Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a widely-read story: “Fired by Google, a Republican Engineer Hits Back: ‘There’s Been a Lot of Bullying.’” This story extensively profiled one ex-Google engineer, Kevin Cernekee, who made a number of damning allegations about Google. Since then, Kevin has started his own GoFundMe fundraiser, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, and written an op-ed for Human Events. As his publicity tour continued, he was even featured in a tweet by President Trump. Many were drawn in by the original Wall Street Journal story, but others noticed one curious omission: it never discussed what Kevin actually said on Google’s internal mailing lists.
That context is crucial, not just for Kevin’s case but for any case.
By contrast, when I wrote my Medium post, “Google’s Outrage Mobs and Witch Hunts,” I made sure to include that context and document those conversations. (That post led to an appearance on Trish Regan Primetime, my subsequent termination, and then a second appearance on Trish Regan.) For example, Google’s final written warning against me contained this vague allegation: “You received feedback on industry-info@ that your comments were ‘rude, disrespectful, and intellectually dishonest.’” This allegation made the same mistake that the Wall Street Journal did: it omitted crucial context about what was actually said. In this case, the person who gave that feedback, Blake Lemoine, had also once called Sen. Blackburn a terrorist. On top of that, in the exact same discussion where Blake called me “rude, disrespectful, and intellectually dishonest,” he also doubled down on those past comments.
While that additional context certainly helped my case (and others’), the same could not be said for Kevin Cernekee. Although the Wall Street Journal’s story failed to provide that context, others would later step in to fill the gaps. The Daily Caller would later obtain some of these conversations, and they published their own article: “Ex-Google Engineer Made Troubling Posts On Listservs About Richard Spencer, Golden State Skinheads.” Some of these posts are even more troubling in light of the news that William Planer was sentenced last month to four years in prison for his violent role in a June 2016 clash, the same clash that Kevin was commenting on. Planer himself was associated with two white supremacist groups: the Golden State Skinheads (GSS) and the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP).
After documenting some of these troubling posts, the Daily Caller’s article added, “Conservatives angry at big tech may view such postings as a cautionary lesson in the importance of vetting their cause célèbres.”
Initially, I did not say anything publicly about Kevin Cernekee, but the Wall Street Journal’s story did mention that I once called Kevin “the face of the alt-right” at Google. (I do not deny saying those words, but I also never intended to make that sort of accusation outside of Google’s walls.) As these two competing narratives on Kevin Cernekee have emerged, though, and as Kevin has continued his publicity tour, I have decided that the time has come to break my silence on that topic.
Questionable Viewpoints and Questionable Tactics
At the outset, I will withdraw my claim that Kevin was “the face of the alt-right,” not because that claim was right or wrong, but because I want the people reading this piece to see Kevin’s own words. From there, they can draw their own conclusions on what sort of label would be appropriate.
I will say, though, that there is more to Kevin than his troubling posts. Another aspect of Kevin is his willingness to play dirty: his willingness to act manipulatively, tell half-truths, and sometimes outright lie. (For whatever influence he had, he certainly did not achieve it by winning over the hearts and minds of Google’s conservative employees in a free and fair exchange of ideas.) Both aspects of Kevin — his questionable viewpoints and his questionable tactics — are necessary to understand his story.
As one example of his questionable tactics, in a discussion about Richard Spencer, one Google employee wrote, “I don’t think that assaulting someone is justified, but why on earth would we want to *help* him?” In his response to that person, Kevin deleted that sentence, and then he wrote, “Interesting argument, so are you saying it is OK to sucker punch somebody because you disagree with their politics?” Kevin claimed in an op-ed that he is “merely opposing Antifa violence,” when in reality one of his postings fabricated a claim that his coworker supported Antifa violence.
My own familiarity with Kevin’s tactics have informed my approach to this post. Here, I will focus exclusively on Kevin’s postings on the freespeech@ mailing list (although his antics were certainly not limited to that list).
I have chosen these postings because the archives of this mailing list could be viewed by any employee when I was at Google. As a result, the claims I will make here can easily be proven and corroborated, including the aforementioned example where Kevin falsely suggested that a coworker supported violence. (Kevin deleted all his postings in the archives of both the freespeech@ mailing list and other mailing lists, but most of his postings can still be captured in the responses of other members.) This sort of corroboration is crucial when dealing with Kevin; Kevin often “lies and denies” in response to credible allegations, but this tactic does not work as well when there is hard evidence that can refute his lies.
Likewise, although I am the one who will raise these allegations — someone had to volunteer as tribute — they can be verified by anyone at Google (or any journalist who acquires the original discussion threads). In other words, these claims do not rely on special authority from myself. Thus, even if Kevin retaliates and tries to destroy my reputation, that would still not undo a single word he wrote. These claims will still be valid even if Kevin takes me down.
In his postings, Kevin frequently employs a rhetorical strategy known as the “motte-and-bailey.” It’s deceptive, dirty, and yet at times effective:
In some medieval castles, when enemies breached the first line of defense, the inhabitants would retreat from the outer courtyard (the “bailey”) to a tower on top of a mound (called the “motte”) where they could take refuge and shoot arrows at the enemy until the hostile forces gave up. After doing so, everyone would return to the more pleasant and productive bailey, secure in the knowledge that the motte would protect them if another attack were made. Mottes were safe but economically useless, and baileys were profitable but vulnerable. For best results, both were necessary.
That’s why philosopher Nicholas Shackel coined the term “motte-and-bailey” to describe the rhetorical strategy in which a debater retreats to an uncontroversial claim when challenged on a controversial one. The structure goes something like this:
First, someone makes a controversial statement from what blogger Ash Navabi calls the “courtyard of ideas.” Then when that statement, the bailey, is attacked, the speaker retreats to the motte, the place of “strict terms and/or rigorous reasoning” — falsely claiming that she was just making an obvious, uncontroversial point, one that could not possibly be challenged by any right-minded individual. Finally, when the argument has ended, she will go back to making those same controversial statements — the argumentative bailey, having successfully fended off all attackers. The point is to defend a controversial idea by systematically conflating it with a less easily-assailable one.
In Kevin’s postings, the uncontroversial motte he frequently employs is an argument that some controversial group is entitled to free speech. (Another common motte is that violence is wrong, even violence against controversial groups.) The controversial bailey is some troubling statement about that controversial group. Whenever Kevin is challenged on that bailey, he then retreats to the motte, “falsely claiming that [he] was just making an obvious, uncontroversial point.” For example, in his statement to the Daily Caller, Kevin retreated to the motte, writing, “I occasionally defended the free speech of extremists, and I frequently spoke out against Antifa mobs who supported shutting down political discussion through force.” If that was the only thing that Kevin did, then I would not be writing this post.
So what’s one example of a bailey? Let’s start off with the topic of an anti-Semitic signal known as (((echoes))):
In the white supremacist blogosphere, triple parentheses represent “echoes” — a nod to the belief that Jewish names “echo” throughout history to punish whites for their sins.
Jewish users who were subjected to echoes, e.g. (((Ben Shapiro))), would experience an uptick in harassment and vile rhetoric. Even for those who were used to dealing with anti-Semitic rhetoric, the toxicity of this rhetoric could be difficult to process at times.
At one point, someone published a Google Chrome plugin named the “Coincidence Detector.” This plugin would alter the contents of a webpage by automatically adding echoes or triple parentheses to any Jewish names. After some negative publicity, Google decided to take down this anti-Semitic app.
In this situation, a typical free speech advocate who opposed this decision would make this argument: while this app is horrible and anti-Semitic, Google should stand for free speech and not censor it, even when that speech is unpopular. That’s certainly not what Kevin said. Instead, he said this:
I was just surprised that Google banned an app for adding silly punctuation marks to web pages.
To be clear, I am not calling out Kevin here because he argued against censoring the “Coincidence Detector” app. I am calling him out because he described echoes as “silly punctuation marks.” That’s the bailey.
With respect to the “Coincidence Detector” app, Kevin may argue that his words were misunderstood, or that he did not fully understand what echoes were at the time. With Kevin, though, the problem was that there were one too many “coincidences.” Perhaps one example could be explained away in isolation, but with Kevin, there was an obvious pattern of similar behavior that cannot be explained away.
In one discussion about Richard Spencer, a well-known white supremacist, Kevin referred to him as “a well-known conservative activist.” In another discussion, Kevin referred to Twitter user @Ricky_Vaughn99 as “somebody who speaks for us” on the right. In that exact same quote, Kevin linked to an article about Ricky Vaughn. This article that Kevin linked to included this quote: “Ricky Vaughn has said that he believes in the creation of all-white communities and that he shuns interracial marriages.”
To be clear, in the public square, both Richard Spencer and @Ricky_Vaughn99 have a constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment. Likewise, although private tech companies aren’t bound by the First Amendment, I do wish they would apply First Amendment principles more. And of course, violence is wrong, even violence against Richard Spencer. Those are all mottes.
That being said, Richard Spencer is not a conservative, and @Ricky_Vaughn99 is not “somebody who speaks for us.” Those are the baileys, and Kevin deserves to be called out for writing that.
WeSearchr: “Please Don’t Slander My Friends”
Kevin tries to maintain this facade that he was merely supporting free speech and opposing political violence, but under the right conditions, you can get him to fully drop this facade.
After Richard Spencer was sucker-punched by a violent activist, Kevin made the following suggestion on freespeech@:
BTW, there is a bounty to track down Dr. Spencer’s assailant:
Should we put together a group donation in the name of “freespeech@Google”? It would be a nice gesture.
(WeSearchr is now a defunct website, but an archived version of the bounty can be found here.)
Needless to say, this “bounty” raised a number of red flags for numerous reasons, and Kevin’s attempts to explain those red flags away didn’t exactly provide clarity. Numerous employees became deeply upset at Kevin, though I had not said anything yet. When I finally did speak, here is what I said:
In response to Kevin’s request that we “put together a group donation in the name of ‘freespeech@Google’” to help fund this bounty:
According to WeSearchr’s own FAQs, 25%* of donations to this “bounty” goes directly to WeSearchr itself. So you’re not just funding the bounty; you’re also funding WeSearchr.
Here are some of the bounties that, according to said FAQ, have been “reviewed by WeSearchr senior editors before being opened for contributions”:
* Prove Emmanuel Macron Is Gay [Editor’s Choice]
* Put Up A Pepe Billboard
* Let’s Open Up Megyn Kelly’s Divorce Records
Now Kevin in his own words described WeSearchr as “Kind of like Crime Stoppers or the FBI’s reward program.” I’ll let the reader decide whether Crime Stoppers or the FBI would ever issue a bounty for Megyn Kelly’s divorce records.
Kevin, would you mind explaining how providing financial support to WeSearchr promotes free speech?
On top of that, WeSearchr’s founders, Chuck Johnson and Pax Dickinson, certainly had troubling reputations of their own, and Chuck Johnson could legitimately be described as alt-right.
Now most people have never heard of WeSearchr (or Chuck Johnson), and in most circumstances, they could be excused for not being aware of their bad reputation. In this case, though, I had fully and clearly laid out all the problems with WeSearchr.
Right after I wrote that, Kevin responded with this:
Mike, I’m not sure you appreciate how difficult it is to run an alternative media startup that challenges the dominant political narrative. From funding, to publicity, to hosting, to online payments, WeSearchr has struggled through no end of problems from hateful, sanctimonious leftists trying to sabotage their business. Most other tech companies, big and small, refuse to work with them at all. Every minute of every day, they’re fighting against the censorious, authoritarian establishment to build a better world for Republicans like you and me.
I have a huge amount of respect for Chuck and Pax; they are systematically breaking down the Left’s barriers to free expression and creating an alternative tech ecosystem from scratch. If they succeed, books will be written about them.
Another Google employee challenged Kevin after he wrote that, and at this point, he dropped the facade entirely:
There is nothing remotely shady or malicious about WeSearchr. It’s completely on the up-and-up. Please don’t slander my friends. :(
I don’t know how anyone could say that there was “nothing remotely shady and malicious about WeSearchr” after I pointed out that it had a bounty for Megyn Kelly’s divorce records, but Kevin said exactly that.
Kevin on the Golden State Skinheads
The more examples you see of Kevin’s “unique” communication style and his “interesting” pattern of behavior, the easier it will be to see through him when the next example comes up. That’s why I saved the best example for last.
The Daily Caller’s writeup of this incident is extremely solid, so I will start by quoting it verbatim in the following section.
In another set of postings from June 2016, Cernekee responded to a CNN article about a brawl in Sacramento between the Traditionalist Workers Party and the Golden State Skinheads, and antifa.
“Wait, were these actual neo-Nazis or something else? From what I can tell TWP is more of a separatist organization and they openly reject racial supremacy,” Cernekee wrote on June 27, 2016.
Another poster clarified that it’s fair to call the Golden State Skinheads a neo-Nazi group, given their branding and stated views.
Thank you, I missed that detail. Catching up on news coverage of the event, I started wondering: why is the American nationalist Right so terrible at branding?
In this situation the GSS stood up for free speech and free association. They defended a peaceful, non-hateful gathering against antifa who showed up armed with bricks, bats, and knives a clear sign of premeditated violence. The antifa group’s own posters stated that “This is not a protest. This is a shut down.” Per ABC 10 in Sacramento: upon seeing any sign of a suspected “Nazi” the antifa crowd immediately charged them and attacked.
Now I’m the farthest thing possible from a Nazi, but seeing people hunted down and assaulted just for existing makes me extremely uncomfortable, as does the racially based targeting. That’s not who we are as Americans. I have many unpopular opinions myself, and I’d hate to think that is enough to put me in physical danger someday. The right to peacefully disagree is fundamental to our way of life.
The term “skinhead” has a lot of unfortunate baggage and allows members to be painted as aggressors even in cases where the opposite is true. Why not rename themselves to something normie-compatible like “The Helpful Neighborhood Bald Guys” or “The Open Society Institute” instead of trying to change the near-universal negative perception of their old label (which is futile)? This would make it much easier to form alliances with other supporters of liberty and civil rights. The only thing I could figure is that they value having an edgy badass image over mainstream acceptance.
In his post, Kevin claimed that “the GSS stood up for free speech and free association,” but an archived copy of GSS’s own website offered up a very different reason why they were there:
Attention Patriots!! This upcoming June on Sunday the 26th in Sacramento, CA a gathering of Nationalists will merge and stand united under a single banner and for a single purpose! The Traditional Workers Party has become the voice of our people. No other political party holds the views or interests of the Traditional European-American Family in the forefront of their agenda; in this the Traditional Workers Party stands apart. As Euro-Americans our voice has been all but silenced. Our cultures and traditions have been blatantly attacked and degenerated for countless generations at this point. Our borders here in America and all over Europe are constantly under-siege. The global elite have seemingly waged a war upon our people, without allowing us to fight back. The time for resistance is NOW! White people exist! We have the right to exist!! And we have the right to exist as White people!!! No longer will we sit aside and let alien cultures dictate our decline. We stand firm in our values and we do so united. So join us in Sacramento, CA.
As I noted earlier, this rally became violent, and one person associated with the Golden State Skinheads was recently sentenced to four years in prison for his violent role in that rally. And yes, it is true that the Antifa counter-protestors resorted to violence as well, but nobody in that discussion argued that the “the [Antifa] stood up for free speech and free association.”
As for Kevin’s suggestion that the GSS should “rename themselves to something normie-compatible like ‘The Helpful Neighborhood Bald Guys’ or ‘The Open Society Institute,’” I don’t think that suggestion would work when your website has content like this:
Somehow, I don’t think a new name “would make it much easier to form alliances with other supporters of liberty and civil rights.”
At the outset, I said I would withdraw my claim that Kevin was “the face of the alt-right,” as I wanted readers to make their own judgment. At this point, though, I’m not too worried about assigning a label to Kevin, and I trust that the readers could come up with an accurate label in my absence.
I do have one question for Kevin, though: if he thinks that the label I previously used was unfair, then what label would he use instead? I will give him a wide degree of latitude in answering that, but there is one label in particular that I will not let Kevin use to describe himself: conservative.
Whatever Kevin is, he’s clearly not a conservative.