Recent years have seen a revival of the heated culture wars of the 1990s, but this time its battle ground is the internet. On one side the alt right ranges from the once obscure neo-reactionary and white separatist movements, to geeky subcultures like 4chan, to more mainstream manifestations such as the Trump-supporting gay libertarian Milo Yiannopolous. On the other side, a culture of struggle sessions and virtue signalling lurks behind a therapeutic language of trigger warnings and safe spaces. The feminist side of the online culture wars has its equally geeky subcultures right through to its mainstream expression. Kill All Normies explores some of the cultural genealogies and past parallels of these styles and subcultures, drawing from transgressive styles of 60s libertinism and conservative movements, to make the case for a rejection of the perpetual cultural turn.
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About the Author
Angela Nagle's work has appeared in the Baffler, Jacobin, Current Affairs, the Irish Times and many other journals. She's also the co-editor of Ireland Under Austerity from Manchester University Press.
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Kill All Normies
The Online Culture Wars from Tumblr and 4chan to the Alt-Right and Trump
By Angela Nagle
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2017 Angela Nagle
All rights reserved.
The leaderless digital counter-revolution
It is worth thinking back now to the early 2010s, when cyberutopianism had its biggest resurgence since the 90s, before the dot-com bubble burst. This time it emerged in response to a series of political events around the world from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement to new politicized hacker movements. Anonymous, Wikileaks and public-square mass protests in Spain and across the Middle East were getting huge coverage in the news, causing a flurry of opinion and analysis pieces about their profound significance. All of these events were being attributed to the rise of social media and characterized as a new leaderless form of digital revolution. The hyperbole and hubris of the moment should have been enough to make anyone skeptical, but most on the left were swept up in the excitement as images of vast crowds in public squares appeared on social media and then in the mainstream media.
Books, social media and countless gushing columns and blogs celebrated the arrival of what cyberutopians of the early Internet had long prophesized. To pick one typical example of the tone at the time, in Heather Brooke's paean The Revolution Will be Digitized: Dispatches from the information war she claimed, 'Technology is breaking down traditional social barriers of status, class, power, wealth and geography, replacing them with an ethos of collaboration and transparency.' Adbusters, the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine, published a widely shared article by Manuel Castells called 'The Disgust Becomes a Network' when leaderless encampments, organized online, started to appear in Spain and around the world. He argued that what he had been writing about for most his career – the networked society – had taken a radical new form. BBC journalist Paul Mason wrote Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, documenting the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, the Iranian 'Twitter revolution' and the heavily hash tagged Occupy Wall Street protests that spread around the world.
But this fervor died down in just a few short years. The Egyptian revolution led to something worse – the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists ran riot in the streets and stories of rapes in the very public square that had shortly before held so much hope came to light. Soon the military dictatorship swept back into power. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrators remained literally aimless and were eventually forced out of public property by police, camp by camp. By the end of 2013, a public-square style movement took place in Ukraine, which started with many of the same scenes of romanticized people-power in the public square. However this time the leaderless network narrative, which was already starting to look a little less convincing, was left aside because the protests quickly erupted into fascist mob rule.
In many of the events that were considered part of the leaderless digital revolution narrative, like Occupy Wall Street and the public-square protests in Spain, in which thousands occupied the Puerta del Sol, the Guy Fawkes mask was adopted as a central symbol. But the online origins of the mask and the politically fungible sensibilities that can be traced back through the mask should have offered a clue that another very different variety of leaderless online movement had potential to brew.
After the election of Trump, everyone wanted to know about a new online rightwing movement whose memetic aesthetics seemed to have infiltrated sites from the popular The Donald subreddit to mainstream Internet-culture. In the lead-up to the election, the most famous common imagery was of Pepe the Frog. The name given by the press to this mix of rightist online phenomena including everything from Milo to 4chan to neo-Nazi sites was the 'alt-right'. In its strictest definition though, as an army of Internet pedants quickly pointed out, the alt-right term was used in its own online circles to include only a new wave of overtly white segregationist and white nationalist movements and subcultures, typified by spokespeople like Richard Spencer, who has called for a US white ethno-state and a pan-national white Empire modeled on some approximation of the Roman Empire. The movement's media also includes Scottish video blogger Millennial Woes, Red Ice, sites like Radix and the long-form and book publishers Counter Currents.
In the broader orbit of the alt-right, made up of often warring and sectarian factions, there is an older generation of white advocates who pre-date the alt-right but who the alt-right reads and draws influence from, like Jared Taylor from the site American Renaissance who refers to himself as a 'race realist' and figures like Kevin B. MacDonald, editor of Occidental Observer, described by the Anti-Defamation League as a primary voice of anti-Semitism for far-right intellectuals. The alt-right is, to varying degrees, preoccupied with IQ, European demographic and civilizational decline, cultural decadence, cultural Marxism, anti-egalitarianism and Islamification but most importantly, as the name suggests, with creating an alternative to the right-wing conservative establishment, who they dismiss as 'cuckservatives' for their soft Christian passivity and for metaphorically cuckholding their womenfolk/nation/race to the non-white foreign invader.
Then there is a range of more obscure rightist anti-egalitarian reactionary tendencies like the earlier neoreaction movement or NRx, which includes thinkers and bloggers like Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land, creators of the influential ideas of 'the Cathedral' and the latter the 'Dark Enlightenment'. The idea of the Cathedral closely resembles Marxian critical theory's understanding of ideology, as an all-encompassing system and prison of the mind. The Dark Enlightenment is an ironic play on the idea of the Enlightenment, based on a suspicion of progress and rejecting the liberal paradigm. Among all of these thinkers Land is the greatest misfit, once closer to the radical left-oriented Accelerationist school of thought and still a highly idiosyncratic thinker, he is not so easily categorized. Within the radical right libertarian pro-tech tendency, common preoccupations include Bitcoin, Seasteading – Peter Theil's idea to create a separate state off the coast of the US – and rightist elite applications of transhumanism.
But of course what we call the alt-right today could never have had any connection to the mainstream and to a new generation of young people if it only came in the form of lengthy treatises on obscure blogs. It was the image- and humor-based culture of the irreverent meme factory of 4chan and later 8chan that gave the alt-right its youthful energy, with its transgression and hacker tactics. The Guy Fawkes mask used in the protests in 2011 was a reference to Anonymous, which took its name, leaderless anticelebrity ethic and networked style from the chaotic anonymous style of 4chan. V for Vendetta, which the Guy Fawkes mask is taken from, and the 'dark age of comic books' influenced the aesthetic sensibilities of this broad online culture.
While commentators praised the rejection of the right-left divide among a new wave of Internet-centric protest in the early 2010s, the political rootlessness of this networked, leaderless Internet-centric politics now seems a little less worthy of uncritical celebration. Anonymous activities have over the years leaned incoherently to the libertarian left and right, and everything in between, singling out everyone from Justin Bieber fans to feminists, fascists, cybersecurity specialists, and engaged in the kind of pervert-exposing vigilantism that blue-collar tabloid readers have long been mocked for.
To understand the seemingly contradictory politics of 4chan, Anonymous and its relationship to the alt-right, it is important to remember that the gradual right-wing turn in chan culture centered around the politics board /pol/, as compared to the less overtly political but always extreme 'random' board /b/. Along the way left-leaning 'moral fags' who had gravitated towards AnonOps IRCs suffered from a degree of state spying and repression during the height of Anonymous's public profile from around 2010 to 2012. This absence of the more libertarian left-leaning element within chan culture created a vacuum in the image boards that the rightist side of the culture was able to fill with their expert style of anti-PC shock humor memes.
4chan began with users sharing Japanese anime, created by a teenage Chris Poole (aka moot) and based on the anime-sharing site 2chan. Poole's main influence for the style of the site was inspired by a Something Awful subforum known as the Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse. It was set up in October 2003 and by 2011, it grew to around 750 million page views a month. New users were called newfags and older users oldfags. It became a massively influential and creative forum known for pranks, memes and images that 'cannot be unseen'. The culture of the site was not only deeply and shockingly misogynist, but also self-deprecating in its own self-mockery of nerdish 'beta' male identity. Cultural touchstones included war-based video games and films like Fight Club and The Matrix. There was no registration or login required, so posts were typically all under the username 'Anonymous'.
This culture of anonymity fostered an environment where the users went to air their darkest thoughts. Weird pornography, in-jokes, nerdish argot, gory images, suicidal, murderous and incestuous thoughts, racism and misogyny were characteristic of the environment created by this strange virtual experiment, but it was mostly funny memes. Poole has called 4chan a 'meme factory' and it undoubtedly created countless memes that made their way into mainstream Internet-culture. The most famous early examples of these were probably LOL-cats, a cat-picture based style of image macro, and rickrolling, the use of a link to seemingly serious content that sends its user to a video of Rick Astley singing Never Gonna Give You Up.
The users of 4chan/b/ acted collectively on things like making Chris Poole person of the year in Time magazine's online poll in 2008 and the collective cyber bullying of a random 11-year-old, Jessie Slaughter, in 2010. They got hold of her name and address, harassed her and encouraged her to commit suicide after she made a silly video of herself speaking in gangsta-rap style. Her situation was, unsurprisingly, not improved by her father posting a video in defence of his upset daughter, in which he threatened to call the 'cyberpolice' – in their emotionally underdeveloped way, lack of Internet-culture knowledge is always license on 4chan for any level of cruelty. They also acted collectively on less sinister pranks like Operation Birthday Boy, when an elderly man posted an online ad saying: 'people wanted for birthday party'. Touched by the lonely old man's appeal, they found his name, address and phone number, and sent him hundreds of birthday cards, orders of cake and strippers.
In the New York Times, Mattathias Schwartz described 4chan/b/like this:
The anonymous denizens of 4chan's other boards — devoted to travel, fitness and several genres of pornography — refer to the /b/-dwellers as "/b/tards." Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the inside of a highschool bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand.
A common reference on the alt-right 'kek' started on 4chan and translated to 'lol' in comment boards on the multiplayer videogame World of Warcraft, while Pepe the Frog, originating in Matt Furie's Web comic Boy's Club, epitomizes online in-joke meme humor. Kek is also an ancient Egyptian deity represented as a frog-headed man while 'the Church of Kek' and 'praise Kek' refer to their ironic religion.
One of the things that linked the often nihilistic and ironic chan culture to a wider culture of the alt-right orbit was their opposition to political correctness, feminism, multiculturalism, etc., and its encroachment into their freewheeling world of anonymity and tech. In the US, one of the early cases of orchestrated attacks against such encroaching women was aimed at Kathy Sierra, a tech blogger and journalist. Sierra had been the keynote speaker at South by Southwest Interactive and her books were top sellers. The backlash against her was sparked when she supported a call to moderate reader comments, which at the time was seen as undermining the libertarian hacker ethic of absolute Internet freedom, although it has since become standard. Commenters on her blog began harassing and threatening her en mass, making the now routine rape and death threats received by women like Sierra. Personal details about her family and home address were posted online and hateful responses included photoshopped images of her with a noose beside her head, a shooting target pointed at her face and a creepy image of her being gagged with women's underwear. The personalized backlash against her was so extreme that she felt she had to close down her blog and withdraw from speaking engagements. When she explained on her blog why she had to step back from public life, writing that she was terrified that her stalkers might go through with their threats, it sparked a whole new wave of geek hatred against her.
Andrew Auernheimer (aka weev), a now well-known hacker and troll, seems to have been heavily involved in the attacks against Sierra, spreading false information online about her being a battered wife and a former prostitute. In 2009, weev claimed to have hacked into Amazon's system and reclassified books about homosexuality as porn. Once a part of the Occupy movement, he now regularly posts anti-Semitic and anti-gay rants on YouTube, has a swastika tattoo on his chest and was also the self-appointed president of a trolling initiative called the Gay Nigger Association of America. This was dedicated to opposing popular blogging and other mainstream activities, thought to be destroying authentic Internet-culture. Sierra has commented on how things have progressed: 'What happened to me pales in comparison to what's happening to women online today ... I thought things would get better. Mostly, it's just gotten worse.'
Although online spaces and comment sections had started to develop a shocking level of woman-hatred years before, one of the early mainstream discussions of online misogynist extremism was sparked when Helen Lewis interviewed feminist writers in the New Statesman, who brought to light some of what they experienced. Feminist blogger and activist Cath Elliot wrote:
If I'd been trying to keep a tally I would have lost count by now of the number of abusive comments I've received since I first started writing online back in 2007. And by abusive I don't mean comments that disagree with whatever I've written – I came up through the trade union movement don't forget, and I've worked in a men's prison, so I'm not some delicate flower who can't handle a bit of banter or heated debate – no, I'm talking about personal, usually sexualised abuse, the sort that on more than one occasion now has made me stop and wonder if what I'm doing is actually worth it. [...] I read about how I'm apparently too ugly for any man to want to rape, or I read graphic descriptions detailing precisely how certain implements should be shoved into one or more of my various orifices.
Feminist blogger Dawn Foster wrote:
The worst instance of online abuse I've encountered happened when I blogged about the Julian Assange extradition case. [ ...] Initially it was shocking: in the space of a week, I received a rabid email that included my home address, phone number and workplace address, included as a kind of threat. Then, after tweeting that I'd been waiting for a night bus for ages, someone replied that they hoped I'd get raped at the bus stop.
Feminist sex writer Petra Davis later wrote:
When I started getting letters at my flat, I reported them to the police, but they advised me to stop writing provocative material. Eventually, I was sent an email directing me to a website advertising my services as a sex worker, with my address on the front page under the legend 'fuck her till she screams, filth whore, rape me all night cut me open', and some images of sexually mutilated women. It was very strange, sitting quietly in front of my screen looking at those images, knowing that the violence done to these other women was intended as a lesson ... Of course, it didn't take long to take the site down, but by then I was thoroughly sick of the idea and more or less stopped writing about sex from any perspective.
Excerpted from Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle. Copyright © 2017 Angela Nagle. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Introduction: From Hope to Harambe 1
Chapter 1 The leaderless digital counter-revolution 10
Chapter 2 The online politics of transgression 28
Chapter 3 Gramscians of the alt-light 40
Chapter 4 Conservative culture wars from Buchanan to Yiannopoulos 54
Chapter 5 From Tumblr to the campus wars: creating scarcity in an online economy of virtue 68
Chapter 6 Entering the manosphere 86
Chapter 7 Basic bitches, normies and the lamestream 101
Conclusion: That joke isn't funny any more - the culture war goes offline 117