Marx once wrote about the “lumpenproletariat,” the unthinking portion of the working class that could never attain class consciousness and were thus worthless to workers’ revolution. Today, we might describe the plethora of right-wing commentators inexplicably paid to share their toxic views constitute a lumpen-intelligentsia: “thought leaders” and “influencers” whose “work” tends to provoke more hostility than thought.
Recently, right-wing opinion columnist Daniella Greenbaum resigned in a public huff after her employer at the time, Business Insider, yanked a piece she had penned defending the casting of a straight cisgender actor as Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life transgender man who owned several Pittsburgh massage parlors in the 1970s and 1980s that served as fronts for prostitution. Ignoring the justified and complex arguments of transgender activists who have long complained about the underrepresentation in Hollywood of transgender performers, Greenbaum lazily argued from a “common sense” perspective that actors are meant to portray people other than themselves. It should be noted that the 24-year-old Greenbaum herself is not only straight and cisgender as too also but grew up in the lap of luxury in Manhattan, first attending a private Jewish day school and then Columbia University, before an internship at AIPAC plugged her into conservative pundit cottage industry. It boggles the mind why the editors at Business Insider decided the world needed to know the opinions of such a person on transgender representation but given David Brooks’ own lecturing to African-American youth not too long ago, perhaps the discerning reader should not be too surprised the piece went live.
It did not remain live for long. Business Insider pulled the piece after the inevitable backlash. As has become vogue for conservative commentators, Greenbaum cried censorship and sent out her resignation letter. Also, a litany of her ilk attended her self-pity party, with the usual cast of characters – Bret Stephens, Christina Hoff Sommers, John Podhoretz, Bethany Mandel, Jamie Kirchik, et al – rallying to her cause. Of course, rather than being blacklisted by the “liberal media,” Greenbaum found a new home at the Washington Post, where her first piece– you guessed it – bemoaned the death of “free speech” and the inclination by people to give in to the tyranny of the “mob.”
Much has already been made about the hypocrisy of the right-wing media and its members when they cry “free speech.” Obviously, conservatives opine when individuals who share their beliefs are sanctioned in some way for expressing themselves, but conveniently look the other way when academics who criticize Israel lose their jobs or when NFL players take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism. By claiming “free speech,” however, conservative pundits can ensure their reactionary, increasingly antiquated views and values are treated with respect and civility. Moderate liberals will – and have – tripped over themselves to demonstrate their own dedication to freedom of thought, ignorant or indifferent to the fact they are enabling conservative social control to be broadcast to the millions of Americans who consume the mass media.
I do not want to deconstruct this “crisis of free speech” mythology because I believe most people can see through the lie for what it is. What I do want to do is examine who exactly benefits from this strategy and how it is rooted in a long tradition of using the media as a propaganda tool to promote the status quo while attacking the forces of progress. Studying history reveals that the liberal cry of “free speech” has far more to do with protecting perspectives favorable to the powerful than safeguarding dissent.
Uniformly white and privileged, the right-wing chattering class prone to complaining about “censorship” reflect the genteel face of middle- and upper-class of the Caucasian U.S. that is both uncomfortable with the populism of Trump and the progressivism of the political left. Like the Trumpists, though, they despise “political correctness” – that is, the shifting norms and ideas around everything from class to race to gender – and the abandonment of “common sense” – that is, the prejudices and beliefs socialized into their heads as objective truth. Going back to the French Revolution, conservative forebear Edmund Burke argued that the “natural order” of society, embodied in the countryside, was under assault by a destructive working-class movement. Of course, we know now there is no “natural order” of society, that liberalism and capitalism are no more our natural condition than feudalism or slavery was. In the conservative mind, however, the past is something sacred, the “correct” arrangement, even if – as is now widely recognized – such an arrangement depends on the exclusion and suffering of certain groups. Perhaps the most fundamental rejoinder to conservative diatribes like Burke’s is that his idyllic England was no paradise to anyone who was not a straight cisgender property-owning white man. When Burke sought to expose the looting of the Indian subcontinent in the 1780s, it was not to denounce the brutality of imperialism, but to criticize its effect of creating boorish parvenus who threatened to disrupt business as usual with their new wealth. Burke succeeded in turning British imperialism into a national project, enriching and ennobling Britain off the plunder and subjugation of conquered peoples. Implied in Burke’s conservatism is a white supremacy, an ethnic nationalism that views English culture as innately superior to all others. U.S. culture imported this feature from Britain and used it to inspire “Manifest Destiny” and then “American Exceptionalism,” the crafting of a North American empire and then a global one as the self-styled champion of democracy and individual liberty, also ruled by a privileged class of mostly straight cisgender Caucasian men. When right-wing pundits today deplore the “disappearance of common sense,” what they mean is they lament the eroding of age-old ideological constructs that legitimate a status quo predicated on the exploitation of others.
Greenbaum, a Jew and a Zionist, may not be aware that by following in Burke’s footsteps she is walking a path historically littered with anti-Semitism. The mirror image of the conservative utopia (white, tied to the land, patriotic) is the rootless, unscrupulous, and stateless subversive – in other words, for much of Western culture, the anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew. For Burke, the cause of the French Revolution’s degeneration into bloodshed was an unholy alliance between the working-class “rabble” and the “Old Jewry.” It may be more apt to say Greenbaum follows in the tradition of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disiraeli, a Jew, who argued Jews were inherently conservative because of their racial self-consciousness and “accumulated wealth.” During the 1848 revolutions, however, he decried “the once loyal Hebrew” among the ranks of “the Leveller,” seeking the destruction of Christianity and the abrogation of private property (see Domenico Losurdo’s excellent Liberalism: A Counter-History for more). Later, this anti-Semitic canard would be recycled as the Nazi belief in “Judeo-Bolshevism,” with Jews behind the popular revolutionary movement of the time, communism. Today, the “cultural Marxism” in conservative writing hides its anti-Semitism but remains essentially the idea that a “secret group” is trying to destroy Christianity, abrogate private property, and otherwise destroy Western civilization and the “common sense” that made the West the undisputed masters of the world (of course, anyone who has read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel knows that the West benefitted from absorbing non-Western technology, favorable geographic conditions, and other structural variables totally divorced from the agency of human beings).
Just as “cultural Marxism” is rooted in the anti-communist “Red Scare” rhetoric of the recent past, so too is the right-wing pundits’ appeals to free speech. During the Cold War, the conservative media regularly accused leftists of being pro-Soviet Union or not anti-Soviet Union enough. The ideological effect of this was to keep liberals on the defensive, to behave like reactionaries to show their anti-communist credentials. Under McCarthyism, liberals lined up to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee to ruin the lives of friends and relatives just to illustrate their fidelity to the national religion. Today, conservative commentators demand liberals do the same or otherwise be guilty by association with the “loony left.” Best of all for conservatives, they do not even need expertise or even experience; hence, why they will line up behind the appropriateness of a 24-year-old woman to speak about something she knows absolutely nothing about. Instead, the only question that matters is directed at the reader, a challenge to stand up for “common sense” and “our side” in the Manichean conservative understanding of “good guys” and “bad guys,” us versus them, so that any issue (such as equal rights for transgender people) becomes one not of logic and fairness but emotion.
The qualifications of people like Greenbaum and the validity of their ideas should be thoroughly interrogated and explored, because as we can see, a little investigation and context reveals that the “common sense” they seek to sell us is anything but. Their work is for and serves the ruling class. We can and should ask why newspapers and magazines are hiring writers like Greenbaum or Jesse Singal to write about things they should not be writing about with any genuine authority or knowledge. We should also question the claims of conservative oppression in the media when writers like Greenbaum are contributing to the political discourse under the mastheads of prestigious U.S. publications whereas major left-wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Cornel West, and others only seem to appear on foreign networks like Al-Jazeera or Russia Today. (I am not endorsing their views, by the way, but making a point.) By hiring “dissenters” from the right-wing of the spectrum, the establishment-friendly mass media sets the contours for political discourse in this country so that it does not channel anger against the status quo, which is already highly precarious in this time of general disillusionment, alienation, and unrest. We are presented either with the views of inoffensive milquetoast centrists or out-of-touch conservative nostalgia. The left-wing perspective, despite its clear growing popularity, is generally not given a platform. (For more on this, see Chomsky’s work on concision and the mass media.)
It therefore behooves those of us on the radical left to use the Internet and especially social media to spread the ideas that are truly dangerous to the status quo, to construct a counter-hegemonic discourse completely separate from the controlled and filtered perspectives coming out of the mass media. The phenomenon of the conservative lumpen-intelligentsia is not a fleeting one but a core part of the modern superstructure that retards the development of human consciousness and building a better world.