What Purpose Do I Serve in Your Life?
Recently I wrote a piece about the cramped cliches that afflict so many female characters in movies and shows, mostly written by men. I learned some time after the fact that it had been aggregated by The Daily Mail. I’m not going to link because, if you’re unaware, even in the context of the disgusting cesspit that is British tabloid media The Daily Mail is well known as the worst. The aggregated piece heavily implied that I had argued that The Marvels had failed at the box office because it “went woke.” This would have required some confident forecasting, as the movie was released the night after the post went up. More to the point, though, that post never suggests, at all, that the Marvels did or would fail because it’s “woke.” I've never argued anything like that and in fact find that whole line terribly stupid and tiring. The piece instead says that the concept of “strong female characters” has resulted in few compelling portrayals of interesting and confident women and many which amount to a collection of shitty stereotypes of feminine strength. As I said in the piece, explicitly, this is usually the work of male screenwriters. And I asked for portrayals of feminine strength that are more complicated, less reductive, more varied.
Could the individual points in that piece be wrong? Could I have expressed myself poorly? Sure, maybe. But the essay was about art, and feminism, and how we could do a better job integrating the two. It was indifferent to commerce and its critical ideas had nothing to do with whether social justice is popular or not. It was about how women are still poorly represented in movies and shows, about how Hollywood reliably fills representation gaps in the most clumsy way possible. And most of all, it never, ever, said any such stupid ass thing as “Marvels failed at the box office because it went woke.” I didn’t say that, I’ve never said that, I don’t think that. It’s nowhere in the piece because that’s not something I believe.
And yet Twitter ran with that notion anyway, gleefully accepting the flatly factually false narrative that the Mail had put out here. Of course they did. Two different groups of the usual suspects - the increasingly desperate, emotionally decaying world of “irony twitter,” and people in media still clinging to Tweetdeck like it’s 2015 - decided to run with the idea that I had written a piece that said that the MCU was struggling because it had gone woke. That’s an argument they like to mock, and I’m a person they like to mock, so the combination of the two was certain to do decent numbers on that dying social network where they contribute unpaid labor to a childishly destructive billionaire. Trouble was, they didn’t know what I had actually written because that piece is behind a paywall and they aren’t subscribers. They couldn’t access that which they wanted to hold up for mockery. There was a time when people actually had sufficient personal shame not to comment on things they hadn’t read, but that seems like very long ago. Instead, Twitter generated its opinion based on a piece in the fucking Daily Mail, or based on someone else's impression of a piece in the fucking Daily Mail. Not one of these people would ever cop to trusting that tabloid, mind you. But here, it was convenient to do so, and so they did.
The Daily Mail aggregated that piece - I suspect without being able to read more than two paragraphs either - because putting “Marvel and “Woke” in a headline is an easy way to get cheap clicks. That’s how the sausage gets made, and it amazes me that in 20 fucking 23 people who think of themselves as sharp and cynical and world-wise couldn’t stop to wonder whether what they were reading was in fact an accurate portrayal of the piece they didn’t. I can’t get very animated about the actual aggregation, as fundamentally ugly of a thing as it is, because they’re the Daily Mail, and it’s their nature to be slimy and misleading. (I got an email from someone who complained about it as a piece that, they thought, I had written for the Mail.) But I most certainly can get mad about a bunch of people who were so blinded by their ongoing negative fixation that they did the bidding of a grubby aggregation mill, an anti-immigrant, institutionally-racist tabloid. That I find sad, telling, and very stupid. So, so stupid.
Can you imagine hating a D-list internet celebrity like me so much that you allow yourself to get rolled by the fucking Daily Mail?
Because that’s what they did. That’s what you did, you fucking marks, you suckers, you chumps. When you took their word for it, when you said “ah yes, the august and holy Daily Mail is confirming my worldview, right right,” you played right into their hands. I’m guessing that piece did big numbers for them, based on its penetration on social media. And that because so many gullible fucking rubes did them the favor of sharing the link to mock me. Is that how you want to spend your life? (It is literally owned by a “viscount” and inspired this little ditty.) A coterie of performative ironists, drawn from a culture of people who base their entire self-conception on the idea that they are the most savvy people on planet Earth, effortlessly manipulated by a publication that stands for everything they reject. They’re marks and they got played. Congratulations, guy. Congratulations.
The thing is, even if I could force the truth on those people and get them to confront the fact that what they said was untrue, they would never repent. The lies they tell are very important, up until they are revealed to be lies, at which point they are trivial compared to the fact that I am bad and must be shunned, at the expense of the truth. This has been the dynamic for six and a half years, since the scandal involving my terrible false accusation against Malcolm Harris - here is the terrible truth about Freddie, but even if it’s not, saying so is what he deserves. There’s a pattern to this. Occasionally, it’s been me defending myself, but usually it’s those few people who are brave enough to point out when people are telling blatant lies about me. It goes like this.
“Freddie [believes/says/did] [thing I have never believed/said/done], and this is very bad and very important.”
“You know, that’s simply not true. Freddie has never [believed/said/done] that thing. What you’re saying is a lie.”
“Oh, well, you see, Freddie is not one about whom we are compelled to tell the truth. He is Bad. And since he is Bad, he doesn’t deserve the standard of telling the truth. The thing I said isn’t important. What’s important is that he is Bad.”
And sometimes they throw in some razmataz about poetic justice or something. I know you’re probably thinking that this is an exaggeration or caricature, but it genuinely isn’t. I can’t tell you how many times people have said things about me that simply aren’t true, on various online forums, there’s been an attempt to correct them, and then they’ve simply asserted that they have no obligation to be honest about what I think, have said, or have done. Of course, this is not how the truth works; that is not how morality works. But the reality is that for a certain kind of online person I’ve become shunned such that they feel literally no ethical responsibility towards me at all. These are, generally, people I’ve gotten to, at some point in the past, and they’ve stayed gotten to for years, or else their simply lonely souls looking to cultivated popularity among those I have gotten to.
This post-truth approach to me, I can only surmise, is the origin of things like the Twitter rumor that periodically rolls around that my girlfriend is inappropriately young for me. Sometimes people pop up to point out that she is, in fact, a year and a half older than I am. Whoops! But who cares, right? Why not say that a woman in her 40s is 20, if that makes peers like you more? Why not pile on another blatant falsehood and get the age gap zealots against me? Why not. Because I am disreputable, there is no social price to lying about me. So they lie. I’ve been a supporter of trans rights and trans dignity and trans gender identities as long as I’ve been politically conscious, and I’ve been very willing to pay a professional price to defend those views. But why not put me on a list of transphobic writers, with zero proof? Who will stop you? No one wants to be seen to be a defender of mine. However bad Twitter was when I was on it, it’s collapsed to something even darker now. Whatever notion that performative irony had some connection to actual politics has been revealed to be farce, and the sense of that network as the center of the world has collapsed under the weight of a million rightwing freaks. What’s left is a subculture defined by bitterness, miserable people scrambling on top of each other for vague and fleeting approval they don’t really want from people they don’t really know.
It’s not really rando irony accounts who, say, fantasize about me being physically harmed (which happens often) that bothers me. I’m more affected, after all these years, by a professional media culture that similarly feels that there is no particular obligation to tell the truth about an unpopular person. Their profession is to find the truth, but their livelihood is to recreate a version of high school where they’re the cool ones, and I am a convenient stepping stone in that pursuit. This was exemplified in the bizarre 2018 Twitter meltdown about a book that didn’t exist. I wrote about it here. The remarkable thing is that the Twitter fracas about the actually very bad thing I actually did to Harris is only the second-biggest such event I’ve inspired. A year or so after that, I was alerted by a friend to the fact that there was a huge riot going on about me. (As far as I know, it’s the only time my name has ever trended on Twitter.) I was a year removed from public life and barely left my apartment or office, I was heavily medicated, and thus deeply confused about what new thing I could have possibly done. Well, someone had discovered that I had sold a book. The book was notional, at that point; even the material from the proposal had mostly been scrapped. The Cult of Smart did not exist to be critiqued.
And yet hundreds and hundreds of people were convinced that it was an unapologetic work of pseudoscientific racism. Why? Because a single unverified anonymous account with a Michael Cera pic on his profile was confidently speaking about its contents, despite the fact that there was no book and thus no contents. This meltdown was powered by journalists and academics, people whose job is ostensibly to gather evidence about truth claims, to verify. It seemed to bother none of them that they were making an immensely damaging accusation based on literally nothing. Could it be the marketing materials? But there were no marketing materials yet, only a short blurb on my website and the text of the announcement Publisher’s Marketplace had run when it was sold. If you’re wondering if that was sordid, guess again; it referred to the book as “a call to reform an education system which in the era of globalization has tried to train every child to join a knowledge economy - an effort, deBoer argues, that is bound to fail.” That was the public summary that was available. Did any of these thought leaders email me to ask if the story was true? No, not one of them. Dozens of the people who participated in this event were journalists and writers and academics whose names I recognized. Not one of them has ever publicly expressed regret for engaging in it. Not one has ever privately apologized to me. Not one.
Does Duncan Black, a 50 year old who still goes by a superhero name he gave himself, ever wonder whether it was wrong to indict me based on claims for which he had seen no evidence and which he could not possibly confirm? No, I’m quite certain he doesn’t. Does Chris Hayes ever wipe his tasteful glasses in his Brooklyn townhouse and think to himself, “should I have participated in a big freakout about someone, even someone I don’t like, when I had no evidence at all that what people were saying about him was true?” I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. Any one of them could actually read the fucking book and see what it says. But I’m not holding my breath.
In my time as a public figure I’ve had many attempts to hack into my various accounts, a couple successful, I’ve had my grad school professors emailed and admonished for associating with me, I’ve had people I worked with at CUNY complain to my boss about my political views away from campus, I’ve had a Google Streetview image of the house I was living in posted to a sketchy forum, I’ve had a girlfriend get harassed at a bar by someone who didn’t like the things I wrote, I’ve had my profile on a hookup app get screencapped and tweeted out, on and on. People have showed up at my apartment building. I’ve gotten so many death threats over the years that I honestly barely register them at this point. I’m say this in a completely disaffected way, for the record, because I know that bringing any of this stuff up just results in people complaining that I’m feeling sorry for myself. That attitude, is an industry where saying “Hillary Clinton is a bad candidate” has been represented as vicious harassment. It’s also an industry where a story in which Jia Tolentino’s parents being accused of human trafficking immediately resulted in an huge outpouring of sympathy and support for Jia Tolentino, rather than (oh I don’t know) the potentially-trafficked humans. (Here’s Max Kennerly engaging in an endless bit of unpaid journalism to save Tolentino from, well, it was never clear what she had to be defended from. I hope it got him whatever social credit he was looking for.) Again, there are no principles. There’s just popularity.
I told the story, before, about the “I’ll dox you Kevin” joke and its consequences. Way back in 2016 or so, a Twitter user I occasionally interacted with called kept_simple was complaining about me without tagging me. To register my unhappiness in a way that I thought sounded jokey, I said “tag me next time or I’ll dox you, Kevin.” The joke was that I had no idea who this guy was and had no way to find out. The whole joke, you see, was that unless the truly unlikely had happened and I had randomly picked correctly, his name was not Kevin, and the basic premise of doxing someone is knowing their identity. (He would eventually drop anonymity and reveal that his name is Mark.) But a lot of people who already didn’t like me seized on the opportunity; they declared me a dox threatener, or whatever, and insisted that this was utterly disqualifying. My insistence that this threat could only be a joke, as I had no idea who the guy really was, fell on deaf ears. They wanted a cudgel, and now they had one. People expressed vociferous anger over it towards me for years, and I still get it occasionally. The kept_simple guy had every opportunity to make it clear that the charge against me was incorrect. It seems he felt no obligation to do so. That’s between him and his commitment to the truth.
And, of course, my genuinely awful behavior towards Harris in 2017 dissolved whatever was left of people’s sense that I deserved to be spoken about truthfully. Which is kind of funny, given that what I did was so bad that they hardly needed to embellish the truth; the truth was enough to hang me. But still there’s been one myth after another about what happened. They say I never said I was sorry; I have said I am sorry publicly so many times, and I am saying it again. They say I blame it all on my bipolar disorder; since the very first time I ever addressed what happened, I have insisted that despite my psychosis I am personally responsible for what happened. The amount of time I was away from public life after it happened keeps changing and keeps shrinking, every time people tell it; I was in fact gone for three full years, and I only came back because I was unemployed and desperate. They say I had never claimed to be bipolar before that night; I had publicly revealed my disorder in early 2016 and had told family and friends years before that. They say I don’t feel guilt and shame about what I did; all I have ever felt, my entire life, is guilt and shame. Mostly, though, they say that nothing bad ever really happened to me about it. And they can rest easy.
There was a whole layer of problems that stemmed from other things that happened during that crisis, including the threat of arrest, that aren’t germane here. In the immediate weeks following what happened I was preoccupied with the work of achieving basic stability. When I came back to real life - which, I can assure you, was an unremittingly unpleasant process - I found that I had lost an immense number of personal connections. Real, no-bullshit, years-old friendships were over, and with few exceptions they have never been repaired. An initial wave of well-wishes from people fearful for my physical safety gave way to conscious distancing, which of course was very understandable. The entire category of casual friend and warm acquaintance was essentially eliminated from my life, which was also understandable; if you aren’t particularly close to someone and they suffer a scandal, even if you still feel affection for them, the potential social cost of supporting them is going to feel too high. They have been added to a long roster of people over the years who had already made the perfectly valid decision to remove themselves from my life due to my chronic personal instability. Even now, six and a half years later, I will often think of someone and wonder - is this person someone I can reach out to? What do they think of me? Would they hate to see a message from me in their inbox? And of course every time I meet someone new who knows my reputation, I have to wonder about how the scandal will change their perception of me. All of this awkwardness and uncertainty is ongoing. I accept this all as a result of my own actions.
Professionally, I was more or less ruined for years. Though they couldn’t formally move against me for legal reasons, and my immediate supervisor fought for me, those events caused immense strain at my job with CUNY and my career there was never the same. Everybody at work was aware of what happened, which was as awkward as you’d imagine. It seemed clear to me that my bosses were running out the clock until they could safely decline to renew my contract and after they fired my sympathetic boss, that’s what eventually happened. Without the freelancing money that I had relied on for years my income was immediately cut by more than a third. Most venues would likely have never published me in the first several years, had I been trying, which I wasn’t. There remains all kinds of places that won’t have anything to do with me, and what happened hangs over every pitch I send. I have been told privately by a couple editors that their publications would never publish me; I was told by another that his publication had a tacit rule not to link to me. I had signed a contract with Harvard University Press to publish my first book before everything happened, which is the kind of thing that can make the career of an academic, and publishing a book had always been my dream. Afterwards, they stopped communicating with me entirely. The thing I had wanted more than anything my whole life was just gone.
What happened influences how many people will subscribe to this newsletter. It influences who considers a book proposal I send out and it influences the negotiations when a book gets bought. It influences what work I can get doing developmental editing or ghostwriting. It influences every job application and interview. It influences any professional opportunity that comes my way. I’m very grateful to have achieved financial success in the last two years, to have bought this house and secured this life, and I’m thankful that book publishers and various publications have taken a chance on me. I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished in the past several years. But there’s also likely a hard professional ceiling for me, from now on, because of what happened. I’ve had a couple good years of freelancing but I’m nearing the point of giving up on that part of my career because negotiating all the fraught dynamics I’ve brought on myself is just too complicated and exhausting. This is the only thing I’ve ever been good at and a lot of doors are permanently closed. I accept that as a consequence of my own actions. I still don’t know what the rules are or if I ever get to move on.
And I have worked the work of recovery, which was and is the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life. It’s never not hard.
What I did to Malcolm Harris is something very very bad that I regret every single day. I still feel shame about it every single day. My psychiatrist has impressed on me that the only way to ensure that nothing like that happens again is to be a healthy person and the only way to be a healthy person is move past pathological shame and into adult acceptance. I have spent six and a half years getting healthy and trying to do the right thing and move on. But allowing me to move on is against the express interests of some very motivated people. What Harris wants from me, at this point, I couldn’t say. With the mob I resent only the implication that there is some penance I could do and some forgiveness I might earn; there is no penance they’ll ever accept and no forgiveness they’ll ever offer. It’s a farce to pretend otherwise. I once found a woman on Twitter, an academic, who was particularly relentless in finding people defending me or praising my work and browbeating them. She seemed to seek out anyone sharing something I had written in praise to yell at them until they repented. I clicked the link in her bio and saw that she listed “restorative justice” as a key scholarly interest. Restorative justice. I look at what some people have survived, what scandals they have dodged, what some people in my profession have been accused of without consequence. And, I confess, I wonder how I might someday be restored.
I know how this all sounds, and I know what they’ll say. And I know what my supporters will say too - that I should just ignore it, that there’s no point. That’s what I’m always told; no matter how bad it gets, no matter how many people I respect hear and absorb straight-up lies that make them think less of me, my job is always to chuckle and say “that’s life.” This, I find, is easier to say when you don’t ever have to walk into somebody’s office and wonder if their impression of you is colored by a game of telephone about you that started with a lie in the first place. But I’m not publishing this to try and change anything about how people see me, anyway. I’m not that naive. I’m writing this to assert a principle: I don’t need to do anything to deserve the truth. The truth is not deserved. That is not how the truth works.