Intersectionality and Today's Twitter Trotskyites
Like many college students, I learned the famous Trotsky quote shortly after arriving on campus. “You may not be interested in war,” it goes, “but war is interested in you.”
In semantics, such constructs are called antimetaboles. It’s a rhetorical device known to any kid who played football or ran track -- or mowed a lawn on a hot summer day. (“When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”) By the time I graduated, however, I was in the journalism school, where we were taught to check things out. The Trotsky quote didn’t pass muster: The Russian revolutionary never made that comment about war, or wrote anything remotely like it.
Nonetheless, it’s still often used, and by people who ought to know better, for causes ranging from fighting al-Qaeda and invading Iraq to accepting the onset of legalized sports gambling. Although the origin of this fake quotation is a mystery, some scholars of Marxist history believe it’s a loose paraphrase of a 1940 open letter Trotsky wrote criticizing American philosopher James Burnham for being insufficiently reverent toward “dialectic materialism.”
That doctrine, coined by Karl Marx and co-author Friedrich Engels, maintained that human progress didn’t turn on ideas, but instead was simply an economic struggle between classes for wealth and means of production. “Thus, the present discussion develops – with or without your permission, Comrade Burnham – according to the laws of dialectic materialism,” Trotsky wrote. “There is no escape from these laws.”
The writings and sayings of the early Bolsheviks are similarly tedious and obtuse – rarely straying from dogmatic jargon and circular logic. Better to avoid a firing squad that way, although such considerations weren’t enough to save Leon Trotsky. More on that later.
An important figure in Russian history, he’s now remembered more for a quote he didn’t say and a fealty to a postmodern dialectic that has proved to have more staying power than the Soviet Union. The dialectic is still practiced in Russia – Vladimir Putin uses is – but it’s more common here in the United States, in a mutated form replicating itself like a virus in almost every elite university in the United States -- and on Twitter. Actually, it’s in Twitter’s mission statement, a nice shorthand for “dialectic materialism” being “intersectionality.” A product of leftist campus politics, it holds that members of our society are defined primarily by race, class, and gender identity – and the “oppression” they’ve been subjected to as a result.
It was bad enough when such dogma was confined to campus, but how was it ever going to be contained there? Today’s college students are tomorrow’s colleagues in the workplace. Some of those employees work at Twitter. “Our mission,” it boasts, “is to power positive global change by fostering respectful conversations.”
“Respectful” turns out to be an interesting term of art. Increasingly, conservatives are learning that it translates in the language of Silicon Valley millennial-speak to “censorship.” For the past couple of years, prominent conservative pundits and provocateurs have had their Twitter accounts suspended or been given lifetime bans, a list that continues to grow. The social media platform also apparently has a nefarious practice of “shadow-banning” conservatives, which means muting or diminishing their tweets without their knowledge.
When the heavy hand of censorship is acknowledged it is accompanied by notice so high-handed it would make a Soviet commissar blush. Here’s the one Jesse Kelly received last week: “Your account was permanently suspended due to multiple or repeat violation of the Twitter rules. This account will not be restored. Please do not respond to this email as replies and new appeals for this account will not be monitored.”
Kelly is an unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate and U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran, so he figured he’d at least merit an explanation for what Twitter rule he’d broken. He’s ironic and funny, as well as self-deprecating, but these are evidently not traits valued in the nation of Intersectionality any more than, well, risking your life for your country.
Although Kelly, who was reinstated after a storm of protest, wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong, Meghan Murphy was: She ran afoul of the intersectionality police by clashing on Twitter with a transgender activist. Murphy herself isn’t even conservative -- she’s a radical feminist writer – although she noted that seeing Twitter cave to the mob has made her reconsider her political orientation. This censoring was apparently done under Twitter’s revamped “Hateful conduct policy.” A recent addition to those policies includes a prohibition on “misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.”
Unfamiliar with the terms “misgendering” or “deadnaming”? Don’t feel bad; they’re of recent vintage. Misgendering means referring to a man who’s transitioning (or who has transitioned) to a woman as a male – and vice versa. Deadnaming is even more Orwellian. It means you can’t refer to a famous U.S. Army traitor by the name under which he was court-martialed. Or mention the full name of the television star who captured Americans’ hearts by winning a 1976 Olympic gold medal in the decathlon.
Yes, the logic of intersectionality is a mystery. A Jewish woman is banned from Twitter for saying that gays have little freedom under Sharia law. But a notorious Jew-baiting black nationalist gets a pass for a “joke” comparing Jews to termites.
To be fair to Twitter, its founders certainly didn’t intend for it to become a cesspool of invective. They intended to make online communication more efficient, bring people together with an electronic billboard, and, yes, make a few bucks. In furtherance of those aims, the company positioned itself, according to high-ranking Twitter execs, as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
That was in 2012. By 2014, they were retrenching. Twitter users in Russia attempting to view an account belonging to a right-leaning political party were met with a screen saying, “This account has been withheld.” It was withheld at the behest of authorities in Moscow, which was a priceless confluence of events.
Remember that other famous communist quote, the one from Lenin about capitalists selling us the rope we’ll use to hang them? That line is also apocryphal, but this isn’t: Between 2012 and 2014, Twitter had a public stock offering that made instant billionaires of its founders. One of them, Jack Dorsey, claimed earlier this year that the “free speech wing” was a humorous aside never meant to be taken literally. Putting it charitably, that’s historical revisionism, but Republicans are disinclined to be charitable toward Dorsey. Some are saying that he perjured himself by testifying to Congress that Twitter did not target conservative voices.
He probably doesn’t want to admit the truth, even to himself, which is that Intersectionality is a secular religion in his precincts. Like many nascent religions and political movements -- and some old ones -- it’s run by fanatics who believe in ex-communicating apostates. Communism, remember, silenced dissidents by the millions, not only by censoring them. Often, it just murdered people, including Trotsky himself.
Josef Stalin, who ordered the killing, is said to have remarked. “Death solves all problems -- no man, no problem.” This is a paraphrase of Stalin’s attitude, not his actual words -- he wasn’t that clever. The man who wrote them was Anatoli Rybakov. His chilling description of a tyrant’s mindset wasn’t published until the Cold War was nearing its end. In that book, “Children of the Arbat,” he also revealed what he thought of censors:
“There must be those who differ,” Rybakov wrote. “If there were no unorthodox thought there would be no thought at all.”