Forget Tenure: The Rise Of Intellectual Proxies

John David Pressman

Getting people fired from their jobs over politics is far from a new tactic. However, the recent surge in this behavior enabled by the Internet has created an environment where expressing even ordinary political opinions in public has become increasingly dangerous. It used to be that ordinary people had no easy ability to reach a lot of people at once with their ideas. Mass publishing, television, radio, and other mediums required capital to make use of. Even a mimeograph required effort and money to distribute leaflets.

The contemporary environment by contrast encourages people to state their opinions in a medium where they can be sniffed out by any number of wackos and redistributed to wacko-networks of people who are mortally offended even by things ostensibly inside the Overton window. The first political lesson society will need to learn in the new world is that basic, time honored defenses like truth or social acceptance will no longer protect you from attacks on your credibility and character.

One consequence of this is that political discourse is being increasingly conducted not by individuals, but proxy characters whose persona is anonymously supported by a legion of agreeing fans who feel they don’t have the social capital to speak. No-platforming only works in a world where you can’t bring your own platform. YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and others will happily provide one for free and whenever they don’t, it just encourages new ones to develop. The old John Gilmore bit about the Internet interpreting censorship as damage is true as ever and political Cloudflare is just the latest manifestation.

This encourages the worst sort of politics, as a proxy must be entirely unbowed before the mob and thus the job selects for people so capricious they’ll say anything or so deviant they don’t care what society thinks. Nothing is too inflammatory, outrage is just free advertising. If you don’t believe me look no further than our current President, whose opening platform included the plank that not only will he build a wall on the Mexican border, he’ll bully Mexico into paying for it! Michael Moore has already captured some of the mindset here. Sure Trump says those nasty mean things, but nobody else is even willing to go near staring down big executives with tariff talk.1

Intellectual proxies aren’t really a new thing, but the pattern of someone who can’t be fired because their capital comes from a giant Internet mob is. Traditionally this kind of position was occupied by a tenured professor whose salary was paid by an institution that cares about intellectual pursuit more than moral fashion. However we’ve reached the point where nothing of the sort seems to remain, so the Internet funded demagogues and provocateurs are now taking the stage. In general, the best way to protect yourself in the new culture war is to have sources of income that can’t be shamed or intimidated out of existence. Business owners, entertainers, artists, and other occupations that involve being paid many times by many people rather than once by a single entity can speak more safely than those relying on a single authority for their livelihood.

  1. Just so nobody gets the wrong idea here, people who visibly perform ‘crazy left wing nutjob’ for fame and fortune aren’t really fundamentally different than people who perform ‘crazy right wing nutjob’ for the same reasons. In fact, most of them probably aren’t even performing because those are their real opinions!