The other day, someone on Gab said there was a time when he thought PJ Media was an edgy site on the Right. It seems a bit ridiculous now, but the venture was a radical thing a dozen years ago. Charles Johnson, this one, not this one, was the lead on exposing Dan Rather’s scheme to pass off the forged George Bush National Guard documents. That was big stuff in 2004. Bloggers in their pajamas, working from their basements, were able to take down the mainstream media and finish off the career of Dan Rather.
That was the birth of PJ Media, which was originally called Pajamas Media, owning the insult hurled at bloggers by CBS news executive Jonathan Klein. He was the guy who tried to brush off the critics by calling them losers sitting around in their pajamas. Like the word “deplorable” it quickly became a badge of honor. In retrospect, that incident was the start of alternative media and alternative politics. Initially it was a reaction to the excesses of liberal media, but as is often the case, it took on a life of its own.
Today, PJ Media is not edgy in the slightest. It serves an audience that still enjoys the old partisan hooting that was popular through the Bush years. That is true of all the sites that popped up in response to the liberal media’s attack on Bush. All of the edgy guys hired by outfits like National Review have become safe and boring. It is hard to imagine it today, but Jonah Goldberg was once the bad boy of National Review. A dozen years ago, snarky hipster conservatism was a thing. All the hipsters sold out or just got boring.
There is a lesson here. These first generation alternative media operations followed a pattern that has been observed in the third world. In Africa and South America, the colonies gained their independence and the assumption was they would either emulate Western style governments or implement some local version of democratic rule. Instead, the post-colonial rulers adopted the exploitative institutions that the old colonial powers had used to control the colonies. What worked for Britain worked for Siaka Stevens.
In other words, the first generation of right-wing alternative media sites fell into the same habits as the operations they were challenging. They could get an audience by challenging the legacy media, but in order to monetize that audience, they decided they had to adhere to the same moral framework as the legacy media. That meant running off anyone that colored outside the lines and assiduously avoiding taboo subjects. In a short time, they were the same sorts of moral enforcers for the Left they had criticized at the start.
One of the telling aspects about the Trump phenomenon was just how over-the-top many of these first wave alt-media types were in their opposition to Trump. Guys like Erick Erickson and Glenn Beck were such rabid Trump haters, it was assumed they were being paid to do it. PJ Media had a gaggle of unhinged Trump haters on their site. Red State turned itself into such a clown show, they endorsed Hillary Clinton. The hipster conservatives of a decade ago were now the squares wagging their fingers at the kids.
There are a couple of lessons here for the people forging ahead with alt-tech as well as alt-media. One is that to be an alternative, to truly challenge the status quo, the nature of the alternative has to be incompatible with the nature of the orthodoxy. Otherwise, the big fish devour the little fish, so the little fish of alternative media get gobbled up. This is why Andrew Torba is adamant about his stance on terms of service. He has correctly discovered that to be a challenge to Twitter, Gab has to be a break from the orthodoxy.
That is something the Left quickly understood in their march through the institutions. What was set up to keep the old WASP elite in power, could easily turn them into shaggier versions of the people they replaced. That and those institutions failed to defend the old guard against the radicals. The Left has systematically altered the institutions of American life to maintain their dominance. The Left did not just march through the institutions. They altered them, like a virus alters the host’s healthy cells to replicate itself.
That is another lesson. The people in charge are well aware of how they gained their position. They are not about to make the same mistakes as their predecessors. When Siaka Stevens gained power in post-colonial Sierra Leone, one of the first things he did was destroy the rail line between Bo and Freetown. The reason is it crippled the economy of his primary political rivals. Even though it damaged the nation’s economy as a whole, what mattered to Stevens is it helped him stay in power. The Left thinks the same way.
What that means for alternative media and alternative tech is they have to remain independent and hostile to the orthodoxy. A guy like Richard Spencer, racing to be on liberal media when they call, is going to be destroyed eventually. He is not as clever as he thinks and Lefty plays for keeps. The same holds for technology. Again, Gab is a good example of how to do it right. They are building their own financing mechanism so they do not have to sell their souls to the Silicon Valley oligarchs.
Finally, the PJ Media experience says something else. Even as these first wave populist outlets were absorbed by the blob, the audience continued to grow. This is another lesson of history. Once people break free from the old intellectual and moral restraints, they do not go back to the old ways. We are in the midst of an intellectual revolution, where the old modes of thought are challenged by new modes of thinking about politics, society and the human condition. Old media has the money, but new media has the numbers.
In the end, it is always about the numbers.