For a journalist, reporting about people whose views you might share can be tricky enough, but reporting about people whose views you find completely abhorrent can be even trickier. Andrew Marantz started covering what he calls the “bad-guys-on-the-internet beat” for The New Yorker before the surprising result of the 2016 presidential election made those same guys rejoice.
In his first book, “Antisocial,” Marantz thinks his way through a dilemma. Ignoring this online contingent and its noxious brew of white nationalism and misogyny might withhold some of the mainstream attention it craves, but in an era of social media even the most marginal trolls can still propagate elaborate conspiracy theories, no matter how asinine.
So if you’re entrusted with covering this particular subculture, what do you do? Does the journalistic principle of neutrality doom you to the bland and ultimately distorting vocabulary of “both sides” and “racially tinged”?
“Antisocial” is about “web-savvy bigots,” “soft-brained conspiracists” and “mere grifters or opportunists,” but it’s also about Marantz’s searching attempt to understand people he describes as truly deplorable without letting his moral compass get wrecked. He spends a lot of time with the self-proclaimed alt-right, as well as those who declare that the alt-right “brand” is “toxic” while they nevertheless parrot the same views, including demands for a white ethnostate and a deep contempt for women.
Marantz knows that evenhandedness is a professional principle; but even more fundamental, he says, is the need for honesty. “The plain fact was that the alt-right was a racist movement full of creeps and liars,” he writes. “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.”
The book weaves together profiles of online extremists that first appeared in The New Yorker with Marantz’s memorable and often surreal reporting experiences: taking out the recycling while listening to a hate-filled podcast; leaving a party early to hang out at a cigar bar with white nationalists; getting a lunchtime phone call from an anti-Semite who asks what Marantz is eating. (Marantz tells him it’s a salad when in fact it’s a bagel with lox.)
The narrative is trenchant and intelligent; wry but not glib; humane but never indulgent. Most of Marantz’s subjects are enraged, resentful and — when it comes to the non-internet parts of their lives — profoundly mediocre. Their appetite for attention is so desperate that it’s both repugnant and poignant. They are compulsively reactionary, defining themselves in opposition to liberalism — or, that is, to their caricature of it.
Tearing things down thrills them; building things up bores them. “As for what kind of society might emerge from the ashes,” Marantz writes, “they had no coherent vision, and showed little interest in developing one.”
This isn’t to say they’re all exactly the same. Mike Cernovich, a hawker of nutritional supplements and self-published books about the irresistibility of simian dominance, insists he isn’t part of the alt-right even though he slips into the first person when he mentions the movement. Cernovich grew up working-class in small-town Illinois, the son of a man who considers Fox News “too liberal.”
By contrast, Mike E. Peinovich grew up in liberal, affluent Montclair, N.J. All you really need to know about Peinovich’s m.o. is that he hosts a podcast called “The Daily Shoah.” Peinovich’s father was so ashamed by his son’s radicalization that after the Charlottesville rally in 2017, he asked Peinovich to change his name — eliciting bruised complaints from Peinovich about his father’s abject insensitivity. “Perhaps if you had shown more sympathy and interest in fairness,” Mike Jr. wrote to Mike Sr., “my decision would be different.”
Is this a son who feels deeply hurt? Or is this a petulant man who has a preternatural gift for trolling? Could he be a bit of both — and does that mean anything? Marantz’s wife was once a public defender who represented some people accused of “horrifically violent” crimes; if you believe in rehabilitation, do you also hold out hope that even a few of the people Marantz meets might be redeemed?
Questions like these come up again and again for Marantz, who is an essential part of this narrative, which has as much to do with the collapsing media ecosystem that allowed these people to flourish as it does with the people themselves. Marantz knows that his subjects see him as a stand-in for an insipid media elite — a boring category that he bristles at, though the lurid extremism he encounters forces him to accept that he’s a “reluctant institutionalist.” He finds himself feeling protective of a system that he knows is flawed but is better than the cruelly nihilistic alternative.
“Of all that I resented about the Deplorables,” Marantz writes, “one of the things I found most irksome was that they forced me to think like an establishment shill.”
Marantz meets a number of women who joined the alt-right movement. Some of their stories exude a dismal obliviousness: A former Bernie Sanders supporter and ardent Bob Dylan fan — “one of the last true rebels,” she gushes — busily assembles gift baskets for the DeploraBall in Washington while the male organizers do nothing to help her, scrolling through Twitter on their phones. Other trajectories are downright chilling: One woman ascended the ranks of the alt-right by appearing “confident enough to keep up with the guys, but subservient enough to know her place”; she went from being a volunteer for the Obama campaign to someone who gave a Nazi salute.
As disturbing as these specific stories are, what filled me with a creeping sense of dread were the parts of “Antisocial” that incisively describe how a Darwinian information environment has degraded to the point where it now selects for people who can command the most attention with the fewest scruples. Marantz meets a 60-year-old “surly racist” with 25,000 subscribers on YouTube who, in another era, might have been relegated to muttering on his front porch.
Reporting, storytelling, analysis, fact-checking — skills that were previously central to journalism have, for a number of online outlets, taken a back seat to snappy headlines. A jovial and apolitical internet entrepreneur tells Marantz he is “passionate about virality” and seems agnostic about the specific content of any idea, preferring to discuss how best to “ram it into people’s skulls.”
You don’t have to be a lofty establishmentarian to wonder if this approach — a crass reductio ad absurdum of giving people what they want — has already affected our ability to reflect and to deliberate, starving certain cognitive functions while feeding the arousal impulses of our lizard brains. Yes, agreed, slick media types can be annoying (I’m allowed to say that as a member of the media, don’t @ me), but even if the old guard of political journalism has often been marked by a smug conformity, Marantz writes, “What if it was replaced by something incomparably worse?”