It’s been years since the heyday of “Only Nineties Kids Will Remember” clickbait — the listicles that sent us back to a neon-flecked era of Power Rangers, CDs, Beanie Babies, and VHS tapes. But nostalgia dies hard, and now a Canadian man considered a leading intellectual in far-right media is trying to convince people that “woke” culture obliterated the happiness you once felt playing Nintendo 64.
Michael Young is a visiting fellow at the Center for Renewing America, a conservative think tank that exists to combat supposed threats to the nation like vaccine mandates and Critical Race Theory. (The same organization includes Jeffrey Clark, a lawyer who, while acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division, allegedly tried to help Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election and stands to face punishment as severe as losing his law license in an ongoing ethics investigation.) Apart from his work with CRA, Young has written for right-wing publications like the Federalist and co-authored an anti-LGBTQ pamphlet titled A Parent’s Guide to Radical Gender Theory with conservative agitator Christopher Rufo.
But Young’s real audience is on Twitter, where, as @wokal_distance, he unspools grandiose threads about the collapse of a once-proud Western culture for some 120,000 followers. Often, this involves attacking “woke” politics, but recently Young went viral with a different strategy: presenting artwork of blissful children with retro game consoles and toys to play on millennial nostalgia.
The overwrought, self-serious tweets backfired as people parodied Young’s comments and accused him of yearning for Pokémon cards. Critics heaped so much ridicule on Young’s infantilizing theory of a lost “world worth fighting for” that he locked his account for at least a day. Although already blocked on Twitter for lightly roasting his thread, this Rolling Stone reporter attempted to contact Young through the communications director of the Center for Renewing America, who did not provide a way of getting in touch with Young or offer comment on his tweets.
While Young’s new play for hearts and minds received far more negative attention than agreement, it certainly represents a noteworthy update in tactics.
On one hand, this approach is the same old conservative call for a return to traditionalism. Yet if the slogan “Make America Great Again” seems to yearn for 1961 as remembered by baby boomers, and other reactionaries fantasize about a dignified life in feudal Europe or ancient Rome, Young’s tweets idealize a far more recent era. Perhaps not recent enough, however, to recruit the next generation to his cause: anyone who remembers owning a Tamagotchi as a kid is pushing 40. And as artist Aaron Thorpe noted in a quote-tweet, Young had continued an appeal through products instead of values.
Meanwhile, Rachid Lotf, the prolific artist and graphic designer who created the images, was blindsided by his sudden association with Young. Contacted by Rolling Stone, he says in an email that he had no idea his work had been appropriated this way. Living in London, Lotf remains primarily a speaker of French and Arabic, he explains, and he’s understandably flummoxed by the meaning Young has imparted to his 1990s-inspired illustrations.
“This is the first time I saw these posts,” Lotf says. “I don’t know this person and I didn’t give him any permission to share my artworks with these political messages. My artworks are made just to immortalize some moments of our childhoods, that’s all, there is no political or critical message towards anyone.”
Lotf also addressed the borrowing of his work on Twitter, reiterating that he doesn’t know Young or share his agenda. Young replied to Lotf, explaining that he had locked his account after receiving a wave of mocking replies and quote-tweets on a post that made use of his art. Lotf replied, “Ok got it.”
“Being born in 1984 in Morocco, I grew up watching movies like Star Wars, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones to name a few, and playing video games is what inspired me to be a graphic designer,” Lotf says of the inspiration for his designs, which he creates using “3D objects, photos and painting.” His work has been commissioned by brands as well as “people who love retrogaming and pop culture in general.”
Lotf takes pleasure in a viewer telling him that his art has “captured a moment of their childhood” and “made them travel to that very moment” — the very quality that Young was evidently trying to exploit.
“Our memories are what we are, what makes us make the decisions we make, act as we act and love as we love,” Lotf says. “We would be nothing without our memories, so I make these works of art for the people who lived at that time, but also for those who did not, especially the children of this generation in which we live, to show them how their parents and perhaps their grandparents lived their childhood.”
A comforting thought. It’s just too bad right-wing movements feed off the familiar warmth of the past, selling the lie that it’s been “taken” from you by something other than time itself. And they can’t keep reaching back to the halcyon days of the Twentieth century forever — at some point, history has to catch up.