Whither the Watch List in 2024?

A follow-up about that Substack Nazi thing.

Whither the Watch List in 2024?

So you may be wondering what I’m going to do about Substack’s “Nazi problem,” at least as it concerns this newsletter. It’s a good question and I don’t have a definitive answer yet. But I will soon — either shortly before I head off to the Sundance  Film Festival in mid-January or shortly after I return — and I’m asking you to bear with me while I research my options.

A quick recap: On December 14, I was one of about 200 authors publishing on this platform to post a group letter addressed to Substack’s CEO Chris Best, COO Hamish McKenzie, and CTO Jairaj Sethi, asking for a simple response to the question: Why is Substack platforming and monetizing Nazis? This was in reaction to a November 28 article in The Atlantic by Jonathan M. Katz reporting on a number of white supremacist writers using and making money from the platform, despite terms of service proscribing hate speech and despite Substack banning sex workers and other adult content.

The response from the Substack team came on December 21, and while it was not what the letter writers wanted to hear, it was the clarification of principles we had asked for. Perhaps the key paragraph in McKenzie’s note was this:

I just want to make it clear that we don’t like Nazis either—we wish no-one held those views. But some people do hold those and other extreme views. Given that, we don't think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away—in fact, it makes it worse.

I would argue that history has rather consistently proven the opposite; that allowing the dissemination of hate speech allows it to flourish, take root, and grow. I’m not going to start threading the needle of the censorship debate here – how if we disallow Nazi speech, soon they’ll be putting the gags on you and me. I bought that when I was young; I don’t anymore. The older I get, the more philosopher Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” makes sense:

If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

It's a pretty short step, then, to say I’m not happy about publishing on a platform that profits in even a tiny part by hate speech – writings by people who wish other people out of existence and who, if they had the power to do so, would act on that wish. And a good number of other writers using the platform are of the same mind. “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood addressed Substack’s leadership in a tart post this week, reminding them that “No, Substack: You can’t have both the dystopian nightmare and ‘Flopsy Bunny’s Very Busy Day.’ You can’t have both the terms of service you have spelled out and a bunch of individual publishers who violate those terms of service. “

Exactly. So what are our choices here? Other Substackers have written on this subject with great eloquence and insight; I especially recommend A. R. Moxon’s response to McKenzie’s response for its sanity, specificity, and gallows humor. Too much good stuff there to quote piecemeal.

By contrast, “Culture Study” author Anne Helen Petersen, one of the bigger guns using Substack, makes a case for staying on the platform “to be a thorn in the side of Substack’s leadership when it comes to this issue” and to convince them “to make the spectacularly simple decision to turn off Nazi monetization.” I take her point, and I may in fact elect to stay. But I started the Watch List to write about movies, not to be a thorn, and even if I decided to stick around and continue tithing a portion of my income to Substack, I’m not sure how many of my readers would feel about doing the same.

So watch this space. There are other publishing platforms out there, and I’ll be looking into them in the coming weeks. Some allow writers to port their subscriber lists over in toto, and for that reason I would ask you to stick around yourselves, even if you’re feeling strongly otherwise. Basically I’m asking you to hold tight and trust that I’ll do the right thing. Because I know I’m going to hear from you if I don’t.

As always, I’m immensely grateful for your continuing support and I send you my very best wishes for a not-insane 2024.


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