Recent tragicomic events present Bret Stephens or David Brooks a wonderful opportunity to sound off on the excesses of the social media mob—the Politics of Certitude, the digital Jacobins and their @Robespierre_420s—by tidily connecting two stories that happened within days of each other. First, the saga of Leif Olson, the Department of Labor employee who was canned (and then reinstated) after Bloomberg misreported his sarcastic criticism of the anti-Semitic right as genuine anti-Semitism; and second, the case of Jamie R. Riley, an assistant vice president and dean of students at the University of Alabama, who resigned after his tweets criticizing America were highlighted by Breitbart News.
The stories have the key elements that ought to ignite their respective muses: The too-fast, knee-jerk response of blundering officials to social media posts, and the silencing of free speech by nongovernmental, but still-powerful, means of Discourse Policing. There’s no reason to suspect, however, that any of these columnists working the “Who’s Being Mean to Me, and Therefore America, Online” beat—and it’s not just Stephens and Brooks—are going to mark the connection between one man fired for false accusations of anti-Semitism, and another forced into resigning because his truly-held opinions about white supremacy and America were fed into the internet’s charnel house of disapproval. Just the marketplace of ideas in action!
There is an intellectual weakness among the conservative free speech policemen, one that was recently and rivetingly exposed when Stephens went on a campaign to get a university professor fired from his job for the crime of referring to Stephens (in an obscure tweet) as a bedbug. But in these free speech street-fights, columnists like Stephens are just the bagmen. The real villain here is Breitbart, and the utterly shameless right-wing media ecosystem in which it resides. There, the only goal is to ambush the enemy and “own the libs” through whatever means are presently at hand. Consistency and fairness aren’t even on the menu—it’s just all bad faith, all the time.
Breitbart surfaced just three tweets by Riley, posted in 2017 and 2016, each of which was inarguably fair. The first said: “The [American flag emoji] flag represents a systemic history of racism for my people. Police are a part of that system. Is it that hard to see the correlation?” How dare he. In another, he asked: “Are movies about slavery truly about educating the unaware, or to remind Black people of our place in society?” It’s a point with which reasonable people could agree or disagree, certainly, but nevertheless clearly within the bounds of acceptable discourse.
And finally, the thing that truly enrages conservatives: Questioning the notion that racism against white people exists. Riley tweeted: “I’m baffled about how the first thing white people say is, ‘That’s not racist!’ when they can’t even experience racism. You have [zero] opinion!”
The outrage about this particular tweet is reminiscent of the Sarah Jeong controversy of last year, in which Jeong’s joking tweets about white people were weaponized by the right-wing media to try and get her fired from The New York Times—or worse. Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson joined that fray, and Jeong revealed in a piece last month that the “MAGA bomber” Cesar Sayoc had sent her a death threat. White conservatives hate nothing more than being told they don’t get to join in on what they perceive as the major benefit of being a minority: the ability to claim victimization. (They fail to perceive that it is not actually fun when you truly are a victim of racism.)
It is genuinely difficult to discern whether these people are sincerely offended by criticism of Old Glory, or whether that is a demagogic appeal to cover the real offense: mentioning racism at all. (Check out the replies to Breitbart’s tweets of the article to see what else might motivate such disproportionate criticism.)
On the very same day Breitbart published its attack on Riley, the site also published an article about Leif Olson, headlined “Left-Wing Media Admit Bloomberg’s Benjamin Penn Falsely Smeared a Trump Official,” noting that even “far-left corporate media” had slammed Bloomberg for its “smear” on Olson’s posts. One would think that Breitbart’s ability to note the justness of their ideological opponents in their treatment of Olson might lead them to extend the same considerations to Riley. As ever, one would be wrong.
But there is no recourse to be found just in highlighting the hypocrisy of Breitbart News or its readers. People typically do not change their opinions when underlying hypocrisies or inconsistencies are illuminated. Breitbart News certainly does not care if its attacks on a black university professor were unfair, or if they didn’t consistently apply the same concern about “hit pieces” and unfair readings of material to Riley as they did to Olson.
Breitbart is not going to recognize that the differing treatment of the two men is contradictory, because the differing treatment is a feature, not a bug, of their enterprise; it is their whole plan. This is a website that had a section dedicated to highlighting “black crime.” The whole point of highlighting Riley’s tweets was to show anyone who might have criticism of America—particularly black people—that the conservative media ecosystem can and will ruin the lives of those who express such sentiments. Remember Shirley Sherrod, whom Andrew Breitbart himself took down by falsely accusing her of racism against white people? Unlike people who call Bret Stephens a bedbug, the intention and effect of these campaigns is actually to silence dissent, criticism, and debate.
It’s unclear how or why it suddenly became necessary to extract a pound of flesh from Riley over these non-offenses. Unlike the apparent targets of the anti-media grift du jour on the right, Riley isn’t a journalist, or any kind of public figure. He’s not even verified on Twitter, and the tweets that so rankled Breitbart were more than two years old. One possibility is that the right has lately been losing its mind over the idea that America’s history and founding is inextricably tied to slavery, after the New York Times’ 1619 Project made the case so impeccably and powerfully. What better time to take down a black university official for pointing out America’s racism—and to warn others who might express the same ideas that they, too, could lose their livelihood if they do so? (As of the day Breitbart came out with the piece, the right-wing media was still going on about the 1619 Project.)
The University of Alabama told The Crimson White, its campus paper, that Riley resigned “by mutual agreement” with the university. If the University of Alabama has any sense, it will reverse course, publicly support Riley, and offer him back his job. And if the people who say they care about free speech and charitable interpretations of online commentary really do care as much about this issue as their teeming output of words suggests, they’ll join the call for the university to do this. But don’t hold your breath. The bounds of what you can and can’t say in America are policed, just like Bret Stephens thinks they are, but not by the digital Jacobins that haunt his days and nights. Rather, it is conservative reactionaries who call the tune, and they’re getting very good at getting the rest of the conservative media universe to sing along.