I think most lefty types who can still stomach Twitter would agree there is a trend toward increasingly bitter feuds over what some of us on one side call the Celebrity Left, though to call them feuds is somewhat imprecise. A feud suggests two sides engaging in ongoing conflict, whereas on Twitter, genuine engagement between the two emerging camps is very rare, though there is no shortage of heat.
Here’s how things generally go: some widely admired public left says the kind of stupid, not-very-left thing that is the bread and butter of public lefts — like that corporations are bad by choice and needn’t be, or that the left should support intervention in Syria, or that “The moral basis for Israel’s persecution of the Palestinian people is eroding fast.” (source) A smattering of more traditional radicals attempts to take them to task for it. The public left attempts to self-immunize from criticism by various, sometimes stunningly disingenuous, means.
Depending on who’s under attack, their rank and file advocates will set about wailing, keening and sneering almost entirely amongst themselves about purity cults, circular firing squads, leftier-than-thous, brocialists, manarchists, basement dwellers, shut-ins, thought police, shamers, obsessives, trust fund authoritarians, reverse McCarthyists, Stalinists, armchair radicals, conspiracists etc. In some cases, a very pleased-with-itself crew of man-children will repeatedly tweet the famous pig poop balls picture at whomever made the criticism or posed the unwelcome question. What almost never occurs is serious engagement with whatever the question or criticism happens to be.
An example of what I’m describing: This is Saint Louis anthropologist and Al Jazeera columnist Sarah Kendzior — who would later embark on a smear campaign against Marxist feminists and sometime after that approvingly cite a white supremicist blog on “outside agitators” during the Ferguson protests — explaining how corporations work:
No corporation is inherently evil. They are purposefully evil. They can treat workers fairly but they *choose* to underpay and abuse.
A number of people engaged with Kendzior to insist on the more traditional anti-capitalist view that corporate exploitation is baked in. To the extent that lefts engaging with each other to hash out principles is a good thing, I think the nature of capitalist exploitation is a reasonable thing to discuss. But there is a trend toward seeing all disagreements of this kind as personal attacks oriented in some agenda other than simply pressing a thought leader to defend a viewpoint. And so it was with this particular discussion. Here’s one of Kendzior’s more popular advocates responding to the disagreement:
All the leftier-than-thou kids (almost always kids) should occupy an island together while the rest of us attempt to be decent to each other.
I’m offering this mainly because the two tweet threads perfectly embody how this shit is playing out. I won’t dwell on the substance here except to highlight the accidental satire of, in fewer than 140 characters, wishing island exile on one’s political opponents while extolling one’ s superior decency. For this crowd, dominated as it is by status-conscious, middle class, disappointed liberals under various labels, radicalism is by nature posturing, disciplinarian or cover for something nasty like misogyny, and particularly unseemly when wielded against people of higher status. So when these conflicts erupt, they invariably see themselves as the “decent” ones, dimwittedly oblivious to the irony of wishing exile on “thought police” and harassing “reverse McCarthyists” with pig poop balls, verbal abuse and doxing.
What’s going on with team two here, let’s call them ‘The Adults” in accordance with their PragProg-like self-conception, increasingly seems like the kind of social psychosis that sets in when groups insulate themselves from outside influence and coalesce around charismatic figures. It is, at the very least, dishonest, hypocritical and mind-numbingly stupid. But I am going to assume that among The Adults there are intelligent people of good faith who simply differ with The Kids on theoretical grounds, though they might not have thought it through or discussed it enough to understand what those theoretical differences are. So let’s discuss.
Let’s start first with what The Kids mean by Celebrity Left. I can’t speak for everyone, but I define it in this context somewhat expansively as having a Twitter following in the tens of thousands and up — or capable of having such a following if one were on Twitter — and getting paid from time to time by mainstream media or larger liberal outlets to write and gab. While I didn’t coin the term — I think the author of this highly amusing Twitter account did — anyone who reads this blog knows that I am in the diverse group of people who ratify critique in this area as interesting, entertaining and, to the extent that media criticism matters at all, necessary.
I first became aware of how vehemently people disagree on the value of these inquiries when I started raising concerns about the Snowden spectacle. I documented here what happens when you are insufficiently deferential to Glenn Greenwald or persuaded to his self-mythology. A year on, a lot of the ardor has gone out of the Greenwald tribe, but the conflict continues, and more importantly, reproduces itself again and again in contests over other Celebrity Lefts, particularly the ones orbiting around Vice and First Look Media. Similar arguments occur around personalities associated with outfits like MSNBC and Salon, but with far less heat and controversy.
In the simplest terms, critics of the Celebrity Left do not view left icons and other professional lefts as operating under different or fewer constraints than the media as a whole. Meticulously demonstrating this is beyond the scope of this post, though I have touched on it in my posts on Chomsky, a post on The Snowden Effect and in less explicit terms all over this blog. The short version is that the ruling class knows its interests, and is not going to leave left media to its own devices any more than it allows CNN or the New York Times to do whatever they want.
If you look at funding sources and the demographic makeup of participants, the presumed border between mainstream and alternative media is largely imagined. That means that the system of reward and punishment for coloring inside and outside lines is in play everywhere, though the lines themselves may differ marginally in accordance with brand and audience. This thesis gets more credible as left politics gain purchase in commercial ventures like Comcast, Vice, and Huffington Post and elicit the patronage of tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar and media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
There is no consensus among The Kids on the conclusions one draws from all this. For me, the most important conclusion is that gatecrashing by authentic lefts is not in any way possible in this system, and that fame, money and influence are commensurate with service to power, not utility to the left. Generally, the Kids see a lot less left in the Celebrity Left than the Adults do. The part of the Celebrity Left that makes them left to The Adults, looks aesthetic and gestural to me, rather than situated in a solid foundation of readily apparent left principles. The part of them that isn’t left seems variously, and perniciously, capitalist, imperialist, liberal and libertarian, depending on the Celebrity Left in question.
I don’t object to the odd tactical alliance with capitalists, imperialists, liberals and libertarians over certain issues, but I do object to them defining the outer limits of left politics. The Celebrity Left does this by way of their higher status which permits them a childishly despotic relationship with their critics — that revealingly often takes the form of sneering anti-radicalism — and the protection of fans (that is, The Adults) who dole out discipline on their behalf, punching down and left. To the extent that these people shape discourse on the left, their overarching function is containment. This is undoubtedly among the reasons why neoliberal billionaires and right wing media moguls find them worthy investments. For the same reasons I do not see them as my allies and consequently do not see criticism as in-fighting.
I place Greenwald’s Pulitzers, Polks, book/movie deals, television appearances and hagiographies against this country’s history of ostracized, tortured and murdered dissidents and conclude that, at best, he is absolutely harmless to power and, at worst, hugely helpful. This is the prism through which I evaluate things like his parroting of smears against Manning when the Snowden spectacle first commenced; the retrograde doctrine that informs so much of his and Snowden’s rhetoric; the free speech absolutism that makes common cause with white supremacists and corporations; and his symbiosis with neoliberal ideologue and billionaire Pierre Omidyar, a relationship that potently isolates the surveillance apparatus Greenwald writes about from the only class it benefits, and more generally minimizes extreme inequality as a legitimate left concern.
People who disagree with me on this assessment likely concede that the ruling class knows its interests, but stress that it’s not omniscient. They may also concede that it exerts influence over our discourse, while counseling that it’s not omnipotent. They would stress the importance of individuals in all of this, insisting that an Omidyar is not a Murdoch or a Koch. Many of them probably agree with the old saw, sometimes attributed to Lenin, that capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them, and if it becomes profitable to give Marxists and anarchists their own MSNBC shows, or columns in the New York Times, it’ll happen. The most skeptical of them will say that, yeah, everything is fucked up, but you work with what you have. Better a Greenwald working under Omidyar than a Bill Keller, no?
I don’t agree with all of that, but I also don’t find any of it objectionable. Most importantly, I don’t see anything there that persuades, on tactical grounds, to immunizing public lefts from scrutiny or criticism. Whether or not we agree on the relationship of public lefts to power, can we at least agree that it’s a good thing to call them to account when they do something wrong? I mean, if we all agree that to at least some extent, non-left, powerful forces are exerting influence, shouldn’t we push back when public lefts seem to be articulating elite interests and not ours?
Posing the question in concrete terms: If, say, a charismatic figure rising on the left calls for a no-fly zone over Syria, what are anti-imperialists supposed to do exactly? What is the tactical rationale for interrogating or second-guessing their motives when they call her to account in a way that is entirely consistent with their principles? Why does speculation about their motives — which can’t be known with certainty — take precedence over her own unambiguous imperialism? Why the accusations of misplaced priorities on the grounds that she is of relatively minor influence, when, in fact, she is selling goods to people that would be less inclined to buy from a less compelling sales person?
In the absence of any obvious answer to the above questions, I am going to posit a theory: that the right to call yourself a leftist and say stupid, reactionary, retrograde, imperialist things is directly proportional to the sum of people who fear you, want to be you, want to work for you, or want to hang out with you and that that number, not coincidentally, corresponds in large measure to the interest people with money and influence have taken in you. So all the strategies that people use to shut people up on your behalf are just bullshit, even if some of the people taking you to task aren’t particularly nice about it. More importantly, these silencing strategies serve the interests of those people with money and influence that are causing your star to rise, which is all the more reason to resist them. If you don’t want to be held accountable for your words and deeds, go do something else for a living.
How to argue like a Celebrity Left, lesson 2: Credentialism. Here’s King of The Celebrity Left, Glenn Greenwald, insisting, for the gazillionth time, that to have the right to question Glenn Greenwald, one must first, well, be Glenn Greenwald. Which works out well because clearly Glenn Greenwald never, ever doubts Glenn Greenwald.
UPDATE 2 (link to update)
Below, Zionist, white supremacist enabler, and risible Oxford snob Laurie Penny, when confronted with the possibility that something other than her gender inspires criticism, offers another crash course in how to argue like a Celebrity Left. The entire conversation is a grim study in how infantile narcissism and the hasbara-like maneuvering of this riff-raff complement each other. Enter at your own risk.
Faving spectators included peerless performative “allies”, and disciplinarians to wayward feminists, Anarchy Dad David Graeber and self-fellating red baiter and rape culture enabler Charles Davis. Recall that Graeber was last seen in these parts Twitter-stalking Katha Pollitt. Around the same time, Davis was cited for joining in the mob ridicule of a woman’s family after Newsweek published a private email disclosing her sexual assault. To be exiled from this ‘feminism’ is truly an honor.