Somewhere in the multiverse is a timeline where the Adult Swim show Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace was not cancelled after a single six-episode season, a combined hour of footage. The controversy would have been just as heated over the show’s apparent coded messages to its alt-right fanbase, Sam Hyde’s ironic-but-maybe-also-kind-of-sincere engagement with white supremacists, and the general anti-liberal, anti-mainstream hostility of its content. Buzzfeed would still have raged, Tim Heidecker would still have raged, advertisers would still have raged. Whoever makes the final decisions at Turner considered such arguments for and against cancellation just as judiciously, but in this case, and for whatever reason, sided with the against argument and MDE was free to march on.
What becomes of a perpetuated Million Dollar Extreme will probably vary depending on whom you ask. For my part, I can’t imagine it having lasted longer than two additional seasons, and even this might be generous.
It made sense that Adult Swim would want to produce the show in the first place. On paper, it complemented the platform’s eagerness to test the bounds of that was properly “funny.” Sam Hyde’s hoax TED Talk and other antics were a mix of Andy Kaufman and Ambrose Bierce; their YouTube shorts fell under what my mom would call “creative.” Yet once aired, the show took Adult Swim’s ethos to the utmost limit, stopping just short of transgressing it. It had the hyperkinetic pacing, surreal imagery, and cringy intensity established a decade earlier by Tim and Eric, but very little of the levity to slow its propulsion into something approaching horror. When MDE wasn’t being polemical, it was being surly. The show did not relish absurdity as its predecessors did, dissolving the line, always fine to begin with, separating satire from rage. If you didn’t like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, and it often goes unremarked that many didn’t, you were sure to loathe MDE. Sam Hyde and company were always on a precipice, and some self-sabotage in some later season could have easily, and likely, pushed them into oblivion.
But ours is a timeline where people more susceptible to the whims of mass impatience crowd out the less susceptible. I’m at a loss as to what it was the show’s detractors actually thought would happen once MDE was safely suppressed. I suppose it is typical of every crusader for censorship: to shutter a gateway through which vice enters a virtuous realm, and also to feel secure and validated in their principles. As with all censors before them, they can’t have it all, or they can have it for a very short time. The vice they stopped and the people who crave it retreat, they regroup, they find a more fortified portal, and pass through in far greater numbers.
In this context, the rise of the writer known as “Bronze Age Pervert” (BAP) was not a difficult outcome to predict. Just as MDE was a visual art project with an avant-garde style and reactionary politics masquerading as comedy, BAP is a literary persona with an avant-garde style and reactionary politics masquerading as philosophy (though it should be said he explicitly removes this mask). Like MDE, BAP was born from the doldrums of the hard-right internet and retains a wide fanbase among it. With the publication of his book Bronze Age Mindset, however, BAP has received greater attention in more respectable intellectual venues. It remains to be seen how far he can go, but unlike MDE, BAP enters the fray expecting no quarter from the mainstream, and no willingness to give any in return.
Trying to argue with BAP is like trying to argue with a brick wall. You can lecture and excoriate it until you’re blue in the face, and by then you will have weakened enough of its foundation to let it fall on you. There is a damned if you do-damned if you don’t prospect about it. Taking him seriously means you’re being trolled; accusing him of being a troll means you’re dismissing the countercultural phenomenon he represents. As with Joker, BAP is like a Magic Eye image crossed with a Rorschach test: stare at it long enough and you can see whatever you wish to see. So much of this is rooted in his style. A friend sympathetic to BAP described it as Nietzschean anti-materialism written in 4chan vernacular with its peculiarly stilted syntax, memetic references, and impolitic humor. For me, his writing comes off like a Robert E. Howard character who crossed into our world through a Clark Ashton Smith story:
I wanted to expose the grim shadow of a movement that is hidden behind events of our time and from before. This is a great power that acts like a ghost. It hides in its own darkness and it has been absorbed be the lands and the peoples so that you can’t really see it anymore. There is just an eldritch quality embedded in things and on some faces. The same was said of Hades. Some said he would feel a great shame when some other god drew back the veil on the underworld so all the vile things that are there could be seen. Is this Hades of our time capable of shame?
Conan the Librarian indeed. Though there’s something to appreciate in this at a basic level. It serves writers and their readers poorly when their style is as grave as their substance. Writing as if you’re having a better time than anyone, your critics especially, is both good defense and less insulting reading. It is entirely possible that Michael Tracey, Rod Dreher, Virginia Heffernan, and Chris Arnade are perfectly warm people in the flesh, but the joylessness, pathos, and hysterics of their prose makes them some of the most decadent and least persuasive scribblers working today. We are aware that the stakes are high, that is why we are tolerating you, but unless your subtext is “jump headfirst into an industrial-size woodchipper” you need not belabor the fucking point. I disagree with Curtis Yarvin that BAP is a “major” writer, but he is a very successful carrier of one of those “ideas whose time has come” to a legion of people very happy to believe it.
That is the point BAP wanted to get across in his response to Michael Anton published this week in The American Mind. BAP is not an originator of some grand system or the creator of a movement; his power, to borrow Lauren Duca’s self-description, “is as a great communicator.” “What is going on now is a widespread rejection of the ruling authorities and their beliefs, on the part primarily, but not only, of the American youth at large,” BAP writes. “This is similar to the rejection of communism by dissidents and youth in the Soviet bloc in the 1970’s and 80’s, and driven by similar causes.” He goes on:
Insofar as my book is representative of this phenomenon, it is only in the sense that unvarnished, unedited Nietzscheanism, “right wing nihilism,” has been one of the opinions absolutely forbidden by the postwar liberal world order. It has resurfaced in the space of freedom provided recently by the internet, and has spread there with some speed, the way it always will when it is not repressed. But it is hardly the only view present in this world, or even the dominant view. Nor, as I keep repeating, is this phenomenon — I lack a better word to call it — reducible to any view or set of views, but it represents rather a youth counterculture that has rejected the controlled, staged, edited and therefore mendacious form of public discourse that dominates America and the West right now.
BAP’s strongest attacks in this piece are against the mainstream conservative movement, who in addition to “being bankrupt in spirit and ideas,” leaving a legacy mostly of endless war and near-economic collapse, have been unprepared for the extreme left and its coalescing with elite culture. These and like aspects of the essay and BAP’s writing have been argued elsewhere; it is helpful in any case in teasing out some related issues I’ve noticed in this rather chaotic social landscape. Specifically two issues.
The first is the inability of American society to even comprehend its rejects: not its conscious rebels but its losers, people who are unable rather than unwilling to fit in. This has been occasionally apparent in works like “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Invisible Man, and most recently in Ingrid Goes West and both Christine Chubbuck movies. BAP has laid out a narrow version of this type: white, male, young-ish. They are socially isolated and unmoored in the face of Progress. Though they may have voted for Obama instead of the corrupt Republicans, they are certainly not as welcome as they once were in “prestige” culture. So they go elsewhere, to places like The Joe Rogan Experience, which caters to “a middle-bro audience” as Devin Gordon put it, “guys who get barbed-wire tattoos and fill their fridge with Monster energy drinks and preordered their tickets to see Hobbs & Shaw.” Rogan “shares their passions and enthusiasms at a moment when the public dialogue has branded them childish or problematic.” BAP does the same. “I would be ready to concede that I wouldn’t have an audience, or a much smaller one, if this was the America of the Founding or even that of the 1980’s. Your problem isn’t my audience, but that your analysis and words and ideas are so far from reality that you don’t even see the reasons why I have this audience in the first place.”
For all the novelty of this backlash and the backlash to the backlash, I detect echoes of a not very distant past in pop culture. The late-1990s saw the more eclectic alternative rock era give way to the myopic nü metal era, based on heavy rock that, in Steven Hyden’s words, “eschewed guitar solos, discernable choruses, even melodies,” as the songs “were built on syncopated hip-hop beats, atonal ‘riffs’ that sounded like surly fax machines.” He was describing Korn, but it could just as easily apply to their peers Limp Bizkit, Coal Chamber, Disturbed, Staind, Puddle of Mudd, etc. This sound also eschewed the vulnerability, empathy, and irony of alternative rock in favor of a more earnest, aggressive, and solipsistic message:
Grunge reminded us that, deep down, we’re all victims of a cruel and unjust world, and this vulnerability unites us; there was only one victim in the new music, and that was the listener, who was beset on all sides by abusive parents, mocking teachers, needy girlfriends, and all the uncaring and privileged kids at school, who never, ever had it as bad as you; even worse, those fucking bitches thought they were better than you. Fuck that shit, man! Give me something to break! How ’bout your fucking face?
This sound and message, unsurprisingly, appealed to young white males in the suburbs, whose pent-up angst often boiled over into belligerent sexism and gay-bashing that the bands at once indulged and distanced themselves from. Korn and Limp Bizkit were savvy enough to cultivate a populist image especially when mainstream rock radio was unwilling to play them (though with Limp Bizkit it is more complicated), and were given intense loyalty in return. Hyden recounts attending a 2002 Korn concert in Green Bay for which he wrote a scathing review in a local newspaper and received scores of hate mail and threatening phone calls, enough to collect in a book he gave out to friends with the title Dear Faggot. Yet in hindsight, Hyden realized his criticisms were moot, and he was not the protagonist of his own story. “I’m the bad guy that got his comeuppance,” Hyden writes. “I was criticizing something I didn’t understand; this music didn’t communicate with me because it wasn’t supposed to communicate with me.”
20 years later it feels like history is repeating, but instead of macho metal bands on TRL as the focal point of disaffection it’s a self-published (and by some accounts very gay) book on Amazon, whose Kindle edition is listed as a bestseller in “Ancient Greek History.” Even so, Hyden’s parting admission was still prophetic and relates to my second issue: the cluelessness of mainstream culture.
I’m convinced that much of the appeal in BAP is rooted less in what he actually writes and more in his mystique. Even having a crude conception of BAP gives you the feeling of being in on a well-kept secret that is also somehow very popular. And much like Dril, you want this to stay concealed for as long as the mystique can be sustained. At the same time, this reveals even more plainly the already deep social faults in 2019 America. It reminds me of the dimensional structure of the Silent Hill film, where two characters can be in the same location but not the same plane. Most of the people I know are in the sunny, colorful real world while I’m stuck in the ashen, fog-shrouded nether realm with the acid-spitting mutants, cursed cultists, and Pyramid Head; and everyone in the real world can’t hear what I’m describing.
Part of this is my fault. For a little over 20 years I’ve been a connoisseur of fringe culture, and any attempt to persuade my more above-the-radar family and acquaintances that the fringes were making their way to the center could be written off as unbridled enthusiasm. In this manner I always felt like a human Pandora’s Box, safely containing the secrets of the Underground. It never occurred to them that things only I knew and which need not interest anyone else could ever have wider impact. But that is the case some are trying to make. Certainly Curtis Yarvin is making it in grand-as-fuck terms: “The first step in getting to the 21st century is inventing it. The first step in inventing the 21st century is an aesthetic vision so strong, true and clear that it dominates and intimidates the stale old aesthetics of the 20th century.”
The American mainstream in the late-‘10s is something of a paradox. It is omnipresent yet claustrophobic. Its population is diverse yet uniform; they speak in a similar way, almost down to the same vocabulary and earnest tone. Slipping from this tone, however slightly or inadvertently, can be a source of uneasiness among more eager adherents. Positivity, sincerity, and empathy are prized — as are anxiety and censoriousness. The severity of the conformity possibly rivals that of the 1950s and 1960s. It is like a very bright but small island surrounded by an impenetrable seascape.
If a counterculture is taking shape there is no greater time to do it, and BAP is only one avenue to go down. In 2018, John H. Richardson reported in New York on young people who’ve chosen to base their lives on the philosophy articulated in the book Industrial Society and Its Future, otherwise known as the “Unabomber Manifesto.” People who grew up at the time of Ted Kaczynski’s later bombing campaigns and 1996 capture have always seen the manifesto as a crankish theoretical extension of its author’s homicidal example; but for a generation steeped in the internet, in environmental uncertainty, and away from the context of his crimes, Kaczynski’s insistence on the cataclysmic effects of our increasing technology-dependence tracks.
I stop short, as everyone else has, at declaring exactly how or if this counterculture will take shape in the near- or long-term; I just know that the wider country is not prepared for whatever does. It wants only as much narrative as it can process, which is limited, recalling Malcolm Tucker’s maxim of life as “a succession of five minuteses.” Family and friends update me on the progress of Trump’s impeachment, assured that it is going swimmingly, and will end in his eventual removal from office and a return to the normalcy from which foreign bad actors brazenly detoured us. The crusade begins again, just as impatient for catharsis but on a bigger stage. If the earlier example is any indication, a successful crusade will be no more fruitful. The ills they want reversed will remain unimpeded; the rights they want protected will be undone; and an ascending generation, whatever their exact politics, will be more inclined to come out of the shadows (or the message boards anyway), indifferent to the refusals of reckless and panicked authority figures.
In some strange way that last outcome is comforting. We at least know what happens when young people take the socio-cultural wheel from inept task-masters: they cling desperately onto it for half a century.