Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so they say. Wicked deeds and ideas can be defeated by offering them up to public scrutiny, exposing them as morally unacceptable and shaming them out of the mainstream and out of power.
There are times when this has been true, when the public has been exposed to some gross injustice, rejected it, and appealed to authorities to make a change.
Cable news and social media are fueled by these kinds of appeals. During the Obama years, I had to stop watching cable news because I could no longer stomach the hours of broadcast dedicated to telling me how racism, religious zealotry, and plutocratic criminality were taking over the country. To save my own sanity during the Trump era, I tried to prune my social media feeds of accounts that shared primarily political content, because nearly everything I saw was dedicated to making me angry about every single morally repugnant whim expressed by malicious actors. And it was all terrible and morally repugnant!
But my attempts to lessen the amount of political outrage in my feed were futile, for in the era of Trump, it feels like it’s all there was to talk about. I began the (also futile) practice of replying to or quoting tweets about the latest horror by appending, “So what do we do?” I wanted more than tattling. I wanted marching orders. They never came.
Because it’s not just regular folks tweeting out their outrage. It’s politicians, prominent media personalities, major cultural figures, renowned academics—people in positions of real, genuine power. If all they could do was point to bad things happening to say, “You see???” then what were we of the unwashed masses supposed to do about it?
Other than vote. I get it. And we did, and it mostly worked out for the better, but it wasn’t nearly enough. And the horrors will, and do, just continue. And we will continue to go “you see???“
But who are we talking to when we do that? Every time we stoke our collective ire and give attention to the genuinely destructive torrent of moral and ethical horrors, whether they come from presidents, media figures, local politicians, or everyday despicable people, we are pointing it out for a reason. We are asking for someone to do something about it.
We are aggrieved customers in the marketplace of ideas, and we are demanding to speak to the manager. We are all Karens now.
Here’s the problem I think most of us have yet to acknowledge: There is no manager. Our emails to customer support are bouncing back. We are dialing a complaint hotline to nowhere.
There are elections, of course, in which the customers can, in effect, hire and fire the managers of the store’s government and policy department, but this has little to no impact on the store’s other aisles. The racism section is still being stocked, the science-denial section is getting novel new products in every day, and the theocracy department just opened up an outlet store. Business is booming.
It doesn’t matter how much we complain about what are objectively abysmal things being done and the abysmal people doing them. Those managers don’t hear our complaints because we’re not their customers.
One such abysmal human with abysmal ideas is Jordan Peterson, and you may have heard that employees at Penguin Press are disgusted that they are publishing Peterson’s latest book, as I would be if I worked there. Fredrik deBoer, whose post on this subject helped clarify my thinking for this piece, says this is an example of a poor tactic on the part of progressives: appealing to authorities to protect them from people with harmful ideas:
What if there is no authority to which you can appeal to make Jordan Peterson go away? What if Jordan Peterson is a fact of life? Let’s set aside God for a moment. What is the authority that could shut Peterson up? A Canadian citizen with tenure, a large network of conservative admirers, the ability to broadcast directly to his fans, and a talent for encoding reactionary ideas without the out-and-out hateful trappings of many of his contemporaries, he simply does not strike me as someone you can silence even if you wanted to.
Now, that doesn’t change the fact that Penguin Press could make the moral choice not to be part of the machinery that helps Peterson spread and profit off of his message, even knowing that someone else will gladly do it instead. But the larger point holds: Peterson will get his captive audience regardless of any complaints to the manager.
DeBoer says the only real solution to the problem of Peterson and what he represents is to persuade people he’s wrong and make a convincing case for something better. “I get that this is more complicated, and less emotionally fulfilling, than running to the teacher to get him in trouble,” writes deBoer. “But what’s the alternative? … There is no authority which will simply remove Jordan Peterson from public life for you.”
For public officeholders, usually the best we can do is to know who we’re dealing with and vote accordingly. But at some point we have to acknowledge that all the things that horrify us about politicians like Trump, Louie Gohmert, Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, or any other garbage officeholders and candidates, are the very things that give them their power. For their market, their vileness is their primary selling feature. Pointing it out over and over mostly serves as free advertising.
Instead, we have to be better. We have to build movements, support candidates, make arguments, develop ideas, and produce media that are better than theirs. We have to be more than aggrieved, we must be active. We must do more than point out the bad things, we must, ourselves, be the sources of good things.
No one will do it for us. You see?
After writing the above article (which lives on the web here), I saw this piece by Ross Douthat, which is an attempt to explain why even smart conservatives still seem to think Trump might have won the election. Douthat writes:
You can’t argue someone out of a conspiracy theory, a common axiom goes, which means the only appropriate response to these ideas is condemnation and a kind of quarantine — to be achieved, presumably, through better Facebook algorithms, the comprehensive political defeat of the Republican Party and some sort of “have you no sense of decency, sir” courage from news anchors and political leaders whenever right-wing paranoia re-emerges.
I don’t see any way that these efforts will work.
That bit about news anchors rang true. As grateful as I am to see mainstream, institutional pillars of the “center” calling bullshit on the bullshitters, those who need to be swayed by them aren’t watching. They left long ago.
I like adjectives. Too much. Here is an article about adjectives that I found useful.
If you find this newsletter or anything else I produce useful, perhaps you’d consider tossing some currency my way.