It’s bad and it matters: the problem with “Kill All Normies”

Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies has been featured broadly on the internet as an authoritative explanation for the rise of the alt-right. Nagle has been interviewed on podcasts, in Vox, reviewed everywhere from Jacobin and the Baffler (both of which she contributes to) to The New Republic and New York Magazine, and held up as the one person who can explain all these frog-emoji’d, anime-avatared ruffians who threw the election to Donald Trump.

It’s not a very good book, however, and it conceals more than it illuminates.

I have 3 main areas of disagreement with it, which I’ll cover below. First, I’d like to take a moment to introduce Nagle’s argument, and explain some of the context for why I think getting this correct matters to the future of the left.

What does Kill All Normies think about the alt-right and why should I care?

Stated briefly, Nagle’s thesis is that the alt-right formed in reaction to the censorious, weaponized identity politics associated with Tumblr and college campuses. Stated less briefly:

Trumpian meme-makers ramped up their taboo-beaking anti-PC style in response ot gender-bending Tumblt users, who themselves became more sensitive, more convinced of the racism, misogyny, and hetero-normative oppression of the world outside their online subcultures. 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 from any cultural mainstream, which scarcely resembles either bleak vision.

(Kill All Normies, page 14)

Right off the bat, we’re dealing with the alt-right specifically in the context of the 2016 election. This is probably unavoidable. What’s notable here, however, is the identification with the tumblr or identitarian left as “Hillary-loyalists.” Elsewhere in the book, Nagle devotes about 4 pages of the not-overly-long book to rehashing the left-liberal infighting that marked the 2016 Democratic primary, writing:

White the alt-right recarded these and the Guardian, the BBC and CNN as the media of ‘the left’, espousing ‘Cultural Marxism’, it became obvious when the possibility of any kind of economically ‘left’ political force emerged that the liberal media sources were often the most vicious and oppositional.

(Kill All Normies, page 47)

That passage is then followed by 4 pages of examples of this divide, and then a page or so of praise for The Young Turks, Jacobin, and Chapo Trap House, for providing “a platform to the left critics of the liberal Hillary-supporting center left.” Taken along with the specific critiques the book offers of “tumblr-liberalism,” the reader can see that it’s not merely an account of a right-wing movement, but also a salvo in an intra-left argument. For this reason, it’s worth taking the book’s defects seriously. Kill All Normies has major blind spots in its understanding of the current right-wing moment, especially as relates to racism and white nationalism, fundamentally misunderstands that foundational events of what would come to be known as the alt-right, and therefore cannot propose a program to oppose it.

Believe people when they tell you who they are

The greatest weakness, by far, of Kill All Normies is its treatment of race, racism, and white supremacy. There is a bloodlessness to it’s descriptions of individual figures on the alt-right. Andrew Aurenheimer, the hacker-turned-Nazi-spokesman, is described as a “troll” with an interest in keeping the internet weird, his swastika tattoo mentioned only in passing. Peter Brimelow and John Derbyshire, vicious racists who represent the continuity of the pre-internet and twitter-era far right, are described simply as “right-wing voices that claim to have been purged from the conservative movement.” Richard Spencer, the man who popularized the term “alt-right” as an ass-covering way of saying “white nationalist” and was famously punched in the face by an antifascist, is mentioned in the context of his spat with Milo, and then again in Nagle’s round up of “alt-right Gramscians” as the only “strictly alt-right figure to rival the popularity and mainstream media attention of the alt-light.” Indeed, this willingness to accept the alt-light and alt-right as distinct groupings, rather than labels of convenience or artifacts of right-wing infighting, typifies the gentle touch with which Nagle treats them.

Indeed, there is no extended discussion of racism or white nationalism in Kill All Normies. The Black Lives Matter movement is mentioned twice in the context of the shooting of 5 protestors at the BLM-organized protest in Minneapolis by shooters associated with the alt-right (the shooting was dedicated to /pol/ and /k/, the sections of 4chan dedicated to discussing politics and weapons, respectively), and twice in the context of Milo Yiannopoulos’ transgressive affect. Immigration similarly gets short shrift. While it is mentioned in quotes from alt-right figures, and briefly in a discussion of the “manosphere,” it is treated as secondary to the internal, mental or behavioral motivations of the alt-right.

It seems somewhere between inexplicable and irresponsible to write a book about a Trump-supporting, trans-national right-wing movement, focused as it is in racial purity, and spend so little time discussing the white nationalism inherent in it. Spencer’s support for Trump’s immigration crackdown is mentioned, as is his desire for “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” but these are just dropped as Nagle focuses on the aesthetics of transgression.

Gamergate and the prehistory of the alt-right

There’s a good case to be made, although it’s too long to fit in here, that 2014 is the key to understanding much of our current political divide. Gamergate is one clue from that summer which can illuminate our predicament. Nagle’s retelling of it, however, misses some key points.

First, the description of the state of online harassment before gamergate is concise and accurate, which should come as no surprise as this was the topic of Nagle’s dissertation. The description starts to lose value when we move in to the events of gamergate itself, starting with Nagle’s description of Zoe Quinn. In order to maintain the book’s stance that the online right is ever and only reacting to the online left, the description of Quinn must be tied back in to the hated tumblr-liberalism. It is certainly worth quoting at some length:

“Gamergate itself kicked off when Zoe Quinn created a video game called Depression Quest, which even to a nongamer like me looked like a terrible game featuring many of the fragility and mental illness-fetishizing characteristics of the kind of feminism that has emerged online in recent years. It was the kind of game, about depression, that would have worked as a perfect parody of everything the gamergaters hated about SJWs (social justice warriors).

Nevertheless, her dreadful game got positive reviews from politically sympathetic indie games journalists, which turned into a kind of catalyst for the whole gamergate saga. It was understood to be either a war over ethics in games journalism or an excuse to attack feminists and women entering the gamer world, depending on whom you ask. First, let me be clear on my own position on gaming. If you’re an adult, I think you should be investing your emotional energies elsewhere. And that includes feminist gaming, which has always struck me as being about as appealing as feminist porn; in other words, not at all. However, anyone with some grasp on the basic norms of human conduct will still be able to see why the fallout was utterly unhinged based on Quinn’s bad game, other cases of allegedly biased reviews and what was no doubt an ideological project to change gaming to make some of it more feminist-friendly. It became possible the biggest flame war in the history of the Internet so far, in which everyone accused everyone else of lying and malicious intent.

(Kill All Normies, p. 27-28, emphasis mine throughout)

This is yet another example of Nagle taking the most charitable view of the online right. Taking the rise of indie games and some mild criticism of sexism in video games as “an ideological project to change gaming” is essentially reproducing the justifications for the doxxing, swatting, and numerous other cases of less immediately-dangerous online harassment that marked that summer. An alert reader will also note the unironic claim that the affair could be seen as about ethics in video game journalism, rather than that being a threadbare excuse for boundary policing. In order for the events of 2014 and beyond to fit Nagle’s thesis, it cannot be the case that a vengeful ex-boyfriend weaponized an already existing online subculture, or that members of the online far-right saw a golden opportunity to recruit. The focus on gamergate would also be improved by a survey of other related campaigns, such as the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies Hugo slates (starting in 2013), the harassment campaigns lead by Vox Day against writers such as N.K. Jemisin, and the emergence of the “mantra” and the movement of so-called Dark Enlightenment or neoreactionary ideas into the mainstream right. While some of these are dealt with later in the book, their exclusion from the discussion of gamergate in service of reinforcing the SJW vs. shitlord dichotomy does a disservice to the reader.

What is to be done?

Kill All Normies wraps up with a discussion of the unrest at UC – Berkeley that surrounded Milo’s scheduled tour stop there. It’s a shallow discussion that does little to illuminate a way forward, and misunderstands the methods and aims of the alt-right:

In February 2017, before the spectacular collapse of his career, Milo had planned to give the closing talk of his tour on the campus of UC Berkley[sic], home of the free-speech  movement of the left in 1964. Many have commented on the irony of the Berkeley riots that took place — the historical reversal of the left now censoring the campus to cleanse it of the right — but it is also significant that it was on what was scheduled to be the final night of his tour. It was on this night, at the end of a yearlong tour through which the US campus left spectacularly failed to challenge him on the level of ideas, that it chose to riot.

(Kill All Normies, p. 117, emphasis, as always, is mine)

The level of ideas.

I am not sure whether Nagle is unaware of Milo’s harassment of a trans student in Milwaukee and his plans to out undocumented students at Berkeley or if the concerns of trans or out of status students are just so much SJW idpol nonsense when compared to the righteousness of the materialist left, but it seems to me that insisting that the left react to threats against our fellow human beings by responding to them on the “level of ideas” seems to me to full encapsulate the problem with turning the book’s analysis of the rise of the alt-right into a viable political response. Seeing Milo’s tour as exposing the “deep intellectual rot in contemporary cultural progressivism” rather than as a calculated attempt by the alt-right to use the promise of hurting enemies to recruit and embolden followers is literally giving away half the battle. There’s no solution proposed by Kill All Normies. There’s a vague hope that it’s not too late, and a brief celebration of the economic left, but mostly what is offered is not a plan to defeat the alt-right, but a strange sympathy with them.

tl;dr

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’ve now spent closing in on 2,000 words discussing the book, and that doesn’t even include the damn storify. Why have I spent so much time on this?

I am, as the old meme goes, from the internet. I wasted chunks of my misspent youth on both tumblr and 4chan. I saw the events Nagles refers to happen in real time. I am aware, as they say, of all internet traditions. There is a very real right-wing, white nationalist presence online, and there has been since long before queer kids started using tumblr as a place to talk about gender identity. I have very clear memories (but, alas, no archive.org links) of traditionalist punks talking about the glories of Russian Orthodoxy on the Nothing Nice to Say message boards. Alex Jones, discussed as as right-wing Gramscian by Nagle, has been broadcasting since I was in grade school. His crony Paul Joseph Watson has been lying on the internet in the service of reaction since I was a teenager. It is important to know these things, and spreading the line that the modern right is a simple lizard-brain backlash to identity politics and that only a mythical true anticapitalism can save us by winning the young and disaffected who would otherwise be vulnerable to this over to our side will only weaken the left. We must, we absolutely must, be able to see the right as having ideological content, and as being capable of moving politically to advance that ideology, if we’re going to fight them. Kill All Normies could have been an illuminating study of the rise of a new face of reaction. Instead, it served mostly as an extended bout of infighting.

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