Let's Take the Alex Pareene Challenge

This Alex Pareene newsletter post is in part a dig at people like me, Substack bros. (Inspired by the more successful ones rather than me, I’m sure, but it’s a category in which I’m frequently placed.) There’s so much fucking metadiscourse about independent publishing and the supposed insincerity of those within it already that I’d like to wash my hands of it all. But the fact remains that there is very little space at all within traditional media for those who are critical of establishment liberalism and the Democratic party, other than Republican shitheads like Bret Stephens or Jennifer Rubin who are disdained by regular conservatives. (Breitbart et al. are their own separate world, a deeply unpleasant one.) The claim that writers like me are just in it for the money inevitably redounds to the benefit of the gatekeepers of progressive media, who I am confident Pareene does not support. Pareene is also himself writing from Substack, which makes it more interesting. But among other things he’s certainly alleging insincerity, the notion that people with politics like mine writing for newsletters like this one are in on some sort of con. And this is the only one of the common insults that bugs me at all, in part because for like a decade the book on me was that I was annoyingly sincere. So let’s just dive in, with the caveat that I understand that it’s a little nutty to write a direct rejoinder to something like this.

As we embark on this newsletter experiment together, these are my promises to you, the subscriber: I will issue half-baked takes on things I haven’t done the reading on.

I think I’m pretty good about doing the reading, usually.

I will have fervid knee-jerk opinions on issues I formerly had no strong feelings about.

I think I’ve been consistent - vastly more consistent on my basic political and policy beliefs since I started writing in 2008 than American liberalism has been. For example, there was no anti-free speech element among liberals in 2008, not at scale, and there certainly is now. There are many people in the left-of-center who will now exclusively put “free speech” in scare quotes, love big tech companies for censoring, and insist that speech should routinely be suppressed to ensure their definition of “safety.” I, in contrast, was a civil libertarian before and I am still a civil libertarian now, following in the tradition of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Eugene Debs, Noam Chomsky, and others. I could write a whole pro-free-speech-from-the-left thing. But I shouldn’t have to! I shouldn’t have to because civil liberties have been an indispensable part of much left-wing philosophy for hundreds of years. The fact that the internet has the attention span of a child and the memory of a goldfish does not obligate me to drop my core political commitments when told.

It’s perfectly fair to want to change the values of a movement you belong to. But what has happened in 21st century left spaces is that massive changes come barreling down the pike, emerging from the Brown faculty lounge and elite media Twitter, and everybody is expected to jump onboard without debate or discussion. And then they call me a contrarian for sticking with my lifelong values! If you claim to be a liberal or leftist and you’re against free speech, you are the contrarian. If you claim to be a liberal or leftist and you insist that language and feelings are more important than material conditions, you are the hot take artist. If you claim to be a liberal or a leftist and you think the FBI was an important check on far-right extremism in the Trump years, rather than still seeing it as the agency that tried to get Martin Luther King to kill himself, you’re the one that’s dealing in revisionism. You don’t get to take absolutely core beliefs, change them because you were told to on the Teen Vogue Slack, and then say anyone who doesn’t join you is a grifter. Sorry.

I will take crash courses, in public, in various histories and fields, and then accuse experts in those fields of stealing my takes on them.

OK this is definitely about Nate Silver. But I do have to defend the concept of “crash courses.” Democracy requires generalism, as it insists that ordinary people become minimally conversant on many topics of controversy. Media as well; journalists often specialize, but even so they retain a lot of generalist tendencies. (There are science journalists, but there are no science scientists.) As always, your behavior towards this stuff matters most. You can “do a little research” by reading the first paragraph of a Wikipedia article or by reading many books and articles. I don’t consider myself an “expert” on the Nation of Islam, but to write about them and Farrakhan I’ve read four books and parts of eleven others, dozens of articles and chapters from academic sources, dozens of articles in the popular press (including going way back in the archives to contemporary pieces), and listened to about 80 hours of Farrakhan speeches that I found on YouTube, scraped from the internet, or accessed via a friendly professor. Is that enough? Do I have a right to write about the NOI, then? Your answer to that question should stem from your perception of the pieces I wrote, how convincingly supported and argued you find them, not from where I write or what letters come after my name. But for many, an independent publication like this one will always be suspect. The standards of who gets to write about what, who has expertise enough, floats around in the media conversation constantly. As liberalism has merged with authority to a greater and greater degree, its gatekeepers become more and more insistent that only people employed as professors in a given field can comment. This seems to betray a failure to understand just how many professors are absolute fucking idiots. Trust me, I’ve spent almost my entire life on college campuses.

Plus experts get things wrong all the time, including on the most important questions, and also liberals ignore expert opinion whenever they want to. (For example, on the predictive validity of educational testing or the health consequences of obesity.) Also this whole fucking political project was supposed to be antiestablishment and anti-authority, or something. I vaguely remember that.

I will flatter you, the reader, into thinking your most conventional positions are dangerous and against-the-grain.

I mean, woke liberals do this constantly. “I don’t care who hears it or what it costs me, but racism is wrong!” I actually think most of what I say here in this newsletter is very sensible and obvious, but ask around on Twitter and see if people agree. It’s weird to be regularly accused of both treating conventional stances as bravery and of just trying to enflame controversy. You can’t have this enormous chorus of people on the most influential social network constantly losing their minds about Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi every single day and then say “oh, they’re just stating conventional wisdom and dressing it up as truth-telling.” (It’s not just Alex Pareene making this criticism, for the record.) If it’s all conventional wisdom, why is every Greenwald tweet greeted by Democrats saying vile shit about his kids? Does Michael Tracey inspire the kind of feelings that he does because he flatters conventional positions? I dunno man, I’m not convinced by this one.

I will consistently muddle existing power dynamics in my industry and in society at large to permit you to believe you are fighting an entrenched elite no matter what people or institutions I either ruthlessly target or completely ignore.

I think the thing here is that there’s no coherent and simple sense in which one ideology rules most institutions, but that the specific influence of modern social justice politics in institutions is both pernicious to individuals and powerless to structures. In academia, my home for much of my adult life, no one is muddling anything about political power - I’d be surprised if even 10% of people employed as professors or college administrators voted for Donald Trump. The administrations of many major universities have more or less given up on even pretending to be non-partisan or cross-ideological institutions. That would seem to be relevant. Are a bunch of bourgie white elites still in charge of most exclusive colleges? Yes. Do they serve the interests of establishment power and the status quo while relentlessly pushing symbols of social liberation? Yes, of course. But they are legitimately terrified of their customers, which is to say their students, and that’s why there was a registered emotional support snake at Wesleyan a few years ago (true) and why so many campuses are these pitiless mutual surveillance regimes. The fact that they also help maintain a rigid class structure is a feature, not a bug, preserving an overclass for their alums to join. And at the same time events like the Laura Kipnis situation will remind everyone involved that they’re being watched and measured at all times.

But Pareene’s talking about media. OK, same question: what percentage of people working in media that is not explicitly ideological voted for Trump? So no National Review but also no The Nation, the publications that do not have a specific partisan position. The newspapers have famously cultivated a non-partisan ethos, as have general-interest magazines like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, as did both network news and CNN. What percentage of the employees in non-ideological media voted for Trump? Can it even be 15%? I know it’s common now to pretend that the ideological position of the people who make up an industry don’t matter to that industry’s effective ideology, but I just… don’t agree. I think it matters very much. (How many Republicans were on staff at Gawker Media when Pareene worked there? Besides Leah Finnegan.) I get that, to a lot of people in the media, sustained and pointed criticism of their industry feels personal. But if the newsmedia matters enough to be funded, then it matters enough to be critiqued, and I think it’s a problem that the industry has been taken over by a bizarre boutique social network-mediated offshoot of critical theory discourse from the aughts. And, yeah - people on top in media look like an elite to me. They do. I get that they’re poorer than they used to be. But it’s still a cathedral.

It’s become common now for liberals to complain that criticisms like mine don’t make sense because social justice politics don’t really carry any power, they’re just paid lip service to by every corporation and school in the country, as well as the DoD and NSA and many major religious organizations etc. And I agree, very little change is happening despite all the noise - which is of course an indictment of social justice politics, not a defense. That the woke are powerful enough to hurt but not powerful enough to help is precisely why our current condition is so untenable.

I will regularly argue for policies and political strategies as savvy rather than defend them on the merits.

I never advance any policies or political strategies that I don’t believe in. But I also think that “savvy” politics matter, if I’m understanding the term correctly, because the point of politics is to make material change in the world and you have to be savvy to be able to do so. Savvy like “let’s not alienate large masses of voters in order to placate the language games of the tiny shred of a percentage of people who dominate the conversation on Twitter.” Savvy like not adopting “Latinx” en masse without bothering to see if the people so described have any interest in that term.

I will sometimes just print things readers send me without verifying any of the details if those things seem to lend credence to some argument I made the other day.

So this is probably the criticism that someone could most pointedly make to me specifically. That’s because of this guest post from a reader about her therapist using her (expensive) therapy sessions as an opportunity to berate her for not feeling more deeply for hypothetical Black and indigenous women, rather than addressing her sexual trauma. (This remains the only guest post to appear here.) Well, look - I did verify many details, as I described in that post and this follow-up. I also was engaged in a long correspondence with this woman both before and after I ran the piece, and not only did all of her biographical details line up, she expressed herself with a sincerity and consistency that makes me extremely doubtful that she was pulling a prank or trying to make a political point. Also, there has been a whole discourse about social justice ideology invading therapy, and I heard from many readers who were therapists, studying to become therapists, or were patients who had similar experiences. As for the general complaint, well look, a whole lot of opinions have been systematically excluded from mainstream media. People are subscribing to Substacks like this one precisely because they can’t get alternative opinions in big-time publications, and they don’t see their own experiences represented or taken seriously there. So they write in to independent media to try to get some outlet for how they feel. Can you blame them?

I will constantly treat arcane personal vendettas as principled disagreements.

I’m sure Julia Allison and Luke Russert would be charmed to see a former Gawker writer complaining about arcane personal vendettas. My experience, personally? Everybody thinks they’re engaged in principled disagreements while the people they don’t like are involved in arcane personal vendettas. Perhaps this frame isn’t useful!

I will never challenge you while constantly claiming to be challenging everyone else. 

He can read the comments, if he thinks I don’t challenge my readers. (They certainly challenge me.) I mean… all I want to do is challenge people. The only legitimate purpose I recognize for writing is to offend. And if we have to have this construct of the contrarian leftist or whatever, then I have to point out that I diverge from it in several ways - I support reparations for slavery, I support decriminalizing sex work, I think Covid is a real crisis, I’m not interested in alternative explanations for 9/11…. I don’t know, I get scolded enough in emails and comments to think that I’m doing at least something right when it comes to challenging my readers.

I know a lot of the Bad Boy Woke Crew stuff is paywalled, but I suspect if you check the comments there too you’ll find a lot more disagreement than you think. Of course most readers generally agree with the newsletters they’re subscribing to - how could it be otherwise? - but that’s true of all ad-supported media, too. People self-select into media habits. That’s the market, baby.

I will make you mad about things—so, so mad—for the sake of analytics and in the service of maintaining my lifestyle.

I think the single most expressed piece of praise in the comments here is that I write with a degree of sobriety and evenhandedness, even when writing out of anger. I don’t, personally, like to wind up my readers into a froth and let them loose. It’s not fair to say that I advise panic. I also don’t think this is true of the usual suspects, either. Glenn Greenwald? Glenn’s actual newsletter is in fact quite even-keeled, I think. He’s combative on social media, and I’m sure that colors people’s impressions, but I simply don’t think it’s fair to read his published work and say that he’s looking to inspire rage. Neither is that true of Matt Taibbi, who writes from a state of jaundiced exasperation, or Matt Yglesias, who is a little cranky but comes from that weird school of wonk gentility. Scott Alexander (of SlateStarCodex) is an absolute Buddha so that definitely isn’t a fair critique of him. Bari Weiss? I think she’s far too often sensationalistic and inflammatory when the specific issue is anti-Semitism, but usually she’s not looking to inflame and in fact is thriving financially under a brand of levelheadedness. Andrew Sullivan is just smoking weed and playing with his dogs and chilling out in Ptown, man. This seems like a skewering of right-wing rage media, to me, like Breitbart shit. Whatever else this Substack thing is, it’s not that, and anyway that stuff has been going on since way before I was born. Can’t really see this one.

Also I don’t pay attention to analytics and I don’t care about money. Ask my girlfriend.

I will never log off.

Look, Racket Teen was great but anyone who was involved in it was as terminally online as it gets. We’re all trapped in this hellish place together.

Times change, and opportunities change. I occasionally am moved to remind people that the week that Substack approached me I had just agreed to a $15/hour job with a junk removal company; I simply had run out of options other than to write again. Am I writing to pay the rent? Yes, and I’m lucky to have gotten the deal that I got and as I am now well out-earning that contract it’s been a good deal for Substack too. I’m not immune to professional incentives, which is why I write about them frequently. But I’m still me. The perception that I in particular have changed is a function of the fact that I have not changed. I am an old school materialist leftist. I think the moral and political positions of that tradition are correct. I also think that current liberal politics (social justice politics) are both morally incorrect, as in advocating censorship and collective guilt, and a political disaster waiting to happen. I am on record in several different places as saying that there is an immense conservative backlash brewing in this country, and liberals in media, academia, and Democratic politics seem totally uninterested in preparing for it. I could be wrong about these things! But I discuss them here for the same reason I have ever discussed politics in writing anywhere, which is because I sincerely believe these things to be right and true.

I also write lots and lots of stuff that isn’t about culture war at all - book reviews and discussions of research methodology and sharing music recommendations and running a book club and serializing a novel. Nobody reads that stuff, but I keep on writing it. Like I said recently, if you want less of the stuff you don’t like online, try engaging more with the stuff that you do like.

I just want a political party and an ideology that reflect my values, and neither the Democratic party nor 21st-century American liberalism reflects my values. I also want to be part of a movement that can win, and the social justice movement as presently constituted cannot possibly win. Not in the long run. So I am interested in what I think is right and also what I think is effective. The great frustration for me and others is that the space where we fight out what “the left” is going to be has recently instituted strict rules on what can and can’t be expressed. That frustration is sincerely held for me, and I think for others. Can it really be the case that Pareene, or the media liberals like him, thinks it’s impossible that I could actually say the things I say because I think they are good and true? How about Bari Weiss? Michael Tracey? Katie Herzog? Andrew Sullivan? Any of the unmentionables? Is literally all of it “grift,” that immensely worn-out term and pointless accusation?

Maybe a more pointed way to put this is like so: if I had found myself with my particular strengths and weaknesses in life, and in my current life situation, and I could observe academia and media in their present state, and I wasn’t suffering from some sort of serious head injury… would I look at this world and say, “the best thing for my self-interest as an academic and a writer is to be publicly known as a critic of social justice values”? Really? Do you honestly think it’s easier, or more fun, to be at war with most everyone you know, all the time? This shit sucks.

Perhaps Alex Pareene disagrees with me on my positions regarding the left, liberalism, Democrats, and the media. It’s hard to tell; there’s a whole lot of liberals now who never really come out and defend the excesses of woke politics - book burnings, expelling students for questioning critical race theory, pressing to have student newspapers defunded for running conservative content, launching a federal investigation against a professor because she wrote an essay and then launching a separate federal investigation against another professor because she sat in support of the first professor, etc. They are never really pro- those things. They are instead just anti- the people who are anti- those things. They find us annoying, they find us shrill, they think it’s all branding, they think it’s an expression of privilege, they think it’s white rage, they think it’s patriarchy, etc. Well, maybe some of those criticisms are accurate, I don't know. I do know that, for me, all of this is just trying to articulate what I think is broken and how it could be better. That’s all.

I think Pareene’s a good egg, for the record. So check out his newsletter.