When Osama bin Laden was found by the special forces of the United States and met his end, there was surprising attention paid to this bookshelf. First, and understandably, the volumes present were the subject of understandable interest. That bin Laden appeared to like the books of Noam Chomsky, at least enough to include them in his collection, elicited a little amusement.
More widely, bin Laden’s bookshelf contained more specifically extreme material, including the products of the media arms of his and linked terrorist organisations. More broadly, the same intellectual ecosystem includes texts like The Management of Savagery by Abu Bakr Naji, a handbook which is said to have been influential in the leadership circles of what later became ISIS.
When considering the far-right, discerning elements of the reading list likely to be followed by those approaching radicalisation ought to be simple. Among the distant fringe of declared Nazis and their approximates, Mein Kampf still enjoys brisk trade.
But an entire world exists beyond these unquestionable radicals, and discerning exactly what is being read and discussed proves difficult.
The emergence of a pumped-up, excitable strain which is populist but not extreme presents further complication. That the radicals also don MAGA hats on occasion makes differentiation a harder job.
Online, these two trends coexist on anarchic websites such as 4chan, whose significance – especially relating to recent elections – is greatly talked-up, and where surface-level assessments of ‘alt-right culture’, such as it exists, often begin.
Some of the phrases and preoccupations popularised by the site seep into wider internet culture. The YouTuber E;R, to take one example, marks a digression from his discussion of a recent Star Wars prequel to tabulate roughly how many Jews were involved in its making, and what effect they may have collectively intended. It’s an odd thing to be so explicitly interested in, but fits into a popular theme of overt Jewish influence in the media which is commonly referenced on the 4chan boards related to popular culture.
But simply scrutinising 4chan in the hope of finding the intellectual roots of the alt-right is a fool’s errand, however. /lit/, the 4chan board dedicated to books, is filled mainly with anxious would-be writers and idiosyncratic literary snobs. Its inhabitants are as likely to recommend the scandalous 19th century poet Algernon Swinburne to female bloggers on whom the board has developed a collective crush as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The website and the communities on other social media which gravitate around similar aspects are often entirely unserious; and even when the material in question is meant seriously, it is deployed in a throwaway manner, part of a culture of constant superficial reference rather than depth.
Comic reference made on 4chan to the conservative writer Ben Shapiro, and his purported habit of ‘owning’ or ‘destroying’ liberals and college students, cannot be taken to indicate sincere affection from the real far-right. Ditto Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor, self-help author and burgeoning public intellectual.
4chan, amid the contrived gloom and misery of boards like /r9k/, has an interest in the fundaments of self-help. Peterson’s ethos might seem to fit with this philosophy. But, as I have argued elsewhere, Peterson’s intellectual antecedents are far more the evangelical Tories of the early 19th century, some of whom later became liberals in the mould of Gladstone, than anything recognisably far-right.
Returning to self-help, however, there is a point to make. Boards like /fit/ and other websites in its ecosystem aspire, however jokily, to improve their visitors’ physiques; meanwhile, /fa/ deals, at least nominally, with upgrading users’ dress sense. And it is here, alongside other attempts at self-edification, that a reading list begins to take shape. It is not intrinsically ideological, but is instead packaged in the terms of self-improvement. Reading books is an end in itself.
Take one step away from the websites I have mentioned. They are only so useful in defining a broader culture. In that culture’s reading list, the Western canon naturally features heavily. Its intrinsic value, literary and cultural, is supplemented by subtle mythmaking, the very edges of which arrive at radicalism. Certain historical figures are elevated beyond their normal status. Huey Long, a radical populist governor of Louisiana and later senator who was assassinated in office, is one.
This is myth-history, but it is not harmful. Nor is most of the above. This internet ecosystem only when these innocuous ambitions become extreme. It is a long way from Ryan Gosling to Julius Evola. And it is worth separating the one from the other, lest we end up confusing edgy enthusiasts for radicals, or taking Chomsky for Naji.
This piece was originally published at Perspectives, the Quilliam Foundation journal.