Discover more from Singal-Minded
There's An Actual Ideological And Epistemic Crackup Happening On The Left And It Can't Be Bad-Faithed Away
It's easier to caricature all this, but it won't get us anywhere
From time to time I am going to unlock older posts that were originally just for paying subscribers. When I do, I’ll create a free clone of them with comments disabled, so as to protect the privacy of paying subscribers who commented on the original. This is one such clone — it was created 2/21/2021. If you’re a paying subscriber and want to see or comment on the original, it lives here.
The only reason this post exists is because of my paying subscribers, so if you enjoy this or find it useful please consider becoming one, or passing a gift-subscription on to someone else:
Yesterday Harper’s published a letter defending the values of free speech and open inquiry. I was very pleased to put my name on it, alongside those of some of my writer-friends like Katie Herzog (also a podcast-friend, of course), Kat Rosenfield, and Phoebe Maltz Bovy. Many of the names were far bigger than ours: We’re talking Noam Chomsky, Garry Kasparov, Margaret Atwood, and so on.
The letter is only three paragraphs long and you should certainly read it. Suffice it to say that it accurately points out that a major threat to liberalism is coming from Donald Trump and Trumpian figures in Europe. It simply suggests that the left, too, appears to have something of a creeping illiberalism problem. (If it didn’t point this out, I wouldn’t have signed it — anyone concerned about illiberalism or authoritarianism who focuses only on the American left-of-center is operating from a dangerously blinkered viewpoint.)
Like any letter seeking to gain a broad swath of signatories, this one paints in broad, general strokes:
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.
This doesn’t seem controversial. And yet as soon as it was posted online, the all-too-predictable freakout started. One problem was that the letter was signed by Problematic People like myself and Herzog, though the bigger names JK Rowling and Bari Weiss were, I think, seen as far more damning. As a result of the associative property of deranged online discourse, this magically renders the content of the text itself different and more menacing.
At some point it was determined, perhaps because of Rowling, that the text was transphobic. I don’t even know how to explain that claim given the complete absence of any mention of trans issues, and the fact that the letter had at least three trans signatories, but apparently it came down to “dog whistles” that no one could precisely identify. Another sub-blowup concerned Harper’s unpaid internship policy — the argument seemed to be that since class issues in journalism also affect which voices are heard, how can Harper’s publish a letter defending open inquiry? (I don’t know, man — I’m tired.)
That’s enough about the controversies Twitter crusaders tried to manufacture as soon as this letter was posted online — if you want more specifics, check out my just-posted piece in Reason. All I know is that I spent way too much time on Twitter yesterday, and by the end I felt this weird combination of anxious and tweaked-out and strung-out. But I also felt vindicated, to be honest, because the reaction this milquetoast defense of liberal values provoked in the individuals presently helping to make progressive journalism a miserable, censorious place told everyone with eyes and ears everything they need to know.
What people are failing to realize, or maybe pretending to fail to realize, is that there is a real crackup going on on the left that has to do with substantive epistemic and ideological differences. Oftentimes what’s happening is caricatured, rather clownishly, as something like “For a long time, straight white men controlled media — now that their power is threatened, they are lashing out.” And so on. There are different versions of this Nothing to see here meme, but they usually present things as clear-cut, as being about the powerless simply asking to be treated fairly, and the powerful crowing with outraged resentment at this eminently reasonable request.
Of course there is some merit to the claim that as power structures in journalism (or anywhere else) shift and come to include more voices, the old voices may become resentful or reactionary or otherwise fail to accept that times have changed. But overall, as an explanation for what’s going on in left-of-center spaces these days: No. There’s a lot more to it than that.
In fact, among a fairly large and influential set of journalists and other public intellectuals, a different, to-my-mind-less-liberal set of norms have taken hold. This means that questions of evidence and fairness and due process and decency get answered very differently by members of the opposing camps in this internecine crackup. You will, in fact, commonly see big-name intellectuals argue that whoever is more ‘oppressed’ in a given argument wins by default. I am not making this up. You will, in fact, commonly see big-name intellectuals argue that if a lot of people on ‘our’ side are saying something is true on Twitter, it should be treated as true, and anyone who questions it is morally or ideologically suspect. I am not making that up, either.
Of course I’ve had personal run-ins with these belief systems, and this has partially sparked by interest in them. But what’s more important is that they are spreading and taking hold in many institutions. The reaction to yesterday’s letter was an example. As Freddie deBoer pointed out:
Please, think for a minute and consider: what does it say when a completely generic endorsement of free speech and open debate is in and of itself immediately diagnosed as anti-progressive, as anti-left? There is literally no specific instance discussed in that open letter, no real-world incident about which there might be specific and tangible controversy. So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe our political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion? [emphasis his]
This is correct. The outrage at the letter is not because there is anything wrong with the letter, but because the people who are outraged genuinely dislike the concepts of free speech and open inquiry — at least when those concepts are extended to people on the left they disagree with. Some of them come right out and say it: they argue that “free speech” is itself a reactionary trope (which is insane if you have even the foggiest awareness about who is most likely to suffer when authorities can, through law or norm, punish wrongthinkers). But many of them are cannier than that: They’ll say they aren’t against free speech or open inquiry per se, but rather against speech that harms or invalidates, or somesuch formulation. Of course, these arguments aren’t generally wielded against genocidal far-right figures, where at least they would make some degree of sense, but rather at whoever is perceived at being a few notches to the right of them, but still solidly on the left.
To take a personally/professionally relevant example, in my experience it is considered harmful and invalidating to suggest that gender dysphoric 14-year-olds might require more gatekeeping and counseling than adults before proceeding to physical gender transition. Once these claims are leveled within these circles, literally nothing else about the conversation matters. It doesn’t matter that this is a super-mainstream position, that it is supported by developmental psychology, that the major relevant organizations all agree with it — the group has decided it is harmful and invalidating, and therefore that anyone who speaks it must be punished. We should acknowledge that this is a different method for reasoning through what certainly appears to be a complicated issue. There’s no realistic way to deny that it is.
From these sorts of claims, we get long and convoluted chains of guilt by association. Matt Yglesias was reported to his employer, Vox, by a colleaguefor signing the Harper’s letter. She publicly posted the note she sent to her bosses on Twitter — she said seeing Yglesias’s signature made her feel less safe working at Vox (this is another new norm: claiming that everything is dangerous, even stuff that any reasonable person can see is not). I’m not making that up. He signed the letter, and the letter was signed by Bad People, and also it had Dog Whistles, so of course he needs to be publicly taken to account. (The colleague in question did say in her note that she didn’t want Yglesias to get in trouble, but that makes no sense in light of her actual actions: literally reporting him to his bosses and posting the note on Twitter. If she was upset about his decision but didn’t want him punished for it one way or another, even just reputationally, she could have approached him quietly.) So in the end, this becomes a deeply abstracted, nearly inscrutable thing that would be incredibly difficult to describe to a normie. Seriously, read the letter, then read the Twitter reaction to it, and tell me if the latter is justified by the actual text of the former. Explain to me what Matt Yglesias did that should have warranted a complaint to his bosses.
Now, there are opportunists on all sides of this debate. I mentioned the (generally) left-wing ones, who act like this is really just all about a fundamentally reactionary response to increasing access and diversity, but who (in my view) are seeking the power to suppress and deplatform dissenting views — even widely held ones. On the other side of this hellscape are those who pretend to care about liberal values but who really, at root, want the left to fail. Many of them have strong feelings about “political correctness” or even “cultural Marxism.” They will drape themselves in vaguely liberal-ish garments but if you look at their record on this stuff, they have almost nothing to say about Trump or Jair Bolsanaro (for example), they will rarely, if ever, rush to the defense of the many adjunct professors threatened by right-wing Twitter outrage (some commitment to free speech!), and they just seem to be gaming this whole fight in general to help fragment the left and pursue their own illiberal agenda. Suffice it to say I don’t trust this crowd, either. I don’t think they’re acting in good faith, and I will call them out when I see them.
But I don’t think they are the majority at all. I have heard from so many journalists and academics since the present meltdown really started in earnest after George Floyd’s killing, and the vast majority are liberal or leftist and deeply, genuinely concerned about what’s going on in their local professional and/or intellectual ecosystems. They simply feel that expressing even anodyne, mainstream opinions could get them into serious professional or reputational trouble. Of course I get the occasional email from a Trump supporter or someone else I wouldn’t really view as being on the ‘side’ of liberalism, and who I think is more interested in breaking the left than in fixing it. But again: not the majority. Not close.
I’d like to have these conversations openly. Instead, I find myself batting at wave after wave of mostly mediocre thinkers who only have one move: attempting to bad-faith this crackup away by claiming that really this is a simple Good versus Evil showdown, and my side is Evil. Of course I can’t force anyone to openly defend and explain their own beliefs about what constitutes evidence or fairness or balance, or answer my questions about these subjects, and in fact I’ve found that the people I am critiquing are startlingly unwilling to lay out their values clearly, in anything but cheap mantras that don’t survive close scrutiny. So actual discussion and engagement, which would be great, is unlikely.
Luckily, what I can do is simply try to pull apart some threads, one by one. I can say, Huh, this seems like a potentially problematic norm about evidence that a lot of powerful professional journalists are openly embracing, attempt to prove to you, my readers, that the norm in question is actually gaining currency (which is easy, because every day so many people with platforms tweet so many deeply troubling and nonsensical things), and then explain why I think the norm in question is bad, and why we should fight back against it. Sort of like what Matt Breunig did with the question of what he calls “identitarian deference.” Back in 2013, he neatly explained how this idea makes barely a lick of sense if you actually unpack it a little. (Today, many mainstream progressive thinkers proudly embrace the stance of identitarian deference. None of them, as far as I can tell, have responded to Breunig’s critique, or to other left-wing thinkers who have raised similar qualms.)
So I think that’s my best bet, going forward. I’m going to try to dig into some of this stuff in the months to come — not exclusively, since there’s plenty else I want to write about, as well — because I think the more clearly and specifically we can make the case for liberal values, the better. I am tired of abstract debates about “political correctness” or whatever release. I want to speak quite clearly and precisely and force the people who I think are corroding the left to defend their actual beliefs, not attack a straw-man rendering of my own.
Are you with me? If not, I’m calling your boss to get you fired.