In defence of personal attacks

by Sam Kriss

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The left does not have a great literary tradition. The really titanic writers and novelists of the twentieth century tended either towards a kind of weary nihilism – Beckett, Kafka, even Joyce – or the outright fascism of a Céline, a Mishima, a Borges, or a Lawrence. Within the Soviet Union, novelists tended toward mild reaction, and Stalin had to intervene to save his favourites. ‘Leave that holy fool alone,’ he said of Pasternak. ‘It’s not good calling literature right and left. These are Party words,’ was his judgement on Bulgakov. This position, that great art transcends politics, is itself political, a reactionary one, but literature makes us reactionaries. Something about socialism as it’s often practised, perhaps the insistent optimism in the face of suffering, doesn’t lend itself well to the novel as form. There’s a famous story about Engels: after Marx’s death, he was regularly approached by young socialist writers who wanted him to read their manuscripts, and these were almost invariably terrible. Didactic little stories about brave, noble, heroic workers who banded together and triumphed over their bad evil bosses. Engels would tell these writers to go away and read some Balzac. And Balzac was a monarchist. This doesn’t mean that progressive politics can’t be reconciled with the written word; we just have our own forms. Communists write engaging history, anthropology, and literary theory; we’re good at hybrid, inventive, or indeterminate forms, in particular the essay; we have good poets. But more than anything we know who the enemy is and we’re not afraid to exercise moral judgement, and so we write excellent, vicious, brutal political invective.

Lately, the value of personal unpleasantness has been the subject of some debate, if you can call it that, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first I feel I ought to defend my own practice. I’ve previously used this space to be really very mean about quite a few important people – Slavoj Žižek, the corpse of Margaret Thatcher, Richard Dawkins, Nigel Farage, the Royal family, Alain de Botton, Tony Blair, Abraham Foxman, Stephen Fry, the cereal café twins, Chris Kyle, Slavoj Žižek again, Howard Jacobson, Slavoj Žižek a third time, Howard Jacobson a second time, Slavoj Žižek a fourth time, Bill Kristol, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nate Silver, and Nick Cohen. These critiques are often hyperbolic: I don’t just disagree with someone’s ideas, but make unpleasant comments about the way they look or talk, I place them in gruesome sexual scenarios, I indulge in strange fantasies in which they get kidnapped and beaten to a pulp, are humiliated on live TV, expose themselves from a medieval tower, develop a psychotic fear of frogs, or sneak into people’s homes to commit strange acts of voyeurism. Some of these comments are potentially libellous (sue me, you fuckers!), all of them are frankly gratuitous and unnecessary. In fact, this is an occasional response I receive – my point, when I bother to make one, is marred by the vitriol of the personal insults; it’s unfair and unbecoming; when I insult someone’s person it can look as if I’m not competent to grapple with their ideas. So why do it?

I want to mount a defence of exactly this kind of crude, cruel, spiteful rhetoric, and it’s helpful to start by looking at its opposite. An excellent example is provided by Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, one of the great broadsides against the dumbing-down of America, the reduction of great and noble ideas-based debates to crass bickering. Television, writes Postman, has become to dominant form for communicating ideas, to which all other forms are subservient (one could say the same of the internet today); it has supplanted the written word, and the results have been disastrous. Writing forces people to think an argument through linearly, to concentrate on pages of fairly unattractive squiggles for hours on end in silence and contemplation, to engage with concept that do not necessarily have any immediate visual referent; with television, meanwhile, you just sit in front of the box and let the images wash through your brain. In the first section, Postman describes the highly literate society of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when ordinary people would actually read books, when ideas circulated freely, when most people wouldn’t recognise the US President if they saw him on the street, because great figures were seen primarily as a collection of texts, to be evaluated by the dispassionate critical intelligence. This was the Age of Reason, and it was great. Later, he describes an attempt by television to display some serious and rational enquiry to its viewers: an eighty-minute discussion programme broadcast by ABC in 1983, with a panel of respected experts, all titans in their field, and men that Postman clearly admires. But because this discussion was broadcast on TV, it was impossible to represent the serious intelligence of its guests; instead of thinking, with all the uncertainty that implies, they were forced to make rambling little commentaries: ‘what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas.’

There are two things to note here. First, Postman is victim to a fetishism of the book as a physical object; second, to a fetishism of the Idea as such. He talks about reading a lot, but very rarely about writing: the text is passively received, evaluated but never responded to. For the great mass of people the written word is an ennobling force that comes from the outside, and they are to gladly lap it up. As any good Derridean knows, this is nonsense; the act of inscription is all but universal, especially within what Postman calls pre-literate societies. And he misses a fairly important question – what did these great ennobling books actually say? Even now, there are people who try to build their identity on the fact that they really love reading – they’re such a nerd haha, they don’t go out drinking at night, they’d far rather curl up with a good book. What books? Oh, all books are great; Mein Kampf, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the latest from Michael Deacon; I just love books. What were people reading in Postman’s great Age of Reason? From the way he writes, you’d think they were all reading John Locke, Thomas Paine, and the Bible. Except this was also the era of brutal imperialism and the beginnings of scientific racism; the South was full of slaves, and the slaveowners were frequently publishing apologia for their monstrosities – which, it has to be said, were expressed in complex sentences designed to appeal to the faculty of reason. Similarly in the present day. Postman is full of respect for the panellists on that ABC show, because they are men of ideas, but while he writes paeans to the act of evaluation inherent in the written word, he doesn’t seem to exercise it himself. That discussion was broadcast after the film The Day After, about nuclear war, and the panel was an interesting bunch. One of its members was Ellie Weisel, the professional whitewasher of Israeli ethnic cleansing. Another was white supremacist William F Buckley. A third was the celebrity war criminal Henry Kissinger. Postman is most effusive in his praise for Kissinger – a ‘paradigm of intellectual sobriety,’ who would make ‘viewers feel sorry he was no longer their Secretary of State by reminding everyone of books he had once written, proposals he had once made, and negotiations he had once conducted.’ And in a way, Postman is right. Kissinger is deeply serious. But he’s a deeply serious monster.

The world we live in is not populated by ideas, it’s populated by people, and people die – millions of them, constantly, for no good reason other than the avarice and cruelty of other people. This is a central Marxist insight: ideas do not exist in their own glittering sphere; they emerge from concrete relations of production and power. Henry Kissinger is not a collection of texts and concepts, but a profoundly evil man. It’s important to rebut his ideas, because they are dangerous. But if you also attack him in the face – or, preferably, in his dick and balls – it’s harder for these ideas to escape into their weightless world where any concept is as good as any other. Kissinger as a set of abstract notions is incommensurable with anything in material reality; a sad, naked, doughy Kissinger with a pale and shrivelled penis is a human body, far harder to divorce from the millions of human bodies he destroyed in south-east Asia. Gratuitous personal insults are essential. A grotesque satirical fantasy, Kissinger cranking off in a Phnom Penh hotel room to napalm videos, whatever, belongs to reality; the vision of him as a big fleshy book does not.

Debate club rules are not universally applicable. When people demand that discourse only take place on the level of ideas, rather than ugly reality, it’s often because there is something in reality that they’d rather not face. The people who really object on principle to being mocked or insulted, the ones who decry it as violence, tend to be far less critical of actual, physical, deadly violence. Blood is fine. Dick jokes are not.

All this is written in response to the fallout from what should have been a fairly inconsequential internet spat, in which the leftist blogger Matt Bruenig referred to the liberal thinktankie Neera Tanden as a ‘scumbag.’ Incredibly, this somehow ended in Bruenig losing his job. Friends and comrades have already written excellent essays on this incident and the issues surrounding it; in particular Gavin Mueller’s materialist critique of media stratification, Roqayah Chamseddine’s urgent analysis of the weaponisation of feminism for bourgeois ends, and Amber A’Lee Frost’s prophetic call, published shortly before all this nonsense broke out, for a return to eighteenth-century political vulgarity. (Neil Postman, incidentally, has surprisingly little to say about de Sade.) I’ll try to avoid repeating too much of these very perceptive analyses, but I will add a few things. Firstly, there’s a strange consensus among media liberals that discussion on the internet is marked by an unacceptable incivility. Protected by anonymity and distance, the id bursts up through an encrusted ego, and the fury of distant savage millennia leaks out through keyboard to screen. Here it’s worth looking at where civility actually comes from. Enforced codes of conduct were first established to guard against the very real threat of murderous violence. If two people meet and do not behave politely to each other, there’s a serious chance one of them may end up dead. This is why you shake with your right hand; it’s the same hand that holds the sword. Rudeness isn’t bad in and of itself, it’s the violence that’s bad. On the internet, this is very rarely an issue; we’ve been liberated from the circumstances that demand politeness, and there’s no good reason not to be rude. But the protection it provides isn’t universal. The people Bruenig annoyed were powerful – Tanden, for instance, is likely to be Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff – and so they had the means to deprive him of his job. But they defend causing him material harm by reference to a principle of civility – means become ends, their actions are justified by a code designed precisely to prevent this from happening.

Secondly, what unites the liberals attempting to demonise Bruenig – Sady Doyle, Joshua Foust, Jordan Kay, and others you’re probably very lucky to have never heard of – is their total uselessness at good, vicious political invective. It’s just not their natural terrain. They like to condemn groups and caricatures, slinging their mud out a bucket from on high, where they never get dirty themselves; they’re entirely incapable of getting a decent playground insult to land on any one individual. The only other option, besides violence, is to whine ‘but you’re being meeaaan.’ These people are just clueless. Case in point is Doyle, who once wrote that ‘trying to parse Hillary Clinton without also parsing Hillary hate is like trying to drink water without touching the glass,’ apparently having never heard of the popular invention known as a ‘straw.’ Or, for that matter, Foust, who cheerleads for murderous despots, and fantasised about gunning down the childhood bullies he didn’t know how to respond to. In the end, it’s not the case that you make personal attacks because you don’t have the intellectual heft to engage with ideas. Far more often, you adopt a high-minded posture because you don’t have the rhetorical wit to make personal attacks.