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Book Review: “It Came from Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office” (by Dale Beran)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing a free copy of this book for review.

Sometimes, you read a book that shines on a light on some of the most unpleasant parts of our culture and society, and you suddenly feel as if you have fallen into an utterly unfamiliar world. It Came from Something Awful is just such a book.

Dale Beran takes us deep into the dark, sinister, bleakly cynical parts of the internet that many of us would probably never explore on our own. Here we find the truly toxic, nihilistic folk who inhabited spaces such as 4chan, primarily young men dissatisfied with their lot in life and determined to take it out on whomever got in their way. He draws fascinating (though not always sustainable) connections between the counterculture of 1960s and the present, showing how the relentless ability of capitalism to commercialize resistance has generated precisely the feeling of nihilism that has become so toxic and that has left a generation of young men feeling powerless, angry, and dangerous.

Beran’s book succeeds the most when he is detailing the complex history and terrifying personalities that inhabit this online world. While some of the names are familiar, others are less so, and it is clear that he has a very close inside knowledge of this strange new world that most of us have probably never encountered. He doesn’t let himself get too bogged down in the technical aspects of it, either. His is very much a story of a generation of young men who, confronted with profound inequality and the growing power of various social movements, found solace in the ability to take nothing seriously.

Until, of course, they did. As Beran explains, as the 2000s wore on, the bleak cynicism expressed by these young men became ever more vitriolic and dangerous, until at last it burst into the open with the murderous rampages that became so much an unfortunate part of the American landscape. And then, of course, there was the greatest troll of them all, Donald J. Trump, who was the apotheosis of those mens’ desires, the cure (it seemed) for everything that ailed them.

At times, Beran’s argument seems to mistakes his premise for his conclusion, i.e. he goes in with the conclusion that Trump was brought into power by these men, and that is what he proves. However, I think that the title (and the book’s big argument) may be overstating the case that a bit. There’s no question that a very visible part of Trump’s support came from just the sort of young men that Beran profiles, but I was left wondering just how many of these people actually voted, and how many of them just amplified Trump’s brand and normalized him for those who actually did vote for him.

Relatedly, it sometimes felt as if Beran’s political leanings were encouraging him to deflect the blame for the rise of the alt-right everywhere but on the men themselves: neoliberalism, capitalism, Hillary Clinton (because of course), and the advent of the internet and the anonymity that it provides. In my view, there is a very distinct difference between providing an excuse for someone’s behavior and explaining it. The former implies an abrogation of guilt, while the latter is an attempt to aid in understanding. Certainly, Beran wants to accomplish the latter, if for no other reason than that we must continue to address the societal forces that rendered the alt-right possible. However, he is not always as successful as I think he should be in blaming these men for their own horrible impulses.

Overall, however, I found Beran’s book to be compulsively readable, mostly because it confirmed so many of the things I already suspected to be true. From GamerGate to PizzaGate to the march on Charlottesville, the men that he chronicles in It Came from Something Awful are truly a pestilence, and we must continue to fight them. If we don’t, we run the risk of continuing to allow them to control the contours of the debate. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. While that is true in some instances, I do worry that books like this contribute to that unfortunate trend of giving these unsavory people exactly the sort of attention that they crave. It is, unfortunately, the inescapable double-bind of the world that we live in. If it does nothing else, Beran’s book provides us a valuable form of understanding.

It’s up to us to do something with it.

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Goodbye, Appalachia

Dear Appalachia:

I want to start this letter with a little anecdote. A couple of weeks ago, I reopened some of my journals from the months right before I was set to go to graduate school. In those pages, I talked about how I hoped to one day come back to my beautiful home state of West Virginia, to give back to the state that had nurtured me and played no small part in the person I was. To do my part as an educator to help our young people think critically and analytically about the world around them and about the pressing issues facing our state and its future viability.

Seven years down the road, I’m afraid I have to let go of that dream. Probably forever.

This hasn’t been an easy decision for me to make. Time and again while I’ve been here in Syracuse, New York, I’ve gone to bat for the people of good ol’ WV, arguing that many of them feel disenfranchised, that the progressive intelligentsia just needs to find the right way to communicate our values and the native goodness of Appalachians will come to the fore.

Ah, what a sweet summer child I was.

It quickly became clear during the 2016 Election that all the things I had thought to be true were illusions crafted of my misguided hope in the better angels of our natures. Instead of despising Donald Trump for his brutality, his uncouth attitude, his racism, and his willingness to assault women with impunity (and to brag about it!), my fellow Appalachians turned out for him in force because of those things. They saw in him the opportunity to spit in the eye of the progressive administration that had done a great deal for them and, in pushing for cleaner energy, would also help create a viable energy economy for Appalachia.

Needless to say, I was horrified. How was it possible, I wondered, that the hospitable, kind-hearted people that I had known growing up–with their not-quite-Southern accents, their generous attitudes, their homespun wisdom–could have turned out for this monster conjured up by the GOP?

But then, the more I thought about it, the more this American tragedy began to make absolutely perfect sense. I gradually realized that I had papered over and repressed the unpleasant and unpalatable truths about my fellow Appalachians.

Somehow, I had managed to forget my own youth in a small town in West Virginia, where to be a boy who was smart and used “big words” was mocked and derided for being gay. Where being smart was somehow a badge of shame and where, if you wanted to be popular, you basically had to be a dunce or a jock (or preferably both). Somehow, I’d managed to forget how belligerently, pugnaciously ignorant so many people in my home town were (and we weren’t even in the worst places in West Virginia, not by a long way). I somehow managed to forget that some of my dearest friends and family cling to the idiotic sentiment that climate change is propaganda (for whom? I always ask, but never get a thoughtful answer). Somehow, I had managed to fool myself into believing that IF ONLY my people were given the tools, they would see the light and move forward with the rest of us.

But all of that came back with full force. When I took to social media (including Facebook) to express my outrage at the shitshow and the terror that was about to erupt upon us in the wake of the election, an acquaintance from high school decided to message me and criticize me for my “divisive” language, liberally sprinkling terms like “bro” and “dude’ throughout his missive. The cynical part of me believes that he was not-so-subtly trying to assert his masculine, military persona over me, urging the high school faggot to shut up about his gay rights. The more generous side thinks he was just trying be comradely. In actuality, it was probably a little of both. In any case, it was infuriating to have my very legitimate fears dismissed out of hand, when the evidence was right in front of us that this newly-resurgent GOP would, indeed, act to sweep away the rights of queer people everywhere.

In any event, this exchange, brief and one-sided as it was (I responded to him outlining my concerns, but he never answered back), revealed to me why you, Appalachia, are no longer my home. You cry out that you have been ignored and overlooked by the educated elites on the coasts, and yet you do nothing to better yourself. So many of your people wield their ignorance and their uneducated status as a weapon, a belligerent, pugnacious fuck you to those who do, actually, fight to make the world a better place. And yes, that includes you, the out-of-work and economically dispossessed that call West Virginia, and Appalachia as a whole, home.

Of course, by the time of this conversation I had already decided to wash my hands of you, Appalachia. There was just too much about my home state that I couldn’t stomach any more. I had tolerated for far too long the cowardice of West Virginia Democrats on social issues ranging from LGBTQIA+ rights to women’s reproductive rights, and New York (for all of its flaws) had shown me what true Democratic leadership looked like. I knew, with a dreadful and final certainty, that there was no longer any hope for me in returning to WV. I just….couldn’t.

I want desperately to come back to those mountains, those hills, those open skies full of millions of stars. I want so badly to feel that sense of home again, to drive those wickedly twisty roads but…I just can’t.

I’ve been betrayed, and for me the hurt no, the anguish, goes far too deep to ever fully heal. Were it not for the fact that my immediate family is still in West Virginia, I would probably never visit again.

But there are some bonds that are impossible to break.

Still, in my heart of hearts, I’ve had to let you go, Appalachia.

And the worst part?

I don’t even think I’ll miss you.

Tracks for the Trump Era: “Perfect Illusion” (Lady Gaga)

I’ve decided to launch a series of blog posts about songs that we can listen to in order to help us deal with the advent of the Trump Era. To inaugurate these, I’d like to propose that Lady Gaga’s bitter, raw song “Perfect Illusion” is indeed the perfect song for this era of woe and rage.

The lyrics, certainly, help to give expression to the sense of disillusionment that many of us have felt this past week. After all, isn’t America itself the perfect “perfect illusion,” something that appeared beautiful and wonderful, something that we loved. We were poised, after all, to deliver a resounding defeat to not only Donald Trump, but also the ugly political movement of which he was the leader. There were times when I dared to imagine the entire conservative ideology swept away in the rising tide of millennial progressivism.Furthermore, we had come to believe that American society had at last become a safer space for many people, or at the very least it was moving inexorably toward progress. Black Lives Matter. Obergefell. A living wage. On both the economic and social fronts, it really seemed like we were making genuine progress, that somehow the Obama Era was really the beginning of a new world, a world we now believed was possible and was the future. Somehow, it seemed that all of the darker forces of the collective American id had at last been suppressed and banished into the past.

A perfect illusion, indeed.

At a deeper, more affective level, the song’s aesthetic also taps into a profound sense of rage, betrayal, and disillusionment that many of us on the Left have felt as we have watched the America we thought we believed in shatter in the face of a tide of right-wing bigotry. Somehow, the breaks in Gaga’s voice and the screaming instrumentals help us to feel a similar sense of rage and despair, that the things that we took for granted were the very things that ended up betraying us. It’s hard not to feel your body respond to the rawness in her voice. The imperfections of her delivery give affective expression to our own sense that the world we thought we saw hovering on the horizon was nothing more than a figment of our own imagination, that somehow we have been betrayed by the very people that we thought we could count on. The very idea of America that we had created in our minds was as ephemeral as gossamer.

So, whenever you’re feeling that familiar emotion of despondency and despair, just tune in to some Lady Gaga. If you’re anything like me, this song will galvanize you and enrage you enough to keep marching in the streets, to keep protesting, until we force the arc of the universe to bend toward justice. Let those percussive beats that punctuate the end of the song serve as the drumbeat of our relentless pursuit of a better, more verdant world. We have been beaten down before and emerged triumphant, and we shall do it again.

We shall make our illusion a reality.

Trump and the Terror of History

In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history:  On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.

They are, in a word, terrifying.

By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.

Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.

However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?

The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.

And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.

So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.

The short answer is:  of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote–which looks to be quite substantial, by the way–is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.

Weekly Rant: Dear Dr. Stein

Dear Dr. Stein:

I struggled with writing this letter and with whether or not to put it out into the public. Finally, though, I decided that I need to have these thoughts in the public sphere, so that you can know how your decision to deliberately undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton has had real consequences for people like me.

This election, American voters ultimately had a choice. This was more than about the two candidates. This was about choosing a flawed but progressive candidate who represented an incremental but steady march to the Left on many issues and a raging, xenophobic, racist know-nothing that proudly assaulted women (to say nothing of his running mate, who has made no secret of his disdain for LGBTQ+ Americans). This was between bringing into power those who would work to protect our country’s most vulnerable citizens, rather than ushering into power a man buoyed by the absolute worst impulses in the American psyche. This was about forward progress against a descent into the worst sort of barbarism.

Once it became clear that the match-up would be between Clinton and Trump, the ethical thing for yourself and the Green Party to do would have been to make a sacrifice–and make no mistake, that’s what it would have been–in order to help rouse and excite the Left for Clinton. Instead, you went out of your way to paint Hillary as the epitome of all that was wrong with politics, and in the process you have helped bring into power this creature known as Trump, as well as his legions of deplorables. You helped to obliterate the Obama legacy and have helped solidify the tide of hatred and danger that threatens to sweep away everything you claim to hold dear.

Already, we have seen the effects of this as social media has exploded with reports of assaults on all of the minorities that Trump has targeted throughout his campaign. People that I know personally have been assaulted by Trump supporters, emboldened by his victory.

And for my part, for the first time since I came out of the closet as a queer man in 2002, I feel afraid to be who I am. I am afraid to be queer, and I can’t help but lay some of the blame at your door.

You and yours could have prevented this, but instead you valued principle and ideological purity over and above the bodies, lives, and well-beings of people of colour, immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBTQ+ people, and countless others. Rather than helping to unite the Left, you continued to sow division, diminishing enthusiasm for Clinton and in the progress throwing many others under the bus for the service of your own ego. You could have encouraged your followers to vote for Clinton, but you didn’t. And this is the result.

I will forgive you, those who voted for you, and those who were persuaded enough by your message that they sat this one out. I’ll forgive you because I have far more in common with you than I do our mutual enemies on the Right. I’ll forgive you because I know that we have to move forward together on a progressive agenda.

But I will never, ever forget what happened this year.

And you shouldn’t either.

Donald Trump as Terrifying Postmodern Fever-Dream

When I started writing this blog post, I thought, “Do I really need to add another note in the strident cacophony of commentary surrounding Donald Trum?” (Yes, I really do think things like these in my private hours. Sue me). But, after discussing the most recent debate with my students in the context of postmodernism (and the postmodern condition more generally), I decided that yes, indeed, I do have to say something.

If you’ve read your Baudrillard or your Lyotard, you know that we are living in a world of seemingly endless meaning(lessness), where objective truth(s) matter less than the “truthiness” of any particular claim. While one would be excused for thinking that we had reached the apex (or perhaps the nadir) of the postmodern condition of endlessly contingent meaning with the myths and misdirections surrounding both 9/11 and the Iraq War–to say nothing of just the whole Bush Presidency–such a thought seems positively naive in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendancy.

There have been oceans of real and digital ink spilled about the fact that many Trump supporters don’t really care about Trump’s seeming passing acquaintance with the truth. In many cases, they either a.) don’t care that he routinely lies and misrepresents information, since he is so good at saying what he thinks, so that his lack of veracity is always secondary or b.) the followers themselves don’t actually know the truth or the facts. I’m still not entirely sure which of these aspects I find most distressing.

Actually, for me they are both equally damaging to the ongoing health and well-being of our democracy and the body politic. When it comes to the point that none of the metanarratives and sources of knowledge upon which we have come to rely–whether that be the democratic process, the free press, or the intelligentsia more broadly–are able to command the loyalty of the people, we are in the midst of a crisis. And believe me, I do not use that word lightly (it gets bandied about a lot in academic circles). It truly does terrify me that no one seems to have faith in the sources of knowledge that we have so far relied on to make sense of our world.

Somehow, then, we’ve come to a crisis point, the seeming telos of the postmodern crisis in knowledge, a crisis that strikes so deeply into the heart of our citizenry that it’s hard to see how we can manage to climb our way out of it. Does it matter that Trump rarely (if ever) has any solid policy proposals? Clearly not, since his supporters continue to follow him even though respected economists, military strategists, intelligence officials, and other policy thinkers have thoroughly debunked almost every single policy or proposal that he has so far made in this campaign.

Just as disturbing, however, is the fact that the real Trump (if such a thing can be said to exist) has begun to blur terrifyingly into the caricature. One need look no further than the third debate to see this, when his frequent interjections of “wrong” caused me to pause and ask, “Am I watching Alec Baldwin on SNL or am I watching the actual Donald Trump?” As Baudrillard would say, it doesn’t really matter, because the simulacrum has replaced the actual lived reality to a degree that Baldwin is Trump and Trump is Baldwin.

Now, of course, the question always occur to me:  so what? What do we do with the idea that Trump represents some sort of telos of the crisis of knowledge and metanarratives that have allowed us to make sense of the political and social landscape at least since the end of World War II? What can one possibly do to turn back this terrible tide that seems to have swept away any and all certainty about the way that we make sense of the terrors of the contemporary world?

It may not, in fact, be possible to do so, but we have a collective duty, both as knowledge producers and knowledge consumers to hold both ourselves and our sources of information accountable. We must get out our knowledge comfort zones and actually start critically thinking about our own ideas and those of others. While we may still end up disagreeing with those on the other side of the political spectrum, this type of meaningful dialogue and engagement, not just the retreat into affect and overblown emotion, may just allow us as a society to move forward.

It may be too late to stop the rise of Trump, but I’m hopeful–and, dare I say it, downright optimistic–that together we can make sure that he, or someone like him, does not rise again. Furthermore, we can, if we give in to the better angels of our natures (pardon the cliché), perhaps build a better world for everyone.