This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 17, Comedy
In December 2016, I flew from Los Angeles to Houston, my hometown, on a work trip for a choral piece commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. On the trip also were the piece’s composer, Ellen Reid, and our researcher, Sayd Randle, an anthropologist based in New Haven. One night, after a full day of work, we met up to debrief at Black Hole, a coffee shop in the city’s arts district. We each had a glass of wine. It was late, the cafe was half empty and we weren’t paying as much attention as we should have been, perhaps, to the people around us, listening to us talk.
The choral piece was a research-based project whose text I’d been hired to build from archival material and recorded interviews. After the three of us consolidated our data and discussed our plans for the following day, our conversation turned, as it often did, to what it felt like for each of us to navigate our respective male-dominated fields. I mentioned how exhausting it was to feel as if others thought the progress I’d made as a writer was the result of pity on the part of white gatekeepers, when really, I’d been working hard for years, clawing my way forward across an unforgiving landscape in which it often felt impossible to make any headway.
At some point, I looked up and caught the man sitting one table over from us Googling Confederate flags. I dismissed it — the cafe sat between two local universities and I figured he was working on a project for class. Later, I looked up again and saw that he’d made the flag his desktop background, angling his screen ever so slightly to face me, as if to make sure I saw. After Sayd and Ellen left for the night, I stayed behind to work. I saw then that the man was wearing a pair of red New Balances that looked recently purchased, weeks after New Balance had been declared the official shoe of the so-called alt-right.
I realized that my brain was working overtime to justify what I was looking at. Earlier I’d made eye contact with the man and smiled as he sat down near us and he had not smiled back. I’d spent the past few months reading about the rise of white nationalist groups buoyed by Donald Trump’s election. For some reason, it had not occurred to me that their members might frequent the same coffee shops I did.
I texted my boyfriend who told me to leave. I texted Ellen who also told me to leave, but not before I complimented the man on his shoes. I decided to stay. I’d never seen a white supremacist in the wild before — or at least not one so eager to be identified — and I didn’t think I would again. I had questions.
But before I could walk over to his table, a friend of his arrived at the cafe and greeted him in French. The man in the red New Balances magnified a browser window, blocking his desktop screen. The two continued their conversation, loudly enough for me to overhear, in French, a language I speak fluently, which is not something they could have known.
The man’s name was Thomas. He was a law student at the University of Houston and he was 35. When he was younger, he’d been a student of art history in France at the Sorbonne and then gone on to study film. He’d spent five years trying to become a director and now, he told his French-speaking acquaintance, he regretted those years bitterly. He’d been naïve. He’d had his head in the clouds. Now he had his feet planted firmly on the ground. He felt bad about wasting his youth. It was the biggest regret of his life.
Listening in, I wondered: Had he always been a white supremacist or had he discovered this latent interest after failing to become a filmmaker? If he’d managed to make it in the field of art history or film, would his future have turned out differently? I couldn’t help thinking of Hitler and his two-time rejection from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. I thought about what it means that the all-consuming desire to create can warp itself, in certain people, into the desire to destroy.
Then there were the parts of their conversation I didn’t understand, French words that slipped past me under the pounding beat of the disco music playing over Black Hole’s speakers. Why, for example, did the person Thomas was talking to, suddenly, out of nowhere, reference the flight of the Jews across the desert? Why did he make a point of noting that someone he’d spoken to about a job recently was “part Indian”? And why were they both speaking about the German language and about the Netherlands? Was his friend a neo-Nazi too?
After Thomas’s friend left, I left as well. It was after midnight and I was tired. More than that, I felt wrung out and empty and mad. Nothing about the experience seemed funny or intriguing anymore. I’d been tacitly threatened and made to feel scared in my own neighborhood, near the street where I’d grown up, in a city I loved. I knew people from other parts of the country expected this kind of thing from Texas, but I didn’t.
Houston boasts one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country, and is one of the only major American cities that is not majority white. The city has a black mayor who followed on the heels of a two-term mayor who was, at the time, the only openly lesbian mayor in the country. Though my friends from the East Coast tend to assume the South is a backward bastion of racism and ignorance, the first time I’d ever felt blatantly discriminated against was in my 20s when I moved to New York for graduate school, and encountered wealthy Manhattanites who appeared never to have met a black person before in their lives.
I’d spent that week at home showing the city as I knew it off to my creative team: my school, my favorite bookstore, my childhood home. But in the days following the incident at the cafe, I would catch myself doing a double take every time I sat down next to a white person at a restaurant. Each time someone in front of me didn’t hold a door open or failed to make eye contact, I would wonder: Did every white person harbor secret neo-Nazi tendencies? I’d had black and white friends my whole life, and had learned to move more or less seamlessly between both worlds. Now, I could tell, that no longer mattered. The rules had changed and the game was no longer one I felt equipped to play.
In truth, I’d started to feel this way the month before, in November 2016, on an earlier research trip we’d taken to Memphis, where I’d visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Next to well-known resistance figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, exhibits highlighted the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, and Claudette Colvin, less famous activists who nearly gave their lives to change racist laws. The museum was full of oral histories and life-sized recreations of landmark events in the Civil Rights movement. Hearing the Freedom Fighters’ voices and seeing what they’d been up against brought home to me the extraordinary value and difficulty of their achievements.
Back then, the nation was still at the height of the frenzy that surrounded Trump’s presidential campaign. I moved, most of the time, in a cloud of cynicism and frustration. I remember wondering if the generation of activists that had risen to take the place of people like Hamer and Nash would achieve what its forebears had. Was it still possible to effect change in the real world? More and more it seemed that the answer was no, that the people who tried wound up speaking in echo chambers on Twitter and Facebook to those who already agreed with them, while protests became sensationalist stories feeding the news cycle.
I also suspected that I was part of the problem: as a prep school student in Houston, and later as a student at Brown, I’d learned to validate everyone’s feelings, to ask questions instead of making demands, to make sure everyone around me felt safe and secure enough to voice their opinions. When I wanted to express displeasure or disdain, I couched it in sarcasm or irony, using coded attempts at shaming my opposition rather than outright argument. It was this same irony I heard every day in the voices of political pundits on MSNBC and in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. I’d been indoctrinated so deeply in this mode of communication that I no longer knew how to fight back any other way. The same went, it sometimes seemed, inexcusably, for our chosen leaders on the left.
Irony, Jonathan Lear writes in his book of lectures on the subject, A Case for Irony, is “a form of denial with the purpose to minimize the importance of the object.” Sarcasm, meanwhile, “is a form of aggressive discharge.” Neither works as a weapon against an enemy that doesn’t care whether its opposition is trying to minimize it or not. The left’s sardonic criticism of Trump’s buffoonery only strengthened old-guard conservatives’ faith in his ability to lead. It’s impossible to fight an enemy you don’t know, and Democrats and Republicans didn’t seem to be speaking, even remotely, the same language. The day I visited the Civil Rights museum also happened to be the day Trump won, and I remember feeling shocked when all my latent suspicions appeared suddenly to have been justified.
But then, in the months that followed, I discovered I’d been wrong.
The problem wasn’t just that the left was deploying irony as a failed weapon. It was that the deployment of that same weapon by the far right had, at the same time, turned out to be wildly successful. In forums and on social media, white nationalist rabble-rousers deployed comic cynicism and sarcasm to turn people dabbling with white supremacist ideas into full-blown devotees of the neo-Nazi movement.
Movement leader Richard Spencer popularized the phrase “alt-right” to make his ideals more palatable to mainstream journalists, but the term itself actually comprises several disparate groups. In a study of the far right’s manipulation of the media, Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis describe both “an aggressive trolling culture […] that loathes establishment liberalism and conservatism, embraces irony and in-jokes, and uses extreme speech to provoke anger in others,” and “a loosely affiliated aggregation of blogs, forums, podcasts, and Twitter personalities united by a hatred of liberalism, feminism, and multiculturalism.”
Some groups espouse anti-Semitic and racist views, while others favor anti-feminist or anti- Islam platforms instead. Figuring out who adheres to which aspect of the movement — or who is taking it seriously at all — can be difficult because so much of it depends on ironic posturing. Determining whether a person is sarcastic or sincere online can often be impossible without some sort of referent. Adherents to the movement gleefully exploit the confusion engendered by this phenomenon “to spread white supremacist thought, Islamophobia, and misogyny through irony and knowledge of internet culture,” Marwick and Lewis write.
The Daily Stormer, which The Atlantic called “arguably the leading hate site on the internet,” featured text that mimicked the caustic tone of gossip sites like Gawker. Its founder, Andrew Anglin according to reporter Luke O’Brien, drew inspiration both from Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. (“One Alinsky rule in particular stuck with Anglin,” O’Brien writes, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”) When GoDaddy stopped hosting the site, Anglin reportedly wrote that he’d been joking all along. His was an “[i]ronic Nazism disguised as real Nazism disguised as Ironic Nazism.”
It’s important not to underestimate how much this combination of irony, internet culture, and far-right politics appeals to reporters. In an interview for Vice News conducted at a conference hosted by the National Policy Institute, Spencer’s nonprofit, reporter Elle Reeve calls Spencer out as a fraud, accusing him of having accomplished nothing more than “[figuring] out how to manipulate journalists’ fixation on Twitter.” Spencer doesn’t disagree. “We understand PR,” he answers, after pointing out the fact that she’s interviewing him at that moment. “We understand how to manipulate journalists.” Even journalists who dislike writing about people like Spencer and Anglin have done so because not writing about them means not talking about the problems they represent — yet another irony of the movement, and further evidence of the ways in which they’ve deployed social media’s predilection for ironic reversals to their advantage.
In her book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Angela Nagle points to Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo who was shot and killed after a boy fell into his habitat. The event sparked widespread outrage on social media, which then became the object of derision and mockery among critics who accused the outraged of virtue signaling. Ultimately, the far right co-opted pictures of Harambe to troll liberals and left-leaning celebrities, until the famous dead gorilla transformed, somehow, into a symbol of white nationalism.
“Given the Harambe meme became a favorite of alt-right abusers,” Nagle writes,
was it then just old-fashioned racism dressed up as Internet-savvy satire, as it appealed most to those seeking to mock liberal sensitivities? Or was it a clever parody of the inane hysteria and faux-politics of liberal Internet-culture? Do those involved in such memes any longer know what motivated them and if they themselves are being ironic or not? Is it possible that they are both ironic parodists and earnest actors in a media phenomenon at the same time?
This is another way in which the white nationalist movement weaponizes irony — by tangling its critics up so hopelessly in language that it sometimes seems as if words aren’t up to the task of describing it at all. In an article about internet-speak for The Baffler in 2013, Evgeny Morozov wrote, “Old trusted words no longer mean what they used to mean; often, they don’t mean anything at all. Our language, much like everything else these days, has been hacked.” The far right picked up on the ways in which language can be warped, distorted, and rendered free of meaning on the internet through irony, and, rather than writing a think piece about it, exploited this weakness merrily to its benefit.
Back in Houston, the morning after the Confederate flag incident, I went back to Black Hole. There was Thomas, standing in front of me in line. He ordered a coffee from the girl behind the counter and I planted myself squarely in his path. I met his eyes and kept my gaze neutral. He tossed me an expression I can only describe as a smirk and headed through the glass doors of the cafe, toward the Infiniti SUV he’d double-parked in the coffee shop’s cramped lot. The cashier waved as he left, and told him to have a nice day. Once he was gone, I fantasized about outing him to her, just like I’d fantasized about confronting him the night before. Instead, I paid for my coffee, left the cafe, and walked down Montrose Boulevard toward the city’s museum district, which was less than a mile away.
The Rothko Chapel, situated alone on a grassy block near Houston’s Menil Collection, has eight concrete walls and a polished concrete floor. What light does get in comes through a partially covered skylight set into the pointed ceiling. On each wall is a triptych of Rothko canvases, each painted black, each panel painted differently. Some of them feature wild, hurried brushstrokes, and others look solid, as if the layer of black paint was applied all at once. The paintings absorb all light and sound, and the silence inside the chapel when it is empty is not like any I have ever known. Set in the center of the room are comfortable wooden pews and the effect of sitting on them, depending on one’s mood, can feel like looking through rows of windows into deep space or like sitting in an empty space bordered on all sides by locked doors.
Inside the chapel, my breathing slowed. I sat on one of the pews and thought about Thomas driving his Infiniti SUV around the city, double-parking in tiny cafe parking lots, going to classes at the University of Houston, still wishing he’d become a filmmaker, and, when no one was watching, terrorizing people who didn’t look like him. Meanwhile, in the weeks since Trump’s election, I’d called my Congress people, donated to the ACLU, and protested in the streets, and still, I’d never felt so powerless, so certain that nothing I could ever do would begin to be enough.
I took a brochure from a stack on a table near the door and sat down on a bench outside to read. Past visitors to the Chapel included Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama. The structure itself had been constructed to serve as an environment in which those who fought against injustice could be recognized and rewarded. For years, the Óscar Romero awards, honoring heroic human rights activity, had been presented there. It occurred to me that with his paintings, Rothko managed to say something without words, that was, nevertheless, universally understood. His art existed outside language, functioning as a wordless inciting force for change.
The choral piece I had come to Houston to research was called dreams of the new world. It follows the course of the western frontier from Memphis to Houston to Los Angeles, stretching from a period just after the Civil War to today. The night before, while Thomas listened, my team and I had been discussing Robert Church, a freed slave who became a millionaire in Memphis during the Reconstruction era. A respected entrepreneur, Church helped Memphis become a hub of black artistic and commercial activity, and his granddaughter, Sara Roberta Church, had been the first black woman in Memphis elected to public office. The Church family was also instrumental in protecting African-American voter rights.
I wondered if it wasn’t this conversation Thomas had been retaliating against, if his antagonism hadn’t been a direct response to the story we were trying to tell. While it was true that Thomas was out there in the streets, spreading his message, it was also true that we were fighting back against him and his kind with what tools we had. I imagined the Los Angeles Master Chorale singing louder and louder, making their voices heard over the din of people like him.
Our research trip ended. We all left Houston and went back to our respective homes. In February 2017, I started volunteering with students at a high school in South Los Angeles, mostly first-generation Americans whose parents were Mexican and Latin American immigrants. I constantly worried about what would happen to my students and their families under the Trump regime. One afternoon, I was driving home from class, stuck on the 101 freeway, when I looked up. Someone had painted IMPEACH in 10-foot-high black letters on a white wall looking out over the traffic. The letters were clumsy, poorly drawn but legible, the black paint bleeding into the white cinderblock wall. In their ugliness, they overtook the landscape, and became, for a few minutes, the only thing I could see.
While I watched, men in hard hats and construction uniforms used paint rollers to erase the word and make the wall white again. Even after the wall got its final coat of paint, I still thought about the message whenever I passed that particular stretch of the 101, imagining the work it must have taken an amateur graffiti artist to put the letters there in the dark. I bet the thousands of people who take that freeway to work each day do too. What it came to represent for me is not just a statement of revolution and resistance, but a hope and a knowledge and an understanding, a continuation of what I’d started to figure out in the Rothko Chapel.
If a group’s only MO is destruction, it stands to reason that eventually it will destroy itself. What The New York Times calls the “alt-right” isn’t a monolith, but a swarm of tribes with different agendas, some of which radically oppose one another. Ultimately, it’s not difficult to imagine them all simply tearing each other apart as the entire movement implodes. Until that point, I wonder if we shouldn’t broaden our perspective. We should not only work on undermining the white supremacist agenda, but also the cultural environment that helped it thrive and grow in the first place. Irony was an integral part of that cultural environment. I wonder then if sincerity is the last radical act left. Perhaps it is time to say what we mean.
This may be difficult in a conversation that so often takes place online. The left has, historically, held up social media as a catalyst for change, but, by this point, the right has caught on to that potential and run with it, with the president himself taking Twitter as his primary vehicle of communication. While social media platforms have served as a galvanizing force for women of color and others whose voices the mainstream media tends to ignore, they also tend to reward extremes, making political movements easy to derail by those who know how to game them (something Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election more than proves). The primary goal of Google, Facebook and Twitter is to capture users’ attention for the longest possible amount of time; how that attention gets captured — whether through hate speech, racist memes, far right propaganda, or progressive discourse — has, for years, been none of their concern.
And yet, once upon a time, social media was supposed to save us. In Kill All Normies, for example, Nagle recounts Twitter’s placement of itself at the center of the “Arab Spring” when activists in Africa and the Middle East reportedly used the platform to organize collectively and bring down oppressive regimes. By the time those revolutions gave way to civil war, widespread violence, and, in some cases, the return to power of the same military dictatorships that had been overthrown, Twitter had removed itself from the conversation. Nagle lists the fawning paeans published about social media over the course of the movement, including Heather Brooke’s The Revolution Will be Digitised: Dispatches From the Information War and Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere. She cites a similar example in Occupy.
Twitter and Facebook have unquestionably failed the left. The conviction that these companies are supposed to operate in the service of some ultimate humanitarian good reminds me now of the way certain techies fetishize Elon Musk’s plan to save humanity by moving to Mars. There, rather than succumbing to the planet’s toxic atmosphere and lack of natural resources, humans will somehow build a lasting, utopian society where we don’t repeat any of the same mistakes we’ve made here. It also calls to mind the reverence of futurist Ray Kurzweil, and his theory of an eventual human merger with machines that may make us all knowing and immortal. This future, which he calls the Singularity, is (much like the Rapture) always approaching but never quite here.
I wonder if rather than looking to technology to fix us at some point in the future, it might not make sense to look at where it has brought us. I also wonder whether it might not be the work unlikely to make any kind of splash online — odd non-denominational chapels featuring priceless works of art, huge, un-Instagrammable protest murals, new classical music performances, and other work viewers have to engage with sincerely and in real life to experience — that we need most right now.
In that same vein, what might it mean to gaze clear-eyed at the far-right agenda, admit that we are both frightened by it and ashamed of the role liberal complacency played in its rise, and start by building our weapons from there? Rather than denying what can’t be denied and minimizing what can’t be minimized, thus forfeiting the fight altogether? I’m not suggesting the left abandon cynicism, only that we stop affording it a weight it can’t carry under the current administration. Leaving kneejerk irony and the rewards it offers behind might be difficult at first. But it might also be worth it, if it means we get to take back the actual world, and build in it something new.
The text of this essay differs slightly from the version that appears in print.
Sarah LaBrie is a writer and librettist. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Guernica, Lucky Peach, The Literary Review, Epoch, Taste, and Encyclopedia Journal, among other publications. Her work for the Industry Opera’s Hopscotch was featured in The New Yorker, Wired, and on NPR. dreams of the new world, a choral piece commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and developed with composer Ellen Reid, will premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall in spring 2018.