There Are Two Alt-Rights, Not One, and the Alt-Left Is Poised to Defeat Both in the Next Decade
Per usual, the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have picked up on a critical cultural undercurrent years before the mainstream media.
In this case, it’s the fact that there are two Alt-Rights—and that distinguishing between them is critical to defeating them.
The first Alt-Right, routinely lampooned by South Park, comprises, plain and simple, various breeds of under-educated bigots: a multi-faceted gaggle that hates blacks, Jews, feminists, liberals, globalization, and Hispanic and Muslim immigration, to name just a few of the bogeymen ethno-nationalists have been ginning up fear and loathing about online and off for decades.
The second Alt-Right is incensed by all the same groups, but targets them primarily “for the lulz.”
What this digital-age shorthand means is that the second branch of the Alt-Right, typified by über-troll Milo Yiannopoulos (pictured above), daily entertains itself online by provoking all those its perceives to be superfluously thin-skinned. Often found on sites like 4chan and Reddit, these folks are, unlike white nationalists, essentially non-ideological—or at least they’re not ideological in any sense we’ve encountered before.
By most traditional metrics, the majority of these latter folks are apolitical. In my Summer 2015 series of essays about Donald Trump in the Scandinavian academic journal Metamoderna, I observed that it was apolitical actors of just this sort who would be most drawn to Trump’s candidacy, whether as Election-Day voters or online boosters or both. The reason for this, I said, was that in addition to appealing to “angry optimists,” Trump will always, in the view of a certain class of apolitical young people, be a totem or mascot for their anti-dogma, anti-establishment “movement”: a chaos-inducing hand grenade thrown into the middle of America’s village green. While Leftists like myself for years ignored the claim, oft heard on the far Right, that the Left’s increasing fetishization of “political correctness” would lead to the demise of progressivism and the Democratic Party, these folks were hard at work every day making sure that obtuse prophecy would become a fait accompli.
While most of Milo Yannopoulos’ massive troupe of online trolls would never be found at a white pride parade—that’s just the sort of plodding, hyper-literal communalism they detest—there can be no doubt that most of them are white men simmering daily in resentment over their lost cultural capital. Their primary conviction is that contemporary society has been ruined by the anxieties, niceties, and dizzying social-media infighting promulgated by so-called “political correctness.” To the extent they’ve developed an agenda to combat this (in their view) devolution of a pleasingly chaotic sociocultural sphere into one where their impish breed of self-expression has no place whatsoever, their agenda is at once personal and (though they themselves wouldn’t see it as such) conventionally dogmatic.
On the personal side, these folks find trolling progressives online almost orgasmically cathartic; in the longer game, they believe that repeatedly poking communities of so-called “Social Justice Warriors” online makes these sub-communities look so ridiculous in the public gaze that any broad-based support for them will eventually collapse. A tertiary goal is to recruit almost exclusively young white heterosexual men to this sub-strata of the “Alt-Right” cause. The reason for this selective outreach is at once a matter of convenience (the sites this element within the Alt-Right frequents also cater to young-white-male sub-communities such as the gaming community, the Star Wars community, and the indie-lit community) as well as a strategic initiative—as the youngish-white-male demographic still dominates the corridors of power online. Milo Yiannopoulos, though gay as well as young, white, and male, is a prime exemplar.
The problem for media analysts in tracking these phenomena is that the prank- and trolling-oriented “acting up” of Milo’s Alt-Rightists—fundamentally juvenile in its contours as well as its demographic base—is indistinguishable from white-nationalist bigotry, which of course is all part of the “fun.” At base, the message being sent by these increasingly de-centered young white heterosexual males is that if Leftist rhetoric is going to paint them all as white-supremacist neanderthals, they’re going to act that way even when they’re (sort of) not that. Their public profile may be identical to that of the neo-Nazis operating under the aegis of the Alt-Right, but their unwillingness and almost pathological inability to take any ideological dogma seriously distinguishes them from their peers in the Alt-Right movement in a way the Left needs to understand and quickly.
Fortunately, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, progressives who’ve always exercised an atypical approach to political engagement, are again leading the way.
In the current season of South Park, the liberal, Jewish, yarmulke-wearing Gerald Broflovski has become an ostensibly fascist online “troll”—”ostensibly” inasmuch as his targets match those of contemporary ethno-nationalist fascists: feminists, gays and lesbians, and liberals of any stripe. In certain respects, however, Gerald is just a proxy for longtime television provocateurs Parker and Stone, and his rough treatment on the show this season a subtle self-effacement. While early in the season Gerald’s trolling is portrayed as a sort of rock-star performance—one undertaken with the same manic glee one imagines Parker and Stone have enjoyed as the creators of South Park, a show that deliberately triggers everyone on both Left and Right into melodramatic bouts of public self-righteousness—later on Gerald’s actions tear asunder his personal life, the lives of others, and indeed the very fabric of the nation. So while Gerald, trolling “for the lulz,” may intend “only” a nasty tricksterism that calms his anger at (in his view) contemporary society’s emasculation of him—putting aside for a moment that Matt Stone, who is Jewish, knows better than most how male Jews’ fears of emasculation have different origins than other iterations of the same fear—in fact the show implies that impishness is a vestigial form of the perpetually unaddressed ugliness that can lodge itself in any human soul.
Does Trey Parker and Matt Stone putting a liberal Jew at the center of a fundamentally far-Right internet conspiracy mean that, as is often alleged, South Park is merely trying to offend all sides of every political debate equally? In other words, is South Park, as the conventional wisdom goes, at its core a morally ambiguous poststructuralist deconstruction of contemporary mores that takes no position at all on which political commitments are just and which unjust?
In fact, Parker and Stone are de facto leaders of the “Alt-Left,” and may be as politically committed an artist duo as any in the nation—whether their public personas admit this designation or not.
Confused yet? Unfortunately, you can’t be—as falling for the trap of believing South Park to be poststructuralist and deconstructive, or of believing the “Alt-Right” to be monolithic and “conventionally” bigoted, not only underestimates the dangers the Alt-Right poses to constructive public dialogue but also obscures the fact that the growing “Alt-Left” is cleverly borrowing from Milo Yiannopoulos’ cultural philosophy without mirroring his obsessions or tactics. While this tendency was far less evident in, say, the first dozen seasons of South Park, years in which the show’s political commitments were so subterranean as to be nearly invisible, in the last three years South Park has embraced a return to obtuse but politically committed metanarratives that draw—as does Milo—from the cultural philosophy known as metamodernism.
In short, the Alt-Left comprises, at present, a gaggle of far-flung metamodern political activists. But their ranks and reach are growing, and in the “post-truth” world of a Trump presidency, their influence is set to explode.
To be clear, the “Alt-Left” described here is not the one on occasion discussed on hard-Right websites like Town Hall, World News Daily, and The Federalist. These sites and their authors merely hypothesize the term in a way that suits their bomb-throwing rhetoric; in fact, they have absolutely no idea how to understand or describe a movement they’re no part of whatsoever—which is why their fanciful imaginings (including one that confusingly positions the “Alt-Left” as merely “the left wing of the Alt-Right”) bear no relation to the phenomena discussed in this article.
Ironically, whereas radicals like Joseph Farah of World Net Daily claim the “Alt-Left” comprises the cohort of online social activists known derogatorily as Social Justice Warriors, and in so claiming positions these folks as the dominant force in the Democratic Party, not only does Hillary Clinton’s nomination by the Party suggest that the Party’s power center lies elsewhere, but indeed it is the Republican Party which, in the person of Donald Trump, has now been almost entirely consumed by its “Alt-” faction. On the Left, the “Alt-” movement is so nascent and so outside the governing cultural philosophy of both the mainstream Left and the mainstream Right that to call it a presently potent political force is farcical. This article therefore does not contend that the Alt-Left is currently influential, merely that Trump’s election has all but ensured that it shortly will be—and indeed must be, if progressivism or the Democratic Party is to survive.
If the white-supremacist branch of the Alt-Right feeds on the distant promise of an exclusively white Protestant patriarchal nation erected in place of our current one, and the Alt-Right “trolls” typified by Yiannopoulos simply feed on the far more ephemeral satisfaction of seeing those who’ve stolen away their cultural capital publicly ridiculed and shamed and (above all) melodramatically “put out,” the Alt-Left turns the cultural philosophy of these latter trolls—as noted, metamodernism—toward its natural and more august purpose: consequential, generative, and fundamentally progressive political activism.
Yiannopoulos and his crew are “sincere” about feeling left behind in contemporary society’s corridors of power—which is why they, and Milo in particular, substitute a cheap brand of digital infamy for real-time political clout, deluding themselves into believing the former a more valuable currency in the medium- or long-term. But then they cover up their rather banal, Heathers-era pain with so many layers of irony that their public behavior (for instance, their regular use of the “n-word” on 4chan) becomes indistinguishable from those white nationalists on Stormfront who are not just sincere in their expressions of pain but sincere about organizing politically to end it. (Keep in mind that “sincerity” is ontologically value-neutral; many a fascist tyrant has held “sincere” views, and many a seemingly admirable and effective progressive activist “insincere” ones.) In this respect, we can say that the racist Alt-Right is quantifiably and even categorically sincere―if also thoroughly risible―whereas Milo’s Alt-Right is also nauseating but typified by a melange of sincerity and irony that is quintessentially “metamodern.”
So what is metamodernism?
Suffice to say that metamodernism uses paradox, juxtaposition, dialogue, collaboration, and radical re-framings of entrenched dialectics to “reconstruct” solutions to the degradations and angst of postmodernism.
If the racist Alt-Right remains, blessedly, both culturally sidelined and largely ineffectual as a matter of public policy development—the election of someone who draws political strength from this quadrant, Donald Trump, notwithstanding—the other Alt-Right, the one comprised of trolls and pranksters, has become both central to our culture and identifiably consequential.
The reason? The cultural hegemony of bigotry is over; the cultural hegemony of metamodernism has just begun.
Milo Yiannapoulos is a turd.
But don’t take my word for it: just ask the man himself, who’s referred to himself as a “sociopath” and much else in that vein.
In Dungeons & Dragons terms, we would, whatever the amorality he sometimes cloaks himself in, term Milo “Chaotic Evil.” Yiannopoulos painstakingly sows chaos in each system he engages—be it corporate media (see here, here, and here, and note the inflammatory video titles); the gaming sub-community, or Twitter—and his (to a metamodernist) not just tiresome but rather obvious brand of chaos is in no way generative.
Invariably, Milo’s efforts breed categorically evil byproducts like hate, fear, suspicion, and confusion. To those who value chaos as an end in itself, as well as to those whose ambitions are the sinister ends chaos produces, Milo is a hero and, in a sense, he should be: he’s very, very good at being the particular sort of turd the generic “Chaotic Evil” personality values. That’s why he’s an Alt-Right “hero”—beloved by both Rightist trolls and white nationalists alike. Just as the Left looks at effects rather than philosophy and thereby detects no daylight between Yiannopoulos and white nationalists, the white nationalists have themselves been duped into cheering Milo because his amoral, never-break-character ironic trolling of major media, social media, and various contemporary sub-communities is indistinguishable, to the workaday white nationalist, from his own earnest if insidious agenda.
This last point—about the differential definition and role of indistinguishability in poststructuralist activism, white nationalism, and metamodernism—is crucial.
It has lately become dogma in progressive communities to judge people and groups of people exclusively by their ends, rather than their means. The vagaries of intention, or even those of grave human error, do not sit well with the current breed of progressive activist (what I here term “the conventional Left”). For this reason, an anticipated objection to the dual classification of the Alt-Right offered above is that the two branches of the Alt-Right should be seen as one. They are one, in the conventional Leftist view, because their myriad public manifestations are impossible to disentangle. What difference does it make, one might ask, if Milo Yiannopoulos rants on Sky News about women’s unsuitability for work in the sciences merely to provoke a response, or because he actually believes his own highly urbane word-salad of fallacy and invented data? The answer: you defeat a political enemy not merely by being upset at their fruits, but by fully understanding their tactics and strategy. One reason the Left keeps losing to the Right—as a result of propagandistic talk radio; the promulgation of fake news websites that conservatives always fall for and liberals never do; and dog-whistling in political rhetoric—is that we on the Left would rather self-express our anger over what’s happening on- and offline, and our disgust at who we perceive to be behind it, than figure out how to immobilize and defeat our political opponents. This is why, while fake news sites don’t entrap liberals, trolls like Yiannopoulos always do.
In view of the above, some would say that, as attention is what Milo feeds off, the less said about him the better. And that’s true: his cultural capital, however contingent and ragged in its instrumentalization, grows with attention, as does his top-line wardrobe and insatiable ego. But consistent with the very metamodernism that drives Milo’s parasitic practices and deleterious effect on global culture is the premise that what strengthens you simultaneously weakens you. In this case, this means that the same way Milo beats the Left perpetually—by provoking them into giving him attention and histrionic response—is also the way he and his ilk can ultimately be defeated. Anyone who wants to engage in successful activism in the Digital Age needs to pay very close attention to Milo, not to emulate his tactics but to steal his philosophy (which is itself stolen from earlier metamodernists) wholesale. As Milo’s philosophy has nothing particularly to do with the tactics he uses to deploy it—that is, because metamodernism is in itself neither a good nor an evil, merely an instrument that can be bent to various ends—borrowing it from the most risible troll of the Alt-Right doesn’t mean becoming Milo.
As easy to say that the “metamodern” political activist can just as easily be a hero as a turd.
This essay, then, is about metamodern heroism—the “Lawful Good” counterpart to Milo’s “Chaotic Evil.”
While Yiannopoulos will always be a turd, and will shortly enough fade into irrelevance as all digital-age provocateurs invariably do, he nevertheless can be put to good use in the meantime by those with a more noble agenda. His use of ironic practices like trolling to achieve expression of a sincere if juvenile angst (or whatever semblance of this a self-described sociopath can possibly construct) can readily be retrofitted to instrumentalize deconstruction in service of metamodernism’s ultimate ambition: generative re-construction.
If right-wing trolls cynically deconstruct left-wing anxieties in the public view in order to reconstruct them into a campaign of (earnest if rather pathetic) white-male self-expression, left-wing metamodern political activism is a combination of seemingly cynical pragmatism and a thoroughly dogmatic idealism. If Leftists’ poststructuralist bent exploits a doctrine of “indistinguishability” to flatten complex phenomena—for instance, by failing to distinguish between the two discrete branches of the Alt-Right, or by deeming equivalently “white supremacist” both a neo-Nazi and a moderate Democrat whose policies by dint of ignorance rather than design entrench racial disparities—metamodernism collapses opposing phenomena not to streamline discourse but to create radically complex responses to subtle contemporary stimuli.
In metamodernism, two seemingly opposed poles like radical pragmatism and dogmatic idealism are indistinguishable—not because they’re conceptually identical, but because they can be simultaneously instrumentalized (and thus, in a sense, transcended, one reason a major sub-sphere of metamodern critical theory is referred to as “transcendent metamodernism”). More specifically, their combination makes possible a cohesive and indeed ineluctable bundle of progressive political tactics.
Consider that when an activist—not the petition-signing, hot take-retweeting “armchair activist” we find on social media, but the ones in the offline trenches who actually get things done in real-time—is forced, in the interest of their cause, to do something uncomfortable, embarrassing, or disgusting (say, negotiate with a political enemy, collaborate with a jerkish or unreliable ally, or give up a little of what they value highly to get much more of what they value even more highly), they are being pragmatic. Indeed, the fundamental distinction between the social-media activist and the real one, or between the actual activist and the outraged thinkpiece-writer with many outraged readers but no solutions to offer, is that the latter is prepared to suffer repeated indignities in service of a cause.
An authentic activist can be diplomatic with anyone, at any time, if it furthers their cause. They’ll listen more than they speak, speak calmly even when justifiably outraged, and seek points of commonality even as and when disgusted by those they’re seeking commonality with. Terms now embraced by the online Left, like “tone-policing” and “white fragility,” are deeply satisfying to deploy, up to cathartically self-expressive, because they belittle and undercut longtime ideological adversaries; at the same time, they do nothing to advance a cause. Arguably, they not only fail to advance the cause they’re ostensibly uttered in service in, but they have the even more deleterious effect of deliberately misdiagnosing an adversary’s tactics and weaknesses—always a prelude to defeat at the hands of that same adversary. In the case, say, of the now-amorphous term “white fragility” (originally well-defined, now used to denote any white person’s demurral from one’s own worldview), essentializing whiteness as weakness and analogizing white conservatives to an oppressive paramilitary force significantly and satisfyingly speaks to many Leftists’ authentic emotional metanarrative—even as it has a far less storied history of political consequence than do tactics like inclusive protest, civil dialogue, hard-won compromise, and “big-tent” rhetoric. Tactics of this latter sort are now derisively termed “respectability politics” by many well-intentioned persons on the conventional Left—one way of saying that idealism has been sacrificed on the altar of a cynical pragmatism.
Yet here’s the irony: what has allowed successful activists across generations and innumerable causes to suffer discomfort or embarrassment or disgust is a dogmatic idealism that holds that anything can be suffered in pursuit of a noble endgame. The problem with activism motivated by poststructuralist theory—namely, “dialectics,” the idea that every discourse is fundamentally zero-sum, and that every point of contention in public life breeds innumerable interest groups and truth quotients that are at base incompatible—is that either pragmatism is seen as a betrayal of principle and principle as fundamentally impossible to instrumentalize or attempts to commingle pragmatism and principle are dishonestly cast as incoherent. All in all, it’s a downward spiral that, for whatever reason, appears to lead activists toward increasingly desperate and dramatic displays of principle in the vain hope that the mere drama of a principle publicly performed over and over will of its own inertia lead to change. The conventional Leftist (this is to say poststructuralist) action is a wild, scene-stealing protest that brings with it no specific demands, spokespeople, or plans of action; it’s a self-justifying event that’s self-expressive and creative without being either persuasive or effective.
Sometimes, a movement informed by a belief in dialectical contention will be successful despite itself, allowing the misimpression that it was dialectics that won the day. For instance, white politicians can—thankfully—be shamed into pushing for body cameras for all police officers because of dramatic street demonstrations, but we ill serve the fight against police brutality when we fail to see that what these politicians are actually reacting to is bad publicity for them on TV and the involvement of their white constituents in these protests. The problem with relying on bad publicity for one’s adversaries to advance one’s cause is that it requires media complicity as an intermediary, which means (by the transitive property) it requires one’s demands to somehow coincidentally dovetail with a corporatist agenda. Meanwhile, the problem with failing to see the seemingly paradoxical significance of white faces to a protest advocating racial justice is that it invariably leads to the sidelining of those white faces. The success of a protest becomes a false proxy and future justification for present tactics.
Here’s where the Alt-Left comes in.
The fundamental premise behind the gradual rise of the Alt-Left is that we’ve come to a point of diminishing returns in progressive activism because self-expression is now the enemy of quantifiable policy gains. Coalition-building has been replaced by a denial that anything but narrowly drawn self-expressive activism has value. Consider this sentence from a recent article in The New Inquiry on building an antiracist movement, which sentence offers advice to progressive activists who are “able-bodied, have money, have resources, and are seen as white, hetero, and cis”:
“Get involved on the most local level you can and offer generously. Your degree of humbleness and willingness to do menial tasks and uncredited behind-the-scenes work should increase in proportion to your privilege and your safety and your history of involvement in organizing....take that backseat, offer a share of your resources to help organizers and activists travel and stay sheltered, protect and stand with communities you are not from, but do not take up space. Humbleness is what fuels a courageous fight that does not center you as savior.”
Putting aside several minor quibbles with these instructions—such as the fact that few in-the-trenches progressive activists of my acquaintance “have money and resources,” and I’m not sure whose gaze on the front-lines of activism is referred to when the author speaks of being “seen as hetero”—the larger issue is that no activist with a lengthy history of successful activism would ever advise sidelining members of a coalition with the demand that they (a) stay out of sight during all public events, (b) fund the movement, and (c) shut up and pretend to be invisible in organizing meetings. If you or someone you love is involved in a community organizing effort that focuses on “who will be centered as savor” rather than the single question of what must be centered for the cause to succeed, they should join a different effort. Assuming an organizing effort has already agreed upon its ambitions, such an effort is never about any one individual, or even about sub-groups within the movement, and so any debate about “who” rather than “what” must be centered is per se a betrayal of the cause itself. As for efforts whose ambitions have not yet been set, the prevailing tradition in large-scale activism has for decades been that good ideas about tactics and strategy are heeded and implemented no matter from whom they originate. Indeed, the only point in the lifespan of a movement that the advice proffered above is even arguably relevant is that moment at which a movement is first formed; it has historically been the case that crystalizing which present crisis a movement will respond to necessarily privileges one subject-formation matrix over all others. It is extremely difficult to, say, within a single collective action, both protect the sacred Native American lands in North Dakota through which DAPL will run and also combat the sort of police brutality to which African-Americans in particular are differentially subject.
So it should be no surprise to anyone who is an activist, or who has ever studied activism in the U.S., that telling whites looking to join the antiracist movement that they should sit out of sight in a back room contributing money and lodging but nothing else to their nonwhite peers is guaranteed to either (a) cause one’s cross-racial coalition to collapse, or (b) cause it to attract only feckless, inarticulate white allies. Given that (and would that it were otherwise) it’s white faces and white allies that are most likely to move politicians because they hail from the largest discrete racial demographic in America, this strategy is even more self-destructive than it seems at first blush.
The whole utility of “political correctness,” when and where it is instrumentalized, is that it compels politicians to action because a given policy position is “good politics”; somehow, many of today’s progressive activists have managed to craft a series of organizing actions that it is such good politics to oppose that opposing them wholesale just sent a clinically narcissistic, tangerine-hued, dictatorial sociopath to the White House. While there was no one cause for Trump’s election—it was a perfect storm of racial grievance, economic stagnation, disgust with the political establishment, obsession with celebrity, declining educational standards, and, to boot, a years-long conspiracy orchestrated by a powerful nation-state foe—the Left’s tone-deafness to what’s actually politically “correct” these days was indeed part of the problem. If Obama was elected because he successfully convinced diverse quadrants of the electorate that we all had a stake in his election, the Left spent the last few years tearing that coalition apart in the name of organizing strategies that were at best moronic and at worst risibly self-indulgent.
In a world where self-expression and political efficacy go hand-in-hand rather than combating one another, efficacy is achieved by systematically foregrounding the breadth, depth, and diversity of one’s coalition. Meanwhile, self-expression is privileged (in, say, an antiracist action) by primarily nonwhite tacticians setting the agenda for what those diverse bodies and intellects are supposed to be achieving. In the battle against transracial police brutality, for instance, it is statistically more likely that an African-American activist will have had first-hand experience with the mechanics of police brutality, meaning that this person will better understand what sort of demands need to be made of law enforcement to end the practice. Meanwhile, it will be incumbent upon the entire movement to at all turns emphasize how and illustrate why the social ills undergirding police brutality not merely should be but must be intolerable to all members of a civilized society. The cause must never seem in any way distant or irrelevant to the audience observing its operations on television and reading about it online and in newspapers, as it is this massive audience—dwarfing in number any possible contingent within the movement—whose mood and opinion will ultimately drive public policy. Rants like those excerpted from The New Inquiry (above) damage the chances of their ultimate ambitions being realized in exchange for a self-indulgent moment of catharsis, and every longtime community activist from Barack Obama to this author are rightly dismissive of (if, even still, distantly sympathetic to) such shortsighted juvenilia.
The benefit of a cause-centric rather than egocentric approach to activism is that all activists engaged in such actions, whatever their background, find that they have a vital and dignified role to play—and there is no distracting, internecine infighting about to who is “centered” and who is not. Why? Because when the cause is centered, each actor is judged only by their potential for service to the cause and their willingness to perform that service. Ironically, what we typically find is that when you center the cause you’re working toward you end up centering in an integral way everyone who is alongside you fighting. Whereas a poststructuralist ethos holds that identities are palimpsestic―-meaning, simply, that in any scenario in which different subjectivities are active, one subjective self-identity must be foregrounded even as all others are largely obscured—metamodernism holds that, paradoxically, multiple discrete self-identities can not only occupy the same space but can all be given their full and true expression.
Consequential real-time activism is always about the future―-literally, the present instant looking forward to all future instants.
When we view things under this particular lens, we see that all persons fundamentally long for the same dignity rights. Interestingly, these rights that all are striving for can loosely be identified as those associated with “white privilege.”
If Peggy McIntosh’s seminal article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” identified the ability to “arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time” as a key element of “white privilege,” we can simultaneously note that the sort of privilege progressives are arguably fighting to make universally available is the right (quite apart from the question of race) to associate with whomever one wishes without rebuke or penalty. Gay marriage, interracial marriage, and the fight against redlining are all part and parcel of what should be a “universal privilege” in the view of nearly all progressives and most people of any political stripe. Just so, McIntosh is inadvertently articulating and advocating a “universal privilege” when she speaks of white privilege encompassing the ability to “ rent or purchase housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.” These are just two examples of white privilege’s inherent transferability; in short, every component of “white privilege” identified by McIntosh is a categorical and inherent good which in the view of any person of humane conscience should be available to all Americans, whatever their background.
If universalizing access to the bundle of opportunities currently associated with the term “white privilege” is the highest ambition of the progressive activist, celebrating such privilege (as an immutable first principle rather than a differentially applied practice) should be a much higher priority for progressive activists than doing anything than might denigrate it—including attaching shame to it. This, then, is an example of metamodernism’s many generative paradoxes: to eradicate white privilege as a prejudicially applied and only selectively available phenomenon, it must first be celebrated and elevated as a universally applicable and deserved ideation. The pathological “either/or” of postructuralism―-which holds that if anyone anywhere is experiencing a selectively available privilege, everyone everywhere must fight to eradicate rather than dramatically expand that privilege—both renders the future of the presently disadvantaged indiscernible and counter-intuitively seeks to enlist the presently advantaged in their own future unhappiness.
Like most dialectical activism, it’s a “lose-lose” scenario rather than the “win-win” envisioned by metamodernism and the emerging Alt-Left.
Having said the above about privilege, this is, of course, only half the equation. The nation’s past is filled with brutalities and other injustices waged against entire demographics that not only cannot be ignored but must be aggressively investigated and told. Moreover, as all individuals suffer in their own ways, in a free society all should feel that they at least have the opportunity to tell the story of their own personal trials.
If, as to its activism, the Alt-Left exclusively projects forward, as to its view of the constitution of a just society the Alt-Left with equal alacrity projects backward—literally, from the present instant looking backward to all past instants. If we do this, we find that we can readily agree, in part because it’s quantifiably true, that some stories have not been told as frequently or as robustly as others. And because this deficit is quantifiable, we can trace its remedy over time and all agree on the progress made. Those who reject the diversification of America’s historical archive, or even contemporary manifestations of that archive such as publications of new poetry and fiction, can therefore only do so by rejecting hard data—which, while allowable in social circles defined by hardened bigotry, is certain never to gain wide acceptance as a cultural practice in polite society. By way of example, the success of the current, data-driven effort to diversify America’s poetry and fiction publications is evidence that quantifiable grievances are impossible for anyone of good faith to ignore. Moreover, because the desire to tell a more interesting and complete story is one that all people can relate to—imagine a business meeting in which only one person’s impression of it is permitted to be recorded, heard, or acted upon; this would infuriate any person, of any background, who’s ever worked for any organization of any kind—we can say that, provided Americans can look toward the future with the same ambitions for each and all’s dignity, it’s no threat to anyone’s self-identity to see our shared past with shared, inclusory values.
Of course the above is a simplification of a theory that, in the swirl and chaos of practice, is suitably complex. How, for instance, could we apply the above to the question of school choice? Couldn’t some well-to-do white parents in the suburbs say that the dignity rights they wish for all to enjoy include freedom of choice in education, and wouldn’t their vision of how best to exercise this right immediately clash with (for instance) the interests of a lower-middle class nonwhite family whose city-dwelling children will directly suffer from white flight from public schools?
The answer—to stay with this example—is yes and no. “Freedom of choice” in education is meaningless if one gets dinged substantially for making one choice or another. Charter school attendance paid for by vouchers often results in wealthy families being able to exit a struggling school system while poorer families remain behind in a now-further impoverished school. But what if “school choice” were devised in such a way as to be entirely revenue neutral in both the short-, medium-, and long-term, such that no disadvantage to either a given public school or a given charter school would be permitted as a consequence of a particular family choosing a particular school? What if parents were given public funds to exit a public school only if and when there would be absolutely no financial detriment (direct or indirect) to the school they planned to leave, and if all parents hoping to leave a given school (wealthy or less so) were ensured of receiving the entirety of the financial means to do so, on the grounds that only under these circumstances can we honestly say that all students have “freedom of choice”? We’d see once again, under these circumstances, a paradox: school choice would be allowed only as and when there was little if anything to choose between as a matter of an individual child’s financial support.
From this Alt-Left vantage-point, we can see that those (like myself) who oppose “school choice” as it is currently conceived do not do so because some labor union or another also opposes it, but because it fundamentally does not uphold the very value it claims to champion: “school choice” as the term is now used by conservatives has absolutely nothing to do with “freedom of choice,” but perpetually gets the benefit of this misapprehension. In fact, “school choice” means “choice” only for some, and if we consider the right to an elementary and secondary education a fundamental right, as most Americans believe, a choice of schools only honors that right when (a) every child has a full opportunity to choose a school, and (b) no child is immediately and directly punished if, say, they choose to remain in their public school rather than attend a charter school. Under current “school choice” policies, that punishment comes in the form of a massive loss in revenue at one’s school consequent to other students making a different school selection.
While the idea is a metamodernistic one—that is, the idea we should offer school choice only as and when all choices are coequally accessible and financially supported—this is also no more than the moralism of John Stuart Mill, who in On Liberty advised us all to do as we please as long as we hurt no one else. Those who oppose “school choice” as it is now known should loudly proclaim that they support “freedom of choice” in its most time-honored sense: a freedom which, when exercised, hurts no one else. Progressives like myself should never accept the notion that we oppose freedom of choice in education; rather, we must bring to the fore the fact that those who currently claim to support freedom of choice actually want to (a) make it impossible for some people to enjoy the right of choice, inasmuch as they plan to offer insufficient school vouchers to lower-income families, and (b) make it impossible for some people to enjoy the benefits of their own freedom, inasmuch as they allow those families who make one choice over another to be artificially penalized.
As we see with the above, a successful metamodern political movement embraces paradox, accepts only win-win solutions, engages difficult situations with an irrepressible optimism, radically re-imagines and reframes longstanding conceptualizations, and segments analyses as necessary (for instance, analyses of the past and the present) in an effort to, on the far side of this segmentation, reunite persons of different backgrounds in common causes. The “reconstructive” quality of Alt-Left metamodernism appeals to what is best in us—our sense that justice, fairness, and freedom should be universal—and mobilizes all persons in the same optimistic yet realistic, idealistic yet pragmatic march toward that goal. The result, achievable not immediately but over time, is a shared vision of both past and present: an inclusive and honest look at the past and a common set of ambitions projected into the future. When our past is inclusive and honest, and our future a function of shared principles, not merely the power of real-time persuasion but the limitless creativity of universal self-expression is unleashed. The aphorism that holds that a rising tide lifts all boats was not, in fact, created as a taunt against progressivism’s idealism; rather, the belief that divisive dialectics can be replaced with metamodern juxtapositions (such as that of sincerity and irony, optimism and cynicism, naivete and knowingness, future-orientation and nostalgia) is predicated on the very real observation that a large and diverse people can cohabit not just peacefully but productively.
Those who wish to oppose the “Alt-Right” during the course of a Trump presidency should immediately distinguish between two discrete hard-Right factions: white-nationalist neo-Nazism and metamodern neo-conservatism. The first may be opposed as such risible congregations have always been opposed, for instance by calling them out by name and by excluding them from as many political, social, and cultural institutions as possible. As for metamodern neo-conservatism, it gains power and influence in America only to the extent we Leftists fail to develop movements that not only need a diverse coalition but speak to the shared ambitions of a diverse American constituency. This doesn’t require us whitewashing the past, merely acknowledging that the past and present and future ideally form a virtuous circle: if, in the present, we recruit the largest possible population to the celebration and future pursuit of the most universally applicable principles, we create a space in which acknowledging the inequities of the past poses no threat to consequential activism in the present. Just so, if we divest ourselves of zero-sum visualizations that neither track with intelligent reframings of our present challenges nor lead to productive coalitions, we create an opportunity for all boats to be quantifiably lifted over time.
At present, instead of a metamodern Alt-Left we have fake websites feeding the anger, misinformation, and paranoia that the Right habitually feeds upon, and Alt-Right trolls feeding the bitterness, self-rigteousness, and counter-productive line-drawing to which the Left has grown so susceptible. Who and what benefits from this? Well, interminable pundit panels on CNN; media provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos; hate groups whose membership lists expand alongside systemic resentment; the careers of editorialists who with great eloquence and fanfare stoke simmering resentments without offering solutions to any problem; politicians whose chances of election or reelection rise with each new segmentation of the polity; self-expressive artists and self-described activists whose work is predominantly self-congratulatory, self-affirming, and retrospective; academics whose careers depend upon poststructuralist theory remaining a cultural hegemon; internet trolls of every stripe; and, perhaps most of all, “post-truth” politicians like Donald Trump who, by appealing to Americans’ anger and thereby distracting them from the real work ahead, manage to seize power and craft a national culture that supports their continued dominance.
If you look at the list above of those who benefit from poststructuralist dialectics, you’ll notice that it contains those from both the Left and Right but also, incredibly, all the groups that seem most implicitly or conspicuously enthused by Trump’s ascendance to power. CNN makes money off Trump, as does Milo Yiannopoulos; hate groups gain new members with Trump’s election, just as outrage-stoking editorialists gain new readers and devious politicians attract new voters; and select artists, “activists,” academics, and online assholes primarily concerned with retaining cultural capital and locating themselves within the American ecosystem can easily do so with a rhetorical foil like Trump atop the government. Meanwhile, less and less gets accomplished in our increasingly devolved and degrading sociopolitical and economic systems: we argue about “school choice,” for instance, but gridlock prevents either side of the debate from ever getting their way, anyhow. We spent much of the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election talking about how to put an end to fifteen-hour voting lines in urban areas, but more than a decade on our electoral processes have only become more unjust. Even seeming policy advances like Obamacare are passed on such a partisan basis that as soon as the opposing party can dismantle them, they seek to do so. One of the nation’s two major parties steals a Supreme Court appointment from its opponents and there’s no consequences whatsoever. And on and on and on.
To the extent the mass of persons in America decide they’re happy with the current state of affairs, these conditions will continue, and those who exploit these conditions will continue to thrive. To the extent you, the people you love, and the nation you live in should decide that present conditions are in fact intolerable, we will finally experience a paradigm shift in the United States from postmodernism to metamodernism. The most culturally significant branch of the Alt-Right now instrumentalizes metamodernism to prop up our current, dismal reality; but the Alt-Left is even now preparing itself to be a consequential and benevolent player in the America to come.
About the Author: Seth Abramson is an assistant professor at University of New Hampshire, the series editor of Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press), and the author of six books, most recently the three books of The Metamodern Trilogy (Metamericana, BlazeVOX, 2015; DATA, BlazeVOX, 2016; and Golden Age, forthcoming from BlazeVOX in January of 2017). From 2001 to 2007, Seth was an attorney with the New Hampshire Public Defender and a voting rights activist.