Deplatforming, Sargon, MAGA Hat Kids, and the Kulturkampf

This is nothing new, and it's got nothing to do with ideology.

(this article originally appeared January 28th, 2019, on Medium)

January 2019 has a lot of media figures trying to figure out what the hell is going on. But if you’ve been following HWFO closely, you’ve already got a crystal clear idea. But just for fun, let’s elaborate a little.

We begin with a quote about Fake News from a few Popes back.

15. Here We must include that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor. We are horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets, and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice. We are in tears at the abuse which proceeds from them over the face of the earth. Some are so carried away that they contentiously assert that the flock of errors arising from them is sufficiently compensated by the publication of some book which defends religion and truth. Every law condemns deliberately doing evil simply because there is some hope that good may result. Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?

This is identical to the Blue Tribe’s argument in favor of deplatforming, but was phrased by Pope Gregory XVI in his 1832 encyclical entitled “On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism.” That document was one of the first official salvos of the European Kulturkampf, the event from which we drive our current “Culture War” terminology. It was issued by the Catholic Church during the Enlightenment, as part of a larger screed denouncing All Liberal Things. It railed against priests getting married, which was apparently a thing back then too, against the idea that Ghandi can go to heaven, and against all this damned Fake News. Also science.

Please note, this was not a reaction to new advances in the technology of printing. We were four centuries past Guttenberg at that point. This statement was not a reaction to the elimination of gatekeepers to the spread of information, which is a popular mule to kick today in the Fake News Talk. This statement was purely a reaction to the spread of alternate indoctrinations. Go read the entire manuscript. It’s classic Culture War. Our Indoctrinations Good, Their Indoctrinations Bad. And buried right in that screed against liberalism, is the argument for deplatforming Sargon of Akkad and Alex Jones.

We might infer two things from this, one obvious, and another more interesting.

The obvious thing is “the Blue Tribe is abandoning liberalism.” This is the thing the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) kids and Quillette are on about, and that’s obviously true, but it’s also not very interesting to me. There’s a fun irony in it if you’re a Red Triber, and something alarming about it if you are an actual liberal and are concerned you might lose your tribal affiliation, but I’m Nerd Tribe so I don’t really care that much.

Let’s spend a tiny bit of time on that obvious and not very interesting argument, before we move on to the better and more interesting stuff.

What’s Obvious

(Sargon of Akkad) is to (getting deplatformed)

as

(Sarah Jeong) is to (getting hired at the New York Times)

Preface: I’m no fan of either of them.

Sargon called a bunch of alt-right racists on an alt-right podcast “white (n)ers.” It was part of a dialog in which he kited them into stating their definition of a “(n)er,” and then showed them that they met their own definition. Used their words against them. Sarah Jeong, by some accounts, was doing exactly the same thing on Twitter while fielding some spicy dialog from some detractors who may also have been alt-right. The New Yorker says that context matters for Jeong, and then Patreon says that context doesn’t matter for Sargon, and what emerges is a better understanding of the actual context. Jeong got a Manhattan apartment and Sargon got his virtual books burned for doing the same thing, because the actual important context is nothing more than culture war tribal affiliation.

(Alex Jones) is to (Sandy Hook)

as

(Buzzfeed) is to (MAGA hat kids)

Preface: I’m no fan of these two either.

The most heavily cited reason why Infowars got deplatformed from multiple content providers, including most recently Roku, was that some of his stuff was non-factual and that one of the non-factual things led to death threats and bomb threats at a high school. He had an echo chamber, he knew something would resonate in that echo chamber, he pushed it for money, and it adversely effected a bunch of kids.

But this is exactly the thing that happened with Buzzfeed, over a basically innocuous event. They pushed a fake story to feed their echo chamber, they got tremendous amounts of cash from the virility of it, they doubled down in the face of evidence just like Alex Jones did, and a high school got bomb threats and death threats. The Blue Tribe circles the wagons around Buzzfeed, and Infowars’ books get burned, because the actual important context is nothing more than culture war tribal affiliation.

But that’s not interesting, it’s just obvious.

What’s Interesting

If you believe that book burning is ideological, then these two examples give you great pains because the Blue Tribe is doing it, and they’re supposed to be “liberal.” But maybe what this really means, is that book burning isn’t ideological at all. What if book burning is instead a root feature of any culture war between any two groups? And if it’s not specific to an ideology, then it must be either specific to all ideologies, or biological. Those are the only other options.

That is a question worth looking into much more deeply than whining about whether or not your tribe is rubbing you out, which is one of my main criticisms with the IDW, ILW, and periphery movements. They’re not analyzing the situation, they’re participating in it. Intellectuals from Eric Weinstein to Jesse Singal to Andrew Sullivan bemoan the fact that their liberal values are being ejected from the Blue Tribe, and fear the day their tribal membership card gets burned for knowing what “liberal” actually means. A good scientist or historian wouldn’t bitch about this, or even fight it. They’d ask themselves the more interesting question of why it’s happening in the first place and apply their powers of reason to the larger question.

In Culture War analysis, we have no captive study groups and control groups to manipulate, unless you’re Peter Boghossian. (And then you get rung up on ethics charges claiming that any time anyone believes satire they have been literally experimented upon.) For the rest of us, all we can do is look at what’s happening now, and apply base principles.

When the left starts burning books, we know that the left has abandoned liberalism. The interesting question is why, and what does this portend?

One very clean explanation is that social justice is a crowdsourced religion, and is just doing what religions do. Another possible explanation is that every culture war gets to this point sooner or later, once the dialog breaks down. In either case, it seems likely to me that book burning is an important bellwether. It only crops up once one side in a culture war sees no way to buttress their dogma other than eliminating the other side’s indoctrination paths. And in the history of Western society, it never works. When a side starts burning books, that’s always an indicator that they’re on the path to losing the war. It’s a very predictive marker. We see it in real wars as well.

Maybe the best thing to do about all this deplatforming is just pop some popcorn and watch the thing burn.