The alt-right has a very serious problem. I’m talking about a newly emergent problem, which actually has real promise for how the alt-right can be responded to, and also some real significance for all of us trying to make the world a better place around a whole range of deeply divisive issues. I am talking about the self-cannibalization among leaders of the alt right.
Turns out that Steve Bannon, on leaving the White House, has announced he’s going to be going after Matt Drudge, which sounds a little bit like an autoimmune disease. You know — the phenomenon where your body attacks itself. And while for some, both Bannon and Drudge are a disease; that is not my point here. My point is that they are two parts of a larger body, and now one part is now attacking the other. And it’s not the only example in that body.
Paul Joseph Watson of the right-oriented conspiracy purveyor, Infowars, has made it very clear in the last week that he is distancing himself from the characters who lead the “Unite The Right” rally, despite the fact that many of those same people were Watson’s biggest allies… until recently, anyway. And, even within the Unite the Right community, we now have a gap opening up between so-called Confederates and white supremacists. That’s right, the guys waiving the Stars and Bars are very upset with the white supremacists — you know, the guys with the Nazi flags — and vice versa.
The issue, it turns out, is Jewish participation in the Civil War. The Confederates all acknowledge, and are kinda proud of the fact the Confederacy was so good and pure, even Jews participated. The white supremacists, of course, cannot bear that, and want that scrubbed from history.
And, since recording the podcast from which this transcription is taken, I want to report how this phenomenon has deepened. Jason Kessler, who not only organized the Charlottesville rally, but celebrated Heather Heyer’s murder the day after it happened, is in hiding, not only because of the threats he has received from the left, but from those on the right, including old friends from hate sites such as the Daily Stomer. The haters are hating on one of their own, and while I won’t be losing sleep over this, I do want to learn from it.
What does all this point to? It really goes back to an old saying by the French essayist and novelist, Eugène Sue: “The hand that gives, is the hand that gathers.” In other words, the very same hand which can offer someone a gift, will often be the same hand that grabs that gift back. And in this case, the hand is the Internet.
Digital communication has been absolutely crucial in recent years to building strength for those on the alt right, far right, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, fill in whichever blank you want, movement, and in giving them a sense that they are not simply individuals in dark corners, but that perhaps there is a critical mass of such like-minded hatemongers, and given them confidence to apply for things like permits to march in Charleston.
It also turns out that, because they’re now all communicating, the differences between those groups are becoming especially clear, and they can’t bear it. So in fact, the same digital platforms that let them all come together, now shine a bright light on who each of these groups really are, and… to each other, that’s often intolerable. So the very hand which helped strengthen this movement, is now taking back much of that power by forcing the purists in these various camps to confront each other, and precisely because they are so Puritanical in their orientation, they can’t bear even the slightest difference, thus undermining their claim that they are part of a national movement.
Now, there are lessons in there for all of us, including the vast majority of us in America as a whole, not just listening to this episode of Six Minutes, who are uncomfortable to be passionately in opposition to the alt-right. The lesson for all of us is that we, with a mouse click, can always surround ourselves with those who will mirror our every belief. And it turns out, that that’s not necessarily so great.
If we want to get anything big done in this life, it means looking past those fine distinctions which can divide us, and building relationships with those who we don’t always agree with, even coming together in ways that do not always make us comfortable. We can take a lesson from the infighting going on in the alt-right world, and by the way, on the far left too, because it’s a function of extremism to become Puritanical, and actually, not only reject individual expressions of that kind of fanaticism, but the thinking which lies behind it.
Embrace the fact that we need each other, not only even, but maybe especially, when we don’t agree. Are there limits to this? Sure there are. But the bottom line is: to get anything really big done in this world, it takes a wide range of people, and we need to work on that capacity, especially in a digital world where we can seduce ourselves into living in intellectual rabbit holes, thinking that that is the whole world.
Getting anything significant done is going to require some new combination of thicker skins and softer hearts. If the softhearted people are so sensitive they can’t bear anything which falls outside their comfort zone, they will accomplish nothing. If thick-skinned people are so tough and able to build relationships, but can’t open their hearts to others, they will do real damage. But in a world in which people could really combine thicker skins and softer hearts, it seems, to me, there is almost no movement or cause for evil, or hurt, or harm, which cannot be overcome, and in which the world could actually be more like the one most of us really want.
Brad Hirschfield is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Brad has been featured on ABC’s Nightline UpClose, PBS’s Frontline, Fox News and National Public Radio. He wrote a long-standing column, “For God’s Sake,” for the Washington Post, and has also written for The Huffington Post and Beliefnet.com. He authored the book, You Don?t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.