Outside agitators

Ian Buruma styling


One of the old key phrases in American politics was “outside agitator”. At first, it was used to describe union organizers – inevitably communist and probably immigrants. Then it shifted to civil rights. For instance, in a Washington Post article from Maccomb, Mississippi, from October 22, 1961, there is an article about the resistance to the movement for the right to vote. After going through the usual racist shit – for instance, the murder of a civil rights worker, Herbert Lee, by E.H. Hurst, a Mississippi state legislator, and his inevitable release by an all white jury – the newspaper interviews the sheriff’s department, all the members of which have joined the White Citizens Council, and the sheriff who says:

It’s the outside agitators… If they’d just leave us alone, we’d be all right. If there was some legal way to get rid of them, I’d do it. The white people are taking this calm enough. They are letting me handle this, like I asked them to. But of course you can’t push them to far.

The outside agitator had a very interesting career in the seventies, causing riots here, causing police shootings there. If there was only some legal way to take care of them…
Of course, by the seventies, the outside agitator was taken over by the Mau Mauing black con man. And the rest, as they say, is history – the history of the GOP.
It has been a long time since the outside agitator reared his head. But lately, there is a new enemy in town that seems very much like the outside agitator. It is social media, or, as the NYT op ed page likes to say, the howling twitter mob.
What is this mob doing? Why, here’s what: perfectly innocent male makers and shakers are being crucified, lynched, and otherwise almost harmed physically and financially (many of them, luckily, have a house in the Hamptons and an apartment in NYC to retire to) by women making wild accusations, based on mild flirting emails, sent perhaps at midnight, maybe 100s of them, and a few kisses, a few touches, reminiscent of a more romantic generation, naturally, who are driven on by the social media mob.
This seems to be the story in the big, heavily male liberal mags. The publisher of Harpers had to explain all of this to a naturally inferior woman interviewer, lately, who spoke to him in a Soviet tone when he was all about explaining the nuances of the thing to her. And Ian Buruma seems to have decided that this is his story too. First, Buruma reached out to a media star in Canada who was fired all because some women – well 24 but whose counting – told tales of his sexual harassing ways. And then there was his penchant for punching his lovers in the head, all very valid and consensual. As Buruma said, what the charges against him were are something he knows nothing about and doesn’t care. What he does care about is this unforgivingness to men – or as the article was headlined, The Fall of Men. All because outside agitators, er, social media was all about exaggerating and not giving forgiveness a chance.
It is interesting that Buruma seems to have commissioned and promoted this article without once reflecting that the only people who were going to defend the article – Buruma knew and counted on the fact that it was “controversial” – were a demographic that likely hated and despised the people who subscribed and advertised in the New York Review of Books. It is a very strange position to take. Imagine, for instance, the editor of The National Review publishing an article that would be liked chiefly by Leftists and Trotskyists who despised the people who read The National Revew.
I can imagine this scenario, but I know that there is no way on heaven or earth that it would happen. So what gives with Buruma? What gives with John R. Macarthur, the publisher of Harper’s, who has felt called upon to make Harpers the platform of the #metoo backlash?
Well, I myself like the howling twitter mob responding to these panjandrums of male power. I like it that the acids of that power, the gall of it, the presumption of it, are released so easily and with such freedom. Because, as in any civil rights contest, what you want is to get your opponent to say what they really think. This never happens; what does happen is that coded messages allow you to see what they think. Right now, the “twitter mob”, “free speech”, and “nuance” have taken the place of “we didn’t have any trouble with our people here until these negro outside agitators came to town.” Buruma actually told his interviewer that everybody on the NYRB was for the article, for all the world like a Southern sheriff laying down the law to a Washington Post reporter in 1962.
We are in that moment of this struggle.
Roger Gathmann
Roger Gathmann

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