From week to week, the culture wars rage on. None of it is materially real, but a lot of it has real life consequences. The deplatformings continue; the cancellings continue; the scoldings continue. And it sucks. However, it’s important to be wary of people who seek Purple Hearts for fighting in the culture wars.
In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, we find a journalist who arrives in a war zone only to find that the war zone is only a potential war zone. Cannons are not firing, guns are not blazing, journalists are the only ones running around incensed, creating more and more dramatic stories from thin air. Events that are not happening are reported with gusto and factual authority. Much the same is going on in the world of journalism today. Journalists take up keyboards and scroll through feeds to find something, anything, that may sort of be happening, and then write it up with total authority, fully formed opinion, with sources to back it up.
This all gives the appearance that something is really happening. The irony is not lost on us, because we need something to be happening. However, inventing stories by digging through a person’s twitter likes is similar to trolling a person’s bookshelves or cd collection (remember those?) and determining that a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich means the person is a Nazi sympathizer instead of a student of history. Twitter could just as easily have named their “likes” function to “I read this tweet and it’s sort of interesting,” but there’s not a handy emoji for that.
Over the last week, The New York Times and Vox have taken major shots at independent content creators in an attempt to seize back cultural power from the people. They did so by doing what has become a standard gambit in the shaming economy: by poring over the social media histories of their targets.
It put us in mind of 2018 story about tech billionaire Marc Andreesen. An outlet called The Outline actually published an entire article based on his Twitter likes. The lede of the story actually reads: “Over the past six years or so, the billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has been inching ever closer to the right end of the political spectrum.” It documents the startling fact that Andreesen once joked with Milo Yiannopoulous and was guilty of the high crime of liking tweets by James Lindsay, Mike Cernovich, and, horror of horrors, various Quillette authors. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Who cares? It’s completely absurd, and yet, one and a half years later, this kind of guilt-by-association nonsense is becoming an industry standard.
And, worse, the “journalists” who practice this standard act like they are the original Scud Studs: “I was in the crossfire and I saved my best friend’s life by calling out the problematic behaviour of a concern troll who wasn’t a true ally back in 2014. Then I doxxed a small village of Trump supporters in 2016. I’ve been through hell and survived. I’ve seen some things I can never unsee.”
Another way of framing what’s happening in culture is to think of the medieval Catholic Church. Much like the priests who held tight to text and prohibited public plebes from reading and discerning meaning on their own, the media wants to be high priests of culture. Texts written by the wrong sort are forbidden, and we’re meant to take the meaning we’re given, from those who are sanctified enough to read the original. The original isn’t safe, our minds and hearts could be damaged by word violence, we might be unduly influenced, and so it is determined that we need an intermediary between the word and the meaning of the word. But the internet is the Gutenberg Bible, available for anyone to read, to discern, to understand on their own.
Whether the primary metaphor we use is the military or the church, we need to arrive at a point when major institutions don’t have the power to enact their authoritarianism. This means that independent content creators just have to keep being interesting and doing better work than the legacy media.
This also means that legacy media must adapt and compete honestly and in good faith; they must let go of the reigns of power. Their grip is slipping anyway. Gatekeepers suck, and legacy outlets will have to face that fact. Maybe then people will feel a sense of permission to start actually speaking to each other again.
Things will get better if we stop caring and stop blindly consuming the product the establishment media is selling. If we don’t let them control the story, what we read, think or say, then we will live to see a future when we can actually talk about the cultural panic we are living through with a sense of critical distance and humour:
“Remember when ‘serious journalism’ meant prying into the lives of private citizens to determine whether or not their political views were ‘acceptable?’ That was effed up.”
Someday soon, hopefully we will all be able to laugh about it—all of this is will be over. We’ll be relaxing in our living pods, in the year 2035, watching YouTube news as President James Damore visits New York to lay a wreath at the Gamergate memorial.