Editors' pickPoliticsUSA

How the grotesque online culture wars fuel populism

Excerpt from “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right” by Angela Nagle (Zero Books, 2018)

In the lead-up to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 his message of hope was publicly, and with great earnestness, shared by vast numbers of liberals online, eager to show their love for the first black president, ecstatic to be part of what felt like a positive mass-cultural moment. After George W. Bush, who had waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and embarrassed educated people with his Southern style, his regular gaffs and ‘Bushisms’, the feeling of shame among US liberals was captured by books like Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men.

In stark contrast Obama was articulate, sophisticated, erudite and cosmopolitan. In the media spectacle of his election Oprah cried, Beyoncé sang and crowds of young, adoring fans rejoiced. Even some of the icy hearts of those significantly to the left of the Democratic Party were temporarily melted in what felt like a mass outpouring of positivity and hope, an egalitarian dream realized.

Hillary Clinton tried to repeat this formula in 2016 by dancing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, drafting in Beyoncé once again, assuring listeners of her penchant for hot sauce and attracting feminist celebrities like Lena Dunham with the ‘I’m With Her’ slogan. However, instead, she became a source of comedy and ridicule among large online audiences from right across the political spectrum. When she solemnly condemned a new Internet age right-wing movement as part of Trump’s ‘basket of deplorables’, the massed online ranks of the target of her comments collectively erupted in memes, mockery and celebration.

How did we get from those earnest hopeful days broadcast across the media mainstream to where we are now? This book covers this period from the perspective of Internet culture and subcultures, tracing the online culture wars that have raged on below the line and below the radar of mainstream media throughout the period over feminism, sexuality, gender identity, racism, free speech and political correctness. This was unlike the culture wars of the 60s or the 90s, in which a typically older age cohort of moral and cultural conservatives fought against a tide of cultural secularization and liberalism among the young. This online backlash was able to mobilize a strange vanguard of teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers and meme-making trolls whose dark humour and love of transgression for its own sake made it hard to know what political views were genuinely held and what were merely, as they used to say, for the lulz. What seemed to hold them all together in their obscurity was a love of mocking the earnestness and moral self-flattery of what felt like a tired liberal intellectual conformity running right through from establishment liberal politics to the more militant enforcers of new sensitivities from the wackiest corners of Tumblr to campus politics.

Through this period we can also see the death of what remained of a mass culture sensibility, in which there was still a mainstream media arena and a mainstream sense of culture and the public. The triumph of the Trumpians was also a win in the war against this mainstream media, which is now held in contempt by many average voters and the weird irony laden Internet subcultures from right and left, who equally set themselves apart from this hated mainstream. It is a career disaster now to signal your left-behind cluelessness as a basic bitch, a normie or a member of the corrupt media mainstream in any way. Instead, we see online the emergence of a new kind of anti-establishment sensibility expressing itself in the kind of DIY culture of memes and user-generated content that cyberutopian true believers have evangelized about for many years but had not imagined taking on this particular political form.

Compare the first election won by Obama, in which social media devotees reproduced the iconic but official blue-and-red stylized stencil portrait of the new president with HOPE printed across the bottom, a portrait created by artist Shepard Fairey and approved by the official Obama campaign, to the bursting forth of irreverent mainstream-baffling meme culture during the last race, in which the Bernie’s Dank Meme Stash Facebook page and The Donald subreddit defined the tone of the race for a young and newly politicized generation, with the mainstream media desperately trying to catch up with a subcultural in-joke style to suit two emergent anti-establishment waves of the right and left.

Writers like Manuel Castells and numerous commentators in the Wired magazine milieu told us of the coming of a networked society, in which old hierarchical models of business and culture would be replaced by the wisdom of crowds, the swarm, the hive mind, citizen journalism and user-generated content. They got their wish, but it’s not quite the utopian vision they were hoping for.

As old media dies, gatekeepers of cultural sensibilities and etiquette have been overthrown, notions of popular taste maintained by a small creative class are now perpetually outpaced by viral online content from obscure sources, and culture industry consumers have been replaced by constantly online, instant content producers. The year 2016 may be remembered as the year the media mainstream’s hold over formal politics died. A thousand Trump Pepe memes bloomed and a strongman larger-than-life Twitter troll who showed open hostility to the mainstream media and to both party establishments took the White House without them.

[…]

The once obscure call-out culture of the left emanating from Tumblr-style campus-based identity politics reached its peak during this period, in which everything from eating noodles to reading Shakespeare was declared ‘problematic’, and even the most mundane acts ‘misogynist’ and ‘white supremacist’. While taboo and anti-moral ideologies festered in the dark corners of the anonymous Internet, the de-anonymized social media platforms, where most young people now develop their political ideas for the first time, became a panopticon, in which people lived in fear of observation from the eagle eye of an offended organizer of public mass shaming. At the height of its power, the dreaded call-out, no matter how minor the transgression or how well intentioned the transgressor, could ruin your reputation, your job or your life. The particular incarnations of the online left and right that exist today are undoubtedly a product of this strange period of ultra puritanism. These obscure online political beginnings became formative for a whole generation, and impacted mainstream sensibilities and even language.

The hysterical liberal call-out produced a breeding ground for an online backlash of irreverent mockery and anti-PC, typified by charismatic figures like Milo [Yiannopoulos]. But after crying wolf throughout these years, calling everyone from saccharine pop stars to Justin Trudeau a ‘white supremacist’ and everyone who wasn’t With Her a sexist, the real wolf eventually arrived, in the form of the openly white nationalist alt-right who hid among an online army of ironic in-jokey trolls. When this happened, nobody knew who to take literally anymore, including many of those in the middle of this new online right themselves. The alt-light figures that became celebrities during this period made their careers exposing the absurdities of online identity politics and the culture of lightly thrown claims of misogyny, racism, ableism, fatphobia, transphobia and so on. However, offline, only one side saw their guy take the office of US president and only one side has in their midst faux-ironic Sieg Heil saluting, open white segregationists and genuinely hate-filled, occasionally murderous, misogynists and racists.

Before the overtly racist alt-right were widely known, the more mainstream alt-light largely flattered it, gave it glowing write-ups in Breitbart and elsewhere, had its spokespeople on their YouTube shows and promoted them on social media. Nevertheless, when Milo’s sudden career implosion happened later they didn’t return the favor, which I think may be setting a precedent for a future in which the playfully transgressive alt-light unwittingly play the useful idiots for those with much more serious political aims. If this dark, anti-Semitic, race segregationist ideology grows in the coming years, with their vision of the future that would necessitate violence, those who made the right attractive will have to take responsibility for having played their role.

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Excerpted from Kill All the Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right. Copyright © 2018 by Angela Nagle. Used with permission of Zero Books, Winchester, UK. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in the Open Future section of The Economist on August 3rd 2018. Read more about Open Future, The Economist’s global conversation on markets, technology and freedom in the 21st century.

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