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Berkeley Talks: Author Andrew Marantz on the hijacking of the American conversation

By Public Public Affairs

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panel discussion with chancellor christ, new yorker reporter andrew marantz, ed wasserman and dan mogulof

From left: Moderator Dan Mogulof, New Yorker reporter Andrew Marantz, Chancellor Carol Christ and Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, participate in an Oct. 16 panel discussion about Marantz’s new book, ANTISOCIAL: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians and the Hijacking of the American Conversation. (UC Berkeley photo by Clara Mokri)

To write his new book, ANTISOCIAL: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, New Yorker reporter Andrew Marantz spent three years embedded with alt-right trolls to better understand how they had become powerful enough to influence our politics, our media — our society as a whole.

“I suppose I could have sat around and simply had an opinion, but I really wanted to know where these toxic ideas were coming from, what motivates people to do this and how they were promoting these ideas,” Marantz told Berkeley News earlier this month.

Marantz joined Chancellor Carol Christ, Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, and moderator Dan Mogulof, at UC Berkeley’s Alumni House on Oct. 16 to discuss the trends and discoveries described in his book.

“The thing that surprised me about the book is how nihilistic and punk and really without convictions … a lot of these people were,” said Chancellor Christ said to Marantz during the discussion. “They were really basically driven by a desire for followers and notoriety rather than the horrible convictions that they said. Was that your take on it? Because that’s certainly what I took from the book. And that was actually as troubling to me as the virus of these hate sites.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” said Marantz. “There’s a spectrum in the book from sincere ideologues to, as you say, nihilists, who don’t really seem to have any ideological agenda, but seem to have just a pure self-interest. Or, even self-interest is maybe generous, because all they want is attention. But it can be negative attention. It doesn’t really seem to matter to them. So, both of those areas existed within the taxonomy. And I agree, it’s hard to see which one is worse. Because, say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism — at least it’s an ethos. You can work with an ideology, it’s hard to know how to work with a nihilist.”

Christ first met Marantz in 2017, when he was working on a New Yorker story about free speech issues on campus , after the cancellation of an event with then- Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos led to a wave of criticism that Berkeley — home of the Free Speech Movement — had tried to shut down free speech.

“When I was here covering the Milo circus,” said Marantz, “the underlying premise was, ‘This is a public university, therefore, the First Amendment applies, therefore, he has to be able to speak.’ …What I’m questioning is whether that should be the interpretation of First Amendment law for time immemorial, or whether we can change our interpretations of laws just like we’ve always changed our interpretations of laws.”

Listen to the full conversation or read the transcript above.