Online liberalism, as I’ve said many times, is not actually a series of political beliefs and alliances but instead a set of social cues that are adopted to demonstrate one’s class background– economic class, certainly, but more cultural class, the various linguistic and consumptive signals that assure those around you that you’re the right kind of person and which appear to be the only thing that America’s 20-something progressives really care about anymore.
The dominance of personal branding and cultural signalling over political theory means that liberal attitudes change very rapidly and then congeal into a consensus that is supposedly so obviously correct that it does not need defending. In the past year, liberalism as an elite social phenomenon has abandoned first rights of the accused and second the right to free expression. The Jameis Winston and Woody Allen sexual assault cases saw the rise of resistance to any discussion whatsoever of due process and rights of the accused, and in the way of their culture, online progressives moved quickly to a place where anyone mentioning those rights at all were immediately and angrily denounced, and accused of insufficient resistance to (if not outright support for) rape and rape culture. Similarly, the Brandon Eich situation, and now the Donald Sterling fiasco, have prompted this social cohort to change liberalism such that its traditional staunch defense of free speech rights has become instead an assumed disgust with those who talk about free speech rights at all. On Twitter and Tumblr, the notion that people have the right to hold controversial political opinions is not a cherished precept of the left but tantamount to racism and homophobia. And, as I recently wrote, abandoning these commitments also entails abandoning the traditional liberal argument that rights are meaningless without ability.
So take, for example, this comprehensively awful piece by Salon’s Elias Isquith. It’s a pretty perfect example of cultural and social signals substituting for an actual political position. Isquith’s piece does not contain an argument. I’m not saying it doesn’t contain a good argument; I’m saying it does not contain an argument. It’s a mostly-failed attempt to achieve an arch tone married to the blank, undefended assumption that people defending rights on principle are themselves guilty of whatever people invoking those rights are accused of. It’s no different than insisting that someone who thinks an accused murderer should have rights is an apologist for murder. Not that Isquith quite gins up the courage to make that explicit. I am tempted to say, for example, that he accuses Julian Sanchez of racism, but of course he doesn’t; he merely suggests, implies, and hints that Sanchez is a racist, or a near-racist, or a defender of racism. You know. The mature way.
All of this will be good for Isquith’s career, of course. Salon, though it still publishes some good work, has rapidly devolved into a series of progressive dog whistles, a constant, numbing reassurance for its readership that they are good and smart and conservatives are monstrous. And the willingness to hint that people who disagree with you are existentially immoral is certainly not going to hurt his online popularity any. The question is whether contributing to this progressive impatience with the very idea of rights talk is actually going to help the progressive cause.
What would actually be worthwhile– what would actually work to advance our country politically– would be for people to actually come out and say what they mean. If you don’t think people accused of rape should have due process rights, you should say so. If you are OK with a society in which only the idle rich have the right to free expression, where people have absolutely no expectation of being able to hold controversial views without risking their employment or their property, say so. But all the hinting and signalling and cultural cues just leave us with no coherent understanding of what rights we actually have left.
Which is troubling, given that undermining rights works both ways. This is going to happen: sooner or later, some CEO or sports team owner or similar is going to get ousted because he or she supports a woman’s right to an abortion, or the cause of Palestinian statehood, or opposes the death penalty. It’s inevitable. I can easily see someone suggesting that, say, Israel is an apartheid state, and watching as the media whips itself into a frenzy. And when that happens, the notion that there is no such thing as a violation of free speech that isn’t the government literally sending men with guns to arrest you will be just as powerful, and powerfully destructive, as it is now. So what will these people say? I don’t have the slightest idea how they will be able to defend the right of people to hold controversial, left-wing political ideas when they have come up with a thousand arguments for why the right to free expression doesn’t apply in any actual existing case. How will Isquith write a piece defending a CEO’s right to oppose Israeli apartheid? A sports owner’s right to do the same? I can’t see how he could– unless it really is just all about teams, and not about principle at all.
Update: Lots of comments, lots of emails, lots of tweets from people who are afraid to actually engage– not one single attempt to explain how you would defend a CEO or sports team owner who was forced out for insufficient loyalty to the state of Israel. Not a single attempt. Not a word.