I’ve not really had the time, energy or inspiration to write anything about Charlottesville – so often, when something big like that happens, I find I spend all my energy just trying to keep up with the situation and what’s being said about it, without being able to contribute anything of value myself.
Having said that, as the latest round of discussion around antifa tactics rolls on, I have found my attention caught by one minor detail of the current debate, one that no-one else seems to have mentioned.
To summarise, for people who may not have been following this conversation so far: a libcom user published an article listing various lefty academics and media commentators who’d made various more-or-less snarky criticisms of antifa in the months leading up to Charlottesville.
In response, people with a somewhat distorted sense of proportion and apparently no understanding of power relations compared the article to things like a McCarthyite blacklist or a register that an employer might keep of subversive employees. It probably shouldn’t need to be said, but anyone who can’t tell the difference between a powerless internet poster commenting “here is a list of other people who post things on the internet whose opinions I disagree with”, and a state doing the same thing about its citizens, or an employer doing it to their employees, is operating on some serious “Hitler was a vegetarian, SO THERE!” levels of false equivalency.
Anyway, I’m prepared to believe that the publication of this list of antifa-critical lefty public figures may well have led to people saying some out-of-line things to people who’re on the list. Certainly, by far the worst thing I’ve seen was one of the pundits named in the article lashing out against someone who criticised him in a totally unacceptable fashion, but that person has now taken a step back and removed his online presence, and I appreciate that he is going through some serious distress in his own right, for which he genuinely has my sympathy, so it seems only fair to leave him out of it, and I’m open to the possibility that others on the pro-antifa side of the debate may well have said equally or almost equally horrible things.
Anyway, the aspect of this situation that I find interesting is that, among the commentators who’ve been outspoken in their belief that publishing a list of commentators who’ve argued for a certain position is unacceptably intimidating, is one Angela Nagle, a journo type who’s made a career out of writing about 4chan and tumblr*.
The bit of this situation I can’t quite understand is that, at the same time as Nagle has become a standard-bearer for the cause of not being unpleasant about people online, her work seems to have become an essential reference point for a set of people who’re really quite keen on the hobby of being unpleasant online. One of the really glaring examples of this was a glowing write-up of a discussion of Nagle’s work in the Morning Star, later reprinted in an edited form by Feminist Current**, which reminded me of nothing so much as that scene in Father Ted where he makes his award acceptance speech and spends the whole time settling old scores.
If libcom deserve condemnation for publishing a list that mentions various people who’ve written things expressing a certain position, then how much more objectionable is an article that does the same thing, but creepily digs up an old facebook post from 2013 (from a personal account, not a public page or anything), puts scare quotes around the gender identity of one of the people being targeted (as well as their profession, for some obscure reason), and then drags another person into it without alleging that they’ve actually done anything wrong, just that they’re mates with someone who once retweeted a shitty post? If it’s wrong to publish articles making lists of people who say things, then the Izaakson piece seems way more dodgy to me, but I’ve not seen it receive anywhere near the same level of condemnation.
Of course, if it was just the one article then it might just be an isolated incident; what’s more troubling is the way Nagle seems to have been adopted as a sort of mascot by Red London. For those readers who might be mercifully unaware, Red London are a kind of Stalinism-by-way-of-4chan. That’s not hyperbole, their shtick is very clearly modelled on the way that the anime nazi kiddies were able to get away with pushing obnoxious totalitarian politics by coating them in a thin layer of irony and deniability. They literally take memes that originated among the nazi 4chan crowd and just replace “Hitler” with “Stalin” and gas chamber jokes with gulag jokes. Lots and lots of gulag jokes. Funny stuff, right?
Anyway, one of the other defining features of the Red London brand is very specific, targeted vitriol against individual activists on the left – actual screenshots of people’s FB posts, mocked-up fake posts (including posts edited to include “jokes” about their political opponents having child pornography), and so on, all served up with the same tired old ironic-not-ironic “it’s just trolling for the lulz” attitude. I can see why, for someone who studies and writes about both the online left and the online far-right, the existence of people who go around bolting hammers and sickles onto the /pol/ house style would make a fascinating case study, but if you’re wanting to position yourself as a crusader for online decency, civility and good manners, surely the only possible reaction to these people is to tell them to do one as swiftly and firmly as possible, and take their gulag jokes and fake screenshots with them.
I’m not saying that Nagle is necessarily a hypocrite. Perhaps the reason why she’s so offended by libcom publishing a list of people who’ve expressed a certain political position, while remaining indifferent to Izaakson using a discussion of her (Nagle’s) work as a jumping-off point to have a pop at everyone who’s ever spilled her (Izaakson’s) pint, or the Red London crowd venerating her as a kind of “based bookwoman” while being thoroughly nasty little shits to just about everyone else, is that she’s genuinely unaware of the latter two, although having said that she seems to be pretty keen on Red London, and to have expressed that keenness on a number of occasions. But whatever the case is, I hope she gets around to issuing her condemnation/denunciation soon.
*She also makes the hilariously weak defence that her quote “was about shutting down campus speakers who aren’t even white nationalists”, as if an event hosted by a group with close ties to alt-right white nationalists, where Nathan Damigo and Identity Europa were openly planning to recruit, and the speaker was going to call on attendees to report undocumented migrants, was somehow nothing to do with the events that Nathan Damigo helped organise a few months later. KQED news’ headline about “Californian Who Helped Lead Charlottesville Protests Used Berkeley as a Test Run” captures the dynamic a bit better, I feel.
** I wasn’t previously aware of Feminist Current, but a quick bit of googling reveals that it has something of a reputation for transphobia.