[Screenshot from The Hacker Wars, by Vivien Weisman]
A documentary came out on Monday, called The Hacker Wars, and I’m in it, just for a brief moment. That’s me up there on a rooftop in New Jersey with an internet troll called Weev who became a cause celebre for standing up to AT&T and striking a blow for internet freedom. Heroic stuff, to be fair. I wrote about it for Esquire.
But in this one scene, he’s explaining to me how the Jews in Weimar Germany essentially had it coming – that OK the holocaust was a bit much, but they deserved some kind of payback.
I should have stepped away from Weev at that point. Everyone else did, all too aware of the camera. But I was too caught up in the moment – it’s not every day you witness such open anti-semitism, especially in what was an otherwise quite liberal milieu of media and activists. But that’s Weev. He loves to bang on about “Jew York” and Zionist bankers, preferably in public at high volume. It’s practically a schtick. And while I suspected – we all did – that he meant every word, we would never know for sure, because he could always say he was just trolling.
Well, now there’s no doubt. The day after that rooftop scene, Weev went to prison in Pennsylvania for just over a year, spending much of it in “the SHU”, the Special Housing Units – solitary confinement, essentially. And when he got out in April, he had a large, ornate swastika tattooed on his chest. On October 1st, he displayed his new tats on the neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, alongside an article he wrote railing against “Judaism, black culture, immigration to Western nations, and the media’s constant stream of anti-white propaganda.”
Is he trolling? I doubt it. But at a certain point, there’s no difference between someone who’s trolling as a neo-Nazi and an actual neo-Nazi. I don’t know exactly where that point lies, but it’s definitely before you get a big swastika tattoo.
And yet, Weev remains, as he always was, a figure of notoriety, amusement and admiration among his hacktivist peers. He’s not quite a media darling, but he’s not a pariah either. He still knocks about with journalists, activists, professors and attorneys, who seem to mostly give him a pass on his Nazi views. Oh that’s just Weev being Weev! Trolls will be trolls!
It’ll be interesting to see how far Weev can go before his Nazi beliefs begin to cost him his relationships. Right now, he appears to have carved a niche as an acceptable anti-semite, the kind you can invite over for dinner. It sounds nuts, but these are peculiar times. Anti-semitism is on the rise, especially in Europe. The Greeks, the Germans and the French are turning out in numbers for fascist parties. The Russians are holding Miss Hitler pageants. And while America likes to see itself as better than that, a more staunch friend of the Jews, the truth is muddier.
One of my favorite Philip Roth books is The Plot Against America. He imagines an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, became President in 1940, and formed an alliance with Hitler. It’s not so far fetched. Roth knew that the Republicans had considered Lindbergh as a candidate. And that Nazis have frequently found sympathetic quarter here. Only this month it came out that the US taxpayer has been paying millions in social security to Nazi war criminals. That wasn’t just a slip-up. It was the way the law was written.
I was reminded of all this, the other week, when I went hiking in the Pacific Palisades. That’s the wealthy west-side suburb between Beverly Hills and Malibu where Spielberg lives, and JJ Abrams and many other famous Jews. It’s also where residents are accustomed to cars pulling up and asking, “excuse me, which way to the Hitler Ranch?”
There’s a 50 acre property out here, that in the 1930s belonged to a couple named Winona and Norman Stephens, the heirs to a thumbtack fortune. They fell in with a shadowy character named Herr Schmidt, and under his guidance, turned the place into a refuge for Hitler after the war. The idea was that if Der Fuhrer wanted, he could decamp to California and retire, or alternatively, plot his return. He had friends here. The Stephens were part of a group called the Silver Shirts, an American Nazi organization that had its largest chapters here on the west coast – ironically in states that are today among the most liberal in the country, California and Washington. And they meant business – the ranch had stables, a bomb shelter, a power plant. They even had plans to put in a pool. Well, it is LA.
Today, it’s a tip. The buildings are gutted, and the walls are scrawled with graffiti and tags. For decades, people have come here to hide out, camp and get high, and their trash is everywhere – cups, beer bottles, blankets, hundreds of empty spray cans.
On the morning that I showed up, I found a bunch of other tourists poking around the wreckage, taking pictures. We’d all trekked up the hill and then down a steep staircase of several hundred narrow steps – not that practical for Hitler, one would have thought, not in those boots.
But something about it felt right. Yes, it was a mess, but that was the point of the place – it was a thoroughly desecrated relic of American fascism. There’s been talk of bulldozing it and it doubtless happen eventually. But for now, it serves as an important reminder – like Weev – of just how near at hand the ugliness of Nazism actually is.
As I left to climb the stairs back up to the street, I saw a tourist from Brazil, fittingly enough, stand on a heap of trash in what was once the forecourt, and take a piss. That’s the spirit.
The Hacker Wars is out now