A few years ago I was offered a job as devil’s advocate at the then-upstart Vox — a well-funded concern from the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein that was meant to bring a certain brand of left-leaning, empirics-driven reporting and analysis to the next plateau. The offer was earnest, the recruitment spirited, the conversations frank and friendly, and the parameters generous. But in the end, of course, I passed.
I passed (and forthrightly told Klein I was passing) because I thought one of his co-founders, whom I was supposed to have worked directly under, was a liar and an a**hole. My suspicion that he was a liar has been confirmed since, in the intervening years, he has published several statements to the effect that lying is okay, even good, so long as it is done in the furtherance of the correct policies. My suspicion that he was an a**hole has been borne out by this and many other events.
I don’t regret passing up the Vox job, though I imagine Ezra Klein regrets offering me it. Because in the years since, his co-founder’s ethos has come to dominate the landscape, and liars and a**holes have proliferated at every level and in every corner of the political discourse.
Which brings me to my friend Kevin Williamson, who, I assure you, reader, can sometimes be a real a**hole, but who was never a liar.
Fortnightly publishing schedules being what they are, and my position in the motley of writers asked to pen “Happy Warrior” being what it is, I realize this is the 207th thing you will have read on the Williamson donnybrook. I won’t dwell on it except en route to a broader point, I promise.
A leftist professor of rhetoric with whom I occasionally correspond made some crack at Kevin’s expense. Something to the effect that Kevin’s — characteristically lucid and eloquent — reflections on the “Twitter mob” that came for him, published in the Wall Street Journal, marked his coming out as a comrade of Marx, as his firing was surely the action of an efficient market.
I replied that if Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg had fired Kevin because 50,000 print readers had canceled their subscriptions, I’m quite sure Kevin would have found and donned a cap just to tip it to him.
But that’s not what happened, of course. The heckler’s veto that took out Kevin is the opposite of free contract, and is indeed the great virus that afflicts it. It’s the rhetorical Cosa Nostra, This Thing of Ours that gets between a speaker and his listeners to rip off the one and rough up the other.
That’s not what I want to talk about, though. Not exactly. There’s been enough truth spoken about the fragility and myopia and profoundly bad faith of Kevin’s enemies. What I want to talk about is their priorities.
To wit, I’d like to ask them, What business is it of yours?
In the time since Kevin’s firing, the indomitable Barbara Bush has passed away. A professor at Fresno State University in California, whose name I can’t recall and won’t bother googling, has said some awful things about Bush’s death on social media, dancing rhetorically on the first lady’s still-open grave. These comments were elevated, before they were condemned, by a rabble of largely right-leaning rousers, some of whom called on Twitter for this professor’s discipline or termination.
But their irritation, however broad, was not especially deep. Tweeting, after all, is easy. And most folks on social media have fewer followers than they have points of IQ. In any event, it certainly didn’t constitute what — wouldn’t you know it — Vox writer Anna North characterized in a lengthy take as “the conservative reaction” to the professor’s comments. Indeed, to my knowledge the few big-ticket conservatives and libertarians to have weighed in on the issue did so to defend the awful woman’s free-speech rights.
For my own part, I couldn’t imagine caring a whit about what she thinks of Bar Bush unless, and only maybe unless, I had a kid enrolled at Fresno State.
It just doesn’t matter, folks.
No more than a few days after Instructor Whatsername had her moment, the former NFL placekicker Jay Feely — who, I believe, spent at least part of his career as a New York Giant, though I’ll never know for sure — was forced to publicly apologize after a mass of insignificant people on Twitter complained about a picture of him packing a .45 as he stood between his daughter and her prom date. Rape culture or whatever.
But the Feely pic should have been in a frame on a mantelpiece, alternately delighting and weirding out the few dozen visitors who encountered it over the years. We were never meant to adjudicate homecoming glamour shots, much less Dad jokes, on a global scale.
Just as Kevin’s job at The Atlantic should have been the business of Kevin and The Atlantic, these things too are fundamentally local issues, driven to instantaneity and ubiquity by the time-and-space-decoupling power of technology. And, woe, are we the miserabler for it.
It isn’t that the kind of “imagined communities,” as Benedict Anderson put it, that social media instantiate are unimportant. Everything from sports fandoms and fraternities to nations and confessions are imagined in this way. It’s rather that we were better off when these communities were actually left to the imagination. Has the GOP been made stronger by the ability of its MAGA-troll, Evangelical, and suburban-professional factions to hector each other anonymously? Have the doctrinal and pastoral rifts in the Catholic Church been mended by so many exegetical tweets? Have angry young men in Florida and Syria and Paris been pacified by uploading their outrages to the cloud?
Maybe “Think globally, act locally” is over. Maybe it’s “Think locally, mind your business, who the hell do you think you are, anyway? Nobody likes a know-it-all, buddy.”