The pressure to avoid criticizing current progressive practice is intense. More and more, though, people seem to acknowledge that we have a problem, a really deep problem that we seem to have no way to find our way out of. To understand it, I present Allan Brauer.
Brauer is a partisan Democrat and Obama zombie of such intensity it almost seems he is out to prove the point of every criticism ever leveled at Obots. He was forced to resign from a leadership position in the Sacramento Democratic party, a couple years ago, for wishing death upon the children of a critic of Obamacare. Yesterday he topped himself.
Now. Perhaps you’re a big fan of this TPP plan. Perhaps you are a big fan of Obama. Perhaps you are not a fan of Elizabeth Warren or Warren Democrats. That’s all OK. Comparing criticism of an economic treaty to the lynching of a black child? Not OK. I mean I’m not even really sure what the hell that means, but clearly he’s equating a politician getting criticized for his political views with a teenager being murdered for his race. So people on Twitter, including me, told him about how not-cool that tweet was. His response tells you an awful lot about the ditch we’ve driven this left-wing movement into.
Manarchist, dudebro …. These are terms that are typically employed as a cudgel against the left by centrist Democrats. They argue for dismissing a particular political argument by presuming that a certain set of people makes that political argument. Which, whatever: a majority of the socialists I’ve known in my life have not been white men, and I’ve known thousands, but who cares, right. The bigger question at this point is what any of that has to do with a guy using Emmett Till’s memory to wage political warfare over a trade agreement. What does manarchism or brocialism or whatever have to do with that ugly comment? Who knows? It doesn’t matter: Bauer knows that those are magic words. He understands how today’s progressive internet works. He understands critique drift. He knows that whatever complaints about him can simply be filtered through third-hand appropriated feminism. Because that’s how we do things, now.
What all of this descended into, as was inevitable, was a White Off. A White Off is a peculiar 21st-century phenomenon where white progressives try to prove that the other white progressives they’re arguing with are The Real Whites. It’s a contest in shamelessness: who can be more brazen in reducing race to a pure argumentative cudgel? Who feels less guilt about using the fight against racism as a way to elevate oneself in a social hierarchy? Which white person will be the first to pull out “white” as a pejorative in a way that demonstrates the toothlessness of the concept? Within progressivism today, there is an absolute lack of shame or self-criticism about reducing racial discourse to a matter of straightforward personal branding and social signaling. It turns my stomach.
(If there’s one thing I know about today’s progressive white people, it’s that they are all sure other white people are the really white ones.)
Allan Brauer, I would argue, is today’s progressive internet in its purest form. He’s someone who’s learned all of the lessons of how we do things too well. I hope that people would recognize that calling criticism of Obama similar to kidnapping, beating, and shooting a child is wrong. Not because of who calls it wrong; not because the side saying it’s wrong gets a 50%-plus-one-vote majority of non-white-dudes on the question. But because it just is wrong. Do we still have the capacity, as a political and intellectual movement, to argue in a way that’s not entirely based on associating with race or gender in a totally vague, unaccountable, and reductive way?
This guy feels totally confident in invoking the spirit of a famous victim of violent racism to satisfy his political ends, and in complaining that his critics are just white men. This fucking guy:
Does that strike you as a good state of affairs? Because if you don’t work to change it, it’s only going to get worse.
The stakes are much lower in our cultural writing, but the problem is largely the same: tired, rote arguments and magic words, treated as cutting rebuttals no matter how lazy and uninspired. You use magic words in your work, and no matter how good or bad it is, you’ll get credit for it. And if people criticize you, you just use the magic words against them, too.
Take this piece that recently ran on The Toast, a website that has taken maximum advantage of this Teflon aspect of progressive argument. This piece is titled “Books That Literally All White Men Own: The Definitive List.” When it says list it doesn’t mean listcle, but list. It’s just a literal list of books. Could such a thing be clever, funny, perceptive? Sure. This is not. This is a list of books that have no particular internal consistency or meaning. If ever a professional writer farted out a piece, this is it. Are some of these books indicative of a kind of vague dude culture? I guess so, although as is typical of these things, it mostly refers to the white dude culture of 20 or so years ago. But besides: you could literally take any twenty of the books on here, substitute them at random with any twenty other books, and the people who are going wild for the piece in the comments would go just as wild. What does that say about the exercise?
Now comes the stock response: white male tears! You dislike the piece because you’re implicated by it! You’re insulted! Well, I’m insulted all right, but it’s not because I feel affronted as a white dude. I’m insulted because an adult got paid to rifle through some Wikipedia list of best sellers and throw it on a Word doc. I wish I was affronted politically or personally, because that would imply that there’s something actually interesting going on in this list. There’s many more subversive ways to try something like this. For example: a more honest version of this list would have to include Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Just like an honest music version of this exercise would require including Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar. Looking at how chichi white culture has grown to use performative love of black culture as a shield against social and political judgment, that might be useful, risky. It would risk, in fact, implicating The Toast’s audience. It would risk shaking them out of their complacency that they are The Good Ones. But if there’s one thing these sites understand, it’s that you’ve got to leave your readership soothed and reassured, confident that all of the social problems described in your work don’t apply to them personally. You let them stay on offense, never on defense.
Instead, it’s yet another tired invocation of “white dudes love Catcher in the Rye!.” (Hey, you guys, seriously: nobody reads Catcher in the Rye anymore. The book had a reputation for being stale and out of fashion when I read it. I was 11.) Altogether the piece is indicative of a growing exhaustion, with desultory, rote online writing. “Hey, you guys like lists. And you love calling other white people white. Here you go. Eat your slop. Enjoy.” Why shouldn’t she write it, though? The comments filled up with preemptive claims that anyone criticizing the list must be crying white male tears– mostly, of course, but commenters who have just admitted that they are themselves white men, just not the same as those other white men. And of course, tons of the comments from white dudes preemptively note that they only own X small number of those books, and then proceeed to hardy-har-har about a critique of white dudes that, they are sure, does not implicate them.
Hacky garbage getting defended on political grounds is a contagion for today’s progressives. Some of the most cynical people in the world right now are pumping out ostensibly progressive cultural writing. They know there’s no standards; the defense of everything they write is baked into their self-identification with their political movement. I cannot tell you how much shitty hack work gets a pass online because criticizing it will just result in the typical litany of bad-faith progressive defenses. The Toast publishes some smart, funny, perceptive stuff. And it publishes some lazy garbage like the above. The problem is that there’s no incentive for them to put in the effort to do the former rather than the latter because their fans celebrate every piece they run as if Clever Internet Moses has just handed down the next clay tablets to the people, no matter how good or bad it is. This is inspired. It’s wonderfully accurate, entertaining movie criticism. This, on the other hand, is just hacky and boring. It’s someone ladling out every cliche about modern politicized hero worship, like a discarded Tumblr post about Amy Poehler from 2009. But it ticks the right boxes and enjoys the stock defense, so who cares, right?
Mallory Ortberg has carved out a really unique voice and place online, but she seems like a victim of her own success. She’s in a “Radiohead recording themselves farting into a paper bag” rut: her fans will call anything she does a work of genius no matter what, in part because they think doing so is somehow a meaningful political act, so there’s little incentive to branch out. I want her to do new, challenging things, just as a fan of her good work. It would be really amazing if The Toast would try to get its own readership to confront themselves politically rather than to see all political engagement as a way to identify who they’re better than. I’d like to see her get out of the very comfortable comfort zone that she has (to her credit) built for herself. But simply identifying work of Ortberg’s that I find better or worse feels like violating some sacred internet compact about Those Who Are Not to be Criticized.
And none of this is even to begin to ask what, exactly, any of this stuff accomplishes, how continuing to build this immense shibboleth White Dudes — made by white people, for the entertainment of white people — actually helps in the fight against racism or sexism. Set those basic questions of what we’re actually doing here aside. How do we separate good from bad when those conversations are inevitably preempted by the same tired-ass slogans, played-out memes, and exhausted insults? I don’t know how to ask people to do better work and have higher standards when they treat any criticism as a political betrayal.
Criticism of today’s progressives tends to use words like toxic, aggressive, sanctimonious, and hypocritical. I would not choose any of those. I would choose lazy. We are lazy as political thinkers and we are lazy as culture writers and we are lazy as movement builders. We ward off criticism of our own bad work by acting like that criticism is inherently anti-feminist or anti-progressive. We seem spoiled, which seems insane because everything is messed up and so many things are getting worse. I guess having a Democratic president just makes people feel complacent. Well, look: as a political movement we are in pathetic shape right now. We not only have no capacity to move people who don’t already share our worldview, we seem to have no interest in doing so. Our stock arguments are lazy stacks of cliches. We seem to want to confirm everything conservatives say about our inability to argue without calling other people racist. We can’t articulate why our vision of the future is better than the other side’s, and in fact many of us will tell you that it’s offensive to think that we have an obligation to educate others on that vision at all. We celebrate grassroots activist movements like Black Lives Matter, but we insult them by treating them as the same thing as hashtag campaigns, and we don’t build a broader left-wing political movement that could increase their likelihood of success. We spend all day, every day, luxuriating in how much better we are than other people, having convinced ourselves that the work of politics is always external, never internal. We have made politics synonymous with social competition. We’re a mess.
If you want us to stop being a mess, you have to be willing to criticize, and you have to accept that every criticism of an ostensibly progressive argument is not some terrible political betrayal. Not everyone who complains about white people has enlightened racial attitudes. Not everyone who constantly drops “mansplaining” or “gaslighting” into conversation actually helps fight sexism. One-liners don’t build a movement. Being clever doesn’t fix the world. Scoring points on Twitter doesn’t create justice. Jokes make nothing happen. We’re speeding for a brutal backlash and inevitable political destruction, if not in 2016 then 2018 or 2020. If you want to help avoid that, I suggest you invest less effort in trying to be the most clever person on the internet and more on being the hardest working person in real life. And stop mistaking yourself for the movement.
Update: Since people keep bringing this up: I know that there are three different authors for the Toast pieces I linked to. Like I said: I like a lot of the Toast’s stuff, particularly Ortberg’s stuff. Some I don’t like. I want to be able to say what I think is good and what I think is bad without that being taken as a referendum on feminism, or liberalism, or whatever. But that kind of site attracts followers who have a hard time separating their vague cultural affiliations from their politics, and it leads to deep sensitivity about criticism of their favorites. I think that’s not ideal, and I think over a long enough time frame it becomes a kind of disrespect for the craft of the people you’re defending.
Update: Check out this exchange with Jay Caspian Kang on Medium, where we talk through some of these issues at length, and in which I revise some of my ideas.