Accountability is a Prerequisite of Respect
people who are critical towards everything are completely mute on basic elements of social justice politics and that's the opposite of respect
Suppose that you were walking down the street in any decently-sized city and you were approached by someone with a small cardboard box seeking donations. The box says “Save the Whales!” on it with a little picture of a humpback. Let’s say you do want to save the whales. So: do you give the guy money or not? I think most whale-saving proponents don’t give the guy money. Because a) they don’t know whether this guy is honest and really intends to use the money on saving whales and b) they have no idea if he or his organization will actually be effective at saving whales. In other words when people are asked to contribute to a cause a natural and indeed necessary instinct is to ask about the honesty of the do-gooder in question and the efficacy of their program. Otherwise there’s no point, there’s no progress. Why would we bother to empower people to fix things if we hadn’t asked whether they were honest and effective?
Those absolutely basic requirements of positive change have been completely evacuated from the public discussion of social justice politics, due to the fact that most people are afraid of the consequences of engaging in adult discrimination about these politics and also because they don’t really respect the people who espouse them. This is the state of social justice politics today. You and I and everyone else are beset with people rattling the change in their little cardboard boxes. And this is the obvious critique that liberals fight so damn hard to pretend that they don’t understand: none of us have any more reason to trust the people panhandling for money, clout, and fame through the auspices of social justice than we do reason to trust the guy trying to take our dollar bills for the whales. We are all being told, by progressive consensus, that we have to mindlessly donate, ask no questions, never wonder about motives, and never, ever consider the efficacy of their efforts. We either blindly fall in line when they say to give them whatever they want, including the adoption of extremely contentious policies in a polarized democratic country, or we’re on the other side, the bad side, and we have to live with the black mark of being “part of the problem.”
Nowhere is this dynamic more obvious than concerning BlackLivesMatter.
There is no mainstream media criticism of BlackLivesMatter. There isn’t. There’s explicitly conservative criticism and “Intellectual Dark Web” stuff, which liberals and Very Serious media types dismiss out of hand, somewhat fairly given that much of it is batshit “BLM is a George Soros conspiracy” stuff. And then there’s a small handful of mostly independent, generally small-audience critics from the left who those same liberals and media types simply assert are part of the former group - if you criticize BlackLivesMatter, you are definitionally conservative. Within the liberal media itself there is nothing. There is almost no honest, adult criticism of BlackLivesMatter within establishment media. I encourage you to look for yourself. The number of pieces that are genuinely critical of BlackLivesMatter (and not simply the unpopularity of Defund the Police or critical race theory or questions about the potential corruption of particular leaders) in the NYT or WaPo or New York magazine or other large establishment media publications is pitiful. The Vox/Buzzfeed-style online only liberal publications and the liberal nonprofit types… forget it, man. Tumbleweeds.
What’s more, there is no meta-conversation about this total lack of criticism from mainstream media’s typical internal critics and media reporters. If an employee at The Atlantic calls himself an Associate Editor on his Tinder profile when he’s just an Assistant Editor, Erik Wemple will run a 3,000 word column about it, but he’s not writing about the entire mainstream press refusing to write critically about one of the biggest stories of the past decade. Ben Smith at The New York Times will wring out a piece about what journalists playing Fortnite in their off hours means for the industry but he can’t be bothered to ask “hey, why are the major newspapers and magazines offering universally positive coverage of a highly-contentious and very important movement?” (I emailed both Smith and Wemple to let them have their say. Wemple didn’t respond; Smith did not want to comment. He did, however, consent to me running his photo up at the top.)
Wemple and Smith won’t ever critique the media for its conspicuous silence on this topic for the same reason that so many journalists and writers who spend their entire lives critiquing won’t do so: they’re scared. Wemple and Smith are afraid that asking why the mainstream media doesn’t critically cover BLM will damage their careers and their friendships. And the mainstream media doesn’t critically cover BLM, in large measure, for the same reason - fear. Who experiences 2020, with its absolute lunatic culture of don’t ask questions, and says “yeah I want to stick my neck out and risk being the subject of a dogpile in this financially crippled industry?” You’d like to think that integrity would mean something, but, well… we’re talking about establishment media.
Those within social justice politics defined broadly, the journalists and writers but definitely the activists and academics, insists that we simply accept all such claims as true at all times, if they come branded with the right buzzwords and phraseology. Isn’t that strange? In what other realm of human affairs do people so often say, “oh, they’re saying that this is the way to end problem X - therefore that must be true, and if others even ask whether it is in fact true, they are guilty of not caring about Problem X or even actively working to make Problem X worse.” Adults ask questions! Especially about important stuff! Especially about politics and justice! What is controversial about asking for that? What is contrarian about asking for that?
When a politician comes out with a tax plan, journalists and analysts look at it and say, “does this tax plan add up? Does it have the markings of an effective tax plan?” They’ll poke holes in it - yes, if it’s from the other party, but also if it’s from their own. Because they know we need tested and robust tax plans. But when Ibram Kendi says, “all of my vague recriminations and radical-sounding racialist woowoo is the solution to racism,” every journalist and analyst you know scratches their beard and says, “ah yes, indeed,” and they don’t even say that very loudly. But where’s the proof that any of Kendi’s rhetoric actually leads to any action at all? That such action does/could prompt positive change? Who is checking his work? What has Ibram Kendi’s ideology accomplished, beyond enriching Ibram Kendi? Can we point to, like, a graph that shows the outcome of his good works? It certainly seems that we can’t. Since this is the case, why does 95% of the journalism that references Kendi make literally no mention of the basic concept of efficacy?
If there is one thing we do not lack for in our ideas industries today, it’s a critical capacity. I am one of many who have lamented that American graduate education is better at teaching students to critique than create. Our digital media is essentially a perpetual motion machine of critique; if you call someone an “egghead” on your podcast I promise Vox will run a three-part series on the horrors of ableism against the syndromic craniosynostosis community. But Deray can show up to a $5,000 a plate dinner and make fart noises for 45 minutes and the New York Times will caption his photo “the Maestro at work.” There’s this absolutely bizarre incuriosity about this world, about whether it’s working, about whether there is internal dissent about what is best to do and why, about who should lead, about how critics of these movements should be treated…. Why? Aren’t these basic and essential questions?
I mean, we know why. Media and academia are controlled by white liberals and white liberals live their lives in absolute petrifying fear of being called racist. Or transphobic or ableist. (No one is actually scared of being called sexist lol.) But I would hope the downsides here would be obvious: talking about honesty and efficacy is how you make sure progress is happening. If you actually care about any political movement, you dedicate yourself to the task of critical engagement. The way adults do for other adults. When your 4 year old says “I’m gonna marry Jimbo from my class,” you say “cool honey!” When your 24 year old says “I’m gonna marry Jimbo, the 43 year old professional darts player I met three weeks ago,” you say “hold up.” You ask hard questions. That’s what love requires. What respect requires. The policy on lefty Twitter is that you never ask hard questions about #BlackLivesMatter, ever, and most people in establishment media write for the approval of lefty Twitter above and beyond any other motivation. $10.6 billion dollarswere sucked up into a vague and amorphous social movement that has no defined boundaries or parent organization, and yet many of the biggest players in the media haven’t once asked where it went!
Chris Hayes will put on his most pained Serious Glasses Face expression and reveal the absolute perfidy of a Republican city councilman from Popcorn Indiana who never returned a library book, but he’s not doing any segments on his show about the plain fact that this supposed racial reckoning has clearly completely stalled out and now we’ve enter a period of pure commerce. No to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act; yes to billions and billions spent on DEI training that literally no one will pay attention to. Is this not a condition that we should worry over? Think about? If you care about BlackLivesMatter, you are enjoined by principle to defend it from itself, and that means being willing to express unpopular opinions, such as the reality that the movement has absolutely no sense of direction, no broadly agreed-upon goals, and no idea about how it would achieve them if it did. People who are drafting off of a social movement for selfish gain just applaud. Allies critique.
Consider a contrast: the educational testing movement, the push to do regular census-style testing for K-12 students - once a juggernaut, now badly wounded. Regular readers will know that I have some sympathies with them and some problems as well. This is not the space to say that this movement is right or wrong. What we can say is that it has certainly undergone a gauntlet of critique and defense. Here’s an anti-testing piece, and here, and here, and I could go on at great lengths. (There is also Fairtest, which is by any reasonable standard a racist anti-Asian organization.) There’s also been defenses of testing, such as here, or here, or this one from just recently. I myself have written at length about standardized testing, including recently pointing out that they are generally valid, reliable, and predictive. You will note that the critical commentary comes from the heights of American status culture - The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harvard, liberal institutions with the veneer of respectability that gets Democrats hard. The point here is that the high-stakes testing position has been vetted, it has undergone critical review. That’s how social movements are integrated into our political process. That’s how democracy works!
The most obvious fact about this horseshit “great awokening” we’re going through than that it’s all powered by condescension. Just steeped in the most intense and obvious and dehumanizing condescension. You know why some white liberals are opposed to standardized testing? Not because they currently produce racially stratified results, but because they think they will always produce racially stratified results. Because they quietly assume Black people will never be able to succeed in that kind of assessment. You know why the immense numbers of white liberal journalists on Twitter who cheered on the movement last year and put “BLM” in their Tinder profiles never ask hard questions about the movement and whether it was using its political capital and economic resources wisely? Because they think Black people are the fucking junior varsity of politics. Their unwavering “support” for BLM functions, in practice, as an exercise in patronizing head patting, an expression of contempt dolled up as political solidarity. Supporters ask questions and make criticisms. And it is the media’s job to investigate all notable political movements, even if its members are fundamentally supporters of those movements. That responsibility has been almost totally abdicated in regards to BLM.
Where did that $10.6 billion go? If the mainstream media has any credibility at all - and if anyone involved has any respect for the goals of BlackLivesMatter, rather than fear of appearing to oppose them - they’d perform a major, critical, skeptical, hard-nosed investigation. The public interest demands it. BLM’s future demands it! That’s a lot of money to just say “eh, I’m sure it’s fine” to. Nick Kristof, use your lofty perch at the Grey Lady to ask why no one has started a serious investigation of what happened with what is almost certainly the largest aggregate charitable donation in human history. Rachel Maddow, ask about where that money went, if you can avoid the urge to say that Russia took it. Terry Gross, do that immensely annoying radio voice you do and interview someone about what this vast and rich BLM apparatus is actually accomplishing. On the Media, stop your affluent white guilt struggle session long enough to, like, think about a very glaring aspect of media. Poynter Institute, check this fact: BlackLivesMatter has existed for seven years and it’s resulted in more new houses for Patrisse Cullors than pieces of national legislation. Media, do your fucking job. Prove me wrong.
Something tells me they won’t!
The piece this tweet links to appears to have been stealth-edited to remove the reference to $10.6 billion, but as the tweet confirms, it was in there. I have not be able to find any correction or explanation from The Economist. Regardless of whether this specific figure is accurate or not, many billions of dollars flowed to various BLM-affiliated causes and organizations, a truly immense amount of charitable giving.
Hey Freddie, I know you get disappointed when your media criticism and your criticism of social justice politics draws huge clicks, likes, and comments whereas your other kind of writing doesn't, and I understand your frustration.
But damn it, I can't help it. This lunatic social media fueled woke movement is so extreme and so alienating and so wrapped up in a style that feels like right-wing evangelical bullies of yore that I can't help but be fascinated by it. My damn brain lights up whenever you write about this stuff. As a long time left-of-center person, I feel like I've been going crazy the past 5 years. So I really need this. A lot of us do.
I'm an academic and I see this tendency among my white colleagues (I'm white, fyi). A few months ago a group of black colleagues floated a very costly and very flawed proposal for diversity hires. I was the only white person to point out its flaws. When I expressed frustration in a union committee meeting, I was told by white faculty (there were no black faculty present) that my criticism was valid and valued but that our black colleagues were too traumatized and tired to face public scrutiny of their proposal. To be fair, I have witnessed black students play on white faculty guilt to argue for (undeserved) better grades and wildly extended deadlines for submitting assignments. Many faculty capitulate. Some know they're being played; others are patronizing and condescending to the point that they believe the play. It's painful to witness. But then again, so much about academe is painful right now.