This post is the first in a series describing formative moments in my journey to the left. Content notice: liberal handwringing, white existential dread.
A Lesson Is Learned but the Damage Is Irreversible is a webcomic by Dale Beran and David Hellman that ran between 2004 and 2013. It depicts a series of increasingly surreal, quasi-autobiographical vignettes from the lives of young millennials.
Heisei Democracy is a blog that ran between 2004 and 2011. It told the story of a person coming of age and finding identity in a world of consumer culture, expressed through a mix of otaku news, reviews, and stories from life in Japan.
4chan is a website that was started in 2003 by a handful of refugees from Something Awful’s anime subforum who wanted a place to look at porn.
I was one of them.
Like so many other “apolitical” liberals, the morning after the 2016 election I went to work in a haze.
I didn’t understand.
My wife had said it was possible. I’d waved her off. She’d caucused for Bernie and I hadn’t voted.
I had believed that Obama was proof that “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”. Hillary was the uninteresting, technocratic successor who would keep the Progress Engine slowly churning away.
I stood there that morning, looking at the world I had known, now twisted up like a pretzel.
The arc doesn’t bend that way, man.
And yet here it was: a pile of slag and memes in an ill-fitting suit, vowing to Make America Great Again.
I didn’t understand.
Dale Beran had the first answer that spoke to me.
His 2017 essay, 4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump, connected the thread from Something Awful in 2003 through to the present day.
The path he described was parallel to mine for long enough that I could look back and see where they diverged. Like Dale, I had just enough inertia — and age, and luck — to escape the gravity of 4chan’s black hole.
Later, Ian Danskin’s series on the alt-right playbook would flesh out this hypothesis into something more universal.
But a gang of disaffected terminally online assholes meming Trump into office for the lulz wasn’t enough to paint the whole picture.
In the months that followed I kept looking. I listened to Pod Save America, watched Saturday Night Live, and asked what would make people vote against their own interest. I saw the New York Times fixate on Hillbilly Elegy and a need to understand the “soul” of rural white America.
For the first year or so a diet of liberal outrage and schadenfreude was enough to carry me through. Mainlining Crooked Media and hearing stories of how Trump’s blundering cost his base more than he ever gained them felt — if not good — at least satisfying on some level.
Surely his supporters would wake up and see what a terrible mistake they’d made. Surely our side would be vindicated; after all, we were the rational ones.
After awhile I realized that vindication wasn’t going to come.
Destroyed with facts and logic
To figure out why, I had to go back to 2003.
For a certain type of guy — white, secular, liberal-ish — coming of age at the end of history meant that we had won. America was the champion of the world; our righteous values would spread both within our borders and across the globe, and any lingering pockets of backwardness, well — nothing a little military or intellectual curb-stomping wouldn’t set straight.
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Mike Judge were our oracles. We lived in the best of all possible worlds, and anyone who disagreed would be placed in line for the Progress Engine to take care of. You make an omelette, you break eggs, and eventually the system finds a way to break fewer.
(Or it doesn’t. Who knows? Who cares?)
We had a nebulous, unshakable conviction born from never knowing true hardship. We’d been given the world to fuck around in, and with all the manifest destiny of money, guns, and freedom on our side, we’d never have to find out.
The millennium wore on. The war machine raged. The bubble burst, the economy imploded, and reality increasingly refused to conform to our expectations. Cracks started to form.
But things would be fine. We held a rally to restore sanity and/or fear. We occupied Wall Street. Obama would make everything normal again.
He did. Only what was normal anymore?
Present day, present time
For someone at the top of the pile, the pile can be hard to see.
Until the foundation starts to crack.
America’s story was never one of inevitable progress.
It’s the greatest machine ever created for extracting value and funneling it upward.
But the “liberal democracy”?
At best, a system that could be coaxed to reform through mass demands for change.
At worst, a shifting mask of respectable apologia built to cover an ongoing legacy of slavery, expropriation, neocolonial violence and subjugation.
Watching the foundation crumble, one response is to double down.
Say the hierarchy is good, actually. The shortest path to power is the best. The ends justify the means.
Morality, truth, scientific fact, all expendable on the scramble upward. Bonus points for stoking xenophobia and bigotry on the way.
In the end, Trump’s win was entirely consistent with the past 40 years of American political and economic policy.
Capitalism turns to fascism when times get tough, and they’re tough enough now that the cracks are too big to ignore.
I finally had an explanation that made sense.
It was time for a new question:
What am I gonna do about it?
I credit a few factors for the divergence I found from the reactionary nihilism of 4chan’s later years.
- Generally progressive, internationally-minded parents;
- A lively curiosity bolstered by a great public education;
- Being in the right place at the right time to dodge the Great Recession;
- A deep-seated boredom with whiteness and maleness as social defaults.
I didn’t see myself in stories about what men should want or be, so it was that much easier to look outside of them for wisdom and inspiration when the time came.
And that’s where this is going, in the next installment.
Having dismantled a lot of the received wisdom of a liberal American upbringing, I was getting ready to replace it.
By the time the pandemic hit, the pretzel arc of history in my mind was brittle enough to shatter in a stiff wind.
2020 took it and suplexed it into the sun.