My name is Jason Kessler. You may have heard of me. I'm a NASA scientist. A documentary filmmaker. A classical guitarist. I'm a personal injury lawyer and an assistant professor in the Division of Comparative Effectiveness and Decision Science within the Department of Population Health. I'm the creator of Scattertext and a high school football player and a dad and a husband. I'm the guy who organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that put America's bigotry on display and led to the murder of good people. I'm not actually any of those people. But I am Jason Kessler.
Until recently, I was the most famous Jason Kessler. Years of hard work went into that distinction. I've written for "The Office" on NBC. I wrote a column for Bon Appetit Magazine. I currently host a show on the Travel Channel. When you searched for my name on Google, the first three pages were more or less mine. Twitter gave me one of their fancy blue checkmarks as @JasonBKessler. For more than a decade, I've built a reputation that I could stand behind. That all changed when some idiot with my name decided that he was going to mix what appear to be his two fixations: attention-seeking and the "alt-right."
Since the far-right version of Jason Kessler started stirring up his ugly race-baiting agenda in Virginia, I've been embarrassed even to say my name when I make a restaurant reservation. Friends I haven't heard from in years started checking in with me to make sure I didn't somehow turn from a food-loving liberal dude to some heinous hate-monger. All I could muster in response is something along the lines of “Yeah, this is a bad month to be Jason Kessler” or “It's literally the worst thing that's happened to me all year.”
I realize that a case of mistaken identity is nothing compared to the struggles of the people actually targeted by the other Jason Kessler and his cronies. That's one of the reasons that makes this so hard. My name is being used to incite and inflame bigotry, and there's nothing I can do about it.
The truth is, I feel like my whole reputation has been destroyed. The other Jason Kessler claims he's a freelance journalist, just like me. While the other Jason Kesslers have more degrees of separation, this is far too close for my comfort. Anytime somebody searches for me online, they will now encounter him and his agenda. What if they just assume that I'm him? How many jobs will I lose? When you share a name with someone widely believed to be a monster, you too become a monster by association — whether you like it or not.
The worst has come from social media. Luckily, I had the foresight to realize early on that the Charlottesville rally could careen out of control. My first hint was the suburban luau of stricken white men with their pitiful tiki torches. I quickly tweeted out “I am not *that* Jason Kessler” — and I'm so glad I did.
The response was generally positive. I got lots of sympathy for having to share a name with this doppelgänger. Most people commented that they had come to my Twitter page planning to attack but saw my tweet and realized they were in the wrong place. Others turned my fears into reality and sent along their messages as if I was the asshole they were looking for. A woman messaged me and said she hoped I got raped and killed alongside my mother. An "alt-right" sympathizer sent a batshit crazy diatribe about his conflicting feelings about the rally, the death of Heather Heyer and Norse mythology. I did my best to take it all in stride. Other Jason Kesslers joined in the pity party. I half-jokingly started the hashtag #JasonKesslersAgainstRacistJasonKesslers. It didn't take off.
Kessler is one of those names that doesn't seem all that common, but the data shows that there are Kesslers everywhere. According to the U.S census in 2000, Kessler was the 1,112th most popular last name out of more than 150,000 surnames. Jason is even more popular. It's been a common name since that whole golden fleece thing in Greek mythology. In fact, from 1973 to 1982, Jason was one of the top five most popular names for boys in America. With a top five first name and a top 1 percent last name, it's no surprise that “Jason Kessler” is a relatively common name for American men in their 30s and 40s. The big surprise — to me at least — is that there's a Jason Kessler who isn't Jewish. I grew up with lots of other Kesslers in the Chicago suburbs, and every single one of us was Jewish. I always assumed Kessler was exclusively a Jewish name. The appearance of this outlier non-Jewish Jason Kessler was fairly shocking to begin with, but the fact that he also pushes anti-Semitic propaganda is so ironic that Alanis Morrisette's ears must be tingling.
This type of name confusion happens all the time. Basketball legend Michael Jordan was so famous when "Creed" star Michael B. Jordan started acting that he had to add his middle initial to set himself apart. Steve McQueen may have won the Academy Award for Best Picture with "12 Years a Slave," but people still confuse him with the Steve McQueen from "Bullitt" (who has dead for nearly 40 years). Even my father, David Kessler, had to deal with the name-twin phenomenon when George H.W. Bush appointed another David Kessler as head of the FDA. Rarely, though, does someone have to deal with another person with the same name who seems hellbent on destroying the fabric of America. To all of the Timothy McVeighs and Charles Mansons out there, I feel your pain.
Like DNA and Social Security numbers, our names are what separate us from everyone else. Our entire identities are wrapped up in what we're called. When random people started to confuse me with someone who stood for everything I hate, it shook me. It felt like my identity had been stolen, but instead of going after my bank account, it was my integrity that got drained.
Based on what I've read about him, it seems like this other Jason Kessler has been itching for attention for the past few years. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are rumors that he was previously involved with the leftist Occupy movement before switching to a hard-right ideology, and apparently he tried to start a career as a lifestyle writer in 2015. Was he mad that he wasn't the Jason Kessler who showed up most frequently on Google? Did my professional profile play a small part in pushing him to more extreme attention-seeking measures?
In today's digital age, you can be whomever you'd like to be online. You can hide behind screen names and handles of your own creation that have nothing to do with the name on your birth certificate. You get to create a new identity for yourself. When I first signed up for Gmail, I was a little dismayed to discover that firstname.lastname@example.org had already been taken, but I chose something else instead. In real life, your options are more limited. If you want to be the boldest version of your name, you need to do bold things to stand out. Maybe that's what propelled this Jason Kessler to latch onto hate as his rocket to visibility. In today's political climate, the loudest, most aggressive voices are heard the most (especially when their pulpit is the White House), so maybe my name-twin realized that his angle for notoriety needed to be anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic bigotry. I will never understand what drives people to base their identities around hate, but in this case it could just be a means to an end for fame — or more accurately, infamy. No matter what, it's despicable; even being associated by accident with his beliefs keeps me up at night.
Over time, this will all fade. I'm confident enough in America to believe that Jason Kessler's extreme brand of divisive identify politics will never become mainstream. In the meantime, we, the other Jason Kesslers, will keep doing what we do. We'll be making documentaries and playing football; defending personal injury cases and raising children. We'll eventually reclaim our names and everyone will forget that one of us became infamous for a particularly terrible stretch of American history. Until then, I'll just have to keep making sure that everyone knows that I'm the one who writes about deep dish pizza.