Should Recent Acquaintance Be Forgot?
Substack's embrace of Nazis supersedes my year-in-review post
Like it or not, Matt Yglesias is one of the most-influential political writers of our time. Depending on the issue at hand, you might describe Yglesias as a centrist, a progressive, or a (neo)liberal, but as far as I can tell his favorite political perspective is punching left. Whether as an intentional ideological project or merely a reflex to get clicks before feigning surprise at the pushback — he recently helped to foment a controversy about criminal-justice reform that he later conceded was “mostly fake” — he frequently launders conservative talking points into the Democratic zeitgeist under the guise of pragmatism, including on student-debt relief, LGBTQ+ rights, and police reform. Perhaps his most-enduring belief is in his own contrarian cleverness, which informed his ghoulish responses to the tragedies of the 2013 garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh and the 2022 Uvalde school shooting.
Yglesias’ greatest asset as a writer is how much he writes. He blogs constantly and without regard to party orthodoxy, subject-matter expertise, or whether his views are popular. For Yglesias’ fans, including many members of the Biden Administration, his prolificacy shows is the sign of a technocratic polymath with a knack for cutting to the core of any policy debate. To his detractors, he is a shameless charlatan who helicopters into a issue and mistakes his ignorance for clarity. His errant analyses range from the dire, like his support for not just the initial invasion of Iraq but for reconquering it in perpetuity every time an insufficiently U.S.-friendly government takes power; to the frivolous, like his belief that Pennsylvania would be a good place for a Disneyworld-esque all-seasons resort. Even if you’re not bothered by the litany of factual errors in his COVID-19 conspiracy-mongering, surely a self-styled public health pundit should practice better personal hygiene than Yglesias, who is known on social media for his refusal to do his dishes in the office kitchen and for not washing his hands after using the bathroom.1
This past summer, a ripple went through the American media ecosystem when conservative commentator Richard Hanania was revealed to have written extensively on white-supremacist blogs under a pseudonym. A jarring number of respectable journalists and outlets had platformed Hanania in recent years, including the New York Times and Washington Post. Arguably no non-right-wing media personality had played as big of a role in legitimizing him as Yglesias, who repeatedly shared Hanania’s work, praised him as “a smart guy with interesting things to say,” and has mentioned him in over 50 tweets over the last year and a half — including multiple times since his pseudonym was revealed, and as recently as this week.2 Even if many of these interactions are disagreements, it’s telling that he saw (and continues to see) Hanania as worth engaging with, and that Yglesias also praised his intellect and sought him out for idle chitchat.
Yet the most damning aspect of a bigot successfully charming his way into mainstream political discourse was what happened after Hanania’s alter ego was revealed. (Though don’t miss the not-very-subtle parable about the bedfellows you make when you take contrarian left-punching as a first principle.) Yglesias was strangely unbothered to learn that someone in his online orbit was a white supremacist, let alone contrite or apologetic. “Not sure ‘Hanania is racist’ was a particularly well-kept secret,” he smarmed in a real-life “we’re all trying to find the guy who did this” moment. Instead he was annoyed that readers pointed out the connection between them. “I didn’t publish any Hanania articles!” Yglesias wrote incredulously, which elides that he had approvingly linked to Hanania’s work multiple times. “Ask yourself if it’s true that I ‘regularly’ interact with Hanania or if that’s something people who don’t like me just started saying,” he bristled, an odd retort from a man who tweeted at Hanania an average of roughly once a week for over a year.
“Where is the error in judgment?” Yglesias asked his critics after the Hanania story broke. The mere framing of the situation as one where such plausible deniability matters reveals the shallowness of Yglesias’ moral outlook. Someone who thinks Hanania’s views are beyond the pale should be aghast at the realization of whose audience they had boosted or with whom they had enjoyed chummy rapport. Even if you didn’t know better at the time, wouldn’t you be upset to learn you had associated with such a person? Whether Yglesias’ obtuseness is deliberate deflection or sincere cognitive dissonance, that his reflex was not to be horrified but to conjure an abstract logic game for his critics speaks volumes about his tolerance for intolerance.
Yglesias is not alone in his lack of remorse for platforming Hanania. Two weeks ago, I joined over 200 writers in signing an open letter to Substack’s founders asking them to address the rampant white nationalism on their platform, including Hanania. Their tolerance for bigots is unfortunately not news, but recent reporting has been illuminating about the scale of the problem and just how lucrative the arrangement is, both for the honest-to-god Nazis who charge for subscriptions and for the company that takes a cut of the fees. And as of last week, Substack cofounder and “Chief Writing Officer” Hamish McKenzie clarified that he has no plans to change that:
I just want to make it clear that we don’t like Nazis either—we wish no-one held those views. But some people do hold those and other extreme views. Given that, we don't think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away—in fact, it makes it worse.
I’m not surprised that McKenzie blew us off. Those who willfully make money from proliferating bigotry have presumably already weighed the modest treasure it brings them against the value of their souls. Though I do wonder if they underestimated the PR blowback it would inspire: Would they have made this Faustian bargain had they known that the New York Times would cover the controversy, including debunking McKenzie’s argument that de-platforming is counterproductive?
What I didn’t expect was that McKenzie would accept the premise of our concerns. I assumed he would follow the common tack of claiming we signatories were exaggerating about what the writers in question believe, or that the PC police were the real tyrants. Instead he acknowledged that his company is enabling and profiting off of actual Nazis, and said he was fine with that. I suppose it’s more intellectually honest for McKenzie to admit this in his paean to free speech than it would have been to feign ignorance about the content Substack is hosting, though it’s disturbing to learn that swastikas are not against the site’s terms of service. How does anyone write the words “we don’t like Nazis … But” and feel good about the thought they are expressing?
McKenzie went on to address his having hosted a podcast with Hanania, before his “extreme and racist views” came to light:
I didn’t know of those past writings at the time, and Hanania went on to disavow those views. While it has been uncomfortable and I probably would have done things differently with all the information in front of me, I ultimately don’t regret having him on the podcast.
As with Yglesias — who notably opposed our open letter asking Substack to address its Nazi problem — McKenzie’s lack of revulsion upon learning of Hanania’s views is as telling as it is flummoxing. You probably would have done things differently? You don’t regret having a polite conversation with someone you now know is a white nationalist? How is it possible that these people discovering they had consorted with a Nazi didn’t shake them to their core?
Bloggers often devote a late-December post to resharing their favorite work from the preceding year, so I had earmarked this week to look back at The Lewsletter’s 2023. I had planned to find some common theme of my writing and contrive a trite-yet-tasteful narrative through which to highlight my most-popular posts; I’ll still link to some of them below. But it felt hollow and hypocritical to reflect on a year of Substack writing as though all were well on this platform.
Many writers I respect have announced that they are done with Substack, or that they will leave as soon as they can set up an alternate hosting service. I haven’t yet decided if I will follow them. I don’t charge for subscriptions to The Lewsletter, which means my continued presence here is not juicing Substack’s bottom line. Not monetizing my work also makes it harder for me to justify paying for a hosting service, which many alternatives require for the functionality Substack provides for free. I’d like to think that using this platform to combat anti-Semitism does more good than my increasing the platform’s size by a few hundred subscribers causes harm. And I’m still holding out hope that public pressure will change McKenzie and his colleagues’ minds.
Still, as both a Jew and someone who considers himself a halfway-decent human being, I’m not keen on associating with Nazis or those who happily abide them. Over the last couple weeks I’ve heard myself describe The Lewsletter as my “blog” rather than a Substack. I’ve started exploring moving my writing and subscription list to another platform. There’s a common analogy to the effect of: If your local bar became a Nazi hangout, you’d stop going. It may be time to close my tab.
As you read this essay, you may be working on your New Year’s resolutions. The goals we set for ourselves at the end of the year are often trite: read more, cut down on screen time, join a gym. Yet as anodyne as as the ritual has become, I see something radical in the cultural expectation that we take time to reflect on ourselves and try to be better to the people around us. Whatever your opinions on the merits and potency of “cancel culture,” the counter-reaction has promulgated a view that suffering reputational harm for inappropriate behavior is evidence of the woke mob gone amok instead of a fact of life that people learn in preschool. New Year’s provides a rare call for introspection in a world that thinks being sorry is for jabronis.
A couple weeks before the Hanania exposé, a less-prominent Substack to which I had not only subscribed but referred others published one of the most-offensive things I have ever read. The author earnestly compared the decline of Twitter to the Holocaust, then went down a list of marginalized groups and described a stereotype he enjoyed about each of them. (I’m won’t reprint the exact language here, but suffice to say it was no more sensible in context.) I was horrified — not just by the trivialization of genocide, but because I had driven over a dozen signups to his email list.
This still haunts me many months later. No one called me out for amplifying the author’s bigotry; I don’t know that anyone I had referred to his blog actually opened the post. If anyone read it, they didn’t blame me for the content — but they didn’t have to. Knowing I played some small part in abetting and spreading such hatred, even accidentally, makes my skin crawl. Would that everyone could say the same.
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to make peace with where The Lewsletter is published. Maybe that means moving to a new platform. Maybe that means compartmentalizing my disgust, as I do with Elon Musk’s Twitter and Deshaun Watson’s Cleveland Browns. Maybe that means McKenzie will do some end-of-year introspection of his own and change his mind about Nazi profiteering. While we’re at it, maybe Yglesias will reconsider washing his hands of accountability for helping to legitimize Hanania — and his not doing so when he steps away from the urinal.
Here’s wishing a happy holiday season and a safe and fulfilling new year to all who are reading this. May we take the dawn of 2024 as an occasion to ponder how to be more considerate of those around us, more compassionate to those in need, and less tolerant towards those who corrupt our world with bigotry and hatred. Wherever The Lewsletter ends up, I hope you’ll stick around to read it.
The Lewsletter’s year in review
A brief look back at some of my and my readers’ favorite posts from 2023:
After begrudgingly identifying early evidence that Major League Baseball’s new rules for defensive positioning were successful in boosting batting average on balls in play, I showed at midseason that the shift ban was actually incentivizing strikeouts instead of reducing them, then (in my most-read essay of 2023) proposed a new set of rules to increase both in-game action and player safety.
I undertook the (as far as I know) largest-scale study of the corrosive impact of secret ballots on the Baseball Hall of Fame vote, while also writing up and ranking the 17 players on this year’s ballot I consider Cooperstown-worthy, and arguing that barring steroid users who were not punished contemporarily from the Hall sets a dangerous precedent for modern players.
I reflected on the legacies of three of the most-popular MLB players of my lifetime: celebrating the rise of Mike Trout, wistfully pondering the what-if of a healthy Shohei Ohtani, and critiquing the personality cult of Bartolo Colón.
I reflected on being a Jew throughout a turbulent year for defining ourselves: resisting the conflation of our identity with Israel in its devastation of Gaza, calling out the widespread anti-Semitism ironically rampant among Zionists, and waxing poetic about maintaining and sharing our traditions.
I read far too deeply into the politics pop culture, from the unrealized optimism of Bruce Springsteen to the climate-change parallels of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” to the sociological critique inherent in the B-movie cult classic The Room.
Last but not least, I made a list of my favorite hoagies in Philadelphia, used a sandwich metaphor to process my feelings about moving to Providence, and documented a couple of my go-to recipes for home cooking.
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While I could not find a public-facing firsthand source for this persistent rumor about Yglesias’ restroom habits, one of his former colleagues privately confirmed it was true. (They also corroborated the part about his dishes without my prompting.)
In true Yglesias spirit, I’m not going through the trouble of counting how many of these were true engagements versus tangential threaded mentions, but focusing solely on the former would not change the order of magnitude.