I am, as we all well know, a person of no particular credentials, of no particular reach, of no particular importance, and so it’s fairly reasonable for me to spend my lunch hour just messing around with words on the internet. I’ve got no obligation to address the news of the day, or to make sure my opinions are good and worthwhile! I’m not even getting paid for this! It’s a nice, relaxing way to think of my own writing — the stakes are very low, because of course none of this particularly matters.
Sometimes I imagine though, what if I was a real columnist? A columnist at something like the Philadelphia Daily News? What if I had a plum role in an industry that was slowly dying, and what if I was widely read and my thoughts were immediately considered by relevant people in my city? How would I, in a world so devoid of interesting news, find something to write about every week?
If you just asked yourself that hypothetical question about what you’d write this week, of all fucking weeks, and then decided soundly that the answer is, “a subliterate regurgitation of a book that came out two years ago by a TV pundit from Alaska that no one has ever heard of about how liberals are mean to conservatives on Facebook,” then you’re probably Philly Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky.
I’m so sorry, I really am, but please know that at least one person has apparently lived a long and fulfilling life as Stu Bykofsky, he has a job and everything.
You’ve really got to read this thing, it’s extraordinary on a couple different levels.
The very first thing is that it’s a book from 2015 by a different columnist about how liberals silence dissent. Imagine! Imagine being the guy who, on the very same day that: the Republican president-elect publicly refuses to answer questions from a journalist he decides is fake, his press secretary threatens to throw the journalist out of the press conference, and then later they both demand an apology from the journalist — imagine that on this very day, you take it into your head to publish an article about how liberals silence dissent.
Of course, Stu Bykofsky couldn’t have known all this was going to happen, and indeed being able to predict that something like this would happen would require only the slightest and most shallow basic knowledge of current events, which no newspaper columnist has ever been required to have. So sure no, there’s no way he could have known, but do you think he’s embarrassed? Do you think he saw his article on the Philly Daily News site, then clicked over to that press conference and immediately regretted saying “Some conservatives also like to silence opposition, but are weak in the means”?
I mean no, of course not, a guy that writes a thing like this is lucky to be able to string a couple words together in a way that conveys any kind of sense — there’s no reason to assume self-reflection is within his wheelhouse.
Which is the other part of this that I think is amazing, how just flat-out bad this column is. It’s bad, technically: the thing reads like a 6th-grade book report. “I read the book, and the lady in the book says this. And also she says this. And also this.” Is she right? Do her ideas fit into some kind of larger intellectual or social framework? Are the examples she cites correct, and were they illustrated fairly? Stu don’t care, Stu’s got a long day of sitting back and resting on his laurels to get to, Stu did not check up on anything here, what is he some kind of journalist?
I mean, for fuck’s sake, at least Jonathan Chait’s eighty-thousand word jeremiad against campus feminazis was thorough, even if it was stupid and wrongheaded. But that’s what we get in Philadelphia I guess, in New York you get a Chait, in Philadelphia you get a Stu.
And one place where your average Stu might exceed your Chait is in the tremendous, disingenuous stupidity of his analysis, which is obviously the real reason I decided to write this (though it does baffle me that a major news publication would pay money for anything this half-assed), and the reason that you kept reading this far, so let’s get to it I guess.
First things first, if you’re going to make up a bullshit argument about how liberals are the real racists, you can’t have it come out from a famous conservative’s pen, so you’ve got to establish the liberal credentials of the person whose book you’re basically cribbing for this week’s paycheck:
Journalist and TV pundit Kirsten Powers has a problem with her own people — liberals.
The liberal columnist for USA Today doesn’t have a problem with all liberals, just the subset she defines as the “illiberal left.” As political discourse has become more coarse, she sees growing danger.
Good, right? Liberals might deny a criticism from a conservative, but how can you argue that this is bullshit if it comes from another liberal? Of course, what Stu fails to answer, or even to address, is who the hell is Kirsten Powers. Liberal columnist for USA Today? First of all, my dude, liberals don’t read USA Today, we read Internet for our news; second of all even if we accept that Kirsten Powers is a person whose name we ought to know, this isn’t much of an argument for why her opinion ought to be respected. Just declaring someone a “liberal” doesn’t make them liberal, or indeed give them any special insight into liberality, or furthermore any particular authority to define what it means to be liberal and who is or isn’t one.
Which is definitely what she does!
A fun part of this column is trying to guess which things are Kirsten Powers’ ideas and which ones are Stu Bykofsky’s. Obviously the quotes are Kirsten’s:
The “illiberal left,” she writes, “act in direct contradiction to the fundamental liberal values of free speech, debate and dissent” and “adopt tactics they claim to discern and detest in conservatives.”
(And sure, of course, are these things true? Are the fundamental liberals values “free speech, debate, and dissent”? What does it mean to adopt a tactic that you discern in others? He hasn’t even put in the whole paragraph here so I can’t tell how much context is actually missing.)
But what about this one?
The illiberal left is a loud group that mastered social media, helps steer academia and runs what I call “alt-left” websites. Those are fountainheads of victimization where you can drown in slippery, socially-engineered terms such as mansplaining, trigger warnings, microaggressions, (fill in the blank) privilege, cisgender, rape culture, and more phobias than are locked in Freud’s little closet of horrors.
Whose ideas are these? Kirsten Powers coined the term “illiberal left” (as shown above) — so when Bykofsky says that they’re a loud group that mastered social media and steers academia, does that mean that Powers said it? Or is it a conclusion he drew from the book he’s regurgitating for us?
(A brief note: “alt-right” is a purposeful effort on the part of white supremacists to rebrand their explicitly and specifically racist politics as being within the ordinary political spectrum of debate; “alt-left” is a rebranding by Stu Bykofsky of [apparently] academics who believe that “cisgender” is a word that has meaning to make them sound more like neo-Nazis.)
In either case, of course, this is an extremely dumb thing to say. You can’t drown in words, for one thing, you just learn what they mean and what people mean by them — even a regular old dummy like me can understand what “mansplaining” is, and what, for example “white privilege” is, making them no more or less slippery any of the other million words in the English language. But what is a “socially-engineered” term? Is that something engineered by a society? Or for a society? Is it a term meant to operate or affect society? That’s what all words do. That’s what a word is! It’s a term that has meaning associated with it, and you deploy it in order to affect how someone is thinking! They are used by society!
Similarly, whose idea is this, sitting out all by its lonesome, unconnected to any sort of paragraph:
Some conservatives also like to silence opposition, but are weak in the means.
Is that what Kirsten Powers said? That conservatives were notably more tolerant of dissent than liberals? Or is it just Stu Bykofsky covering his ass here: “well, of course both sides do it” — can’t have a good political goonwank without a little bothsidesism — “but conservatives just aren’t good at it, so let’s go back to talking about how liberals are bad.”
(Another brief note: Milo Yiannoupoulis, the living incarnation of what it means to take a shit on the First Amendment, at a speaking event in UW Milwaukee, publicly mocked a trans student, who was harassed so badly afterwards that she had to drop out of school. I guess some conservatives are strong in the means!)
(A third note, see also that thing I said about Donald Trump literally squashing the dissent of the press in front of our eyes on the very same day this column was printed.)
(A fourth: please consider the Electoral College, gerrymandering, North Carolina’s explicitly racist voting restrictions, and any other concrete means that conservatives have used to secure unique, unchallenged control over the levers of government, and then come back and fucking tell me that the real threat to free speech is college students not wanting to have a commencement speech from the chair of the World Bank.)
Yeah, it’s true, Stu does love the Commencement Speaker as the symbol of free speech, just like our old friend Chait does — I don’t want to get too into that, I already wrote about why this is some boneheaded horseshit, but the tl;dr version is: who gives a shit about a commencement speaker? Commencement isn’t a debate or a scientific conference, it’s a mutual gladhanding between university and some famous person, why on earth would we expect students to not reject getting their egos stroked by someone accused of war crimes?
After this, we get the fun set of “examples that have nothing to do with each other except for the fact that they generally hint at the mood that lurks behind all this” (and it’s that mood that’s salient, I’ll get around to it, don’t forget about that), i.e.:
Dan Cathy “supports traditional marriage” by which we mean “pays money to initiatives to ban gay marriage”, can you believe that liberals didn’t want to keep buying his chicken sandwiches so that their money would continue to fund policies they don’t like?
Brendan Eich also “supports tradtiional marriage” (CEO of Mozilla), by which we again mean “pays money to initiatives to ban gay marriage”, for which of course no one should ever suffer social consequences, it’s free speech man.
Apparently in 2014 a “liberal” professor who encountered a teenager on campus doing nothing more than displaying pro-life materials (by which we mean: huge posters of fetal corpses) and then assaulted her (by which we mean: taking one of the posters and walking off with it). Of course, the liberal newsletter I get never mentioned her, and I’m not currently aware of any broad liberal plan to physically assault pro-life teens or steal their hideous posters, so I’m not sure what this has to do with liberalism in general.
Then he’s got a list of journalists who departed from the “liberal orthodoxy” and were branded as racist or homophobic or what have you: Campbell Brown, Sharyl Attkisson, George Will,
George Will? George Will was branded as a racist for departing from the liberal orthodoxy?
Sure. Sure, okay, but on the other hand, if one of the liberal values is “anti-racism”, surely disagreeing with that is definitionally racist? If I say, “racism is bad and should be eliminated” and you say, “no, you’re wrong”, I don’t feel like I’m out of line calling you a racist on that one. In fact, if, as a liberal, I am opposed to homophobia and misogyny and all these other things, and you, as George Will, tacitly support them…why shouldn’t I call you a racist, homophobic, misogynist?
Anyway, Stu says that all of this “smacks of the Salem witch trials — repent, or else.” I think that’s obviously not his real problem, but I want to make a brief digression to point out that the thing about “witch-hunts” that makes them different from accurately identifying someone as racist is that witches aren’t fucking real. Similarly, the reason we called the McCarthy-era HUAC trials “witch-hunts” is because Joe McCarthy’s idea of secret communist sympathizers and spies trying to overthrow America and put it in the hands of the Soviet Union was a fantasy.
Ugh, these guys.
Me: Racism is bad.
Stu: No, you’re wrong.
Me: Okay, well, that is racist.
Stu: HOW DARE YOU WITCH HUNT ME FREE SPEECH DISSENT DEBATE
That’s actually the crux of what all this is about, so I want to try to bring a couple of these points I left hanging together here in the end. Here, let’s look at a couple things:
In Philadelphia, talk show host Buzz Bissinger, a respected author and journalist, committed the heresy of endorsing Mitt Romney for president. He promptly was dropped by some of his liberal friends, he said.
Looking at Facebook, Pew Research found 44 percent of liberals unfriended someone over politics, contrasted with 31 percent of conservatives and 29 percent of all users.
As an example, what had been a traditional view of marriage for millennia — one man, one woman — within one generation became “hate.”
And the kicker, this is from Kirsten Powers:
“Dissent from liberal orthodoxy is cast as racism, misogyny, bigotry, phobia, [even violence],”
You can almost feel the defensiveness wafting from his pores as he writes this. Can you believe, he seems to ask, that just because I oppose gay marriage, that makes me homophobic? Just because I don’t believe that racism is real and should be opposed, that makes me racist? Can you believe that simply not believing that women suffer from discrimination has branded me — ME, Stu Bykofsky, a notably good guy! — a misogynist!?!?!?
That’s the main problem with all this shit. Guys like Stu think of themselves as good people, and they inherited a lot of these horseshit ideas about homosexuality and et cetera, and while they weren’t looking the rest of society noticed that these old, inherited ideas were actually bad. So, to protect their sense of selves, they abstract the consequences of their politics. Why should Buzz Bissinger be dropped by his liberal friends just because he supports Mitt Romney?
It’s not like politics is real, like it has actual consequences on people’s lives, it’s not like gay people get treated like second-class citizens, not like they’re beaten and murdered for that mistreatment, right? Why can’t you just respect the fact that I disagree with you? And by disagree with you, I don’t mean “you like coffee but I like bourbon,” I mean, “you believe that gay people deserve the full rights of citizenship and participation in US society, and I believe that they’re an immoral affront to God and should be categorically punished for not behaving in a way I approve of.”
Who could characterize that as hate? Stu Bykofsky doesn’t hate gay people, he just believes that they’re an unnatural defiance of millennia of tradition, and that tradition is more important than their value as human beings, and that he should actively and volubly try to prevent them from being valued as human beings unless they transform themselves into something that he approves of. That’s not hate, guys, come on, that’s just a genuine and dispassionate commitment to the destruction of the humanity of an entire class of people.
This whole thing is an elaborate justification for why a guy like Stu Bykofsky should be able to have whatever appalling politics he wants, but no one should be allowed to hurt his feelings by calling his politics appalling, or suggesting that he might be an appalling person for having them. But why not? Why, exactly, should I stay friends with racists? My circle of friends is made up of people that I like, and I don’t like racism.
What on earth is the moral or social justification for being friends with people I don’t like?