Kill All Normies: a failed review

Feels bad man

For the last 6 weeks I’ve been trying, on and off, to write a long review of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies that I can be happy with. This post is meant to bring that to a close so that I can finally do something else with my evenings again. The trouble is, I don’t really know how to write! I think because I was one of the Bright Kids in school, I just assumed that I would be quite good at it, even though I haven’t written any extended non-technical prose since I was 18. Writing for me is like dancing: watching others it appears so effortless and natural that it hardly seems possible to do it badly. But when I start typing I slur all over the place, nothing goes where I want it to go and there’s a sense of shame in my own performance. Getting better takes practice, and practice requires motivation. I think I’ll be a lot more motivated if I try to write short things regularly than if I’m always toiling away on some huge thing with no end in sight. Learn a box step before I join the ballet.

For what it’s worth, I think Kill All Normies is neither as bad nor as good as its harshest critics / staunchest defenders say it is (I realise this is true of almost everything). It is certainly an imperfect book, rushed to publication while its topic is still relevant. There are no references and nothing like a structured argument. It’s an uneasy mix of journalistic history of the alt-right and plea for the left to change its tactics. The journalistic history stuff is broadly accurate (I think I’m a reasonably fair judge of this, an obsessive interest in online shitheads has been my curse since late 2014), but is likely old news to most people interested in reading the book. Nagle is good at teasing apart the different subgroups that comprise the alt-right coalition, but rather less good on the identitarian left, whom she treats as a homogeneous block and ends up tarring all with the same brush as “hysterical”.

I think Nagle’s analysis that the popularity of the alt-right is a reaction against the gains of the identitarian left is correct, and she’s not wrong that certain parts of identitarian left discourse have become toxic and self-sabotaging. But she offers no real recommendations on how to move forward, and her criticisms of the left’s current tactics often amount to little more than snark. This is a shame because the result is that very few of the targets of her uncharitable attacks are going to take her better points seriously. The reviews of Kill All Normies from the identitarian left have been predictably and disappointingly ideologically slanted, but then if you’re going to air-quote “non-binary” and “transphobia”, or equate the scholarship of Judith Butler with a list of fantasy genders you found on Tumblr, then what do you expect? If you’re actually trying to get people concerned with identity politics to listen to your arguments, then this feels like a rhetorical failure even if you don’t agree that it’s a moral one.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say here (but maybe buy me a beer some time and I’ll get into it). 3 out of 5 stars (for real this time), not many funny bits.

Okay, one more thing. Some reviewers have criticised Nagle for paying so much attention to the distinction between the “alt-light” (that section of the alt-right that panders to the kinds of young conservatives who don’t know they’re conservative—see also “libertarian” or “classical liberal”) and the hard “alt-right” (Richard Spencer and his openly neo-Nazi chums). All fascists are the same, these critics say, stop letting Milo Yiannapolous off the hook. But a clear indicator of the difference between these groups comes from their reactions to Kill All Normies itself. The Pepe-posting scumbags of the alt-right reacted exactly as you’d expect: shortly after the book’s publication Nagle was flooded with Nazi-themed abuse. But the alt-light seems to like the book. Professional alimonoy-funded “alpha male” opinion-haver Mike Cernovich tweeted: “Kill All Normies is a broad look at Internet culture and culture wars. Highly recommended.”

This shouldn’t really be a surprise: being a Nazi-enabler instead of an actual Nazi is pretty lucrative. In a follow-up tweet Cernovich posted a picture of the page of the book that talks about him, on which he has scribbled corrections to his number of twitter followers (220k to 300k) and the name of his book (“Guerrilla mindset” to “Gorilla mindset”). That he responds to a book-length analysis of his movement’s history and ideas with a tweet correcting his personal number of followers and book name tells you pretty much everything about what Cernovich is in it for.

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