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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Has The American Left Lost Its Mind?

No. Once again critics of the left are misstating the facts and distracting us from consequential issues.

Matt Taibbi, a journalist whose writing I enjoy and whose recent book Hate Inc. is worth reading, has written a J’accuse essay arguing that “the American left has lost its mind.” As the editor of one of the top five or six magazines of the American Left—okay, maybe top 10? Top 30 for sure—I am certainly keen to discover whether I am losing my mind. If there is dysfunction at this level, identified by an award-winning investigative journalist, the Left must face it directly so that we can expunge it. In the spirit of civil inquiry and open debate, let us therefore hear Taibbi out. 

Here is a passage containing the thrust of his argument about the Left: 

Sometimes it seems life can’t get any worse in this country. […] But police violence, and Trump’s daily assaults on the presidential competence standard, are only part of the disaster. On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness… Leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation. They are counting on the guilt-ridden, self-flagellating nature of traditional American progressives, who will not stand up for themselves, and will walk to the Razor voluntarily. They’ve conned organization after organization into empowering panels to search out thoughtcrime, and it’s established now that anything can be an offense, from a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out loud to a data scientist fired* from a research firm for — get this — retweeting an academic study suggesting nonviolent protests may be more politically effective than violent ones! 

These are serious accusations. There is a whole new movement, an intellectual revolution, which is conning organizations, threatening people, destroying our belief in free inquiry, and persecuting thoughtcrime. This movement is apparently called “the American left.” 

This is a thesis you may have heard before. It is the Fox News view of leftism, which says that leftists are a bunch of intolerant, social justice-obsessed intellectual Stalinists. Like Fox News, Taibbi collapses any distinction between “leftists” and “liberals,” sometimes using one term, sometimes the other, to describe the same group. The headline actually says “The American press,” then he says he’s talking about “the American left,” then says that “among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution.” 

We on the Left tend to critique the Fox News view of us for a number of reasons. First, it is clear that much of the Left does not do any of this. The most prominent leftist in the country is Bernie Sanders. The most popular leftist magazine in the country is Jacobin. Do the tendencies Taibbi describes emanate from the pages of Jacobin? They do not. Instead, he is speaking about a “mob of upper-class social media addicts.” Well, who are we talking about exactly? Are we talking about left magazines? The Sunrise Movement? The DSA? I suspect that to the extent that Taibbi is referring to a group of people that can be clearly defined, they are probably liberal members of that “professional managerial class” that leftists distance themselves from. (Taibbi cites things MSNBC does, for example. I assure you the Left does not respect MSNBC.) 

But I am already assuming that there is something solid about Taibbi’s argument, and that we can skip to identifying the party responsible. However, I actually think that the thing he’s describing, in many ways simply doesn’t exist. Because when we look at the examples he cites as proof of this all-consuming trend in leftism and the media, we find that they range from “things that Taibbi is just completely misrepresenting” to “things that seem like bad decisions but not really worth invoking the specter of Robespierre to describe.” 

Often, I’ve found that when you actually click the links on stories about how the “social justice warriors” or “wokescolds” or “cancel culture” doers are getting wildly out of control, you find that the facts are far more nuanced than critics want you to believe. For example, Taibbi cites an instance of “a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ out loud.” This sounds so extreme that I doubted whether it was true, and indeed it isn’t. The students actually complained because when the (white) professor read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” aloud, he chose to say the n-word rather than censoring it. And when Black students told him they would have preferred if he’d omitted the word, he apparently doubled down and said being white didn’t mean he couldn’t say the n-word. (Students were apparently also upset that he had shown them a video containing the n-word and graphic pictures of lynchings, apparently without having had a conversation about it.)

If Taibbi had not selectively chosen only the facts that fit his worldview, he would have been less able to make the students sound crazy. The university getting involved over a professor “reading Martin Luther King” seems absurd. The university getting involved over “a white professor saying the n-word in front of Black students in a way that made them uncomfortable” sounds much more reasonable. But like Breitbart and Fox News, for all his talk of the spirit of journalistic fairness, Taibbi isn’t, in this particular essay, interested in being fair to social justice activists. It seems to me like in the UCLA case, the professor could have avoided the whole incident if he had had a conversation with his class beforehand, saying: “Today I’m going to read from Letter From Birmingham Jail. The letter contains the n-word. I am considering saying it aloud because I think it’s important to hear exactly what King wrote rather than my censored version of what King wrote, but I know the word is very painful and if anyone would like to object, I will omit it. Also, I plan to screen a video about civil rights today that contains both the word and a graphic depiction of lynching. The video uses these on the theory that it is important for us to see and hear the uncomfortable truth.” I think actually when you present things this way students will feel respected and are less likely to complain. The problem was actually that the professor did not care what the students thought of what he did and said. 

Onto Taibbi’s other examples: the second is the case of David Shor, who was allegedly fired for tweeting an academic paper on the efficacy of violence. I say allegedly because if you follow the asterisk to the bottom, Taibbi seems to concede that there is not any public evidence that this is why Shor was fired; what we know is that he left the firm shortly after the controversy over the tweet, but neither he nor his employer have confirmed the reason. Oftentimes there is more going on in these situations internally than we think when we jump to conclusions. But if Shor was indeed fired over a bad tweet, I don’t think he should have been. Still, people criticized Shor for quite valid reasons: The social science research suggesting that riots are not “politically effective” is bad research, and when the criticisms were put to Shor, he didn’t seem to understand why people were upset. (It’s bad research, by the way, because what it does is single out the political effect of riots in a way that allows people to blame “inner-city rioters” and ignore other causes. So it argues that violence fuels negative media coverage which fuels a political backlash that helps Republicans. Which might be true empirically, but as Martin Luther King pointed out, it’s grotesquely immoral to make the conversation about rioters rather than looking at what causes rioters to do what they do. Yes, one way to frame the facts is “riots help Republicans.” But why blame the rioters instead of the media for doing the coverage that causes the backlash? Why blame the rioters instead of blaming those who have created a tinderbox in American cities through centuries of racist policies? Why single out the riots’ contribution to changes in the Democratic vote share rather than the failure of Democrats to adequately appeal to enough voters? This sort of finding, presented in isolation, seems to pin responsibility on the least powerful, least wealthy people for an outcome that had many causes. And that’s why people object when data nerds pull up charts that say Actually Violence Is Not Politically Effective. I don’t think the data nerds should be fired—they know not what they do—but people have just cause for being annoyed by this sort of “purely empirical” statement, which is not purely empirical at all but reflects a values-driven decision to discuss some factors rather than others.)

The other examples that Taibbi cites, too, are more complicated than simply “the angry social justice left canceling people.” For instance, he says:

There were other incidents. The editors of Bon Appetit and Refinery29 both resigned amid accusations of toxic workplace culture. 

Okay, but… toxic workplace culture is bad. If Taibbi’s argument is that the Left is replacing “liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony” with “toxic and unattractive” beliefs, is he saying companies should retain managers who preside over workplaces where people of color feel excluded and ignored? In the case of Bon Appetit the facts were as follows:

Assistant food editor Sohla El-Waylly posted in her Instagram Stories that she has been used in Bon Appétit’s popular videos “as a display of diversity,” but, unlike its star cast of white employees, El-Waylly said her on-camera appearances were unpaid. Several other staffers corroborated, some saying they would refuse to appear in any future videos until El-Waylly and other staffers of color were fairly compensated. Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, Rapoport’s assistant, told Business Insider she was paid a base salary of $35,300 with no increases over two and a half years. Walker-Hartshorn, who is black, said she was not given a raise despite going beyond her editorial duties and taking care of Rapoport’s personal chores like cleaning golf clubs and teaching his wife how to set up a Google Calendar. In going public with these stories, staffers across the branches of Condé Nast, Bon Appétit’s parent media company, talked about salary discrepancies, instances of racism and sexism, and a lack of accountability that were exhibited at Bon Appétit but existed in Condé Nast as a whole. 

So the allegation here is that there was racism in the workplace, with staffers of color not being compensated equally to their white counterparts for the same work and employees feeling underpaid and underappreciated. Is Taibbi siding with management over labor here? Or does he admit that actually, this is pretty bad and the person responsible should be replaced with someone who can treat people fairly?

The situation was similar at Refinery29: 

The site’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, Christene Barberich, had repeatedly confused one black woman with another, one said; another tweeted that an executive once confused her with the caterer; a third person said she was paid $15,000 less than her two white coworkers who were doing the same job. And within less than a week, Barberich was out of her job, saying on Monday she was stepping down “to help diversify our leadership in editorial.” 

I don’t understand why Taibbi cites these incidents as part of his case that the Left has turned into a bunch of “Twitter Robespierres.” The accusation here is that bosses were racist and that people of color were treated differently and paid less. How is that not a legitimate complaint? I can only conclude that Taibbi either thinks people need to shut up about racism in the workplace and that going public on social media about it makes them a bunch of snowflakes, or that he simply hasn’t thought his argument through.

The centerpiece of Taibbi’s case, the incident that for him seems to embody all of the pathologies that have gripped the Left/liberals/“the press,” is a recent dust-up at the Intercept over a tweet by reporter Lee Fang. Fang posted a video of a Black man named Max talking about how he wished people would pay attention to murders of Black people by other Black people: “Why does a black life matter only when a white man takes it?… Where I grew up in East Oakland, a lot of black people have been killed by other black people.” An Intercept colleague of Fang’s, Akela Lacy, publicly complained about him posting the video, saying that it was part of a pattern of Fang “push[ing] narratives about black on black crime after repeatedly being asked not to.” Indeed Fang had previously echoed sentiments similar to that of the man in the video, saying that the “vast majority of reporters” will “investigate and demand justice only if the killing fits a trendy narrative or if police are involved.” Fang had also previously been criticized for comments about reparations and for recommending people watch a documentary by the odious Mike Cernovich. 

I like Lee Fang’s reporting a lot, and consider him one of the best journalists in the country. So does Matt Taibbi. But in this particular matter, it seems Fang had a blind spot. It’s not that he, or the man in the video he posted, were wrong that plenty of people’s deaths go ignored. The problem is that these deaths are constantly being used by the right opportunistically to undercut protesters with legitimate complaints. On reparations, Fang pointed out that there are many victims of American imperial aggression around the world, and few people are advocating reparations for them. This, too, is factually true, but it’s important to be clear (as Fang was not) that this isn’t an argument against Black people receiving reparations, it’s an argument for expanding our ambitions for what would constitute justice. I think that in these cases Fang was careless and didn’t think about how his words sounded to other people, and was not especially sensitive.

And it seems Fang thought so too, because he apologized to his coworkers in a clear, compelling statement explaining where he was coming from, showing he understood the concerns, and promising to be more considerate. Lacy, who “says she never intended for Fang to be fired, ‘canceled,’ or deplatformed,” accepted the apology. Fang is still at the Intercept. Life moved on. 

An amicable resolution, one would think. But not to Taibbi, who sees in this evidence of a witchhunt performed by an American media that’s losing its mind. Taibbi defends Fang as having done nothing wrong, saying that he has known Fang for years and has “never known him to be anything but kind, gracious, and easygoing.” (A strange argument, as the accusation wasn’t that Fang is a mean person, but that he was a little insensitive. Plus, when you’re a celebrity journalist like Taibbi, of course other people in the industry are nice to you.) Taibbi says that “no one among [Fang’s] co-workers was willing to say anything in [Fang’s] defense publicly” and considers the whole thing an outrage, implying that the Intercept bullied Fang into apologizing. 

This is bizarre, because everyone at the Intercept seems to disagree with Taibbi. Glenn Greenwald, who did publicly support Fang, pushed back on the idea that Fang was forced to apologize, calling it “condescending,” and saying Fang “validly conclude[d] that there were things he could have done better in how he engaged a complex and emotionally fraught topic.” Greenwald praised Fang for being willing to take responsibility for hurting his coworkers: 

Don’t conflate humility and a willingness to admit error with weakness. It actually takes strength. He didn’t abandon any of his views. He re-affirmed them. He freely apologized for the tweets he genuinely believes were poorly expressed and that pointlessly caused upset.

So we have a trivial incident in which someone tweeted in ways that colleagues found racially offensive, then the person apologized for it. Around this incident Taibbi constructs an entire theory of The Left, Liberals, and The Media. He tells us “the media in the last four years has devolved into a succession of moral manias,” weaving in MSNBC’s ludicrous Russia obsession and Michael Avenatti making unsupported claims against Brett Kavanaugh. He cites “Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer kneeling while dressed in ‘African kente cloth scarves’” as examples of the “cult religion” of modern leftism. (Actually, leftists rolled their eyes at Pelosi and Schumer’s ludicrous—and offensive—symbolic display.) He says that “press activism is limited to denouncing and shaming colleagues for insufficient fealty to the cheap knockoff of bullying campus Marxism that passes for leftist thought these days.”

I am sorry, but what is Taibbi talking about? What is Marxist about any of this? Where are the contradictions of capital, historical materialism, the dialectic, the class struggle? And what do “Russiagate” and the Steele dossier have to do with whether Lee Fang of the Intercept could be a bit more thoughtful on issues of race? I am sorry to say this, because it sounds like the ultimate insult, but I have read more persuasive screeds about Leftist Social Justice Warriors in the books of Heather Mac Donald and Ben Shapiro

As part of his case that the Left is attacking liberal values, Taibbi even cites the controversy at the New York Times over the publication of Tom Cotton’s infamous op-ed. Now, I thought that matter was open-and-shut: A right-wing senator calling for the use of military force against domestic dissidents is not something a principled op-ed editor should publish. The newspaper is not a bathroom wall that hosts every scrawling anyone cares to contribute. You are allowed to decide what the good and worthwhile opinions are. The bad opinions can be published in worse publications. (Also, an op-ed editor should probably read the op-eds before he publishes them. Bennet openly admitted to not even having read the Tom Cotton op-ed, that is, not doing the bare minimum task for which he was paid an extremely large amount of money.) I wrote that the op-ed editor should be fired, and when he was, I was pleased. 

Taibbi seems to think this was a free speech crisis. He writes: 

It’s not clear that many of the people angriest about the piece in question even read it…Cotton did not call for “military force against protesters in American cities.” He spoke of a “show of force,” to rectify a situation a significant portion of the country saw as spiraling out of control. It’s an important distinction. Cotton was presenting one side of the most important question on the most important issue of a critically important day in American history…To declare a point of view held by that many people not only not worthy of discussion, but so toxic that publication of it without even necessarily agreeing requires dismissal, is a dramatic reversal for a newspaper that long cast itself as the national paper of record. 

Taibbi believes there is an important distinction between “military force” and a “show of force” by the military (the op-ed was called “Send In The Troops.”) Personally I was not angry about the piece without having read it. I was angry because I read it—multiple times, and took notes on it. I thought calling for military force recklessly endangered people’s lives, because the U.S. military are not well-skilled in peacekeeping but rather in maximizing destruction and death. It horrified me to see the Times legitimize the opinion that people committing minor property crimes should be met with machine guns and tanks (and “but just to intimidate the rioters, not to mass-murder them, unless some random officer loses his temper of course!” is not a very compelling argument). This may indeed be “one side” of the issue, but that doesn’t mean it deserves a byline in the most important paper in the country, and saying it doesn’t deserve a Times byline is not the same as saying Cotton should be silenced.

There is a peculiar common belief that “free speech” means newspapers should have to print terrible opinion pieces. I do not share that belief. Free speech means nobody is going to stop Tom Cotton writing a blog or putting out a statement, but it doesn’t mean that any given newspaper needs to let him write columns. It’s exasperating to me that so many people at the New York Times think the paper is under an obligation to give op-ed space to opinions like “bomb North Korea before it’s too late.” A newspaper should have a principled editorial stance (it certainly always has a stance, even if not principled), and having a point of view doesn’t mean the factual integrity of its news reporting has to be compromised. Look at the Wall Street Journal: It has a pretty good news department, but the op-ed page has a very clear right-wing ideology. So long as it is around, there is at least one national newspaper in which Tom Cotton can publish his bloodthirsty takes anytime he likes. He’s a U.S. senator. His voice will be heard. 

The Times hasn’t even “gone liberal” in the aftermath of the Cotton op-ed. It continues to publish little from the socialist side of the spectrum. Ross Douthat can be found comparing critics of the newspaper to Maoist Cultural Revolutionaries and talking about how men are persecuted. The preservation of Douthat’s “free speech” (aka the constitutional right to a cushy sinecure at a national newspaper regardless of how appallingly ill-reasoned your writing is)—and that of David Brooks, Bari Weiss, Bret Stephens, and Thomas Friedman—somewhat undercuts Taibbi’s claim that ideological rigidity is being enforced. Who is actually being suppressed? Which voices aren’t being heard? 

Right-wing takes on Social Justice and Cancel Culture are everywhere.  Frankly, I hear people complaining about the thing far more than I encounter the thing itself. And while you can find examples of oversensitivity and overreaction, I tend to think this is a fairly minor issue that mainly occupies the attention of people who spend too much time on social media. I sometimes see certain condemnatory tendencies among activists that are counterproductive, and I am frustrated by them, but I am much more in sympathy with the activists than with their over-the-top, frothing-at-the-mouth critics, who usually plead for Civil Discourse even as they denounce the Left as Stalinists and “Twitter Robespierres.” (I find Taibbi’s term funny: The difference between a Twitter Robespierre and the actual Robespierre is that the latter actually cut people’s heads off while the former just criticize you on the internet. Every time you hear people talk about “online Maoism” or “a digital French Revolution” remember that the “online” aspect eliminates a lot of the force of the comparison.)  It’s sad to see a good journalist like Taibbi fully embrace the evidence-free, overwrought, dismissive view of the American Left. It’s ironic that someone who decries “hate” and pleads for facts seems to drip with hatred and not care about facts. But this is all too common among the shallow contrarian critics of social justice, who refuse to actually give a fair hearing to the people they call ideologically rigid. The American Left is actually better off now than at almost any other point in my life: We are running great candidates for office, many of whom are winning. Radical new possibilities for rethinking criminal punishment are emerging, and the current protest movement is winning public support. A socialist has been a leading contender for the presidential nomination twice in a row. Thoughtful, insightful left media is flourishing. (Subscribe!) It is a shame that a sharp critic like Taibbi should be so dismissive and hostile in such an important political moment. He should consider spending less time on social media, which causes less frustration the less you look at it.

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