Too Far Left, or What Does It Mean to Be “Radical”

“On Tuesday, a Florida judge sentenced Daniel Baker, an anti-fascist activist, to 44 months in federal prison for social media posts that called for armed defense against possible far-right attacks on the state’s Capitol in the wake of the January 6 riots. Baker, a 34-year-old yoga teacher and emergency medical technician trainee, had no previous criminal convictions and has already been held for 10 months of harsh pretrial detention, including seven months in solitary confinement. He never brought a weapon near a government building; he amassed no armed anti-fascist forces; he made no threats on a single individual.

Baker will, nonetheless, face considerably more prison time than most January 6 defendants, including those who crossed state lines, small arsenals in tow, with the aim of overturning a presidential election…

…Baker was convicted at trial earlier this year on two counts of “transmitting a communication in interstate commerce containing a threat to kidnap or injure another person.” The threat of kidnapping charge stemmed from a feverish public Facebook post in which Baker put out a general call for anti-racists and anti-fascists to encircle the state Capitol, should far-right groups attack it “on or around inauguration day,” and “trap” right-wingers inside with cops. In the very next sentence, though, he wrote, “we will drive them out of Tallahassee with every caliber available!” The right wing militiae were thus to be trapped in and driven out at once, on an unspecified day, by an unnamed collaboration of counterprotesters.”

-Natasha Lennard, “A Florida Anarchist Will Spend Years in Prison for Online Posts Prompted by Jan. 6 Riot.The Intercept. October 16, 2021.

I find this interesting on two levels.

One, there’s a saying: “The e in email is for evidence.” Same is true of Facebook and other social media. Using Facebook to advocate for any kind of radical societal change is an exercise in trying to use a tool of totalitarianism against itself. It’s unlikely to work, and very likely to land you in prison.

Two, the advantage that the right have is that they, on the surface, support the institutions of the state. Many are police officers, served in the military and so forth. However, the January 6th riots show that if any of those institutions get in the way, they are more than happy to push them aside. Radical leftists are more obviously against the state and its institutions. So, the state is also more obviously against them.

In fact, this brings us to a helpful definition to determine who is and is not a radical. Ask yourself: does this person think that the state is the solution to many of the problems of society or the cause of many of the problems? If they believe it is the cause of the problems of society, do they believe the state can be reformed to address those problems? If the state is the solution, then you are dealing with a traditional leftist, liberal or conservative in their political opinions.

If a “leftist” supports state solutions, whether Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Dennis Kucinch, George McGovern, or whomever, then there is nothing radical about their position. They are only “radical” in so far as they are leftists in a fundamentally and moderately conservative society, where radical is defined as anyone to the left (or occasionally, the right) of the majority or more often, the person making the judgment.

Leftists are advocating to use the government outside of the limited government fiction and the great lie of conservativism that you can have a global war-fighting capability and still maintain a small government with low taxes. The true goal of the limited government lie is to prevent the government from being repurposed to leftist goals, i.e., serving the citizenry rather than elite interests (or at least different elites). From the perspective of someone that believes the lie of limited government, this position is radical.

However, it’s also not radical because much of the justification for modern government is that it protects the citizenry, from providing clean water, consumer protections, national security and so forth. So, it’s clear that limited government, Originalism, and some of the modern tenets of conservativism are actually a reframing of the debate. Calling traditional liberals “radical leftists” is just another way to put them on the defensive and of closing the Overton window around these new conservative ideas.

But, the framing that Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and so forth are radical leftists, “socialists”, and so forth are relativistic arguments. Better to have a clear definition of what makes someone radical that works across both right and left perspectives than define radical relativistically. Being against the state serves that function rather well.

You Don’t Need (To Complain About) Substack

“Our timing was nearly perfect—a mere two weeks after we wrote our joint essay, Substack had a huge controversy, and is now facing a backlash. Writers are thinking of jumping ship and looking for ideas for what to do next. I’ve been doing this without a net for a while, and I have a few thoughts on how it can be done.”

—Ernie Smith, “Newsletter, Untethered.” Tedium.co. March 19, 2021.

Basically, Ernie explains how to roll your own newsletter. If you don’t like Substack, Medium, or these other publishing platforms, you don’t have to use them. There are options, but many require technical expertise, which is what you are paying them not to learn so you can focus on writing.

Let me take a moment to comment, with the full understanding that no one cares what I think: The Substack “controversy” is nonsense. What they are doing is figuring out who could make money on their platform and removing the risk for these writers to try it out. I haven’t read up on who they made offers to, but is the world a more interesting place with Scott Alexander publishing Astral Codex Ten and Freddie deBoer being given a one year guarantee to build an audience on the platform and concentrate on writing? Probably. I don’t agree with the politics of either of these individuals. But, I do know that the modern media landscape doesn’t give them a platform, and it should. When we support a media landscape of diverse voices, it means you’re going to hear a lot of viewpoints you’re not going to like. That’s the price of a diverse landscape.

Of course, capitalism comes with incentives, and the incentives encourage extreme viewpoints. That’s what people will pay for.

If you want to promote conventional opinion, write mediocre poetry, share your hot tips on making money (or living your best life, nutrition advice or what not), then you get on a free tier of an online publishing platform. Or, if you are slightly more serious, you pay for the privilege and get a WordPress personal site or equivalent. And, if you are very good, relatable, extreme and/or lucky, Substack might approach you in a decade too. Good luck to you, if that’s what you want.

But, complaining how some company runs its business? Is Substack Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft? Do we want to talk about the relative harms here and why quitting Substack for some other online publishing or newsletter platform is a relatively cost-free form of virtue signaling? Want to guess how many people will read and heed Ernie’s advice rather than join the platform of the moment? Fractions of a percent. In other words, the objections about Substack and the migrating to another service with the same incentives is the kind of nonsense that characterizes left activism and is why so much of it has very little impact on the real world beyond soothing a few consciences and signaling we are good people at very little cost.

Rolling your own has a serious cost, in time and effort. Giving up Facebook, or one of the other feudal internet companies, also has a significant cost. But, leaving Substack to go to Buttondown? Who you fooling?

For a better argument, see Ben Thompson.

Thanks to Ernie for suggesting a few editorial changes to make it clear that rolling your own is not cost-free nor is it virtual signaling. It is a great way to control your creative output and foster independence. The challenge for publishing ecosystems is getting the tools to the point that non-technical writers can take advantage of them.

Too Broke to Be Woke

“Though it might grant social and professional benefits to members of the elite liberal class, engaging in scholarship and activism that demonizes men, white people, or heterosexuals doesn’t make the world more just, nor does providing students with empirically-unsupported implicit-bias training and “toxic masculinity” workshops. These practices bake the seeds of prejudice and discrimination into educational experiences that are supposedly focused on fighting prejudice and discrimination. In fact, the use of divisive and hateful language in the name of social justice is a red flag: Those on the front lines know there is too much at stake to burn bridges and attack others. They want allies, not enemies.”

—Clay Routledge. “Social Justice in the Shadows.” Quillette. September 14, 2018.

Social justice is a fine idea frequently undermined by its strongest proponents. It’s a rare good idea that doesn’t have this problem.