This story, like many, begins in a front of a small PC in the front room of a modest home in a non-descript suburb. I say non-descript because while today it is somewhat popular, then it was the back end of a humble town.
A boy of perhaps 10 sits at the PC and is working at learning the ins and outs of a programming language. His world is a simple one: school, raising pets, family, household jobs, few friends, bullying, isolation, confusion. The PC is a refuge of order, predictability in a chaotic hurtful world. An unquestioning ally who challenges only a lack of logic, an error in syntax.
By 16 the scene is largely unchanged. The boy is more gangly, no less confused, no more in receipt of the guidance that would impart clarity, because in large part his elders are as ignorant as he. The world is, as they say, a big and scary place.
It’s to this boy that I glance when I, as a middle-aged man, see the unfolding mise en scene of the contemporary US. But while many are fixated on the precursors to National Socialism and fitting comparisons to Trump, it’s to the radicalised youth I find myself looking, and wondering how many are the same child, in the same dark world, but for whom fascism is a light, a magnet, acting upon their needs.
Consider for a moment the faces of the young men we’re seeing on our screens, but removed from the awfulness of their ideology. Richard Spencer just prior to being punched for the second time on that day, happy at being asked about the frog on his lapel.
The unnamed guy, still wearing his school backpack and Totenkopf hat, feeling like a tough guy.
Each of these men are nerds. Willowy weaklings. They sport none of the hallmarks of masculinity; musculature, fulsome beards, strong jaws. They are virgins of the sort to deride without irony inaccessible women – which by definition is near-all women – as femnazis. They are the sorts to have been the denizens of libraries and chess clubs, to have played Warhammer or DnD. They are Oedipal time bombs, a cliché of gender and control confusion.
And they are my people.
I have a macabre fascination with the radicalisation of these youths, and the path they have taken, because in the years of my own confusion I may well have been coaxed to the same path. My fascination in part rests on the realisation that these fools are only foot soldiers needing to be fought on the way to the real bosses, but also in the transformation of fascism from a street-fighting creed beloved of morons to a hastily-typed, poorly-spelled ocean of comments on bulletin boards. And further, that in light of Spencer’s attempt to foment a pogrom, and Bissonette’s massacre, that behind these words is a growing likelihood of action.
It’s that willingness to spring to action that is the real transformation in C21st fascism. We can debate endlessly concern on suppressing free/hate speech, and the contrary risk that inaction leads to the harm of innocents – witness the pearl-clutching associated with punching Spencer and the lack of a thread joined to Bissonette, a customer of hate speech who needed sense slapped into him a long time ago.
While online radicalisation continues unabated in an environment of easy access to guns there is the omnipresent threat of more lives being lost. Lives lost among people who have done little more than to offend the sensibilities of radicals by simply being: being something readily and easily characterised as offensive via a closed logical circuit of spittle-laden invective.
This change is concerning and confusing because the apparent underlying motivation, being a poorly socialised nerd, has never been easier. The culture in which that younger me invested himself is now ubiquitous. Console games are a must-have icon for young men of all walks (let alone women), and geekery has never been more in demand. Dotcom and gadget billionaires are the darlings of all-too-many political elites. Nerds are smexy. So from where does this hatred well?
If I learned anything in those days of long ago it’s that confirmation bias is a powerful influence. Back when Huntington published his essay on the ‘clash of civilisations’ we liberals argued as strongly as possible that to give substance to that foolishness was to merely fuel to the bonfire of the military. Then the concern was that the US would look to China as the great threat, and force an ideological stand-off in justification of military pork-barrels.
Little did we know then that the real bugbear would become Islam. So each year since 2001 I’ve watched the echo-chamber grow in volume, with voices of all sorts joining the clamour to condemn aliens and self-confirm their own fears. Today in 2017 I see people I consider rational proclaiming loudly a conspiracy by Islam and “international financiers” – read “Jews” – to overwhelm the West. We are past the wondering and worrying, and find ourselves watching to a shadow-play of action and reaction.
It’s into this maelstrom of misinformation, fear and exploitation that is see my weaklings fall. Small men of the sorts who could not defend themselves in a brawl. Men for whom there can only ever be strength in numbers, or arms. Protected by the rhetorical shield of an ideology belonging to what was once the strongest nation on Earth, they are now closing ranks against a paper tiger.
And I wonder, what next? If the Coalition of the Frightened succeeds and the rhizome of fascism spreads within our own state will my weaklings be safe? Will they be able to hide behind their rhetoric and screens? Or will the real brutes assume the mantle?