Tragedies are great clarifiers, and if the shooting in Garland, Texas made anything clear, it was that free speech unapologetically expressed is a dangerous thing in our modern censorious era.
Yet, perversely, the craven terrorists who struck that day seem to have sent bullets not just through their poor targets’ heads, but through the wall of silence that surrounds the issue of suppressed speech generally. Even now, new waves of dissenters are rising to challenge the prevailing Left-wing orthodoxy on Islam, some in the most unlikely of places. Those who have been standing for free speech all along, meanwhile, are emboldened and ready to fight, rather than nibble around the edges of political correctness.
Needless to say, there is a commonality between those who seek to make apology for the terrorists in the Garland case, and those who have been trying to suppress speech in other contexts. Among others, Kurt Schlichter makes that case most vividly when he writes:
Those miserable losers in Garland weren’t just a couple of carcasses. Shot down in the street by a free American who was not intimidated, who was not afraid, who absolutely, positively was not going to back down even when outnumbered and outgunned, their dead bodies are a symbol. They are a symbol of our resolve, proof that we will not surrender, we will not submit, and we will not allow our God-given rights to be stolen from us by anyone, not Seventh Century savages, not Gucci-wearing liberal narcissists, and not twisted social justice warriorettes taking out on the rest of humanity their lingering disappointment that no boy wanted to be seen with them at the prom.
If nothing else, similar instances of overreach by the self-appointed speech police have shown a similar galvanized backlash. The Charlie Hebdo shooting prompted an outcry of support for free speech on the part of most European leaders, and the creation of the excellent hashtag #JeSuisCharlie.
The University of Virginia rape case, which was designed to silence critics of the hysteria over “rape culture,” has instead spawned a lawsuit by UVA itself against the “wanton journalist who was more concerned with writing an article that fulfilled her preconceived narrative about the victimization of women on American college campuses and a malicious publisher who was more concerned about selling magazines to boost the economic bottom line for its faltering magazine.”
Finally, the ridiculous yet still blackhearted bomb threat thrown at a recent #Gamergate event here in Washington ended up only raising eyebrows and questions about who were really the violent terrorists in that particular controversy. Speaking of that event, astute observers cannot have failed to notice that one of its most high-profile suspects has been blaming victims in the similar cases cited above, as well (to say nothing of making some truly bizarre statements).
#WarOnNerds: A Dress Rehearsal for War on Free Speech
But there is a deeper commonality between these facts, which is that the current fight over free speech seems practically to be a larger-scale version of the still-ongoing (and also still failing) #WarOnNerds by left-wing activists, which has seen skirmishes in #Gamergate and the Sad Puppies movement at Worldcon.
In fact, you could almost call the #WarOnNerds a dress rehearsal for the war on speech. Yet unlike the Garland and Charlie Hebdo shooting, what perplexes in the case of the #WarOnNerds is why the Left would choose that particular constituency as a target upon which to rehearse such attacks.
There is no obvious answer. Indeed, the obvious facts seem to fly in the face of explanatory power, in just the same way it does when one sees an unrepentantly patriarchal religion with more than a few troubling inclinations toward medievalism being defended by the Left.
Feminists, for instance, have spearheaded much of the sneering and hysterical censoriousness where popular nerd pastimes like comic books and video games are concerned. All this despite the fact that most nerds are hardly the obvious examples of “rapey” masculinity that, say, UVA frat boys might be (though similar accusations are slander in their case as well).
Nerds Seem a Random Target at First
In fact, as the ever excellent liberal author Scott Alexander notes, nerds are the absolute psychological polar opposites of rapists. That a movement designed to protect women from the most ungallant members of society would start with a group about whom the stereotype is that they run around talking and acting like unshaven medieval knights is odd, to say the least.
True, there is a degree to which this species of man can be found in the sphere of pickup artistry, as well (yet another feminist bête noir), but there, too, it’s not immediately obvious why they’d start here. Say what you like about pickup artistry, but at least it’s about winning enthusiastic sexual consent from its targets, which presupposes the necessity of consent in the first place. Not exactly something you’d expect from unapologetic rapists.
Dig beneath the surface, however, and you find two very compelling explanations for the #WarOnNerds. The short version is that it is simply a manifestation of cynical, bullying cowardice combined with emotivist, envious resentment. The long version? Read on.
The Nerd Parade
In the visceral and terrifying musical “Parade,” written about the Leo Frank lynching, a yellow journalist enthusiastically describes how he will play on the fears of his audience to drum up readership by attacking Frank, or the “little Jew from Brooklyn with a college education.”
So give him fangs, give him horns
Give him scaly, hairy paws
Have him drooling out the corner of his mouth
He’s a master of disguise
Check those bugged out creepy eyes
Hell, that fella’s here to rape the whole damn South!
Sam Biddle, know thyself.
In all seriousness, for anyone with any knowledge of what happens when a previously despised minority attains unprecedented economic, social, and cultural power, it shouldn’t have been a question of whether nerds would come under attack, but rather when they would. In a bizarre way, then, the fact that nerds came in for such a drubbing is evidence of their mainstream success.
There is ample evidence of that success. Start with economic power. In America’s recession-era economy, the only industry that seemed not to take a dent were the coding wizards in Silicon Valley. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields have become widely perceived as a gateway to a successful career. In Washington, Google’s power combined with the nascent power of Internet activism can kill legislation that fails to advance the interests of an open Internet. The video-games industry is now more profitable than Hollywood (remember that, it’ll be important later).
Speaking of Hollywood, let’s talk culture for a bit. Only an idiot would fail to notice that Tinseltown’s greatest hits have been sourced from comic books and fantasy novels. “The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Flash,” “Daredevil?” These are not titles that would have been taken seriously, much less greenlit, in an era prior to our current geek chic one. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, previously an obscure if decorated astronomer, has now become one of the Internet’s favorite sources of cultural wisdom. In short, as actress Felicia Day’s gleeful nerd anthem, “I’m the One That’s Cool,” points out:
The latest trend has hit its peak
They say that geek’s becoming chic […]
To all the asshat jocks who beat me up in school
Now I’m the one that’s cool
I’m the one that’s cool
To all the prom queen bitches thinking they still rule
Now I’m the one that’s cool
I’m the one that’s cool
However, as with all rapid cultural ascensions, the group ascending has to displace someone. And in the case of the rise of nerd culture, the losers have been as easy to spot as their politics are to predict.
Nerds Have Bulldozed the Culture Monopoly
Remember when I said to remember that the video games industry is outpacing Hollywood? Well, funny story—Hollywood isn’t doing so well these days. The movie industry is dying as television replaces it, and conventional television is being forced to adjust its business model to the realities of Netflix and streaming.
Previously unbeatable lobbies like the Motion Picture Association of America had to watch their prize piece of industry-saving, Internet-censoring legislation, the Stop Online Piracy Act, get savaged by Google, while the music industry has had to resign itself to making far less money than it did in the days of overpriced CDs now that iTunes and other music streaming services have destroyed the “buy a whole CD for one song” model.
The almost godlike mystique of Hollywood starlets is no longer possible to maintain when cell-phone hackers can expose their more compromising selfies to the world. Nerds have bulldozed Hollywood’s monopoly on culture, and rendered it all but completely dependent on them for what little revenue stream their fetish for innovation and efficiency will allow Hollywood’s outmoded business models.
It’s not just Hollywood. Academia has come under assault, too, with some of the most powerful voices for reform of higher education coming from the tech sector. California venture capitalist Peter Thiel has been probably the most outspoken assailant of academia, and has even taken to literally paying promising STEM students not to attend college and instead giving them money to get into business. Unless you’re an elite school with a well-established and deep-pocketed alumni network, or a tech school, or both (as in the case of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), this is going to cut into your capacity to attract alumni who might actually make money.
Furthermore, the crisis of student debt has cast serious doubt as to whether the modern university, with its endless studies departments, safe spaces, and speech codes, can provide any actual value to students in exchange for its exorbitant tuition rates. Add in the fact that STEM-oriented gadflies are some of the most vocal and successful critics of squishy postmodernism in the humanities, and you can see where traditional academe would be threatened by the rise of that group’s status. Most tech workers and STEM people still have college degrees, of course, but that probably produces even more resentment among their classmates who hawk Pumpkin Spice lattes at Starbucks.
In short, the rise of Silicon Valley, geek chic, and focus on STEM has seen an attendant decline in status and economic viability for America’s most inefficient, politically correct, conventionally left-wing sectors. The hipsters are dead; long live the nerds.
Culture Shift Is an Old Story
We’ve seen stories like this before, hence my earlier citation of Leo Frank. The rise of Jews through pioneering use of finance produced nearly identical levels of resentment and frustration on the part of the fallen elites forced to adjust to the norms of their previously mocked and despised social inferiors.
That backlash produced similar results. Harvard University instituted unofficial quotas on the number of Jews admitted to protect its WASP pedigree, for instance, while in uglier developments, anti-Semitic demagogues like Thomas E. Watson became voices of populist, leftist loathing for big-city bankers, which they rarely bothered to distinguish from Jews generally.
Just in case anyone doubts it was leftist loathing, Adolf Hitler himself used his anti-Semitism as a means to prove that he was a committed socialist and opposed what he called “Materialism and Mammonism.” On the Marxist side, the socialist fixation on finance as the ultimate form of evil, parasitic capitalism, in contrast with noble workers who made money with their hands rather than their brains had more than a few troubling overtones, as Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question” quite clearly showed.
However, unlike early anti-Semitism, which cast the Jews as subversive outsiders bringing barbarism with them, anti-nerd sentiment is rarely so open about its bullying nature (although it does happen).
What is interesting in the fight over the #WarOnNerds is that it is, at least on the surface, a fight between self-proclaimed outcasts, at least if you buy the “hipster versus nerd” framing described above. One sees this in the constant sneers by feminists about nerdy men having the gall to claim to be oppressed, when they’re so obviously privileged whiners trying to derail a conversation. Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex, meanwhile, sums up the nerd reaction pretty well when he writes:
Absent the one-dimensional view [of oppression], it would be perfectly reasonable to say something like ‘You feel pain? I have felt pain before too. I’m sorry about your pain. It would be incredibly crass to try to quantify exactly how your pain compares to my pain and lord it over you if mine was worse. Instead I will try to help you with your pain, just as I hope that you will help me with mine.’
Given the one-dimensional view, any admission that other people suffer is a threat to the legitimacy of one’s own suffering. Horrible people will deny and actively mock the pain of others, but even decent people will only be able to accept the pain if they also mention in an aside that it doesn’t count as the correct sort of pain to matter in the moral calculus and certainly isn’t even in the same ballpark as their own.
Quite apart from the difference in style, these two responses—mocking defensiveness in one case, and wounded puzzlement at said defensiveness—suggest that there is a real difference in how the two groups understand what’s being discussed. This plainly isn’t like cases where, say, blacks claim to be oppressed and certain types of whites fire back that no, it’s really they who are oppressed by black claims of oppression. The ideologies that make up political correctness predate the rise of nerd culture and tech supremacy by at least 20 years, and nerds have been facing being stuffed into lockers since long before Amanda Marcotte or Jessica Valenti were even born.
Infighting Between Nerds and Hipsters
So what gives when two different groups, both of which feel oppressed by the dominant culture, turn on each other? Especially when they previously were politically united (as was clearly the case during the first Obama campaign)? The idea that one side simply decided to opportunistically attack the other (as #Gamergate’s defenders, for instance, sometimes allege of their feminist opponents) surely tells part of the story, but it hardly explains why they’d focus on each other to the exclusion of other supposed oppressors.
So why would this happen? Well, in most political movements, this kind of infighting occurs when two allies begin to suspect that they may not have exactly the same interests at heart. Libertarians and social conservatives can attest to this feeling all too well. Certainly, within groups who feel oppressed, this is likely to prompt a visceral sense of betrayal—a traumatic realization that their presumed “ally” was really on the other team all along. That they were infiltrators, not friends. You can see this kind of mutual accusation being slung back and forth between, on the one hand, people who accuse nerds of being fair-weather Progressives, and on the other, the sorts of people who talk about “fake geek girls” infiltrating their hobbies.
But with this accusation comes a second impulse: the impulse to deny that the other group was ever oppressed to begin with. Here we do have a useful past case study—the case of blacks and Jews turning on each other after the Civil Rights movement.
Hard though this may seem to believe, there was a time when blacks and Jews were unified completely on the subject of civil rights. In fact, Jews founded many of the most famous civil-rights organizations and were some of the most ardent opponents of segregation. Even Abigail Thernstrom (formerly Abigail Mann), now a critic of civil-rights legislation, still argues that the movement was necessary and proper during the 1960’s. Norman Podhoretz even fingered civil rights as one defining struggle that kept Jews in the hands of the Democratic Party in his book “Why Are Jews Liberals?”
Speaking of Podhoretz, he also happens to be responsible for possibly the most enlightening essay on why Jews and blacks ended up turning on each other in the aftermath of that movement: The gripping “My Negro Problem — And Ours.” And how does this milestone begin?
Two ideas puzzled me deeply as a child growing up in Brooklyn during the 1930’s in what today would be called an integrated neighborhood. One of them was that all Jews were rich; the other was that all Negroes were persecuted.
Yes, that’s right, it opens with the question of whether another assumedly oppressed group was really oppressed. Whence this skepticism? Podhoretz explains:
And so for a long time I was puzzled to think that Jews were supposed to be rich when the only Jews I knew were poor, and that Negroes were supposed to be persecuted when it was the Negroes who were doing the only persecuting I knew about—and doing it, moreover, to me.
Podhoretz goes on to describe being beaten, robbed, and bullied by black children growing up, and how this inspired a fierce loathing of the same people which even as an adult he could not shake. At the same time, Podhoretz admits to sympathy with the black experience, which he explains mostly with reference to the work of the African-American scholar and essayist James Baldwin:
There is no question that the psychologists are right about what the Negro represents symbolically to the white man. For me as a child the life lived on the other side of the playground and down the block on Ralph Avenue seemed the very embodiment of the values of the street—free, independent, reckless, brave, masculine, erotic. I put the word “erotic” last, though it is usually stressed above all others, because in fact it came last, in consciousness as in importance.[…]
This is what I saw and envied and feared in the Negro: this is what finally made him faceless to me, though some of it, of course, was actually there. (The psychologists also tell us that the alien group which becomes the object of a projection will tend to respond by trying to live up to what is expected of them.) But what, on his side, did the Negro see in me that made me faceless to him? Did he envy me my lunches of spinach-and-potatoes and my itchy woolen caps and my prudent behavior in the face of authority, as I envied him his noon-time candy bars and his bare head in winter and his magnificent rebelliousness? Did those lunches and caps spell for him the prospect of power and riches in the future? Did they mean that there were possibilities open to me that were denied to him? Very likely they did. But if so, one also supposes that he feared the impulses within himself toward submission to authority no less powerfully than I feared the impulses in myself toward defiance. If I represented the jailer to him, it was not because I was oppressing him or keeping him down: it was because I symbolized for him the dangerous and probably pointless temptation toward greater repression, just as he symbolized for me the equally perilous tug toward greater freedom. I personally was to be rewarded for this repression with a new and better life in the future, but how many of my friends paid an even higher price and were given only gall in return.
So we come to an interesting conclusion, then: Groups that both have a narrative of oppression will turn on each other not just because they sense a disparity of interests, but because they sense that the other has experienced and reacted to their oppression so differently that they have next to nothing in common. They are talking past each other. They may not even understand how what the other sees as oppression really counts, or think that it is so offset by other benefits as to not matter.
I Was a Loser Before It Was Cool
This is unquestionably at least part of what is going on in the #WarOnNerds. Consider that the hipster community is most potently identified with academia and Hollywood, and that the nerd community is most potently identified with STEM fields and Silicon Valley. So how do people in these different communities talk about oppression? Well, start with Hollywood: Consider these lyrics from the Glee original song “Loser Like Me”:
Yeah, you may think that I’m a zero
But, hey, everyone you wanna be
Probably started off like me
You may say that I’m a freakshow (I don’t care)
But, hey, give me just a little time
I bet you’re gonna change your mind[…]
Just go ahead and hate on me and run your mouth
So everyone can hear
Hit me with the worst you got and knock me down
Baby, I don’t care
Keep it up and soon enough you’ll figure out
You wanna be
You wanna be
A loser like me
A loser like me
Combine that with these lyrics from the above-quoted “I’m the One That’s Cool”:
Role reversal must be a total drag
But there’s no point, no point for me to humblebrag
I appreciate you for being cruel
I’m burning bright thanks to your rejection fuel
Got my in-jokes you won’t get
Like Honey Badger, Troll Face and Nyan Cat
So now your ballin’ parties seem so dumb
You can Evite me, and I’ll say yes, but I won’t really come
Got my comics
Got my games
All the things you thought were lame
Got my cosplay
Got you pegged
By this point, you’ve probably got a pretty good picture of what oppression is in the minds of the hipster side: It’s a pose. It equals being ahead of your time. It’s what it takes to be a trendsetter, and someday everyone will see how awesome you were all along. And, indeed, this is consistent with the hipster obsession with novelty and contrariness. Just hate them all you want, but they have cast-iron certainty that one day they will be defining your taste.
Contrast this with the writing of people like Scott Aaronson or internet entertainer Maddox on the subject of nerd identity. First, Aaronson:
Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not ‘entitled,’ not ‘privileged,’ but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that ‘might be’ sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.[…]
Because of my fears—my fears of being ‘outed’ as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: ‘I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.’
And here’s the much less-genteel Maddox:
If you have to tell people you’re a nerd, chances are you’re not. Nerds don’t have to advertise their status. We know. Being a nerd is a byproduct of losing yourself in what you do, often at the expense of friends, family and hygiene. Until or unless you’ve paid your dues, you haven’t earned the right—or reason—to call yourself a nerd. Being a nerd isn’t graceful or glorious. It’s a life born out of obsessive dedication to a craft, discipline or collecting some stupid shit that only you care about.
If you think geeks are so sexy or cool, bang one. Go to any university and find a computer or physics lab at 2AM and take your pick. Until then, go commit cultural fraud someplace else, and take your phony ‘I f–king love science’ group with you.
To say that the understanding of oppression in these respective excerpts is different is a gross understatement. It is nigh irreconcilable. One group sees their oppression as an artistic inspiration that drives them to be a taste-shaper, and the other sees it as the lonely, traumatizing price of being who they are.
Why Nerds Are More Chill than Hipsters
Now, imagine the scripts were flipped. Imagine the group that thought oppression was a necessary byproduct of its existence, and had learned not to care, ended up being radically successful to the point of bringing even the coolest industries and communities to their knees. There would be shock and pleasant surprise, yes, but given that these people already taught themselves not to care what others thought, the novelty of being cool would probably not matter to them anymore than being disliked did. They’d move on and keep obsessing over their craft.
But imagine that at the same time, the group that expected to define taste and culture by virtue of their previous oppression found themselves instead being forced to make less money and cater to the tastes of a group that not only never sought out the bleeding edge of coolness, but never cared about the concept to begin with. Their response would be white-hot, entitled rage. The nerds must have cheated! They must have been privileged all along! They must have been oppressing us! They are oppressing us! In fact, this is what you see from the numerous angry responses to nerd culture.
But as Podhoretz noted in his essay, projection cannot help but rear its ugly head, and if the ranting about “entitlement” by nerd culture’s critics is anything to go by, then that projection is well underway. To treat a community of socially oblivious strivers as if they are really entitled monsters with a belief that they have the right to dictate to everyone else how to behave and whom to sleep with is a hard sell to make, until you realize that the people making this accusation are making it because it’s what they would have done in the nerds’ place.
Pardon them their failure of imagination, but do not pardon the results. In the so-called “Oppression Olympics,” the Left and its hipster faithful at Hollywood parties and in faculty lounges have unequivocally won, insofar as their star is on the wane while the nerds’ star is burning ever more brightly. Yet, desperately, they clutch to the one thing they can still use to force compliance on the part of their enemies: the culture. Which, ironically, is the one thing the nerds never cared about.
For now, suffice to say that the nerds have woken up. Now that they see that the people accustomed to ascending to the ranks of popularity will tear them down in order to get their prize, they do care, and they are fighting. And, as I have noted elsewhere, they are winning.