Over the weekend, much of the Sanderista internet erupted in outrage after Matt Bruenig, the incisive poverty analyst and combative Twitter personality, lost his blogging gig at Demos, a progressive policy shop. He was let go after a Twitter spat in which he called Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, “scumbag Neera” and referred to her and Nation writer Joan Walsh as “geriatrics.” The story that quickly ricocheted around Twitter was that Bruenig, an expectant father, had been left jobless because he dared to stand up to members of the Democratic establishment. Tweeted Glenn Greenwald:
Bruenig set up a GoFundMe page, which he called the Bruenig Bailout Fund, and soon raised nearly $25,000. “Fuck Demos, Neera, Joan, and any establishment cowards who would sooner see an expectant father fired than face critiques they surely know are true,” said one $18 donor. The story of Bruenig’s firing made Politico (“Progressive Blogger Fired for Calling Hillary Clinton Ally a ‘Scumbag’ ”) and Gawker (“Liberal Think Tank Fires Blogger for Rude Tweets.”) The Nation has been inundated with demands that Walsh be fired in turn, and Walsh—who was, full disclosure, my boss when I worked at Salon—tells me she has received three death threats.
Yet the notion that Bruenig is some sort of populist martyr is, at best, incomplete. Lost in the initial coverage was the fact that Bruenig has a full-time job as a lawyer; he blogged for Demos as a freelancer. (I won’t reveal where he works, a courtesy he probably wouldn’t extend to his online adversaries.) From a free speech perspective, his other employment is immaterial, but the end of his relationship with Demos is not going to plunge his young family into destitution. Further, neither Walsh nor Tanden had any communication with Demos before he was let go. “These allegations that Neera and I got him fired are complete lies,” says Walsh.
Demos is an organization that does research and legal advocacy around poverty and voting rights. It is known for having a warm, collegial internal culture, and it values its relationships with other progressive players. In that sense, Bruenig’s aggressive persona made him an odd fit well before the latest contretemps.
He is widely admired for his work on poverty, particularly his refutations of the so-called success sequence, which holds that a person can avoid economic immiseration by finishing high school, getting a full-time job, and delaying child-bearing until after age 21, and then only within marriage. On Twitter, however, he has a reputation, particularly among liberal women, as a relentless bully with a nasty online entourage. As the feminist writer Sady Doyle wrote in an email to Demos, “Bruenig is not only directly aggressive, he is a ringleader who inspires people to be aggressive and commit harassment in his name. Reports of being stormed after Bruenig points his followers at people are ubiquitous, and they most often come from women and people of color.” In the wake of fights with Bruenig, both Walsh and the feminist writer Jill Filipovic have seen photographs of the insides of their apartments, taken from real estate websites and Airbnb, circulated online. The message Walsh took from this was “we know where you live.”
Obviously, Bruenig is not responsible for the online behavior of his peers. (It is the nature of mobs, online or otherwise, to make responsibility diffuse.) He himself, however, insults people in starkly personal terms. He’s been taunting Walsh for being “old” for months now. Recently, when she objected, he threw information about her condo, presumbably unearthed by one of her trolls, in her face: “But hey keep on gentrifying Harlem with your million dollar apartment you woke self-proclaimed centrist.” (Bruenig declined to comment for this piece.) During a recent argument with Filipovic, he tweeted, “it’s just funny that you are such a hack that you deny actual facts when they disrupt your preferred framing.” He wrote that the writer Megan McArdle was a “complete human failure at business,” mocking her “inadequacy and incompetence at the thing she spent many years trying to accomplish.” He later wrote that this sort of insult-laden prose “stirs and inflames people, which I find funny. People call this ‘trolling.’ ”
They do indeed. Bruenig makes no apologies for being cruel to those he considers class enemies. As he and some of his allies see it, perfidious neoliberals regularly take sadistic policy positions while using demands for civility to escape the consequences. “To read the daily internet happenings on poverty in the US is to basically just watch a parlor game of elites opine in extremely ‘uncivil’ ways about the plight of people that they don’t afford any dignity, humanity, or decency,” he once wrote on his personal blog. On social media, he turns that contempt back on the people who he believes deserve it.
For the circle of leftists who surround him, being horrible online has become a kind of ethos. “Vulgarity is the language of the people … to wield righteously against the corrupt and the powerful,” Amber A’Lee Frost wrote recently in Current Affairs. A piece on Medium titled “In Support of Matt Bruenig” quoted that passage approvingly, adding, “Bruenig, better than almost any contemporary writer, understands this power, and wields it unflinchingly.”
For women and people of color who have tangled with Bruenig, his righteously wielded personal invective comes on top of the online abuse they already suffer. He does not appear to be bothered by this. “Identitarianism is … heavily intertwined with certain discourse norms demanding deference to (even bourgeois) members of various demographic groups,” he wrote in April. “And the last thing someone interested in class politics should ever do is hesitate to harshly criticize any bourgeois discourse participant with bad arguments and opinions, especially when those arguments and opinions concern class issues.”
Bruenig’s ideological commitment to harsh criticism created a dilemma for Demos, which was the only institutional affiliation listed on Bruenig’s Twitter account and which doesn’t want to be associated with Twitter trolling. The organization urged him to scale back his personal attacks. He refused. As Demos said in a statement after he was let go: “After multiple conversations, Matt Bruenig and Demos have agreed to disagree on the value of the attack mode on Twitter. We part ways on the effectiveness of these kinds of personalized, online fights and so we are parting ways as colleagues today.”
In general, I’m not comfortable with the idea of people losing their jobs over insulting things they say on Twitter; I thought it was wrong, for example, for the journalist Nir Rosen to be fired for his tasteless jokes about Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Egypt.
There must be a line, however, between making allowances for things said in the heat of argument and insisting on the moral right to personally demean anyone who disagrees with you, without consequences. I’m not sure exactly where I’d draw it, but a few things are clear. Bruenig is now nearly $25,000 richer and more of a hero to his faction of the left than ever before. The idea that being an asshole on Twitter constitutes revolutionary praxis has been further embedded. And if Bruenig is a victim here, he is far from the only one.