Hate The Game, Not The Player
The most prominent story of the weekend was around the discovery of a yearbook that implied Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia either dressed in Klan robes or blackface while in medical school in the 80s. While we may be lacking conclusive proof of one of the people in the pictures being Northam since both faces were obscured, when every other picture on the page is of Northam, one can safely assume one of them is him.
In 2019, this kind of behavior is socially unacceptable. Honestly, it was always morally unacceptable, but morals tend to lead ahead of social convention. Northam has done himself little favor by refuting the seemingly obvious truth of the matter, as well as having a very Old Dixie tinged approach to campaigning like not putting the Lt Governor, Black man Justin Fairfax, on his campaign literature. While I believe in due process, this whole story has proven Northam to be a clumsy politician that cannot lead his party and state. He’s gotta go.
In come the contrarian takes. Writer Zaid Jilani wrote an article for the absolutely dreadful Quilette, a semi-libertarian publication that feeds off of reactionary aggrievement. In the article, Jilani claims that the left doesn’t seem to believe in forgiveness, which is pretty standard reactionary pablum: ignore the historical context and just make it about how people on Twitter are mean. This is right wing aggrievement essay writing 101.
The difference with this article and basically every other thing in Quilette is the pedigree of it’s writer. Having gotten his start at ThinkProgress, the media arm of the Center for American Progress, Jilani eventually became a regular at The Intercept, a Left leaning publication filled with big name journalists like Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald. So is Jilani a changed man, pushed to the right by the SJWs and Rose Emojis? Or is he just cashing out because the Right just pays better?
This is certainly not the first time a figure from progressive media or academia has turned right to make a buck. While not as crass as Dave Rubin’s ridiculously telegraphed heel turn from progressive guy on the Young Turks, to “classical liberal”, to a “pro-life curious” Trump supporter, Jilani’s publishing of a “Left case for Blackface” in Quilette appears to be less a principled stand and more of a cash grab. I’m not sure it’s something we can control or change within the current media climate. While most of these writers are very well known to media obsessives and twitter addicts (which I am both) these people are not making as much money writing as their notoriety may suggest and just want to cash out.
Does this mean that everything these authors do must be thrown in the garbage? Certainly not. After all, as I was reminded by Ben Burgis’s video on Zero Books’ YouTube channel, as a Trotskyist no less, Christopher Hitchens wrote a foundational text of modern anti-imperialism, the Trial of Henry Kissinger, before completely shifting his views after 9/11 and supporting the Iraq War. So accusing publications that had published Jilani or someone like Angela Nagle of being negligent seems odd. After all, libertarians, even though their economic and social ideology taken to its logical conclusion would be a disaster for the human race, still have ideas on cops (they are bad) that a socialist like myself would support.
This doesn’t mean, however, that these are not still craven choices by authors to maximize their value in the media climate, I am just asking us to be honest about the incentives. These authors are incentivized to become heterodox outcasts to make that sweet cash. The amount of money swirling around conservative media has long been legendary. For long periods of time, publications like Breitbart were running at a deficit yet still handing out large salaries. To use a Bush Era blogosphere term: it’s wingnut welfare.
While I’m sure you, reader, have ironclad morals and convictions, many writers are broke and desperate. I’m lucky enough to have been spooked out of pursuing a career in media beyond a hobby at this point, but the urge to get rich by selling out is great. So if we want less heel turns from left(ish) writers, we can be good Marxists and look to change not just the culture of digital media, but the economics undergirding it. This means supporting journalist unions, organizing long term funding mechanisms outside of web advertising (which have become completely duopolized by Facebook and Google), and supporting independent media outlets.