Courtesy of the progressive media collective Unicorn Riot, the public now knows about the unnerving contents of a private chat room where the white supremacist extremists who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, planned violent action.
These images display the fuzzy line between the online rhetoric of the extreme right and their behavior. Their constant pretense of humor—”we were just joking”—masks a process of radicalization that has claimed lives, and will almost certainly continue to do so.
The logs—which show the content of a white supremacist chat room on the popular messaging site Discord—reveal that, in the days and weeks leading up to Charlottesville, there was ample chatter about violence, as well as several instances of the by now ubiquitous conservative “joke” about running over protesters. With users sporting screen names like “kristall.night,” it doesn’t take a degree in PoliSci to discern their affinities.
In addition, as Unicorn Riot’s article on the subject points out, “Discord users also discussed how to bring various kinds of weapons to the rally, with some of them giving instructions on how to embed screws into flagpoles or sign handles that could later be used as a stabbing weapon.”
Talk of stabbing antifascists was met with enthusiasm from many participants in the Unite The Right chat room, with one user, “Kurt – VA” quipping “impaling people is always the best.” Another Unite The Right attendee replied to this with a gruesome image of a field full of bodies impaled on stakes, and then called for this treatment to be extended to Muslims and refugees.
For now, there is no evidence that James Alex Fields Jr., the young neo-Nazi who murdered counter-protester Heather Heyer and seriously injured 19 others, was in the Discord chat room in question. But he had plenty of fans there after the fact. One user posted a photoshopped image of the press photo that captured Fields’ speeding car, edited to look like the famous DeLorean from Back to Future, and captioned it “Back to the Fhurer” [sic]. Another posted a racist image that mocked one of the Black men run over by Fields before writing, “the woman killed was a coal BURNER anyways.”
Discord has shut down the room in the wake of this report. But the cruelty and hatred expressed there is the “free speech” that countless liberals, a number of leftists, and even the American Civil Liberties Union have wrung their hands over and defended as vital to the liberty of all. But this is not merely about directionless expectoration of words that then dissolve into the “marketplace of ideas”; this is about language that foretells action, meant to ratchet up feelings of violent hatred to a point where words become deeds and self-fulfilling prophecies kick into high gear.
We must revisit the fascist tactics underlying the self-proclaimed “alt-right” and its meme culture; this particular variant on 4chan-style memetics is descended directly from classic fascist Big Lie propaganda, after all. As I wrote for the Baffler, both seek to repeat lies often enough until a critical mass of people take them as factual, but also seek to simply cause confusion about what is actually true.
Eli Mosley, of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa, says of the chat logs that his critics are “hysterical” over the “dark humor” of neo-Nazis. “The idea that little tractor meme is somehow a call to run people over is ridiculous,” he says. This, of course, is of a piece with neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer calling the “Heil Trump” salutes he led at a conference “ironic exuberance.”
Meme culture is, of course, not inherently awful. It’s simply a style of humor that trades in layers of irony and posturing, with a Dadaist flair for the absurd. Like a color film negative, it lays multiple meanings on top of one another, flattening them into a new image. But its nature as a floating signifier that admits multiple interpretations means it’s a useful vehicle for those who wish to mask concrete intentions that might otherwise be unpopular or repulsive.
Consider the example of “White Sharia,” a popular, memetic joke among young Nazis and those sympathetic to their ideology, helpfully analyzed by the AngryWhiteMen blog. It pivots off of Islamophobic right-wing hysteria about “creeping Sharia” to say that a form of “White Sharia,” which oppressed women in a “civilized” way, would be more desirable. This is positioned as a joke, a form of exaggeration meant to highlight how “brutal” Sharia law is. But like all “alt-right” memes, it bespeaks sincere desire masked by 4chan humour.
A white supremacist podcaster Sacco Vandal (a pseudonym) had this to say about the subject:
“In our skeptical, jaded postmodern milieu, humor is the most effective way to reach people. Satire is the language that American youths speak. [Nazi podcast] The Right Stuff has shown the effectiveness of extremely edgy and convolutedly layered irony.
The White Sharia meme, like the helicopter and oven jokes before it, is an extreme form of edgy and ironic humor. It has caused so much controversy only because it has become so popular. It serves as a distant beacon of the patriarchy we as a people need and will one day have. It is both a rallying cry for the disillusioned young men in our movement as well as their guiding light. The inspiration it is giving these young men will assist them in their future culture creation.” (Emphasis mine).
The “helicopter” joke is a reference to crimes committed by the Pinochet regime, where dissidents were thrown to their deaths from helicopters. Right-wing extremists online will nowadays talk about giving someone a “free helicopter ride” as a subtle way of threatening them with murder. The “oven jokes” are, of course, about the Holocaust. This is what passes for edgy humor among the so-called alt-right.
Sacco Vandal is quite clear here: These are “humorous” ways of expressing desire and intent, not hyperbolically joking around about something they’d never actually want to do.
Thus, everyone should consider the memes in the Charlottesville Discord chat, which featured ‘”jokes” about running over activists, in a similar light—especially as we learn a KKK “Imperial Wizard” fired live ammunition at non-white counter-protesters in Charlottesville. The logs, “humor” and all, prefigured the violence of the event itself.
These are not jokes; these are promises.
In future discussions about the “free speech” of these groups, we must attend to that reality. The discussion must be broadened to include the all-but-inevitable actions these words are meant to incite. It is not merely a matter of spoken words, it’s about words that create deeds, which are specifically crafted to inspire actions like Fields’.
A slew of morally spineless hot takes and editorials, such as the caterwauling that followed supposed “antifa violence” in Berkeley, all testify to this obsession with a theory of speech that is increasingly unmoored from reality. The scapegoating of antifa activists as unilaterally violent, which breathes life into a right-wing mania, must cease, as should any propagandizing on behalf of Nazis that casts them as “well dressed” or “peaceful,” a notion that the Discord logs should belie in any case. We should not rush to aid these white supremacists in a court of law, nor valorize them as the ultimate rampart guarding the rights of left-wing dissidents. We should also not obsess over the minutiae of their internal squabbles. We should, further, contrast counter-protesters’ self-defense with the genocide promised by Spencer, Mosley, and their allies.
Let me be plain: People who repeat the “peaceful right-wing activists” myth are being played.
There should always be vigorous debate about speech in a democratic society, but the current discourse, even after the surge in far-right terrorism we’ve seen in recent years, remains stubbornly abstract and content-free, retreating to the same tired cliches we’ve all heard countless times before. “You’re the real Nazi,” “their speech rights guarantee yours,” “it’s just words.”
That has to change if we’re to present an effective response to the rise of neo-fascism. What transpired in Charlottesville will almost certainly happen again.