Today Brendan O’Connor at Gawker wrote something that was wrong and dumb. This is okay. When you write enough you sometimes write stuff that is wrong and dumb. But other people have to tell you when you’re wrong and dumb, otherwise the world gets dumber. So I told him it was wrong and dumb. After doing a bit of the aggregation that is necessary under the current financial structure of the internet, here’s what he wrote:
This is a pretty incredible thing for the readership of both writers—for all readers, really. A hundred years ago this kind of debate likely would have taken place privately, in letters or parlor rooms or whatever. (Actually, a hundred years ago this debate—between a black intellectual and a white intellectual—likely wouldn’t have taken place at all.) The fact that it is taking place online, in full view of anyone who might find herself on one website or the other is somewhat remarkable.
Now, this is factually inaccurate and ahistorical. 100 years ago, people wrote magazines and pamphlets and newspapers. There was a public conversation. There were public intellectuals. Not just a hundred years ago, and not just two hundred years ago (which is what he subsequently changed the paragraph to), but far longer back, there was public, intellectual conversation. Indeed, the very magazine where Coates now writes was published more than 100 years ago. Yes, black writers have always had a harder time finding an audience, but even 100 years ago– and longer– The Atlantic has been publishing black intellectuals like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. This is not complicated stuff, and it’s not hard to find out. 30 seconds of Googling would be all it took. O’Connor is a professional. He’s getting paid. Actual money.
… what? 100 years ago they had magazines. Including The Atlantic, where Coates is writing his side. And while it’s certainly clear that black intellectuals have historically had a harder time getting an audience, there were most certainly black intellectuals writing in national magazines. Like the Atlantic! Hell, here’s Frederick Douglass writing in The Atlantic a hundred and fifty years ago.
I get that we’re all supposed to pretend that the internet is the greatest because, you know, innovative innovation Snapchat teaching a kid to code, but your final paragraph is monumentally stupid.
I said that his paragraph was stupid, because it was stupid. Because people who are paid to write for a living should not write stupid stuff. They should not write stupid stuff that they could have avoided writing with literally 30 seconds of Googling. They should do good work and not bad work. They should demonstrate historical understanding that any minimally educated 11 year old should possess. That’s not just my philosophy. It’s the philosophy of a good portion of the internet. It is, in fact, the philosophy of Gawker, a website that has spent the better part of a decade making the case, implicitly and explicitly, for meanness in the pursuit of the truth. You don’t get it both ways. If you want to be the ultra-incisive, frequently-cruel truth tellers part of the time, you don’t get to hide behind manners when someone on your team says something really stupid.
So O’Connor did what all of the connected, insidery jet-set do when criticized: he tweeted.
Freddie DeBoer just called me stupid in the Gawker comments, I made it you guys
— Brendan O’Connor (@_grendan) March 29, 2014
Now this is, like his post, factually inaccurate. I didn’t call him stupid. I called his paragraph stupid. In my defense, it was stupid. Like, mind-numblingly, how-do-you-function-as-an-adult-human-being stupid. Now stupid is forgivable. It happens. I’ve written lots of stupid things, most of them for free. I’ve apologized more times than I can count. And I’ve also said things that other people thought were stupid, and I’ve stuck up for myself. By myself. Without a publication, position, prestige, or posse. Just me. Because those are the options, when you’re a grownup, and people challenge something you say: you can defend yourself or you can admit error. If you’re not a grownup, you can take advantage of the “let me get my gang!” school of internet argument, which is the only tactic that our band of culturally savvy, desperately signaling, quietly self-hating taste makers recognize. It’s what Twitter is for: fighting battles through mutual admiration and a reciprocal regard of Very Important People.
And, of course, the cool kids play along; they want to know, in the future, that they stupid things they say won’t be publicly corrected. They want to know that they can get the gang to back them up, too. So the people who favorite and retweet his tweet– Gabriel Roth, Robinson Meyer, etc etc– probably haven’t even checked to see the (yes!) monumentally stupid thing O’Connor wrote. They just know he’s Somebody, and they want to be Somebody too, and they know that the only way to really be Somebody is to treat other would-be Somebodies the right way. It’s a perfect, reciprocal relationship, a corrupt and empty exercise in horse trading that has no connection to reality. Would any of them defend what O’Connor actually wrote? Do they really think there was no public debate before the internet? Who cares? It makes no difference. He’s in. That’s all that matters. The fact that, as a professional writer, O’Connor’s job is to be a professional arguer; the fact that any adult should feel compelled to actually defend himself, alone and individually, when he screws up, instead of running off to get help; the fact that it’s just talking, just words and ideas, and they can’t really hurt you– none of that matters.
It’s pathetic, and it’s why the internet is such a broken, stupid, aggravating place. It’s why nothing ever changes. Because nobody who has any clout, visibility, or stature is willing to risk their position at the party. Because it’s more important to defend stupid
then than to correct it. But there’s no reform possible; if any of them find this post, they will ask the crowd, “should we take this criticism seriously, crowd?” and the crowd will soothingly reassure them. It’s all very elegant. And it’s exactly these people who will complain the most about the stupidity and the brokenness. They create the conditions they say they hate, and they live in them, and they deserve to.