By EJ Spode.
After the recent Trump election in the United States and the not unrelated rise of fascism (or as the cool fascists say: alt-right), there was the expected onslaught of bad punditry attempting to answer the question, “What gave rise to this terrible thing?” And the attempted answers kept coming and coming. The problem, the pundits told us, was those darned millennials, or at least the Bernie Bro’s, or no, maybe it was those third party poopers Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, or rigged voting machines and/or Putin or maybe Assange, or Hillary’s crookedness, or her failure to travel to The Dairy State, or her health or her husband or sexism or racism or patriarchy, or maybe people were, oh, I dunno, fed up with neo-liberalism. The point is that each essay gave us the gospel about what was the single most important factor and it assured us that anyone focused on some other problem was, deep down, obviously an ass.
But during this ceaseless flow of recrimination and backstabbing and announcements of lessons learned, one wondered: One of these essays must be the absolute worst of them all. But which one? I’m pleased to announce that we have found that essay. And no, it was not an essay by Tom Friedman (good guess though), but an essay by Willie Osterweil in Real Life Magazine. (Yes, I read broadly so that you don’t have to.)
Now, strictly speaking, the Osterweil essay is not about the Trump victory, but the recent rise of fascism in the United States, but this more or less comes to the same thing. And Osterweil’s answer to the question of what caused the problem — the seed of evil in our body politic that has sent us spiraling on a path to Hitler 2.0 — is this: Nerds.
Yes, nerds, or as they prefer to be called, geeks. Wait. Nerds, you ask?
Yes! According to Osterweil, the entire nation is in permanent high school, and it is now 4:20, but before we go out to the dumpster to blaze we are going to take the time to body shame some nerds and other them as much as we possibly can and then shove them in their lockers and, as the final indignity, blame them for the rise of fascism in the United States.
(It is unargued, but we are left to surmise that the rise of fascism around the world these days must also be the product of the nerd problem in those countries. You know, the French nerds that gave us Le Pen and the Turkish nerds that gave us Erdogan. Nerdom, it seems, has its tentacles reaching everywhere.)
But wait, you say we are getting ahead of ourselves. And you want to ask: Nerds? Really?
And the answer is yes, really, for the article is titled thus: “What was the nerd: The myth of the bullied white outcast loner is helping to fuel a fascist resurgence.”
And yes, we are talking about real honest-to-goodness fascism here, as the author reminds us in the opening paragraph.
Fascism is back. Nazi propaganda is appearing on college campuses and in city centers, a Mussolini-quoting paramilitary group briefly formed to “protect” Trump rallies, the KKK is reforming, and all the while, the media glibly participates in a fascist rebrand, popularizing figures like Milo Yiannoupolis and the “alt-right.” With the appointment of Stephen Bannon to the Trump administration, this rebranded alt-right now sits with the head of state.
And now you are wondering about where the nerd part comes in, because you didn’t see any actual nerds in those protect-Trump rallies or, for that matter, dissing Hillary with Milo at the local bar, or “illuminating crosses” at those KKK meetings, or even playing Magic: The Gathering with Trump’s son, Barron. So what gives? Well, according to Osterweil, this is what gives.
Today’s American fascist youth is neither the strapping Aryan jock-patriot nor the skinheaded, jackbooted punk: The fascist millennial is a pasty nerd watching shitty meme videos on YouTube, listening to EDM, and harassing black women on Twitter. Self-styled “nerds” are the core youth vanguard of crypto-populist fascist movements.
Yes, what could be more fascist than watching videos of exploding cats, all the while listening to that most fascist music of all — Electronic Dance Music. (Apparently Osterweil did not get the memo from The Daily Stormer that EDM and all dance music is degenerate, but quibbling about this seems unambitious when we confront the category 5 hurricane of confusion he offers in the rest of his essay.)
Musical taste aside, what is it that these pasty-faced fascist monsters think? And what is it that they want? Well what they think is that Ayn Rand is awesome and that …. You know what? I think it is better if I just let Osterweil tell you himself:
Before their emergence as goose-stepping shit-posting scum, however, nerds — those “losers” into video games and comics and coding — had already been increasingly attached to a stereotypical set of political and philosophical beliefs. The nerd probably read Ayn Rand or, at the very least, bought into pseudo-meritocracy and libertarianist “freedom.” From his vantage, social problems are technical ones, merely one “disruption” away from being solved. The sea-steading, millennial-blood-drinking, corporate-sovereignty-advocating tech magnates are their heroes — the quintessential nerd overlords.
I actually had no idea that John Galt lives with us still, and, it turns out, is today a human-blood-drinking seaweed farmer or some such thing, and shock of all shockers, he is deeply admired by nerds. And I say I’m shocked, because I always thought that the nerd heroes were people like George Takei (Mr. Sulu/crusader for LGBT rights), Katoshiru Totomo (manga/anime), Andrew Hussie (Homestuck), or Lauren Faust (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic). You know, the people that get invited to appear at a Penny Arcade Expo, or Comic-Con or some such nerd venue.
And you know what, this list of nerd heroes is consistent with my understanding of what nerds are and what they are about. I, at least, have always thought nerds are interested in new ideas and new technologies, but not passively; they engage those ideas and technologies in a hands on and participatory way. They are suspicious of artificial boundaries and dichotomies (including gender dichotomies). They are interested in collaborative projects, alternative medias, and the repurposing of technologies. In other words, they are more or less the exact opposite of what Osterweil says they are.
One naturally wonders about the source of Osterweil’s belief (if he actually believes it) that those “losers” that are into video games and comics and coding are the dogmatic, close-minded, pasty white fascist dudes he imagines them to be. It isn’t clear that they are even mostly dudes. For you see, someone actually took the trouble to do empirical research on the question of nerds (aka geeks) and found that there are really two kinds of nerds. As reported in the Washington Post in 2015, nerds that are into “comics, videogaming, hobby gaming and toy collecting are majority male, usually in the 55- to 60-percent range;” meanwhile, nerds that are into “manga/anime, science fiction/fantasy and media fandom are 60- to 65-percent female.” So there is that.
But hey, ok, those are just facts, and we have more important work afoot here: the smearing of a demographic group with the rise of fascism. With so much at stake, who has time for facts?
Now, however you feel about facts, you might wonder: Where in the Sam Hill did this idea about fascist nerds even come from? And, as near as I can figure it out, it has something to do with gamergate. For those that have forgotten, gamergate was a really stupid online protest movement that claimed that games journalism was corrupt because it was busy hyping conceptual, independent, video games when it should have been touting stuff by Electronic Arts or Rock Star Games — you know, something super formulaic with familiar game mechanics, predictable graphics, and goals designed to be achievable during the holiday break. This robust philosophy of gaming was then followed by a wildly misogynistic campaign to harass certain individuals out of the games and games journalism profession.
Now, as stupid and immoral as gamergate was, the question is, were those gamergate people nerds, or were they just standard issue assholes? Because, as my children assure me, EVERYONE plays video games these days. If that’s true, then about 17% of video gamers self-identify as nerds, so barring good evidence, it doesn’t just seem right to assume that the gamergateholes mostly came from that 17%. And, you know, weren’t the women that were the targets of gamergate self-identified nerds themselves? And didn’t people in the nerd community come to the defense of those women? And why are we blaming nerds at all? But, you know, if nerds are already to blame for the rise of fascism, what the hell, let’s blame them for gamergate too!
The sad thing, and I think this is what makes Osterweil’s article truly awful, is that I’m pretty sure he knows that his article is bullshit. He speaks of “the queer, female, and nonwhite contingent that makes up the majority of gamers,” and then notes that “those communities of marginalized gamers have just as much claim to the subject position of the ‘nerd,’ as do queer shippers and comic-book geeks.” And yes they do; so why write an article accusing “nerds” (no qualifier or subset indicator in sight) of contributing to the rise of fascism? Here is a possible answer: An article entitled “Online Assholes Contributing to the Rise of Fascism” would not attract eyeballs to one’s online publication. Worse yet, it might even be true.
Gamergate is one part of the equation here, but the other part — the true deep logic of Osterweil’s essay — is to be found in his survey of allegedly nerd-related Hollywood movies. Why? Well, here the essay becomes unclear, but on my reading there are two possibilities. The first reading: Hollywood convinced nerds that they were an oppressed minority and they needed to rise up against jock oppression, and what could that possibly lead to other than…drum roll… fascism! The second reading: Hollywood movies served as a chaotic attractor that manufactured nerdom out of thin air and convinced this shake-and-bake Hollywood creation of a demographic group that it was oppressed, and what could that possibly lead to other than…another drum roll… fascism!
Either of these scenarios lives only if we play along with Osterweil’s own fiction that nerds are somehow inordinately involved in gamergate and/or fascism, but let’s do play along if only for the hilarity that ensues. How, you ask, did Hollywood work this magic of inventing nerds and/or taking a preexisting group of nerds and convincing them they were an oppressed minority (and thereby, something something something, fascism)?
The cinematic story of the invention of nerdom begins with Animal House, which you probably never realized was about nerd oppression. In fact, you might be thinking, “wait, Bluto Blutarsky was a nerd?” And yes, it is really hard to imagine that Bluto (John Belushi) was a nerd on any dimension of nerd-dom. Certainly not on the intelligence dimension (“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”) Was Bluto into science fiction? Tolkein? To quote the great Kelly Bundy: “The mind wobbles.”
But this is typical of the evidence that Osterweil has to offer. He launches into a tour of Hollywood that goes off the rails so badly it asks us to believe that the brat pack movies from the 1980s were Goebbels-quality propaganda, ushering in the new era of nerd fascism.
The threatened, slightly less attractive white male oppressed and opposed by a more mainstream, uptight, wealthy white man became a constant theme in the canonical youth films of ’80s Hollywood. This quickly evolved into the nerd-jock dichotomy, which is central to all of John Hughes’s films, from Sixteen Candles’ geeky uncool Ted who gets in trouble with the jocks at the senior party to The Breakfast Club’s rapey “rebel” John and gun-toting “nerd” Brian, to Weird Science, whose nerd protagonists use their computer skills to build a female sex slave.
Molly Ringwald goes unmentioned, but obviously she is the new Eva Braun in this fable.
80s nerd fascism movies eventually give way to 80s nostalgia nerd fascism, and here we are told that Stranger Things is the new case-closed evidence for/cause of nerds being fascist, because: bullied white kids playing Dungeons and Dragons. Except for the black kid.
I’ll let’ Osterweil explain.
Netflix’s retro miniseries Stranger Things, for instance, looks back wistfully to the ’80s, re-enchanting the image of nerds as winning underdogs (rather than tyrannical bigots). Stranger Things does so in the face of reinvigorated political movements that advocate for actually oppressed people, including Black Lives Matter, the migrant justice movement, and growing trans and queer advocacy communities. So in Stranger Things, the nerdy interests of the protagonists prove crucial to their ability to recognize the sinister happenings of their world. Their openness to magic and their gee-whiz attitude toward scientific possibility allow them to understand the monster from another dimension and the psychic supergirl more readily than the adults around them.
And, I dunno, but I cannot escape this horrible feeling that the TV show is somehow going over Osterweil’s head. Yes, it does play the bullied nerd trope, but it also plays the loner former big city cop who tries to get away from it all but lands in the middle of the biggest case ever trope (a cop who has no problem understanding the monster from another dimension). And it also plays into the poor single mom trying to raise her kid without help from a deadbeat dad trope (a mom that has no problem understanding the monster from another dimension). And it also plays into the cute girl torn between jock boyfriend and dreamy cute super sensitive artist type (a cute girl and jock boyfriend and dreamy artist type who have no problem understanding the monster from another dimension). And it also plays into the elite assassin girl trope (like Buffy and Firefly’s River Tam), and what the show is ABOUT is all of the people from these different tropes coming together in common cause to fight a common menace.
And what is that menace? Well this is the most messed up thing of all, because I have this sense that Osterweil thinks nerds are full of love for large corporations and their products (Apple and Lucas Films and whatnot) and that they must be all in for the military industrial complex, because, hey, technology, right? But the whole point of Stanger Things, at least, is that this diverse group of people have found common cause in what is transparently a fight against the Reagan-era military industrial complex.
The bad movie/TV show analysis culminates in that most nerd fascist movie of all: the 1984 film by 20th Century Fox: Revenge of the Nerds. Revenge is actually a movie that has something to do with nerds — or at least Hollywood’s depiction of them. But whether it actually inspired nerds to believe they were an oppressed minority is another issue, altogether. I mean, this is just a standard Hollywood formula: downtrodden little guys win in the end; it’s the same plot as Dodgeball, Slap Shot, Major League and the SpongeBob SquarePants movies. It is really not surprising that eventually Hollywood got around to nerds (i.e. nerd stereotypes) as protagonists, and it is worth noting that Revenge was not made by nerds, nor were nerds the principle audience. It was made for a vanilla Hollywood audience, and its caricature of nerds was not a call to arms, but would be more a call to boycott if the identity politics of nerds was what Osterweil imagines it to be.
Whether Osterweil’s views about nerd culture are drawn from bad movies or just pulled out of his ass on a Monday morning, it is worth emphasizing again that he gets nerd culture 100% wrong — like Opposite Day wrong. For nerds do not love large technology corporations; they love do-it-yourself (DIY) technology. And they do not love top-down control systems (more or less definitional of fascism) but they favor peer-to-peer distributed systems. And they do not favor big budget productions of games and movies and whatnot, but they have always been nurturing of independent film and independent games and indie comics and fanzines and fan fiction and games and activities in which players control the narrative.
While nerds do like their Star Wars and other big budget productions, their consumption is not passive; it is participatory, and also corrective. Numerous fan edits have removed as much Jar Jar Binks from Episode I as humanly possible. Also, Han shot first! As legendary nerd Henry Jenkins argued in his book Textual Poachers, a lot of this has to do with taking control of fictional narratives and putting that control back in the hands of people. You know, the opposite of what fascism is about.
My own personal theory is that the reason that nerds do take shit in their day-to-day lives is not that they are pasty-faced wanna-be fascists, but rather because they do not toe the corporate and social lines of what good consumers are supposed to do. They don’t just stand in line on Black Friday and buy what’s on display, but they build their own tools, or rehack them, and they teach others to do the same. And they don’t just read books and watch movies like good consumers, but they write and edit their own versions of these narratives, often in transgressive forms (the case of slash fanfic, for example). And they don’t buy the clothes they are supposed to buy or groom themselves they way they are supposed to groom themselves. And for this, they will never be forgiven. The behavior is canonically anti-fascist, but what the hell, those kids are different from us, so let’s call them fascists, cuz like, fascists are weirdos and nerds are weirdos and so they are the same thing, right?
I don’t feel I need to waste more pixels to convince you that we have achieved peak stupid with Osterweil’s essay, but you might now be wondering, why waste any pixels at all on this crap? And the answer is that the moment of peak stupid is the moment at which we have the most to learn, for the peak stupid essay has earned its status by heroically attempting to incorporate and make sense of some really bad ideas in the ambient environment. It is thus in that moment that we see what has truly gone wrong. And wow, in this case so much has gone wrong.
One mistake is the idea that there must be clearly identifiable scapegoats, for if there is no one to shame, then how are we to make progress? But shaming innocent people never even paid the bills, much less killed Hitler.
A second thing that has gone wrong is that identity politics in the wrong hands becomes a tool for defaming and harming absolutely anyone whose behavior displeases the self-identified identity politics expert — in this case Osterweil. In his hands the project is to identify some group that is somehow real enough to be blameworthy, yet otherwise has no real claim to existence, or culture, and it certainly has no legitimate complaints of its own against the dominant culture. It is a group that has one purpose: to be guilty.
And yes, there are bigoted white male nerds of privilege out there, but believe it or not, nerd culture is a real thing, and furthermore lots of nerds (men and women and non-binary) have had just really shitty lives, and many of them have been desexualized and/or sexually humiliated by our hypermasculine culture, and maybe, just maybe, it is neither productive or even humane to dismiss their pain as being an 80s Hollywood invention cynically embraced by a bunch of “goose stepping, shit posting scum.”
But the final thing that has gone wrong is that we have lost all sense of what counts as a coherent essay. In this case, Osterweil is simply mimicking Tom Friedman and scores of others — all authors that have a press-and-play formula for pumping out punditry. In large, that formula is to identify some group or individual as the culprit for some big problem, and then string together a series of popular culture references and/or pop science references that vaguely have something to do with both the problem and the accused, and then fashion some vitriolic blood-boiling language to cement the whole thing together (e.g. nerds are “scum”). Facts and logic not required. The upshot is that we have lost the capacity to think critically, to write logically, and even understand the causal relations holding between events in our world.
The bigger problem is that Osterweil is not just some guy posting to his personal blog. He is a contributing editor to The New Inquiry, which means that among his other jobs, he is assisting other people in the craft of writing essays. He is the one whose job it is to ensure that the essays of others are well argued and thoughtful. And maybe Osterweil does provide helpful editorial guidance to others even while pumping out crap under is own name, but I doubt it.
So here we are, soaking in an ambient environment of misinformation, and the people we turn to for critical thinking and clarity are among the people making the mess. So lost are we now, that the very people we look to for help are telling us that up is down, left is right, and that a group of people that are anti-hierarchical advocates of shared technology and shared anti-establishment participatory culture are not the solution to the rise of fascism, but a cause.
In an atmosphere in which critical thinking has degraded that badly, we really have no hope to set things right. We lack the ability to accurately identify and describe problems, much less fix them. We are, in other words, doomed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
EJ Spode speaks truth to power.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 17th, 2016.