Review of Kill All Normies by Amanda Nagle (2017)

I have written on this blog in the past that there is more that unites than what divides us. While our material circumstances, geographical locations, genders and some parts of our worldview can differ, I genuinely believe that when we talk to each other as fellow humans, we can find a lot in common. These beliefs are founded on communitarian thinking. They imply that we have been socialized to the extent that we hold common values. They also contend that people are altruistic by nature once the imposed values of vested interests that benefit from division have been shed.

They are also directly challenged by the existence of the Alt-Right.

Not initially knowing about them disabused me of the illusion that I was well versed in digital culture. It wasn’t until Brexit and Trump’s election, two events that they were supposed to have significantly influenced, that I started paying attention to them. Yet, their origins traced back to 2014, which was a time when some social liberals recoiled at the mere suggestion that anyone under 40 in the ‘tolerant West’ supported any type of bigoted idea.

When I first heard of them, I thought they existed in a world far removed from mine. If I was to describe my first impression of an Alt-Righter back in 2016, it would have been a dirtier and more sheltered, yet more misanthropic version of Doctor Sheldon Cooper. To me, they were completely unsympathetic, and all to ready to swallow the steady stream of horseshit fed to them on 4chan, 8chan and Reddit’s ‘The Red Pill’ and ‘Kotaku in Action’ whole.

Upon reflection and undergoing some personal growth, I don’t believe this anymore. I believe that the left tends to defend itself against perceived threats and actual critics by either mocking or treating them with contempt. The flack that conservative groups (i.e. NRA, the Moral Majority and the Tea Party movement) or individuals (i.e. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity) in the USA have copped varies from the condescending variety to accusations of hypocrisy, avarice or of being just plain immoral. Nonetheless, the above-mentioned targets of said criticism boast financial backing, are of respectable social standing (in certain circles), and have connections to political, business and religious figures. They have the platform, logistical backing and funding to defend themselves against the brickbats hurled at them. They also often richly deserve the criticism, boycotts and protests that come their way.

The white men who were recruited to the Alt-Right by the faux outrage generated by Gamergate, Feminist Frequency, and ‘Social Justice Warriors’ differ from traditional conservative activists and political players. Many of them, as Steve Bannon identified, are without roots, social and financial capital or a sense of belonging. Many of them were unmistakably driven by darker impulses. Where they differed to other reactionaries was that their position in the hierarchical structures usually lauded by conservatives was vastly different. Saying that every right leaning voter/activist comes from the moneyed classes is naive. However, my intuition is that those from the working and middle classes tend to be attached to some type of community; be it a church, community group, sporting team, interest group etc. They are led to believe that they benefit from the system thanks to these associations, albeit not to the extent that the captains of finance and industry do.

Certain segments of the Alt-Right were prepared to adopt the Arthur Fleck character from Joker as one of their own. Indeed, Arthur's descent into nihilism and insanity may relate to some of their followers.
Photo by Jhefferson Santos on Pexels.com

My position is that Alt-Right members would reflexively dismiss these institutions as ‘normie’, but the reality is that they genuinely wanted to belong to them at some point in their lives. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that the Pepe/Kekistan crowd is populated by men who struggle to find a romantic partner, form human relationships, get a decent job or be accepted by their peers. When one adds in the social media obsessed society that we live in, one that is marinated in imagery of aesthetically pleasing millennials patronizing chic cafes, hanging out on picturesque beaches and visiting exotic tourist spots, alienation and resentment are inevitable.

This in turn made me think about the alienation and resentment I felt as a kid during high school, and how lucky I was that the world of my youth didn’t give me the chance to link up with as such a toxic culture for my own emotional succor. I was the type of kid who wanted to be ‘liked’, but had no idea of how to achieve this. I always felt that people needed to think I was funny, cool or I needed to deploy some other type of ‘trick’ to fool people into connecting with me. I was lanky, geeky and took subjects that most of the jocks wouldn’t be caught dead doing like Italian, Literature and Information Technology. Thus, I was mercilessly bullied. I was beaten up, mocked and had cruel pranks played on me to the point that I would burst into tears. I wanted so badly to be accepted by my tormentors that I doubted my intrinsic self worth. I wanted to be a ‘real man’ like I was told I should be. This meant not associating with ‘nerds’ or ‘squares’, bullying those more vulnerable than me and accepting the tenets of what is now called toxic masculinity. While I can only feel regret at how I tried to cope with what was happening to me, I have come to realize that I needn’t have tried to live up to these bullshit expectations. However, when you are a socially awkward fourteen year old boy, your position in the social pecking order and the amount of friends you have can be a pretty strong indicator of your self worth. Even if those ‘friends’ were completely malevolent and shallow.

If that version of me were transported into 2015, I couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t be sucked into a subculture like the Alt-Right.

The me of today can never accept their creed, as I was lucky enough to be exposed to the right type of people at the right times of my life. People who taught me that we are all people at the end of the day despite our superficial differences of race, gender, sexuality etc. People who taught me that a tolerant society is one where someone like me would be accepted rather than victimized. I do empathize with those who weren’t so lucky to have had this happen. I therefore can understand why the Alt-Right would appeal to lost and tormented youth.

If I am to be totally honest, ‘Kill All Normies’ was a book I went into hoping that the author would reaffirm my view of the Alt-Right. In some ways, Nagle goes in directions that I never expected. She did bash the ‘woke’ online left to an extent that I wouldn’t have, and bestowed some on the Alt-Right an intellectual legitimacy that I don’t believe it deserves. However, I agree with certain parts of her assessment of the SJW*/CNN political left. She also pointed out a truth that I had never considered before; that the Alt-Right are by their nature exclusionary and this isn’t just a by-product of being picked last at team sports.

The Alt Right unleashed a generation of young men who felt they were in a guerrilla war. It gave many the camraderie that they felt they had been missing.
Photo by Andri on Pexels.com

The book itself starts from the point of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and poses the question: how did we end up with an internet troll president with a legion of online fans that range from incels, mens’ rights activists and various ne’er do wells after a moment filled with such promise and optimism? It then chronicles the events that shaped this movement, ranging from non political acts like the deplorable harassment of Mitchell Henderson’s parents, Harambe memes and the various raids launched from 4chan to the more political which includes the entire fiasco of Gamergate, the incel community, the Tumblr culture wars and so forth. Nagle tends to take a critical view of the left overall, and tends to take a ‘pox on both your houses approach’. Ultimately though she gives the Alt-Right some agency and culpability for their behavior, and I give her some credit for this.

One direction she went in that I didn’t expect was her excoriation of the so called ‘Tumblr left’, their reactions to those who aren’t on board with their ideas concerning identity and gender (I also think 51 definitions for the latter isn’t realistic). I appreciate that she needed to keep the bounds of her subject matter fairly tight in that she was exclusively discussing online culture wars. However, I felt that there needed to be more separation made between the type of identity politics obsessed leftist and lefties who largely reside in the offline world where regular co-existence with those we disagree with is not optional. Defining a political movement by it’s most strident and irrational voices can lead you into an argument with an opponent who only exists in your own biases.

Another criticism I have with the book is what I feel is it’s promotion of Milo Yiannopolous, and by extension the Alt-Right, as a polemical and debating phenomenon. While he was definitely able to rattle many on the left because of who he was, how he confronted his opposition in ways they weren’t used to, and his understanding of the current media landscape, I always felt his longevity was questionable. When he first emerged, the ‘woke’ generation could not effectively spar with him as they had no idea of who he was and could not reference his past work in their critique like they would a Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. He was brutally effective in that he understood that most media sound bites are ephemeral, and the news stories that supposedly ‘break the internet’ are forgotten in one month’s time. This relieved him of any accountability in the moment and gave him free reign to come up with any load of bollocks to use against his opponents that suited his narrative at the time.

My opinion is that as time passed, his trail of bullshit, bluff and bluster accumulated to the point that it became unambiguous that he stood for nothing besides his own promotion. He gave his enemies enough rope to hang him with. I also believe that Milo’s schtick was devastating against corporate style liberals online. Yet I contend that when he debates actual left wingers with overarching worldviews on areas as diverse as economics, environmental protection, human rights and international diplomacy, someone with knowledge beyond pop culture controversies or someone who sees him for what he is, he is exposed as an empty suit. Indeed, the same could be said of the Alt-Right. It has become a lot easier to recognize ‘shitposting’ and meme language in internet forums and on social media sites. As a result, I believe their act has become stale. This shows the book hasn’t aged well since it’s publication.

While I have criticisms on those fronts, I agree with Nagle to an extent some on the CNN left are the so-called new ‘squares’. Back in the 1960’s, Abbie Hoffman turned up to HUAC hearings dressed in a diaper. Nowadays, while I wouldn’t go quite as far as Paul Joseph Watson and say that the right is the new ‘punk rock’, it has taken on the mantle of transgressor of polite sensibilities in the culture wars when compared to the ‘Third Way’ left. While Donald Trump can step over the line with some of his comments, there have been countless instances of cable media liberals and the culture war obsessed, left wing Twitterati policing his use of language or criticizing his tone. A lot of the time he is just looking for a reaction and the stream of effluvia belching from his Twitter feed is usually best left alone. Yet it is intimated that Kristallnacht is upon us due to his lack of decorum by those mentioned above. For me, this tut tutting of Trump posting on Twitter about things like him being president for 100 years or memes about Hillary Clinton getting hit by a golf ball are irrelevant to the lives of actual human beings.

The people they should be concerned about are the asylum seekers forced to stay in Mexican towns that the US government won’t send their own people to, or who are sent to countries that people are actively fleeing from (not wanting asylum in) like Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. They are people who have lost access to food stamps in the US due to the new rules on the SNAP programs. They are the majority of Yemen who are facing mass starvation due to the war led by Saudi Arabia that are propped up by US weapon sales. They are the countless worldwide in Sub Saharan Africa, South East Asia and small Pacific island nations whose food sources, infrastructure, livelihoods and homes will be decimated by climate change related disasters thanks to the US government’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. When you get into these silly battles over decorum and semantics, and de-emphasize the problems of actual political battles, you just come across as a killjoy and not a righteous crusader for justice in the ‘Resistance’.

Furthermore, one of Nagle’s points is something I had never really considered before. While the whole Trump phenomenon, which many in the Alt-Right boosted, is viewed as a backlash against elitism and disdain for ordinary people, much of the language of the Alt-Right is by it’s nature exclusionary. While there is a strong element of those in this amorphous movement being the unclean and unloved, their language is deliberately designed to exclude ‘outsiders’ from their special little club. If one were to look at the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter, it included references that members of the online community he lived in would instinctively understand but would simply confuse or shock not in on the ‘joke’. A strict pecking order that excludes ‘noobs’ from the chosen few is enforced in these online spaces. Often their members cull the herd by being deliberately offensive and shocking to see who is not repelled by the misanthropy on display. While there is a lot of language of a community that accepts the estranged and rejected, I definitely can see a strong strand of insider/outsider dynamic at play here. It’s as though they have adopted the same cliquey rules of engagement that so many of them are raging against. Hence the title of the book: ‘Kill All Normies’.

While I think the Alt-Right and online biosphere of keyboard activists it spawned is somewhat overrated by Clintonite liberals and sophisticate Remainers who want to find ANY excuse for losing their respective races, the book itself is an OK primer for those who are completely new to this subculture. I would avoid it if you have knowledge of the events and players who reside in this ecosystem as it can be quite superficial. A lot of it’s research is based on newspaper articles and legacy media publications. Furthermore, it is very brief at roughly 120 pages. An 800 page book on this subject might not be as attention catching, but it sure as hell would do more justice to it’s subject matter.

  • I hate this term. Social justice is an economically re-distributive philosophy, not one of language policing and David Brent style political correctness.

Further References:
The Trolls Among Us by Mattathias Schwarz, New York Times, 8/3/2008
What Gamergate Should Have Taught Us About The Alt Right by Matt Lees, The Guardian, 12/1/2016

5 thoughts on “Review of Kill All Normies by Amanda Nagle (2017)

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