Unhinged Martyrs for an Unhinged Culture War

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.

 

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8 comments

  1. I agree with the author of this article that both these figures generate more hyperbole and hyporcrisy then either deserves. But the commenters crying over the suppression of conservative voices–something echoed by Trump today–are wrong.

    Alex Jones has crossed a line that Sarah Jeong and her progressive compatriots have not: Jones is on the verge of being prosecuted foinh. What he said about Sandy Hook, including divulging addresses, objectively harmed those families involved.

    Many obnoxious snark merchants dance around the line of what is appropriate but can always fall back on their punditry. After all, Jeong was hired for the editorial pages, not the “real” news, alongside conservatives like douthat Stephens Brooks et al. Alex Jones staked a claim to honest truth telling. He claims to be more real than the real news. Ditto someone like “Project Veritas”, who have also run afoul of the law.

    The “institution” of various social media companies have agreed Alex Jones is a toxic asset. As many have pointed out, Alex Jones still has the most viable and active platform of all-his own website. Meanwhile the more institutional institution, the executive branch of government, the one that can potentially regulate internet companies and is thus probably more powerful…consistently threatens the media and comes to Jones’ defense.

    Liberals should be careful in their defense of free speech, or lack thereof. Good faith conservative should similarly avoid pulling out their own victim card when Republicans have a large majority of political power in this country. Words have power. Ultimately both Jeong and Jones and so many others say stupid and offensive things and trying to occupy the victim high-low ground doesn’t make the things they say any less ridiculous.

    In fact this article is an appeal for people to accept that very concept and not to slide into a sloppy defense of one or the other along tribal lines.

    1. What you fail to understand is that almost no one on the Right considers Alex Jones credible — almost all of us think he’s crazy. Almost none of us think he’s helping the Right, either by advancing a conservative intellectual canon, uniting libertarians and conservatives on those issues we agree about, or by bringing in a huge audience of conspiracy-theory footsoldiers we can cynically use to advance our agenda — those few who actually believe him are an embarrassment. We near-universally believe that Alex Jones is crazy and that he harms our cause.

      So why do we defend his freedom of speech? Because he’s “on our side” and we will protect the tribe no matter what? What a gross misunderstanding of the Right! We defend freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas FOR EVERYONE, and that includes both Alex Jones and Sarah Jeong.

      We don’t want Sarah Jeong censored, either. The Right have for a long time mistrusted the New York Times, and now we have direct proof they are anti-White racists, but we don’t want either Jeong or the New York Times censored. We want people to know the truth and make their own judgments, to be informed and critical readers of the New York Times. As with Jones we’re against censorship on principle, not because we endorse the odious ideas and beliefs they espouse.

      Lumping James O’Keefe and Project Veritas in with Jones is quite dishonest. Yes, slander is illegal, and Alex Jones may well be guilty of it, but to pivot on “illegal” to claim O’Keefe must therefore be a slanderer is disingenuous rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

      Where O’Keefe has broken the law it has been in order to get the footage he needs to prove his stories are true, and the stories are so outrageous that WITHOUT footage they would constitute illegal slander — and worse no one would believe them. You can’t just claim teachers unions protect pedophiles; you need proof. O’Keefe has broken laws to get the truth, to get his cameras rolling on subjects who are talking who have for years demonstrated preternatural skill at maintaining silence and hiding their crimes and corruption. But don’t take my word for it, or O’Keefe’s either for that matter: watch the tapes for yourself.

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      1. James OKeefe is absolutely a slanderer and has paid for it. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/03/08/james-okeefe-pays-100000-to-acorn-employee-he-smeared-conservative-media-yawns/amp/

        He is comparable to Jones in that both agressively bill themselves as the “real” news.

        The idea that “only a true Rebuplican” considers Alex Jones silly and that defended him is solely about free speech is a lie and completely ignores that his Sandy Hook comments may fall into the category of hate speech for the damage done to the families he outed as crisis actors.

        Millions of people aren’t listening to Jones or Rush Limbaugh ironically–they want to believe what he says is true and so it is true. There was real malice, not just harmless trolling, against the Sandy Hook families that had to move because of harassment.

        1. “Slander” is a criminal offense for which O’Keefe has never been charged. When he learned Mr. Vera had called the police he did the right thing, expressing regret and making restitution. There’s no “slander” there, just a misinterpretation of Mr. Vera’s behavior as freelance undercover operative rather than corrupt official.

          Most Republicans by and large don’t believe Alex Jones. I’m not lying; you’re simply misinformed and projecting malice onto me, which frankly leads me to question your motives. People who watch Jones mostly see him as a comedic performer rather than serious journalist. He’s the Right’s version of the Daily Show, except more on the Left probably lend more credence to the Daily Show than do people on the Right to Alex Jones.

          I can’t speak to whether most Republicans want to see Jones prosecuted for slander should he have committed actionable examples of same, but speaking for myself I’m aware of the legal doctrine of “speech-as-action” falling outside of pure speech and do not consider enforcement of this type of crime, to include ransom demands, extortion, fraud, and slander, to fall under the categories of political or protected speech. I suspect most Republicans would agree, although on this issue I wouldn’t assume without talking to people about it.

          The issue with Jones isn’t his prosecution for slander but the wholesale censorship of his entire channel. It is entirely possible to both want to see Alex Jones prosecuted for slander — with a fair trial and jury of his peers deciding his verdict — while also protecting his freedom of political speech from blanket censorship.

          False association sleight-of-hand meanwhile returns with your equating of Alex Jones to Rush Limbaugh, both to associate Limbaugh with a conspiracy theorist and to impugn his audience in the bargain. The worst that can be said about Limbaugh is that he enjoys using the statements of his political opponents to engage in race-baiting, which would’ve been pretty bad all on its own … if only that’d been what you’d decided to criticize about him.

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  2. What does the Right want for Alex Jones? For everyone who watches him to know the truth and think, “Conspiracy theory guy.” “Crazy turning-the-frogs-gay guy.” Just like we want people to know the Sarah Jeong-tainted New York Times is the Daily Stormer of the Progressive Left.

    What does the Left want? Censorship — but not of themselves, of course, only their enemies on the Right.

    How can this be moral equivalence when only one side is even morally consistent?

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  3. This strikes me as a rather dubious false equivalency, only valid insofar as both tribes are taking up rhetorical arms to duke it out and that those individuals, to put it mildly, wouldn’t exactly be upheld as social paragons…which is to say it brings nothing interesting to the table.

    What you fail to discuss, and I find to be the FAR more salient point when discussing both these individuals and their broader context, is where the relevant “institutional power,” for lack of a better term, has sided in each case.

    – Alex Jones, the representative of the Right, has been slapped down by seemingly every major technology and information platform of note.

    – Sarah Jeong, the representative of the Left, has been defended by and ensconced in the NYT, the ‘paper of record’ and one of the most powerful institutions in print journalism (for what that’s worth anymore in 2018).

    Hmm…so it appears maybe there ARE actual important things to take home from these eruptions; the Right repeatedly losing at the hands of ‘mainstream’ institutions (that often claim to be impartial to boot).

    If these sorts of kerfuffles ended up in draws more often or with a relatively even scoreboard overall then yes you could say it’s just pissing contests between “ideological and emotional grifters” that we’d probably be better off ignoring. Instead what we have is a steadily growing, largely one-sided list of grievances that the Right can point to, with ever solidifying justification, and use to escalate the culture war from their side.

    If such trends continue, much less accelerate as they seem to be doing, we’re going to have FAR more to worry about than the indignity of having to argue about the likes of people like Jones and Jeong…so maybe we should actually swallow our pride and take these cultural flare-ups seriously rather than consider them beneath our intellectual dignity as you seem to be bemoaning.

    Principles often get sacrificed on the fringes first, largely because nobody wants to fight over what most people would consider worthless or toxic territory. Unfortunately, once the sacrifices start…it tends to be VERY hard to stop them.

  4. I’d argue that both of them are very relevant to their respective political movements: Alex Jones’ rants used to reach millions of conservatives, whereas the mindset and beliefs that made Sarah Jeong’s hateful tweets seem defensible are becoming the new normal on the Left.

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