Irony and the Alt-Right: What the Christchurch Shooter Tells Us About Belief

Fair?  Who’s the fucking nihilists around here, you fucking crybabies?

Walter, The Big Lebowski


Of all the unspeakable things promising to engulf life as we know it in the twenty-first century, there is no apocalypse that should terrify us more than the crisis of irony and belief.  We find ourselves trapped between the closing scissor blades of two paradoxical apocalyptic convictions.  On the one side, those who claim to hold sincere beliefs, but live out those beliefs insincerely; on the other, those who claim to believe in nothing yet live out their ironic nihilism with fanatic sincerity.

The former blade consists of the moneyed and aging center-left/center-right establishment that maintains (tenuously) their hegemonic control of a global political and economic apparatus, the bleached and botoxed face of Reason and How-Things-Work, the ultimately meaningless stand in for centuries of coercive power suddenly but predictably coming to a head.  To this ruling class, Paleolithic shibboleths like “democracy,” “respectability,” “norms,” “progress,” “America,” and especially “science” are woven into a gorgeous tapestry, as if they had any intrinsic merit, and in fact as if that merit should be universally obvious without regard to moment or position.  “I believe in science!” shout politicians proud of representing metropolitan areas, tech innovators proud of making a lot of money, journalists proud of a particular tweet, parents proud of vaccinating their children.

Bull fucking shit.  Science, or to be more specific the conservative consensus of the top global researchers who form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that “Global warming is likely to reach 1.5oC between 2030 and 2052” unless “global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 40% from 2010 levels by 2030…reaching net zero around 2050,” and that such a change would bring an astronomic surge in “the level of ocean acidification,” “heat-related morbidity and mortality,” “vector-borne diseases,” “projected food availability,” and “species loss and extinction.”  If you believe in science, that means you throw your body onto every cog of every wheel in a system that astoundingly continues to burn more oil, cut down more trees, fatten more cows, and buy more crap each year than the year before.  It means whatever chance there is to slow down this careening train, you take it, and fuck your career, and your social universe, and the trivial little things you cling to from day to day, because all of that is going away.  But I assume you don’t, and I know that I don’t, and I watch the captains of our civilization shouting full speed ahead, so we can all shut up right now about believing in science.  The constant state of being for the well-interpellated subject of late capitalism is what Freud called fetishistic denial: our entire life consists of acting as though what we know to be true is not true.

Meanwhile, many if not most of us, your posterity, spend more time interacting with artificially intelligent algorithms designed to manipulate their behavior for profit than we do with other human beings (let alone the rapidly disappearing communities of self-sustaining plant, fungal, and animal life that once provided the conditions for our own development).  And perhaps not without reason.  It is impossible to explain to an old person (which is how I think of you if you are more than thirty) what life is like down here in Generation Z: I don’t know anybody – anybody – who expects a professional career, or who thinks it would be ethical to bring a child into our dying planet, who isn’t either gleefully suicidal or miserably anxious or oscillating between the two.  It is impossible to explain to an old person how bizarre your questions and hopes and reminiscences sound to those of us who grew up assuming we would die in an apocalypse.  Dostoevsky is facile and pompous now, art is Eric Andre dropping televisions on television in endless permutations as a meme, but actually though.  Meaningfulness – even meaningfulness about meaninglessness – is a framework that doesn’t make sense any more.

And nightmarishly, at the very core of this nihilistic contingent who hate what we are and hate what made us this way more, we find the second scissor blade.  Some people, and it’s almost exclusively men, and in the United States it’s almost exclusively white men, felt entitled to more than that joke.  Everything is doomed and meaningless, duh, this is Generation Z 101, but some assholes really want to find that meaningful.  This is the inversion of our elders’ fetishistic disavowal: even though they feel that nothing is true, they live as though they are defending essential universal truths.  To kill and die for absurd nihilism.  Somehow this offers them relief.

On March 15, a young white man and self-identified “shitposter” (for old people, that means person who posts intentionally wrong and stupid stuff, or shit, as it colloquially known, on the internet because it seems funny and makes other people annoyed) murdered 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, during their Friday prayers.  In a move unmatched even in this age of mass shootings and mass media, broadcast seventeen minutes of the massacre on Facebook Live while blasting a soundtrack that included “The British Grenadiers” (unconsciously voicing his solidarity with the soldiers who had instituted a white nationalist regime in New Zealand for the first time, back in 1840), “Gas Gas Gas” (a song from a Japanese manga film), and “Fire” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, a baby-boomer classic that begins with the singer’s furious assertion, “I am the god of hellfire!”  A shitposter to the last, the gunman announced to the camera just before destroying 50 lives, “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie,” a reference to a Swedish boy who somehow makes tens of millions of dollars by posting videos of himself playing video games on YouTube.

The terrorist, whose name is Brenton Tarrant, embodies a particular bizarre contradiction that is central to understanding postmodern terrorism.  In his shout-out to PewDiePie, a celebrity whose entire fame is based off of young men relishing how annoying he is, Tarrant was mocking himself even as he prepared to do perhaps the most serious and consequential thing a person could conceivably do.  The manifesto he released is laden with jokes making fun of sincere people, yet it also displays the symbology of the actual neo-Nazi movement, a strictly organized group of aging white people who believe completely unironically and humorlessly that non-Europeans are “invading their lands,” a claim also made by Tarrant himself.  He alternates between objectively well-founded fears of climate change (donning the troubling title of “eco-fascist”) and crude juvenile references to being a “kebab remover,” a meme that originates in the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s.  And revealingly, though he frames himself as the lone defender of the white race against an overwhelmingly powerful culture of politically-correct Bolsheviks, he also cites as inspiration the most powerful person in the world, Donald Trump, the President of the United States.

The most straightforward way to read the Christchurch terrorist is through one particular meme he includes in his manifesto: the Navy SEAL copypasta.  This block of text originated on 4chan in 2010, when a man claiming to be a Navy SEAL launched into a comically aggressive tirade (boasting of having “over 300 confirmed kills”) after some perceived online slight.  The copypasta is copied and pasted into memes to mock the extreme insecurity of hypermasculine men, and is frequently used by men like Tarrant in the alt-right who consider themselves robbed of sex with women by more masculine so-called “Chads.”  Fascinatingly, the alt-right’s mockery of traditional masculinity is itself an acceptance that masculinity is a bizarre and oppressive lie, that there is nothing inherently natural or legitimate about the invention of the male gender (trans theorist Andrea Long Chu argues that alt-rightism could be “sadistically displaced gender dysphoria”).  Yet even as they mock the copypasta alt-rightists manifest their own hypermasculine insecurity; unwilling or unable to overcome the paradigm of gender that they feel should privilege them, their critique of masculinity is predicated on the forced sexual subversion, on the central logic of masculinity itself.  Boasting about killing people to prove how tough you are, as the Navy SEAL in the copypasta did, is literally what Tarrant did, and Tarrant must have even realized that as he included the copypasta in his manifesto as a way to make fun of himself for doing so.

What the alt-right sees as irony in fact operates within the logic of sincerity; like all of Gen Z, Tarrant sees the world as a constant oppression that can only be overcome through nonchalance, but unlike most of Gen Z, he can only be ironic seriously.  Thus he is not truly ironic; the moment he begins to act, he is embodying the idea that likely began the same way as any shitpost.  Like the one guy in the room who has to clarify “I was being sarcastic,” he kills the possibility for his own sarcasm.  There is nothing ironic about murder or suicide, even if one invokes a YouTube influencer beforehand; though he was laughing, Tarrant’s act of terrorism came from a tragically pathetic conviction that he could sincerely influence the world by himself.

And it is tragic, if we can consider the detestable lives of those who can’t envision a future beyond the broadest possible expansion of their own suffering tragic (which I still believe we can).  For all their appeals to novelty, their attacks on “normies,” their belief that they are a part of an oppressed and alternative fringe of uniquely enlightened jokers, alt-rightists conform to the mainstream neoliberal consensus in a way that most young people simply don’t.  A hateful adolescent shooting up a mosque to feel powerful is in fact no different from a “servicemember” drone bombing a mosque in Somalia or Yemen for the sake of geopolitics.  Murdering 50 Muslims so close to the sixteenth birthday of the War in Iraq, a war that has murdered hundreds of thousands (if not over a million) Muslims, should remind us that Tarrant is not a rebel; he is doing precisely what the grown-ups showed us to do, on a scale that is actually smaller and less destructive.  At a vigil for Tarrant’s victims, college student Leen Dweik rightly pointed out to Chelsea Clinton that the political heiress’s tweets earlier in the week accusing Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of anti-Semitism shared Tarrant’s logic: both imply that Muslims pose a genuine threat to some ideal Western Civilization.  As much it would disgust Tarrant to be compared to Hillary Clinton’s daughter, the two of them are in fact allies as self-anointed defenders of a West other young people would be happy to watch die.

Let’s not mince words here.  While the alt-right claims to want an apocalyptic race war and a world order that favors straight white men, centrists who hold political power are actively ushering in an apocalypse out of their desire to maintain the global political order, a political order that (of course) favors straight white men!  The sincerely insincere alt-right and the insincerely sincere center are two sides of one coin; their projects, though one seems horrific and the other inevitable, are indistinguishable.  What the one wants the other will always deliver, what the one delivers the other will always want.

Which is worse?  They are both worse!  The real answer is always to refuse the question.  Only the true utopianism of sincere sincerity (which is of course the same as insincere insincerity) can save us – we must commit unambiguously to a world that can be stomached without the shelter of irony, and never compromise with the apocalyptic death wish of the status quo.

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