The Revolution Will Be Memed

Now, one is almost more inclined to hope that the online world can contain rather than further enable the festering undergrowth of dehumanizing reactionary online politics now edging closer to the mainstream but unthinkable in the public arena just a few short years ago.

Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies (Zero Books) is a few different things rolled into one. It's a primer on the rise of the alt-right, and the hateful fever swamps from which they've crawled. It's a not-always-successful critique of a politically-correct, identity-politic-obsessed left who helped to create the conditions for the alt-right. It's a thorough, and fascinating (if horrifying) examination of the utter toxicity found in social media and message board culture. Finally, and maybe most importantly, it's a call to action that challenges us to consider our own role in creating this beast, with, depressingly, very few suggestions on how we might kill it.

Nagle's well-researched book takes us through the darkest corners of the internet; examining how Something Awful, then Reddit, then 4Chan, then 8Chan helped to incubate a sense of anonymous transgression and nihilism that permeates so much of our online world today, and how provocateurs and lightweight "intellectuals" like Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer fashioned themselves into a new breed of right wing, less concerned with limited government or tax cuts, and more concerned with winning the culture war - or, at the very least, creating a scorched earth battlefield which no one can win. Her book spends a great deal of time unpacking and examining the ways in which an initially leftist/libertarian ideology that animated the early internet became untethered from traditional moral or ethical concepts, and took on an almost apolitical nihilism that, in the last several years, has been welded to the growing "Men's Rights" movements fostered on Reddit and throughout other blogs on the topic. 

Misattribution By Degree

If there's anywhere the book stumbles, I think it's in assigning blame and contributing factors to the rise of the alt-right, but I think these are errors of degree, not of kind. In Chapter 3, Nagle posits that:

And yet, at the end of 2016 it was the candidate of the right, Donald Trump, who was elected President of the United States despite all mainstream news agencies, including conservative media from Fox News to National Review, working openly against him.

This is a common, but incorrect assumption that's often repeated about the 2016 election. Nagle is correct that the National Review (and some other conservative media sources) were openly against Donald Trump. But this wasn't uniform on the right; once Trump captured the nomination, by and large, the Republican Party and right-leaning media sources aligned behind him, albeit unhappily. As his Presidency passes the 1-year mark, Trump has only solidified all but the most strident "Never Trump" right-wing beyond him, building an alliance of blue collar whites, evangelical whites, and plutocratic billionaires who all see an opportunity to punish their enemies, air their grievances and line their pockets under his malicious rule. Even the majority of "Never Trump" Republicans couldn't bear to bring themselves to the obvious conclusion, which is that preventing a Donald Trump election required that they endorse and support Hillary Clinton, the only person who had a chance at beating him. One of the biggest stories of the 2016 election was just how much the right-wing hated (and has always hated) Hillary Clinton - so much so, that they'd see their ideological views torn to shreds within their party, rather than endorse their perennial, lifelong enemy. 

Later in the chapter, when discussing the rise of Breitbart and in discussing a wide-ranging interview with Steve Bannon at the Vatican turned up by Buzzfeed, Nagle asserts:

Contrary to what Buzzfeed may have intended, it revealed a thinker who could not be further from the neoconservative or neoliberal establishments within the two major US parties, but instead, an anti-establishment figure with ambitious ideas.

While "ambitious ideas" certainly is accurate when describing Steve Bannon, Bannon's entire philosophy is a mishmash of cobbled-together concepts that he frequently seems to misunderstand or has misinterpreted. Bannon is a great many things, and he's certainly an interesting thinker, but this lionization of him as some kind of populist intellectual bomb-thrower wildly overstates the actual knowledge he appears to possess, or at least appears to publicly discuss. As Jamelle Bouie writes in a Slate article from September, 2017:

Bannon’s carefully cultivated reputation obscures the truth. Far from being a mastermind or a “street fighter,” he is simply a provocateur, skilled at manipulating and exploiting prejudice—hence his success with Breitbart—but unable to do much else.

Further, Nagle perpetuates Bannon's "outsider" reputation with regard to the mainstream media, while failing to mention Bannon's adept and adroit manipulation of the New York Times, meticulously and fantastically detailed in Joshua Green's excellent Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency. Bannon may be somewhat of an outsider, but he's been a persistent figure on the right going back three decades, and Breitbart and the mainstream media's relationship is far more symbiotic (or parasitic) than that of an insider and an outsider. Bannon expertly exploited the New York Times' (and other mainstream sources) journalistic impulses and desires to tell "both sides" of the 2016 election in ways that did significant harm to Hillary Clinton. Bannon's reputation may now be in disarray when it comes to mainstream media sources, but the story of the 2016 campaign is much more complex than that of an outsider versus an insider. 

Nagle also spends a great deal of time pillorying Tumblr and the world of "social justice warriors", "otherkins", etc., in a way that, I think, overestimates the influence of these marginal groups and underestimates simple misogyny, though, elsewhere, Nagle does a very good job underlining how much of the latter contributes to our current predicament. 

Overall, though, Kill All Normies is a very smart, quick read that accurately and fearlessly tries to confront the toxic sludge that permeates our online discourse, and asks us to confront some tough, challenging questions about what each of us did to get us to this point. The book frustratingly (but understandably) leaves us on our own to find a way out.