I had just finished with a television appearance on CNN. As I made my way down the elevator and out the door, images began landing in my inbox and in my Twitter feed.
It began with some gentle poking at my unruly hair. It ended with insinuations that I was a leader of the extremist movement known as the alt-right, who harbored a hatred of Jews.
The part about my hair is fair. The rest couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the middle, I was thrust into a discussion of the normalization of fringe views, into a wildfire that spread on social media, and into an unfortunate caption on CNN.
It all started during a CNN segment on Donald Trump and his transition, which segued into a discussion of recent comments made during a gathering of white nationalists in Washington.
Host Jim Sciutto referred to the group as “unabashed racists and anti-Semites.” The comments, he said in the lead-up, were “what I can only describe as hate-filled garbage.”
He then read aloud a quote from the group’s founder, Richard Spencer: “One wonders if these people are people at all, or instead soulless golem.”
At the bottom of the screen throughout the segment was: “ALT-RIGHT FOUNDER QUESTIONS IF JEWS ARE PEOPLE.”
That scroll was not viewable during the segment, at least not to me. As I saw the images later, I initially laughed out loud at the absurdity that people would think I was the leader. And the suggestion — crystalized on the CNN scroll — that Jews are not people is ridiculous. As Sciutto had pointed out, it’s “hate-filled garbage.”
But that image suddenly went viral.
“What is happening,” Alanna Vagianos, an editor at the Huffington Post, wrote with my image. It was retweeted more than 5,000 times. In a subsequent tweet, she made clear that I was not the alt-right founder. It was retweeted 28 times.
George Takei — the actor best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu, who helmed the USS Enterprise on “Star Trek” — sent out my image to his nearly 2 million followers.
“They are not the alt-right,” he wrote. “They are monsters.”
Even though my title and affiliation with The Boston Globe were included, at first glance, some thought I was the alt-right founder. And that I was questioning whether Jews are people. And that CNN was giving me a platform to air those views.
“You are an alt-right douchebag,” someone wrote to me on Twitter.
Another said that I am “a well known white supremacist hidden behind @BostonGlobe. I’m thankful that he was finally calld out.”
Wrote a third: “I always suspected Matt Viser of the Boston Globe was a closet Neo-Nazi --- or at least a sympathizer. Sieg Heil, Matt!”
I pointed out that I was not the alt-right leader. And also — in words I couldn’t believe I had to type — that I believe Jews are people. The hate continued.
“Exactly what some closet Nazi would say,” one person wrote.
“Correct, Matt,” wrote another. “Just very bad people. For 3,000 years.”
“What kind of people?” wrote a third. “People who lend and then get mad when you don’t pay them back?”
At some point, a baffled user asked the same question I ask myself each morning: “Who the [expletive] is Matt Viser?”
There was a second round of criticism, too, one that suggests the media are collectively “normalizing” Trump and his supporters, making their views appear more mainstream than they are (others pointed out that Spencer was saying it was the media and pundits — not the Jews — that were not people).
“WHY IN THE HOLY [expletive] ARE YOU PEOPLE SMILING AND NORMALIZING THIS REPUGNANT [expletive]?” wrote one.
“You sure did normalize neo-Nazis, treating them as just another interest group. Show some moral/journalistic spine!” wrote another.
And a third had this bit of wisdom: “Sheep talk like this leaves the wolves free to slaughter.”
This is a strange time to be a journalist. I am not a commentator, I am a reporter. I strive for objectivity, and to understand all different kinds of viewpoints — even, and sometimes especially, those that are not “normal.”
There are certain views that are abhorrent, and we have to call them out as such — as Sciutto did. How degraded is our discourse where we have to reaffirm that “Jews are people”?
People are on edge, and troublingly so. We can’t talk to each other — and that isn’t helped when some of us are questioning the humanity of others.
I’m reminded of what I was doing a year ago. I’ve not changed at all (in fact, I may not have even had a haircut since then). But in our country’s civic discourse, something radical has happened.
Last year, I did a story about Michael Dukakis and his endearingly odd habit of collecting turkey carcasses during Thanksgiving so that, throughout the coming year, he can make turkey soup. That, too, went viral on Twitter as people shared a surprisingly fun nonpartisan tale.
So for me, heading into the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve gone from happily chronicling the ritual of a former Massachusetts governor to now being affiliated with groups questioning the humanity of Jews.
It’s a whiplash that the whole country is experiencing.
My own sense is that everyone, on all sides, needs to take a deep breath. We owe it to each other to pause a bit. As we gather around Thanksgiving tables — with some family members choosing not to gather because of differences over what transpired on Election Day — people have to talk about this stuff in reasonable ways.
And for the unruly hair? I’ll soon be getting a trim.
Watch the original segment:
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.