Deplorables Are Real
The problem isn't the demagogues, it’s their audiences.
Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.
If you find value in this project, do two things for me: (1) hit the Like button, and (2) share this with someone.
Most of what we do in Bulwark+ is only for our members, but this email will always be open to everyone. To get it each week, sign up for free here. (Just choose the free option at the bottom.)
1. Tower of Babel
I was unaware that Ken White (aka Popehat) does a Substack. It is magnificent. Here he is on the Alex Jones case:
When Jesus appeared before Pilate, they spoke different languages. I don’t mean that literally — although maybe they did speak different languages and used a translator, or maybe spoke Aramaic, or Latin. I mean that they used language in completely different ways. Jesus was preaching. Pilate was judging. Jesus was talking about truth with a capital T. Pilate was trying to focus Jesus on the practicalities of the case, and perhaps making a mordant quip about the futility of the process when he said “what is truth.” There was no meeting of the minds.
When modern American political culture winds up in court, the effects are similar. The participants are speaking different languages, and using language in different ways. Courts are focused on a taxonomy of words. Are they factual? Are they opinion? Are they literal or figurative? Courts also care about the literal truth of words. That’s central to defamation law — it’s not defamatory unless it was false. Courts are about analysis, and the entire project of the law is about words meaning specific things.
But modern American political culture is emotive and even artistic. It uses language like a musician uses notes or an impressionist uses brush strokes. Whether it’s Marjorie Taylor Greene talking about Bill Gates' efforts to colonize our bowels through "peach tree dishes" or Alex Jones ranting about gay frogs, modern politicians and pundits use language to convey feelings and attitudes and values, not specific meanings. If you demand Alex Jones defend the specific meaning of his words, it’s like demanding your eight-year-old defend his statement that his birthday party was the best day ever when previously that’s what he said about Disneyland.
Which brings us to the mismatch problem with having Alex Jones in a court of law:
The point is that courts are ill-equipped to deal with people like Alex Jones, and people like Alex Jones are ill-equipped to deal with courts. Jones’ catastrophic testimony in his own defense illustrates this. Jones struggled to fit his bombast within the framework of the law, within the distinction between fact and opinion. It’s a bad fit because that’s not how he uses words. If Jones had been honest — an utterly foreign concept to him — he might have said “I just go out there and say what I feel.” The notion that Sandy Hook was a hoax is a word-painting, a way of conveying Jones’ bottomless rage at politics and media and modernity, and he can no more defend it factually than Magritte could defend the logical necessity of a particular brushstroke.
But that’s only a warmup for White going full-darkness:
I suspect that a vast judgment against Jones won’t have much value as a deterrent or proclamation of truth. Jones is loathsomely rich because people want to consume his art. His landscapes of hate and fear and mistrust resonate with a frightening number of Americans. The people who enjoyed his Sandy Hook trutherism didn’t enjoy it because it was factually convincing or coherent; they enjoyed the emotional state it conveyed because it matched theirs. The plodding technicalities of law are probably inadequate to change their minds.
Defamation cases like this one — or Dominion’s case against Sidney Powell, or the parade of defamation claims against Trump — are just, and it’s just that the victims receive compensation. But they don’t solve the problem. America can survive the demagogues themselves, it’s their audience that will kill us.
This. Stare into the abyss and read the whole thing. (And subscribe.)
What White is talking about is of a piece with a conversation I had with my colleague Will Saletan on Friday.
Will asked me what I thought motivated the segment of Republican voters who are openly illiberal. Here’s my response:
I think they are voting on hating other Americans. . . . They have an eschatological view of the country. They know exactly who they hate. And who they hate are not the North Koreans, not the Chinese. It’s not the Russians. Those are the far out-groups. What they hate are the near out-groups. They don’t disagree with them. They hate them. And that’s what they’re voting on.
I’m not describing every Republican. Maybe not even a majority of them. But it’s clearly a share that’s bigger than 2 percent. It’s a share that’s big enough that it has nominated gubernatorial candidates in Arizona and Pennsylvania and a Senate candidate in Georgia. It’s a share big enough to have made Alex Jones and Sidney Powell rich and made Donald Trump president of these United States.
Take Ken White’s admonition and put it on a pillow: “America can survive the demagogues themselves, it’s their audience that will kill us.”
That’s because democracy has no solution for how to fix itself when a large enough share of the populace goes sour.
But let me cheer you up: Jones was ordered to pay $50 million in damages yesterday to the Sandy Hook parents. It’s not enough. The floor should have been 10x that number. But whatever. It’s a start.
And any time Alex Jones is having a bad day, it’s good for civilization.
2. End of Social
This Michael Mignono newsletter makes a compelling case that social media as we understood it is over:
Last week, Meta announced that the Facebook newsfeed would be shifting towards an algorithmic, recommendation-based model of content distribution. This announcement marked the most recent example of a major platform to formally make this shift, while other major platforms, including Meta’s Instagram, have been headed in this direction for a while. . . .
[T]hese shifts towards algorithmic feeds over friend feeds make sense. Platforms like the massively popular (and still growing) TikTok and YouTube put far less emphasis on friends and social graphs in favor of carefully curated, magical algorithmic experiences that match the perfect content for the right people at the exact right time. This is recommendation media, and it’s the new standard for content distribution on the internet.
Creators: You have been commoditized. All hail the platforms!
[S]ocial networks are simply no longer defensible because the underlying data that powers them, the social graph, has become commoditized. By leveraging login APIs from Facebook or Twitter, or even connecting a product to a user’s smartphone address book, teams can now quickly spin up social networks through which they can distribute content based on social graphs.
But in recommendation media, the algorithms that power distribution reign supreme. These algorithms, which are powered by machine learning, are unique, valuable, and grow in power and accuracy as a platform scales. Therefore, only the biggest and most powerful platforms can afford investments in the best machine learning algorithms because they are such expensive and resource intensive assets. In recommendation media, the platform with the best machine learning wins.
3. Gladwell’s Law
Malcolm Gladwell notes a problem:
Gladwell’s Law: In any sporting endeavor, elite achievement comes at the cost of mass participation.
Think about it. It makes total sense. Here’s Gladwell walking you through it:
What are high school sports for?
I think most of us would give three answers to that:
(1) To prepare those with elite ability for post-high school competition.
(2) To provide an opportunity for students to experience the joy that comes from exercise and competition.
(3) To lay down life-long habits of physical activity.
I think American high schools do a really good job with Number 1. I think they do a so-so job with Number 2, and because they do a so-so job with Number 2, they do a lousy job with Number 3.
The fundamental problem is that the first goal—to develop elite athletes—is in contradiction to the second two. To the extent that we cater to the 90th percentile, we make a sport psychologically forbidding to the 50th percentile. I mean, if your high school has four tennis players who have been honing their topspin forehands and kick-serves for 10 years, why would someone who grew up playing with their siblings on public courts on the weekends want to try out for the team?
This strikes me as indisputably true. And the biggest barrier to entry for any given sport at the kid level is if a kid is already committed to another sport.
Why can’t Jimmy play high school football? It’s because he’s been playing baseball year-round since age 10. Why can’t Pam play basketball? Because she’s been doing soccer full-time since she was 7.
My point being: Emphasizing elite athletic achievement even prevents elite athletes from playing other sports because of their preexisting elite commitments.
Anyway, Gladwell proposes a solution that is particular to high school cross-country teams (something both he and I did as NJ high-schoolers). I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll give you his name for the regime: Pied-Piper Racing.
Read the whole thing. If you’re into running, this will float your boat.
If you find this newsletter valuable, please hit the like button and share it with a friend. And if you want to get the Newsletter of Newsletters every week, sign up below. It’s free.
But if you’d like to get everything from Bulwark+ and be part of the conversation, too, you can do the paid version.
I think it's fine that defamation suits generally do not see a meeting of the minds on court day. I would imagine that those defendants with the most knowledge of the court are the ones who are most likely to be evasive to begin with. The court has to try and penetrate the defendant's use of language to communicate what it has decided.
'I think they are voting on hating other Americans' ... I read years ago these so-called nationalist patriots love America and hate everyone in it.