PewDiePie, gamer culture, and the rise of global nationalism
After Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States, I wanted to read some more about nationalism and the ideologies that led him to the presidency. The question I wanted to answer was: When does it get violent?
I didn’t expect the answers I found to tie into PewDiePie, who was dropped by Disney this week under accusations of racism and antisemitism.
Nationalism and male violence
I picked up Michael Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism. Ignatieff, a Harvard professor, journalist, and former leader of Canada’s Liberal party, has long been one of my favorite analysts for this sort of thing. He’s a wise person, and I missed his voice in the past election cycle, when it was needed most.
Blood and Belonging was written in the early 1990s. Ignatieff visits six different nations in the Middle East, Europe, and Canada, each with their own nationalist movements. It’s a lucid, well-researched account of each movement, the differences between them, and how they define nationalism as a whole and in different forms. Here are the definitions he uses for nationalism:
As a political doctrine, nationalism is the belief that the world’s peoples are divided into nations, and that each of these nations has the right of self-determination, either as self-governing units within existing nation-states or as nation-states of their own.
As a cultural ideal, nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation that provides them with their primary form of belonging.
As a moral ideal, nationalism is an ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defense of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external.
These claims — political, moral, and cultural — underwrite each other. The moral claim that nations are entitled to be defended by force or violence depends on the cultural claim that the needs they satisfy for security and belonging are uniquely important. The political idea that all peoples should struggle for nationhood depends on the cultural claim that only nations can satisfy these needs. The cultural idea in turn underwrites the political claim that these needs cannot be satisfied without self-determination.
Sound familiar? Trump doesn’t have a well-defined ideology, but the movement he’s a part of certainly makes sense in a nationalist context and some of the people who work in his White House identify as nationalist.
At the conclusion of the book, Ignatieff plumbs into the deeper meanings of what he’s seen. Why have Yugoslavia, Kurdistan, Northern Ireland, Quebec, Germany, and the former Soviet republics plunged into violent Nationalism? And how should the world address it?
To my surprise, the issues were only partially economic or partisan, he argued. They are far more attuned to human nature, particularly when it comes to “a small minority of males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five” who perpetuate “most nationalist violence.”
Some are psychopaths but most are perfectly sane. Until I had spent some time at the checkpoints of the new world order, until I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips, I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone hates and fears violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns.
Perhaps liberals have not understood the force of male resentment that has been accumulated through centuries of gradual European pacification. The history of our civilization is the history of the confiscation of the means of violence by the state. But it is an achievement that an irreducible core of young males has always resented. Liberals have not reckoned with the male loathing of peace and domesticity or with the anger of young males at the modern state’s confiscation of their weapons. One of the hidden rationales behind nationalist revolts is that they tap into this deeper substratum of male resentment at the civility and order of the modern state itself. For it seems obvious that the state’s order is the order of the father, and that nationalism is the rebellion of the sons. How else are we to account for the staggering gratuitousness and bestiality of nationalist violence, its constant overstepping of the bounds of either military logic or legitimate self-defense, unless we give some room in our account for the possibility that nationalism exists to warrant and legitimize the son’s vengeance against the father.
The United States is not there yet. But it’s important to remember that perfectly “liberalized” nations in the past, like Ireland, got there. And the media outlets and figures that appeal to these people — the young males obsessed with violence who are angry at the state — are growing in size and are becoming more popular.
Which brings me to PewDiePie.
PewDiePie’s politics are a synecdoche of nationalism.
Look, PewDiePie isn’t Breitbart or Stormfront. He’s disavowed the white supremacist groups who endorsed the videos where he made jokes at the expense of minorities.
But as Jacob Clifton argues in BuzzFeed, John Herrman argues in The New York Times, and Brian Feldman addresses in New York, much of Felix Kjellberg’s (that’s his real name) 50-million-strong audience are part of a type of disaffected gamer culture that thrives on “explicit proliferation of hate speech and misogyny, will almost inevitably keep pushing the line until they end up in a truly dark place,” Clifton writes. Or, in Herrman’s words, “His core audience is young, and his sensibility clearly appeals to a masculine teenage impulse to shock and provoke.”
But Clifton, in his essay, denies entirely that Kjellberg’s attitude and “edgelord” culture are related to nationalism. He diagnoses it as its own thing. To him, it’s an intimate, ironist, and a “particularly American form of radicalization we don’t even have a word for, because it’s so new” where
“men in our culture are trained to see themselves as the only objective and rational actor.”
Never mind that Kjellberg is not American (he is Swedish). His attitude is neither new nor American. He’s the same kind of young person Ignatieff met while he toured Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, and Quebec. He’s someone who, perhaps a few years from now, could be one of the young men with a gun on his hip, manning a checkpoint.
Herrman gets closer to the root of the issue, understanding that the nationalist culture associated with gamer culture is still nascent, but it’s a reference point for how young people are thinking.
He initially rose to popularity within the video-gaming subculture, which, beginning with the “GamerGate” movement and continuing through the American presidential election, became surprisingly and darkly politicized. His core audience is young, and his sensibility clearly appeals to a masculine teenage impulse to shock and provoke.
The full character of the burgeoning politics of platforms remains to be seen. But right-wing movements have found early traction and see opportunity. Even as farce, Kjellberg’s performance has been illustrative, and a small number of eager observers say they hope that, as backlash mounts, it will be galvanizing. “If Pewdiepie wasn’t #AltRight before,” Vox Day, a former video-game designer and an alt-right leader posted on Gab.ai, a private, Twitterlike service popular with the movement, “he is now.”
The “burgeoning politics of platforms,” if anything, are growing more and more quickly. In some ways, rebellion against a platform like YouTube is a sort of synecdoche for nationalism as a rebellion against globalization. It’s a massive, open system with rules that allows for disproportional winners and losers (Kjellberg is a millionaire; most YouTubers are struggling). If someone feels left behind, they’re going to want to establish independence against the system.
It doesn’t matter if they’re actually left behind. It doesn’t matter what “behind” even means. It doesn’t matter if the casualties of the struggle for independence is, rhetorically or mortally, Jews or other minorities. In the nationalist struggle, everything else takes a backseat.