Red Scare’s Real Offense Is Nihilism

Red Scare Podcast Review(Credit: Red Scare)

The first time I heard Red Scare, the hosts ranted about Mia Farrow, doubting her claim that Woody Allen molested their daughter. The segment violated every piety laid down in the wake of #MeToo, plus some older and more sacred ones. “Based on certain empirical and anecdotal evidence,” host Anna Khachiyan says, “my hunch is that Mia Farrow is a really horrible, vindictive, manipulative shrew.” She and her co-host Dasha Nekrasova call Farrow a “confirmed psychopath,” a “brainwasher of children,” and “deeply diabolical.” They deem Farrow’s hunger strike for Darfur an “elaborate way of politicizing her anorexia” and they criticize her parenting, since two of her children died by suicide (“You get one—one of your kids gets to kill themselves”). At the end of this pile-on, Nekrasova notes that, “In my estimation, Woody Allen is innocent, but I’m also a fan of his and it’s complicated and no one really knows.”

On the one hand, all of this is vitriolic slander. But on the other, Woody Allen’s cancelation in the wake of #MeToo has been eerily resolute. A few intrepid souls raised the question of what to do with the art of “monstrous men”—wondering what value his work might retain in light of the allegations—but mostly people declared their refusal to work with him or watch his films. I found the moral uniformity of this public response unnerving, and to hear Khachiyan and Nekrasova treat the issue with profane flippancy felt, honestly, both uncomfortable and exciting. It’s not that I take molestation lightly, that I’m prone to disbelieving survivors, or that I’m annoyed by #MeToo—it’s that the lock-step piousness of the rhetoric coming from certain segments of the political left has become so overburdened that to witness a galling public transgression seemed, at first, a perverse delight.

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Red Scare is a political and cultural commentary podcast that centers, as Nekrasova says, “neoliberal critiques with a focus on women’s issues and Russian American affairs.” Khachiyan (who bemoans neoliberalism so relentlessly that some fans have dubbed it the “n word”) dropped out of an art history PhD and moonlights as an art critic, while Nekrasova is an independent film actor who went “softly viral” after InfoWars filmed her defending Bernie Sanders while dressed like Sailor Moon. Their show has an audience of about 20,000, a number that belies its relevance: many of those listeners are New York tastemakers. A recent New York magazine profile characterizes Khachiyan and Nekrasova as future “it girls,” which is sure to further raise their star.

Red Scare’s twining of politics, humor, and offensive provocation fits the ethos of the “dirtbag left,” whose flagship podcasts are Chapo Trap House and Cumtown (tagline: “a podcast about being gay with your dad”). Like their peers, Khachiyan and Nekrasova are somewhat aligned with socialism—they claim a class consciousness superior to the establishment liberals they despise—but their politics are idiosyncratic. Their conversations vacillate between withering critique of Hillary Clinton’s centrism, branding all liberal criticism of Putin “Russophobia,” and lampooning #MeToo as a “sexual jihad” rooted in Ronan Farrow’s mommy issues. As a commenter on the Red Scare subreddit put it, “dasha is somewhere on the left, anna is on one face of a tesseract.” Another: “Anna can’t be mapped with euclidean geometries.”

The chaos of their politics is part of the show’s appeal. These days, almost every faction of American politics seems to have charted, to Borgesian absurdity, its acceptable political views and attempted to cast out those who don’t conform. It’s rare—especially in New York—that I’m surprised by a political utterance or that I meet someone whose views are openly inchoate or conflicted. And, at least among liberals, the most strictly-policed political orthodoxy is identity politics, whose best-faith incarnation is a quest for respect, inclusiveness, and equality, but which has mutated among many adherents into a fevered arms race for perceived virtue, the unfortunate corollary of which is the drive to seize power by accusing others of being insufficiently woke. On this point, Red Scare’s politics are steadfast: they hate it.

It’s lonely to find oneself in the position of agreeing with the broad ideals of identity politics (fostering an egalitarian society by eliminating prejudice and structural oppression) while vehemently objecting to its binary moral logic and its fixation on how to talk about oppressed people rather than what to do about oppression. Obviously these are generalizations, and talking about people respectfully is part of improving their lives, but I’m alarmed by how often moral panic becomes a pretext to flatten worthwhile debate. From time to time—when they resist their impulse towards petty trolling—Khachiyan and Nekrasova model an alternative: refusing to adopt a posture of constant outrage, which makes space for moral complexity.

In the show’s abortion special, for example, Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig explains why she’s a pro-life socialist—a position that many progressives consider to be a contradiction in terms (not to mention unworthy of a platform). I imagine that most listeners disagree with Bruenig, but the episode illuminates surprising contours of the abortion debate by puncturing the liberal caricature of pro-lifers as dolts who mask misogyny with sentimentality. In the New York magazine profile of Red Scare, Bruenig notes that she felt comfortable appearing on the show explicitly because she knew that Khachiyan and Nekrasova—who disagree with her about abortion—wouldn’t demonize her or dismiss her because of her views.

And while this might resemble the “civility” by which some progressives accuse the center-left of being cowed, Red Scare’s posture is contrarian and deliberately offensive, unafraid to weaponize vulgarity and humor. In Current Affairs, Amber A’Lee Frost (co-host of Chapo Trap House) outlines the strategic importance of crudely ridiculing elites during the French Revolution, concluding that, “Vulgarity is the language of the people and so it should be among the grammars of the left…to wield righteously against the corrupt and the powerful.” Khachiyan agrees. It’s ridiculous, she suggests, “to meet Trump’s bloviating vulgarity with civility and decorum.”

Of course, the political potency of vulgarity derives, in large part, from humor. On balance, liberals are unfunny these days, I think to their detriment. To conquer Trump’s “vulgar wit” in 2020, David Bromwich argues, a candidate must have more than articulate policy positions—they must possess “the humour and presence of mind to parry the insults [Trump] deals out fast and loose.” I would also posit an aesthetic defense of humor alongside the tactical one: I’m exhausted by the seriousness of a liberal politics that considers anything harmful or frightening an inappropriate subject for levity and demands that all political humor include a pointed critique.

This is why I forgive—and even appreciate—some of Red Scare’s provocations. Instead of railing about Jeff Flake’s hypocrisy or cruelty, Khachiyan and Nekrasova speculate about what it would take for them to fuck him. Rather than a threat to democracy, Nekrasova refers to InfoWars’ Alex Jones as a “friend of the pod,” and Khachiyan dubs Trump and Putin her “two dads.” (It also strikes me that these examples are not particularly funny except in contrast to the grave rhetoric everywhere else—in a sense, the bar is so low for making a joke that simple glibness can suffice.)

In theory, then, a show like Red Scare might enrich our politics. I think it’s important to engage dissenting ideas, I understand the political power of provocation, and I find the politics of moral purity dishonest and unsatisfying—seductive in the way that cults are seductive, promising answers in exchange for strict adherence. For these reasons, I want there to be a place for leftists who transgress. I’m in favor of a heterogeneous and dissenting left—even, in some cases, when it offends me. But as much as I want a viable alternative to both the moral panic and craven lack of vision that afflict much leftist discourse, Red Scare does not provide it.

For one, the show’s class politics—ostensibly the moral counterweight to its more obscene provocations—ring hollow. This might be obvious from its prevailing concerns, which are peculiar to the New York media milieu: art world dust-ups, Kushner family gossip, Cynthia Nixon, and SoHo grifter Anna Delvey. And while the hosts flirt with the Marxist critique that identity politics is a bourgeois distraction from class solidarity, Khachiyan and Nekrasova never coherently articulate this position. Instead, they try to derive moral authority through vague gesticulation, going no further than dismissing someone as “not class conscious” or decrying the “neoliberal” tendency to “carve out ever more obscure niche privileges” as a substitute for meaningful change.

Worse, in the course of making feeble gestures towards class politics, Khachiyan and Nekrasova repeatedly demonstrate that they’ve never met a poor person, or at least have never seriously considered their interests. “I didn’t vote,” Nekrasova says. “But I might have voted for Jill Stein, just to be a bitch, just to not be ‘with her’.” She’s referring to Hillary Clinton here, whom she and Khachiyan revile and whose establishment politics they do not consider meaningfully distinct from Trump’s. From the perspective of class, this is indefensible. To elide the difference between a candidate who pledged a host of concrete policies to help the working class and a President whose sole legislative victory has been an enormous corporate tax cut and a regressive restructuring of income tax, alongside a sustained attack on the social safety net, is to fundamentally misunderstand what affects the everyday lives of the poor.

For those still unconvinced: in a recent episode, Khachiyan and Nekrasova claim that climate change is an outlet for upper-middle class moral vanity, a luxury complaint that doesn’t register amidst the more pressing problems facing the poor. I’m not even sure this is true in New York, but it’s a profane falsehood when applied to places like Puerto Rico or the Louisiana coast.

Indeed, when Khachiyan and Nekrasova refer to themselves as “poor,” they betray their narrow vision of class politics. They’re advocating specifically for people like them: the young, educated daughters of the middle class who are subsisting on “precarity wages” under mountains of debt. To be sure, these are important issues—ones that our government has been unforgivably derelict, and even malicious, in addressing—but class solidarity only works by establishing shared interests, and Red Scare builds no bridges. In fact, the show’s consistent lack of earnest engagement with class politics makes me suspect that “the poor” are, for Khachiyan and Nekrasova, a rhetorical abstraction designed to give cover to their real interest: opposing political correctness through transgression.

I would be open to this were it at all conscientious, but consider the Mia Farrow rant. I initially interpreted its caustic rhetoric not as an actual demonization of Farrow, but as a way to memorably package the more measured claim that Woody Allen’s art still deserves consideration. But even if that’s what they meant, it’s not what they said, and what they said is irresponsible. This is not because I think it’s improper to admire an immoral person’s art (or, for that matter, to question their guilt), but because the rhetoric about suicide, eating disorders, and molestation is needlessly inflammatory—an attempt to put out fire with gasoline. Maybe this sounds obvious, but the best way to inject nuance into debate is to speak with nuance, not play into the hands of those who would denigrate women in order to protect the men who wronged them. This is the problem with laundering offense through a posture of sarcasm: it allows, as Angela Nagle writes, “genuinely sinister things to hide amid the maze of irony.”

Of course, the show’s exuberantly offensive rhetoric and loose command of facts evoke right-wing shock jocks, foul alt-right meme factories, and Trump himself—a parallel even more chilling after Khachiyan’s recent Richard Spencer-esque comment that, “the best way to be radical now is to be regressive.” And while it’s easy to make the case that Red Scare can be bigoted—or even that it harbors authoritarian sympathies—I think these critiques obscure the root issue.

In a recent episode, Khachiyan asks—probably disingenuously—if she has “become a victim of irony poisoning,” and the answer, in my estimation, is yes. It’s almost impossible to tell which opinions the show’s hosts hold in earnest and which are for the lulz. In a truism of our age, @steak_ham recently tweeted, “One of the harder parts of online leftism is making sure everyone knows you’re too cynical and jaded to give a shit about anything, while also displaying that you care deeply about everything, and in fact are the only fucking one getting off ur ass and doing something about it.” This is a savvy encapsulation of the problem with Red Scare: the hosts try to hold the moral authority of their professed class consciousness in tension with a suffuse irony and nihilism, but the two are incompatible. Their provocations are not jokes so much as a way to suggest that both politics and political speech are meaningless, a posture that precludes earnest advocacy for anything.

I’ll grant that it’s easy to feel cynical right now, particularly for those on the left. In my lifetime, the only Republicans to take the presidency lost the popular vote, and between the billions flooding into super PACs, gerrymandered electoral maps, and the numerous diabolical schemes to purge voter rolls, it seems delusional to believe that a citizen’s political participation is the engine of democracy. Furthermore, we’ve seen a populist demagogue rise to power by flagrantly violating taboos and the response has been, loosely, an explosion of vitriol from his supporters and a collapse of the distinction between dangerous and distasteful speech among his opponents. Neither camp presents a promising way forward. But I can’t support an irony and nihilism that degrade the whole endeavor.

I’m all for vulgarity that reveals vulgar truth. We should mock and demean our political puppeteers and their dupes if it bolsters progressive politics. I think it’s fine, at least sometimes, to oppose the ineffectual piousness of mainstream liberalism not through measured critique, but by modeling a rhetorical alternative. But Red Scare’s transgressions obscure more than they reveal. Between petty violations of political correctness (“the gayest most retarded thing ever is a metal concert with seats”), ironically taking positions so regressive as to be absurd (“maybe I should date an abusive man so I can get motivated to be thin”), and misrepresenting basic facts (claiming that the Mueller investigation already cleared Trump of wrongdoing), the show collapses into meaningless offense meant only to spit in the eye of anyone still foolish enough to care.

Red Scare’s argument for class consciousness is clumsy and perfunctory because the show isn’t about that—it’s a weekly assertion of the right to say whatever the fuck you want. And as primed as I am to defend dissenting speech, this gives me pause. Provocation for its own sake, Angela Nagle warns, “suits those who believe in nothing but the liberation of the individual and the id”—which is, for progressives, a “bargain with the devil,” since “the case for equality is essentially a moral one.” It disarms us to insist that you can say anything because nothing matters, just as it disarms us to narrowly prescribe acceptable speech. And while I don’t support the left casting its dirtbags out, I think it would be worse to emulate them.

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Sylvie McNamara lives in New York