The other day I criticized this piece in The New York Times Magazine about artificial intelligence by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. Speaking as a wholly amateur student of AI myself, I found it frustrating because Lewis-Kraus says things that make it clear that he’s aware of common pitfalls in popular writing about AI, and then proceeds to walk right into them. So I said so on Facebook. I then got a Facebook message from an acquaintance: “I didn’t know you and Gideon had a problem with each other.”
This is, I want to say, a really powerful encapsulation of the basic premise of media culture. It is the condition under which I’ve labored for the past 8 years of writing. I don’t have a problem with Lewis-Kraus – I’m fond of him. I had a problem with a piece he wrote. That piece had ideas. I have different ideas. That is what this is supposed to all be about. This is why I bother to write. But the worlds of writing, journalism, and politics are now so thoroughly captured by the social imperative that the very notion of a conflict of ideas gets assumed away.
I have been telling some version of this story for years. The problem has accelerated as traditional media jobs die out and as technology further compels journalists and writers to pay attention only to their personal friends. (Slack: because journalism wasn’t insular and cliquish enough already.) And the self-reflexive aspect of this problem only deepens: journalists and writers only take seriously criticism that comes from their personal friends, and they define as personal friends those that don’t subject their work to criticism. It is a perfect trap. I know of very few professional writers who are even willing to think about the problem seriously. There’s little to gain and a lot to lose, professionally and socially.
I am thinking of this today because I have observed, once again, that the path of professionalization in DC politics and policy writing leads unerringly towards the right. That is, as one gains professional stature in that world, they move without exception to the right, when it comes to economics and foreign policy. This has consequences, bad ones. But because the social codes of journalism and policy prevent anyone from making this kind of criticism, out of the conviction that it is “personal,” it goes undiscussed.
Let’s take Ned Resnikoff. Resnikoff is a young liberal writer who has speedily climbed up the ladder of Washington DC politics and policy writing. (He went to my high school, as it happens.) For years I understood him to be a left-leaning liberal – probably not a radical, but someone with reliably left-wing sympathies and instincts. As his career has progressed, he has moved consistently to the right. And it’s a very particular kind of conservative turn: one that attempts less to rebut left-wing ideas but to exclude them entirely. In his piece today – for the Center for American Progress, which could hardly be more perfect – he explicitly ties the radical left to white supremacy, a rhetorical ploy undertaken to suggest that leftists should not be debated but rather excluded from polite society altogether. It is hippie punching of a very aggressive, deliberately inflammatory kind.
This, it should be noted, is a 100% identical argument to that of conservative writer Jonah Goldberg in his best seller Liberal Fascism: it’s a criticism based purely on vulgar guilt-by-association, Hitler was a vegetarian stuff. “So-and-so approvingly quoted this piece, ergo he and the person who wrote it are the same” is not an argument that can withstand even the briefest review. Lots of white supremacists agree with lots of liberals that we need school “choice.” Does that therefore make the charter school movement white supremacist? I’m sure a lot of white supremacists believe that the Earth orbits the sun. I’m sure a lot of white supremacists listen to the same music Resnikoff does. Why, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, in the past, a white supremacist had approvingly quoted something Resnikoff wrote! Would he see that as equally disqualifying? Would he take kindly to someone attempting to discredit him through reference to such a thing? I doubt it. But in professional political writing, you can always get away with attacking Marxists, however unfairly.
If you think that there are no principles, only people; if you think that there are no political ideas, only political tribes; if you have only a politics of who and not of what, then it makes sense to say that fascism and communism are the same. Neither group, after all, are the kind to invite you to have drinks in Logan Circle. That they are diametrically opposed in their ideas – and that it wasn’t liberalism that beat fascism, but rather 20 million dead communists – is incidental. What matters is that both are antagonists to the affluent liberals who dictate political journalism’s social culture.
Here’s another Jacobin piece about identity politics that, if anything, makes a stronger, more inflammatory case than the one Resnikoff selectively quotes. Does it follow that Shuja Haider is a white nationalist? Does it matter to Resnikoff that the most acid critiques of identity politics I know of have come from writers of color? Does he care? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that by insisting that people to his left are necessarily aligned with white supremacy, Resnikoff is doing his career great favors.
Resnikoff’s journey towards a professionally and socially safe center-right identity is a time-honored tradition. I would accuse Ezra Klein of it, but Ezra never really stood for anything but ambition. But Matt Yglesias is a perfect exemplar, someone who once had fairly sturdy leftish liberal economic beliefs and who would now be a Tory if he lived in the UK. This right-wing drift is neither coincidental nor hard to explain. The left wing stands opposed to the interests of establishment power; establishment power controls who gets work in media and think tanks and who doesn’t; therefore standing opposed to the left wing has obvious and direct career incentives. Not everyone marches right to the same degree or with the same consistency. But I can genuinely think of not a single person who has moved to the left as they have climbed the ladder of influence and social prominence in the worlds of DC writing and policy. Not one.
The tendency for young writers and journalists to begin their careers much further to the left than they end up – the way that young lefties reliably become young Jon Chaits, dropping their vestigial left-wing sympathies and glomming on to the center-right Washington consensus, and the way they are rewarded for doing so – is a structural facet of media. It is not personal. And in order to accurately describe the world, I need to be able to talk about that phenomenon, in concrete terms and with specific examples. But even though this post is more about the meta-phenomenon than about Resnikoff himself, it will be dismissed as a personal attack, no matter how explicit I am in denying that. It will be tweeted with scoffs that don’t even attempt to consider its actual core argument. It will be seen through one lens and one lens only: Freddie deBoer vs. Ned Resnikoff, one person who’s out criticizing one person who’s in. That’s the only way that professional politics writers now know how to interrogate the world. (On Facebook, Resnikoff wrote “RIP my menchies” when posting this piece, which is a dogwhistle within the journalist social circle that means “people are going to criticize something that I as a professional writer put out into the world.”) And it is profoundly destructive to the necessary intellectual work of democracy.
The burgeoning war between liberals and leftists matters. The Democratic party is in tatters. Nativism is ascendant. The Obama administration, lionized as the pinnacle of liberalism a few short years ago, leaves with its premiere accomplishment – the hideously complicated stew of good intentions and bad ideas that is Obamacare – struggling to work and totally unable to build a political constituency that might protect it. The center-right managerial class liberalism that Resnikoff now stands for, by almost any rational measure, has failed. Yet the people within it busily deflect any and all criticism. Establishment Democrats have furiously denied that they have failed in any way. Liberals have channeled huge amounts of their energy into lashing out towards their left, rather than attempting to define what they stand for and how to get it. No matter how many times I dare bright liberals to write pieces about why, exactly, they hate those to their left with such a righteous passion, I can’t get anyone to take the bait. And social capture deepens all of these problems.
Until and unless people in political writing and journalism consider how thoroughly they’ve confused friendship for political alliance – until they reckon with how Twitter and Slack and company parties and their politico softball league and the cult of Let’s Be Friennnnnnnnnds have undermined their ability to say unpopular things about the world – our left-of-center political movements will have a hard time recovering. But to do that, some on the inside have to really critique insider culture, and that in turn is a violation of what it takes to get inside. It’s a real, thorny problem, and I don’t see how it gets solved under current conditions in politics and media. In the meantime I will stay depressed as I see yet more bright young liberals discover, to their professional and social convenience, that the problem was those dirty commies all along.
@cascamike yeah…this is not a good person to cite Mike. Youre better than this.
— (((Alex))) (@IlladelphAC) January 5, 2017
No attempt to say “this argument is wrong” or explain why. 100% pure “this person is not on my team.” Which is how almost all liberals argue now – pure tribalism. Incidentally I guarantee Alex here couldn’t accurately name what I actually believe and have actually argued if his life depended on it. It’s always second-hand distortions or out-and-out inventions about what I do and don’t believe.
You show that you’re in through who you declare to be out. You show that you’re in through who you declare to be out. You show that you’re in through who you declare to be out. You show that you’re in through who you declare to be out. You show that you’re in through who you declare to be out.
Update the second: To whit, again!
And I assume this mode of analysis is intimidating to Freddie, who has no sincere political interests beyond who goes to which parties
— David Klion (@DavidKlion) January 6, 2017
Not a word in this Twitter thread from David Klion on the actual point of this post – the way that social capture influences what critiques will actually get substantively discussed. In fact Klion refuses to engage with that precisely because he thinks it’s mean to someone he likes! He studiously ignores the fact that I directly rebutted Resnikoff’s one and only argumentative tactic – guilt by association – then claims I’ve offered no argument. He also completely ignores that the post is explicitly about the argumentative context in which Resnikoff’s piece lives. And then, in a twitter thread about my supposed ad hominem, several other people use ad hominem against me, and Klion doesn’t correct him! Could it because Klion likes Resnikoff, doesn’t like me, and so he doesn’t mind that people exemplify what I’m critiquing in their attacks on the critique?
Klion cannot imagine someone who cares about ideas rather than people, and so here he has to literally invert the dynamic: he ascribes to me his own obsession with politics of petty personal issues in order to assert that there can be no ideas within my piece. Again, the basic point of this post: no ideas, only personalities. No engagement, only Freddie deBoer is a Bad Person Who Goodies Like Me Don’t Like. And his followers go right ahead and say that explicitly. For which I’m grateful.
@DavidKlion or who doesn't invite him to theirs…
— Megan Carpentier (@megancarpentier) January 6, 2017
See? If you criticize professional writers, it must only be because you want to go to shitty cocktail parties and can’t get an invite. What a world.