It’s not just a right-wing phenomenon. Thinkers on the left, beware.
May I suggest number 6: Don't get so focused on what you're fighting against that you're willing to sacrifice what you're fighting for.
I am sympathetic to some of the arguments and examples in this article. I have also observed some social media personalities that I initially followed "going off the rails", and I think that the incentive structure of social media coupled with some deep human psychological tendencies are creating tremendous polarization.
There is a countervailing concern, however. We are, as the author suggests, living in a time of tremendous social change. Part of what is now becoming evident to people is that there is an ideology of wokeism --critical social justice/DEI/successor ideology/whatever you want to call it -- that has captured virtually every mainstream institution, including legacy media, corporations, human rights tribunals and NGOs. This is the ideology of the elites, though it purports to speak for the disadvantaged. The ideology is thoroughly identitarian, importantly not only its praxis but in its epistemology. Only people with certain identities have standing to speak, and even then only if they promulgate particular ideas. The underlying theory is that our discourse is so contaminated with oppression (patriarchy, homophobia, cissexxism, racism, etc.) that to oppose these ideas is akin to (or to some, literally) an act of violence. Marcuse would be proud.
This epistemic framing has significant consequences. It is an ideological ratchet. In Canada, there is a local of a teacher's union that has approved race-based voting, where votes local presidents who are "black, indigenous or racialized" will be weighted to ensure that they are at least equal to white votes in aggregate.
Some teachers objected that this was a form of "reverse racism". Proponents of the measure then reported the objectors to the principal, and the principal warned that the phrase "reverse racism" is a form of harassment, which could result in punitive measures. (This part of the episode is not the link cited above.)
This example shows an interesting convergence of ideologically captured institutions that are nominally in opposition to one another. Members of the union (labor) went to the principal (management) for ideological enforcement. The ideology ratchets further and further, and dissent at each stage is labelled as heresy that is punished using *institutional* power. Like a religion, it has transcended the boundaries of bodies that are meant to act as a balance on one another.
I suppose this is where the author would label my concern over this episode as reactionary. After all, it's just one teacher's local, not even a whole teacher's union, and it's in Canada. But to me, this is a logical endpoint of the ideology. If we are a white-supremacist society whose laws and institutions are constructed to serve the interests of straight, cis, white men, and if only those deemed oppressed are equipped to identify and remedy those deficiencies, then why would this not be an appropriate remedy? What in the ideology is the limiting principle that prevents race-weighted state or federal voting, or even complete disenfranchisement of "oppressor" voters?
I contend that the ideology has no limiting principle. These sorts of outcomes are logical consequences of the ideas contained in the ideology. Because the epistemology is closed -- to argue is to blaspheme -- the only response to it is ultimately raw power. And that is the reaction we are starting to see. I think that is the meta-strategy of James Lindsay's transformation, for example. Refuse to act appropriately, refuse to be cowed, refuse to apologize. Every act by the woke is an act of raw power, and so deny them that power by forming a counter-group and refuse to yield. In my opinion, that also goes a long way to explaining the Trump phenomenon.
I agree with the author that these are not productive solutions. Where we diverge is that I think that both ideologies are profoundly dangerous, and where we are headed is to a clash of the extremes. I think these ideas do threaten our civilization. You don't head that off by becoming what you hate, but you also don't prevent it by minimizing the threats of the logical consequences of a set of ideas. I agree with what Brett Weinstein says about the dangers of sparking white ethnonationalism. As a deplorable reactionary, I would add to that the ideology marching through our institutions could also spark a horrific left wing purge of "oppressors". We've seen this in history before. I don't think Wenistein is "magnifying" the harm. Both the ideology and the the reaction are profoundly dangerous, and I think the author incorrectly minimizes the danger.
I would add 2 things to this discussion. First is the concept of "audience capture", which was coined by, of all people, Eric Weinstein.
Jesse Singal had a good discussion of it over on his Substack, using Tim Pool as a case study.
"It basically means getting stuck in a self-reinforcing loop in which you give your audience exactly what they want. In some cases, it can turn you from a relatively sane-seeming person to a relatively crazy-seeming one........Pool can be lumped in with a large number of other writers and YouTubers and other content producers who are very skeptical and critical of mainstream institutions, particularly the media. Skepticism of mainstream institutions is a growth industry, and for many valid reasons.
The problem is, the more you criticize mainstream institutions, the more you hear from a very particular sort of person encouraging you to dig deeper, to become even more skeptical, and to devote more and more time and energy to these sorts of fights. If you’re not careful, you can end up getting dragged into entirely new, very weird realms of ideology and discourse, and it’s usually a one-way trip."
The second thing I would say is it's not "reactionary" to worry, as Bret Weinstein does, that identity politcs "could make white-ethno-naionalism [sic] mainstream."
That's because if identity politics from every other tribe are not just tolerated, but outright encouraged, it's not a sustainable ideological position to maintain that identity politics from straight white dudes is a terrible horrible no good very bad thing. The hypocrisy and inherent double standard is way too obvious to go unnoticed, and so progressives may be unintentionally normalizing white nationalist identity politics, simply by cheerleading every OTHER variant of identity politics.
Zero-sum identarian ideologies are either a bad thing, or they aren't. It's not realistic for progressives to expect "identity politics for me but none for thee" to be tolerated indefinitely by white conservatives.
Here's one that I would add:
6. Take it down a notch; avoid disrespect and smugness when communicating online.
One might argue that this is just restating the goal, but if the true goal is keeping your own "resting state" temperament and outlook reasonably balanced, how you conduct yourself outwardly in these more contentious moments, regardless of how you may be seething inside, matters a great deal. The more you lean into what you say online, and try to be caustically witty or engage in "owning" your ideological opponents, the more you have personally invested in being right and the less likely you will be open to the possibility of being wrong. You'll provoke defensive reactions in others and they'll do the same to you, and you'll come to see yourself as ever more justified in the vehemence of your opposition. Learn to view an escalation of tempers as an alarm bell and not a trumpet call to arms.
It's also worth stating because this one is particularly difficult. It's like telling yourself you're going to stop yelling at other drivers on the road. It really takes repetitive retraining of your instincts, without necessarily getting immediate positive reinforcement.
I’ve been struggling a bit with the terminology here: reactionary or reactive? In the duality of social change and reaction, isn’t it conventional, at least on the progressive left, to understand social change as positive and reaction as negative, social change as fundamentally progressive and reaction as fundamentally, indeed extremely, conservative? After all, conservative opposition need not be reactionary. Reactionaries are the hard core: French aristocrats and European monarchies after the French revolution or Russian aristocrats after the Russian revolution, in both cases parties who wished to restore the status quo, can reasonably be called reactionary. Eventual expansion of the term in the Soviet Union to just about anybody who failed to follow the party line, however, suggests a problem which has surfaced throughout the history of the Left and could come into play here. Looking at social change from a less sanguine perspective, for example the rise of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, one sees that opposition sometimes emerged among the reactionary, Prussian military aristocrats, most often from the political Left, sometimes from religious leaders motivated by their faith. Isn’t it important to have a standard definition of reactionary? How are people whose opposition to wokery has become extreme, reflexive rather than reflective, truly reactionary?
Creating a false dichotomy whereby anyone who challenges any aspect of identitarian thought or practice gets lumped into reaction seems to me to be a standard “woke” move. For example, people who question the teaching of Critical Race Theory or the 1619 Project in schools are routinely presented in the mainstream media as seeking a return to an “idealized” vision of this country and its past, as if there were no intellectually respectable and historically valid alternative. A “return” to a non-existent past amounts to reaction. Opposition, even strong opposition, to the tenets of “anti-racism” need not be reaction.
Maybe I’m defending the “reactionaries” because I risk joining their ranks. Not because of social media, which I find easy to ignore. Rather because I despair of finding a reliable general source of news that is not rooted in identitarian thinking, that doesn’t adhere to the latest typographical or grammatical correctness, that doesn’t assume its own righteousness. And because I work for a major university and see how “diversity, equity and inclusion” have become the watchwords of the day, and a careful watch kept on all pronouns. Arif Ahmed, professor of philosophy at Cambridge, has written an excellent article on the implications of the long march of the (identitarian) Left through the institutions: https://unherd.com/2022/01/how-our-universities-became-sheep-factories. I agree with Moskowitz that people who go over the top into outrage become unreliable as sources, and I agree with his suggestions for avoiding such a fate. But reactionaries?
Good essay. I would add to be mindful of one's emotions. The reason folks like LIndsay and Rubin have shifted too much is not, I think, intellectual reasoning or grifting, but that human beings are social creatures. When heretofore liberals depart from the orthodoxy and get slammed, their feelings are hurt. When those on the right offer them a warm bath, their loyalties shift, and they find a way to rationalize their new associations.
1) I don't think Weinstein really belongs in your set, or that his quote is even unreasonable. Lindsay, Pool, and Rubin, fair enough.
2) Re Yglesias, if "who in fact holds power" is definited only in terms of election results, fine. But the woke have seized pretty much all of the cultural power in the West minus explicitly right outliers like Fox News--meaning Academia/Media/Nonprofit world, and making big inroads into HR/the corporate world and blue state local governance. To ignore that in a discussion of who holds the real power in the US, UK and elsewhere, is ludicrous.
Seth says: A reactionary is someone with extreme opposition to dramatic social or political change.
Hummmmm…. Isn’t it actually the exact opposite? A reactionary is someone who shows extreme opposition to the current social/political status quo? That’s what they’re reacting to….
Thus someone who argues against a reactionary is not a reactionary. They are arguing against a reactionary.
So why is it an important point?
Because a reactionary that wants to demolish the status quo owes an obligation to not only point out what’s wrong with the status quo but - most importantly - to state clearly how the change they are advocating for will make things better. Better meaning better for society - not just for themselves and make society more cohesive - less conflict and division.
Critical race theory and attempts to racialize everyone by skin color are both destructive to the cultural bonds that bind us. And, these theories offer absolutely nothing to replace those bonds thereby making society more cohesive. In fact, they lead us down a path that prescribes the exact opposite: misery and civil war.
God help us all if “whites” become “racialized” such that any offense against a single white is to be regarded by all white people as an offense against all whites as a group. If you want to hear “White Lives Matter”, keep going down the current path. I certainly don’t want to go there…..!!!
And some on the left can see how absolutely destructive such a state of affairs would be and they are quite correct to strenuously warn against it. That doesn’t mean they’re caught in a reactionary trap by any means. They’re trying to get us out of the reactionary trap we’re in….I.e., captured by counter-cultural destructive forces…before it’s too late.
Like you, I've devoted a lot of words to criticizing the attitudinal left from a position on the substantive left (please see below). Also like you, however, I'm dismayed to see such contrarian-left criticism become a knee-jerk affair.
It's not that I feel any sympathy with the neoracists and petty tyrants we're criticizing, but that I grieve for the keen minds among ourselves that are being dulled by passion. If freedom to engage in probing, thoughtful argument is the thing we mean to defend, it's tragically ironic to lose our capacity for exercising that freedom. It thins the ranks of reliable critics.
Thank you for a timely corrective.
A propos, strongly recommend https://www.amazon.com/Scout-Mindset-Perils-Defensive-Thinking/dp/0735217556
You aren't paranoid if they really are out to get you, and your kids.
California should abolish parenthood, in the name of equity
Joe Mathews Zócalo
If California is ever going to achieve true equity, the state must require parents to give away their children.
Today’s Californians often hold up equity — the goal of a just society completely free from bias — as our greatest value. Gov. Gavin Newsom makes decisions through “an equity lens.” Institutions from dance ensembles to tech companies have publicly pledged themselves to equity.
But their promises are no match for the power of parents.
Fathers and mothers with greater wealth and education are more likely to transfer these advantages to their children, compounding privilege over generations. As a result, children of less advantaged parents face an uphill struggle, social mobility has stalled, and democracy has been corrupted. More Californians are abandoning the dream; a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found declining belief in the notion that you can get ahead through hard work.
My solution — making raising your own children illegal — is simple, and while we wait for the legislation to pass, we can act now: the rich and poor should trade kids, and homeowners might swap children with their homeless neighbors.
Now, I recognize that some naysayers will dismiss such a policy as ghastly, even totalitarian. But my proposal is quite modest, a fusion of traditional philosophy and today’s most common political obsessions.
When a author clams that others "have stumbled into conspiracy theorizing and alarmism." said author should give specific quotes showing just where such theorizing was presented.
Otherwise, what we have here is just a set of vague hatchet-attacks.
Excellent, thoughtful piece -- and helpful!
There is so much of value in this piece that I almost hate to have to point out that the author has apparently fallen into the very trap about which he warns:
"Reactionary politics is an easy trap to fall into these days, given that so much of what is deemed progress is really the opposite. Ultimately, however, reactionaries do more harm than good. We do not need them, or the alarmism and hysteria in which they often indulge, to save us."
Is this not a prime example of "them" and "us" thinking? And while it may be true that there are some reactionaries on the American left, is it not true that the grievance-fueled *trump cultists are all by definition, reactionaries? So are the "them" the author is referring to only the few on the left whom he deems reactionaries, or are their millions of right-wing analogues also a concern? And I suppose my real concern is that if we buy this, are we not falling into yet a different trap - that of false equivalency?
Frankly, I'm always pleased to see right-wing reactionaries eating their own, but while I have huge qualms about the elitist attitudes and communication styles of many of my brothers and sisters on the left, it pains me to have to think of them as "them."
Understood, thank you for writing this. I think you could have gotten the point across without using particular people - allow the reader to understand the concept - and ask them to search for where they see it, even in themselves.
Thanks for a very insightful article Seth. I was actually thinking during this week about writing about Tim Pool's visit in Sweden after the refugee situation in Europe 2016. Since I live in Stockholm and write about politics, including migration and identification, I was not always impressed by his behaviour.
And in the case of Rubin, it really shows the case of what happens when one becomes very anti-left than pro-something. Rubin even ended up endorsing nationalist and right-wing collectivist thinkers as Yoram Hazony.