At war with the Gray Goo

Several days ago, a man named Richard Spencer was on camera, finding artful ways to respond to questions as to whether he is an advocate of genocidal violence against black people (by the way, he is very much an advocate of genocidal violence against black people.)  While he did his shtick, a masked person ran up, punched him in the face, and ran off.


You might think that a minor physical assault on a minor public nuisance would figure in the news as, at most, a single line on the police blotter. Yet people are still talking about it. Today, Freddie deBoer, Rod Dreher, and The Nation magazine all weighed in on this incident.

I tweeted about it the other day:

And pretty healthy odds at that; Spencer’s only job is to get publicity, and with this incident he has gained a tremendous amount of that, as he recently gloated when reached for comment by The Independent.

Since people are still talking about this, I’ll add a bit to that tweet. Street-fighting is one area where Nazis have consistently enjoyed success. To meet them on that ground is to play to their strengths.

That isn’t to say that Spencer commands a street-fighting force; he doesn’t. His followers are guys on the internet, the proverbial fat guy living in his mother’s basement.  “Failsons,” as Chapo Trap House calls them.   Those guys aren’t likely to be much use in a street fight. Nor can they attract support from people who have not already given up on life.

The threat they pose is like the danger people used to talk about regarding nanotechnology.  One tiny machine might impose only a very small ecological cost, but as the number of these in use multiplies, it becomes conceivable that they might collectively cause a very large amount of environmental damage.  In a worst case scenario, a vast number of nanobots might coalesce into a “Gray Goo” that would render the surface of the earth uninhabitable. The Failsons at their keyboards have, figuratively speaking, coalesced into blobs of destructive goo.

Failson blobs floating around a bloodthirsty racist like Spencer stink up the comments sections of blogs and other social media platforms. That isn’t such a problem in itself; it’s easy enough to ban commenters, as I have had occasion to demonstrate to some of you.  Where Spencer’s following has the most potential to do harm is illustrated by something like Gamergate. A few years ago a Failson blob of gamers set out to harass three or four women who had been making a marginal living writing online about video-games. They succeeded in making their lives miserable, and probably did a great deal to discourage other women from getting into gaming journalism. Spencer’s crowd would certainly be capable of targeting particular members of groups they don’t like (blacks, Jews, women, Muslims, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam) and doing the same damage to their lives that the gamers did to Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, while intimidating other members of the same groups into silence.

To stick with the Gamergate analogy a moment longer, “Gray Goo” isn’t just a pejorative in discussing them. Supporters of the harassment of Quinn, Wu. and Sarkeesian called themselves a variety of names, including “the Grey Rebellion” and, most commonly, “Shitlords.” So if I were talking only about them, I might use the phrase “Gray Shit” rather than “Gray Goo.”

Punching people in the street isn’t going to drive the Failsons into hiding; as the trope about them living in their mothers’ basements indicates, they have been in hiding their entire lives. However, it will give Spencer and people like him an opportunity to recruit guys who like to express their hostilities, not by persecuting people from behind a computer screen, but in physical combat. Once they get a group of street-fighters going, that’s a whole new population from which they can draw support. And while street-fighters are as much a low-status population as are the couch-bound Failsons, physically violent people attract a following in ways that people whose aggressions are electronic do not. That’s why skinheads were a thing thirty years ago, to the point where there were anti-Nazi skinheads who would spend Friday nights fighting pro-Nazi skinheads.

The original Nazis, remember, kept going throughout all their electoral ups and downs in the 1920s as a street-fighting group. When the global economy collapsed at the end of that decade, Germany’s elite found that the only way they could restore public order and keep their positions was to put Hitler in charge. Hitler’s ascent had many pre-conditions; Germany’s defeat in World War War One, the mindlessly vengeful policies the victorious powers inflicted on Germany from November 1918 to January 1933, and the Great Depression were all bigger contributors to his rise than was the fact that he had an effective street-fighting force at his disposal. But that street-fighting force was certainly one of the contributors, and when I see leftists expressing pleasure at an event which, if it to have any consequence at all, can only have the consequence of building a street-fighting force loyal to Richard Spencer, I hope that the Trump years will not bring the kind of misery to the USA that the years of the Weimar Republic brought to Germany.

It’s hard to have a substantive conversation in the form of a series of Tweets

I had an odd little colloquy this afternoon on Twitter:

I had two things I wanted to say in response to this. First, if I hear someone using the phrase “fundamental racial inferiority,” I will be disinclined to argue against them, not because I am afraid they will be right, but because that phrase is gibberish.  It’s possible to argue that some trait or other that is the result of a genetic endowment specific to one population may be more helpful to members of that population in some environments than in other environments; so for example, a complex of genes that promotes hardiness in cold climates may be a disadvantage in people who carry it if they move to a warmer climate, and vice versa.  To translate that into “fundamental racial inferiority” of one group as opposed to another, you would have to declare that one kind of climate is, in some absolute and transcendent sense, more important than the other, so that adaptation to it would be of greater value than is adaptation to the other.  Since humans live all over the earth’s surface, had already done so for a long time before any existing social institution came into being, and show no signs of leaving any particular climatic zone behind, I don’t think anyone would be likely to declare that adaptation to one climate is more valuable than is adaptation to another, unless that person were looking for an excuse to declare that people adapted for one climate are of lesser worth than are people adapted for that other.

With that first thought in mind, I wrote this:

I should explain to anyone who may not know that Freddie deBoer is an academic who has written on ways that tactics which may originally have been intended as means for antiracists to shut down racist demonstrations have turned into devices that elites use to perpetuate themselves. He wrote a very memorable piece last year in which he told stories about well-to-do white undergraduate students of his who had gone to highly selective private schools and who used antiracist vocabulary to silence and humiliate less affluent students, including students of color, who had not had the training in that lingo that their expensive private schools had given them. He doesn’t say that we shouldn’t shun people who are actually being racist, but that we should not be quick to jump to the conclusion that people are guilty of this serious misconduct.

So I figured I could take it for granted, talking to a PhD with a professional interest in antiracist language, that when I said would not engage outright white supremacists  “on their own terms” that he would know that I would be shifting the terms of engagement. Not that I like to call people names, but the whole point of having words like “racist” or “sexist” or “extremist” or “terrorist” in the language is to terminate conversations, to tell a person that we are not going to talk with them in the way that they seem to want to us to do.   Laboring under that assumption, I may have been a bit confused when Mr deBoer replied thusly:

Along with some other tweets of Mr deBoer’s around the same time, I had a pretty clear idea that he was thinking of IQ variation among racial groups as a topic of study among psychologists and educationists. I’ve been around enough discussions of this topic to have reached the conclusion that it isn’t as scary as it is made out to be. That was the second point I wanted to make, so I decided to drop the thing about how, if someone came up to me and started telling me about the “fundamental racial inferiority” of some population or other, I would give that person the cold shoulder.

Maybe I should have explained what I meant by not wanting to talk with someone who was going on about “fundamental racial inferiority,” because that drew the following response:


I wanted to focus on the point that “These ideas,” the ideas explored by mainstream psychometricians and by journalists like Nick Wade, are not in fact just the same as the ideas we might associate with nineteenth century racial theorists,  and that if you follow them through logically they are just as plausible as underpinning for vigorous affirmative action policies as for anything a white supremacist might like. So I let the “If we ignore this it will go away” line slide, and wrote:

Apparently that didn’t cut much ice. Mr deBoer’s response:

I will admit to finding this response a bit annoying. Here’s someone who has initiated a discussion by declaring that he is so open-minded that he will gladly debate someone who declares that populations can be marked by “fundamental racial inferiority,” and when I dissent from the proposition that this issue is actually at stake in mainstream academic work, he dismisses my case unheard. Further:

So I had to at least offer to clear up the false impression that I wanted to disregard the issue. I responded:

I suppose the best I could have hoped to elicit with that was “You’re not saying we should ignore them, what are you saying?” I didn’t get that. What came instead was:

Now Mr deBoer is a busy fellow, and basically very pleasant. He does discuss a lot of very sensitive topics online and in print, and I’m sure he gets lots of tiresome and abusive electronic communications. So, annoyed as I admit I was with him for implicitly classifying me as worse than the sort of person who is into notions of “fundamental racial inferiority,” I wanted to be gracious about it. So I closed the conversation with:

I leave it to the reader to decide whether I was being obnoxious, though apparently Mr deBoer found me so.

He then tweeted on his main timeline, apparently thinking of me:

So apparently, I really made him mad. I was tempted to respond to that tweet by saying that, if I were the liberal he was thinking of, he misunderstood my point pretty completely, but of course that would only have made it worse, so I left it alone.