The best thing I read yesterday was nothing. It was truly a great and pleasing kind of nothing. We had been up and down the building trick-or-treating and I was back on the computer, catching up, and I was reading a good essay from Laurie Penny on Longreads, rejecting the premise that the world will be improved if good people are willing to civilly and rationally debate neofascist propagandists:
There are some stupid mistakes that only very smart people make, and one of them is the notion that a sensible argument seriously presented can compete with a really good piece of theatre.
Every day, people on the internet ask why I won’t “debate” some self-actualizing gig-economy fascist or other, as if formal, public debate were the only way to steer public conversation. If you won’t debate, the argument goes, you’re an enemy of free speech. You’re basically no better than a Nazi, and certainly far worse than any of the actual Nazis muttering about not being allowed to preach racism from prestigious pulpits. Well-meaning liberals insist that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” anti-fascists disagree, the far right orders more popcorn, and round and round we go on the haunted carousel of western liberal thought until we’re all queasy.
And as I read along, I suddenly remembered that something had been supposed to happen yesterday, besides all the dressing up and fake scares and cheap candy. There had been a news story a few days before about how a self-promoting professor in New York was inviting a right-wing troll to his class, ostensibly to talk about Halloween. Halloween on campus has become to the rationalist right-wingers what the Starbucks holiday cups are to the Christianists—a chance to complain about being repressed by unimaginably powerful politically-correct authorities, over unimaginably trivial issues. And this right-wing troll was trying to get in on it.
I would have said “famous right-wing troll,” but this particular person has burned through his fame and now exists in a strange twilight of meta-famousness, where on the rare occasions he surfaces—usually to complain about how nobody listens to him anymore—everyone just shudders at the thought of how famous this person used to be. He tried to get some heat by posting something about how he wished the mail bombs had actually killed somebody, but even that didn’t work.
Of him, Penny wrote:
What stopped [this person] was neither formal debate nor the dubious disinfectant of a spotlight. What stopped him was progressives collectively refusing to put up with his horseshit.
That was why the news story about his campus appearance had been depressing; it was like a leftover from the time before, and its existence implied that he might yet manage to crawl back into attention. But the day had come, and—silence. Dead air. The news feed was a string of atrocities, as always, but his would-be atrocities weren’t making the cut.
Finally I searched his name, cautiously, as if reading a spell that could waken evil spirits. There were a few news stories, if you dug for them, saying the school had canceled the appearance, at the mayor’s request, on the grounds that the cops were too busy dealing with Halloween to handle whatever he might provoke. There was the self-promoting professor yammering about it all on Facebook, to an audience that had obviously already decided what it was going to think and say. Mostly, though, nobody cared.