Jordan Chariton and the Emptiness of the Progressive Left
I didn’t care to read a word that The Young Turks reporter and progressive icon Jordan Chariton wrote until he was accused of sexual assault and fired. I knew his name and had seen enough of his Twitter feed to know that I probably wouldn’t be a fan. It was only after the accusations that I had any interest in seeing what the fuss was all about (aside, of course, from the crime itself). The first thing I noticed upon dipping into his extensive catalog was that Jordan Chariton is more than just a self-righteous milquetoast progressive who holds himself in such high esteem that he is unable to see his lack of imagination for what it is. He is an appalling writer.
A random sampling of Chariton fare, for example, reveals such gems as:
“It was filed by Bernie Sanders voters and donors against the DNC, and has largely been ignored by mainstream media, many of whom have labeled Sanders supporters as a collective group of sour grapes who should simply unite with the establishment Democrat wing of the party against President Trump.”
… and lest you think such breathless and tangled runnings-on are an extreme example …
“Whether it be, on one end, from other independent commentators who, despite false facts, zero research, context, and in some cases outward lies, have developed a sport of attacking journalists they deem as “sell-outs”–and coincidentally enough, cashed in with clicks for continuing to sling mud without substance– OR from more establishment commentators and reporters who attack folks like me for having what they deem as an unreasonable 'purity test,' half my day is spent reading NONSENSE.”
Sometimes I feel the same way, Jordan – at least about that last clause. I had a hard time making heads or tails of the rest of it.
I’ll admit that, to a certain extent, I’m indulging my own pet-peeve here. I hate most political writing and, in particularly putrid cases, I revel in mocking it. But my interest in this sort of writing goes much further than ridiculing a self-congratulatory democratic socialist faction of the left and the ridiculously high esteem in which it often holds itself.
I have little trouble brushing off the propagandistic tendencies of right-wing media or the parallel inclinations of some of the mainstream left. I’ve come to expect that sort of thing. Cable news isn’t good for much else. What worries me is when I see an intellectual movement for which I have a great deal of sympathy elevating vacuous and uncritical demagogues to positions of influence. I worry when I see a movement that is, in many ways, the most effective counterbalance to a noxious and ascendant right-wing politics elevating empty partisans to positions of influence because they are vacuous and uncritical. The only qualification of someone like Chariton is adherence to the appropriate dogma.
For a movement or an idea to have staying power, however, it has to draw on some measure of eloquence. I hate most of what William F. Buckley stood for but he was a nimble, witty, and creative writer with a personal voice. He expressed grand ideas with clarity and wrote about the everyday minutia of politics with a conviction that made the mundane seem significant. George Orwell’s compassionate socialism and skepticism of state power outlived the totalitarianism he criticized in large part because of the sheer brilliance of his logic and beauty of his prose.
Vladimir Lenin was an organizer and a militant but he relied on the fire of Leon Trotsky and others to bring intellectual legitimacy to his revolution. The fascists of interwar Europe (much like Lenin) traded in brutal and simple logic but relied on the cooperation of scores of academics and poets to lend their ideas credibility and romance. Those same illiberal dictators demonstrated the utility of the alternative to eloquence – empty sloganeering, generalities, demagoguery, and obfuscation – in encouraging conformity and mobilizing the mob.
Today’s "economic" left or democratic socialist wing often relies on that same empty sloganeering (though without the implicit attraction to violence). It has no intellectual core. Jacobin Magazine comes close but, even still, it is so far to the left of the progressive movement as to constitute something nearly distinct (properly and purely socialist, with the accompanying fascination with class antagonism). The feminist left and other social justice movements that overlap with the broader progressive left have produced their share of brilliant contemporary thinkers and writers, but they are often critical of the political figureheads of the democratic socialist movement (and subsequently subjected to the movement’s vitriol). The larger progressive, or “democratic socialist” left (or however we're delineating these things) has little to offer in the way of eloquence. In the fight for social equality, it manages to contribute Jordan Chariton, The Young Turks, and Chapo Trap House. Such a contribution withers next to the probing curiosity and staggering profundity of Ta-Nehisi Coates or the meticulous journalism and considerable moral force of Rebecca Traister. For a movement that spends so much time ridiculing the identity politics of its contemporaries, the American progressive left is strikingly empty in comparison.
American democratic socialism aches for a voice. Not a political voice or better slogans or a program or strategy. American democratic socialism aches for a real voice. A voice that can express doubt, conviction, anger, compassion, and ambiguity. The left needs a voice that can argue and empathize, breathe life into its ideas, and defend them on their moral and practical merits. The longer it relies on the Jordan Charitons that populate its blogosphere, the more the world will suspect that there is no moral or practical merit; or perhaps no ideas at all.