Amber Frost thinks she knows the answer, and recently shared her findings with the world via “Flakes Alive” in The Baffler.
Mind you, she didn’t attend this year’s Left Forum — she’s “too sane” — but she did read 6 or 7 panel abstracts, heard some anecdotes from a friend who’d attended, and listened to the audio of a panel from last year. She then concluded that animal liberationists are standing in the way of socialism.
Also in the way are pro-Soviet Marxists (“tankies”), 9/11 Truthers, and seemingly anyone wacky enough to believe that state agents would attempt to infiltrate and shape Left politics and intellectual life. Strident queers, “Social Justice Warriors”, advocates of intersectionality, the unashamedly mentally ill, and those who’d take a militarized approach to making Black lives matter, also vex her. These are “the crackpots, the paranoiacs, the hysterics and…dysfunctional personalities.”
After a series of witless, status-concious jabs at lefty losers, made far worse by Frost’s unabashed delight with herself, she finishes up all deadly serious and disciplinary:
It’s quite possible the left is at a pivotal moment in political history: these days, Americans actually like the sound of socialism…the marginalistas distract, disrupt and deter future comrades. So it’s high time we get a little exclusive: tankies, truthers and tofu may supply a steady stream of battle-tested conference anecdotage, but they’re not going to move us any closer to building a better world.
I confess my nipples hardened at Frost’s sudden turn from flippancy to stern no-nonsenseyness, even though my moral obligation to animals sadly renders me useful only for laughs. I was genuinely surprised, however, that she said practically nothing about anarchists, because her crowd has been obsessively loathing us in long form and tweets since at least the very first days of Occupy.
The crowd I mean is a crew of leftist writers and readers that are either members of, or heavily influenced by, The Democratic Socialists of America with ties to Jacobin and, to a lesser extent, other small lefty mags like In These Times, The Baffler and Dissent. Strict lefty dad Doug Henwood of the Left Business Review is a patron and thought leader. Yasha Levine and Mark Ames of Pando are peripherally connected via similar politics and cross pollination between Jacobin and the Exiled.
DSA member Frost’s fellow travelers unsurprisingly found her joyfully contemptuous proclamation of superiority so very, because, of course, it proclaimed their superiority too and, at least in theory, made those they so dislike feel ostracized. Her lazy survey of panel abstracts particularly inspired Jacobin’s Connor Kilpatrick, who risibly called it “brilliant” and “a masterpiece” when tweeting it out to his followers. He also helpfully introduced the word “purge” into the ensuing online conversation, lest there be any confusion that the Forum’s all-comers panel policy was the real problem. Thus began a mini-meltdown for Kilpatrick, in which he prolifically denounced the “batshit insane” and their defenders, endorsed doxxing of anonymous detractors and then wisely deleted his account. (he’s back on)
Disciplinary measures against unruly lefts is very much this crowd’s thing. Their zeal suggests a program of some sort the nature of which they communicate mostly by telegraphing whom it would exclude. Pathologizing is a favorite cudgel, as Kilpatrick’s use of “batshit insane,” and Frost’s prodigious list of diagnoses clearly show. Some of my readers may recall Jacobin co-founder and DSA member Bhaskar Sunkara likening today’s Left to a subway masturbator when he took his turn at lamenting all the losers he puts up with.
Since people who disagree with this crowd are obviously mentally ill, it’s surely no wonder that conference panels dedicated to denouncing psychology would be among those that uniquely vex Frost. One of the paltry few delights her piece affords is observing this scoffing at those who regard psychology as an instrument of social control while she prolifically wields psychology as an instrument of social control. But the delight is short-lived as you realize just how large a flake net she’s casting.
Surely she knows that not even students of psychology dispute its weaponized use against women, queers, Black people, and anyone that goes too hard against the grain. Even if not, any socialist that’s not an asshole will consider that there may be better ways than the illness paradigm for understanding people that find life under capitalism exceptionally difficult. I know too little to have an opinion about “Mad Pride,” a movement that regards mental illness in spiritual terms. But it’s hard to imagine anything more cluelessly conformist and mean than pointing and laughing at people who’ve been diagnosed with mental illness that don’t compliantly agree that they’re sick, or less entitled to speak for themselves at a conference than its “big public intellectuals” and the “young and good-looking” group in which Frost places herself. But for Frost, Mad Pride panels are downright emblematic of Left Forum’s flake problem.
Her aversion to animal rights hardliners seems equally anachronistic. I’ve lamented the Left’s persistent resistance to taking this topic seriously, but I would expect Frost, a twenty-something New Yorker, a writer, and presumably a reader, to know better. We’re living at a time when animal rights is a field of study in law schools while court cases are fought over the personhood of chimpanzees. More than one in ten millennials is vegan or vegetarian, and almost two in ten college students are. If Left Forum isn’t an appropriate place to discuss this increasingly influential dissident politics, what is?
Apart from her unabashed self-admiration, and a thoroughly modern, live-tweety insipidness, Frost sounds like a Boomer lefty, a crackpot realist sneering at the young’uns. Her essay evokes Doug Henwood, famously making a jerk-off motion during an Occupy discussion, while twenty-something co-panelist Malcolm Harris spoke. A gif of that could serve as an avatar for this crowd.
One sect Frost and pals most definitely do not see in the way of socialism — at least not enough to shun them — are imperialist, high-status liberals and Democrats. Among my earliest memories of this clique are their objections to my insufficient delight with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and the disrespectful tone I took on this blog with that same network’s Ari Melber. Let the now-deceased DSA guiding light and co-founder, Michael Harrington explain this truly bizarre behavior: “the left wing of realism is found today in the Democratic Party.” This interesting idea still informs the group’s strategy, no doubt due to its astonishing success in bringing socialism to the U.S. in the thirty-three years since the the organization’s founding.
If you’ve ever wondered where making “radical” arguments for sticking with The Democrats while dishonestly promising to “hold their feet to the fire” after they’re in office originated, wonder no more. Ditto on equating unconditional compliance with “realism” and seriousness. After three decades of Democrats going from bad to abyssmal, this strategy gets harder to defend, but these people are inventive. In 2012, DSAer Henwood endorsed Obama’s reelection in The Nation, not because he was a good candidate, but because his shittiness exposes system failure to radicals in a way a shitty Republican does not. The DSA has endorsed Sanders in the primary, and will certainly endorse Clinton when Sanders exits stage left per the script. Stand by for the system failure essays or whatever new thing they’ve cooked up. Because realism.
Since Frost is simply giving a pre-game talk for other Sandersnistas, good faith is off the menu. The piece’s aggressive unseriousness, so at odds with its conclusion, is very much of the essence. The overall message is that these people Frost loathes, these “flakes” standing in the way of socialism, are so beneath her they don’t warrant any engagement more serious than reading their conference abstracts and cracking wise for other cool kids. The arguments implicit in her jabs are conspicuously shabby. Take this, for instance:
The real comedy comes from panels like Dangerous Scapegoating of Islam: Exacerbated by the Left’s Silence About Controlled Demolition on 9/11. I counted this as one of three Truther panels this year, but these guys clearly had the best angle: Only a racist would believe jet fuel can melt steel beams!
One needn’t be a Truther to recognize that most of the “Do you seriously think…” rebuttals to False Flag 9/11 theories consider it self-evident that cabals within the U.S. ruling class would never hatch the kind of grand, supremely evil conspiracy these same arguments readily credit to Arab Islamists. Truthers are entirely correct when they point out that every theory about 9/11 is a speculative conspiracy theory, but only one is called that: The one that implicates members of the U.S. ruling class instead of swarthy evil-doers.
Surely Frost knows this is their point — she read the abstract, after all — so her jab here isn’t just bad faith. It’s a conspicuous show of bad faith, a rhetorical maneuver that’s getting increasingly common. The chorus Frost is singing to knows she’s mischaracterizing abstracts, most of which are quite unremarkably reasonable. It’s precisely the ostentatious bad faith — the intellectual equivalent of spitting — that the piece’s admirers find so entertaining.
It is through these people, the kind who call smears “interventions” and who lavish praise on any dreck that confirms their tribal biases, that Frost’s snarky trifle metamorphoses into “a masterpiece,” that is “excellent and important,” “brilliant,” “incisive” as well as “hilarious.” Where ostracism is concerned, watching people you thought were both smart and kind applauding insipid, status worshiping, genuine fucking crap like “Flakes Alive!” may be the most potently alienating feature of the whole bullying exercise.
Frost’s spirit animal Michael Harrington was also a passionate anti-communist, and you can still smell this on the DSA and on Frost’s essay. From last year’s conference, she cherry-picks a panel that proposed Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is a black op intended to shift radical scholarship into reverse. This panel — the only panel in Frost’s piece that she actually listened to — was the “wackjob nadir.” Its abstract is “a masterpiece of paranoia.” And — horrors! — the panel included “at least one tankie, slang for Soviet apologist.” After all this hyperventilating, Frost pronounces the panel “disappointingly dull…who’d have thought tankies were so prissy and meek in real life?” Oh har har! No wonder professional serious person Chase Madar thought this was the”funniest thing [he’d] read all year!”
It’s tempting at this point to defend, with historic examples, a worldview that doesn’t rule out penetration of the the Left academy by operatives, or to explain how so-called conspiracist research, and “tankie” critiques can be very useful regardless of the conclusions they draw. But there really is no need, because the sneering this tribe does at so-called flakes is pure, unadulterated hypocrisy. I don’t follow Frost enough to know what plots she believes in, but there are plots a-plenty haunting imaginations at her cool kid’s table.
Take Pando’s Yasha Levine, for example, a frequent target of ridicule for floating the idea that Tor, the web browser Snowden recommends for keeping your online adventures private, is a nefarious intel operation of some kind. Before this, a number of people, including Glenn Greenwald, ridiculed his Pando colleague Mark Ames as a conspiracist for considering Intercept founder Pierre Omidyar’s connection to USAID, the putsch in Ukraine, and Indian neo-fascism newsworthy — and in light of Omidyar’s patronage of Left journalism — disquieting. Ames also believes that some online libertarians and anarchists are paid operatives of the Koch Brothers. I know this because he accused me of being one.
Then there’s Dad Henwood who, during the red-baiting orgy that erupted after Jacobin published Frost’s “Bro Bash”, accused St. Louis anthropologist Sarah Kendzior — who was at the center of the conflict — of being a CIA operative. Celebrity anarchist David Graeber insists Henwood accused him of being in The Agency’s pocket also. Then, finally, there’s Connor Kilpatrick, who, before abruptly leaving Twitter, sneered at the very idea that doxxing an anonymous Twitter user might expose them to “CIA rendition.” This too, is rich, because under the stress of the bizarre Twitter fracas over “Bro Bash”, Kilpatrick not-too-obliquely suggested to me that, like Henwood, he felt Jacobin’s dust-up with Kendzior smelled suspicious. I know that around the same time, some of Kilpatrick’s colleagues strongly suspected their computers were being hacked.
I don’t say this to point and laugh. Nor are they alone in their hypocrisy. People who denounce my critiques of Snowwald and Sy Hersh as conspiracy theories see no contradiction in openly surmising I’m an intelligence operative. If, like Frost, I tasked myself with diagnosing the left’s problems, certainly my top five would include the chronic, disingenuous, astonishingly hypocritical weaponizing of various left discourses, like anti-conspiracism, invariably deployed against lower-status, frequently more radical targets. What makes this bullshit so remarkable in this case, is that, as I mentioned, Frost and Jacobin were the objects of an intense disciplinary campaign themselves, that subjected Frost and two other women to an orgy of misogyny, red-baiting and libels via weaponized concern for women’s safety.
But politics for this crowd is not about being fair, honest or nice. It’s about winning. Certainly a little Machiavellianism doesn’t go amiss if it has a good chance of accomplishing something. But this is a group of people who misapprehend power so completely, they actually think the Left Forum’s inclusive panels policy matters tactically, and embrace a political strategy that has been an utter failure since 1982. If, as Einstein said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” the Sandersnistas with their “realism” are the flakiest of us all.
I would never say that Frost is entirely wrong about what she sees. Left politics generally seems to attract a lot of what the world we want to change would call losers, which is understandable because most winners are quite happy with things as they are. No doubt there are people who glom onto the left that talk too long, too loud, out of turn or incoherently and contribute very little else. However, clearly the day-to-day organizational challenges the disruptively awkward pose is not the real problem for Frost; otherwise why resurrect a panel from last year to spew bile at “meek and prissy” tankies?
The issue is politics, and what makes all the extremely disparate targets of Frost’s ridicule into an undifferentiated, obstructive ball of yuck, is insufficient faith in authority — the authority of the mob, convention, high status and perhaps especially, the authority and essential benevolence of the state. But true left politics has never been about adherence to convention or deference to authority. Frost and pals are status conscious social democrats and liberals, who mistakenly regard themselves as radicals and therefore feel qualified to redefine dissent on their own terms. But fuck me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Barbara Boxer? Go have your own conference and your own “left.” Make whatever rules you want.
UPDATE (link to this update)
Frost Goes Full Kendzior
As I mentioned above, Amber Frost was once the object of a red-baiting hate spree before she launched one of her own. As I also said, the instrument of choice at that time, was weaponized concern for women’s safety, wielded by St. Louis anthropologist, Sarah Kendzior, who accused Frost and two other women of inciting men to harass her with rape threats.
Well, it seems Frost has gone full Kendzior. Below is a cap from a Facebook chat where she complained of “sexualized and violent harassment as a result of that mob.” The mob in question are some “tankies” who simply reacted to Frost’s smears the way people who’ve been smeared by a sneering social climber react.
Frost’s “as a result” is key. She knows it wasn’t the tankie mob (by mob she means 2, 3 people) that harassed her. But it seems in the midst of her dust-up over “Bro Bash” she acquired Kendzior’s supernatural ability to know the political motive of, and the radical instigators behind, presumably anonymous harassment. This is the kind of shit Frost used to ridicule and now just look. Liberal disciplinarians are all alike in the end, I guess.
Since I am not among those who think women’s safety obliges me to accept on faith accusations in which entire leftist political tendencies and subgroups are non-specifically accused of being uniquely violent and rapey, I was glad to see someone ask Frost if she had evidence. She has not deigned to reply. A to:search on Twitter discloses that she has been the object of a lot of brownnosing and little else. Whereever this harrassment took place, it wasn’t Twitter, and until I see evidence to the contrary, the “tankies” she’s blaming this on had nothing to do with it. If she shows up here and makes a convincing case, I promise to grovel.
Apparently Frost is also unhappy that people she called paranoics and wack-jobs didn’t applaud. They called her a nazi!!! The nerve! Admittedly, nazi is imprecise. Social climbing, red-baiting asshole is more apt.