8 Quick Thoughts on the Emmett Rensin Suspension

Some quick thoughts on Emmett Rensin, who was just suspended from Vox because of his tweets.

  1. This is the second case in two weeks of a leftist being fired or punished by a liberal outfit because of the content of his tweets.
  1. Political publications have the right to impose a line in order to maintain the political line of the publication. The American Conservative gets to conserve, Jacobin gets to Jacobin, and Dissent gets to dissent (or assent, as old joke goes).
  1. Vox, however, claims not to be that kind of publication. As Ezra Klein says in his statement on Rensin’s suspension: “We at Vox do not take institutional positions on most questions, and we encourage our writers to debate and disagree.”
  1. In disavowing the sort of political line that avowedly political magazines take, Vox doesn’t say “anything goes.” Instead, it defaults to a different kind of standard, one that is more familiar to the tradition of liberal political theory and jurisprudence:

But direct encouragement of riots crosses a line between expressing a contrary opinion and directly encouraging dangerous, illegal activity. We welcome a variety of viewpoints, but we do not condone writing that could put others in danger.

  1. But here’s the thing: In tacking back and forth between its various iterations of the standard—”direct encouragement of riots,” “directly encouraging dangerous, illegal activity” and “writing that could put others in danger—Vox is reverting to a standard of speech restriction that is more draconian than that of the Supreme Court of 1968. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Court finally articulated what we think of as the modern liberal doctrine of free speech when it held that it was only constitutional for the government to prohibit speech when that speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Not mere incitement but incitement that “is likely” to incite or produce imminent lawless action. As Gawker said in its writeup of the Rensin situation, “Have you ever seen any riots started by media Twitter? How about riots started by Vox stories? Slate riots? Gawker riots? No.”
  1. If there is a precedent for this type of standard, it is the Supreme Court’s terrible McCarthyism cases, where it was the “bad tendency” test that was upheld. That was a test that predated the famous Schenck case of 1919 (which established the “clear and present danger” test) and that was revived during the reactionary 1920s and 1950s. It basically allowed the government, in cases like Dennis v. United States, to criminalize and prosecute all sorts of speech on the grounds that it might produce some terrible results in a far-off distant future.
  1. Critics will respond, however, that we’re dealing here not with the government but with a magazine, which has no power to arrest, try, judge, or jail a citizen. Of course, the standard for a non-government institution should be looser. But that’s where the McCarthyism precedent becomes even more important: Remarkably little of the McCarthyite repression in the late 1940s and 1950s had anything to do with police, courts, judges, juries, or prisons. Or even with congressional inquisitions. The great bulk of McCarthyite repression was leveraged through workplace sanctions. During that era, fewer than 200 people were arrested or went to jail for their beliefs. Anywhere from 20 to 40% of the American workforce, by contrast, was subject to investigations, firing, and other modes of discipline for their beliefs. More generally, in the United States, it’s a longstanding political problem that employees can be fired for their political beliefs; it poses a genuine challenge to the notion that this is a free society. It is, as I argued in my first book, the essence of “Fear, American Style.”
  1. As I said, this is the second case of a leftist being fired or disciplined by a liberal outfit in two weeks. The first was Matt Bruenig. If you think these firings are all of a nothing, that they have no bearing on questions of political repression or political expression, ask yourself this: Why have we not heard a peep from Matt Bruenig since his firing?

Update (6:30 pm)

It occurs to me that some might misconstrue what I’m saying here, so I want to be clear. I’m not claiming that these two cases of leftists being fired or disciplined constitute a full-blown McCarthyism. McCarthyism was a concerted, organized campaign, from the top down and the bottom up, to purge a both powerful and ascendant left from all sectors of the American life.

The American left may be provisionally, very provisionally, ascendant—and I’m not sure I’d even go that far—but we’re hardly powerful. I’m dubious we’re about to see a comprehensive purge of the sort we saw in the 1940s and 1950s for the simple reason that there aren’t so many of us to purge.

The reason I invoked the McCarthyism parallel is, consistent with a longstanding concern of mine, to highlight how potent employment sanctions and workplace coercion can be as a mode of engineering political consent.

That said, what really is going on with these cases of Bruenig and Rensin? Skeptics or outright defenders of Vox and Demos will say that these two violated basic norms and that their being fired and disciplined has nothing to do with their leftist politics or the liberal-ish politics of their employers.

I’m dubious of that theory. For starters, if Vox’s standard is that no one who encourages dangerous, illegal activity that could put others in danger is eligible for hire at Vox, it might want to start by purging its very own founder and editor-in-chief Ezra Klein, who advocated for the Iraq War.

What both Bruenig and Rensin have in common is that beyond being on the left, they are visible, vocal, and in-your-face advocates of a left that is willing to confront the complacencies of contemporary liberalism, as embodied by outfits like Vox and figures like Neera Tanden, whom Bruenig had targeted. Neither Rensin or Bruenig is willing to abide by the chummy and plummy rules of contemporary journalism and political commentary. They’ve marshaled an almost constitutional inability to rub elbows with their colleagues and peers to a political advocacy that is as bracing as it is uncompromising.

Where these types of writers—and the conflict between liberalism and the left—are as old as the hills, it’s hard to overlook the fact that these two writers are visible and vocal advocates of Bernie Sanders. While the Sanders-Clinton campaign is hardly the stuff of epic political conflict, it has bruised egos, and made personal conflicts political and political conflicts personal. Particularly on social media. Unlike previous electoral campaigns, it has pitted the semblance of a nascent left against the remnants of a regnant liberalism. Or neoliberalism. That these two cases involve neoliberal players with real access to the Obama administration and connections to a possible Clinton administration only raises the possibility they’re not just a personal much of a muchness. It’s not just personal, in other words, and it’s not just about social media.

And that is where the McCarthyism parallel again becomes relevant. Not, again, because this is McCarthyism, but because McCarthyism was also a battle between liberalism and the left. As much as the most powerful forces behind it were on the right and the Republican Party, there were strong elements of McCarthyism that were about liberals purging the left.

Again, we’re not there: the left isn’t powerful, and liberalism—or neoliberalism—is not in much of a position to be doing anything except holding on. But as we move forward with more Sanders-style challenges to the neoliberal orthodoxies of the day, as they get more and more powerful, expect to see more of these types of firings.

Update (June 4)

The day after Vox suspends Emmett Rensin for one tweet about a riot, they post article after article in praise of Muhammad Ali, who in 1972 wrote an entire poem in defense of the Attica prison riots. A poem that said, in part:

Better for my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Less it cool with ancient age

Better violent for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie

I try not to get too outraged at everyday hypocrisy and bad faith—down that path lies madness—but reading these encomia and eulogies by people who would have not hesitated to denounce Ali in his day, I find it hard not to vomit.

Update (June 4, 2:30)

I was wrong about Rensin being a “visible and vocal advocates of Bernie Sanders.” He’s certainly defended Sanders against his critics, and has noted Sanders’s virtues and contributions to political movement, but he’s not a supporter proper, as someone pointed out to me on Twitter.


  1. John Maher June 3, 2016 at 6:21 pm | #

    re # 8 — possible mundane non disclosure agreement signed as a condition of hire?

    ## 4-5 The issue of inciting violence is very important and immediate in the animal law work I do. Certainly the use of the term “violence” is pejorative and misunderstood even when all that is being discussed is a change in the government monopoly on violence as both an instrument and a status crime. The Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act being a case in point. I have gotten a lot of pushback from others who claim they are against “violence” without considering what is actually meant by that term, which it closer to “legally sanctioned violence”. These people who claim to abhor violence already support violence through their tax dollars.

    #7 I will have to read Corey’s book. The title recalls Konrad Lorenz.

  2. Frank Moraes June 3, 2016 at 6:47 pm | #

    I’ve been wondering that same thing about Matt Bruenig. It is probably obvious to others, but my assumption is that he is afraid of losing his main job as a lawyer. This is an issue that I’ve sadly fought over with a lot of liberals. I often hear the same brain-dead statement, “The First Amendment only applies to the government!” Okay. But what about people’s need to eat? You don’t need the government to stifle dissent.

  3. bystander June 3, 2016 at 8:29 pm | #

    >>Why have we not heard a peep…

    I don’t know, but his deleted/inactivated twitter account and radio silence at his personal blog, prompts me to fear the worst.

    • Evan Neely June 4, 2016 at 8:44 am | #

      It’s more than radio silence at this point. I just went there and the whole thing is down; all that’s left is a message saying where you can email him. This is a long way to go to make a point.

  4. calling all toasters June 3, 2016 at 8:54 pm | #

    “if Vox’s standard is that no one who encourages dangerous, illegal activity that could put others in danger is eligible for hire at Vox, it might want to start by purging its very own founder and editor-in-chief Ezra Klein, who advocated for the Iraq War.”

    Yes, this is a convincing comparison. Totally apropos.

    If there’s any pattern here, it’s that even leftists must act responsibly. Which is, of course, fascism.

  5. Ikkyu Thirteen June 3, 2016 at 11:23 pm | #

    I’m sorry…really. But isn’t it just possible that Matt Brunig is just trying to make a point? I like him; I like his in-your-face style, up to a late point; I miss his analysis. But we’re in the middle of a multi-dimensional bullshit-storm, and he’s just the type to fan the flames of critique (of demos, of neoliberalism, of the HRC group who’ve been absolutely over the top with their identitarian histrionics) with a move like this. I’m not saying the guy *isn’t* worried about his own welfare resulting in his media silence, I’m just saying it’s absurd to assume he’s totally innocent of, in this case, manipulating us all in the service of strengthening this type of criticism. For his sake I hope it’s that, and not professional/financial insecurity. But…on the other hand I don’t enjoy being manipulated.

  6. zenner41 June 4, 2016 at 11:29 am | #

    Ezra has some near-brilliant (or more) insights into many issues, but he can also be a total ass, like all of us. Here, I think, he’s being an ass. But the reason for it is probably that Vox is a company running an Internet site that thrives on clicks, like any other. And “riots” and “violence,” however those terms are defined, are considered by most people Ungood Things. In fact, they are usually not defined–just the words, the character strings themselves, have an ungood smell to lots of people. So Ezra doesn’t want his staff to write anything that might look as though it would have some causal connection to “riots” or “violence” in any way. (Or it looks like it in this case; perhaps he just has a personal beef of some sort with Rensin.)

    In other words, it’s basically a matter of PR. Which is always the case with censorship and McCarthyist kinds of stuff. Humans, like other primates, care about their images in the eyes of their species mates. Stalin murdered huge numbers of people to preserve his image and that of the USSR (at least, that’s what he thought he was doing–actually, it didn’t do his image a whole lot of good in most of our eyes). Ezra is worried about Vox’s image, but this sort of action generally has some negative consequences for the image one is trying to protect, and one often forgets to weigh the positive consequences against the negative ones.

  7. Hiram Abiff June 4, 2016 at 1:44 pm | #

    Regarding point #7: this is virtually identical to Chait’s complaints about how political correctness stifles free speech. Do you agree with Chait that non-legal measures taken by colleges to suppress certain kinds of speech (e.g. Emory students and Trump graffiti) represent a genuine danger to a free society? Or do you see some difference between the situations that I don’t?

    • Will G-R June 6, 2016 at 11:04 am | #

      I don’t think Chait’s having jumped on the reactionaries’ big-bad-Ess-Jay-Dubya-PC-police bandwagon has much to do with the logic of this argument, apart from a very abstract sense in which both arguments appeal to the political relevance of private power. Of course, the fact that Chait and liberals like him problematize the public-private distinction central to liberal political philosophy in the name of liberalism itself is a wonderful little irony whose full implications should warrant quite a bit of reflection. My favorite such reflection I’ve seen is an obscure little text by Robert Paul Wolff called The Poverty of Liberalism that digs into JS Mill’s canonical defenses of free thought and expression, and it’s a shame that text is so obscure because the way it’s written is much more accessible to liberals than leftist writings on liberalism often tend to be.

      In this case the important point is that private economic power — the power to determine whether one has a job, a roof over one’s head, food on the table, etc. — can substitute perfectly well for the sort of power one might otherwise associate with the NKVD or Stasi in terms of absolutely precluding people’s ability to speak out politically. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the cases in which I’ve seen any remotely comparable power wielded on behalf of the Left have generally been ones like the Violentacrez/Gawker saga, in which the “accused” was “charged” not with neo-Nazi political leanings per se but with directing the distribution of nonconsensual and/or underage softcore porn. Barring that, the forms of censorship that reactionaries and reactionary fellow travelers like Chait love to associate with liberal arts student activists (shouting down right-liberal and/or reactionary lecturers on college campuses and so on) can’t really hold a candle to such forms of direct economic harm.

      • LFC June 8, 2016 at 9:02 pm | #

        Will G-R:
        …an obscure little text by Robert Paul Wolff called The Poverty of Liberalism that digs into JS Mill’s canonical defenses of free thought and expression, and it’s a shame that text is so obscure

        It’s obscure, i.e. relatively little known (I happen to have the book in which the essay appeared — Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse, ‘A Critique of Pure Tolerance’ — on my shelf, though I haven’t read it), but it’s probably not inaccessible: Wolff has made most of what he’s written accessible via links at his blog. If you go to his blog, there is a box.net thing at the top, where most of it can be found. I’m not sure about this particular essay, but he has gone to considerable lengths to make his writing accessible online (or via e-books, which I don’t really use, but others do…).

        p.s. I don’t agree w Wolff about various things, but just thought I’d mention this in the spirit of a public service announcement

        • Will G-R June 9, 2016 at 9:51 am | #

          Wolff includes a few different essays in that Poverty of Liberalism volume, and from my recollection the essay that appears in the book with Marcuse and Moore (entitled simply “Tolerance” in the liberalism book) comes after the one where he gets his lumps in against Mill’s defense of free expression (called “Liberty”). If there’s any sort of nut graf to the “Liberty” essay, it’s probably the following:

          The crucial point to remember is that laisser-faire is not, for Mill, a first principle or moral premise. The whole purpose of On Liberty is to derive the principle of noninterference from the moral axiom of utilitarianism. Mill’s argument for noninterference is through and through empirical. Hence, when he recognizes facts which contradict the conclusions drawn in On Liberty he quite consistently limits the noninterference principle. As I have already remarked, in the realm of economics American conservatives defend as unquestioned axioms and first principles the very laisser-faire rules which Mill put forward as inferences from the doctrine of utilitarianism. American liberals, on the other hand, swear fealty to the memory of Mill but draw non-laisser-faire conclusions from new and different facts. When it comes to matters of free speech, the roles are reversed. Conservatives treat freedom of speech as a subsidiary principle to be forfeited whenever utilitarian considerations (“of national security”) warrant; modern liberals, on the other hand, have long since elevated free speech to the sanctity of a dogma, forgetting (if they ever knew) that the classical liberal defense was empirical and utilitarian.

          To my mind, this is an ideal focusing lens for the latter-day free speech debate: for all their frequent inadequacy as comprehensive radicals, the erstwhile “PC police” are at least attempting a utilitarian approach to the empirical consequences of certain forms of unrestricted speech, against which Chait et al are defending the laisser-faire “marketplace of ideas” as an irrevocable first principle. I haven’t engaged with Wolff’s more recent body of work (so thanks for the tip re: his website!) but the Wolff of this essay would seem to come down hard in defense of the “PC police” as doing far better justice to Mill’s actual philosophy than the dogmatic arguments of Chait et al ever could.

          • LFC June 10, 2016 at 1:24 pm | #

            @Will G-R
            Yes, that probably (hedging deliberately here) was and still is Wolff’s position. Whether Mill himself would have come down the same way on the contemporary debate is a question I’m less sure of the answer to, but I’m not equipped right now to go into it.

          • LFC June 10, 2016 at 1:28 pm | #

            p.s. and thanks for the quotation. interesting.

  8. Frank Wilhoit June 4, 2016 at 4:43 pm | #

    Incitement is the one bright red line. A society that tolerates incitement demonstrates a depraved indifference, in the legal term-of-art, to the survival and wellbeing of its citizens. The toleration of incitement is one of the Great Failures that have brought us where we are.

  9. Edward June 6, 2016 at 9:50 am | #

    I suspect the most pernicious form of censorship comes from editors. I think Molly Ivans wrote about this in an essay on journalism. They have too much power.

  10. bkmacd June 7, 2016 at 12:26 am | #

    Pretty amazing that you discuss Breunig without discussing his role in the coordinated harrasment of women who were merely journalists or writers. And how the Demos blog states explicitly that it was other people contacting them over this behavior, in general, that led to them parting.

    I’m kind of disappointed, to be honest.

  11. jonnybutter June 7, 2016 at 8:59 pm | #

    *You’re* free to talk about it, bkmacd. Since innuendo is an important part of the OP topic, I’d say you ought to. Simply talking about talking about it is unfair.

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