In Masha Gessen’s recent New Yorker essay on Chernobyl, the HBO series, she argues that the fault for the 1986 nuclear disaster in the former USSR, was not individual malfeasance or accidental negligence. The disaster was a foreseeable result of the Soviet system functioning as intended: the fault was that the system relied on the elimination of dissent and viewed free-thinking as a threat. Soviet Russia rewarded loyalty to hierarchy and fealty to the party as a value above all others—including the scientific method and objective reality.
The most loyal and most obsequious held all the good jobs: they proved their qualifications by never not doing what they were told. The senior reactor control engineer at Chernobyl at the time of the disaster was 25 years old. Soviet society systemically worked to eliminate creative thinking, moral courage and common sense. Something Chernobyl-like was the predictable result. “It was the system,” Gessen writes, “made up primarily of pliant men and women, that cut its own corners, ignored its own precautions, and ultimately blew up its own nuclear reactor for no good reason except that this was how things were done.” Perhaps, a society reaches a Gladwellian-tipping point, a point when the majority of a nation’s most competent professionals no longer possess the majority of a nation’s vital jobs, a point when kissing the ring has become systemically and institutionally more virtuous than doing the right thing.
Absence of ideas, a decline in intellectual innovation, is also the indictment of Angela Nagle, an Irish academic whose book, Kill All Normies (Zero Books, 2017), proves that institutional and societal rot isn’t something unique to the Soviets in the 80s. Kill All Normies investigates the online enclaves of alt-right men, where misogyny has morphed into support for white supremacist ideology. It concludes that the online alt-right is not an aberration: it is a predictable result of an institutionalized left bereft of new ideas. "The thing is," Nagle says in an interview with Vice, "you cannot come up with new ideas if the intellectual culture of your movement is totally closed down. Which has been the case for years. That's why the alt-right has been such a shock, because everyone was banking on the fact that everyone now agrees with us." In an essay about online racial hatred and its purveyors, Nagle reserves her greatest ire for the contemptuous way that the no-ideas left Left treats those who disagree with them. The viciousness of the academic and activist Twitter mobs, Nagle shows, created the alt-right. The left hates so vitriolically, so uniformly, that it was inevitable and predictable that their opposition would assume the same form.
However, unlike the institutionalized left, the alt-right has the courage of its (very wrong) ideas; and, secondly, it has shown a willingness to enact its ideas beyond the virtual world. At a time when the left most dearly needs new ideas and moral courage it finds itself stocked with endless reserves of loyal name-callers and righteous social-shamers, who still seem to think that if you yell loud enough and cover your ears it’ll all just go away. All the best doctors are in the gulag or dead.