Every once in a while, Anonymous pops up on social media being feted for publicizing some list or other of dirty deeds and ghastly associations which they’ve uncovered on a server somewhere. The last one I saw claimed to report members of law enforcement who were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. The general consensus when these unveilings circulate is one of celebration. People seem delighted that this faceless entity (if it can even be called an entity, disorganized as it is) has the power to drag bigotry out into the light where it can be properly brought to shame. As for me, I’m skeptical.
Not too long ago, I happened to catch part of a documentary about Anne Braden on KET. Anne and her husband landed themselves in a bit of hot water back in the 50s when, on behalf of a black family called the Wades, they bought a house in a Shively, a white neighborhood in Louisville, KY. The Wades had been stonewalled in their attempts to purchase a suburban home on their own. As you might imagine, things got hot and were pretty quick about it.
Someone(s) burned cross in the front yard either the night the Wades moved in or some night shortly thereafter. Before long, someone actually bombed the house, put dynamite right under the window of the room where the Wade’s young daughter slept. God’s mercy, the family was out at the time and nobody was hurt.
What brings this to mind when I think of Anonymous sifting the ether to expose Klan affiliations is the obvious issue of racism, but also this. The 50s weren’t just a time of racial upheaval, this was also the McCarthy Era. Communists were lurking inside ordinary-looking Americans like lit dynamite ready to explode and rip apart the fabric of our society. The Braden family were witch-hunted as such. Anne’s husband Carl was tried and jailed for sedition for buying a house that persons unknown tried to blow up because of the skin tone of the inhabitants. There was a right and a wrong way to think and the halls of power were at work to get everyone thinking in line.
One might think that their mutual opposition to racial animus puts the likes of Anne Braden on the same side as those whomevers in Anonymous, but this couldn’t be further from true. The Red Scare was driven by an institutional fear of ideas that thrived on the clamor of people accusing each other. When you look at 50s as a time when the relatively secret wheels of government power churned in an effort to make mincemeat of scary thoughts, it seems plain to me that Joseph McCarthy’s legacy runs right to Anonymous via a straight, unbroken line.
On the subject of Klan affiliation, Anonymous opposes what I oppose. But, they are not my ally. Their chosen methods make them a foe of another stripe. When power is exercised behind the blank slate of anonymity, that has all the totalitarian trappings of a police state. By delving into citizens’ private lives and policing privately-held beliefs, dredging up some muck to be brought to shame and, I’m sure they hope, retribution, these digital thought police are a disgrace to liberty (and this is not even getting into the fact that just posting a found database with no context or actual reportage shows a complete lack of journalistic integrity that makes a gossip and a mockery of the standard of press a free society requires). But, Anonymous gets away with it because they have cherry-picked an easy ideology to attack. They exploit our cultural blind spots to make alarming power plays.
Consider the Nazis. Nobody would say now that hunting down Jews and their sympathizers was a noble thing, but within the bubble of Nazi Germany, it was the height of national pride to do so. I mean, they threw some pretty damn extravagant parades to celebrate some pretty damned egregious acts. Point being, it’s hard to see your gross totalitarianism when everyone agrees with you. And to act so from a place of hiding is beyond bad, it’s frightening.
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Let’s take a full stop here. Racism is a moral wrong. I personally anchor this thinking in the belief that the same God made us all and that gives us a terrific depth of dignity not to be mocked. I do not in any way believe that we as people should leave racist ideas unchallenged, especially in places of authority like the justice system. I do in every way believe that we as people should listen to our neighbors when they’re hurting and angry and join with them in seeking reconciliation. I shy away from using the word justice here because that term is so fraught and so righteous that I pale to think of human attempts to exert it. Let justice roll, but don’t ask me to roll it. I’m unqualified. I like the idea of reconciliation better because it implies a mutual work on all sides. But! I believe this mutual work should start in the camp that’s hurting least, because the camp that’s hurting most needs people to listen and care.
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Back to faceless hackers. You might say that ordinary people need the protection of anonymity to stand up to tyranny, and that may seem true. But, can individual acts of tyranny actually resolve institutional acts of tyranny? Put another way, if the people succeed in changing the balance of power in their favor, will they then give up their own tyrannical power or will they double down to ensure that the world stays as they like it? I’m not a trained historian, but I know enough about my own human nature to bet on power preserving power, not virtue.
What it comes down to is this: privacy is threatening. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? These days, we all do. Our always-on, always-wired-in world has given us a vision for much more darkness than we could have ever imagined even 20 years ago. Not only has the Internet revved the news cycle up to redline levels of horrors per minute, but it has given people a space to air out the darkest corners of their hearts and minds. Complete depravity is but a comments section away. Seeing the havoc in the human heart on full display shouldn’t necessarily be surprising—especially for those like me who take something like the Sermon on the Mount at face value—but it is certainly bracing. I understand the impulse to stamp out the flames. Privacy is threatening.
So, we need to have courage. We need to have the secure conviction that resists fear. To begin with, we need known people working to know each other. We need to have compassion and persuasion in our arsenal. About that word. Arsenal used to simply indicate a wharf, a place to dock and repair boats. It literally means a house for craft or skill. These days, though, we use the word indicating a place to make and stockpile weapons. This seems to illustrate our tendency to weaponize all craft, to make our human arts into instruments of power and victory. I imagine this drift in meaning might have come as ships became more instrumental in conquesting war, fighting abroad, and the industry of shipbuilding came under the claim of warmakers. Maybe it’s that we can’t travel without fighting because we find contrary cultures so threatening. In any event, it’s a shame that we feel the impulse to weaponize every tool we have for handling injustice and disagreement.
I propose we de-escalate a bit. When it comes to handling distasteful and even horrific ideas, let’s make our arsenal back into a house of craft. Not the craft of war, but the craft of peaceableness. I’m borrowing that word from a hero of mine, Wendell Berry, because I like it so much. It doesn’t presume that the success of peace is guaranteed or even always possible, but it it puts the weight on us to make peace an option. As scary as that is in the face of the horrors of the human heart, it’s pretty sound advice. If two parties are armed for war, war it will be. Inevitability. If one party is willing for peace, there is actual possibility. When it comes to opposing racism, we must resist the pull of war in our gut. War we have. Making peace, the art of reconciliation, is a much more complex path. It is choosing vulnerability while insisting on dignity. It is a high calling and it is risky, but it is good. And it takes far more courage than hiding behind spoofed IP addresses, proxy servers, and nameless names.