Weekend reads: Great escape edition
Twitter, breaking out of a spiral of silence - and (one hopes) the dawning of a new day
Elon Musk has officially taken the helm at Twitter, and this development has, predictably, been met with hysteria. The blue checkmarks are apoplectic, and are threatening to pack up their passive aggressive jokes, their eerily similar hot takes, and their mean girl status games — and go on home. (Or, in the case of sitting Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are busy taunting the Chief Twit with oddly seductive trolling.)
Now, I’ve said this before: I do not relish the de facto public square being owned by a billionaire. But it’s worth pointing out that this state of affairs in far from unusual in late-stage capitalism. (And, while there’s plenty of reasonable questions to be raised about Elon Musk, I don’t see many of them popping up on my Twitter feed.)
Call me cautiously optimistic, but the fact that Elon Musk champions free speech, open debate, and a diversity of viewpoints does actually give me a modicum of hope about our intellectual culture going forward.
The best essay I’ve read so far about this potential dawning of a new day at Twitter is by Walter Kirn, over at Common Sense. He pretty much nails the problem with old Twitter, particularly for us contrarians:
It had become an opinion-sculpting instrument, an oracle of the establishment, and I knew I would end up out of step with it, if only because I’m of a temperament which habitually goes against the flow to challenge and test the flow, to keep it honest. Mass agreement, in my experience, both as a person and a journalist, is typically achieved at a cost to reality and truth.
This part is also very well put:
The end of this period of Twitter — with its creepy secret agents, sponsored mob attacks, whipped-up propaganda drives, and canned applause tracks for approved ideas — could not have come fast enough for me. I’m a cynic by nature, but I see no good reason — for now, at least — to question Musk’s proclaimed intention to turn Twitter’s claustrophobic dungeon back into an airy public square. I expect the transition will not go smoothly, though it does seem to be going quickly. Musk has already fired the company’s C-suite and dissolved its board. Users, however, may need time to adjust to the less inhibited new platform. Emerging from the dimness of Plato’s Cave into the dazzle of daytime may take a while — we grew sleepier than perhaps we even knew. I say let the wild rumpus begin.
Earlier in the essay, Kirn jokes that “one definition of ‘paranoia’ is suspecting the truth too early, before your therapist reads it in The Times.”
This is both funny and not, as he goes on to note that his worst suspicions were confirmed this week.
If you read one thing this weekend, let it be the story that Kirn is referring to — Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang’s investigative piece for The Intercept, “Truth Cops.” Here’s the gist:
The Department of Homeland Security is quietly broadening its efforts to curb speech it considers dangerous, an investigation by The Intercept has found. Years of internal DHS memos, emails, and documents — obtained via leaks and an ongoing lawsuit, as well as public documents — illustrate an expansive effort by the agency to influence tech platforms.
The work, much of which remains unknown to the American public, came into clearer view earlier this year when DHS announced a new “Disinformation Governance Board”: a panel designed to police misinformation (false information spread unintentionally), disinformation (false information spread intentionally), and malinformation (factual information shared, typically out of context, with harmful intent) that allegedly threatens U.S. interests. While the board was widely ridiculed, immediately scaled back, and then shut down within a few months, other initiatives are underway as DHS pivots to monitoring social media now that its original mandate — the war on terror — has been wound down.
Behind closed doors, and through pressure on private platforms, the U.S. government has used its power to try to shape online discourse.
We in the media need to wake up to this reality. And fast.
And we need to seriously consider what the brilliant Nadine Strossen, a Lean Out guest, had to say in that Intercept piece: “‘If a foreign authoritarian government sent these messages,’ noted Nadine Strossen, the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, ‘there is no doubt we would call it censorship.’”
This whole story — and how it’s being received by the Twitterati — strikes at the heart of the political realignment that’s currently taking place. Indeed, this realignment is now so much of a thing that it’s even being covered in the Times.
Per Ross Douthat, in “How the Right Became the Left and the Left Became the Right”:
The point of emphasizing this reversal isn’t to suggest that either side is likely to flip back. The evolving attitudes of right and left reflect their evolving positions in American society, with cultural liberalism much more dominant in elite institutions than it was a generation ago and conservatism increasingly disreputable, representing downscale constituencies and outsider ideas.
But a stronger awareness of the flip might be helpful in tempering the temptations that afflict both sides. For progressives, that could mean acknowledging that the Department of Homeland Security’s disinformation wars, its attempted hand-in-glove with the great powers of Silicon Valley, would have been regarded as a dystopian scenario on their side not so long ago. So is it really any less dystopian if the targets are Trumpistas and Anthony Fauci critics instead of Iraq War protesters? And if it is a little creepy and censorious and un-American, doesn’t that make some of the paranoia evident on the right these days a little less unfathomable and fascist seeming, even a little more relatable?
Great questions for us in the press to mull over. I’m sure that’s what everyone will do.
For another example of the ongoing scrambling of left and right, consider The Nation’s response to the story of Jennifer Sey, who says she was pushed out of an executive role at Levi’s for her advocacy on school closures (and who was on the Lean Out podcast this week).
Here you have a left-wing publication siding with a major corporation against a longtime progressive, who advocated to open public schools for low-income kids in the midst of a crisis that cost many marginalized children instruction, adult supervision, emotional support, and meals). A progressive, in fact, who has since criticized her former CEO for collecting a 42 million-dollar payout while laying off employees during a pandemic.
These seem like positions that leftists might have supported, in another time.
But here’s what Alexis Grenell had to say in The Nation this week:
Jennifer Sey defied repeated warnings about tweeting against public health guidance during the height of the pandemic, at a time when the company was trying to implement safety protocols across its stores and distribution centers. Her nonstop and often ridiculing challenges to federal policy earned her appearances on Naomi Wolf’s YouTube show and Fox News, undermining her leadership responsibilities at work. The ubiquitous disclaimer “Tweets do not reflect the views of my employer” does not apply when you are accountable to shareholders and employees or, in the case of journalists and mental health professionals, readers and patients. Sey now tweets from an account branded as “Sey Anything” (also the name of her new Substack), which is fine, but it’s absurd to demand that free speech remain consequence-free as well.
When did The Nation start caring about shareholders?
Elsewhere on the web, Lean Out guest Sohrab Ahmari has a provocative piece at The American Conservative on the blue checkmark media, reiterating the basic journalistic truth that “the job of the reporter isn’t to parrot what the experts say at any given moment: it is to question what anyone in power claims.”
I cannot emphasize this point enough. Make it your mantra, beleaguered press corps.
Incidentally, Ahmari was reacting to this widely shared piece in The Atlantic from Emily Oster, arguing that we should forgive and forget pandemic mistakes — and claiming that such errors mainly stemmed from a lack of knowledge. (I beg to differ.)
There is perhaps no clearer poster child for the current crisis of state capacity than the ArriveCAN app, which was a bad policy initiative, poorly implemented, at great cost, and whose ultimate effect was not to keep Canadians safe and healthy, but rather to annoy users and generate a great deal of hostility towards the government.
And while we’re on the topic of mistakes, Lean Out guest Kat Rosenfield has a lively essay over at The National Review, “Why I Keep Getting Mistaken for a Conservative,” which contains this truth bomb:
In our current era, politics no longer have anything to do with policy. Nor are they about principles, or values, or a vision for the future of the country. They’re about tribalism, and aesthetics, and vibes. They’re about lockstep solidarity with your chosen team, to which you must demonstrate your loyalty through fierce and unwavering conformity. And most of all, they’re about hating the right people.
It occurs to me that one can push back on this toxic trend by not hating anyone.
Back to the theme of conservatism: Lean Out guest Louise Perry has a new piece out in The Spectator arguing that the next wave of feminism is, well, conservative.
And, just as Perry argues that we are in the midst of a new wave of feminism, writer David Samuels argues that America is itself in the midst of a new iteration. In “How Turbo-Wokism Broke America,” Samuels notes:
More troublesome, however, than the sight of America once again shedding its skin, is the shape of the American Republic to come — and the question of whether it will be a republic at all. Since the end of the Cold War, America has transformed itself from a country in which most citizens proudly imagined themselves to be “middle class” into a bi-coastal oligarchy. The hallmarks of this new republic’s politics are the sorts of pathologies that used to be associated with the countries to America’s south: a wildly unequal distribution of wealth, choking bureaucracy, paranoid mass politics, the weaponisation of the security apparatus, and the merger of monopoly capital and invasive state bureaucracies.
The great Michael Lind links to this very Samuels piece in his own latest essay for Tablet, “The New Gatekeepers,” which contains some comments highly relevant to what I wrote about last week in an essay, “The trouble with woke,” on the ways in which this ascendent political movement strenuously resists classification.
Here is Lind on the phenomenon of “wokeness”:
One way of answering the question of who the woke actually are is by posing a historical question: Why did political correctness (PC) fail to escape from its laboratories on university campuses while becoming an object of ridicule and derision in the 1980s and 1990s, while its successor, wokeness, succeeded in capturing major corporations, banks, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies beginning around 2010? The question is all the more interesting because many of the schools of thought that have been united in PC and wokeness date back to the 1970s, the 1960s, or earlier. For example, the term “intersectionality,” used to refer to hierarchies of real or alleged oppression, was coined by the Black feminist scholar Kimberle Crenshaw as early as 1989, yet the term was obscure even on college campuses before suddenly it was everywhere in the 2010s.
Control of three gateways in particular has been critical to the success of woke entryism. The three gateways are college education, professional accreditation, and commercial services, particularly new online media platforms like Twitter, sales platforms like Amazon, and financial platforms like PayPal. All three wield variants of the same power: the power to exclude people from the economy. Good Trotsky-style entryists that they are, woke activists, knowing that they would be defeated in free elections and in open public debates, have sought to infiltrate institutions to control key chokepoints or gateways, which empower them to be gatekeepers.
Today, unlike a generation ago, young Americans typically must pass through three gateways, in order to be economically successful. They must obtain college diplomas; they must join professional accrediting organizations; and they must be able to do business via platforms in the marketplace.
One of the big issues around “wokeness” is that, while its ideas are largely unpopular with the general public, they are nevertheless rapidly being institutionalized. And therefore, those who believe the pendulum will soon swing back — and thus regain a state of equilibrium for us all — are not taking into account the heavy-lifting required to undo all of the policies that have already been put in place.
But on a note of hope, the Blocked and Reported podcast has a fascinating episode out with Canadian leftist Clementine Morrigan, who offers an insider critique of contemporary social justice circles, while managing to still uphold actual social justice values like empathy and respect for all. Bravo.
It’s worth noting, too, that Clementine, Jesse Singal, and Katie Herzog all touch on how liberating life can be post-cancellation, since, once the band-aid is ripped off, you really can speak freely.
As Jesse says, “We no longer have to be scared shitless about saying obvious stuff … And that means we can do actual journalism.”
On a related note, economist Glenn Loury has an interesting clip out from his interview with Lex Fridman, discussing “the spiral of silence” — a phenomenon in which, in the current climate, people recognize that injustices are being perpetrated but “fear the repercussions of defending the accused.”
Loury articulates a concern that I share, about a backlash that’s brewing:
I worry that this widespread suppression could create conditions ripe for exploitation by some canny demagogue who could harness the resentments of a stifled electorate and, in the process, unleash something very ugly on this country.
Let’s hope we’re wrong.
I’ll leave you with one last thought before signing off. I mentioned earlier that Jennifer Sey was on the podcast this week to talk about pandemic school closures. She said something that can serve as a great reminder to us all: “Bad ideas will sink like stones in the public sphere. So, let them out there.”
She also said this: “Courage begets courage.”
Bring on the unfettered free speech.
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