Awhile back, Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece echoing the widespread claim that anti-Semitism is rising in Europe. That piece was bad. It was bad in large measure because it made large claims with little evidence. Worse, it almost entirely walked back its own claims in the last paragraph, admitting “The degree of danger that Jews in Europe actually face is beyond my knowledge.” In other words, “I don’t actually know anything about the inflammatory claim I just spent hundreds of words making.” I found this professionally sloppy, as well as dangerous: claims of rising anti-Semitism in Europe are constantly invoked as justification for harsh reprisals on Europe’s Muslim population, an overwhelmingly poor, politically powerless group of immigrants who are so hated that their mere existence has fueled the rise of ultra-right parties. Friedersdorf knew that; he wrote it anyway. And in that, I also saw another phenomenon, which is people at his publication trading on its almost impossible level of pomposity to throw lazy work out there and expect it not to matter. What’s more, because so many people feel so intimidated by the accusations of anti-Semitism that flow like water on the internet, I’m sure Friedersdorf knew he stood little chance of getting any push back. So far all of these reasons, I dinged his essay.
That’s what I did: I made fun of an essay because I thought it was bad. That brief post of mine wasn’t, and couldn’t be construed as, my take on anti-Semitism in Europe in general. Both before and after that post, I’ve written thousands of words on the subject, after all. Anyone who really wants to know what I think about that subject could just check those out– if they’re honest, I mean. If they care about what I actually think. As it happens, my basic point remains the same: that the fact that people constantly assert that anti-Semitism is rising without evidence, indeed without even betraying the presumption that they are required to marshal evidence at support that claim at all, in the long run does no favors to the fight against anti-Semitism. And as the endless throngs of commenters who show up at The Atlantic to call for a war on Islam to save civilization show, this conversation has teeth. So let’s wage that conversation well, and let’s take care with our claims, and let’s not walk back some of the most inflammatory accusations you can make near the end. Because I take the question seriously.
The internet is hung with writers who are desperately trying to make it. That is the way of things and it has been for as long as I’ve been online. These are the people who send you emails asking you to guest blog on your site, the ones who tag 50 people on Facebook, the ones whose Twitter feeds are little more than constant blasts of grubby self-promotion. I don’t mean to mock; the economics of online writing are brutal and life is not a meritocracy and talented people struggle all the time. There are very good writers out there who are struggling to make it. John-Paul Pagano is not one of them. He marries professional incompetence to professional failure in a way that makes you want to believe in the perfection of the market and bootstraps and just deserts. He hasn’t caught on because his writing is somehow simultaneously sophomoric and pretentious, clearly the product of desperate effort and yet often barely coherent, and more than anything, serially dishonest.
But he has one thing going for him: shamelessness. That is a talent that will take you a long way. Why, just look at this hot little opinion, published the day after Sandy Hook, and see a man who wants you, so desperately, to know who he is, to care. Look at a man stand on a pile of dead children, waving his arms like a lunatic, just so you’ll please please notice him.
That’s John Pagano. And since there are publications out there that match this level of shamelessness– publications like Tablet– he may just have a bright future ahead of him.
Jamie Kirchick is the more successful iteration of Pagano. He, too, is someone whose writing talents are incapable of rendering his constant accusations particularly readable, but then his writing talents are almost entirely incidental to his writing career. Kirchick is a propagandist for empire, someone who never met a war he didn’t like, the kind of guy who writes notes on the movements of Muslims he sees at the airport, a professional proponent of xenophobia who would like very much for you to be afraid of the world around you and all of its shiftless brown people. Kirchick, whose sweaty, desperate bigotries could power a city, has been busily signal-boosting Pagano’s sketchy attempt at a takedown. Not because he believes it’s particularly accurate; I don’t think Kirchick is unintelligent, just professionally motivated to see every weak attempt at character assassination of this type as worthy of championing, even when it busily avoids referring to the actual words that spell out the actual opinion of the actual person it’s intending to slander. Kirchick thinks thinks of himself as a man with a cause, although to all outside parties, he appears to be only a man with a career. At that career, he’s very successful.
I am still writing about Pagano’s profoundly motivated reading and sad attempt at polemic because, as he and Tablet’s editors knew when they pushed that piece onto the internet like parents sending their kid out to intentionally infect other children with chicken pox, the fairness of its representation of my actual views is totally irrelevant to its reception. Pagano didn’t link to or quote my ample writing on the question at hand because he never had any intention of representing what I actually thought about the subject at hand. Tablet certainly doesn’t care about whether what it publishes is honest, as long as it is in the service of the website’s rapidly-congealing conservative political agenda. WordPress tells me how many people click over from a site that links here. Anyone could check the actual post I wrote and realize that it is not about European anti-Semitism but about a bad essay published in a national publication. But almost no one has actually come over from Tablet; they can’t. There’s no link.
Let this fact wash over you: the post of mine that Pagano is reacting against is not linked to in his essay. Tablet employs editors; it’s ostensibly a professional enterprise. This is the behavior of children.
If you care about whether I am or am not an anti-Semite– if you actually think that such accusations should depend on their accuracy; if you think that anti-Semitism is actual serious business, not a playground insult to be thrown around casually and without consideration; if you’d care to be honest– you can peruse this website and read my own words. You can’t do that at Tablet; Pagano quoted almost none of them. He had business to get to and a career to build, a propaganda outfit willing to help him do so to advance its political agenda, and champions like Kirchick who have images to maintain. That’s how their little cottage industry keeps on puttering along. That’s how they take a sin they say they hate and trivialize it, making accusations of it so ubiquitous as to dull their force, packaging and repackaging it like breakfast cereal, never noticing or caring that in doing so, they make it harder to confront the real thing. I hardly figure in that awful work. My own words barely register in their accusations because I am just a convenient pit stop; they all have other places to get to.