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Weekend reads: Nervous breakdown
The implosion of the progressive left - and what it can tell us about media meltdowns
In June of 2020, Matt Taibbi dared to say what most journalists would then only admit behind closed doors: The American press was destroying itself.
Reflecting on a number of high-profile newsroom revolts that had taken place that summer, Taibbi drew a direct link to meltdowns he’d observed across a range of left-leaning organizations.
“It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind,” he wrote. “It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.”
“The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation,” he continued. “They’ve conned organization after organization into empowering panels to search out thoughtcrime, and it’s established now that anything can be an offense.”
Taibbi’s argument has since become a mainstream position, and certainly one that I hear from the public all the time. Last week, Newsweek’s deputy opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon referred to its prevalence on the Lean Out podcast: “The normie position is not racist, not sexist, truly believes that everyone should live in dignity — but thinks that the left has lost its mind.”
Establishment media is now finally catching up to public sentiment.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen an explicit acknowledgment that the progressive left has been derailed. The realization is so widespread, in fact, that Michelle Goldberg highlighted it in The New York Times, in a piece optimistically titled “The Left’s Fever is Breaking.”
Goldberg’s essay confronts the left’s “ideologically inflected psychodramas,” and opens with an admission: “It’s no secret that many left-wing activist groups and nonprofits, roiled by the reckonings over sexual harassment and racial justice of the past few years, have become internally dysfunctional.”
Goldberg moves on to refer to a seminal piece of reporting from The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. In his exposé on a wave of blowups at non-profits, Grim points to “wrenching and debilitating turmoil” at organizations ranging from Planned Parenthood and the ACLU to The Sierra Club, the Sunrise Movement, and the National Audubon Society — and notes that “it’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult.”
The internal strife, Grim argues, is crippling the left’s infrastructure at a critical moment in the country’s history.
“To be honest with you, this is the biggest problem on the left over the last six years,” one executive director told Grim. “This is so big. And it’s like abuse in the family — it’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.”
Enter a bold new essay, published in late 2022, which Michelle Goldberg draws attention to in her piece for the Times.
The essay is by Maurice Mitchell, director of the Working Families Party. And it deserves every bit of praise Goldberg heaps on it.
There are key points that Mitchell and I would disagree on. And I would go farther than he has here, questioning the underlying ideology driving the progressive political project in the first place. (If an ideology makes those advancing it this miserable, perhaps it’s time to rethink things?)
But I have to say, “Building Resilient Organizations” is a thoughtful, considered, pragmatic — and often downright brilliant — analysis of the behaviours and beliefs that have landed the left in such a quagmire. Indeed, it is one of the most helpful diagnoses I’ve come across.
And I’m certainly not alone in thinking so. Among many progressive leaders, Goldberg writes, Mitchell’s essay has “been received eagerly and gratefully.”
What’s most striking to me, reflecting on the piece, is how much of Mitchell’s thinking applies to the media, and how useful his analysis could be to us, too, given how much overlap there is between progressive politics and the press.
Almost all of the trends that Mitchell identifies afflict the media as well. And, I would argue, have rendered us just as ineffective at doing our actual jobs.
Take, for instance, the obsession with — and deference to — identity that is now so common on the left. Mitchell labels this tendency “Neoliberal Identity” and defines it as “using one’s identity or personal experience as a justification for a political position.” Marginalized identity, he notes, is “deployed as a conveyor of a strategic truth that must simply be accepted.” But, he argues, “identity is too broad a container to predict one’s politics or the validity of a particular position.”
So, what implications might this have for journalists who find themselves under the sway of indentitarian thinking?
What can happen, in my experience, is that such journalists may not ask critical questions of interview subjects from minority identities. But these interview subjects, obviously, as Mitchell stresses, are human beings, and as such are subject to the full spectrum of human strengths and weaknesses, as well as the full range of motivations.
Add to that: all interview subjects deserve to have their ideas taken seriously — and in journalism, the way we demonstrate that is by testing these ideas in the public square.
Here is Mitchell on that:
Genuflecting to individuals solely based on their socialized identities or personal stories deprives them of the conditions that sharpen arguments, develop skills, and win debates. We infantilize members of historically marginalized or oppressed groups by seeking to placate or pander instead of being in a right relationship, which requires struggle, debate, disagreement, and hard work. This type of false solidarity is a form of charity that weakens the individual and the collective. Finding authentic alignment and solidarity among diverse voices is serious labor. After all, “steel sharpens steel.”
These days, when someone says “do the work,” they are often referring to internal emotional or intellectual work. But here, Mitchell is advocating for the external work of dialogue and debate — often messy and difficult, but well worth the effort.
He also stresses that shying away from open debate can, and does, lead to the essentialized thinking. In journalism, this can mean equating whole identity groups with certain political viewpoints, an assumption that leads to incomplete or inaccurate reporting.
It can also lead to boring coverage, falling back on simplified positions, slogans, and jargon, instead of doing the much more difficult work of complicating narratives.
Another key tendency that Mitchell identifies in his essay is “Anti-Leadership Attitudes.” He defines this as: “Questioning the authority, legitimacy, and competence of those with positional, perceived, or other forms of power. Therefore, all decisions made by leadership are subject to broad-based skepticism and mistrust.”
This tendency, too, plagues newsrooms, driving generational wars that sideline entire teams, distracting from the on-the-ground work of news gathering, and robbing young journalists of opportunities to develop fact-finding skills.
Along with this tendency, we also see what Mitchell calls “Anti-Institutional Sentiment,” or, “reflexively disdaining institutions and organizations as inherently oppressive and antiquated, including the institution one may be associated with.” This, too, is evident in the press corps, whose young workers sometimes appear to hold more disdain for their organizations than an already distrustful public.
Mitchell also points to a critical concept called “Unanchored Care,” which he defines as “assuming one’s mental, physical, and spiritual health is the responsibility of the organization or collective space.”
Again, Mitchell’s comments on this are salient:
Emotional intelligence is a capacity an organization can and should embody. But no organization can take on the emotional labor that is squarely in the domain of the individual. This distinction is critical. Additionally, discomfort is part of the human condition and a prerequisite for learning. Violence and oppression are to be avoided but not discomfort. The ability to discern the difference is a form of emotional maturity we should encourage.
Encouraging young journalists to see themselves as fragile, under siege, at the mercy of a hostile public — and in need of protection — does not serve them well.
And it does not help us, as a profession, face the very real challenges of the digital age.
Finally, Mitchell refers to “Disproportionality,” or, “being unable to interpret the scale of a problem. For example, discomfort is not only unacceptable but ‘violent.’” And “Activist Culture,” meaning “acting on individual and personal impulses rather than the mandate laid out by one’s role or organization.”
Both tendencies exist in the press, too, and regularly turn off audiences.
Consider this paragraph from Mitchell, on in-house activism:
Although it may be personally fulfilling and individually empowering to do and say the things you desire when you desire, institution- and organization-building requires the discipline to advance a collective strategy. That often means sublimating your impulse or ego for the greater good and leveraging your personal capacities for collective goals. This flies in the face of activist culture.
Mitchell concludes his essay with a suite of solutions, from the structural and the ideological to the strategic and the emotional.
His is a sober assessment, grounded in the material conditions that many are grappling with. And, it seems to me, inspired by a sincere desire to help us all move beyond toxicity and polarization.
If Michelle Goldberg is right — if the left’s fever is breaking — it will be as a result of efforts like Mitchell’s.
We’ll pick up on some of these themes again next week on the Lean Out podcast, with an interview with the astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi, who was recently at the centre of a controversy about a telescope and allegations of a late NASA head’s homophobia.
I also want to share a recent podcast appearance of my own. I loved speaking with Meghan Daum on the anniversary of my Substack in early January. Meghan and I cover a lot of ground on this episode, from the rise of the independent press to feminism, #MeToo, publishing, the Left Coast, communes — and, in the bonus content, aging and illness.
One correction: I mixed up a date here, mistakenly saying I was on contract at CBC until December 2023. As I’ve noted before, that contract was until December 2022.
I’ve long admired Meghan’s work and really enjoyed this conversation. Have a listen!
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