Syria: the alt-left and other lesser known extremisms

Syria has overturned many of the assumptions that were once taken for granted about politics. While much of the left still clings to the legacy of the Iraq anti-war movement of the early 2000s, positions have warped and even become the opposite of what they once were. Whereas the Global War on Terror (GWOT) was shunned and protested against in the past, sections of the left have now accepted it as a policy and rhetorical device to be used against the West, not in service of it. Claims of being “anti-war” ring hollow when these same people openly support or refuse to condemn military action taken by non-Western countries (which is often more brutal), and the term anti-war comes to mean little more than “anti-Western intervention.” How is it that parts of the left have adopted views that are more akin to those of right-wing politics, and even views similar to those of neoconservativism and the alt-right? How is it that both the far-left and the far-right have converged on the subject of Syria to agree on so many issues, including open or tacit support of the dictatorship of Bashar Assad? Over the years, the debate in the West surrounding the Syrian Revolution descended into alternative media, state sponsored propaganda, internet bots, and conspiracy theories, yet as leftist Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh has stated, “it is no longer about Syria, not even about the Middle East — it is about the world, a progressively Syrianised one.”

It is my intention to explain what this new alt-left political movement is, which has come into existence in the wake of the Syrian Revolution. While discussion on the topic of Syria has focused on the issue of Islamic extremism, there exists a far greater yet largely ignored issue of secular political extremism revolving around the subject in the West. The alt-left — that is, the section of the left that is being referred to here — has often been used as a pejorative term by the right-wing and centrist liberals, and has rarely been defined by those outside of those groups. It is important to shed light upon the somewhat obscure overlapping themes and multiple subcultures related to the alt-left as well as lesser known connections to other radical/extreme political movements such as the alt-right, the neoreactionary movement, tankies, and syncretic third positionists such as Nazbols and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). In addition to this, there exists an alternative media ecosystem (including podcasts) acting as a center of gravity for the alt-left, which is important for understanding how these political views evolved in the first place and continue to grow.

The alt-left

Origins

The alt-left movement began with the fierce struggle between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party presidential primaries, before taking on a life of its own following the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election (source)

The usage of the term alt-left is far less understood than its counterpart the alt-right, yet there is evidence to suggest that a broadly “alternative left” movement has been active since early internet adopters on Usenet groups in the 1990s found common cause with each other. Yet its popularization began in the same 2016 US presidential election cycle during which the alt-right movement reached the height of its power. The term alt-left has been used by fringe left figures in the US such as former Green Party leader Cynthia McKinney to self-identify as early as 2017, but as mentioned before it has mostly been used by moderate leftists, centrists and the right-wing to pejoratively refer to extremists on the far left. In fact, various definitions of the current usage of the term alt-left sprang up at around the same time in 2016, and arguments that the movement doesn’t exist hinge on the mostly pejorative use of the term. Despite the term alt-left coming to prominence after Trump used it in the wake of the August 2017 Charlottesville rally and counter protest, liberals and members of the Democratic Party had been using it previously to refer to the far-left, and even the most polemical members of the alt-left movement have admitted the term was already in use among the left in 2016. Therefore a key difference is that most alt-left figures shun the term applied to them, unlike the alt-right, who initially embraced the term before drifting away or turning to other related labels such as alt-lite. The movement began in America, yet there are many individuals and organizations who fit the category in the UK, with the alt-left riding on the coat-tails of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 general election much as the US alt-left had with Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries. The main factor that cannot be ignored is that the burgeoning alt-left movement emerged from the US Democratic Party’s Clinton/Sanders schism that resulted from the US presidential election of 2016 and the events leading up to it; centrist and center right liberals backed Clinton, while a growing movement of leftists backed Sanders. Wracked by the shock of what essentially became an ugly civil war within the US Democratic Party, the followers of Sanders who had lost and failed to get their candidate nominated refused to rally around Clinton, and this contributed to the Democrats faltering in the face of the conservative Republican Party under its unlikely yet also non-establishment presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

DSA

Logo of the Democratic Socialists of America

In the wake of these events, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) became an organization for the recently galvanized American left to reify their new found interest in socialism — as well as replay the Clinton/Sanders drama ad infinitum, like some jaded and predictable pantomime. Unlike American parties on the far-left such as the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Workers World Party (WWP), which are both overtly Marx-Leninist, the DSA is a 501c4 (a tax-exempt social welfare organization, not an actual political party) and states that it is democratic socialist. On the leftist political spectrum, this would put them to the left of social democratic parties that are common in the rest of the world (e.g. Europe and South America) but to the right of communists. Another American Political Party on the left that should be mentioned is the Green Party of the United States, as not only has one of its former leaders Cynthia McKinney used “alt-left” at an early point in the term’s usage, but the Green Party’s current leader Jill Stein is a known alt-left figure (and is also being investigated due to dubious Russian connections). Important to note is that all of these aforementioned political organizations are marginal in the US, which is dominated by Democratic/Republican two party system. However, it is online social media where these organizations and their often semi-anonymous members make their presence disproportionately known, with DSA members in particular being identifiable on platforms such as Twitter by the use of the red rose emoji (🌹) in their username — a recognizable symbol of socialism which also appears prominently in the DSA logo. The DSA has condemned the “brutal Assad regime, a regime that has shown no hesitation to use massive force, including chemical weapons, to suppress its people,” yet it’s not clear if they represent the views of the rank and file members; an opinion piece published titled “The Case for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution” was met with a backlash that included significant harassment of the authors by fellow DSA members. An initiative authorized by the DSA National Political Committee called the “Anti-War Think Tank” has sprung up which claims to be “committed to prioritizing principled opposition to imperialism,” yet has only ever issued a statement about Yemen.

@madsamarxist is a self declared Marx-Leninist that is Chair of the Northeast Georgia branch of the Metro Atlanta Chapter of the DSA (this was confirmed by Northeast Georgia DSA, who stated that he also organizes with PSL and WWP)

DSA members readily admit that it is in reality a big tent organization, and it is online where the lines between different political organizations and ideologies become especially blurred. It seems obvious to an outsider that the DSA tolerates many leftist ideologies and tenancies that are known to be incompatible or even mutually hostile (owing likely to the small number of leftists in the US). A recurring theme is that many DSA members seem to be far more radically left than the self declared “democratic socialist” platform of the DSA suggests. This includes members engaging in close cooperation with aforementioned Marx-Leninist political parties; according to DSA bylaws, members can be expelled if they are “under the discipline of any self-defined democratic-centralist organization,” yet it seems this national bylaw is often ignored and unenforced on a local level (this bylaw could apply to many far-left parties such as Marx-Leninists, Trotskyists, etc.). The decentralized nature of the DSA features an intricate chapter system for various locations in the United States, as well as various caucuses such as the DSA Communist caucus (which describes itself as “informed by 70’s Italian Marxisms, and current left-communist formations”). Often self described members can be seen espousing quite extremist views, such as revering the legacy of Libyan dictator Qaddafi and overtly supporting the Assad regime in Syria, the increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea — like the rhetoric employed by Weird Twitter and leftist podcasts, much of this is often masked behind layers of “irony,” yet upon closer inspection and greater exposure to their views it is quite clear that they are in fact usually not joking. Regardless of the workings of the organization in real life, at least some of this radicalism can be attributed to the largely anonymous nature of communication online.

Cover photo of the DSA Communist Caucus Facebook page

Weird Twitter

archive.today capture of the tweet

This latter point regarding humor brings up another aspect that must be elaborated on, which is that much of the contemporary alt-left is essentially a synthesis of far-left political views and “Weird Twitter,” so it is important to understand this similarly rather obscure section of the internet that deliberately attempts to defy definition. Weird Twitter is a subculture that seems to have peaked in the mid-2000s, which sought to make Twitter jokes that were confusing, ironic and absurdist; some of the best known include @dril, @leyawn, @KrangTNelson, and @randygdub. As the prevailing “irony bro” aesthetic of the alt-left has been adopted wholesale from this Weird Twitter subculture, this relationship with Twitter clearly mirrors the alt-right’s long noted connection with 4Chan, where a lot of “the alt-right’s language and imagery is borrowed from.” It’s important to point out that not all Weird Twitter accounts are alt-left or even political at all for that matter. However some accounts are known to be in close proximity to the podcast left such as @leyawn, who stated they were on episode 18 of the now defunct The Flour Hour podcast, a podcast where other guests included @ByYourLogic and @cushbomb (who will become significant later on). Despite some Weird Twitter accounts being non-political for the most part, when certain accounts do make political “jokes,” it can expose widely held prejudices and biases — many deem it fine to joke dismissively about the suffering of Syrians, yet these same jokes will not be made about the plight of Palestinians or Yemenis.

Tankies

@CCCPkomintern (formerly @marxistsilver and @sovietfangirl) is a popular tankie account which often engages in open bigotry

The extreme views of those in the DSA with favorable attitudes towards regimes such as those of Assad can often be ascribed to the ideology of Marx-Leninism. People with such beliefs are almost always known as tankies, an especially odd subculture which largely revolves around those who claim to be Marx-Leninists and Maoists (as well as some Trotskyites) who uncritically defend and fetishize the legacy of the Soviet Union and various past or still existing countries that they deem to be sufficiently “communist.” This usually refers to China, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela, and those that adhere to these more extreme and authoritarian branches of communism can often be seen displaying the flag emojis for these countries on social media. This can extend to the non-Communist country of the Islamic Republic of Iran on an anti-imperialist (i.e. anti-American) basis — whereas in the past there was talk of a red-brown-green alliance, there seems to be a genuine red-brown-yellow alliance (yellow representing Shia Islam, the second largest denomination of Islam that sections of the Western left give unconditional support to, due to being perceived as a “minority group” in the region). It’s important to note the even the notable tankie accounts have very few followers by the standards of other subcultures mentioned here, and the individuals are either politically inactive in real life, members of political parties that are marginal to the point of irrelevance, or knowingly engaged in deliberate online edge-lordism to proclaim their allegiance to the most obscure far-left political creed possible. Not all tankies are necessarily alt-left although many have familiar characteristics, although the alt-left movement has certainly drawn upon aspects of the online resurgence of the essentially dead ideology of Marx-Leninism, such as its focus on an anti-West conception of anti-imperialism. All tankies are however red fascists of the kind that anarchist political philosopher Volin spoke of.

Footage of tankies Molly Klein and Taryn Fivek arguing with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek

The most notable tankie account on social media is Phil Greaves, a contributor for conspiracy website Global Research who has been syndicated at alt-right website Infowars. Others include Red Kahina, who is apparently an extremely wealthy PlayboyTV heiress who’s real name is Molly Klein, as well as Kiran Opal who has been active on various podcasts (including ones critical of the alt-left), Louis Allday who is a PhD candidate at SOAS University of London and listed as a member of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (along with chemical weapon conspiracy theorist and University of Edinburgh Professor Tim Hayward, who was previously listed a contributor on fringe website 21st Century Wire; Hayward and fellow Working Group member Professor Piers Robinson of the University of Sheffield have argued that “journalists reporting from opposition-held areas in Syria should be prosecuted under the UK Terrorism Act”), and Taryn Fivek who was a former UN press officer that was exposed for supporting designated terrorist organization Hezbollah and denying Assad regime war crimes while she was working with Syrian refugees (Fivek has been politically active with the Workers World Party and has been involved with RT, including disrupting a White Helmets concert in Grand Central Terminal NYC in coordination with RT employee Alexander Rubinstein — she was also seen in disturbing footage of a Hands Off Syria Coalition meeting that saw the forcible removal of Syria activists).

Third positionism

SSNP logo
National Bolshevik Party banner

The far-right and white-nationalists have long been noted to have great interest in supporting Assad, with almost every far-right party in Europe announcing their open support for his regime; alt-right German internet trolls affiliated with the largely unsuccessful Reconquista Germanica have even attempted to impersonate Syrian refugees on Discord, “to convince Syrian refugees in Germany that it was safe for them to return home.” The alt-right hardly needs to be defined as it has become a fixture of popular culture since around 2010 (with Richard Spencer often being credited with coining the term), spawning in a manner akin to the alt-left from many related subcultures such as men’s rights activists (MRAs), white nationalists and libertarians. However there are other ideologies that are not as easy to define, drawing inspiration from both the left and right of the political spectrum. This issue and its history is covered in intricate detail in the article “An Investigation Into Red-Brown Alliances: Third Positionism, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, And The Western Left.” Here I will focus mainly on the SSNP and the ideology of National Bolshevism (the followers of which are commonly known as “Nazbols”) which are two third positionist ideologies that come up time and again in relation to both the alt-left and Syria. The SSNP has been very active in Europe organizing support for the Assad regime among the far-right, along with fellow Assad regime ally and radical Islamist group Hezbollah which has similarity courted far-right support in Italy.

archive.today capture of the tweet

The links these third positionist tendencies have to the subject of Syria is not always straightforward; one case is self-proclaimed leftist Paul Antonopoulos, a former contributor to pro-Assad propaganda blog Al Masdar News who was involved in controversy due to racist comments posted under a screen name associated with him on Neo-Nazi website Storm Front (as well as another forum). He has since been published in Journal of Eurasian Affairs, under the auspices of National Bolshevik philosopher Aleksandr Dugin (along with the wife of alt-right figure Richard Spencer Nina Kouprianova and notorious pro-Assad troll Maram Susli, who is better known by the screen name Partisangirl). When contacted for this article, Antonopoulos emphasized that he did not know who Dugin was at the time, claimed to have not read his work, and stated that “agnostic might be a good way to describe” his views on Dugin. Navid Nasr, who is a member of the Steering Committee of the US-based Syria Solidarity Movement (along with Sara Flounders who is affiliated with the Workers World Party, and Richard Becker who is affiliated with the Party for Liberation and Socialism), has expressed his sympathies for the worldview of leading National Bolshevik theorist Alexandr Dugin, stating:

Yeah, as a friend of mine always points out, the divide here is not between “right” and “left” so much as it is between “Atlanticists” and “Eurasianists.” Obviously I favor the latter.
A cartoon published by Arktos featuring Aleksandr Dugin alongside European far-right figures Daniel Friberg, Alain deBenoist and Guillaume Faye (source)

Another pro-Assad individual connected with Duginism is Kevork Almassian of the German Center for Eurasian Studies, who has appeared on Kremlin-backed media such as RT. The connection with the theories of Dugin has even come up in relation to individuals who have involved themselves in the Rojava project in Northern Syria, such as Amir Taaki who has been accused of alt-right entryism. A Nazbol figure who has found fertile ground among sections of the alt-left is Eduard Limonov. A former contributor to The eXile, Limonov maintains a devoted following of admirers among other writers for the controversial publication, including Mark Ames, Yasha Levine, Matt Taibbi, and John Dolan (AKA “The War Nerd”). Besides being known for his political musings, Limonov is also notorious for firing a machine gun at besieged Sarajevo while embedded with the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) in the summer of 1992. It is worth noting that several of these members of what Ames regards as the “unauthorized left” affiliated with The eXile have also been engaged in significant controversy; Taibbi was forced to leave an ambitious project called “Racket” in 2014 that was supposed to be a sister publication to The Intercept in part due to complaints by a female colleague of gender based abuse, and both Ames and Taibbi were harshly criticized when profoundly misogynistic passages from the 2001 book “The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia” (which specifically claimed “This is a work of nonfiction” on the copyright page of the first edition published in the year 2000) were brought to light in late 2017. Meanwhile, John Dolan was published on a far-right website which counted Richard Spencer as its managing editor at the time.

archive.today capture of the tweet
Logo of LaRouchePAC, the main organization associated with the US-based political cult of Lyndon LaRouche

Another more fringe ideology associated with the alt-left and Syria is the LaRouche movement. Well known as a cult-like organization, the LaRouche movement combines anti-war and anti-imperialist rhetoric which mimics that of the left with a far-right ideology, and has connections with both Dugin’s political philosophy and Russia. The LaRouche movement is known to have a history of attempting to interject itself into leftist dominated issues such as Occupy Wall Street. One of LaRouche’s followers is known to be a particularly toxic pro-Assad troll named Scott Gaulke, better known by his Twitter handle @Navsteva. Gaulke, who is originally from Wisconsin, apparently ran an ineffective campaign against an incumbent Democrat in California in 1990, during which he claimed an 11-year alliance with Lyndon LaRouche, espoused strange geopolitical theories regarding the Soviet Union, and had campaign literature which called the Anti-Defamation League a “criminal conspiracy.” A Harassment Restraining order from Milwaukee County, Wisconsin was filed against Gaulke in 2008. In one incident that is notorious among Syria analysts and observers that was widely mocked, Gaulke claimed to have traveled to Damascus and presented pictures as “evidence” that were actually taken by another LaRouchite who was on a solidarity delegation to Syria.

archive.today capture of the tweet

Mainstream politics

Although Assad clearly has much support from both the far-left and the far-right, in some cases this also extends to mainstream elected officials who have the power to actually affect policy. Concerns have been raised regarding UK Labour Party leader Jermey Corbyn’s connections relating to Syria. Yet, it is US politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties who have made the most dubious statements about Syria including Green Party leader Jill Stein, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, and former US Presidential candidate Ron Paul, who have all made strange claims regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Three politicians in particular have traveled to regime-held Syria and subsequently espoused overtly pro-Assad views, who I shall elaborate on here.

Richard H. Black of the Republican Party, Tulsi Gabbard of the Democratic Party, and Dennis Kucinich of the Democratic Party are three politicians from both ends of the US two party system who have visited regime-held Syria and hold similar pro-Assad views
archive.today capture of the tweet

Republican member of the Virginia State Senate Richard (“Dick”) H. Black traveled to Assad regime-held Syria in 2016 and strongly voiced his support for Damascus (it remains unclear who paid for the trip); he has also been heavily involved with the LaRouche movement affiliated Schiller Institute (appearing in a video with his aside and fringe pro-Assad figure Janice Kortkamp), and has been a frequent guest and outspoken defender of Kremlin-sponsored RT. Black’s reasoning on issues surrounding Syria and the conclusions he reaches are questionable to say the least, and he has used conspiracy theories to justify his views including the following:

During the recent legislative session, Black kept a map of Syria on an easel by his desk in Richmond, using it as a prop to explain his opposition to the United States accepting Syrian refugees
archive.today capture of the tweet

Tulsi Gabbard has long been considered an unconventional Democrat, with some describing her as one of “the left’s neocons.” Even members of the alt-left such as Zaid Jilani have called out the fact that she has long regularly appeared on right-wing talk shows, engages in Islamophobic rhetoric, and has unsettling links to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in India. Similarly, leftist US publication Jacobin has criticized her conservative origins and bizarre stance on anti-interventionism, which cannot accurately be described as “anti-war.” Yet Gabbard is easily the most high profile US politician to engage in this open defense of Assad; during the Democratic Party primaries she was widely touted as a front runner for Bernie Sanders to pick as a Vice Presidential candidate, and soon after the election of Trump she was invited to Trump Towers to discuss foreign policy (with rumors that she could have been offered a Cabinet position in the Trump administration). Further controversy related to Syria has followed when it was discovered that expenses for Gabbard’s 2017 trip to Syria where she met with Bashar Assad himself were paid for by a group with links to the SSNP — she later decided to “personally reimburse the cost” due to an uproar in Washington. Gabbard has openly supported fellow pro-Assad politician Dennis Kucinich.

archive.today capture of the tweet

Kucinich’s links to the Assad regime go back to 2007, via an association with two SSNP-linked brothers, Elie and Bassam Khawam (the same brothers who organized and paid for Tulsi Gabbard’s 2017 trip to Syria). Kucinich’s most prominent engagement with the regime in Syria is when he conducted a 2013 interview with Bashar Assad for Fox News (he again returned to Syria during the conflict in 2017). Kucinich’s connection with the Assad regime came to prominence once more in the mid-2018 Ohio gubernatorial (which he soundly lost while running in the Democratic Primary, receiving only 22.9% of the vote), when an amended ethics disclosure showed he was paid $20,000 which was ultimately traced back to the aforementioned Syria Solidarity Movement (which is essentially a querfront of Marx-Leninists and fascists which act as a front for an SSNP-led Assad regime “Reconciliation” body) — part of this money paid to Kucinich was used to attend a conference in London in April 2018, which also involved US-sanctioned figure Ali Haidar, the leader of the SSNP and the Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs (i.e. an Assad regime body created to force rebels to surrender on the regime’s terms).

Distortion of history, ignorance of the present

The best example of the alt-left’s distortion of history is Afghanistan. This was a conflict started by and continually stoked on by the Soviet Union, after a long history of Russian colonialism in the country beginning during the period of the “Great Game” in the 19th century and leading up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The progression of the ensuing war in Afghanistan is laid out by Steve Coll in his book Ghost Wars, an iconic work on a crucial period in the evolution of modern day Jihadism.

archive.today capture of the tweet

The alt-left and others seem content to reduce this complex conflict to a single picture from 1972 of Afghan women wearing miniskirts in Kabul. The irony is, this picture is from the era of the Kingdom of Afghanistan when the country was a constitutional monarchy, which was subsequently overthrown the following year in what was ultimately a Soviet friendly coup — little to do with the CIA. The turmoil escalated further with the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan-led Saur Revolution in 1978, and further still the following year when the Soviet Union directly used its Special Forces in Operation Storm-333 to launch a coup in which they killed the then Afghan president while storming the presidential palace. Considering the fact that the instability in Afghanistan was caused by a coup by a Soviet friendly party, which led to a further coup followed by yet more Soviet-linked Communist infighting and ultimately leading to a coup orchestrated directly by the Soviet military, it seems rather strange to blame the CIA or the United States for the turmoil in the country. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze admitted as much upon the signing of the Genva Agreements to disengage the Soviet Union from the conflict, as related in Rodric Braitwaite’s Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979–89: “I couldn’t stop thinking about the people we had trained up, pushed into a revolution, and were now abandoning to face a mortal foe alone.” However, what is more troubling than the anachronistic use of a photograph is the manner in which it is misused to divert attention away from the extremely brutal and repressive Soviet-backed regime of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan that was responsible for egregious human rights abuses. At the end of that very decade in which the Kabul picture was taken, a purge against individuals accused of “anti-revolutionary” sympathies resulted in “more than 27,000 people disappear[ing] in Kabul alone — and possibly 100,000 across the country — in just 20 months.” This is a figure that rivals the forced disappearances of some 75,000 people that the Syrian Assad regime is actively involved in.

The Maoist Afghanistan Liberation Organization fought the Soviet Union’s occupation

The Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Union that followed is portrayed as one solely comprised of “Islamist fundamentalists.” This completely ignores the diverse range of Afghan resistance forces including those led by military commander Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Tajik ethnic minority, who would later go on to lead the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban and be assassinated by al-Qaeda. Furthermore, several anti-Soviet leftist movements during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan emphasized the equality of women, including; The Organization for the Liberation of the Working Class (Akhgar), The Organization for Liberation of People of Afghanistan (SAMA), and The Aghanistan Liberation Organization (ALO). Other revolutionary movements were also active with several far outlasting the Soviet-Afghan conflict, a full list of which can be found in Hafizullah Emadi’s Politics of the Dispossessed: Superpowers and Developments in the Middle East.

Another example of the alt-left’s questionable grasp of history is Iran, an Islamic theocracy which has a legacy that has been intensely distorted in order to confrom to notions of anti-imperialism which are currently in vogue. There exists evidence that anti-American firebrand Ayatollah Khomeini had friendly contact with the US for well over a decade before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a complicated aspect of history which many try to ignore. Furthermore, an issue with Western-centric anti-interventionism is that it ignores many views on the left internationally which do not conform to this outlook — this tendency has been referred to as “Bleeding hearts at home, bleeding skulls abroad.” A good contemporary example is that of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) in Iran.

archive.today capture of the tweet

Towards a definition

The alt-left mirrors the tactics of the alt-right and in many ways seems like a spin-off ideology with only minor aesthetic differences, designed for people who are unable to wholeheartedly embrace the alt-right’s more open bigotry and racism for a multitude of reasons. Regardless of appearances, the tactics of the alt-left are largely identical to the alt-right, and research into the alternative media ecosystem that sustains the diverse array of niche ideologies that make up both ends of the “alt” spectrum found that “websites are publishing the same content, but inside very different wrappers […] The effects of this kind of sharing may be to draw people from diverse, niche, political and ideological communities into a set of common narratives.” There are several synonymous terms in addition to alt-left which people have attributed to this tendency; troll left, fake left, podcast left and unauthorized left. Yet the end result can consistently be summed up as follows — “The alt-Left is a unique phenomenon which attempts to blur the line between the far-Right and certain elements of the Left.” Regardless of other terms, alt-left seems to be the most convenient and well known shorthand for this distinct political current, the main characteristics of which are “distinguished mainly by a reactionary contrarianism, a seething ressentiment, and a conspiracist worldview.” A full list of common traits can be identified as:

  • Preference to resort to cynical trolling rather than engage in real or honest debate in a manner that mirrors the tactics of the alt-right, revolving around “ironic” inside jokes and memes which are either nonsensical or obscure to outsiders (e.g. pretending to be posadists)
  • Marked anti-intellectualism and intense dogma, an ignorance of history and theory, and a reductionist/simplistic world view
  • Loathing of liberals, centrists, and leftists who are perceived as moderates (such as social democrats or left communists) — having an even greater loathing for them than they have for the far-right, and displaying less willingness to tolerate them
  • Conspiracy theorist mindset which reflexively derides mainstream media in preference to alternative media which is largely non-fact based and more ideologically orientated (Alternet, The Canary, MintPress News, etc.)
  • Outmoded worldview which views events through the prism of past conflicts (especially the Iraq War but also Afghanistan conflicts, the Cold War, etc.)
  • Use of politics as a performative aesthetic and an obsession with a subculture revolving around (mainly Soviet) nostalgia and kitsch
  • Tendency to “support” authoritarian regimes around the world (e.g. North Korea, Ba’athist Syria, Islamic Republic of Iran) in which actual leftists are either state-controlled puppets, persecuted, or politically non-existent
  • Adherence to a narrow ideology of anti-imperialism which ascribes a grandiose and unrealistic role to the US or West as a whole (i.e. vulgar campism and “the ‘anti-imperialism’ of idiots”)
  • Projection of Western identity politics as a means to explain geopolitical issues in a manner that makes little sense (i.e. reflexively “supporting” ethnic or religious groups that are perceived to be minorities regardless of existing complexities surrounding a given issue)

Pro-Assad media

archive.today capture of the tweet

An issue related to the alt-left and Syria is what has been called “Assadist Hasbara,” which is what I will focus on in this section. As described by +972 Magazine, “Hasbara is a form of propaganda aimed at an international audience, primarily, but not exclusively, in western countries,” which is meant to positively portray Israel — the key difference with this brand of Assadist Hasbara to the kind of propaganda that the Assad regime broadcasts to its domestic audience is that rather that trying to put a positive spin on the Assad regime, the latter is far more sinister and threatening. The Assadist Hasbara that is targeted to an international audience is comprised of two separate yet related blocs, which are emblematic of the strategy of Kremlin-backed media such as Sputnik which amplifies them; the first are conspiratorial and more right-wing orientated, while the second represents engagement with the far-left.

Bartlett and Beeley

A cartoon depicting Beeley and Bartlett as examples of “independent journalism” that appeared in a 2017 edition of the fringe UK newspaper The Morning Star, which is affiliated with the Marx–Leninist Communist Party of Britain (source)

The first bloc of Assadist Hasbara which is frequently cited by the alt-left involves Syria opportunists Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley. An important distinction to be made here is that despite often being referred to as “independent journalists,” these two individuals never started in legitimate journalism and cannot be considered actual journalists by any stretch of the imagination; they also don’t appear to have coherent political ideologies, instead appearing to be nothing more than cranks. Their careers seem to revolve mostly around targeting the White Helmet rescue workers in a manner that parallels the Israeli “Pallywood” attacks on Palestinians (i.e. supposed “Palestinian propaganda [that] attempts to discredit Israel”) They have been accused even by other fringe pro-Assad figures of actually being funded by the Assad regime, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Syrian Solitary Movement. Eva Bartlett is listed as an Editor on conspiracy theory website Sign of The Times, which describes itself as “a research project of the non-profit Quantum Future Group.” The Quantum Future Group has apparently been investigated by French Police on suspicion of being a cult. Meanwhile, Vanessa Beeley is associated with the site 21st Century Wire, which engages in climate change denial among a host of other conspiracy theories, while Beeley herself has stated that “the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was staged, al-Qaeda wasn’t behind the 9/11 attacks,” as well as espoused theories about France being ruled by “Zionists.” Beeley has also appeared at events involving anti-Semites. Some leftists have expressed bemusement at Beeley’s ideological incoherence.

Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton as well as Rania Khalek appearing on RT

Without a doubt the worst offenders in terms of Assadist Hasbara are Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, and Ben Norton, due to the fact that unlike Beeley and Bartlett, they used to have an element of credibility. These three far-left extremists originally had backgrounds in legitimate journalism and have attempted to make Syria — or more specifically, attacking academics and journalists related to the topic, and defending the Assad regime — their cornerstone issue. Their atrocious behavior has often been defended by more influential alt-left figures such as Glenn Greenwald. All three have links to Kremlin-sponsored media, either working directly for it like Khalek, working closely with it like Blumenthal, or simply appearing on it like Norton (according to a journalist I spoke to, RT is known to occasionally pay those who appear as pundits on it; it’s unclear if Blumenthal or Norton were paid for their appearances). Significantly, these three have clashed even with other fringe pro-Assad alternative media figures; conspiracy theorist blog Moon of Alabama has accused Blumenthal and Khalek of involvement in plagiarism of Beeley’s screeds about the White Helmets, and they have been drawn into bizarre, niche infighting among Eva Bartlett and others. Both Khalek and Norton have feigned bemusement at people “fixating” upon them and Blumenthal regarding Syria, yet all three have engaged in egregious conduct which violates basic journalistic ethics; without a doubt the most appalling thing they have done is spread Assad regime propaganda about Wadi Barada in a coordinated manner (it is unclear if they did this on their own initiative or at the behest of others). Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek both engaged in spreading Assad regime propaganda regarding Wadi Barada, falsely claiming rebels had poisoned the water supply and aggressively lying about an unproven al-Qaeda presence in the area, while Ben Norton (in a since deleted tweet) seemed to suggest Syrian Opposition blame (while making no attempt to criticize the falsehoods spread by his two accomplices). I myself monitored the regime offensive in Rif Dimashq and found no evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra involvement — at that time under the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) — or any other al-Qaeda affiliate, and neither did fellow Syria analyst Qalaat Al Mudiq. As noted by Qalaat Al Mudiq when contacted regarding this matter, “the only ‘evidence’ JFS released from that region was one pic showing a tank shelling a base […] something like 8–10 months before [the] Regime-Hezbollah offensive,” further noting that it would be contrary to everything we know about the group’s behavior for them to not show their involvement in fighting if they were actually active in the region. The United Nations later concluded that the Assad regime’s Syrian Arab Air Force was in fact the side that had actually committed a war crime when it deliberately bombed the water supply in December 2016, which “cut off water for 5.5 million people in and around the capital Damascus.” Neither Blumenthal, Khalek or Norton have acknowledged these findings or apologized for their role in the systematic spreading of disproven Assad regime propaganda.

Blumenthal and Khalek engaging in the coordinated spreading of Assad regime propaganda on Twitter; in the first screenshot Blumenthal criticizes The Guardian for not mentioning “Al Qaeda” (when the organization actually had no presence in Wadi Barada) and goes onto suggest the newspaper should have believed Assad regime claims at face value, while in the second screenshot Khalek engages in the targeted harassment of an internally displaced Syrian before then going on to repeat the same (subsequently disproven) propaganda as Blumanthal

It is startling to compare the views of these three people from before they were involved with Russian state media and subsequently became apologists for the Assad regime, as all three were formally highly critical of the regime and have now come to hold antithetical views. For example, Khalek discussed in 2014 “the anti-war left that still till now is very dismissive of the Syrian uprising and in some cases excuses Assad for the horrific crimes he’s committing.” Blumenthal and Norton in particular had nuanced and well thought-out views on the subject, which they inexplicably abandoned overnight in favor of pro-Assad regime views which are both tabloid and propagandist. In a recent May 2018 episode of a podcast called Moderate Rebels that is co-hosted by Blumenthal and Norton, Khalek was a guest and they finally addressed their change of views on Syria, with them all essentially claiming to have been uninformed and under the influence of other people while holding anti-Assad views (Norton had previously addressed this issue in a July 2017 blog post after months of refusing to comment on his spontaneous change of heart on Syria). A cache of screenshots showing their old tweets, most of which have now been deleted, was collected by the aforementioned Scott Gaulke (likely due to pro-Assad infighting they have been part of). While Khalek and Norton have both purged all or most of their old tweets, unlike these two Blumenthal doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to delete evidence of his old views. This comparison of a tweet from Blumenthal in 2014 and another from 2018 is illustrative of how totally the collective views of this clique have changed:

Two Tweets, one from 2014 and another from 2018, demonstrating Blumenthal’s changing attitudes towards and use of the sectarian slur “takfiri”

Max Blumenthal

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As early as 2014, Blumenthal was attacking Egyptian activist Mona Eltahawy along with Jeremy Scahill, and was banned from German parliament after a particularly strange incident involving Left Party chairman Gregor Gysi. Before this, Blumenthal had admitted that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) speaking engagements had helped to pay his rent — according to an academic I spoke to, it is common practice in Europe for academics/journalists to refuse payment for such engagements. Regardless, being paid in this manner by SJP is a strange state of affairs for the son of millionaire Sidney Blumenthal (Max is frequently mentioned approvingly in his father’s leaked emails to Hilary Clinton). Much of Blumenthal’s conduct regarding the left, Syria, and connections to Russia have already been covered in the article “Did a Kremlin Pilgrimage cause Alternet blogger’s Damascene conversion?” which traces Blumenthal’s ideological conversion following a late 2015 trip to Russia, where he appeared at an RT event in Moscow alongside Russia Insider Editor Charles Bausman (who has subsequently been widely criticized for an article viewed as anti-Semitic, “It’s Time to Drop the Jew Taboo”) — the event was hosted by In The Now propagandist Anissa Naouai.

Footage of an RT talk in Moscow uploaded by the YouTube channel RTQuestionMore under the title “InfoWar: Will there be a winner?

Like Rania, Max has become increasingly close to Kremlin-backed media. Blumenthal is best known for writing hit pieces on rescue workers the White Helmets and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) that were published on Grayzone (which was formerly affiliated with Alternet), and while this was clearly targeted at appealing to a Russian-backed media audience, there is no evidence of these articles having a direct connection to it. Blumenthal’s formal relationship became more clear when he was involved with an RT project as early as March 2018 with Anya Parampil (more on his connection to her later). At least one article of his has been republished on RT. Blumenthal has gone out of his way to defend many sites in the alternative news ecosystem. However, a significant recent incident was Blumenthal spearheading the effort to get fascism researcher Alexander Reid Ross’ articles removed from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch project, triggered by the publication of “The Multipolar Spin: How Fascists Operationalize Left-wing Resentment” (which has since been republished in numerous places with the author’s consent). He did this by using former Sputnik employee Bill Moran as his lawyer, who had previously represented fellow one-time Sputnik employee and alt-right associated figure Cassandra Fairbanks as recently as 2017, as well as Matt Talibii in his efforts to get newspapers to change their depictions of his behavior. The legal threat issued by Moran also weirdly accused journalist Charles Davis and academic/author Idrees Ahmad of involvement with Reid Ross’ piece, despite there being no evidence of this. According to a source in contact with Sam Hamad, Blumenthal is also possibly considering legal action due to an essay Hamad wrote recently mentioning him. In recent days, Moran has gone to great lengths to harass journalist SulomeAnderson. Fox News covered the story involving Reid Ross and the SPLC, and included this eyebrow raising sentence: “A source close to Blumenthal mocked the article, pointing out that it attempts to portray an appearance on Carlson’s show as a negative, despite the fact that it’s among the most popular cable programs in the country.” It is worth noting that Blumenthal, known to have a connection to Kremlin-linked media, had appeared on Fox New’s Tucker Carlson Tonight show to previously castigate fellow democrats over their stance on Russia.

Rania Khalek

Khalek has drifted into working for a variety of Kremlin-sponsored media outlets including Redfish, In the Now, and RT. It is important to note that RT has registered as a foreign government agent under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and according to a document cache provided to the FBI, RT has obliged those that work for it to provide “a Russian viewpoint” and “maintain allegiance” to the country. Furthermore, Khalek has also been promoted by the official Assad regime state media outlet SANA, which raises other serious concerns regarding her coverage of the subject. She is Lebanese-American and Druze, both of which are important points to take into consideration in relation to her career and worldview. Early on in her career, Khalek was best known for her Palestinian activism, and she was an Editor at Electronic Intifada before being forced to step down due to attending a pro-regime conference in Damascus in 2016 (I have been told many incorrectly assumed that she herself was Palestinian — a misconception that she apparently did little to correct). The fact that she is Druze is significant, as a hostility towards Islam and a general lack of knowledge of the religion seems to obviously color her views on Syria, often indiscriminately describing Syrian rebels as “al-Qaedaand “ISIS,” as well as casually describing Sunni Muslims opposed to Assad as extremist “Wahhabis.” Khalek has even gone as far as to mourn the death of Assad regime General and sanctioned war criminal Issam Zahreddine (also from the Druze community).

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A SSNP martyrdom poster from Syria, declaring that a member “was martyred in the battles of bravery and defense in the face of the internal Jews”

Khalek’s work with Kremlin-backed media has provided further insight into her links. During her stint at Redfish, alt-right linked figure Elizabeth Cocker (better known by her fake name “Lizzie Phelan”) was listed as the sole representative of the media organization which would have likely made Cocker the handler of Khalek during this period. Interestingly, Redfish did not immediately disclose its links to the Kremlin, initially presenting itself as an independent grassroots media company until being exposed by journalist Charles Davis. Cocker has worked for Iranian propaganda site Press TV and has appeared prominently on alt-right news site Voltaire Network. The Vice-president of the Voltaire Network is Issa el-Ayoubi, who was the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs of the fascistic SSNP as of 2008. Khalek has spoken favorably of the SSNP while defending Hawaiian politician Tulsi Gabbard’s trip to Syria that was funded by the SSNP, going as far as to describe the group as “secular [and] anti-sectarian.” To anyone familiar with the SSNP, its role in Lebanon and Syria, and its history, this is a truly strange assertion. The SSNP regularly refers to its enemies as “internal Jews,” and its members are known to rant about “How the Jews corrupted the manners of all of the peoples of the world through the way of Cultural Marxism” — this is unsurprising as the organization is rooted in fascist ideology, with the SSNP’s founder Antoun Saadeh having been influenced by Hitler and his worldview having been described as “Christian sectarian fanaticism.”

Khalek appearing on the Radio War Nerd podcast hosted by John Dolan (this episode also featured Mark Ames), where she offers an in-depth defense of the SSNP and mentions that SSNP member Bassam Khawam is “an old family friend” (she has defended the SSNP several times)

In terms of other links, Khalek co-hosts the Unauthorized Disclosure podcast, has appeared on The Katie Halper Show podcast (along with several of the Chapo Trap House hosts), and has called Leith Fadel “one of the best (if not the best) English sources” on Syria — Fadel is the founder of a pro-Assad propaganda website that has been linked to Russian online influence networks. Khalek’s commitment to honest and open journalism is in grave doubt; she has been harshly criticized by other pro-Assad individuals who represent themselves as journalists for stating false information, and an article written by Palestinian journalist P. Leila Barghouty was deleted from the Medium account of Jewish Voice for Peace, likely after objections raised by Khalek.

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Ben Norton

A screenshot of a since deleted tweet which Norton has been widely mocked for due to its blatant Islamophobia (source)

Norton is the least influential when compared to Blumenthal and Khalek, and therefore not really worth focusing too much attention on. Norton also appears to be the most politically extreme of the three, often using terms like neo-Kautskyite and socdem as insults, and appealing to the DSA to focus on his interpretation of anti-imperialism. Prior to his political conversion, Norton harshly criticized the Assad regime and its supporters, accurately taking note in a since deleted article that “Blatant Anti-Semitism Is Common Among Assad Supporters.” Norton’s transition to an authoritarian far-left ideology appears to have began at Salon (which he was let go from in late 2016). This radicalization continued at the Alternet Grayzone project (the current status of Grayzone is unclear following Alternet’s ownership changing hands). According to a journalist who spoke to him while he worked at Salon, Norton’s “one year goal” was to secure a job at The Intercept, something which he failed to accomplish — he seems to have ended up at second tier news website The Real News along with Blumenthal (under the patronage of fellow alt-left figure and The Real News Producer Aaron Maté).

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Podcasts

Emoprog Army Radio Hour

Emoprog Army Radio Hour was a brief and unsuccessful forerunner to Chapo Trap House, featuring many recognizable weird/left Twitter members as rotating hosts

The Emoprog Army Radio Hour podcast began in April 2014, based initially around the hosts @violentfanon (known to have lived in California), @lindsberty (allegedly from Georgia), @dankmtl (an American from Pennsylvania of Armenian heritage residing in Montreal, Canada), and @swarthyvillain (originally from Chicago but later NYC). @cushbomb (originally from Wisconsin) started to co-host the Emoprog Army Radio Hour podcast as early as episode 4, hosting eight of the thirty-eight episodes. Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, and Ben Norton all co-hosted at one point or another. Other recognizable rotating co-hosts included @SpartaZC (who currently controls @YourAnonCentral), Roqayah Chamseddine, and the Twitter tankie Terrina Aguilar (who often shares dubious articles on social media including those published by the Lyndon LaRouche-affiliated Schiller Institute). Notable guests included Glenn Greenwald and Justine Tunney. The last episode with Dan Cohen as a guest (who would later go onto work at RT) was in January 2015.

Episode 3 of the Emoprog Army Radio Hour with guest Justine Tunney

Only three episodes are still available (episode 3 and episode 8 are still up on the podcast’s YouTube channel, while episode 25 is preserved elsewhere), along with the transcript of episode 7, and topics discussed include favorable coverage the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and reproductive rights. Despite largely being forgotten, the podcast was none-the-less an interesting relic in the formation of the alt-left, and a clear forerunner to the far better known Chapo Trap House. While @swarthyvillain obviously had not found his voice yet on the Emoprog Army Radio Hour, merely chiming in with awkward scripted jokes every so often, he would continue tweeting as a well known Weird Twitter account (that was likely eventually banned) and writing for Gawker-related site Deadspin, later becoming better known by his real name of Felix Biederman as a host on Chapo Trap House (Biederman is the son of attorney and businessman William Biederman who passed away in 2011, and therefore seems to have had quite a privileged upbringing — although interestingly, Biederman has described his father as a “tankie”). Similarly, @cushbomb would also later go onto to host Chapo Trap House under his real name Matt Chrstman. Christman has mentioned this podcast critically as part of the formation of Chapo Trap House, stating that “Felix and I… like we had a really good rapport on it when we got to riff on stuff but that was always kinda clamped down on.” The other three main hosts of Emoprog Army Radio Hour would not achieve the same notoriety and remained in obscurity; @dankmtl is still active on social media albeit doing nothing other than being an obnoxious troll (he recently tweeted approvingly not just once but multiple times regarding a chemical attack by the Assad regime in Douma which killed tens of civilians) and appearing on several other minor podcasts, @violentfanon maintains a locked Twitter account (a few clues about him remain online, including a 2014 NBC Bay Area article which reports that he was a “28-year-old University of California, Berkeley graduate student, one of about 150 arrested Monday as part of ongoing demonstrations over the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers” — the article notes that he asked to only to be identified by his Twitter handle), while @lindsberty seems to have disappeared from social media entirely.

An avi used by @violentfanon for the podcast modeled upon that of The Salvation Army

I was able to talk to one of the rotating co-hosts of Emoprog Army Radio Hour (who wished to remain anonymous), who told me details about the podcast and several of the individuals who appeared on it, some of which have since changed radically. According to this former co-host, after meeting Blumenthal and Norton in Brooklyn she concluded that they were “disappointing […] rich kid communists” adding that “Max [Blumenthal] wasn’t dating Anya Parampil from RT at the time. After he started dating her he went full conspiracy theorist nutjob.” As for Norton, they mentioned that “Ben hated RT then too […] the irony,” as well as the fact that “Ben was looking for a mentor & found it in Blumenthal sadly.” As for Felix Biederman, they stated that “He’s really not a bad person he’s just lost,” mentioning that he has mental health issues. According to the former co-host I was able to speak to, a likely reason the podcast ended was due to @violentfanon pursuing a PhD, as well as the fact that he grew to hate Twitter and the podcast; tweets on long dead accounts by other former co-hosts of this podcast leave traces of profound disillusionment with the left.

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Chapo Trap House

A meme that appeared on the forums of Something Awful, a website that was a precursor to 4Chan which had many of the same themes, which several hosts of Chapo Trap House have admitted to using in the past (source)
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I first became aware of Chapo Trap House via Biederman’s Twitter presence a few months ago. He would show up frequently in Syria related threads spouting particularly unintelligent and unnuanced views, with these tweets seeming to inexplicably garner hundreds of likes from an army of largely anonymous Weird Twitter troll accounts. Prior to this, I had never heard of him or the podcast. Upon later listening to the podcast, I found that it essentially consists of the deeply immature hosts (all seem to be somewhere between their mid-20s to mid-30s) sitting around manically laughing at their own jokes, attacking individuals they apparently don’t like (the vast majority of the time this focuses on members of the “liberal establishment”) and obsessively discussing generic elements of American popular culture such as their favorite TV shows or fast food (i.e. the products of capitalism). Despite having a reputation for its association with leftist politics, you would be forgiven for wondering how exactly this is the case after listening to a regular episode; other than brief mentions of issues such as environmentalism, Chapo Trap House’s talking points and mannerisms are generally indistinguishable from the alt-right that they occasionally criticize. The podcast has earned the nickname “Chapo Fash House” among many leftists on Twitter, and the hosts even use the name “Grey Wolves” as a term for their fans (after a borderline fascist Turkish political movement of the same name). This latter point regarding the podcast’s similarities with the alt-right has not been lost on that movement’s most visible leader, Richard Spencer.

Part of a Richard Spencer speech noting the similarities between Chapo Trap House and alt-right podcasts (Michigan State University, March 2018)
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An interesting point regarding this podcast is that the term “dirtbag left” was coined on it by Amber A’Lee Frost, with dirtbag being a term she often liked to use to describe things. The dirtbag left is simply a term that a significant subsection of what is generally known as the alt-left use to self identify — the distinction is also important due to the fact that, as mentioned before, much of the left usually reject the term alt-left as a liberal or right-wing slur. While Biederman, Christman, and Menaker formed Chapo Trap House in March 2016 shortly after a joint appearance on the Street Fight Radio podcast (during which they spouted many conspiracy theories about Libya and Syria), Virgil Texas and Amber A’Lee Frost only later joined as co-hosts. The dirtbag left’s roots are clearly in internet troll culture. Several of the hosts have alluded to being active on the forums of Something Awful, from which individuals associated with Weird Twitter started out at, as well as from where came the even more toxic and infamously alt-right connected 4Chan (the latter site was in fact created by a 15 year old former user of Something Awful in 2003).

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Primarily, the significance of the dirtbag left is best understood as generational. Unlike the teenagers and 20 something year olds that make up the legions of red rose Twitter, most alt-left figures who don’t fit the definition of dirtbag left are significantly older; people such as Democratic Party figures Dennis Kucinich and Tulsi Gabbard, Russia-linked Green Party leader Jill Stein, “deep state” obsessed FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley, journalist Glenn Greenwald of Snowden fame and The eXile related figures such as Mark Ames. Specific individuals that have been described using the term dirtbag left in the media include Brace Belden, a former drug addict and self-described communist from San Francisco who travelled to Syria to join the US-backed YPG (Belden was active on Twitter under @pisspiggranddad before the account was suspended, and was also a guest on the podcast). Other guests have included the aforementioned Glenn Greenwald, the co-founder of The Intercept who has been dubbed “the heirophant of left-ish opposition to the liberal order” (interestingly, Greenwald previously held what appeared to be libertarian and paleo-conservative views before his conversion to a vague leftism). Lee Fang and Jeremy Scahill (a fellow co-founder along with Greenwald) of The Intercept have also appeared as guests on the podcast.

Will Menaker and Matt Christman posing with Josh Androsky alongside the Hollywood Walk of Fame stars for Bill Cosby and Brett Ratner (both high profile individuals accused of sexual misconduct)
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Several Chapo Trap House guests have been embroiled in controversy, mostly centered around the harassment of women. One was English journalist Sam Kriss, another was the already discussed Matt Taibbi, and yet another was now deactivated Twitter troll Joe Prince who appeared on episode 136. In another context, two time guest Angela Nagle has been found to have quite obviously plagiarized parts of her book “Kill All Normies.” Chapo Trap House hosts have also faced increased backlash as the podcast grew in popularity, which seems to have started in earnest in around mid-2017; a notable example is an article by Jeet Heer which criticized them for sexism and “the politics of domination.” Amber A’Lee Frost was called out for her attitude against disabled members of the DSA after they complained about being frozen out of the “Medicare for All” campaign decision making process. Although all the hosts have been criticized for ironic jokes and statements they have made, it is important to emphasize that the worst behavior engaged in is by Biederman, who has made numerous jokes targeting child refugee Bana Alabed, has joked about the bombing of hospitals in Syria (the tweet has since been deleted, but Virgil Texas has similarly made jokes about hospitals in Syria), has viciously mocked and lied about a rape victim, and has frequently interacted with a troll account harassing journalist Oz Katerji. Biederman has stated that he has an interest in the Middle East, and he likes to express his clearly pro-Assad views via thinly veiled ironic jokes both on the Chapo Trap House podcast and elsewhere.

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Cum Town

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The Chapo Trap House podcast has a strong connection to a far more offensive and concerning podcast, titled Cum Town. The hosts of each podcast have frequently interacted with each other on social media and apparently know each other in real life, with Nick Mullens known to be a long time friend of both Felix Biederman and Amber A’Lee Frost; Biederman has recommended Cum Town podcast as recently as episode 198 of Chapo Trap House in April 2018, and Amber A’Lee Frost has offered an in-depth defense of their comedy. Although Chapo Trap House is well known for the large amount of revenue it is able to generate on Pateron, Cum Town also manages to gather about a quarter of this with “Cum Town gross[ing] close to $250,000 annually.” While Cum Town is in fact less political, they do frequently mention the DSA. For a closer examination of the connections of Cum Town related figures, the article “What happened? I: Virgil Texas” covers much ground, including Mullen’s connection with the infamous hacker Weev. Weev’s real name is Andrew Auernheimer, and he is a deeply racist figure who has lived in Beirut Lebanon and stated many strange conspiracy theories regarding the Syrian conflict (his girlfriend was apparently a “Syrian Alawite and a tattoo artist” in 2014). Weev was previously defended by Glenn Greenwald during legal trouble in the US (a country which both have since fled).

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Conclusion

A vaporwave meme featuring Assad and two prominent generals posted to Instagram by alt-left troll @dankmtl, as well as another image in an identical style posted with the hashtag #Suielwave on a Telegram account affiliated with the 4Chan board /sg/ (Syria General) which is largely associated with the alt-right — “Fashwave” is a style based on vapor wave that the pro-Assad alt-right and elements of the alt-left have both embraced
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Other individuals associated with the proto alt-left have drifted away from leftism towards the far-right. Cassandra Fairbanks is the most notable example, a former Bernie Sanders supporter and Sputnik employee who flipped to being pro-Trump and associating themselves with the trappings of the alt-right subculture; Fairbanks was formerly a moderator of Your Anon Central, who was so extreme that her posts were often removed. Julian Assange of Wikileaks (who is idolized by Fairbanks) was formerly associated with the radical left during his rise two decades ago, yet is now more ambiguous politically (both Assange’s personal account and the official Wikileaks account have frequently shared tweets from alt-right figures) and has come to be shunned by significant sections of the left; the now defunct Wikileaks Party in Australia was deemed to have “libertarian” politics and sent a solidarity delegation to Syria in 2013, after which Assange’s father John Shipton stated the WikiLeaks Party wanted to open an office in Damascus. Another similar figure who sought out even more obscure ideologies is the neoreactionary Justine Tunney, who was affiliated with Occupy Wall Street and can be considered a former peer of several alt-left individuals, before moving on to announce their admiration of the “Dark Enlightenment” theories of Curtis Yarvin (AKA Mencius Moldbug, one of the ideological inspirations of the alt-right), promoting #GamerGate, making pro-slavery comments and appearing on alt-lite figure Gavin McInnes’s podcast. Other figures continue to maintain a vaguely leftist veneer yet blur the line considerably, such as The Young Turks contributor Michael Tracy who is known for his relentless and disproportionate Trump and Russia apologism, as well as Australian blogger and self-described “Bogan socialist” Caitlin Johnstone who has advocated 9/11, #Pizzagate, and Seth Rich conspiracy theories among numerous others. While largely relegated to the political fringes, other individuals who were affiliated with the alt-left movement have made inroads yet fallen from favor; a notable example was the semi-anonymous and now deleted Twitter account Lana del Raython who was bizarrely published at Jacobin magazine prior to being publicly disgraced due to revelations related to the #MeToo movement. Another was Freddie deBoer, who quit social media after accusing Malcolm Harris of rape.

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A message posted on the Telegram channel of the 4Chan related Syrian Meme Base

It is increasingly common for self-proclaimed leftists to advocate positions on a starkly non-leftist basis — they smear opposition and rebel groups with the neoconservative language of the GWOT and the conservative language of Islamophobia, they make geopolitical calculations based on realpolitik, and they appeal to legal arguments about national sovereignty that hinge on the liberal world order established post-WWII to aid in their defenese of whichever tinpot dictatorship is facing an insurrection on any given day. They have discarded internationalism and embraced a narrow anti-imperialism which is identical in practice to right-wing isolationism. They seem to have believed they could harness a similar zeitgeist to the alt-right for their own ends, all the while largely ignoring the alt-right’s influence and growth. Yet, in all cases, they have become the very thing they claim to hate in their ham-fisted quest to attempt to replace the American liberal establishment and displace moderate elements of the left. This thinking parallels Richard Spencer of the alt-right, who has stated “American ‘conservatism’ is the immediate enemy and must be destroyed. The Left will always be there. The false, weak opposition is what is preventing a true paradigm change.” The reason the alt-left attack “moderate rebels” is not because they don’t believe that they are in fact moderate, but rather it is because they hate the very notion of being moderate — they despise what the term represents on an ideological level. In addition to this, it is important to note that many of the politicians that inspired the alt-left movement take positions which are greatly at odds with its current outlook, for example Bernie Sanders holds views that are the polar opposite of those of the alt-left on issues such as Assad’s crimes in Syria and Russian election meddling.

These two memes have uncertain origins, yet are commonly used by both the alt-left and the alt-right, along with terms such as “shitlib” which seems to have more clearly originated in conservative circles but is also used as an insult by the alt-left

Ultimately, these obscure political issues are an unwelcome distraction. It is tiresome to have to point out the obvious regarding authoritarian regimes such as that of Bashar Assad which have committed crimes that have been meticulously documented and that should be obvious to any rational or even slightly informed individual, or to have to debunk the conspiracy theories embraced by the alt-left. Irony stops being ironic when toxic views are normalized within a clique and become indistinguishable from actual widely held beliefs — Virgil Texas has claimed that “One thing that everyone should keep in mind is that fascism seeks to destroy nuance and irony,” yet this is exactly what Chapo Trap House and the alt-left are perpetuating. Furthermore, the idea that such communities could appeal to most people, with their niche ideologies and deeply irreverent inside jokes, is (unlike most of their jokes) laughable. At a certain point it has to be acknowledged that many people presenting themselves as leftists are in fact crypto-fascists, and that the alt-left is little more than a significantly weaker by-product of the alt-right. None-the-less, looking into prominent figures in the alt-left can perhaps aid in tracking their future ideological progression, while keeping in mind where these views came from and how they developed. As the alt-left movement spreads its conspiracy theories and toxic behavior online from the topic of Syria, to political oppression in Venezuela, to protests in Iran, and most recently to unrest in Nicaragua, it is important to track their reactionary worldview and demonstrate their hypocrisy — as with Michael Tracey’s views on a supposedly anti-war Trump, as well as Glenn Greenwald’s similar views on Trump’s supposed “non-interventionist mindset,” the alt-left’s past positions have already been proven to be completely wrong. Katie Halper even appealed to Guccifer 2.0 in 2016, who it later transpired was a Russian Intelligence officer. Given their reactionary predisposition and propensity for making odd choices, it would be unsurprising if many who are part of the alt-left have flipped to the right or even far-right in a few years from now. Other names to watch that were not covered here include Adam H. Johnson (who has defended Kremlin-backed media), Carl Beijer, Jimmy Dore, Kyle Kulinski and Alex Nichols.

Just one of many cases of the Islamic Republic of Iran engaging in the extrajudicial killing of a leftist from the report The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran, 1988 published by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation

But beyond the alt-left is the actual left; the people tortured, killed and persecuted in Syria and elsewhere by these very same regimes that the alt-left sees fit to laud. Examples in Syria include Omar Aziz, Sadiq al-Azm and a long list of other such people in Syria. Most recently, the Assad regime informed the family of Rani Hanawi that he’d died while in detention. While these same leftists are ignored in what can only be considered an attempt to erase their memory from history, a blind eye is also turned to the numerous Russian Nazbols and Neo-Nazis fighting and dying in Syria, along with Greek Strasserists — the events occurring in Syria are real and ongoing, reverberating far beyond the Middle East.


Correction: May 16, 2018

Issam Zahreddine was under EU sanctions (which also covered the UK), but not US sanctions. Meanwhile, fellow prominent Assad regime General Suheil al-Hassan (also known as “Colonel Suhayl Hasan al-Hasan”) is however under EU, UK and US sanctions.