December 7, 2021, 9:35

The Post-Dirtbag Left

The Post-Dirtbag Left

On the evening of January 6th, while National Guard troops were still trying to remove an insurrectionist mob from the Capitol, the right-wing activist L. Brent Bozell III appeared as a guest on Fox Business. “They believe this election was stolen,” he said, of the rioters. “I agree with them. They are furious about the deep state. . . . I agree with them.” He offered a limp concession or two—“You cannot countenance our national Capitol being breached”—but spent most of the segment zigzagging across the thin line between explanation and excuse. As many viewers would have known, Bozell’s father, L. Brent Bozell, Jr., was a titanic figure in the history of modern American conservatism, his influence arguably second only to that of his co-author, brother-in-law, and former college-debate partner, William F. Buckley. What viewers would not have known—what even Brent III did not yet know, apparently—was that his son, also named L. Brent Bozell, was part of the insurrectionist mob. In fact, Brent IV, who goes by Zeek, was one of the few invaders to make it all the way to the Senate chamber.

In February, Zeek was charged with three federal crimes. A week and a half later, the two hosts of “Know Your Enemy”—a podcast, founded in 2019, that bills itself as “a leftist’s guide to the conservative movement”—released a bonus episode called “Keeping Up with the Bozells.”

“It’s a fastball right down the middle for us,” Sam Adler-Bell, one of the hosts, said. The other host, Matthew Sitman, added, “This is really a great opportunity for us to dive into some deep-cut conservative lore.” It was less than two minutes into the episode, and already he had made a self-consciously erudite joke about Leo Strauss, and another about the Carlist movement in postwar Spain. “Look, when there’s Brent Bozells in the news,” Adler-Bell continued, “you want to hear ‘Know Your Enemy’ break it down for you.”

If “Know Your Enemy” were like most podcasts, then an episode of this kind—pegged to the news, available only to subscribers—might have consisted of an hour or two of aimless riffing, a few apocryphal anecdotes, and some easy punch lines about how the mighty have fallen. Content production is a high-volume business, and professional talkers, especially political ones, almost always offer up old whines in new bottles. Sitman and Adler-Bell hawk a more artisanal product. To prepare for the episode, Adler-Bell had watched—“for you, the listeners, and for my sins”—hours of speeches by Brent III, including a histrionic 2015 appearance in which he compared the Obama Administration to the Stasi. Sitman drew on several articles and books by and about the Bozells, quoting most extensively from “Living on Fire,” a biography of Brent, Jr., published by a small conservative press. (Listening to “Know Your Enemy” can feel like visiting a semi-reclusive friend whose apartment is crammed with out-of-print books, but who always keeps a stash of good bourbon on hand.) The hosts summarized the life of Brent, Sr., an adman in interwar Omaha, before devoting the bulk of the episode to Brent, Jr., who ghostwrote Barry Goldwater’s 1960 best-seller, “The Conscience of a Conservative”; founded the Catholic magazine Triumph; and spent the end of his life advocating for an American brand of theocracy. The two living Brents were deemed less worthy adversaries. “For us,” Adler-Bell said, the figures worth scrutinizing “are these weirdos who had a lot of idiosyncratic, terrible, dangerous, Fascist-sympathetic ideas, but nonetheless were interesting.”

Sitman and Adler-Bell are serious, in other words, about the “know” part of their title. They seem more ambivalent about the “enemy” part. It’s not that they’re squishy about their politics: they have discussed at length what their socialist utopia would look like, and their only sustained disagreement during the 2020 primaries came in the form of Sitman, a die-hard Bernie Sanders fan, gently ribbing Adler-Bell for even entertaining the idea of supporting Elizabeth Warren. Their hesitancy has more to do with temperament. Last year, they interviewed the conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat, who has drawn leftists’ ire for several of his pieces, including one called “The Necessity of Stephen Miller.” None of those columns came up. Even Douthat seemed to find the hosts’ questions suspiciously magnanimous. (“You’re just softening me up, right?”) In an introduction recorded after the interview, the hosts warned listeners that what followed would be “a conversation, not a debate.” “He’s a nice guy,” Sitman said, of Douthat. Adler-Bell agreed: “It’s annoying how nice he is.”

Sitman grew up in a white working-class family in central Pennsylvania. His parents were self-described Christian fundamentalists and straight-ticket Republicans—“God-and-guns voters,” he called them, in a 2016 essay in Dissent—and, in college, he was, too. During his twenties, as a graduate student in political theory at Georgetown, he started to doubt the axioms of conservatism; by his mid-thirties, he was a Catholic, and a democratic socialist. (Adler-Bell, who was reared in Connecticut by secular leftists, didn’t have to defect from much of anything.) Occasionally, Sitman speaks with the zeal of a convert. Once, while complaining about “shitheads on the right” who claim to be “all Second Amendment” but don’t actually know how to shoot, he said, “I was born with a King James Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, and I still know them both better than any of these guys.” More often, though, he speaks with the guilt of a Catholic, the humility of a conflict-averse introvert, and the circumspection of someone who actually knows and loves working-class Republicans (and expects at least a few of them to tune in). In the “Keeping Up with the Bozells” episode, Sitman contrasted Brent III with his more illustrious father: “What a letdown.” Then, in the next breath, he apologized for the insult.

At times, this reflexive solicitousness can itself be a bit of a letdown. (Imagine Jesus, before squaring off with a Pharisee, promising “a conversation, not a debate.”) Still, if forced to choose between not enough light and not enough heat, I’ll take the latter every time. Sitman is a writer and an editor at Commonweal; Adler-Bell is a freelance writer whose work appears in The New Republic, Jewish Currents, and elsewhere. Like many coastal media types, they constantly mock themselves, often on Twitter, for spending too much time on Twitter. But they haven’t allowed their personalities (or, at least, the personas they perform on the show) to be subsumed by the deadening collective affect of social media. “What do you do if you’re not a hot-take artist?” Sitman asked, during an episode about Christopher Hitchens. (The episode, “Sympathy for the Hitch,” was another instance of the show treating its ideological opponents with grudging respect.) His answer, which he admitted was “a little, maybe, self-serving”: “I do find some of the complexity coming out in podcasts.” If the currency of Twitter consists of eye-rolling quote-tweets, drive-by insults, and tortuously recursive in-jokes, then “Know Your Enemy” is, blessedly, in the online world but not of it.

When the podcast “Chapo Trap House” began, in March of 2016, it served a real need. Millions of voters, disaffected and politically homeless, saw in Bernie Sanders an obvious solution to an array of systemic problems. “Bernie won Michigan on Tuesday,” Will Menaker, one of the co-hosts, said on the show’s first episode. “I’m not being facetious here . . . it has really kinda upset a lot of what I thought was gonna happen in this election.” Later, when Sanders dropped out, the fact that he had come so close to eking out a victory made his defeat all the more painful. Many of his admirers—especially the young, angry, and very online ones—wanted to hear their outrage reflected back at them, not in temperate op-eds or both-sides TV punditry but through hyper-specific satire, historically literate left-wing analysis, and gleefully ad-hominem jokes about how John Podesta and Debbie Wasserman Schultz were neoliberal ghouls. “I can’t wait to watch the debates this fall, when Donald Trump is accusing Hillary Clinton of murder and of looking like a frump, which are equally horrible crimes in his mind, and she’s gesturing to the moderator, being, like, ‘This is just outrageous,’ ” one of the hosts said, in the second episode. This was oddly prescient, but it wasn’t a prediction you were likely to hear on MSNBC.

At the time, the co-hosts were Menaker and two other young(ish) bearded white guys, Felix Biederman and Matt Christman. (“Chapo,” like the mainstream media it critiques, has shown only belated and fitful interest in diversifying itself.) Christman, the one host with any red-state cred, was then living in Cincinnati. Biederman, originally from an affluent neighborhood in Chicago, and Menaker, whose parents met while working at this magazine, lived in Brooklyn and were trying to start careers in publishing. To this day, when people opine about “Bernie bros,” it’s uncanny how often they seem to be talking, directly or indirectly, about these three individuals. Their banter could be stunted and sour, with an endless deployment of dick jokes and personal insults, but it was often undeniably trenchant, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. (You won’t find a better parody debate between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek, if you’re into that sort of thing.) For a while, the show was doing something genuinely new.

“Chapo” came to exemplify an online subculture that called itself the dirtbag left. Although its flagship products were podcasts (“Chapo,” “Street Fight Radio,” “Cum Town”), the dirtbag left derived its sensibility from niche Twitter, heightening the attributes that make social media both alluring (the specificity, the absurdity) and toxic (the nihilism, the narcissism, the casual sexism). Jon Stewart, who ended his “Daily Show” run in 2015, had adopted a pose of evenhanded populist anti-politics (The system doesn’t work because of the bozos in charge); “Chapo” was more frankly anti-capitalist, and more terminally jaded (This is how the system was designed to work). Years before the advent of audio-only apps like Clubhouse, dirtbag-left podcasts brought the infinite scroll to life, transforming the solitary habit of Twitter-lurking into a parasocial experience.

Some listeners compared the “Chapo” hosts to earlier shock jocks like Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. As a matter of substance, this was a false equivalence. On a purely affective level, though, there was something to it. “Civility is destructive because it perpetuates falsehoods, while vulgarity can keep us honest,” Amber A’Lee Frost, who later became a co-host, argued in a 2016 Current Affairs essay called “The Necessity of Political Vulgarity.” She gave some examples—“Fuck tha Police,” by N.W.A.; a series of “pornographic little pamphlets” distributed before the French Revolution—and concluded, “Rudeness can be extremely politically useful.”

“One day, you’ll be a size five hundred months like me.”

Cartoon by Amy Hwang

It’s also good business. “Chapo” is now the second most lucrative project on Patreon, grossing about two million dollars a year. With time, though, its style has hardened into shtick. During the 2020 primaries, the hosts were even more zealously Bernie-or-bust than they had been in 2016, and they now had a big enough audience to make a difference. (In the crucial weeks before Super Tuesday, the dirtbag left devoted much of its energy to strafing Elizabeth Warren’s supporters, an approach that may have helped cost Sanders Warren’s endorsement.) But, after Sanders’s loss, “Chapo” seemed to have nothing left to say. Instead of progressing through the five stages of grief, the co-hosts wallowed in denial—“It is still virtually tied,” Menaker said, after Biden’s decisive victory on Super Tuesday—before settling, apparently forever, in the second stage. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross called this stage anger, but in “Chapo” ’s case it’s closer to nihilistic despair.

The show’s five-hundredth episode was recorded this February, on the anniversary of Sanders’s victory in the 2020 Nevada caucus, which turned out to be the peak of his campaign. At the beginning of the episode, the co-hosts reminisced about that day, which they had spent in Las Vegas, canvassing for Sanders, then gathering to watch the returns come in. “Bernie had just given his victory speech, and we were at a back-yard bar,” Menaker recalled. “Mingling, having drinks together, smoking cigarettes . . . that feeling was probably the last good thing that’s ever gonna happen.”

They tried to segue to the news of the day. Neera Tanden, a moderate Democrat and one of the dirtbag left’s long-standing nemeses, had been nominated to be Biden’s budget director, but her Senate confirmation hearing was being derailed by questions about controversial past tweets. (Her nomination was later withdrawn.) Menaker mentioned that he had been gloating about Tanden’s demise, and that he’d received pushback from people arguing that Tanden’s replacement would likely be more conservative than she was. “Who cares?” Menaker said, on the podcast. “I don’t give a shit who Biden appoints to his Cabinet.”

“You think any of these people were gonna be good?” Biederman said. “No. They were all gonna fucking suck.”

On a human level, some of this inspires actual pathos. As entertainment, or ideological analysis, it’s not particularly revelatory. Many people—Bernie Sanders, for example—have argued that the Biden Administration is too conservative. It’s certainly possible to rail against Biden’s policies in Gaza, or at the Mexican border. But blanket fatalism is lazy and, perhaps more to the point, it’s boring. Why keep tuning in if the angle is always the same?

When the “Chapo” hosts are criticized for their rhetoric, they often resort to the same dodge that Jon Stewart used to trot out: Don’t take us literally, we’re just a comedy show. This didn’t make sense when Stewart used it, and it makes even less sense in the case of “Chapo,” given that many of the jokes in question are not exactly professional-grade, and others, such as discouraging the audience from voting, don’t seem like jokes at all. In “The Necessity of Political Vulgarity,” Frost wrote that Trump’s “vulgarity is appealing precisely because it exposes political truths.” She and the other “Chapo” hosts didn’t defend Trump’s policies after he was elected, but they didn’t pearl-clutch, either. Instead, they talked about how funny Trump was, or how weird his tweets were, or how hypocritical his most overwrought opponents sounded. This was politics as entertainment, politics as signifier—politics as anything but politics.

These days, the hosts often dispense with politics altogether, riffing about nineties films or quirky animal facts. “Chapo” is hardly the only podcast to indulge in frivolous tangents. Even the bookish “Know Your Enemy” has its prurient interests—speculating about the sexuality of William F. Buckley, say—and yet its obsessions seem organic, consistent with a sincere and sustained attempt to understand the right. On a recent episode, the hosts analyzed a “truly awful conservative movie” called “Christmas Cars,” mocking the film but also smuggling in salient observations about Lost Cause mythmaking and culture-war grift. I learn something each time I listen, which is more than I can say about nearly everything else I do with my phone.

The interests of “Chapo,” by contrast, seem increasingly arbitrary, the latest targets of the Twitter hive mind. The show’s aesthetic has become indistinguishable from the extremely online aesthetic, which evinced at least a glimmer of potential in 2016 but has since only soured. At its worst, it derides any attempt at sincerity as try-hard, or cringe; better simply to shitpost and await our climate-induced collapse. Recently, the “Chapo” hosts spent the entirety of an eighty-one-minute episode making fun of “Stars and Strife,” a documentary directed by an investment banker named David Smick. They described various parts of the movie as “unadulterated drivel” and “one of the most evil things I’ve ever seen”; several times, they made jokes that involved likening Smick’s head to a ham. I found the episode hard to finish—not because the humor was too vulgar, and not because the observations were unfounded, but because none of it seemed to matter. It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters trounce the Washington Generals: the dunks were spectacular precisely because the stakes were so low.

Back when “Chapo” had a near-monopoly on socialist podcasting, there was a common misconception that the only way to be a proper radical, at least online, was to mimic the temperament of the dirtbag left. Ideological preferences were conflated with affective ones; people who objected to “Chapo” on aesthetic grounds were sometimes suspected of being insufficiently committed to the cause. This presupposed that American politics consists of a single spectrum, on which Nazi-punching is to the left of civil disobedience and insults are to the left of arguments. But there isn’t just one spectrum; at the very least, there’s a quadrant grid, with policy goals on one axis and temperament on the other. The x-axis ranges from a fully planned economy to anarcho-capitalism; the y-axis ranges from solicitous Socratic dialogue to misanthropic bullying. They vary independently.

In April, on Twitter, a fan of “Know Your Enemy” wrote, “I love this nerdy shit,” referring to that show and to four broadly similar ones (“Time to Say Goodbye,” “Left Anchor,” “Death Panel,” and “The Dig”). If “Chapo” and its ilk make up the dirtbag left, the fan wondered, then what should this newer subgenre of podcasts be called? Adler-Bell tweeted two self-deprecating options: “the ‘not funny or cool’ left” and “the ‘your parents might like it’ left.” Others commented below, proposing alternatives: the dorkbag left, the Norton Critical Edition left, the “joy to have in class” left, the earnest left. Adler-Bell objected to the last of these, writing, “You get a reputation for being earnest around here”—Twitter, that is—“you’re in trouble.” It was, appropriately enough, a glib way of making a sincere point. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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