If you’re an avid viewer of VICE documentaries, the one face you’re likely to associate with the hipster media complex more than any other is that of Shane Smith – its bearded, greying co-founder.
Unlike most CEOs, Shane doesn’t simply cut corporate deals with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Time Warner, he also appears on camera. Having fronted some of VICE’s best-loved documentaries, like The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia and Inside North Korea, his unique brand of understated charm, that is obviously such a hit with investors, also translates remarkably well to video.
He introduces segments of VICE’s HBO show and is the focus of just about every profile piece ever written about the company. His prominence sometimes feels like a cult of personality, one that completely overshadows VICE’s other two founding fathers: Suroosh Alvi, who you might recognize from a handful of his own documentaries, and the lesser-known Gavin McInnes.
For those who only tuned in to VICE as it went mainstream some five or six years ago, McInnes’ name might be completely unheard of. He left the company in 2008 in a departure that was cryptically put down to “creative differences,” the details of which only get discussed in the vaguest of terms.
The split was clean, dignified and total, and most traces of McInnes’s legacy are confined to rare, long out-of-print issues of the magazine. Little of his written work has been transferred to the online archives, and it’s clear that there has been a concerted effort to brush his memory under the carpet. This is understandable: since his departure, McInnes has become a right-wing troll in the Ann Coulter mould. He’s a Fox News regular, committed Trump supporter and a self-admitted “Western chauvinist” who has built a media career from the internet outrage economy that birthed Alex Jones and countless other online extremists.
These days, rather than filming himself perform magic tricks on the street that involve pulling cards out of his ass, McInnes is more or less the Men’s Rights subreddit manifested in human form. Most of his time is spent antagonizing feminists and offending liberal sensibilities on Compound Media’s The Gavin McInnes Show – a sort of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver-type program aimed at the sort of people who like to slap their wives around after a tough day at work. He also does pretty much the exact same thing for The Rebel Media.
He still writes, mostly for hard-right publications, with one viciously transphobic article leading to his suspension (and later departure) from the ad agency that he co-founded soon after leaving VICE. Over the years, he has made a point of racially profiling much-loved TV astrophysicist, Neil Degrasse Tyson; claiming that there’s a war on men; arguing that “God” thinks that “women should be at home with the kids” on Fox News, and other similarly tumorous views.
This not the sort of rhetoric that you’d expect to hear from the dude that many regard as “the godfather of hipsterdom” and credit for popularizing that faux-lumberjack look that defined the zeitgeist from the mid-2000s onward. He’s also not the sort of person you expect to see moving in conservative circles or jumping into bed with the painfully lame stiffs on Fox News, because, well, he’s actually quite funny, charismatic and bears no resemblance to typical conservative avatars like Rick Santorum or Ted Cruz.
His reinvention as a right-wing shrieking head is often viewed as a bizarre case of split personality disorder: VICE, with its overt focus on sex, drugs and debauchery, has always poked a finger in the eye of moralizing puritan norms, and is precisely the sort of thing that a typical Fox News viewer would bring to a book burning.
McInnes wasn’t a silent, passive cog in the VICE machine, either. While Shane Smith may have become its public face, McInnes is its soul. In the early years, he almost single-handedly wrote entire issues of the magazine, using multiple pseudonyms to make it feel like a fully-fledged publication rather than the amateurish, DIY operation that it was in reality. Smith and Alvi sold ad space and handled logistics. But that snide, facetious tone that VICE is so renowned for today is McInnes’s creation, as is the legendary DOs & DON’Ts column and just about everything else that made it worth reading. Without him, there would probably be no VICE as we know it today.
But for those as familiar with McInnes, his work and the idiosyncrasies that define him as I am, his rightward lurch is hardly that surprising. His entire career has been devoted to trolling people. At VICE, his verbal barbs were generally directed at people’s clothing because of the nature of the publication. When he writes for a conservative site like Taki’s Magazine, he compares online feminists to rapists, because that’s what right-wingers like to read. But the aggressive, offensive, and arguably hateful signs were always there. The confusion is born out of the assumption that VICE is a liberal media organization, which it’s not.
Well, it is and it isn’t. VICE has always covered politics without being explicitly political. As an organization, its leanings were never defined or uniform. Back in the early years of the new millennium, it would publish think pieces on the feminist credentials of the Muslim burqa by gay pornographer Bruce LaBruce. Progressively-minded features would sit alongside Gavin’s tirades that compared teacher’s unions to the Columbine shooters – because everyone knows that organized labor is a FAR bigger threat to kids than U.S. gun laws. VICE, back then at least, was either bi-partisan or politically apathetic.
The publication’s multi-racial nature, its publishing of gay writers or photographers, the hyper-sexual sleaze and decadent debauchery weren’t part of any progressive agenda; it was merely a reflection of the attitudes of VICE’s staff, who were mostly cosmopolitan twenty-somethings living in major cities – a demographic that is, by nature, largely tolerant to diversity. But there was never any sort of top-down ideological bent. Changing the world was not part of its mission statement.
The environmentalism and the social programs for rehabilitating ex-cons are very recent, post-Gavin developments. Before 2008, there was nothing that put him at odds with the publication’s ethos – although it should be noted that he has gotten increasingly more extreme with age. After all, right-wing views tend to develop as we wither through life, just like most neurodegenerative diseases.
He has, however, always been clear about his ideology. Gavin is a self-described libertarian, so his politics haven’t “shifted right” as The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz recently wrote in a report on the “Deploraball” – a party hosted by the alt-right on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, where Gavin was filmed punching a protester. His politics – which appear to be the result of a traumatic upbringing in the socialist people’s republic of Canada, where he and his immigrant parents were welcomed with open arms, and he and his buddies were handed welfare money to kickstart a magazine that would eventually grow into a $4 billion media empire – remain precisely where they’ve always been.
There’s a difference between “libertarian” and “liberal.” Libertarians are one of the key components of the Republican coalition in America, which also includes conservatives, free market fundamentalists and the Christian right. Now-retired Texas congressman and failed GOP presidential nominee, Ron Paul, was until recently the best-known libertarian in government.
Fundamentally, they’re not too different to the small-state conservatives that worship Ronald Reagan: they’re anti-tax, anti-regulation and want to shrink government down to its absolute minimum as a way of neutering its ability to meddle in their lives. Think of it as anarchism in ill-fitting Walmart chinos.
While the Christian right wants to moralize and snoop on people in their bedrooms to prevent them from having anything but very vanilla, Jesus-celebrating sex purely for the purposes of procreation, libertarians rarely tell other people how to live. But this shouldn’t be mistaken for tolerance: while liberals believe in maximizing collective freedom for everybody in society through laws and government policy, even if that means sacrificing a degree of personal freedom, libertarians want to selfishly maximize their individual freedom by eroding the state.
There’s a reason why most prominent libertarians are straight, well-off white men: because they don’t need government to intervene on their behalf. They occupy a default position of privileged dominance that has historically infringed upon women, the poor and minorities.
They like to paint government as an oppressive force, because it has taken away some of their privilege – although they prefer to call it “freedom” for propaganda purposes, in the same way that former slave-owning states objected to the Civil Rights Act on the basis of “state rights,” rather than “white supremacy” – and redistributed it across society. Although its adherents would argue otherwise, American libertarianism is pretty much just run-of-the-mill conservatism only without such actively fascistic tendencies. That’s not to say that those tendencies aren’t there, they’re just not so overt.
Libertarians don’t want to actively discriminate against any particular group, at least not officially, but they do want to dismantle government-imposed safeguards that protect those vulnerable to discrimination and make society fairer – a clear sign that people who drift towards libertarianism do so because they have likely never felt oppressed, marginalized or exploited.
There is no element of Gavin’s libertarianism that contradicts the drugs, the sex, the gay people, or anything else that defined VICE during his time at the publication. In fact, all throughout his 14-year tenure, he was known for making politically outrageous remarks that regularly drew accusations of racism, homophobia and every other sort of indictment that right-wingers contend with on a regular basis.
Way back in 2003, in an early New York Times profile, McInnes is quoted espousing the sort of white supremacist views that helped earn Steve Bannon a job in the White House: ”I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.”
Naturally, he laughed this off as irony-laden trollery designed to attract publicity, like most things he does. A day after publishing, McInnes explained himself in an email to Gawker: “It became irresistible to goad people and corner them into conversations about controversial politics because they were so hysterical and easy to anger. Plus, incendiary political statements garnered endless publicity for us and playing with mainstream media became a fun game.”
But while these statements would help build VICE’s iconoclastic myth, they also became a sort of Faustian bargain that eventually forced McInnes’s departure.
In a 2013 profile in The New Yorker, McInnes recounts how, as the company grew and Smith attempted to attract consistently bigger clients for ever-greater sums of cash, its more controversial content (which was, inevitably, usually McInnes’s doing) tended to scare brands and their money away. The schism continued to expand until, in his own words: “the sales team decided he was a liability and bought him out.”
As I watched this all unfold over the years, I never thought that McInnes was actually the sort of neo-fascist goon that he’s caricatured as in the media. Sure, he’s an indecent boor with a desperate need for attention and a sociopathic absence of empathy, but I never would’ve regarded him as a racist, and people who did were usually the sort of suffocatingly dull bores that actively seek out reasons to feel offended.
In a company-wide email announcing his departure from VICE, he wrote: “I’m going to continue to make fun of people’s pants and offend as many of you as possible, but I’ll be doing it at streetcarnage.com.” On Fox he’s doing exactly what he has always done, he’s just recalibrated the angle for a different audience: instead of entertaining snarky hipsters, he’s making a living as a court jester in the kingdom of internet bigotry like all the Ann Coulter’s and Bill O’Reilly’s and Sean Hannity’s that came before him. What’s that old saying? Find a job that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life? McInnes would no doubt argue that he’s succeeded in that.
But there comes a certain point where your own views cease to matter. If you align yourself with racists, misogynists, those who most would consider borderline fascists, and help propagate their agendas – whether that be for profit or amusement or whatever else – your own personal opinion fades into irrelevance. If you choose to wallow in the sewer, no one is going to care if you’re covered in someone else’s shit or your own, because you still stink either way.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
- Lead Image: The Rebel Media