Save Sarah Jeong! And Kevin Williamson, Quinn Norton, and Joy Reid Too

The work of polemicists like Sarah Jeong, recently hired to The New York Times editorial board, is to make arguments in public space.

Polemicists can be insufferable. They get to be gadflies and think themselves Socratic. They’re belligerent. They have a reputation for laziness and Twitter addiction; they often shun shoe leather. Many beat reporters and enterprise teams believe, with some justification, that writers of editorials do nothing but steal their hard-won discoveries and grandly opine about them from their sofas.

But polemic, as a form, is far older than reporting. And today, polemicists—writers of op-eds, analysis, criticism—are subject to the same rules of accuracy, logic, and copyediting that bind everyone in traditional media. They must show extensive familiarity with arguments that contradict their own. Their arguments have to track. Their facts have to be right. If they make mistakes, they have to issue corrections. And they can’t advocate for violence, insurrection, sedition.

At the same time, polemicists have significant freedoms that reporters don’t. They get to use wilder and more openly rhetorical language. Their work is served hot; they don’t pretend to icy objectivity. They are also expected to—and, by nature, inclined to—enter the BDSM fray of internet quarrels, where the language gets even wilder. Still, corrections and even retractions are expected after missteps.

In this way, Alex Jones, the self-styled performance artist who was recently banned from platforms like Facebook and iTunes, and Sean Hannity, the headliner showman of Fox News, are not polemicists. Their work is not to build stimulating and internally consistent arguments; it’s to create ideological psychodrama. Solecisms are standard. Hannity and Jones lean on rhetorical figures made famous by illuminati-phobes and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Devices of persuasion for Jones and Hannity include mostly top-of-lungs emphasis, and not infrequently growling and howling.

But Jeong, as well as flash-point journalists like Quinn Norton, Kevin Williamson, and Joy Reid, are special-forces polemicists at the height of their powers, with track records of compelling, high-spirited, and original arguments. They write like fiends; they render high-handed verdicts; they crack jokes; they broach dicey topics; they close cases; they can be just; they can be mean. They also wear their subject position as a badge of honor. Jeong is a progressive and a feminist. Norton is an anarchist. Williamson is a conservative. Reid is a Democrat.

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What’s been weird this year is that all four of these writers have found their careers in jeopardy after they popped off on the internet in exactly the pushy, discourteous, and impolitic style that made their names. Over the past 15 years, it turns out, Reid blogged some cruel stuff about LGBTQ people. Kevin Williamson tweeted cruel stuff about women who have abortions. Quinn Norton professed her affection for a Neo-Nazi. And, as was revealed last week, Sarah Jeong slagged off white people in a string of sardonic tweets.

And each spent time in the stockades. Norton was hired and fired from The New York Times on a single day in February. Williamson was fired from The Atlantic in April. Reid kept her job at MSNBC, but came in for internal criticism, and had an award revoked. Jeong, well, we’ll see—as of this writing, people on Twitter are still gunning for her firing from the Times. (In an inevitable subplot, Andrew Sullivan, the conservative commentator at New York magazine, acted wounded at Jeong’s searing critique of white people as goblins; people then called for his firing.)

Tediously, the opposition to them has divided along party lines. Liberals pushed to save Reid and are pushing to save Jeong. Conservatives supported Williamson. Quinn Norton, whom I worked with at The Message, didn’t have many defenders, but not because what she did was uniquely terrible; instead, she’s a brilliant enigma, and no one knows what to do with an anarchist who fluently speaks the language of the dark internet, where many of us still can’t tell hate speech from hello.

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