MY POLITICAL JOURNEY: G
Joshua Citarella in conversation with a 22-year-old anti-imperialist from the Middle East who remains anonymous.
- Jan 03 2022
- Joshua Citarellais an artist researching online political subcultures. This interview was first published on September 30, 2021 as a chapter in his podcast series on Spotify.
JC: What social media platforms do you use?
G: I started with Instagram, not Twitter and not the other apps.
JC: How would you describe your politics or ideology?
G: Well, I started off somewhere else, but I am leaning now to Marxism.
JC: Who would you say your biggest influences are? Writers, theorists, thinkers…
G: I used to really like Roland Paul and there’s this girl on Twitter – she’s called Syrian Girl – and she has amazing political analysis, especially about the situation in Syria and the Trump administration. She’s definitely one of my favourite journalists. She has a lot of videos up on YouTube, she has a lot of commentary on political happenings in the world, even the meme culture. And if it’s related to philosophy and economics, it’s I would say Karl Marx.
JC: What results might you get from a political compass test?
G: A political compass is usually very inaccurate, but I usually end up in the authoritarian left, which, I would say, represents me.
JC: What about your folks? Were you raised in a progressive, a conservative or apolitical household?
G: I was actually raised in a very conservative, Islamic and also very political household.
JC: So, I followed you online for a long while. I think starting at the end of 2016. Most of your activity I saw was 2017, 2018. I lost you for a little while in my feed and then, you turned up again in possibly 2019, I think probably 2020. And you post a lot less frequently now, you also have a –
G: That is true.
JC: – personal account, I actually wasn’t aware of that until we spoke via DM a few days ago.
G: I actually post more politics there.
JC: You’re more active on the personal now?
G: Yeah, I’m more active there. But I did start late ’16, late 2016, into political activism and political meme culture and all of that.
JC: I’m interested to know how what I perceive to be a predominantly American meme culture, meaning Wojaks and political compasses and all the rest of it – I’m curious to know how that is seen from your perspective. I’m also curious to hear about how your views have evolved in the past few years – my memory is that your account was much more right leaning in the past; at some point you changed your account name and today, it reads pretty clearly left-wing. Maybe you would agree with that, maybe you don’t?
G: Well, I was gonna say in regards to the meme culture, I seem to be one of the very few middle- easterners that can understand this meme culture.
JC: If we can start from the beginning: when did you first learn about or start visiting political online communities?
G: It was the American elections in 2016 and it was, like, that war between Trump and Hillary Clinton. That’s when I started visiting those political Instagram pages and looking at those 4chan memes and… I think I had been 17 and a half.
JC: What platforms and communities did you start on? Was it always Instagram?
G: Oh no, it wasn’t always Instagram. It was kik at first (I don’t know whether that’s how you pronounce it? K-I-K) and then moved to Instagram.
JC: yeah, that’s interesting, I was never on kik, but I’ve interviewed a few people who were. You don’t use it anymore?
G: When it was - No, not at all – But when it was active, it had a lot of political groups. Now, mostly Instagram, I don’t use discord much, especially for politics.
JC: How have your views changed since you started participating in these spaces?
G: Oh, they changed a lot. I mean, some things stayed the same, but most things changed a lot. I used to be very right wing leaning; even at some point, I started leaning towards national Socialism, as crazy as it sounds. I was sympathising a lot with national socialists and reading about Hitler and all of that stuff. But as I got to know the members closely, I started – I don’t know how to say – shifting away from national socialism because I knew how toxic the members are and I knew it wasn’t the right political ideology for me, so I started shifting more towards left politics. Not communism instantly, but more to feminism in the beginning and reading more leftist theory.
JC: That sound like the experience of, I think, many people in 2016. Moving very rapidly very far to the right and then realizing ‘something is wrong in these communities and I need to interrogate the ideas further’. People find various pathways out of that. I think also that –
G: Exactly, that’s what happened.
JC: I think it’s important to mention as well that people who are casual observers of these spaces may not be familiar with the connection of Arian mythology and the middle east. People may think these things are mutually exclusive, but they actually have a high degree of overlap the degree of which we don’t need to outline here, but, probably important to kept that in mind when we talk about these things.
G: Persians are actually considered Arians, so for those people that don’t know that there’s actually a very big connection between Persians and, you know, European Arianism.
JC: Previous to the end of 2016, when you get on social media and go very quickly to the right – how would you have described your politics in, say, the beginning of 2016, before you get on social media in this serious way?
G: Before getting into social media and Instagram?
JC: Did you have political leanings before that, even?
G: I wouldn’t say leanings, but I’ve had opinions, for example I used to be pro-Assad, pro-Bashar-al- Assads since the very beginning, since 2011. And that was because I used to watch, you know, those Arab news channels that are vary pro-Assad and also because my family is very pro-Assad. So, I’ve grown up in this environment where we discuss what happened in Syria and stuff like that, so I’ve had political opinions before starting with the whole Trump-situation.
JC: Okay, so let’s say, 2016, 2017 maybe, earlier in your political journey, you’re very far to the right, you eventually back off of it: what was the first political interest you had as you moved away from the right-wing ideas?
G: When I first moved from the right-wing ideas, I wanted to read more and more about communism because leftism is actually not as easy as it sounds. If you really want to get into communism, you have to be really well-read; that’s why I don’t call myself a communist everywhere because I’m not as well-read as I should be and theories are very difficult to get into.
JC: I’ll share a little bit of a secret from the left-wing: no one has done the reading. It’s totally okay, everybody lies about having read about the theory.
G: That’s true!
JC: You are totally welcome on the left.
G: Everyone lies about Kapital, too.
JC: So today your account name is pretty explicitly left-wing – where in your political arc of posting and pursuing your own political education online, what year would you say you moved into left-wing ideas, is that 2019, is it later?
G: I would say it was somewhere in 2018 where I started, where I moved basically from being a right wing myself, moving to me making fun of national socialists and right-wingers and anti-feminists. It was between 2018.
JC: Where there any important influences you encountered in 2017 that helped you move away from that, maybe some content you came across online, a specific online community, anything like that or was it more about just recoiling from the toxicity of the far-right communities?
G: Other than straying away from national socialists because of their behaviour, I also started to get into the left-wing communities there and they interested me.
JC: And all of this is on Instagram, is that correct?
G: yeah, yeah, all of it.
JC: You use social media, I’d say, significantly less than a few years ago when you were more so into the right-wing stuff and I think in some ways, that is a good sign that people are finding healthier ways of using social media, not getting sucked down rabbit holes and things like that. Were there any other formative experiences in 2019, did you take up a hobby, were you enrolled in school, was there something else that started to take up a larger percentage of your time?
G: I Actually started University in 2018, 2019, like at the very end of 2018. So I started studying more often and going to Uni instead of using Instagram, So I started using Instagram much less compared to before. Nevertheless, still political, just a little bit quieter.
JC: Let’s say you come from a religious household that is conservative leaning. In 2016 you get on kik and then onto Instagram. You move very quickly very far to the right. In 2017, you’re feeling an intense toxicity in the far-right communities, you start making fun of them. You’re also aware of left-wing political communities on Instagram and you start to look more into those. By 2018, you self-identify as a left-winger, as opposed to the far right from previous. And at the end of 2018, 2019 you are enrolled in university and you spend less time online. Do you have a political label that you like to use now? Or would you just say general left-wing? Is there – Some people like to say, for example, I’m an anarcho-communist or I’m a market-socialist or a bookchinite xyz. Do you have apolitical label you prefer?
G: I would say an authoritarian leftist. That would describe me the best.
JC: In your experience of political Instagram – are most of these accounts based in the US? Are they in Europe? Are they all around the world? Where do you find people are mostly based?
G: I would say the US, so your side. I would say the overwhelming majority are from the US.
JC: How would you – I’m not sure how to ask this question. How would you describe your account? You have a very specific aesthetic style.
G: Yes, I usually post aesthetics related to authoritarian figures and political leaders and guns and people the US would consider terrorists but they’re actually not. That’s my aesthetic. It’s political.
JC: A political aesthetic, yes, for sure.
JC: Well, it’s interesting from my perspective because the generation of artists – you know, I’m a good few years older than you – but the generation of activists I came up with, we were very active on Tumblr, you know, maybe 10 years ago now or something like that, but for the viewers that are listening to the podcast and not seeing your account, I would describe it as something like cyber-twee mixed with revolt against the modern world plus some art from antiquity, some types of religious iconography, infrequently, selfies and all of this is glossed over with this kind of pastel sort of haze, or very often a pink. It sort of reminds me of what in 2011 or ’12, I can’t remember, we would sometimes call pale goth, was one of the aesthetics that emerged on Tumblr but it’s, I mean, it’s quite compelling work, you have an eye for aesthetics. Let’s shift gears for a second here: I’d like to ask you a few questions about your media consumption. This is, I think, especially prevalent in the US, we call alternative media. I’m curious: Do you spend any time on YouTube?
G: Yeah, I used to, a lot. But now, I use YouTube less. I still watch a lot of content creators - everything related to explaining certain parts of theory that I don’t understand, political situations that are happening, and opinions of people on them and I would read the comment section and all of that.
JC: In terms of specific content producers, you had mentioned Syrian girl before – is there anyone else that comes to mind that you are a fan of their content?
G: I used to be a fan of Jordan Petersen for some time.
JC: Everyone’s seen Jordan Peterson more than they’d like to admit now.
JC: Did you ever see the Žižek debate with Jordan Petersen?
G: Oh yeah, I did. That was an interesting one, the contrast between their opinion and the way they talk, like, that is so different.
JC: DO you watch any content by Caleb Maupin?
G: Yeah, I do, I do. Especially now, I watch a lot of his content. He has great views, great leftist views that are usually not talked about by leftists themselves unfortunately.
JC: He’s certainly a very different brand than a lot of the BreadTube Content that is popular nowadays in the US specifically. I also saw that maybe there was a post talking about JohnTron. He’s probably outside of your current interests, I guess.
G: Oh no, he’s still one of my favourite YouTubers.
JC: Oh, really.
G: Mostly because he’s half Persian but also because he’s really funny and I like him.
JC: Yeah, here’s maybe just a little bit of context for the listeners that are not familiar: JohnTron is really a comedian, but he is, let’s say, culturally conservative leaning, not really a political figure, though. He’s a YouTube comedian, is that fair?
G: He just has some controversial opinions that others would not [inaudible].
JC: More so like Culture War type of stuff.
JC: Do you listen to podcasts?
G: Actually, the only podcast that I used to – I still do sometimes – It’s – I forgot his name, it’s oh, the Joe Rogan (I don’t know whether I’m pronouncing this correctly), the Joe Rogan experience, that one.
JC: You’re talking about the Joe Rogan experience?
G: Oh, and Alex Jones. Alex Jones, too. Yeah, yeah, I’m talking about him.
JC: Do you still listen to Alex Jones?
G: I do, it’s – as controversial as his opinions are, he has some good takes, insane ones, too, but he’s really funny, even if you leave right-wing politics, you would still want to watch his [inaudible], just because he’s really funny and he’s got some good insights.
JC: I’ll admit that Alex Jones is a guilty pleasure for me as well, I find him hilarious. You see this guy yelling about chemicals in the water and you gotta laugh.
G: And what’s funnier is that it sounds - some of it is actually very true.
JC: What kind of stuff? Without going down too much of a rabbit hole…
G: The fluoride… Not the China-part, but the fluoride.
JC: Yeah, I think there’s a documentary made, maybe a year or something, that there are actually chemicals in the water and I think they are turning the frogs gay? I forget exactly how it ended up, it seemed like the science was indeterminate but my understanding at the end of this very confusing, 40minute documentary is that Alex Jones was actually exonerated and he was actually right about that thing that sounded crazy.
JC: He does also, just to be completely fair and level here, he does make up crazy insane shit that is, like, totally untrue. So, he’s probably running like a 5% truth 95% nonsense ration here.
G: That’s very true.
JC: Let me ask you about some of your other – do you spend any time on Reddit?
G: I’m actually not a redditer yet, at all. I’ve barely been there, all these years, barely looked into it.
JC: Let’s say, how active are you on Discord? Do you open it once a day? Do you open it once a week, once a month?
G: Once a month for gaming purposes, I would say.
JC: How about Instagram group chats? Are you active in any Instagram group chats?
G: I’m into group chats but I’m not that active there but I’m very observant there.
JC: Yeah, the Instagram group chats are 24h/day, just really fast paced, really, really fascinating stuff.
G: They’re very interesting. I’m in one where they cute animal pictures but also try to convert people to Islam which is very weird.
JC: That’s an interesting brand, that’s unique, I hadn’t heard that one before. How would you describe the political leanings of the group chats you’re in – are they left, are they more so right?
G: I’m in one that is mostly leftists, communists, and other one where it has various people from different political spectrums, also people that are completely pro-Israel and also communists there and some right-wingers.
JC: Wow, that’s quite a mix.
G: I have no idea how they get along.
JC: They must just argue all day, that must be the point of it, right?
JC: It’s not to share stuff you like, it’s to debate or something, yeah. Let’s say for example, there’s an event that happens somewhere in the world and you want to get the unfiltered truth, you want to get the real story – do you have a certain journalist you look to, a certain content producer or a publication? What’s your first instinct, where do you go to get the news?
G: Regarding the news, I’d say I like press TV. Press TV is one of my go-tos and a lot of channels that are not available to the western world because they speak in Arabic or Farsi – Almayadean or almanar (?).
JC: How about your life outside of politics – what kind of hobbies do you have, are you into music? Do you like movies? Do you play video games? What do you do in your free time?
G: I play video games but not intensely, I would say I’m a soft gamer because I only play sometimes when I feel like playing. And it’s not like hardcore games, I play Terraria, Minecraft and Heart of Iron, sometimes and I have other hobbies too, like reading, I like watching Persian movies, specifically and all foreign movies and I like art, too, I enjoy it. Although I’m not the best artist, I have some potential, I would say.
JC: What kind of art do you make?
G: I got into painting like two years ago, but I haven’t practiced well. I’m kind of into abstract art and not realism; realism’s too hard for me.
JC: If it’s not too prying, can I ask what you’re studying in school?
G: Oh, I’m studying business and economics. I started late, I started like a year after high school, and I was already a late student in high school but I managed to finish my university courses earlier because I’ve always taken summer courses.
JC: Can I ask you about your friends that you know IRL and your friends URL. Are the people that you hang you in real life, are they similarly interested in politics? Or is that really just an online hobby?
G: Oh no, my friends in real life, unfortunately, none of them are interested in politics. They usually don’t understand anything related to it, so I can’t talk to them about anything political, because they’ll just be confused. But about my URL friends, the ones on the internet, most of them are very political, even the ones that don’t have political pages or political followings, they’re still political.
JC: Have you ever been censored or has a post ever been deleted from Instagram?
G: Oh yeah, a lot, especially on my new page, I would post, uhm, about a certain group that the US would consider terrorist just because they’re not American and they fight for their country, so they’re automatically terrorists. Instagram would quickly censor me and delete the post and tell me that they’re going to delete my account for that reason.
JC: Those instances seem to happen more frequently in my observations than they did a few years ago, say for example. Have you noticed that the parameters of political speech on Instagram are becoming more narrow?
G: Yeah, they are, especially on Twitter.
JC: Well, they banned the sitting president of the United States, it’s a new era.
G: That was very weird.
JC: Let me ask you, using that as a Segway: I’m sure you have to hear about American politics all the time. Is that a fair assessment? That a lot of the time that you spend online is hearing the overflow of crazy American politics?
G: It’s very tiring, sometimes I’d like to see Iran all the time as a change but when it comes to Iran, you only hear about it when there’s a threat or something or as Americans say.
JC: One last question here: you self-identify as a left-winger. But you were vocally opposed to Bernie Sanders. Why was that?
G: I think it’s because a lot of leftist politicians are very fake, and they don’t – like they have some good leftist views, but they don’t align themselves with them in real life. They don’t give leftist what they really want, they give liberals what they really want, but they don’t give the Marxists and the working class what they want. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m very wary of leftist politicians, especially the ones that go to elections.
JC: Is there an American politician that you do like? Just out of curiosity, I’m not really sure whether anyone comes to mind.
G: Honestly no one comes to mind, I don’t really like any of them to a point that I’d say “I like him or her”.
JC: Okay. But maybe, to be clear as well, I don’t want listeners to get the wrong impressions, you’re also very much anti-Trump.
G: Well, I am anti-trump but I’m also anti-Biden.
JC: Yeah, just an important piece of context. I don’t want people to come of “If you don’t like one then you must like the other”. That’s really not the case for your political position, so I just don’t want people to mis-characterize your thoughts here.
G: thank you.
JC: Thank you so much for making the time to talk to me. This is really invaluable, really interesting research, I’m really glad we finally got to chat. Do you have any closing remarks before we sign off?
G: I would say, people have to unite. They don’t understand how much unity is important, especially in the US where there’s a lot of division happening between people because of races. People have to unite because the main problem in the US is class struggle.
- Image CaptionsJoshua's Citarella, Choose your Future, 2021; Courtney the artist and The Open Secret
Choose Your Future takes the hyperbolic political imaginings of young people, raised on the Internet, and puts those words directly into the mouths of content creators. In this way, the project mimics the process of signal amplification that occurs through social media, when radical takes move from the fringe and into the mainstream. Is this the complex analysis of the Rand Corporation? Or is it a teenager on Instagram who thinks it would be cool if these two labels were combined? I am interested in those two spheres exchanging information.
In 2021, I commissioned a group of artists and Gen Z-memers to write short wiki-style descriptions of improbable futuristic scenarios. To produce these texts, writers were instructed to copy/paste existing Wikipedia entries and to play ‘mad libs’ with the nouns, verbs, and dates. Drawing from political precedents and movements of the past, these short stories recombine history in order to anticipate long tail ideological factions that may emerge in the future. The clunky and stylistic prose shows tensions between competing editors and interpretations. The factional disputes can be read between the lines.
This project combines the creative efforts of some of the artists, memers, and content creators who have inspired me mostly over the past years.