“2017
Tech //

The allure of @PissPigGranddad

How have we become so captivated by a Twitter user fighting a foreign war?

daesh is bad

‘Weird Twitter’, the wry, absurd, and often amusing corner of our beloved information-sharing, opinion-giving platform, has long been politically charged with a unique variety of leftist fervour. At present, Weird Twitter might give the impression of being the bastard child of @horse_ebooks and Noam Chomsky – shitposting of a very intellectual nature.

More recently and in light of world events, the circulation of jokes regarding President Trump’s intense resolution to “destroy ISIS” within these tweet-circles has multiplied. To this sardonic and well-read subset of Twitter, the notion of one lone individual, such as Donald Trump, asserting that he himself may harness the power to “destroy ISIS” is farcical.

What no one expected, however, is that one of these Communist-Twitter-irony-bros — one of these very people that most of us assume live only between the classes for their six year long political economy degree and the mouldy cup of black coffee on their nightstands — might actually, really, genuinely try to “destroy ISIS”. Enter Twitter user @PissPigGranddad.

In fact, @PissPigGrandad, whose IRL name is Brace Belden, didn’t even go to university. Once a Californian florist and punk musician, Belden has now joined the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia in Syria more commonly known as the YPG, who have primarily fought against the Islamic State since 2015, and for whom it is not uncommon to engage volunteer fighters from the West. Belden’s @PissPigGranddad account has aroused a considerable cult-following both on and off Twitter, and last month it was reported that a feature film based on Belden’s stint in the Middle East (starring Jake Gyllenhall, of all people) is in the works.

After his move to the military life in the Autumn of 2016, @PissPigGranddad’s Twitter timeline did not transform into a poetic, Wilfred Owen-esque chronicle of war. Rather, it continued to espouse the tenets of his quick-witted and culturally apt online persona — only now lightly seasoned with the odd Molotov cocktail and Daesh sighting. A picture of Belden standing outside of a tank is captioned “Your Uber driver here … am outside”. The same tank is employed in the offensive to recapture the IS-held Raqqa. Belden later posts an image of him inside his quarters watching Seinfeld on his MacBook. In the background, a rifle leans casually on the paper-thin wall. This intersection between pertinent western cultural references, and a brutal Middle-Eastern civil war — a realm which most of us could never imagine ourselves in — is jarring.  It is no doubt what makes the @PissPigGranddad account so intriguing.

His tweets are also a telling indication of the changing role of Twitter within zones of political unrest in the Middle-East. During the Arab Spring six years ago, the website served as an accessible point of information — disseminating the location and time of a particular demonstration, for example. Today, Belden’s use of Twitter makes unrest accessible in a different and quite novel way. @PissPigGranddad removes the ‘otherness’ of the goings-on in Syria. His pertinent cultural references intermingled with the material facts of the war harness the capacity to localise the situation for those who are geographically or otherwise removed from it.

I spoke with Walker McMurdo, film editor at Willamette Week, who worked with Belden, then a freelance writer for the Portland publication. In McMurdo’s view, the shared use of Twitter by edgy socialists and establishment journalists has created an environment where relatively minor fascinations become huge media fads. “So it’s certainly weird when someone like Brace is all of a sudden getting attention from Rolling Stone and NY magazine, because he’s basically this punk kid with a Twitter that did this incredibly dangerous thing, but because he made his way into the right people’s feed, he’s getting arguably outsized attention”.

If the media frenzy surrounding Belden is to be believed, you would think that Belden founded the YPG himself. But he didn’t. Kurdish women fighting within the YPJ (the Women’s Protection Units), alongside women who support the YPG and YPJ’s cause from abroad, have expressed valid criticisms of this idolisation of Belden. They contend that by putting Belden on a pedestal, his fanbase inadvertently erases the work of native militants. In response to a Rolling Stone article which detailed Belden’s role in Syria, Saudi-Arabian student Abeer Abdullah tweeted, “I mean i might be crazy but i think the [YPJ] locals actually fighting ISIS for years are more deserving of recognition”. Regrettably, the most notable appearance of the YPJ in mainstream Western media outlets was in September of last year, when tributes to the late YPJ fighter Asia Ramazan Antar reduced her to but a “Kurdish Angelina Jolie”.

On this, McMurdo thinks “it’s newsworthy because it’s extremely unique. Which is kind of the ‘weird’ part about all of this, that somehow this guy is now being profiled in national publications. But I think when people write about it, it’s more in a ‘look at this fucking guy’ way than a ‘he’s so brave’ way”.

Last week, the @PissPigGrandad Twitter was suspended on account of a Holocaust joke. Soon after, screencaps of Brace casually throwing around racial slurs emerged on irony-commie Facebook groups. It’s obvious that the online left don’t always get it right with the individuals they choose to glorify.

What is nonetheless gripping about the anomalous @PissPigGranddad is that he proves that the fuel of being a tweeter-cum-socialist can actually come alight. Weird Twitter might mostly be a nesting place for those who purchase frayed, second-hand copies of ‘The Communist Manifesto (condition: worn)’ from Amazon for $24.99 – even though the full text is available for free online. Even so, their particular species of online radicalisation can absolutely translate real, actual radicalisation, no matter how ironic or meme-ridden in its form may be.