A Review of Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt- Right, by Angela Nagle. Zero Books, $9.99 (Kindle edition).
An Irish literary critic and academic as well as a “dirtbag leftist” with bylines in Jacobin, The Baffler, and Current Affairs, Angela Nagle documents here the background and breakthroughs of the online politics which helped shape the 2016 election. It is an important topic and a fascinating one, and Nagle demonstrates the requisite impartiality: her conclusions do end up fitting her new-old-left politics nicely (as demonstrated by approving book-jacket quotes from Connor Kilpatrick of Jacobin and Amber A’Lee Frost of Chapo Trap House and Current Affairs), but they’ve garnered approval across the political spectrum, from Nagle’s neck of the woods all the way to the stodgy Never-Trumpism of the National Review.
Unfortunately, one gets the impression that Nagle and Zero were both quite aware of how urgently this analysis was needed; the product seems rushed, even unfinished. Kill All Normies is merely a good start in need of deeper research, broader connections, clearer argumentation, and a great deal of editing. The book’s first paragraph begins, “In the lead-up to the election of Barak Obama in 2008,” and goes on, ironically, to discuss George W. Bush’s “gaffs and grammatical mistakes”; we soon hear about “Peter Theil”, and the fourth chapter discusses former presidential candidate “Pat Buchannan”. Things don’t improve at the sentence level. In the fashion of a true millennial net addict, Nagle sprinkles commas and hyphens like spices to disguise the fact that it’s not clear where one giddy thought ends and the next begins. A representative sentence: “At the same time, the ‘deplorables’, from the Trumpian trolls to the alt-right, view the Hillary loyalists – the entrenched identity politics of Tumblr and the intersectional anti-free speech campus left – as evidence of their – equally bleak view of a rapidly declining Western civilization, as both sides have become increasingly unmoored to any cultural mainstream, which scarcely resembles either bleak vision” (7). This is the diction of a decent tweetstorm or drunk text message.
Nagle seems at some points too close, at other points too far away from her subjects, and she pays too much respect to the conceit of her title, separating “internet people” from “normies” to such a degree that she fails to draw from the online culture wars any lessons about offline societal trends. Indeed, it is not always clear which group she’s writing for. She’ll rehash at length incidents with which any internet person is well-acquainted, then use terms like “subreddit”, “shitposter”, or “Gamergate” or references like “Pepe the Frog”, “American Renaissance”, or “Milo” without giving much explanation. When she does give explanations they don’t always seem right. We read that Nick Land is the “greatest misfit” of “neoreaction”(undefined); “once closer to the radical left-oriented Accelerationist school of thought and still a highly idiosyncratic thinker, he is not so easily categorized” (13). But there are right and left accelerationisms, and in an intellectual history it could surely be mentioned that Land spent his early adulthood teaching continental philosophy, an enormous influence on the modern left, at the University of Warwick’s estimable department, where he wrote a book on Bataille and collaborated with Ray Brassier, a noted interpreter of the Maoist quasi-philosopher Alain Badiou. Perhaps Nagle is genuinely enamored of the flatness of the online memescape, the leveling effect it has; but for the reader to make sense of all the names whizzing by, some hierarchy should have been introduced.
In other places one wonders why certain information is missing and why other stuff is there. The book makes no mention of Justine Tunney, a transwoman who was involved with and arguably named Occupy Wall Street, only later to become a Silicon Valley-style “technofascist” who circulated in Bay Area neoreactionary and alt-right circles. What a deep connection between the movements Nagle describes! Sticking in NorCal, it is surprising to see no mention of LessWrong and the “rationalist” semicult, which is a Tumblr-style identitarian support group that nonetheless often ends up treading into alt-right discursive and political territory; as for New Atheism, it appears only in the form of Rebecca Watson, hardly the group’s most characteristic member, especially in the context of the cultural politics the book investigates. Similarly absent is Ted Kaczynski and the Unabomber Manifesto, an only semi-ironic lodestar for some. Instead we get things like an offhand paragraph about “kek”, breaking up the rhythm of a section on 4chan’s abusive history, with no help for the normie reader to understand why it’s there, and an out-of-order chronology of Gamergate, emphasizing abusive comments toward women. The result is too narrow to be explanatory and too brusque to be encyclopedic.
What the book does right
Nagle’s at her best as literary critic. The second chapter, on trangression, demonstrates this: she reads 4chan alongside de Sade, Dostoyevsky, Bakhtin, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, and so on. It’s regrettably short, though, only ten pages sandwiched between a political introduction and a chapter on Gramsci. Longer is the book’s fourth chapter, which compares the alt-right with 60s countercultural libertinism, paleoconservatism, and neoconservatism. Nagle cleverly points out the mismatch between alt-right transgressive paleoconservatism and Buchananite religious paleoconservatism, and uses the neoconservative movement as a bit of a bridge: like the alt-right, she says, it featured very intelligent thinkers who took on the useful parts of leftist thought and culture.
Nagle also has strong moments as a literary stylist, telling the story of this or that online imbroglio. Generally the online left comes in for mockery and the online right for more genuine moral outrage. Moments like the growth of the “spoonie” subculture (73) and a white tweeter’s seemingly proud admission that she was “not even sad about a 2yo being eaten by a gator” because of the “white privilege” his father exhibited (75) hit the reader as both tragic and hilarious—one foot inside the online memeplex, one foot outside of it.
Unsurprisingly, Nagle also intelligently develops the fifth chapter’s section on campus controversies. Unlike many leftists, she’s not at all unwilling to entertain the cultural conservatives’ idea that high theory of the sort practiced by Stanley Fish has broad and deleterious social consequences. She uses the term “cultural Marxism” without much complaint and recognizes that the purpose of adopting nomenclature like “left conservative” to describe people like Alan Sokal was simply censorship and expulsion. She even cites the “Real Peer Review” Twitter account.
— New Real Peer Review (@RealPeerReview) July 10, 2017
In the seventh chapter she provides an interesting if counterintuitive perspective on the “snobbishness” of 4chan (102). This is informed by her study of the academic literature on subcultures, including a deep critique of academics’ eagerness to label transgressive or exclusionary subcultures as disruptive to the supposed hegemony of a mass culture (106).
Also good is the book’s avoidance – to an extent – of simple left-versus-right framing. Regarding media sources from Buzzfeed and Jezebel to CNN and The Guardian, Nagle notes that “when the possibility of any kind of economically ‘left’ political force emerged[,] liberal media sources were often the most vicious and oppositional” (42). She is happy to skewer a list of fifty genders and to link it to the academic feminism of Judith Butler. But she doesn’t just mock: she makes strident critiques, not always distant from those of cultural conservatives. “The cult of suffering, weakness, and vulnerability has become central to contemporary liberal identity politics,” she says, going on to mention acts of “self-flagellation” among the putatively privileged (72-3). She returns to this theme in the book’s conclusion, a sorrowful elegy for Mark Fisher, a leftist critic of identity politics, where she inveighs against an “anti-intellectual online movement, which has substituted politics with neuroses” (118). She rejects, too, the notion, popular in some circles, that the alt-right is simply the natural result of mainstream conservative thought. In doing so she shows a rare appreciation for the fact that the other team has as many cliques and subdivisions as her own.
Far as I can tell, Kill All Normies puts forward at least five distinct theses.
– Ch 5. Liberal identity politics online and on college campuses form a “cult of vulnerability”.
– Ch 1. The alt-right formed largely in reaction to the puritanical vindictiveness of this mindset.
– Ch 2-4. The alt-right’s most prominent figures are transgressive ironists in a libertine tradition.
– Ch 6. The driving force of the underbelly of the alt-right is misogyny fueled by sexual failure.
– Ch 7. The alt-right exemplifies countercultures’ capacity to be elitist rather than antihegemonic.
These theses don’t hang together particularly well. Some of them aren’t ever really made clear. The gap between literary analysis and causal analysis is bridged by words like “fester” – everything “festers” in parts of the internet Nagle doesn’t like, it seems – the mechanisms of which are never outlined.
The alt-right as reaction
Nagle’s method is to treat “[e]very bizarre event . . . as a response to a response to a response” (6-7). The online left and online right are at loggerheads, she suggests, so interested in bringing the other side down that they can’t tell when they’re being serious. This dynamic, however, which “fester[s] in the dark corners of the anonymous Internet”, she places in the context of “de-anonymized social media platforms, where most young people now develop their political ideas for the first time,” and which function as a “panopticon” whose “public shaming” and “ultra puritanism” “could ruin your reputation, your job or your life” (7). From a leftist one might hope for some thoughts about the tech industry, about economic insecurity and the financial crisis, or about the loss of dignity that accompanies the loss of privacy under corporate and government surveillance; these are not merely potential causal factors, but political concerns that the online left and the online right share.
Perhaps Nagle’s materialism is merely aspirational and not analytic. For the basic “response” she seems to see is merely the reactionary impulse. “The irreverent trolling style associated with 4chan,” we learn, “grew in popularity in response to the expanding identity politics of more feminine spaces like Tumblr [and] in the ramping up of campus politics around safe spaces and trigger warnings, ‘gamergate’ and many other battles” (18). Similarly, “the new right-wing sensibility online today” “defines itself against” a “liberal establishment” (28). Is the only objection Nagle’s old-school Marxism can give against the left-liberal cultural politics she describes that they might not win? That’s a strategic difference, not an ideological or intellectual one.
Even if it is a reaction, Nagle has little sense of scope. “Today,” she tells us, “the movement that has been most remarkably successful at changing the culture rather than the formal politics is the alt-light” (40). Later she admits that, at least until Trump, “liberals had been resoundingly winning” the culture wars (53). But she does little to measure those victories or to characterize the processes behind them. Obergefell came only thirteen years after Lawrence, only thirty after Bowers. In those three decades came a complete shift in cultural attitudes toward homosexuality. American culture has, in fact, liberalized – if that’s the right word – with incredible rapidity. There is little debate about Wonder Woman; the debate is instead about whether screenings should be able to exclude men. There is little debate about affirmative action; the debate is instead about whether the ubiquity of microaggressions justifies minority students’ claims that their lives are in constant danger on Ivy League campuses. Nagle claims “call-out culture” and “puritanism” are the causes of the alt-right reaction. But this seems unlikely to me; those are most salient for fellow leftists, not for dissenters.
Here’s an example: “[A]lt-light celebrities like Milo built careers from exposing the absurdities of the kind of Tumblr identity politics that had gone mainstream through listicle sites like Buzzfeed and anti-free speech campus safe space politics” (44). But Milo and his ilk didn’t really spend much of their time on otherkin. Instead, two of the central targets of Milo, Christina Hoff Sommers, and similar figures, were actually integral pieces of Democratic politics: first, the notion of a pay gap between men and women that resulted from discrimination; second, the notion of a rape culture on college campuses that led to a quarter of female undergraduates being assaulted.
Both of these ideas were promulgated not only by Hillary Clinton and surrogates as a candidate but by Barack Obama as President – the second, famously, in an advisory letter threatening to withdraw funding if universities did not weaken due process protections in their adjudicatory procedures. By the way, Nagle similarly miscalculates when it comes to Milo, whose “career is,” she says, “in free fall” compared to “the hard alt-right who . . . are now stronger and more confident than ever” (49). Quite the contrary. Milo’s new book, which is far less deftly rendered than Kill All Normies, was a #1 bestseller on Amazon. Spencer, on the other hand, never draws a crowd of more than the same couple hundred supporters.
If you ask alt-righters themselves, they’ll give you an answer like: “What radicalized me was how, despite winning every cultural battle, the left insisted on demonizing and threatening me and mine.” When it comes to race, for instance, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education takes on two broad kinds of censorship cases. First, conservative professors are protested, are threatened, and face institutional backlash for saying they disagree with the goals of Black Lives Matter, or something similar. Second, liberal professors face institutional backlash – generally without protests or threats – for saying, e.g., that white people might need to die in order to achieve racial justice. There is simply no comparison between the two. The most common example cited is mainstream discourse on demographic change. Two years ago, Joe Biden, a white working-class figure if ever there was one, gave a speech about how good it was that whites were projected to become an absolute minority this year. Even someone who supports open borders, criminal justice reform, reparations, disparate impact jurisprudence, and whatever else is required for allyship – even someone like that could be forgiven for asking: Why good, if we’re egalitarians? Why not neutral? Why would my political leaders, my academics, my journalists be so glad to see me gone? And why based on race, which I’ve been told my whole life is an invidious classification? As Connor Kilpatrick of the book’s own jacket tweeted last month:
*looks at alt-right board for 1st time*
getting white kids to think about their whiteness & not their class position has backfired horribly
— Connor Kilpatrick (@ckilpatrick) June 16, 2017
There is another form of reaction Nagle fails to emphasize and that’s epistemic and intellectual reaction. She acknowledges that Milo’s protesters “not only wouldn’t” be able to argue coherently against him “but also . . . couldn’t” (118). She would have done well to remember an episode from the Trump campaign, where our now-President tweeted out some horribly, absurdly reversed crime statistics sorted by race. The media response was swift and condemnatory, but Trump shot back, asking something like: See what I have to do to make them tell the truth? Steve Sailer, who was an alt-right blogger arguably a decade before the alt-right even existed, recently tweeted about a Bay Area Rapid Transit decision not to release footage of on-train crimes because they might result in various kinds of bias incidents. Academics and journalists are happy to recite koans about the death of objectivity, but to the average citizen things like this look like not-so-noble lies:
CBS in SF: "BART Withholding Surveillance Videos of Crime to Avoid 'Stereotypes'"
— Steve Sailer (@Steve_Sailer) July 11, 2017
Online sex and gender politics
Nagle writes: “What we now call the alt-right is really [a] collection of lots of separate tendencies that grew semi-independently but which were joined under the banner of a bursting forth of anti-PC cultural politics through the culture wars of recent years” (18). (Note the confused diction: “the banner of a bursting forth”, “cultural politics through the culture wars”.) But one tendency clearly concerns Nagle the most: misogyny. Stories of harassment of women, which are emotionally rendered and generate genuine disgust in the reader, dominate many of the book’s pages. At the same time, the fifth chapter takes gender fluidity as the leitmotif of the “cult of vulnerability” of the Tumblr-left, in which “liberals don’t believe in actual politics anymore, just ‘bearing witness to suffering’” (69, 72). It is hard to reconcile this critique with the book’s focus on transcriptions of the testimony of suffering women.
Nagle devotes her sixth chapter to the “manosphere”, which she also calls “the anti-feminist Internet” (92). Grouping together a lot of disagreeing cliques into an “anti-feminist Internet” is convenient if one’s thesis is that the online right is reactive and that its most salient trait is misogyny. But the portrait Nagle paints of this misogynistic bloc is very different from the one she painted of the alt-right generally. The misogynists, we see, are terrifyingly earnest in their beliefs, not particularly ironic or memetic, and apt to self-pwn in their descriptions of sexual or romantic failure. Indeed, Nagle comes close to empathy in discussing involuntary celibacy, “the pain of relentless rejection,” and “the cruel natural hierarchies that bring [some men] so much humiliation” (97). A reddit post from an “involuntary celibate” is relayed: “I spent 4 hours just staring at the wall in my room. What normies call an existential crisis, for the incel is simply… life” (97).
It is somewhat bemusing, then, that we see this group ultimately linked to the transgressive ironists and “underbelly” of the alt-right. They seem instead to share almost everything with the “cult of vulnerability” from Tumblr, right down to the failure to meet gendered expectations. Incel communities have their own puritanical call-out culture, too, exemplified by the ouster by Wizardchan members of a former owner when it was discovered that he had lost his virginity. Nagle traces a complex and frankly doubtful genealogy in which “[t]he negative association of femininity and mass culture goes back . . . to Madame Bovary” (113). Is this supposed to be a serious claim? Things would have gone much better if the manosphere’s fear of intrusion and contamination were compared to the “safe spaces” already discussed – as its members explicitly do.
It’s not quite clear what Nagle’s take is on these kinds of pain that “fester” on Tumblr and subreddits and chans. Does she think they’re real deprivations? Imagined? Self-inflicted? Are they a natural and necessary part of a sexual marketplace or something similar? The answer is going to be really important to our view of the online communities she’s talking about: whether they’re hurting their own members, who then lash out at each other and at perceived enemies, or whether they’re acknowledging a real and troubling aspect of society.
Some thinking about normies would have been beneficial here, too. Advocates or not, willingly or not, men are going their own way. Sex is down among millennials. Graduation rates are down among men. Women in their twenties earn more than men in their twenties even controlling for occupation. Most telling of all, an unprecedented number of young men have simply checked out of the workforce; anime, video games, and pornography provide most of their daily activities. Are such men particularly politically active online, compared to other groups? What proportion of the alt-right do they comprise? Nagle doesn’t really tell us. I’m not sure she really knows.
As striking as the book’s emphasis on sex and gender is its lack of coverage of race. In fact, Nagle goes out of her way to insert sex and gender where just race would be more appropriate, for example, when she talks about the conservative goal of “defeating feminism, Islamification, mass immigration and so on” (59). During the rise of the alt-right, the president was Barack Obama; the dominant leftist protest movement was Black Lives Matter; and Donald Trump ran on a platform of law and order, building a border wall, and limiting immigration from the Middle East. Plenty of alt-righters are “traditionalists” with spouses and children. Locating alt-right activism within involuntary celibacy just doesn’t quite fly when all these facts are considered. Anti-Semitism does come in for a short mention when it comes to the abuse David French of the National Review faced for writing an anti-Trump piece (118). But of course left-wing anti-Semitism doesn’t come up. A search for “Israel” comes up empty. So do searches for “Saudi”, “Yemen”, “Libya”, and “Syria”, as well as “Venezuela” and “Colombia”. “Mexico” comes up once, but in a quotation, not in the text.
Also absent from the book is a discussion of political violence. There is a brief mention of the first Berkeley riots and of Richard Spencer being punched, but no real thought is given to it. Worse, she is far too lenient there with her part of the left. She writes that “a purely identitarian self-oriented progressivism” led to “the very idea of winning people over through ideas now seem[ing] to anguish, offend and enrage this tragically stupefied shadow of the great movements of the left” (119). But the average dirtbag new-old-leftist at Jacobin or The Baffler or wherever is exactly the sort of person who will repeat right back to you, “Sure, fight Nazis with ideas.” Mockingly, of course, while quoting dril tweets like scripture. Emmett Rensin wrote about “the problem and promise of political violence” in Foreign Policy, suggesting that such violence needs neither a moral nor a tactical or strategic justification. In these kinds of leftist circles what’s most often disparaged as “liberal” is the belief that civil discourse based on some set of shared norms can effect any kind of political outcome.
Similarly, Nagle never extends her critique of transgression for transgression’s sake to left ironists like the ones who are quoted on the book’s jacket, who edit the magazines in which her articles appear, and who host the podcasts where she’s interviewed. Just as the sad incels she describes match up with the Tumblr left, so do the left ironists she identifies with match up with the alt-light, and the more violent antifa with the “darker” parts of the alt-right. Gawker never comes up, neither in the context of snark nor in the context of its demolition in court. The book is similarly quiet on the relationship between the leftist academy and alt-right thought. It mentions only briefly Nick Land and the fact that Richard Spencer was working on a doctorate on Adorno. Also relevant here would be a discussion of Jason Reza Jorjani, a graduate of a well-regarded continental philosophy program at Stony Brook. The most general point is that the most prominent analyses from the postmodern academy present a world of pure identitarian conflict with no guiding morality and an excitement around overturning social structures and norms. It is therefore not surprising but actually quite natural that it would help to produce the alt-right.
Perhaps what’s most achingly missing is any sense that these similar tropes and tactics from different groups might have similar causes, or even better, that members of the different groups might be feeling similar things, might have had similar experiences. After all, the alt-right is classically anti-interventionist and often anti-corporate. Those are points of overlap with leftists. And they come from the two biggest events Americans of our generation went through growing up: the Iraq War and the Great Recession. Kill All Normies traces elaborate genealogies for various groups of online leftists and rightists. This makes for clever literary criticism, but the question of history and politics remains: Why now? What’s going on? And where might we find some common ground?