By Sam Wolfe
In 2015, French author Michel Houellebecq published “Submission,” a reactionary satire of the modern Western man. The novel depicts a dystopian France in which a Muslim government sweeps to power, highlighting the West’s vapid hedonism and latent thirst for tradition. “Submission” made the rounds of the intelligentsia partially because of Houellebecq’s literary reputation and partially because of its content — its culturally conservative take on Western anomie resonated loudly in the context of a resurgent European far-right.
On another dispositional planet come the political warriors nestled in the recesses of the Internet, usually found on sites like 4chan. Trawl through enough of the material that such people publish and you notice a curious overlap between far right-wingers and, well, nerds (note: I’m not using “nerd” pejoratively — I’m something of a nerd myself). The overlap is nicely summed up by a Reddit thread I happened upon one day: “Wtf is up with all the reactionaries in online anime communities?”
Wtf indeed. The caricature of the archetypal right-winger has assumed a number of shapes throughout history — out-of-touch aristocrat, religious zealot, greedy businessman, even demented despot — but reclusive anime nerd is a new one. Republican strategist Rick Wilson declared the alt-right to be “childless single men who masturbate to anime,” a facile, though loosely accurate, picture of what these people look like.
And as for Houellebecq? His first book, “Against the World, Against Life” — which I’d highly recommend, by the way — was an encomium about HP Lovecraft, the 1930s science-fiction writer who invented the monster Cthulhu (and who was, himself, highly conservative) and captured the imaginations of a ream of cultic fans (myself included).
What are we to make of this bizarre pattern? There are some micro-explanations that can be reasoned out. Lovers of science fiction might dream of conquering space and developing incredible technology and be drawn into the techno-futurist politics of a Peter Thiel or Nick Land. Consequently, they might see the Democrats’ focus on social justice and inequality as secondary to rapid economic growth and development. Further, if one were naturally a cultural conservative, Japanese society (and then, perhaps, Japanese culture like anime) might be something of an ideological nirvana, with its fairly traditional view of gender roles and strong sense of nationalism.
For a more macro explanation, however, we must turn left and examine how the contemporary left has sought to politicize hitherto apolitical cultural fields. Video games became a site of cultural warfare in 2014 when the Gamergate controversy broke out, which started as a question of journalistic ethics but quickly transformed into a broader discussion about political correctness and misogyny in the gaming industry. Critics like game developer Brianna Wu lambasted gaming companies for depicting women as “sex symbols and damsels in distress,” while some gamers perceived feminists as having breached their cultural sovereignty, attempting to impose their values on a community that did not want or need them.
Gamergate, then, is an instructive case study: Whereas once an avid gamer may never have given a second thought to the presidential election, now he notices anti-feminist threads on his favorite gaming sites or sees that game developers have made his favorite character a woman or changed its race. He is urged by his fellow gamers to stand up to political correctness and the SJWs trying to corrupt gaming.
An anime fan might be in a similar position. While anime has not been the target of the kind of mass criticism that games were, anime is rife with light misogyny and objectifying depictions of women. One can imagine a certain kind of anime fan getting riled up at the idea of a PC culture preventing him from enjoying sexy animated characters.
As for authors like Houellebecq, some of them — and I would include Houellebecq himself — are conservative or reactionary in a way that was probably always going to manifest in their art. For others, however, the creeping progressive agenda has implicated them in a cultural battle. Lionel Shriver comes to mind — the author of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” who recently made headlines for donning a sombrero and proclaiming that authors may write about whomever they please. Her latest novel, “The Mandibles,” is by far the most political of her works, depicting a dystopian American future where conservative principles have been abandoned.
One is reminded of Andrew Breitbart’s proclamation that “politics is downstream from culture.” Ironically, this is essentially the argument that progressives employ when criticizing sexist art — they suggest that art that objectifies women perpetuates institutional sexism. This is a reasonable claim but sets the stage for a bloody culture war, and not one that I foresee ending quickly.
This is not a comprehensive account of the rightward turn of nerd-dom; Lovecraft’s brand of reaction, the politics of popular anime and techno-futurist authoritarianism all deserve their own columns, and they don’t even begin to encapsulate the entirety of this nerd-authoritarian intersection. Nerds also obviously come from all walks of life and aren’t necessarily — or even predominantly — conservative.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if right-leaning science fiction has a heyday in the next few years. Politics may be downstream from culture, but the reverse is sometimes true, too, and the current political climate is ripe for a reshaping of cultural fields that the left has long dominated.
Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.