Darkened figures descend into the Chicago subway. Photograph: Clarissa Bonet
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Ruins of people’s lives

The shadowy subculture of gang stalking.

In 1919, the psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk published his famous paper “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia”, in which he wrote about patients who believed they were under the control of malign technology beyond their understanding. Sometimes, they claimed, this technology would cause “erections and seminal emissions that are intended to deprive the patient of his male potency and weaken him”. In typical Viennese fashion, Tausk concluded that “the influencing apparatus is a representation of the patient’s genitalia projected to the outer world . . . a machine independent of the aims of the ego and subordinated to the foreign will”.

Right away, we might be reminded of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Tyrone Slothrop may or may not have been secretly conditioned to get an erection every time a V-2 rocket is about to strike London. Yet to find more patients for Tausk, we don’t need to look to fiction. “At first I believed they could only terminate my erection, but recently I also started believing that they could create my erection,” writes the author of a recent blog about electromagnetic persecution by the government. “Often I am given erections in co-ordination with the brain butchery, and occasionally voided of semen,” writes another in the same field.      

Both these bloggers are part of an online community centred on a phenomenon called gang stalking. Gang stalking, according to one website:

. . is a covert investigation that is opened on an individual. The individual is then placed under overt and covert forms of surveillance. The person is followed around 24/7. Foot patrols and vehicle patrols are used to follow the individual around, as part of the monitoring process . . . The secondary goals seem to be to make the target homeless, jobless, give them a breakdown, and the primary goal seems to be to drive the target to forced suicide.

Gang stalking has been linked with, but doesn’t necessarily involve, remote mind control. No one has ever come forward as a perpetrator. But large numbers of people have come forward as victims.

Before the internet, if you had developed the belief that you’d been targeted in this way, you would have been isolated. Anyone hearing your story – whether a friend or a relation, or a doctor such as Tausk – would have tried to persuade you that you were suffering from paranoid delusions. But today you would find confirmation of your suspicions on dozens of websites, blogs and message boards. “When you read the methods used by gang stalkers to harass their victims,” writes one blogger, “it is helpful to know that the stories told by victims worldwide are remarkably consistent.”

You would also find information on developments similar to gang stalking that have been documented in the respectable media, such as a declassified Pentagon report on the “Bioeffects of selected non-lethal weapons” or Ealing Council signing up eight-year-olds as “Junior Streetwatchers”. You could even make some friends. In other words, you’d be part of a community – and, as the British psychiatrist Vaughan Bell points out in his paper “‘Mind control’ experiences on the internet”, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual stipulates that a belief cannot be classed as a delusion if it is “accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”.

Reading about gang stalking online can be dispiriting, because one has the sense that someone such as Tausk really ought to be intervening. But I confess I also find it addictive. For instance, consider one blogger who believes even birds and animals are his enemies:

Birds, pigeons and crows, that can be controlled to fly (screaming) over me, to land in my garden when I walk into my kitchen and look outside, to crash into my kitchen window and car front window while driving. Birds, pigeons, that come sit, walk, on the roof of my house when I am upstairs having sex. Cats walking by like being programmed. Barking of dogs, flying away ducks etc, not by mind control but by beaming these animals with laser beams (directed energy weapons).

An entire menagerie of animal spies – if that isn’t in Pynchon, it should be. One might also recall Kafka or Don DeLillo, not to mention Mark Lombardi, the American artist whose work consisted of diagrams of various conspiracies involving the Vatican or the World Finance Corporation.

On another website, I found a collection of photographs of household objects – folding chairs, velcro straps, long underwear – that their owner believes to have been damaged during secret incursions into his home. The pictures have such eerie power that you could easily imagine them on a gallery wall next to a William Eggleston or a Laura Letin - sky. Elsewhere, the idea of harassment through the “everyday stimuli” of “red, white, yellow, strips, pens clicking, key jangling, loud coughing, loud whistling, loud smacking of clapping of hands together, cell phones, laptops, etc” evokes Sartre’s metaphysical nausea.

Still other online writers veer towards the psychedelic visions of Philip K Dick, proposing that the gang stalkers are really “lower astral entities, some aliens/non-humans, and Neg entities in general [who] are known to feed on the energies created by lower frequency emotions, since that’s what they resonate with, farming us for them in the same way we farm animals for their meat, milk, eggs and parts”, or, alternatively, normal humans wearing “frequency suits”, which “are invisible to the naked eye, but they seem to transport either your etheric layer, or another such layer from place to place”.

This is dangerous territory, however. Yes, there are precedents for appreciating the special energies we find in work by people who deviate from the psychological norm, going back to Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922). After reading it, the painter Paul Klee wrote: “In our own time, worlds have opened up which not everybody can see into, although they too are part of nature. Perhaps it’s really true that only children, madmen and savages see into them” – a remark the open-mindedness of which is not quite enough to outweigh its condescension. At Lausanne’s Collection de l’Art Brut and London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital there are whole museums devoted to such art.

None of the people describing their gang stalking experiences on the internet think of themselves as making art, however. They are serious. They want their writing and photography to be taken seriously. In most cases it is harmless to aestheticise modes of expression that are not deliberately aesthetic, otherwise there could be no such thing as Pieces of Intelligence: the Existential Poetry of Donald H Rumsfeld. (And there are grey areas: although Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, one of the cornerstones of the very idea of outsider art, was certainly intended as a creative work, there is no reason to think it was ever intended for public consumption.)

But human misery is different. A comparison here might be what’s sometimes called “ruin porn”. I can spend hours looking at beautiful photographs of derelict houses in Detroit or condemned council estates in London, but at the back of my mind I feel guilty about it, because I’m aware that these aren’t just evocative scenery, they’re also places where people less fortunate than me actually had to sleep every night. Gang stalking websites, similarly, are the ruins of people’s lives and I shouldn’t be cruising them for ephemeral thrills. I feel the same way about a lot of amateur YouTube videos that go viral: some of those “zany characters” wouldn’t be behaving like that on camera if the US had a functional mental health-care system. This is what the philosopher Mark Reinhardt, in his essay on the idea of “beautiful suffering”, calls “a kind of morally obtuse obscuring or exploitation of pain”.

Gang stalking is more resonant than these other examples, because here we find ourselves counterpoising two different methods of making sense of the inferno in which we all live. To compare notes on gang stalking with like-minded strangers on the internet is to take part in an investigation, almost a forensic science, a project to expose what Pynchon calls “other orders below the visible”, instead of merely sitting in your house with the blinds closed because you’re worried that everyone is out to get you. And to appreciate the artefacts of this subculture on an aesthetic level is not only to look sidelong at despair: it is also to play on sensibilities that were first sharpened in us by the work of Pynchon, DeLillo, Dick and so on: writers who were themselves trying to confront a world so large, so secretive, so random, so pitiless that not much human feeling can survive in it.

These two postures differ in the important respect that one comes from a state of abjection and the other from one of literary privilege. All the same, they are both ways of coming to terms with life. I would like to say that in future I’ll spend less time on gang stalking websites, but my own work is so derivative of the aforementioned authors in its preoccupation with conspiracies that I will inevitably find myself going back to these sources to forage for inspiration. Then I will launder them in my work like dirty money. Perhaps the challenge, then, is to prove that an aesthetic attitude and an empathetic one need not be mutually exclusive – that even if I’m planning a novel about remote-control spy-ducks, I can forage and feel at the same time.

Ned Beauman’s latest novel is “The Teleportation Accident” (Sceptre, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars