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.