Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.
They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. – Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew (1944)
The Sartre quote above can describe any of a million interactions we’ve had online since 2016 or so. In comments sections of articles, web forums that were once just a place to ask for a restaurant recommendation or workout tips, and on all manner of social media like Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook, there’s almost always at least one edgelord that wants to fuck around. They do so under the guise of absurdity (the lulz) or ‘just asking questions’, but conceal a darker instinct.
Feels Good Man is an incredibly thorough and engaging look at how benign symbols and icons are co-opted and used in radicalization efforts. The documentary is the feature debut from illustrator and animator Arthur Jones, and tells the story of Matt Furie, a charmingly childlike – one might say naïve – comic artist who created the seemingly-innocuous Pepe The Frog. Pepe is a gangly, stoned-looking amphibian who aspires, in Furie’s comic Boy’s Club, to little more than laying on the couch. Through an online campaign completely out of the control and, initially, awareness of Furie, Pepe is appropriated by the denizens of the online community 4Chan, that murky corner of the internet that birthed every decent meme you’ve ever laughed at, and also the alt-right movement.
You can point these kinds of things out, but when you say it out loud you sound deranged. What do you mean that kids are being woo’ed to the alt-right by a stoned cartoon frog? It’s ridiculous on it’s face, and that’s why it’s so dangerous. The unseriousness of it is a barrier to further examination, because taking the internet too seriously is a long-standing source of derision. All of this is part of the information warfare in which the alt-right engages, “flooding the zone with shit” (as coined by disgraced Trump advisor Stephen Bannon), and obliterating objective truth.
Ultimately, Furie makes the heart-wrenching decision to kill Pepe in a comic. The animated sequence where this happens is the perfect illustration of how something ridiculous (“a cartoon frog has died, on the Internet”) can be so resonant. The weight of unwittingly creating a symbol associated with hate is crushing for Furie, and he reaches his breaking point when a children’s book starring Pepe is slated to be published and released and when notorious blowhard Alex Jones appropriates the frog for merchandise. A court battle later and Jones has to pull the merch, but the damage is done. Pepe is already a martyr for the alt-right cause. It’s heartbreaking to watch Furie go through all this, and the documentary captures it well.
But it’s not just emotional. The documentary describes how insular, pervasive, and even lucrative the Pepe community has become. Cryptocurrency millionaires trade Pepe memes for real money. Collectives of computer scientists and analysts quantify and study the spread of Pepe and other symbols as hate speech. The 2019 Hong Kong independence movement adopts Pepe as a cross-cultural symbol.
Angelini and Jones’ film is beautifully-rendered, with Furie’s Pepes all over it. If the film is designed to rehabilitate Pepe’s image – as I believe it is – or at least promote some understanding of where he came from and what he really represents, then watching him come to life here will go a long way towards that end. For a movie that’s at least half about neo-Nazi exploits, it’s weirdly upbeat and well-animated.
Feels Good Man describes how an in-group, Extremely Online people, creates an out-group, ‘Normies’, which has no idea that they’re not in on the joke, or even that a joke is being told. It shows how 4Chan made a meme real, manifested it offline into the Trump Presidency, and rode it into a toxic movement. The joke, when it was subsumed by the alt-right, a toxic stew of xenophobic conspiracy theorists, men’s rights activists, incels, paleo-conservatives, and white supremacists, stopped being a joke at all.