Earlier this month, a flurry of tweets, an onslaught of think pieces and a blast of cable news fury have heralded the arrival of two new media martyrs, both anointed by the high priests of internet outrage as the latest in the Great American Culture War.
Alex Jones and Sarah Jeong belong to diametrically opposed warring cultural factions (Jones to the right and Jeong to the left) and their credentials for martyrdom vary drastically (for Jones, culture warfare is his living; Jeong’s is merely a side gig on Twitter). But nonetheless, in the mad dash to find the next hill upon which to die, the opportunity to make martyrs of Alex Jones and Sarah Jeong has proven too tempting for the cultural right and left respectively, and Jones and Jeong are now among the lauded, polarizing victim–heroes of our time.
When the New York Times announced its decision to hire Jeong as an editorial board member, right-wing Twitter users began circulating a number of tweets, in which Jeong espouses patently offensive racist thoughts about white people. But the Times, and countless other publications, sprang to Jeong’s defense, and—despite the uproar—she has retained her new position at the paper.
Similarly—after months of pressure from liberal groups and the press—Facebook, Apple and YouTube decided to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from their platforms, citing hate speech as their reason, thus striking a blow against his ability to spread his unhinged rants. In response, conservatives flooded the internet with warnings about technocratic thought policing and slippery slopes to censorship, arguing that such treatment of Jones raises worrying questions about the future of free speech.
In Jeong’s case, many were relieved to see a cultural institution like the Times show some backbone and stand up to the internet outrage mob. And, in Jones’s case, many—including this author—agreed that it’s unwise to outsource the policing of speech to fifteen-year-old technology companies. But, overall, these spectacles simply provide further evidence that the culture war is pickling the brains of its participants in a brine of outrage, reactiveness and identitarianism. In their different ways, both Jones and Jeong are the perfect martyrs to emblemize the increasing derangement of the warring tribes, as America’s culture war goes ever further off the rails.
The Times’ and other publications’ paper-thin defense of Jeong’s racist tweets hinges solely on Jeong’s identity. It goes something like this: racism is a systemic tool used to oppress minorities; therefore Jeong, as an intersectional member of a minority community—she is an Asian woman—is inherently incapable of racism. Jeong and other members of minority identity groups can only be victims of racism, or counter-trollers against it. Thus, her tweets should not be interpreted as the racist thoughts shouted into the void that they so clearly are, but rather as understandable, if misguided, counter-punches against the real racists on social media and, presumably, in the halls of power everywhere.
Conservatives were more principled in their defense of Jones. Whereas left-wing writers made impassioned defenses of Jeong on the basis of both her identity and on the supposed quality of her journalism, to their credit, very few conservatives defended Jones on his merit. The conservative critique of the tech giants’ decision to ban Jones focused instead on the potential implications the collective deplatforming of an unsavory voice might have for the future of free speech in America. But that didn’t stop Jones from auditioning for the martyr role as best he could, nor did it stop some conservatives from taking the bait.
These are the wrong hills to die on. It should be clear to even the most casual cultural observers that neither Alex Jones nor Sarah Jeong is a brave crusader against oppression and censorship. One is a noxious cynicism merchant and the other an angry elitist identitarian, and both operate outside mainstream American norms of reason and decency. Jones and Jeong exist on opposite sides of the cultural spectrum, but it should have been easy to roundly reject both their cases.
But instead, people have embraced their causes and they have been made martyrs and absolved of their absurdities. Normally, conservatives would have little or nothing to say about Alex Jones, but some now feel they have no choice but to speak of him as a victim, and defend his right to free speech. Liberals would normally have little or nothing to say about Sarah Jeong, but some now feel they must portray her as a victim, and defend her clearly racist tweets.
The net result of these duel martyrings is predictable: sustained intellectual rot.
Perhaps most maddening of all is the fact is that neither Jeong nor Jones have any real relevance to the political movements which have mobilized in their defense. Alex Jones isn’t a conservative in any traditional or meaningful sense, and there’s nothing traditionally liberal about Jeong’s rank obsession with race. Their causes undercut the principles of traditional American conservatism and liberalism respectively, and they are both ideological and emotional grifters: merchants of junk–thought, now basking in the graces of the very people they cheat, while their conspiracy theories and identitarian anger only contribute to the intellectual and moral decay of their new defenders.
At this moment in the culture war, Alex Jones and Sarah Jeong are either the martyrs we deserve or the martyrs we think we deserve—and if we can’t tell the difference, perhaps there really isn’t one. So, buckle up. Because if Sarah Jeong’s racism is considered not racist and Alex Jones is able to take on the role of victim–hero for the defenders of the First Amendment, it seems clearer than ever that the culture war is going to get a lot stupider before it gets even the slightest bit smarter.