Freddie de Boer’s new piece seems to be getting a lot of attention. What I see is a pretty familiar argument with some familiar problems.
To start with a point of agreement, it is very bad and very stupid to compare critics of Obama’s position on TPP to Emmett Till’s lynchers. The problem is assuming that this random guy is representative of anything. Drawing broad conclusions from the dumb tweets of someone who formerly held a leadership position in the Sacramento Democratic party makes about as much sense as generalizing about “the left” based on Salon letter-writers or the “St. Petersburg Democratic Club.” (Or, to pick another entirely random example, asserting that all liberals really support torture because Alan Dershowitz.) If you find yourself using rhetorical techniques beloved by Glenn Reynolds, it may be time for some re-evaluation.
The basic idea here, which we’ve seen before, is to conflate various objections to Freddie’s arguments so he only has to engage with the weakest one. The idea that Democrats shouldn’t be criticized is, indeed, very dumb. Not very common, but dumb, and if you see the assistant treasurer of the Des Moines Young Democrats saying it feel free to call it out if it floats your boat. The idea that there’s no real difference between Republicans and Democrats because Democrats are bad on issue x, however, is much more problematic. The idea that vote-splitting on the left is a sound tactic for pushing Democrats to the left is equally bad. Pretending that all of the disagreement is over point one conveniently relieves from having to defend the indefensible, i.e. points two and three. And, sorry, noting the fact that the most disadvantaged bear the brunt of the large differences between having Democrats and Republicans in charge of the federal government is fair game.
This is all familiar territory. Much odder is the attack on The Toast, a site as consistently smart and funny as anything on the intarwebs. Freddie alleges that it is “a website that has taken maximum advantage of this Teflon aspect of progressive argument.” I’m not entirely sure what this means, and again the evidence is threadbare. At issue is a quick list by Nicole Cliffe. Now, no writer bats 1.000 (including, God knows, this one), and just for myself I didn’t find it particularly funny. But using it as some kind of culture war totem is hilariously overwrought. In particular, one might want to look at the second tag, although it shouldn’t even be necessary. The list isn’t an attack on the books in question or on white men; it’s observational humor, a form of humor that depends on generalizations. Freddie might also want to consider the fact that many commenters praised in not because they feel pressure from the P.C. police but because they thought it was funny — what humor hits you where you live is going to, you know, vary. Obviously, not everything that Mallory Ortberg writes is pure gold — although there are very few writers with a higher success ratio — but one can disagree that “she’s in a ‘Radiohead recording themselves farting into a paper bag’ rut” without believing that she Should Not Be Criticized. Freddie, alas, is too busy preemptively asserting that nobody (who?) will allow him to criticize Ortberg to cite a single objectionable thing she’s written, let alone explaining why he finds it objectionable.
To return to another point of agreement, I agree that “[o]ne-liners don’t build a movement. Being clever doesn’t fix the world. Scoring points on Twitter doesn’t create justice. Jokes make nothing happen.” After reading all of the preceding paragraphs, however, I’m not sure who does believe this. What I am sure is that editors of The Toast “challenging their readers” in some unspecified way will not fix the world or create justice or make anything happen either, so they should probably keep doing what they’re doing.