This week, the internet’s self-proclaimed crusader against “tribalism,” a website that attempts to strike at those on the left and right who ignore inconvenient truths that don’t flatter their prejudices, got caught publishing a fake article entirely because it flattered their prejudices.
The mini scandal began on Thursday. Quillette, an online magazine that functions as the leading outlet of the anti-“identity politics” movement that calls itself the Intellectual Dark Web, published a testimonial from Archie Carter, a self-described Marxist-Leninist construction worker in Queens, titled “DSA Is Doomed.”
Carter described the Democratic Socialists of America, the country’s largest socialist organization that had its national convention last weekend, as an insular and blinkered group of well-off hipsters more interested in looking woke than in serving average working people like Carter. It was an argument that jibed well with the overriding message of Quillette as a publication: that the left has been hijacked by a small group of identity politics-obsessed radicals who have unmoored it from any connection to real working people.
Almost immediately, though, DSA members and sympathizers on Twitter began poking holes in Carter’s story. The DSA had no records of an Archie Carter attending any meetings. The only DSA event that Carter described attending was the same event profiled in a New York magazine feature, suggesting that Carter might just be cribbing from that piece’s descriptions. He alluded to a nonexistent “Brooklyn chapter” of DSA (there are North Brooklyn, South Brooklyn, and Central Brooklyn branches, not a unified Brooklyn chapter). Twitter detectives took to the white pages to find the two Archie Carters listed in Queens, both of whom are deceased.
The piece was also plainly absurd, with numerous obvious signals that something fishy was going on. My favorite was Carter’s declaration that “I would approach political activity with this maxim in mind: what would Alinsky do?” This is a reference to the decidedly non-Marxist organizer Saul Alinsky, who real Marxist-Leninists think was a wimp, and who only someone steeped in right-wing media would think is some kind of Marxist hero. His author bio read like that of someone who skimmed the Wikipedia entry for All in the Family’s Archie Bunker: “Archie Carter is a construction worker from Queens. When he’s not at union meetings, he’s watching the Mets blow a lead.”
Nor was it a surprise that after hours of sincere questions and answers through Twitter direct messages, “Carter” told me the whole thing had been a hoax. (Claire Lehmann, Quillette’s editor and founder, did not respond to emails asking how the publication vetted “Carter,” if at all, instead merely sending a link to the retraction.)
“Archie Carter is a fake name,” he said. “I wanted to do a sort of performance art to do three things: first, that I could pass the partisan Turing test; second, to do my own Sokal experiment; and third, to demonstrate why the Right is good at propaganda.”
In a sense, this is a silly, low-stakes prank, one that wasn’t even particularly precise in its execution. But I think it says something interesting both about the economics of media at this juncture and about what it means to be a truly independent thinker, not prone to embracing ideas that merely flatter one’s prejudices.
Meet “Archie Carter”
The man behind Archie Carter, who told me his real name but requested anonymity as he’s still in a probationary period in a new job, is not a Marxist-Leninist or a Queens resident or a construction worker or even a Mets fan; he lives in Chicago (“White Sox b[a]by”) and says his politics are “Leftist but nothing doctrinaire.”
Carter, as I’ll call him, wanted to prove that he could express anti-identity politics views that he disagrees with in a way that people who do hold those views would recognize and embrace (an exercise that economist Bryan Caplan has termed an “ideological Turing test,” after the famous test of artificial intelligence). But he also wanted to emulate Alan Sokal, the NYU physicist who famously pranked the postmodern humanities journal Social Text by successfully submitting an article full of meaningless jargon with no clear argument.
“My takeaway from the Sokal thing is that their ideology determines the outcome despite whatever the evidence says, which I think is an appropriate comparison to what’s happened here,” Carter told me.
He sent me his original submission to Quillette, along with all follow-up emails with his editor, Jamie Palmer. The original was much more obviously ridiculous, with this opener:
It was a cool, chilly New York City night. December had come, and the air was bitingly cold. I was walking with a purpose, disappointed with what had transpired just a month prior: the election of Donald J. Trump.
Like many well-meaning Left-leaning white men, I was cast into the wilderness that somber night. Forlorn, I was searching for a way home.
Home. Home. Where to call home? The Democratic Party had obviously failed me, so I cast my gaze elsewhere, to a promising light in the distance. That light led me to a DSA meeting, the first for myself and quite a few others also attending. It was nice, people were generally friendly, and we talked through what had transpired a month before. Maybe I had found my home.
He also threw in a gratuitous Ariana Grande reference in case it wasn’t clear the whole thing was a joke:
The behavior which offended me and my union buds most was the White men who portrayed themselves as Social Justice Warriors, and verbally flogged themselves throughout meetings — ”white men suck, white men are terrible, white men are oppressive” — like they were Catholics during the dark ages hoping to avoid the bubonic plague through God’s good graces (as Arianna Grande says, God is a woman, after all…)
Palmer edited out what, to me, read as the most ludicrous passages and published.
Carter said he originally waffled between pranking Quillette and pranking the Federalist, the conservative commentary site. He decided to frame the hoax around the DSA national convention after coverage in conservative outlets mocking the use of American Sign Language in lieu of traditional clapping at the event.
Curiously, Carter appeared to agree with Quillette that the DSA is excessively “woke.” He cited an anecdote from the New York magazine article of a middle-aged man being chastised for using an “okay” hand signal that some DSA members perceived to be a white power sign as a kind of language policing he found clearly absurd.
“It’s patently ridiculous,” he said. “You’re telling a 65-year-old man that’s actually a white supremacist hand signal when for his entire life he’s known it as ‘okay’?”
He tied it back to the white supremacist meme “it’s okay to be white.” “The statement itself — what’s wrong with that?” Carter asked. “It’s the implications that rev up the engines of outrage [on the left].”
Here he stopped himself. “But alt-right people saying ‘it’s okay to be white,’ they don’t actually mean ‘it’s okay to be white’ — they think it’s better.”
Then he stopped himself yet again, and seemed to suggest this deeper meaning isn’t actually worth pursuing, and perhaps leftists should accept “it’s okay to be white” as an innocuous statement on its own: “We’ve forgotten how to address things on its face first before following down the rabbit hole.”
I asked him, at this point, what he was actually trying to do. It seemed like he agreed with much of Quillette’s identity politics critique. So how was this a hoax? Wasn’t he just a guy who agreed with Quillette’s critique, writing that critique for Quillette (albeit with some fabrications along the way)? Wasn’t he more like “Archie Carter” — a leftist who nonetheless agrees with Quillette — than he wants to believe about himself? How, I asked him, did he think this would do a service for the left?
“I never really meant it to do a service — it does a service for the left in that it discredits Quillette,” he explained. “You’re right, I find some critiques, not persuasive but reasonable. But I don’t dismiss the leftist critique, which is that stuff is white supremacist — which it is! When people flash that sign, that’s white supremacist.”
So in the course of a few minutes on the phone, he had expressed the view that the okay hand sign was not white supremacist and it was absurd for the left to police people who use it as if it were; but also it was white supremacist and the leftist critique is valid. More than anything, I left our conversation thinking that “Archie Carter” was a sort of confused 24-year-old who listened to a bit of Chapo Trap House but didn’t have particularly coherent politics otherwise. A fine prankster, perhaps, but not an Alan Sokal type with a real grudge to levy.
What Archie Carter tells us about content and the Intellectual Dark Web
In a perverse sense, the whole experience left me with a bit of sympathy for Quillette’s editors — not because I agree with them or find their work particularly valuable (this is a website that publishes articles about how skull shape is a useful guide for distinguishing the races) but because Vox was once an understaffed, short-on-editors website too, and I remember how easy it was for stuff to fall through the cracks then. Take this article I wrote when I was 24 where I completely misread a legal filing, for instance.
Online publications are faster-paced, and more lightly staffed, than traditional magazines, and anyone who tells you that that’s compatible with a low rate of errors is trying to sell you something. As Vox has staffed up and gotten larger and more mature, with more comprehensive editing policies, we’ve had fewer errors like the one I made. That’s something I’m proud of.
Even at a size like ours, though, huge errors are possible; for example, the Washington Post recently had to issue 15 corrections to a single story. I was never fact-checked during my time as a Post staff writer, and most newspapers operate similarly.
But the broader lesson I hope Quillette learns from this is a sense of humility about tribalism and confirmation bias.
A big part of Quillette’s brand has been arguing that it’s an open forum for people who reject the “tribalism” of left and right.
”We’ve become a place where people who don’t fit perfectly into a little box or a label can feel at home and not under pressure to identify with one tribe or another,” Lehmann, the executive editor, told Politico. She cited the original Sokal hoax as proving that the tribalist left-wing humanities fields she despises were easily taken in by people who flattered their ideological prejudices. Sokal wrote something left-wing and jargony, and that was enough, despite this piece being actively nonsensical.
All these disciplines require is a mastery of jargon & flattery of one’s superiors. But mastering jargon & demonstrating the correct ideological leanings is what theology schools do, it’s not what institutions do if their core goal is to seek objective truth.
— Claire Lehmann Brothers (@clairlemon) June 9, 2018
Lehmann and Quillette backed up the attempted “Sokal squared” hoax against various humanities fields last year on similar grounds. “If you’re trying to minimise the implications of Sokal Squared then your implicit admission is that peer review in these fields isn’t broken & the papers themselves are fine & should be accepted within the literature,” she tweeted.
Now that Lehmann has been had by a hoax that similarly tried to flatter her prejudices in absurd style, my advice for her would be to acknowledge that her politics of anti-“identity politics” grievance is a politics like any other, prone to confirmation bias and self-flattery and falling prey to hoaxes that play on those biases as much as the academic humanities are.
There is no shame in this. I’m prone to confirmation bias too. We all are. The real danger comes in thinking yourself above such human limitations.