Standing face-to-face with a racist, Andrew Goldberg found something surprising: He sort of liked him.
“He’s a very likable guy,” Goldberg said. “We had an interesting friendship.”
Goldberg interviewed Russ Walker(shown here) for “Viral: Anti-Semitism in Four Mutations,” the compelling documentary that airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday (May 26) on PBS. Walker proudly displayed a sign reading “What’s wrong with being a racist?” The flip side added: “God is a racist.”
Plenty of people saw the sign, knew Walker’s views … and voted for him anway, when he ran for the North Carolina House in 2018. “He was a 75-year-old guy with no staff,” Goldberg said, but he got 37 percent of the votes, running as a Republican in a strongly Democratic district.
Walker, an affable chemical engineer who died shortly after Goldberg filmed him, offered a reminder of two things:
First, bigotry isn’t confined to easy images of skinheads and such. Anti-semitism has ranged from the leaders of Hungary to some surprising parts of England: “The depth of anti-semitism in the Labour Party was really surprising,” Goldberg said.
Second, bigotry can move at a much faster pace now. Arno Michaelis, who used to recruit and organize white supremacists, said it would take years to distribute a few thousand newspapers; Walker said he had 50,000 hits on his website.
Such views, attacking blacks or Jews, fly around the internet. “If you do it long enough,” Bill Clinton says in the film, “you’ll pick up someone crazy enough to do something like happened in Pittsburgh.”
That was on Oct. 27, 2018, when 11 people were killed in a synagogue. The documentary starts there, then goes on to Hungary, England and France.
Goldberg landed interviews with the former leaders of the U.S. (Clinton) and England. “Tony Blair was very interested in the subject,” he said. Under Blair and others, Labour had a strong civil-rights record; under Jeremy Corbyn (who resigned from party leadership in April), it drew criticism. Luciana Berger, a member of Parliament, withdrew from the party, which she called “institutionally anti-semitic.”
But Goldberg also strayed far from leaders. In Hungary, he met Agnes Heller, a Holocaust survivor now appalled by the government efforts to paint George Soros, a billionaire Jewish philanthropist, as a supervillain. In London, he talked to a cousin he’d never met before, who talked about the hatred in social media. In Paris, he met the widow of a man killed in a shooting at a kosher grocery store. “Being on guard is now a daily thing,” she said. “People don’t walk in the street anymore.”
Goldberg had long studied anti-semitism and even includes some historical background early in the film. But in modern times? “This was much deeper that I thought it was,” he said. In Europe “the situation was as bad as people said it was.”