The idea that political civility is a necessary element of political discourse—one which is meant to emulate a kind of ideal courtroom politesse—is a bourgeois conviction. Expressions of civility are said to uphold democratic standards and tame violent language, and are therefore considered hallmarks of respectability and, mostly importantly, of enlightenment.
In a report from 2004 entitled Democracy Online, Zizi Papacharissi, professor and communications department head at the University of Illinois at Chicago, described George Washington’s work on the subject of civility as a guiding factor in the conceptualization of the characteristics of consummate citizenry. Papacharissi writes that this “model of civility…was integral to American citizenship and democracy,” guiding one’s morality, and above all, helped to “cool hot passions of citizenry.”
This civility model is designed to restrain and adjudicate what’s often characterized as being the savagery of political disobedience. For those who depart from this standard, there may be material consequences.
On May 20, the progressive public policy organization, Demos, fired Matt Bruenig, a popular writer who covered poverty and inequality.
Demos’ firing of Bruenig was spurred, in part, by his sharp verbal knockdowns of columnist Joan Walsh, and Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress (CAP), both of whom are ardent Hillary Clinton supporters.
Bruenig described Tanden as “a scumbag” and sent heads spinning. Within a few hours, there was a virtual campaign engineered at stripping him of his position at Demos. There was more research done by liberals that day into calculating how much Bruenig makes, where he lives, and what kind of home he and his family reside in, than there was into the policies of Clinton.
Shortly after, Demos issued a press release that stated, “After multiple conversations, Matt Bruenig and Demos have agreed to disagree on the value of the attack mode on Twitter. We part ways on the effectiveness of these kinds of personalized, online fights and so we are parting ways as colleagues today.”
Sady Doyle, a prominent feminist writer known best for her long-winded tweet storms aimed at “Bernie Bros,” later bragged about her email to the public policy organization, sharing congratulatory messages with her followers and relishing in the exploit.
What influence—if any—Doyle or the other self-affirmed informants had in Bruenig’s firing is unclear, but the damage, to some degree, is clearly done.
Detractors claim Bruenig’s behavior towards women was not only to blame for the loss of his job but that his conduct is an attribute of a larger, uncivilized left, and should they emulate such behavior then they too would suffer the same material repercussions.
These silencing tactics are not new, but they’ve evolved with help from social media and a captivated audience that, especially when drama is involved, is unwilling to log off.
Neera Tanden, who spends her time both on and offline cooing in adoration of every move Hillary Clinton makes, has emerged unscathed after the Bruenig affair. Clinton picked Tanden for the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee at the party’s national convention in July.
She is a former chief domestic policy advisor for Clinton’s failed 2008 campaign, and also served in Bill Clinton’s White House. At the moment, Tanden is described as all but persecuted by Big Bad Bruenig and The Brocialists.
These leftists, as the fantastical delusion goes, are said to have a deep-seated resentment of women, and so they’ve come—hammers and sickles in hand—to wreak unbridled havoc on the liberal establishment class.
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It is this overwhelmingly white male left, specifically, which these same people see as having a problem with women. And yet, ask any woman on the left, any woman of color on the left, what the response has been to push back against these liberal narratives. You’ll realize that in order to maintain the intoxicating allure behind the mirage of a leftist bogeyman, who is irredeemably sexist, there must be a wall of silence erected between the skeptics.
For example, when Rania Khalek, associate editor at Electronic Intifada, argues that Walsh has “reduced [her] to a follower of a white man” for her support of Bernie Sanders, she is cast as a token of white leftist men. The foremost paragons of social justice simply ignore any deviation from the narrative as quickly as their block or mute buttons will allow, just so they may better perpetuate the lore.
After all, in order to effectively attack the body you must first at least make it appear to be whole. Liza Featherstone, journalist and editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, has succinctly described this behavior as the “weaponization of feminism”.
Such an attachment to bourgeois civility methods has turned fiery and necessary confrontations between members of the working class and the liberal establishment class into tussles between beasts and man.
Tanden once tweeted she was “tired of freeloaders” while she savaged the notion of health care as a human right. She certainly isn’t a scumbag to people seeking to join the establishment class. But the commoners should be careful who they call scum, especially if they want to make sure they can still eat.
The insults fired at Tanden and Walsh, whose daughter works for Clinton, have gone from being characterized as “problematic” to acts of violence against women. As Rania Khalek argued in an interview with The Benjamin Dixon Show, there’s a growing trend of painting any and all political disagreement as forms of harassment, and “prominent Clinton supporters are using the language of rape, assault and misogyny to smear people” with no concrete evidence. This effectively protects even the most “privileged” among us from criticism.
Make no mistake about it. The mad rush to have Matt Bruenig fired from his position at Demos, and the new crusade explicitly tailored to deny him employment elsewhere, is meant to turn him into an example. It isn’t enough that they forced his employer into publicly removing him; they’re now after any other stream of income he, or his wife, may have. Indeed, they’ve decided that Elizabeth Bruenig, assistant editor for The Washington Post’s Outlook, should be punished, in essence, for being married to Matt.
In public conversations that rely heavily on the patriarchal notion that a woman, being owned by her husband, is at fault for his actions, countless gatekeepers of liberal feminism are calling for Bruenig to lose her job. Mind you, these same political performance artists spit venom at the very idea that Clinton should be forced to offer any form of penance for her own actions, let alone the actions of her husband during his term as President of the United States.
While the left may be fragmented and in desperate need of genuine solidarity, the liberal establishment class has shown its face.
The usurpation of social justice rhetoric for the sake of neoliberal ends, for the sake of maintaining existing conditions, is their modus operandi. Any flicker of criticism, no matter how tempered, will be described as too harsh, too divisive, and absolutely unnecessary.
But to pacify the language used against politicians and stenographers of power, both of whom continue to inundate us with flowery speeches and recycled think-pieces, is to fall back in line.
Tanden isn’t simply a scumbag. She is a degenerate politician, who called for Libya to “pay us back” for the violent intervention which sent it spiraling into an Islamic State hellscape. She hosted an interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and laughed and lobbed softball questions to please the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and make pro-Israeli donors happy.
There’s no need to preface any defense of Matt or Elizabeth Bruenig with a position on tone, or civility. There is nothing civil about the political process, and it’s about time we make this clear.