I stopped using my Twitter account last June, but I still visit friends’ and others’ feeds occasionally, and I found a link to this gem of an article. Ignore the headline, the real title is in the URL: “Buckle Up Twitter is cancelled.” We’ve all experienced Buckle Up Twitter, i.e., those hectoring Tweetstorms that can only be written by someone who doesn’t actually know much about the subject they’re lecturing the Twitterverse on.
Buckle Up Twitter will not be vanquished by things like “historical accuracy” or “profound embarrassment.” The other day I saw evidence of a thread, now sadly deleted, with the premise that the writing maxim “show, don’t tell” expected and indeed demanded an act of emotional labor from the reader that was similar if not identical to the emotional labor extracted by white men in their dealings with the rest of the world. There was a thread “calling out” King Leopold of Belgium.
I have seen threads that would make your eyes water, and in all cases, the responses were not what I personally would have anticipated. Things being what they are, I would have thought that a thread that began like “LISTEN UP DICKHOLES: TIME FOR A RANT ABOUT HOW LAVRENTIY BERIA WAS A TOTAL JERK AND A REAL PERV” would end with an apology and a promise never to do it again, but why would you apologize when you are met with joy and delight? The thing about Buckle Up Twitter, hard as this may be for right-thinking people like me to accept, is that a lot of other people LOVE IT. They absolutely love to be told that they are morons and that all of this is actually Beau Brummell’s doing.
The Beau Brummell thread which introduces the piece is so eye-wateringly bad (and yet so equally sure of its brilliance and wit) that it’s hard to imagine there’s a better illustration. Except, of course, for the Greatest Buckle Up Twitter Thread of Them All: Time for Some Game Theory. I shudder to think what it would take to dethrone that one.
My eyebrows went up a bit when I saw that Cathrynne Valente’s novel Space Opera was nominated in the Hugo’s Best Novel category. Apart from the overwritten and purple prose, which is a feature not a bug in her work, it appears to be a dire attempt to mash up Douglas Adams and Eurovision (mimicking Adams is harder than it looks, and what you are about to read below is nothing like Adams). My eyebrows went up even further when I read this excerpt comparing animal species extinction to the extermination of indigenous populations:
“Even knowing that I am a discarded Popsicle stick on the sidewalk of intellectual discourse and thus wholly incapable of higher-order thinking, I beg you to tolerate the shrill and childlike whine of my asking: How about rhinoceroses? Dodos? Giraffes? Those are herbivores, so they presented no danger to the continuation of your species, but you wiped them out all the same. To a one. And then there are the more immediately pertinent examples of the Lakota, the Cree, the Aboriginal Tasmanians. Now, please tell this execrable excuse for a sentient being who is not worthy to receive your diseased secondhand blankets, before you cut the throat of the last lion or rhinoceros or dodo or Mayan farmer, did you let them sing a song? Did you let them lay down a beat? Did you let them dance for their lives? Did you let them try to prove to you that there was more in them than just a longing to eat and breed and lie in the sun and die with a full belly?”
There’s a long tradition of equating humans to animals by people who are using the comparison to dehumanize, not lift up the value of animals, so it’s not really a comparison an author wants to make without extreme care. And if your work has already been taken to task by Debbie Reese, who called a previous book “absolutely disgusting,” you might want to be a little more mindful on your next attempt to talk about indigenous people. But apparently neither the author nor the Hugo voters who put her on the ballot see a problem.
Simon Kuper, a columnist for the Financial Times (and an author of excellent books on soccer, so you know he’s good) explains why prestigious, hard-news-focused newspapers don’t look the way they used to. Part of it is chasing younger readers, of course, which he doesn’t talk about here. But another equally important development is the way ideological polarization has affected reading choices. We talk a lot about how conservatives watch Fox News, but they’re not the only ones seeking like-minded sources of news and opinion and seeing political bias (always in the wrong direction) everywhere:
Many critics think our anti-populism is ordained from on high. I’m often told by readers that the FT’s editor, or its Japanese proprietor Nikkei, ordered me to oppose Brexit. In fact, I made that call by myself, and I suspect others did too. It’s not so much that we’re committed ideological liberals. Most pundits in elite media know they don’t know much; their historical function is to be the mouthpiece of accredited establishment experts. If economists had told us Brexit would work, or climate scientists had dismissed global warming, we’d have believed them. But they didn’t. And so even elite publications that previously leaned right (The Economist endorsed George W Bush in 2000) now oppose the populists.
In these crazy times, many liberals are turning to elite media to find their own values expressed. Newspapers never previously knew what readers read but in the digital era we found out: currently, they like articles that reaffirm their identities. In anglophone media, that means anything about Trump or Brexit. Whether you’re for or against, you feel emotionally involved. By contrast, articles on climate change go unread. Inevitably, most elite newspapers are giving liberal readers the topics they want. That’s partly why the New York Times fixates on the American culture wars, and possibly overcovered the Trump-Russia story, although in that case old-fashioned scoop-getting played a role too: traditionally, leaks in DC go to the Times or Post, and scoops run big.
Trump and Brexit for the broadsheets and prestige arts & culture magazines are like Michael Jackson and Princess Diana used to be, including long after their deaths, for the supermarket-checkout-line tabloids: they move product. Clicks are clicks are clicks.