Pepe, Parentheses, and Klonversation

  • Posted on: 22 November 2016
  • By: Noah Brand

Now that everyone's become aware of the loosely affiliated pack of fascist assholes who live on the net, and has learned the term "alt-right" to collectively describe them, I've seen a certain number of pearl-clutching articles about the disturbing fact that they communicate in code. They put cartoon frogs on things they consider theirs, they put parentheses around the names of people they think are Jewish, they talk in acronyms and in-jokes and dog-whistle references. This is dismaying, and I wouldn't mind the resultant pearl-clutching except for two things.

First, that pearl-clutching is exactly the intended effect. Most of the little shits in the alt-right are having fun, chuckling to themselves about how easy it is to get a rise out of the [insert disgusting plural for non-racist people here]. Second, some (not all) of the pearl-clutchers seem to think this is a new development. It's not. Let's rewind a hundred years and see just how not-new their cute little codes are.

The second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1915 by a guy named William Simmons, who belonged to a lot of secret societies, and wanted to start his own based on a movie he'd just seen. If you look at the handbook for his KKK, you'll notice it's very big on rituals, cool-sounding titles, special Klan-only names for things, and special code phrases so you can identify other KKK members in public without tipping your hand. Like Masonic handshakes, these codes served as recognition symbols, and as fun, winking, inside-the-clubhouse toys.

That's the important thing to remember: Simmons' KKK was designed to be fun. Lots of little codes and symbols, masks and rituals, titles that read like the D&D Monster Manual. For a lot of guys, that was the appeal. Klan membership was a way to feel special, to get out of the house and spend time with the guys, to put on costumes and march around and set stuff on fire. The KKK was a social fraternal organization, a chance to sip some 'shine on the sly and talk shit with like-minded friends.

They also murdered, raped, maimed, and terrorized many, many thousands of people. It's literally impossible to determine how many, because a lot of their murders weren't reported on, since they weren't considered news, and weren't prosecuted, since they weren't considered crimes. One recent study found hundreds more lynchings than had previously been estimated. The report on its results is worth reading, because it puts into historical perspective the unspeakable horrors committed by guys who were just having a good time with the boys.

Fascism is fun. It provides a nice sense of purpose, a feeling of strength, and a way of connecting with other people. Thus, it tends to recruit among guys who lack those things. Turns out there are places on the internet where aimless, weak, socially disconnected guys were already gathering, self-sorting by self-loathing. Those places, to the surprise of nobody, are where we're seeing the alt-right infection taking hold.

Just like the KKK, these fascists provide fun. It's fun to use words you've been told over and over you must never use. It's fun to do what you're not allowed to do. It's fun to have in-jokes with people. And yeah, it's fun to get a reaction out of folks who don't like you. And why shouldn't you? You've been ostracized your whole life, told to swallow your pain and check your privilege. You are, in your own view, a plucky underdog who breaks the rules to get back at the bullies. You probably don't actually believe most of the shit you post--that's why it's called shitposting, right?--you're just having some fun.

And just like before, just like always, that fun will have real-world consequences for many, many people. Because the dumbasses just having a good time, just taking out their feelings of displacement and alienation, are good marks for the genuinely hateful. It's easy--it's always been easy--to use guys like that as the warm bodies needed to make a few scumbags start to look like a movement, and to make a movement big enough to start really hurting people.

We've heard this song before, more than once, and while the lyrics change, the melody never does. The sad guys who make up the alt-right are being suckered, and the in-jokes they think are so funny are the tools being used against them. And they won't get the real joke in time, because they never do. It's up to the rest of us to stop them, undo their damage, and dammit maybe this time try to inoculate the next generation against this infection.