Recently ousted Reddit CEO Ellen Pao has a depressing take on the current state of the web. In the words of a recent retrospective, Pao moans that “the trolls are winning the battle for the internet.”
The Onion couldn’t have come up with a more spectacularly un-self-aware response to what caused Pao’s ouster. To be fair to her, recent revelations from ex-Reddit CEO Yishan Wong suggest Pao might have been set up as a scapegoat for the Reddit community’s anxieties about their free-speech being curtailed by politically correct corporate overlords.
Yet if this is true, Pao’s op-ed seems to be in an awful hurry to confirm that she saw herself as a would be-civilizing politically correct Cecil Rhodes to Reddit’s Africa. Indeed, the main problem is right there in the headline, which assumes that only “trolls” had concerns with the management decisions made while Pao was in charge. Wong also falls into this trap, when he refers to Pao’s opponents as “white-power racist-sexist (sic) neckbeards.” Suffice to say that a much broader group of people than this might have had concerns over, say, open censorship of a Washington Examiner column for questioning the feminist narrative on rape.
In fact, contrary to the predictable whining by some sources that the resistance to Pao was marked by sexist trolling, this was actually a remarkably familiar battle over censorship. It seems it’s impossible these days to express principled opposition to censorship of any kind without being branded a troll, or a provocateur arguing in bad faith to promote discord. Witness the accusations by some in the social-justice community that any counterpoint or debate “derails” the discussion, never mind whether that discussion is actually a runaway train that needs to be derailed. We’ve come a depressingly long way from the time when Reddit’s co-founder Aaron Swartz was hailed as a hero because he arguably died for free speech and free information.
Liberals Turn Against the Internet
That’s not the only respect in which we’ve come a long way. Where the post-2008 Left hailed the Internet as a godsend that would become their ideological equivalent of the AM radio dial, today’s Left seems to have realized that isn’t the case, and are now frantically trying to put the genie back in the bottle by trying to force the Internet to abide by the rules of a college campus. The threat to brand anyone who objects to leftist social control as a troll or unperson has always been the preferred strategy of the most disturbed radicals, but the fact that this line of attack can be parroted by the outgoing CEO of Reddit speaks volumes about how paranoid and embattled the current Left feels in the face of Internet culture.
Not to brag, but I so called this. In early 2010, I wrote an article called “Internet Lays Foundation for GOP Rebirth,” arguing that while the GOP had fallen behind in the web arms race during the 2008 election, one day, the anarchic nature of the Internet would force it to turn on the very liberals who had once celebrated it. The reason?
One element of internet subculture which is persistently invoked is the drive for free expression (often of the most politically incorrect variety possible), unhampered by restrictions of either an economic or governmental variety, and certainly without regard for offended parties.
The Democratic party, dominated as it is by multiculturally-minded quasi-socialists, many of whom have arguably been long since emasculated by sensitivity training, speech codes and other cornerstones of ‘progressive’ victim-mongering, could not possibly provide a satisfactory home to such people.
At the time, my thesis was mocked by liberals, some of whom even thought the article might have been a stealth parody. After Pao’s resignation, I expect these people don’t think this idea is quite so funny.
We Can’t Control the Internet Anymore
But while Pao’s removal serves as the most dramatic example of the trend, it’s hardly the only instance of the Left deciding to turn on the Internet, and the Right deciding to defend it. In the “Left hates Internet freedom” category of stories, the U.S. Department of Justice is trying to crack down on Reason magazine’s comments section.
Rep. Kathleen Clark (D-Massachusetts), in a fit of #Gamergate derangement syndrome, has introduced a bill to spend taxpayer money to turn the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a Twitter banhammer for Left-wing feminist campaigners. Hollywood—arguably the Left’s most treasured constituency—reacted with apoplectic rage at Redditors who exposed the nude photos of Hollywood starlets, almost as if sacred icons had been besmirched. Some even accused those who viewed the photos of virtual rape, which I suppose is bad news not just for Reddit, but for Hustler Magazine and the entire paparazzi.
Speaking of Hollywood, their business arm is none too happy with the Internet, either, since it’s made Swiss cheese of their business model. Politically, it looks like there’s nothing they can do about it, if the massive failure of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is any guide.
Not that they aren’t still trying. In fact, it looks as though intellectual property, formerly a wonkish subject, may lay the groundwork for an oncoming culture war, with Silicon Valley and the Internet on one side, and the Left’s traditional rent-seeking coalitions on the other.
For instance, the hack of Sony revealed that Democratic officials are being systematically paid off to target Google and other sites that undermine Hollywood’s predatory reliance on copyright trolling. Speaking of intellectual property (IP) trolling, at least one former Democratic official seems to think that cracking down on people who abuse patents is “an assault on American workers.”
Swartz, the aforementioned co-founder of Reddit, was hounded into suicide by a prosecutor President Obama himself celebrated for overzealous IP prosecution. If you listen carefully, the fight over this issue sounds remarkably like the shouting over free speech generally, with pro-IP forces accusing Internet users of all manner of degeneracy, while the users shout back that all they’re against is government trying to censor Internet freedom.
Internet Lovers Swing Right
The combination of these two issues, which pit politically correct rent seekers against principled defenders of free speech and information, has led to an encouraging development. Namely, that anti-censorship forces on the Internet have abruptly swung toward allying with—if not always identifying with—the Right. Granted, there are still some holdouts for old-style rightist technophobia—the recent baseless grumbling by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about sites like Expedia or ReservationDesk on the basis of complaints from a deeply self-interested and anticompetitive hotel lobby is instructive—but these are the exception rather than the rule.
In general, the Right has enthusiastically embraced Internet culture, even if the defenders of that culture are sometimes leery of the Right. Exhibit A in this case would be #Gamergate, many of whose members seem to have been plucked from central casting for the phenomenon I described as “4chan Republicans,” for their newfound admiration of confirmed right-wingers such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Adam Baldwin, as well as dissident feminists and libertarians like Christina Hoff Sommers and Cathy Young.
But it’s not just #Gamergate, Reason, and Reddit. Silicon Valley itself is changing. While the Valley was previously thought to be an untouchable deep-blue stronghold, it very clearly turned on the Democrats in 2014 after Sen. Harry Reid caved to the trial bar (another of the rent seekers) and killed patent reform, arguably the one major bipartisan issue of our time.
In short, in its post-2008 enthusiasm, the Left helped to unleash one of the most powerful cultural forces of our time, and now that it has turned on them, they can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Where did they go so wrong in their choice of ally, and why is that ally turning on them in the first place?
The Internet Takes On Everyone
If Internet subculture can be summed up in one sentence, it is that “nothing is sacred.” Given the political headwinds of 2008, when the Left saw itself as battling against the ossified remains of the Religious Right, as personified by the Bush administration, it’s easy to see where this would sound appealing to them. “Nothing is sacred, not even Jebus, you warmongering fascists,” one imagines a gleeful Daily Kos commenter spitting into his laptop.
But a lot can change in seven years, and today’s Right isn’t the Bush-era Right. Not by a long shot. Where some Bush-era conservatives openly sought to transform big government into an instrument of (presumptively Christian) morality, today’s Right sees big government, and even some strains of big business, as too suspect to touch with a ten-foot pole. The Left attacks Republicans in Congress for being “nihilistic” in their refusal to treat anything, even procedural safeguards against default, as if it is sacred.
Even social conservatives have changed from being smugly self-assured about their own “Silent Majority”-style dominance to an embattled approach personified by Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” while blatantly anti-political correctness neoreactionaries like Pax Dickinson and Curtis Yarvin are being cast less as cranks and more like brave, countercultural heroes. One can quarrel with the wisdom of this iconoclastic turn, but no one would ever accuse today’s Right of being defined by its reverence for established pieties.
The Left Is Now The Man
Instead, now it is the Left that is ossifying. When confronted by social science and investigative journalism that eviscerates the hysteria over “rape culture,” the Left retreats into dogmatism. As IQ denialism increasingly looks, to paraphrase the liberal social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, as credible in social science as young earth creationism is in biology, left-wing sociologists cry “racism” and let slip the dogs of war. Rather than debate critics of their increasing turn toward melodramatic paranoia honestly in open court, now dissent is dealt with via Argumentum Ad Title IX. Indeed, any criticism of a left-wing cause, no matter how silly, is often simply met with shrill assertion that one is “on the wrong side of history.”
However, on the Internet, it is still true that nothing is sacred. In 2008, that was primarily a cudgel against social conservatism. Today, that same cudgel is being turned on social justice. If God is dead on the Internet, then “history” is next on the chopping block. Where anti-sin crusaders were once mocked for criticizing porn, video games, and comic books, now anti-sexism crusaders get the same treatment for doing the same thing. “Fundies” were the Internet’s favorite targets for trolling once upon a time; now it’s the “victim” class.
Will the wheel turn again? Certainly, for there will always be new icons to besiege. But if the “disruptive” ethos that thrives on the Internet shows us anything, it is that where old idols fall, better ones can take their place. Creative destruction is in full scale on every iPhone, computer, and tablet in America. And if I had to bet on who would favor creative destruction over the long run, I know one thing: I wouldn’t choose the Left.