jimsleeper.com » My letter of resignation from Dissent magazine’s editorial board, 2021

My letter of resignation from Dissent magazine’s editorial board, 2021

“I have a simple thesis,” our colleague Brian Morton wrote recently in Dissent, “that the left’s traditional commitment to free expression, and to all the intellectual and moral benefits that flow from it, has become alarmingly attenuated, in a way that undermines the left’s commitment to its own values.” 

I have a simple doubt: I doubt that the current editors of Dissent would have published Brian’s fine essay had it been submitted by someone who hadn’t done as much for the magazine as he has for decades. Certainly Dissent didn’t publish two essays that I’ve since published elsewhere — one, in Commonweal, against racial identity politics (“A post-racial America seems impossible. But it’s inevitable”); the other, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, on freedom of speech (“How Hollow Speech Enables Hostile Speech”).

Dissent’s founders, including Brian’s and my mentor Irving Howe, experienced the corruption of democratic and economic justice not only by Cold War capitalism but also by something that had gone terribly wrong on the left: a Stalinist “cancel” culture that, since at least the Spanish Civil War, has been as destructive of justice as McCarthyite anti-Communism and Maoism have been and as the political correctness that hobbles Dissent has been more recently.

The magazine’s founders called themselves “democratic socialists” because they resisted undemocratic tendencies within socialism itself. But in the summer and fall of 2020, when the Democratic presidential primaries were all but over and Biden was the presumptive nominee, Dissent ran tortured, sectarian-sounding pieces wondering how progressives could support someone who not only isn’t a socialist but is to the right of even Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Fair enough, I suppose, but the discussion seemed to be happening in a sectarian bubble, sealed off from realities of American politics and society and beholden mostly to the intensity of some writers’ and editors’ aspirations to “own the future.” [An anthology published by Dissent writers in 2020 was titled, We Own the Future].

I’m often in favor of voicing aspirations that have little chance of “owning the future” at the time when they’re being voiced. But moral and ideological imperatives can become strategic blunders if they’re not handled cannily. Some who are committed to airing embattled minority views seem equally committed to blocking reasoned, seasoned cautions about how they, too, may go wrong. Strategic decisions must be made at times to mobilize positions that are more likely to “succeed” than those that are pure, even brilliant, but hopeless at the moment when action must be taken. Too many brilliant young theorists and activists aren’t seasoned enough (dare one say, “worldly” enough?) to make such decisions astutely if doing so comes at the expense of their “politics” of self-definition through moral and ideological posturing.

Dissent isn’t wrong about everything; far from it. It’s very good on labor issues, which are foundational. Some of its book reviews have been insightful. I can’t imagine anyone at the magazine trying to enforce a line of argument excusing Stalinist brutality. Yet, in my own seasoned, reasoned, strategic judgment, too many at Dissent, and more generally on the left, as well as most liberals and neo-liberals, have foundered hopelessly on imagining that liberation will come through racial and sexual identity politics. Instead of engaging more Americans’ imaginations and actions, they’ve kept on promoting demands and policies that are more likely to advance the re-election of a Trump or another, more “credible” demagogue.

When I tried to object within Dissent itself by submitting a draft of the essay now posted by Commonweal, it was rejected. When I tried to make the larger point that I’ve just made – Brian Morton’s point, really, too, about the attenuation of respect for truly free speech amid the rise of cancel culture on the left — I asked the editors to read the first seven pages of this essay that I’d written about Orwell’s experience of something similar on the left that prompted him to tell complicated truths about Stalinism during and after Spanish Civil War. A senior Dissent editor responded, dismissively, “Ah, the cult of Orwell!” But I challenge Dissent editors to read the first seven pages of that essay and not to notice that you’re looking into a mirror.

The second essay I’ll leave with you is one I’d have been glad to see in Dissent’s recent symposium on freedom of speech. Most of its contributors seem preoccupied, understandably enough, with white-supremacist and fascist speech. But they’ve ignored the seductive but devastating dangers that are posed, under cover of recent First Amendment jurisprudence, by algorithmically driven commercial speech that for decades has bypassed Americans’ brains and hearts relentlessly on its way to our lower viscera and wallets by groping, goosing, titillating, intimidating, addicting, surveilling, and indebting us. 

Not once in the 6000-plus words of Dissent’s free-speech symposium do I find words such as “financial,” “commercial,” and “corporate,” or a single reference to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which extended free-speech protections to commercial speech. Although I’ve made these arguments in The Los Angeles Review of Books, in The Baffler, and, still-more succinctly, on Salon, no one at Dissent seems to have noticed that inclinations to fascism are seeded not only by naked oppression and rank demagoguery but also by the slow and secret poison of commercial speech that stupefies and dispossesses us by promoting escapist fantasies — even fantasies of “owning” a future for a socialism that fails to join its idealistic aspirations to smart, effective engagement with opponents.

A comment about this letter was posted on the U.K. website Unherd, by Christopher Sarjeant: August 26, 2021: Dissent magazine used to be important. I miss it. – The Post (unherd.com)