Many moons ago, I realized that by the time I learn enough about a big “news” story to realize I don’t care, the story turns out to be BS anyway. And so it is with the tale of Ellie Kemper, the actress and comedian from The Office and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, who was branded a “KKK Queen” this week.
Why? Because people started tweeting a rumor, based on a misunderstanding about some debutante ball in St. Louis that Kemper attended as a teenager over 20 years ago, and Twitter put it on their “What’s happening” sidebar of trending topics. It turns out that the claim is complete garbage and Kemper has never had anything to do with the Klan, but mere facts won’t do her or anyone else much good in 2021 America. The mob is always hungry for blood, and Kemper is this week’s special.
Once somebody decides to go after you on social media, there’s nothing you can do to defend yourself. Defying the mob is framed in the press as “doubling down,” and groveling for forgiveness just emboldens your tormentors. Kafka was an amateur, man.
There’s an entire media ecosystem devoted to whipping up these fake outrages for clicks. Why go after Ellie Kemper? Why not go after Ellie Kemper. Or you, or me, or anybody. We can be cancelled at any moment, for any reason or no reason at all.
If you’ve got enough money, all you can do is hide out until the mob moves on to another target. But if you can’t afford to just disappear for days or weeks or months… shrug emoji!
This sort of crap generates traffic for Twitter, which is why they amplify it. They know there’s a mob with torches and pitchforks at the ready, just waiting to be pointed toward the next victim. And Jack Dorsey sits on his billions and watches what he’s done.
With great power comes great irresponsibility.
Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box. Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. “Come on,” she said. “Hurry up.”
Mrs. Dunbar had small stones in both hands, and she said, gasping for breath. “I can’t run at all. You’ll have to go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.”
The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.
Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
— Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery“
June 4, 2021 @ 1:04 pm
Eh, what little I saw about the “story” on liberal Twitter was the complete opposite of what Treacher and the (ahem) Murdoch Post are claiming. Pretty much everyone was pointing out that Kemper was maybe nineteen at this thing, and so it would be unfair to expect some sort of norm-bucking activism in 1999 from a girl who was just doing something she had been groomed to do.
Not one comment I saw had anything particularly hurtful about Ellie Kemper herself. She’ll be just fine. After all, the whole reason she was “Queen of Love and Beauty” or whatever it was is because her family has (this is not a technical unit of measurement) a metric fuckton of multi-generational wealth.
The real focus was on the origins and continuation of the (again, ahem) “Veiled Prophet” ball, which seems to have all the weird Bohemian Grove cult trappings of symbolized pelf-worship, minus the usual jabber about Illuminati and Bilderbergers and other J-O-O conspiracies. It’s worth checking out.
There seem to be two burgeoning industries in play here, in what might be termed symbiotic competition. One is on an endless snipe hunt for even the whiff of racism, even mothballed from generations ago. (Although it seems that one activist who managed to “unmask” a “Veiled Prophet” at a ball in the 1980s got her car blown up a few weeks later, so apparently someone takes their debutante socials seriously.) I think it’s a fine thing to get rid of the damned traitor participation trophies, once and for all. But there are better things to do than bowdlerize every classic piece of entertainment, or dig through every D-lister’s history for something slightly askew.
The other side manufactures its own peculiar set of grievances, real and imagined, and makes that the marketing pitch. The notion that a niche comic actress that most people are hardly familiar with might be CANCELLED because of her participation twenty-odd years ago in a ball that did originate from elite racists, becomes much more captivating than even just a curious question as to why and how such institutions continue to perpetuate, albeit quietly for the most part.
Real money is quiet like that, circumspect, something a braying doofus like The Former Guy never quite wanted to understand, in his sad little quest to get them to take him seriously (if not literally).
Neither industry can exist for long without the other, which is not to say that the sides or sentiments are the “same” or even “equal,” but are both somewhat dependent on this still-forming socio-cultural dynamic. I suspect most people are watching this warped, endless tennis volley from the sidelines, wondering what’s next, not really wanting to know so much as to brace themselves.
Hope all is going well for you.
June 4, 2021 @ 5:34 pm
Most of the ire I saw was directed at two things: One, this imbecilic version of the telephone game in which “Kemper was a debutante at a ball hosted by a group with ‘problematic origins'” morphs into the casual “Kemper is a KKK princess/queen.” The insufferable A.V. Club suggested she had a “racist past,” though amazingly even their insufferable commenters thought that was too much. And two, the fact that Twitter’s “What’s Happening” feature decided to put the spotlight on it, which essentially means some editor deciding to generate content by chumming the water. The whole thing is like a demented Calvinist version of the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, where the goal is to see how quickly we can condemn somebody to social disgrace through guilt by incredibly vague association.
I don’t “care” about Kemper either, whom I barely even remember from The Office, but for every rich celebrity who gets a turn on this week’s Two Minutes Hate, there’s some everyday truck driver like Emmanuel Cafferty who loses his job because a bunch of extremely-online lunatics, who are too stupid to realize they fell for a 4Chan prank, think he’s flashing “white supremacist” hand signs. (Or the recent episode in which a Jeopardy! contestant was accused of the same thing.) Forty years ago, these nutcases would have been playing records backwards to find subliminal Satanic messages, or accusing daycare workers of being part of a Satanic plot to abuse children. I hated the fundamentalists then, and I hate this new batch of fundamentalists today. If it was worth mocking Tipper Gore and Jerry Falwell then, it seems to me worth mocking Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi today, along with all the shit-for-brains Lululemon liberals who take them seriously.
Nonetheless, we could say that human nature has always been depraved, whether we’re attacking people with stones or tweets. In that case, I find the changing media dynamics more interesting than politics per se. Two of the most engrossing books I’ve read this year are Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and Andrey Mir’s Postjournalism. Gurri’s book is a broader look at what the digital landscape has altered about the world — the biggest media revolution since Gutenberg — and what it might portend (hopefully, not a century of religious schisms and wars). Mir’s is slightly more focused on the state of journalism, especially the fate of newspapers, which he expects to largely disappear by the middle of the next decade. Mir’s book in particular, with graphs and charts, really makes one aware of what a diseased state the news industry is in. Even though the hashtag-Resistance clowns were required to perform their histrionic hatred of Trump every day, it’s clear they desperately miss him, not just because he provided a frisson of excitement in their empty lives, but because he was simply great for business. Subscriptions and ratings were on a cocaine-like high because of him (which is why they gave him billions in free advertising during his campaign), and now that he’s gone, they’re in free-fall. Twitter deciding to spotlight the latest feeding frenzy is part of this diseased dynamic, desperately chasing after hate-clicks and hate-reads, stimulating and monetizing people’s worst impulses. I think you might like reading both of them.
All’s well here, just very busy. Are you still semi-retired from blogging, or has that gotten boring?
June 6, 2021 @ 1:12 am
I did see the AV Club article, and was amused to see many of the commenters lambasting the writer. I’ve read a couple of short bits from Gurri, may have to check out that book.
Once in a great while I think for a second about resuming the blog, or jumping over to Substack or whatever. And it might still happen at some point. I miss the process more than anything else. But I’m pretty busy as well, so if I did return in some form, it would probably be just a once-a-week deal, at the most.
It’s the corporate media more than anything who really miss Trump. It’s the old Private Parts scene where Pig Vomit tells Howard that the people who love his show listen for an average of 1½ hours, while the people who say they hate him listen for 2½ hours. They miss him. They want him back. It’s a very warped version of Stockholm Syndrome. And the newspapers are being busted out by private-equity vultures.
I think this country is continuing down a very dark path, from which it may not return in the rest of my lifetime or yours. Trump resurrected and normalized some nasty demons, and while middle-aged white guys like you and me are mostly insulated from the effects, I’d like my daughter to be able to live and work in a place that, bottom line, actually cares about something other than scamming its citizens and arming them to the teeth in preparation for the Republic of Gilead. And between droughts and six-month wildfire seasons, California is becoming increasingly unlivable. But there really aren’t more than a few areas in very few states where I’d want to live or retire. And watching a nihilist death cult return to finish the job isn’t what I had in mind for retirement either.
So I think the ultimate goal for me and my family is probably to at least get our options more open, so if we need to leave we can. That probably translates into using what spare time I have to get some sort of side hustle(s) moving along, and socking away some cash.
June 6, 2021 @ 9:47 am
It’s Vince McMahon’s world now; we all just live in it. Cable news and legacy media are just a high-end version of pro wrestling, including the “kayfabe,” where the Joe Scarboroughs and Brian Stelters who play their role on camera and cut emotional promos against that dastardly heel Trump can be seen happily posing for pictures with him just a few short years prior, as if he were a different person then. Social media is filled with marks who are happy to live in the political version of the WWE Universe and take all these manufactured feuds seriously while shelling out money for the next monthly pay-per-view.
In Mir’s book, he says the year 2014 was a decisive point at which journalism’s funding model changed from being funded from above, by advertisers, to being funded from below, by readers. It turns out that the only thing that compromises the media’s integrity more than ad revenue is having to follow social media’s lead and pander to the silos and filter bubbles of the readership. Craigslist stole the classified ads. Twitter replaced the newswire. Facebook and Google took all the ads. Journalism is left with “dEmoCracY dIeS iN dArkNeSs!!!” histrionics and #Resistance! fan-fiction, while desperately trying to reassert their gatekeeping authority over “misinformation,” even as they themselves spread it on an industrial scale. Titans like the NYT are exploring education as a form of content production and communication, as in The School of the New York Times; see also their recent propaganda-as-history venture, the 1619 Project. Or “The New York Times Journeys,” which sells vacations and “educational” tours. They’re branching out into becoming a lifestyle brand for the so-called lifestyle left. Most media outlets won’t be able to pivot like that.
It’s certainly a time of flux. Journalism as we knew it is mutating, if not dying. Substack is in many ways just the latest reinvention of the blog, with more of an emphasis on paying the creators. The only reason it’s such a hot topic of conversation now is because of how many dissident journalists have ended up there after running afoul of the new editorial regime in newsrooms; as with YouTube and podcasts, legacy media are frantically lashing out at their competitors (and heretics within their profession) and, again, trying to reassert themselves as the authorities who get to decide what’s real news and what’s just a “debunked conspiracy theory,” even as they recklessly squander what little credibility they have left. Squealing rats on a sinking ship. The Republican party, post-Trump, is slowly becoming more of a multi-ethnic “working-class” party while the Democrats become more the party of affluent, highly-educated urban professionals. Both are “big-government,” just differing on which constituencies deserve the largesse. Further prognostication is fun but largely useless. All we can do is watch and wait to see how things take shape in the coming decades.
To return to your earlier point: It’s true that on the one hand, you have a genetically-engineered race of super-terriers capable of tunneling through miles of solid rock in search of something new to be offended by. And on the other hand, there are people who have cynically realized the opportunities presented by serving up a steady stream of cancel-culture atrocities to keep the audience’s blood pressure elevated and their clicky-fingers twitching. Both are surface-level phenomena of that deeper shift in the media environment. That said, I don’t think they’re trivial in and of themselves. Cancel culture is itself part of what people are describing as “woke capitalism,” which is another emerging phenomenon worth careful attention. Yes, on the one hand, cancel culture is just the ancient mob mentality stirred into activity by the new tool of social media, but on the other, it’s part of progressives’ increasing comfort with the idea of what Kevin Williamson called (IIRC) “the disciplinary corporation” — using people’s employment (frequently bundled together with their health care, of course) as a means of coercion and punishment. The moral vacancy is evident to anyone with two eyes, as the same mega-corporations, superstar athletes and celebrities who pander to all the trendy progressive causes at home are happy to whore themselves out to China and the Middle East, and the sheer shamelessness of it stokes even more rage in those who rightly see themselves as the butt of little more than a huge class-war joke.
The ongoing fight over transgenderism, say, isn’t a simple story about narrow-minded bigots oppressing individuals; it’s quite literally an epistemological fight over the definition of reality, whether it exists “outside” us or inside our individual skulls, and if the latter, who gets to impose it. Are you a man because of biological factors outside your control, or because of an act of will and self-creation? By what standard am I supposed to acknowledge your choice? The ongoing fight over cancel culture isn’t just about competing tribes of obnoxious yahoos claiming scalps; it’s about what it means when a tiny group of activists can persuade the nation’s largest retailer of books (over 80% of the book trade) or the nation’s largest auction site to refuse to stock “hateful, offensive, problematic” materials, or to allow consenting individuals to sell these items between themselves. (I can assure you, without getting into all the details of my job, that the whole thing about Amazon and eBay increasingly moving in a woke direction, and informing merchants that they will no longer be allowed to sell books critical of transgender activism, or satirical books arguing that the Confederacy should have been allowed to secede, or even Washington Redskins paraphernalia, is very real.) If publishers fear that a manuscript won’t be allowed on Amazon, why will they even take a chance on it? Established authors, like rich actors, will indeed be fine; up-and-comers, though, will never even get a chance. At this level, this isn’t simply a “free market” decision anymore. The alternatives to Amazon no longer exist in any meaningful way. You can’t simply “create your own” Amazon or Twitter or Google to compete, as the Parler episode makes clear. More shifting alliances: will this change the traditional relationship between the GOP and big business? There’s already signs of it, though it will take time to become clear.
I’d probably agree with your pessimistic sentiment, but then again, I’m always reminding myself that people in all ages have always thought the world was going to hell. Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, or one of Ian Mortimer’s Time-Traveller’s Guides to the Britain of centuries past, just to name two off the top of my head, provide plenty of stark reminders that things can always be worse, and usually have been. So, as usual, I don’t really know anything at all.
June 6, 2021 @ 8:02 pm
What is now termed “cancel culture” has always been around in some form. Where it mostly used to consist of southern pecksniffs protecting their virgin daughters from the likes of WASP and 2 Live Crew, or fax-bombing networks to cancel a show with a gay character, now it’s become its own cottage industry.
Now people like (say) Bari Weiss can make more money jumping from the New York Times to Substack, and thence to Bill Maher’s show and CNN and Fox and The View on and on, all these highly-monetized platforms where she can squawk about being, ah, cancelled. Game recognize game, that’s a pretty respectable racket.
As far as the 1619 Project, I’m not familiar with the specifics, even if I know the broader ramifications all too well. But history has always been someone’s propaganda, and the discomfort with the 1619 Project seems to revolve more around its emphases, than whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of How Things Really Were.
As Faulkner said, the past is not even past, and there is no shortage of Calvin Candie descendants, landed Old South / Lost Cause plantation gentry, who bristle at the notion that their great-great-grandpappies might have been anything other than benevolent saints doing the lord’s work with the tools they were given. So they dump money into making sure drooling confederate nimrods like Tommy Tuberville and Cindy Hyde-Smith get to the Senate, and they lean on the university endowments they fund to cancel dissident professors who tell a story other than the one they insist we all accept as gospel.
It goes round and round and on and on, as it always has and will. Old wine, new bottles, yada yada. That’s not to say there’s no problem at all; I found Emmanuel Cafferty’s story disturbing as well. But his case is in court, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get some sort of fat settlement out of all that. Doesn’t excuse it, but it’s unlikely he’ll be completely out in the cold. People get fired for stupid things all the time; people lose their Amazon Warehouse gigs for taking one too many pee breaks.
I guess where I’m at is that there are much larger fish to fry. Climate change is a problem, and is worsening rapidly. Law enforcement accountability is a problem. Armed white-power militias are a real and growing problem. (As is infiltration of the former by the latter.) State legislatures openly trying to steal future elections and disenfranchise millions of citizens, that’s a real problem that will cost human lives. The fact that the previous chief executive sat and watched 600k Americans die needlessly, withholding PPE while bodies were stacked in fridge trucks and burned-out doctors killed themselves, I think that might be a problem worthy of some attention.
The decisions Amazon is making over certain books or confederate paraphernalia or what-have-you are, more than anything, market decisions. Now, that may mean that they perceive a “woke” marketplace, just like how in the past, teevee shows couldn’t say dirty words because Phyllis Schlafly would send her flying monkeys after them. But it is a market decision all the same.
This word “woke” does an awful lot of heavy lifting these days, more than it was ever intended to. It could — and, unless I’m seriously mistaken, was originally intended to — mean an increased awareness of how different people have markedly different experiences of life in these here Yew-nighted States.
I saw it with my own two eyes as a kid, visiting my dad (who had gotten remarried to a black woman who had four kids) in Compton. I saw how cops treated me, versus how they treated my stepbrothers. I saw how when they moved to Bellflower, how their white neighbors looked at and talked to them.
“Woke” could have just meant exercising the basic muscle of empathy, perhaps the main redeeming feature of the Christian religion, in a supposedly Christian nation. The ability to recognize that signing the Civil War armistice 150 years ago did not automagically end all the injustices that it sought to end — in fact, new and more devious injustices, and new and more pernicious myths, were created in response. Some people prefer the myths and injustices; as Mencken pointed out a hundred years ago, “Injustice is relatively easy to bear — what stings is justice.”
Now, are there instances where “wokeness” oversteps its bounds, becomes too eager to save every stray dog and right every wrong? Sure. Sooner or later, everyone and everything, whether good or ill in intent, oversteps and hurts undeserving people. It’s probably a law of physics.
But. Are cops still killing and beating and maiming defenseless citizens with no accountability? Are politicians still trying to prevent certain people from voting? Is the planet still coming to a full boil around us while people fulminate over whether gender dysphoria is real? Is there a more-or-less objective way that all these things can be ranked and addressed in some order of real priority — say, by how many people are actually affected and to what tangible degree?
In other words, I agree that people loudly planting their flag on the trans hill, or getting someone fired for cracking their knuckles, is a real annoyance. The preening, performative, smug attitude of many of its practitioners is off-putting at best. It’s bullshit. Occasionally someone loses their job, or gets a few weeks of rage-tweets.
But compared to robbing people of their right to vote? Compared to state troopers torturing a shackled man to death and lying about it for two years? Compared to cops in Louisville kicking down the wrong door and indiscriminately murdering the occupant? Compared to a bloodthirsty mob storming the seat of government, intending to overthrow it, killing and maiming cops and threatening to lynch anyone in sight? It’s not even close. Not even in the same ballpark.
Rant over. Take care of yourself.
June 7, 2021 @ 9:21 pm
There’s a lot to unpack here, but rather than get into the weeds of particular issues where we could quibble forever, I think it’s easiest to start by saying that I just don’t accept your basic premise that there is any meaningful way to rank social/political problems on a scale of importance. Most of the issues you mention are intractable, in my opinion. There will only ever be trade-offs, not solutions. But to whatever extent they can be solved, or at least ameliorated, it won’t be because we all got on the same page, thinking the same thoughts at the same time and moving in unison. “OK, gang, now that we’ve stabilized the climate, let’s move on to ending racial strife.” It’s not an either/or choice. We can be concerned about police brutality and cancel culture, or whatever, simultaneously. (In practice, of course, these concerns tend to predictably sort themselves along entrenched partisan lines.)
That raises the whole issue of what it even means to be a concerned citizen. Like many people, I work 50-60 hours a week and prefer to enjoy myself in my limited spare time. Why should I attempt to become an amateur climatologist in my spare time? What am I going to do with all that awareness and information? I cynically joke sometimes that mass literacy was a bad idea because all it did was turn a bunch of middle-class busybodies into wannabe pundits and policymakers. I’m pretty sure we’ve talked about that before though, so I assume that when you imply that my priorities might be out of order, it’s not because you think that somehow whatever I scribble on my blog is of great social significance, but because, if I can put some words in your mouth, you think that regardless of any practical import, it’s still important to try your best to see the world accurately and truly and not allow oneself to be hoodwinked.
I would agree. This is why I would say, when it comes to big-picture issues, I’m more concerned about the information environment (or the media environment) than any particular political issues. I’m concerned that when this environment gets polluted, it has fundamental effects on our ability to communicate clearly, or even to share the same framework of reality. What used to be a trickle of information has become a firehose, and both individually and socially, we’re not well-equipped to handle it. The old authorities of legacy media have been discredited, and the vacuum creates a power struggle. This is why I read books like Gurri’s and Mir’s, to get a clearer understanding of the extent of the changes the digital world has wrought. We’ve all seen how the Internet has made lunatic conspiratorial thinking a lot more accessible. It didn’t create crazy people, but it sure made it much easier for them to find each other and discover the power of strength in numbers. But even leaving them aside, look how much more difficult it is for intelligent, rational people to be sure they’re sharing the same world, given how easy it is for us each to sequester ourselves in our individualized filter bubbles. Not gonna lie — when you mentioned the Republic of Gilead earlier, I honestly couldn’t tell how much of that was just wry hyperbole. Does he actually think that’s a possibility? From my vantage point, the threat of some kind of Christian fundamentalist sect taking over and reducing women to chattel exists only in the letters Planned Parenthood sends to scare donations out of their mailing list. Like, that ship is so far sailed, it’s not even visible on the horizon. Even had we gotten President Pence, it simply was not going to happen. In this case, I’ve known you online for around fifteen years now (!), so I have a reasonably good “sense” of you as a person, and the fact that you’re intelligent and a good writer capable of expounding at length makes it easier to avoid or resolve misunderstandings. But how many people online bother to do that? Especially on a site like Twitter, where the character limit forces people to be brusque and snarky.
A final thought — I said all this last year, but I’ll say it again. Three months into the pandemic, once the protests and riots started, I was shocked to see two Ivy League epidemiologists granted space in the Atlantic, an ostensibly serious outlet, to argue that racism was also a “public health crisis,” thus the protests were justified. Their argument was so feeble even an idiot like me could see the gaping holes in their logic. But my point is this: when things really mattered, during the worst public health crisis of my lifetime, when it was time to set aside the political histrionics and get real, both the media and the public health experts turned out to be cowards and ideologues. Even under a Republican administration, it wasn’t Christian fundamentalists up there telling me I could pray the virus away; it was supposed scientific experts knowingly lying for the sake of political correctness, pretending the virus gave a damn why people were gathering en masse and screaming in each other’s faces, as if waving a BLM placard was the same thing as being vaccinated. I saw CNN reporters standing in front of literal burning buildings while calling the protests “mostly peaceful,” which is both technically true and deliberately dishonest. I saw MSNBC hacks claim the riots were’t happening, but even if they were, it was all right, because a riot is “the voice of the voiceless,” but then they were happening, and it was bad, because it was actually all the work of a nonexistent army of deepfake white supremacists trying to make the left look bad. Wokeness, PC, whatever you want to call this particular mishmash of dishonesty and the complete absence of intellectual integrity in the service of progressive politics, it’s more than just a mere annoyance. It’s not just spoiled rich college kids acting temporarily stupid; this brainworm has infected powerful people in authority. If that’s not worthy of attention, I don’t know what else to say.
So, again, I’m concerned about what the new media environment has done to public discourse. I’m concerned about what it portends when a tiny group of a couple dozen zealots can persuade the world’s largest bookstore to ban books from their catalog rather than tell the zealots, as they might have only several years ago, “No one is making you read it; if you don’t like it, fuck off.” I’m concerned about what will fill the vacuum of credibility and authority now that our major media institutions increasingly don’t even bother aiming for objectivity. I’m not concerned about these things because I have answers or expect to “make a difference,” I just find them interesting to think about.