On Feb. 10, 2015, three college students in Chapel Hill were killed in a vicious anti-Muslim hate crime. Six years later, as racist violence against people of color in the United States has only intensified, Duke faculty and guests gathered to discuss “White Noise,” a feature-length documentary film produced by The Atlantic that zooms in on white supremacy and the alt-right movement responsible for this violence.
The panel discussion featured Duke professor and Imam Abdullah Antepli, Sanford School professor David Schanzer, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat and director Daniel Lombroso. Moderated by Kenan Institute director Suzanne Shanahan, the panel used “White Noise” as a springboard for commentary on the nature of violent extremism in America and abroad.
The commentary in “White Noise” is largely implied — there are no voice-overs, no expert interviews, no explanatory asides. Instead, as the camera follows the lives of three alt-right personas, the subjects are allowed to speak for themselves. In the process, ridiculous true life characters emerge: Mike Cernovich, a self-hating misogynist sex blogger and grifter; Lauren Southern, a Youtuber and global ethnostate lobbyer; and Richard Spencer, perhaps the hardest-to-stomach of them all, a blatant neo-Nazi and white supremacist who incited the 2017 Charlottesville riot.
To focus too much on these outrageous public personas, however, misses the key take-away: racist extremism is a structural issue that extends into institutions and collective psyches. These alt-right influencers rose to mainstream prominence in a media landscape that rewarded hate with clicks and reaped profit from racism. As Ben-Ghiat said, hatred is “an aspirational brand” for the followers of these racist celebrities.
If that’s the case, though, why make a whole movie about people like Richard Spencer in the first place? Doesn’t that fuel the media-driven machine of hate speech? Addressing this question, director Daniel Lombroso pointed to his background as the grandson of Jewish Holocaust survivors, which he said informs his approach to journalism.
“We have a duty to shine a light on evil when it rises,” Lombroso said. “As a young journalist, I have an opportunity to really help people understand what’s outside their doors and what modern America looks like in all of its glory, but also in all of its bad side…. These three individuals have platforms in the millions. We can choose to ignore them, and that leads to events like Charlottesville, it leads to things like the Capitol Hill siege.”
While interviews with the three individuals expose their hateful racism in glaring, unadulterated fashion, the camera’s attention to their hypocrisy and their aesthetic brand (Greek statues abound) hints at an underlying global crisis of extremism. Where “White Noise” gestured toward this deeper problem, the panel members provided interpretive clarity.
Ben-Ghiat, who defined extremism as “people who embrace violence as a way of changing history,” praised the film for skewering the hypocrisy of alt-righters and their irrational obsessions with Western history, eugenicist breeding and personal celebrity. She also pointed to parallels between today’s GOP and far-right nationalist movements in India, Turkey and Greece.
Antepli, whose work at Duke studies interfaith relations, explained the psychology that leads people across the world to extremism, paradoxically producing a sort of globalist nationalism.
“As vile and disgusting as [extremist ideologies] are... they respond to a need,” Antepli said. “They provide very convincing and compelling answers to very complicated questions… I have seen this all over in every Muslim terrorist organization that I have studied and fought against. We have to understand what need they respond to, what void they fill, that many people from very diverse backgrounds are finding [extremism] incredibly compelling.”
“White Noise” highlights some of this seemingly peculiar diversity at the seams of the American alt-right. Cernovich and Southern are married to non-white spouses, Lucian Wintrich makes an appearance as a gay Trump supporter and the wealthy and poor alike partake in the far-right frenzy.
How these white supremacists or any other extremists are “de-radicalized” is not explicitly addressed in the film, although Lauren Southern is nearly granted a redemption arc. From the start, the camera offers the white nationalist a measure of sympathy. One shot lingers on her stoic reaction to a man’s comment that “women ruin everything,” and in another scene, she openly expresses her struggle to reconcile her personal life with her public persona, showing some awareness of the reactionism that fueled her internet fame.
Whether these figures deserve those sympathetic glimpses, though, is a charged debate. (Lauren Southern has returned to conspiracy-fueled racist punditry since the documentary’s filming.) But you can at once seek to understand extremism and, at the same time, take action to restrict its influence. Schanzer pointed to cancel culture as a constructive tool to do just that.
“When people say, ‘I'm not gonna support that person anymore, I'm not gonna buy the products that they are sponsoring,’ I mean, that's what cancel culture is, and that's actually making free speech work,” Schanzer said. “That is so consistent with the First Amendment... it's part and parcel of how it's supposed to work. So I think that is a very important way that the average person can fight against this hatred.”
Antepli added policy solutions, individual reflection and cross-spectrum dialogue as important ways to counter hate and extinguish its root causes. “White Noise” documents the disease, but, according to Antepli, we all should rise en masse to diagnose and heal it.
“What we are discussing and studying is an American reality,” Antepli said. “These are American citizens. This is part of who we are. As uncomfortable as it makes us, as much as we want to throw up when we think about it, these cancers, these tumors are grown in our own body. And we have every ethical self-interest, moral reason to deal with it as our problem.”
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