pedestrians in the face—really are worth preserving. It’s definitionally non-edgy to affirm this sort of thing. It feels obvious, sentimental, conformist. Sooner or later, though, most people grow up and stop trying to prove how edgy they are. Sometimes, when everyone in the world is angry at you, it’s because you’re a singularly perceptive iconoclast assailing the hypocrisy of the system. Other times, when everyone is angry at you, it’s because you’re just being an asshole.

This is all true enough, although one might wonder how useful it is to consider questions of politics and ideology in terms of being “cool,” “edgy,” or “conformist.” One might also wonder when, where, and for whom “welcoming the stranger” and “respecting the dignity of women” were ever really norms, let alone respected ones.

It is precisely this consensus that brought us to the point at which we now find ourselves, not its hijacking or corruption.

Marantz points to his job at The New Yorker as what cured him of his youthful anti-establishment stance. “Much later, when I found myself working in the inner sanctum of contemporary journalism, I started to let go of my knee-jerk contrarianism,” he writes. “Gradually, reluctantly, I admitted to myself that institutions can also have significant upsides . . . as it turns out, it’s possible for a thing to be uncool and also necessary.” And yet, however high it might be riding the “Trump Bump,” the apparent necessity of a magazine like The New Yorker has not insulated it from technological changes in the media industry or financial upheaval in the wider economy that Marantz glancingly chronicles in Antisocial. If anything, The New Yorker’s belief in its own necessity has sometimes hampered its ability to anticipate or respond to those changes. Consider the magazine’s slow, reluctant turn to the digital: “It is impossible to be so good that you can survive the transformation of media brought on by the internet just by being a good publication—except for The New Yorker,” New York Capital (now Politico New York) reported in 2014.

Tellingly, the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, makes several appearances in Antisocial: there is Remnick rallying the troops the morning after Donald Trump’s election; Remnick peeking over Marantz’s shoulder as he peruses far-right memes on Facebook; Remnick complaining to Marantz about how young people are ruining the world. “I love the Youngs, I really do,” Remnick says. “But you guys are going to destroy everything, aren’t you?” Like Marantz, Remnick is a gatekeeper, though perhaps a less reluctant one.

In the end, Antisocial’s focus on how the national discourse has been distorted or corrupted by reactionary grifters and the digital platforms on which they have thrived comes at the expense of an analysis of the material conditions that gave rise to such platforms or made reactionary politics attractive to a certain subset of Americans in the first place. Marantz notes only in passing that “in the United States, the disruptive effects of social media coincided with a period of stark economic inequality, cultural unrest, and rapid demographic change”; when he references the viral Rorty quote that proves crucial to his analysis, he excludes the bit about the exhausted and disorganized working class. These omissions matter because to the extent that there was ever such a thing as the Great American Consensus, it was built by decades of neoliberal hegemony and centuries of white supremacy: the undermining of what few social programs U.S. workers won during the mass mobilizations of the New Deal and Civil Rights eras; the dismantling of the welfare state and the militarization of the police, trained by racist wars against the Global South; the financialization of capital, which immiserated millions of Americans as it provided backing for the very tech platforms Marantz wants to criticize and put private equity vultures at the helm of his cherished Fourth Estate. In other words, it is precisely this consensus that brought us to the point at which we now find ourselves, not its hijacking or corruption.

Given that Marantz clearly understands that the power of fascism lies its ability to offer answers, interpretations, and solutions to the crises that liberalism would prefer to wave away, this is a shocking elision. But if Marantz himself does not wave these crises away, he declines to offer anything better in their place. There are very few concrete proposals in Antisocial beyond the suggestion that websites like Reddit should have stronger moderation policies, although a promotional op-ed for the New York Times adapted from Marantz’s book—hey, it pays to be an institutionalist!—offers some clarification: “Tomorrow, by fiat, Mark Zuckerberg could make Facebook slightly less profitable and enormously less immoral: He could hire thousands more content moderators and pay them fairly. Or he could replace Sheryl Sandberg with Susan Benesch, a human rights lawyer and an expert on how speech can lead to violence.” While strictly true, this also “leaves a lot out,” as Marantz himself is fond of writing.

For a book ostensibly concerned with change, Antisocial lacks a serious theory of how and why it happens. “At some point, the broken American vocabulary will be replaced by a new one,” Marantz predicts, rather feebly. “But whatever comes next will bear the scars of the current disruption.” In the meantime, he suggests, it might make sense “to demand better, more thoughtful gatekeepers.” We’ll see if that one catches on anytime soon.