The blogger Freddie deBoer has been publishing some valuable critiques of left cultural dead-ends, including his latest. Much of what he comments on is best exemplified on the internet, particularly Facebook, Twitter, and blog sites. In some ways social media promotes conformity, though in more anonymous settings it encourages the opposite, for much the same reason as road rage – one feels disembodied and therefore the usual filters required for social niceties with someone sitting in front of you fall away. Hence the ubiquitous antisocial trolling.
Aside from discussion dynamics though, social media are good at revealing trending ideas and thought patterns so critiques of left subculture are not purely dealing with an internet phenomenon. The juvenility of left culture is only dimly echoed in traditional rags like the Nation, but now that the editorial filters are circumvented we can observe and reference these trends based on more than just the last dinner party we attended.
The problem with the economy of social media news is that, in keeping with the decline of traditional journalism, it’s overwhelmingly focused on punchy commentary on shallow topics. The click-bait model promotes tabloid-style coverage and is ever more replacing investigative journalism.
Unquestionably social media has positive upshots. It’s cracked open the old boys club a bit, as this recent piece notes. In a way it’s like we’ve returned to the days of the 19th century when there was an enormous proliferation of newspapers available with a wide array of viewpoints (but that was also often low quality yellow journalism). There though at least the labor unions were backing lots of papers. Now we seem to be reduced to hoping the wealthy financiers will be relatively benevolent.
The other reason we can’t just blame the internet for the left’s cultural ills, academia is another source for our subcultural troubles. While it’s true of course that social media promotes inclusive discussion of abstract topics that might have once been reserved for academia, it feels to me like it mostly draws upon the worst of the left in academia. To keep to two popular terms, ‘intersectionality’ is fine but it’s just a label for a simple concept. It’s not a complicated idea and it’s certainly doesn’t warrant tortured theorizing. Meanwhile, ‘privilege’ has been wielded in such a conceptually disastrous way that it can only be called an anti-organizing language. Which befits the state of the left as more a social scene than an active movement. It’s a dynamic equivalent to a music scene trying to keep the ‘posers’ out of punk music or whatever. I suppose a certain kind of person might respond to reading Peggy McIntosh rather than Howard Zinn but overwhelmingly I think the latter wins more people to the left. And of the minority that fall the other way, that certain kind of person is a self-absorbed, masochistic neurotic. But that’s the kind of stuff many of the academic disciplines actually dominated by the left produce.