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Reactionary centrists


I’ve been meaning to flag this very interesting essay by Aaron Huertas about what he labels “reactionary centrists.”

A few bits:

Opinion columnists, influential academics, and think tankers feel a need to occupy a middle ground, even if it’s one that is increasingly a product of their own imaginations. As a result, they wind up giving the right wing a free pass or accepting its worst impulses as a reality we have to live with, while reserving their criticism and armchair quarterbacking for anyone to their left.

I’ve come to call these pundits “reactionary centrists.”

Reactionary centrist (n) — Someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.

Reactionary centrism is an ideological stance that isn’t really centrist at all. It can elevate a speaker in the mainstream media as a liberal-ish critic of liberalism and make someone feel good about being above it all and not taking sides, but it’s increasingly a stance that leads to sloppy thinking, especially as the Republican party continues to lurch rightward and away from democratic rule. We should identify reactionary centrism when we see it, challenge it, and ask what reactionary centrists could be doing instead to more productively contribute to public debates. . .

[Steven] Pinker is among many scholars who worry that intolerance on the right is being matched by a different kind of intolerance on the left. To be clear, reactionary centrists don’t deny that the hard right is bad and terrible. They see the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the conspiracy theories, the voter suppression, the censorship of government researchers, the ICE agents picking people up off the street. But then they look for something, anything on the left to balance this out so they can stay in the middle.

This analysis lacks a sense of who actually has power on each side. Do we really think that a student activist group protesting a controversial speaker is as much of a threat to free speech as a Republican president who calls for jailing journalists and firing protesting NFL players? Of course not, but why then do Pinker and other scholars and pundits keep coming back to campus free speech debates as an example of lefty intolerance? Maybe their own positions in and around academia bias them toward caring more about these debates, but it may also speak to a deep need to perform a centrist balancing act that isn’t backed up by the facts.

And in some cases, reactionary centrists’ need for an intolerant left causes them to make stuff up or uncritically pass on obvious misinformation.

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psych professor and best-selling author, came to fame for insisting that a Canadian human rights law would require him to use specific gender pronouns in his classroom. There was nothing in the legislation in question that actually did so, and Peterson’s claims were routinely debunked by law professors, the Canadian Bar Association, transgender rights groups, and members of the Canadian Parliament. But Peterson was able to use his criticism of a fictional radical leftist position to elevate himself as a reasonable middle man, even as he professed to sympathize with liberal positions on labor and worker’s rights. Peterson has found himself a welcome guest on the campus free speech moral panic media circuit, from David Rubin’s podcast to Real Time with Bill Maher, where iconoclasts can conflate progressive activists disagreeing with them with having their views suppressed and their rights trampled.

Rubin, a former Young Turks host, says he ditched the left for its purported intolerance of competing views. But in doing so, he routinely promotes sensationalized stories about campus protests directed at conservative speakers. And in at least one case, he’s helped promote an entirely fake leftist critic. The Twitter account “Official Antifa” lambasted a talk he was set to give, counting him among “racist, anti-LGBT fascists” who weren’t welcome on campus and he took the bait, sharing their post to mock the left. But as Buzzfeed exposed in 2017, the account is not run by anti-fascist organizers, but by trolls who are trying to discredit the left and get amplified by commentators like Rubin. Bari Weiss, an opinion columnist for the New York Times helped them out when she cited Official Antifa’s take on Rubin as an example of left wing campus intolerance. The Times had to issue an embarrassing correction and Twitter, at long last, finally suspended the fake account.

The entire thing is well worth reading, and it’s both amusing and depressing to realize that this piece came out before Bari Weiss started pitching her “intellectual dark web” schtick, which is pretty much the Platonic form of the intellectual impulses Huertas is critiquing.



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