Views / Opinion

My childhood friend has joined the far right

Metro copy editor Kevin Hamilton says he’s struggling to reconcile ‘this stranger’ with the friend he grew up with.

A placard is left after a protest against Donald Trump advisers including Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist and senior counselor, at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 30, 2016.

AFP/Getty Images

A placard is left after a protest against Donald Trump advisers including Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist and senior counselor, at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 30, 2016.

This column was originally published on Dec. 5, 2016. In light of the events in Charlottesville, we've decided to republish it now.

To you, the term alt-right may be meaningless. That would probably be for the best.

But maybe you had the misfortune to see one of the “Hey, white person” posters that popped up in Toronto, prompting the city and police hate-crimes unit to get involved. Or there's a chance you heard the alt-right invoked by Hillary Clinton during the U.S. election campaign to put a name to the “fringe element” that has “effectively taken over the Republican Party.”

Perhaps the movement wears a face. It may conjure up an image of the president-elect's chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who Bloomberg called the “most dangerous political operative in America” as early as October of last year. It could be Richard B. Spencer, credited with coining the term “alternative right,” whose cry of “Hail Trump!” at a rally last month was met with Nazi salutes. Or maybe it's just Pepe the Frog wearing an SS hat, a spirit animal for all the attention-seeking Internet man-children perpetually on the lookout for the next hot way to cause offence.

As much as I'd like to ignore the whole gaggle of them and their toxic ideas, I can't. Because for me, it wasn't some two-dimensional villain, some interchangeable kook who served as my introduction to this philosophy of white nationalism and medieval gender roles. It was my best friend.

When we were children, perhaps eight or nine, the guy I'll call Rob was a friend to me when no one else would be, when I was bullied and ostracized and alone. He was easygoing, loyal and a good listener – qualities I needed. Even years later, when I found many more friends at school, he retained a special status among them.

After many an evening spent at his place, we would take the long way back through the neighbourhood in the dark, walking and talking about games and cartoons, and later, philosophy and current events. He loved to pontificate about the Western canon, Russian and Roman history, the workings of empires and economies.

The two of us grew up in stable nuclear families in a quiet suburb of Toronto. By any objective measure, we wanted for nothing. Our hometown was not a showcase of cultural diversity, by any means, but immigrants made up about a quarter of the population, slightly higher than the national average.

We lost touch in the late 2000s when we moved away for university. Rob took political science; I took journalism. Finally, a few years ago, we found the time to reconnect.

My heart sinks when I remember that day. At first it was the same as always: we sat in the basement of my family home, booted up a game to occupy our hands and embarked on another wondrously aimless conversation. Then, as if he had been holding the thought for some time, he revealed he had converted to Catholicism. I was surprised, certainly, but it didn't trouble me.

However, as I teased out the reasons for this change of creed, his overall world-view, he confided different, radical beliefs to me. He outlined his vision of racial segregation, of white nations for white people, black nations for blacks, and so on. Each new revelation left me more dumbfounded than the last. I stumbled through the counters to his arguments, but my mind was reeling, trying to reconcile this stranger with the kid I grew up with.

Hours passed. Night fell. I walked him home, watched him go up his front steps and close the door behind him. I haven't seen him since.

At the time, I rationalized what I heard as a childish exercise in contrarianism and a brand of deviance unique to him. I didn't know his beliefs belonged to the banner of something called the “alt-right.” I didn't know the extent of his delusions.

Stephen Bannon -- who played a central role in Trump's victorious campaign -- is on leave from his role as chairman of the Breitbart website, seen by critics as a haven for white supremacists.

Getty Images

Stephen Bannon -- who played a central role in Trump's victorious campaign -- is on leave from his role as chairman of the Breitbart website, seen by critics as a haven for white supremacists.

“We are in a death struggle, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nowhere we can retreat to. This isn’t giving up some far-off colony. The fight has been brought home. Our people are in danger of extinction, both cultural and racial.”

This is Rob speaking on YouTube just before the U.S. election. He had strong feelings.     

“Hillary Clinton and her ilk funded ISIS, the most evil organization in human history, they do stuff like telling six-year-old kids they need to get a gender transplant, in Europe they’re trying to extend euthanasia to minors, they’re banning the words mother and father. These people are undermining all the things that have created these beautiful, functional societies that we live in. By any metric, secular or religious, they are an objective evil.”

YouTube is now my sole, clandestine connection to my former friend. After a time apart, curiosity and nostalgia led me to his channel, which he'd mentioned ages before but I'd never explored. Discovering these online musings was at once comforting, illuminating and repulsive. Among the same movie reviews he used to share on our moonlit walks are hateful diatribes and snide 20-second clips of black or gay people misbehaving. Under a pseudonym he rails against all manner of “dildos” and “degenerates.”

It's also where I learned much of what I know about the far right. The movement's tenets are vague, with some members spouting the kind of neo-Nazi and white-supremacist dreck that even Rob would reject, but his own views fall well within the limits of the alt-right label.

As he describes it, the core of the philosophy is an acknowledgement that people are not the same. Individuals are born with inherent strengths and weaknesses, natural talents and disabilities. Men and women have physical and mental differences that make them more suited for certain roles in life.

“Men have a creative and destructive spiritual nature,” he says in one video, “whereas women have a nurturing, maintaining nature.... Denying it makes women unhappy, it makes men unhappy.” Only the misguided or corrupt (feminists, for instance, or LGBTQ people) would subvert these roles.

Races, due to natural selection, differ in qualities such as strength, speed, average IQ and predilection to violence. Cultures of origin also leave a permanent mark. Intermingling leads to discord at best and cultural genocide at worst, and for that reason immigration and miscegenation are dire sins.

“Diversity, generally speaking, makes people miserable,” he says. “There's disengagement, despondency, alienation, all these things that come from diversity that is basically being forced upon us. It's not just about the genocide of any particular race, it's the cultural genocide of all peoples that will come from this blended one-world government, this one-world humanity.”

The answer, he says, is a world of culturally and ethnically separate nations, a “diversity that doesn't feel the need to destroy diversity.” In this regard, Canada is perhaps the planet's greatest failure: “Once you enshrine tolerance and diversity as inherent goods, you open the door for tolerance and celebration of all sorts of things that are bad for society. If you're going to celebrate mixed marriages, why not celebrate gay marriage?

The more I watched, the more I realized how little I knew the man I thought I understood top-to-bottom. I learned that he entered university already aligned against diversity, against gay marriage – though at the time he still considered himself a liberal in many ways. Yet, he claims his lefty classmates had no interest in equality or economic socialism. He says they admonished him for criticizing the worst abusers of human rights in Islamic and African nations, calling him a racist and a xenophobe.

“They didn't believe any of the things they claimed to believe in,” he recalls in an online memoir. “They weren't interested in the poor, they weren't interested in the working class; they were only interested in their navel-gazing and signalling how virtuous they are.”

It's a sentiment I think many millennials can relate to. I can remember being accused of nefarious motives for attending a university seminar on Tamil issues. It was a harsh lesson on how costly it can be to engage with people assured of their moral and intellectual high ground. It's the reason University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson became such a hero to the alt-right when he not only refused to use gender-neutral pronouns but also openly defied the students and administration ready to pillory him for his choice. It's sad irony to see Rob fall victim to the conservative version of the same delusions of self-righteousness.

After finishing our studies, Rob and I both struggled to find work. He had it much harder: Rob has bipolar disorder and a learning disability affecting his writing and spatial perception, and I imagine many employers were blind to how intelligent he can be. (His disability, he says, is just another example of how people are born for certain roles and not for others.) But while I grew despondent over my personal failings, Rob nursed his bitterness for others. On his YouTube channel, I found monologue after monologue about why job-application forms were a farce, how the system was rigged.

“Most of us are young white males who are experiencing financial trouble because of the recession,” he says in a video on alt-right doctrine. “We're kind of the first generation to experience the effects of diversity. The baby boomers didn't grow up with Islamic terrorism, they didn't really grow up with affirmative action, they didn't grow up with the housing crisis. Where I live in Southern Ontario, mass immigration has made it so people of my generation can't really afford to buy houses or really start families. And feminism makes that very difficult too. We're kind of the first generation of males who can't really do what males are supposed to do. I think to a certain extent, you say, 'Well, you people are losers' – there's some truth to that but that doesn't mean there's not reasons for these things.”

Richard Spencer, who coined the phrase 'alt-right' gives interviews to media after participants at his Washington conference were seen giving Nazi salutes.


Richard Spencer, who coined the phrase 'alt-right' gives interviews to media after participants at his Washington conference were seen giving Nazi salutes.

By subscribing to Rob’s videos, I’ve placed myself in the disconcerting company of accounts like “The Far Right Federation” and “White Atheist.” But it's where I need to be. I lack the nerve and to some extent the will to talk to Rob again, but it feels wrong to try to forget him. For well over a decade, we went through life's firsts together. He was familiar, a constant among change. This is the guy I thought would be my best man someday. Now he's gone, and it was my choice to cast him aside. Watching his videos lets me feel like he's still part of my life, and I get the occasional answer to persistent questions — where he is, what he's doing — even if that information is drenched in bile.

I often wonder whether Rob would be so vitriolic if he knew I was listening. Imagine my surprise when, during a screed on liberalism, he mentioned me: a lifelong friend who was all too quick to abandon him when he spoke his mind. Another typical liberal, unwilling to debate or challenge their own dogma.

While I go through many sorrows when I listen to these videos, first among them is guilt. I have this feeling of paternalistic responsibility to “save” him from his madness, as though he isn't a perfectly intelligent adult capable of independent thought. It’s the kind of condescension he would revile.

The urge is there, but I’m not convinced this is the type of battle than can be won through argument. If neither of us enters that arena willing to change our minds, then what is there to gain? I'm tempted to say it’s fine for us to accept our incompatibility and say our goodbyes — I shudder to imagine how he might respond to my Tamil girlfriend — but is that not the same logic of “difference requires division” he's espousing?

Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve heard a parade of politicians, pundits and talk-show hosts blame the surprising result on a culture of snap liberal condemnation.

“The left is responsible for this,” says a video rant, viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube, by the satirical lefty character Jonathan Pie. “Because the left has now decided that any other opinion, any other way of looking at the world is unacceptable. We don't debate anymore because the left won the cultural war. So if you're on the right you're a freak, you're racist, you're evil, you're stupid, you are a basket of deplorables.... That's why people wait until they're in the voting booth. No one's watching anymore. There's no blame or shame, and you can finally say what you really think.”

So, the argument goes, if we would only break bread with our estranged cousins, no matter how repulsive their views might be to us, we could hash it out and the West would not be in such turmoil.

It’s a comforting thought, that the only thing preventing us from healing our rifts is pride. That harmony is within our grasp, if we have the will to take it. Then I think of every politician, from Barack Obama to Justin Trudeau to a hundred others, elected on a promise to bridge the partisan divide. Clearly, it’s not so simple.

It's true, what Edmonton-based advocate Matt Edmonds said last month as he went about defacing alt-right posters: “Silence is just a form of agreement.” But, as hard as it is for a writer to admit, words hold no power over deaf ears and hardened hearts.

I see my own story, my own hand-wringing reflected in the collective crisis of conscience brought on by Trump's victory and the alt-right's day in the sun. I would like to cling to my romantic ideals about the power of open dialogue, that people will come out from behind their ideological bulwarks if they feel safe to do so. But listening to Rob has made me seriously consider the idea that some people can't be reached.

I tell myself that's why I didn't really try.

It remains to be seen whether we can find some secret to reconcile our irreconcilable differences and the courage to reach out to our neighbours, coworkers and, indeed, friends. In my case, the answer was no. I hope our society at large can do better.

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