The punishments for political dissent during the Red Scare were mostly economic. / Shane Gorsky
Liza Featherstone,  February 6

You’re Fired

Political discourse in the age of Trump

The punishments for political dissent during the Red Scare were mostly economic. / Shane Gorsky
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This past Christmas Day, white supremacists reached out to tell me that I was a stupid cunt, some of them using just those words. Messages like this can be read with pleasure, a sign that one is angering truly horrible people, thus living one’s best life. But sexist vulgarity was not the most disturbing feature of these communications. 

George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University (and a friend of mine) had angered the online white racist community by tweeting, “All I Want For Christmas Is White Genocide.” Some on the left found this funny, some didn’t, but whatever you think of his judgment or sense of humor, George’s tweet was a joke, playing on the alt-right’s fear of “white genocide,” the notion that the white race will disappear because of miscegenation and multiculturalism. When the quip was publicized by white supremacists through social media, baying mobs called upon the Drexel administration to fire George. Although he had tenure, the administration had initially responded not with a statement of support but, chillingly, by condemning the tweet as “reprehensible” and summoning the professor for a meeting. Along with hundreds of other left-leaning social media users, my crime, for the alt-right, was forwarding a petition urging Drexel to stand behind George. (The administration eventually issued a public statement doing just that; the petition campaign probably helped and, after all, he does have tenure.)

The Christmas messages filling my inbox were hate-filled and disgusting, but of their common themes, only one was scary: some declared their intention to get me fired from my own (nontenured, adjunct) job teaching journalism. They never did call my bosses, but the bullying tactic struck me as disturbingly familiar. 

That’s because I’d also encountered it from online liberals.

Much has been written about the toxicity of internet “call out” culture over the past five years. But less has been said about the prevalence of efforts to fire people, one of that culture’s creepiest and most authoritarian features. 

Some of the specific examples are well known. Justine Sacco was fired from her PR job after making an anti-racist joke widely misunderstood as a racist joke (humor on the internet often goes awry in this way). Journalists have been particularly vulnerable given the obligation to tweet with a distinct voice and be “controversial.” In 2011, Nir Rosen, a writer on the war in Iraq, was forced to resign from his fellowship at New York University Law School after tweeting (with inexcusable callousness) about CBS correspondent Lara Logan’s rape during the Egyptian uprising.  

The people terrifying us on the internet by tagging our bosses are not serving any kind of progressive movement.

Other examples have slipped under the mainstream media radar. Two journalist friends of mine with distinct politics and unapologetic voices, both women, have been fired under complicated circumstances in which a progressive Twitter mob was a factor. A writer interviewed for this essay was fired from a job he’d had for seven years, after someone told his boss he was a Marxist. Given that liberal Twitter enemies, who’d butted heads with him during the Democratic primary, had made threats along these lines, he has reasonable suspicions about who made the call. (I’m withholding names of most victims and perpetrators in this essay, to protect those on all sides of such dust-ups from harassment.)

Relatively few people have lost jobs, but threats and intimidation are common, amplified by the “You’re Fired” left’s occasional successes. Some might tag your employer on social media while accusing you of something terrible, like harassment (this has happened to me and is common). Even people who are anonymous on social media aren’t exempt, as a common form of online aggression is to unmask users’ identity. It’s not unusual for Twitterati, sometimes media professionals with a significant following, to publicly coordinate a campaign, often posting the email address of a target’s employer and urging others to contact them. When they succeed in getting someone fired, they will gloat publicly and use the victory to frighten others. After several liberal journalists succeeded in getting a blogger fired for alleged rudeness to women, one boasted on Twitter that their victim was only “the first to sink” and vowed that “there will be more cases.” 

Identitarians didn’t invent the tactic, and the self-styled “alt-right” aren’t the first conservatives to use it. During Gamergate, reactionaries on Reddit organized to try to fire people they disagreed with, and pro-Israel groups have a long record of petitioning universities to dismiss academics for criticizing Israeli policy. And as Ellen Schrecker showed in her 1994 book, The Age of McCarthyism, the punishments for political dissent during the Red Scare were mostly economic. Accused communists lost jobs in many industries. What’s going on now hasn’t been comparable to McCarthyism yet, only because social justice Twitter didn’t have state power, but now that the alt-right has a man on the National Security Council, the historical parallel may draw, uncomfortably, closer.

Precarity and economic terror tend to exacerbate bigotries.

“You’re fired” tactics make sense for the alt-right, which is crusading for a meaner society in which bullies reign and workers can be fired more easily. Progressives, supposedly, are fighting for the opposite vision. That the threat to get an interlocutor fired from her job would become a common mode of political discourse even for progressives shows how deeply neoliberalism pervades our culture. Particularly in the educated classes, many now view themselves as little managers, or entrepreneurs. Those who offend become the poorly-performing help. Their livelihoods are disposable, and they deserve to be made to feel their precarity. Only in a society with almost no safety nets, in which few people have the job security afforded by union protections or tenure, could random bullies on the internet terrify us by tagging our bosses. People who do this are not serving any kind of progressive movement; indeed they are working hard at strengthening neoliberalism in all its ruthlessness and anxiety. When workers feel less secure, only bosses benefit.

Some will protest that self-identified feminists tagging a man’s boss over a sexist tweet are not engaged in a morally equivalent project from that of the white yahoos threatening the employment of my friend George, who was making fun of racism. But the two projects are the same, and not only because both violate the (important) principle of free speech. If you’re looking to create a society with less racism and sexism, you should be especially opposed to “You’re Fired” liberalism, because—as recent elections in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere have demonstrated—precarity and economic terror tend to exacerbate exactly such bigotries.

Let’s leave these tactics to the alt-right, and make the left a hostile space for their practitioners. Indeed, people who try to get others fired, no matter how feminist or woke their reasons, should just go ahead and join the alt-right. They’ll easily find comrades who appreciate their tactics. And why shouldn’t they? After all, they’re already helping to build the anxious, resentful electorate that put Trump into power.

Liza Featherstone writes the Nation magazine’s advice column, “Asking for a Friend.” 

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Further Reading

 April 17

Or, put it this way: Paul Ryan went out onto the tightrope. The crowd, so long adoring their golden child, cheered. But a jester got the best of Ryan.