After the culture wars of Western politics went online and were appropriated by Millennials, something strange happened. You could see it when Jeopardy! champion and Twitter personality Arthur Chu surveyed the phenomenon of young men pushing against the influence of feminist criticism on their entertainment and declared, “As a dude who cares about feminism sometimes I want to join all men arm-in-arm & then run off a cliff and drag the whole gender into the sea.” Those on the left side of these wars claimed to be victims as individuals even though, as a collective, they were capable of bullying people out of their jobs and harassing them to to the point of suicide. Taught by self-esteem con artists and children’s media that everyone is special in their own way, this generation in turn taught itself that everyone is oppressed in their own way.
It is partly such a mindset that Angela Nagle, in her new book Kill All Normies, says the multifarious alt-right is defining itself against. Nagle’s delightfully short treatment of this movement is stuffed with charming asides, the most endearing of which asserts her openness to the possibility that her tour through the “ironical in-jokey maze of meaning” created by the right-wing activists may document nothing more than a strange and passing moment.
Nagle’s definition of the alt-right phenomenon is helpfully expansive. For her, the movement is broader than white nationalists such as Richard Spencer. It encompasses the larger constellation of right-wing-populist, new-media phenoms such as Milo Yiannopolous and Lauren Southern, as well as neo-Reactionary thinkers such as Nick Land and “Mencius Moldbug.” And its culture was fed by the transgressive message boards of 4chan, the strange pickup-artist scene, and “South Park conservatives.”
Nagle has many arch observations. This right wing learns quickly from the online Left and imitates or parodies its tactics. The movement’s transgressive performances are a way of effecting its “final detachment from any egalitarian philosophy of the left or Christian morality of the right.” And its commitment to itself as a vanguard means it has rejected Buckleyite conservatives’ belief that “the masses were their naturally traditionalist allies.” (“If one imagines where Milo would line up politically in terms of the infamous William F. Buckley v. Gore Vidal televised presidential debates of 1968,” Nagle writes at one point, “It would probably be closer to that of Vidal, whose libertinism and mischievous gay rhetorical style was so abhorrent to Buckley.”)
Kill All Normies is just as sharp, and perhaps twice as cutting, when it observes the young online Left. At points, Nagle dances close to suggesting that the Left brought this on itself: “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.”
Nagle quotes Marxist critic Mark Fischer’s observation that the online Left is “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.” She then adds that the witch-hunting tactics that shame people into silence have the effect of creating social and economic “scarcity” in an online world where virtue is treated as currency. If everyone has value in this medium of exchange, then the only way to accrue more yourself is to burn a few friends.
This right wing learns quickly from the online Left and imitates or parodies its tactics.
Even though I appreciated the brevity of Nagle’s book, I did want a little more. We know what Nagle thinks of the role the young online Left had in summoning this beast. We know less about the role that people in real positions of authority in education, media, and even organized religion played in the same accident. The style of counterculture may be superficial, but it exercises a powerful hold on the imagination of those that enter it and those that oppose it. Although nobody was planning it, the messages extant in the culture said that you had to be a rebel to be truly authentic, while to be good you had to conform to ever-more elaborate norms defined by a new class of campus deans and human-resource administrators. Every culture has its contradictions, but this was bound to bewilder people; unsurprisingly, many of them decided it was better to be real and bad than tame and good.
Kill All Normies focuses on what’s happening online, but looking at this culture of young people sharing transgressive images on 4chan and “beta males” paying money to pickup artists — this culture that occasionally leads its adherents to racialist ideology — I wonder about what’s happening offline.
Nagle’s book mentions the figure of Canadian professor Jordan B. Peterson, who has become something like a surrogate father figure to many in the constellation of the alt-right and beyond it. Peterson came to prominence after opposing a new Canadian law that concerned the use of novel, ideological pronouns like “xir.” But for those who watch his YouTube videos, he’s built almost a portal to taking responsibility for yourself, feeling like an adult, and even entering the life of the mind. His advice begins with the encouragement to “clean up your room.”
In the way it acts out to get attention, in the way it tries to shock people, and even in its ideological promiscuity, the alt-right gives me the strong impression of being a movement of orphans. They’re on the Internet all the time. Who abandoned them IRL?
— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.