From intimate conversations grow world-shaking movements, argues this probing intellectual history. New York Times Book Review editor Gal Beckerman (When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone) surveys small circles that incubated subversive thinking, including 17th-century French polymath Nicolas Peiresc’s scientific letter-writing network; Britain’s 1839 Chartist campaign for universal suffrage, which galvanised working-class politics; Soviet dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya’s samizdat journal, the Chronicle, which landed her in a psychiatric hospital; and the 1990s feminist punk scene sparked by the zine Riot Grrrl.
He also investigates the internet’s role in modern-day movements: the Facebook page that publicised Egypt’s Tahrir Square demonstration; the Discord chat rooms where alt-right activists organised the 2017 Unite-the-Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.; and the Red Dawn email group of health experts who brainstormed Covid-19 interventions.
Drawing on communications theory, Beckerman analyses these intellectual channels for their ability to foster accessible but private conversations that shape innovative ideas, though he’s skeptical of social media as an organising tool because it’s too public, volatile, emotional, and virtual to nurture serious thinking and politics.
Beckerman unearths fascinating lore about these ideological hothouses, from the Futurists’ love triangles in early 20th-century Italy to the alt-right’s public-messaging strategies.
The result is a timely and stimulating take on how the fringe infiltrates the mainstream.