The perils of public life in the age of the Twitter mob
Coriolanus makes the greatest entrance in Shakespeare and one of the greatest in all drama. He comes upon a throng of rioting plebeians complaining about the price of bread, some of them plotting against him, seething that the great military man in his pride is “a very dog to the commonalty.” But, of course, they hail him when he approaches, and he answers:
“Thanks. What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?” Stunned at this unprompted ferocity, one of the citizens wryly answers: “We have ever your good word.”
Shakespeare had by then come a long way from “What light through yonder window breaks?”
There are a great many bad junior theses that take as their argument that the author of x was really talking about his own artistic struggles when he wrote about y. But I do think there’s a little of that in Coriolanus: Shakespeare, by that point, had endured a great deal of criticism from lesser writers and was mature enough to judge them shrewdly.
Surely, each of us has at exasperated moments thought to himself:
He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: You are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favors swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland.
So many vile garlands we have: The insufficiently penitent Louis CK — “reactionary,” Christina Cauterucci calls him in Slate — and the Hollywood idols fallen into boorishness and worse, along with James Gunn, Roseanne Barr, Scientific American, Masha Gessen . . .
Gessen who writes for the New Yorker, may not be a Coriolanus, exactly, but she knows her way around a battlefield. She has many controversial views (e.g., that extending marriage to gay couples was less desirable than categorically abolishing marriage would have been) and is detested by many conservative foreign-policy activists and friends of Radio Liberty. She has outraged feminists by criticizing some aspects of the #MeToo phenomenon, describing them as a “moral panic.” She is a frequent target of the social-media mobs that have become by now an entirely too familiar feature of public life.
She is hated by many of the right people, and some of the Right ones, too.
And, as the New York Times tells the story, she recently noticed a funny thing in her updated New Yorker contract: a morality clause, one granting Condé Nast, the New Yorker’s corporate overlord, “sole authority” to terminate writers’ contracts in the event they become the focus of a social-media mob, “the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals.” The morality clauses are now regular features of writers’ contracts at Condé Nast. Gessen, to her immense credit, refused to sign hers. She had good reason: “I have in the past been vilified on social media,” she told the Times. Citing her Radio Liberty experience, she said, “I know what it’s like to lose institutional support when you most need it.”
Other writers have also resisted Condé Nast’s prepackaged plan for throwing them to the dogs.
One wonders what kind of magazine writer is not involved in public disputes, and what use he could be.
The Twitter-mob phenomenon is contemptible, and contempt is the proper response to it. The New York Times has done an admirable job of standing up for its controversial hires, from Bret Stephens to Sarah Jeong. That is the nice thing about being the New York Times. Condé Nast has the standing and the clout to hold its ground, too; its posture of preemptive surrender is unbecoming.
It is up to institutions to defend this ground, if not in the interests of their contributors then in their own interests as institutions. Two things are almost always misunderstood about these campaigns: One is that the Twitter mobs are mostly camouflage for internal corporate politics — ABC is not making multi-million-dollar programming decisions based on the tweets of Caitlyn the Rage-Monkey on Twitter, but public outcries can provide plausible pretexts to internal plotters. Second, the institutions themselves — corporations, publications, government agencies — are the real target, not the writers or other contributors. The point of the Bret Stephens mob wasn’t to silence Bret Stephens, who has any number of places he can publish that will give him an audience comparable in size and prestige to that of the New York Times; the point of the Bret Stephens mob was for status-anxious and resentful nobodies to get a momentary jolt out of telling the New York Times “Dance, monkey!” and seeing its editors begin to tap their feet and sway.
Condé Nast is hearing the music. Happily, some of its writers have self-respect enough to lend some to their bosses.
Caius Marcius just wants to do his duty. He fights because he is good at it, because his country requires his service, and because the enemy commander is the man in the world he most esteems and must measure himself against. He scoffs at money — the Senate offers him a tenth of all the plunder from Corioli, and he turns it down — and he scoffs even more at praise from quarters he thinks nothing of, which makes him a lousy politician.
To brag unto them, “Thus I did, and thus!”
Show them th’ unaching scars which I should hide,
As if I had received them for the hire
Of their breath only!
He accepted only the agnomen “Coriolanus” as an extraordinary honor.
And it’s worth remembering that when the Romans insulted his honor, Coriolanus changed sides.