Kevin Williamson is looking out for you, not that he is on your side. He insists, “I am not your friend, your advocate, or your tribune, and I am not trying to get anyone elected.” What he aims to be is an individual, who can “stand at least partly away from the demands of his tribe and class and try to see things as they are, and shout back over his shoulder what he sees.”
In his new book, The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics, he diagnoses the mob politics of the social media age. He knows the outrage mob personally, as it ejected him from The Atlantic after one column. However, he is in the controversy business and is doing well; “It’s the rest of you poor b-stards who need worrying about.”
Indeed. The omnipresent self-surveillance of technology makes public figures of us all, and therefore potential targets. A post, tweet, or moment captured by a smartphone camera can bring on the mob, huffing, puffing, howling, and harassing.
Why? This is, by historical standards, a time of peace and prosperity, especially in the United States. There is real deprivation and decline in places, but social media mobs include few of the truly poor. Political Twitter is populated by people with food, shelter, clothing, plumbing, smartphones, and rage; never before have so many, with so much, been so miserable.
Emergencies of Convenience
Material sufficiency is only a precondition for human well-being, for we are social animals, with longings and needs beyond the physical. Williamson argues that the technology and commerce that have made us wealthy have also upended our social order.
Relational disruption, much more than material deprivation, motivates internet rage monkeys. They want the positional good of social status and the spiritual (or at least psychological) good of significance, and the relational goods of, well, relationships. Williamson writes that social media is “a means for seeking human connection, not communication, but communion, or at least a simulacrum of it.” The sense of belonging (even to an online mob) and the rush of rage are attractive to the mediocre, the miserable, the lonely, and the sexually frustrated.
Rage addicts do not want dialogue; they want enemies they can demean and humiliate. There is no discourse in forcing celebrity apologies, or embarrassing athletes by resurrecting juvenile tweets, or harassing teenagers over “smirks” or prom dresses, or the endless efforts to have such-and-such cancelled and so-and-so fired. Rather, mobs and meme wars are examples of an “antidiscourse” that aims to “lower the status of rivals and enemies” and has “more in common with dogs barking at one another than it does with actual political discourse.”
Of course, few want to admit to themselves that they are losers who like hurting and humiliating people, so they concoct justifications. Bullying becomes activism, and excuses are found for cruelty and intimidation in a good cause—and a good cause can always be invented when it is needed. Just look at the intellectual trollopes who declare that the punishment of dissident bakers is necessary to prevent the return of Jim Crow.
As Williamson puts it, “If you go looking for an emergency, you will find one. And if you don’t find one, you can always make one up…If you wish to suppress certain speech or a certain point of view, then all you have to do is construct a crowded theater around it.” For example, transgender activists insist that those who do not affirm gender ideology must be silenced and punished, lest their opposition induce suicide in those who identify as trans—effectively taking themselves hostage.
Coercion, Not Persuasion
In this way, the real evils of suppressing free speech and harassing dissenters and nonconformists are justified by pointing to hypothetical evils—and as Williamson notes, even the analogy between free speech and falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater was invented to justify the Wilson administration’s suppression of political speech.
Fortunately, legal protections for free speech are generally more robust now. Unfortunately, free speech and thought can often be squelched without relying on government censorship. Today’s would-be censors are engaged in the project of converting businesses and universities “into disciplinary corporations, agencies deputized to enforce political and intellectual conformity.” Just as everyone has become a public figure, everyone’s job is becoming political.
Government sanctions against wrongthink are often unnecessary, for “colleges and corporations are in effect the gatekeepers of the public square and the good life.” The power to deprive dissidents of education and employment is “far more valuable as a political weapon than a mere congressional majority.” And in many cases, the pitchforks and torches are coming from inside the organization. The rage is within the machine.
Most outrage mobs would be impotent if they did not have internal allies. The number of people who will stick with a boycott is rarely sufficient to break big businesses, or even small ones. But if there are enough employees who want a corporation to be a community that enforces ideological discipline, then dissenters will be cleaned out as grit in the gears of the machine.
Williamson names these internal enforcers “Caitlyn.” The Caitlyns congregate in sections such as marketing and human resources, and are replaceable, so they have a personal, as well as an ideological, interest in the “politicization of corporate life.” Corporate values are being created and enforced not by founders and owners so much as by VPs of diversity and the directors of human resources. The purest form of this may be the useless university administrators who require leftist loyalty oaths from minor athletic staff and force scholars of physics and medieval history to justify their work using the latest ideological buzzwords.
The priests and priestesses of these novel little faiths fear something very old. As Williamson points out, “our thoroughgoing secularists and enlightened humanists have, here on the bleeding edge of social evolution, reached back into classical Catholic thinking and rediscovered the concept of “scandal.” Heretics and sinners must be purged, punished, and humiliated lest others stumble into sin and heresy.
The point is coercion, not persuasion. That these methods are not always undertaken by the government does not make them less forceful. “Recant or be fired” is as much an exercise of power as “recant or be imprisoned.”
Both the mob and the corporate machine are opposed by the individual who refuses to be assimilated or incorporated. Milton’s Satan is presented as an archetype: “Lucifer sees the clockwork universe of Shakespeare and Dante and wants no part of it. He will not be a cog in anybody’s machine—not even God’s.” Williamson will not go this far; God is owed obedience. But the god of public opinion? “Non serviam.”
The problems Williamson describes are not new, for the tension between our social natures and needs and the dignity of human free will is intrinsic to our being. Thus, the temptation to mobs and militant tribalism will always be with us. T.S. Eliot commented on the “reoccurring human desire to escape the burden of life and thought,” and the “craving for a regime which will relieve us of thought and at the same time give us excitement and military salutes.”
However, social media has provided a new forum, which the mob more easily dominates. Most social media mobs are not large, but the medium amplifies them, and they have often have powerful patrons. Even the president leads social media mobs against athletes who do not conform to the weird practice of performative pregame patriotism. Indeed, many of his fans love him because of his talents for humiliation—the politics of status, rather than policy.
Williamson is one of the best political writers around (right, left, or one of those weird non-Euclidean angles H.P. Lovecraft went on about), with an acerbic style and a cultivated mad dog persona—he floats “The Gun Didn’t Know I was Loaded” as a memoir title. He lets himself go in this book; sometimes this Texan uses rapier wit, other times he commits verbal chainsaw massacres.
The line “as creepily tumescent as Anthony Weiner cruising a Hello Kitty boutique” might have made it into National Review, but “Caravaggio didn’t paint The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew with his d–k” would probably not see the light of print, let alone “Standing athwart History, yelling ‘F–k you!’”
Despite the splenic splendor of his prose, Williamson sometimes writes nonsense. If Hungary “groans under the corrupt strongman rule of Viktor Orban,” then the standards for qualifying as a groan-inducing strongman have declined. He conflates the cosmological worldview of the ancients and the Middle Ages with the mechanistic, clockwork conception of the universe that emerged in early modernity, and I am skeptical of parts of his brief history of Satan.
Nonetheless, The Smallest Minority is the most fun to be had from a misanthropic conservative since Florence King died. It is entertaining and insightful, easily shifting from summarizing scholars to caustic commentary.
At a svelte 230 pages, this volume leaves the reader wanting more, and a few points should have been elaborated. The rhapsody to rebellion in the cause of individualism—“Rebellion is human. To choose is to be human, even if one chooses disobedience and wickedness”—does not engage the subject in depth. Readers may find themselves instead taking the part of Syme, in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday:
The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it…Chaos is dull…What is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick…Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting.
Of course, even God may be a rebel, as in the Incarnation, but rebellion is a poor foundation for individualism. Williamson wants individuals, rather than mobs and herds, but a better account of the sources and supports of the individual is needed than sympathy for the devil.
Nor is the global capitalism he often celebrates, with its effacement of the local and particular in the cause of efficiency, conducive to the growth of independent judgment and character. The individuality the market offers is only that of the customer—to be defined by one’s tastes in the products and pleasures one consumes.
To be a real individual requires comfort with one’s particularity, beyond a mere consumer identity. Proper individuality will therefore be rooted in the particulars of life, finding significance and identity in family, church, and community. If healthy forms of these are absent, then strange little substitutes will take root in the wasteland, and cults and mobs will form around them.
Individuality develops more through right relationships than isolation. Community is the basis for individuals who can effectively resist the mob and the state—or the combination thereof in democracy, which in its pure form is literal mob rule.
As G.K. Chesterton wrote regarding the Roman Republic and its hatred of kings, “only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard or status by which to criticize the state. They alone can appeal to something more holy than the gods of the city; the gods of the hearth.” Men will defend the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods against enemies foreign and domestic—even against the king. Even against King Demos.
Williamson has provided an excellent and entertaining account of the ills of mob politics and social media. How to cultivate individuals who will resist remains up to the rest of us.