The New York Times reported recently on a man named Hiroyuki Nishimura, who has become a “famous voice for disenchanted young Japanese.” Nishimura has “amassed millions of followers on social media” and was voted the top pick for prime minister among Japanese high school students. Nishimura owns 4chan, one of the most unpleasant sites on the internet, a toxic place that nourishes the delusions of mass shooters. In Japan, the Times tells us, Nishimura does not talk much about his ownership of 4chan. Instead, he is known for publicly encouraging people to be more sociopathic:
In some two dozen books and hundreds of magazine columns, he has encouraged his fans to be more selfish, to stop caring about what others think, to work less and to game the system by obeying the law’s letter while flouting its spirit. Initially famous for his role in building two of Japan’s most popular websites, he has since become a national antihero by raising a giant middle finger to mainstream society, expressing his many contrarian views as unapologetically and publicly as possible… His near total invulnerability to shame is a kind of superpower in Japan—where an acute fear of societal reproach is often used as a tool of control—and it has been a major factor in his success. “I think about my current choices and about the future without reference to morals, then take action,” he said in a 2007 interview in Spa, a Japanese magazine. “Normal people have morals, so they’d probably say thinking like mine is strange.”
Yes, they probably would say that it’s “strange.” Actually, they might go further, and say that the more people think “without reference to morals,” the worse off we will all be, as we will all have to live in a society of backstabbers, exploiters, and liars rather than a community where people show compassion and decency. Much as I can get on board with certain aspects of the Nishimura philosophy (work less, flout the law), and think expectations of social conformity can be stifling, being proudly independent is entirely different from rejecting morality itself. The apparent popularity of Nishimura among Japanese teens is not an encouraging sign.
Equally worrying is the popularity of a man named Andrew Tate, an influencer who boasts of his misogyny (and who has been accused of rape, abuse, and even human trafficking). In the words of a Guardian profile from last year, “styled as a self-help guru, offering his mostly male fans a recipe for making money, pulling girls and ‘escaping the matrix,’ Tate has gone in a matter of months from near obscurity to one of the most talked about people in the world.” He genuinely seems like one of the most revolting men in existence and promotes a bizarre conspiratorial worldview telling his followers that they are living in “the Matrix.” (Greta Thunberg recently humiliated Tate online by telling him, correctly, that he could reach her at her email address “[email protected].”)
One interesting thing about sociopathic influencers is that, while they develop huge fan bases, because they are sociopaths, they often rob their fans, with the fans’ goodwill making it easier to prey on them. Tate runs a get-rich-quick scheme called “Hustlers’ University,” which charges $49.99 a month and combines spurious promises of wealth with messages that canceling your monthly payment is a shameful and loserly thing to do. In an excellent exposé, YouTube scam detective Coffeezilla showed how happy Tate is to squeeze as much money as possible out of his legions of fans, while giving them nothing in return. (Coffeezilla also recently exposed a similar attempt to prey on fans by YouTuber and professional wrestler Logan Paul, another influencer whose appeal is apparently that he allows young men to feel cool by living vicariously through him.)
We live in the age of the bullshitter, and we’re surrounded by shameless hucksters trying to pass off nonsense as insight or obvious scams as world-changing innovations. But just as concerningly, there are those who try to present not caring about other people as cool or subversive. This is part of Donald Trump’s brand: he’s not a loser, and he doesn’t care if his climate policies roast the planet. Trump boasted that when he wanted to touch a woman, he just grabbed her whether she liked it or not. Instead of being horrified by this, tens of millions of people voted Trump into office.
Figures like Trump, Tate, and Nishimura attain success in part by being deliberately outrageous. Part of the appeal of “anti-woke” politics is that it presents itself as subversive and anti-establishment. “Owning the libs” by deliberately doing things that upset people has become a core part of the right’s messaging. They take great joy in producing an angry response. This is why Thunberg’s approach to Tate’s provocations was the correct one. When he boasted of the carbon emissions produced by his many cars, she did not get angry, but pointed out that it seemed like he was desperate to affirm his masculinity. Thunberg did something important, which is to make those who try to look cool and subversive seem silly and obnoxious.
It’s very important to find a way to mock and undermine those who present bullying and narcissism as fun. There will always be a market for the message, “You don’t have to care about other people, just think about yourself and your interests.” This is why Ayn Rand’s books have developed such a cult following. The left’s message is not quite as obviously appealing: “Sorry, caring about other people is not optional.” I think what we can do is give inspiring examples of people whose lives were meaningful precisely because they devoted them to serving the needs of others. There is no shortage of heroic historical leftists to admire. (I have written appreciations in the last year of Barbara Ehrenreich and Martin Luther King Jr., for example.) And when I see Thunberg being dragged away by the cops as she tries to save the world, I think to myself: that’s the person I aspire to be, not some asshole influencer who has nothing to offer the world except pictures of his fancy cars.
Environmentalism has never been particularly cool, but I do think that if we’re going to counter the influence of those who present selfishness as fun, we have got to offer heroic alternative narratives about the path to the good life. Part of the reason horrible men like Trump and Tate gain followers is that they offer some chance to be fulfilled and successful. It’s a hollow illusion, because these men are grifters who are only in it for themselves. But we need to combine debunking their bullshit with the presentation of an alternative way of living your life that is more meaningful and fun.
Leftists are also the ones who care about the actual problems that make people’s lives worse, and who offer workable solutions. As average Americans wrestle with inflation and a cost of living crisis, no universal paid sick leave, mass death from a pandemic that we are told is “over” but clearly isn’t over, lack of universal health coverage, looming student debt payments, police murders, and endless war, we have to remember that all of those things we face on a daily basis do not have to exist at all. In the leftist vision for the world, you don’t have to worry about healthcare, housing, education, or missing work when you’re sick. Everyone enjoys these benefits and will have time to spend life doing other more enjoyable things like spending time with loved ones, creative pursuits, etc.
On the left, we have to be careful about coming across as depressing scolds who just want to take things away and bear only bad news. We need to emphasize the aspects of our program that are exciting and joyful. I am not saying that socialism needs to be sold as some kind of lifestyle brand. But we do need to expose the sociopaths as living lives of depressing emptiness and insecurity, and to show the fulfillment and pleasure that can come from taking part in collective action. We want to make sure that young people are looking up to Thunberg, Chris Smalls, Bernie, and Kshama Sawant, not Nishimura, Tate, and Trump.