DIMENSIONS, Vol. 13, No. 1
A Journal of Holocaust Studies
Published by the Anti-Defamation League's Braun Holocaust Institute
823 United Nations Plaza

Mainstreaming Neo-Nazism
By John Sutherland
The Internet and the Transmission of Hate

More insidious than the skinheads and neo-Nazi groups, the storm-trooper elements of contemporary racism that blatantly proclaim their anti-Semitism and other hatreds, is the (mostly invisible) bigotry of those who are part of the ostensibly "respectable" classes of society. Individuals like Kurt Waldheim (to take an egregious example) who are, or were once, allied with the forces of darkness -- but would really rather no one actually knew about it. Public embarrassment and fear of exposure are blunt instruments, but nonetheless effective weapons against those with questionable beliefs or backgrounds who care about their public image. Shame can often work where reason fails.

The terms Internet and Web suggest to the mind wholesome togetherness and openness -- a big cozy campfire, courtesy of Bill Gates. As with McLuhan's "global village," nostalgic ideas of preindustrial "organic" communities are evoked. In fact, the structure of the electronic community created by the Web is more like a honeycomb -- an unimaginably extensive warren of cells, sealed off like Catholic confessionals each from the other. A significant feature of this sealing-off is that Internet communication within a given cell allows a degree of privacy -- of freedom from the gaze of outsiders -- which is virtually absolute. And so, as in the confessional, ugly things can crawl out in those dark private zones.

The effect of this dark privacy is evident in the explosion of the pornography industry on the Internet. Moreover, the global-network Internet allows the cross-border transmission and receiving of obscenity, a state of affairs that makes nonsense of national or regional restrictions on such materials. "Local community standards" have no warrant in cyberspace. The internationalization of banking means that a New York-issued credit card is valid, by E-mail citation of number, in Thailand, or wherever porn happens currently to be hardest and enforcement softest. Discretion in billing is assured. The jamming of offensive sites by Internet-access providers is difficult, the legality of such interference is often dubious, and in any case, a "neutered" service is at a commercial disadvantage when competing with more hard-nosed rivals. A toothless "nanny-watch" is mounted and "health warnings" are posted; nothing effective.

What the Internet offers is guaranteed privacy of access to materials which many individuals would be embarrassed to be seen acquiring at their local walk-in adult bookstore. The attraction of the Internet is that it obviates public stigma. It liberates anti-social behavior by removing it from the social arena.

Like pornography, the acquisition of racist materials is similarly facilitated by the new conveniences of the Internet. The problem can be illustrated by reference to one central racist text, The Turner Diaries -- the "Bible of the Racist Right," as the FBI has aptly described it. The contents of the novel (by "Andrew Macdonald," a pseudonym of William L. Pierce), are well enough known by now. It is grossly anti-Semitic, in line with other propaganda spewed out by Pierce, under the auspices of his neo-Nazi National Alliance organization. If the novel were sold in bookstores where I live, it would run afoul of Britain's race relations laws and would be prosecuted and suppressed for being a flagrant incitement to terrorize minorities (which it undoubtedly is). Needless to say, The Turner Diaries has recently become available in Britain via the National Alliance's Website, and can be downloaded from the Net in English or five other European languages.

The Turner Diaries and Hate Crimes

Since its first publication as a book in 1978, The Turner Diaries, a latter-day Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has been regularly associated with hate crimes. In the early 1980s The Order, an extremist group under the leadership of Robert Jay Matthews, embarked on a series of terrorist actions against what it called ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government), actions which culminated in the assassination of the Denver radio talk-show host, Alan Berg ("a pushy Jew," his killers called him), in June 1984. Matthews' group had named itself The Order in direct imitation of the anti-Semitic terrorist group in The Turner Diaries, and in other respects took Pierce's novel as the guidebook for its campaign of violence and intimidation. (Matthews had been a member of the National Alliance until the late 1970s. Pierce's subsequent relationship with Matthews is not clear. In a May 1996 interview with the Denver Post, Pierce claimed that beyond an exchange of "correspondence," well before The Order's spate of crimes, there was no communication. "I don't really have any report from him as to what his motivation was," Pierce said of his former acolyte.)

According to Timothy McVeigh's leaked "confession" published in Playboy shortly before his trial for bombing the Oklahoma City federal building (the trial commenced in April 1997), McVeigh claimed to have first come across The Turner Diaries in 1987-8, just before he joined the U.S. Army. It was, he recalls, a period when his "views of the world expanded." He denied, however, that it was the book's Nazi politics which attracted him: "I read it as a gun-rights book." The prosecution established, from various sources, that during the late 1980s and early 1990s McVeigh sold The Turner Diaries for half-price at gun shows, so keen was he to proselytize for Pierce's novel. He ripped out and sent seven pages of the book to his young sister just before the Oklahoma City bombing. It was alleged very plausibly at McVeigh's trial that The Turner Diaries "blueprinted," down to the smallest details, the atrocity in Oklahoma City.

In June 1998, in Jasper, Texas, James Byrd, Jr., an African-American, was abducted by three white men and decapitated by being dragged by a chain attached to a moving pickup truck. One of the killers, John William King (he was found guilty of capital murder by a Texas jury in February 1999), supposedly jestingly told his accomplices, as he chained Mr. Byrd to the back of the truck, "We're starting The Turner Diaries early." The allusion was to the "Day of the Rope" episode which climaxes the narrative of Pierce's luridly violent novel. The "Day of the Rope" depicts the murder of all blacks and Jews prior to the nuclear destruction of the "two Jewish capitals," New York and Tel Aviv. In a program broadcast in late 1998 on British television, Pierce was shown, with a cuddly Siamese cat on his lap, mildly disclaiming any connection with the brutal act in Jasper, Texas.

On the strength of its notoriety and its crude racist appeal, The Turner Diaries has become what used to be called "an underground bestseller." Sales of between a quarter of a million and 300,000 are claimed by its publishers. But in the U.S., despite the fact that the book is protected by the First Amendment, legitimate wholesalers are wary of handling it, reputable book retailers do not like selling it, and respectable book-buyers do not like being seen buying it. For many years the book was only available by mail order -- more recently E-mail order (for $8.95 plus postage and handling) -- from William L. Pierce's headquarters in West Virginia; from the likes of Timothy McVeigh at gun shows; or in survivalist stores, along with Rambo knives and manuals offering instructions in how to cheat the Internal Revenue Service, make silencers out of soda cans, and kill. (Hitman, a manual for assassins, is a book which, following its prosecution in California, has become almost as notorious as The Turner Diaries.)

Mainstreaming the Diaries

In 1996 an above-ground American publisher, Barricade Books, acquired the rights to The Turner Diaries and brought out a trade edition for $12.00. (Pierce got some stick from the more puritanical of his own followers for having handed over their "Bible" to a "Jew publisher.") It was tastefully arranged for the publication date to coincide with the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. Following outraged pressure from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, most bookshops have eschewed the Barricade edition.

It is unsatisfactory and worrying that The Turner Diaries should be available at all. But, in an imperfect world, it was bearable when it was out of sight and difficult to get hold of. All this has changed with the revolution in bookselling brought about by the Internet. That revolution has been spearheaded by the dynamic electronic bookstore, Amazon.com. Amazon's history (it was founded in 1994) is pure Horatio Alger. "Real-world" bookshops, if they are to attract customers through their doors, have to lumber themselves with vast quantities of slow-moving stock. A main street or mall bookshop may have as many as 50,000 titles on shelf and window display -- most of which will never be sold at full price. The World Wide Web "virtual" bookstore can display without the expense of physically handling books. The customer sees what's not there.

By 1996, Amazon.com was offering visitors to its Website a choice of 1.5 million titles. In late 1997 it was 2.5 million and by the end of 1998 over three million. What the company also offers, via the Web, is electronic speed and convenience -- of inspection, ordering and dispatch. An individual opens an account, browses the Amazon.com site, and dumps orders in an electronic "cart." Books are paid for with credit cards. "One-click shopping," they call it.

Amazon.com offers crazy discounts -- up to 40 percent off recommended retail prices. Even with its postage and handling costs, the company's discounts make it competitive with the big American bookstore chains. And like the chains, Amazon.com is noncoercive and customer friendly.

Amazon.com is growing fast, much faster than its "physical" rivals. It had served its millionth customer by August 1997. More significantly, its share price has gone up like a rocket -- from $18 to over $300. It is one of the jewels in the Nasdaq crown.

One has to admire Amazon.com for its business enterprise and the new dimension it has brought to bookselling. But there is a dark side. You can, for example, now buy The Turner Diaries (the Barricade edition) without embarrassment. Many of Amazon's patrons do. It is ranked, currently, at 3,398 on the firm's sales chart. That may not seem very high, until you consider that Amazon offers three million books for sale.

Amazon invites "online book reviews" from purchasers. Some 62 have been received for The Turner Diaries, eight of which are reproduced on the company's Website. The average "Customer Review Ranking" of The Turner Diaries is four stars (five is the maximum a book can obtain). This puts William L. Pierce up with Tolstoy and Norman Mailer. The online reviews of Pierce's novel make chilling reading. One man, for example (five stars), hails "This fine work by Dr. Pierce," and advocates that "it should be a mandatory read in public schools. It portrays a true hope and vision for the future of the white race. It exposes the enemies of this once great nation. I would recommend it to everyone." Another five-star reviewer, from California, also sees The Turner Diaries as salutary reading for the American young -- or a portion of them: "This is exactly the sort of book that every White College student should read. We need less feminine men and more racially minded strong ARYAN brothers!!!" A reader from New York City only bestowed a mere three stars -- the love scenes were found to drag somewhat -- but nonetheless remarked: "...vivid and full of action! Basically well structured 'underdog' plot -- Hollywood should have a look." A discriminating reader from Canada awarded a similarly judicious three stars and commented, "Its [sic] not a masterpiece by any means but it is interesting reading." The same reader found the ending of the novel, in which the U.S. population is reduced to 50 million by the mass murder of non-Aryans, "hopefull [sic]."

Only two critical voices are published by Amazon. One man found The Turner Diaries "interesting in sort of an anthropological way," but sadly superficial and lacking in "action." A "blah" read. A reviewer from Philadelphia delivered the only unequivocally negative opinion of The Turner Diaries purveyed by Amazon: "racist, anti-Semitic, delusional trash." Because of the way these reviews (and others) are presented by Amazon, the criticism from Philadelphia is made to seem a distinctly minority, not to say an isolated, opinion. Any "fair-minded" (albeit uninformed) visitor to Amazon's Web site would, I think, get the impression that The Turner Diaries is, on the whole, an interesting book, even a brave one, which only the random eccentric would object to. Thus is bigotry camouflaged -- and made respectable (or at least less disreputable).

One cannot imagine the windows of an old-fashioned bookstore displaying stocked copies of The Turner Diaries with the advertising blurbs, "Mandatory," and, "The Sort of Book that every White College Student Should Read." But this is, in electronic terms, what Amazon is doing. It is, I think, deeply disquieting. The book is not just available through Internet conveniences; in certain important ways, it has been sanitized. Acquired on the Internet, this is no longer a book which one need feel ashamed of obtaining.

Disquieting is, on second thought, too polite a word. Disgusting fits better. I wrote a personal note to Amazon informing the company that I would do my Internet book-buying at Barnes and Noble.com for as long as The Turner Diaries is sold by Amazon without an accurate description of its contents. Then I learned that the book is also sold by Barnes and Noble.com -- accompanied by a reprehensible selection of readers' favorable "reviews." Is this the future of electronic bookselling?


John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London.
This article orignially appeared in Dimensions, Vol. 13, No. 1.