A little over a year ago, I read an article titled “No Joke: Untangling the DNA Code of Alt-Right Comedy”. I was particularly interested in it because it took the comedy of Million Dollar Extreme, or MDE, a trio consisting of Nick Rochefort, Charls Carroll, and leader Sam Hyde, as paradigmatic of “Alt-Right Comedy”. The article immediately gets to the point by calling and, in the author’s view, calling out MDE as white supremacist and fascist propaganda. It goes on to cherry-pick quotes, build spurious examples, written in a language that obviously appeals to a middle-class audience, a sin when apparently attempted by MDE’s creators, all with an alarmist tone that ironically overstates MDE’s cultural impact.
Whether or not MDE are part of the alt-right, and whether one enjoying its humour can be taken as evidence of one having certain political views has been discussed before. The consensus varies around the latter point, but for the most part, it seems the MDE boys really are sometimes, somewhat white supremacist and misogynistic. Nevertheless, as much as I might sometimes consider MDE’s views wrong, I still enjoy their content. Unfortunately, to some this is a sign that I secretly harbour similar views.
It’s not just MDE content that acts like a red flag to some, especially those obsessed with the quagmire of identity politics, blinkered to how its ubiquity shows how it is hardly a radical and rarely subversive topic, and certainly accepted by the ruling classes as something for everyone to be distracted by and divide themselves over. Various e-celebs that have gained notoriety in the last few years for their brand of edgy comedy that often fans admit, isn’t actually that funny in itself, rather the laughs are aimed towards the imagined (but often real if unseen in the moment) upset and discomfort it causes those it aims to offend.
For me personally, introduced to MDE as a satirical sketch comedy group, what I particularly enjoyed about MDE was how absurd the jokes were. This point, in fact, as much as for some, perhaps including the creators, is a double-irony play that aims for plausible deniability (“it’s just a joke”, “it’s ironic”), is still funny. On one hand, funny due to the irony, on the other, funny because of the absurdity of the idea that it would be doubly ironic- an actual if exaggerated social commentary on the way things really are.
Although I think the people who actually believe in the extreme ideas presented in certain sketches are a minority, I know they must exist considering there are people that believe Trump was elected due to “meme magic”- that the success of the Trump presidential campaign was significantly attributable to the power of internet memes! Remembering this adds to how funny the content is: there are some idiots in the world laughing because they think others will be upset by their absurd worldview and when thinking of this I am laughing at them.
Our old friend Pierre Bourdieu taught us how our cultural tastes can act as a form of capital. MDE shows here how certain capitals can also act in the negative. Among those invested in the aforementioned identity politics circus, liking the wrong show can be taken as a negative cultural capital. Similarly, disliking it and giving all the naive reasons given above can act as a cultural capital- knowing what to say about those who the in-group are not to like is converted into the social capital, perhaps political capital, of becoming a member of that group. It is as the alt-right would say “virtue-signalling”, yet often in their lack of self-awareness, they don’t see how in their group, liking such things acts in the same way. The games and stakes vary, are often illusive, but the logic of our social practices is the same whether you are alt-right or la gauche de la gauche. (For more writing on cultural capital, the logic of social practice as games with stakes, and the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, see the articles tagged with “Bourdieu”).
It’s very tempting to think too long and hard on what it is we are doing when we laugh- comedy is often telling the truth by lying. The idea that so many young people consider all or even some of the extreme worldview underneath the extreme comic world of MDE, clownworld, to be true, upon further reflection is depressing. Cultural production is a second nature, and the products of our times are products of our times. It’s a dangerous balancing act trying to work out how much evil is attributable to individual agency and how much of it we really can blame on “society”.
These discussions give us more reason to disdain the postmodernists of the world, not those postmodern theorists that enlightened us to the existence of postmodernists, which alt-right fools conflate- the postmodernists that have forgotten about intentions, context, and are too agreeable to nihilistic excuses and feigned ignorance. Like the alt-rightists, although for different reasons, I believe that culture is not relative and reflects people’s general consciousness, although I would go further in arguing that this consciousness arises as a product of the material conditions and systematic production of reality itself.
Fascist symbolism, anti-Semitism, racism and white supremacy, sexism, chauvinism, the monumental rise in mental illness, neurotic and psychotic products of modern society are just that- products of our modern society. To wish away the cultural production of articles that reflect that does not mean simply wishing away the “bad people” who produce them, but to wish away the underlying culture, hence the underlying system that produces that culture.
We can’t be sure. At least that, certainty of uncertainty, I share with the postmodernists. We can’t know for sure the intentions of creators but more importantly, we can’t know for sure how its audience will interpret it. So for the rest of this article, I will look at the Mute Magazine article on MDE and counter with my own interpretations of some of the sketches and details they highlighted. It will also be an opportunity to talk about some cultural concerns which the Mute article’s author is dismissive of yet argues that, feeding Sam Hyde’s ego, will cause young white men to take up some sort of alt-right cause- similar to the idealism that the left is all too often quick to engage in (“if only more people read our literature, the revolution would happen”).
Firstly, as already discussed, the author claims Sam is dangerous due to his influence, citing Sam’s own boasts about such influence as the evidence. As much as I believe that the loyal fans of MDE are perhaps as engaged as he says, what kind of things are they really doing when he boasts that he could get a thousand fans to go somewhere and do something? Obviously he’s exaggerating the numbers, I don’t think Sam is delusional, but even if it was a few hundred, considering the kinds of public stunts Sam has done in the past, like crashing Shia LeBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” project to make edgy anti-Semitic jokes, it’s hardly anything to worry about seriously.
Continuing the article, the author cites anonymous forum posters’ discussions of MDE as significant evidence about the psyche of the average viewer, apparently a place where thousands of fans discuss the “complex, if winking, symbology which many devotees are convinced expresses an anti-progressive, pro-white ideology”. For the author, this is confirmed by Sam’s apparent confirmation of the political necessity of comedy yet the quote he uses as evidence for this claim is ambiguous.
“There is an anger that is not fully expressed in the way that it needs to be, and I’m trying to correct that [. . .] I want to make something cool for people to sort of have as an umbrella. Like, shit’s coming down, but here’s this MDE umbrella, it’s gonna protect you to some extent, and keep you sane, keep you safe. And I’d like to do our small part to reduce the feminization of everything.”
Although I don’t necessarily agree with parts of the author’s interpretation of this as a confession that this comedy is built to protect the psyche of the paradigmatic oppressor white male, it can appeal beyond this. For many, the quagmire of identity politics, which the author here is clearly invested in, produces its own ironies. There is a pernicious myth of how non-white people cannot be racist, a similar albeit wrong recycling of how we can often correctly interpret racism as white supremacy, and for many unheard in the mainstream debates this also damages and denies the “inter-racial solidarity of poor and working-class people”, which the author is quick to accuse MDE of doing.
Of course, as at least some sort of right-winger, Hyde and company aren’t going to be focusing on issues of class, which if they ever do appear are pseudo-naturalised as an eventual consequence of the differences between individuals and their natural powers, yet ignorant of history, power, and the social construction of the present situation. I think reflecting on these facts about how individuals are products of their history is also pertinent for showing how the author’s accusations of racism and white supremacy as ideas the audience might be receptive to are quite pedantic. Further, they again ooze a middle-class style that cuts accessibility for most working-class, and therefore less likely to be as educated, audiences. It appears under the subheading “3. (Example A)” and is worth reading on its own to see my point. What is clear is that their interpretation is their own.
In “4. (Example B)” the author brings attention to a few more significant minor detail in one of the MDE sketches than the ones developed so fancifully previously. I think these points show the authors own social distance from those poor and working-class folks they seem themselves as championing. The idea of a “reverse-structural-racism” is perhaps a significant problem in the US, racism is always more difficult to imagine, not just understand, from a British perspective. However, there are parallels in situation and logic that we can apply here if we keep in mind that the main underlying issue about welfare is class.
In the UK, although not focused on race since the working-class has always been somewhat diverse, even among working-class people, there is a resentment towards a media created image of the “benefits scrounger”- those who claim welfare not just for survival, but here “so they can sit on their arses all day watching Sky TV”, rather than “getting nails did”. Undeniably the US case is different, and race is much more linked with class, but like in the UK, poor people who claim welfare is seen as where the taxes of the working poor end up- black people in the US, poor welfare recipients in the UK, are used as scapegoats to explain declining quality of life.
In the next example, the gym scene from the first episode of MDE’s TV series World Peace, the author interprets the echoing “that’s why I’m here” as a weird confession about how the man in the gym is “an occupying force”. Returning to the ideas of postmodernism, one main idea is the death of the author- how we don’t necessarily need to include an author’s intentions in our interpretations of a work. Here, I think the author not only tries too hard to interpret MDE’s intentions, but probably gets it wrong anyway considering there is a tendency of MDE fans I’ve met to ridicule the kind of person who goes to the gym to pick up women. Moreover, there is a kind of existential anxiety expressed in the echoing “it’s why I’m here”, like it is being reflected upon, questioned.
Further, when the “fozzy contin” button is pressed, the existential despair is relieved and the quest for the woman and societal validation is satisfied. Where the author sees the restriction of his behaviour in front of woman as symbolic of some sort of right-wing lift on restrictions on free speech, one might also see his freedom from caring about living up to the new standards of the imagined “modern woman” in the minds of many right-wing anti-feminist images of entitlement.
Continuing their analysis, the author highlights what can easily be interpreted as open anti-Semitic ridicule- the yellow star of David on the floor of the gym that is later revealed. It could also be a swastika, or a square and compass (symbol to the crossover of conspiracy fanatics and alt-righters of the global domination myth of the Illuminati, similar to the myth of Jewish supremacy). It’s certainly meant to be a provocative detail if noticed, provoking the kind of ridiculous laughter at the imagined offense it causes for those who enjoy the edginess of the show, but also ridiculous for those who laugh at those who might believe in such ridiculous myths.
I could continue but my point is simply to show that the author’s interpretation isn’t necessarily correct, and to me, shows an unfamiliarity with the psyche of fans which they claim expertise about. There are plenty of provocations that happen in mainstream media to those that already see its antagonistic nature and focusing on small alternatives mostly provides to divide an already divided and defeated working-class while doing nothing to treat the underlying structural causes which produces these cultural objects. MDE is a symptom of our class society which at least in its subversive potential makes people think about the bigger picture of the world we live in. Finally, I understand the potential of my postmodern defenses of Hyde and co could be used as shallow defenses of their dogwhistling, if indeed that’s what it is (“it’s just ironic”, “you’re reading into it too much”, or simply “that interpretation wasn’t my intention”) and if they are truly as bad as the Mute article suggests, we probably can agree that their ideas are terrible, but does prohibiting them, socially or legally, solve the bigger issues at hand? I don’t think so, especially when considering the problem of interpretation would mean we inevitably censor those who don’t deserve it, or even give more tyrannical powers to governments to censor any ideas they deem inappropriate.