A cultural war waged by a cartoonist




Facebook closed cartoonist Jerm’s page following the outrage after Democratic Alliance federal council chairperson Helen Zille shared one of his cartoons.

In the offending cartoon a black man wearing a red beret and overalls says to a white man, “You should give back the land you stole.” The white man replies, “You should be jailed for raping my wife.” The man in the red beret says, “But I didn’t do that.” “Exactly,” says the white man.

Jerm (aka Jeremy Nell) and Zille have argued that the cartoon’s intent was misinterpreted and that they are being slandered by censorious leftists out to stifle free speech.

Jerm seems to believe his work has been targeted by a cabal of socialists who control the media, academia and government. Having formerly been published in many newspapers and magazines, he says he has had to resort to independent publishing as part of an “underground movement” against “political correctness”. He apparently thinks he is an aesthetic rebel defending free thought and satire against totalitarian control.

Jerm defended his cartoon saying the enlightened are suppressing free speech.

But as anyone who has the misfortune of being exposed to his cartoons, podcast (cringingly titled Jerm Warfare) or Twitter timeline will know, Jerm is hardly a paragon of anti-authoritarian values. Rather, he is a raging bundle of Donald Trump-style reactionary derangement yet to meet a dubious conspiracy theory or white supremacist dog whistle he doesn’t like.

The political cartoons shared on his official website reveals crypto-fascist ideas about “racial IQ” and open apartheid apologism. He supports far right separatists, and invariably portrays black South African politicians as baying for white genocide.

But Jerm is also an internationalist. While he digs the hard-right populism of Brexit and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, his heart truly belongs to the United States president, who he surely is hoping will one day retweet him. His own social media feeds are a cultural Chernobyl of nuclear hot bad ideas — from libertarian free market fanaticism and climate change denial to gleefully retweeting alt-right accounts. He also brings his own brand of operatic self-pity, constantly whining about how persecuted he is.

Jerm’s worldview of racial and gender paranoia is not just common or garden variety white South African reactionary complaining. Rather, he is the perpetually adolescent spawn of the 1990s and 2000s, grown in the nihilistic humour of the early internet. In fact, Jerm’s bigotry and transparently desperate need for attention is eerily similar to the South Park character Eric Cartman.

Help, I’m being repressed

As with his lord and saviour, Trump, it’s all a con. Jerm’s business strategy is to produce deliberately offensive work and then crow about how the fake news media is distorting his intent. He then turns to his followers and asks them to continue financially supporting his brave crusade. But, for a supposed satirist, he doesn’t seem especially concerned with actually making jokes or wry observations about social folly. Jerm seems to exist under a perpetual cloud of humourless outrage, endlessly frothing at the bit about teen climate activists, post-modernists, anti-fascist groups or whatever other enemy he is pathologically obsessed with at any particular moment.

Cultural producers like Jerm are a standard figure in conservative politics. A host of think tanks and media platforms exist to promote the message that socialists, immigrants and the like are trying to take your freedom and liberty. Often funded by billionaire dark money, these groups advance a culture war strategy that the right has been using since the 1960s.

Despite populist rhetoric, they produce political propaganda designed to strip away state institutions, destroy environmental protections and reduce taxes for the super-rich. They use an anti-elitist gloss to reinforce the most regressive and toxic forms of capitalism and to entrench racism and sexism. As seen in Trump and Tory victories, this strategy works. Jerm may pretend he is a cultural outlaw, but powerful, wealthy people with his same vile ideology are sitting in the halls of power the world over.

The rise of social media has intensified this right-wing grift, spawning a new breed of cultural and political operatives whose careers are built off Facebook and YouTube. They defend social conservatism and structural inequality under the banner of free speech and free thought.

Jerm is inspired by a gallery of right-wing pseudo-intellectuals such as American Ben Shapiro, the founder of the conservative news and opinion website The Daily Wire, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and Paul Joseph Watson from the conspiracy theory site InfoWars, an angry British talking head who somehow exceeds him in ill-informed petulance. The conservative free speech war has reached such absurd levels that Donald Trump Jnr published a book called Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us. Presumably written for his father to notice his existence, the book claims that conservative and pro-capitalist views are being silenced by a sinister leftist hegemony. It’s really difficult to buy this supposed rebellious stance when the book was being heavily promoted by the Republican Party. Despite claiming to be for freedom and self-expression, this conservative milieu regularly overlaps with hardcore white nationalists and neo-Nazis.

Although Jerm asserts he has no far right links, Jerm regularly parrots their language. One screed called “Why I’m a Nationalist” claims that cultural and ethnic separation is necessary to preserve human diversity. This is a key talking part of the hard right, who repackage racism and xenophobia as protecting “heritage”.

Reality denial

What fundamentally characterises Jerm’s worldview is a deep suspicion and hatred of social egalitarianism, liberation and progress. Anyone who is trying to make the world fairer or better seems to inspire a deep loathing within Jerm. Notably, he spent much of last year railing against teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and the climate strikes held in September. Despite the scientific evidence, Jerm believes that global warming is a hoax intended to establish Stalinist state control. Unable to conceive that young people may have a collective desire to not inherit a destroyed planet, he maintains that they are puppets of shadowy globalists.

In the wake of mounting extreme weather events, climate change denial is tantamount to reality denial. And much of this denial has been supported by orchestrated disinformation by the fossil fuel industry, which Jerm is happy to signal boast. But the denial seems rooted in a deeper pathology, a desire to see the world go up in flames. This kind of nihilism pervades contemporary reactionary politics.

As Natasha Lennard wrote last year in Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, modern conservatism is not a rejection of modern society so much as a glorification of its grimmest, most anti-human aspects, “ a nurturance and constant reaffirmation of that fascistic desire to oppress and live in an oppressive world. And, to be sure, the world provides that pernicious affirmation: Donald Trump is president, after all.”

Ultimately, Jerm is less interesting as an individual figure than as an example of the beliefs increasingly being espoused in South Africa by organisations such as the DA and the South African Institute for Race Relations. They have convinced themselves that they are rebels standing up against the powers that be.

But, as the British writer Alan Moore writes, the reactionary mind is profoundly, banally average. In an essay on the horror fiction of 20th writer HP Lovecraft, who, unlike Jerm, was able to channel his paranoia into memorable art, Moore observes “the fears that generated Lovecraft’s stories and opinions were precisely those of the white middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant descended males who were most threatened by the shifting power relationships and values of the modern world … in his frights and panics he reveals himself as that almost unheard-of fluke statistical phenomenon, the absolutely average man, an entrenched social insider unevered by new and alien influences from without”.

Smugly convinced of his innate superiority, despite the lack of evidence, Jerm represents the angry visage of right-wing cultural wars. Instead of exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of the powerful, he bootlicks racist strongmen and attacks the marginalised. It’s not witty or clever, but the sad reality is that facile bottom-feeders like Jerm can make lucrative careers out of cheerleading corporate oligarchy and white supremacy, all the while posing as transgressive outsiders.

Christopher McMichael is a writer, researcher and filmmaker based in Johannesburg

Christopher McMichael
Christopher McMichael is a writer based in Johannesburg. He has a PhD in politics

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