In The Fragile Absolute Slavoj Zizek wrote of the Balkans that they’re “always somewhere else, a little bit more towards the southeast. . . .” Pundits seem part of a parallel phantasmagoria, pointing in the opposite direction: always northwest, closer to a summer sun than us; always ahead. Nobody seems to claim to be a pundit; nobody is a pundit to themselves. Noah Berlatsky’s essay collection Chattering Class War is about these idiot ghosts. His goal is “to tell various pundits that they suck and are wrong.” To me, a pundit is any commentator more visible and less competent than me; to Berlatsky, a pundit is any commentator more visible and less competent than Berlatsky. Berlatsky is more visible than me, and he makes a lot of my least favorite kinds of arguments. Relative to me, he is a pundit. He’s aware of this dynamic; in the preface, he writes: “[P]erhaps there’s still some enjoyment to be gained from seeing your least favorite pundit punched about — even if, in some cases, that least favorite pundit is me.” But by the introduction (“Chattering Class Solidarity“), he is back to speaking about pundits in the third person.
Berlatsky and I operate similarly: we write takedowns, negative reviews, “eviscerations,” “owns.” We both spend a lot of time “mad online.” This book is all takedowns. Some are of people I myself have written against: Angela Nagle, Mark Lilla, Jonathan Haidt, Chapo Trap House, Sam Harris. Some are of people I like quite a bit: Angela Nagle, Lee Fang, Freddie deBoer, Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Singal, Robby Soave, Conor Friedersdorf, Ross Douthat, Steven Pinker. Some of Berlatsky’s hits land, some don’t. But more than anything what this book makes me wonder is why I know all these names, why I harbor so many feelings about all of them, why I’ve spent so much time reading them and felt it so necessary to respond. Perhaps this means the text is, in one sense, successful; perhaps it means, in another sense, that it’s utterly pointless, even self-defeating.
In an old (but recently worth revisiting) piece on Syria, Berlatsky writes: “Let’s put aside the question of whether the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attacks . . . Let’s put aside, too, the question of whether the administration or its water carriers should be trusted to tell us which wars are going to be ‘major.’ Instead, let’s focus on the fact that Chait’s rationale makes no sense.” But why? Why focus on the pundit rather than the event? In the first essay against Andrew Sullivan, Berlatsky criticizes the media for its too-intense focus on the death of Andrew Breitbart, writing that “it can be easy for them to forget that water-cooler gossip isn’t necessarily transcendentally important.” A chapter about a pundit in a whole book about pundits criticizes pundits for talking about a pundit. Berlatsky wants it both ways: to chatter with the “chattering class” about the chattering class, but to criticize them for chattering, and for chattering about themselves. His review of Sullivan’s mea culpa around 9/11 veers into a discussion of Sullivan’s “self-absorption,” but one starts to wonder why Berlatsky is as absorbed with these pundits as they may well be with themselves. The piece that follows is about Sullivan’s status as a “celebrity” or “gimmick.” This resolves the book’s mystery a little bit: its author thinks all of these people are really famous and important!
Indeed, the power of the word, written and spoken, is the book’s main theme, insofar as it has one. The introduction is a kind of confused attack on the idea of a free speech crisis (similar to some I’ve addressed recently), and Berlatsky writes in an anti-Chait essay that “free-speech advocates sometimes . . . downplay the importance, or dangerousness of talking and expressing opinions.” Speech is dangerous: this explains why it’s so morally urgent to tell some speakers “that they suck and are wrong.” Two of the anti-deBoer essays are defenses of virtue signaling. If there weren’t good pundits signaling their virtue, Berlatsky seems to be saying, how would everyone else know what was virtuous and what wasn’t? So it’s crucial that the bad people stop talking and it’s not necessary that the good people stop talking to go do something else that’s good.
But Berlatsky also assures us that speech is virtually powerless to convince anyone of anything. For him, a better political use of your time, better than trying to win over people who disagree with you, is “[i]ntimidating your enemies.” It seems that the best use of speech is to prevent other people from speaking. That’s the frustration behind this book, I suppose: Stop chattering so much or I’ll pwn you online. But there is a real puzzle here: If speech doesn’t convince people of things, why work so hard to censor it in the first place? For those who think nobody ever changes their mind because of the words they hear, where is the harm in a few alt-right speakers, some racist graffiti, whatever? Berlatsky pores over minute details of opposing arguments and of movies and television shows. Do those details matter to him or not? Do they matter to anyone? These are not idle questions — I’m like Berlatsky, as I said, and I want to know.
His most ridiculous statement on speech is this: “If speech were utterly inconsequential, if it had no power, there wouldn’t be any point in defending it. The argument for free speech, surely, has to be built on the notion that speech does in fact have power. It’s because speech is worth listening to that you defend it, not because it isn’t.” If what’s more powerful were really more defensible, we would find assault rifles more defensible than pistols, heroin more defensible than marijuana. We would say: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus, now that’s not going to convince anybody of anything. There’s no point defending that.” But this isn’t the way the world is. The less powerful the speech, the more egregious we consider the people censoring it. I don’t know what it says about Berlatsky’s psychology that he thinks innocuous, powerless things aren’t worth defending, but politically it doesn’t seem to be a particularly progressive position.
Strangely, “Supporting Fascism Isn’t Supporting Free Speech” draws a sharp distinction between Milo Yiannopoulos and other conservative commentators. This is another inconsistency; the rest of the book, as I’ve outlined, argues that free speech arguments in “punditry” contexts are wrong categorically, wrong in principle. Berlatsky chides Chait for thinking that a mob reaction to dissent has something to do with leftism or political correctness, comparing an article he (Berlatsky) wrote about leaving men out of a show about prison with an article he wrote about comic books. Both resulted in mobs, he says; ipso facto, leftism has no causal force. (Berlatsky does think mobs are bad, and worse when directed against Neera Tanden than against Chait.) Similarly, against deBoer he writes that internal negativity on the left is a “problem of any political organization that tries to build coalitions.” But this is no defense of political correctness. And saying that leftists act like a comic book fandom is no defense of leftism. (Berlatsky even attacks conservatism for acting like a fandom!)
It is telling in a different way that, in actuality, both of the articles Berlatsky compares are about popular culture, neither really about politics per se. Like Hal from Infinite Jest, he never quite seems to escape what Nietzsche called “the prison house of language” — seems happy, instead, to inhabit its twee-est cell. There always must be some cultural artifact for readers to consume, which then acts as anchor or lodestar for the conversation. One of the book’s shriller essays defends viewing politics through the lens of pop culture; two others defend viewing pop culture through the lens of politics. Berlatsky’s other books (he has written quite a few) are almost all about the politics of pop culture: a treatise on bondage in Wonder Woman, a volume on Nazi films, a bit on the exploitation of women in horror movies, a book called Your Favorite Superhero Sucks (just like your favorite pundit! Sensing a pattern?), a book on feminist film directors, a book on Dracula films, and a “parody” called 50 Tentacles of Unspeakable Hue. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest’s author, was obsessed with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who gave some relevant advice about what to do when things are unspeakable (in Berlatsky’s idiom, “shut up”).
An interesting aspect of the book is that it contains time-sensitive essays from as far back as 2010. Whereas a collection like We Were Eight Years in Power brings us essays on topics we all remember, Berlatsky here has reminded us of issues we might have forgotten. The very first piece, for example, is about Barack Obama’s drone warfare. It has one of the book’s best ideas, but relegates it to the end. The idea is that by running as an “anti-imperialist” and then betraying that position, Obama kind of crowded out anti-imperialism from foreign policy discussions. The target in question (Chait) is too “partisan” to see this; he’s “chosen partisanship [over morals].” These kinds of trips down memory lane make the book a pleasant read in several places. Other strong points include “The Tribalism of David Brooks,” which also addresses partisanship, and the warmth of “[Meghan] McArdle’s Bad Luck and Trouble.”
A few genuinely strange essays should be mentioned as well. “Gay Marriage for Straight People” seems to suggest that we should conceive of gay marriage as radical instead of as a socially conservative extension of traditional marriage because, somehow, of incest. “The Ways of White Critics,” a defense of Ta-Nehisi Coates against deBoer, contains this gem: “[W]hen white critics write about black artists, they often bring with them a lot of presuppositions, and a lot of racism . . . White people have been defining and criticizing black people for hundreds of years, and mostly that process has ended up with white people declaring, in one way or another, that black people aren’t human, not infrequently as a prelude to killing them.” Associating criticism with murder does not pair well with the earlier claim that “[t]he idea that Coates is somehow sacrosanct is simply nonsense.” “Freddie deBoer is Not a TERF” argues inter alia that deBoer must be an “essentialist” because he thinks he knows the contents of his own mind. “Ross Douthat Stumbles into Fascism” manages despite its title to agree with everything Douthat writes about elite cosmopolitanism and acquit him of any fascist tendencies. “The Long Peace and the Guillotine” asserts (for whatever reason) that “geeking out on statistical weighted tallies of dead is more than a little obscene” because “[h]uman beings aren’t just numbers. Every dead person matters,” but then proceeds to geek out on unweighted tallies. If the problem is the aggregation, why would that be an improvement? The answer is that it’s not; the purportedly moral argument is just a cheap way of avoiding Pinker’s idea that our sense of violence should be proportional to population.
I already wrote a year ago the best response to the kind of stuff found in “On Tuvel and Transracialism and Crappy Academic Articles” and “Is Jesse Singal a Bigot?.” Both of them, again, are several degrees removed from the subjects Berlatsky seems to actually care about: he wrote about Singal, who wrote about Rebecca Tuvel, who wrote about transracialism, which had some relationship to transgender issues and critical race theory, his actual concerns. (Readers can compare Berlatsky’s essays to Tuvel’s recent reflection and judge for themselves which is more compassionate and sophisticated.) “Squatting on the Airwaves” likewise covers Bill Maher’s reaction to Rush Limbaugh’s advertisers’ reactions to something Rush Limbaugh said about something a Georgetown Law student said about birth control. “Michael Tracey, Anti-Anti-Fascist” makes clear Berlatsky’s ideal role: He wants to be the person who is against the people who are against the people who are against the people who are against good things. Perhaps in writing this review I am adding yet another layer to this dumbass cake.
The “dirtbag left” section has some of the best and some of the worst essays. Berlatsky gives a good start to a rejoinder to the idea of “neoliberal identity politics” (he emphasizes that people don’t choose their identities, but neglects that present-day identity politics insists that, to a certain extent, they can do just that). “Maybe Taking the Arguments of Nazis At Face Value Is Bad” shows off some historical knowledge and echoes some points I’ve made myself. But “Chapo Trap House, Masters of Clintonian Triangulation” suggests (ludicrously, I think) that “say[ing] that identity politics are a distraction from class oppression” is only a “slight variation” on “saying that women and black people . . . are not actually oppressed.” Similarly, “Lee Fang, Neoliberal Shill” accuses Fang, who argues that leftists should focus on policy and not identity in determining which candidates to support, of “sound[ing] exactly like right-wing trolls, who insist that the only real discrimination in America today is discrimination against white people.” Of course Fang sounds nothing like that, which is why Berlatsky needs to tell his readers, using that powerful speech of his, the opposite.
The highs and lows of this section are probably partly attributable to certain kinds of intra-left social dynamics of coolness and exclusion. I’m sympathetic to Berlatsky here; “I’m cool, you’re lame” isn’t politics, but it seems to be as much of an ideology as many DSA members have. But another part of the explanation is that Berlatsky sees a bit of himself in the dirtbags. “Vulgarity Isn’t Praxis” includes a defense of civility from those who see it as a kind of bourgeois liberal scam. That’s a bit rich coming from the “they suck and are wrong” guy, who writes sentences like “Jonathan Chait, I firmly believe, is a piece of crap” and avers that Richard Dawkins is a “shithead” and Jordan Peterson “doesn’t have a brain.” Perhaps some reflection is in order, to develop some more fully consistent principles; without these, leftists end up echoing arguments they themselves have attacked. For instance, “How Neoliberalism Makes You Call Your Enemies Neoliberals” is itself overtly an instance of Berlatsky calling his enemies neoliberals. Even without the hypocrisy, it’s “I know you are but what am I,” true galaxy brain stuff.
Like pretty much every book I’ve reviewed over the past year, Chattering Class War bears few signs of having been edited. Minor mistakes abound: “loath” as a verb (it’s “loathe”), semicolons instead of colons (very frequently), commas in the wrong places (“hard, sad, road”; again, very frequently), “e.g.” instead of “i.e.,” words hyphenated that shouldn’t be, that sort of thing. Presumably the process of constructing an essay collection involves several editors, since the pieces were also (again, presumably) edited when they originally ran. But perhaps they weren’t. Or perhaps this is another danger of the pundit-takedown culture: in framing everything we write as a righteous response to someone else, we forget how to construct competent, coherent documents of our own.
By its own lights, on its own terms, Chattering Class War must be taken as an exercise in intimidation. That is, after all, the one use of speech its author advocates for discussing those with whom he disagrees. But it is hard to see this book intimidating a “chattering class” when its author so raptly follows its members’ every word. One of my favorite book reviews ever compares Jonathan Franzen’s treatment of “bourgeois bohemians” to the doctor from Dune, who whispers: “Your diseases — love to me!” So here too, I think. It would be hard to find a writer more enamored of punditry and pop culture than Noah Berlatsky seems to be, and the focus on free speech and no-platforming seems like little more than a pull on the sleeve: Please, you beautiful people. Take a break; let me try; give me a chance. I want to be one of you. Looking northwest I see him doing this as he looks northwest at his northwest-looking targets. That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.