Street Fights of Tumblr Liberals & the Alt-Right
Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies represents a break with the usual unwillingness to subject the amorphous left’s internet cultures and identity politics to the same degree of scrutiny as the right’s.
Published by Zero Books, Kill All Normies uses as its title a slogan promoted on 4Chan’s politics board that essentially derides anyone who has ever been in a relationship or had a job as a ‘normal fag’. Unless still living in your mother’s house you’re not truly qualified sanctimonious loser troll material.
The London launch was held at the Marx Memorial Library signalling that there is still some left-wing support for ventures in critical thought.
On arrival it was a former president of the RMT who allowed me to cross the threshold of the event on the basis I had ‘a feminist badge on’, reliably representing my lack of membership in either of the camps scrutinised by the book.
The event began with an introduction by US academic Catherine Lui tracing Nagle’s account of the phenomena of sadism and sentimentalism as emanating from the 18th century.
Sade’s writings emerged at a similar time as the emotive public spectacle. Emotional performativity coinciding periodically with sexual sadism is perhaps indicative of a greater relation.
Nagle explained how the alt-right can be identified as clinging to its own brand of identity politics, sentimentalising whiteness and brotherhood to a utopian degree.
The imagined white global state encompassing North America, Europe and Russia is the key example of this.
That this would entail genocide and ethnic cleansing is not just glossed over, but omitted.
However, this glib romanticism can at any moment transfer to another form of group consolidation based on exclusion and sadism, as anyone caught in the cross-hairs of the alt-right can attest to.
The basic trolling of children’s memorial sites, creating memes about a family’s dead loved ones or mocking sexual abuse victims is par for the course.
But these are still sensitive souls: apparently nazi website Stormfront was wounded that Nagle’s book declined to mention them.
Nagle’s explanation for their omission is that she ‘just didn’t think they were that important’ — surely representing the worst imaginable scenarios for alt-right membership.
Clinging to relevance and personal ambition appears as fundamental for the alt-right as they are for left commentators who are unwilling to tackle the tough questions Nagle does.
A similar merging of sadism and sentimentalism is mirrored in what Nagle calls ‘Tumblr-liberalism’.
The book lists some of the numerous recently confabulated genders, mostly personality descriptors more than anything to do with gender. Nagle identifies Judith Butler more than any other theorist as primarily responsible for an unleashing of gender taxonomies that have undermined systemic accounts of gender.
In a similar way to the alt-right, any challenge to the new cult of identity politics, concentrated once on Tumblr but now spilling out into what Nagle calls ‘campus wars’, leads to a mob baying for the heretics’ blood.
A tenured male university professor is as likely a target as a young single mum who administrates for Mumsnet message boards.
However, as anyone ever embroiled in such battles will confirm, if one of the lynchers is ‘called out’ for misgendering, misreading the background or religion of the victim, a heartfelt apology will of course be offered — right before you’re told to “die in a fire”. The combined hands of sentimentalism and sadism are ever present in these ritualistic measures.
These rituals, according to Nagle, operate more as a way to keep the groups together by identifying an in and out-group, policing the boundary of who is transgressive and who isn’t pure enough, more then they are simply about bullying.
Almost any event can opportunistically be used to create a dividing line, split, or witch-hunt over, as went spectacularly wrong for Zoe Stavri when she celebrated the suicide of writer and Goldsmiths lecturer Mark Fisher back in January.
Her celebratory tweet did have some traction. For example, it remains retweeted by ‘genderqueer’ ‘performer’ Ray Filar, who is friends with queer theorist, Sara Ahmed, formerly at Goldsmiths, author of Living a Feminist Life.
Stavri then fell back on an appeal to sentimentalised victimhood, telling those who admonished her that she was on new mental health medication. As if gleefully rubbing one’s hands over someone’s suicide is a known side effect of any drug.
A shield of sentimentality, not emotional honesty, apology or genuine exchange, summoned to excuse sadism.
This group particularly is identified by Nagle as instrumentalising victimhood, competing in what could be dubbed an ‘oppression Olympics’. It just relies on a great deal of willing self-objectification and confessionalism to compete.
These groups, the alt-right and Tumblr liberals have, according to Nagle, a symbiotic relationship, needing one another as much as the monstrous spectres each joyously opposes.
Both exist as differing camps in what Nagle frames as today’s most brutal online ‘culture wars’, but they certainly share cultural practices and unfailingly need one another as ludicrous misshapen enemy.
Psychoanalytically, there is more than a small amount of projective identification taking place between them (wherein a projected fantasy of another group or person is so strong it forces them to succumb to it, similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy).
During the discussion Nagle was asked why the left commentariat on Twitter or alternative media do not challenge the Tumblr left’s sadistic and sentimental politics as they do the alt-right’s.
Her answer was unequivocal: fear. And we could add to that, personal ambition. Which Patreon accounted blogger wants to commit possible career and financial suicide over what an Oakland teenager with blue hair claims about themselves?
Further, at least if you are victim of the alt-right mob the left feels sorry for you, but when the new identitarians come after you, well, it was your fault for oppressing the poor lambs.
The rest of the discussion focused around the relation between internet cultures and power, with the alt-right’s direct line to Breitbart and identity politics ability to shape public policy despite any coherence or ability to organise a mass movement.
Kill All Normies is the first book to really nail the relations of the cultural space of the internet to the real world that, significantly, includes an analysis of potentials and problems across the political spectrum.
It should not be the last. The atmosphere at the book launch was one of relief. That finally we could talk about these issues seriously, rather than continually being the adults in the room who excuse the children for setting fire to the dog because we fear we might be next.
Nagle is incredibly brave to step forward to broach these matters, however tentatively. This burgeoning will, for honesty and a return to a structural, material analysis that it is so easy to forget exists when online, should be afforded the admiration it deserves.
Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle
(Zero Books, £9.99)
This article originally appeared in the Morning Star.