In a recent article, the newspaper formerly known as the New York Times offers an eye-catching headline: “Racists Are Recruiting. Watch Your White Sons.” The image is an inspired piece of pop art: a blond-haired, gangly boy disappearing into a giant iPhone made of writhing snakes. One shoe is still outside the phone, the shoelaces untied. The tag on his shirt sticks out against his neck. It’s a perfect visual encapsulation of vulnerability entrapped by evil.
The author, Joanna Schroeder, is a mommy blogger with bylines at the Huffington Post and other outlets who frequently writes about raising sons. In recent months, she has become especially vocal about the alt-right, white nationalist gamer culture, and the vulnerability of boys to online Nazi recruitment. This article is a summary of what she’s learned and wants to pass on to other moms like her.
So far, so good. Alt-right online culture is indeed toxic, callous and dangerous, and it is indeed perilously easy these days for disillusioned young men to fall down a rabbit hole and wander into some very dark places. I’ve spent years warning friends to educate themselves and take the alt-right phenomenon seriously, learning to recognize the kinds of memes and linguistic “tells” that typify the right-wing fringe. When young people no longer get what they need from the mainstream, they will wander to the edges, and there they will encounter the sort of ideological static cling that makes for very strange bedfellows. I speak from experience as someone who has been politically homeless for my entire adult life.
All of which is to say, we could use a smart, thoughtful op-ed clearly outlining what the alt-right actually is, the actual dangers it poses to our boys, and the actual best ways for parents to become informed and preempt its influence.
Unfortunately, Ms. Schroeder’s piece is not that op-ed.
Schroeder bursts out of the gate with what is meant to be a darkly ominous opening anecdote about a car ride with her sons. She overhears them in the back seat with friends crowing “Triggered!” over a meme on their phones, whereupon she tells us with an absolutely straight face, “I almost lost control of the car.” If the reader here begins to wonder whether Ms. Schroeder is quite up to the task of calmly navigating land transportation, the rest of the article won’t set his mind at rest.
In another anecdote, delivered in ponderous blow-by-blow, she recalls catching a Hitler meme on her son’s phone out of the corner of her eye and snatching it to have a closer look: “Hold on a minute. Was that Hitler?” I have been unable to track down the original meme, but if Ms. Schroeder’s interpretation is accurate, the gist of it seems to be the kind of elaborately unsavory joke that can in fact find its ultimate origins in alt-right troll dens. As Schroeder tells the story, her son hadn’t even been aware of the meaning of the meme and “liked” it assuming it was innocuous.
It may be worth interjecting here that alt-right memery can indeed turn very ugly very fast, uglier even than the rather clumsily veiled meme Ms. Schroeder seems to be describing. In general outline, the idea of noting the earmarks of an alt-right meme and teaching your son to practice caution isn’t unreasonable. Dramatically snatching away your son’s phone the moment an image of Hitler flickers on the screen, then writing a New York Times op-ed advertising for the whole world that he accidentally “liked” the wrong kind of meme on Instagram: slightly less reasonable.
It would be far more constructive for Schroeder to introduce her sons to figures like David French and Ben Shapiro, who have been on the receiving end of alt-right hate mail. There was, for instance, the ugly incident when alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos tweeted a picture of a black baby at Shapiro upon the birth of his son. (This is part of a running viciously racist meme involving what black men might do to white men’s wives.)
However, Ms. Schroeder is apparently incapable of computing the idea that the alt-right wouldn’t be Ben Shapiro’s biggest fans. While rattling off her list of “extremist” media, she careens breathlessly from 4chan to PragerU to The Daily Stormer to Jordan Peterson, barely pausing to note that some of these things might not be exactly like some of these other things.
But of course, such an article wouldn’t be complete without an obligatory Jordan Peterson reference. While conceding that Peterson and other IDW figures are “more mainstream,” Schroeder casually wedges the clinical psychologist in between paragraphs about white supremacist outlets and gaming forums. She writes that Peterson’s “conservative perspectives on feminism and gender are very popular among young men and often are a path to more extreme content and ideologies.”
This, from the advice columnist who offers tips on “ethical sexting” and writes open letters to her sons telling them that love and sex needn’t have anything to do with each other, or that she will be proud if they can become “cool” enough to bed multiple girls (or boys). Meanwhile, Jordan Peterson tells boys that casual sex is an oxymoron and offers practical advice on how to quit pornography, something Schroeder should appreciate. Here he is chatting with a fan who came to a healthier understanding of sex and sexuality by taking Peterson’s wisdom to heart. A clinical psychologist right in my own town also shared a story with me about a young man who was the archetypal aggressively foul-mouthed, female-objectifying, porn-addicted high school jock, until he encountered Peterson. The difference before and after, she said, was as night to day.
But naturally, as someone whose idea of researching Jordan Peterson appears to be copy-pasting whatever Vox has to say about him, Schroeder is blissfully oblivious to these sorts of awkward data points.
I also note that in the course of her research, Schroeder found an author who conjectures that young men are drawn to toxic online communities because they want to feel as if they’re part of a “heroic struggle.” All the more reason why she should be a fan of someone like Jordan Peterson, who also understands this deep need in young men but encourages them to channel it towards personal improvement, costly relational investment (like maybe marrying the girlfriend Ms. Schroeder would say they could just go on bedding without marriage if they feel like it), and taking on family and community responsibility. Yes I know, I’m hopelessly naive.
But clearly, Ms. Schroeder doesn’t need my advice. Her game plan is all mapped out. In a column entitled “18 Ways to Raise Feminist Boys,” Schroeder suggests such helpful tips as buying dollies for your boy toddler, or playing house and asking him “if he’d like to be the mommy.” She has guides to media consumption too, including lists of female-centric book and TV series to make sure your boys read/watch, plus invaluable tips on how to handle old media (“Have your teens brainstorm the ways in which James Bond should’ve shown more respect”).
Ms. Schroeder also shares her secret sauce for “deconstructing” terms like “snowflake.” Who’s more of a snowflake, she asks her son with relish, the person who “wants people to stop using racial slurs and mocking of gay people,” or someone who complains about the phrase “Happy Holidays” at Christmastime? (A bit that would no doubt have been very cutting-edge in 1991.)
She also has a game plan for teaching her sons how to think about race, particularly recommending Shelly Tochluk’s Witnessing Whiteness as a how-to guide. One blurber gives this taste of the book: “Shelly Tochluk brings to light the most important book about race in a generation. Is ‘whiteness’ bad in itself? When is it just part of the social, historical and cultural legacy of a people? And what is the prison/poison that this legacy bequeaths us?” Tochluk herself informs her readers that “Our first step is to identify the ways our whiteness emerges. Our first step is to become witnesses to our whiteness.” (p. xvii)
If Ms. Schroeder sincerely believes any of this is going to have any measurable, helpful, useful effect on her white sons, I don’t know what to tell her. Truly, I don’t.
Some might say I am being too harsh with someone who, for all her foolish and ineffectual finger-wagging, at the end of the day is still a mom of boys who is genuinely scared of at least some things she should be scared of. I confess, the sort of person who instructs teenage boys that their sex lives and their love lives can run on parallel tracks does not awaken my better angels. But the tiny grain of truth buried in Schroeder’s smarmy fluff is that there is a real threat on the right-wing fringe that can have an attraction for boys and young men who are bored, aimless, and looking for a transgressive thrill.
Ironically, her brand of woke-scolding could not have been better calculated to put off the sort of young man who already feels he is being constantly scolded and doesn’t understand why. In other words, exactly the sort who wanders into alt-right Internet forums. But by sweeping all non-conforming right-of-center commentary outside the Overton window with one grand gesture, Schroeder cuts them off from the antidote. In fact, she should be so lucky if she “catches” her sons watching a Jordan Peterson lecture on YouTube. They might have actually learned something about manhood. They might have actually learned something about human nature. They might have learned something about what makes evil men do evil things. And in the process, they might have learned something about their own hearts.
But hey, at least she’ll make sure they learn about ethical sexting. So there’s that.