Masthead CMC Magazine December 1, 1995 / Page 12


Computer Mediated Communication as the Cult of Tradition

by Lisa Schmeiser (

"My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular."-- Adlai Stevenson

Few groups in America are less popular than white separatists. The name itself evokes images of white-sheeted rednecks with IQs in the single-digit range, or fanatically religious Idahoan homesteaders who shoot first, ask questions later. So what are white separatists doing on the World Wide Web, a medium once called the "last bastion of socialism," and known more for liberal philosophy than a commitment to the Ten Commandments?

Examining the question, "what are white separatists doing here?" in a computer-mediated context, what are a group of people who define identity in terms of black and white, doing recruiting in a forum where identities can be created and discarded with a few keystrokes? According to the Reverend R., maintainer of the Christian Identity Web site, worrying about the identity--racial or otherwise--of an email respondent isn't necessary. "It's highly unlikely someone will order one hundred dollars worth of outreach leaflets if they are not someone genuinely interested in our cause and in helping us out. Most people in the Nationalist movement and Christian Identity movement don't worry too much about anonymity."

The Web as a Weapon

A closer inspection of Reverend R.'s sites reveal that he, and the people posting praise to his pages, are not shy about offering personal information, although their referrals to the Christian Identity group are more vague. Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates recently referred to the Christian Identity as a social element that could contribute to a violent, scapegoating political movement. Its members prefer to see themselves "true activists."

Reverend R. sees his site as a weapon for the "battle" for a White Christian nation. Throughout his interview, he referred to the Christian Identity's mission as that of a resistance movement trying to spread its message despite an oppressive regime: "we are in fact working to change race relations and eliminate the status quo which harms everyone involved."

According to Umberto Eco, that rhetoric is typical of many ur-fascist movements; one of the tools for recruiting members is to imply exclusive membership in a morally correct group. White Nationalist groups rely on moral exclusivity for their identity; the Web sites are peppered with phrases like, "if our presence stirs up that much hatred in the hearts of non-Whites, then the only sensible course of action is to separate ourselves from them." Among the Christian Identity's doctrine: " By banding together in pro-White, pro-life, pro-family, pro-Christian groups we can eliminate much of the evil in this world."

The Web as Sole Authority

But does this rhetoric work? Reverend R. claims that in the three months his site has been on-line, it has become the home "for the Identity Truth," and the 250+ daily visitors have stuffed his mailbox with glowing reviews: "the email box fills up everyday with comments and praise from folks who are happy to at last find real answers to their questions. I'd say the ratio of good letters to bad is 50 to 1.

"Some are people who have believed this way but never been actively involved in the cause--and are now seeking to become more dedicated to the struggle for our Race and our Faith. Then there are those who actually had their views formed in part due to our web campaign."

Ryan Wilson, one-time member of the United States of America Nationalist Party, who decries the current White Nationalist movement as "misfits and dregs ... lowest of the common folk in our society" felt that R.'s site is a symbol for the future of the White Nationalist Movement: "Technology is the key to reach the masses of people, but will the people stand up? The use of the Internet will bring many of our more educated people together in order to form strong leadership alliances."

The Internet has turbo-charged old tools for Separatist adherents. By creating a virtual world whose real-life counterpart is estimated to be twenty-five years in the future, these movements can gain followers in new ways, and continue to publish articles, manifestos and other writings historically associated with "resistance" movements.

The electronic medium may even be acting in a way not possible since the penny dreadfuls; without a censoring editor, the option of changing channels, or any other kind of editorial context, the communicators gain the advantage of being a "sole" voice of authority, thus strengthening the credibility of their work.

The Web as a Smuggler

As Reverend R. says, "This is just the beginning. When Gutenberg invented movable type 500+ years ago, who would have guessed to what extent that medium would be used to shape and mold our world? The Net has equal potential, I feel, as any other form of media which has proven its propaganda value."

The propaganda value of the Web is its biggest appeal to Christian Identity. Because the contents of the Web are largely self-published, Separatist groups have the limited ability to control the medium and deliver their message undiluted. In his resistance rhetoric, R. claims to be electronically smuggling his writings to countries where white nationalism is outlawed; he does not say where these writings are illegal.

The converse of an independently published manifesto is that of a self-selecting audience. This translates, in Eco's words as "selective populism." By seeking and responding to these manifestos, 'Net surfers are offering Separatist organizers a mandate to be translated as the will of the people.

Reverend R. reinforces Eco's contention, saying, "When someone in South Africa says they heard about our web site from a friend who gave them a copy of our newsletter, it is clear the message is getting out. There's no stopping us now." [CMC TOC]

Lisa Schmeiser is a master's degree candidate with the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York.

Copyright © 1995 by Lisa Schmeiser. All Rights Reserved.

This Issue / Index / CMC Studies Center / Contact Us