Recent years have seen a revival of the heated culture wars of the 1990s, but this time its battle ground is the internet. On one side the "alt right" ranges from the once obscure neo-reactionary and white separatist movements, to geeky subcultures like 4chan, to more mainstream manifestations such as the Trump-supporting gay libertarian Milo Yiannopolous. On the other side, a culture of struggle sessions and virtue signalling lurks behind a therapeutic language of trigger warnings and safe spaces. The feminist side of the online culture wars has its equally geeky subcultures right through to its mainstream expression. Kill All Normies explores some of the cultural genealogies and past parallels of these styles and subcultures, drawing from transgressive styles of 60s libertinism and conservative movements, to make the case for a rejection of the perpetual cultural turn.
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The rise of President Trump and right-wing populism worldwide was preceded and normalized by a far-right social media movement. Sites such as 4chan and reddit fostered online right-wing communities that spilled out into internet journalism, Facebook and Twitter, and ultimately the White House. In her book Kill All Normies, Irish journalist Angela Nagle elucidates the circumstances that fomented this ideology.
Nagle posits that the Obama presidency’s veneer of reasoned sincerity led to the disingenuous clicktivism of the KONY 2012 movement and the social media vilification of the Cincinnati Zoo in the wake of their euthanizing Harambe the gorilla. These trends’ self-importance and intolerance of dissent led to a good deal of disillusionment of youth on the left and the right. Gamer groups, various white nationalist and Christian conservative groups, and the remnants of the pick-up artist community congealed into a loosely affiliated, predominantly male movement referred to as the Alt-Right.
The Alt-Right is anti-authoritarian, decentralized, and often anonymous, although it has many (frequently at odds) figureheads. It follows, then, that contradictory ideologies co-exist beneath the same umbrella. Richard Spencer decries homosexuality and drug use as symptoms of Western decline, whereas both are celebrated by Milo Yiannopolis. Nagle posits that the greatest uniting force is “a bursting forth of anti-PC cultural politics through the culture wars of recent years.”
The mainstreaming of Black Lives Matter, safe spaces, transgender bathroom rights, etc. saw transgression becoming the project of retrograde racial and gender politics. Whereas once Prince’s lyrics and Dead Kennedys’ album art were the matter of Congressional inquiry, it is now edgier to release a female game designer’s home address or liken Leslie Jones to a gorilla. Indeed, Nagle argues that the Alt-Right has co-opted liberalism’s transgressive rhetoric and aesthetic. The difference is that the status quo now is more socially liberal than it was in the 1950s and ’60s. The core contradiction of Alt-Right ideology is that its strategies, because they are co-opted from and practiced in an environment of social liberalism, require liberalism to exist. As Nagle puts it, “Trump, rightist 4chan and the alt-right all represent a pretty dramatic departure from the kind of churchgoing, upstanding, button-down, family values conservativism that we usually associate with the term in Anglo-American public and political life.”
While she doesn’t quite make clear how the real-world consequences of this online discourse—especially the election of Donald Trump—were precipitated by the online hate-pit, Nagle’s analysis is trenchant and timely. What makes Kill All Normies such an insightful book is the author’s insistence on the culpability of the left in creating the vacuum in which the Alt-Right expanded. As liberal college campuses and private businesses instituted policies of gender-neutral bathrooms, safe spaces, and trigger warnings, they ironically made speech and thought less free through call-out culture. Nagle’s caution that the left’s stagnant ideas, pedantry, and infighting have made it the weaker party of the two should surely lead those who want change to reflect on their methods. ~ Alex Kies, Rain Taxi Review of Books
Kill All Normies is an important book, albeit one whose conclusions are likely to prove unflattering and potentially unpopular. In it, the alt-right emerges as something not quite as alien as many would like to think. Rather, it is a bastardized version of the cultural currents that most of the book’s likely readers — myself included — participate in and valorize. And although there may be no easy way out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into — stabbings in Portland, riots in Berkeley, and Trump in the White House — the book’s indictment of our elitist culture wars does point toward an inevitable, if slightly horrifying conclusion: Perhaps the normies aren’t so bad after all. ~ Park McDougald, New York Magazine
Nagle approaches the alt-right with understanding and patience. Her political taxonomies are careful, her sociological explanations are persuasive, and her psychological evaluations are considerate. She has a genuine sympathy for her subjects and a genuine solidarity with their victims. Most important, she shows that psychological and economic analysis are complimentary rather than at odds. Read Kill All Normies, then everything else Nagle has written. It’ll be time better spent than listening to your favorite podcaster complain about “political correctness” for the nth time. ~ Mark Dunbar, The Humanist
Nagle’s measured prose, her commitment to both context and dialectics, contradiction and convergence as well as her stark imperturbability in the face of deeply disturbing materials make her the ideal reader of both liberal and academic hypocrisy as well as alt-right instrumentalization of transgression as politics. ~ Catherine Liu, LA Review of Books
If the internet is a trial run for real-life political action, then it’s clear that change is in order. As Nagle observes, if the left is to proceed, “it may be time to lay the very recent and very modern aesthetic values of counterculture to rest, and create something new.” Something that the right can’t co-opt. ~ Hannah Gais, New Republic
I really enjoyed this book. I come at is a politically aware but mainstream 30 something who is largely unfamiliar with the extremes of the modern and emerging left and right.
From reading the book it became apparent I'm most likely best classed as a person who believes in left economic ideas and reduced inequality who feels the left has lost its way by emphasising identify over inequality. I say that however while being fully aware I don't suffer any discrimination or major challenges based solely on either my identity or my class/economic situation.
My primary response to the book is sadness. Sadness at how polarized it appears online culture is and how it has clearly influenced mainstream politics in such an unpleasant way. I suspect the author will be attacked by both right and left which is possibly the best endorsement I can give the book. In many ways it is hard not to see so many of the "culture warriors" as being somewhat pathetic - whether it be attacking women simply because they are women or by feeling the need to hound someone out of a job etc. because you disagree with the views on something. .
I do believe it is important to be aware of the different sub-cultures within the left and right movements. And to not tar everyone with the same brush. Interestingly it seems at first reading that the author is possibly harsher on the extreme left than the extreme right but on reflection that may simply be because its unusual for me, as a Guardian / NYT reading normie, to see open criticism of the left on social issues (rather than the usual economic criticism).
Its slightly concerning that at 33 I feel completely out of date and out of the loop with internet culture!
~ Brenda Crowley, Librarian.
Angela Nagle strikes me as an uncommonly sane voice in a culture war defined by astounding cruelty, extremism and intolerance. Kill All Normies is as absorbing as it is important. I hope everyone reads it. ~ Rob Doyle, The Stinging Fly
Dynamite! ~ Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell
Nagle is looking around corners in the dark. And she's got guts. ~ Jacob Siegel, The Daily Beast
Angela Nagle is one of the few writers anywhere who has consistently refused to hold a double standard for virulent racism and misogyny even when it came in edgy countercultural packaging. Kill All Normies is a brilliant exposé of the new faces of online nihilism and fascism, which can no longer be explained away as doing it “for the lulz”. ~ David Golumbia, author of The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism
Amidst the chaos of our times, it is a relief to have a brilliant and fearless critic like Angela Nagle to turn to. Unwilling to stomach the liberal shibboleths that fail to adequately explain the emergence and significance of right-wing subculture, she's the only one willing to descend into the grimiest of Internet grottos and give us the benefit of her incisive and cool-headed analysis. ~ Amber A'Lee Frost, Chapo Trap House
With a liberal left dangerously lost in the stormy waters of middle class self-flagellation, Angela Nagle is the lighthouse keeper showing us the way out. Her writing is unsparing in its diagnosis but never cruel. Unlike much of the Left who've grown far too accustomed to marginalization and defeat, Nagle still believes in politics as the only way of changing an increasingly brutal world. She is the writer and social critic I've been waiting for. ~ Connor Kilpatrick, Jacobin magazine