What is Red Scare and Am I Exempt From Caring About It? A Brief Guide to the Podcast World’s Laziest Provocateurs

This particular podcast is also emblematic of a certain kind of disaffected, supposedly leftist voice that’s casually full of breathtaking cruelty.

In Depth
What is Red Scare and Am I Exempt From Caring About It? A Brief Guide to the Podcast World’s Laziest Provocateurs
Illustration:Jim Cooke

It’s a truism at this point that each day brings some fresh outrage, ranging from the miserably depressing to the powerfully stupid. We ping-pong from children in disease-ridden concentration camps run by the American government to the president’s baffling Fourth of July Big Boy Tank Parade. We barely emerge from one dumb-ass wave before the next one drenches us all.

What I’m saying is, people are also mad about a podcast. In part, they’re mad because having something truly no-stakes to feel irritated about right now is kind of refreshing.

But this particular podcast is also emblematic of a certain kind of disaffected, supposedly leftist voice that’s casually full of breathtaking cruelty. It’s becoming yet another study in how performative irony can be a vehicle for smuggling in some truly hateful ideas. It’s a niche group, to be sure, but one that believes themselves to be the nihilist future of politics—and do actually have sway and cachet among a certain subset of white 20- and 30-somethings with influential jobs in media and fashion.

With all that in mind, let’s collectively explore why people are mad, and then let us speedily, mercifully, move on.

What podcast, and why are people mad, preferably in as few words as possible?

The pod in question is Red Scare, a purportedly leftist show hosted by two women: Anna Khachiyan, the daughter of a famous mathematician who proudly identifies herself as a dropout from a PhD program, and Dasha Nekrasova, an indie actress and former poet. Before Red Scare was well-known, Nekrasova also went viral last year when an Infowars reporter attempted to ambush interview her for a random liberal-on-the-street interview in Austin, with reasonably disastrous results. (Khachiyan appears to have also done some rookie journalism around 2012 in small New York publications; a few Q&As she did with Bullett live on. Nekrasova still does some acting, but Red Scare appears to be Khachiyan’s main gig at this point.)

In the very small, largely Brooklyn-based world of people who care about such things, some people—myself very much included—are annoyed by the pair. Simply put, that’s because they say outrageously offensive and bigoted things while draping them in the most gossamer-thin layer of plausible irony. They use “gay” as a synonym for bad, gleefully use the word “retard,” and mock the MeToo movement and what they term “liberal” feminism as a whole. It’s all delivered in a dueling pair of bored, near-monotones, interspersed with some purposefully provocative but less blazing-hot takes (“The only acceptable hobby is smoking cigarettes,” went a recent one.)

There’s not a lot of identifiable leftism or political content in the show, minus some approving nods to labor unions, Bernie Sanders, and universal healthcare. Needless to say, Glenn Greenwald is a big fan.

Red Scare is part of a larger universe of podcasts associated with the so-called “dirtbag left,” a group of people who pair supposedly progressive politics with gleefully offensive sentiments. Nekrasova’s fiancé is one of the hosts of a podcast called Cum Town, and both women are friends with Amber A’Lee Frost of Chapo Trap House, the granddaddy of all dirtbag left podcasts.

If you would rather not read further, you can simply watch a pretty funny parody someone recently did of them on Twitter and move right along with your day.

Must we?

I know, I don’t want to be here either. Life is so short, and death is a gathering tidal wave above us all. But all signs point to the ladies industriously chipping their way into a certain vector of public attention. The Cut profiled Red Scare in October 2018, with writer Noreen Malone memorably tagging them as people who “seem to feel so disenfranchised that they have nothing left to lose, serv[ing] up a vicarious thrill with their willingness to offend, their apparent nihilism.” In February of this year, The Cut also documented the pair walking in their first fashion show, for the designer Rachel Comey.

Besides the fact that they make nearly $13,000 a month on Patreon (I know, yes, help), that fashion show appearance seemed to be one of a number of pretty strong indicators that the duo is becoming somewhat famous outside of the claustrophobic universe of leftist podcasts. And as their fame becomes slightly less localized, the bedfellows here are becoming very strange. Audrey Gelman of The Wing tagged herself as a “longtime listener,” and her buddy Lena Dunham excitedly shared her fandom in a now-deleted tweet. This is despite the fact that both women have been ruthlessly mocked by Khachiyan and Nekrasova; Dunham announced that she enjoyed the show despite the pair calling her a “human beanbag.” (Gelman’s husband was also a co-host of a short-lived podcast of men recapping Red Scare, a kind of irony so circular it disappears immediately into its own collective ass.)

This fandom is strange, given that Red Scare is, again, in the business of saying outrageously offensive things. To pick one recent example out of dozens, Khachiyan and Frost of Chapo Trap House recently appeared in a bizarre article in Spiked, a right-leaning British magazine. (Nekrasova’s absence was unexplained.) Though Khachiyan has complained on Twitter that the quotes were taken out of context, the quotes themselves are pretty damn weird: she began the interview by telling the writer, “You can tell people I’m trans… I’m not trans, but you can say that just for fun.” (She argued later that she was simply making fun of herself, which, sure.) She and Frost went on to complain at length about “uptight, white, overeducated, liberal women,” as they put it, with Frost bizarrely claiming, using Lena Dunham as her sole example, that there’s a rash of middle-class women “voluntary [sic] removing their reproductive organs.”

From there, Khachiyan veered into an even hotter take which managed to dismiss the rise in organized, visible white supremacist groups in the United States:

‘You should be able to hate and hatred should be protected, as long as it doesn’t spill over into physical violence.’ ‘There’s this idea that we live in a white supremacist country when we fundamentally don’t’, says Khachiyan. She mentions antifa, the self-styled anti-fascist group that, since our conversation, has hit the headlines for beating up a right-leaning journalist in Portland. ‘Antifa have manufactured a threat to have some semblance of an identity’, she says. ‘All these people who say they are anti-fascist don’t know what it means to be persecuted.’

It went on like that, a hash of bizarre claims and obvious attempted provocations (“‘All ‘race’ is, is that some people don’t sunburn,” Frost claimed at one point, “That’s the entirety of racial difference.”) It was a real mess.

It’s not limited to bad interviews with fringe magazines, though. Khachiyan also recently mocked a comedian named Kath Barbadoro who said on Twitter that she’d rather not work with clubs who host Louis CK. Barbadoro called it a “workplace safety issue,” to which Khachiyan responded on her Instagram stories, “Lmao Louis CK isn’t gonna jump out of the bushes and rape you, Kath . . . he’s a chastened man who also . . . did nothing wrong.” (He did.)

OK, I get the point. This all feels very early Vice, the “jokey” offensiveness that really feels like not much of a joke at all.

It does, yes: it’s the same kind of fig-leaf of hipster irony and showy apathy hiding a heaving, scabrous mass of genuine cruelty. Which is why it’s so surprising that Khachiyan is 33 and Nekrasova is 28; until the moment I began this blog, I’d thought they were far younger and some of this was due to callow youth, etc. But no: presumably they lived through the first round of all this shit, and yet, here we are, doing it again.

It’s also worth noting that the use of performative jokey irony to disguise genuinely hateful statements is such a well-recognized trope at this point that it was in the style guide for the Daily Stormer, the neo-Nazi website. Which is positively not to say that the Red Scare women are Nazis. Yet there’s also been some toying with truly hateful symbols. A recent anonymous blog criticizing Khachiyan and Nekrasova included photos of the latter hanging up an SS flag in someone’s house.

The same blog post featured some now-deleted tweets from Khachiyan featuring sentiments like “A guy like Donald Trump primarily attracts glorified prostitutes so you probably shouldn’t feel too bad for anybody whose pussy he grabbed.” She also wrote in a 2015 tweet, that she will doubtless also argue was a big joke for fun: “Let’s be clear on one thing. I am not and have never been a liberal or a leftist. I’m a cryptofacist, and the ‘crypto’ is being generous.” All very fun and normal!

Oh. That sucks.

That’s a statement, not a question, but given that this blog structure is rapidly disintegrating, I’ll allow it.

Switching gears somewhat: what’s going on with all the eating disorder content?

A weird and largely undiscussed wrinkle in the Red Scare version of hipster shock-jockery is the fact that it also includes some casual valorization of anorexia. One of them maintains a secondary Twitter account devoted entirely to what she’s eating, or not eating, plus photos paired with text in which she exults about how thin she looks. (I’m not linking to it because it would be frankly irresponsible to do so. A fair number of people in media follow it, though, which is certainly a choice.)

On a recent episode of the pod, one of the hosts—their voices are impossible for me to tell apart—admitted that she’s recently thought that she’s thin because God must especially love her. Again, it was a “joke,” but, seemingly, not really.

It’s maybe not a coincidence that a lot of the Red Scare fandom—besides edgelord men who also enjoy Cum Town and Chapo—seem to reside in the worlds of art, film, and fashion. Those are places that are often similarly aesthetics-obsessed as the Red Scare hosts, and are worlds full of disordered eating and alarming body image stuff. In that fashion show blog from The Cut, Nekrasova told writer Emilia Petrarca that the main thing that excited her was seeing how “desired and frail” the models were:

“I had a moment at the after-party when I was watching these beautiful and perfect models, who were drunk and coked-up out of their minds and everyone was admiring them,” Nekrasova recalls. “They were like, partying and dancing and lying down on the floor with their thin legs, and I was like, Wow, my life’s okay, but I would literally trade it all — the podcast, Adam, my status as a socialist icon… — I would trade it all to be an extremely hot and relevant model for five seconds. I think that’s probably the best feeling a human being can have. It’s probably heavenly to be desired and frail.”

Isn’t this kind of hypocritical? Why aren’t you giving Chapo or Cum Town a hard time? Is it because you hate other women?

This is a feminist website. Red Scare’s particular take on “feminist issues” is probably of interest to our readers.

Also, and I will be candid with you here, getting through several episodes of theirs was about all I could handle. I still have not scaled the twin Chapo-Cum Town mountains and I likely never will.

Are you, a neoliberal fake feminist stooge at Jezebel, simply jealous and ugly?

That must be it.

Do I really have to care about this?

You positively do not. A lot of things in this current social moment are moral emergencies; bad podcasts aren’t.

So why think about these people, however briefly, at all? Mainly, I suppose, for the exhausting and yet useful sense of history repeating itself. Besides being rife with bad takes about the indisputable rising tides of xenophobia and white supremacism in America right now, this particular bad podcast is also demonstrative of the way that a certain kind of anti-feminism masquerading as clever contrarianism reliably appears over and over. The Red Scare women are avowed big fans of Camille Paglia, and in the end, what they’re doing is sort of a cut-rate, Xeroxed-to-oblivion version of her work. Maybe, in the end, there are a finite number of ways to be an asshole in this world and we have, at last, mercifully, seen them all.

(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)

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