If you’re looking for a long read and are in the mood to get depressed about the state of the left/laugh about the state of the left, I encourage you to check out this Ryan Grim story on the ratfucking the Montgomery County DSA organized against Brandy Brooks, abetted by someone who Brooks thought of as a friend. The TLDR is that Brooks held hands and had intimate conversations with someone who was technically her subordinate on the campaign trail. There was also talk of (but no actual commission of) a back rub. And that’s it, really. The “victim” in question is an adult who had every opportunity to let Brooks know privately that her intimacy was unwanted, but this is 2022, and we handle our business via whisper campaigns and show trials. The DSA dropped its endorsement of Brooks, so did several other organizations, and she has essentially become radioactive in the progressive community where she lives.
(For the record: for years and years I have tried to maintain optimism about DSA, but I have pretty much officially given up on the organization. Not just because of this incident but because of a steady drip of things like it, both stuff that’s widely publicized and stuff I hear in the backchannel. Once perceived to be a counterweight to the casual brutality of identity politics on the left, DSA is now a constant staging ground for it. Seemingly every major local branch has devolved into the worst redbaiting and McCarthyite tactics, driven by shameless and ambitious elite college grads who see the language of social justice as the perfect cover story for waging personal vendettas as they climb to the top of their new hierarchy, the hierarchy of Justice Doer. The sensible people in DSA who wanted a grassroots left organization that could push the conversation left and support primary candidates have steadily lost power, to the benefit of those committed to trashing and endless struggle sessions. The jury’s come back in; DSA is not what you hoped it would be, and Bernie’s failure seems just about complete to me.)
None of this story is really surprising, if you know these communities. I mention it because it so bitterly highlights one of the core hypocrisies of that whole world. As Grim takes pains to point out, the concept of restorative justice is constantly endorsed in the spaces where Brooks had her character assassinated. So where is restorative justice for Brooks? Even if she were guilty of something, would she really be so guilty as to warrant the destruction of a decades-long career? Brooks agreed to participate in mediation, and her doing so was represented as evidence that she must be guilty. (Defenders of this drumhead against Brooks insist that she has admitted to harassment, when in fact what she admitted to was the behavior that they are calling harassment; whether it constitutes harassment in fact is precisely the controversy.) It’s a bizarre little quirk of contemporary left politics - people simultaneously believe that many crimes shouldn’t be prosecuted and that we should always work to reintegrate even the worst offenders into society, but if you violate any of the arcane language norms of 21st-century liberalism, you can never be redeemed. Podcasters laugh at people concerned with a rash of carjackings but will then give the social death penalty to someone who says something in a clumsy way. Very weird!
Brooks has apologized for anything that may have made anyone uncomfortable, and of course this has only made her more guilty. She has stood up for herself as she feels appropriate, and of course this has only made her more guilty. All roads lead to condemnation and none to absolution.
Would you like another little indication of how broken and ugly and unworkable progressive spaces have become? Check out this NYT explainer about an absurd controversy among medievalists, a field that takes academic self-importance to incredible new highs. Apparently a scholar named Mary Rambaran-Olm wrote a book review for the Los Angeles Review of Books; the book was by two bigwig medievalist academics, Matthew Gabriele and David Perry, who are just the living picture of the Weepy Self-Aggrandizing Good White Male Allies. The LARB rejected the review, they say because Rambaran-Olm refused to accept edits, she says because of, uh, toxic whiteness or whatever.
No one comes out looking good here. Rambaran-Olm looks transparently like someone who simply didn’t want to be edited, which is a common fault in academics, who are given far too much rope in their classes. (Although considering that the average academic journal article is read by a small handful of people the stakes are very low.) Like so much of what happens in social justice-y academic spaces, this is really a turf war about who’s going to reap the personal and professional benefits from shouting the loudest about diversity to the right audience. I don’t blame Rambaran-Olm, really, for being annoyed that to date in her field it’s been two white dudes, but then they’re very, very good at credit-seeking. I mention this controversy because the editor at LARB who killed Rambaran-Olm’s piece apologized, then apologized for the apology when it was deemed insufficient. I would love to show you that, but she deleted her account, no doubt inundated with hate and anger for not apologizing enough, or in the right way….
I think of Lindsay Ellis, author and video essayist who was canceled for (this is true) comparing the shitty and quickly-forgotten animated Disney movie Raya and the Last Dragon to the animated series Avatar the Last Airbender. That is, genuinely, all she did, compared one piece of art to another piece of art that shares many similarities. This was bigoted, I'm told, because Raya and Avatar both have Asian characters and references to Asian cultures. In response to the criticism, Ellis published a two-hour YouTube video, two hours of the most abject groveling I can imagine. I find Ellis deeply annoying, but I still wince to see that video. Of course, you live by it, you die by it - woke prosecutors have a habit of becoming defendants, over a long enough timeframe. Did Ellis’s over-the-top apology work? Good lord, no. It only chummed the water. The people coming after her just wanted more. However much you apologize, it’s never enough.
I hate to say it but… you know.
I believe, deeply, in the positive value of guilt, shame, and contrition. I think working through your shit and contemplating the harm you’ve done is important, and I’ve tried to do a lot of it in the past few years. And I think we all should push back against the “nothing matters but what you want and how you feel” brand of sociopathy that’s popular now in inspirational memes. There’s a notion running around our culture that feeling bad about something you’ve done is always some sort of disordered trauma response, but that’s destructive bullshit. Most of the time when you feel bad about something you’ve done, you should. I’ve spent my adult lifetime trying to make amends to people I’ve hurt, and trying to understand my own culpability when my control over myself was not complete. I think about things I’ve done, and feel shame for them, every day of my life. I don’t want to wallow and I don’t think guilt in and of itself is productive. I am however certain that my guilt is an appropriate endowment to me.
But it’s become abundantly clear that there simply is no value in public apology. Admitting fault only emboldens critics. The mechanisms of social media always reward escalation and never reward calm and restraint. Contemporary progressive politics excuse any amount of personal viciousness so long as the target is perceived to be guilty of committing some identity crime. The notion of proportionality is totally alien to these worlds, and when people ask for such proportionality they’re accused of supporting bigotry. People who are friendly online shamelessly wage backchannel campaigns against each other, and almost no one on social media has the stomach to stand up for someone else when the mob comes for them. Most importantly, the public can never grant you absolution for what you’ve done; absolution is not the public’s to grant. The strangers on Twitter can’t accept an apology, even if they ever would, and they wouldn't. You can ask the mob for forgiveness, but they have no moral right to grant it, and anyway they never will. They’ll just keep you wriggling on the end of a pin forever. Honestly: how often do people who make public apologies come out ahead in doing so, especially because they’re so often coerced and thus insincere?
Apology itself is good. But public apology is a useless and self-defeating ritual. If you have done something wrong to another, I recommend that you privately apologize to them. That person can then accept your apology or not. They can publicize your apology or not. But all of the moral value of apologizing will be preserved, while nothing of practical value to your life will be lost. Look, if nothing else it’s indisputable that public apology has no consistent ability to reduce criticism, and I think it’s obvious that in fact such apologies just show that blood is in the water. You’ve heard it from me many times: there’s a profound nihilism in American life right now about the potential for positive change. So many people, of so many political stripes, have given up. And I think that plus the truly ruinous and sadistic influence of social networks and their reward systems have created this ever-seething mob that constantly casts around for its next scalp. We can’t get real change, but by god, we can make people cower! You can’t apologize to that. You shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists.
I know that a lot of people have real jobs and bosses and all kinds of professional and social pressures on them, and as such they can’t be as blasé as I am about placating criticism. For me, though - something in me died, when there was that big media Twitter freakout about my book before it existed, when an anonymous shitposting account claimed to be sharing pages from a book I hadn’t written yet. With everything that had happened before then, I found the space where I would once have been horrified to be entirely blank. I am always well aware that financial success doesn’t last, and while it seems unlikely I could shortly find myself pushed off of this platform or without any subscribers. But still I have no fear of cancellation and no doubt that no matter what happens I will be alright. After so many years in the panoptic hellscape of internet surveillance, it’s a remarkable feeling not to care. I’m free. And I think a lot of other people can be, at least, more free, if they give up on the urge to apologize all the time. They’re never going to let you off of the gallows anyway, and the people you really owe an apology to will value a private apology just as much, or more.
I really think Ellis would have skated, had she just said “that’s ridiculous, I made a legitimate comparison and there was nothing offensive about it.” But like so many others her whole career was built on being in thrall to an insatiable mob. I don’t have that problem, and neither do you. So rediscover defiance. It looks good on you.