For roughly a year, an “ancestral fitness” personality named Brian “Liver King” Johnson ran a successful lifestyle hustle. His pitch to potential true believers was simple: eat raw organ meats, walk around shirtless outdoors, carry kettlebells, and follow his “nine tenets”. The subsequent physical rejuvenation of these sedentary males, formerly afflicted with the declining testosterone levels of the 21st century, would speak for itself. Only it wouldn’t, because Liver King’s methods didn’t work. Not even for him.
Johnson admitted in an apology, made after emails that confirmed his long-denied use of performance-enhancing drugs, that he spent thousands of dollars a month on steroids. The aim was to endow himself with a physique that implied the extreme fitness that he was attempting to sell to others. But that fitness was illusory: one powerlifter who knew him recently mocked his 455-pound deadlift, a decent number for a novice lifter or a teen boy but unimpressive for someone spending as much on steroids as the Liver King.
The Liver King’s story is a microcosm of the ever-evolving Right-wing manosphere, which emerged from self-help roots in the early 2000s to attain a quasi-political, quasi-spiritual status, alongside the ascendancy of Donald Trump. The most obvious Trump train rider in the manosphere was former advice blogger and accused rapist Mike Cernovich, who published the political book MAGA Mindset as a follow-up to his Gorilla Mindset self-help text, between blogging about topics such as grip strength when choking a woman during sex. Liver King never became explicitly political the way Cernovich did, but his message was a streamlined and extremely dumbed-down version of the MAGA-adjacent ideology being preached by anon fitness influencers such as Raw Egg Nationalist — whose alignment with Tucker Carlson led to appearances in a documentary, The End of Men, as well as on Fox News.
For all these men, there is some kind of secret — an ancient secret, in the case of the Liver King — that gullible, inward-looking initiates must uncover, via various steps. The navel-gazing nature of all this recalls the fitness fads, cults, and other New-Age quests for meaning of the Seventies that cultural critic Tom Wolfe labelled America’s “Third Great Awakening”.
The previous two awakenings concerned the revival of Protestant spirituality in the mid-18th and early-19th centuries; all three were spurred by a sense of social disorder. First, New England Congregationalists strayed from the true light of the lord that led them to the New World. Second, newly Independent Americans found themselves facing down the settlement of the frontier with little assistance from their laissez-faire government. And in the Seventies, hippies and flower children found themselves grappling with the violent disappointments of popular protests, while a bloated, bureaucratic state struggled to bring about even a stalemate in Vietnam.
Throughout these three centuries, but with increasing velocity and urgency from the Sixties onward, the personal began to substitute for the political. Now, as Malcom Kyeyune recently noted, we are in uncharted territory: now, with “proliferating numbers of belief systems and fringe political narratives on the Web”, the political is personal. In other words, the “personal” — abetted by the technologies like social media that centre the user, indeed making them the narcissistic centres of their virtual worlds — has completely subsumed the “political”; everything everywhere is personal and filtered through some sort of Freudian superego that functions as a “self-marketing machine”, with the rest of life merely incidental. Online, various quasi-faiths and crude scientism are offering people personal uplift combined with the promise to fix their little communities, the only parts worth saving, the parts open to the elect.
Though influencers such as the Liver King, Raw Egg Nationalist, and Bronze Age Pervert are new to the scene, relatively speaking, nothing about their appeal is novel (even though certain practices, such as directing red light on the testicles to stimulate testosterone production, are only now technologically possible). They themselves emphasise this: their appeals harken back to past practices, times when “men were men”, even if they cannot agree when exactly that was. Hesiod’s age of gold? A Twenties naval port, with nattily-attired “wolves” awaiting the hearty “rough trade” from the high seas, sure to appear whenever the “fleet’s in?” A seedy Forties YMCA, where the bodybuilding demimonde has gathered to “slonk” raw eggs before proceeding to grease up and commence lifting in jockstraps? Regardless of the time of the last real men, it was very different from our present fallen, failed, and low-testosterone state of existence.
Calls for the rebirth of masculinity echo throughout recorded history, issued by everyone from the aforementioned Hesiod to Japanese author and extreme nationalist Yukio Mishima (a favourite of this current round of fitness-cum-politics influencers). The “Third Great Awakening” of the Seventies ended with the emergence of religious groups such as the Promise Keepers, an Evangelical movement seeking to call men back to “courageous leadership” and “marital” fidelity. Meanwhile, in secular literature, the breakdown of masculinity and paternal authority was addressed in Robert Bly’s influential 1990 book Iron John: A Book About Men — a text which inspired any number of subsequent manosphere efforts, including Tom Matlack’s “The Good Men Project” (a website that launched the careers of everyone from Hugo Schwyzer and Harris “Dr. Nerdlove” O’Malley to yours truly) and even the pickup artistry of Neil Strauss and Mystery (Iron John, like Robert Greene’s works on power and seduction, found itself on many “PUA” reading lists).
I mention my personal involvement here — the personal is political, after all — because I’ve followed the manosphere’s trajectory since the early 2000s. I’ve also spent decades strength training and eating raw meat and raw eggs, as well as interviewing and writing about some of the world’s leading strength coaches and athletes. These activities would suggest, on the surface, that I am sympathetic to the cause of egg-slonkers, bronze-age warrior worshippers and bodybuilding aesthetes. Far from it: I see their Liver King-style marketing as sophomoric, the sort of thing I’ve attacked in print whenever possible.
My interest in strength stems solely from viewing it as preferable to incapacity. The enjoyment I’ve derived from weight training arises, to quote venerable strength coach Mark Rippetoe, who I recently interviewed, from “completing a task you couldn’t do previously”. And yet, throughout my career as a journalist covering sports and fitness, I have been asked what I have learned from figures such as Raw Egg Nationalist. When I interviewed the paleo diet influencer John Durant, during the early days of the alt-Right’s emergence as a media phenomenon, he assumed I shared his belief that eating raw or rare meat is a radical political act. I do see it as political, but only in the sense that I stand with politicians who support regenerative grazing practices and increasing access to meat for poor and undernourished children; meat is merely a means, not an end. I’d gladly eat something less primal, including biologically identical lab-grown meat, if such a thing could ever be manufactured cheaply and at scale.
That’s not to say that these fitness influencers don’t offer some useful advice. All popular gurus and spiritual leaders do. Eating organ meats, getting adequate sleep, spending time in the sun, and even taking some pride in one’s body — an edifice that is both temple and tomb — are not bad practices in and of themselves. However, this advice is chained to a lot of gobbledygook, from bizarre, hero-worshiping misreadings of history to faux-scientific racism. The noted dissident author Zero HP Lovecraft, for instance, once used a voice changer to record a podcast in which he argues that the different races are different species.
It is almost impossible to say how influential these figures are; on the one hand, they will claim that they directly created the Trump phenomenon, but on the other, they will joke that they’re just “frogs” who “shitpost online”, unlike the “facefags” (people whose identities are public) who genuinely care about things. Bronze Age Pervert, whose book Bronze Age Mindset is the sort of amusing Nietzschean pastiche one might expect from a PhD student having a spot of fun, is known to be read by congressional staffers; and yet, he huffily complained about City Journal allowing Kyeyune to publish an article that’s mildly critical of him. Like the Liver King, these figures take zero responsibility for the failures and shortcomings of their acolytes — but unlike him, most of them will never be seen at all, so what difference does it make?
Here, then, is the great weakness that stems from the evolution of “the personal is political” into “the political is personal”: far from allowing the development of strong convictions, the new creed is so malleable as to be meaningless. If one argues that the job of the Republican Party is to win elections and reward its constituencies, those on the Right who preach that “the political is personal” won’t help. Why would they bother? Most are already arguing that the nation or the world has collapsed, which is far easier than facilitating real political change, which would require moving the GOP to the centre.
Things are fairly hopeless, according to the manosphere. Yet if pressed, the Liver Kings and Bronze Age Perverts won’t turn on, tune in, and drop out like millenarian hippies bound for the commune; they’ll hang around, continuing to offer advice on how to infuse the self into politics and vice versa. They and many of their followers — some of whom left the Left by way of the so-called “post-Left” — would gleefully ridicule such “personal-political” posturing were it to issue from gender identitarians or committed anti-racists. Zero HP Lovecraft, however, says the quiet part out loud (in the same podcast in which he compares white and black people to wolves and coyotes): if one side is doing racism, then we will do racism as well.
This is the grave danger behind the very online Right’s turn towards “the political is personal”: at the back of the ironic fitness, the talk of physiognomy, and the IQ-test silliness, there lurks an us-versus-them mentality. And it’s a mentality that allows the manosphere to gleefully join the progressive Left in bidding farewell to any of the remaining civil norms that facilitate debate and compromise. It will do nothing to break the sclerotic gridlock in the body politic — and nothing, ironically, for the young men of America who are actually trying to get stronger.
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