Over the weekend, St. Louis writer and "scholar of authoritarian states" Sarah Kendzior caused a stir by asserting that it was no longer possible to deny that The New York Times is "now a white supremacist paper." Kendzior herself had shared an article from the Times just a few hours earlier, but in light of a Saturday op-ed by columnist Ross Douthat she was now urging people to "#Unsubscribe".
Douthat's piece argued that maybe it was time for establishment lawmakers to bargain with people like White House immigration adviser Stephen Miller, since trying to shut immigration restrictionists out of the conversation hadn't worked. "The present view of many liberals seems to be that restrictionists can eventually be steamrolled—that the same ethnic transformations that have made white anxiety acute will eventually bury white-identity politics with sheer multiethnic numbers," wrote Douthat. "But liberals have been waiting 12 years for that 'eventually' to arrive, and instead Trump is president and the illegal immigrants they want to protect are still in limbo."
Kendzior labeled this "praise for Miller," which—in conjunction with the Times' "multiple Nazi puff pieces" and "constant pro-Trump PR"—made it clear that anyone who has "a conscience" or "value[s] the truth" must cancel their Times' subscriptions. Together, Kendzior's two anti-Times tweets had garnered around 3,000 retweets and more than 6,000 likes by Monday.
NYT is now a white supremacist paper. The multiple Nazi puff pieces, constant pro-Trump PR, and praise for Miller on today of all days is not exceptional—it's the guiding ideology of the paper. I don't think every writer there shares it, but it dominates coverage #Unsubscribe
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) January 28, 2018
The Times will be fine, of course, and Douthat too. Reasonable people can concede that even if Douthat is wrong about the value of including Miller in immigration talks, he is not personally championing Miller's mindset; that a lot of people who want to limit immigration are not Nazis or white supremacists; and that the Times airing these ideas in an op-ed is not tantamount to the paper endorsing them. But Kendzior's denunciation of the paper—an outlet routinely accused by the right of being too liberal—highlights precisely how hyperbolic and silly some high-profile "resistance" figures can be these days, and how much of a performative witch-hunt slinging "white nationalist" accusations has become.
For those with less clout than The New York Times (i.e., most of us), the consequences of these tendencies can be dire—especially when combined with what's become widespread and bipartisan acceptance for doxxing (outing people's identities or personal information), for trying to get people fired over online speech or associations unrelated to their jobs, for tagging people's employers into online disagreements, and for using old and out-of-context content to score points in current and unrelated arguments.
All of these trends were on display last week in a dust-up involving a D.C. public employee who was identified in a Facebook photo posted by Escape The Room DC. The photo featured activist Chelsea Manning hanging out with notable right-wing provocateurs like Cassandra Fairbanks, Lucian Wintrich, and Jack Posobiec. Also tagged was someone identified as both John Goldman and Jack Murphy.
In his non-digital life, Goldman serves as a senior manager of finance, analysis, and strategy with the D.C. Public Charter School Board. We met once, in 2016, and have followed each other digitally ever since. Online, he manages a blog and active Twitter account as Murphy, detailing his experiences as a former Democrat who jumped on the Trump train and offering advice on things like bread baking and BDSM relationships.
On January 22, Antifa activist Lacy MacAuley tweeted "CONFIRMED. John Goldman is a white supremacist working for DC public schools @dcpcsb as a finance manager. Goldman, aka 'Jack Murphy,' frequently publishes white supremacist blog posts. He was also with Nazi Richard Spencer at @whitehouse in April." When Goldman pointed out that he is Jewish and accused her of libel, MacAuley responded that she believed "DC parents and children have a right to know if someone who is a senior employee in their school system is an ally to white supremacists and Nazis."
There's ample evidence online that this is untrue—that in fact, Goldman tried to steer the alt-right away from associating with white supremacist figures like Richard Spencer and his tiki-torch mafia, and to claim the label for a new kind of conservatism: one that liked Steve Bannon's immigration ideas but had fewer social-conservative hangups than previous iterations, and most definitely did not want to create a white ethno-state. When this failed—when it became clear that those throwing up Nazi salutes had "won" the label, as The New Yorker put it—Goldman both ditched the alt-right label and actively confronted Spencer at events.
But the allegation of being a white nationalist was all it took for the D.C. Public Charter School Board to begin investigating and for progressive media to dig through Goldman's Twitter history and deleted blog posts to find unsavory content. Not things linking him to white nationalism or Nazism mind you—in fact, a ThinkProgress hit piece explicitly notes that there's no evidence of this. Yet once Goldman was outed as someone on the Wrong Side, his actual beliefs hardly seemed to matter. Now this man—whose initial offense was simply to visit an escape room with Chelsea Manning and some #MAGA hucksters—was fair game for public destruction anyway.
We've identified one of the others in that photo of Chelsea Manning and a grip of far-right conspiracy theorists:
— Casey Michel (@cjcmichel) January 24, 2018
A few days after MacAuley's initial tweets, Goldman was put on administrative leave from his job with the city.
Art Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union of DC told WAMU that firing Goldman would be unwise, from a constitutional perspective. "He's expressing his personal views about political issues. Yes, he's got a First Amendment right to do that, same as every other government employee," said Spitzer.
The charter school board should explain that this is America, people have a right to express their political opinions. Liberals shouldn't want the charter school board to fire people because they have conservative views.
The blog Crooks and Liars countered that Goldman's "are not merely conservative views" but "vile, ugly hateful views." Even if so, that wouldn't make them speech exempted from First Amendment protections.
Part of the reason why we shouldn't have "hate" exemptions to the First Amendment is because of situations exactly like what's happening now in our discourse. One person's impermissably hateful view is someone else's fairly mainstream policy belief. One person's "Nazi" is another's nationally respected newspaper. One side's "terrorist groups" are another's anti-racism movements. No one wins when the loser of these semantic battles (a variable which will always shift with who's in political and cultural power) can be caged by the winners, or have their livelihoods shattered.
What we need is intellectual space to be wrong. The future of our Democracy depends on allowing ideas to battle each other in conversation, rather than people fighting each other on the street.
— Jack Murphy (@jackmurphylive) January 27, 2018
In sociology, the phenomenon we're seeing is sometimes called "exploitation creep"—a persistent ramping up of the terms used to describe some negative thing, and the stakes involved, in an attempt to ensure continued attention and funding (i.e., from forced prostitution to sex trafficking to modern slavery). A real and important complaint becomes a caricature of itself through a combination of well-meaning and self-serving advocates repeatedly raising the rhetorical stakes.
We've seen a similar thing recently when it comes to calling out racism, sexism, and all sorts of bigotry. Calling people racist, misogynist, homophobic, and similarly serious allegations grew passé in some progressive and lefty circles. Now folks with problematic views must be labeled Nazis, abusers, white supremacists, etc., in order for the condemnation to carry the same weight a simple "racist!" or sexist pig!" may once have.
This creates problems that go far beyond bad consequences for those targeted. Which is to say that concern for curbing this tendency needn't be predicated on caring one whit for what happens to anyone who disagrees with you, if that's not your thing. (To be clear, I don't think that's a helpful attitude, but I'm just saying—there are self-serving reasons why progressives should give a damn.)
The larger issue is reactions like Kendzior's and MacAuley's don't do service to the side they claim to care about. In fact, tactics like these are how a lot of young folks got sucked into the alt-right vortex originally.
When terms like "white nationalist" and "Nazi" mean nothing, it's very easy for folks like Spencer and his ilk to gain traction. If everyone who favors less-than-libertarian immigration policies or says something ignorant or offensive online is branded as such, it's easy for these folks to buy into the idea that the actual white nationalists and Nazis have just been unfairly maligned, too. It's easy for them to think that "ironic Nazism" a la what we saw in 2016-2017 is a funny and appropriate response.
Many mainstream views on the right reflect plenty of authoritarianism, xenophobia, and intolerance. Treating the messengers of them like special cases—and holding them up as avatars for public shaming and punishment—obscures the underlying prevalence and normality of these beliefs, and prevents us from true attempts to undermine them.