In her book Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4Chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right, Angela Nagel argues that our culture is obsessed with transgression. What Nagel means by “transgression” is the constant attempt to frame oneself as “anti-establishment,” one’s art as “subversive,” one’s political views as “radical,” or one’s moral pronouncements as “prophetic.” There is no greater insult in our culture than to be labelled “mainstream.” As the saying goes: “Mainstream, lame stream.” After all, why be “mainstream” when you can be countercultural, anti-establishment, or prophetic? What’s interesting about this language is the fact that in another, place, at another time, nothing could be worse than to have ones political views labelled “subversive,” “radical” or “anti-establishment.” Under totalitarian governments, to be labelled as such was a death sentence. And yet, in our own time, these words have become ubiquitous to the point of being meaningless.
One brief introductory aside, as a member of a community that has been “countercultural” before it was cool, for over 500 years, my own standpoint gives me a unique perspective on this phenomenon. One of the central tenants of the Hutterite confession is “separation from the world.” Because Hutterites, as pacifists, do not believe that Christians can participate in the violence intrinsic in national politics, we have instead founded communities that live a different politics, that are formed by a different culture and nourished by a Christianity different from that of Christendom—One could say I have come by my anti-establishment leanings honestly—Hutterites are by definition, countercultural, radical, and anti-establishment in a way that most people would find “weird.” For that reason, the traditional Hutterite stance on “the mainstream” seems in some sense to be vindicated by this age of critique. Hutterites have always recognized the intrinsic tension between the peaceful kingdom of God and the violent kingdoms of this world. That our society is becoming critical of our civilization’s history of violence, white supremacy, slavery, colonialism and a litany of other horrors should remind Christians of the dangers of confusing Christendom with Christianity. Jesus’s warnings about serving “God and Mammon” and his words about his kingdom being “not of this world,” should call Christians to a different kind of politics.
But let’s return to our exploration of transgression. While the ‘brand’ or aesthetic of transgression invades many different domains of life—art, everyday language, reporting, etc.—I would like to focus, in this piece, on its forays into politics. It is here that this phenomenon is most clearly observed. In her book, Angela Nagel argues that this political obsession with “transgression’ originated with the 60’s countercultural Hippie movement. The left was quick to embrace this new ethos of transgression: “transgression has been embraced as a virtue within western social liberalism ever since the 60’s.” On the other hand, the right has traditionally resisted: “but since the 60’s the norm has…been that critics of transgression have generally come from the right.” Through an analysis of online subcultures Nagel notes that with the rise of the internet, online subcultures of increasingly reactionary political movements emerged. Nagel focuses her attention on two radically opposed internet subcultures: the alt right trolls on 4Chan and the politically correct cultural liberals on Tumblr. We’ll have more to say about what characterizes these two groups later on, but a short summery will suffice for now. Tumblr was the site of choice for politically correct liberal types who talked about things like micro aggressions, cultural appropriation, white supremacy, and gender identities. The discussion on these forms were often “almost self-satirizing,” as all aspects of life were brought under the scrutiny of the most extreme version of critical theory: “everything from eating noodles to reading Shakespeare was declared ‘problematic’ and even the most mundane acts ‘misogynist’ and ‘white supremacist.’” The troll culture that developed on 4Chan was largely a response to the oversensitive hysteria of Tumblr. Nagel writes: “The irreverent trolling style associated with 4chan grew in popularity in response to the expanding identity politics of more feminine spaces like Tumblr.” This group of trolls was mixed in with genuine racists and white supremacists on the sites where these groups interacted. The anti-PC rhetoric along with the racist, misogynist, comments and jokes that characterizes these forums, makes it impossible to tell who is serious and who is just “doing it for the lolz.”
These two groups, the alt-right and the PC left, became locked in a culture war in which the increasingly extreme rhetoric of the “other side,” drove both into a spiral of increasing radicalism:
“Every bizarre event, new identity and strange subcultural behaviour that baffles general audiences when they eventually make the mainstream media, from otherkin to far right pepe memes, can be understood as a response to a response to a response, each one responding angrily to the existence of the other. Trumpian meme-makers ramped up their taboo breaking anti-PC style in response to gender-bending Tumblr users, who themselves became more sensitive, more convinced of the racism, misogyny and hetro-normative oppression of the world outside their online subcultures. At the same time, the ‘deplorables,’ from the Trumpian trolls to the alt-right, view the Hillary loyalists – the entrenched identity politics of Tumblr and the intersectional anti-free speech campus left – as evidence of their – equally bleak view of declining western civilization, as both sides have become increasingly unmoored to any cultural mainstream, which scarcely resembles either bleak vision.”
Even as these subcultures became more radical, they started to seep into the mainstream. According to Nagel, it was through the online subculture of Tumblr, that radical PC ideas started to make their way into the mainstream. Part of how this happened was through alternative media which outperformed the mainstream news:
“… during the Obama years millennial cultural liberals had their own new media platforms to fill the vacuum left by the decline of the centrality of mainstream newspapers and TV as the general arena for public discourse… In this brave new world of clicks and content, their alternative came in the form of often-sentimental and feel-good sites like Upworthy.. and Buzfeed. Other liberal sites like Everyday Feminism, Jezebel and Salon delivered a strange mixture of ultra-sensitivity, sentimentality and what was once considered radical social constructionist identity politics.”
Individuals and institutions on the mainstream left, recognizing the popularity of the alternative left, responded by moving in a more radical direction:
“Mainstream news reading audiences were baffled when Facebook revealed it was offering over 50 gender options to choose from in 2014… but the social media corporation was merely taking its cues from online subcultures that had been emerging for years before… The main preoccupation of this new culture (the right names them the SJWs and snowflakes, lets call it Tumblr-liberalism) was gender fluidity and providing safe spaces to explore other concerns like mental ill-health, physical disability, race, cultural identity and ‘intersectionality’ – the now standard academic term for recognition of multiple varieties of interacting marginalization and oppressions. While the roots of this political sensibility may be found in academia and activist culture, its emergence into the mainstream that led to Hillary using terms like ‘check your privilege’ and ‘intersectionality’ was the culmination of years of online developments on Tumblr, in fan cultures, on previous platforms like LiveJournal and on a mixture of social media.”
The story of the rise of the alt right follows a similar script. The alt right propagate their ideas through a sort of great chain of being, in which their ideas are filtered up the chain to the mainstream right through progressively less extreme figures. This bridge between the alt-right and the mainstream is known as the “alt-light:”
“They succeeded largely by bypassing the dying mainstream media and creating an Internet-culture and alternative media of their own from the ground up… the alt-light… became major independent social media figures with huge audiences…They influenced internet culture and eventually more mainstream culture.”
There are two things that are interesting about the development of the alt-right. First of all, the alt right and the figures that made up the alt-light represent the emergence of a transgressive, postmodern brand of conservatism. These figures love to style themselves as the “punks” the “rebels” who are finally breaking with a toxic, feminized mainstream. They delight in breaking norms of civility in speech for its own sake, and their online forums are a cesspool of porn, hate and nihilism. This leads directly the second point. Early on in the development of the alt-right, some liberal commenters were actually ‘romanticized’ the movement as a ‘counter-hegemonic force’. Nagel writes:
“Years before the whole 4chan troll culture became a central force behind the entire aesthetics and humor of the alt-right, it was teaming with racism, misogyny, dehumanization, disturbing pornography and nihilism… It was the utterly empty and fraudulent ideas of countercultural transgression that created the void into which anything can now flow as long as it it contemptuous of mainstream values and tastes. This is what allowed a culture that has now been exposed in all its horror to be romanticized by progressives as a counter-hegemonic force.”
If the left allowed themselves to be suckered by the transgressive politics of the alt-right, the right, swallowed them hook, line and sinker. It was probably out of desperation and having realized that the conservative culture war—which consisted of causes like banning porn, opposing same sex marriage, and abortion—was lost, that the right turned to figures like Milo and ultimately, Trump:
“Having lost Buchannan’s conservative culture war, they were perhaps strategically right to calculate that the only way they can ever have at least some of their ideas heard again would be to back a groping, lecherous, godless presidential candidate and a libertine figure such as Yiannopoulos and his army of online racists, foul-mouthed, porn-loving nihilists, who in many ways represent everything people like Buchannan are supposed to stand for.”
The emergence of Trump and his embrace by the republican base—not to mention 81% of evangelicals, including many who previously claimed to be looking for “character” in a president—represents the triumph of transgression over mainstream conservatism. Part of Trump’s appeal was his styling of himself as an outsider, someone who wasn’t a “career politician” and therefore, not part of the ‘mainstream.’ Even into his presidency, Trump has continuously waged a war against the “mainstream news,” and told his own ‘counter-hegemonic’ version of the truth. He is the first postmodern president and essentially an internet troll:
“Despite calling himself a conservative, he, Trump, rightist 4chan and the alt-right all represent a pretty dramatic departure from the kind of button down, family values, conservatism that we usually associate with [conservatism.]… unrestrained by conventions of speech or PC culture, the whole online sensibility is more in the spirit of foul mouthed comment trolls…The recent rise of the online right is evidence of the… triumph of 60’s left styles of transgression and counterculture. The libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony and ultimately the nihilism that the left was once accused of by the right, actually characterized the movement to which Milo belonged.”
Nagel’s account gives interesting food for thought about we are at. We live in an age of critique and suspicion of traditional or historical power structures, hierarchies and institutions. Instead of seeking to build up the discourse or promote the common good, our politics have turned in on themselves and have become critical, not just of their ideological opponents, but of our society and its historical roots. Our politics have moved from policy debates to an endless parade of symbolic gestures, events and images. The Covington School kids, the statues, and of course, the COVID19 masks. In the COVID19 epidemic, the mask has become a symbol with radically different meanings to different factions. To one side, it is a symbol of belief in science, the establishment, and the common good. To the other side, the mask is a symbol of cowardice, totalitarian overreach and the “normie” mainstream. To go without a mask is a symbol of resistance, courage and “truth.” The editor of First Things captured this sediment in a series of tweets when he wrote:
Trump does not wear mask, compromising the possibility that WWII vets might live forever! Heather Mac Donald on the current hysteria and the paralyzing safetyism that makes healthy 30-year-old cower with fear behind their masks. https://t.co/q6UAXgZ0Jj
— R.R. Reno (@rr_reno) May 12, 2020
By the way, the WWII vets did not wear masks. They’re men, not cowards. Masks=enforced cowardice.
— R.R. Reno (@rr_reno) May 13, 2020
Just to reinforce. Talked to my son in Seattle. The mask culture if fear driven. Masks+cowardice. It’s a regime dominate by fear of infection and fear of causing of infection. Both are species of cowardice.
— R.R. Reno (@rr_reno) May 13, 2020
Now we know who want to cower in place. By all means rage against those who want to live.
— R.R. Reno (@rr_reno) May 13, 2020
Look, let’s face it. There are those who are terrified, and those who are not. Where do you stand? Terror or a more reasonable position? Will you visit our mother? If so, the mask is a PC gesture. If not, you are a moral monster.
Here we see how the debate has moved from debate over weather or not masks are efficacious for helping to stop the spread of the virus, to a symbolic war. Embrace the mainstream or be part of the resistance. The debate really has nothing to do with “the facts,” neither side could be converted to the other by being presented with a different set of facts. The conflict is a level deeper than facts, at the level of narratives, values and world-views. In a excellent essay at the New Atlantis, Alan Jacobs draws on a distinction between the “mythical core” and the “technological core” of a society. If we adapt this distinction for our own purposes, we can see the problem here. The technological core is level at which we see reality as a world to be manipulated to achieve our ends. The mythical core is the level underneath which directs the technological core, in what direction, towards which ends, should we manipulate reality? This is the level of narrative, values and worldview. Our symbolic wars are battles waged over the mythical core of our society, and we are at odds over the fundamental questions of value, direction, purpose ect. of our society. Thus, it seems to me that the many calls for debate about “the facts” are missing the point, because the question over what the facts are, is secondary to the mythical core. The mythical core is what informs the partisan of his choice of where to get his facts from, what is trustworthy, what the problems are, what we should be focusing on, and so on.
What is increasingly coming head to head in political and cultural wars, is not just opposing versions of the facts, or even opposing sets of values, but rather, opposing narratives about who we are, where we come from and where we are (or, are to be)headed. Where Trump and his supporters see in the past an America we must return to if we are to “make America great again,” his PC opponents see white supremacy, misogyny, colonialism and a litany of other horrors. The mythologies of both the PC left and the alt-right both imagine a primordial past upon which their values are projected and which they try to pull into the future. The primordial past for the alt-right is masculine, the warrior society, hierarchal, survival of the fittest. The primordial past of the PC left is feminine, the noble savage, the communist, free love society embedded in nature. This was ruined by the imposition of the patriarchy, and oppressive structures, systems and gender roles. The primordial past functions for both the left and the right as a sort of lost garden of eden, a past that haunts us and beckons and to which we strive to return. In the more occult strains, it operates like a primordial spiritual power which can be summoned into the present. The phenomenon of progressive witches and the alt-right obsession with pagan deities and meme magic come to mind.These myths explain where we came from, how we went wrong, and how we can return. Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” is a myth in a sentence and it captures the imaginations of his supporters because it taps into a shared myth. A USA of the past, which we have strayed from, and to which Donald Trump can return us to.
The aesthetic of transgression—the constant attempt to style oneself as anti-mainstream and as countercultural—has become a staple of our postmodern politics, both on the left and on the right. Even the most conservative positions are now promoted as “punk,” “radical” and “countercultural.” Both Trump and his critics view themselves as the embattled outsiders waging a losing battle against their opponents in the culture war; by de-facto, either side is countercultural.
Its fascinating to take Nagel’s observation that our culture is obsessed with the aesthetic of transgression and observe, without judging, how prevalent language of transgression is in our contemporary political, theological and cultural debates. Its fascinating to observe what a wide range of contradictory positions are framed as “radical” by their promoters. Indeed, the word “radical” has shed most of its negative connotations in our times. (the term “radical islam” might be a strong counterexample) The silicon valley techno-utopians building our technological future, a future which hangs over our heads like a omnipresent sword, style themselves as “nerds”, “hackers” and countercultural radicals. Its an interesting aesthetic on several fronts, on one hand because of the connotation that they are “hacking” the natural order, defiantly forging their own path. Its perhaps an implicit critique of their own technological project, in that it seems to imply that their “hacking” is parasitical on a grander, stranger, older, more complex Order, that could, either be damaged by the hacking, or else snap back with unexpected consequences. On the other hand, its interesting to note that it is the richest, most powerful, most influential people in our society who are styling themselves as “radicals”. Its also interesting to note the rhetoric of counterculture and “radicalism” that infuses the leftwing social justice movements. These movements are setting themselves in opposition to the homogeneous forces of white supremacy and patriarchy which infuse the institutions of our society. And yet, when the radical cause of Black Lives Matter goes international, is it still radical? More interesting still is how the language of “radicalism” is adopted, as Nagel notes in the book, by those promoting various traditionalisms, traditional gender roles, traditional sexual ethics, and so on. These self-styled radicals argue that tradition is the new punk, the family man is the new hippie, because of how out of step those mores are with contemporary society.
What are we to make of this? Is this the sign of the emergence of a truly postmodern politics, where our rhetoric is less about “facts” and “truth” but instead, about transgression and the better story? We argue that it is our opponents who are “mainstream” and we who are the true radicals, and then we tell a story about why this is so.
Trump is an interesting case study here and a striking example of the paradoxes of our time. Donald Trump, the archetypical millionaire and cultural elite campaigned as an outsider who was not part of the elite. And now, this “radical”, anti-elite, anti-mainstream figure is literally the most elite person in the United States and one of the most powerful people in the world. And yet, at the same time, the same anti-mainstream narrative continues to be perpetuated both by him and by his supporters. His supporters will complain about the elites in Hollywood and Washington, decry the “mainstream news” and complain about their lack of cultural and political power. At the same time, those same “cultural elites” style themselves as the true radicals, fighting against the fascist and racist president.
Another interesting feature of how the word “radical” functions in our contemporary discourse is that it is being used as a shorthand for truth. If something is radical, anti mainstream, not widely held, or countercultural, it is, therefore, the correct position. Its a move that I’ve observed to be particularly common among the kind of conservative who sees him or herself as an embattled minority in a hostile culture. For example, it sometimes seems to me that a lot of the opposition to global warming from conservative Christians, comes simply from the fact that it is widely held. Because Greta Thurnberg became a international icon, is another reason to preserve my anti-climate change stance. I think, of course, there is more to the opposition than that (see my post on climate change and Christianity) but this kind of counter cultural aesthetic is very common in the rhetoric. The word “radical” functions like a self explanatory fact in the rhetoric of the right and left, just add it as an adjective to any position, and you have an argument. A seemingly opposite phenomenon is the obsession with balance. Here, a person on either extreme of the political spectrum will attempt to argue the his position is the real centrism and that his is the one that mediates between the extremes. This connects up with the counterculture rhetoric because in a polarized world, the centrist is the true radical. This too, functions in leu of argument, all one has to do to win the argument is to point out that there are extremes on both sides of oneself and voila, you have the truth. But of course, one man’s mediating position is another man’s extremism, so much of this is context dependant. You can situate yourself anywhere on the political spectrum and always find a position to your right and to your left. Also, if you are within a particularly extreme bubble, what seems like mediation, is really nothing of the sort. One example, pretty much at random that comes to mind is from a blog I looked at not too long ago where a conservative Christian was framing his (anti-abortion) position as the mediation between the extremists of “both sides.” He doesn’t think on one hand, that abortion is a wonderful thing that should be promoted, and neither does he think, on the other hand, that women who have abortions should be killed. I could have gotten his two extremes wrong, but the point stands, this guy does have a position on the abortion debate, he is on the pro life side, rather than the pro choice side. Thats fine, thats what he believes, thats what he thinks is the moral side to be on, and he should own it. The pretend centrism buttressed with a fake dialectic and bothsideism, serves no other purpose than to hide his conservatism. The fact is, not all of the positions we hold are some mushy synthesis of two dialectical poles, and thats fine, thats what it means to be a contingent human being seeking the truth, seeking to live morally in a complicated world. I am a Christian, I believe that a dude who lived 2000 years ago happens to be the Son of God. Thats not some kind of rational, meta-centrist synthesis, its a very particular religious claim. This fake centrism gives one the pretence of objectivity: you have transcended the “tribal” debates of the normies and risen up into the pure “meta” realm, where you pierce the debates of the day with your devine syntheses. You are now “meta-religious”, “meta-political”, “meta-human” and I would add “meta-bullshit.”