From campus commons to company water coolers to celebrity-ruled media channels an insidious culture of social surveillance, digital show trials and public vilification spreads across the nation
By Mark Cromer
America may be rudderless on a turbulent sea of discontent, but she is not in uncharted waters.
For all the societal headwinds, rogue waves and squalls that seem to explode around our ship of state on a daily basis now, the cultural storm that appears ever closer to enveloping the grand design of the American enterprise and disappearing her to the bottom has plenty of historical precedent, just not entirely of the sort that is so conveniently framed in one-dimensional terms by much of the establishment media that has been cynically sounding general quarters since early last year.
The pathetic imagery of a hundred or so white supremacists brandishing tiki torches as they stomped and chanted across the campus of the University of Virginia one night three weeks ago might have evoked a modern Nuremberg rally in the sad imaginations of the Neo-Nazis, but the unvarnished reality is they are merely garden-variety social miscreants that number far fewer in our nation today than in many eras past and they matter even less.
Their chants were not a dying gasp, merely an irrelevant one.
But in our hyper-connected, outrage-dependent world, why let such an inconsequential moment go to waste when the ‘news cycle’ can be fed with breathless declarations that The Boys from Brazil have come of age once more and are marshaling new corps of Schutzstaffel to converge on America’s vital national arteries in a menacing redux of the Munich Putsch? For such non-moments are what memes and Twitter were made for, no? That social media microwave that converts the mundane margarita sitting on a table into a brilliant insight on the meaning of life can also transform a motley rabble of social cripples into a frothing tidal surge of National Socialists that are rolling in a sinister hiss across our nation.
Thus the radically absurd amplification of a dismal attempt to hijack a statue one night on the campus of UVA became but the latest opportunity to turn a dud into dynamite and explode something else altogether.
On cue, the black-garbed street goons that claim some affiliation with the mainstream Left for now (something about the useful idiocy of the Democratic Party’s leadership) hit their usual marks as they have consistently over the past eighteen months or longer, in startling produced stagecraft that has turned entire downtowns into grim spectacles of organized violence dressed-up as ‘social justice’ (a watchword employed today with all the panache of ‘ethnic cleansing’) but that are actually as transparently nihilistic as the homicidal antics of the equally black-clad freaks of the Islamic State.
But again, this is nothing new. We’ve indeed been here before as a nation, in both our recent past and at various points throughout our historic evolution as a democratic republic. Despite the historic precedents throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the rapidly unraveling social fabric today is dangerous—and our perseverance through tough patches and dark days in the past is of little assurance that America will survive this current turmoil.
Of course, some don’t care if the country recognizably survives, wagering they’ll be fine come what may (a bad bet if there ever was one), while others clearly hope that it does succumb and in the death of a nation lies their mad joy.
As disturbing as the violent social upheaval has been, it is far from the most ominous sign that America truly is in deep-water trouble of the sort that is imperiling the functional cohesiveness of the country and perhaps mortally wounding it. Amid the ugly street violence, the shattered glass, the acrid smoke, the burning flags, the broken bodies, the gutted buildings, the chanting mobs and the armored-up police formations that seem stuck on pause on the sidelines of it all, a more odious virus continues to spread unchecked.
We are now living in another dark age of denouncement.
Where the McCarthy era had its Hollywood blacklist and the televised witch hunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities with its poisonous inquiries that often pinnacled with its infamous query ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party of the United States?’ the crucible of today is a digitized web in which not screenwriters, actors and union leaders find themselves under the klieg light of official suspicion, but rather the average American citizen (a demographic that itself is now a risky strata to claim in certain circles) that can find themselves suddenly tangled up in amid shrieking accusations that they believe in an ‘ism’ and thus must be an ‘ist.’
From cake-makers in their bakeries to delivery drivers on their routes, from airport gate attendants to professional athletes, from students at Halloween parties to professors strolling the campus grounds, all are but one iPhone (or a hundred) away from being charged with a violation of, intentionally or not, some ‘social justice’ penal code section and find themselves facing a lightening-speed trial on social media and subsequently sentenced to terms ranging from hostage-like apologies to eviction from the dorms to expulsion from the academy, from being run out of business to being forced into the unemployment line to being forced into hiding.
For all the well-founded fear of the growing power of surveillance being placed in the hands of an overbearing American government, precious little objection or even sustained contemplation has been offered yet in the face of not a dozen intelligence agencies snooping on Americans but rather legions of people self-deputizing and patrolling virtually every aspect of everyday life, keenly on the lookout for anything they find suspiciously impolitic or offensively not in line with their own personal dogma.
Around urban and suburban America today signs have gone up that read ‘If you see something, say something,’ but a more appropriate advisory in the era we now live might be: ‘If you see something you don’t like, capture it on your iPhone, post it immediately online with a shrill denunciation of the culprit(s) and faster than a flash mob a drumhead court will be in session on social media and simulcast across the cable news networks.’
While traditional and new mass media was not a lone carcinogen that created this latest mutation of a social malignancy, various members of media dependents both fuel and feed from the spreading cancer that is today’s culture of denouncement, their every finger-pointing, j’accuse!-shouting moment another crack-hit high of self-righteous moral ascendency. The cult of accusation in this age of denouncement produces a never-ending need for more, just as it did in the McCarthy era. As the high of accusation crests and then ebbs, the accusation-armed enforcers crash into an existential despondency, one remedied only by another hit of denouncement, so they load another indictment of someone, somewhere for something (fictionalizing as needed) into their little digital glass pipe for another toke that sends their eyes rolling back into their skulls as the rush sends their sense of purpose soaring.
As Shakespeare might have observed: they denounce therefore they are.
And thus we have Sheriff Lena Dunham who was recently on patrol at 3 a.m. at JFK eavesdropping on a conversation that she claimed to be objectionable—or perhaps just not suitably applaudable enough—and accordingly documented herself springing into action as she reported the suspects to American Airlines in real time on Twitter. It was almost dizzying enough to make one forget that Dunham had recently declared in an interview that she was simply exhausted from being a poster girl of the social justice movement and wanted someone else to carry the banner, but then again that was like so five minutes ago. Almost as quickly forgotten was American Airlines official response that it couldn’t corroborate a single element to Dunham’s claims, but that was clearly beside her point.
Then there’s ESPN’s Max Kellerman taking to his cable pulpit to alert his sporting parishioners that he was keeping a close eye on all the white players in the NFL that weren’t suitably sitting down or kneeling in protest of the playing of the national anthem, a not-so-subtle memo to the pigskin platoons that He saw something, He said something and now They better understand that Max Kellerman Is Watching. Kellerman had taken Dunham’s self-stylized culture policing to its next logical progression: it’s not something that the white players in the NFL were doing that he found objectionable and, moreover, worthy of denouncement, but rather what they weren’t doing.
Four years ago this week at Michigan State University, Professor William Penn in the university’s Department of English in its College of Arts & Letters demonstrated the surreal circular nature of the informer network: Penn stood at the front of his lecture hall on the very first day of school and sneered at the students in his Creative Writing class that Republicans were nothing more than “dead or dying white people” and then issued this ominous warning: “I am a college professor. If I find out you are a closet racist, I am coming after you.”
But while Penn, who has held forth at MSU for three decades and whose annual salary of $146,510 (that year) is funded by taxpayer money, menacingly boasted of his professional bona fides as a Thought Detective that was experienced at discovering and outing ‘closet racists’ and then harassing them, he apparently was unable to deduce that a student was videotaping his threats on his iPhone, the footage of which promptly went viral and resulted in the good professor being suspended for the rest of the semester. Of course, due to the magic of tenure and a brazen political double-standard that has long since been institutionalized in American academia, Penn was able to return to his classroom the following semester after he issued a pro forma apology that was as vague as it was insincere and a fingers-crossed promise to keep his Roy Cohn routine to a low froth as he went back to ferreting out any suspicious looking/sounding/thinking students.
Karma catching up with Penn and his threats aside, however, it’s hard to not also see the inherent danger in students now routinely taping their professors or even high school and junior high/middle school teachers in class. Under constant if casual social surveillance, for every educator revealed to be using their classroom as a personal political soapbox by students looking to add a little octane to their social media pages, how many more professors and teachers will feel that every class is now a dance through a minefield and simply mute the free and candid discourse they’re supposed to be fostering?
The stifling fear of being publicly denounced has been a hallmark of police states and oppressive cultures since time immemorial, from The Inquisition to Salem, from Nazi Germany to North Korea, where official apparatuses of enforcement are supplemented with volunteer social compliance squads that denounce suspected heretics. In such toxic atmospheres, among the most damning evidence of an enemy within the gates is not overt objection to a party line or a cultural trusim, but rather insufficiently expressed and unconvincing agreement. In Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed in 2013 for failing to clap enthusiastically enough while in his presence. Initial accounts reported that Jong-un ordered Thaek blown to smithereens by anti-aircraft guns, but The Independent later reported on Chinese accounts that Jong-un literally threw Thaek to the dogs—120 of them—who ripped him and five of his aids to pieces in front of hundreds of party apparatchiks required to watch. It took about an hour. It’s enough to make Saddam Hussein’s eerily filmed public denunciations and dispatching of Baathist officials deemed no longer sufficiently politically reliable seem rather quaint.
No, we’re not there in America, nor are we anywhere even remotely near it.
Despite all the manufactured and disingenuous hysteria over the presidency of Donald J. Trump and the fantastical allusions to the rise of a fascist dictator, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Charles Schumer are not going to be dragged out of their seats and hauled out of the Capitol during the next State of the Union address, nor are Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Mitch McConnell going to be stripped to their boxers or briefs and paraded around the Washington Mall before being shipped to Guantanamo for political rehabilitation delivered through what the CIA might describe as ‘electroshock therapy.’ And the last time a group of Americans were stripped of their rights en masse and forced at bayonet-point into prison camps was 75 years ago under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the iconic liberal whose visage still looms large during Democratic National Conventions.
But America’s government need not descend into the depravity of despots in faraway lands nor sink once more into the shameful crimes of our own past like that which was perpetrated on Japanese Americans for the nation itself to utterly disintegrate today. If the culture of rabid intellectual correctness long prevails, however, and its vast veil of suspicion that only fuels the need to indict ever more violators and publicly immolate them in gleeful fulfillment of the old adage ‘First they came for…’ continues unabated then it can and most likely will completely torch the framework that still holds the nation together until it implodes and disappears into deadly and irreversible balkanization.
While America has emerged from past tempests intact, whether and how it makes its way out of this one is not clear at all and perhaps it’s that deep uncertainty of the outcome that feeds a creeping sense of dread across much of the nation that the worst is yet to come.
And perhaps it is.
In which case real resistance for many Americans might increasingly look like a small cabin in the woods or perhaps a farmhouse out on the vast plains of the heartland, a quiet place where unplugged rustic austerity is complimented by printed books, firelight, a proper provision of wine and a security system no more elaborate than a rifle, a sidearm and an unflinching determination to live free and in peace.
Come what may.