From blogofascism to PC Police. It's always something.
If there's anything more enervating than a Jonathan Chait dust-up I'd like to know what it is. I feel like I've been participating in them forever (and in blog years, I have.) Henry Farrell dispatched the essence of his argument with alacrity years ago and there's really little reason to revisit it now. But it's unavoidable. My twitter timeline is still bubbling about it and my emailbox is full. The guy deserves a trolling bonus. Nobody does it better.
As you can see by Farrell's post, most of the arguments Chait is making about the PC Left today are the same arguments he made about the Netroots Left a few years ago. He did give us credit for being a sort of crude army of thugs that might serve a purpose by balancing out the worst of the right wing fever swamps, but aside from that dubious role we were nothing more than lying propagandists without any sense of integrity who were forcing decent mainstream liberals everywhere to cower under their desks for fear that one of us would be mean to them and ruin their day.
Back then the problem was the "blogofascists" as Chait's TNR workmate Lee Siegel called us -- before he was fired for sock-puppeting his own work with all the subtlety of a One Direction super-fan:
The blogosphere’s fanaticism is, in many ways, the triumph of a lack of focus.” … All these abusive attempts to autocratically or dictatorially control criticism came about because I said that the blogosphere had the quality of fascism, which my dictionary defines as “any tendency toward or actual exercise of severe autocratic or dictatorial control.” … insults, personal attacks, and even threats. This truly is the stuff of thuggery and fascism. … Two other traits of fascism are its hatred of the processes of politics, and the knockabout origins of its adherents. Communism was hatched by elites. Fascism was born along the drifting paths of rootless men, often ex-soldiers who had fought in the First World War and been demobilized. They turned European politics into a madhouse of deracinated ambition.
(Granted, Chait didn't use that word. But there is little doubt that they high fived each other over the New Republic water cooler at the cleverness of such a phrase.)
That was then. Today the threat comes from the politically correct Social Justice Warriors. Hippies gonna hip I guess.
There have been a lot of articles responding to him and I'm sure you can find them if you're interested in this navel gazing bullshit. I have to be, so I am, but it's getting really old after all these years. Still, there are a couple of interesting lessons to be taken from this. First, the liberal bloggers back in the day were very, very rude. We were a lot like the current SJWs on twitter. We went right up into the MSM writers' faces and called them out, even (or maybe especially) those who called themselves liberals. It was a nasty pile-on and I'm sure it was unpleasant for the reporters and pundits who had to endure it. I was right in there with the worst of them, foul-mouthed, vituperative and personal. There was a reason for that: it was the only way we could get their attention!
We had a beef and, I still maintain, a beef that was legitimate and important. For years by that time we'd watched the mainstream media aid and abet the right wing to the point at which they behaved like a bunch of puerile cheerleaders for an absurd impeachment and stolen election. Iraq was the frosting on the cake. There was no amount of polite discourse that was going to shake up that comfortable relationship. And after Iraq it was becoming downright dangerous.
Chait bemoaned that dynamic in his 2007 piece which he described this way:
Moulitsas writes. "I mean, who did progressive [sic] have supposedly representing their side? Joe Frickin' Klein. Is it any wonder blogs grew in response?"
Talk about being damned with faint praise. (And you have to love the idea that Ezra and Yglesias were blogofascists.)
The creation of a liberal message machine has not only filled a vacuum in the political discourse. It has also had an impact on the mainstream media itself. One revealing window into how this has worked, as it happens, is Joe Frickin' Klein himself.
In early January, Time unveiled a new blog, Swampland, featuring several of its political writers, including Klein, a columnist for the magazine. While this was almost certainly not its intended effect, Swampland turned out to be a fascinating experiment about the effects of bringing mainstream journalists into close contact with the Internet left.
Klein's initial forays were classic Klein: His second post was a blast at "ill- informed dilettantes" of the left who prove that "[l]iberals won't ever be trusted on national security until they start doing their homework." Predictably, the netroots lashed into him. Just as predictably, his immediate reaction was to lash back, in a follow-up blog post attacking "illiberal leftists and reactionary progressives" and suggesting that his critics did not want the administration's strategy in Baghdad to succeed.
The next couple of weeks, however, saw none of the sorts of criticism of liberals that marked Klein's first post and much of his career. When, a few weeks later, he ventured back onto controversial terrain, he did so in an apologetic tone, almost as if he were cringing in anticipation of the blows that were sure to follow. "I know it's become common practice to slag David Broder in the blogosphere," he wrote. "But let me say this in David's defense ... ."
Klein still regularly took issue with his liberal critics, but the frequency of his dissents declined markedly, and the esteem with which he treated his tormentors rose commensurately. He continued to endure constant criticism and would often post three or four updates to his blog items, each replying to a wave of attacks. Moreover, Klein began with increasing frequency to concede the truth of the criticisms against him--e.g., "I was (correctly) hammered last year when I said on Stephanopoulos that all options--including nukes--should be on the table' in our dealings with Iran." And his liberal opinions seemed to grow more frequent and less hedged. ("I'm dedicating the rest of my life to making sure that we never go to war so foolishly again--if at all.")
Liberal bloggers regarded the newly tamed Klein with unconcealed satisfaction. In a post on how the netroots was successfully lobbying the mainstream media, Yglesias wrote, "I might also note that Swampland is suddenly full of posts I find much more agreeable than the ones they were doing early on." His fellow blogger Ezra Klein (no relation), of the Prospect, offered a persuasive explanation of his namesake's more liberal-friendly tone:
It's worth remembering that, for years, the only thing these quasi-liberal columnists heard was how biased, out- of-touch, and incomprehensibly progressive they were. So they began tailoring, consciously or not, their work to defend against those criticisms.
Klein, like many journalists, had spent his career in a world where there was only one real movement in U.S. politics. He had become accustomed to sustained ideological mau-mauing, but he had expected it only from one side, and, over the years, this imbalance had taken its toll. Now, suddenly, there are two such movements, balanced on either side of the moderate mainstream.
Whether or not liberals ought to consider this a good thing depends on how wide their frame of reference is. At the narrow level, the netroots take part in a great deal of demagoguery, name-calling, and dishonesty. Seen through a wider lens, however, they bring into closer balance the ideological vectors of propaganda in our public life.
The latest piece about demagogic Social Justice Warriors and the PC police is really just a rehash of that moldy old argument. Mainstream writers are once again cowering under their desks because someone on the internet calls them a sell-out or a racist or some other icky name and it's very unpleasant. And I would suggest that once again, a whole lot of this icky name calling is because they can't get their attention any other way! Just as we older generation of bloggers couldn't seem to shake them out of their comfort zone any other way, so too the newer generation of online activists are undoubtedly frustrated. With the cacophony of online chatter and cable news and a gazillion websites and news feeds, it's even harder than it was a decade ago. You can't blame them for marshalling everything they have to be heard.
God knows there's a lot of moronic discourse on the internet and it's important to try to sort out trolls from serious critics. And nobody says that you are required to absorb whatever abuse any crank decides to lay on you. My wrecked comment section stays dormant because useful arguments have shifted to twitter and I don't need to spend my days trying to deal with the odd assortment of misogynists and malcontents who took up residence there and chased off all the normal people. But so-called "PC Police" are among those critics who are actually making a difference, even if it is uncomfortable and frustrating to be on the receiving end. My own response to being "called out" is often anger at first just like Chait. It's very hurtful and I'm human. But I've learned that when I feel that very particular kind of anger that comes from being attacked for my privilege, it is often a useful signal that I probably need to step back think a little harder about something.
There's a lot about this lefty PC culture to criticize but it's an internal problem, not the one that Chait suggests. Trigger warnings are a very questionable response to trauma and some silly stuff like #CancelColbert reflects an unwillingness to admit when they've erred. But they aren't shutting up the MSM --- they don't have the power to do that. Twitter isn't the world and if some journalists decide it's not worth it to them to participate that's just fine. And they certainly aren't gagging liberal academia which I would certainly hope can take care of itself. (If it can't we've got bigger problems.) And anyway this is a young crowd, energized by its newfound ability to create some disruption and maybe make some establishment figures feel some heat. These confrontations will likely evolve over time to a different sort of discussion.
In fact, that Joe Klein example is actually a good one to show how that could happen. He was very angry at first but he ended up engaging directly with his interlocutors in the comment sections of Swampland and they worked out quite an interesting relationship over time. The MSM did change over the past decade. And as Greenwald points out in his piece about this, that's at least partially a result of pressure from the rude liberal blogosphere.
The "politically correct left" got the MSM's attention. They are upset, which is the first step. Now, the MSM needs to step back and think on this a bit and ask themselves how they might constructively deal with these issues of privilege. I'm still asking --- I don't know the answer. But I'm glad they've brought it up.
I don't expect everyone to grow from this experience. Clearly, this is a scab that just won't heal for some people. But I'd guess that in the end a lot of others will. Liberalism will survive the social justice warriors just as it survived the blogofascists. We'll all live to see another day.