lol but also ugh

So, let’s review. I wrote a post pointing out that professional politics writers and journalists are subject to social capture – the ideas that are permissible in our political writing are severely constrained because politics writers have direct social and professional incentives not to criticize each other in anything but anodyne and bloodless ways. I also said, as I have many times, that people who deviate from these rules are socially and professional punished. Using social media and IRL gossip, they designate anyone who criticizes the herd to be an outcast, and they enforce that outcast status with insults and by preventing those cast out from professional opportunity. That’s a series of claims I’ve made about the world. You can take it or leave it. By all means, disagree. But it’s a good-faith attempt to describe a real problem I really perceive.

David Klion decided to respond to all of this by… doing exactly what I was saying happens all the time in the piece. And others joined in.

If someone was trying to demonstrate my point, they couldn’t possibly do a better job. I said “I want to debate ideas, not who has drinks with who in Bushwick.” David Klion and Megan Carpentier dismiss that point by saying that I only feel that way because I don’t get invited out for drinks in Bushwick! It’s a dismissal that perfectly demonstrates the point it’s dismissing. And it asserts the universality of the very attitude I’m rejecting, that there is no purpose to political writing beyond popularity. It’s breathtaking.

If Klion has a problem with character assassination – if he thinks that ideas should be debated, not personal character – why is he faving a tweet that has nothing to offer aside from asserting my unpopularity in that social world? Isn’t that precisely character assassination? When I say “liberal writers can only debate personality, not ideas,” and people back up Klion by saying “he’s a bad guy, ignore him,” can people really not see the irony there? How do seemingly functional adults so perfectly exemplify a particular worldview and then deny any salience in that worldview?

I have no doubt that Klion doesn’t see himself as being socially captured. I’m sure he doesn’t think he’s policing what can and cannot be argued. But that’s precisely what he’s doing. He’s saying that the only way to fairly criticize Ned Resnikoff – who, I’ll remind you, accused vast swaths of people to his left of complicity in white supremacy, including very many people of color – is in a way that spares Resnikoff from real criticism. And I just don’t play that. Because politics has stakes. Because this stuff matters. Naturally, Klion tagged Resnikoff and not me – because what mattered was that Resnikoff saw that Klion had his back, not the actually principles in question.

Every time you, as a professional writer, hold up something written by an unpopular writer to receive scorn from other professional writers, you are actively participating in the social capture of media. When the point is not “this is wrong” but “we all don’t like this person!,” you’re erasing politics. Then it’s all just high school. You are shrinking the boundaries of the permissible and contributing to cliquishness and insiderism.

When the Gawker-Hulk Hogan debacle was going down, I vigorously defended Gawker Media, in print, on several occasions. Because Gawker exemplified a willingness to say uncomfortable and unpopular things when necessary, even at professional and social cost. I also criticized Gawker because they sometimes got things wrong. And I was really bummed out to see a lot of Gawker Media people saying some version of “We don’t want your qualified support, we only want people who are with us all the way.” It bummed be out because that was a betrayal of the very principles that they were rightly defending in Gawker: independence, a commitment to the uncomfortable truth, a willingness to lose friends, making accuracy and honesty a higher priority than popularity. In insisting that people take a with-us-or-against-us attitude towards Gawker, Gawker Media employees undercut the very reason Gawker was essential.

Contrary to what many think, there are a lot of professional writers who I admire and respect. But the near-universal addiction to the approval of other professional writers is so powerful, the desperate need for validation for peers so inescapable, that it can be almost impossible to talk to you guys about this stuff. I’m just trying to tell you what it looks like, to me, from the outside. And given that journalism is essential to democracy it’s my job as a citizen to be honest in my criticism. You may, again, take it or leave it.

My question for David Klion is, why does he think I do this, if he really believes I can’t possibly be motivated by ideas? Does he think I’m making a lot of money on this? He knows I’m not making friends doing this – he is, in fact, sharing in making fun of me for not making friends doing this. He can’t be so deluded as to think it somehow helps me in academia, where I’ve lost out on a bunch of professional opportunity because of my controversial political writing. So what does he think motivates me to do this? I have no idea.

Maybe – just maybe, David – I write what I write because I believe it is the truth.

Update: This problem is always self-reflexive. Klion will never reform – he’ll never take the seriously the idea that he needs to reform, that there could be anything correct about what I’m saying – precisely because he will go seeking permission to not take it seriously from the crowd. And because the crowd has no priority beyond defending itself, the crowd will say “no, just tell jokes about the critic with us instead.” This is what’s been happening since the first time I wrote about this stuff… in 2008. It never changes: the idea that the social world of media deserves scrutiny and criticism is excluded by precisely the forces within the social world of media that most deserve scrutiny and criticism. It’s a perfect defense system.

12 Comments

  1. You have an excellent critic of this dynamic of criticism based on tribalism rather than substance. But one thing that seems missing is some self-criticism. You just never seem to be able to rise above this, to see that when you get dragged into these fights the end result is really no different than cliquish infighting anyway. You say you want to talk about substance, but you also engage in tactics that make that difficult. You don’t like to discuss party politics. And you severely overvalue the importance of people’s past positions, and their pandering. I think if you want to discuss substance, you have to accept that some people are going to be partisans, and just let that go for sake of discussion. You just can’t start with “the Establishment has failed in all respects” and then be offended when people respond with, “the left is an out-of-touch wasteland for people with no friends”.

    As you like to say, that’s a statement about what is, not what ought to be.

    1. This is a good summation of how the left has so far failed in responding to the election. It seemed for the first couple weeks that people might actually focus on concrete actions against both Trump and the Democrats, but since then it’s been an endless circle jerk on Twitter, the blogs, etc. Chapo, especially, seems to be siphoning off creative anger and energy. Jokes aren’t going to win state elections in 2018.

  2. I’m no longer on Twitter for all these reasons.

    The medium encourages users to “rate” every single sentence or mini-word-salad they see. Someone else put it best: it’s like stand up comedy but you’ll never ever get paid for it. I hope you can shake off this chain eventually.

  3. The only defense against such a debate is to remove yourself from it entirely. Don’t criticize others’ behavior and ethics, and *also* don’t criticize others’ criticism of your behavior and ethics. Do not engage: retreat into a tower of ideas. That’s where all the people who are interested in real, collegial, competitive discourse are, anyway.

  4. i think the problem is a defensive circlejerking

    so for example the famous tweet by the Washington Post guy who put out the story about the Vermont electrical grid being hacked. The best replies to that tweet aren’t, say, by current affairs, but actually his own, because the two replies and the original tweet form a circlejerk, like:

    “these guys are wrong”
    “but surely they won’t admit it”
    “there’s just NO WAY they could be wrong”

    these circlejerks are basically weapons; defensive weapons to protect yourself against another ideas, or in WaPo guy’s case, offensive weapons to try and attack your opponents. Anyways, I hate this behavior, which is also why I really don’t like Reddit – the same thing is too damn common there. Any time you reply to your own tweets in such a way, you’re building up a narrative instead of just letting the other guy respond and letting it go from there

  5. I think this is very slightly wrong, for small reasons.

    As an initial matter, it’s hard to see how this is ironically proving-the-point, rather than mere hypocrisy. That is, it seems like what Klion is doing is a reflective demonstration of the thing he’s accusing others of doing (i.e., hypocrisy) rather than a circular demonstration of the phenomenon being denied. In the end, I agree it’s both, but I had to go back to your earlier post (“it will be dismissed as a personal attack …. It will be seen through one lens and one lens only: Freddie deBoer vs. Ned Resnikoff”) to see how. Without that, I probably viewed this through the “hipsters angrily call each other ‘hipster'” lens (or “white guys online calling others white guys?”), which is kind of more obscuring than clarifying.

    But my main (if trivial) point is this: While I think you’re right about viewing this as a phenomenon of social attachments, or outright clique-ishness, I don’t think it’s quite as clear that it’s a matter of exclusion. Rather, Klion’s response seems more motivated by his affinity for Resnikoff (he calls him “one of a very few” good guys etc.) than a desire to shun or cast out for its own sake. That is, I think this is not rejecting the Other as much as accepting the Self (or the Self-Same).

    I agree it’s a thin distinction in the present context! Klion cannot take sides with his Self Resnikoff without taking sides against the Other Deboer. But in other conflicts, the allegiances may be different. (I note from looking just now—I hadn’t heard of Klion before—that he talks like the Chapo guys and thinks Peter Daou’s an @-hole.) And importantly to my way of thinking, the motivation of inclusion versus a motivation of exclusion matters (even if both are examples of letting sentiment cloud reason, and therefore not great behavior for intellectuals).

  6. … adding, it’s funny that “100% identical argument to that of conservative writer Jonah Goldberg” gets translated through Twitter to “100% character assassination.” Maybe that’s revelatory of something.

  7. Thank you for your well researched article on how Sanders could have won the election over Clinton published in the Washington Post.

  8. I think following ad hominem attacks on Twitter to their subject is how I found you originally. It’s how I find a lot of people who write the most interesting things. I’ve come to take being attacked as a signal for having ideas.

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