An Issue of Concern
Extremism on Substack and What to Do About It
I had hoped that Wednesday’s post would be my last for the year and I would spend the next couple weeks on vacation, but there’s something pressing I feel should be addressed.
As some of you may be aware there is an open-letter campaign afoot to pressure Substack about its supposed platforming of Nazis. This apparently began with a piece by Jonathan Katz in The Atlantic entitled “Substack Has A Nazi Problem.” There is also now a countervailing open letter circulating “Substack shouldn’t decide what we read.” Now, Substack co-founder Hamish Mackenzie has responded to the entire issue with a post many people are finding inadequate and even insulting. I would encourage you to read my friend Barbara’s characteristically very smart and thoughtful response to the discourse.
As a matter of principle, I don’t sign open letters, but it’s come to my attention that this issue is of serious concern to many of my readers. So serious in fact, that several have unsubscribed and encouraged me to leave the platform.
Although I’m hardly one to underrate the fascist threat in this country, I didn’t think this issue was a terribly serious one and didn’t think this campaign was either politically effective or morally urgent. I had hoped to ignore it. I now cannot.
The frustrating thing for me about this “debate” is that I can’t stake a disinterested position in it. The simple fact of the matter is that this newsletter is how I make a living and people tend not to react with mild detachment when their livelihood is threatened. But this is not only my livelihood: this platform has allowed me to live fully as a writer in an age otherwise quite hostile to that vocation. Beyond feeding me, writing this newsletter forms a truly meaningful and satisfying part of my life. It gives me a considerable amount of freedom: I can write about whatever I want and say whatever I want. I don’t think many magazines or newspapers have much stomach for a piece that, say, flat out calls Peter Thiel a fascist. But even beyond the politically controversial, where else could I write a multipart series about an obscure French literary theorist and be rewarded for it?
It’s also become important to me that I get to participate in a broader cultural conversation, albeit a quite small one. I think it’s important for some of you as well: the responses I get when pieces resonate with people are very touching and encouraging. And, while I’d never thought I’d be one to sing the praises of online communities, I’m also very proud of the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the community that has formed around this newsletter: the comment section sometimes even puts my posts to shame.
I sympathize with the concerns raised, but unless the situation becomes untenable, I really can’t move to another platform: this has many practical obstacles and would involve both a financial hit for me and, perhaps worse, a significant loss of readership.
When I lost my job, I decided to give this a try. And it worked. I have no particular love or loyalty to this platform. It was the most well-known product out there, so I decided to go with it. The market dictated my choice. As it still does: I will have to obey to the whims of the market if a critical mass of subscribers flees. But since I don’t share the aims of the campaigners and I will not pretend to do, I say to you frankly I will then have been coerced from a place that I’ve come to consider a decent home for my writing.
I also ask you to consider the following: who is really being deplatformed here? I understand that many hope to punish Substack for their monetization of Nazis, but most directly when you unsubscribe you are punishing me, an anti-Nazi substack. Surely, you can see the irony there? From a political point of view, if you consider yourself a leftist or progressive, I think the correct strategy would be to compete for reach on all platforms—within reason, of course. The authors of this campaign say they do not want Substack to be dominated by far right voices. They even admit it is not at the moment. But what will happen if it becomes a totally untenable place for left-leaners to publish on? Their actions might perversely bring about the very situation they say they want to prevent. Again, take these arguments for what they are worth, because I can’t really write from a place of disinterest.
Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday season,