Sometimes, You Just Have to Take a Fucking L
None of us can effectively audit criticism of ourselves, for obvious reasons. But there is one complaint about me that I know just isn’t true.
At some point in the 2010s, when I was in grad school, it became the fashion for people coming after me to call me the “eternal grad student” or something. This was the insult, that I had been a grad student forever and would apparently be a grad student forever. I believe this originated in the comments section of the Bush-era group blog Lawyers, Money, and Guns, but who knows. There was just one problem: I in fact tore through grad school at a fast pace. I completed my MA at the University of Rhode Island in two years and my PhD at Purdue in four years. Six years total. The average time to get a PhD is over eight years! By any objective measure, the reality was the literal opposite of the insult. It just wasn’t remotely true.
Back then I was still on Twitter, and I would say to people throwing that one at me, “hey, that’s just not true, I’m getting/I got my degrees very quickly.” To the extent that anyone would engage with that complaint, it would either be to abstract the meaning of grad student (“you’re still a grad student at heart!”) or just to say, like, “yeah well whatever, I don’t like you.” Which is at least honest. I made these people feel insecure at some point and so they obsessively looked for things to ding me about. When someone promulgated the notion that I was taking a long time to finish grad school, that was the hammer they had; when it turned out to not be true, they didn’t stop fixating on the nail. And to this day I occasionally catch a little of that old “permanent grad student” heat. It’s Chinatown. The problem is that every bad thing about Twitter culture just gets worse over time. The tumor never stops metastasizing. And one of the most deeply ingrained aspects of Twitter culture is that you can never, ever just admit fault. You can’t just gracefully take an L. And people will absolutely continue to repeat something that’s objectively false in order to avoid doing so.
I thought of that when I read about this absurd little situation at Nü-Gawker with Thomas Chatterton Williams. Gawker ran a “news item” accusing Williams of attending the premier of a new movie about conspiracist Alex Jones. I guess I can see why they thought this would be embarrassing; I don’t agree with the implication that someone agrees with a movie or its subject by watching it, but if you wanted to do some guilt-by-association stuff, you could. The trouble is that it simply wasn’t true. Williams did not attend the premier. He literally wasn’t there. And this wasn’t a matter of getting one detail wrong in a bigger story; that one “fact” simply was the story. Being new Gawker, they responded at first by putting up a note explaining that the entirety of what was to follow was incorrect but leaving it intact anyway. Eventually, enough people pointed out to them that there was therefore nothing to see and that they should delete the whole thing, which they did.
The reporter involved, Tarpley Hitt - which is somehow not a character name from a minor Pynchon novel - made a pretty big mistake! She should suffer embarrassment and a little professional loss of standing for it. She shouldn’t have her career be torpedoed, but it’s OK, because she won’t. In this business, the number one criterion for getting a job is whether you’re popular with other writers on a personal level. Whether you’re good at your job or write true things are irrelevancies compared to whether the right people think you’re cool. The industry is still undergoing a contraction, and I think if a recession really hits hard then there will be bloodletting the likes of which we haven’t seen. Independent sources like this one are also eroding the centrality of being well-liked. But for now, what’s important is that Hitt sits at the right table.
(We might note that the most likely explanation for this snafu is that Hitt was unable to sort one Black man from another, but let’s be charitable instead.)
[Edit: I’m told the smart money is that she misinterpreted the Instagram of one of the hosts of Red Scare. Which, uh, invites its own set of questions.]
The fact that Gawker issued a retraction should not reassure you that everyone has acknowledged the mistake and moved on. This is what Twitter is for, the denial of even that minimal integrity that was shown by Gawker. As a professional publication, it’s if nothing else motivated by a desire to avoid participating in defamation. The members of the media kaffeeklatsch feel no such burden. Let’s check in with fake socialist Eoin Higgins for one of his usual incisive takes about how, like, the man is getting us all down.
This is sort of a Rosetta Stone moment for media. You see, while Gawker was objectively, transparently incorrect in its basic information-gathering function, this tweet tags in three people (Williams, Bari Weiss, and Glenn Greenwald) who are very very high on the To Be Mocked list. The To Be Mocked list is of the utmost importance in media. Most writers are insecure people who grew up without being especially popular, and most people in the industry get into it at least in some part because it presents them with a new popularity hierarchy in which (they imagine) they will be one of the cool ones. And the easiest way to become an insider is through being especially vicious towards outsiders; media relationships are defined by shared hatred. I used to get tagged into all manner of arguments that I had nothing to do with because one of the participants wanted to borrow my unpopularity, like I was a free-floating hate object that you could inject anywhere when you needed a little juice. Higgins, who is nothing if not a careerist, knows that it’s more valuable to him to go after Williams, Greenwald, and Weiss than it is to tell the truth. He’s merely responding to incentives.
Here’s Tom Scocca, formerly of old Gawker, where he wrote an endless essay against smarm the same week Gawker was deriving a majority of its clicks from posts about Batkid, the epitome of smarm. (To simultaneously mock the absurdities and petty corruption of the industry while epitomizing them was a big part of Gawker’s shtick.)
Cool tweet, Tom! Quick question: did you notice that they published something utterly untrue? You’re a big proponent of the truth, right? Another truth is that even free-speech absolutists don’t deny that there should be some sort of legal prescription for addressing defamation. They simply feel that such a mechanism should err heavily on the side of allowing more speech, and further that people should be free to say things and then live with the consequences of saying them.
If you’re assuming that I have misleadingly left off a “to be sure” tweet, you assume wrong. There’s zero consideration for the fact that a once-respected publication (or, really, the bizarre ghost of a once-respected publication) published an entire story based on a pure falsehood. Because who gives a shit, right? It’s a shame; Scocca never liked me - none of these people ever liked me - but I admired a lot of his work and he always seemed like a thoughtful guy. He wrote a delicate and interesting book about Beijing, a topic I wouldn’t have expected to care about before I read it. But perusing his Twitter feed, it seems that like many of those who lived through the death of Gawker he’s crawled deeper and deeper into a blank and all-encompassing bitterness. Seriously, click through to his feed there. I challenge you to find anything that showcases sincerity, unguarded emotion, or vulnerability. You won’t find anything. Being impregnable is simply too essential to his self-presentation to risk such things. They’re all like that, unwilling to ever, ever appear anything less than perfectly defended. Seems exhausting to me.
Ashley Feinberg is like that. Here’s Feinberg, also formerly of Gawker Media, who appears to currently be on some kind of sadgirl sabbatical:
Sparkling wit! Here’s something called Tom Ley; I vaguely remember him being a part of Deadspin, but he wasn’t one of the funny ones and he wasn’t one of the ones who broke big news so it’s hard to recall.
Please don’t take legal advice from underemployed bloggers, kids.
When old Gawker was strangled to death by Peter Thiel I was shocked and angered. It seemed very obvious that it was an illegitimate hit job that had clear and ugly repercussions for free speech and the free press. (It also remains baffling to me that so many former Gawker people still defend AJ Daulerio, a genuine scumbag who after Thiel was the person most responsible for Gawker’s death.) [Edit #2: Some have informed me that Daulerio has attempted to make amends and move on, and fair enough. I have no choice but to believe in second chances, and anyway I wish him the best in his journey.]
For a silver lining, I thought that I would at least be able to see a bunch of interesting and talented writers set free in the world to do new things. And some of them did. But so many of them seem to me like the guy who’s really into being a college student and then finds he can’t move on. I can’t pin the bitterness just on Gawker refugees; media culture has collapsed into nothing but bitterness. It’s just relentless grim and unfocused anger, all the time. Sometimes this bitterness is wrapped up in a fig leaf of politics and called “socialism,” but it’s all the same shit - nothing works, everything is broken, nothing will ever get better, wah wah wah. Yes, you’re in a shitty industry and a broken country. Find something interesting to say. I’m sure it was painful to be right there in the center of your industry’s culture and then suddenly be pushed to the margin. But time comes for us all.
A lot of those old Gawker people have a crowdfunded site called ̶D̶e̶f̶a̶m̶e̶r̶ Defector now. I wish them the best financially. For me, it looks like old Gawker, only worse, and in a new world that the old Gawker wouldn’t have fit well in anyway, plus you have to pay for it. Not much of a value proposition.
I find the whole new Gawker thing very, very confusing. It’s transparently a vanity project from Bryan Goldberg, a talentless rich kid taking over the publication that once mocked him because it used to be at the center of the zeitgeist for a very particular kind of person. But new Gawker isn’t at the center of anything; it’s hard to think of a publication with as big of a name that’s less essential. I would be very surprised if it was turning even a modest profit. Rich people’s vanity projects tend to get dropped first when a recession hits, so I hope the new Gawker crew have their resumes updated, and I say that with zero malice. I also simply don’t understand their publishing strategy. They occasionally publish good medium-length pieces by freelancers, but a majority of their posts are these bizarrely short little capsule posts that sort of gesture in the direction of the kind of mockery old Gawker would have bothered to actually go through with. Consider this utterly weird and pointless stab at a provocative take on Joan Didion immediately after her death. I could totally read and enjoy a contrarian Didion takedown, but this thing is literally less than 200 words. Why? What’s the purpose? What’s the point? Again and again, the site seems to feel compelled to try and provoke people in the style of old Gawker, but can’t be bothered to actually write it down.
Well, look, gang: just take the L. Your post about Williams was an embarrassment, and it would be right and fitting for you to be embarrassed. There’s nothing wrong with that. I feel guilty and ashamed every day of my life! It can be good for you. Instead of letting a bunch of middle-aged formerly hip young things defend you on Twitter with blank sarcasm they can no longer back up by being popular or cool, just say “we really did fuck up, and we’re sorry.”
Won’t happen, of course. These people will go to their graves never admitting fault, never allowing the armor to come down for a single second, never acknowledging that someone can be uncool and still deserving of a basic commitment to truth and fairness. In the unlikely event that any of them were to read and react to this, it would just be more of the same, indistinguishable from Scocca’s Twitter, with its utter rigid insistence on an empty and directionless irony. That’s where a lot of people live, these days, and we’re all only getting older.