“Kill All Normies” is an Awful Book

Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right, which is being hailed by many as the nonfiction book of summer 2017 for its key insights into the alt-right and its history, is very obviously a tome written by an Irish scribe. I say this because, while I have high esteem for anyone from my grandmother’s homeland, there are some obvious gaps that cannot be avoided in her analysis. Indeed, her effort, which portrays itself as both opposed to the alt-right and racism, is actually neither and can very easily be described as either a truly bad case of political journalism lacking any grasp of American politics or alternatively a moderate liberal’s plea for free speech absolutism. Let’s be clear, we need a very detailed and mature analysis of the alt-right that helps us get a handle on what we are facing. Sadly Nagle is obviously incapable of doing this.

I will start with the first description, that this is a well-intended but ultimately tone-deaf analysis of American politics. Nagle hails from Ireland and did a graduate school thesis on internet culture. What is always clear in the writing is that she is writing about the American political system as if it were a European parliamentary one, something made most obvious when she compares Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders. While Corbyn and Sanders both did start their trajectories using Trotskyist entryism tactics in an effort to change politics, one sold out very quickly in the name of imperialism while the other did not. The two are diametric opposites and claiming otherwise is either patently absurd or a reactionary libel. In trying to use her analysis of internet culture to frame an understanding of American politics when she obviously has little practical experience with our bizarre system she inadvertently makes mistake after mistake.

Take for example her chronology. She makes a very strong and valid historical summary of internet meme culture at the start of the book, going from the Obama Hope poster to Kony 2012 before ending with Harambe the gorilla being one of the first shots across the bow fired by the alt-right when they appropriated a joke about the death of a zoo animal to maliciously troll and harass with blatant racism one of the female Ghostbusters, Leslie Jones. Sounds logical enough, right?

Except that Nagle forgot one key ingredient that contributed to the genesis of this frightening movement, the Ron Paul 2012 campaign, which began to rev up in velocity in the fall of 2011 simultaneous with the Occupy movement. I recall in a variety of venues seeing all sorts of memes and signs, obviously patterned after the Obama 2008 campaign décor, that sanctified the holy names of Paul and Murray Rothbard. Paul’s campaign had a populist antiwar edge that was quite obviously a premonition of the Trump campaign. The key difference, however, between the Texas congressman and the New York game show host was their treatment of the militia and white nationalist movements. Paul had a hands-off, ‘a gentleman never kisses and tells’ approach to the Oath Keepers, Minute Man militias, and other varieties of kook that were attracted to his platform. When his problematic newsletters surfaced in the wintertime shortly after Occupy, he shamelessly walked off camera from an interview with CNN’s Gloria Berger, trying to continue straddling a tightrope between professional politician and closeted fellow traveler of neo-Confederates.

By contrast, Trump started out from day one shamelessly teasing and toying with these groups in a fashion that was almost sexual. Any analysis of the alt-right that leaves out the Paul campaign is lacking a major moment of convergence that led to the Trump election. Instead, Nagle points to Pat Buchanan’s Culture War speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention as a catalyst. This is a big omission because Buchanan’s speech was made during the pre-internet days and Paul’s campaign was a Facebook phenomenon. The internet allowed a kind of social networking for the Paul campaign that far exceeded anything possible with the old collection of newsletter mailing lists that dated back to the Goldwater campaign used by Buchanan. Nagle also manages to leave out some matters that helped build the propulsion of the alt-right, such as the 2013 Sad Puppies affair regarding the Hugo Awards. That episode was particularly important because it showed a mean, nasty side of science fiction literary fans that has remained unchallenged. Another instance that is also missing is the claims of #WhiteGenocide that plagued the October 2015 release of the trailer for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, a practice run for what ended up happening to George Ciccariello-Maher a year later.

These might seem to be minor episodes but I would argue they were important moments for the creation of the alt-right. Leaving them out is a major mistake from my perspective and demonstrative of someone who is not properly attuned to American politics and pop culture despite claims to the contrary.

So how should we understand the alt-right? It quite obviously mirrors the patterns of internet radicalization that are seen in Islamist discourse and politics. Dr. Richard Lobban is an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Rhode Island College who has studied the topic of radicalization and mobilization of Muslims. “The best way to cure or address or control radicalization is in the recruitment. Once people are recruited not to mention operation it’s already basically too late,” he says. “I see that [white nationalist] form of extremism pretty much following the same logic of Islamic extremism. They are people by their life experience, by they’re criminals, by their access to weapons, by violent misdeeds, by feeling, especially since it is marketed by people who are trying to recruit to white supremacy, making them feel that they are somehow victims, that they haven’t benefitted from white privilege and ‘Blacks are taking over or secularism is taking over or Jews are taking over or who knows, someone is taking over, and aren’t you really angry about that?’,” he continues. Lobban refers to the work of the late Anthony F.C. Wallace on revitalization movements, which are called ‘cults’ or ‘sects’ in American parlance.

“And then they say ‘here’s what we can do about it. We can have our protests, we can have our demonstrations, and then we can even escalate that to selective assassinations’ of people who are iconically representative of the problems that they have.” He points to the recent shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise as an instance of how this paradigm can and does operate on both sides of the aisle as a result of the individual giving up traditional methods of redressing grievances and becoming a “true believer”.

Now let’s try the other proposition, that Nagle, who is published by the Left press Zero Books, is actually a liberal making a plea for free speech absolutism. This is most obviated by her accounting of the Berkeley riots that surrounded the planned appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos at the start of 2017. Nagle uses this to indicate that the Left is opposed to free speech. But such an argument is possible if you only know a bare-bones version of the story. The riot did not happen because Milo was planning to give any ordinary talk. Instead, he was very open about his plan to out undocumented migrant members of the college community. Such a stunt in front of a crowd of College Republicans is not just shocking, it is an attempt to incite violence against the most vulnerable individuals in our society. Only a liberal would try to defend this sort of attempted pogrom.

Nagle further lets the cat out of the bag when she does a brief summation of the old controversies about literary canons on campus. Her tone is condescending and mocking of liberalism, akin to my own, but she describes these politics as Leftism, which they are not. She calls Todd Gitlin a Leftist despite the fact he sold out decades ago. How ponderous and strange for her to do this. In this sense her notion of Left politics resembles the logic of Paul Berman, the pseudo-intellectual who differentiates between an “anti-totalitarian” and “anti-imperialist” Left to mask the blatant hypocrisy of his positions.

At one point she even argues that Clinton and the Democrats are the right section of a large Left wing movement and fails to acknowledge that the largest voting bloc in the United States is the unaffiliated and third party voter. Because of this, she actually internalizes a right wing talking point and notion, that the Democrats are somehow within the same political grouping as Greens or the Peace and Freedom Party, which they are not. As a result, she takes certain progressive subcultures on Tumblr and other social media platforms to somehow be part of a coordinated effort that the Democratic Party utilizes rather than recognizing how Democratic neoliberalism effectively and totally has coopted the language and vocabulary of liberation that came from the New Left.

Making things even more complicated, her book astoundingly never mentions that there is a class-based intersectional feminism that can effectively oppose the alt-right! Nagle’s image of American Left politics is ‘identity politics’ versus ‘class politics’, Clinton voters versus the Bernie Bros, and never the twain shall meet. Tellingly, she is quite scornful and nasty of anyone to her left, such as Thomas Frank, who she reviles for pointing out that the Trump election was the rotten fruit borne of four decades of Democratic Party neoliberalism. Indeed, the nastiness and armchair Freudian analysis of the alt-right, combined with a Cliff Notes summary of Nietzsche, is proffered as a suitable replacement for political economy. It is not and ultimately that is the damning final verdict on this book. As a catalog of near-pornographic quotations from these various sewer websites like 4chan, it is obviously capable of being titillating, if that is your thing. But there is so much more that we need to be talking about when we talk about the alt-right.

One thing Nagle admittedly does lightly reference and should have expanded on is the part of Left culture that engages in a near-exhibitionist mea culpa breast beating routine over their privilege. She could have spoken of the role that Ireland in particular played in the history of confession. As early as perhaps the 6th century, Irish monks were spiritual innovators by offering penitents private confession as opposed to what was the continental norm, a public admission that was done in front of the whole town to gain absolution. I mention this because perhaps there is something to be learned from these Celtic ancestors in today’s Left, namely using one’s privilege in a way to magnify and benefit the voices of those who are oppressed rather than doing a kind of gymnastics presentation. I certainly accede the need, time, and place for such acknowledgement of privilege. But I also have seen working class women of color feel alienated from the rituals because they come straight from a middle class guilt complex rather than working class desire to even the playing field. Without becoming a post-structuralist, the plain truth is that thousands of pages about Marxist philosophy are good for nothing if they are written in Greek and you bring the pages to someone who does not read Greek. This sort of oppressive structure that is trying to deliver anti-oppression politics is the kernel of class-free identity politics in its purest form.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.