Above: Credit to Holly Pereira for the illustration accompanying this in #rabble13. Make sure to check out more of her work at hyperpictures.com
Few writers have scoured the sewers of chan culture with as keen an eye as Angela Nagle. Martin Leen sat down with the writer who is making a name for herself the world over as the definitive voice on the internet subcultures that have given life to the alt-right.
You are working on a new book tentatively titled Kill All Normies: The Online Culture Wars From Tumblr to Trump. Would you be able to give us a crash in what it’s all about for those of us still in the dark on these online culture wars?
Kill All Normies refers to an expression used on the online alt-right and chan culture, ‘normies’, and I’m also using it to refer to the breakdown of the mainstream in terms of media and politics that has created a vacuum for this kind of subcultural far right youth politics. The book is an analysis of the culture wars that have gone on online over the last eight years or so and looking at how you can only understand the rise of the alt-right and alt-light figures like Milo by understanding also the virtue-oriented online movements that they represent an extreme reaction against. The cycle is that the right wants proof that society is falling apart due to multiculturalism and feminism and gay rights and the online tumblr liberals supply them with seeming evidence for their moral panic.
In fact neither represent anything like the real world that exists outside our front door but they exist in constant response to each other. They each get to see what they want to see – that society is either a multicultural disaster on the brink of collapse or an oppressive white cis male hetero-patriarchy. Each proves to the other that their worldview is accurate and that the need to ramp things up to appropriately respond to the other.
Why do you think that misogyny is so rampant amongst the so called beta-male of 4chan?
Some nerdish right wing forums are openly self-mocking about being betas, others obsess about overcoming their beta status through the gym and using social darwinian thinking to trick females into being sexually attracted to them. They’re very confused and angry because they hate sexual freedom because of their low ranking status in the sexual social hierarchy due to female choice but also exist in a very porn fuelled culture so sometimes they express puritanical ideas about hating sluts, in the same breath they’ll express their feeling of entitlement to the sexual availability of women.
The more interesting thing is that sexual choice and the breakdown of monogamy really has created a sexual hierarchy among men – they’re not imagining that. Now you have this angry online army of celibate men who believe this is part of a civilisational collapse brought about by feminism, which they see themselves as the victims of. Of course in reality these changes were a product of the sexual revolution which men were very active agents, not passive victims, of and in many ways feminism was split over factions which produced a critique of the sexual revolution and those that embraced it but wanted it to go further.
Is there anything society can do to address the insecurities that are causing this so called “crisis of masculinity”?
I think many of the concerns brought up by men’s rights activists are actually quite fair. The problem is that often the men expressing them online, which is where most people are going to be introduced to new ideas for the first time, are so hateful and off putting that nobody listens to them. But for example, men’s health and suicide deserve attention and a lost sense of purpose in the world that has accompanied de-industrialisation really has left many men in a bad place and a fair society should take those concerns seriously.
Certainly letting these things fester in the dark corners of the internet and calling anyone who addresses them a misogynist is not helping anyone. I try to use that word only when it very literally and clearly applies. We are living in a time of huge chaos in terms of gender roles with greater levels of celibacy among the young I think due to a kind of alienation and it’s certainly not all positive.
There seems to be so much irony involved in all the barbs that are thrown around in these culture wars that it is hard to know when people are serious or not. Why is this? Is it some kind of tactic?
Irony is undoubtedly used as a way of protecting oneself against easy interpretation online. It’s also a classic feature of subcultures to be exclusive through ever more niche distinctions and complicated internal slang and references. In that one sense the online right really is the new punk – both are tediously obsessed with minute niche internal distinctions in their own subcultures.
What you have are two opposite but mutually reinforcing cultures – one is ultra sensitive and constantly Twitter mob-shaming people for minor infringements against liberal sensitivities, the other is anonymous and revelling in breaking liberal taboos and being offensive for the fun of it. The problem is that at some point the performative irony became real and those who started posting funny un-PC memes actually got sucked into far right politics.
How do you feel about criticism of Sanders and Corbyn from various online feminists as being proponents of “brocialism.”?
Well it tells you everything about why irreverent troll cultures have emerged online on the right. While the cultural left is busy out-doing one another in woke righteousness and purity and constantly purging anyone on the left with a sense of humour or connection to the real world outside of tumblr politics, the far right online is allowed to look like the funny transgressive alternative.
Bernie would have been better for American women than Hillary, genitalia aside. Online feminism’s more absurd turn in recent years and its involvement in witch hunting, silencing any and all dissent and online mob behaviour has benefited the right immeasurably among younger people. The jokes just write themselves really.
I have more in common with men who share my material concerns – job precarity, unaffordable rents, poor social services etc. – than with ‘women’ as a category. So I’ll take a Berniebro (or the Irish equivalent) any day over the liberal Hillary loyalist types (and their Irish equivalents) who cooked up the agenda-driven caricature.
In terms of recent US elections and the election of Trump, how much of him getting elected was down to material things such as economic issues and how much was influenced by the alt-right and the hatreds of political correctness, feminism, immigration, the welfare state and the cultural left that Trump and his campaign latched on to?
I think it was economic concerns for most people. That’s what the polls suggest. And yet this isn’t unconnected to the culture politics. Advanced economies are about to lose massive amounts of jobs to off-shoring and automation. And interestingly the most easily automated jobs are the male dominated ones. Trumpism is a last attempt to stem the tide of the social changes that will come from that. For young people who have grown up online then the meme culture of online right wing forums provided a language and a cool and made being on the right acceptable in a way for young people again. To them, being a Trump supporter was a way of rebelling against your liberal teachers and parents. I think adulthood brings much more material concerns to the centre of your politics, so the cultural stuff was more part of his young fan base.
You are an advocate of people’s right to free speech and you have said is rare among liberals would not be of a similar mind. Why do you think that people fear free speech so much?
Very few movements are pro free speech for very long. As we’ve now seen with Milo, the right shut him down in 48 hours after going on about free speech for so long. In Ireland in early independence it was the Catholic reactionary right that opposed free speech, in 60s America it was the conservative right who opposed it and the new left at Berkeley who championed it. Today the left finds itself trying to restrict free speech.
Honestly, I think it’s always the people who are more confident in their ideas and know in their bones that their movement’s time is about to come that tend to be in favour of free speech because they know they’ll gain from it. The left is anti-free speech now because it doesn’t have confidence in its own ideas anymore.
I am hugely influenced by the writings of Frederick Douglass and Rosa Luxemburg on free speech but they had such powerful ideas. I think it’s vital to a movement’s internal life and for human liberty broadly speaking. It’s a very difficult thing to defend though because you usually have to defend, by definition, people who are transgressing the social values of the day. It’s also a debate that tends to descend into idiocy and hysteria so quickly I rarely bother having it. And the people on my side of it in Ireland tend to be pretty dreadful slimy people who are only in favour if it in an opportunistic way because it allows them to attack immigrants or whoever.
When Milo Yiannopoulos was on his tour of colleges, the protests were getting lots of publicity, and speeches were being cancelled. Do you think it is time for the left and liberals and in general to give up this idea of “not giving people like him a platform” and to engage in debate and fight these ideologies with well thought-out arguments like people like Germaine Greer and Susan Sontag used to?
Absolutely. In fact, I think we could have avoided this mess if we have done that years ago. There is simply no getting around the fact that part of being political in any way is convincing people of your case. You have to do it. The left is now dangerously out of the practice of doing it because it has been, on cultural issues if not economic ones, dominant in recent years in most of the west. This cycle happens all the time in movements.
Look at the neocons for example who have been usurped by the Trump win. They rose to power because their big thinkers learned to do intellectual battle as young Jewish Trotskyists fighting with the pro-Soviet students in the rival alcove of the cafeteria of City College of New York. When they became right wing they had all this tremendous creative and intellectual energy and they rose to prominence in the US. Similarly, at the height of the Catholic church’s power in Ireland all the ideas and intellectuals were on the other side and the reason they had that intellectual power is that they had to fight their case through ideas.
A key point that I take from reading your work is that maybe the thinkers on the liberal/ left have got lazy and caught up in their own bubble and took their eye off the ball , while the alt-right have sharpened their arguments and worked really hard at developing an alternative media. How can the left develop an alternative media that reaches and connects with people outside of its own bubble?
The alt-light in particular are a remarkable success story in creating alternative media. Just look at the viewing figures for Infowars, Milo’s site and videos, the Rebel and so on. Look at the twitter following that its members have. They used social media, crowd funding and major focus on video over text. They really circumvented mainstream media channels completely. They were funny and irreverent and stood out as a new phenomenon with ideas many young people hadn’t heard anywhere else.
Or is there anything we can do at all given the algorithms that throw our news and culture at us, that chain us to our tastes and give us as Adorno said the ‘freedom to choose what is always the same’? How can we break out of these idea vacuums?
Oh this is interesting. Jason Wilson has an excellent “burst your bubble” section in the Guardian now, picking out interesting things happening in the world of ideas from conservative and libertarian media. I sense a bit of a desire to read and think more widely than before. I love the new US left spirit of things like Chapo Trap House and people like Amber A’Lee Frost, Freddie de Boer, Adolph Reed, Jacobin, Current Affairs etc.
There is a very strong sense I get that a new, more open spirit of intellectual curiosity and irreverence toward liberal scolds who have shut down ideas for so long is happening now. I’m very excited about it. I hope it influences our discourse over here too. I’ve always tried to read as widely as possible. I’ve always found the ideological bubble so stifling and awful. It’s like a voluntary lobotomy.
You’ve been through the Twitter wars haven’t you? Trolling and massive fights have always been a part of online culture, but I recall a day when there was a degree of self-policing and internal community generated rules in forums. Now it’s a wild west, of atomised profiles where the corporations like Facebook and Twitter make the rules. We’ve kind of let the net be taken out of our control haven’t we, do you think this is romantic and relinquished self-responsibility or do you think we let a golden age escape us unbeknownst?
The problem with that is I’m not sure we can really blame the corporations for our bad behaviour on this particular issue. In many cases it’s the corporations trying to keep a lid on it through de-anonymisation. It may be the case that we need to collectively re-learn basic etiquette. The level of public discourse right now is just so hateful and so degraded and nasty it’s quite unbelievable. I guess any sense of the commons has to come from our collective realisation that we’re all going to be wading through virtual garbage forever unless we somehow apply basic standards of human empathy online. That’s all a bit vague though. I really don’t know if or how it will get better.
I’ll put an umbrella on before you fire a pint over my head, but given the idea of an absence of intellect on the left, and please take this in the best spirit – then is finding a niche career as a writer following and critiquing “identity politics” and the alt-right not part and parcel of the problem, a left intelligentsia on the back front and commenting on the sidelines at the rising right? How can criticism and theory be turned into action?
I would turn that around and say what is the point of action if we don’t have the right ideas? Right now the impulse to do something active is leading to everyone flailing around just trying to ‘be active’ because we feel that’s ‘doing something’. I think we need to go back to first principles and rethink ourselves in a really fundamental way. Those of us who care about equality and our plummeting living standards need to lead ideas in the age of automation, we need to have the most open and fun and interesting culture where ideas can be thrown around, developed, rejected, adapted.
I’d like to think I’m part of that new wave of people trying to break free of the dead hand of humourless cultural politics emanating from academia and online liberal cultures that have shut down ideas for far too long now and has rightly become a bit of a laughing stock. It’s bankrupt, it’s boring, it’s the death of all thought and you can feel it has no life left in it. Nobody who you’d ever want to be around wants anything to do with it anymore. We need something else.
Check out Angela Nagle’s forthcoming book Kill All Normies: The Online Culture Wars From Tumblr to Trump when it’s released by Zero Books later in the month.