Ben Burgis’s Canceling Comedians While the World Burns Is a Chronicle of How the Left FailsPhoto by Spencer Platt/Getty Politics Features Leftism
“The underlying posture here is hey, why are you picking on us powerless leftists, just let us have our impotent gesture of protest. The thought that it might be possible to do better and actually have some kind of impact on real politics doesn’t even arise…you can’t stop plutocrats and war criminals from ruining the world. You can’t even vent your displeasure at them in any forum where they’re likely to notice. You can take other leftists to task for all the ways in which you judge them to be subtly wrong.”
One of the many differences between Ben Burgis and me is that Burgis still believes. The Jacobin writer and author of the new book Canceling Comedians While the World Burns is an astute study of all the ways the modern left manages to purposefully or accidentally self-sabotage in its quest to change the world—he’s the heir to Mark Fisher, whose seminal essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” he quotes liberally—but despite banging his head against this metaphorical wall long enough to create a clear-headed, 100-page diagnosis, he still manages to believe in his people. Sometime during the Trump administration, I gave up. I still believe leftist ideas will eventually prevail, because most of them are so strong and times are getting so bad, and I still believe the majority of actual leftists are people with good intentions. But the left as a whole is so easily hijacked, and so vulnerable to strategic and PR blunders, that I see the larger movement as an entity that will delay, not speed, the triumph of its policies.
Burgis has not fallen prey to that cynicism, at least not completely, and that’s a good thing, because otherwise he would not have written this extremely useful book that catalogues the failures of the left and offers a different, hopeful path. I don’t think for a second that progressives will read it and have some great Eureka moment—I think, instead, Burgis will either take a ton of shit for this book, or else be totally ignored by those whose self-interest dictates that they silence his brand of criticism—but this book should be influential, it’s good enough to be influential, and that means that I could be wrong. If I am, Burgis will have done his side an enormous favor. We’ll see.
As you can guess from the title, Canceling Comedians is, above all else, an investigation into misplaced priorities. Burgis’ tone is engaging and friendly, and he supports his main arguments with anecdotes about personalities ranging from Dave Chappelle to Andy Ngo to the YouTuber Natalie Wynn. He’s adept at anticipating the rote counter-arguments of the kind you encounter on social media, and very committed to rigorous logic in ways that will be scoffed in arenas where reactionary emotion tends to win the day.
Burgis is at his most convincing when he discusses the “pathologies of powerlessness.” For the longest time, the American left was moribund, and intra-left fights were somewhat understandable because they were literally the only kind of fight progressives could win. Now that Bernie Sanders has come along and changed the game, and the DSA has gone from a jumped-up mailing list to a robust political organization, the curse of the left is that they can’t seem to escape that old dynamic. Despite the tens of thousands of DSA members diligently working toward goals like Medicare for All, there is an unshakeable obsession with lecturing comedians for minor errors while simultaneously arguing that, oh, I don’t know, Josef Stalin was actually good. Meanwhile, the commitment to inclusivity at the core of DSA—which is obviously a good thing—has a way of making the whole machine vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors who are more interested in grabbing their share of insubstantial “power” through cynical posturing rather than advancing the group’s larger goals. Opportunists have found some ripe marks in the American left, and Burgis knows the only way out is to be bolder at calling “bullshit” even when circumstances make it tough.
As mentioned, he stands on the shoulders of Mark Fisher for much of this book—he’s , appropriately suspicious of identity-based concerns, even if he avoids saying it too explicitly since he doesn’t want to be tarred with the “class reductionist” brush. This philosophical connection with Fisher is a little sad, since we’re almost ten years on with nothing changed, but it’s wise of Burgis to echo some of the same lessons. Fisher identified in bad-faith leftists the “priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.” Fisher committed suicide in 2017, but Burgis picks up where he left off in the underlying belief that the root of most social ills (including the seemingly identity-based ones) can be traced back to economic factors, and the quickest practical way for progressives to make an impact is through economic activism. This will not be well-received in some corners, but if you’re the kind of leftist who thinks that an understanding of this basic truth is critical to gaining ground, you’ll nod along as you read. Those frustrated with the apparent hypocrisies and flawed strategies of the left will find their concerns laid out beautifully here; the problem is, can he convert the others?
An unfortunate truth about leftism in America is that we’re starting from behind. Way behind. The advantage is in our ideas, but the disadvantage is in how thoroughly entrenched the philosophies of conservatives and neoliberals are in U.S. culture. To overcome this, ideas aren’t enough; you have to have strategy, and you have to care about optics. In short, you have to want to win. That’s harder than it looks for a group that hasn’t done a lot of winning in about 70 years, but it’s critically important. I was glad when Burgis brought up the 2019 DSA convention in Atlanta. Tucker Carlson and others at Fox News took the opportunity to skewer the clips that emerged, which showed a series of delegates one-upping each other with complaints about “noise sensitivity” and “gendered language,” all while applauding by wiggling their fingers in the air. Granted, Carlson and others were picking and choosing the most laughable moments from an entire weekend, and it’s not like the entire convention went this way. But those were actual moments broadcast to the world by the DSA itself, they were embarrassing, and they made the left look extremely weak. Spend any time around the “normies” of the country who might be persuadable, and you know how this kind of spectacle can set the cause back.
Burgis understands the negative impact, even as others try to dismiss it. On the flip side, he’s incisive about superficial attempts at toughness, as when a group of cosplayers calling themselves Antifa commit real acts of violence and believe they’re doing something beneficial. Whether the lasting image is one of hyper-sensitivity or spontaneous violence, the left manages to come off like reactive fools, and Burgis knows too well the toll this takes on the movement. Even as someone sympathetic to their values who would gladly vote for any sane leftist, I shudder to imagine what the worst elements would look like with any real power.
Nor do the priorities seem to align from one moment to the next. Earlier this week, on Twitter, you could find hundreds of leftists laughing about a New York City detective who got hit on the head with a stick for no reason, and the dual justifications for this are that A, it didn’t seem like it hurt, and B, it looked staged. The response to A is, “how would you know?”, and as for B, the man caught on camera has been arrested and named. At this point, even if you don’t trust cops, you have to go out of your way to believe it was some kind of set-up, but that’s exactly what many online leftists are doing, either for the in-group status or because—far more frightening—they actually believe it. If you were politically uninformed and you saw all this play out, what other conclusion could you arrive at beyond, “these people are weird assholes”? And the fact that the other side are bigger, weirder assholes, while true, is not an effective argument…as we know from the fact that Donald Trump won the presidency and then almost did it again.
Where Burgis is effective at diagnosing the “how” and “why” of these moments of self-sabotage, he’s a little less clear on how to make it stop. His book is perhaps best read as a plea; a smart writer showing you exactly where things go wrong, insisting that the whole fight will be much easier without the endless self-owns, and finally begging his audience to heed the lesson. Will it fall on deaf ears? Probably, but that’s just my opinion. Burgis doesn’t think so, and even if we disagree on that front, I’m glad there are people like him out there, boat against the current, fighting the good fight for the rest of us cynics.