Karl Steel is a liar

Here’s some things I said in my post yesterday:

“Class is real and important but it’s not the same as gender and race and those are important to.” To which I would say… well, yeah!

Is there a stereotype of socialists who say “it’s not about race” or similar nonsense? Sure. Such people are stupid and should be told so. Race and gender are separate from class, women and people of color face types of discrimination and oppression that are separate from class oppressions, and it’s our responsibility to address those issues head-on.

The ultimate point, for me, is that while race and gender injustice are inherently separate from class injustice, the best solutions to race and gender injustice are class solutions.

And here is hipster professor Karl Steel, a tenured radical at Brooklyn College, responding to that piece:


It should go without saying, but this is a lie. It’s an intentional and direct misrepresentation of what I wrote. It’s a lie. There is no way that any remotely honest human being could read my piece and believe that I said that race doesn’t matter. None. At all. It is flagrantly dishonest. Karl Steel: you are a liar and a coward. I know that being cool with the right people is all that people like you care about. I know this is all about teams, for you. I know that politics is, for people like Karl Steel, a game of popularity and digital strokes, where what matters is not that what you say is true or fair or generative or politically valuable or smart, but rather that it deliver the right kind of reciprocal regard for others so that you can get favorites and retweets in return. I get that all of these people are a few years away from NIMBY liberalism and, finally, affluent apathy. I still find it sort of shocking that some people can be so basically, directly dishonest.

Steel’s an extreme example, but this is what Twitter is. This is the world Twitter has made. It’s a world where you’re invited to say blatant lies about people, knowing that you will receive digital support anyway, because these relationships are based on elevating each other in a popularity hierarchy rather than, you know, actually winning political victory. And I know that, of course, the affluent Twitter left will turn around and get on me for this. Look at me again, expecting honesty! Calling someone out for lying! And when they do, will any of them point out that Steel directly and unquestionably misrepresented what I said, claiming that I said that race doesn’t matter when I explicitly said it does over and over? Of course not! I’m used to that. I’m used to connected, protected people feeling free to lie about someone with no connections and no protection, and I’m used to the crowd defending itself by mocking anyone who criticizes it. But I still think basic human honesty matters. I’m crazy that way.

I know that this is shouting into the wind; the koffee klatsch that is the credit-seeking left, which wants only to advance itself and not to achieve justice, cannot be moved by asking people to maintain basic manners and honesty. And I know that, when it comes to me, they are relying on the fact that I don’t play ball the way they do, so I can’t rally the digital troops in the way they can. But it’s worth saying, because the truth matters. If you think that honesty still matters, and that a public intellectual who enjoys the protection of a degree and a Karl should be more honest, you can email him at ksteel@brooklyn.cuny.edu or tweet at him at @karlsteel. Ask him if he thinks that reading that post and claiming I believe “race doesn’t matter” is a remotely honest way to behave. And ask him if he thinks that honesty matters at all.

Six years in to blogging, I know that being direct, frank, and public in calling people out for indefensible behavior will always be unpopular. But that unpopularity makes it even more important to me. If people aren’t honest and they aren’t willing to be direct, then nothing will ever change.

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12 Responses to Karl Steel is a liar

  1. Lesley says:

    Comments are closed on your earlier post about the Frase article so I’m popping over here to ask about this: “The ultimate point, for me, is that while race and gender injustice are inherently separate from class injustice, the best solutions to race and gender injustice are class solutions.” Which would seem to suggest that we can have class solutions that are wholly separate from race/gender solutions, since in your own words those kinds of injustice are “inherently separate” from class injustice. But isn’t Frase’s entire point that class is lived *through* race and gender? He says : “Far too often, exhortations to reject “identity politics” in favor of “class” amount to an insistence that the unmarked worker be taken as the definitive example of the genre … Higher wages can be a “class” issue but abortion or police brutality cannot, because the latter are too closely identified with the part of the working class that is marked by gender and race.”

    I think the question of whether lefties emphasize race/gender issues at the expense of class issues is too subjective to be resolved – who constitutes a lefty? how do we measure their preferences in statistically meaningful units? – so I completely understand why you “don’t recognize the world Peter Frase is critiquing.” However, to say that your and his subjective opinions differ on this question is not the same as saying that
    “Frase has failed to prove that the specific writers he criticizes don’t see race and gender as separate and important parts of oppression.” Actually, I think you just went and proved his point for him, by admitting that you yourself see race and gender as *separate* forms of oppression. Until we live in a world where it is possible to organize around abortion or police brutality as “class” issues, no caveats just straight up class issues, until then it is probably not helpful to try to separate class and race and gender like you are trying to do. I’ve quoted you twice using that word, “separate,” because I think it’s important. This Karl Steel tweet clearly strawmanned you but it sounds to me like your response is basically to protest how you DO think racial injustice matters, of COURSE it matters. I don’t doubt your sincerity. I also don’t think this is the actual point of contention. I have noticed that whenever you get into a kerfuffle of this sort and your straight/white/cis/male privilege is trotted out by your detractors, you never shoot back anything along the lines of “Well of course I acknowledge there is no such thing as pure class injustice that can be confronted without reference to racial/gender/etc. injustice!” It’s always “But of COURSE I care about racial/gender/etc injustices! I just think they are best tackled through systemic economic policies.” The want of that small acknowledgment, that “yes I’ve been to Intersectionality 101,” is crucial. You keep insisting that solving economic inequality will solve other kinds of social injustice, but how can that be when the process of solving economic inequality is itself fraught with racial/gender oppression? And just because you have never claimed the opposite – you have never, obviously, written “class struggle should NOT be intersectional” – does not let you off the hook. I mean, if mainstream feminism’s well-documented history of silencing/excluding women of color means that white feminists who do not affirmatively disavow that history are complicit in it, then shouldn’t other lefties be held to the same standard?

    • Freddie says:

      I think economic solutions are the best in part because they are confirmable. We know when we have accomplished them. But I also suspect that they are the only solutions that we could fully accomplish. I suspect that as long as human beings are aware of race and gender, there will be race and gender prejudice. So let’s empower people in a way that held them defend themselves from that prejudice.

  2. matt says:

    It’s your own fault. You observed that Frase’s piece was “meandering, directionless”, as all pieces of the ‘why don’t people care more about x?’ or ‘people are way too worried about y’ genres must be. But then you wrote a critique of the very same “directionless” sort! The only function of things like this (analyses of disembodied opinions in general) is to start fights.

  3. Alan Jacobs says:

    A few thoughts:

    First, your views were definitely misrepresented.

    Second, this happens a lot, especially on Twitter but not only on Twitter, because online line in general encourages rapid skimming — if that — of even the most carefully crafted arguments. Because unlike you I’m actually on Twitter on a regular basis, I hear this kind of thing several times a week: bizarre distortions of what I wrote, usually written by angry or contemptuous people.

    Third, you have occasionally referred to such people as liars, as you do here, but I seriously doubt that that’s often accurate. If Steel got you wrong, and I think he clearly did, then it’s far more likely that he did so because he read too quickly or carelessly than because he is lying. Intentional falsehood is less common than rushes to judgment, except among professional pundits, where mendacity is an essential part of the professional toolkit.

    So, fourth, those of us who have been misrepresented are forced to make a tough call, whether to engage as constructively as possible with the misrepresenter in the hopes that he or she will acknowledge error, or just ignore the person with a shrug of the shoulders. At least, I have found those to be the only options that work; reacting with open anger, as you’ve done here, even if your frustration is totally warranted, is rarely productive.

    All that probably sounds like old-man advice, but that’s because it probably is old-man advice. Not that I don’t get into online spats myself from time to time, but 99 times out of 100 I regret it afterwards.

    All that said and put aside, I think your previous post is exactly right. I have long thought that if you want to win over conservatives — especially in the South, where I come from — to policies that help rectify social injustice, you’d do better to frame those policies in class rather than racial terms. That way you stand a better chance of mitigating the disastrous effects of racism, and if poor whites and Hispanics get helped along the way, all to the good.

  4. Bert The Turtle says:

    Regarding your last paragraph, I figured that this post is as good a place as any to delurk and to pop in to say that I’m a huge fan of your writing and encourage you to keep up the effort to maintain intellecual honesty.

    Storytime: I’ve followed you since you were a commenter on McArdle’s blog at the Economist over to Ordinary Gentlemen and now to here. Now obviously, since I first encountered your comments on MM’s blog, you can assume I’m not a leftist like yourself. I generally consider myself to be a small-l libertarian. However, in large part due to your efforts to engage the “other side” by actually responding to the arguments they put forth (e.g., on Megan’s blog or elsewhere) you’ve managed to force me to reconsider my priors and shift my political views a bit more to the left. I doubt I’ll ever make it all the way across the aisle, but I’m certainly more amenable to things like social safety nets and affirmative action type programs than I used to be. In large part that’s due to you being willing to call out folks on either side for deliberately misreading/misinterpreting arguments or positions.

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for all your posts and to offer a little encouragement to keep fighting the good fight as honorably as you have can. I may belong to a (very) small group, but there actually are folks like me out there who you can convince to change their political views using well-reasoned arguments.

  5. LTL FTC says:

    Karl Steel and this @erasmuslijn character have twitter feeds that could be exhibit #1 for the way intersectionality has rendered online leftism a morass of oppression olympics and snarky one-upsmanship at the cost of organizing, ideas and activism. They wear their white guilt around like a hair shirt, always sure to let people know how truly, deeply they recognize their privilege. I draw a parallel to that spasm of self-abnegation after the #solidarityisforwhitewomen “moment,” in which white women competed to who could announce most loudly how important it was for them to stand back, be quiet and let WOC speak.

    Centuries of leftist theory and policy, and all you keep is the Maoist struggle session?

    Meanwhile, as lefty bullies do what it takes to keep on the good side of other lefty bullies, nothing of value is produced. Nobody’s grave will be marked “she checked her privilege, interrogated her internalized sexism and was never once called out on Twitter.”

  6. TST says:

    I’m pretty sure there were other fairer tweets directed at you over that post, for example from @chrisjudetaylor. But complaining as if all that Twitter produces is nonsense is a good way of avoiding it, I suppose. I get the impression that just as much nonsense appears in the comments section of blogs and blog posts themselves. It’s just a lot easier to amplify via tweet.

    • TST says:

      Also, why were comments disabled on that previous post? That might have made substantive engagement a lot easier, as people could have addressed you directly.

  7. Mao Cheng Ji says:

    Race is merely a proxy for class. If the middle-class segment was mostly comprised of blacks and the underclass of whites, then the whites would’ve been subjected to police brutality, etc.

    It so happens that skin color correlates strongly with socioeconomic status, and so we perceive, consciously or unconsciously, some as more (or less) suspicious (or trustworthy), based on their skin color. Because middle-class persons are more likely to hold bourgeois values, and the underclass persons are more likely to be dishonest (in the bourgeois sense) and violent. This is not what I’d call ‘racism’, because this is, after all, a perfectly rational calculation. And it’s hard (useless even) to confront, because you just come out as a silly PC liberal arguing against common sense.

    And if it’s not skin color, it’ll be something else: accents, tattoos, haircuts. If you don’t like it, the only solution is to do away with classes. Is this not completely obvious, beyond obvious? Why is this so difficult to understand?

  8. ishi says:

    This is pretty much an irrelevant aside (somewhat like a child listening to some adults having a discussion who says ‘what are you all talking about, it doesn’t make any sense and its boring so lets do something fun like play tag or read the poem i just wrote’).

    The concept of ‘intersectionality’ in my experience since i see it on the left / anarchist blogs particulairly from one grad student seems totally trivial—some sort of idea that given all sorts of oppressions in the world, people can view them seperately but also see where they overlap—eg both incarcerated people and undocumented people though different, do have overlapping legal issues. Both sexual minrotieis and women are oppressed under patriaerchy. I mean duhh unless i’m missing something. It seems to be topic so people can get a PhD dressing up common sense into a thesis topic, so of course they can then go on to become a tenured radical or think tanker. I have come across alot of these people—-who grew up in affluent suburbs, attend an Ivy for a degree in sociology or literature, and then show up to give speeches in the ‘hood’ explaining to the people there that due to tjheir expert research and high iontelligence and competency, that people in the hood are oppressed and discrimi9nated against, and they should do something about it, and ‘i’m wilkling to help’—eg lend my cred as a PhD so you ignorant peoople will be taken seriously in polite company, though i’d like a photo op of me in the Hood with POC’s whichi i will take home to impress my students and friends in our gated comunities, so i have cred too.

    The ‘left’ has used internwet culture quite effieicntly in some respects—though like ‘Occupy’ i can’t see that much has really changed. Capitalism uses it effectively too.
    Some acadmemics and NGO’s occassionaly do say, hire some oppressed person—i think Coates might be an example, who started in the Hood and now can make a living by publishing in the Nation with the limosine liberals and radicals. Clarence Thomas also rose up since it served an ‘intersectionality’ of purposes—eg all groups want ‘diversity’. (Like races, left and right wing groups often have indiduals more similar to each other than the within group differences. ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss—eg start as a trotskyist and then join the neocons seamlessly).

    So, i don’t quite get it—what are these people talking about? Maybe just talking the way people do when they hang out on a corner, except like a dressed up PhD thesis the only difference is the packaging—people really aren’t saying do doing much).

    I think maybe ‘latent text analyses’ might be able to show this, as an excercize in deconstruction of left/right discourse.

  9. Brian says:

    Comments are closed on your earlier post about the Frase article, so…

    Frase has failed to prove that the specific writers he criticizes don’t see race and gender as separate and important parts of oppression.

    I don’t really see this as a failure since I did not get the impression that he was attempting to prove that.

    Frase begins with a passage from Barbara Ehrenreich, refers explicitly to an article by Sam Gindin, and broadly to writings of Walter Benn Michaels. Each of those authors is quoted as “see[ing] race and gender as separate and important parts of oppression.” But those authors are noted as saying “class is different,” that “class trumps, without underplaying, issues of identity”, or that struggles over gender, race and sexuality are incommensurable with struggles over class.

    It’s a meandering, directionless complaint that seems to me to be addressing a strawman left. For all its digressions and myriad targets, it can be boiled down to saying, “Class is real and important but it’s not the same as gender and race and those are important to.”

    I agree that the post is digressive and meandering. That’s not a good thing, but it may reflect that Frase is less arguing for a particular thesis than trying to explore some of what is lost by a particular thesis. It may also suggest that he’s not quite succeeding in that attempt.

    I’d say the crux of what Frase is teasing at is captured by the following: “Ehrenreich, et al, speak of class strictly as an abstract social structure, and race and gender solely as individual identities. Yet each exists in both dimensions.” I read him not as addressing “a strawman left” or “the current world of left-wing publishing” but as addressing a habit of thought that can be identified, complete with links and quotations, in three specific authors. And the habit is not limited to those authors. Frase claims many of his peers frequently express similar sentiments and that he himself “still find[s] it beguiling.”

    It’s not just that (1) class, race, and gender are real and important or that (2) race, class, and gender intersect in real and important ways. It’s that (3) class, race, and gender are each realized both in a dimension of social structures and in a dimension of individual identities, and that (4) those dimensions intersect in real and important ways.

    To analogize flippantly, it’s like he’s suggesting a Hamiltonian dynamics for lefty politics. Personally, I suspect a little linear algebra could have cleared things up, but that might be too Bro.

    Or at any rate, I think that’s the idea he’s trying to develop. To me, the post reads less like he’s building up from the idea and more like he’s jumping off from it&emdash;repeatedly and in several directions, which makes it feel directionless.

  10. Pingback: Alex Dunn of UCSB’s Philosophy department, you’re today’s lying liar | Fredrik deBoer

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