Meet the anti-woke left
‘Dirtbag’ leftists Amber A’Lee Frost and Anna Khachiyan on populism, feminism and cancel culture.
The left is in crisis across the West. It is out of power in most countries and out of touch with its historical working-class base. Class politics has given way to identity politics. And noble causes like anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-discrimination have congealed into a stifling morass of political correctness and competitive victimhood.
Thankfully, there are some pockets on the left who recognise this predicament. I’m in New York to try to understand the thinking behind the ‘dirtbag left’. The phrase was coined by Amber A’Lee Frost, a writer, commentator and activist, to describe a loose constellation of American leftists who reject the civility, piety and PC that has come to characterise much of the left.
Frost is a co-host of the hugely successful Chapo Trap House, which offers a funny, irony-laden and often downright vulgar take on contemporary politics from the left. She also writes a column for the Baffler and is a trade unionist.
Newer on the scene is the acerbic and wickedly funny Anna Khachiyan, art critic turned cultural commentator, who co-hosts the podcast Red Scare. Red Scare saves its most biting criticism for ‘neoliberal’ feminism.
Among the most refreshing things about Frost and Khachiyan is that their politics are resolutely not woke. ‘You can tell people that I’m trans’, says Khachiyan, with characteristic irreverence, as Frost, Khachiyan and myself sit down to talk at Eastwood in the Lower East Side. ‘I’m not trans, but you can say that just for fun.’ Their reasons for rejecting wokeness are both pragmatic and political. ‘The majority of people are not woke’, explains Frost: ‘Why would we dismiss the majority of people as hopelessly reactionary?’
Not only that, for Frost, identitarian divisions based on gender, race and sexuality are ‘a distraction at best, an active detriment at worst’. ‘The biggest divide in American society is class and that’s it. I’m a class-first person’, she tells me. ‘You’re hearing in the election how much we need to elect a woman or we need to elect a woman of colour. But the most left-wing candidate is an old, white, heterosexual man [Bernie Sanders] and I want him to win… I’m a Bernie bro. I was a Bernie bro in 2016 and I am now.’
But would the first woman president not be a breakthrough for women? ‘They’re always talking about the “little girls” – how would little girls know that they can be president? It’s just so stupid. I was a little girl once, I’ve never felt limited by this stuff’, says Frost. She raises Margaret Thatcher: ‘You [Brits] had a girl boss – she showed those bro miners!’
Frost describes herself as a socialist. She says she came to socialism through feminist organising. But the current wave of media feminism turns her off. It is about ‘middle-class women trying to get spots in the boardroom’. ‘A lot of this stuff is “fight the power, put me on the throne”.’ Or it’s, ‘Men are rude to me and they explain things to me’, she jokes.
Of course, I suggest, there are many real struggles that women face, particularly working-class women – from low pay to childcare – so why do these issues barely get a look in? ‘They don’t care about working-class women’, Frost says of contemporary feminists. ‘Half the time they’re smearing them as reactionaries because they voted for Trump.’
‘I fundamentally think they are disgusted and horrified by working-class people’, says Khachiyan. ‘Real women don’t live up to the liberal-feminist pieties’, adds Frost. ‘And I think that’s very threatening for the uptight, white, overeducated, liberal women to be confronted with’, replies Khachiyan.
So why did so many people vote for Trump? ‘There are two categories of Trump voters worth discussing separately’, says Frost. ‘There was the wealthy, petit-bourgeois reactionary. But there were also working-class people who heard only one of the candidates talking about jobs.’
Trump has many faults, of course. ‘Fundamentally, he is a cruel, stupid man’, says Frost. But he has ‘a very good observational talent’. Liberals, suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, have been far too moralistic about the Trump vote, she argues: ‘Most people don’t believe that presidential candidates are telling the truth the entire time.’
Worse, the left’s response to Trump has been totally counterproductive: ‘Do you want to tell people how bad they are? Do you want them to repent because they’re bad racists? Or do you want them to pursue a left-wing project?’
‘Those people are ours to win’, says Frost. The populist moment is an opportunity, she says, but one which ‘I can totally see us pissing away’. ‘The self-identified left are very sceptical of the populist stuff. Look at their takes on the yellow vests: “They’re all fascists!” They’re probably just fucking French people – and who can tell the difference?’
Just as significant as Trump’s victory was Hillary Clinton’s loss, they tell me, in that it represented a rejection of an era of neoliberalism. ‘I’m from Indiana’, Frost tells me. ‘Bill signs NAFTA. That obliterated the towns where I’m from. People are extremely bitter about Bill Clinton for very good reasons. And she is married to that, literally and figuratively – she defends that legacy. How did we not see Trump coming?’
What’s more, Trump represented a repudiation of the entire establishment – Democrats and Republicans. ‘There is a severe crisis of legitimacy in our institutions’, says Frost: ‘The Republicans did not want Trump to win either… He was nobody’s first choice, except the American people’s, apparently.’
For Khachiyan, ‘You can say a lot of bad things about Donald Trump, but you can’t say the man is boring’.
‘Trump should be an artist, not a politician’, she adds. ‘He says, “I’ve never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke”, and he loves Diet Coke, that’s his drink of choice. I don’t know if he’s self-aware or not.’
The problem with liberals, she says, is that ‘they can’t differentiate between their political critiques of Trump and their aesthetic critiques of him… He really brings to the fore all these inarticulable taboos. But as a politician, he’s not very exceptional.’ It is not so much Trump’s policies that anger the liberals, but his brashness, his demeanour. Frost adds, by way of example, that Obama also ‘threw tear gas at the border’.
Three years on from the 2016 presidential election, Democrats are still largely in denial or in despair about Trump’s victory. The now-discredited Russia-collusion narrative provided an excuse to avoid any soul-searching. ‘The whole Rachel Maddow and the NBC crowd have infected the minds of boomers with this dystopian narrative’, Khachiyan tells me. ‘Even my mom, who’s from Russia, buys the collusion narrative.’
‘The narrative isn’t itself so interesting’, she argues, but it shows ‘the willful failure of the Democratic Party. Again and again, they fall on their face. There’s some kind of Freudian, masochistic thing they have where they get off on publicly humiliating themselves.’
But while liberals may be electorally challenged, they still dominate mainstream culture. ‘“Liberal’ is the political denomination, but “nerd” is the cultural denomination’, says Khachiyan. ‘We’re living under the triumph of the nerds… If you had an American Psycho-esque novel today, there wouldn’t be this broad-shouldered besuited guy who looked like he walked out of the pages of an advertisement. It would be about a fin-tech soy boy. He’d be hunched over, clutching his tote-bag’, she says.
‘Bret Easton Ellis said there could never be the great Millennial novel – we’ll see. I haven’t read that Sally Rooney book that everybody’s writing about’, Khachiyan says, referring to the Irish author’s breakthrough novel, Normal People, which focuses on a millennial relationship. Frost adds that she read the book ‘with the intent of savaging it’, because ‘all the Guardian feminists like her’, but found ‘there was a lot of good shit in there’. ‘I think the women who like it don’t understand why they do… women today aren’t allowed to want a traditional relationship’, she says. Khachiyan adds: ‘Which is what most people since the dawn of time have wanted… There’s nothing reactionary about wanting a boyfriend!’
The conversation turns back to Bret Easton Ellis, a critic of what he calls snowflake culture, who is frequently accused of being a reactionary. ‘A lot of artists either don’t have any politics or their politics are retarded’, says Khachiyan. ‘His whole virtue as a writer is being a great stylist and a great narrator who retains plausible deniability. American Psycho has references to killing homeless black people, calling Asians “slant eyes”. And a lot of these woke SJW people sincerely think he’s a racist because he describes the condition… Artists are sometimes unassailable… The whole impulse to peg someone for what they are now is bizarre.’
Another recent favourite author among Guardian feminists is Kristen Roupenian, whose short story, ‘Cat Person’, went viral. The story is about a young woman who realises – slightly too late in the day – that the sexual encounter she is about to embark on is not what she wants. When the man finally realises he has been rejected, he lashes out. ‘Guardian feminists liked it because it “proved” men are trash because the man called her a whore at the end’, says Khachiyan. ‘Actually what it showed is that men can be sad and pathetic’, adds Frost.
Khachiyan tells me about an event she was at with Roupenian recently. (‘Hands down one of the most inarticulate, scatter-brained speakers – but the woman can write!’) Lena Dunham was meant to speak, she says, but didn’t show up because ‘she cooked up a fake illness’. ‘It was around the time she had her uterus removed’, she says. Frost adds that lots of American women are ‘voluntary removing their reproductive organs’. ‘Nobody is talking about this. It’s a middle-class, very elite phenomenon, where they’re like, “I have menstrual problems, I’m going to remove my womb”. Lena Dunham wrote a whole fucking essay about it.’
I asked how the seeming frigidity of the #MeToo moment, let alone the alleged epidemic of uterus removals, sits alongside modern feminism’s ‘sex positive’ celebration of polyamory, pansexuality and sex workers. ‘It’s because these people would rather negotiate sex than actually have it… They don’t want to take responsibility’, says Khachiyan. ‘That’s why nerds love this stuff’, says Frost. ‘It’s huge in Silicon Valley. They like games and rules. These are people who consider themselves leftists but probably don’t like anything about socialism except the gulags.’
Khachiyan says ‘a lot of these people are tyrannical narcissists’. ‘They are noncommittal, incapable of tolerating conflict or taking consequences. So they would rather have a system like polyamory where you kick that can down the road.’ Frost adds that many millennials ‘think they can eliminate jealousy… But sometimes you’re going to have bad sex, sometimes you’re going to be jealous. It’s not the end of the world.’
We move from jealousy to hate, and to the alleged epidemic of racism or even fascism often talked up by the left. Hate speech, we’re told, must be contained. Khachiyan takes a refreshingly liberal line: ‘You should be able to hate and hatred should be protected, as long as it doesn’t spill over into physical violence.’ ‘There’s this idea that we live in a white supremacist country when we fundamentally don’t’, says Khachiyan. She mentions antifa, the self-styled anti-fascist group that, since our conversation, has hit the headlines for beating up a right-leaning journalist in Portland. ‘Antifa have manufactured a threat to have some semblance of an identity’, she says. ‘All these people who say they are anti-fascist don’t know what it means to be persecuted.’
Frost and Khachiyan have a Marxist understanding of race. ‘We invented race to justify exploitation’, says Frost. ‘Splitting people on the basis of race was used to morally justify slavery… Racial discourse was created after hyper-exploitation.’ But ever since, argues Frost, ‘When we tried to not be racist, we ended up using the same framework’, which today also lives on in identitarian form. ‘All “race” is, is that some people don’t sunburn. That’s the entirety of racial difference.’
But how much can Marxism really illuminate today’s mad world? ‘Twitter call-out culture’, Frost concedes, ‘has no Marxist explanation. It makes no sense economically or even logically.’ Marx cannot account for a ‘social phenomenon where you rat out your closest friends’ and ‘describe them as reactionary’: ‘Why would you do that? Of course it will be bad for you.’
While there are plenty of woke types queuing up to ‘call out’ Frost, Khachiyan and their collaborators – even accusing them of being Nazis – let’s hope the dirtbag left can resist being ‘cancelled’ altogether. Voices like these, challenging woke orthodoxy and standing up for traditional left values, are needed now more than ever. Here’s to the dirtbags.
Picture by: Getty.