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Play it again, Salmond

Time and again, Scotland’s First Minister has taken on the naysayers and won. He is a keen gambler b

Late on the evening of 6 May, Alex Salmond took to the stage of a nightclub in Edinburgh's New Town and performed the kind of routine of which a professional stand-up comic would have been proud. A few hours earlier he had learned that he'd been re-elected First Minister of Scotland. That in itself was cause aplenty for celebration. But Salmond's and the crowd's unconfined jubilation was enhanced because the Scottish National Party (SNP) had not only gained the most MSPs, it now had an overall majority. Under the byzantine electoral system promoted by the Labour Party this was never supposed to happen. Now, amazingly, it had. In a parliament of 129 MSPs, the Nationalists had 69. Salmond's joy was overflowing.

Salmond was introduced by Angus Robertson, the SNP's leader at Westminster. As he drove that morning from Glasgow to Edinburgh across the Central Belt, it had occurred to Robertson that every constituency he was passing through was now held by the Nationalists. But, as ever, Salmond was able to trump his campaign director. Affecting a broad Scottish accent, which comes and goes depending on who he is talking to, Salmond said that a similar thought had occurred to him as he flew south from his own count in Aberdeen. "I was thinking that a' the seats I flew o'er in ma helicopter were yellow."

He had also realised, he added, that every seat in which Ed Miliband had campaigned had been lost by Labour. To raucous cheering, he said: "If you chart every stop on the trail of doom of Ed Miliband's individual constituency visits to inspire Labour activists who were somewhere on the streets of Scotland, the SNP won every one of the seats. Mind you, we won all the seats that weren't paid visits as well."

No one does hubris with more barefaced cheek than Salmond. When things are going well, his confidence, of which he has a surfeit, overflows. It is not blood that courses through his veins, a pundit once opined, but optimism. Keen gambler that he is, Salmond exudes hope, but it is born of pragmatism, not delusion. As a backer of horses, he studies form with the same intensity as he does the ramifications of the Barnett formula. Once upon a time, he and the late Robin Cook were rival newspaper tipsters. Cook may have known how to groom horses, Salmond claimed, but he knew better - as the racing records apparently showed - how to spot a winner.

His competitiveness is legendary. The only election he has ever lost occurred in the late 1970s, when he stood for the student presidency of St Andrews University - then, as now, as Conservative-inclined as the Monday Club. Ask Salmond by how many votes he was defeated and he reels the figure off with the chagrin of someone whose grief knows no bounds. His main opponent was called Bainbridge and throughout the campaign Salmond could not resist calling him Braindamage, something which, he later conceded, may not have helped his cause. Nor was he a generous loser When this was pointed out to him he quoted the racing driver Jackie Stewart: "Show me a gracious loser, and I'll show you a loser."

Some view his pugnaciousness as arrogance, others as archetypically Scottish. It is probably a mixture of both. In person, he is affable, engaged, witty, feisty, occasionally peppery, always eager to offer an anecdote. The worst a recent biographer could find to say about him was that he sometimes shouted at civil servants. His memory of facts and statistics is geekish. As a fan of Heart of Midlothian FC (Hearts), he can reel off the names of who played in what cup tie back to the days when footballs were made of leather and Bovril was the half-time drink of choice. As a golfer, he knows not only who won the Open championship where and in which year, but what they scored in each round. It is odd, therefore, that one of the criticisms levelled at him is his lack of attention to detail. Like Winston Churchill, he has a desire to win arguments and swat opponents with rhetoric and that tends to obscure his interest in the nitty-gritty of policy.

Fight on three fronts

What cannot be gainsaid, however, is that Sal­mond is - as much as any other political leader in a western democracy - the unchallenged and acknowledged star of his bailiwick. Moreover, he is popular. Polls consistently put him ahead of his party in terms of public approval and he is far more popular than the Nats' avowed aim of independence. Love him or loathe him, he cannot be ignored.

Opponents in other parties attempt to use his ubiquity to the SNP's detriment. Salmond, they insist, is a one-man band, the only soloist in the orchestra. A few years ago this was perhaps true. Today it smacks of desperation or, worse, complacency and denial. Were Salmond to fall under a bus, those lining up to become his successor might not be legion, but they would be several and serious, and would include his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, and others such as Michael Russell, the education secretary, and the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill - on whose say-so Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the only person to have been convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, was released from prison in 2009.

Nor is Salmond unaware of this. At the outset of this year's election campaign, he said that the SNP proposed to fight it on three fronts: its record in government, its vision for Scotland and the quality of its "team". It was a gauntlet the other parties, most notably Labour, chose to disregard. Instead, the Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, preferred to concentrate his attack on the Tories at Westminster and the Cameron-Clegg coalition, even though it was pointed out repeatedly that they were not standing for election in Scotland. It was a huge tactical error. As the six-week-long campaign unfolded, the Nats moved from a distant second in the polls to command an insurmountable lead.

Time and again, it appeared it was Salmond, as much as his party, that the public supported; he was a gilt-edged asset in whom countless Scots were prepared to place their faith. In contrast to other party leaders in Scotland, he has the notable advantage of not having to look over his shoulder whenever he wants to say or do anything. When Labour is in need of ­succour in Scotland it sends for so-called big beasts such as Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander. If Annabel Goldie, the erstwhile Conservative leader, wanted a shoulder to cry on, she could always depend on David Cam­eron, who is even less appealing to Scots than Margaret Thatcher. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem leader, Tavish Scott, tried desperately to distance himself from Nick Clegg, but to no avail. For his pains and for the loss of 11 of his 16 MSPs, he had no option but to resign. Was he, like Gray and Goldie, told by his southern masters that enough was enough?

For Scots, who perceive such interference as patronising, the signals that these moves send out are not reassuring. Salmond is far too savvy not to use this to his advantage. On BBC2's Newsnight recently, he asked Jeremy Paxman to allow him to finish his answer, after which Paxman would be free to patronise him. Such quick thinking endears him to Scots, who are constantly told they are not capable of managing their own affairs though other, even smaller nations appear perfectly able to do.

Similarly, the sight of expat Scots, such as the novelist Andrew O'Hagan, the historian Niall Ferguson or the professor of media Tim Luckhurst, denouncing the SNP and bemoaning the idea of independence only plays to Salmond's advantage. As he is well aware, nothing irks Scots so much as compatriots who've gone elsewhere telling those who stayed at home how they must vote. Salmond is happy with such adversaries, knowing that their influence achieves the opposite of what they intend.

Politics has been a way of life for Alex Salmond virtually since he was born nearly 57 years ago in Linlithgow, West Lothian - where, as he once told me, his putative biographer, "much of Scottish history was made and unmade". His parents were both civil servants, but the chief influence on his childhood was his grandfather, the town's plumber, who took him on tours spiced with tales from Walter Scott and Blind Harry. "For example, he showed me the ground where Edward I had camped before the Battle of Falkirk; he showed me the window from where the Regent Moray [James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray] was shot dead in the street."

At primary school he savoured his first election victory after promising a free ice cream to those who voted for him. It is, say his critics, the kind of carrot he continues to offer without explaining fully how he intends to pay for it. As a schoolboy, he was unable to participate as much as he would have liked in sport because he was asthmatic. He made his biggest impact as a boy soprano. Singing the title role in Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, he received a warm review in the local newspaper and, had his voice not broken at the wrong moment, might have gone on to pursue a professional singing career. A novelty CD, released in 1999 to raise funds for the SNP, shows what a loss he was to the performing arts.

It was at St Andrews - long the most anglicised of the Scottish universities - where he studied medieval history and economics, that he joined the SNP after having an argument with a Labour-supporting girlfriend. On leaving university, he joined the department for agriculture and fisheries for Scotland and then worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland as an assistant to its chief economist. In 1981, he married Moira, who is 17 years his senior and who had been his boss in the civil service; the couple have no children. Then, in 1987, he ousted the incumbent Conservative MP for Banff and Buchan, Albert McQuarrie.

Back to Holyrood

It was the beginning of an enduring love affair with Westminster that he has never disguised, while attempting to disengage his country from it. Three years later he became SNP leader and a decade thereafter, having seen Scotland's parliament reconvened following a hiatus of 300 years, he stood down. At the time the decision was viewed with suspicion and fed rumours, which he revelled in acknowledging. He was, he told me on the day he announced his resignation, supposed to be terminally ill or have accumulated mountainous gambling debts or be having an affair with Sturgeon.

None was true. Salmond had always vowed to serve ten years as leader and, having done that, he intended to spend time reducing his golf handicap. In 2004, however, following John Swinney's resignation from the SNP leadership, he was back and determined to make the SNP the party of government. First, however, he had to win a seat that was far down the Nats' winnable list. His victory in Gordon, in north-east Scotland, with just over 2,000 votes to spare was symbolic, inspiring and typical, coming from behind in the polls to ease ahead in the final straight and romp lengths clear as the finishing line drew near.

It was a gamble that might have ended his career, had it not paid off. But it is at the root of Salmond's success, and those opposed to independence overlook it at their peril. These are the same people with the same tired and negative arguments who said a Scottish parliament would never work and that, if it did, there would never be a Nationalist government and that, if ever that came to pass, it would never in its wildest dreams have a majority of MSPs.

One by one, Salmond has overcome the odds to make all of these a reality. Who, four or five years hence and irrespective of what the pollscurrently predict, would bet against him delivering independence?

Alan Taylor edits the Scottish Review of Books

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

Ernest Duffoo via Flickr / New Statesman
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Spitting out the Red Pill: Former misogynists reveal how they were radicalised online

Subscribers of Reddit's most notoriously sexist subreddit explain what happens when you change your mind.

João describes swallowing the Red Pill as a feeling greater than winning the lottery.

Aged 17 and a self-described “late bloomer virgin”, he was growing apprehensive about going to college when he stumbled across an online community that seemed to hold all the answers. “I believed in it so much,” the now 24-year-old tells me via Skype from his home in Portugal, “It was such a fantastic thing to me… Back then I used to say that I was so happy about finding out about the Red Pill and pick up artists that I would rather be with them than win the lottery.

“I don't know why I believed so deeply because it really makes no sense.”

Though João experienced two happy years with fellow Red Pillers, his opinions have now drastically changed.  During the course of our half hour conversation, he uses one word exactly twenty times: “cult”.

***

The Red Pill is a philosophy, and reddit.com/r/TheRedPill is its home. The nearly 200,000 subscriber strong subreddit describes itself as a place for the “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.” In itself, perhaps this doesn’t sound too bad.

In practice, to “swallow the Red Pill” is to accept the uncomfortable truth about reality. The phrase comes from 1999’s hit film The Matrix, in which the protagonist Neo must choose between the Red Pill – which would allow him to escape the Matrix but see the real, darker world – and the Blue Pill – continued existence in his comfortable, but ultimately fake, life.

In r/TheRedPill’s instance, the “dark truths” that the subreddit’s subscribers have swallowed are these: feminism is toxic, sexism is fake, men have it harder than women, and everything the media teaches about relationships is a lie. In reality (the argument goes) women don’t want soft-centred men/chocolates; they want to be dominated, controlled, and manipulated. The most extreme Red Pillers even believe that women want to be raped.

“Rejection is not rejection,” reads an extract from the subreddit’s most popular post. “When a woman insults you, belittles you, mocks you, or says something provocative to get a reaction — these are all examples of active tests.” By following the subreddit’s advice, its subscribers are promised a life of successful sexual encounters. If they ignore the Red Pill, they will undoubtedly be rejected, cheated on, and dumped.

“They have theories that are not easy to prove or disprove, they are based on beliefs like all women cheat, they like cheating, and all women are not loyal,” explains João. “There’s this whole conspiracy thing where women are against you, they are this imagined enemy… as well as there's a whole conspiracy that society is against men, that society is anti-male so to speak, that liberals are fucking up society, that feminism is fucking up society.

“I believed everything, everything. And if you didn't believe everything… if you go on Red Pill Reddit and you disagree with someone they either delete your comments or they try to make fun of you and shame you. You can't criticise anything because people will quickly try to diminish you. So I really believed every little thing.”

***

Beliefs such as “all women are evil” and “all women cheat” are what are known as conspiracy stereotypes. Like traditional conspiracy theories, they often rely on cherry-picked evidence. The Red Pill in particular exploits evolutionary psychology to argue that women are wired to want men with a strong “frame”. Much of the subreddit’s misogyny is justified by one of their favourite acronyms, AWALT: “all women are like that”. 

“The movement’s use of evolutionary psychology convinced my rational mind that everything I read was a scientific fact supressed by feminists,” explains Jack, a British 24-year-old former r/TheRedPill subscriber.

“I began to see male victimhood throughout society,” he tells me over Reddit’s messaging service. “It fed the confirmation biases that society was built around men catering to women in return for sex.”

Mike Wood, a lecturer at the University of Winchester and an expert on the psychology behind conspiracy theories, explains that people who believe in conspiracy stereotypes such as AWALT tend to have what is known as a “Manichean” worldview.

“They feel the world is divided into absolute good and absolute evil, and the people behind the conspiracies are of course the absolute evil ones," he says.

Psychologists have a concept, entitativity, which describes the extent to which a group of people are perceived as a single entity. "If you think that a group is entitative, it’s like a swarm of bees or ants," Wood explains. "They’re not just a collection of individuals, they’re actually that a single organism that moves with singular purpose. I think that’s probably likely to be true for groups like the Red Pill, that look at women and see just a flock of harpies.”

Subscribers' experiences in the real world can reinforce their misogynistic views. Trevor*, a 34-year-old former Red Piller, explains how the subreddit led him to towards more extreme views of women.

“When I was 30, I broke up with a woman who just not a very good person,” he tells me over Skype. “I broke up with her one the phone…20, 30 minutes later she shows up [to my apartment] completely hysterical. I remember I had a large metal tin bowl with potatoes on the counter which I was going to cook for dinner or something, and she grabs it, chucks the potatoes all through the apartment… her shirt catches on a corner of a countertop and then she proceeds to tear the rest of it off like Hulk Hogan.”

When Trevor decided to call the police, it was he that ended up arrested. “I went from being in my home peacefully to being in a jail cell all because I’m a man and she's a woman.

“Now that was a very immoral human being who I was dealing with, certainly not all women are like that but that’s another brainwashing technique of the Red Pill, they say that all women are the same…

“It kind of tricks you so you're agreeing about one thing and the next thing you know you're agreeing about all these other things.”

***

These “tricks” aren’t accidental, according to João in Portugal, who now firmly believes that the Red Pill is akin to a cult.

“If you go to Red Pill and you say something that those guys don't really like then they will just delete your comments or just say that you are a ‘mangina’ or a ‘feminist’ or a ‘cuck’," he told me. "They have this social influence mechanism where they pre-emptively invalidate all criticism by criticising people back… and it is typical of cults to do this.” Other Red Pillers I spoke to also mentioned the threat of harassment. 

João also believes the Red Pill preys on those who are easily manipulated – be they young, nerdy, insecure, virgins, or simply going through a difficult time in life. Most of the ex-Red Pillers I spoke to were teenagers when they became involved in the subreddit, and most say they were exceptionally lonely at the time.

Callum*, a 29-year-old from Western Pennsylvania, has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome and speculates that “a great many” people on the Red Pill are likely on the spectrum. He became involved with the Red Pill at 19. Though he had spent much of his time at school not caring about girls, he became insecure when he started college.

“I worried that I wasn't thin enough, I wasn't tall enough, I wasn't endowed enough,” he tells me over Reddit. “I started getting very bitter about relationships in general. At no point was I ever actually angry or bitter towards women, but I was frustrated with the established societal rules, that men had to put on the show and be the best they could and that women got to pick and choose without trying much themselves, and I wasn't being picked.

“When I turned to the Red Pill subreddit I immediately felt like I figured it out. Like a cult, they give you a few obvious truths (men should be more confident, work towards physical fitness, women aren't divine perfect beings to be worshipped but flawed people, etc.). I definitely think that this enabled me to slide into accepting the more toxic beliefs of the subreddit.

“Any time someone said something outright sexist or alarming, too much for me, others would interject and say that those are just being angry and we should let them vent.”

***

Over the last year, the Red Pill subreddit has become a home for other hateful beliefs. A year ago, the alt-right’s most vocal figurehead, Milo Yiannopoulous, did an AMA (“ask me anything”) on the sub. It is now commonly accepted that the alt-right recruited men from the Red Pill and attempted to radicalise them. In fact, the alt-right has become so conflated with the Red Pill that this month a brand new subreddit – the Red Pill Right – had to be made. “My focus with this new sub is to keep us from diluting the discussion of sexual strategy on our main sub,” wrote its creator.

But how has a place designed for discussions about sex and women become so radically political?

“That is the power of the ideology,” explains Jack, the British Red Piller. “It gives you a lens that brings out the most cynical explanation of social activities…  For a while, it seemed as if a blindfold was lifted and I saw manipulation everywhere.”

Jack became involved with the Red Pill when he was 23, and had been single for a “long” time. “I was numb, lonely and desperate,” he says. “It was a terrible time in my life.”

Though Jack only spent two months on the subreddit, he quickly fell in with anti-feminist and libertarian rhetoric. “An uncomfortable misogynistic streak grew within me,” he says. “At one point [I] thought that Donald Trump was a good candidate for President.”

Like many of the places we frequent online, the Red Pill has become an echo chamber. The psychologist I spoke to, Mike Wood, told me this can lead to people adopting more and more extreme views. "If you’re in some sort of a group that defines itself by its opinions, then people will get more and more polarised over time," he says. "Individuals will try to conform to what the group mandates.” This is true of not just the Red Pill, but its opponents. While radical feminists on Tumblr, for example, become more extreme in their views, so too does the subreddit. In many ways, the extremes of each group justify one another's existence in their minds. 

“People within the group will try to get social approval from other members of the group,” Wood continues. “So they’ll play to that standard that they’re supposed to live up to – and then people will take it further because they reason ‘If I’m more extreme about this then I will get more approval’, so the norms of the group shift over time.”

Jack’s story aligns with this. “Trump represented everything that the Red Pill told me to value at the time in a mainstream political candidate: anti-PC, anti-feminist and social Darwinist policy,” he says. Those aspects of Trump that he still found unpalatable, or racist, he accepted as "a price to pay for the other stuff".

***

There exists another misogynistic subreddit which is, in fact, deeper and darker than the Red Pill. Reddit.com/r/Incels is a place for “involuntary celibates” – people who are struggling to lose their virginity – to talk. In theory, once again, this is not terrible. In practice, however, the nearly 10,000 subscriber strong group breeds bitterness towards women, and a hatred of “Chads” – men who are romantically successful. Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara student who killed six people in 2014, considered himself an incel.

For Callum, the Red Piller from Western Pennsylvania, this subreddit spoke more specifically to his own situation. “The feelings of inferiority and utter hopelessness are indescribable and the worst things I have ever felt in my life,” he says. “I think that outsiders looking in just deem these people very bitter and angry and don't understand the long process it takes to get there… It takes a long and drawn out battle with yourself that those people have lost.

“It's listening to the voices in your head, telling you how shit you are, telling you that you will never be wanted, never be normal, all your friends and family are laughing at you behind your back at failing at the easy task of finding a girlfriend. You are a walking shame to your gender. Nothing you can do can overshadow such laughable inferiority. You are nothing.”

A meme from r/Incels

It is easy to see how the inferiority complex of Incels and the superiority complex of Red Pillers both in turn breed hatred and contempt. However, some subscribers to the subreddits manage to avoid being radicalised. From those I spoke to, it seems this is more likely if they have pre-existing political beliefs or circumstances that contradict the theories of the group. 

Tim*, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, believes that r/Incels didn’t lead him to become a misogynist because he was already interested in progressive and feminist politics. He found the sub when he was 16, after growing frustrated with the advice on Red Pill and other sites. As a self-described “nerdy” young man, Tim felt anxious about how relationships worked.

“I'm not very good at following my nose in those sorts of situations,” he says. “I can't dance for instance, because I have no idea what specifically to do, so anything without a ‘rulebook’ is pretty much impossible for me.

“I spent so long searching for my ‘rulebook’ until I realised that it's doesn't exist, no one seems to have any clue what makes a relationship happen. It kinda drives you mad thinking like that, that you're the only person in the world who doesn't ‘get it’. That's where places like r/Incels come in.”

Tim says that the fact he has always been friends with women might have meant he wasn’t convinced by the group’s misogyny. “It's possible to accept that you'll be alone forever, and accept that you're very unhappy about that, without becoming hateful or misogynistic. But it seems like everyone kind of forgets that,” he says.

Louis*, a 19-year-old from Albany, New York, joined r/Incels aged 16, and does feel that it made him more bitter and misanthropic. “You feel the world actively hates you so you need to hate it back,” he says. Nonetheless, he stopped frequenting the subreddit when, like the Red Pill, it began spreading extreme right-wing beliefs. “The alt-right is how I broke from incels as the racism sort of woke me up to the reality of it,” explains Louis, who is black.

***

Each of the Redditors I spoke to has a different reason for leaving the Red Pill.

João and Jack were both influenced by Mark Manson, author of Models: Attract Women Through Honesty. “Most of what he talks about is the mind-set to care for oneself and strive to improve. Hate is energy better spent finding and enjoying activities you love,” says Jack, who also began reading about feminism.

João says he left the Red Pill because he was attracting girls that were “emotionally damaged” and not “mentally healthy”. He also felt like its advice didn’t really work. “I was going out to bars to talk to women and I would have to talk with like literally like 100 girls just to pick up one, so the whole thing is a numbers game, a probability thing,” he says. He now considers himself a feminist and has a “fantastic girlfriend” who he has been with for nearly three years.

For Callum, it took “a series of psychedelic trips” to begin getting out of both the Red Pill and Incels. “The very idea of gender was alien to me when tripping hard enough,” he says. When I ask him how he feels about women now, he says: “I still hold on to the belief that women enjoy a major advantage in the dating world even though they suffer disadvantages in other parts of life." Nevertheless he now sees women as "scared, flawed, imperfect humans just like I am".

***

Not everyone who has left the Red Pill, then, did so because of some feminist revelation. Trevor, the man who ended up in a police cell after a confrontation with his ex, still holds many of the subreddit’s beliefs.

“Look, a lot of what they say is true unfortunately,” he says. “So it isn’t really a question of I don’t believe any of that any more, it's just I don’t believe it’s useful to continuously expose myself to that sort of stuff.” Although Trevor says the Red Pill helped him to “bed an unusually high number of women”, he now desires deeper relationships and hopes one day to start a family.  

Trevor has only been out of the subreddit for a few months, and it isn’t apparent whether his views will slowly change. As it stands, however, he believes that both women and men are destroying society, that the Red Pill and feminism are equally toxic, and that women who sleep around are "indirectly contributing to the depopulation of the white race".  

“I’m roommates with some Muslim people here, some Algerians, two girls and a guy, and these people take themselves more seriously," he says. "They kind of understand the importance of the tribe and community and family."

There is one Red Pill belief, however, that Trevor has completely shunned. “One thing I do believe is you can show a little vulnerability to your significant other,” he says. “A little, a little.”

***

No one still active on the Red Pill would admit that they are simply lonely, young, or vulnerable. The group is exceptionally hostile to outsiders, and the toxic beliefs on the subreddit easily inspire revulsion and hatred on first sight. But we are perhaps as guilty of considering Red Pillers a complete entity as they are considering all women to be joined together in some evil mission. In reality, there are many complex stories behind the subreddit, with some ex-users even claiming that they were struggling to come to terms with the fact they were gay or trans. 

Every man on the Red Pill has a different story. However, each of them do have striking similarities. The main one is anger. Like the name of the subreddit itself, it is blazing red. We must understand the psychology behind the philosophy not to condone it, but to better tackle the poisonous spider slowly infecting those across the web. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.