Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversations (Round 5): Whitney Phillips and Jason Bivins (Part 3)

Jason on fanaticism:


Let me propose a bit of a shift here in my final section. What can we learn about religion, technology, and identity from the Indianapolis 500? Several lifetimes ago, in 1997, a moderately successful radio host named Mike Pence had a bone to pick with the “mainstream media.” Pence, who, before becoming Vice President, would go on to serve in the House of Representatives as a proud ally of the Christian Right and the Tea Party, was fond of describing his show as “Rush Limbaugh on steroids.” And on May 23, 1997, Pence was irate that the local media was reporting diminished crowds at that year’s Indy 500. Sound familiar? Pence was riding a wave that was a long way from breaking, and still has not.

As I try to measure the distance between that year and this year, I haven’t found much that’s revealing in all the oceans of pieces about Mike Pence’s “servant leadership,” or the future of the “evangelical vote.” I have been thinking instead about the links between persecution complexes, religion, and crowds. The Trump era gives me a lot of data, after all, and new insights into earlier moments, some of which have to do with films and which help us think freshly about the over-determined category “fanatic.”

Think about a Trump crowd. Not just a rally but an inauguration, or a Charlottesville march. The slogans. The defiant embrace of a singular identity. Things we regularly ascribe as fanaticism, filled with the kind of all-or-nothing furor of a boozy NFL game. Trump publics understand themselves to be memories, and brands, and they come into being to the extent that they can posit a negative public, one that is collectivist, radical, and anti-religion. That’s a standard right-wing move dating back to the Haymarket riots and the first Red Scare. Against the brightly colored cords of memory stretching back to Boston Harbor, a dark history roils with “hate-filled” or “divisive” leftists: communists, antifa, or the Black Panthers. Other fanatics.

It’s worth noting how contemporary anti-left discourse is shaped by a few very specific cinematic imaginings of what it means to be an American, and who counts in public life (spoiler alert: it’s white people). Think here of Forrest Gump. In that film, Tom Hanks’ simpleton, running Zelig is morphed into one segment of historical footage after another, from an awkward meeting with John F. Kennedy to a talk show panel seated next to John Lennon to ping-pong diplomacy in China. Many filmgoers loved the corporatist nostalgia constructed here, though less was made of the film’s reactionary historical memory, where returning Vietnam vet Gump disdains hippiedom (what hath the counterculture wrought of his sweet Jenny?) and belittles the Panthers (“Sorry I had a fight in the middle of your Black Panther party”), portraying radical politics as officious, anti-feminist, and spiteful.

Gump was temporarily the poster child for Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” a cynical manipulation of whitewashed American history and a vacuous celebration of a cultural community that will not stomach any boat-rocking. But somewhere between the post-apocalyptic enthusiasms of The Road Warrior and the Opus Dei-fueled The Passion of the Christ, whose fetish for historical “accuracy” manifested in the degree to which it could granularly document the suffering Messiah’s broken body like a Rocky film’s mauled, swollen faces, Mel Gibson got political. Or rather, long before viewers learning of his anti-Semitism understood that he was not simply play-acting “crazy” in the Lethal Weapon franchise, Gibson’s two Clinton-era “historical” films – Braveheart and The Patriot – were co-opted into American politics.

A year after the “Gingrich revolution” of the 1994 midterm elections, a widely-documented and discussed upsurge of (mostly) white male masculinity emerged in (mostly) suburban America. First was the increase in war-games as recreational activity, including not only Civil War reenactment or Renaissance Fair jousts but paintball, Green Beret cosplay, and prepper training at gun ranges, in the woods, or at separatist compounds, each sharing a concern that the “tyranny” of big government was no longer able to be checked by the integrity and wholesome good will of “the people.” Some of these ideas are as old as America, and they are also bedrock for the alt-right. But Braveheart framed them for millions of Americans, grumbling about “Hillarycare” or gangsta rap or NAFTA, the fictionalized slice of Scottish history standing in for any American viewer’s felt experience of hardship, of Embattlement. In time it became perhaps the most powerful template for what, in my current work, I call Life As Action Movie (LAAM).

Briefly, the film focuses on Gibson’s portrayal of Scottish hero William Wallace. It opens with a portrayal of kilted, brawny men laboring contentedly, attending fairs, falling for pale maidens, and performing manly feats. This carefully manufactured scene prepares the viewer for outrage at the weaselly Robert the Bruce, playing both sides of the fence but ultimately giving comfort to the Crown, whose armies would rob sweet Scotland of her freedom. After one too many village raids and the execution of his wife, Wallace and his merry men enter into a kind of protracted guerilla warfare, whose resonance with the 1990s anti-statist militia movements was as unmistakable as it was seldom remarked. Wallace is eventually tried and executed himself. At the movie’s conclusion, as Gibson grimaces and contorts on the rack of tyranny, a sniveling, foppish magistrate leans into his face and tells him he need only say “Mercy” to be spared a grisly death. The magistrate announces “The prisoner wishes to say a word,” whereupon Wallace, defiant to the last, wails “FREEEEEDOOMMM!!!”

The film depicts a national identity that takes shape via navigation of the freedom/tyranny dyad. Important to the appeal of the LAAM template is the caterwauling self-evidence of the idea of “freedom” as Gibson hollers it from his torture instrument. Freedom does not require elaboration. Freedom’s absence is torture. In this we detect an affective resonance with the fervor and violence of Trump crowds, with their collective effervescence, their violent rhetoric, and their isolationism. These crowds are unabashed in their rearward glance. Their vision of America, like the Scotland of the mind, is sentimentalized, homogenous, and very pious.

But what is the lack for which these crowds compensate? Perhaps, those sympathetic to Hillbilly Elegy tell us, it is the precarity of neoliberalism that has suburban crowds all angsty. Try again. It is fury and disbelief at the presence of other American bodies, whose legitimacy they cannot accept. Bodies whose difference inspires a fanaticism, much though academics will cluck their disapproval at so clunky and disdainful a category.

Fanaticism is what happens when Americans cannot – will not – think about what public life actually demands in an actual society. Inside this condition, a condition we must think and act our way beyond, words like “freedom” and “religion” produce an enthusiasm that deflects attention from the difficult projects of rethinking what a public is. Because what has become so agonizingly obvious in the Trump era is that the long con is the fiction that politics as such doesn’t matter. If government is only out to get us, and if politicians can’t be trusted, then we’d be better off not hoping for incremental improvements of law and policy but finding the one truly magnetic candidate who can vicariously fight for us. Crowd-sourced, mediated feeling is the remainder.

So the lack isn’t so much the lack of opportunity to register one’s voice in public, to make representatives accountable to the coalescence of citizens in the polis, as it is the felt lack of certitude fading into the future, of the insulation citizens crave manifesting as naked isolation, one that is porous at that, continually pricked by the pain and hardships and desires of others, so much that we cannot tune them out; we thus compensate for these feelings by being louder than others.

What the “economic anxiety” crowd seem not to realize about the emotional intensities of religious identity – which is always also racial and gender identity – is that Trump is not some Hail Mary designed to get coal jobs back, no matter how many articles tell us so. The sense of crisis behind collective emotional shrieking, these shared protestations defending the flag and the cross, are always connected to the very neoliberalism they contest. The sense of permanent crisis is fundamental to capitalism, not only because of its own precarity nor even just because of how unlikely it is that we make it (the oldest American dream), but because the crisis is the inverse of the promise that everything will work out. This promise demands the expression of the kind of surplus feeling on display among our fanatics, because we know it is false. In selling us the promise, neoliberalism sells us the very lack that demands that promise; it sells us the boredom and flatness of the secular so we will crave the enthusiasms that are packaged for us.

As Mel Gibson is stretched eternally on the rack, and Nazis march in Jefferson’s Charlottesville, and we develop apps to measure the coalescence of emotion on Twitter, we must wonder: what kind of American public sphere are we willing to defend? Despite all of the chatter holding that the Tea Party, and exurban Trump supporters, and even the alt-right form some sort of recrudescent populism – the “deplorables” simply articulating their “economic interests” against tone-deaf East Coast elites – the bodies in America’s streets since the November 2016 election confirm that an alternate national anthem could be The Clash’s “I’m So Bored With the USA.” Certain Americans enjoy the luxury of boredom, which is the phenomenological experience of the market sine qua non, since boredom keeps us yearning for the next fix, the next distraction from ourselves. But from Portland to D.C., from Ferguson to Charlottesville, from the stock exchange to the Bundy Ranch, America has also become another Clash tune: “White Riot.”

Whitney on fanaticism:

Questions about crowd size, persecution, and boredom all factor into my experiences with fanaticism online, particularly in the context of fanatical conspiracy theorizing, or fanatical shaming, or fanatical support for certain political candidates and causes.

The pressing issue for me in these cases, however, isn’t that participants actually are fanatics. It’s that often (and this recalls my previous response), it’s not clear who really is and who’s pretending to be for who knows what reason, humor or manipulation or hate or some idiosyncratic combination therein. This brings us back, of course, to Poe’s Law, which my co-author Ryan Milner and I describe as a monster skulking in the darkness; “it’s always just standing there, menacingly” we write in our book The Ambivalent Internet. In these cases, details like how many people are participating, who is doing so out of sense of genuine persecution, and to what extent being bored, or at least, having too much time on one’s hands, factors into the discussion, often remain unknown and unknowable.

This doesn’t stop many people, most conspicuously journalists, from trying. Here’s an example: earlier this summer, I got a DM from a reporter at a large national publication looking to write a story about shaming culture online, and how it’s gotten completely out of control (given the nature and focus of my work, I do a fair number of these kinds of interviews). He pointed to the recent firing of James Gunn, who Disney had hired to direct the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Some concerned citizen had poured through years of Gunn’s old tweets, because it’s 2018 and that’s what it means to be a person now, and discovered that Gunn had once tweeted a handful of pedophilia jokes. They were, obviously, gross. This resulted in OUTRAGE by THE PEOPLE, which is what triggered Gunn’s firing; and wasn’t this proof of PC and shaming culture running amok? The reporter wanted to get my take, i.e., agree with them, with a smile, nod, and soundbite.

The problem was, this wasn’t real. Not exactly, not as it was being framed. Outrage had followed Gunn’s firing alright, but as was quickly revealed (and is what I was suspecting would come out, given so much precedent), that outrage was precipitated by extremist groups, who have for months, for years, orchestrated similar attacks on prominent liberals. I say the outrage was “precipitated” rather than “manufactured,” here, because it’s not clear how many of the responses constituted coordinated astroturf, and how many were posted by individuals who didn’t know about the smear campaigns, and who were genuinely disgusted by Gunn’s statements. This mix would have become even more difficult to parse after the early media coverage started rolling in, bringing untold thousands of additional participants into the fold.

The Gunn case was multi-pronged: not only did it target a specific individual, it played into the narrative--a favorite of far right extremists and more mainstream conservatives alike--that liberals are hysterical, hypersensitive snowflakes. Look at them scream bloody murder over a couple of jokes! (For a case that pulls exactly this page out of exactly this playbook, see this example from 2014; the same things keep happening, and happening, and happening, as I chronicle in the first part of this report).   

It’s not just smear campaigns that raise similar questions of motive. From Pizzagate to QAnon to countless narratives in between, the underlying issue--reiterating the above--is that observation is not confirmation online. There is often no way to parse what is sincere from what is satirical, what is deliberate disinformation and what is someone’s good faith effort to tell the truth, at least their version of it. Efforts to point at particular unfolding controversies and declare emphatically that this is an example of X are, as a result, almost guaranteed not just to misrepresent the story, but to do someone else’s media manipulation legwork. To what end? Unfortunately, the answer is often “who knows.”

It is certainly the case that there are fanatics on the internet. What is equally certain is that people perform fanaticism on the internet, for all kinds of reasons, to all kinds of effects. The result of not knowing very much, and worse, not even knowing what exactly we don’t know, is distressing. It means that everything we say grows monsters. At least it can--with that possibility always just standing there, menacingly.   


Ultimately, I’m not sure I delivered on Whitney’s promise that I would provide any “religious studies grounding” in our conversations. But what’s clear to me, and I hope clear to readers, is that I was really energized by my engagements with Whitney and her incredible work. Together I think we’ve succeeded at delivering some snapshots of our own interests, from our distinctive perspectives, and in that the kind of collage portrait that can emerge through interdisciplinary jamming.

Contrast and combination often lead to fresh thinking. And even if they don’t, maybe they’ll provoke or annoy you in new ways. Pizzagate and Forrest Gump. The alt-right and James Gunn. Trump and trolling (okay, you already knew about that one). These combos and categories not only catalyze our thinking about religion and media, they mediate our exchanges with each other, too.

Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Communication, Culture, and Digital Technologies at Syracuse University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus) from the University of Oregon, and an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. She is the author of 2015's This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (MIT Press), which was awarded the Association of Internet Researchers' Nancy Baym best book award. In 2017 she published The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She is also the author of the three-part ethnographic study "The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Far Right Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators," published in 2018 by Data & Society. She is working on a third book titled You Are Here: Networked Manipulation in the Digital Age.

Jason C. Bivins is a Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He is a specialist in religion and American culture, focusing particularly on the intersection between religions and politics since 1900. He is the author of Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion (Oxford, 2015) a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2015. He has published most actively in the area of U.S. political religions, the subject of his first two books, Religion of Fear: The Politics of  Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2008), a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2008, and The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics (UNC, 2003). He is currently working on his next monograph in political religions: Embattled Majority, a genealogy of the rhetoric of “religious persecution” in public life. He is also writing about Jack Kirby, the “King of Comics,” for Penn State Press’ Religion Around series.