These Rules About Platforming Nazis Sure Seem Arbitrary and Incoherent!
Substack Nazis very bad, switch to Ghost or Wordpress, which also have Nazis
Professional mediocrityhas started a little bit of an echo of 2021-era media handwringing about what kind of content is allowed on Substack. You may remember that in early 2021, when Substack’s (now shuttered) advance program gave money to me and several other disreputable sorts - that is to say, writers who do not enjoy the approval of The Village - it kicked off a minor fuss about, like, male privilege or something. (These things are always a little vague.) Katz thinks Substack has a Nazi problem and should either aggressively prune every writer who doesn’t own a Kamala Harris t-shirt or else the company should be ostracized from the media community. This is a little funny in that it assumes that there will be a media community in another six months, which given financial trends is not a great bet. Mostly the piece just makes me very tired; The Atlantic is of course the perfect venue for such an essay, since 90% of the people who write there are elite liberal art grads who disappeared up their own ass twenty years ago and who derive the lion’s share of their self-worth from writing for a high-falutin place like that. The Atlantic published Frederick Douglass! But now I’m afraid it publishes David Brooks, and I think Spencer Kornhaber is chained to a desk somewhere, forced to churn out five pieces a day about how Beyoncé’s work constitutes a new Black dream imaginarium, or whatever else Tumblr thought six months ago. I’m not impressed, Jonathan, is the point.
Nevertheless, points must be made.
This will blow over and no one will remember it. Most people who read and write on Substack have no idea there is a controversy and wouldn’t care if they did. If 2020 proved anything, it’s that even the loudest controversies have a habit of suddenly dying down as soon as the news cycle changes. Remember when we were having a racial reckoning, and it was the most important thing ever, and then people were back to blogging about fast fashion and Squid
Game? I remember!
All of this is always panhandling first - everyone who’s ever performatively quit this platform or any other has been doing so to juice subscriptions or generate sympathy that could lead to a staff writer job. It’s one of the most aggressively, shamelessly self-celebratory genres I can imagine.
A basic part of the point is that, as the past decade and a half proves, contemporary liberals have an incredibly expansive view of what a fascist is. I am a pro-choice, pro-reparations, pro-trans rights, pro-Palestinian, pro-redistribution Marxist, and I am routinely called a fascist by the kind of people who are pushing this line. I promise you that if Substack started banning “literal Nazis,” people would make an effort to include me - it’s happened before on other platforms - and if that effort arose, a lot of people pushing the “we’re only talking about literal Nazis” line would have no problem pushing for me to be deplatformed. Because it’s “only literally Nazis” but then “well Tucker Carlson is basically a Nazi” and then “well Sean Hannity is just like Tucker” and then “well Glenn Greenwald is shrill” and the next thing you know anyone who doesn’t have an Obama bobblehead on their dashboard is banned by policy from these platforms. (Maybe if liberals wanted people to take the fascist threat more seriously they shouldn’t have spent the past fifteen years calling everyone they don’t like a fascist.)
You cannot censor your way out of extremism, and that is an “is” statement, not an “ought” statement. I highly recommend you click that link. The question of whether we should censor far-right figures off of the internet is irrelevant in the face of the fact that we can’t do that. As I point out in the piece, Germany and France have very aggressive laws against Nazism, and they have never stopped having a significant Nazi problem in their societies. Those laws don’t work! The flow of information cannot be stopped, especially in the era of the internet! We couldn’t shut down ISIS’s communications. China, both one of the most repressive and most technologically advanced societies on earth, have not been able to stop digital communications by activists and resistance groups. There will always, always, always be some sketchy server farm in Chechnya that will host these people, and there will always be Indonesian crypto exchanges with no physical address that will facilitate payments for them. If they can’t stop terrorists, I assure you that they can’t stop those “manosphere” frauds. Whatever hope of total control of information died the day some computer science professor figured out how to send ASCII porn to a colleague. What is it going to take for you guys to understand that there is no button to push marked “shut up all the Nazis”?
Before malevolent doofus Elon Musk bought Twitter, it was a hive of self-impressed pussyhat liberals who had hegemonic control over the conversation thanks to Twitter’s sympathy towards their position; after he bought Twitter, it became a cesspit of anime racists and crypto scams, and those useless liberals are big mad that their clubhouse got taken over. Now a bunch of people who think they’re entitled to an audience have sat around for a year typing “Guys?…is anyone there?” into Mastodon and they’re really wounded about it all. I absolutely, 100% believe that Twitter’s demise has contributed to the urge to attack Substack. People who enjoyed pride of place on that version of the network are now looking to throw their weight around in the old style, not seeming to understand that without Twitter functioning as the organizing committee, the juice just isn’t there anymore.
Can someone please tell me who the actual “literal Nazis” are? Katz does a lot more broad gesturing in his Atlantic piece than he does actually proving that there’s a problem or its size. Shouldn’t there be some effort to a) quantify this problem, b) compare it to the size of the platform as a whole, and c) determine if the problem is growing? Is this a crazy thing to ask?
Honestly, even if I weren’t a free speech absolutist, the self-regard and confusion of the people pushing this line would set me off. The combination of preening self-righteousness and total incoherence is really remarkable here. For example, Nathan Tankus of, an economics blogger, very loudly and ostentatiously took his newsletter to Ghost due to the supposed transphobia of Substack. This mostly engendered discussion about Substack, but it probably should have instead put the spotlight on Ghost, which was designed to allow for no central moderation at all and thus certainly hosts transphobia and all manner of other ugly content. It’s so fucking bizarre! “I can’t stand the refusal to moderate the transphobia off of this platform, so I’m moving to a service that has no ability to moderate transphobia” is ridiculous and incoherent on its face. Hell, Ghost even makes it hard for you to tell when someone’s using a Ghost install at all, so it’s difficult to even know who’s hosting the Bad Stuff! The logic here is so strained and unworkable that it leads me to conclude that Tankus simply found that he wasn’t seeing the kind of financial success he was hoping for on Substack and went through with his whole peacocking exercise in a desire to brand himself as A Guy Who Really Cares, and in doing so harvest more subscriptions.
Wordpress? Really? The backbone of a vast portion of the written content on the web, and thus certainly a repository of far-right attitudes? Let’s not just talk about Wordpress run on private server space, let’s look at Wordpress.com, which is hosted by Wordpress itself. Here’s the blog West Hunter. I wouldn’t ever want to censor this blog because I wouldn’t want to censor any blog, but let me tell ya, that’s an ugly, ugly place! It’s been written by the late Henry Harpending, considered a white nationalist by the SPLC, and Gregory Cochran, a physicist who a) pushes race science and b) believe homosexuality spreads pathogenically. These are certainly the kinds of guys that Katz would want to force off of Substack, were they on there. Instead they’re not just using a Wordpress install, they’re hosted by Wordpress - which is frequently celebrated as a purer, more progressive alternative to Substack! Google’s Blogger service? Though he hasn’t written there for years, notorious race-science proponent Steve Sailer’s blog is hosted on Blogger. I’m sure there are many, many more examples for any given blogging service. What are we to conclude from the fact that so many prominent platforms are home to offensive content? That we just need to get much more aggressive about cleaning up the ol’ web, free expression be damned? No, I think the conclusion is that the problem is not with platforms, the problem is that the world is full of bad people who believe bad things. And it is so indicative of the liberal mindset to insist that there’s One Weird Trick to stopping the far right, like you can flip a switch and just turn of Nazism.
Analee Newitz had one of the most nakedly self-celebratory posts on this topic, thousands of words about how they are a more advanced moral being than the rest of us because they and only they pierced the veil and saw through Substack’s con. Newitz worked for years for Gawker Media, including in 2012, when the company published a video of a deeply intoxicated adolescent girl being raped on the floor of a stadium bathroom. When the woman and her father begged Gawker Media leadership to take down the video, they refused to do so and mocked her in internal emails. Why did that not violate Newitz’s sterling moral principles? I dunno! They also used to share a platform with Cochran and many other odious people. Why was that OK? Unclear! These people are never forced to confront their petty hypocrisy in that regard; Katz has been dodging these very basic questions for over a month now. Newitz makes this all a little more cute given that they still participate in Elon Musk’s “X,” which is chockablock with far-right perverts and which absolutely generates revenue based on their use of the platform. Why is that alright, but using Substack not alright? I have no idea! Neither do they! This is fun, I’m having fun.
Here’s something called Matt Birchler, putting out the tip jar by celebrating himself for using Ghost instead of Substack. (Oh my God, you’re anti-Nazi? How did you ever become so principled and so brave? Teach me, rabbi!) But he acknowledges that you can simply host a Ghost install yourself and publish all the Nazi content you’d like!
Look at that, rules, what a concept! If you don’t like those rules, no problem, Ghost is free and open source so you can install Ghost on your own server (or use one of the many one-click installs out there) to run it on your own, in which case you avoid these rules entirely. That’s what I do, so none of Ghost’s terms of service or code of conduct applies to this site.
I would also reference WordPress as another great example of a blogging platform that will host your site for you if you follow their terms of service, but people who want to break those rules can go run WordPress wherever they want.
This is one of the most bamboozling, fundamentally morally-confused things I’ve ever read in my entire life, and I’ve read the Bible. Ghost is good because you can’t say bad things on Ghost, but also Ghost is good because you can… say bad things on Ghost if you want? The implied principle, that hosting the server space is fundamentally different merely licensing the software and collecting the fee, goes totally unexplained. From the standpoint of the actual far-right messaging, from the standpoint of the actual words and ideas, what on earth difference does it make who is hosting the content? The ostensible concern is that fascist publications a) offend decent people and b) help spread the fascist message, but neither of those problems is remotely addressed by the distinction of whose servers are doing the hosting. If the far-right message spreads regardless, how does using Ghost absolve you of anything? There’s been so much “Substack profits off of Nazis,” but Nazis are almost certainly hosting Ghost installs on their own servers and paying the $10/month too! What makes that $10/month more pure than the 10% of subscription fees Substack takes? What am I missing here? This is all so bizarre, so relentlessly confused, and it’s clear that guys like Katz do not have the slightest idea what exactly they’re arguing for morally. It’s just an impotent whine married to the recognition of a market opportunity, a way to curry favor with the laptop class. I find it vulgar.
I’m sorry to repeat myself, guys, but I must: we fought a war against fascism that killed 4% of the world’s population, and yet fascism survived. You can’t stop it by tweaking the terms of service. The only thing liberals know how to do anymore is to work the refs - to beg someone in authority to run in and enforce some sort of rules that, they’d like to imagine, secretly run the universe. This was stupid, entitled behavior ten years ago. But after the election of Donald Trump, it stands as something else, something darker. Do you remember the cry that rang out when Trump was elected and in the first years of his presidency? “This is not normal!” As if “normal” ever meant anything, and as if there was some benevolent clockmaker watching over it all who could adjust the dials and fix it so that our country was normal again. How on earth so many educated and successful professionals continue to believe that there is some celestial authority out there who will eliminate fascism if only we pass the right legislation, I cannot understand. Not one of us will live to see the elimination of fascism. Luckily, actual fascism is a tiny fringe ideology that has no power. Unluckily, mainstream conservatism, and its great enabler mainstream liberalism, are bad enough.
By the way, Jonathan, The Atlantic is run by Jeffrey Goldberg, who helped lie us into the Iraq war and admitted in his book to abusing Palestinian prisoners when he was a literal prison camp guard. Great company you keep there! And, indeed, he is vastly more influential than any of the people you want to deplatform. You strengthened him and his position and the ideology he serves; you put money in his pocket. Does that feel good? Like you’re on the side of the angels? Sometimes, it feels like none of our hands are clean.