The Breitbart Outrage Machine in Motion
Daniel Denvir: On Christmas eve, George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor of political science at Drexel University tweeted “all I want for Christmas is white genocide.” On Christmas, he doubled down with, “To clarify, when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed.” In response, Pepe the frog aligned internet creatures from the white supremacist alt-right made him a target and George, the father of a young child, received a deluge of death threats. Perhaps even more concerning was the response from Drexel’s administration which almost immediately released a statement calling his tweets “utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing” and stating that they “do not in any way reflect the values of the university.” As George has noted, it’s obvious he wasn’t calling for the murder of all white people, rather, as he wrote, “White genocide is an idea invented by white supremacists and used to denounce everything from interracial relationships to multicultural policies.” George, welcome to The Dig.
George Ciccariello-Maher: I’m glad to be on, thanks for having me.
DD: So I guess let’s begin with the facts that the people who attacked you either cynically ignored or ignorantly didn’t understand. What is white genocide and what did you tweet?
GCM: Well I think the first thing to be said is that white genocide is actually not a thing. This is an essential part of the story as it unfolds. White genocide is a paranoid conspiracy theory held by white supremacists who, on the one hand, believe in race as a biological reality and believe that whites are under existential threat by multicultural policies and intermarriage and every time a mixed baby is born, that the white race suffers a fatal blow. These are really the kind of people that traffic in this idea of white genocide and these are the kind of people who at the same time, wanted to take my tweet which sought to mock white genocide, and to interpret it literally as though I were actually wishing for the death of all white people.
There is certainly cynicism here, a bad faith and conscious misrepresentation which was then fed into the public sphere through websites like Breitbart and into the realm of Fox News where a whole other level of misunderstanding could then occur – people who simply didn’t care to look up the phrase or figure out what it meant or put any effort whatsoever into understanding it. All you have to do is type “white genocide” into Google and the first result explains pretty clearly what kind of paranoid fantasy this is.
DD: So what happened after the tweet started bouncing around the far right media echo chamber?
GCM: Well, the mechanics of this I think are really important. Certain websites like American Thinker and Daily Caller, began to push this story. The Breitbart article was a big part of this mainstreaming. I think the other part that is essential to understand going back to Gamer Gate is the function of Twitter and the function of Reddit discussion groups, in which an organized campaign against myself, my colleagues and my university was developed and was put forward, leading to thousands of emails being sent, leading to hundreds of phone calls being made. This was incredibly well organized by these far right sectors that have really been, in a quiet way, building and developing their capacity to engage in this kind of systematic harassment.
DD: In your case, the harassment campaign functioned effectively to a certain extent because the university initially released a response that wasn’t exactly entirely supportive of you, right?
GCM: Right. No, it was not supportive in the least and it was released very, very quickly. I think it’s difficult for universities because they’re not prepared yet to handle these kind of organized campaigns. What they see is a huge number of complaints and emails and other messages coming in and they feel as though they must respond without asking the question of, “What is this even about?” or the question of, “Why is this happening?” These are difficult things to navigate and I think universities need to be better in figuring out how to interpret what’s going on in the world. They’re sort of torn between focusing on defending academic freedom and speech and other things on campus and also are being thrown into a situation in which they’re being pushed and pulled by other forces. For example, with the Richard Spencer and Milo speaking tours, universities like Berkley are struggling over how to deal with these demands from the world at large.
The Myth of the White Victim
DD: A few days ago, you wrote me that the response to your tweet was in part related to what you called “A structured/voluntary misunderstanding of the tweet by a public already primed to feel like white people are victims.” What is that structured misunderstanding? How is it being structured? What has conditioned members of the public to perceive white people as victims?
It seems like there is a lot going on there dating back at least – but probably much further – to the mobilisation against housing integration in major cities and the anti civil rights backlash to the unapologetically white identity politics that we see flourishing now with the Trump administration. Can you unpack a little what you meant about that structured misunderstanding?
GCM: Right. Starting in the 50’s and 60’s, but especially in the 70’s and 80’s, there was a dramatic transformation in the United States in which the state went from being something that provided public goods for primarily white people to being something that was interpreted as taking things away from white people and giving them to undeserving poor brown and black people. This is something that Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor tracks very well in her new book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, in terms of this emergence of what’s called the color blind narrative.
If you believe that the world truly operates in a color blind way (which has become the official narrative since the 70’s and 80’s in the United States) then you are primed to think that anyone who is asking for anything from the state is demanding special privileges. For example, black people suffering the weight of mass incarceration and poverty asking for greater equality are seen as asking for something not equal, but special—a privilege that other people don’t have. In particular with reference to affirmative action policies, you have this narrative emerge of white victimhood.
One particularly interesting case is the University of Texas and a sort of mediocre white student being denied entry gives rise to the presumption that she’s being discriminated against because she’s white. To be totally brutally clear, this is absurd, it’s nonsense. The idea that white people, not only in the United States, but in the world, have been systematically victimized by anyone is absurd and is a fantasy and it actually very much goes hand in hand with this white genocide fantasy, although it is a very different manifestation of that. That’s where I think the public is primed to think of these things.
If I heard someone saying something about not even white genocide, but anything in terms of attacking white people, killing white people on Twitter (because people say wild things on Twitter all the time) I wouldn’t think twice because it’s not a serious thing. It’s not a serious reality. Whereas of course, if someone were advocating Black genocide, Jewish genocide, Native American genocide (which Twitter for some reason is very amenable to and this happens all the time) these are people speaking to real, threatening, historical ongoing realities that we need to take very, very seriously. But in this narrative of white victimhood, suddenly white people are primed to think of themselves as victims and therefore to interpret even small tweets or tweets they don’t understand in that framework.
DD: Does white victimhood serve as a compelling explanation of why people have the problems that they do? People do have serious problems that don’t necessarily have anything to do with them being white and there aren’t other competing, compelling explanations that are reaching a lot of people.
GCM: The question is whether they’re compelling to those people. I think they certainly are, and I think that’s part and parcel of the Trump phenomenon but I think, as some of the best explanations of structural racism put it, there are no people who are victimized and suffering the conditions they suffer because they are white. That’s, I think, where the real difference is, and that’s the barrier that needs to be broken down. When it comes to, on the one hand, explaining the election, speaking to people who have been abandoned by decades of policy, people who maintain the most paltry wages of whiteness in the words of W.E.B Du Bois, where they simply feel a little better by virtue of not being a person of color and being able to identify themselves with power elites on a symbolic level, but from which they reap absolutely no benefits.
Twitter in the Trump Moment
DD: So you’re not exactly like a mild mannered presence on Twitter, though in real life I should note that you are a very kind and considerate person. But you like to Tweet stuff that’s going to provoke. Did you think that this one would blow up the way that it did or was this sort of like an everyday George Ciccariello-Maher tweet?
GCM: I think Twitter is a very certain kind of place where these things happen. In some ways it rewards provocation but in some ways what’s good about it is that it’s a space to provoke sharp debates and conversations. In that sense, it can be a very useful space. I’m no stranger to these kind of controversies when it comes to Twitter. I’ve gotten in trouble for some tweets before. Yet, there was no way to predict that this one would blow up in the way that it did because I had yet to see the deployment of the sort of mechanized outrage that we saw in this case. What you would normally see would be a little bit of outrage, maybe I would get a call from my department head saying, “We’ve gotten some emails from people who were upset by a tweet that you sent,” but you wouldn’t have seen what we saw.
I think it has everything to do with the moment. We’re talking about a period directly between Trump being elected and being inaugurated in which all of the hopes and aspirations of the far right were reaching a boiling point. The white supremacist right in the United States was incredibly excited when Trump was elected. This is why Richard Spencer would stand up and say things about the election representing white men taking the country back, saying in an unveiled way what Trump would say in a veiled way. So I think they saw this really as a trial run of this kind of harassment campaign. It’s not the first by any means in academia or outside of academia.
People, in particular people of color, in particular Black women, have been harassed and attacked over tweets that were more mild-mannered than my own. So this is nothing new, but I think it does take place in a very specific historical context where the Breitbarts of the world very literally have a foot in the White House in Steve Bannon and they are doing their best to push forward struggles against the left outside of, but also within academia.
These cases are very, very important because if they can provoke a reaction by a university against a professor by this manufactured outrage, then they’ve succeeded, and they did succeed, at least in the short term, in doing that. You saw websites like The Daily Stormer celebrating that they had provoked a reaction, that they had forced a response from a university. That’s a very dangerous precedent indeed. To put it in the most basic terms, when organized Nazis create a campaign of outrage and that leads to a response by a university institution, that’s very, very dangerous.
DD: What exactly is the role of Twitter in politics both for the left, the right, and for the President of the United States that seems to mostly directly communicate to people vis a vis Twitter? I think a lot of people have in the past seen it as sort of a distraction or something kind of superficial. But I think both in your case and what we have been dealing with under Trump has demonstrated that it has quite real life consequences and it is a pretty important part of the fabric of political communication in this country.
GCM: I think that’s absolutely true and I think Twitter at this point is playing different roles for different groups. People have long noted the fact that Twitter is a widely preferred communication means for many Black Americans. Black Twitter has become a powerful voice and an essential voice in being able to push forward certain arguments and criticize people where necessary. At the same time, on the flip side of that – and I think if we’re talking about sheer numbers – you have Twitter as a breeding ground for Nazi organizing, for white supremacists, for racists. The argument by some – and it’s a convincing argument – is that this is really the hegemonic force in the Twitter sphere, that white supremacists have built such strength in Twitter that they kind of run the show at this point. It’s on the basis of this that you have some high profile tweeters leaving, abandoning Twitter, not wanting to have anything to do with it any more.
For Trump, it’s a bully pulpit. The bully pulpit has always existed for the President and yet this is an unmediated, right-wing populist bully pulpit. This is not inconsequential when we are talking about the connection between that bully pulpit and these kinds of harassment campaigns. We’ve already seen how Trump tweeting leads to, encourages, incites harassment and violence against people across the country. This is playing out in a multiplicity of different ways. The fact that now the bully pulpit is merging with this sort of harassment mechanism is incredibly frightening. If Trump says something bad about you on Twitter, you will immediately get death threats, phone calls, emails, messages. It’s a really, really scary and fascistic phenomenon that we’re experiencing and witnessing today.