The Power Latent in a Countercultural Right
From my latest in City-Journal
In July, the New York Times posted a job announcement seeking a reporter-cum-anthropologist to cover an important new beat: infiltrating the “online communities and influential personalities making up the right-wing media ecosystem” and “shedding light on their motivations” for the benefit of Times readers. Establishing this “critical listening post” would not be a role for the faint of heart. The daring candidate would have to be specifically “prepared to inhabit corners of the internet” where “far-right” ideas were discussed, all for the higher goal of determining “where and why these ideas take shape.”
You could be forgiven for questioning why the paper needed yet another reporter to shape the narrative about the political Right, given its constant focus on Donald Trump and the populist MAGA movement since 2016. But the timing of the announcement seemed to suggest that the Times had something else in mind. It arrived amid an explosion of media interest in understanding a strange new tribe, discovered suddenly not in the wilds of Kansas but right under their noses.
Back in April, an article by James Pogue in Vanity Fair revealed the emergence of a collection of “podcasters, bro-ish anonymous Twitter posters, online philosophers, artists, and amorphous scenesters”—sometimes called “‘dissidents,’ ‘neo-reactionaries,’ ‘post-leftists,’ or the ‘heterodox’ fringe . . . all often grouped for convenience under the heading of America’s New Right”—who represented the “seam of a much larger and stranger political ferment, burbling up mainly within America’s young and well-educated elite.” That last bit about the demographics of this so-called New Right may have been what got the Times’s attention. But Pogue had even more striking news: these dissidents, he wrote, had established “a position that has become quietly edgy and cool in new tech outposts like Miami and Austin, and in downtown Manhattan, where New Right–ish politics are in, and signifiers like a demure cross necklace have become markers of a transgressive chic.” This may have been the most alarming news of all for the paper of record: somehow, traditionalist right-wing conservatism had become cool.
Is it true—and if so, how is it possible? For at least a century, the Left has held a firm monopoly on “transgressive chic,” profitably waging a countercultural guerilla war against society’s hegemonic status quo. For the Right to capture some of the Left’s youthful energy and rebellious cachet would represent a tectonic cultural and political shift. We shouldn’t be shocked if it happens.
Few things are more natural for young people than to push back against the strictures and norms of their day, even if only to stand out a little from the crowd and assert their independence. A counterculture forms as a reaction against an official or dominant culture—and today, it is the woke neoliberal Left that occupies this position in America’s cultural, educational, technological, corporate, and bureaucratic power centers. In this culture, celebration of ritualized, old forms of transgression is not only permitted, but practically mandatory. Dissent against state-sponsored transgression, however, is now transgressive. All of what was once revolutionary is now a new orthodoxy, with conformity enforced by censorship, scientistic obscurantism, and eager witch-hunters (early-middle-aged, zealously dour, tight-lipped frown, NPR tote bag, rainbow “Coexist” bumper sticker, pronouns in email signature—we all know the uniform).
Moreover, young people living under the permanent revolution of today’s cultural mainstream often tend to be miserable. Their disillusionment opens the door to subversive second thoughts on such verities as the bulldozing of sexual and gender norms, the replacement of romance by a Tinder hellscape, general atomized rootlessness, working life that resembles neo-feudal serfdom, and the enervating meaninglessness of consumerism and mass media. In this environment, the most countercultural act is to embrace traditional values and ways of life—like the vogue among some young people for the Latin Mass. We shouldn’t be too surprised if at least a subset of those youth seeking to rebel against the Man might, say, choose to tune in to Jordan Peterson, turn on to a latent thirst for objective truth and beauty, and drop out of the postmodern Left.
This is an excerpt from my new essay just published by City-Journal magazine. I have to send you over there to read the whole thing (for free), since we’re, like, all here to share the love, man.
The essay – in which I endeavored to smuggle in as many counterculture-related clichés as possible, but somehow missed “the Latin Mass is the new punk” and many other good ones – is about how the youth of today, bombarded 24/7 as they are with an official ideological Message that is suffocatingly all-pervasive and repeated with a rhythm as subtle as a jack-hammer, and finding themselves lost with an unfulfilled human yearning for normality and truth in a society saturated with thermobaric levels of gaslighting, just might do the natural thing and rebel. And if they do, they’re likely to rebel in the only direction they now can: by becoming more traditionalist and conservative. Far out, I know!
And as I attempt to explain, if this happens – if the mysterious tides that determine what is cool and what is cringe have begun to shift – it could provide some dramatic advantages for the Right, and long-term political and cultural ramifications for America, and for the world. (I didn’t touch on it in the piece, but there is actually plenty of precedent for what this could look like, both historically and today beyond the shores of the United States, including in parts of Europe where the young are already measurably more conservative than their parents.)
In fact, to make it more straightforward and explicit than I do in the essay, perhaps a prediction is in order: if the moment ever arrives when a critical mass of America’s young women begin to prefer right-wing reactionary bad boys over left-wing squares, just because they’ve become the hot transgressive pick, this will be the moment the outcome of this century’s whole culture war will have been essentially decided. Only a few decades of mop-up battles will remain.
Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I just try to read the zeitgeist and rage against the machine. Though I do consider this to be among the more free-spirited and optimistic things I’ve written in a while. Check it out here.
I guess a counterculture that becomes the dominant culture is sort of like a revolutionary movement that has long since claimed victory, conquered the state, but still relies upon the identity of "radical outsider" because that's who they've seen in the mirror all these years. I'm thinking of old Soviets, old hippies, corpulent King Castro still in his jungle fatigues, etc, who would sooner face the firing squad than face the fact that they've become moralistic prudes and tyrants and lords of the manor with the same dirty hands and grubby motives as the rest of us.
And I guess they hold their illusions together much like our Social Justice ruling class does: locking themselves in an epistemic Versailles where the light stays flattering and no one would dare mention an uncomfortable fact (bc why bring up what you're also guilty of?), repackaging the same old nostalgic wine in new bottles ("Another toast to the glorious Revolution!"), and huddling together in the warmth of shared sanctimony, where the final consolation is being better smarter holier than those peasants in the countryside.
The absurd spectacle of our upscale NYT/NPR/PBS ruling class (who look like Ken Burns in the street but see Huey Newton in the mirror) writing, producing and directing this endless afterschool special called The Resistance™ is fake and tedious for 100 reasons, but the hardest part for me has been the eradication of artistic freedom and imagination, or really how just about anything fresh and real has been replaced by the same exact compulsive and reflexive "political" gesture.
I came of age in the 80s in NYC and saw Karen Finley, Annie Sprinkle, Cindy Sherman, Mapplethorpe etc, and there was still the frisson of the shocking and all the subversions we're so familiar with by now: Hey, look it's a woman flashing her tits and smearing her period blood on some Old Master! Hey look, a black woman dressed as George Washington! Hey look, it's Reagan and Falwell making out and tugging each other's dicks etc etc...but it's 40yrs later and we're still supposed to consider something "creative/radical art" because it subverts norms and traditions that didn't even survive into the 21st century.
"Fighting the Patriarchy" and "Subverting Gender Norms" are really the initiatory religious rituals for the young and "educated" of our time, but like all rituals they've become completely detached from their original purpose and drained of any meaning besides LOOK AT ME. It's like our entire creative class is stuck performing this same dance of Damnatio memoriae of the 4 Olds, or they've dug up the corpse of some heretical Pope and now the entire village has lined up to take their hack at it. (And the corpse looks suspiciously like Archie Bunker.)
Will we finally get past the reign of the post-60s counterculture? Will our virtual revolutionaries ever be dragged into the realization that all this time they've been fighting phantoms and playacting Rebels vs Oppressors like kids playing Cops v Robbers with Mommy & Daddy paying for the costumes and refreshments? I'll believe it when I see it, and if I do, I'll be breaking out the Dom P.
This makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I can only ask "what the heck has taken them so long?"
The kids of my good friends who live in the UK have gone around and around on politics with me. They were livid anti-Trump and thought I was a lump of stupidity for supporting him. Then the pandemic and the education of what socialist authoritarianism really was... and now they are just waiting for one to reach the point of dual citizenship and want to move back to the US where they will join me in political action to get Republicans back in power. They see this as critical to saving the US and Europe.
I keep thinking... what is wrong with these kids supporting the political establishment and globalist cabal that is intent to make their lives even more miserable? If this change is real, maybe we should label it "woke".