Kill All Normies: A Review
As I read through Carlos Lozada’s journey through the major titles of the ‘Trump Era’ in What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump, one book stood out to me: Angela Nagle’s 2017 book Kill All Normies. Amongst the diatribes of RussiaGate and Rust Belt anthropological studies written by other journalists, Nagle chose to explore the nascent role of the 2016 culture wars and their connection to late aughts Internet culture. As someone who was a teenager during those years, I was intrigued. The result? A seriously cathartic experience for people who grew up visiting some of the sites who’s then unrecognized cultural influence it explores.
As a whole, Kill All Normies is a very useful read for someone looking to understand the historical background of our contemporary culture wars. Though it’s quite short and carries some embarrassing editing errors, I would highly recommend it.
Angela Nagle’s career became quite fraught in the wake of this book’s release, namely because of her broader views of which Normies articulates. Put simply, now and especially in 2017, many left wingers did not like the level of criticism towards the cultural left that Nagle brings. She expertly puts to words what many have tried to say about the modern left, and how the advent of its humourless, self-righteous, performative sentimentality that began in the 2010s gave rise to what we now call the alt right.
Our Shared Aughts History
Kill All Normies can be broken down into two distinct parts. The first is an exploration of the history of Internet culture post 2012, and the second is a philosophical analysis of the ‘alt right’ and the ‘tumblr left’.
The 2016 Presidential election was a culmination of many online and offline culture wars, which were made exponentially more intense by the way the Internet is now structured. In order to truly understand what took place and why the votes landed where they did, it’s crucial to understand how the Internet changed the way in which the right and left (but mostly left, and for the worse) were perceived by the outside world.
I was struck by the point Nagle makes about the Kony 2012 video, which she argues marked a crucial cultural turning point for the Internet. Before Kony 2012, the Internet was more of a peripheral entity to the culture wars as opposed to the site of them, and the concepts of virtue signaling and social movements that were driven almost entirely by the Internet was a new phenomenon. Before that, the most viral videos and articles weren’t about politics, and neither were the biggest feuds on Youtube or Twitter. We were given a taste of it with the Arab Spring in 2011, but it didn’t begin to concern Westerners more directly until the following year.
2012 was also a year in which social media platforms were fully coming into form to enable the spread and commentary of videos like Kony 2012. That was the year in which everything started going wrong, you might say.
It’s extraordinary to think about the connection between websites like 4chan and Encylopedia Drammatica — staples of my adolescence — and the cataclysmic political events now shaping my adulthood. The 2016 presidential election was the first serious culture war of the Internet age, and the people who led and won that culture war were the same people who’s pranks, memes and other exploits I delightedly read about in high school. I look back fondly on those experiences, and in hindsight I’m glad they came when they did. That was when I was most impressionable, and when 4chan and the like were much more benign.
We’re All Normies Now
Jumping forward to 2017, Nagle captures the essences of both the alt-right and “tumblr-left” movements extraordinarily well, melding a surprising amount of political theory with contemporary social movements in a way that’s both readable and concise. She focusses more on the alt-right than its counterpart, proposing that at the centre of alt-right identity is the concept of the radical outsider who rejects mainstream morality and seeks his own identity instead. In doing this she cites numerous Western political thinkers, from De Sade to Nietzche, and major cultural movements of the 20th century, especially the counter-culture of the 1960s.
Zooming back to the past few years, sites like Tumblr enabled a particular style of highly performative left wing social media sentimentality to reach an unsustainable level. A perfect breeding ground for the radical outsider. This was then brought into the mainstream by sites like Buzzfeed, Mic and Upworthy, who commodified it. The advent of social media, meanwhile, enabled a hysterical call-out culture that was only capable of feeding off of itself. Nagle writes of how virtue had became a currency in online left wing circles by 2016. As it began to become more and more in vogue, its value decreased, and ever more intense affirmations needed to be made. Over time, the communicative energy of the left exhausted itself, while alienating huge swathes of people.
Due to uncritically accepting a huge portion of what came out of sites like Tumblr, the Western political left drastically narrowed its opinion corridors while it made the consequences of falling outside of them infinitely worse. This was all while social media made us feel like we were living in a giant panopticon. This produced an immense brain drain on the left, and continues to paralyze productive political conversation in many leftist spaces.
So, the book argues, is it any wonder that this created a breeding ground for an online backlash of irreverent mockery and anti-PC crusades? Especially when the concept of transgressing against the ruling cultural elite (which the left still dominates) has been a central tenant of Western politics for centuries? All the alt-right is is a collection of separate groups that grew semi independently, but became much more powerful (and attractive) after joining together under banner of responding to the rise of 2010s PC culture.
This brings about Nagle’s second point, which is that had these shifts on the left not taken place, Donald Trump would not have won the election. That the immense online activism that brought him to victory 2016 wouldn’t have coalesced into the powerhouse it now is if the cultural shifts taking place on the left hadn’t been so intense. This point has been made before, but Nagle’s excellent encapsulation of it made it a satisfying to read.
Ultimately though, the book left me feeling sad. Needless to say the genie is out of the bottle now, and I don’t see any way that these movements will shrink until they genuinely start displacing today’s liberals that sit at the top of our cultural hierarchy. I don’t see their displacement as an entirely bad thing in and of itself, but I know that the path we’re now on will deliver a lot more cruelty and conflict before we reach that point.