Friday, July 24, 2020

The Luxury of Andrew Sullivan

Alla Nazimova in Salome (1923), via Pinterest.

Shorter David Brooks ("The Future of Nonconformity"):
The trouble right now is intellectual segregationism, where conservatives are excluded from academic life, working class voices are excluded from mainstream media, the Marxist left and theological right are marginalized, groupthink is practiced by all, and writers are expected to act as the representatives of a group, the left even more conformist than the right, and 62% of Americans are afraid to share their beliefs. Fortunately there's an obvious solution, in which the voices of nonconformity exclude everybody who doesn't want to subscribe to their SubStack or Patreon site and make lots of money from their self-selecting audiences.
It's intellectual feudalism replacing intellectual capitalism, a landscape dotted with castles dominated by figures of daring and resistance like Yascha Mounk, Andrew Sullivan, Judd Legum, Matt Taibbi, Jonah Goldberg, and David French defending themselves from behind their moats and battlements. That'll show those segregationists. Or, as David Brooks says,
Online writers don’t have to chase clicks by writing about whatever Trump tweeted 15 seconds ago. They can build deep relationships with the few rather than trying to affirm or titillate the many.
I would like the record to show that Judd Legum did not leave ThinkProgress, which he founded, because of its relentless cancel culture, but because he got sick of being an editor in chief, with which I can certainly sympathize:
I started out in this because I really got interested in blogs. I like the work, the topic, the subjects, I like thinking about it. And when you have a newsroom that’s 40 people, it’s great because you can do so much stuff. But I found more and more of my time was not spent doing substantive work, but managing a 40-person organization, which as it turns out, having never done it before, is a lot of work.
And he seems to like writing about whatever Trump tweeted 15 seconds ago, to his own 440,000 Twitter followers. At the other end of the scale, I have my own tiny world of castle culture subscriptions (Edroso at SubStack and @dick_nixon, who is actually the distinguished playwright Justin Sherin, at Patreon), where being among a few really is part of the pleasure, and which is really a natural outgrowth of the post-imperial anarchy of blogdom. I might well do it myself if I had any confidence I could get and hold on to 500 subscribers, but I'm probably having more fun this way.

Sullivan and Taibbi, on the other hand, have been looking to monetize themselves in between uncomfortable bouts of being employed for decades (when Taibbi was chastising Hillary Clinton for giving paid talks to Goldman Sachs employees I looked up his own Speakers Bureau page, where he hawks his repertoire of two speeches he is ready to dispense to anyone who pays the fee), are definitely not doing anything new, and as I think I must have said long ago the whole project of "subscribe to my newsletter"—of private periodical opinionation on public matters—goes back to 18th-century England and Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and my own beloved Dr. Samuel Johnson (who said, sensibly, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money").

Or even anything wrong. What I have against Taibbi and Sullivan isn't the way they make their hobbies work financially but the fact that they're lazy, bad writers incapable of self-criticism or growth. Which brings us back to David Brooks, of course.

I'm really getting sick of the complaint about conservatives being excluded from academic life, when the reason there are so few conservative professors in fields like comparative literature and sociology is plainly that conservatives don't like studying those things, as Joshua Dunn and Jon Shields (authors of "Passing on the Right", the sad story of how conservatives are forced to hide their identity on campus) admitted:

Dunn: With some of them, there’s a political orientation built into the field itself, so that’s what excludes conservatives. If conservatism doesn’t line up with the orientation, then conservatives aren’t going to be welcome and are not going to be fit. But I don’t know that it’s the case that conservatives aren’t interested in sex and gender or race.

Shields: It’s good not to think of intellectual interests as static, that you’re born with and have this collection of intellectual interests. Our interests in different fields are cultivated within the university. To some degree, conservatives start marching down different paths early on: They’re much more likely to gravitate toward the natural sciences as undergraduates; they’re much more likely to gravitate toward economics. Maybe to some degree they’re more interested in those things, but they may also be alienated by the way other topics are presented. And there’s good evidence that’s the case: There’s a survey that was done at the University of Colorado which found Republicans much more likely to feel uncomfortable in the classroom in the social sciences.

(I don't know about undergraduates, but natural scientists and engineers after graduation are significantly more likely to be active Democrats than Republicans in recent years at least, probably for the fairly obvious reason that Republicans are opposed to science.) 

The exclusion of "working class voices" from "mainstream media", if it means that national-market print and broadcast newsroom jobs go mostly to graduates of fancy private colleges and universities (Brooks says "coastal yuppies" because he basically doesn't want to know what it really is), is more interesting in a more complex way, because the diversity efforts of the private schools have in fact led indirectly to a lot more ethnic-racial minority faces in those newsrooms, no doubt not enough. Suggesting that what Brooks is really missing from his "mainstream media" consumption is white male faces, and putatively conservative (so saith the stereotype according to which the lower orders, meaning the men of the lower orders, are natural gender authoritarians and therefore within the fold of the right), just like the writers in his list of exiled writer lords, which also includes the late Christopher Hitchens and the annoying psycholinguist Steven Pinker. 

What else strikes me about that list is that it's made up mostly of men whose claim to being interesting and original goes back two or three or more decades. Hitchens was once a fearless anti-authoritarian in spite of his high-tone background who didn't hesitate to attack Mother Teresa but wound up 20 years ago as a sufferer from the stupidest kind of Islamophobia, a creature of Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Pinker, who became famous (beyond his spectacular hair) for a lunatic but very entertaining synthesis between the right wing of evolutionary psych and the left wing of Chomsky's Cartesianism, hasn't had an original thought in many years. The even crazier Jonah Goldberg, who attempted to prove that Democratic-party liberalism is the direct heir of the Nazis, now tweets dog photos and mumbles conventional horserace wisdom on NPR. Even the relatively young Taibbi, once the scourge of Goldman Sachs, has collapsed into stupid Russia denial and recycling himself. Andrew Sullivan, in his farewell last week to New York magazine, congratulates himself for how great he is—

The quality of my work does not appear to be the problem. I have a long essay in the coming print magazine on how plagues change societies, after all. I have written some of the most widely read essays in the history of the magazine, and my column has been popular with readers. And I have no complaints about my interaction with the wonderful editors and fact-checkers here — and, in fact, am deeply grateful for their extraordinary talent, skill, and compassion. I’ve been in the office maybe a handful of times over four years, and so there’s no question of anyone mistreating me or vice versa. In fact, I’ve been proud and happy to be a part of this venture.

What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.

—but has clearly no idea how boring, repetitive, and stupefying he has become with his obsessions (critical theory is the new Frances Fox Piven, but if he thinks Ezra and Matty and Jonathan Chait are enslaved to it then he doesn't have enough of a clue what it is). Andrew Sullivan the luxury item we don't feel like budgeting for any more, perhaps because whatever satisfaction we got out of him is long vanished. Fox News (!!!) comments,
The columnist reiterated thoughts he made years ago about how "we all live on campus now," noting the increasingly limited exchange of ideas on college campuses has spilled into everyday life and pointed to a survey that showed only 1.46 percent of the faculty at Harvard University identify as "conservative."

None of these people is excluded from everywhere. Sullivan's SubStack site, The Weekly Dish, has 60,000 subscribers, Brooks tells us, and the Goldberg-French-Hayes Dispatch is bringing in $2 million a year. Where they feel excluded from, it occurs to me, is garden-variety liberalism and leftism, from Barack Obama to you and me. President Obama used to single out David Brooks for special praise; ex-president Obama doesn't mention him at all. Pinker and Sullivan used to be popular citations for the moderate left to show they paid attention to the moderate right; now they're not. Not that David Brooks ever quotes Obama. It's like the roommate who depends on you to be continually ready to validate the drama of his life successes but never listens through to the end of one of yours, but is surprised and pained when you stop listening in turn. It's expected of us that we should pay attention to Andrew Sullivan, because we're liberal and that's the kind of people we are.

But what's really the trouble right now is that we're living through the Trump administration, our environmental and labor regulation is going to hell, the lives of immigrants are being irreparably damaged, the police are killing black and brown people, and trans people are being beaten to death or killing themselves, there's a pandemic that may kill us all, and the economic situation is in the toilet, and Andrew Sullivan is a luxury we don't even like. Of course we'd better act as a group. There's a war on!

If he wants to help, like David Frum or Dr. William Kristol, I'll put up with him in silence. But as long as he's whining for attention, I don't have any to spare.

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