Hillary Clinton’s book about 2016 was called What Happened — no question mark. As a standard of post-mortem incuriousness, it set the tone for what we’re seeing now. The way to rope that dope Donald, the Harris-Biden campaign still seems to think, is to remind everyone that he “failed to condemn white supremacy”, and to effectively double their opponent’s publicity reach by focusing all the messaging on Orange Man Bad. Well, it worked last time…
In recent weeks, the big tech platforms have been trying to clear the underbrush of fake news. This time, the theory goes, we just need to get our message out. After all, Hillary only spent a billion dollars on hers.
What happened — the deep story of an America coming apart — should have been the point of departure for wide-ranging introspection from the losing side, yet from the New York Times down, many have instead become convinced that they alone hold the reins of decency, and that they will be judged by history simply on how well they re-state their class shibboleths to each other.
It is from within this prison of valour that Andrew Marantz conducts his entertaining interviews with the new online Right in Anti-Social: How Online Extremists Broke America — just released in paperback.
Marantz is a New Yorker staff writer. (It shows.) From 2011 on, he followed many of the social media outriders who seemed to clear the way for Trump. People like steroid-loving Twitter blowhard Mike Cernovich, who laundered conspiracies about ‘sick Hillary’ into the news cycle; needy semi-cranks like vlogger Laura Loomer; anti-PC-as-performance-art vulgarians like Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes; ballsy bandwagoneers like alt-lite crumpet Lauren Southern; and occasionally real nasties like the anti-Semitic podcaster Mike Enoch, who, in one of history’s great acts of cognitive dissonance, was eventually expelled from his own movement for having a Jewish wife.
By Marantz’s mirror they’re a charmless bunch: vain and along for the ride. A Proud Boy deliberately farts in an elevator. McInnes spoils for a fight. Cernovich sponges off his wife while writing Pick-up Artist blogs. At the DeploraBall, the Trump inauguration party for the alt-ish Right, everyone seems more interested in comparing their Twitter follower counts than in talking politics.
These are the people hotwiring the attention economy, Marantz contends. As he lays out to billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, in a chance meeting in a corridor at the DeploraBall, the idea that the cream always rises is a fiction. Shit floats. And social media is ultimate proof of that.
The implied premise — that racism is a contagion that is taking over America — is not one Marantz wastes any time questioning. To the New Yorker set, the problem’s obvious: a bunch of yahoos got ahold of Reddit and Twitter accounts. Thus, America’s out of control id can only be contained by pruning the worst elements off the internet, because otherwise ordinary dupes will be dragged ever-rightwards.
Lately, this trope has become its own micro-genre. Who could forget the New York Times’ celebrated Rabbit Hole podcast, in which a young man watches some anti-feminist YouTube videos, then gets into Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, gets a job, does nothing, harms no one, but is saved from his radicalisation by watching yet more YouTube videos — this time of hip young Marxists on ‘BreadTube’ (Communism never being responsible for any historical carnage)?
In this world view, Trump is portrayed as the ur-yahoo: in 2011, he hijacked the attention economy with the , and thus set the verbal and moral template for the likes of Milo Yiannopolous to go for attention above all, to grab the mic and say into it all the dirtiest words they could think of.
But this is only a shallow why. These people also rode in on the currents of social frustration that had been submerged pre-social media. On the opposite side of the aisle, so too did the likes of Alyssa Milano, the often bizarrely hyperbolic Twitter-famous actress who popularised the #MeToo hashtag. Is she just a different kind of attention hijacker?
“Gradually,” Marantz writes, “reluctantly, I admitted to myself that institutions can also have significant upsides… it’s possible for a thing to be uncool and also necessary.” The reluctant censor always cuts such a comi-tragic figure — a bit like Michael Palin’s sympathetic crucifixion administrator in The Life Of Brian. Still, he heads to Reddit HQ, to argue that the platform should delete subreddits like r/TheDonald. But it’s already too late — Cernovich has triggered the libs once too often, and Trump wins.
The day after the election, Marantz’s Facebook feed is full of people posting the same prescient section from the philosopher Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. Written in 1998, Rorty claimed that the gap between the masses and the elite was widening, and foresaw a US dictatorship by 2014:
“Something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for. . . . One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back.”
Rorty popularised the idea of ‘vocabularies’: that civilisations speak to themselves in a unique argot which structures their consciousness. “Europe did not decide to accept the idiom of Romantic poetry,” Rorty wrote. “Or of socialist politics, or of Galilean mechanics. That sort of shift was no more an act of will than it was a result of argument. Rather, Europe gradually lost the habit of using certain words and gradually acquired the habit of using others.”
Here, society is portrayed as a system that self-hypnotises. Repetition and expansion of ideas bends the possibilities for thought, and so what we prune and what we nurture counts for a lot. The ‘arc of history’ is still a thing in Rorty’s view — but it must be consciously bent by us in a positive direction.
On the back of Rorty’s argument, Marantz would like to say that we shouldn’t be shy of discriminating: there are always better and worse takes. And on that he’s entirely right. But it’s in the words ‘us’ and ‘positive direction’ that the sleight-of-hand lies. Who’s us? What’s positive? Marantz’s DC lawyer friends — whom he finds sat round the living room making their banners to go on the Women’s March — already seem to have their answers.
The problem is that the tussle over elites is seldom about their intellectual horsepower — it’s about their vantage point. In truth, democracy proceeds from something akin to the argument for animal welfare: not ‘can they think?’, but ‘can they feel pain?’
In this regard, one story is particularly striking. The Gateway Pundit is a Trump-loving clickbait blog started by a Midwestern 20-something from his bedroom. But post-2016, they’re invited to send a correspondent to the White House: the barbarians are inside the gates.
Marantz records a confrontation in the briefing room between their correspondent, Lucian Wintrich, and a gang of old school White House hacks, furious at having their turf, and weltaunschung, invaded.
“OK,” she said. “Are you a racist?”
“No, of course not.”
“What are your views when it comes to integration?”
“I’m all for it.”
“My boyfriend’s Colombian, so we tend to mingle,” he said.
The irony is delicious. Wintrich might be serially incompetent, intellectually inferior, doing little more than wiggling his bum at the ‘elite’, yet he ends up winning the encounter precisely because the old media have never taken the phenomenon of people like him seriously enough to do their homework, and can only react in their own sclerotic vocabulary: daubing everyone with the same Nazi brush.
Four years on, it’s jarring how little has changed. Establishment political hacks are still regularly baffled to learn that intellectual and political lifeforms exist beyond reforms to Working Tax Credits and the pieties of inclusion.
Here, the gatekeepers must take their share of the blame. Marantz complains about the Overton Window shifting, yet within a few lines, he’s convinced that Jordan Peterson holding individual rights as cardinal over any form of collectivism is a racist dog whistle: “This is the sort of false equivalence [between collectivisms of the left and right] that would have been staggering just a few years ago.”
Would it? Or is it more staggering that institutionalist journalists have redefined perhaps the core Enlightenment value as a racist dog whistle? Or even that the neologism of the ‘racist dog whistle’ now allows them to claim things without direct evidence? It certainly suggests that any movement of the Overton Window might not all be in one direction; perhaps even that we now have two separate windows. Overton French Doors.
The question of why Peterson has connected with so many remains as uninteresting as why Trump did, or Cernovich does. From start to end of Anti-Social, the answer’s obvious: because half the country is secretly racist and these people give them the cover to express that.
You might ask which new vocabulary grew up first: the pronoun checks, -isms, phobias and ‘systemic’ iniquities of what is now the establishment Left, or the ‘MSM’-bashing, ‘virtue signal’-despising, ‘SJW’-allergic new online Right? The latter seems the more reactive, in that theirs is a language of negation, of opposing to something already there.
Either way, much as it might be easier to play whack-a-mole censorship, if America is to pull past its present funk, the world of the gatekeepers is first going to have to admit that at least part of the reason that such a gap in the market has opened for the yahoos is because the vocabulary of nice, well-educated New Englanders has accelerated away from the broader population in recent years. Even back at Charlottesvile, “white supremacy” still broadly connoted hoods and crosses. Today, it means Tom Cotton and ill-advised . “To change how we talk is to change who we are,” Marantz concludes. Quite right.
Strangely enough, in his book taking on the New Left godheads like Rorty, Fools, Frauds & Firebrands, Roger Scruton ends on a similar thought. Scruton argues that a key task of the modern Right is simply to scythe through the often obscure postmodern linguistic trifles of its opponents — that nothing can be solved without first arriving at a common vocabulary.
It is only when we have found again the language that is natural to us that we can answer the great accusations that are constantly thrown at our world from the left.
And it is only when we have found that language that we can move on from the one-dimensional left/ right, with us/ against us, progressive/ reactionary dichotomies that have so often made rational discussion impossible.
Rorty couldn’t have said it better himself. Or could he?