I have resisted writing about the Brendan Eich Mozilla affair. Literally. The ‘resisted’ bit is literal, I mean. Every day, for more than a week, I have expended non-trivial willpower to post nothing. It’s the moral equivalent of a giant bag of snacks in the kitchen of my mind. Unopened. That I am so distracted by the knowledge that someone, right now, is writing something wrong on the internet about Brendan Eich, is a sign I am a glutton for empty calories of falsehood.
Thus, my new policy. I am allowed to eat as many stale snacks of falsehood as I want. I’m opening the Brendan Eich bag. Now. By commencing to write this post I have opened the bag. The temptation is increasing! But I’m … just going to let it sit, getting good and stale. It’s already sort of stale. I did manage to wait more than a week. If, after staleness really sets in, I still want to partake, I may do so. At which point I just may manage to do so moderately, in proportion to such true nutritional content as I may add.
Going forward, let it be so! Fresh truths and stale falsehoods served!
It ought to be a category. Teapots, Post-Tempest. Meme as Memento Mori of Memedom. Urgent hyperbole as deflated whoopee cushion, waiting to happen. The stale catnip of contemptsmanship. If I really want such things, I may have them.
OK, but a few jokes are permissible, even before the thing has passed its sell-by, so I can eat it. For example: back in the day, Norbizness made fun of the tendency to make a monstrous monolith of The Left. “The Left Is Attacking The City!” And, in the present case, the Left is being identified with Mozilla! Which is named after an actual giant monster. That attacked the city! What are the odds? (OK, it’s not a good joke. Aaand Alicublog beat me to it. But without noting the particular irony in the Mozilla name! But maybe it was just supposed to be obvious.)
What else can I do to resist getting sucked into this sort of thing, to no good end? Here’s something. This last week, rather than write about Brendan Eich, I’ve been catching up on Season 2 of The Following. It’s junk TV, but fun. Like a lot of genre fiction, it gives us reality plus one preposterous conceit of coincidence or alt-psychology. (Like: Angela Lansbury is never more than 20 feet from a murder. Murder, she caused. What a way to run a metaphysical railroad!) The conceit in The Following is … how to put this? That serial killers are kind of like … I dunno. Mice? They infest. If you see one, you know there are, like, 20 you can’t see but any second they will come out of the woodwork. You never have just one. They run in … packs, herds? What should be the mass noun for a typically tight-knit herd of serial killers? A flense? A flense of serial killers. That’s as good a mass noun as any. In the show, there is a nominal conceit that it’s due to the charismatic powers of one Joe Carroll, serial killer. But, honestly, it seems more like: in this world people just turn serial killer quite easily; and birds of that feather flock together. Everything in the show flows from that pair of facts. It’s fun! And it’s fun that it isn’t played for laughs. Even though, if you think about it, it’s laughable.
Now, getting back to the internet. What is annoying about this sort of thing – as in so many other cases! – is not that people are saying things that are wrong, but that they are saying things that are patently ridiculous, without awareness that their views exhibit this singular degree of epistemic weakness. Isn’t that the way of it?
Everyone agrees Brendan Eich’s case, in itself, is not the stuff of personal tragedy, not to the tune of a week of news cycles, let alone as fodder for some modern Aeschylus or Sophocles. He’s a rich guy who quit under pressure, but no law was broken, and he can get a good new job somewhere if he wants one. Somewhat bad judgment was exhibited by some, about something, at some point in this case. (Everyone can agree with that much.) But some people think that Eich’s case shows, additionally, the dark nature of the liberal mind – at least its dark side; or at very least liberalism’s contemporary tendency towards diet totalitarianism-lite, its core intolerance. Or at very very least its characteristic naivete about the complexity of what the other side is thinking and feeling. And, insofar as the Eich case is taken as some such diagnostic indicator of liberalism’s ills, it gets like The Following.
A moment’s reflection suffices to show this is just genre fiction. A few key features of liberalism, and of human nature itself – of basic psychology – are flagrantly falsified to occasion an entertainingly consistent cascade of catastrophe. It would be fun if all, or most, liberals were drawn to causes like marriage equality by a kind of intolerance; or if liberals had a tendency to form, spontaneously, little proto-fascist cells. If liberalism/fascism were, inherently, a perilous razor’s edge. If the Brendan Eich case showed us our culture, in the mirror, dancing a dance of the death of tolerance along that razor’s edge! It would even be funny if liberal responses to Eich were due to naivete about the case. (It’s always funny to imagine people getting through the minefield, without making a significant misstep, by sheer luck.)
Just like it would be fun if large numbers of people easily turned into serial killers who spontaneously form elaborate and reasonably stable social networks. Interesting times would be had.
I get why people like these stories. But it couldn’t actually – y’know – happen. I don’t just mean it couldn’t happen here. It’s not like The Following could be realistic in some other time and place, just not today in the US. And the Brendan Eich case is similar. People write it up as a kind of emotionally jolting genre fiction that couldn’t ever come true.
Of course, I’m not saying a liberal society can’t slide into fascism. But you have to imagine it happening by plausible psychological and sociological mechanisms. Sheesh.
And that’s why my fingers have been itching to write about the Eich case! Until now!
I want to explain to these people, who are fictionalizing the story, that they are being tricked by their taste in genre fiction. The tension and release they are getting from reading about Brendan Eich’s persecution is like the tension and release I get from watching Kevin Bacon be persecuted by flocks of serial killers. And: in wanting so desperately to make them see this, I crave my own sugar rush, of course. Like so many on the internet, I am quite the connoisseur of falsehood. (It isn’t quite right to say that Hobbes hated the false more than he loved truth. Rather, he loved falsehood … in others. I am that way, too.)
I like the taste of contempt.
It’s a common taste. Those who are excited by the Brendan Eich story are excited by their sense that this is an occasion for feeling and expressing superiority to liberals and liberalism. I am correspondingly excited by their excitement because I feel this is an occasion for feeling superior to their silly, misfiring sense of superiority. Oh the sweet, sweet irony, when the tables turn!
And they will turn, because I’m right, they’re wrong!
No small distinction, I think you will admit!
So argue already (you object)! You’ve opened the bag, are munching away. You’ve said all the people on the other side are deluded. Even Andrew Sullivan and Conor Friedersdorf, who are trying to be more moderate in their indictment of liberal responses to the case.
Where’s the argument they, too, are pretty much just indulging an unrealistic alt-psychology fantasy?
You’re right! I shouldn’t even have opened the bag. Shame! Shame! This post is written in weakness, although I am having tons of fun writing it. Here’s the thing. Either I’m right or I’m wrong. (Even conservatives will agree with that.) And I think I’m right and that I have absolutely devastating arguments to back it up. You may think I’m bluffing, that in my heart I know conservatives have won the argument, but I assure you: I don’t think I’m bluffing. I’m struggling to restrain myself from offering my best arguments. (In my mind, I’m admiring them. They are very good arguments. Gleaming weapons. The other side has nothing to compare.) It’s like I’m saying to myself: you want contempt? Fine! That’s all you get! They get to say you didn’t make an argument in this post! They get to be right about that much! Nice try, self!
Because if I’m right, there’s little point in giving them a blood-red spin through the public sphere, my arguments, at least not until everyone has forgotten Brendan Eich’s name. If, a week from now (let’s say) I think I can express my view about all this in a way that no one yet has – if I can put my finger on the pulse of the appeal of such a case, to those it appeals to – then maybe I’ll write a follow-up.
That’s why I’m not even linking to all the things I’m complaining about. I don’t think it’s healthy to join the conversation. It’s unfair, I know, to indict but not argue or even link. But I’m trying to make a point about craziness, you see. (It isn’t easy for me not to argue and link.)
The time is simply not yet unripe (I’m trying to keep a straight face here). The fruit of Brendan Eich’s resignation under pressure must be given a chance to overripen, bloat, rot, fall from the tree, decompose, be forgotten. Then, and only then, can I reach into the soil and – letting its rich, fragrant brownness slip between my fingers, for dramatic effect – sermonize about how this fecundity holds natural seeds of the next case. I will call it the ‘whatshisname case’, because I will have forgotten Eich’s name. It wasn’t important.
But, in the meantime, it is not impossible that I will have managed to annoy, say, Conor Friedersdorf and Andrew Sullivan, who think they are being psychologically observant of the complexity of the Eich case, whereas folks like me are too inclined to see it in black-and-white terms. So probably that’s my problem, but until I argue they can’t be sure. For they are scrupulous.
Look, I just think they’re seeing what they want. They are seeing a kind of complexity, yeah. But it’s a fictional sort that flatters their sensibilities. Also, they’re wound up about a whole lot of nothing, which is never good. I am, too.
What they need – what I need – is a break from the case. Let a whole week go by in which no one says a word about it.
But this post is likely to cause words to be said! (It could happen.) Ok, suppose the other side notices and someone is annoyed that I have said they are wrong – at such length! – without offering rational rebuttals to their rational arguments. Obviously that’s not post-worthy, because I didn’t even make an argument! Here’s a recipe for how to not post about this obviously unworthy-of-counter-argument offering, even though it’s provoking, the thing I say.
I am kind of serious about how you should read the other side’s rhetoric the way you watch a show like The Following. While I am watching, I know it couldn’t happen that way, but I am unbothered. It doesn’t call for an angry rebuttal. But then I may click over to National Review and see that there is a reader poll [scroll down], asking “Does the Mozilla firing show we have entered a new age of intolerance?” To which 98.12% of respondents have responded ‘yes’. Of course, people who respond to a poll like this are hardly a representative sample of anything, even of conservative readers of NR. Still, it bothers me that this happened. It really bothers me. It’s like you showed hundreds of people a dog and asked them, ‘is this a cat?’ and they all said ‘yes’. How badly did people have to want to see a cat, for that to be the case? I mean, sure: they’re really just saying ‘liberalism yuck!’ I get that. It makes no more sense to argue with a ‘yuck!’ than it does to argue with an episode of The Following, which is just supposed to push my buttons, in a fun way. Still.
But what are you going to do? Try this: imagine a fictional world in which basic facts, and human psychology, and even a few elemental conceptual truths are altered, such that it would be terrifyingly plausible that ‘The Mozilla firing shows we have entered a new age of intolerance’.
I’m going to fill in the details of this fan fiction (for that is really what it is: I am a fan of conservatism) courtesy of a detail in a Kevin Williamson piece that bothered me, I admit it. You are free to think I was stung by the truth of it. But I think it was more than I was provoked by the false of it, which weighed on my tongue like a stone. By what feat of verbal heroics could I ever hope to roll such a massive stone of wrongness away?
The convocation of clowns on the left screeched with one semi-literate and inchoate voice when my colleague Jonah Goldberg, borrowing the precise words of one of their own, titled a book Liberal Fascism. Most of them didn’t read it, but the ones who did apparently took what was intended as criticism and read it as a blueprint for political action.
Welcome to the Liberal Gulag.
That term may be perverse, but it is not an exaggeration.
Of course, in saying it is not an exaggeration, he is precisely and obviously exaggerating. I get that. (It’s like that whole ‘she was literally run off her feet’ thing.) Even so, just imagine it were true. It’s going to be kind of like Kamandi, The Last Boy On Earth meets Idiocracy. Or Planet of The Apes meets Adventure Time. Or something. Imagine that, in the not-too-distant-future, an NR cruise ship strikes an iceberg and goes down and everyone dies, except Jonah Goldberg, who is frozen like Captain America after W.W. II, only to thaw out 50 years later into a world in which civilization has collapsed into one big liberal gulag. In the camp, which is the world, there’s kind of a barter economy, in which everyone trades acts of intolerance, that being the universal currency. Everyone got semi-literate, because there weren’t any non-liberals left after The Event, and the only book that was left was a single copy of Liberal Fascism. Which was mistaken for a positive blueprint. Imagine the bitter tears Goldberg sheds when he realizes this! (I think in the movie he will be played by Eddie Izzard, doing a very good American accent.) Anyway, eventually Goldberg figures out what The Event was. It was the Mozilla firing! (Not the firing itself, but the cultural aftermath. I don’t want to be ridiculous about this. It couldn’t be the firing itself. It would have to be the aftermath. The cultural penumbra.) So he builds a time machine, goes back to the Mozilla board room on the day, tells them to play off the OKCupid thing like it’s nothing, and civilization is saved!
Also, conservatives can play this game, too. Just imagine what it would be like if a Krugman op-ed were ever true! (How crazy would the world have to be, for that to be the case? Fill in the details!) If you are provoked by the elaborate wrongness of this post, don’t get mad. Instead, use your imagination to imagine a world crazy enough that Holbo’s response to it would be reasonable. In this crazy fiction, the Brendan Eich case literally causes conservatives, including Andrew Sullivan, plus Conor Friedersdorf, to lose track of, among other things, common sense about human psychology, for two weeks. If you think I’m wrong, then imagining this crazy fiction should be highly amusing for you. Amusing enough that maybe you won’t mind so much, waiting for the post in which I prove that it’s not fiction, but science fact! I was right all along! Which, possibly, I will decide isn’t even worth writing. Who would believe me, after all, who didn’t already believe it?
Being bemused by genre fiction is more fun than being annoyed.
Aaargh! Aargh! Aargh! I cannot believe the number of Brendan Eich things I have read, and the number of arguments against them I have compulsively formulated, over the past week.