The cancel wars | The need for an identitarian left

Notes on the infamous Harper's letter, and the activist style of lobbying to get people fired for social transgressions.

Hello friends,

In this week's newsletter:

(1) Some notes on two topics tied to so-called "cancel culture" — the infamous Harper's letter, and the activist style of lobbying to get people fired for social transgressions.

(2) Excerpt from my Vox analysis on why there's reason to be skeptical that Trump doubling down on identitarian culture wars will work as he hopes. He seems to be misreading the moment — and his own party.

(3) Excerpt from my Gen essay on how Bernie Sanders has failed on the antiracist protests and the need for a more prominent identitarian left.

(4) What I'm reading

The Harper's letter and mobs taking jobs

Both the following sets of notes are adapted from Twitter threads I wrote in the last couple of days. (I've been spending more time on Twitter these days for a number of reasons. Yes it's horrific.) If you happened to read those threads on social media, I'd skip this section.

A few thoughts on the infamous Harper's letter on "justice and open debate" that broke Twitter.

Harper's, a politico-cultural periodical which was once hugely influential but now rarely seem to surface in national debate, published this week an open letter on "justice and open debate" signed by over 150 artists, writers, and academics across the political spectrum. It calls for a defense of "the free exchange of information and ideas," decries an increasingly "censoriousness" public culture, and sees trouble in a trend of "swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought." The signers include people on the far right and far left, TERF J.K. Rowling and a transgender activist, anti-imperialists and neoconservatives. In progressive and leftie circles online, the letter received sharp criticism as foolish and/or a concession to the right. Some liberal signers apologized or retracted. One trans journalist reported a colleague who signed the letter to their bosses because she said it made her feel unsafe that a coworker appeared in the letter alongside bigots who oppose her existence.

My overall takeaway: The letter was poorly written and vague enough to undermine its own cause. At the same time, if progressives are sifting through signatories to uncover its "true" meaning, they've missed the point.

The biggest problem with the letter is that beneath its grandiose claims it advances big empirical claims that it doesn't defend. "The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted." How is this being measured?

It does give some types of examples: "Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes." But there is no attempt to quantify instances and trends; provide links; name names; or report out how these incidents "steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said."

The other issue is it fails to more clearly catalogue the specific threats to speech that come from "repressive government" or "the radical right." And how about corporate censorship through advertising pressure (Chomsky was asked to sign!) or alt-right friendly algorithms? Perhaps most strikingly, esp since Harper's is supposed to be left: no mention of Israel-Palestine, where there's been a bipartisan national effort to actually render some anti-Zionist activism illegal.

Why does this matter? Specificity would protect the letter from claims of hysteria or exaggeration, and contextualize the new sources of pressure/censorship within a broader milieu that has never been extremely free in the first place. Specificity would also allow for a more granular analysis and clear distinctions between different things too often grouped together: a shouty culture; swift institutional realignments based on new salience of antiracism; and full-fledged punishment by digital mob or institutional suppression.

That all being said, the way some progressive critics have approached this letter has been odd and ironically reinforces some of the very points in the letter. Critics pan the letter for including insufferable right-wingers. But the letter would have no meaning otherwise. No paean to open debate could possibly be compelling unless it included a diverse set of signers, both in terms of identity and ideology. And to its credit, the letter really did achieve that.

While many liberals have focused on signers with retrograde political beliefs on issues ranging from racism to Israel to trans identity, I am not convinced those people represent the "true" meaning when there are plenty of legit progressive scholars and deeply left-wing people on there who themselves are stridently opposed to those views.

In fact, it's extremely unlikely that Chomsky or a Jacobin writer on there had many or any of the same incidents in mind as Bari Weiss. (Again that's why specificity matters.) Also, some signers clearly didn't know who else would be a signatory.

Some critics say that the right-wingers on the letter are insincere and aren't concerned with free speech as much as using a persecution narrative to maximize the reach of their reactionary views. I think in some cases that's definitely true. Some critics also say that the right-wingers there are defenders of violence and a kind of structural-bureaucratic cancel culture that far outweighs the concerns they outline in the letter. Definitely true.

But ultimately it is a dead end for the left to concede this issue to the right. Here's why: the left must be a staunch defender of open debate norms both on principle and because it is in the long run the greatest beneficiary such of norms. Conservatives trying to appropriate the issue should be criticized, not allowed to expropriate it. To make that more tangible, criticize the right for hypocrisy, don't downplay the real instances of troubling cases of people being fired.

Of course there are other, bigger challenges to intellectual freedom. But it is, in fact, possible to be concerned about multiple things at the same time, to decry discrete sources of the dampening of free debate. This issue is also getting attention in part because it is relatively novel and because it appears to be intensifying: I think the reason Jon Chait's reporting on David Shor's dismissal from Civis Analytics was truly worrying is because it really does seem to naturally follow the logic of a kind of cultural policing that's emerged.

The Harper's letter lacked sophistication, perhaps by design. But the impulse among critics to downplay troubling cultural trends or even say free speech arguments are a pure vehicle for status quo interests is a dangerous one, in my opinion.

Original thread on Twitter (with an addendum about specificity).

Targeting people's jobs seems like bad praxis

This successful campaign by Khoa Phan to swiftly get someone fired for being an asshole about mask-wearing at a Costco's is a good example of concerns I have about online mobs doling out punishment. I think targeting jobs is a bad idea.

There is no doubt that this guy was unhinged, aggressive, and behaved in a socially unacceptable manner. By all means, criticize the person, shame them on social media. But targeting someone's job when we live in an anarcho-capitalist dystopia with no social safety net is a step too far.

Our society has extremely weak protections for the unemployed, and most people get health insurance for themselves, and often their family, through their employer. Moreover, if this is how you lose your job you may end up radioactive on the job market for months or years.

Ultimately I don't understand how people can watch a few second video clip and without knowing anything else about this scenario — what preceded it, what came after it, the actual people involved — decide to sentence that person and family to potentially extreme and life-threatening material hardship.

When pressuring an employer, the crowd is not prompting the employer to evaluate the ethical substance of the conduct of their employee outside of work. That's not the business companies are in. They're pressuring employers to make reputational cost decisions.

I'm seeing people say to me someone who behaves in this manner should not be allowed to be employed and that "we should left his world burn." I don't understand that position. The left is currently in the midst of a massive critique of the immorality and social perils of a sadistically punitive society regarding the police and mass incarceration. Punishment should be administered carefully and allow for rehabilitation.

I also don't buy the argument that the public is merely passing along information to the employer in some kind of vacuum. When it becomes a mass lobbying campaign with national media attention that introduces different variables into employer calculation, turning it into a public relations decision to protect profits. We don't have the counterfactual of how his boss might have dealt with it if he happened to be, for example, an onlooker in the store.

This debate might look a lot different if workers had extremely robust labor protections, weren't largely employed at-will, and we had high union density. New York Magazine's Zak Cheney-Rice has argued persuasively to me that we should distinguish clearly between shaming and job targeting, and that the former can be effective alternative to turning to the carceral system.

But at the moment the idea of targeting people's jobs seems unprincipled.

Original Twitter thread.
Interesting discussion on Facebook about this one.

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Trump is going all in on divisive culture wars. That might not work this time.

I wrote for Vox about how Trump tripling down on culture wars during Independence Day weekend — this time by arguing "far-left fascism" seeks to wipe out American identity by toppling statues — shows how he's misreading our political moment, and his own party.

Here's the opening:

"Presidents tend to offer messages of national unity and optimism on Independence Day. But this weekend, President Donald Trump marked the occasion with a pair of speeches in which he described himself as presiding over a cultural civil war against an insurgent left — and promised to vanquish those on the other side of that war through aggressive use of law enforcement.

In a speech at Mount Rushmore on Friday, Trump warned of a “far-left fascism” that is part of a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” As the crowd before him shouted, “Four more years,” he boasted about deploying federal law enforcement to protect American monuments, a number of which have been pulled down or criticized by anti-racist protesters in recent weeks for commemorating historical figures who supported slavery, white supremacy, or colonialism.

In his “Salute to America” address on Saturday in Washington, DC, Trump emphasized this message, and proclaimed that he was “defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing,” while pledging to “safeguard our values.”

“Such rhetoric is designed to inflame and divide the public, not unite and celebrate, which is the goal of most presidents’ Independence Day speeches,” George Edwards III, a scholar of the presidency and professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, told me. “There is little doubt that the president is trying to energize his base in anticipation of the November election.”

Trump’s descriptions of the rise of an extremist left — which were often exaggerated or false in their characterizations — are inflammatory in part because they rely on a narrow, nationalistic, and racialized definition of “our values” that amounts to a sweeping rejection of the idea that America’s history of slavery and white supremacy should be questioned. And in framing the debate over the monuments this way, the president revived the racialized nostalgia politics that animated his 2016 strategy for mobilizing Republican voters.

Although that proved a successful strategy during that election, there are reasons to be doubtful that his tack of fomenting a culture war will in fact galvanize his base in the way he hopes. Chief among them is that his presidency has been engulfed by crises in the form of an out-of-control pandemic, a historic recession, and a fiery national debate over racism.

Polling indicates that the public — including many Republicans — is broadly sympathetic to the protests and doesn’t buy into the picture of anti-American chaos that Trump has been trying to paint.

For instance, a Washington Post-Schar School poll in June found that most Republicans supported protests that emerged after Floyd’s death. And Trump is losing the support of crucial parts of his political base, like older voters and white voters, as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on people’s health, mobility, income, and wealth. These factors likely explain much of why Trump is the worst-polling presidential incumbent at this point in the race in nearly three decades.

In other words, the crises Trump faces suggest he needs to try a new approach to appealing to the public if he wants to have a decent shot at winning the 2020 election. But Trump is showing an inability, or at least a reluctance, to adapt to changing times, appearing eager to delve even further into divisive culture wars — and to continue deploying white identity politics and racism as his weapons of choice."

Read the rest here.

The George Floyd Protests Must Be a Wake-Up Call for the Non-Identitarian Socialist Left

I argued in GEN, a new Medium publication, that the George Floyd protests should be a wake up call for Bernie and certain sectors of the socialist left to fully embrace identitarian leftism.

I would have liked to have written something lengthier and bit more nuanced about the history here — about 20th century traditions of black revolutionary socialism and socialist anti-imperialism; about the post-60s evolution of identitarian advocacy — but I think it's a start for my broader questioning of conceding "identity politics" (yes, a horrid, slippery term) to purveyors of the neoliberal status quo.

I really enjoyed talking to Asad Haider, a scholar at the New School and the Marxist author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, with whom I discussed the origin of “identity politics” among the black lesbian socialist Combahee River Collective, who declared in 1977 that they were “not convinced … that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.”

Haider's takeaway from their position: “if Black women become free, then everyone will become free, because they are precisely the point at which all of these oppressions and exclusions are concentrated.”

Here's the opening:

"In an interview with The New Yorker last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders turned heads when he rejected growing calls from progressive activists to either defund or abolish the current law enforcement system in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. In fact, Sanders not only declined to back either demand, he also emphasized that police must be “well-paid” in order to be effective at their jobs. It was an echo of a point Sanders made in a letter this month to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer requesting that state and local governments ensure “the resources are available to pay wages” that attract “top tier” talent to police forces.

It wasn’t the first time Sanders has seemed oddly traditional in the face of a rising wave of anger over racist police brutality. During his first presidential run in 2015, Sanders trailed presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton in endorsing Black Lives Matter; it took two campaign disruptions from protestors for him to begin to more seriously promote criminal justice reform in his policy platform. Like many socialists, Sanders prioritizes the war against the 1% as his overarching frame for social change and sees the fight against racism as something to fold into that struggle. But at times that framework has resulted in the neglect of antiracist gestures, such as when he was the only presidential candidate who didn’t travel to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate Bloody Sunday and later when he unexpectedly scrapped a speech about race in Flint, Michigan, during the 2020 campaign.

Now Sanders, still the best-known socialist in America, isn’t rushing to back the defund the police movement, which would seem to naturally dovetail with his commitment to boosting social spending on education and health care. While he has indicated support for having some law enforcement tasks reassigned to mental health workers (one goal of defunding the police) his prism for looking at the problem remains at a remove from that of the re-energized Black Lives Matter movement and the burst of progressive and left-wing energy in the streets.

Sanders is once again revealing a blind spot that is shared by a significant swath of the socialist left today: a kind of ambivalence about fully immersing itself into struggles against specific kinds of identitarian oppression that don’t appear to fit neatly into the fight against capital.

But the protests after the police killing of George Floyd should be a wake-up call. Multiracial and multigenerational demonstrations in every state and scores of countries around the world have shown that antiracism speaks deeply to the public and has an exceptional capacity to unite and mobilize broad sections of the country. Those efforts have had a swift impact: Opinion polls have revealed an astonishing surge in support for the racial justice fight across the political spectrum, and the growing tendency of liberals to use the term “systemic racism” reveals a hunger for a deeper analysis of how racism operates in this country. Any serious socialist movement needs to be at the front lines of this fight."

Read the rest here.

What I'm reading

Eric Levitz on Yascha Mounk’s Persuasion project and its conceptions of freedom.

Osita Nwanevu on the willful blindness of reactionary liberalism.

Jamelle Bouie on going beyond white fragility.

Clare Malone's deep dive for FiveThirtyEight: How the GOP spent decades making itself white.

How Jamaal Bowman beat Rep. Eliot Engel In The Bronx.

Solidarity across species.

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