An examination of a recent Brooklyn Rail article that repeated rightwing/centrist narratives about censorship and free specch, and cited some writings hosted on libcom in support of this argument.
“The illusion of the internet was the idea that the opinions of powerless people, freely offered, had some impact on the world. This was, of course, total bullshit and based on a crazy idea of who ran the world…
The one thing that freely offered opinions did not do, at all, was change the world. Opinions were only more words, only more shit that someone somewhere made up, and words were grease in the gears of capitalism.” - Jarett Kobek, I Hate the Internet
The Brooklyn Rail’s Field Notes section, which is usually a reliable source of thought-provoking writing, recently carried an article entitled “The Aggressiveness of Vulnerability” by Pavlos Roufos. This article covers a wide range of ground, but a substantial section of it is given over to a defence of the work of noted copypasta connoisseur Angela Nagle, with particular reference to some critiques of her writing that were hosted on libcom (1 2). The rather unusual line of argument often seems to suggest that pointing out a few minor flaws would be acceptable, but taking up any fundamental disagreements, and arguing as though there were something important at stake, is frankly discourteous and beyond the bounds of civility. The following is a consideration of Roufos’ critique of the libcom articles, and some comments on the rest of his argument.
Roufos starts off with a consideration of the 2016 presidential campaign and introduces Nagle’s analysis of that campaign, then moves on to consider some of the criticism Nagle’s received. He states that “There appears, at first sight, nothing particularly controversial in claiming that many alt-Right figures built their careers by ridiculing the excesses and irrationalities of so-called “social justice warriors.” This is a key point, and the nuances of this sentence are crucial, as there is a substantial difference between “many alt-Right figures built their careers by ridiculing what they perceived to be the excesses and irrationalities of so-called “social justice warriors”” and “many alt-Right figures built their careers by ridiculing the excesses and irrationalities of so-called “social justice warriors”, a subject where the alt-right seem to be a reliable guide and so I will take their claims at face value, even where the evidence to support them is scant to non-existent”. The former would indeed be a fairly uncontroversial claim to make, but I don’t think it’s too mystifying as to why some might object to the latter.
In a footnote, Roufos sneers at libcom for criticising Nagle’s plagiarism while claiming to be influenced by the Situationists. Certainly, there is a cheap gotcha moment to be had there, although it is somewhat undermined by the disclaimer that “Up front, we should say we don't really give a shit about plagiarism as such”, which somewhat takes the sting out of the whole “people influenced by the SI caring about plagiarism” jibe. And if we’re spotting ironies here, there’s surely a more glaring one to point out: by criticising libcom for failing to live up to the SI’s legacy, Roufos is implicitly positioning himself as a more faithful caretaker of that legacy while at the same time making an argument that people should be more polite and restrained while criticising minor media stars, or what some might call functionaries of the spectacle, so this is surely a case of the pot saying the kettle would make Debord turn in his grave.
As that disclaimer makes clear, the real point of disagreement is not with Nagle’s failure to credit her sources adequately, but that the lack of citations hides some questionable sources, and that the sources are put in the service of some very dodgy arguments. Roufos summarises the disagreement as libcom claiming “that Nagle’s book is “laughing at the alt-Right’s scapegoats,” that she has performed a “leftist laundering of sexual assault,” that she is transphobic and, essentially, a rape apologist.”
It’s worth going through these claims one by one. With regards to the “laughing at the alt-right’s scapegoats”, it’s genuinely hard to work out where the objection lies – is Roufos seriously trying to claim that at no point does Nagle join in with what he describes as “ridiculing the excesses and irrationalities of so-called “social justice warriors””? Or is it that she does, but it’s bad taste to point out that she’s doing so, or what?
The second alleged claim, that the libcom article accuses Nagle of having “performed a “leftist laundering of sexual assault,”” is just openly dishonest. I don’t want to cramp Roufos’ style if he’s trying to perform some kind of avant-garde experiment with punctuation and sentence structure, but in standard English usage quotation marks are generally used to denote direct quotations, and when looking for the quote in question, I can only find “rather than critique this fabricated moral panic, KAN’s dubiously sourced analysis gives it a leftist laundering” which is somewhat different. Of course, the moral panic that Nagle joins in with is used to target students organising around sexual assault, so there is some connection there, but it is also used to try and undermine people organising around a whole range of other issues as well.
By way of analogy, Nagle also recycles some tired liberal chump arguments that are used to discredit militant opponents of neo-nazis; it would be fair comment to say that at times she sounds like a liberal centrist undermining the work of people organising against neo-nazis, but to say that she sounds like an actual neo-nazi would obviously be an unhelpful overstatement, of the kind that few people would actually make, but that it would be very convenient to pretend your opponent had made if you wanted to score points.
There is a marvellous marriage of form and content going on here: if you’re going to come to the defence of an author who’s been criticised for playing fast and loose with sources, and of trying to discredit reasonable ideas by conflating them with stupid ones on the basis of some kind of surface similarity, then doing so by playing exactly the same silly tricks seems very appropriate.
Similarly, nowhere in the article does it say that Nagle is transphobic: it does point out that Nagle whitewashes the transphobia of figures like Germaine Greer and Jordan Peterson, but that doesn’t make Nagle herself transphobic, and the article makes no attempt to claim that it does. Maybe it’s just that Nagle’s research was so sloppy that she had no idea what Greer and Peterson had said on the subject, or that she has such a low regard for her audience that she thinks giving them too much information would addle their brains, who knows? At any rate, it feels like engaging with what the article actually said and offering an alternative take – say, trying to explain why Greer telling the BBC “'Just because you lop off your cock & then wear a dress, doesn’t make you a f****** woman” wasn’t transphobic, or for that matter arguing that 2015 was, in fact, 15 years ago – would be more productive than just stating that libcom called Nagle transphobic and then expecting the audience to gasp in horror at this shocking rudeness.
Finally, there’s “essentially a rape apologist”, which is presumably a reference to the article’s treatment of either Nagle’s omissions with regard to the Kipnis case, or her dismissive talk about PTSD. In either case, the same point applies here, which is that if you want to refute a point you have to look at the evidence and show why it doesn’t stand up; you can’t just rephrase the point in provocative and loaded terms not used in the original and then act like you’ve already refuted it.
Spluttering in indignation at the things that he’s decided the libcom article must have said, he adds a footnote saying that “It is quite clear that for the libcom crew and their online supporters, it is simply inconceivable that Nagle was lazy in her citations or that Zero Books preferred to publish quickly rather than bother with editing. In fact, she is not even granted the opportunity of holding political positions that one can disagree with. No. In libcom’s view, Nagle’s “plagiarism” or bad citations are conclusively indicative of the fact that she is an extreme-right sympathizer, that she hates transgendered people and that she makes fun of rape victims.”
Once again, there is an awful lot to unpack here1 . To start off with, the human psyche is certainly an enormously complex thing, so I suppose that it is technically possible to openly talk about something while still finding it inconceivable - discussions of our own mortality, for instance, or the full impact of climate change, might fall into this category.
But if we stick with regular English-language usage, I don’t think that many people would read, for instance, “Many of KAN’s key arguments are bolstered by accounts of events and ideas which appear to have been hastily googled, and sometimes simply copy and pasted, to support the book’s claims. Inconvenient details are omitted, and the subsequent analysis frequently succumbs to basic fact-checking and sourcing” or “My dude, just promise that you'll pay an editor to read your next book all the way through before you publish it, it's really not that complicated”, or “Zero Books is renowned for having almost nonexistent editing as is witnessed in not only the plagiarism in Nagle, but also that Zero books tend to be riddled with typos, grammar mistake and other copy editing issues. Zero Books would likely not exist (or at least would not be publishing "academic" books) if not for the publish or perish imperative in academia. IIRC, you'll get your books published much faster by Zero than a proper academic publisher, likely because Zero does little editing and, based off of Nagel's book, they don't go through peer review.” and come away thinking “these people clearly cannot conceive of the possibility that Nagle might be a lazy hack or that Zero might be sloppy about editing.”
The claim that “she is not even granted the opportunity of holding political positions” is also somewhat bizarre given that, in the next sentence, she is also apparently accused of being “an extreme-right sympathizer”, which I think would probably be counted as a political position by most standards.
In general, it gets a bit boring to repeat over and over that actually engaging with the evidence made to support a claim and showing why it doesn’t stand up is more useful than just repeating it in a hyperbolic form and trusting that the over-the-top spin you’ve chosen to add is enough to discredit it.
Another place where Roufos falls down is by taking one part of the evidence used to support one part of the argument and treating that as if it was all of the evidence used to support all of the argument – so, for instance, a pair of articles that discuss some of Nagle’s bad citations and also show where she uncritically repeats far-right narratives, as in her apparent endorsement of F Roger Devlin’s weird ideas, get twisted into “Nagle’s “plagiarism” or bad citations are conclusively indicative of the fact that she is an extreme-right sympathizer”. This is a bit like reading a detective story and coming away at the end going “that Sherlock Holmes is a right judgemental prick, isn’t he? I can’t believe he decided that poor bloke was a murderer just because he used his left hand to light a cigarette.”
It is also interesting that Roufos chooses not to engage with the defence that Zero and Nagle herself offered, which, in Zero’s telling, is that all this fuss only came about after she criticised state department policy on Syria. Nagle took it one step further, and used the controversy as a chance to remind everyone that she refused to oppose the censorship of a piece of anti-fascist journalism. It’s hard to see the direct connection between her solidarity with far-right Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson and his mates and some people on the internet noticing her fondness for Wikipedia, but this aspect of the saga does seem worth considering, not least because so many of the issues in dispute revolve around questions of free speech and censorship. For those of us who see a posho Assadist Fox News guest using legal threats to censor criticism as being something of a litmus test, Nagle’s decision to side with the censors casts her self-proclaimed commitment to free speech in a fairly dubious light.
But enough about that – returning to Roufos, I’m still troubled by his characterisation of the libcom criticism of Nagle’s writing as being representative of a form of argumentation where “the person under scrutiny is not simply wrong but presented as a veritable monster”. Since the articles in question focused solely on the text of Nagle’s writings, with the only ad hominem attacks being ones that Roufos has created in order to attribute to libcom, I find myself wondering: if this kind of polite criticism is unacceptable, then what is allowed? How many flaws are you allowed to point out in a single book before it becomes ungentlemanly? If someone writes a book that has multiple glaring flaws, is it OK to politely touch on one or two, and at what point does mentioning the holes in someone’s argument become a personal attack?
Moving on to the wider context, Roufos sees this kind of shocking incivility as being a product of a situation in which “accusations of racism, misogyny, etc., [that] were traditionally directed towards the Left’s conservative enemies… are now predominantly used internally”. “Predominantly” is an interesting choice of word here – I’m certainly not denying that such accusations are made within left movements, but is that really the main way they’re used? Do they really outweigh the frequency of people calling, say, ICE, Milo, Trump or Richard Spencer racist or sexist?
And where do we draw the line here – is having a go at “revolutionary communist” guru turned tory-supporting Spectator writer Brendan O’Neill an example of depressing lefty infighting or a laudable attack on our conservative enemies? How about Nick Cohen? Are we still claiming Michael Rechtenwald as one of ours? If we accept Nagle’s claim that Jordan Peterson represents “brain drain from the left”, then is it OK to call him misogynist now, but was there a point in the recent past where it would’ve represented moralistic internal discipline?
Roufos asserts that this terrible habit of criticising things that people have written, which is obviously a wholly different thing to when he criticises things that people have written, aims not just at “mere censorship… but the veritable excommunication of transgressors with whom one should not even bother to engage.” The use of the term “transgressors” is interesting for someone using a Nagle-influenced framework, and makes me wonder whether transgression is meant to be a good or a bad thing today. Anyway, this is a very weird way to characterise an article/pair of articles which did genuinely engage with Nagle’s work – claiming that someone is engaging with a text because they think no-one should engage with that text is an interesting sort of performative contradiction.
And if the enemy here is people who favour censorship and/or shutting down people’s work as not being worth engaging with, then again Nagle doesn’t set the best of examples here – as well as siding with the censors and against free speech in the context of that ARR article, there’s also her treatment of Depression Quest and video games in general: she confidently describes it as “a dreadful game” (p 25), an assessment which she feels perfectly qualified to make, despite being “a nongamer” (p 24) whose position on games is that "If you’re an adult, I think you should probably be investing your emotional energies elsewhere" (p 25). Despite this total lack of interest in the general medium, she happily tells her readers that it "looked like a terrible game” (p 24), because obviously someone who sees an entire form as being a total waste of time is ideally placed to distinguish between good and bad examples of that form, far better than those foolish critics who spend a lot of time engaging with and thinking about that form and who inexplicably gave positive reviews to “Quinn’s bad game” (p 25). It’s hard to imagine a more thoroughgoing way of dismissing something as not being worth engaging with than to call it dreadful, admit you’ve not actually got any first-hand experience of it, assert that the entire medium it’s a part of is basically a waste of time, and then add that it definitely looks like a particularly bad example of its essentially worthless genre.2
Moving on towards the next section of his argument, Roufos asserts that the persistence of this style of politics “is, in any case, not only premised on the capitulation of spineless liberals who find offending marginalized groups more excruciating than, for example, abolishing the conditions that marginalize them.” I’m slightly embarrassed on behalf of the Brooklyn Rail that this gibberish actually made it into print, as this sentence appears to be having a go at liberals who find the idea of offending marginalised groups to be very upsetting, but the idea of abolishing structural oppression to be less upsetting, which is… not quite the sickest burn I’ve ever read? The sentence comes a bit closer to making sense if we swap out “abolishing” for “the continued existence of”, but I feel like the difference between “getting rid of something” and “keeping something” is one of those things that a writer really should be able to keep track of.
The following section, setting out the Ehrenreichs’ concept of a “professional/managerial class” (PMC) is considerably more interesting, but again seems hard to reconcile with Roufos’ insistence that pointing out holes in Nagle’s argument is a dastardly and uncouth activity. If people in jobs such as journalism are “structurally antagonistic [to the working class] by virtue of the PMC’s role in the direct or indirect management of labor power” then why exactly is it off-limits for communists to discuss flaws in the work of one particular media commentator? If people playing the role of media figure are our class enemy anyway, then why this insistence that any criticism of them has to stay within strict bounds of politeness?
In Roufos’ historical analysis of the PMC, there is one really intriguing line, where he talks about “a process of expansion and bureaucratization of professions… a process at the time mistakenly seen as “proletarianization,”” which looked on the face of it to be a denial that “professional” jobs in fields like education had been through a process of proletarianisation at all, but later sections of the article also mention the “gradual commodification and corporatization of professions that had so far remained outside the immediate interest of profit-making apparatuses” and the “actual proletarianization of PMC jobs”, which seems to be Roufos saying that the professions did indeed go through a process of proletarianisation, and he’s just disputing the time frame.
In his treatment of the famous Combahee River Collective statement, Roufos writes that “the very use of the term “identity” in this case was indicative, as it implied a parting of ways with the traditional workers’ movement (for which being working-class did not, in any discernible way, indicate an “identity” in the present use of the concept)”. Again, this is an interesting claim, and it would be nice to see this backed up rather than simply asserted – did the various cultures associated with the classical workers’ movement, from the old SPD, FORA or CNT to the miners, not constitute forms of identity? Perhaps not if we’re going to treat identity as being inherently essentialist (essentially essential?) but then that's clearly not what the references to “socialist” and “revolutionary” identities in the Combahee River statement are doing.
In a footnote, Roufos warns that “the dominance of identitarian sensitivities end up reinforcing precarity by urging young scholars to curtail their views or censor disagreements in order to avoid risking their unstable positions”. This reads an awful lot like an appeal to academic freedom, but surely, if we’re going to characterise ideas as being “professional-managerial ideology”, then “academic freedom”, the idea of a specialised realm of freedom reserved for a certain kind of professional, has to be one of the purest possible expressions of professional ideology.
Beyond this objection, the claim that “identitarian sensitivities” are a major source of self-censorship in academia could do with a bit of fact-checking – are the pressures enforcing ideological conformity in academia really worse than they were under previous orthodoxies? How often are people silenced for offending identitarians, how often are they silenced precisely for being too “identitarian”, as in the case of that trans student at Bristol, and how often do they manage to spin their supposed heresies against the supposed identitarian orthodoxy into a lucrative media career? Looking at Jordan Peterson, it certainly seems like the chilling identitarian academic thought police are not quite as all-powerful and career-ending as one might think; similarly, that one teaching assistant up in Canada who decided to play a JP video to someone else’s grammar class may have gone through a brief bit of hassle for her inability to understand what a teaching assistant’s job actually is, but she certainly seems to have done alright out of the situation as a whole.
Roufos chooses to take up the same moral panic over free speech that Nagle promotes, giving examples such as a talk by Lionel Shriver that “was immediately attacked by a young aspiring novelist, who accused her of being a racial supremacist who wants to normalize imperialist rule.” This example seems worth looking into, but unfortunately Roufos doesn’t provide any citations as to his sources on the subject – again, this is why citations are worthwhile, they let the reader investigate the broader context, such as Shriver’s well-documented views on immigration, a subject she herself mentions being obsessed with, which might be relevant when forming an opinion on the subject being discussed.
Even just looking at Roufos’ summary of it, it’s notable that this is someone voicing a disagreement – that is to say, free speech at work – not a “dreadful” suppression of anyone’s views. Shriver would presumably also be pleased if the people she argues against stop saying the things they’re saying, but for some reason she can criticise people’s ideas without it having a “paralysing” effect, or it being an “inquisition-style attack”.
It may be worth taking a moment to look at the power relations here: Rebecca Tuvel might be a relatively junior figure (but still more senior than, say, that student at Bristol), but does, say “an aspiring young artist” like Hannah Black really have the power to “force” – Roufos’ word – the New York Whitney Biennial, or an artist they favour such as Dana Schutz, to do anything, using the mighty platform of posting something on facebook? As this is one of the central examples Roufos offers to support his claim that there is “a developing pattern [of] people… using the vehicle of identity-based moralism to force their targets (and anyone who might consider defending them) into capitulation”, you would expect that this story would involve someone being forced into capitulation at some point, but since, as the New Yorker put it, “the museum has been entirely supportive of the curators and of the artist”, it would appear that something entirely different is taking place. At least the bit about people who “seek to generate… moral outrage… by using charged characterizations against their opponents” serves an accurate characterisation of the moral panic Roufos is endorsing and contributing to.
Moving from Schutz to Shriver, the same questions apply: presumably the example of someone criticising something Lionel Shriver wrote or said is meant to serve as another part of the pattern of people “using the vehicle of identity-based moralism to force their targets (and anyone who might consider defending them) into capitulation”, so again: where’s the force? Where’s the capitulation? What is the power relationship? To judge by Roufos’ (again, I stress: citationless, as if readers are expected to do Roufos’ research for him) presentation of the situation, not only has Shriver not been forced to retract anything, but her adversary seems to not even have a name. It’s hard to see how a novelist of Shriver’s prominence could be in any way intimidated by such a feeble, insubstantial, anonymous shade.
Given that it’s the likes of Peterson, Sam Harris and Douglas Murray currently performing big-name arena tours, not Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed, George Ciccarello-Maher, or the aspiring novelist with no name, it would appear that the situation is less one where any challenge to identitarian moralism is liable to be immediately silenced, and more that anyone claiming to have been silenced by identitarian moralism is liable to make a good deal of money by selling their story, which there seems to be a thriving market for. Uncritically recycling the moral panic here doesn’t do much to help develop an analysis of the situation as it actually stands. In my opinion, Ahmed’s “You Are Oppressing Us!” is the best thing I’ve read on this peculiar mechanism of claiming-to-be-silenced-as-amplification.
Roufos claims that the controversies he surveys are cynically “ignited by people who seek to defend (or to advance) their personal careers and aspirations”. Again, it seems worth asking: do Rebecca Tuvel, Dana Schutz and Lionel Shriver have careers? What about Jordan Peterson or Lindsey Shepherd? Are they advancing their careers, or do such grubby motivations only exist for those who defend “identity-based moralism”, not the pure innocent souls who offend against it?
Roufos does voice some criticisms of the standard social-democratic “materialist” critique of identity politics, but doesn’t pick up on the distinction between those who honestly advance social-democratic class positions (I’d include Reed, Jacobin and many DSA figures in this) and so will often contribute interesting reports and analyses from ongoing class struggles, and the not-even-really-social-democrat type of commentator whose interest in class issues seems to be directly proportional to the extent that they can be used as a cudgel to own the idpol moralists with.
One point Roufos makes that I do fully agree with is his critique of Nagle’s call to abandon transgression, which seems to be based solely on the thoroughly defeatist ground that it’s possible for the far-right to exploit it. It’s hard to imagine how disastrous this advice would have been if applied systematically to every music scene or football club where fascists attempted to raise their heads and recruit. Or indeed to political issues – if transgression is bad because it’s possible to exploit it for far-right ends, then presumably talking about housing shortages or criticising Islamist reactionaries are also off-limits.
On closer examination, Nagle’s critique of transgression even seems incongruous with her own arguments – are safer spaces, trigger warnings and so on the work of people in love with transgression for its own sake, or are they the result of people precisely seeking to prevent certain forms of transgression?
In closing, Roufos notes that the social-democratic universalist critique “consistently misunderstands the attractiveness of identitarian ideology”, echoing a point made a few paragraphs earlier that “these very critiques unwittingly bolster some of the concerns that generated identitarian positions in the first place, especially when promoting crude class reductionism as a legitimate response”.
As is sadly typical of this genre of article, Roufos leaves off right where he ought to begin: if the stuff he derides as identitarian ideology is an inadequate response to these concerns3 , and reheated 20th-century social democracy isn’t up to the trick either, then what is? That, surely, is where things start to get interesting, and genuinely productive conversations that go beyond mutual sniping can be had; but I can’t help suspect that, if Roufos were to make a serious attempt to provide an answer, then he would at times find himself saying things that would sound similar to some things the so-called “identitarians” say.
And, as we have seen, any deviation from the anti-identitarian orthodoxy prevalent in some sections of the left is likely to attract the denunciation of those who “seek to generate… moral outrage… by using charged characterizations against their opponents”. Safer just to stick to the party line, eh?
- 1Is there a word for falsely claiming that someone else is making a false claim? I can’t think of one, but if I could I’d be using it a lot here. “Strawmanning” comes close, but it doesn’t quite capture the sheer symmetry of what’s going on.
- 2As a sidenote, I do think “writing about other cultural controversies the way Nagle writes about Depression Quest” would be quite a promising niche genre of comedy – for instance, starting an article about the Death of Klinghoffer by stating that all opera is inherently boring and dull and you’re better off watching a musical with some proper tunes any day, but this particular opera probably sucks even harder than the rest of them, or a discussion about the met’s clampdown on drill music that began with the observation that rap isn’t even proper music because they’re not even playing guitars or singing or anything, not like the Beatles, now they had talent.
- 3In passing, I’ll just note that at this point the word “concerns” itself actually feels mildly suspicious, I’m so used to seeing it followed by “about immigration”, or else “women’s… about the GRA/self-identification”. Still, at least they’re not “legitimate concerns”, I suppose.