I usually restrict my irritation with other small-time radicals to random jabs on Twitter and various asides in blog posts about bigger fish. However, there is a really annoying conversation developing in blog and Twitterland about ‘left purity cults’ and as it’s a conversation in which I am already publicly involved and as it’s a conversation that has so far been dominated by bad faith and general stupidity, I feel compelled to address it in long form, I hope, for the last time.
It started with Freddie DeBoer, a lefty blogger who I briefly found interesting not least because of how he manages to be both really sharp and really clueless at the same time. A big part of DeBoer’s meticulously cultivated personal brand is fierce intellectual independence. So it is never enough for DeBoer to simply provide supporting evidence for whatever axe he happens to be grinding. He must also demonstrate how grinding this axe sets him apart from less courageous, less principled people.
Recently, in the midst of endorsing another Jacobin call for More and Better Democrats, DeBoer conjured an army of unprincipled, petty Jacobin detractors apart from whom he bravely set himself.
That opinion, I’m afraid, is not very cool. Jacobin has been catching some of the expected flak lately, given their recent success. They are guilty of several of the Lefty Seven Deadly Sins, including Being Popular, Getting Positive Attention, and Convincing Others. This cannot be countenanced, and so they are being punished. Mostly by anarchist, by my lights, but by the general mass of the “however extreme you are, +1” crowd.
Who these people are, DeBoer didn’t say. Nor did he link to anyone, no doubt because it’s hard to find people who say ‘I really don’t like Jacobin. They’re too popular and convincing.’ Proving the envious, purist essence of more common complaints that the Jacobin crowd is, say, too soft on liberals and too hard on anarchists is yeoman’s work. It gets in the way of a nice, concise advertisement for oneself. So no facts intruded. Instead, DeBoer went on a weird, irrelevant tangent about how much anarchists suck — rich white smashers of car windows, of course — perhaps in an attempt at brand synergy with anarcho-punchy Jacobin. Who the fuck knows?
This was too much, so I took him to task in comments, and what happened was, in retrospect, quite funny, with DeBoer taking comedic flights from self-awareness via the crudest demonizing and pathologizing. My personal favorite:
I’m going to tell you this because I genuinely like you and wish you the best: I’ve known people who act the way you do. They either killed themselves or became Republicans.
I would have been happy to let that be that, resolving to never be trolled by Freddie again, were so many others not so bent on taking this substance-free, fallacious shit seriously. Shawn Gude, of Jacobin, called DeBoer’s mish-mash of straw men and smears an “intervention in the purity debate.” Then a day or so later comes Matt Bruenig, linking to DeBoer’s post with this, ‘The Death Spiral of Futile Leftism’ :
The left-left side of the blogosphere is chattering about lefter-than-thou sniping that is apparently aimed at people associated with the Jacobin. For readers who don’t pay attention to that stuff, Jacobin magazine is a socialist magazine that is popular. The lefter-than-thou crowd is comprised of people who do everything they can to throw bombs at left-wing projects that are successful. The goal of the bomb-throwing, it appears, is not to actually achieve anything substantive; rather, it is to make damn sure everyone knows they are different from them, those leftists who aren’t the real leftists like they are.
On and on like that it goes for not one but two posts. Which puts us at three-too-many posts about anti-Jacobin purity cults without a single example of an anti-Jacobin purity cultist, or the intrusion of a single left idea that purists might haggle over.
Lets just cut this stupid crap right now, ok? First of all, if you’re going to write multiple posts about this thing on the left causing ‘death spirals’, no one is obliged to take you for anything but a lazy dumbass if you are unable or unwilling to provide even one fucking example of this thing you’re talking about. Linking to some other dumbass who wrote about this thing also without providing an example really doesn’t count. It makes you look even more ridiculous. Collectively you just look like a clique closing ranks against criticism.
As to the complaint itself: Yes, of course, there are purists. There are leftier than thous. Americans are religious people and it bleeds into everything. But very few differences among leftists are of this kind and there is zero evidence that people’s problems with Jacobin are all in some uniquely substance-free class. For me it’s a mix of the personal and political. I disagree with a lot of what members of the Jacobin crowd say and I especially don’t like the smears that go with it. There are too many certified creeps over there.
In any event, I am at pains to understand how taking radicals to task for being too radical is any more useful than taking people like Jacobin to task for not being radical enough. After all, what is the functional difference between a leftier-than-thou shithead and their more-pragmatic-than-thou analog. Certainly some of the by now greatly inflated animus toward Jacobin owes to their emphasis on how flawed everything and everyone else on the left is, particularly radicals who don’t share their religious faith in state power. How does this differ functionally from people talking shit about them? If there’s too much friction, how are diatribes about purity cults relieving it?
If leftists really do hate other leftists for ‘Being Popular, Getting Positive Attention, and Convincing Others’ aren’t there more worthy targets for purity cults than Jacobin? I mean, what about investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill? It’s only May and the guy has already won a literary prize of $150k, just released a hit book and has a movie coming out. He’s also very cute. If Jacobin’s 3000 subscribers and shout-outs from Chris Hayes make purity cultists foam at the mouth, shouldn’t Scahill’s far greater accolades, access and rewards make us apoplectic? But near as I can tell, almost everyone who cares about America’s criminal wars likes the guy.
Perhaps there are other variables. Like that Scahill’s not a dick.
The latest from Matt Bruenig: “If nothing else, inadvertently setting off the unhinged is great for pageviews.”
What a dumb man. Trading entirely in straw men and smears on behalf of moving us past sectarianism to solidarity. SMH.
For laughs, here’s Matt’s guide to knowing whether or not you’re dealing with a purity cult. Includes helpful 10-point checklist.
Matt Bruenig has facetiously asked me on Twitter when I am going to write something about what he actually wrote. He’s insisting that his piece has nothing to do with Jacobin per se, that DeBoer’s piece was just his ‘hook.’ Not sure that matters since it’s a substance free caricature of unnamed people regardless.
In any case, Jacobin chief Bhaskar Sunkara dropped by Bruenig’s blog to comment as if it were about Jacobin, so clearly I’m not the only one missing Bruenig’s point. A lot of his readers have missed the point too, and it’s quite funny to watch Matt — who, as we know, hates purism — trolling through the comments belittling and insulting people who express only the mildest misgivings about Jacobin.
Bruenig obviously thinks all the Twitter-love for his post denotes merits beyond its naked and simplistic appeal to tribalism and conformity. Haughtiness has ensued, as it so often does when the self-unaware get too much attention. With Corey Robin-like wit and self-effacement, he urged me to ‘Read harder.’
I invited him to comment here but he has declined.
Freddie DeBoer has replied to my post and again I marvel at his ability to either miss a point or pretend to.
Look, the most accurate criticism you can make about me is that I can’t disentangle my personal from my political. Many people find that solipsistic and annoying. But I know of no other way to keep the fire. If liking Jacobin makes me unacceptable to Tarzie or anybody, that’s how it goes. I have now had five years of people not liking me. I am used to it.
As an object study in tactical cluelessness, Freddie is clearly a very poor judge of what criticisms I can make about him. Surely it’s obvious to everyone but him that this post is not all about Freddie and that I truly don’t give a fuck how he feels about Jacobin. I’ve introduced him here as an example of a certain shitty disciplinary smeariness and because his shitty, disciplinary smeariness is becoming contagious. My primary interest, perhaps foolish, is in killing this stupid, fake, self-serving ‘purity cult’ nonsense before it grows and to show the cringe-making hypocrisy of anti-sectarian sectarians. If Freddie’s only conclusion is that I dislike him, that’s fine, I do, though perhaps less than he thinks. But it’s really not my aim.