How Buffy Predicted the Alt-Right in 1997
I’ve often referred to Joss Whedon as a prophet, mostly due to his prediction that exceptional women and nerds will rally to save the world. But it wasn’t until my eighth or ninth re-watch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that I realised Joss not only predicted the rise of the alt-right, but also told us explicitly how to defeat them.
Wanna hear more? Of course you do. Got something better to do on your lunch break? I know I haven’t.
The episode I’m referring to is “I, Robot… You, Jane” (S1, E08), and it begins in Italy *looks to camera*. It’s 1418, and a circle of priests use a magic ritual to trap a demon called Moloch the Corruptor inside a book. They hope the book will never be read aloud, lest he be unleashed again upon the world. Cut to present day Sunnydale — generic California city — where the book is unpacked in Rupert Giles’ library and promptly scanned into a computer by Willow Rosenberg. The demon Moloch has been freed… into the internet.
I’m not going to pretend “I, Robot… You, Jane” was a standout episode of Buffy. It wouldn’t even make my top 30. Watching it now, however, it has some prescient things to say about how we’ve come to absorb information, the internet’s place in a democracy, and how it’s been used to enable fascism.
So, Moloch the Corrupter is now online. Giles describes him as “A very deadly and seductive demon. He draws people to him with promises of love, power, knowledge. Preys on impressionable minds.” Moloch has the ability to mesmerise and influence the minds of humans, making them believe they love him. Consequently he’s able to make them perform objectionable acts that he cannot do himself, such as commit murder. The first things Moloch does in his new virtual reality are:
- Develop a loyal following of frustrated and alienated young white men
- Harass women; specifically Willow, Sunnydale High’s brightest student, while posing as an eighteen-year-old boy called Malcolm
Sound familiar? In fact, Giles’ summary of Moloch could have been lifted straight from Robert Paxton’s “Anatomy of Fascism”, where he pinpoints one of fascism’s defining features as arriving in disguise, using a combination of idealised socialist and nationalist rhetoric in order to gain power, only to u-turn and demonstrate nothing but self-interest once power has been attained. Sadly, neither fascist leaders or Moloch actually care about the young men they manipulate into doing their bidding. Moloch’s acolytes — Dave and Fritz — both meet unpleasant ends. Dave is murdered by Fritz when he has a crisis of conscience, and Fritz is dispensed with by Moloch as soon as he takes physical form.
Trump’s will lose their jobs and access to healthcare, so same difference.
Amusingly, another thing Moloch does during his first day on the internet is start changing the titles of student essays to statements like “Nazi Germany was the Model of a Well Ordered Society”. Elsewhere I imagine there was another entitled “Is Punching a Nazi Ever OK?”
Buffy and Xander are wary of their friend Willow’s new internet buddy, but old white dude Giles thinks they’re overreacting and advises caution. Only a little bit of digging into the strange behaviour of fellow students Dave and Fritz convinces them all otherwise, when Dave and Fritz conspire to have Buffy killed for getting too close to the truth. I’m just gonna say it. Dave and Fritz are Gamergaters. There. I said it.
Giles, Buffy and Xander realise Moloch has somehow escaped from the book they unpacked earlier, branded with his insignia, but can’t work out where he is. It’s Buffy who comes to the conclusion he must have been scanned into the internet. They try to simply delete him, but it fails. Moloch is now too widespread. Xander posits that maybe they’re still overreacting: “He’s in a computer. What can he do?” Buffy rebuffs this *wink* with, “You mean besides convince a perfectly nice kid to try and kill me? I don’t know, how about mess up all the medical equipment in the world? Access launch codes for our nuclear missiles?” to which Giles adds, “Destroy the world’s economy.”
I know what you’re thinking. How terrible that some evil Nazi-sympathising force could arise from the internet to stalk women, fuck with everyone’s healthcare, ruin the economy, and potentially gain access to nuclear weapons! Unthinkable! Thank God it’s just a fantastical TV show.
To cut a long story short, Moloch is eventually defeated. Giles and Jenny “Technopagan-who-saw-it-all-coming” Calendar attempt to return Moloch to the book, but fail. Buffy, Xander and Willow punch the hell out of his disciples and destroy the physical body Moloch built for himself. Interestingly, they didn’t try asking him to be nicer, attempt to understand his point of view, invite him on any talk shows, or offer him a book deal.
At the climax of the episode, Giles makes a small speech about his problem with internet “knowledge” as opposed to the knowledge he’s gleaned from books.
Jenny: “Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?”
Giles: “The smell.”
Jenny: “Computers don’t smell, Rupert.”
Giles: “I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a… it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be, um, smelly.”
In the context of the episode, he has a point. The knowledge we consume from the internet has very little memory, and is often devoid of context. Its value is in immediacy. As a species, we’re suffering from a kind of mass amnesia and failure of critical thought, and it’s linked to how we now absorb information. If we continue to refuse to acknowledge history, to learn from it, to analyse the context for anything we’re doing, it will kill us.
On the bright side, with regards to the alt-right, you can now ask yourself “What would Buffy do?” and the answer is, conclusively, don’t give them a platform, and punch them in the face whenever and wherever you can.