Richard Spencer, alt right Nazi asshole, took to Facebook last week to praise Angela Nagle's book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt Right. I'm sure it's not an endorsement Nagle wants, especially after the Nazi violence in Charlottesville last weekend. Still, it's not surprising that Spencer would find Nagle's work congenial. Kill All Normies is mostly dedicated to attacking the left, and blaming anti-racist discourse for pushing people to the alt right—a narrative that is derived from the alt right's own preferred propagandistic account of its origins and motivations.
Moreover, there is almost nothing in Nagle's book that might be considered left analysis. Nagle decries alt right harassment and violence, but, again as we saw this weekend, even John McCain and Paul Ryan can manage that. But she offers no vision of greater equality or justice, and no program of anti-racism to challenge the alt right. A few vague non-specific words of praise for Bernie Sanders is the extent of her expressed left commitment before she goes back to blaming Hillary Clinton and left identity politics for everything wrong online and in America. No wonder Nazis feel like she's providing them with ideological cover.
There is one section of the book that might have made Spencer feel a bit uncomfortable, though. Towards the end of the short volume, Nagle uses a feminist analysis to argue that countercultures—on the left and on the right—are often organized around a loathing of the mainstream which is both anxious and gendered. "The hatred of the shallow, vain, clueless girl with mainstream tastes trying to infiltrate a geeky subculture has become central to geeky subcultures," she notes, and points out that Spencer "regularly accuse those who fail to find the return of race separatism edgy and cool, of being normies and basic bitches."
Misogyny, Nagle argues, has been used to solidify subcultural cred on left, right, and in the center—as Nagle says, it's been a notable feature of the increasingly anti-feminist New Atheist movement. From this perspective, countercultural movements aren't countercultural at all. They simply reproduce the same hierarchy of sexism as ever, repackaging it as edgy by pretending that women are the ones enforcing domesticity, conformity, and mediocrity. The rebels are always breaking free of their chains by establishing the ever-new old patriarchy. The counterculture isn't trying to overthrow the mainstream; it's just trying to replace the old misogynist on the throne with a new one.
Again, you'd think the alt right wouldn't like being told that they're just boring bland misogynists. Nagle might have organized the book around this crucial insight, and elaborated on it by, for example, arguing that feminist movements and anti-racist movements are the forces that actually challenge the status quo—that hierarchy is overthrown, not by irony, but by justice.
Instead, though, Nagle's argument reproduces the same dynamics of counterculture via misogyny that she critiques. Her attack on the identity politics left is built around sneering at feminization, and leveraging misogyny to paint identity politics (and particularly trans activism) as bland, silly, mockable and irrelevant. She does this obsessively throughout the book, but here are some of the more egregious examples.
—She says that "Trigger warnings had to be issued in order to avoid the unexpectedly high number of young women who had never gone to war claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder." This passage assumes that only (male-coded) war can result in actual trauma, and denigrates all campus activists as silly, weak women, whose concerns are transparently ridiculous. It also neatly elides the existence of domestic violence, rape, and sexual abuse as legitimate causes of PTSD. Nagle sets herself up as an ironic truth teller by painting (other) women as, precisely, shallow, vain, and clueles.
—She attacks trans activists for protesting statements by Germaine Greer, insisting that "Greer had not published any comment about transgenderism for over 15 years"—a claim which happens to be false. Greer has made repeated, vicious, bigoted statements about trans women through the present day; in 2015 she sneered "“Just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn't make you a fucking woman." But Nagle presents trans women who criticize her as weak, feminized snowflakes. Again, Nagle is the bold tough-minded truthteller, fighting the feminized orthodoxy—an orthodoxy in this case imposed by trans women, who have somehow become the forces of conformity despite the fact that, in the real world, outside Nagle's fantasy of her own countercultural hipness, trans women are a tiny, despised minority.
—In discussing Gamergate, Nagle goes out of her way to distance herself from Zoe Quinn and her game Depression Quest. She says that DQ "looked like a terribl game featuring many of the fragility and mental illness-fetishizing characteristics of the kind of feminism that has emerged online in recent years." Quinn, of course, actually has depression, and the fact that her game is about sadness and fragility—and is therefore coded feminine—is precisely why Gamergate saw it, and Quinn, as convenient scapegoats to rally against once Quinn's abusive ex stirred up the mob. Nagle deplores the harassment, but cosigns the basic gamergate narrative, which is that Quinn's (feminized) game is awful because it is feminized, and reviews that praised it showed (at best) a massive lapse of judgment. Thus Nagle positions herself as a tough-minded critic of feminism and mental-illness, who is sure not to be tarred with the weakness of Zoe Quinn, a woman who has bravely been speaking out and working against harassment for years.
—Nagle writes that in a Buzzfeed interview Steve Bannon "came across…as darkly fascinating and, relative to many Buzzfeed listicle writers, as quite a serious and intriguing person." Nagle just previously linked Buzzfeed to Hillary Clinton and tumbr liberalism. Bannon is "intriguing" because he contrasts with a boring feminized status quo; fascism is cooler than cat pics. Nagle, in rejecting the bland women-dominated mainstream, finds herself drawn to the edgy editor of Breitbart. It is a perfect illustration of her own criticism of the alt right, in which hating the same people who are always hated—that is, women—is supposed to make you daring and countercultural.
Nagle concludes in her book that countercultural posturing is often misogynist and does not necessarily challenge the status quo. But she can't resist positioning herself as edgy by praising Steve Bannon in order to kick feminized mainstream listicles. Nor does she think through what it means for the dirtbag left to define itself around sneering at Hillary Clinton, Wonder Woman, and feminized identity politics.
Criticizing Clinton and the Wonder Woman film isn't bad in itself; there's plenty of good reasons for leftists to criticize both. But, as Nagle accurately points out, criticizing mainstream women, or mainstream femininity, can easily slide into bland countercultural misogyny. It's important to avoid that, because unthinking reactionary denigration of women is so easily co-opted by reactionaries; if Bernie Sanders is the Democratic candidate in 2020, the alt right is absolutely going to use tropes around feminization of socialists and Jews to attack him. Nagle concludes, "It may be time to lay the very recent and very modern aesthetic values of counterculture and the entire paradigm to rest and create something new." It's a good suggestion. If she'd followed through on it in her own book, I think Richard Spencer would have found less to praise in it.