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Blaming the Woke Twitter Mob for Reactionary Politics, Part 45,608
Michelle Goldberg crosses the line from good-faith debates about tactics into victim-blaming the targets of reactionary violence for the existence of reactionary violence.
Since the rise of Trump in 2016, one of the most popular modes of center-left middlebrow opinion writing is blaming annoying online leftists or college kids or a vague cohort of Cancel Culture leftists for the rise of fascism or fascism-adjacent movements. Yesterday, The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg joined this long, tedious list, writing a victim-blaming, unfocused Vibes Only take on the rise of the new new right (which, to be clear, like all “new” conservative moments is more or less the same as the old one). Her column, “The Awful Advent of Reactionary Chic,” has all the trappings of the genre: It glosses over the astroturfed nature of the movement (touching on it, but still insisting it has widespread organic or grassroots appeal); pivots to blaming nameless, faceless, never-specified online leftists for the rise of white nationalist political movements; and shows an inability to grapple with actual establishment, centrist decidedly not ‘woke’ Democratic Party politics as perhaps contributing to the political void being blamed on the “censorious left.”
After building on a recent flattering Vanity Fair piece detailing a nexus of Thiel-funded right-wing cultural and political products that are supposedly making fascism cool again (after it was cool in 2016 with the alt-right), she dives into the left-blaming:
This vibe shift was predictable; when the left becomes grimly censorious, it incubates its own opposition. The internet makes things worse, giving the whole world a taste of the type of irritating progressive sanctimony Brock had to go to Berkeley to find.
I’ve met few people on the left who like online progressive culture. In novels set in progressive social worlds, internet leftism tends to be treated with disdain — not a tyranny, but an annoyance. In Torrey Peters’s “Detransition, Baby,” a young trans woman reacts with priggish outrage to a dark joke shared between the book’s heroine, Reese, and her friend, both older trans women. “Reese recognizes her as one of those Twitter girls eager to offer theory-laden takes on gender,” writes Peters. “The girl has listened in on the joke and shakes her head — insensitive! — staring at them over her black-framed glasses with watery, wounded eyes.”
For those who get most of their politics online, this can be what the left looks like — a humorless person shaking her head at others’ insensitivity. As a result, an alliance with the country’s most repressive forces can appear, to some, as liberating.
This is such a predictable trope, this is now the fourth time I’ve written about it. Let’s take a look back at when I wrote about it the first time, four and a half years ago. I cited high-profile centrists and liberals like Mark Lilla, Davis Brooks, Bill Maher, George Will, Froma Harrop, Robby Soave, and Jon Haidt, who blamed “political correctness” (which is what we called “woke” or the “censorious left” until a few years ago) for Trump’s 2016 victory. I argued that this blame-the-busy-body-left tact was a moral dead end—at best, useless and, at worst, cover for fascist currents that have long manipulated liberal tendencies to view reactionary politics as a good-faith correction rather than a discrete and perfectly self-sustaining model for power accumulation. I won’t retread my arguments here but I recommend reading it because most of it still applies to the 2022 version.
Now, perhaps Goldberg would argue that the reason her article is a carbon copy of 1,000 others written since 2016 is because the problem remains the same: A groupthink-fueled, humorless cohort of online left-wing bullies is driving otherwise Democrat-voting liberals into the arms of reactionaries, and her article isn’t meant to diminish the threat but to be a sober warning to stop being such annoying Thought Cops. To which I say: based on what?
The idea that activists acknowledging and making hay over problems somehow creates reactionary politics has little empirical basis and has been one of the oldest lines for telling leftists or activists to shut up since there’s been liberal mass media. In 1859, the editorial board of Goldberg’s employer, the New York Times, insisted that “silence on the part of the North concerning slavery would be the best policy” to end slavery. “The very best thing that could possibly be done towards the abolition of Slavery would be for the North to stop talking about it,” the board wrote, continuing: ”Ten years of absolute silence would do more than fifty of turmoil and hostility, towards a peaceful removal of the evil. It is quite possible that the Abolition crusade may force a bloody and violent termination of the system, but this no sane man desires… The great necessity is to let the South alone—to leave them leisure to think of their own affairs—to throw upon them the necessity of studying their own condition and of looking into their own future.”
In 1961, The New York Times editorial board insisted the Freedom Riders pack it up and go home because all they were doing was fomenting right-wing backlash, writing at the time, “As we have urged before, the Freedom Riders should realize they have made their point and voluntarily cease their activities for a period during which the passions aroused by their recent efforts may subside."
Now, to be clear—for those who will deliberately misrepresent this point—I’m not morally equating 1850s abolitionists or 1960s civil rights leaders with today’s online left (which, again, because it’s never named or specified by Goldberg, can be whatever straw man the reader wishes it to be). But the logic of Be quiet for the sake of not awakening the beast of reaction is similar: If only the left would shut up and stop talking about racism and sexism and transphobia, the forces of reaction wouldn’t be so attractive.
There’s little historical reason to believe this to be true. It’s just an assertion, a thing people assume, but empirical evidence is never offered. Perhaps there is some, but neither Goldberg nor Maher nor Brooks nor anyone has shown how or why. It’s just a truism.
If Elon Musk shut down Twitter tomorrow, thus destroying the dreaded Left-Wing Twitter Mob overnight, is one supposed to believe the billionaire-backed shadow world of white nationalist media would dry up and lose its appeal? If college campuses were purged of all the unruly and censorious Oberlin undergrads, would white nationalist conferences and recruitment online stop overnight? How exactly is this “don’t be so hostile about racism, sexism and transphobia” strategy supposed to work exactly?
There is, of course, another culprit that goes suspiciously unexamined: the centrist, corporate, decidedly unwoke Democratic Party establishment that makes hating Twitter and chanting “fund the police” part of its entire brand. What makes this whole back and forth so perplexing is that, aside from the occasional rhetorical gesture to trans rights or empty name-checking of “Black Lives Matter,” the actual leaders of the Democratic Party are aggressively anti-woke. The Michelle Goldbergs and Bill Mahers and Mark Lillas won the day! Party leaders Pelosi and Biden don’t speak in nonprofit-ese, they don’t scold people over misgendering or land acknowledgments or cancel mid-level celebs or whatever wacky far-left cartoon they think represents contemporary progressive thought. The Goldbergs and Mahers and Lillas, at once, won the cultural war and control over the party while still acting as if they are edgy-truth tellers standing up to some unspecified ruling P.C. regime.
Random, powerless people being mean to you on Twitter, and I can’t stress this enough, is not evidence of hegemonic power or ascendant cultural dominance. Flip through the TV stations or YouTube stream or pop into the local cineplex, and it’s a hodgepodge of cop-worship, Army co-produced blockbuster franchise vehicles, Hallmark MAGA movies, and aggressively inoffensive high-key lit sitcoms. Where are the great Woke Struggle Sessions I hear so much about? Chase Bank ads with hijabs? Too many interracial couples in Geico commercials? I’m truly perplexed about where these people think power lies.
Obviously, identifying effective right-wing strategies is not the same thing as covering for them or soft-pedaling them. But one crosses the line from sober reality check to rightwing apologia when one treats any of this as new, or exciting, or organic, or pivots to blaming the “far-left” for fueling and providing rationale for this hatred. This is, in effect, the new new new right’s entire pitch: The nasty online left has gone too far, so come to us and be “normal.” Effectively conceding this premise, under the guise of intra-left truth telling, isn’t a good-faith attempt at recalibrating our message: It’s providing media cover for cruel and cynical forces. All politics is about converting souls, and leftist politics is a fundamentally evangelical enterprise. Goldberg is right that it’s not about righteousness or moral hygiene, but convincing the convincible does not require propping up dangerous canards about nasty, uncharitable leftists gone too far. After six years of glossy profiles on Richard Spencer and P.C. panic stories about college students run amok, this much is obvious.
There are very bad men out there being well-funded by other very bad men. They loathe trans people, find them gross, and want them all to kill themselves. They hate women and want them to be baby-making machines. They want African-Americans to shut up and go back into their “place.” They want to eliminate not just immigration, but immigrants, who they wish to die of thirst, rotting in the desert sun so as to send a message and preserve the white majority. They believe cultural marxists lurk everywhere. They hate socialists and secularists, and traffic in anti-semitism (which Goldberg, when commenting on J.D. Vance, bizarrely whitewashes as “aggressively anti-cosmopolitan”). And they have little use for democracy. They have their leader in Trump, someone who—bear in mind—has already been president, and they’re planning a return to full and complete power in 2024. These forces must be identified and combated, their cultural production countered and called out for what it is, not soft-pedaled and implicitly justified with this type of rote hippie punching.
Unionization is emerging everywhere—workers are fighting back. Hundreds of anti-trans laws have made their way through state legislators, many of which are being put into place everyday. Teachers are under siege, and thus quitting in droves, from a fake “critical race theory” and “grooming” panic. Abortion is virtually outlawed in several states. It’s a war, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Instead of smarm and self-flagellation and more puff pieces on white nationalist hipsters who We Promise Are Different This Time, why not use the most valuable real estate in media to call out these far-right demagogues for the hucksters they are, and highlight the struggles of those combating them? Next time, when sitting down to write another “P.C. police gone too far” piece, or a “woke scolds are driving normies into the arms of nazis” piece, ask yourself: Does the world need another version of the same column that’s already been written hundreds of times?