So here we go. I’m about to blow my MoronWatch anonymity after 2,325 days on Twitter. There are a number of reasons for this; foremost is that my book was published today, but there are various others. Before I enter into a long and sentimental ramble, I might as well cut to the chase.
My name is Jerry Barnett, and my book, Porn Panic!, was published today by Zero Books. The book is about porn, but really it’s about the politics of sex and censorship, but really it’s about the decline of the progressive left and the rise of a new fascism. In my humble and highly-biased opinion, it’s a unique, timely and important book. I wrote it based on my experiences over the past years, including my six years of online “work” as MoronWatch.
Besides rambling on social media, and writing books, I’m a software engineer by background, a tech entrepreneur, a photographer, and (as I’ve repeatedly referenced) a lifelong anti-fascist. I’m also a parent to beautiful kids, an ageing raver and a natural-born rabble-rouser. My Jewish background, my time spent as a racial minority in black communities, and my mixed relationship (my partner is of Nigerian background) are all among the reasons for my hatred of racism and fascism.
MoronWatch has changed substantially in the past six and a bit years, for a variety of interlinked reasons. Some of this is covered in my book, but let’s try to pick it apart a little here. I actually first joined Twitter in 2009, a year before I began moron-watching. Twitter allowed a promiscuity of social contact, breaching walls between strangers in a way that Facebook did not. It allowed for more open and more intelligent discussion (as well as for more shouting and trolling) and I enjoyed it immensely. But I became fascinated that I could read the ramblings of people I didn’t like: Nick Griffin of the British National Party for example. Now I could. On the other hand, following Nick Griffin might cause some of my Twitter friends to raise eyebrows. How to follow such people (and take the piss out of them) anonymously? And so, on 15th April 2010, MoronWatch was born.
MoronWatch was unusual – possibly unique – in that I only followed people I didn’t agree with, never people I did. I began by following Nick Griffin, a variety of other right-wingers, religious fundamentalists and some propagators of superstition such as homeopaths and astrologers. It’s worth pausing for a moment to note just how stupid the zeitgeist has become in such a short time: by the standards of today’s purveyors of anti-science bullshit – natural remedies for cancer, chemtrails and a million conspiracy theories about everything – homeopaths and astrologers seem positively quaint and harmless.
MoronWatch was also unique for another reason. From the start, I aimed to tease and mock, but not to bully. I followed people with stupid views, and interacted with them, rather than block them. I tried to open discussions and change minds. As a result, I developed a broad audience, religious and atheist, moron and non-moron. Although many people that I followed blocked me, many more followed back, and many of these got the joke.
Without consciously planning it this way, MoronWatch became a hub of Twitter discussion, debate and entertainment unlike any other. I only realised how unusual this was when an academic study – into online climate change debate – named my MoronWatch account as one of a tiny handful worldwide that was widely followed by both climate change believers and sceptics. Of course, as readers will know, I believe strongly in the danger of man made climate change, and have often attacked sceptics; but the fact was, I was among the rare few that didn’t just preach to the converted in their cosy little echo chambers (indeed, I blogged on the danger of online echo chambers).
The early speed of growth in my followers took me by surprise. A thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand followers within a couple of years. I turned my attention to the rise of the new far-right, especially the English Defence League, which I saw as a genuine threat.
After a few months of being an exclusively Twitter character, I began blogging as MoronWatch, and created the obligatory Facebook presence. My early articles tried to replicate my Twitter persona, but flippant piss-taking and use of the word “moron” didn’t work so well in long form as it did in 140-character tweets, and my blog identity slowly evolved in a new, more serious, direction, attracting a new audience.
But slowly my worldview began to shift, for a number of reasons. This was my first engagement with left-wing politics since my activist days, which began in the late-70s and had fizzled out by the early-90s. But I soon began to see that the left was no longer as I remembered it. Some of the slogans remained the same, but the movement was a different animal entirely, and the world, too, had changed enormously.
I experienced little moments of awakening which came with increasing frequency. A young man – an ex-EDL member – told me that he had joined the group because of hostility that he and his friends had experienced from Asian immigrants in his northern town. He had quickly left the group once the its racist nature became apparent; and yet his experience of the political left – which should have been reaching out to people like him – was of anti-racist protesters who turned up to march in his town, and joined some Asian youth in pillorying and attacking young white men. The anti-racists, instead of trying to bridge divides in working class communities, had effectively declared class war on communities that were struggling with the effects of the mass immigration. I noted that the left was turning against its original base: white working class people. I predicted that this would benefit the nationalist right. Today, Brexit, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen prove me right.
Meanwhile, I was earnestly informed that, under new “theories” of the left, brown people could not be racist. The left was abandoning its old, core beliefs of equality, unity and solidarity and replaced them with an imagined hierarchy of “oppressions” that looked remarkably like the racist hierarchies of the old, white supremacist right. People were being judged by the colour of their skin, not the content of their minds. We had gone through the looking glass.
The new left had, I was learning, largely abandoned class politics for a bigoted set of ideologies known as identity politics. Now people were being arbitrarily graded by race, sex and sexuality. Unity had given way to arbitrary division. Now, non-white people, women, homosexuals, trans people and other groups were deemed to be “oppressed”, whether they themselves felt oppressed or not, and regardless of their actual life experiences. Bit by bit, I awoke to the reactionary and divisive nature of many on the new left. My reaction to this was horror. I could find humour in the reactionary right, but could not view the intellectual and political decline of the left with anything but sorrow and anger.
Meanwhile, I had become involved in free speech and sexual freedom activism. Through this, I encountered new activist communities, and again was surprised to find that anti-sex and anti-free speech conservatism, once associated with the right, was now deeply embedded in the movements of the left, from the Labour Party to trade unions, the feminist and anti-racism movements.
My writing began to shift, acknowledging that, if I was to “watch morons”, I had to be true to myself and point out stupidity everywhere, including (no – especially) in my own tribe. In January 2012, I wrote a piece on reactionary feminism, Feminists or Fascists? In July of that year, I more broadly critiqued the left for the first time, with a blog post: I Never Left The Left – The Left Left Me. The title of the last piece summed up my feeling then, and now: I could no longer associate myself with a political left that had broadly adopted conservative, bigoted attitudes; and worst of all, had become deeply rigid and unintelligent in its thinking. The intelligent commentators in politics were increasingly to be found on the centre-right and libertarian-right than the left. I set out to explore the idea of left-wing libertarianism, and wrote a well-received post on Right-wing vs Left-wing Libertarianism. I saw self-obsessed, self-pitying middle-class ‘liberals’ appropriating oppression from the poor.
I began to turn my attention towards new ‘morons’ to watch. The Guardian, a paper I’d loyally read for many years, had become involved in propagating anti-sex moral panics, and had adopted much of the worst bigotry of identity politics. I wrote pieces including an analysis of The Guardian’s Sexual Hang-ups, and another in response to a deeply racist article about pornography in Africa. Via the Guardian, I discovered the ludicrous new-left idea of “cultural appropriation”, and again was horrified that racist and divisive ideology was now being propagated by ‘liberals’.
My anger with the left was not just borne of a feeling of tribal betrayal. I saw a dangerous rise in fascist attitudes that were becoming standard in many left-wing circles. As a veteran anti-fascism campaigner, this horrified me, and increasingly absorbed my attention. There appeared to be little critique of the new-left from commentators of the left. I felt a detailed commentary was needed. In January 2013, to escape British winter and London distractions, I took a cheap laptop to Gambia and began to write Porn Panic!
My personal life changed too: my son was born in Spring of 2013 and my daughter early this year; between babies and writing, the time I’d had for social media evaporated, and MoronWatch became a quieter online presence.
Porn Panic! is my attempt to coherently tie together the various trends I’ve documented over the years, from reactionary, anti-sex feminism to racism and authoritarianism across the political spectrum, and to growing attacks on free speech by the British Establishment. I quote George Orwell more than once in the book; surely he remains one of the most visionary commentators of the 20th century. In particular, Animal Farm, his satire on the Soviet Union, in which the revolutionaries and the establishment blur into each other until they are one and the same: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”. Depressingly, Orwell seems more relevant today than ever.
We are in a new era, in which the left-right divide appears to mean little. Instead, the liberal values of the Enlightenment – liberty, equality, reason – are under fierce attack from extremes of both left and right. Fascism is with us, in numerous guises. To quote from Porn Panic!:
“Fascism again stalks the West, in both recognisable forms and new ones. In France, draconian restrictions on speech and assembly have followed the Paris shootings of November 2015; in Poland and Denmark, the far-right has gained unprecedented ground in elections. Meanwhile in America, Donald Trump clownishly suggests that as President, he might: “… go see Bill Gates [and talk to him about] closing that Internet up in some way. People will say ‘Oh freedom of speech,’ these are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.”
And sadly, Trump’s comments closely match some from the British left who have chosen to shout FREEZEPEACH at people on social media who dare suggest that censorship might not be a good thing.”
I hope that MoronWatch followers will enjoy reading Porn Panic! I’m especially pleased that it was recognised and published by Zero Books, a left-wing publisher. Today, far more than in 2013, there is fast-growing recognition on the left that it has deep, even existential problems. And today, as I’ve warned for some years, the rise of a new fascism is undeniable. Some of the book’s ideas will be familiar to regular blog readers, but much of it is new.
Journalists and bloggers can contact me for review copies and to request interviews: firstname.lastname@example.org