Maybe Taking the Arguments of Nazis At Face Value Is Bad
Following the publication of my piece on Chapo Trap House last week, left podcaster and Chapo supporter Katie Halper reached out to me on twitter. I had quoted Halper in the piece talking about parallels between Chapo and the alt right. Halper felt I had mischaracterized her, and urged me to listen to an episode of her podcast in which she and scholar Angela Nagle discussed the alt right and its relationship to the left. 

So, I listened to the episode, titled, "Angela Nagle: How Precious Liberals Kind of Helped Create the Alt Right." I can't say that the podcast really changed my thoughts on the dirtbag left. On the contrary, Halper and Nagle merely confirm that the dirtbag left's approach to the alt right is mired in theoretical and historical confusion. That confusion is resolved, unfortunately, by unskeptically adopting the alt right's view of itself and of its enemies. The result is a left which centers Nazis, sneers at marginalized people, and generally abandons its moral bearings in order to chase an elusive and supposedly triumphant whiteness which it cannot distinguish from the working class.

On the podcast, Angela Nagle—author of a recent study of  the alt right titled Kill All Normies—posits two contradictory relationships between the left and the alt right. The first and less noxious of these is a formal link. Nagle argues that the alt right is inspired by the counterculture's performance of transgression. The exact timing here is difficult to parse from the rambling discussion, but as near as I can tell, Nagle is arguing that radical politics has long been intertwined with aesthetics of transgression, coalescing (I guess?) in the counterculture of the 1960s. Nagle concludes that the alt right's nihilistic edge lord ethic of pissing people off for the sake of pissing them off was borrowed from the damn hippies. She sees this ethic of transgression as nihilistic, and suggests that a posture of transgression can be glommed onto any political stance.

There are a couple of problems here. The first is the assumption that regressive politics is a historical stranger to the aesthetics of transgression. Halper astutely brings up the futurists, which was an avant garde movement with links to Italian fascism. Nagle basically says, "oh, right, the futurists" and that's the end of that line of inquiry. Nor is there any discussion of Pound or Eliot, whose poetry used experimental and alienating aesthetic forms to excoriate the supposedly bland liberal consensus of their day. Nazism itself cultivated a conscious revolutionary aesthetic, and worked to undermine and coopt various traditional organizations, not least Protestant and Catholic churches. Popular representations of fascism are generally quite aware of its countercultural aesthetic: see how fascism's challenge to the older generation is presented in Salon Kitty (1976), for example, or the Nazi countercultural positioning in The Believer (2001). No doubt the alt right is influenced by the 60s, as everyone is, but to suggest that countercultural aesthetics were the sole province of the left until 5 minutes ago is ill-informed nonsense.

More, Nagle seems to be unaware of the long tradition of left criticism of the counterculture—not just from a Marxist perspective, but from a social justice one. Gloria Steinem became a famous name by writing an exposé of Playboy, one of the most famous purveyors of the a counterculture ethic of liberation and hedonism. Andrea Dworkin in Right Wing Women warned that free love could easily turn into exploitation. James Baldwin wrote scathingly about the Beats, who positioned themselves as a daring counterculture force in large part by associating themselves with racist tropes about black freedom and authenticity. For that matter, the pop meme "All your favs are problematic" is an explicit acknowledgement that countercultural art and countercultural artists often have serious political failings. 

No doubt you can find some people on the left equating transgression with liberation. But they tend to be the dirtbag podcasters Nagle defends, rather than the tumblr feminists she loathes.

Again, Halper somewhat nervously acknowledges that Nagle's theories, if followed through, cause problems. She asks Nagle to reassure her that the drift of the argument does not head towards horseshoe theory—the idea that the extreme left is indistinguishable from the extreme right. Nagle says it does not…and then, once again, backs away from the conversation.

The problem is obvious. If transgression, in and of itself, has no political content, and is even retrograde, what exactly is the justification for Chapo's belligerent anti-PC nonsense? Chapo gleefully makes jokes about autistic people and fat people; one of the hosts recently mocked a rape victim on twitter and apologized to fans on reddit—though not to the woman he'd insulted in the first place. This kind of bombastic nastiness is generally excused on the grounds precisely of transgression. Civility, the argument goes, is the tool of the Man. The alt right and Chapo alike reject the bland nostrums of the suits, just like the Beatles scandalized America by growing their hair long. But if, as Nagle says, transgression is nihilistic and pointless, then doesn't that make Chapo nihilistic and pointless? If transgression as an ethic is dumb, shouldn't Nagle be criticizing a podcast named (ahem) Chapo Trap House, rather than talking about how great they are?

Nagle and Halper don't have an answer. Instead, Nagle simply backs and fills, muttering about how Chapo is materialist, and therefore opposed to the alt right and identity politics. This comes in at the end of the episode, and as an argument it's never fleshed out. But the rest of the podcast suggests that what we've got here is an undertheorized conception of backlash. The alt right, for Nagle, does not just take its transgressive ideology from the left. Rather, it is a reaction to the left.

If that sounds like a familiar talking point, it's only because it's a familiar talking point. Nazis themselves always present themselves as aggrieved parties; their violence and rage is always, supposedly, an understandable reaction to the aggression of Jews and other marginalized people. 

Of course, Nazis lie all the time. You shouldn't trust Nazis. Nor should you sympathize with Nazis as Nazis. This seems like a pretty straightforward rule of thumb. Yet, Nagle consistently sympathizes with and re-broadcasts alt right burble, treating that burble as if it is some leftist insight. She explains the appeal of the alt right by saying that many young people, "started being so irritated by the online culture of public shaming that Jon Ronson wrote about. This skips lightly over the fact that the right wing movement #gamergate was itself a massive exercise in online shaming—and of course Nazi and far right harassment long precedes the existence of the Internet.

Similarly, Nagle talks about Richard Spencer's speech at Auburn University, and says his listeners cheered when he spoke about their "proud heritage." Again, she attributes the appeal of Spencer to the leftist culture of shaming. In her mind, white people have been shamed; therefore they naturally embrace white nationalism. 

This is all nonsense. White nationalism in the United States didn't start in 2015 as a backlash to tumblr. Spencer, in talking about "heritage" is speaking the language of neo-Confederacy. That language began following the Civil War; Confederates created a myth about how they were humiliated and put upon by out of control black-run governments, and so had to strike back. White racists always portray themselves as aggrieved and humiliated; they always say that marginalized people are the real oppressors. Racists throughout history have seen themselves as transgressing against a status quo run by black people—or Jews, or whatever marginalized group is being targeted at the moment.

It's not just Nagle who gives the alt right too much credit. Halper during the podcast goes off on a bizarre riff about how SJWs (she uses that term) aren't willing to try to talk to those they disagree with. There's no point in trying to get people to own their privilege, she says. And it's true: privilege call outs are not always useful. But Halper (who is Jewish) then goes on to say that if she were a Jew in Nazi Germany, she would have tried to engage Aryans in meaningful conversation. "If I were a Jew I wouldn't want anyone to say to Aryans, 'check your Aryan privilege.' I'd want people to reason with them. There's such a taboo about trying to convince people. Do you think that turning your back on people and telling them to check their privilege is how you convince people?"

Somehow the enemy here is anti-racists criticizing white supremacy, while salvation consists of finding common ground with actual Nazis—rather than, say, in avoiding the kind of left factionalism which prevented socialists and communists from uniting and allowed Hitler to seize power. Halper, in the same conversation, bizarrely suggests that what is really needed in discussions of the Holocaust is less focus on anti-Semitism and more discussion of German economic grievances and anger over Versailles. These factors are actually very frequently discussed in explaining Hitler's rise to power. But economic anxieties aren't generally used to explain the Holocaust, because trying to explain the largest racist genocide in history with gestures at the supposed economic anxieties of the perpetrators is widely and rightly recognized as obscene. This, then, is the sad endpoint of the dirtbag left's confused efforts to throw the mantle of working class authenticity over asshole racists. 

The idea that leftists can somehow engage in earnest dialogue with fascists around shared economic distress is a ludicrous fantasy, born of a refusal to take racism and bigotry seriously as motivating forces in their own right. Indeed, what is catastrophically missing from Nagle's analysis of the alt right is anti-racism. Nagle and Halper barely talk about racism at all in the episode, except to sneer at anti-racist folks whose identity politics have, supposedly, led to Trump's victory and all bad things. Nagle even blames organized Nazi violence on protests against Milo Yiannopolous, as if racist violence in the United States was brought into being by irresponsible anti-racist, feminist college protestors. 

Nagle claims that transgression as politics is the empty vestige of sixties counterculture. But she blithely swallows the alt right's claims that they are a countercultural force, standing against the bland consensus of SJWs and Clinton. And yes, she conflates mainstream Democrats and left activists just like the alt right conflates them. Because aren't Nazis right about everything? 

A left that thinks Nazis are right about everything, or about a significant number of things, is a left that needs to take a deep breath, step back, and get its fucking shit together. Yes, Donald Trump won the last election. Yes, people on the right and center are tripping over each other trying to figure out how to be more like Trump, and bottle that fascist victory formula. All the more reason for the left to recommit itself to its principles—not least to anti-racism. Cosigning the arguments of alt right Nazis is not going to bring economic justice to anyone. It's certainly not going to bring victory to the left. In America, there's nothing more transgressive than anti-racism. Jettison that, and you're just a stooge for the status quo, however edgy your podcast.


Edit: A friend (who I don't want to name because I don't want them to get targeted for nonsense dogpiling) transcribed a bunch of quotes from the podcast. Thought I'd add them here in case folks were interested.

"The  liberals in between are really not getting the fact that so much of  what they've done wrong has helped to, maybe not form, but certainly  lead a lot of numbers to the alt right. The alt right, without all the  various groups that ended up joining it or being in its broad milieu,  would just be a pretty standard far right. There's nothing that unique  about it. The reason it's got all this cultural influence, and all the  numbers, is really because so many people hated the kind of culture... I  guess the tumblrized... forms of liberalism, you know that emerged over  the past 5 years or so."

"Where  people were so repulsed by liberalism that they sort of went right  wing? Yeah, absolutely, because a lot of people who ended up being alt  right... started out by being so irritated by this particularly online  culture of... the kind of public shaming Jon Ronson wrote about,  ultra-sensitivity, that whole kind of culture, you know the call-out  culture. You know, younger people who were forming their political ideas  at that point were very much reacting in a kind of backlash to that  stuff."

Clip from Dead Pundits podcast, quoted by Halper:

"A  significant factor in the emergence of Nazism was a feeling of being  forced to feel guilt after WWI, and so the humiliation of being forced  to feel guilt is actually a very powerful thing. [...] On an individual  basis, I do feel there is a very strong desire to not feel guilt that is  behind Germany's lead up to the Nazi movement."

"Because  it (protests of Milo) was so absurd at the beginning, it's actually  been sort of self-fulfilling. It left an opening there for real fascists  to actually get violent."

About  current organized far right violence (in response to question about her  position of free speech.) "Up until fairly recently, I would have just  been a total free speech absolutist really...Uh, and I would have  dismissed, you know, the thing of just, you know shutting Milo down and  saying Milo is a fascist and trying to get him shut down. But now we  have the problem of like, actually the thing that people exaggerated has  now happened, which is that there really are really genuinely far-right  people, and they are organizing themselves to get into violent  confrontations. And this has been the case in Europe for some time, but  it's unusual in America. Like, so that's actually happening now."

Katie  Halper: "[mocking supposed social justice discourse] 'It's not on me to  convince you, potential Nazi, that Jews aren't bad.' Like no, you  wouldn't say that, and if you did you would probably be regretting  it...let's say a couple weeks before Kristallnacht or whatever."