A little over ten years ago, when I was particularly depoliticized after becoming very frustrated with the anti-war movement,a few liberals banded together to form Air America, the left-liberal alternative to conservative talk radio. Alternet, a prime offender, was only six years old and its definition of “alternative media” was mostly opinion pieces it commissioned itself as well as things articles from Altmuslim.com, Texas Civil Rights Review, Find Law, The Black Commentator. This, however, was shifting as Altnernet was getting major backers such as Nathan Cummings Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. The content was more analytic and less given to list-forms, but more and more the content seemed related to the what the other progressive magazines. At the time I would have thought that Alternet was a descented of the radical ‘zine culture from the 1990s, aggregated often in the print magazine which I believed was called Alternative Press News (as to not confuse it with the music magazine of almost the same name) as well as Factsheet 5.
I thought in the haze of the anti-war movement that Alternet were just a more grown up, and less radical version of the radical zines out of the punk and hardcore movements from the 1990s. Many of those zines had confused politics as well, often alternating wildly between a left-liberal, a Marxist, and various kinds of anarchist perspectives often within the context of a magazine surrounded by music reviews of bands it was nearly impossible to actually listen to, concert reviews, and obscure films. The high point of this was the middle-to-late 1990s, and as a kid in that mileau, I discovered Chomsky and Gutter punks, Mumia Abu Jamal and Crass, ‘Z magazine and ReSearch Publications, Urban Primitives and just flat out Primtivists, skateboarding and the Murray Bookchin and Bob Black debates. I did a zine as well as it enabled me to interview Kathy Acker and the Voodoo Glow Skull. The whole affair was a strange and heady brew that, if I knew what I knew now, I would have seen was a) becoming a commodified part of pop culture despite it’s situationist inspired roots and aesthetics. In fact, while Alternet was publishing articles by advocacy organizations and the was truly in oppositional mode to the zeitgeist of the Bush years, it somewhat cynically linking itself to a culture that the internet had killed and who was beginning to be seen as a possible base for progressive politics: after all, they were good consumers.
I guess in a way, I mirrored this shift. I began to listen to AirAmerica and DemocracyNow, although I was highly disaffected and was sometimes just hate listening to the former. I also read The American Conserative, Orion, Utne, Socialist Review. I noticed a lot of my disaffected friends and former lovers in the punk and zine movement become religious in the late 1990s and early 2000s, often apocalyptically so. One became a dharma-punk, two became Orthodox Christians because as they said “there is nothing more counter-culture than Father Seraphim Rose,” and quite a few became pentecostals. During that period and after the battle for Seattle, I just drifted. I was involved in anti-war activism, but increasingly from a right-wing perspective. I moved from writing about politics and music in zines, then to sexuality and music in e-mail distributed “e-zines,” then I started doing aesthetic writing for literary magazines. By 2003, most of my writing was either for an livejournal that was highly personal, and I was not even writing articles about poetry anymore. I would not resume public writing until 2007 or so, publishing poetry and then maintaining a blog. As the 2000s mulled on, a lot of my religious friends moved slowly either into progressive forms of the religion or became new atheists. I moved into the “skeptic’s movement” and started thinking a lot about teaching myths.
That site had fragmented and fizzled out, but its branding was useful. Alternative media was always a way liberal and left magazines could easily brand themselves, and from Moveon.org to DailyKos, it was used as a contrast to the mainstream. What I didn’t realize is the fragmentation and disaffection of a lot of who came out of politicized punk and ‘zine culture, which its anarchist overtones, were seen as prime targets for various political groups.
My cohort is interesting. We were born in the transition years were no one can figure out if we are Generation X or Millenials. It’s funny thinking about Situationists talking about spectacle in the late 1960s, when they would live to see that spectacle absord and re-market their counter-cultural apparatus. The story of the “Alternative” as a brand is that story. Coming out the cold war mileau and when there was much more centralized press markets even in the capitalist world, ‘zines now no longer seem like an alternative, but a business plan for internet markets. To put it in terms of generational politics, cynicism of Generation X gives way to the cynical marketing to the hopes of millenials to be more like boomers. It is key to remember, however, that generational politcs may be the lowest form of politics.
What does that have to do with the Drudgification of liberal punditry? The radical chic and the anger as a means to push relatively mild political critiques. In short, what is really more like an angry lecture session from someone working at the Brookings Institute is pasted off as an “alternative” to the mainstream. Radical politics as sloganized policy reports and identity monitoring but the substance of a Democratic-aligned think tank brief.
What did liberals learn about partisan media? AirAmerica’s rise and fall is interesting. It did court in the usual left-liberal moralism, but not in the buzzfeed, clickbait way and not with the addiction to rage and negative comparisons. In short, liberals learned how to use the radical branding, but with the kind of outrage identity reinforcement that conservative talk radio uses. What amazes me about this is how “Reality has a left slant” becomes justification for selectively misleading with statics as opposed to just outright spin doctoring. If one reads World Net Daily and one reads Alternet, Politicususa, AddictingInfo, or even the liberal sections of Gawker media, then generalization is thus: in the US, Republicans lie by repetation, whereas left-liberals lie with statistics and identity derailing.
Gawker and the revitalization of the Salon.com are key points here. Salon.com was a normal magazine housing essays from people like Camile Pagalia and mostly focusing on the literary community and culture. It was one of the first magazines to attempt to monetize via paywall and it nearly destroyed the site. The editor, however, started moving Salon more into the Drudge model: deliberately aping conservative outrage style to liberal politics. Indeed, David Talbot said he was deliberately aping the tabloid style. It was effective. Salon was profitable again after years of decline, and articles like “Why is Belly Dancing Racist,” spread like wildfire. Generally amongst the group educated enough to be exposed to ideas like cultural appropriation, but not knowing that anthropologically, authentic cultures were largely an imposed myth themselves. (One should have actually read “The Invention of Tradition” by Eric Hobshawm and learned about George Lipsitz’s “strategic anti-essentialism” instead of naively or cynical talking about those categories in a context that made it look any cultural blending was “essentially” a racist attempt to erase an identity). If the comments on Salon’s articles are an indication, even most of the audience didn’t buy it, but they rage shared the articles anyway, thus increasing ad revenue.
Now this Drudgification works, but it also has effects. Now, I hate both the US parties fairly deeply although I do hate one slightly more than the other, but the echo chamber and identify-reification in outrage clickbait has an effect. If articles like the one I read on Alternet today about are an example, they really do lead to have a distorted world view. If you read ) things That Many Americans Don’t Grasp Compared to the Rest of The World, you would come away with three completely misleading assumptions; 1) that the majority of the planet functioned like the Northern Europe (it doesn’t), 2) that Northern Europe was hyper-progressive (huh, mass far right movements in Europe right now that are getting into the EU parliament, what are you talking about)? 3) and only a remenant of left-liberals know the truth, but we need go vote to make it happen. Drudge and World News Daily both do these in the their right-wing incarnation, but ironically from all the complaints of the Georg Lakoff’s of the world about liberals not getting framing, they seem to know how to use social media well and how to make money off it. However, drinking ones own koolaid seems to be the natural results of this, when Nate Silver predicted the 2014 mid-terms, the left-liberal “alternative media” turned on him in the exact same way the right-wing partisan media had mocked him just two years before. Anecdotally, most of the progressives I know just INSISTED as a fact that the population was agreement with them (even while they were mocking that entire population as ignorant). This may be psychologically fulfilling, but it is absolutely disasterious for understanding the flow of parliamentary politics–which are non-arbitrary but often not nearly as substantively political as most people like to tell themselves. What is an alternative to the mainstream when there isn’t much of one left? As I have said in a podcast before, Vox has more value on the market than the Washington Post right now.
Now, part of me might lament this delusive turn, if I didn’t want something completely new to emerge anyway. Increasingly, I am not sure we shouldn’t just let this go down its natural course, which will probably depoliticize over time too as market pressures change.
(On an unrelated note: this article about zines by Jaun Conatz is a trip down memory lane.)