The “Unite the Right” rally/riot in Charlottesville this past summer was in some ways a relief for white liberals mired in campus politics. The presence of the KKK and neo-Nazis marked the return of an unambiguous evil, while also revealing the alt-Right’s true colors.When all was said and done, members of the so-called alt-Right were plain old racists. And liberals know how to fight racists and Nazis. We’ve been doing it since before World War II. In the wake of Charlottesville, Facebook was flooded with GIFS of Captain Von Trapp ripping apart the Nazi flag and Captain America socking Nazis. Editorials intoned that this was nothing new; it was the legacy of slavery and white supremacy rearing its ugly head again. True enough. But to think that is ALL that’s going on here is wrong-headed in the extreme. More important than old historical legacies in this case is the utterly new historical context that gave rise to the alt-Right. Our old anti-racist clichés will fail to combat this version of white nationalism; indeed, they will only affirm and embolden it.
In her important new book, Kill All the Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, author Angela Nagle argues that the alt-Right of the 21st century has more in common with postmodern thought, identity politics, and the cultural revolution of the 1960s than it does with either the KKK or the new Right. Whereas liberation from stultifying social norms was once associated with the Left, it is now embraced by the newest Right. The old-line God-fearing, 1950s-era, racist white conservative is no longer what we — the liberal/ Left–are dealing with, even though we keep insisting it is. The book’s title may be off-putting to those of us who’ve tried to avoid the vicious and vacuous world of internet subcultures. But it is these energized sub- cultures that are shaping today’s politics and that explain better than any economic analysis the resurgence of an overtly racist Right. A writer for The Baffler and The Jacobin, Angela Nagle, has done us a real service by delving into them and tracing their complicated antipathies and genealogies. Transcending the stale sniping over “political correctness ” and “free speech,” Nagle offers us a fresh understanding of the real-life political consequences of ideas that never should have left the Ivory Tower.
Let us begin with some historical context. Although many liberals don’t believe it, they actually won the culture wars of the 1990s. At least temporarily. The overt racism and misogyny unleashed by Trump’s election and exhibited in Charlottesville is so disturbing in part because of the extraordinary progress made in racial inclusion, gay rights, and gender equality over the past fifty years.Since the 1960s, our social institutions, dominant values, and work places have been transformed from a taken-for-granted white, heteronormative maleness to widespread acceptance and protection of difference and diversity. This transformation came about in part because people of color, feminists, and gay activists fought tooth and nail for it. But it also occurred because the values of diversity, liberation, and heterogeneity mesh with the deregulated, individualistic, globalized economy of neoliberalism.
While liberals lost the economic debate to the Right, they gained an economy friendly to their progressive cultural agendas, especially in terms of diversity. The biggest defenders of affirmative action, immigration, and diversity are elite colleges and universities and multinational corporations, who depend on these policies to put them in compliance with antidiscrimination laws, foster good public relations, and secure the most talented and globally competitive labor force possible.Corporations and investors understand that their best customers – the highly educated, highly paid consumers of financial services, luxury autos, fancy schools, artisan craft beers, green living, and wellness products – are also most sensitive to diversity issues.Hence the corporate boycotts against North Carolina’s bathroom laws,the quick firing of the Google engineer who questioned Google’s diversity efforts, and the resignation of Merck’s CEO from Trump’s manufacturing advisory panel after Trump’s non-condemnation of white supremacist groups at Charlottesville.
As every Marxist knows, economic needs shape cultural values. Neoliberal centrists in both parties embraced liberal ideas concerning internationalism, globalization, and diversity, upholding the individual rights and lifestyle choices of gays, the transgendered, and working women. These changes were accompanied by new anti-racist, anti-sexist social rules, which are meant to help everyone adjust to a more diverse society. Sometimes called “political correctness,” these new rules are inculcated in schools and universities, affirmed by Hollywood and the creative industries, and grudgingly accepted by corporate leaders and social elites, who are regularly called upon to publicly apologize for institutional infractions.
None of this was easy; there was tremendous backlash every step of the way. Until recently, however, resistance typically came from traditional conservatives who sought to uphold and defend social and political norms, family values, Christianity, and society itself against a godless human secularism and subversive change. Many of these folks were racist and sexist, openly defending the structures of white supremacy and patriarchy, unwilling to embrace “human rights.” But their concerns were about upholding social norms and social integrity.
In contrast, as Nagle shows, the groups that make up the alt-Right have as their credo the destruction of social norms and social integrity. Borrowing from Gramsci, the alt-Right (as represented by the likes of Andrew Breitbart, Richard Spencer, and Steve Bannon) has bypassed formal politics and seeks to topple the pro-immigration, multicultural-accepting, neoliberal establishment by disrupting the culture that upholds its hegemony. To put it another way, these people seek to shift the “Overton window” of political possibility rightward through social media and culture. Their ultimate aim is the restoration of some kind of white male-dominated nationalism, which weirdly doesn’t exclude the pornography-loving, the gay, or the sexually promiscuous. They use the left’s language of identity to talk about their white heritage and culture. They are self-aware and ironic,immune to earnest expositions about the dangers of nationalism and racism, which they have been hearing all their lives. It’s almost as if they’ve embraced racism and white nationalism precisely because up- tight elites and finger-waggers have warned of its dangers. Their youthful followers come from the vast subversive counterculture of the worldwide web, where racism and misogyny represent a giant f-you to the powers that be.
These subcultures developed around sites devoted to hacking, gaming, pornography, anime, or humor memes, whose culture of anonymity fostered a troubling atmosphere of dark thoughts and bullying. Characterized by “weird pornography, in-jokes, nerdish argot, gory images, suicidal, murderous, and incestuous thoughts, racism, and misogyny,” these sites created funny memes and pranked or bullied users they deemed uncool, such as when the users of something called 4chan/b/ harassed and bullied an 11-year-old girl who had posted a video of herself rapping in gangsta-style. Nagle also describes campaigns to encourage troubled teens to commit suicide, followed by pranking parents with “jokes” about their deceased son or daughter. The humor seems to come from how “inappropriate” such behavior is.
As the internet became more popular, socially conventional users encroached upon the wild-west world of anonymity and libertinism, calling out its racism and bullying and demanding some kind of moderation. The backlash against these outsiders, especially if they were women, was swift and astoundingly brutal. Most famously, there was the gamergate controversy, which began when a feminist gamer named Anita Sarkeesian made a video series offering a feminist critique of video games, which suggested ways to make them less sexist. But she did so as a gaming fan who wasn’t interested in censorship, but in awareness. For this, she received years of rape and death threats, “doxxing” (the mass sharing of personal information), and online commentary, such as “It would be funny if five guys raped her right now.” Her Wikipedia page was vandalized with pornographic images. Someone created a game where players could punch her face “until it was bloodied and bruised, and her eyes blackened and swollen.” All of this and more was done, notes Nagle, to show “that sexism was definitely not, as she [Sarkeesian] had so outrageously claimed, an issue in the gaming community.” Nor was Sarkeesian alone; Nagle describes similar scenarios with dozens of women harassed, threatened, and bullied in ways that chased them off the internet.
The significance of this–besides just showing the incredible misogyny that resides in these enclaves – is that it “brought gamers, rightist chan culture, anti-feminism and the online far right closer to the mainstream discussion,” politicizing a broad group of young people, mostly boys, who deployed similar tactics against the online Left. Not surprisingly, their main target was"political correctness.“ As Nagle shows,the most racist and misogynist subcultures on the internet act in the transgressive spirit of the Marquis de Sade and Michel Foucault, seeking not to restore the traditional mores of a bygone era, but rather to harass, mock, and bait liberals, corporate elites, and most especially, the "snowflakes” or “Social Justice Warriors” that uphold"PC" and inhabit the more liberal part of the internet, which Nagle dubs the “Tumblr Left.”
The Tumblr Left refers to an array of websites such as Jezebel, Upworthy, Everyday Feminism, and Buzzfeed, which deliver clickable “content” in the form of lists, such as “Ten Celebrities You won’t recognize.” Because both the consumers and creators are bright young college grads, the sites lean left, especially in terms of identity politics, but it is a “left” tinged with the concerns and values of this demographic, which include mental illness, anxiety, wellness, haters, and a virtual deification of the concept of “empathy."Nagle describes them as ” a strange mixture of ultra-sensitivity, sentimentality, and what was once considered radical social constructionist identity politics.“ With headlines like "8 Signs Your Yoga Practice is Culturally Appropriated,” they are eminently mockable and easy targets for the alt-Right’s many satellites, who see them as part of the “left wing media,” along with the Guardian, the NYT, and CNN. Despite their goofiness, they are very popular. In 2015, Buzzfeed’s articles got more shares on social media than BBC and Fox News put together.
According to Nagle, the Tumblr Left’s excessive focus on identity and emotional vulnerability – akin to the “safe-space” version of campus politics – has undermined the development of a substantive class-based online Left.That is, not only is it a target for the online Right, it is alienating young people who might otherwise support an online left. Like many leftists in our current moment, Nagle is a feminist concerned about the rights of marginalized minorities and people of color, but she has little patience for the needlessly exclusionary identity politics that are practiced on campuses and apparently in the online world, which she aptly describes as “based on the minutiae and gradations of rapidly proliferating identities, and the emotional injuries of systemic cultural prejudices.” She notes that the reader might have been surprised when Facebook announced in 2014 that it had 56 gender options – as indeed this reader was. She calls this “the subcultural digital expression of the fruition of Judith Butler’s ideas,"but there is nothing intellectual or leftist about "cassflux,” a gender in which your level of gender indifference fluctuates, or"genderale,“a gender associated with plants, herbs, and liquids (just two entries from a two page list of genders found on Tumblr).
The Tumblr Left has tried to normalize its own fringe anti-male, anti-white, anti-straight rhetoric, enforcing its views on social media with just as much viciousness as the online Right. Despite their professed vulnerabilities, Tumblr users also collectively attack, condemn,and harass people who ‘ve said the "wrong thing” or inadvertently used some apparently wounding term.The oddest thing about this “call-out culture,” writes Nagle, is its “mixture of performative vulnerability, self-righteous wokeness and bullying.” One of its targets was a British Marxist philosopher named Mark Fisher who in 2013 wrote a heartfelt critique of the dispiriting way leftist figures had been “called out,” vilified, and condemned on social media not by the online right, but by folks who claimed to be on the Left.He astutely observed that these online harassers were “driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd."Predictably — and in confirmation of his point—he received a deluge of hate-filled abuse and accusations of racism, misogyny, etc., which were renewed upon the news of Fisher’s suicide in January 2017. The incident permanently divided an older generation of leftist materialists from the younger practitioners of this brand of identity politics. Nagle describes similar incidents involving feminist pioneer Germaine Greer and Iranian socialist feminist Maryan Namzie, concluding that the "Tumblrization” of the Left is responsible for a damaging brain drain on the Left, as many would-be leftists abandoned the cause, at least on social media.
As the online Left became increasingly divided, the online Right was enjoying more mainstream visibility beginning in 2014 or so, thanks mostly to provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, Michael Cernovich, and others, those Nagle labels the “alt-Light.” Not as ideologically scary as Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon, Yiannopoulos represented a “marriage of the ironic, irreverent, taboo-busting culture of 4chan” with the politics of the libertarian Right.Gleefully skewering PC culture and baiting campus “snowflakes,” his" Dangerous Faggot" tour in 2015 ignited protests and prompted cancellations, which were reported in the mainstream right wing press as evidence of a “free speech” crisis on college campuses.
Yiannopoulos called himself a conservative, claiming to be fighting the same culture war declared by Pat Buchanan in 1992.But as a stridently gay man often adorned in pearls and dishing about sleeping with black men, he is a far cry from the family-values conservatives represented by Buchanan. It is a measure of how much the U.S. political Right hates liberalism and PC culture that they embraced – for a short time – this libertine homosexual as their own.That ended, of course, when an old interview surfaced of Milo defending pederasty as a sexual choice. A bridge too far, apparently. But as Nagle argues, Yiannopoulos did not represent conservatism so much as “ a bursting forth of the id unrestrained by conventions or speech or PC culture,” the culmination of the 1960s counterculture, or what Lionel Trilling called “adversary culture,” which sought to smash the existing order via irreverence and “transgression for transgression’s sake.” All of the vices that conservatives had once condemned in the sixties Left—libertinism, individualism, postmodernism, irony, and nihilism—were embodied in the movement spearheaded by Milo Yiannopoulos.
In the same way that conservatives of the 1960s were too “square” to effectively counter the New Left, Washington conservatives today are clearly out of their element when trying to attack affirmative action and political correctness. Denying they are racist or misogynist, mainstream conservatives put forth such quaint arguments as equal opportunity and color-blindness, and can’t quite figure out why these terms yield yet more outrage and mocking. Conversely the alt-Right of Richard Spencer and the alt-light of Milo are unafraid of being called racist or misogynist – they openly embrace anti-feminism and white nationalism. In doing so, they completely disarm not just the online Left, but also regular Democratic centrist liberals, both of which have depended on shaming people into compliance with the new multicultural social rules.
It is possible that all of this will turn out to be a weird ephemeral blip that will sputter and disintegrate like so many weird fringe movements in U.S. history.But there are at least two very worrying signs that there is something significant here.The first is the steep decline of the mainstream press, both in terms of its social authority and its audience.There was a time when “the media” was the pillar of cultural hegemony, setting the terms of debate,defining “truth"in the interests of the leadership class. Noam Chomsky viewed it as "manufacturing consent.” Leftists and my old professors saw it as foiling the socialist project in America.No longer. As Nagle writes, “the gatekeepers of cultural sensibilities and etiquette have been overthrown;” the small creative class that produces our journalism, advertising, and entertainment “are now perpetually outpaced by viral online content from obscure sources.” Despite the opposition of all the mainstream news agencies, including conservative ones like the National Review and Fox news, which repeatedly belittled and dismissed him, Trump won the 2016 election.
The second reason to worry, of course, is that the alt-Right groups have gained in social and political stature since Trump’s election. They are, as they say in language co-opted from black and gay pride events,“here to stay.” And though Steve Bannon’s tenure in the Trump Administration has ended,that is due more to Trump’s impetuousness than Bannon’s fringe-ness. The alt-Right’s Gramscian strategy didn’t just sidestep the mainstream media, it got them a position in a presidential cabinet. Without a strong mainstream media that is able to dictate etiquette and demand apologies from public figures who’ve brokenthe mainstream PC code, more people may take seriously the once-fringe ideas of white nationalism and anti-feminism. In a telling anecdote from 2016, Buzzfeed, a listicle site on the Tumblr Left, reprinted an interview Bannon gave to the Vatican from 2004, hoping to expose him as fringe racist and anti-Semite. Instead, Bannon came across as darkly anti-establishment, a serious commentator on the problems of neoliberal capitalism, secularization, identity, and Republican cronyism. In graduate school we used to argue over whether you could “dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” It turns out you can, if “the master” is the neoliberal elite and “the tools” are multiculturalism and identity politics.
Even if all of this is a passing phenomenon, and even if Charlottesville has done damage to the alt-Right’s ironic brand, it has already had considerable impact on our political traditions and it is difficult to see what can derail its momentum. Both major parties are deeply divided, unable to govern, and on the verge of disintegration.State and local governments are being starved of funds. The grassroots Left is mired in the consequences of diversity. White liberals trying to be"allies" of people of color or different sexuality groups are routinely mocked and shunned by the people they are trying to help. Corporate elites are under attack from both the right and the left and have never looked as clueless as they donow. It’s not like we weren’t warned. Conservative thinkers from Burke to Nisbet to Nathan Glazer told us what would happen if the social fabric was torn asunder. The book by Nagle gives them another chance to say, told you so.