The dysfunctional nature of the two-party, winner-take-all system that dominates American political culture is only magnified by the crisis of our social-media-driven journalism. Those “dark fields of ‘the discourse’ ”—on which we are expected to suit up and join our respective teams—have become ever more dependent on unreported “takes” by underpaid commentators and polemics by ever more ideologically rigid voices contending for virality (or at least visibility) through “likes” and retweets. None of this lends itself to nuance or self-doubt. This, in part, explains how we’ve arrived—far faster than I’d have ever imagined—at the dizzying place where even Barack Obama’s heterodoxy has become a topic of serious complaint on the left.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Obama observed last October, “you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities.” The statement drew widespread condemnation. “I gasped at what I heard,” Ernest Owens wrote in the New York Times.
“Barack Obama is a conservative,” David Swerdlick argued several weeks later in the Washington Post. Of course, his “perspectives don’t line up with every position now seen as right-of-center,” Swerdlick acknowledged, listing Obama’s policies on climate, Dodd–Frank regulations, and same-sex marriage—as well as his tripling of the number of women on the Supreme Court, antidiscrimination efforts, and protections for young undocumented immigrants—as evidence of liberal credentials. “But his constant search for consensus, for ways to bring Blue America and Red America together,” was more revealing: None of these changes “revolutionized governance or structurally reordered American life. None of them were meant to.”
Recently, in National Review, Peter Kirsanow published a criticism of the New York Times‘ tendentious 1619 Project, the latest gospel to be canonized into the New Testament of Anti-Racism, the guiding scripture for today’s progressives. Michael Harriot at The Root took identitarian exception to it in an article which attacked Kirsanow primarily for being a white man who failed to genuflect before left-wing pieties about race. So far, so typical. The twist in the story is that Kirsanow is himself a black man, which, to any reasonable observer, would seem to render Harriot’s embarrassing tirade null and void. Still, nothing has been appended to the article by way of correction or apology. Harriot’s contribution to the comment section is simply an unapologetic outburst of further invective toward Kirsanow, this time for being a subservient lackey of white supremacy rather than a white man per se. As any black conservative can attest, the only time they are granted ownership of their own opinions is, ironically enough, when they echo the viewpoints of white progressives. Anything else is false consciousness or deliberate dishonesty. (See also when a reviewer at The London School of Economics Review of Books called the black economist Thomas Sowell “a rich white man.”) I look forward to the inevitable notion that one’s mind can be of a different race than one’s body, thus allowing a black man to be objectively racist against himself, for example. Transmentalism?
Also recently, and also at National Review, Kevin Williamson was involved in a frank exchange of opinions with Baytya Ungar-Sargon and Bethany Mandel over a recent NR article about anti-Semitism in and around New York City. The nature of the disagreement centered on whether reporting certain inflammatory statements constitutes endorsement of those statements, or, at the very least, an irresponsible amplification of them. Some commenters reflexively scorn Mandel as typical of “the left,” which would no doubt come as a surprise to her, as she’s a conservative. But once the old tribal instinct gets aroused, you’re either with us or against us, and apostates make just as good kindling as heretics.
It’s like the old legal aphorism about pounding the table. When it comes to today’s culture wars, if the immediate facts are on your side, emphasize the facts. If the immediate facts complicate your preferred long-term narrative, emphasize the narrative. In either case, make sure to emphasize the irredeemable moral and intellectual deficiencies of your opponent. Now, I’m not under the impression that things have ever been otherwise. I don’t think there was ever a golden age of rational, good-faith debate where substantial arguments mattered more than cheap shots and intellectuals shared a disinterested commitment to truth above tribal partisanship. But I do think that the pipeline of practice-becomes-habit-becomes-character is far more fundamental than political issues, and I worry that social media has only accelerated and intensified our worst practices. Discourse, like water, is always following the gravitational pull down to sea level, but social media has leveled the landscape and greased the skids along the way. There never has been a time of universal deceit, but telling the truth regardless of tribal loyalties is still the most radical thing most of us will ever have the chance to do.