Friday, January 27, 2023

Punk, Conservatism, & the Mandate of Heaven

A couple of weeks ago, a column in the Economist ("How rappers are strengthening Donald Trump’s movement") sent a shiver down my spine.

Mr Townsend ["Topher"], 31, served as a cryptological analyst in the Air Force before moving to Philadelphia with his wife, a teacher. He loves the 'Sip, as he calls his state; you could not pay him to move to "any of those Democrat-controlled cities." A fireplug of a man who raps—and eats lunch—in a MAGA-red knit cap, he can glower with the surliest of rappers. But his music can also be buoyant and empathetic and, in person, so is he. His influences range beyond Mr Trump to Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X and Eminem. 
Mr Townsend grew up in the hamlet of Kilmichael, Mississippi. His mother taught him to be the man of the house by ten years old, he says, but she drank, and his father, married to another woman, was not much in his life. When he was 12 or 13 one of his mother's boyfriends hit her in the face with a two-by-four, and as she bled it took an hour for the police to respond. "I learned early on no one was coming to save me," he says. "And I think that's what fuels my ideology today. No government, nobody."

Mr Townsend's contempt for authority points to a reversal of cultural polarity under way in America. The left once drew energy from scorning authority and bourgeois convention. But as it becomes America's enforcer of social norms, it increasingly treats the arts as a tool for instruction. As a result it is surrendering what puts the arts in society’s vanguard, the capacity to question and shock. What more transgressive act could an artist perform than to don a MAGA cap, as Kanye West did?

The boldfaced sentence encapsulates an idea that's been a nagging source of angst for me over the last half decade, and reminds me of something a former acquaintance of mine from high school once said.

The guy's name was Paul. We were friends insofar as we usually ended up at the same cafeteria table if we shared a lunch period, and we associated with the clique of punker kids who congregated by their leaders' lockers during the fifteen minutes between the general arrival of the students and the first bell. I never saw him outside of school.

As a teenager, Paul was into the Dropkick Murphys and the Misfits, and looked up to George Carlin as a hero. In retrospect, whenever politics came up, his had a markedly libertarian tilt.

After everyone in the country in Facebook and friended their old acquaintances around 2006–8, I got a window into where Paul's life was headed. Mostly I remember him making a documentary about the frontman of a punk-/goth-rock act; it pricked my attention because I was working on The Zeroes at the time. He was also doubling and tripling down on his libertarianism. Before I got off Facebook around 2015–16, Paul had gone full-on Proud Boy. I don't know what he's been up to since then, and I'm sometimes tempted to do some digging to find out. I think it's safe to guess he was within the city limits of Washington, DC on January 6, 2021.

I forget when exactly it was—probably sometime between 2010 and 2013—that I went on Facebook and read an opinion of Paul's which I still remember because it seemed so insane. However he worded it, the gist was: "the new punk is conservativism."

How the fuck? I envisioned those matutinal gatherings with Aaron T, Pat L, and Dave H by their lockers before homeroom—surly teenage boys with their liberty spikes, anarchy logo swag, concert bruises, and bad attitudes towards authority—and tried to imagine them all as preppy Young Republican types with tucked-in shirts, saying "fuck" every other word while talking about the necessity of releasing our wealth producers from the burden of high taxation and environmental regulation. It didn't compute. I laughed it away, lamenting that someone I once considered a friend had lost his mind.

The statement wouldn't have gotten stuck in my craw if I hadn't known Paul. This was a guy to whom punk meant something, because punk still kind of meant something circa 2000. Any "subculture" whose sartorial signifiers can be purchased readymade at a suburban mall has of course undergone a whole lot of dilution since its inception, but the punk that my friends bought into retained some components of its original ethos: namely a spirit of local community, DIYism, and an attitude of dogged resilience. My punk friends also generally understood what they were all against: Middle America's bland conformity, the Christian right, corporate pop music, the military industrial complex, backwater racism, the stifling of free expression, and overbearing authority in general.

For a lot of the people in that crowd, or in its orbit our political convictions were a bit half-baked. Except for the studious ones, the born activists, we subscribed to a popularized digest of the ideas crackling in the psyche of an American left that had undergone decades of convulsions after the victory of Nixon and the Silent Majority, the Reagan Revolution, and the shifting of the Overton window so far to the right that the only effective opposition mounted in recent memory had arrived in the form of Bill "The Era of Big Government Is Over" Clinton, who continued Reagan's program under a blue banner instead of a red one.

Some punk kids, it must be said, just thought the clothes and music were cool, and parroted the "fight the power" discourse without really giving it much thought. It was part of the aesthetic, and it signaled conformity with the other nonconformists.

At least a decade has passed since I shuddered at Paul's blasphemous prediction—and it troubles me to consider that he may have been less wrong than I thought.

Paul (Jan 18, 2023)
He seems to be doing well for himself.

When I was the token goth kid aligned with my high school's punk crowd, I was working at Hot Topic on the evenings and weekends. (Yeah, yeah, I know, everybody laughs when I tell them.) Not that the store was ever anything but a scheme to sell the commodified badges of "subculture" to suburban adolescents, but it was different back then. We mostly sold punk, goth, and raver gear, and nu-metal and hardcore band shirts. There wasn't yet any swag based on internet memes, and Invader Zim merch was just beginning to creep in.

Anyway. Of all the iron-on patches we sold, one of the least popular was the rainbow flag. We had a tall stack of them sitting in the glass case by the cash wrap, waiting for buyers. They did sell from time to time, and there was no doubt that it belonged in an "alternative" apparel store, but I don't recall the height of the stack shrinking much in the span of a given month. I seem to remember them eventually ending up in the clearance section.

It's no surprise: to be a kid in the Jersey suburbs with a rainbow flag patch on your bookbag would have been a radical statement circa 2000. I know today that I had gay classmates in high school, but none of them were out back then. It was a time when people had fewer compunctions about throwing the word "faggot" around. Being a gay adolescent and wanting people to know it required more stones than a lot of kids had, and certainly more than should have been asked of them. (It was different when they settled in at a university or moved to the city, but not everyone had that opportunity.)

For that matter, to be a person who never had any same-sex encounters, wasn't hoping or aiming to have any in the future, and who also pinned rainbow flag patches on their bookbags and ironed them onto their jeans—well, there really wasn't much of that at all. I and a lot of the other heterosexual goth kids I knew from outside of high school were pro-gay rights, but the occasional indulgence in performative homoeroticism to troll homophobic passersby was as far as we went toward broadcasting it.

Twenty years later, you can walk into any Target store in June and buy a variety rainbow apparel and accessories at the impressive Pride Month display by the clothing section. You can go to any comic book shop that still exists and see all the Pride Month superhero one-shots on display. Hell, you can go to your job at the Amazon distribution center and stand under a giant Progress flag hanging from the ceiling, or get paid to attend a Pride Month webinar at your office job, and get a free Pride coaster ("Queer [Company Name]" is what ours say) to take home with you.

The rainbow flag and Pride are popular now. They're mainstream. People (and corporate entities) want to be associated with them. 

I also remember how the punk kids I hung out with were anti-police because of course they were. Fuckin' pigs. Fuck tha police. Fuckin' fascists. Et cetera. This was a shibboleth of the punk kid, and only the most political of them—the ones who not only wore T-shirts with the anarchy symbol, but read actual books by actual anarchists—were capable of mounting a coherent case for why the country would be altogether better off without municipal and state police forces. Nevertheless, anyone over the age of twenty-one who'd advocate for a world without cops was regarded as a naïve kook.

Fast forward to the early years of the 2020s, and even NPR—the soft, measured voice in the ears of the affluent and educated—is running "should we abolish the police?" content. We should talk about this in the past tense, though: the scope of the conversation around defunding and abolition contracted amid the last two years' upswing in urban crime. Still, it's astonishing that the rhetoric was able to reach so far beyond its usual confines on the radical fringe.*

* In case you're wondering: I'm not a fan of the criminal justice system in this county (for-profit prisons should be abolished, police forces should be demilitarized, etc.), but I also dislike the prospect of "community justice" spiraling into "tribal justice" when the rubber meets the road, or of armed security contractors with even less public accountability than the cops becoming a common sight in rich neighborhoods and business districts.  

One more memory: when I was growing up, dyed hair, facial piercings, and tattoos were seen (correctly, I think) across the board as a rejection of middle- and upper-class "respectability." My mother was horrified when I got a lip piercing on my eighteenth birthday. During my first decade in the workforce, every employer I had (except for Hot Topic) insisted I remove it when I clocked in. If you got a tattoo, conventional wisdom said you needed to get used to wearing long sleeves if you hoped for a career that didn't involve manual labor or a cash register at some "alternative" store. Hair dye could be washed out, of course, so a lot of parents gave it a grudging pass. I think they were willing to remember the rebellious longhairs of their own youth and roll their eyes at a teenager with dyed hair, but they gave the side-eye to anyone in or past their mid-twenties who still walked around with bright purple, orange, or pink hair. It screamed "burnout" to them.

Not long ago I was sitting at my workstation in the mail-/copy room on the thirtieth floor of an office building in central Philadelphia, my lip ring still in place. None of the bosses have ever mentioned it, let alone asked me to remove it while I'm on the job. (That was not the case when I was barista at a Borders café in the late 2000s.) A coworker, a scientist in her early or mid-thirties, walked past to pick up something from the printer. She had magenta streaks in her hair, visible tattoos, and an earpiece she was using to have a very serious and respectable-sounding conversation about matters regarding the firm. 

Without citing any other cases (and I can think of several), I think it's obvious that the cultural rebels of the 2000s and early 2010s won the "war." The high schoolers in Rage Against the Machine and Dead Kennedys T-shirts that groused about the military, the police, and racism, the student activists at a given chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, the exasperated adolescents on whose shoulders Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rose to the status of prophets, the Tumblr kids who vociferated about patriarchy and colonialism—the Establishment now girds itself in their discourse and fashions. Theirs is the ideology of the nonprofit industrial complex, the media sector, the corporate deep state of Human Resources, and academia. And vice versa.

There was a Vibe Shift. It's beyond the scope of a piece like this to account for it, but I can offer a few educated guesses as to some relevant factors:

(1) The most pat (and therefore the least precise) explanation is that the millennial cohort began coming of age, entering into the workforce and civic life as the best-educated and worst-paid generation in memory. (Gen Z is following them in this regard, thanks to robust university admissions, the coronavirus shock, the inflation crisis, and the accelerating consolidation of wealth in the upper echelons that began in the 1980s.) This was a generation whose worldview was formed by the ambient cynicism of popular culture in the 1990s, and by the abject failures of George W. Bush's presidency, which began with the disgraceful War on Terror and concluded with the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble and the onset of the Great Recession. Dissatisfaction with the political establishment and the social order managed by the postwar Baby Boom cohort was endemic.

(2) It should be added that I and those punk and goth kids I hung out with in high school were a microcosm of a body of "subcultures" that took root in affluent suburbs and urban neighborhoods across the country. However much we might have hated to acknowledge it, we grew up benefiting every day from our parents' respectable jobs and respectable salaries. Compared to the youth of poor urban areas or rural regions, we were more likely to go to four-year colleges and earn bachelor's degrees. Even though the arithmetic of the Great Recession and of the phenomenon of elite overproduction meant that a lot of degree-holders ended up steaming milk, stocking shelves, and working in call centers instead of entering into the world of metropolitan professionalism, those of us that did weren't likely to leave our campus-radical convictions behind when we boarded the train to the city or stepped out of our cars in the office parking garage.

(3) The ideological homogenization of the university and accelerated during the George W. Bush years as the invasion and occupation of Iraq was increasingly regarded an indefensible blunder, and as the popular advance of the gay rights movement resulted in a reciprocal souring of public opinion against Christian conservativism ("compassionate" or not). The campus' intellectual uniformity transferred over into the metropolitan professional class in remarkably short order.

(4) The role of the internet in determining the cultural pole shift is so intricate that it could be the subject of a book, but Tumblr is often singled out as the area where the popular culture of comics, cartoons, fandom, etc. collided with the "postmodern" identity politics imported by undergraduate and grad student posters, and was synthesized into a popular form. (Some dispute this, and argue that SomethingAwful was ground zero.) Social media platforms played the role that punk music once did in transmitting subversive political ideas to an off-campus audience that had no patience for dense academic books, and could guarantee a degree of extensive circulation for which the consent of record labels, broadcasters, and retailers was once required. The crucible of social media was also responsible for intensifying the public conversation around high-profile cases of sexual assault, rape, and the murder of unarmed black men by police officers, and in guiding users on either side of a given issue to rally around the most emotionally compelling voices speaking to, and on behalf of, their political tribe. This fact acquires particular relevance when you remember the correlation between university education, liberal politics, and membership in the professional class.

One result of all this, curious for someone of my age group to witness, is that a group of adolescents with dyed hair, tattoos, facial piercings, black boots, and striped stockings can raise their fists and chant BLACK LIVES MATTER! TRANS RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS! SMASH THE PATRIARCHY! END WHITE SUPREMACY! BELIEVE WOMEN! and other such credos in the tone of unrepentant heretics with nothing to lose—and the voice from the transnational firm, from the culture industry, and from one half of the United States' political duopoly replies: yes, we agree; we're with you.

My old friend Paul, feeling threatened by the ascendency of the culture epitomized by Tumblr, was paying more attention to it than did the contingent of pro-Occupy, anti-Tea Party, Daily Show-watching Obama voters to which I belonged in the early 2010s. He regarded the proliferation of its discourse and its mounting self-confidence with paranoia—and in this case, he accurately observed that it was gaining irresistible momentum, while we either shrugged it off, cautiously supported it with the understanding that it represented a virtuous underdog, or joined in ourselves.

Sometimes it takes an outgroup to see a situation clearly. In 2015, still a few years before the character, position, and existence of the professional managerial class became a popular topic of hand-wringing chatter among the left, an explicitly Christian purveyor of thinkpieces called Mere Orthodoxy published an essay called "SJWs, the Careerist Peace, and the American Corporation." It deserves to be quoted at length:
As the broader culture shifts leftward on many social justice issues, the professional costs of perceived radicalism can nearly disappear. As Patrick Deneen has been saying for some time, corporatism and the worldview of our current SJW radicals actually fit together quite nicely in that both benefit from an unbending commitment to individualism. Indeed, the unambiguously joyful response from America’s big businesses to the Obergefell decision underlines the social liberalism that is increasingly the norm in the business world....
To the extent that the activism of SJWs on university campuses is perceived as genuinely positive work to promote justice, it will be welcome by large corporations for multiple reasons. First, there is business incentive to link yourself with someone who is thought of as a heroic fighter for justice....
In the contemporary United States, corporations aren’t just people; they’re families, churches, and neighborhoods all rolled into one. Thus we shouldn’t be surprised that these modern-day adopted families tend to adopt variations of the same sort of code that our current SJW radicals have adopted. To be sure, there is still some softening of that code that happens in these businesses that the unique university context doesn’t require. But the gap between the beliefs and values of the student radicals and the American workplace has never been smaller.
The "movement," such as it was, couldn't have been bought unless there were people within intent on selling it. I mean, why not? They wanted to change the world, but they also wanted to buy their houses, raise their families, have their overseas vacations, and go out for brunch. What took place was a mutual buy-in between the socially progressive millennial cohort and The Establishment. Each party saw a benefit for itself in what the other had to offer, and neither was asked to make any compromises it couldn't live with. The employer got an influx of new talent, an opportunity to launder its public image by touting its social responsibility and commitment to DEI, and best of all, a cohort whose radical liberal politics and "Brahmin cultural sensibility" were positively antiseptic to the sort of broad-based popular movement that might actually threaten their bottom lines.

The SJW-ification of the corporation, the professional class, and the mainstream media contains a recapitulative germ of the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Thessalonica. Instating Christianity as Rome's official religion didn't invest antiquity's premiere hegemon with a regenerative spirit of pacifism and liberation, so much as it made Christianity into an appurtenance of empire. That's about where we're at with "woke."* When the PR wings of Raytheon, Amazon, and the CIA have adopted its popular jargon and imagistic tropes, it's hard to claim that it represents a revolutionary social justice movement rather than a new dialect of power.

* I continue to put "woke" in quotation marks because I hate using the word. As soon a better one becomes available, I will adopt it. Part of the problem is that it refers to a constellation of ideas and social trends whose association is often a matter of anecdotal observance. "Woke" describes neither a coherent ideology nor an explicit political program.

I can hear friends protesting that a multinational corporation participating in a Pride march or ostentatiously celebrating Black History Month is just a lot of empty lip service. Perhaps so—but lip service isn't paid to anyone who isn't taken seriously.

I'd be a lot happier about my "team" racking up victory after victory in the culture wars of the 2000s and 2010s if it hadn't taken to behaving so much like the boogeymen it railed against. 

Trivial though it might be, I remember there were a few years when Magic: The Gathering stopped printing new cards with the "demon" creature type after the Evangelicals accused Wizards of the Coast of promoting devil worship. To appease them, the cards that would have been demons became "beasts" instead. I also recall a minor brouhaha when the small company that localized an obscure Japanese video game called La Pucelle censored all the crucifixes in the graphics. "There are well organized forces that work hard to punish software makers and sellers for what they consider religious transgressions," Mastiff Games' boss explained the decision in a 2004 statement. "As a very small and brand new publisher without deep pockets we need to pick and choose our battles." In other words, he was afraid of getting cancelled by the Christian right (even if that usage of "cancel" wasn't in currency back then).

Somewhat less trivial was the conservative Christian response to the gay rights movement: as its demands came to seem more and more reasonable to the public, the religious right refused to budge an inch. In retrospect, nobody should have been surprised when a hardline atheism became a popular intellectual trend during the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Remember when the Bush Administration intimidated the New York Times into burying stories that cast doubt on the "intelligence" cited to sell lawmakers and the public on invading Iraq? In today's political climate, the idea of the Gray Lady rolling over on its back for a Republican administration seems unbelievable. But it happened. It was a different time.

Incidentally: in October 2002, the Times ran an article with the headline: "Celebrities Known for Political Outspokenness Have Little to Say About Iraq." Typically vocal liberal Warren Beatty "is choosing his words carefully," the piece reports, "intently aware...that those who have questioned the White House's course have been demonized and marginalized."

Seriously, try to imagine anyone in Hollywood today being afraid to talk shit about a conservative president and his foreign policy. 

Two months later, when veteran actor Mike Farrell was a spokesperson for a group of some hundred celebrities finally putting their opposition to preemptive military action against Iraq on record, he "faced aggressive questioning from the Hollywood Reporter," the Guardian reported at the time.

From the fucking Hollywood Reporter. Such was the bent of the years over which the neoconservative establishment presided. Its ability to cow people into silence went beyond having the means to kill stories in the newspaper, put out nasty press releases, or sic lawyers and/or bureaucrats on critics. It enjoyed cultural capital. Social clout. People happy to espouse and enforce its program for free.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, these were the people whom the "counterculture" opposed. The mandate of heaven has precessed since then, and lately the erstwhile opposition party is in the business of policing art and discourse, and punishing transgressions. This isn't to say that the right hasn't given up on, say, pulling LGBT books from school libraries—but the left has the social capital to sometimes get books it doesn't like pulled from Amazon and eBay, and to surgically remove individual episodes of a TV show from syndication and streaming services.* (The companies seem glad enough to oblige.) That's a pretty impressive power differential.

* I'd like to put "left" in quotation marks here, but it's moot at this point.

It's risky to trust the past when the present is so radically different, but there was a causal relation between the Christian right's swaggering behavior at the peak of its influence between the beginning of the Reagan years and the end of George W. Bush's presidency and a generation's abandonment of Christianity. I wouldn't be surprised if a similar reaction against a milieu popularly perceived to be overbearing, censorious, and out of touch is fomenting—though I can't say for certain that it is. Nor will I speculate on how many babies will be thrown out with how much bathwater if the phrase "social justice" becomes radioactive.

The zeitgeist of a particular moment always seems so naturally ubiquitous, irresistible, and imperishable—until suddenly it isn't anymore, and everyone acts like it was an embarrassment from which they're glad to have moved on. It's not unimaginable that a strain of "counterculture" (which I keep putting in quotes because any culture can only be so "counter" when it is utterly dependent on transnational capital for its coalescence and expression) defining itself in opposition or as an alternative to the basis of the "blue hair & pronouns & self-diagnoses in bio" stereotype will sweep aside the current "scene" the same way the music and fashion of grunge swept aside those of of hair metal and arena rock in the early 1990s.*

* Of course, a lot of hair metal people became grunge people, the same way the above-it-all hipster of the 2000s adapted to the the intensely personal becoming the intensely political in the 2010s. We're all of us susceptible to trends.

Most children lack the training for a sociological analysis of power, but they can tell who's in charge. The ones disposed to nonconformity and/or have problems with authority have ever possessed a keen awareness of who the petty censors, smarmy moralizers, hypocrites, and credulous followers are, and I'd be surprised if the more recalcitrant members of Gen Z aren't sniffing more and more of them out among members and boosters of the "woke" ascendency. Probably these kids in the minority to about the same extent as boys sporting black nail polish and/or anime T-shirts were outnumbered by boys wearing Abercrombie & Fitch and puka shell necklaces were during my own high school days, but they do exist.

To the understanding of someone like my high school friend Paul, to be against what the mainstream is for these days is to be...well, conservative.

I'd say that assessment speaks to a lack of vision on Paul's part—but given how promiscuously the term "reactionary" is applied to anyone who criticizes the new orthodoxy on whatever grounds, it seems even his foes agree with him on this point. However, the Economist columnist's observation stands: when one's parents, teachers, popular classmates, the New York Times, the late-night talk shows, superhero comics, Hollywood, video games, and pop music have all caught up to 2010s Tumblr, wearing a MAGA hat becomes as brazen as gesture of rebellion against a lousy status quo as facial piercings were in the 1970s.

One of my teenage gestures. I'm pretty sure my mother threw
it out when I wasn't home. Seems rather quaint nowadays.

It's been suggested to me that the new "punk" movement that Paul predicted has already happened, and it was called the "alt-right"—another term I just loathe—but I'm not so sure. What contributions has the "alt-right" made to culture other than memes? Where's its popular fashion and art? Where's its version of Lady Gaga?* Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places, but from my vantage point, the "alt-right" wave has yet to sweep across the metropolitan regions, college campuses, and public schools the way earlier subcultural currents did. When you go offline, its young exponents are practically invisible.

* Funny thing. I threw together a draft of this a few months ago, but never got around to revising and posting until an Economist article about a MAGA rapper goaded me into it. Looking at the number of views on Topher's videos, I'd say my point stands.

As fearful a prospect as it might be, that could change. The Proud Boys' leader is Hispanic; a right-wing "tradwife" contingent participates in the cottagecore trend; the defunct South Vietnamese flag was flown by members of the January 6 mob; a penchant for "femboys" persists among pockets of anti-woke "straight" men; the subject of that Economist piece is a black man flaunting a MAGA cap. All of this suggests that, counter to the liberal pundits' claims, the appeal of the "alt-right" isn't strictly limited to angry white heterosexual cismales.

Maybe these narrow currents will broaden, becoming more palatable to the adolescent masses searching for their tribe if or when the pendulum swings in reverse. But I doubt that'll be possible until "alt-right" culture solves the problem implied by the very fact of its synonymousness with "anti-woke." It knows what it's against, but what is it for? Unless it can move beyond mere reactionism and stand for something other than "we liked it better before pronouns in bios" and flamboyant nationalism, it's going to have a hard time penetrating the territory presently captured by its rainbow-colored nemesis.

Whatever nascent paradigm of fashion, art, and ideas emerges next, we can be sure it has passed the inflection point and left the fringes for the center after Hot Topic and Target are prompted to sell its shibboleths and the popularized emblems of its comportment. And what could be more punk than that?


  1. "from one half of the United States' political duopoly replies: yes, we agree. We're with you."

    Only one half? The detestable, criminal Republicans are on your side. Your side, not mine, and not that of the people. Repubs support every new anti-white law, every new sexual perversion, every new boot on the neck of the poor people that you sneer at as "backwater racists" who don't have sophisticated, high-status urbanite opinions like you do. And, of course, they must live in trailers and have small penises for disagreeing with whatever ludicrous howlers you repeated from your Marxist college professor.

    This is an utterly delusional article from a wannabe rebel who supports everything Facebook and Netflix tell him to think.

    1. Lol, wtf? Insecure much?

    2. Right? How do you read this post and think to yourself, "This is about my dick isn't it??" Hilarious.

  2. "What contributions has the "alt-right" made to culture other than memes? Where's its popular fashion and art? Where's its version of Lady Gaga?"

    I'm totally on board with everything you said, but I'm not with you on this. I think one of the curses of becoming older is not only a lack of understanding of the content of the younger generations, but also the type of content as well. For Millennials, I think the best example of this was our parents' reactions to video games. Now, we understand them as being a somewhat respectable medium for story-telling, but back then, it was seen as frivolous time-wasting. As we look at Gen Z, we might say to ourselves, "What culture have you produced? Nothing but memes!" and not realize that memes ARE the culture now. Our online personas and activities are a much bigger part of our lives now so that wearing the alt-right MAGA hat is much less impactful and much less prevalent than putting it in your Twitter bio, or whatever.

    That said, I still think that most people, online or otherwise, find the type of homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic beliefs of the alt-right to be distasteful at best. In the same way that counter-culture Millennials had to censor ourselves to a certain degree at school and job-hunting in our younger years, I think the alt-right movement cannot survive in the sunlight. It needs that cover of internet anonymity just to gain any traction at all.

    I still really loved reading this, so thank you for sharing.
    -Kevin W

    1. Very good point on memes. I shouldn't diminish them or their place in contemporary culture—but at the same time, a twentysomething can't live on memes alone: he or she watches Netflix, watches music videos on YouTube, scrolls through fashion pics on Instagram, plays video games, etc. (Being able to meaningfully read memes can depend on consuming these other culture products.) The fact stands that the "rainbow" crowd has the institutional presence to get something like Steven Universe greenlit, while we're not likely to see much children's programming produced by alt-righters (or by gender critical types or anti-idpol Marxists, for that matter) who wear their social convictions on their sleeves. The alt right can meme, but it can't put shit on television, get a top 40 pop hit, or get video game companies to take their ideological sensibilities into consideration. That still amounts to a tremendous gap in terms of cultural power. (And it'll probably to stay that way until the alt-right evolves into something else or finds a way to present itself in a way that's more palatable to normies.)

      Re: online statements having more impact that IRL ones—When I was working at the art museum some years ago, I did see a kid wearing a MAGA hat in the wild. It shocked me enough that I still *remember* it. An art museum in a liberal east coast city attracts a lot of people in outre ensembles, but the high schooler in the red cap was the only person who put the entire staff's jaws on the floor. EVERYONE noticed. I couldn't tell you what I was watching on YouTube or what was trending on Twitter that week, but I remember that fucking kid.

  3. I suspect if you're going to see a synthesized form of an online counterculture with a similar power that places like Something Awful had at its peak (and I am someone who thinks this is where most of this started), your best bet is probably to follow Kiwifarms. It occupies a similar niche nowadays, and most anybody remotely Internet savvy that is opposed to the orthodoxies of mainstream Democrats and "wokeness" is familiar with the site. That and the efforts to shut the Farms down - including efforts by Tier 1 ISPs to blackhole them - has elevated the site - and Joshua Moon - into a kind of idea. They're either a demon that needs to be slain as they harass and dox anyone they think they can bully, or they're the last vanguard of Internet freedom where you can say what you really think and still have a discussion, depending on who you ask.

    In fact, Kiwifarm's official purpose of documenting Internet eccentrics to milk them for laughs hints at an idea that links this emerging right-coded counterculture more than any particular political stance. It's the realization that the Emperor has no clothes, and that many of these personalities they come to laugh at are frauds, degenerates, liars, criminals, or otherwise insane. And the "respectable" efforts to shut them down are little more than a way to protect the rot and corruption that underlie the orthodoxies of those in power.

    I do wonder how Kiwifarms will influence its readers/members as people continue to age. Something Awful eventually degraded after all, but their influence is still felt to this day. And I expect Kiwifarms to leave a mark of its own long after it eventually degrades or dies too.

    1. I stayed abreast of the Kiwifarms saga, mostly out of morbid curiosity. I'm conflicted. There's a lot of abhorrent shit (and people) on that site, but at the same time I'm kind of happy that an evolutionary vestige of the unsupervised, noncommercial, decentralized wild west Internet remains intact somewhere.

      I had a high school teacher who taught a course in constitutional law who took the old-school ACLU's stance on permitting a KKK rally on a town's main street. Let them do it, he said. Let the idiot racist slobs come out in their stupid-looking hoods and show everyone what they're about. Let people boo them from the sidewalk, or stay at home and ignore them. Because in the long run, the alternative is worse: it lets the KKK make a lot of noise about being oppressed and censored, and gives them the means to cultivate an outlaw mystique.

      Fall 2022 proved Mr. McGrath right. How much less traffic would Kiwifarms have gotten, and how many fewer people would have been interested in registering their own accounts, if the site hadn't been the subject of a cancel campaign?

    2. Very true assessment. The overt censorship adds some kind of mystique to a message that would otherwise fall flat. The only resoson a body is going to enforce hardline censorahip is if they fear that the majority will support the censored message. Feel free to expand this application to the current state of what views are currently suppressed by media and governing bodies.

    3. OP Reply: I remember, I think sometime between 2005-2010, the Economist posted an article pondering why Europe had a larger and more organized far-right compared to the US, and one of the arguments they made was that the more overt censorship of far-right views in the long run tended to empower the movements instead of diminishing them as intended.

      Obviously referencing an article from memory doesn't make it easy to evaluate it (I'll see if I can find it later), but I'll admit that argument has stuck with me over time. Despite what I sometimes see claimed, the "Wild West" of the Internet on message boards was nowhere near what /pol/ is like today. Most message boards had standard rules against discrimination, and places like Stormfront were an absolute joke. The people pushed out were too marginal to have impact, and the rest could have their views softened in my opinion. Yet as social media has taken a heavier and heavier hand on various topics, it's never been easier to find "Bell Curve" style arguments on the "race question", if not much worse. And while Kiwifarms isn't exactly a "far-right" site, (in fact I would argue it has many members that mock or detest those views, and like old SA the threads can be wonderful or noxious depending on the board or topic), it's very clear that part of the reason the site thrives is because you can discuss there what can't be discussed elsewhere, allowing execrable views to spread and thrive.

      In short, I definitely agree with your old high school teacher there.

      I also have to agree with the other anonymous as well. It's something that I think is becoming increasingly apparent, for example, with the West's role in the Russia/Ukraine war, to name the most blatantly consequential example. The recent January 25th RAND report should be essential reading for anyone, no matter their opinion.

  4. Usually love your writing, but this entire post can basically be summed up with "go watch SLC Punk". If you understand that movie youll understand kids' infantile obsession to slather themselves with the safe "rebelious" identity politics of the day (socialism and the latest alphabet acronym), and how that flows and changes depending on whats marketable. I dont believe for a second that youre even slightly surprised that right wing politics is becoming the new punk.