I Can't Believe You Said That!
Why I still believe that democracy won't be defeated by social media
On Friday, paying subscribers can look forward to an interview with University of Massachusetts historian Sam Redman about his new book, The Museum: A Short History of Crisis and Resilience (NYU, May 2022).
Today’s essay is adapted from a talk I gave on Saturday at a conference to celebrate the career of my former co-executive editor at Public Seminar, “Small Things, Deep Resonance: The Sociology of Jeffrey C. Goldfarb” on April 30, 2022. This post is public, so, please
As I watched the battle over the future of Twitter unroll earlier this month, I realized that all users agreed on one thing: that libertarian Elon Musk’s purchase of the platform would lead to chaos.
Right-wing trolls imagined this chaos as a victory. Speech would be liberated, and Twitter, they crowed, would finally realize its democratic potential. Extremist pundits and ordinary MAGA foot soldiers alike flooded Twitter with images of “the left” or “the libs” weeping inconsolably or “melting down” at the thought of Twitter’s admittedly feeble moderation practices. Particularly pointed forms of humiliation were rewarded with the phrase: “I can’t believe you said that!”
Conversely, although Twitter is not well moderated, liberals and leftists denounced what they imagined as a coming storm. Some announced that they would delete their accounts when the platform became a totalitarian megaphone, as it inevitably would.
This drama has played out on Facebook enough times for many internet veterans like me to predict that Twitter will remain more or less the same. None of us are leaving, but not because we are there for the scintillating conversation: we use Twitter primarily to be visible, solicit writing assignments, and distribute our work after publication. Although all extremists on the left and the right treasure the concept of speech unrestricted by any law or custom, we know that social media is no metric for the health of democracy. The fact remains that the internet is neither inherently democratic nor undemocratic, even if it does have political effects.
But I noticed in last week’s Twitter fracas that the phrase—“I can’t believe you said that!”—had been repurposed. In the old academic blogging world, this sentiment, rather than signaling the perfection of cruelty or an epic dose of schadenfreude, recognized previously hidden truth, one that opened a new conversational space and evaded the silences and daily repression of ordinary academic life. It was a sign that the post had trod all over sacred cows. With such comments, bloggers and commenters indicated that a writer had extended the range of what could be spoken about the actual or “meat” world of university life.
As opposed to what I would say is Twitter’s essentially totalitarian character, blogs were democratic in their design and purposes. It was not because they promoted radically free speech, although they often did, but because they revealed possibilities for new conversations. Blogs also became a gateway between the university and the non-academic world.
Most importantly, blogs provided respite from a university life that also harbors the potential for potentially totalitarian forms of discipline. We bloggers spent our days as obedient university citizens and our nights—even our office hours—contesting the terms and conditions of our day jobs.
Later on, many of us became identified as the latest generation of “public intellectuals,” but that wasn’t strictly true. Yes, many of us became public intellectuals on far more conventional platforms, which had always hosted such people. But that was only a few of us, and not necessarily the most talented among us. Many of the most insightful bloggers simply quit posting and melted back into anonymity.
For those who persevered, blogging was merely a stage on our journey to a publishing world undergoing convulsions provoked by the internet. As bloggers, we weren’t public intellectuals at all: we were intellectuals in search of a public, in open revolt against the narrow discipline of university life and the disapproval of our colleagues.
Bloggers were a people in search of democracy and democratic freedoms we didn’t find in formal academic work. We were in flight from constraint and discipline, however collegial and well-rewarded. We were in resistance to the totalitarian impulses of a higher education industry that simultaneously disavowed such impulses and enforced them relentlessly.
In response to this contradiction, we created a digital backstage for our readers, who were not actually “the public,” but a counter-public, as Jurgen Habermas would have it, almost entirely made up by other academics. To our shock and horror, some of us who were pseudonymous often eventually discovered that one of our primary audiences was our institutional colleagues. They regarded us as some fascinating and horrible version of Evelyn Waugh’s Daily Beast.
But they read us, didn’t they?
One thing that academic blogging accomplished, other than eventually making some of us into the general audience writers we wanted to be, was to expand what could be said in universities and to whom it could be said. We did this by writing down things that everybody knew were constitutive of university life and everyone talked about but were a version of Las Vegas.
What happened on campus, stayed on campus. Sexual harassment was a big topic; inequities of class and race, and the intricacies of the hiring process, were other. But, in a larger sense, we were interested in the various forms of intellectual and social terror that have kept university hierarchies relatively intact over time, an invisible and institutionalized terror that intensified as the job market narrowed and employment became more tenuous.
Blog posts often consisted of a simple structure: this happened, this is what it means. In the policy world, such disruptive speech acts are said to expand The Overton Window, which theorizes how new ideas affect politics over time. The Overton Window argues that politicians can only pursue ideas that are broadly consented to or recognized. To make a change of any kind, one must expand the boundaries of policy consensus. Society has to evolve incrementally or, as we have seen in the last five years with Trumpism, be jolted by those who break the rules with impunity until the game has completely changed.
Unfortunately, academic bloggers may have become a new generation of public intellectuals, but we changed nothing about university life. Instead, we spent a lot of time rectifying what we saw as unfair about the people who paid our salaries and supported our aspirations.
Our subject was the totalitarian impulses that, I would argue, are imminent in all institutions but exist in particularly arcane and stultifying forms in academia. Our method was shining what light we could on the messier world that lurked behind the veil of academic respectability, which constrained our social and intellectual lives.
Looking back on it, the jolts we gave to the system were rarely seismic, but in the context of academic politesse they produced new conversations. For example, I truly believe that today’s activism around the proliferation of adjunct labor was facilitated by blogging adjuncts and the audiences that shared their experiences in the comments sections.
Bloggers also challenged the rules of forced deference. A young, barely tenured early American historian famously called one senior scholar, a famous misogynist, a “tool.” Now, when worse things happen on Twitter every second, it's hard to understand how influential this moment was. As very senior male historians raged in the blogger’s comment section, using their own names, and female and male commenters used pseudonymous accounts to say to the blogger admiringly, “I can’t believe you said that!” the Overton window opened just a bit wider--and a sweet breeze blew through.
These things happened long before any of us who were blogging imagined calling ourselves “public intellectuals.” After all, we were highly educated people, and we knew the difference between our self-edited, often quarrelsome, platforms and the highly-curated “little magazines” that platformed a range of Cold War academics, from Hannah Arendt to Frank Freidel, Lionel Trilling, and Irving Kristol. But again, it is essential to recall that most of us did not write under our real names, at least initially, even though, through blogger meetups, we were often known to each other.
We were all very different people and had come to blogging in different ways. For me, it was a return to the cultural and political commentary I had done for feminist and LGBT community newspapers in downtown New York City in the 1980s. Yet we all had two things in common. The first was the we wanted to be read, something that scholarly writing inhibits dramatically. The second was that many of us recognized the totalitarian qualities of universities. We understood that, as employers, they often lacked incentives to help us actualize an authentic voice or self as they sought to discipline and wring a certain kind of work out of us.
For academic bloggers, as Jeff Goldfarb points out in his reading of Hannah Arendt in The Politics of Small Things, the internet was our kitchen table, our clandestine bookstore, our basement theatricals, and living room literary salons. They were a small and far less significant analogy, in short, to alternative public spaces where Goldfarb saw the social bonds, ideas, and energy amassing in Poland as a democratic society began to topple Soviet-style dictatorship.
I don’t want to make academic blogging sound more important than it was. It was a drop in the bucket compared to the collapse and replacement of an entire media industry or political system—both of which we have experienced in the last 20 years. Academic blogging never overthrew anything. We never came close to changing how universities work—the mysterious, labor-intensive way people are hired, the scourge of adjunctification, or governance structures that have become less rather than more inclusive over time. Racism and sexual harassment continue to be endemic problems, as does the horrible anxiety that young people suffer as they make their way from promotion to promotion, smiling courteously at senior faculty for years and going home to grind their teeth at night.
But academic bloggers did do one thing, I think, which was to nurture an alternative public sphere where many of us learned to write, not to be evaluated by others, but for ourselves. We learned to turn our research and critical thinking skills to contemporary problems and tell stories to ordinary people. And because of that, something wondrous happened. Many of us who were untrained to function outside the university combined intellects honed under totalitarianism with skills perfected in the virtual public square. By 2016, and the beginning of the greatest crisis the United States has seen since the Civil War, we were ready to do battle with a totalitarian vision for politics.
So what about Twitter? Well, one thing I know is that if there are small spaces where democracy can flourish under totalitarianism, there are spaces for authoritarianism carved out in places—like universities or social media platforms—that say they are free. Today, these spaces constitute a growing crisis for democracy, a crisis for defining what free speech is, and for how the two categories intersect and activate each other.
Anxiety on the left about whether Elon Musk will enhance the power of Twitter to do evil under Musk, and the glee among a variety of American right-wingers that it will, has escalated. Thousands of liberal and left-wing users caused the hashtag #LeavingTwitter to trend. Shortly thereafter, the right jumped in, using the same hashtag to troll “the left,” as they call everyone who isn’t them. They posted images of coffee mugs labeled “Refill with liberal tears,” weeping emojis, and large dump trucks disposing of hundreds of little Bill Gates figures, faces tipped to the sky, tears pouring out of their little cartoon eyes. One announced that liberals would all be going to a new platform called Wettr (a play on the right-wing platform Gettr), where they could cry until the end of time.
I have no stake in this particular quarrel. I don’t care who owns Twitter, Facebook, or any other platform; I am sure that the only thing that will change any of them—for better or for worse—is government regulation of the kind that the European Union and Australia are beginning to implement.
I am much more interested in an idea that has persisted since the 1990s: that the internet, and the various platforms that make it usable or accessible by a mass audience, is a public square subject to rights claims.
There is a great deal invested in this idea of the internet as a public square because no other medium—short of standing on a box in Union Square declaiming to an assembled crowd—has ever had such range, flexibility, and accessibility. A quick search of the phrase “public square” turns up thousands of tweets characterizing Twitter in this way were generated in the last week alone.
This validates the perception that Twitter, like blogging, represents a valuable intellectual commons and still has potential. As Molly Jong-Fast, a journalist who writes for liberal and centrist publications like The Atlantic and heterodox conservative outlets such as The Bulwark, tweeted: “I don’t understand liberals leaving Twitter because they’re mad about Elon Musk. For now, and this might not always be true forever, but for now this is the public square, why cede it?”
I can’t believe she said that! This quarrel also reveals that the internet, to be democratic at all, must be periodically revised to meet new circumstances. Differently, the conversation about digital public space as a potentially totalitarian institution that works against the interests of public intellectual life is radically underdeveloped.
These things have yet to be determined, and that is the project now before us.
Why are so many GOP candidates up to their eyeballs in rumors about sexual assault? More importantly, what is wrong with Republican women that they go out and vote for these lecherous fools? The latest is Nebraska gubernatorial candidates Charles Herbster, yet another wealthy “man of the people” endorsed by the Former Guy. “Eight women, including a strongly conservative Republican state senator, said that Herbster had groped them or touched them inappropriately,” writes the New Yorker’s Peter Slevin, a report based on a piece written by Nebraska political reporter Aaron Sanderford. (May 9, 2022)
At The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner is less than impressed with Harvard’s attempt to make amends for slavery. As he argues, slavery ended almost 180 years ago. Still, just last year, Harvard expanded into the Allston neighborhood using money donated by billionaire John A. Paulson—who earned at least some of it bilking Black people in the subprime lending market. “Maybe,” Kuttner muses, “200 years from now, some Harvard president will discover with shock and dismay that the university’s science and engineering complex is named for a speculator who made his billions at the expense of African American wealth and issue an apology.” (May 9, 2022)
Secretary Pete, formerly Mayor Pete, nails it on the GOP culture wars. Watch this—it’s how every Democrat should be responding to Republican bigotry.
Political Junkie is a reader-supported publication. My dudes, this is work: if you like this post, and are still reading for free, consider getting three posts a week as a paying subscriber.