How to Write a Good Leftist Critique of Chapo Trap House
The recent Chapo Trap House New Yorker profile is probably the fairest criticism of them written yet, but if you’re looking for a leftist critique of the show, it will probably disappoint you. For example, it seems to imply that they’re on the wrong side of a “race vs. class” debate without clarifying what the author means by that, or what the “correct” side of that debate would entail.
The New Yorker profile also seems to have sparked more negative opinions on the podcast from liberals or leftists, at least on Twitter, if not in long-form media.
As I read this, I thought back to an episode of the podcast where host Will Menaker talks about members of the online Stalinist community who regularly write negative reviews of the show (before mainstream liberals discovered the show, it was apparently only disliked by small online groups). Menaker says, “This frustrates me because I’d be really interested to read a coherent left critique of the show.”
The absence of a solid left critique in the New Yorker profile has made me, as a Grey Wolf Subscriber to the show, particularly hungry to see a good left critique of Chapo Trap House.
But I have the feeling that, due to the space the CTH occupies on the left, and due to the linguistically complex yet substantially vague framing provided by the liberal center, a good critique of CTH is not easy to write.
So I’ve compiled a list of things that I think a good critique should cover (a cheatsheet, so to speak), in the hope that a writer will discover this list and write a good leftist criticism of Chapo Trap House.
1. Their frequent (and possibly unintentional) implication that “not working” is a goal of socialism.
While the jokes they make about how “work sucks” are mostly funny and relatable, now that the show is a vanguard of leftist pop culture, are they appropriate anymore? The myth that socialists “just don’t want to work” has plagued everything from social justice movements to labor unions.
Of course, the opposite idea — that working long hours is somehow noble and liberating — has also been a plague on labor movements of the past and present (To be fair, in the USA, this is related to a point well-addressed by Miya Tokumitsu: prior to McCarthyite purges of socialists, the American labor movement was focused on reducing the length of the work-week.). It is refreshing to have voices that have gotten past that. But it’s still possible to take the “work sucks” attitude too far.
The paradigm where Work is something one must accept as inevitably bad (rather than thinking of how it can be better) while trying to escape it by making a lucrative gamble (such as founding a startup or running a Patreon) is one of most insidious symptoms of neoliberalism. In this neoliberal paradigm, people whose livelihood depends on obnoxious but inescapable jobs aren’t just ordinary people — they’re losers. A good left critique might explore where the Chapo Trap House hosts might unwittingly fit in with that paradigm, and how they can move past it.
2. The dearth of black guests.
This could very easily just be a result of who says “yes” to appearing on the show, but it’s still worth considering. As Christman says in the New Yorker profile (paraphrased by author Jia Tolentino), “Representation in the media is a real issue, but one that mostly applies to large institutions like the Times or CNN, where barriers to entry preserve gender and racial hierarchies.”
That is true, and most people who cry “white socialism!” are actually just looking for an excuse to oppose environmental regulations and higher taxes. But the show’s whiteness is still a valid topic for discussion — if discussed sincerely.
Chapo Trap House, despite being a small, independent operation, has become enough of a symbol of left-wing media that representation might actually mean something on the show. A good left critique of Chapo Trap House might examine its representation issues from that angle.
3. The ambiguity of their real-life activist commitments.
The show started off with a “purely entertainment” vibe — it was clear that the hosts were pretty far to the left, but they never called themselves socialists, nor did they express allegiance to any real-life socialist organization. But they’ve also had several repeat guests who are members of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America).
It’s very likely that the hosts don’t want the show to get bogged down in the Monty Python-esque intra-left debates that make left-wing politics seem silly to many outsiders. But, considering how close the show is with IRL left-wing politics, it might be worthwhile for them to talk more about the real-life groups that the hosts and their listeners belong to (or, more likely, think about joining but never do, because they are failchildren).
4. The particular type of masculinity presented in the show, and its implications.
The New Yorker profile referenced this “dudeliness,” but didn’t really delve into what this “dudeliness” means. It would be interesting to read a critique of Chapo by a leftist gender studies expert — not the type of liberal gender studies expert who says “it’s too masculine” and leaves it at that, but the type who is willing to look deeper into the assumptions that the hosts (Amber Frost included) make about masculinity, and the political implications of those assumptions.
A writer looking to explore this might take a cue from something Frost herself asked in reference to the protagonists of 1970s political thrillers: Are shaggy-haired pussyhounds really the vanguard of progress?
A writer looking to explore this might also take a cue from this tweet by eve peyser, which applies to #2 as well. It’s very possible that the show’s self-referential “dudeliness” has more political implications than the hosts realize.
5. The lack of discussion on the show’s financial success.
Red Kahina and other Stalinist haters of the show believe that the show is an outlet of the US and Turkish deep states, and that the dark money gives the hosts enough money to afford a Park Slope mansion. The Park Slope mansion is a good running joke, but it’s the only time that the hosts discuss their own economic situations. They don’t pretend to be poor, struggling proles, but they also talk very little about the show’s success. Nearly everything we know about their backgrounds we know from profiles in other media outlets.
A good critique of Chapo Trap House might take that into account, and might also look into podcast hosts’ representation of their own success. As Obama said to Marc Maron, “You are the media now. You’re doing pretty well.” Chapo may not be as successful as WTF with Marc Maron (though Felix Biederman does a great impersonation of him). But they might look to Maron as an example of why a successful podcast host shouldn’t attach too tightly to his identity as a disaffected underdog.