PewDiePie: Alt-Right Nazi, Victim of Political Correctness, or Just an Idiot?

How South Park's 'what I do is funny' approach to trolling helps explain the Youtube star's rise and fall.


Aftonbladet/ZUMA Press/Newscom

PewDiePie, the biggest Youtube star you've probably never heard of (especially if you're older than 30), just lost his Disney contract—a source of millions of dollars in revenue—over allegations of anti-Semitism.

It's an easy, even obvious, storyline for this season of Life as We Know It Right Now, given increasing awareness of the alt-right movement and its penchant for overt pro-Nazi displays. The kids are not alright—they're flocking to their computers to share Pepe the frog memes and tell jokes about sending Jewish writers to the gas chambers. And on and on.

For many, PewDiePie's downfall will probably feel gratifying: yes, there are limits to how far this sort of behavior can progress. For others, his belated comeuppance is insufficient, and does nothing to address the toxicity of teenage (particularly white) male online culture. In a lengthy essay for BuzzFeed, writer Jacob Clifton laments "that 'edgelords,' the boys and men who group together online for the explicit proliferation of hate speech and misogyny, will almost inevitably keep pushing the line until they end up in a truly dark place."

"This is about understanding what lies beneath this dark side of the internet, and how to stop it," writes Clifton.

But Clifton's essay makes little effort to understand the phenomenon he's describing. And he offers absolutely no advice for how to stop it. Here's how his article ends:

PewDiePie is a symptom of a majority illness, but because he accidentally got rich, we seem content to let the buck stop with him. His downfall feels anti-capitalist, it feels nonconformist, it makes us feel all the things we love to feel when trying to prove we're better than. But the truth is that the soil this stuff grows in is the reality of our country and world, and we will go on encouraging this behavior, and these thoughts, until they bear their fruit.

The reason for that is terrible, and quite simple: because the whiny self-importance and self-indulgence of white male rage — from Gamergate to Anonymous, WikiLeaks to the Fappening, all the proliferating forms of alt-right confusion and rage you couldn't possibly discern from that of even the least radical right — is so repugnant that it's nearly impossible to see through. But we won't heal, and they won't heal, if we don't try. Their pain is pathetic, but watch how it spreads.

The reason Clifton doesn't actually offer a solution to this problem is probably because there isn't one: it's just so much broader, and more permanent, than Clifton notes here. Young men have always acted out in unpredictable and frustrating ways: the alt-right is just the current manifestation of "white male rage."

That's not an excuse—I'm not saying boys will be boys as if it isn't a problem, because sometimes it is. Rather, I'm saying that boys doing stupid, irksome things has always been a problem. We don't really have any evidence that the problem is getting more substantial—and I'd have a hard time believing that the average white male between the ages of 15 and 25 is worse behaved now than he was 50 years ago, given the decline in violence and crime in general—but we're paying more attention to it now because it's chosen the form of an easy political narrative: ahhh, look at all the Nazi kids who love Trump!

When I was in high school, other boys loved to draw penises on everything. It's a weird fact, but there it is. If you left your notebook unsupervised, even for a moment, you would soon find it covered in dicks. Why a bunch of teenage boys—all of whom insisted, loudly and frequently, that they weren't gay—would enjoy drawing pictures of the male reproductive organ mystified me at the time, as it still does today.

Teenage boys are probably still drawing dicks, but they're also writing #MAGA and Build the Wall and creating Pepe memes. Teachers call it the Trump effect, as if young men were perfectly well-behaved until Trump came along. Again, we don't know that bullying has gotten worse, and to the extent we can measure it, schoolyard bullying seems to be falling over time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

It's true that a certain kind of bullying—the anti-Semitic, pro-Trump, alt-right kind—is more noticeable than it was before. We probably shouldn't discount the possible political implications of this. It would be wrong, of course, to pretend that white nationalism isn't making any sort of comeback. But we also shouldn't pretend that the kids are doomed because they currently prefer a different kind of sick humor than they used to. Again, teenagers were always laughing at incredibly inappropriate things—that thing just happens to be PewDiePie's awful jokes, at the moment.

This was, essentially, the defense offered by PewDiePie—real name Felix Kjellberg, who made $15 million last year saying dumb things on the internet. Kjellberg is a blond-haired blue-eyed Swede, but as far as I can tell, he's not actually an anti-Semite, Trump supporter, alt-right, member, or Breitbart contributor. He landed himself in hot water because, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, he made as many as nine anti-Semitic jokes in his videos.

The following example is illustrative. There are online services that allow you to pay random people halfway around the world to do or say whatever you want. PewDiePie decided to test one of these services out—long story short, two tribal-looking fellows unfurled a banner that read "Death to All Jews" as PewDiePie exclaims "I didn't think they would actually do it." He recorded both things—the incident, and his own reaction—and posted in on Youtube.

Funny? Not really. Offensive? Sure. Evidence of deep-seated anti-Semitic animus? Well, that might be a stretch. Here's how PewDiePie defended himself:

Mr. Kjellberg defended himself from criticism in a Jan. 17 video, saying "I think there's a difference between a joke and actual like… death to all Jews. If I made a video saying"—Mr. Kjellberg then quickly cuts to a close-up of his face illuminated brightly—"Hey guys, PewDiePie here. Death to all Jews, I want you to say after me: Death to all Jews. And, you know, Hitler was right. I really opened my eyes to white power. And I think it is time we did something about this." The video then zooms back out and he adds: "That is how they're essentially reporting this, as if that's what I was saying."

One gathers, if you believe PewDiePie's explanation, that he could have used any edgy statement, like "Bush did 9/11." Why can't anyone take a joke anymore? is the underlying theme.

I'm reminded of the most recent season of South Park (spoilers to follow). One of its main plots involved Gerald Broflovski being unmasked as an internet troll. He enjoys shrieking at people online, telling them to kill themselves, and photoshopping penises over their faces. Why? Because it's funny, he claims. Later, when other trolls try to recruit him into their group, he insists he isn't one of them. What they do to people is horrible and stupid—he's not like them at all. What Gerald does is funny, he claims. Still later, when the villain of the season attempts to troll the entire U.S., Gerald challenges him. Join me, the villain offers Gerald, and together we will troll the world. But Gerald is horrified by the villain's plans and kills him. "Fuck you," Gerald says. "What I do is fucking funny, bitch."

This gag—Gerald insisting that his actions are fundamentally different because his horrible trolling is funny—perfectly encapsulates the teenage male attitude, and PewDiePie's humor. Stupid, random, shitty things are selectively funny to kids, and always have been. There's no ideology here beyond typical teen nastiness.

Disney, of course, is well within its rights to can PewDiePie for any reason—and not wanting to be associated with Nazi humor is a reason I support. It is not censorship when one private actor refuses to endorse or fund the speech of another private actor. It's just business. We shouldn't treat Kjellberg like a victim—of political correctness, or of anything else. Even without Disney and Youtube, he's still a 28-year-old millionaire with a sizeable audience. He can clean up his act and try again.

Nor should we forget the fact that the White House is currently occupied by someone whose foremost advisor was the boss of an online media hub that deliberately and successfully catered to an alt-right audience. I share some of Clifton's concern that "the whiny self-importance and self-indulgence of white male rage" has taken a particularly pernicious form at the moment. But I wouldn't be surprised if it fizzles out on its own and the kids go back to drawing dicks.