After Conservatism, Sadists and Lost Boys

Review: 'Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right,' by Angela Nagle

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• July 16, 2017 5:00 am


In Kill All Normies Angela Nagle has done us all a service at what one must imagine is great psychological cost, surveying the dampest and most deranged corners of the internet. It seems self abuse surpassed in scale only by the onanism of her subjects.

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right is a much needed book, though for lack of editing not a particularly good book as such. Nagle is an insightful analyst, and the Irish writer has documented the internet's final breaking of the anglophonic world's brain, beginning with the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. From that "leaderless digital counter-revolution," Nagle traces a meandering history up to the appalling present of life online, the latest theater in a long culture war.

Two of Nagle's topics stand out, the origins of a self-conscious internet right in "Gamergate" and the sterile politics of performative transgression. Both of these, and really all of the intersecting subjects of this book, Nagle demonstrates, are rooted in responses to the sexual revolution.

"Gamergate" describes the Japan-inspired, porn-fueled, anonymous message board 4chan's first major foray into the public consciousness. With a rallying cry calling for "ethics in gaming journalism" young men putrefying in their own filth harassed—in a manner too obscene to detail here—women who had the gall to not only write about video games but to express concerns about misogyny in that community. The threat of feminist influence on gaming and game culture was treated as existential, and was responded to with promises of sexual violence.

"Gamergate brought gamers, rightist chan culture, anti-feminism, and the online far right closer to mainstream discussion and it also politicized a broad group of young people, mostly boys, who organized tactics around the idea of fighting back against the culture war being waged by the political left," Nagle writes.

It was the faceoff that launched a thousand digital ships, including the career of Milo Yiannopoulos. Nagle, who is a remarkably sympathetic and intellectually charitable observer, writes of Gamergate's participants:

"Ultimately, the gamergaters were correct in their perception that a revived feminist movement was trying to change the culture and this was the front, their beloved games, that they chose to fight back on. The battle has since moved on to different issues with increasingly higher stakes, but this was the galvanizing issue that drew up the battle lines of the culture wars for a younger online generation."

While Nagle does not attempt further explanation of Gamergate's causes, contenting herself with accounting for its consequences, the question why young men might indulge in such inhuman extremes is worth a brief examination.

Books such as Putnam's Bowling Alone and Nisbet's The Quest for Community have detailed the advancing loss of the vital intermediary institutions between a citizen and state. Paired with declining male employment and the age of computers, is it any wonder that the decline of these predominantly male social spaces—fraternal organizations, clubs, unions, and even bowling leagues—should lead to men seeking to make spaces for themselves online?

In the uncivilized chaos of contemporary society, video games and online subcultures—which all have esoteric and enforced bywords and bylaws—provide a sense of order and belonging not found elsewhere. The crisis of masculinity is a civilizational one; many young men cannot fit into the civilization in which they find themselves, and they have retreated to the internet to build a virtual one. In a world where little seems controllable and people feel caught in the current and eddies of economic and social forces, video games and life online are a simulacrum of self-determination and individual responsibility.

Briefly surveying the 60s counterculture and America's culture war as waged by Pat Buchanan, Nagle argues convincingly that the liberal left has ceded Gramscian and critical theory's tactics to the alt-right—a term she uses as a bigger tent than Richard Spencer would like it to be—trading Marxianism for Judith Butler. She contends, further, that the alt-right's oft-feuding coalition has abandoned conservatism's traditional foundations for the writings of Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade:

"The Sadean transgressive element of the 60s, condemned by conservatives for decades as the very heart of the destruction of civilization, the degenerate and the nihilistic, is not being challenged by the emergence of this new online right. Instead, the emergence of this new online right is the full coming to fruition of the transgressive anti-moral style, its final detachment from an egalitarian philosophy of the left or Christian morality of the right."

Sex and power are inseparable for both this online left and online right in a strange codependency. For the male-dominated rightist subcultures—especially and explicitly in what is called the "manosphere"—the idea of, desire for, and act of sex becomes the primary currency of power and status.

Meanwhile, as Nagle explains, in feminized spaces like Tumblr and the contemporary education system an economy of victimization has been created through intersectional theory. Here, limitless self-defined gender identities (e.g. "Omnigay – Genderfluid, with one's attraction to other genders changing with one's gender, so that the individual is always attracted to the same gender) allow bourgeois white kids, who would not normally have currency to spend in such a market, to compete with minorities and the poor through marginalized sexuality.

Nagle observes that contemporary reactionaries are driven to using the trolling tactics of online life by Tumblr-liberalism's victim fetish. For those of this alt-right who claim a modicum of conservatism, trolling is a paradoxical attempt to protect the interior of the Overton Window by smashing its frame. And for all trolls it is a gleeful display of the "if you are going to cry I will give you something to cry about" mindset. Comparative disadvantage, safespaces, trolls, harassment, antifa, and the rest work together to create a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nagle, who describes herself as a "French revolution hipster" on Twitter, and would prefer the left focused on economic and material systems, has no patience for this cycle. Writing of Yiannopoulos's much-disrupted college tour:

"When Milo challenged his protesters to argue with him countless times on his tour, he knew that they not only wouldn't, but also that they couldn't. They come from an utterly intellectually shut-down world of Tumblr and trigger warnings, and the purging of dissent in which they have only learned to recite jargon."

As a religious conservative, I appreciate Nagle's observations of the alt-right's abandonment of conservatism's priors. And as just illustrated, she has much to say, and critically, about the left in Kill All Normies, as well as in her essays and interviews. I've enjoyed reading and listening to Nagle since last year, when she began writing for the Baffler and other American leftist publications. Her project is worth paying attention to. It is unfortunate then, that Kill All Normies suffers from what—to be charitable to its author—we shall call a truly calamitous and utterly woeful lack of editing, which has left it messy, often disjointed, and riddled with typos and formatting errors, and the reader disappointed, often perplexed, and bewildered by how variable the writing is.

Kill All Normies is a short book, however—only 120 pages—and with an attentive editor and expansion in light of ongoing developments a fruitful second edition could be produced. This investigation, considering the abuse anonymous wretches are surely subjecting Nagle to, was a courageous one, and I hope it continues.

Published under: Book reviews