Books That Try to Make Sense of Our Confounding Ideological Landscape
I don’t know about you, but I’m having trouble making sense of anything anyone says or does, ever. The President claims that Jews who vote for Democrats are being “disloyal” to Israel. Masked anarchists violently clash in the streets with “Proud Boys”. Marginal pundits sling ideological insults on Twitter like caged monkeys tossing poop. What, I constantly wonder, is everyone going on about?
So I’ve turned to books to try and figure it out, and it’s left me even more confused.
The New Right
I met Michael Malice on Twitter, which is how I suspect he meets most people. The night before the election in 2016, I tweeted out something to the effect of “my grandparents escaped one Nazi regime so we’d better not elect another.” It was the kind of paranoid, weird crap you see a lot of people, fearful that we’ve somehow invoked the Second Holocaust, writing these days. I don’t remember what Malice responded, and I’ve since deleted my Twitter account, but it was something to the effect of “you’re an idiot,” but wittier. I’m forever grateful to him, because whatever you want to call this ludicrous carnival we’re living, it’s clearly not the second coming of Nazi Germany. Malice saved me many years of derangement.
Michael Malice is an odd character, a gay Orthodox Jewish anarcho-syndicalist and a Russian immigrant. In other words, he’s the kind of person who fits right into his new book The New Right: A Journey To The Fringe Of American Politics. I thought that maybe he would help explain why, suddenly, not everyone seems to agree about everything.
During the Obama Years, everyone I know floated along on a raft of comfortable progressive certainty. That world was global and multicultural and we thought we would be happy and prosperous forever. But, of course, that was a ridiculous illusion. Just like the relative prosperity and peace of the Eisenhower Years masked the coming explosions of the 1960s, the Obama Bubble covered up the weird times in which we now live.
This book is not about the “alt-right,” though Malice does occasionally travel down those 4Chan rabbit holes. Instead, it’s a detailed chronicle of people and institutions frustrated with “The Cathedral” of accepted popular liberal opinion, a big fat bubble of accepted wisdom constantly reflected back to us by mainstream media and popular culture. He talks about the origins of principled American anarchism in the persona of Murray Rothbard and of paleoconservatism in the form of Pat Buchanan. There are profiles of figures who, while despised by most people in my immediate circles, don’t appear to be the second coming of Joseph Goebbels: Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, and, most controversially, Malice’s personal friend Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys.
Malice stops by some white nationalists, very uncomfortably, and talks about some fringier ideological characters, like Jim Goad, who I once knew as the publisher of the cranky Gen-X ‘zine Answer Me!, though he’s since moved his act online, as have we all. Goad has some tough-to-swallow ideas about white identity, and seems very skeptical of anything even vaguely multicultural, like a sometimes-funny crank in a bar. Malice’s book gets across that these ideas, and the people who express them, aren’t necessarily dangerous, they’re just different. Despite the occasional public eruption, most people upset by the Cathedral consensus keep their skepticism to online complaining. A huge chunk of the book involves Malice attending weird Manhattan apartment parties and dinners, where strange people tell him strange ideas. Before everyone started hurting everyone else’s feelings all the time, that used to be called “going out.”
At The Intersection
For my next course, I read Panic Attack: Young Radicals In The Age Of Trump, by Robby Soave. This young man writes for Reason Magazine, so, by definition, he’s for maximum personal freedom and minimal government. That appears to be the opposite position for most of the Young Radicals he profiles in his book. Mostly, he visits college campuses and talks to students who are trying to ban speeches by the kinds of trolls profiled in Michael Malice’s book.
To Malice, the Cathedral is the devil. Soave’s black beast is “intersectionality,” the philosophical stance, widely taught in college these days, that only the most oppressed and marginalized among us have any real claim to social justice. Heterosexual white men sit at the bottom of this new hierarchy of needs, and, say, transgendered queer Muslim women of color sit at the top.
That’s an odd development, but in itself not that alarming to Soave. He’s actually quite sympathetic to the concerns of many of the activists he meets, with the exception of the Democratic Socialists, who he clearly thinks are deluded fools. In particular, he writes with affection, sympathy, and understanding for the goals and issues of Black Lives Matters activists. He regards them as heroic in aim, if not always in tactic. And he saves his strongest words for odious “alt-right” figures like Richard Spencer who have nothing on the brain but genocide and white supremacy. A few politically-correct college kids and Congresswomen have nothing on those monsters.
Instead, as a libertarian, Soave is mostly worried that our current intersectional turmoil will lead to an erosion of our fundamental rights. Freedom of speech is the most important element of a healthy society. Soave worries that the left doesn’t care about that very much, or at all. If we lose our freedoms in pursuit of social justice, he says, then we lose, period.
Land Of Confusion
Meghan Daum has wandered into this not-so-brave new world of weird ideas, and finds herself as adrift as the rest of us. Her new book, The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars, tries to make sense of a senseless world. In the spirit of full disclosure, as the Slate writers say, Daum is an acquaintance of mine, bordering on a friend. After I wrote some satirical stuff indicating that I think people are out of their damn minds, Daum dropped me an email thanking me for saying something, well, outside of The Cathedral. Since then, we’ve exchanged occasional emails that contain heretical, unacceptable dinner-party ideas like “Jussie Smollett is lying” or “The Second Holocaust isn’t coming.” Her new book grapples with that tendency at 200-page length.
From my conversations with Meghan, I know that this book was originally meant to be a critique of modern feminism, but that her publisher spiked it after Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency. This wasn’t the time, they said; now we had to fight the battle against fascism, together. Instead, #MeToo exploded, and it turns out that it was the time after all. So Meghan’s reborn book is now a mishmash where she tries to grapple with the demise of the Third Wave feminism that defined her youth and the far-more troublingly activist Fourth Wave that defines her middle age. In addition, she’s coming to terms with a sad divorce. And she’s still freaked out about the Kavanaugh hearings. Also also, Meghan, a card-carrying Gen-X liberal, suddenly finds herself watching Jordan Peterson videos on YouTube and not entirely disagreeing with everything he says.
Daum writes engagingly and with deeply-personal emotion. But I find myself wishing she spend a little more time on her explorations into the “intellectual dark web” and less time rehashing last year’s #MeToo-related Twitter controversies. She doesn’t start to go on her actual journey until the last third of the book, by which point it’s almost too late. Still, she understands that in order to grow intellectually, we have to move away from defined categories that aren’t suiting anyone, so her struggles are universal to anyone who’s trying to think at all these days.
No idea is certain, no solution necessarily correct. Only Richard Spencer and his followers are evil for sure. Meanwhile, those of us who didn’t really think anything was wrong in the first place just need to keep our heads down in the face of strong intellectual crosswinds. Like all storms, this, too, shall pass.