This article was originally published on Feb. 26, 2015, and is presented here for Campus Week 2017.
For all of 15 minutes last weekend, Patricia Arquette was a progressive hero. Arquette, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar Sunday evening for her role in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, used the final few seconds of her acceptance speech to deliver a stirring plea for female equality. “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights—it’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” Arquette declared, to enthusiastic cries of approval and passionate finger-pointing from fellow celebrities Jennifer Lopez and Meryl Streep.
But in the time it took for Arquette to move from the Academy stage to answer questions from the press, she went from a liberal champion who used her two minutes of fame to speak passionately on behalf of a cause that she believed in to the latest target of the left’s ritualistic Two Minutes of Hate. Her offense: “It’s time,” she said, “for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”
“Twitter got into a rage over Patricia Arquette’s Comments in the Oscar Press Room,” is how Buzzfeed described the ensuing online outcry. “It is definitely not time for ‘all the gay people’ and ‘all the people of color’ to set aside their own battle for equality in order to fight for straight, white women now,” thundered Amanda Marcotte in a piece for Slate titled, “Patricia Arquette’s Feminism: Only for White Women.” A blogger for Fusion.net accused the actress of “feminist whitesplaining.” Arquette stepped in it. By seemingly prioritizing the struggles of one historically disadvantaged group (women) over those of others (blacks, Latinos, gays, etc.), Arquette ran afoul of the rules of the identity-politics game foisted upon our political discourse by the self-appointed, Twitter-enabled arbiters of the “national conversation.”
Arquette may have been unfamiliar with a recent essay in New York magazine by Jonathan Chait, an important salvo from the mainstream liberal camp in this ever-evolving intellectual battle. Sparked by a series of controversies related to alleged sexual assaults on college campuses, debates over depictions of the prophet Muhammad, and a widespread “attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate,” Chait assailed what he described as a rising intolerance on the left.
Chait was praised for his truth-telling bravery in some quarters. But like Susan Sontag’s belated realization—in 1982—that “communism is fascism with a human face,” Chait was merely giving voice to what any moderately sentient American had realized a long time ago: that various voices on the left use hot-button words and the mob effects of social media to avoid the niceties—and the risks—of actual debate, by making it appear as if opponents have, by using the wrong word, or, in Arquette’s case, failing to recite a politically approved formula in the exact right order (“the real issue for working single women is taxes not wage equity!”), condemned themselves to a pit of hellfire, a spectacle bound to frighten any sensible person without 100,000 angry Twitter followers into remaining silent. Indeed, though Chait was pilloried by many progressives for his piece, in reality his essay was simply a long exploration of a point made a few weeks earlier in the same magazine by Chris Rock, who declared political correctness to be “back stronger than ever” in an interview with Frank Rich. (Interestingly, when Rock said it, no one in the political correctness squad reacted.)
Nonetheless, Chait made some valid points in his diagnosis of a new political correctness, whose most enthusiastic propagators are writers and activists of my millennial generation. Partly to distinguish themselves from the liberals and neoliberals of Chait’s ilk, these individuals have proudly reclaimed the mantle of “progressivism” and are drowning out the likes of Chait and his ideological confrères—taking over the burned-out hulks of old media vessels and traffic-hungry websites while loudly proclaiming themselves the tribunes of the voiceless and powerless.
As a gay, Jewish man (consider privilege duly checked), I am not unfamiliar with, or unsympathetic to, the idea of highlighting the problems faced by victimized minorities. Earlier this month, for example, I came across a story that made me want to mount the barricades in righteous indignation. Images circulated by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights showed a group of Islamic State thugs in the city of Tal Abyad shoving an elderly, blindfolded man from a plastic chair from the heights of a seven-story building. Nothing special in the land of the Islamic State, except for the “crime” that the man was accused of committing: homosexuality.
According to the Observatory, the man survived the fall (one photo depicts Islamic State members huddling around their victim, sitting upright on the ground, checking to see if he was still alive). But he was soon put out of his misery when the crowd that had gathered to watch this macabre scene stoned him to death.
Here is an instance when identity politics, put into practice, could be eminently useful. Islamists kill homosexuals for something they cannot change: their sexuality. It’s the same reason they kill Jews, by the way, and the motive is quite clarifying, or it at least should be. Indeed, the recent spate of attacks against Jews qua Jews in Western Europe ought be a wake-up call to that segment of the global left that insists there exists some sort of quasi-moral license for Arabs who kill Israeli civilians because of the existence of settlements. Those who obsess over identity politics—who believe that every political and social question can be reduced to somebody’s skin pigmentation or what’s between their legs—ought to realize that there is no truck with people who kill people precisely because of their immutable traits. When it comes to fighting violent Islamist supremacy—theocratic, sexist, genocidal, homicidally anti-gay—the identity politics brigade should put warmongering neocons to shame.
Yet just at the moment when we need our identity-politics warriors to be most outraged, they are notably silent. Why?
Many progressives would claim that they believe in “intersectionality”: that aspects of an individual cannot be separated out to highlight the oppression associated with that group. And so we cannot understand Muslims killing gays without first understanding the effect of Western colonial power on the peoples of Muslim lands. The embrace of insersectionality by progressives is ironic in that it has undermined one of the left’s greatest (and most fundamental) attributes—universalism—and replaced it with a myopia that obsesses over the minute concerns of ever-narrowingly defined minority groups, rather than those of broader segments of society, like, say, the American working class. Traditional liberals committed to addressing widespread disparities related to class, race, and gender (like, say, Patricia Arquette) become enemies of the intersectionalists because they fail to pay sufficient obeisance to the grievances of each and every imaginable minority amalgamation. (“Patricia Arquette’s Spectacular Intersectionality Fail” is how one feminist blog assessed the actress’s thought crime.)
But while intersectionality goes some way to explaining the penchant for moral equivalence that has overcome much of the online left, even that’s just a cover. The truth is simpler, which is that there exists, in the progressive universe, a victim hierarchy. It used to be quite fashionable to root for the gays, but that was back in the 1980s when they were dying of AIDS and Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were arrayed against them. Today, HIV is a manageable disease, gays can get married, and many of them are white, live in the suburbs, and sometimes even vote Republican. Same with Jews.
The discussion of vital issues today has been reduced to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, in which the validity of one’s argument is determined not by the strength of your reasoning but by the relative worth of the immutable qualities you bring to the table, be it skin color, sexual orientation, or genitalia (or, in the case of pre-operative transsexuals, wished-for genitalia). In the game of Race, Gender, Sexuality, black beats white, woman beats man, trans beats cisgender, and gay (or, preferably, “queer”) beats straight.
In recent years, as the liberal imagination has grown to embrace new victim groups, supplementary categorical rules have been added to this list: Trans beats gay and Muslim beats black. As someone who writes frequently on the topic of homosexuality, I have learned the hard way what happens to those who challenge the orthodoxy of transgender activists and their fellow enforcers of politically correct conformity—but not as painfully as Grantland writer Caleb Hannan, who was targeted last year for publishing a piece that exposed the inventor of a popular golf putter to be a serial liar and fraud. In the course of his reporting, Hannan discovered that the subject of his piece, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was a transgender woman. Hannan sensitively raised his finding with Vanderbilt, asking her to clarify this part of her life story among the voluminous inconsistencies he had uncovered, at which point Vanderbilt angrily accused Hannan of committing a “hate crime.” Soon thereafter, Vanderbilt—who had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts—killed herself. Hannan, a sportswriter who had set out planning to write a piece about a wildly popular golf putter, ended up composing a deeply personal essay about the reporting process.
After an initial outburst of positive feedback on his piece from sports fans and the large general audience to which Grantland appeals, Hannan’s article soon came to the attention of transgender activists and the speech-policing bullies, who make it their job, on a daily basis, to find something to get outraged about. Almost overnight, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” went from being one of the most popular pieces of longform journalism on the web to nothing less than an act of murderous barbarity, with an online Salem accusing Hannan of homicide. Oblivious to the hypocrisy of their wild accusations, countless Twitter social justice “activists” sent the young writer death threats. When I defended Hannan, saying that the only crime he had committed was good investigative journalism, I too came under the hateful attention of the outrage brigade, whose vitriol, in my personal experience, has been matched only by that of the legions of crackpot Ron Paul devotees who have been assailing me ever since I exposed his racist and conspiratorial newsletters in The New Republic.
Indeed, there exists a disturbing propensity among many transgender activists and their ideological allies to employ vitriolic language toward those who fail to conform to their conceptual and etymological dictates. Last summer in The New Yorker, Michelle Goldberg documented the long-running controversy between transgender activists and old school, “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” or TERFS, who view transgender women not as comrades in struggle against the patriarchy, but rather as emblems of it: men exercising yet another instrument of male privilege. Surveying Twitter, Goldberg found a stream of “abusive” messages by transgender activists directed at “radfems,” like one suggesting, “how about ‘slowly and horrendously murder terfs in saw-like torture machines and contraptions.’ ”
Earlier in the year, Goldberg herself came under attack for writing an article decrying the “toxic” nature of online feminist discourse. The critique, by Rutgers Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies professor Brittney Cooper, was notable for the venue in which it appeared, Salon, in that it was where Goldberg got her start in journalism. One of the very first online magazines and once a proving ground for promising young journalistic talents like Goldberg and Jake Tapper, Salon has since become a garbage dump for the absolute worst in identity politics mau-mauing. Its click-bait headlines invariably accusing somebody or whole swathes of people of racism inspired an hilariously accurate Twitter parody, which the social media service temporarily shut down, in all likelihood at the request of the humorless Salon staff. Cooper, following the Salon style guide, skewered Goldberg as a “misguided” “white liberal.”
In my piece defending Hannan from those accusing him of murder, I had quoted a well-known transgender activist who, parting with many of her fellow transsexuals, told me that Hannan “did a good job” for “follow[ing] a mystery.” But none of this mattered. I was summarily derided for my “privilege,” inherent in the fact, I was repeatedly told, of my being white and gay, and ordered to prostrate myself before, and apologize to, the victimized trans community at large. On Twitter, The Nation’s sports columnist asked aloud if there were “any defenseless person you won’t shit on,” before Jew-baiting me for good measure, rhetorically asking, “if you could write an article destroying a transgender child in Gaza, would that make your day, month, or year?” (Trans, if you haven’t yet figured it out, beats gay and Jew.)
Transgender grievance-mongering reached an absurd nadir last summer when it made an improbable villain out of Dan Savage, the gay sex columnist who has been breaking taboos and forcing uptight readers out of their comfort zones for two decades. Invited to speak at the University of Chicago, Savage was riffing on why he had chosen to stop using the word “tranny” in his column and on his podcast. Yet Savage’s mere mention of the word, as part of an explanation of why he had forsworn using it, was enough to upset a student in the audience, who proceeded to instruct him that the approved nomenclature is “t-slur,” and that he should use that instead. When Savage demurred, the student fled the room in tears. Immediately thereafter, a group of activists posted an online petition replete with a “demand” that the offending campus institution that hosted Savage “publicly apologize for failing to stop the use of the transphobic slur during the seminar and assert a commitment to preventing the use of slurs and hate speech in the future.”
In Britain, legendary gay activist Peter Tatchell has become another unlikely target for such abuse. Tatchell, himself a radical (and principled) leftist, is the most well-known gay rights campaigner in the U.K. His crime was to sign an open letter in The Observer that decried a “worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic,’ ” and cited a campaign at Cambridge University to ban the writer Germaine Greer—a traditional feminist critical of the transgender movement—from speaking on campus. In the U.K., what was once an intellectually defensible tactic, “no platforming”—the refusal to share a stage with members of the fascist National Front and other, far-right organizations opposed to the basic tenets of liberal democracy—is now being employed against all manner of individuals, from Israelis to legendary feminist authors. For speaking out against this trend, Tatchell—who in the past has been physically assaulted by Russian neo-Nazis and Robert Mugabe’s bodyguards—was deluged with Twitter abuse from the so-called “progressive” online activist community.
Like gay men, Jews have been relegated to the bottom of the progressive victim pyramid, a low ranking that has held fast in spite of the rampant bigotry and violent attacks directed at them. Last week, blogger and graduate student Frederik de Boer provided a ripe demonstration of how Muslim—always, whatever the circumstances—beats Jew. Commenting on an article in The Atlantic about the recent spate of anti-Semitic terrorist attacks in Europe, de Boer mocked the author for “spend[ing] the requisite amount of time showing Grave Concern about the increasing threat to Europe’s increasingly threatened Jews, who are threatened, at an increasing level.” The threat to Jews is less important to de Boer, as a properly credentialed progressive, than is refuting what he crudely characterizes as the “Muslim-throngs-are-advancing-across-Europe” meme. This, just weeks after the massacre at the Hyper Cacher market in Paris, and a mere two days after an Islamist killed a volunteer Jewish security officer standing watch outside a synagogue in Copenhagen (whose leaders were denied additional security by the Danish government).
For an example of how the tenet “Muslim beats black” works, merely reflect upon its apogee: ex-Muslim feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author who underwent a clitoridectomy as a young girl and fled to the Netherlands after her family arranged her marriage to a distant cousin. There, Hirsi Ali rose to become an outspoken activist for the rights of women, an author, and a parliamentarian. After the artist Theo van Gogh, with whom Hirsi Ali was collaborating on a film about the subjugation of women under Islam, was murdered in broad daylight in the streets of Amsterdam, a death threat for Hirsi Ali impaled to his chest, she was placed under 24-seven police protection.
Now, had Hirsi Ali left any other religious order or conservative movement—say, Mormonism or the Republican Party—she would have been feted with international literary prizes, instantly awarded a New York Times column, and welcomed with open arms by progressive campus organizations. Instead, Hirsi Ali was ultimately exiled from Holland, obtained a sinecure at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and was disinvited from addressing the commencement ceremonies at Brandeis University. Meanwhile, liberal intellectual paragons like Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma trash Hirsi Ali as, in Ash’s words, an “Enlightenment fundamentalist” in the pages of the New York Review of Books.
This is because in the progressive imagination, the perceived plight of Muslims now trumps the sufferings of all other groups. It is this conceit that goes the furthest in explaining President Obama’s remark to Vox earlier this month that the murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris last month was “random,” and, when questioned on his use of that particular word to describe what was obviously a very deliberate assault, the efforts of two administration spokespersons to dig in their heels and insist that the attack had nothing to do with religion, either that of the victims or the assailants. Contra my Tablet colleague Yair Rosenberg, I do not buy the argument that the administration’s downplaying the anti-Semitic nature of the crime was the result of a stubborn refusal to admit an incident of presidential inarticulateness. As I’ve written elsewhere, more likely is it that the president and his administration are reluctant to draw much attention to anti-Semitism for the same reason they are reluctant to speak plainly about militant Islamism: They seek an accommodation with the Muslim world, where bigoted views about Jews are prevalent if not mainstream, and harping about anti-Semitism gets in the way of that all-consuming aspiration. The same goes for anti-Christian animus; see, for instance, the White House’s anodyne condemnation of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya last week, which made no mention of the reason why they were killed. As such, the president cannot let a discussion go by of the Islamic State (which, he insists, is “not Islamic”) without a reference to the Christian Crusades (“committed … in the name of Christ”) of five centuries ago.
So, true to form, after this month’s Copenhagen attack, a National Security Council statement made no mention of the fact that a Jewish institution had been targeted. Likewise, the New York Times article reporting on the events, while not mentioning the word “anti-Semitism” at all, was sure to note that “Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is rising in Europe, and although there was no indication who was responsible for the shootings in Copenhagen, Twitter was ablaze with anti-Muslim indictments.” A follow-up story in the Times carried this preposterous headline, “Anger of suspect in Danish killings is seen as only loosely tied to Islam.”
Consider the administration’s initial response to the murder of three Muslim-Americans in North Carolina last week, the motive for which, at the time, was unclear. The day after the incident, with the FBI inquiry into the matter having just been launched, the president himself released a statement declaring that “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.” It stands in contrast to White House spokesman Josh Earnest’s deplorable remark that the victims of the Paris attack “were killed not because of who they were but because of where they randomly happened to be.”
Since the philosophy of the progressive speech police is so obviously shaping high-level US government policy, it is hard to dismiss the efficacy of their tactics. Here it is important to note that all this hypersensitive concern about “Islamophobia,” and corresponding lack of ardor for combating anti-Jewish hatred, has no relation whatsoever to actual facts. The latest FBI crime statistics report six times as many hate crime incidents directed against Jews as they do against Muslims. Likewise in Europe, Jews are more likely to be victimized by hate crime than Muslims, who are themselves usually the perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks.
What today’s enforcers of the politically correct status quo most resemble is a paranoid circular firing squad, in which one’s sheer anger and the degree of “marginalized” status you claim earns you correspondingly greater cred, in a creepily inverted hierarchy of virtue. Nor is there any logical end-point to this process: First, they came for easy targets like Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens, white men whose leftist pretensions were easily questioned thanks to their support for the Iraq War and bold warnings about “Islamofascism.” After dispensing with the likes of these “warmongers,” they then moved onto The New Republic, which, in the wake of its recent destruction by the world’s luckiest roommate and subsequent staff exodus, was derided by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and his “creep-show commenters” as a promulgator of “erudite Dixiecratism,” seemingly second in its bigoted vitriol only to Mankind Quarterly. With TNR—once a heterodox interrogator of progressive orthodoxies—now turned into a reliable purveyor of them, Twitter’s progressive soldiers can move on to erstwhile allies like Dan Savage, Michelle Goldberg, Peter Tatchell, Jonathan Chait, and Patricia Arquette.
The problem with these little purges, these forced incantations of the latest auto-da-fés, however, is that they never quite end, for the tumbrils always need replenishing. Like all good left-wing revolutionaries, these latter-day cultural warriors are eating their own. There is an unholy synergy existing between the notions of identity politics and the mechanisms of social media, which fused together form a concatenation that is debasing political debate. The mob-like mentality fostered by Twitter, the easy, often anonymous (and, even if a name is attached to the account, de-personalized) insulting, fosters a social pressure that aims to close discussion, not open it. “It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized,” Jon Ronson writes of the initial sense of self-righteousness he felt as a Twitter gang participant, in his new book, So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. “As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive.”
What makes this current cultural moment so depressing is that both identity politics and the preferred tool of enforcing its precepts—social media—are so easy and widely available to use, and are being used in regressive ways by people who claim to be promoting social justice. What they are actually doing—quite deliberately—is making themselves social despots by driving out everyone who lacks the taste or the ability to shout angry slogans and personal accusations through the social media megaphone. It’s actually difficult to write an essay saying simply that someone is a racist or sexist or homophobe without making easily refutable mistakes—unless they are in fact guilty of that crime. Twitter, however, puts the burden of proof on the defendant, making it very hard to defend oneself against the 8-word tweet that uses a hot-button word to slime whoever becomes the target of the mob’s ire. It’s Salem, with 21st-century technology. And sooner or later, we will all become witches.
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