In the wake of Donald Trump’s ascension to the highest office in the land, journalists have sought answers for his popularity. Aside from the influence of “fake news,” the betrayal of white women towards the mythical sisterhood (because all women think alike, don’t you know?), and the “ignorance” of the conservative voting bloc, one particular group of politically-active millennial voters is brought up time and time again as a prime reason for Trump’s win at the polls: the anime-loving denizens of 4chan.
Writing for New York Magazine, former Gawker chief Max Read attempts to deconstruct the labyrinthian memeverse that is now the Internet—a social environment riddled with inside jokes and postmodernist hot takes. Referencing 4chan, Read argues that the Internet is now a message board because the “self-proclaimed losers and freaks of 4chan and its ilk had come to great political prominence” upon Trump’s election. After all, he argues, Hillary Clinton waged war against a cartoon frog.
To credit memes for so much of Trump’s success, however, is to bestow power upon the very memes that the progressive left battles daily. Fighting against memes, which are viral by nature, is to infect your audience with an awareness of their existence, which in turn grants them even more power. Were it not for the constant outrage against Pepe the Frog, the “OK” sign as a “white supremacist gesture,” and numerous other spawn of Reddit, Twitter and 4chan, these symbols would hold no meaning outside the bubbles in which they were formed.
Read argues that the victory of memes over the masses was “almost a thrilling underdog story” if not for the fact that they are “anti-Enlightenment, anti-democratic, anti-equality politics,” a claim that exudes not only arrogance, but false authority. It’s no wonder so many people feel disenfranchised by the left.
To reject spurious claims about how babies are racist and how gender changes from day to day isn’t “anti-Enlightenment,” it’s just common sense. And even if common sense doesn’t hold up, the claims themselves need to be scientifically proven, and not taken as articles of faith.
It’s rich to condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with the views of leftist progressives as “anti-democratic” when speakers like Ann Coulter and Jordan Peterson are being denied their right to free speech by violent Antifa protesters. The ACLU has even condemned the actions of radical leftists as a “heckler’s veto.”
A nicer word for identity politics, which calls for the banning of American-influenced fusion cuisine on grounds of “cultural appropriation.” Culture warriors even forced the resignation of Yale’s Silliman College head Nicholas Christakis and lecturer Erika Christakis for defending Halloween costumes. Given that this is what “equality politics” consists of, it’s not surprising that most people want no part of it.
Read argues that the politics of “alt-right” message boards couldn’t have existed without technology, and bemoans how inexpensive it has become for anyone hooked up to the Internet to express their views and share them with the world.
“Now, though, you can reproduce your ideas essentially infinitely, for prices so low as to be effectively free, and suffer no ill social effect,” writes Read. “In fact, online, toxic ideas are more likely to get attention and social capital (plus, thanks to programmatic ad networks, real capital) that goes along with attention.”
In other words, Read argues that social media was a mistake. While it’s true that fringe beliefs and like Flat Earth Theory and PizzaGate are only as popular as they are because of technology, these outlandish ideas are sparsely confined to the Right. Delusion is just as prevalent on the Left in the form of science denial and conspiracy theories, with an added dose of orthodoxy—the anti-vaccine movement and the “gender spectrum” are products of supposedly enlightened progressives, as is every ailment borne from Trump Derangement Syndrome. The “OK” sign is racist.
Steven Pinker cleverly described it as the Left Pole.
Just as when you’re at the North Pole, all directions are South. The Left Pole is the mythical spot from which all directions are right, so any opinion that does not conform to this orthodoxy is branded as right wing.
Read describes his political opponents as “a literal army of dissatisfied, disenchanted, mostly young male adults ripe for radicalization,” erasing women who also oppose his views. He neglects to mention how the young men and women of the Left feel equally dissatisfied and disenchanted by society—exemplified by the social justice movement and the call to arms by Antifa and Black Lives Matter. Read’s focus on just one side of the equation blinds himself to the whole.
After a brief look at the tactics of 4chan, Reddit and SomethingAwful and the awakening of their political consciousness, Read claims that these websites established a kind of social sovereignty—a “safe space” and bastion from which to launch their brand of politics into the outside world. Read claims that it provides the denizens of these communities “the reservation of a sacred right to be cruel,” ignoring the rise of social justice communities on the now-defunct LiveJournal that later migrated to Tumblr and Facebook groups.
As with any article concerning the rise of Trump and the influence of Internet culture, the former Gawker editor invokes GamerGate—a bogeyman invented to signal the Left’s virtue against its ideological opponents. Employing revisionist history to call independent game designer and notorious drama queen Zoe Quinn a victim of a “frustrated man’s rambling,” who became a “stand in for all the women who were attempting to carve out roles” in a misogynistic industry, Read says she has become a meme.
There’s no question that Zoe Quinn is a living meme. But the reason for why she is such a “lolcow,” to use a colloquial term, is because she feeds the beast of her infamy. Each weekly outburst provides a bountiful harvest of schadenfreude for the memelords, to whom she responds, and the cycle begins anew.
Tribalism isn’t limited to one side of the political spectrum—especially when Read, like others on the Left, are as susceptible to collective groupthink. Read’s invocation of anti-GamerGate mythology and further mythmaking (or meme-making) is proof of that.
So long as one side pushes, the other side will push back in an endless tug-of-war. Both sides are in a struggle to seize the memes of production, and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise.