Learning to Read on the Internet

The internet has made the world effectively smaller and made communication almost effortless and nearly instantaneous. This connectivity has done much good, but we are also learning about the ugliness it has helped to usher in. Namely, we are learning that the internet has become the perfect tool for radicalization. This was perhaps first made clear to many in the West when ISIS created an internet presence to radicalize disenfranchised Muslim youth in the West, but in response white supremacy has found a transnational and ephemeral home on the internet as well. The rise of online white supremacy is not new, yet recent events have shown how it has become more refined and sophisticated in recent history.

The role of the internet as a tool to spread white supremacist propaganda and create terrorists has become a way in which some have tried to understand the recent Christchurch terror attack. Kevin Roose, in a New York Times article, writes that the Christchurch shootings were “a first” because it was “an internet-native mass shooting, conceived and produced entirely within the irony-soaked discourse of modern extremism.” Roose notes that “the language used to describe the attack before the fact framed it as an act of internet activism.” The terrorist’s manifesto reflects this. His own language has been characterized by his cynicism and sense of irony, while being intentionally devoid of meaning at times. Intent is deliberately obfuscated and the terrorist challenges us to find a meaning by referencing memes that are, by their nature, empty. As a result, the natural attempts to search for meaning in tragedy becomes a joke that only his sympathizers are in on.[1]

This brings to our attention that the world is a different place with the internet. Platforms which emphasize anonymity have fostered a mode of communication which purposefully defies interpretation. Images and text are reduced to information, digitization strips ambiguity from data, and interpretation is denigrated since the act of interpretation acknowledges nuance and complexity rather than acquiescing straight-forward calculations. The philosopher Byung-Chul Han notes that knowledge is characterized by “inwardness” and is “gained against a resistance.” Said another way, there’s an opacity and natural obscurity to genuine knowledge that requires mastery to understand. However, we tend to favour data over knowledge. But the language of data has “no inside, no flip sides,” it is shallow and seemingly requires no interpretation. Actions, likewise, become “data-driven processes which takes place without any autonomy… of the subject.” Agency is stripped away because data-driven processes are meant to simulate simple and predictable equations of cause-and-effect.[2] In addition, social and political bodies “are stripped of narrativity, direction, and sense.”[3] Context is a vital component to knowledge and accountability in both individuals and groups.

In the irony-soaked discourse of the internet, the acontextuality of extremism is weaponized. Context and interpretation requires insight to discern and effort to communicate, while disinformation is easily spread in just a few words. A moderator from a Reddit community (or subreddit), called AskHistorians, highlights this when discussing the subreddit’s stance toward Holocaust denial. Johannes Breit writes:

“It takes [deniers] little effort to formulate a wrong assertion, but it takes historians a long time and a lot of words to refute one. Our early attempts to engage on these points have shown that length and nuance do not play well on the internet and do not interest the deniers. [Their] point… is not to debate facts. It’s to have an audience hear denialist lies in the first place…. To gauge whether a person is malicious or merely ‘ironic’ is a futile exercise, for to give Holocaust deniers’ positions a platform is to disseminate their propaganda.”

Breit notes that the techniques of Holocaust deniers is informed by tactics used in the early 1990s which targeted university campuses.[4] Yet the technology has also changed how extremists are made because, as Roose writes in his aforementioned article, “[t]here is no offline equivalent of the experience of being algorithmically nudged toward a more strident version of your existing beliefs, or having an invisible hand steer you from gaming videos to neo-Nazism.”[5]

Readers need to adapt to technology and relearn how to read. The terrorist shooting in Christchurch demonstrates that the internet has become a place where white supremacy can ignore borders and find a home anywhere where there is an internet-connected device. It also draws attention to the tools of the trade: irony and memes reduce knowledge to bits of data for easy and quick consumption and encourages readers to turn away from more complex forms of communication. The language demands drastic actions and shuns ambiguity: perceived invasions demand violent responses. Individuals flee like cowards or, perhaps even worse, are herded to echo chambers, where there can be no interpretation and no questioning. Any attempt to reinterpret the presented data, to question its validity, or merely present the wider context is actively policed against. In echo chambers stock phrases and memes become the primary mode of communication because they are vapid. Genuine conversation is the enemy of echo chambers because conversation acknowledge relationality, insight, context, and narrative. Genuine conversation would bring accountability and agency into the simplistic equations which seemingly govern our world.

There is no one way to re-educate ourselves. Conversation, community, and an openness to nuance are good starting points. Yet conversation is scary in a world where disagreement is treated as a personal attack. Community is hard in a social media driven world that focuses on “likes” and “upvotes” rather than meaningful interactions. Nuance requires one to admit that the world might be too complex for the simple equations we have learned to default to when faced with a dilemma. But it’s becoming clear that we need to change our habits if online platforms are designed to profit from and foster our worst traits. In the word of Bad Religion: “we’ve got shiny new tools for ancient impulse we can’t even understand.”[6] The task before us is to learn and understand.

[1]. Kevin Roose, “A Mass Murder of, and for, the Internet,” New York Times, March 15 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/15/technology/facebook-youtube-christchurch-shooting.html (Accessed March 22, 2019),

[2]. Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, trans. Daniel Steuer, eBook edition, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018), 8.

[3]. Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society, trans. Erik Butler, eBook edition, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 29.

[4]. Johannes Breit, “How One of the Internet’s Biggest History Forums Deals With Holocaust Deniers: And How Facebook Should, Too,” Slate, July 20, 2018. https://slate.com/technology/2018/07/the-askhistorians-subreddit-banned-holocaust-deniers-and-facebook-should-too.html (accessed March 26, 2019).

[5]. Kevin Roose, “A Mass Murder of, and for, the Internet,”  

[6]. Bad Religion, “The Kids Are Alt-Right,” released June 20, 2018, Epitaph Records.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders Flirts with False Prophecy

Sarah Sanders is making headlines for making a bold claim: God wanted President Donald Trump to be president.[1] If Sanders is right about this, she should be worried. She might even need to take a Biblical literacy course to realize why her comments should be worrying.

A quick look at the history of Israel’s judges and kings prove that being chosen is difficult, at best, and often results in ruin. A quick overview of the Biblical narrative surrounding the transition from Israel being a loose confederation of tribes to a united monarchy is, perhaps, in order.

In 1 Samuel 8, the audience encounters a story in which the people approached their current leader and asked for a new ruler, a king. In the background of this story, Samuel had been chosen by God to be a judge over Israel. With God on his side, Samuel led Israel to military victories, presided over the nation, and settled disputes.  However, Samuel had failed to keep his sons in line. They were corrupt and flagrantly so. In this way, Samuel’s story mirrors the previous God-appointed judge, Eli, who raised Samuel as a boy. Eli, previously Yahweh’s appointed leader, received a prophecy that his lineage would cease to exist – his family would be no more – because his sons were corrupt and he stood by and did nothing (1 Sam. 2:12-17; 2:27-3:18). In 1 Samuel 8, Samuel was confronted by the people who had decided they could no longer tolerate the system of charismatic judges and wanted a king, like the other nations.

Samuel, displeased, left to pray about what should be done. God spoke to the Samuel and told him that it is not Samuel that the people have rejected, but the rather they have rejected Yahweh. The Lord, nevertheless, agreed to give Israel a king. Samuel still tries to dissuade the people, under a monarchy they will trade away their sons, daughters, livestock, land, and wealth to a king in the hope of security when it is God that provides security. The people remained adamant, they wanted a king.

At this point, Sanders should get the inkling that being the leader God picks is a scary prospect. Eli’s family was erased from history, while Samuel was forced to transition the nation to a new political system because people lost faith under his rule.

Samuel is, nevertheless, a faithful judge and a great prophet. Thus, he carried out his duty and anointed Saul as king at the Lord’s behest, making him the first king over the tribes. Saul is initially a successful king. Like Samuel, he led the nation to victory in battle and listened to the people. In fact, Saul’s downfall is he was a bit too worried about what the people thought. On the eve of battle, Samuel was supposed to offer a sacrifice but was running late. Saul felt he could not wait anymore and offered the sacrifice himself so his army would not lose confidence; as king, Saul overstepped his bounds and acted as priest. Samuel saw Saul offer the sacrifice and rebukes Saul. Readers know Saul’s dynasty is doomed from that point on. God had set Their eyes to a new king to succeed Saul (1 Sam. 13:1-14).

God selected David (1 Sam. 16:13). David’s a tricky character and was a thorn in Saul’s side for years. When David finally became king, we know that his failings are memorialized in Scripture. David famously committed adultery and murdered to cover up that sin; yet, due to God’s earlier promise to David, David remained relatively unscathed (2 Sam. 7:8-17; 11:1-26). David has become the one that will finally be able to see their family line continue and one of David’s sons, Solomon, became the first figure in this history to succeed his father to rule the nation. God selected David’s line, the root of Jesse, to lead the people, after all. After David’s death, Solomon built the Temple. History largely remembers him as wise king. But, he too experienced a downfall later in life as he accepted the idolatry of his wives and incurred judgement as a result (1 Kings 11:4-13).

People who know their Old Testament history will know that Solomon’s death led to the fracturing of the Israelite kingdom into Israel, to the north, and Judah, to the south. The people had been heavily taxed to build the Temple and sought relief from a dynastic line that was too callous to care. The first king of the Northern Kingdom was divinely appointed to lead the north away from the Davidic dynasty but was also judged harshly for impiety (1 Kings 11:26-39; 12:26-33). Both kingdoms were crushed by empire; Israel fell to Assyria while David’s line in the south fell Babylon. One can skim through the books of Kings and Chronicles to see that rulers were generally judged harshly, even those chosen by God.

Assyrian warrior on camelback; taken from David S. Dockery, ed., Holman Bible Handbook, Logos edition, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 80.

And, if Sanders wants to continue reading the Bible, she wound find herself reading the prophets. A theme that develops over the prophetic books is that God controls the nations, even the ungodly nations: pious and impious. This is perhaps best illustrated by the prophet Isaiah. In a prophecy against Assyria, God affirms that They had chosen Assyria to be a tool of judgement against wicked nations, but the empire had been too eager in carrying out that duty, too unjust in execution, and had thus set itself up to be punished by the same God who wielded an empire as “a rod of My wrath” (Is. 10:1-12, New American Bible Revised Edition).

Of course, it is alarmist to compare the Trump administration the leaders of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was doomed to fall to the Assyrians, or to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which was subjected to the Babylonian Exile. But if Sanders firmly believes that that God chose Trump to be president, she should realize that being chosen by God can be a blessing or a curse; being elected is a call to righteousness. The failings of God’s appointed leaders resulted in oppression and injustice. The result of judgement were catastrophic upheaval when God intervened. The bad kings of the divided kingdoms were bolstered by false prophets who assured them of success and told them they had been chosen by Yahweh or other gods. Bad rulers were backed by false prophets, impious priests, and sycophant advisors who believed they knew the divine will and believed they were vindicated.

Anyone who proclaims any leader to be God’s chosen should be wary. Those who claim to know the mind of God risk being false prophets. If Sarah Huckabee Sanders has any good, pious bone in her body, she should be worried that she is acting as a false prophet.

[1]. BBC, “Sarah Sanders says ‘God wanted Trump to be president,’” January 31, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47066659 (Accessed February 1, 2019).

Historiography and Indigenous Walls

The encounter quickly became viral. An Omaha elder Nathan Phillips standing face-to-face with a young, white, Catholic teenager. The teen is clad in a MAGA hat and armed with a smirk that anyone who has dealt with teenage boys (or, even worse, was once a teenage boy!) will know very well. Phillips beats his drum and chants. It’s a striking image that has left many people trying to understand the proper context and lay claim to the resulting narrative. As the narrative continues to unfold, one statement Phillips made struck my eye.

“This is indigenous lands. You’re not supposed to have walls here; we never did.”[1]

I am interested in how we tell our stories. The act of storytelling is inherently biased: narrators choose which details to include or omit, which ones to emphasize or downplay, and (by their very nature) provide perspective. When the story being told is history, the bias of the source is as interesting as the facts presented. People are storytellers and use rhetoric to further their reading of history. How we choose to tell the story behind the powerful picture is currently up for grabs. But this quote by Phillips suggests a telling of history that needs to be examined.

Historiography around this Indigenous peoples and colonialism is fraught with difficulties. It is easy for well-intentioned individuals trying to give balanced account to fall into the trap of romanticizing and essentializing Indigenous peoples. But our narration of history also needs to be factual and nuanced. The issue with a broad statement like Phillips made is quite simple: those seeking to discredit his message feel they can do so quite easily. Images of Indigenous walled settlements will be posted to “prove” that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (indeed, tweets doing just that are not difficult to find), or snarky comments will be made about how maybe the tribes would better off today if they had built walls (and, again, it isn’t hard to find commenters doing that).

Factually, Phillips is, of course, wrong. Phillip’s claim is quite possibly true for his own people, but it is not true for all Indigenous peoples. It is indisputable that some tribes surrounded their villages with palisades. There were walled villages or forts within the Iroquois Confederacy, for instance.[2] Europeans would equip their Indigenous allies with knowledge and technology necessary to try to beat such technology, such as when Samuel Champlain and his Aboriginal allies (the Wendat and Algonquin) utilized a siege tower in a failed attack on a Onondaga village.[3] But even among peoples who didn’t live in walled villages, Indigenous peoples were not necessarily wall-adverse. Bands and individuals were certainly willing to tie their fortunes to the walled trading forts.[4] These were people who did not necessarily find the construction of walls to be antithetical to their relationship to the land. A nuanced look is essential when dealing with complex people groups with complex relationships to the world around them.

(see [2])

How history is to be properly read is always contested and different groups will try to put forth different orthodoxies about how we ought to understand our history. I agree with the sentiment of Nathan Phillips yet strongly disagree with the reading of history he offers. At the surface an essentialist statement appears to be offered (Indigenous peoples did not build walls) which is, quite simply, incorrect because it’s offered with no nuance (some nations did; walling off villages versus erecting walls across a nation’s borders are not necessarily similar). The most sympathetic way to read his statement is not assume that Nathan Phillips is speaking on behalf of all Indigenous peoples. This also means that Phillips’ context (being an Omaha) should be taken seriously. What Phillips’ said might very well be true, but not true if we assume that all Indigenous people are essentially the same.

The important truth I see communicated in Phillips’ statement is that walls say something about us and how we narrate our history. The Mohawk people of the Iroquois Confederacy who now reside in Quebec and the Omaha people of the American Midwest likely face many of the same issues under different federal governments. Walls, alliances, and treaties have made little difference, it seems. The lesson to be gleaned is not a simple “do walls work?” – the answer is probably the profoundly unsatisfying “of course walls work sometimes.” The question might not even be “what would a border wall say about America?” Rather, the first question might be “what is it about how we tell our story that guides us to these types of positions?”

The Osage theologian George E. “Tink” Tinker writes that a sense of “spatiality and rootedness…. shows up in nearly all aspects of our [North American Indigenous peoples] existence, in our ceremonial structures, our symbols, our architecture, and in the symbolic parameters of a tribe’s universe.”[5] Tinker, speaking of his own people’s villages, notes that “the architectural geography of our spirituality functioned politically to give the village group cohesion; it functions at a deep spiritual level that still pertains for a great many Indian people today.”[6] Stories and physical space are linked. How groups react to and shape the world reflects their values. And I believe that this is the meaning behind Phillips’ words: walls say something about your relationship with the land and people.

In the background of the viral footage is religion. Phillips, with his drum, is armed with his Indigenous religious heritage. In front of him, young Catholic teens. It seems that prior to Nathan Phillips actions, Black Hebrew Israelites had been preaching loudly and attempting to antagonize the young group of Catholic students. A cohesive narrative is hard to pin together at this point. Rather than trying to narrate a clear story of what happened, I think the important task is to first acknowledge our own foundational stories. I turn again to Tinker, who affirms a need for communal theological reflection that “must become an exercise in expressing the self-identity of whole communities…. [W]e need stories rather than treatises, rather than essentialist discourse, problem resolution, or structuralist puzzle solving…. For theology of this magnitude, we must have stories.”[7] Stories brought all of these individuals and groups into each other’s orbit. What are these stories and how do we choose to tell them?

[1]. YouTube video, “Respect,” posted by “KC NOLAND”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8laqRi6CWWU, timestamp:0m09s-0m17s; Vincent Schilling, “The whole story: Before and after video of Nathan Phillips, #MAGAyouth and more,” https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/news/the-whole-story-before-and-after-video-of-nathan-phillips-magayouth-and-more-_O6lTVo8M0muOgi6Foug-w/, Indian Country Today, posted January 20, 2019, (accessed January 21, 2019)

[2]. Olive Patricia Dickason with William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, second edition, (Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 2010), 69.

[3]. Adam Shoalts, A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land, trade paperback reprint; 2017, (Toronto, ON: Penguin Random House Canada Limited, 2018), 100-2.

[4]. Olive Patricia Dickason with William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, 81; c.f. Adam Shoalts’ account of Matonabbee, A History of Canada in Ten Maps, 160-78

[5]. George E. “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 72.

[6]. Ibid., 73.

[7]. Ibid., 75.