I know my own group by defining who’s not in it

Scott Alexander wrote a piece in the middle of last year that I think is as essential as anything I’ve read in ages about how we argue now. His point is pretty simple: as political segregation increases, with people from dramatically different political camps less and less likely to interact, the really bitter political arguments are intra-group, not inter-group. That is, the battles that are most personal and toxic stop being Democrat-Republican but left-liberal, alt-trad, insurgents-establishment.

Alexander names a few indicative examples. Online atheism is a really good one, with battles within atheists of different dispositions being far more frequent and ugly than those between atheists and believers, precisely because the latter groups interact so rarely. Primary season 2016 was the ur-example. The actual presidential campaign was ugly in many ways. But the Sanders vs. Clinton and alt-right vs. establishment GOP fights were more personal, more tiring, more toxic. The perpetual tendency of Clinton partisans to say that Sanders supporters are “just as bad” as the alt-right – a Nazi-influenced far right extremist group, mind you – exemplifies this tendency. Fargroups are further away politically than neargroups, but they don’t live in our shared social and professional spaces while neargroups do, and so they don’t inspire quite the same kind of personal animus.

Here’s an extension to Alexander I want to make, which I’ll relate to my own experience. As internecine warfare against the neargroup intensifies, the regulation of who is in and who is out becomes more and more important. That is, the more that politics becomes about battling the neargroup instead of the fargroup, the more essential self-identification with a given faction becomes. As the really bitter fights become those between people who are close on the spectrum, the regulation of one’s space on the spectrum becomes even more essential.

So look at my experience. For a long while I was just kind of a fringey voice; perceived by many people as kind of annoying but not in any sense someone to be careful not to be associated with. Now, to the minor degree that I am discussed by progressives (being a low-traffic and low-attention figure generally), it is almost always accompanied by this laborious process of distancing themselves from me even while agreeing with me. Most endorsements of my work, by liberals and some leftists, involve endorsing what I’ve said while performing a dance to show everybody they know I’m Bad. It is the perpetual “I know Freddie’s problematic, but he’s right here” phenomenon. At some point or another I was given the mark of Cain, and I’ve never been clear on when or why.

This behavior has grown exponentially in recent years despite the fact that I haven’t said or done anything particularly controversial that would explain this. And as I’ve said over and over again, on the social issues that people actually get mad about – questions of race, gender, sexuality, identity, etc. – my views are absolutely conventional in liberal and left spaces. I argue about the way that we discuss those things, I have idiosyncratic ideas about our political strategy, but in terms of both the analysis of existing injustice and how things have to change, it’s very difficult to find a shred of daylight between me and your average media liberal. In the early days of blogging you’d do this sort of thing if someone had, like, good leftist politics but believed the earth was flat. Now it’s apparently “he’s got the exact same policy prescriptions I do in terms of affirmative action and equal pay laws and abortion, but he thinks campus activists don’t always make their arguments constructively, so watch out.”

This leads to situations where I am sure that neither party in perpetual “do you denounce Freddie?” purity tests actually knows what they are denouncing me for. To the degree that they’re ever challenged to explain the demand, people either a) hand wave the challenge away or b) say something about my beliefs that is flatly wrong. (“He criticizes BlackLivesMatter!” I have literally never done that.) But really that’s natural: the ritualistic denunciation has little to do with me and more to do with the importance of defining oneself in one of the camps currently engaged in internecine conflict. It’s not hard to know who’s who when liberals debate conservatives; the Democrats and Republicans are formal groups you have to explicitly join. The line between Clintonite liberal Democrat and Sanders social democrat is less clear, so people develop more elaborate signals and tests to define where people are.

Probably nobody shows this stuff more than the journalist Michael Tracey. Tracey is one of the most viscerally hated figures I can remember in online writing in a long time – hated by liberals and leftists, that is. Indeed one of the only things that’s united Clintonite liberals and Sanders-supporting leftists lately is irrational distaste for Michael Tracey. But Tracey’s actual crimes are unclear; he is a relentless critic of liberals and of the Clinton campaign, in ways I frequently find myopic and unhelpful, but he does not express the kinds of regressive beliefs that you would think are disqualifying. He has expressly denied support for Donald Trump or the alt-right many times. Meanwhile, some of these self-same liberals and leftists have cordial relationships with people who are anti-abortion or pro-war. By any coherent political theory, these differences should be far more important than the personal annoyance and guilt-by-association that they direct against Tracey. But in practice, it’s not even close – a moderate Republican who justifies our horrific foreign policy and the murders it engenders can be a member in good standing of the conversation on Twitter while Tracey’s name is said with a curse. This is… weird.

I’m not saying this to defend Tracey. I’m saying in fact that the very idea that I have to either denounce or defend a professional journalist is bizarre. The attitude that grownups should constantly be in the business of saying “This person is good/bad” instead of discussing specific arguments and ideas is contrary to how democracy is supposed to work. But it’s all people care about; I guarantee you this post will be tweeted by people saying, without irony or self-awareness, “see, Freddie’s with Michael Tracey!”

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths to which smart and independent progressive writers are willing to go to placate demands that they distance themselves from me, even when those demands come with no definition whatsoever of what I’ve done to require such distancing. The idea that every time you endorse something someone’s written you have to catalog your thoughts about them as a person is childish and unconstructive. Nor can I really believe how often people straight-up lie about the things I believe or have said in the interest of assigning me to the Bad Team. But that’s what happens in these conflicts with the neargroup. Teams become everything. The very idea of individuality or independence becomes dangerous. And as much as I prefer the politics and culture of left twitter/socialist twitter/weird twitter/whatever, they are just as bad or worse in this regard than their antagonists.

The short term fight, in our political dialogue, will be to preserve the possibility of true intellectual independence.

72 Comments

  1. The Sanders campaign seems to have exploded this into the realm of everyday people. Probably activists, organizers and journalists were dealing with this long before. But as an everyday Jane Doe I was blissfully unaware that I was in the “bad leftist” group until I voiced support for Sanders and (very tepid) criticism of Clinton. Most of my American scientist colleagues are Clintonite democrats. Whenever the election or primary campaigns came up in the last 18 months, and I said anything remotely critical of Clinton, like “She’s not that great on banks, though”, or “I don’t have a good feeling about her hawkish tendencies”, I would get The Look. The one that said “Oh, you’re one of THOSE people.” As if I had leprosy, or might be a closet racist or something. It actually reminded me a lot of the look I would get in college when certain people would realize I was poor.

    1. I already knew about it because I was deep into many of the communities that the notorious Winterfox/RequiresHate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew has been destroying for years. But I didn’t know how normalized it had become outside of liberal-leaning geeky circles until the election cycle. I already knew to keep my mouth shut when it came to criticizing Hillary about anything, having experienced this kind of thing — and much, much worse — before. I was never even a “Bernie or Bust” person; I mostly thought he was a better choice because I didn’t think there was a chance in hell of Hillary winning.

      Then a number of my online friends said you should support Hillary unquestioningly because she’s a woman, and only white male dudebros were for Bernie while other people were claiming no one was saying that… I gave up and shut up.

      And yes, it was very much like The Look! I went to a wealthy private liberal arts college on scholarships and financial aid, but eventually the toxic atmosphere there drove me to transfer to a state college. The primary season made me remember that time in ways I’d rather forget.

      1. I agree that Tracey has done some good reporting, but I’m sure it’s *that* simple. I think the other reasons he’s disliked are pretty simple too, though. Like for two I can think of off the top of my head:

        1. he’s timed/framed some commentary in pretty annoying ways, such as one of this tweet: https://twitter.com/mtracey/status/801202050092638208

        Now, I agree we shouldn’t call everything in sight “white nationalism,” as that can be unhelpful in combating actual white nationalism. But the reason that that was being talked about was Bannon, who is pretty openly a white supremacist. And the reason TPP’s cancellation may not have been celebrated too much…it seems very likely that under the GOP, they might come up with something worse. So I think it was reasonable that the news on TPP had been reported in that way.

        Now, there are other valid points about media coverage about TPP–I’d bet you a lot of people didn’t actually really understand the details of it, which speaks to both transparency failure of the gov’t and a failure of journalism in major outlets–but framing things as Tracey did in this tweet is a good example, I think, of the type of stuff he does which causes people to dislike him (despite some good reporting during the election cycle).

        2. There’s also the reasons he was dismissed from Vice, and I don’t know what to think of that but I suspect that’s another reason.

        Subjectively, as a foot note, I’ll add that I think he comes off as “kind of a dick” to me, and not in a particularly helpful, journalistic way. More of a contrarian who overestimates the worth of his own opinions. So take that as one person’s opinion that it is, but I think there are a fair number of people who don’t trace—haha!–their dislike of MT to @kept_simple for these reasons and others.

          1. Then you guys forgot that he submitted to and was published in American Conservative already, I take it?

            I get the general gist of the piece here, and sure, but there usually has to be SOME kernel of distaste based on an actual event that has to then BECOME a bias against that person by snowball.

            I think Freddie says a lot of incredibly insightful things, interspersed with the occasional misguided dud, so then if asked by someone what I think about his work I reflect that. Qualified praise at least still means you’re in the in-group.

          2. Many great writers write for the American Conservative. Daniel Larison is the best foreign policy writer working today. Noah Millman is great. So is Alan Jacobs. So is Chase Madar. That’s a ridiculous litmus test.

          3. Chase Madar is like the king of looking at conservative arguments in a reasonable way. He accepts conservative statements when they make sense, but points out where they don’t make sense too. And he makes it seem very easy.

        1. I find his writing style annoying and perhaps other people feel the same way. Of course that says nothing about the content of his writing and he makes many important points.

          1. And I feel as if sometimes he blurs the line between said style and his content, and thus he’s not a great read on a number of subjects. I agree he’s made some important points.

          2. “Then you guys forgot that he submitted to and was published in American Conservative already, I take it?”

            That’s generally a positive. Tracey doesn’t present himself as a leader of the leftist opposition, he is a reporter, not a partisan and certainly not a political entertainer. That he is able to see value in portions of conservative thoughts is one of his greatest strengths.

            If you can find a reporter who regularly engages sides you disagree with, and yet one who also meets your standards of analysis and rigor, then pay special attention.

            A reporter is not supposed to be a cheerleader for your cause. That’s a propagandist. Getting angry at the latest howler from the deplorables really doesn’t accomplish anything other than create heat. But a lot of people substitute entertainment for news. I honestly think they are threatened by news because the moment they see something that doesn’t quite jibe with their view of the world, instead of undergoing the sometimes painful expansion of their universe to accomodate this new idea, they immediately run to publicly mock or seek their leaders who can reaffirm that this is an ungood view. Like white blood cells swarming a foreign object, social media piles on foreign thoughts in order to extinguish them.

            Since you are generally not going to spend as much time directly engaging with views you don’t like, having someone who is able to do that and then pick out some insights that are important is a rare and valuable service. I enjoy listening to Tracey’s youtube interviews with conservatives, and have learned a lot from reading previous generations of insightful people who have been stigmatized for failing various left purity tests, such as George Orwell, Gore Vidal, and Camille Paglia. I think Michael Tracey follows in that political, if not literary, tradition, but he is unfortunately the only one I know in the current generation that can do that. (I’m not aware of our host engaging with the right to the same degree).

            Apart from that, even *partisan* commentators such as Pat Buchanan (founder of the TAC) and Joseph Sobran (a fellow traveller in the old guard dissident right) had some important things to say, particularly in their opposition to the Iraq War and expansion of the surveillance state, as well as criticisms of what trade deals have done to the working class. Much of their criticism of the left is also valuable. They also had notable opposition to the big business wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties. But again, because they have a lot of other views (e.g. critical of civil rights), most people on the Left just don’t have the willingness to regularly read or engage with them. In that case, someone like Tracey is crucial.

      2. If you spend all of 2016 writing Clinton takedowns (fair and unfair) and Trump apologetics (all laughable), and 90% of his followers are Deplorable/MAGA types, can you blame people for treating him like a Trump supporter despite his nominal position on the left?

        Or for those of us who thought Clinton (however imperfect) was the better candidate to Trump, to think that someone spreading unfair reporting (not all of it was unfair! but some was!) from a left wing perspective might be more damaging to Clinton’s chances than someone attacking her from the right? Why isn’t that worth pushing back on?

        What about (to pick two examples) Scott Adams or Mickey Kaus, who both spent much of the campaign explicitly denying they supported Trump? Is it unfair to say they were Trump supporters because all of their work implicitly endorsed Trump even though they explicit denied that they did?

    1. I read a whole bunch of his articles to see for myself, and found him kind of annoying. I don’t even know why. Admittedly, except in a few cases, binging on someone’s political articles is probably always going to make them seem annoying. But there’s something about his writing style I just don’t like.

      That’s not a good reason to cast him into the outer darkness, though.

  2. The recent Vox article on religious illiteracy jumps to mind. Everyone thinks they know more than everyone else. But in the lack of actual dialogue, it’s all just posturing, distracting from the reality that everyone knows very little, they just know different pieces of the very little.

    Leftists might be horrified to be told our pattern of fighting the neargroup looks a lot like the path Protestantism followed after Martin Luther. Being “right” doesn’t guarantee right behavior, or even constructive behavior.

  3. Seems to me that the desire for the objects you interact with to be either all good or all bad is infantile. Maybe our problem here is more psychological and less political -cultural. Hope that’s wrong.

  4. Thou hast blasphemed against the orthodoxy, which is enough to make you “problematic”. And anyone who prefaces praise for you with this distancing disclaimer – not out of any particular conviction or disagreement on principle, but more out of a general sense that they’re supposed to, driven by the fear that if they don’t performatively disown you then they themselves will in turn be labeled problematic” by association, by those who abuse social power in “progressive” online circles – is a fucking coward. Online discourse has become gamified. I’m amazed you can find the energy to challenge it so regularly and incisively when so many of us have just thrown our hands up and left the playing field. Keep on keeping on.

  5. I will admit that I have sometimes distrusted Michael Tracey, simply on the basis of other people disliking him. It is a tribalist thing that I know I am susceptible to. I will be more careful about this in the future.

    As far as what Tracey has actually said, he seems like an intelligent guy. Sometimes he strikes me as a bit… starry-eyed in his views. Not grounded. But, I have to admit that he makes intelligent arguments.

  6. Freddie – you may consider me “fargroup” but I love your stuff. However, you are a professional teacher and critic of Composition. How can you write “…one of the only things that’s united…”? It’s the only thing, one of only a few things, or one of the few things. I understand that language evolves, and I am not a grammar Nazi in general, but “one of the only” is just illiterate.

  7. Yeah, I follow a lot of different people that are broadly on the “left” and there are so many ppl that are just persona non grata for often unstated reasons. With some there are real conflicts, but it’s still sad that the norm is to only associate with ideas/posts of the “right” ppl, rather than to just engage with everything you appreciate regardless of source. Ah well
    I do get that you are a bit abrasive and I found your fight and conduct with Cato ridiculous, but I mean I find that not even close to enough reason to not read this blog for example or argue that associating with you/endorsing something you write, should be something you have to “defend” or qualify.
    I think though that the overly thorough enforcing of group norms, is more of an online thing. IRL we are forced to deal with conservatives at our workplace, in our families etc. online we can associate with very likeminded people if we want. How much this is an actual problem idk. Permeation of ideas still is easy enough (meaning the ppl that hate you and are ideologically close are likely to see you appear on their TL regularly 😉 )
    I also wanted to comment on that other post on Clique Behaviour you made a while ago:
    Ultimately though this is just human behavior, ultimately what we call highschool BS is not that specific to highschool, social identity, group norms and social behaviors and motives are just human and I have little idea on how to get to the heart of these complicated dynamics
    Social motives are often quite ambigous: a lot of smart people criticizing the “Brooklyn” Clique state some honest and necessary criticisms and genuine distaste, but there is at the same time some expressions of what smells like envy and somtimes fear. Envy of the social influence online, the general hipster coolness/prestige of living in NY and specifically Brooklyn, as well as the economic situation and relative success. It is not that different from some more nerdy HS outcasts both legitimately loathing and envying the “cool kids” (who probably are somewhat insufferable ;). Fear of that same social influence being directed at them in conflict, which is why you see a lot of ppl rather screenshot and mock, which is relatively saver than actual conflict is. All is totally understandable and human, but man does it make it hard for anyone to actually engage in and hear criticism.

  8. clique behavior-more kindergarten than high school. the rhetoric is high-flown, the behavior is low down. at least there is some self analysis here. enjoy the blog. thanks

  9. This post is especially interesting to me because I started following your blog largely because of just one of those distancing-endorsements you mention. I can’t remember where I read it, but it was very much as you described it – Obviously he’s HORRIBLE, but…

    And there was no context, so I started following the blog in order to discover the horror. It’s been quite a while now and I’m still waiting — could you please expose your true evil nature soon? I’m getting impatient…

    1. Same here. I heard about how horrible Freddie was it made me suspicious. I started reading him sporadically and concluded the hatred was mostly high school cliquish behavior, which people tried to rationalize.

      I think the larger problem started with Nader’s 2000 campaign. It wasn’t enough to say the Nader campaign was a big mistake– people started to resent any criticism aimed at Democrats as treason and objectively pro Republican. People said it would have been okay to run in the primaries and make one’s criticisms then and then support whoever the winner was. Sanders did precisely that and he was still demonized. People now see loyalty to the party or some faction within the left as the supreme value. There is no such thing as constructive criticism. Either you are with us or against us.

  10. You are on the left. You are citing Scott Alexander. He is nominally on the left. He associates with or is associated with the right (and other strange off-shoots of Rationality/Less Wrong-sphere). His comment sections and reddit are infested with the right.

    Therefore, you, Freddie, are a traitor and need to do a better dance distancing yourself from the likes of people like Scott so that people don’t need to do such a crazy dance distancing themselves from you. /s

  11. “And as much as I prefer the politics and culture of left twitter/socialist twitter/weird twitter/whatever, they are just as bad or worse in this regard than their antagonists.”

    The entire reason I left Twitter and never bothered to come back was because this mentality crept to that very group of people that I enjoyed chatting with. It used to be that we laughed at the Anime Marxists- a particularly vicious clique of people with anime avatars and Marxist-Leninist posturing who demanded ideological purity, curated mandatory block lists, and handled no positive thinking towards people who were on the outside. But around mid-2014, this very attitude started to infect my online friends. I left in early 2015, and I regret nothing.

    At least the Anime Marxists had no influence among anyone outside of their own little group. Weird Left Twitter and the liberal Democrat commentariat hold far more sway on other people. From my understanding, it’s only gotten worse, and it’ll probably never get better.

  12. It’s common to assume that there was a halcyon time when left and right fought over the Big Issues. Then internet populism happened, and campaign finance reform, and the other things that have been blamed for polarization. Now everyone’s consumed in their own echo chamber, in-fighting. I doubt it.

    It’s more plausible that back in the day, the elite left and right fought over small differences in the Big Issues. Now that lower class folks have entered public debate, carrying in bigger, substantive ideological differences – and their big emotions – elite centrists have switched focus to policing who gets in and out of their club.

    We have to stop letting elites blame “extremists” and “reactionaries” on their own side of the fence for their woes. They screwed it up. They put together a bullshit club where no one ever disagreed, really, and where everyone could pretend their cooly rational pose was evidence of their emotional self control.

    It wasn’t evidence of heroic control over their emotions about big ideological differences. It was evidence that they developed a practice ignorance of their mutual differences and shook hands on a detente that would keep everyone employed. Elites hoveled themselves into emotional and intellectual infancy, and populists on the left and right recognized the fact. Americans don’t want an ossified, gutless, bloodless, corrupt media and politics.

    So people started complaining. And getting out to vote. And so elites started losing congressional seats and newspaper revenue. And now we’re left with a media and political establishment that lacks the most basic emotional and intellectual maturity to take responsibility for its mistakes. Fuck these people.

  13. “You are blocked from following @freddiedeboer and viewing @freddiedeboer’s Tweets.”

    I would suggest that your thin skin and propensity to take umbrage at well-meaning criticism is what has driven people to characterize you in the manner you describe.

    1. If I had a dime for every time someone took advantage of my personal and political revelations (which took courage and generosity to proffer), deliberately interpreted me in the most cynical way possible, then condescended to me about what’s wrong with me – and had the gall to characterize it as “well meaning criticism”…

        1. Only a true cynic would fling an accusation like “your thin skin and propensity to take umbrage at well-meaning criticism” without actually giving an example of what the comments that led to the blocking were so readers could judge for themselves whether the block was justified (or whether it fit into the mode Graham Peterson suggested).

  14. This is what I mean when I say that you’re a Republican in denial.

    Because whether or not you are a Republican is…not actually up to you.

    1. Actually it is. And you should pause to note that any politics or theory that ends in you believing you have the right to set the terms of someone else’s identity is a bag-of-dicks.

    2. Because whether or not you are a Republican is…not actually up to you.

      Mandatory Republicanism? What in tarnation are you talking about?

  15. Also, it’s funny to read something like this:

    “to the minor degree that I am discussed by progressives (being a low-traffic and low-attention figure generally), it is almost always accompanied by this laborious process of distancing themselves from me even while agreeing with me.”

    …and remember back when you wrote this:

    “[T]o state the obvious: Jon Chait is a jerk who somehow manages to be both condescending and wounded in his piece on political correctness. He gets the basic nature of language policing wrong, and his solutions are wrong, and he’s a centrist Democrat scold who is just as eager to shut people out of the debate as the people he criticizes.” http://fredrikdeboer.com/2015/01/29/i-dont-know-what-to-do-you-guys/

    Not that you were wrong to write either thing, but I do hope you recognize that you and Chait are now in the same place.

    1. In that single quote, Freddie gave a much more in-depth explanation on why we shouldn’t like or trust Chait than your average intra-left squabbler, which can almost always be summed up as “He or she is Bad.” Yeah, it’s a criticism that can be elaborated on further, but in many Left circles, you’re expected to take one’s Badness as a point of faith.

  16. You’re right, and Scott Alexander is usually worth reading; but also I’m blocked from your Twitter, and I have no earthly idea why? I’m nobody, I’m not sure we’ve ever even had a conversation, and I don’t think I’ve ever criticized you. Maybe it was a mistake? Could you unblock me, please? I liked being able to read your tweets. I’m @Panda85Myers

  17. I have to preface this by saying I agree with probably everything I’ve ever read on this blog. (This preface is necessary, because otherwise, asking a question about language is perceived as an attempt to entirely dismiss the entire post’s reasoning).

    You write: “Primary season 2016 was the ur-example”.

    I understand the “ur-” prefix to mean a canonical or original example, an example which has been heavily referenced for a long time and is considered the first clear cut manifestation of a certain concept. Here you seem to use it to mean very representative or an excellent example, in other words as an intensifier with no chronological implications.

    Has the usage of this prefix evolved in English to match your usage, with my semi-functional German having blinded me to this evolution, or is your usage non-standard?

  18. Just today, a great Bloggingheads with Bob Wright and your pal Will Wilkinson that hits on some of these tensions:

    http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/44910

    Towards the very end:
    WW: ‘If the people on your side don’t think you’re a reactionary, you’re not doing a good job [of advancing towards your shared liberal goal].
    BW: ‘Yeah… but then you start losing credibility with them, and it’s harder to bring them along with you. It’s a difficult challenge!’
    WW: ‘Yeah, it’s a balancing act’.

    Ultimately, maybe it’s just that what you are doing, Freddie, is rare, and hard and you’re hitting on one of the reasons why. But I also think it’s vitally important and applaud you. Keep it up!

  19. True individuality or intellectual independence is not at stake here, imo. You are a valuable voice, stick to your guns. Same thing I would say to Michael Tracey. There will always be this extraneous social positioning (whatever what you want to call it) especially on a platform like Twitter. Don’t get stuck in the weeds.

  20. Regarding Tracey, if anyone wants to make the argument why people of color (such as myself) should be comfortable with him, in spite of his considerable nazi following, I’m all ears. And I get it, he can’t control who follows him. But you often say to deal with the world as it actually exists. And in the world that does actually exist, suspicion of people with a following like Tracey’s is going to happen. I appreciate his reporting and I certainly agree with him on many issues. But I think his defense of his alt-right popularity is unconvincing.

    1. How can a world where people are judged by their Twitter followers – which they have absolutely no control over, zero, none, nada, zilch – possibly function?

      1. I agree! It’s a bad standard. But then again, things like this don’t inspire confidence: https://twitter.com/emmettrensin/status/801206652418531328

        There’s followers and then there’s trolling legitimate concerns about the racist views of the Trump administration.

        He can’t control who follows him. Fine. Guilt-by-association is bad. I can read his articles and enjoy his reporting and follow his feed and find points of agreement and disagreement because I’m an adult. But I’m really open to an argument as to why I shouldn’t at least say “what’s the deal with this dude” when a follower of his posts a cartoon of Jeet Heer in a gas chamber and Tracey as the Nazi pushing the button.

        I’m not saying purge Tracey. Don’t purge Tracey. Scrolling past nazi mentions are a minor inconvenience for me. But let’s not pretend the “guilt-by-association” defense will be sufficient for those who are particularly sensitive to racism.

  21. the issue is that you are willing to question orthodoxies

    and this is a problem, because most progressive orthodoxies are now a function of feelings, not facts. I mean, look how easily you exposed “cultural appropriation”. And sure, you did it so these groups could be better in their messaging, but the dirty little secret is that they can’t; honesty would sink them. And so it goes.

  22. Here’s a theory, take it or leave it.

    You’re rare. You are an independent, self-reflective thinker. Most people like that eventually opt out of political labels: they decide that the world is full of shades of gray, they recognize tribal behavior as being unrelated to truth-seeking, they begin to feel that the people who do good in the world are the competent pragmatists, not the ideologues.

    For some reason — and I would be very curious to hear you talk about this, it is something that puzzles me about your writing — you haven’t done that. You embrace being a liberal / leftist as an identity, not just as a collection of opinions that you happen to have a lot of overlap with.

    So you are doing an unusual thing of saying “I am X!” but then being willing to think critically about things that Xs use as tribal markers. It doesn’t matter if you 98% agree with the average X; the point is that the identity game, and the “think about the world and try to understand it” game, are two very different games. Of course Xs don’t like you.

    What most people in your shoes do is they stop identifying so much with X. They may passionately defend the same things that Xs defend, but they do it from a “hey, this is how I feel about this issue right now”, not a “this is who I am,” perspective.

    I don’t know what being a leftist means to you, so I don’t have anything to say about whether your deviation from the typical pattern is good/bad/advisable/inadvisable — but insofar as you’re SURPRISED by the reactions you get, this would be my explanation for you.

  23. Like music and clothes, political beliefs are now primarily wielded as markers of group membership. There is a constant arms race between taste-makers and the masses who wish to emulate and join them: As hip political beliefs become mainstream they lose their currency and the ingroup must invent new, increasingly avant garde postures to strike. This is how we ended up with “cultural appropriation” being a thing that people claim to care about for six months or so.

    The contempt directed at those who those who don’t keep up with political trends is as vicious as that directed at the poor souls who listen to the wrong music or wear the wrong clothes, and is almost as moralistic.

  24. This reminds me of the over the top criticism of Tom Hiddleston for his deeply awkward speech at the Golden Globes. Was it embarrassing and self-involved? Yes. Should he be told he has to completely rethink his career and change his personality over it? No. And he is being absolutely pilloried on gossip blogs for it. Meanwhile, actors who directly harmed people are getting accolade after accolade.

    The criticism of Hiddleston is, basically: he’s a nerd. He cares too much, he tries too hard, he loves Shakespeare, look at his dumb shoes. I think that’s what a lot of this stuff comes down to, in the end. Once you’re marked as a nerd, you’re doomed. Best slap an “N” symbol on your shirt and go about your business.

    1. Oh, gossip blogs. They pillory everyone all day and then go home and pillory themselves for not eating the right kind of kale.

      I just watched that speech (thanks for pointing it out!) . Awkward AND very meaningful. Maybe the exact opposite of Ted Cruz, who is a supremely feathered and polished orator but cares about literally nothing in the universe except his own rise to power.

      1. And Tom Hiddleston was talking about work he actually does on the ground to help people, and has done for years. UNICEF thanked him for his speech. Meanwhile, Streep’s speech got slobbered over. I’m not making a value judgment one way or another on her speech (I’m still not sure what I think), but she didn’t have a call to action. Just “be nicer,” or rather, “everyone else needs to be nicer.” Hiddleston, meanwhile, talked about action — and I wonder if that’s part of what ticked people off.

        Though I’m probably thinking about this too hard. It might simply be that he’s a nerd who dated Taylor Swift.

        1. Hmm…he played Hank Williams in _I Saw the Light_ — that may be anathema to many of these people. And he was born in 1981. (As someone born in 1982 I am increasingly convinced that first-term Reagan babies are being targeted for liberal blame for everything.)

  25. “Social media” amplifies this tendency. By providing a simulated version of previous forms of social interaction (eg conversation) that is cheaper (in all senses) than the form it displaces, it drives out the previous form, in a variation of Gresham’s law. This happens even though (or more properly, because) it lacks the most desirable parts of the previous form, including the degree of restraint most people exercise when disagreeing with someone face-to-face when they are in their like-group that makes political organization possible, and the relative slowness of previous forms. The “narcissism of small differences”, which is always present, comes to predominate. It’s not like the left was well-organized in America before social media, but social media seems to atomize it even more, especially in an cultural environment that seems to valorize youth culture (i.e. sexual desirability), subtle gradations of personal taste, and the higher forms of ethical consumption.

    This is by design. As an example, so-called “left-twitter” seems to consist of about 100 or so regular tweeters (whose chief skill is being young, witty and costal) with large numbers of “followers” who like to be entertained (and occasionally chime in with a “yeah, me too!” or the like) clambering over one another like crabs in a basket. A few of them even “podcast”, and make people laugh harder. The idea that these nobodies with “followers” have political power is ludicrous (the average Fortune 500 CEO, utterly anonymous to most, has several orders of magnitude more political power than anyone on “left twitter”) but twitter allows the satisfactions of simulated and impoverished social power (“dog-piling” and so forth) that infantalize the user base and neutralize political opposition.

    Bloggers and tweeters can make interesting and entertaining “content” (for “free”!), but they all have day jobs (Freddie is an admin of some sort). Donald Trump’s son-in-law does not seem to spend much time blogging or tweeting, busy as he is remaking the country.

    1. The public conversation among journalists really does filter into board rooms and congress. A clear example I think is Obama’s farewell address. He kept mentioning political polarization there, and has other places for a while. Polarization is a conversation that’s gained momentum almost exclusively among boutique thinky bloggers and academics on the internet, only recently becoming mainstream.

      1. Have to disagree. Richard Nixon explicitly and successfully promoted and exploited the idea of a polarized electorate almost 50 years ago, as did Ronald Reagan when he took the governorship of California. There is considerable evidence that the electorate is more polarized now than ever, but the historiography of the subject predates the existence of the internet.

        (I also have the feeling that the “journalists” as “thought-leaders” thing is a comforting fiction they tell one another to make up for poor pay and and a general lack of real influence (as opposed to usefulness) and on the hopes that if the gods smile they can be the next Tom Friedman. Think-tankers seem to be largely there for intellectual window-dressing, and coming up with the nuts-and-bolts mechanisms to validate whatever crazy schemes the people paying for their services require eg. Paul Ryan’s innumeracy. To the point: it is one thing for a journalist or think-tanker to suggest this or that policy, it is another for the suggestion to come from a former Goldman Sachs executive who happens to be the Secretary of the Treasury and thinks it would be swell for Citi and Travellers to merge in violation of the law.)

        But my point isn’t to debate the etiology of political ideas – they’ve always presumably come from somewhere – but to suggest that the inherent biases of social media magnify the worst aspects of traditional social relations in ways that make political solidarity and the compromises it requires more difficult. They are built on the idea of an atomized populace engaging in independent, satisfaction-maximizing transactions (consider the Facebook “friend” versus a real friend), providing a parody of what people actually behave like in each other’s company. They do this because they are cheap to engage in (hence the reference to Gresham’s law) and enable behaviors that, in the “real world”, would have costs far too high to bear and carry little to no reward. Traditional socialization extracts a very high cost for gratuitously insulting near strangers with whom you actually share a great deal in common, for example. It leads to shunning and other informal but real punishments. On Twitter – if you do it right – it is rewarded with a “following”.

        I suspect – as many others have – this is because engineers see social relations as a “problem” to be “solved”. In “solving” the problem they have (inadvertently or not) re-capitulated what they take to be a “natural” social order – one with few “winners” and many “losers”, which is the exact opposite of what participatory democracy requires.

        1. There’s so much to like and respond to above but I don’t want to hog bandwidth. Lemme focus on paragraph three.

          I have some experience in the “actually tribal societies were desperately and routinely violent” literature. And so I’m tempted to agree with the folk theory that the internet is undoing humanism and making everyone “tribal.” But I want to note that argument, like economic trade, is a positive sum, prosocial solution to otherwise-zero-sum conflicts over political, social, and material resources. It might feel violent, and it is, emotionally. We might describe arguments with violent metaphors, “takedowns,” and “devastating critiques,” and so forth.

          But there is really no evidence that people bitching at each other and hurting each other’s feelings leads ineluctably to honor cultures, to the erosion of enlightenment tolerance and political institutions, nor eventually to everyone shooting each other in the throat for microaggressions.

          1. That is a good point, but I’m not too worried about the rise of honor cultures and the like. I’m more concerned about what seems to be almost the opposite. The “tribalism” everyone remarks on is remarkable mostly for its impotence.

            Consider a well-educated, heavily indebted, verbally fluent young person living in a crappy apartment in a city they can barely afford and playing Twitter. You can @realDonaldTrump, but that’s just going to fall into the void. Or you can wail on utterly inconsequential, powerless types – whoever the latest sad-sack-du-jour is, Eric Garner, say. Do it right and you get those likes and retweets that feel kinda nice. Maybe you can put up the exchange, call it “a play in 3 acts” or whatever, where the third image is a screen-shot of his block, and get more likes. But it doesn’t move the needle an inch, politically. All you’ve done is waste time in return for nice feelings, almost exactly like a rat in a cage pressing a button for stimulus.

            Twitter in particular seems purpose-built for this. And it doesn’t work without the secret sauce, which is an actual person to abuse – one who has to be sufficiently powerless to notice or care about you. It’s a
            machine that takes people to feed it.

            CEO’s, of course, generally aren’t on twitter. They are busy doing what CEO’s do.

            This isn’t a plea for “civility”. I’m just baffled at the idea that anyone thinks there is political utility in low-risk abuse of people (self important journalists, bogus “wonks” and the like) who are in truth almost utterly powerless – you just happen to disagree with them, or think they are foolish, or whatever. The very opposite seems to me to be practically self-evident. And yet very smart people are on Twitter doing it all day long. Why? I have a feeling it is for the same reason slot machines are occupied in Vegas at 3 am on a Tuesday night in January. So while our young twitter-player is playing twitter someone in Silicon Valley is picking out the leather for a Bentley.

            I have been active in low-level run-of-the-mill local community organizations forever. I know for a fact that you cannot insult your neighbors into agreeing with you on any issue, it just doesn’t work. And yet in at least some sense social media rewards us for constantly monitoring people who would otherwise be our neighbors – except for their physical proximity – as potential targets for ridicule.

  26. The internet is entirely responsible for the narcissism of small difference being meaningful with ideas. Before you had to seek out the like-minded and were grateful when you found them.

    Now it’s different, so the same rules that cause rifts between Greek and Turk apply to our belief groups

    1. This was not my experience of IRL activist and intentional communities even ten/fifteen years ago, not in the least. Every DIY space in the hood and tent city in the mountains I went to became a status competition where inward facing symbolic performances.

      Whining about whose status in the community was deserved or not, prancing around showing off one’s hysterical allergy to hierarchy, has always been the whole point.

      Internal criticism was just as unpopular, if not more so, then. And these communities have not been aided by joining forces with high status academics from the humanities, whose communities on campus, before the internet and for the last three decades or so, have served largely the same function.

      1. Certainly lines up with my experience, to a point, but the skill of politics is navigating your way through all the huffing-and-puffing to achieve common goals. Can’t always be done, of course. I’m more concerned that now all we’re getting is the huffing-and-puffing, without the politics. Pretty sure no-one is developing valuable, real political skills via social media.

  27. One person’s intellectual independence is another’s lack of solidarity. That’s why so much scorn is heaped on Tracey. He’s a lefty, but a bad one.

  28. I_Owned:

    There’s really no evidence that Twitter or any other social media have crowded out, replaced, or simulated “real” conversation or substantive political action. The only data we have (that I know of) in fact show that people who are more social online are almost more social offline. If that’s true of statistical aggregates, then it’s at least possible, unless they’re aberrant but washed out in the aggregate, that it’s true of political organizers as a subset of that aggregate.

    1. Entirely possible. On the other hand social media is pretty new, twitter even newer. It seems to be a gigantic experiment with no control group, making the always-difficult matter of measurement in the social sciences even more difficult.

      (Certainly the decline of, for example, service clubs, long predates social media.
      And of course lots of activities hardly encourage sociability – reading, for example – but we generally don’t think of them as actively harmful in the social sphere.)

      But the open question is: what is the effect on political engagement of massively networked communications tools that strip out some of the most salient parts of face-to-face communications (body language, tone) and simultaneously reward behavior that is discouraged or actively counter-productive in face-to-face communications? Nobody knows for sure, and given how quickly embedded these systems have become we probably never will – it is already easy to dismiss criticisms as appeals to nostalgia, and with some reason (I am old enough to know that there was no “golden age” of sociability). But Freddie has written at length about how little light there is between his own political views and those of people who view him as some sort of real enemy – I mean actively loathe him – and they seem to base their perception of him on finely parsing aspects of his presence on these sorts of platforms. And of course it undoubtedly goes the other way too. This is certainly an odd state of affairs, and makes me wonder if this sort of outcome might be a result of something embedded in the platforms themselves.

      1. Well, presumably there was always within-group boundary policing. It might not even be a bad thing. Think of it this way. Liberals are a big tent. Call that a superset. Then you have subsets defined by identity, occupation, ideology, single issue (abortion), etc. As each of those groups fight at their boundaries, the average position of the superset, Liberals, moves. This might be, rather than unproductive infighting, the principle way that political movements make change.

        It’s a similar model to a perfectly competitive market. You and I don’t have any real bargaining power over the price of milk, but millions of people like us voting with our feet do in fact bid the price of milk up and down.

        And it might even be a great way to engage the other side. Conservatives are also a big tent, with subsets for identities and ideologies and issues. Let’s say the internet is in fact making people more fractious and they are in fact fighting with each other more. Then any one of these subsets that break off enjoy even less power than before over group members. And at the boundary of these groups, they may be more willing to recruit new members from subsets of liberals.

        I have a pretty strong a priori attachment to Federalist principles, markets, and yelling at people on the internet, so I admit I’m inclined to believe the story I’m telling here. But it’s possible that what looks like infighting and the nuclear breakdown of public discourse and political negotiation is actually a signal of the rapidly increasing moderation and ideological malleability of everyone.

        1. nuclear breakdown was a bad metaphor – how bout “hydrochloric breakdown” or maybe “B-Boy breakdown”

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