I read Kill All Normies so you don't have to

I originally didn’t want to read this book, only having read a few excerpts whining about Tumblr (more specifically, trigger warnings and gender identity) that made me not want to touch it. The book kept popping up on my newsfeed, and so I decided to read it to see if it fulfills its hype (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t).

In the past, I spent 2 years on 4chan (on /b/) and 2+ years on Tumblr (following liberals and then marxists). That normally means nothing, but Nagle doesn’t cite a single sentence in her book. There are no citations, no interviews, no statistics, nothing (Maybe I’m unfamiliar with how books of this genre are written, but you’d think she’d cite something)! So hopefully some of my experience there may pick up on things that others have missed.

Nagle sets the stage by comparing the Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign with Clinton’s 2016 campaign, wondering why Clinton’s campaign was met with widespread internet mockery and memes — despite employing the same tricks as the Obama. She wants to map an Internet cultural history, one that explains how we got to this point, where the alt-right came from, how the left has changed during this, and how their battles (‘culture wars’, in her own words) are playing out. In the introduction she marks Kony 2012 and Harambe as significant trends in building the ironic internet mobs that were relatively unknown before recently. These points are brought up erratically, there’s little to no proof or deeper explanation, it’s like reading a summary on Wikipedia or KnowYourMeme with some surface level analysis thrown in. Nagle quotes a Chapo Trap House member as saying “Harambe mania really took off after the Orlando nightclub massacre in a gay club, carried out by a shooter pledging allegiance to ISIS” and leaves it at that[1]. How are they related? How was that statement proven? Nagle doesn’t bother to explain further, a trend that continues throughout the book.

The first few chapters go over some of the history of what would influence or become the Alt-Right. NRx, Dark Enlightenment, the ‘Alt-Light’, GamerGate, Richard Spencer, 4chan, Milo, weev, MGTOW, The Rebel, Pat Buchanan, Breitbart, Alex Jones, and Mike Cernovich are just some of the names mentioned. A few are examined further, Nagle is hard to follow as she jumps from point to point, never constructing a good timeline for all this information she throws at you. She writes about some ideological splits between them, and gives many examples of disgusting ideas and actions carried out by some of these people/communities, particularity 4chan and Milo. While I was already aware of most of this, I can see how someone who is unfamiliar with all of this, and doesn’t know where to start, would find this valuable.

Nagle then puts forward her explanation for the behavior and attitude of 4chan and the alt-right: Transgression. Put simply, it’s the intentional act of breaking social norms/convention, something very common on 4chan, if not its backbone. Examples are given from 4chan, and Nagle goes into some literary or philosophical discussion about it. I’m not well versed in literary criticism, philosophy, or whatever you would describe this portion of the book as, so I can’t say much more about it. Nagle brings up 4chan & the alt-rights departure from traditional religious conservatives of the time. A significant part of the alt-right are Christian, but the 4chan affiliated crowd don’t care about supposed Christian morals, willing to do and say things that are very unconventional and horrid. Not a huge revelation, but a useful thing to note. Her piece on Jacobin “Paleocons for Porn” is essentially a condensed version of chapter, if you want to get what she means but don’t want to read this book.

That’s about it for the usefulness of the book, and to get to it you have to power through her complaints about trigger warnings and gender identity sprinkled throughout these chapters. Nagle clearly knows more about 4chan and the alt-right than Tumblr and internet left subcultures, since she really drops the ball when talking about the left. She lumps the left into one big tent, and obviously misunderstands the various factions and arguments being made. Among the few distinctions she makes among the left, she hilariously claims that the ‘real left’ consists of members such as The Young Turks, Owen Jones, Jacobin, and Chapo Trap House. You don’t hear about Marxists, Anarchists, ‘Anti-Imperialists’, and others, Nagles idea of politics left of ‘Tumblr’ stop at Chapo Trap House or Jacobin. She also scolds the left for ‘crying wolf’ when some called Trudeau a white supremacist and defended Hillary Clinton by calling those who disagree with her sexist, to her the Alt-Right is the real wolf. Aside from the ridiculous implication that the Prime Minister of a settler-colonial state like Canada can’t be a white supremacist and it’s just ‘crying wolf’, I’d be very surprised if there is any large group of people who would call Trudeau a white supremacist but also say not supporting Hillary is misogynist. There are NGO-careerists and bourgeois liberals who appropriate social justice theory to support people like Clinton and say that not being pro-Clinton is sexism. These are not the same ideologies that consider Trudeau a white supremacist, which includes marxists, anarchists, and whoever else. Nagle lumps anything she doesn’t like on the left into one big basket labelled ‘Tumblr-Liberalism’, she doesn’t bother making ideological divisions among the left, beyond Tumblr and the ‘real left’ mentioned above, despite doing so for the Alt-Right.

Nagles pseudo-horseshoe theory of the Tumblr Left and Alt-Right relies on the idea that the Tumblr Left are also intentionally transgressive like those on the alt-right[3]. To prove this ridiculousness and transgressiveness of the left, she spends a lot of time lampooning gender identity, trigger warnings, not easily visible disabilities, and uses loaded terms such as hysterical or sensitive when describing the left, particularly transgender and disabled people (the implication here is clear), but never the Alt-Right. If I hadn’t been told who wrote this, I’d think it was written by a Third Positionist. She claims that Pepe Memes and Otherkin are examples of a feedback loop of transgressiveness between the Alt-Right and Tumblr left. A quick look at the history of Otherkin shows how this is isn’t accurate, since the community been around since the 90s. Is it specifically the Alt-Right seeing Otherkin and deciding to ramp up their behaviour? Websites like 4chan consist of a transgressive user base, but their increased offensiveness could be ascribed to factors such as an increase of racist, misogynist, transphobic hate crimes/speech in general, something not addressed in the book. There’s no mention of how the Alt-Right love making up ridiculous fake profiles to mock transgender people, disabled people, women, and non-white people (and frequently can’t detect satire/jokes from serious suggestions). Are the ‘left’ (or the main culprits Nagle suggests: transgender, abused, or disabled people) supposed to answer for every unusual example, real or fake, that comes up relating to their oppression? This isn’t to say that the left doesn’t have to provide answers or education to people, but Nagles idea of a feedback loop of transgressiveness dumps the blame on the left for the Alt-Right (who spend much of their time looking for examples of oppressed people to mock/attack) or unrelated individuals. Nagle doesn’t spend time thinking about why the Alt-Right focuses on the left so much, saying “you may question the motivations of the rights fixation on these niche sections of online, but the liberal fixation on relatively niche sections of the new online right is similar in scale”. Aside from lazily equating the right and left, there’s a very good reason why people often care about niches like 4chan — Because they’re attacking and often killing them!

Nagle spends time sneering at what she considers the worst examples of the identity-focused left, such as people who have disabilities or issues that aren’t easy visible (Spoon theory and trigger warnings/PTSD are her examples), a long list of various uncommon gender identities she found on Tumblr, and people who are fixated with removing their own limbs (it’s disturbing that she considers the existence of trans people and hidden disabilities to be comparable to this). She doesn’t take a moment to consider potential reasons why people are saying/feeling these things, and simply writes them off as the outcome of identity politics and leftist transgression. Maybe the process of realizing one is trans is difficult, emotionally complex, and people express it in different ways? Are trauma and disabilities often undiagnosed, with some people finding help in diagnosing their problems that are ignored? Does patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, etc., factor into this? You’re get none of that from Nagle, no consideration at all. She is glad to say things like “trigger warnings had to be issued in order to avoid the unexpectedly high number of young women who had never gone to war claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder“, and puts non-binary and transphobia in air quotes, questioning their existence Would you think that someone who also says “Milo and his Tumblr dwelling gender fluid enemies”, “transgenderism” and “gender-bending Tumblr users” would give you an unbiased take on the ‘Tumblr left’?

Chapter 5 starts with a bold, unsubstantiated claim: that the internet left caused the right to react and move more right, partly due to “making increasingly anti-male, anti-white, anti-straight, anti-cis rhetoric normal on the cultural left” brought on from identity politics (which she doesn’t bother defining). She constantly speaks about ‘culture wars’, these supposedly society changing cultural battles fought by certain subcultures (i.e. 4chan vs Tumblr) that are also a feedback loop, making each other more ridiculous and vicious with their transgressive behaviour. Since 4chan and many other Alt-Right hubs are online, it makes you wonder where these clashes are actually going on. Nagle says college campuses are a location of these culture wars, where according to her, no-platforming and identity politics have run amok. She doesn’t explain how the Tumblr left has managed to gain their influence on campuses, nor does she use any compelling examples against no-platforming[2]. She doesn’t explain why we should oppose No-Platforming aside from relying on the supposed ridiculousness or ‘hysteria’ of the No-Platformers, and saying that the people being No-Platformed are people of importance. Nagle focusing on the act of No-Platforming (‘free speech’) rather than the individuals being No-Platformed is telling. She doesn’t present alternatives and instead falls back on this idea that we should us our Free Speech™ to debate the Alt-Right and win the ‘culture wars’. What do you do when your opponent has no respect for ‘actual’ discussion? What do you do when they call for violence towards you and then say you rejected free speech when you refuse to debate them? Fascists don’t give a shit about free speech, they’ll use every tool available at their disposal to further their movement. It doesn’t mean that the left will win with just No-Platforming or whatever tactics she says are common among the ‘Tumblr left’. The left will need to be much more organized and prepared for the spread of Fascism in the west, but there’s no way the left will succeed by doing university debates with people like Milo or Jordan Peterson.

It’s ironic that Nagle supports the ‘material left’ (which to her means Bernie Sanders, Jacobin) and wants left politics to be less about identity and more about economics (ignoring the fact that those two are often related), since she fails to make a class analysis at any point in the book. Does it matter that most of the Alt-Rights class background is (petty)-bourgeois (upper/upper-middle class, what many non-Marxists would call it)? Do any of the recent economic changes in the US affect the rise of the Alt-Right and spread of fascism? Did the Vietnam War shape the ideologies and views of the left and right during the 60–70s that Nagle talks about? How does capitalism and the US state (Police, CIA, FBI/COINTELPRO, NSA) impact the ideas and actions on the left and right? Nagle doesn’t touch upon any of this.

She also doesn’t even bother to come off as impartial or having integrity throughout the book, where in a section about GamerGate she says Zoe Quinn’s video game Depression Quest “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” (God forbid someone makes a game that they feel may help people understand others or their own depression, amirite?). Then she explains her view on videogames, saying that as an adult your emotional energies should be used better elsewhere. Why should I, the reader, give a shit? People assume this book will be about the history of the alt-right, they don’t want thinkpiece-style writing about how much you like a certain video game and what you think about adults playing video games. The hypocrisy is even more apparent when, despite criticizing ‘identity politics’ throughout her book, she feels comfortable using it to defend Jacobin She states it’s not correct to call it a magazine of choice for the white left, because “its two key founders [are] the children of Jamaican and Trinidadian immigrants, and … its logo [is] based on the Black Jacobin”. Somehow, the contents of the magazine can’t be representative of their ideas, just their founders identities!

If you know nothing about the alt-right, its allies, predecessors, etc., you may get some value out of this book. You’ll have to get through a lot of sloppy writing and jabs at transgender people to get to it. The history of the Alt-Right and how the left can fight it is a topic that should be looked into, but it deserves to be written about by a better author than Nagle.

Footnotes

[1] Harambe/Pulse Shooting

When I saw the part quoting Chapo Trap House as saying the Harambe meme exploded after the Pulse shooting, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I decided to see if that claim was potentially true (since the author doesn’t bother verifying it) so I went on Google Trends. If you compare ‘Harambe’ vs. ‘Pulse’ (https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=2016-05-01%202017-05-01&q=Harambe,Pulse), you’ll see that the searches for ‘Pulse’ skyrocketed when the pulse shooting occurred and fell off a week after, while ‘Harambe’ rose and fell at very different times (DicksOutForHarambe or JusticeForHarambe have nothing, and changing the location to exclusively the United States doesn’t change much either). Obviously truly tracking how much a meme was used would go beyond just using GoogleTrends, but you can still get an idea of if a claim is potentially true (in this case, absolutely not). Did nobody bother to edit her book? There are so many typos, sloppy & unfinished arguments, and claims without evidence that I’m surprised anyone would print this in this state. The connection between Trump and the alt-right, a major selling point of the book, is barely elaborated on. The only explanation I have for this is that this book is a cash grab.

Also, no less than 4 times does the author mention the pulse shooting. She makes sure to let you know it was done by/for Islam, saying he was an Islamist and how he swore allegiance to ISIS and Al Baghdadi. Incredibly enough, she ignores how even the CIA said they found no connections between Omar Mateen and ISIS, as well as how he was a security guard that tried to become a cop. You’d think something that was brought up 4 times (without even explaining how it relates to her points) would be accurate!

[2] No Platforming

Nagle mentions a few names to explain the supposed horrors of No-Platforming, such as Germaine Greer, Maryam Namazie, and Jordan Peterson. It’s incredible that Greer (who holds to her transphobic views), Namazie (who defended Charlie Hebdo and said Islamism is ‘a new totalitarian global threat’), and Peterson (who allies with the alt-right and went on numerous transphobic screeds) are among her choices. She overstates the actual impact that No-Platforming has, saying the Greer’s name was run through the dirt and she was transformed overnight to rubbish. A quick search of Greer and No-Platforming shows out of the first 10 news results, 8 talk about how No-Platforming is bad. Greer and all the others will do just fine if she isn’t allowed to speak at one university, Jordan Peterson gets an astounding $50,000+ per MONTH. Am I supposed to feel bad that these people were No-Platformed when they seem to be enjoying it?

[3] On the ‘Tumblr Left’

I don’t think Tumblr Left is an apt label for what Nagle tries to describe. It’s hard to settle on a label that would encompass what Nagle is talking about, since she lumps together many groups and ideologies based on how some of them present their views/arguments. Tumblr doesn’t have a homogenous user base like 4chan, and you can see websites like Twitter containing the same ideas that people ascribe to Tumblr. The implied Social Justice association with Tumblr is a result of years of mockery by those on the Alt-Right (mainly Reddit/r/TumblrInAction and 4chan). When I was on 4chan 6 years ago, it was obviously bigoted and people spent their time mocking Social Justice communities, but people didn’t pay as much attention to Tumblr. Slowly I saw people ascribing Tumblr to these mocked ideas (they often looked at Tumblr for material), and eventually ‘Tumblr’ became a dog-whistle (much like SJW) for ‘crazy’ feminists and non-white/transgender/disabled people, who also happen to have vibrant colored hair. Nagle doesn’t seem to realize this and is guilty of it herself, using ‘Tumblr’ to mention those who care about many social justice issues, and frequently calls them hysterical, unhinged, neurotic, etc.

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