I was recently asked at work to name all the US states that I could on the map, and, if possible, locate them. I named seven, and got four right geographically. I found myself circling huge areas and writing things like ‘…GUNS?’ and ‘RUST BELT, I THINK’ (Spot the guy who’s read way too many Clinton hot takes.) I tell you this because it goes some way to explaining why I don’t really have strong opinions on US politics. I dislike Trump. I hoped Hillary would win. I find Bernie Bros incredibly annoying. If I decided to live there, I imagine I’d vote Democrat. I found the entire concept of ‘the Mooch’ funny. Beyond that, I don’t think I really have much to contribute.
The reason I open with this confession is because I feel like I ought to have an opinion on these things. I feel I should know about them. And yeah, I probably should. I have American friends, I should probably ask them to explain more about their system. One place I’m fairly certain I won’t be able to educate myself however, is the non-educational internet. Social media, forums, that sort of thing.
I think back to my younger and more vulnerable years and I remember parroting authors I liked and people I admired. I had strong feelings on Nixon at 14, for instance – despite the fact he hadn’t been President for thirty years – because I really liked Hunter Thompson. In terms of the UK, I’d heard from older, cooler people that Labour were ‘just the same as Tories’, and that only a Progressive Alliance with the Greens could save them. I now think all of those opinions are nonsense. In fact, the only political instincts that I have remaining from my early teens is that I still think the NHS is a genuinely amazing feat of political will and human decency, and I still have an instinctual revulsion towards the brutalist elements of Thatcherism that I think most Northerners, or certainly Liverpudlians, share.
Simply put, were I to meet him, I would argue with 14-year-old Peter until the cows came home. He’d call me a Blairite sellout, I’d call him a fucking idiot. But none of those views were really bad. I might disagree with them now, or in the case of my hot Nixon takes, realise that they’re pretty irrelevant, but they’re not bad things to think. Because I got them from good people, or at the very least, people who meant well. My concern is that for teenagers today, those good people are being drowned out.
The internet has changed since I was 14. And yes, maybe we always do look at the past with rose tinted glasses, but the rise in vile content can’t simply be chalked down to nostalgia. Think about it. Right wing teens won’t be getting their news from the same places they did six years ago. Back then, they just went to the traditional right media –the Mail, the Express. The writings of Jeremy Clarkson. Yes, there was what could be considered fringe element, an online ‘right’ community – but these were mostly chaps in fedoras talking about how evil feminism was. That’s bad, don’t get me wrong, but compare that to the cesspool that is the Internet Right today – the alt-right – and they seem like saints. The fact is, in the same way that the old adage says that you’re never more than ten feet from a rat in London, I doubt that anyone who’s looking for political content is ever ten clicks away from Breitbart and InfoWars. The other change is the narrative pushed by the online right now. Yes, much of the threads are still the same. There’s anti-immigration, ‘anti-PC’, anti-feminist rhetoric now, and there was in 2014, but now there’s a new narrative that is particularly appealing, I think, to disaffected young people in the form of the Alt-Right.
The online Alt-Right’s narrative is particularly engaging for two reasons, because there are two strands to it. The first is the idea that you’re a foot solider in the ‘Great Meme War’, or you’re fighting ‘the Globalists’. You are the sole voice of reason in a crowd of mindless banshees who have lost their minds, and it is your job to make sure that the world is put to rights. Who doesn’t want that? Who doesn’t want to be a hero for all that is good and true? Think of the sort of thing that misguided young men lionise and you’ll often arrive at Fight Club. Now, in my opinion, Fight Club is often misread by these people (and that is of course a shame), but think of that evocative Tyler Durden speech where he basically complains about comfort – ‘we have no great war, no great depression, our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives’ – and now remind yourself that these people take that line seriously. They don’t read Durden as a projection of toxic masculinity, they read him as a hero. Map that onto the alt-right’s ideology, see if it checks off – they hate women, and want to strip away modern society. Tick. Tick. This movement has been brewing for years.
The second tempting element is that you’re tearing down the system. This is the one that scares me. At 14, I hadn’t done too badly for myself. I was from a great family and went to my friendly local comprehensive, which was a good place to be and had nice staff. But I was angry, because all teenagers are in some way or another, and I was becoming political. I knew that I was unhappy with the way things were (though I had no reason to be) and if there had been an online movement promising chaos and the rewriting of the world, I don’t know if I’d have been tempted or not. Obviously the racism would have instantly disqualified it to me, but I doubt that’s the way in for most people. I doubt the most overtly disgusting elements are placed at the front door of this particular house of horrors. I imagine you’re promised a revolution, and the infinite capacity people have for self-deception combines neatly with the sunken cost fallacy to create a properly terrifying situation where people sign up for the revolution and manage to ignore the racism, swallowing just enough of it to turn them.
These two elements turn the previously unappealing hard right fringe into a movement that is designed for teenagers. Probably because they’ve had such a role in creating it – after all, the internet is a feedback loop. It both shapes and is shaped by its denizens, and we’re seeing the first generation of true digital natives coming through into voting age. Being a teenager is seriously hard. There’s a reactionary streak to it. Certainly my dislike of the New Labour project was borne of the fact that when I was 14, I had never known a Tory government. Labour was the establishment, and thus any gripes I had with the political system were the fault of Labour, so I turned to a version of Labour that had never really existed in the mainstream – the hard left. No matter that I had little understanding of Labour’s history, no matter than the Bennite years were disastrous. It was radical, and felt dangerous, and I was 14, so of course it made sense. This mellowed into unerring support for the Greens later on. Again, I now disagree with the Green Party on a great many issues. But on the whole the Greens are a benign force. Most Greens are lovely people, so turning to them for counter-mainstream political thought will leave you no worse off. Worst case scenario with the Greens is you end up disillusioned with the party, but have learnt some amazing hummus recipes.
But now you have an online space wherein it’s not much better for left wing teens, where Tumblr seems intent on eating itself, pushing more and more radicalised worldviews and utterly destroying those who go against the grain. I know, there’s been enough straight white men with thoughts about Tumblr. I also recognise the value in online communities for traditionally marginalised groups. But there’s no denying that online left spaces – Tumblr, or left-wing Facebook groups (Leftbook) – are now a terrifying place to be if you’re young, working yourself out, and trying to establish what it is that you believe. Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed offers a great insight into just how shit an online mob can make your life, and that’s now a gauntlet that teens must run, a Hunger-Games style free-for-all where half the fun is utterly destroying people who don’t conform to the strict group standards, and where huge dogpiles erupt when a foot is put wrong. This isn’t an attack on the ‘identity politics’ that permeates Leftbook – the politics are fine, but my issue is the way that it is enforced. Users are frequently forced to publicly ‘self-crit’. This means work out for yourself why what you said was wrong. Again, there’s no real harm in asking others to self-examine (though the inherent performativity of being forced to do it publicly is lost on many) but again, it’s the application of this that is so damaging. What ‘self crit’ now means is that 15 year old kids are having to publicly self-flagellate while twentysomethings call them disgusting idiots. There is a bit from the old American Trotskyite song ‘In Old Moscow’ that goes ‘Oh my darling party line / Oh, I never will desert you / ‘Cause I love this life of mine.’ This appears to have become the internalised rules to which one must stick if intending to negotiate a path through Leftbook.
The saddest part is that I don’t know how to fix this. I really have no idea. I usually end my columns with this sort of admission. If I’m honest, it’s because it’s an easy way to end. You draw attention to an issue and hope at the end of the day you’ve made someone else think about it, without actually having to do the hard intellectual labour of having to come up with an answer yourself. To tell you the truth, I usually do have an answer for issues – from Government funding to increased transparency, I do usually have at least half a plan – but not saying what it is means I can’t be wrong. On this, I have nothing. Regulating the Internet seems dangerous at this point – I love the state as much as anyone, but I’m not sure I want a fully state-regulated internet. Likewise, nor do I trust the market to sort this.
The best way to end, and perhaps the best way to sum up the teenage alt-right, I think, is with a story I heard from a Scouse comedian. When he was at school, they had to get the bus to go to PE class. They’d all throw themselves against the side of the bus when it went round corners, forcing it onto two wheels, almost tipping over. That was the game. ‘That’s how thick we were,’ he says. ‘If what we were trying to do had succeeded, we’d all have fucking died.’ Teenagers will do stuff like that and not think about it. When you shelter young white men from consequences, as we see so often, they never truly leave that teenage mindset. They’re still throwing themselves into the side of the bus. The problem is that buses can be picked up when the young men go too far. Civil society can’t.