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
I don't know why, after all these years, people don't understand that I have no interest in playing by the 21st century meta that demands untouched knowing superiority. You guys, I understand that posts like this look bad under the rules of that game, you don't have to keep telling me. It's not. a game. I want. to play. That is what I have chosen, and that is what I've staked my creative life on. Let me have it or move on.
I know you didn’t post this fishing for compliments or support. But I still feel compelled to let you know how much your work has meant to me. I recently finished your latest book, and eagerly read your Substack posts. I regularly disagree with you, but always find you to be thoughtful and interesting. This is mostly all I care about in finding writers to read. Your humanity always comes through in your writing. I love you man and wish you a very happy holidays.
A few things:
1) In the culture war there is no nuance. I know nuance is a big part of your writing, but the culture war has no interest in this and it is poorly suited to a sound byte, headline, 280 character world. I appreciate you trying to illustrate nuance, but this is just how it is. People are lazy, most people don't read past the headline and don't care to do so.
2) The Twitter left, for lack of a better term, will never, ever accept you. You are asking what you could do for penance, but it's a trick question. There is nothing. Any religious movement needs a steady stream of apostates and heretics to condemn, and branding you as one is absolutely necessary in terms of ideology. It's a little like functional alcoholics pointing at the sloppy drunk so as to minimize their own drinking. You're Barney Gumble in this political analogy.
3) I think you, for a long time, have kind of wanted to have it both ways. You want to be able to critique what you see as the mistakes and excesses of liberals and the left while still being seen as part of the team. I am sorry, but this position is untenable. If the people collectively setting the agenda for liberalism/the left (and the two are almost the same on social media anyway) had any interest in integrity it wouldn't be in the sorry state its in today. I know that crowd, I was one of them as most people reading this probably were at one point. They chose crude branding, empty slogans, and fashionable posturing over rigorous political thought and there's no going back. It's over.
I personally threw in the towel years ago and became an accountant. I am mostly content to work and be left alone. I hate to say this, but living in the Twin Cities in 2020 made me never want to do anything political...ever again.
Your situation of being unjustly accused and treated as a pariah for no good reason must be infuriating. Your essay also reminds me of a story:
About a decade ago, my son’s fourth grade teacher was caught with three joints in his car and arrested. Cannabis was not yet legal in Nee Jersey, where we lived at the time. The arrest split our school community, with some parents calling for him to be fired immediately, while others of us (I among them) wrote letters in support of him. He ultimately pled down to a misdemeanor, and was able to keep his job because, in the words of the superintendent, “we don’t fire teachers for misdemeanors.”
I talked with him after he came back to work, to let him know how grateful I was that he was back. He said that reading our letters of support was the first time he had felt like a human being since his arrest.
Now, of course, recreational cannabis is legal in NJ. I wonder how those parents calling for this teacher’s head feel about their vindictiveness now? Their rage and punitiveness certainly didn’t age well.
Your persecutors’ rage won’t age well either, Freddie, even if that is a poor consolation right now.
I am grateful to you, Freddie, for your honesty about two topics that are important to me: education, and the difficulties of living with mental illness and disability.
If I was sitting next to you at a barstool I would remind you of things you already know. This comes with the territory. You take strong positions, do not apologize for them, and that pisses people off. You can control what you put out in the world but cannot control how it is consumed. That people are too stupid to properly interpret what you say must be incredibly frustrating but, unfortunately, there are a lot of stupid people in the world.
I see too many people out there write interesting things, generate a following but once the money starts rolling in, they start feeding the subscriber base what they want to hear and the authenticity goes out the window. I would be more concerned if I start agreeing with everything you say.
Keep doing your thing. You write thought provoking stuff. I would imagine that the overwhelming majority of your subscriber base is prepared to read something they don't agree with from time to time and that's ok.
I pay for access because you often lead me to think about a topic with a perspective distinct from that which I might have landed otherwise.
Because of the title, I thought this essay was going to pose that question to your readers/subscribers. Your relationship with us is sometimes a little bit fraught. Anyway, I'll briefly answer the question.
You probably have more right-wing readers than is good for you, and I am one of them. But I don't read you to have my opinions reinforced. On Gaza, you (and Philippe Lemoine and Zaid Jilani) keep me out of a pro-Israel echo chamber. A one-state solution does not seem realistic to me, but the current reality is so horrible that almost any alternative seems worth considering.
As I understand it, your writing career began with you writing comments on blogs. To, by dint of hard work and creativity, build a successful career as a freelance writer is deeply impressive. To destroy that career via the Malcolm Harris incident, spend three years in purgatory, and then build your career from below ground level a second time is absolutely astonishing. My brother was bipolar, and ultimately killed himself. So that you've done all this while dealing with bipolar disorder puts me in awe.
I'm going to make a possibly offensive comparison. I'm a Lana Del Rey fan. She's been involved in a lot of controversies over the years, some of them 100% her fault, some of them of the "bitch eating crackers" variety (https://www.astralcodexten.com/p/trapped-priors-as-a-basic-problem). As with you, a lot of people hate her, and feel free to say pretty much anything about her. I don't care about any of that: she makes (IMO) lots of good records. That's it. You write interestingly and engagingly about a large variety of topics, and your writing is not just free-form bloviating but the product of lots of research. That's it.
But there is one more point of contact between you too. My sense from reading interviews is that LDR is damaged by all the controversies she's been in. I think she's got every bad review of her debut album memorized. That album has now been on the charts continuously for over a decade, but she's still hung up on those reviews. I wish she could let go.
And when I read a column like this, I worry about you, too. You 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.'"
Yes, that is what this supporter says. Not that ignoring it or saying "that's life" is necessarily just or right, but that it would be better for you if you could ignore it or shrug it off and keep doing what you do.
One last thing. I don't know if writing this column was good or bad for you, but it did get me to buy a copy of The Cult of Smart.
Fellow Purdue alum here. Echoing what nearly everyone else has written thus far, I have been deeply impressed and moved by your work over the years. Even when you have taken a position that I disagree with, I have found your thoughtfulness in your arguments compelling.
I know, secondhand, what it is like to be the target of a smear campaign. The family member this happened to prevailed legally against the accuser, but the emotional damage was done.
Some people obviously do not believe in forgiveness, ever, no matter how relatively minor the sin, how long ago it was committed, or how genuinely an apology was made. Please know that you are respected by so many of us out here, and I hope you may find peace from the madness of the world.
I knew none of this. I had to google "Freddie DeBoer Harris" to figure out the scandal. It doesn't change how I feel about you. The world is a shallow place lacking in integrity where people don't have principles so much as positions of convenience. We all deal with it, no matter who we are. And we deal with it everywhere. I say that not to minimize your situation, just to remind you that you're hardly alone, just at another level than the rest of us. (The Daily Mail and Twitter don't give a damn what I do.)
As for your question: What purpose do you serve for me? You and others like you have showed the lie that the world is "two dimensional." Left vs right, liberal vs conservative. The dichotomy is not real and we don't have to be locked into it. In fact, the way to change the world, if such a thing is possible, is to break out of that mindset. And I suppose if I can give you any bit of comfort, you are a threat to people who get power from a population locked into that false duality. So if waking people up is what you want to accomplish, you're doing it. If you weren't, you wouldn't be worth smearing in the Daily Mail or all the rest.
This post breaks my heart.
I hope, eventually, you will find peace. It will never come from the people who tear you down, but as someone facing my 70th birthday in a few weeks, may you come to no longer caring what others say or think because you know who you are and you quite like who you've become. And that becoming only happened because of all that came before, including the bad shit.
I received an email from you in 2020, during a dark period in your gainful employment history (I'd followed you since Daily Dish guestblogging days, and was kind of worried about you). In that email you announced you were considering blogging for Patreon; I replied with enthusiastic encouragement, hoping that you were receiving thousands of similar replies. Not too long after, you started this blog, and it remains, other than NYT, the only online writing I pay for. I'm proud to be a tiny part of your project and so very, very glad for you that your income is safely independent from these assholes, that you don't have to maintain a viable career in academia with a truth-averse and dishonorable mob trying to pull you down at all times. Cheers.
I'm basically a small l libertarian who doesn't agree with you much, and I don't have interest in Marvel or most pop culture...but I need good things to read, I enjoy your writing, and you provoke interesting thoughts often enough that I don't mind seeing that charge hit every month. Thank you.
One purpose you’ve served in my life is to make me aware of all sorts of insane people I wasn’t aware existed
You provide me with an honest viewpoint that often differs from my own, but that is informed, thoughtful, and which I value. No one is perfect, least of all me, and we can never arrive at a wiser, better self without having our asses hammered on the anvil of life. A hammering we sometimes (frequently?) bring upon ourselves.
I am sorry you were on the wrong end of thoughtless, hypocritical, and self-serving turds who could not find self awareness if it walked up and kicked them vigorously in the crotch. Thank you for having the moral courage to give voice to your perspective in a candid, vulnerable way despite this type of aggressively bad behavior, and keep fighting the good fight, no matter the litany of schmucks who might stumble in your way.
You are a key truth-teller and you write with directness, with eloquence. Sometimes I'm gratified. ("I'm not crazy, whew.") Sometimes I'm surprised. Sometimes, not often, I'm pretty sure that you're missing something. But your writing is almost always thought-provoking.
You don't have to ignore the mob. You probably shouldn't even try. You are in their thoughts. You should twist the knife.
I enjoy your writing. When I agree with it, it makes me think about what I already believe in new ways, and when I disagree it makes me think. It's well worth the $50/yr.
As for the haters, there's nothing you can do about it, and it sounds like you pissed of one or more people with pull. Regardless, D-list internet celebrity or not, you've built a decent following on substack and your last book seems to have done decently. You have a solid foundation to build on, one that most do not have. So I encourage you to focus building on what you have.
But this also goes back to your essay a few weeks ago about how awful substack can be. The thing is, here you are a star. You may still look to the NY Times as some gold standard to expire to, but you recognize that they are going to take every opportunity to piss in your mouth.
All I can say from experience is that the best revenge is living well. Perhaps glib and trite, but all great wisdom is.