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Lithium Red Scare and the power of being a contrarian

Nov. 13, 2020
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In the title of The Cut’s 2018 profile of Red Scare’s Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, author Noreene Malone describes the podcast as offering “a critique of feminism and capitalism from deep within the culture they’ve spawned.” 

There are only five comments on the profile, but even within these few comments, opinions on the show and the hosts are varied and heated. 

@Holdforhollisgreen doesn’t buy it. “They seem like insufferable hipsters high on their own cleverness… What we need is some good old trashy counterculture from people who don’t care about fashion.” The comment has four likes. 

@C.Toronoto has a different perspective. “Oh, oh, I love this! Liberal feminism has always driven me crazy. What’s so wonderful about working 60 hours a week??”

And this was in 2018. Back then, the podcast was generating $7,000 a month. According to the podcast’s Patreon, this number has since soared to over $33,000. On their website, Khachiyan and Nekrasova define Red Scare as “a cultural commentary podcast hosted by bohemian layabouts”; Reddit and Twitter users consistently compare Red Scare to the old Vice, Jezebel, and Chapo Trap House, a highly controversial far-left podcast known for its willingness to attack Republicans and mainstream liberals alike. All of these cultural landmarks have become synonymous with the dirtbag left—a group that idealizes Bernie, shuns politeness, advocates for burning down the system and eating the rich, and caters to a fanbase that “would never say aloud what they are hearing on stage.” 

Whereas Chapo Trap House is criticized because the hosts are thought to be an abrasive group of sometimes sexist, hard-headed assholes, the Red Scare hosts’ unenthused, sarcastic comments and socalist-leaning conversations on pop culture and politics are harder to hate. They’re controversial and contrarian, but listeners keep coming back.

On Reddit, anonymous users are vocal about their views of the hosts. One user called the show “gleefully offensive,” and another inquired about which episode is “sexiest” for a first-time listener. One user declared the hosts genius, but a different user commented that they “only listen for the vocal fry.” The debate as to whether Red Scare’s typical fan is a hot girl or incel man is ongoing. 

Khachiyan takes particular offense to this last claim—in early September she tweeted, “I would just like to point out anyone propagating the lie that our listeners are gross incel men is a confused hater. Judging by the great success of my first yard sale, they’re hot girls with great waist to hip ratios who seem like girlfriend material tbh.” 

It’s clear that Khachiyan and Nekrasova aren’t particularly concerned with the lies that Twitter users are propagating about them. Or the truths. Or anyone’s opinions. And by and large, there lies both Red Scare’sappeal and value. As the hosts declared only minutes into a recent episode entitled “Berkeley Brain,” If you’re going to roast us or come up with a slur against us, by all means, I love it—I enjoy it—but come up with a cool, legible, pithy one that everyone can understand.”

This proclamation was followed by a few jokes about smoking, a comment about “mincing about downtown in a hunger fugue,” and a brief mention of being “very casually pro-life.” The latter is an opinion that almost all of their distinctly left-leaning, vaguely hipster, urban 20-something listeners will disagree with, but that’s kind of the point. Every line is delivered with an ironic undertone, so much so that it’s never entirely clear if the hosts are truly voicing their controversial opinions or simply enjoying the fact that they can and do say whatever they want. The truth is, they’re probably doing a little bit of both. 

The hosts drift through each week’s pop culture highlights and current events, lingering only briefly on events they deem irrelevant—allocating more energy for scathing one-liners directed toward various public figures. Previous focuses have included Lana Del Rey’s cop boyfriend and, more recently, Alyssa Milano calling the cops on a teen who she mistook for a man with a gun in her backyard. 

The irony of Milano’s ACAB activism in light of the event was not lost on Khachiyan and Nekrasova, who were less than sympathetic to the event and Milano’s subsequent apology letter. “It’s always a for-thee-and-not-for-me situation,” Nekrasova said before adopting a high-pitched squeal and mockingly adding, “We saw a black…I mean…dressed in black…dark…I mean his clothes were dark. He scared me. He scared my young children.” Both hosts erupted into laughter. The comments are scathing but undoubtedly sharp, and their underlying criticism of tokenism activism always contains some truth. 

On the occasion that Red Scare deigns to give the headlines some attention, their tone becomes aloof, with the underlying implication that they’re a little bored by what the world has deemed significant or holy. 

RGB’s death, for example, was announced with blaise commentary: “I just don’t understand why they couldn’t just pretend she’s still alive…” Khachiyan mused. “Just turn the camera off in the Zoom session… They’re doing it with Joe Biden already. He’s been dead for months if not years already.” 

Regardless of whether Red Scare is right or wrong, the fact remains that the pod is directly questioning affluent liberals—which comprise no small percentage of their fan base. Arguably, the larger ideas of motive and tokenism in social justice are at least worth considering.

People hate Red Scare because it’s contrarian, but as Malone wrote in her profile, “It seems increasingly likely that the rising generation is more likely to turn conservative not because they want to be rich, but because they want to be mean.” The Red Scare commentary is a little mean. It’s also sharp and intelligent and offensive and distinctly funny. A main critique across Reddit and Twitter threads alike is that Red Scare doesn’t really talk about politics; they simply talk about whatever contrarian hot take they deem trendy at the moment. This perspective could be reasonably debated from both sides, but it fails in its assumption that these contrarian hot takes don’t have any value simply in being contrarian. 

There is very little allotment for irony in the feminism of colorful Instagram zines and pink pussy hats, and whether one takes this as a good or bad thing, it’s undoubtedly alienating for some. At best, the Red Scare hostsoffer shining political critiques that help listeners question their beliefs in valuable, funny, and thought-provoking ways. At worst, they remind listeners that you can believe in free healthcare and still be a little bit mean.