Why Quillette sucks

Feel free to add to the list

Australian writer Claire Lehmann lately became Twitter's "main character" by posting bizarre remarks about black women athletes Sha'Carri Richardson and Florence Griffith "Flo-Jo" Joyner. Richardson's "strong nails and hair", she suggested, were a side effect of steroids. Flo-Jo, she falsely added, also "had the nails" and died from drug abuse. In fact, Sha'Carri Richardson's enormous nails and flowing ginger wig are a side effect of salon use, not steroid use, and Flo-Jo died of an epileptic seizure likely triggered by the congenital brain abnormality discovered during her autopsy

Lehmann's clueless vulgarity was such that even right-wingers cringed at her tweets. The New York Times' Jamelle Bouie, certainly not among them, remarked that it'd been a while since he'd seen "Twitter unite against a single person like it has united against the Australian caliper magazine lady."

She did have a defender, though, in the form of commentator Dave Rubin, who (while careful to distance himself from her) suggested that she should sue someone who had called her website, Quillette, a "white supremacist blog". While Rubin's proposal is legally illiterate, it did strike me that the casual invocation of "supremacist" obscures what Quillette's all about, the culture that eats its strategy for breakfast. It's not just the distinction hinted at by Bouie, between the Calipers racists and the Hoods racists, but the peculiar culture of self-serious, middle-class, constantly sneering Britishy media people who think things are just absurd.

I'd begun drafting a post the last time a Quillette thing made the news like this, in 2019 or so, but it struck me as media navel-gazing. But this new latest thing made me realize that Americans, especially, might appreciate a few subjective thoughts on the consensus reality veneers of British (or at least British Commonwealth/Aussie) nonsense. Don't expect a magisterial takedown essay here, y'all, it's just another list on the internet.

In no particular order:

• Quillette poses as a (classically) liberal journal with an interest in inconvenient scientific topics. Its targets are generally progressive and left of center. But scandals (it published shoddy research about journalists and fell victim to a Sokal-esque hoax) show it up as a publish-anything blog with a blind spot for reactionary pseudoscience. It grasps at status.

• Quillette's view of scientific matters reflects an attitude that's long lurked in UK and commonwealth newspapers and magazines: "scientism". This is the flavor of science without the rigor of its method. It's "science" as a materialist worldview uncoupled from the contingencies of scientific practice. Beating social science over the head with "hard" science is its cheapest joy but it justifies all the expensive ones, too. In it lurks the assumption that expertise in one area of science makes one an expert in all of them (and perhaps in everything), which gives endless license to, say, retired engineers and physicists to opine on complex medical and social issues. This is a familiar feature of U.S. journalism, too, but in the commonwealth, from Vancouver to Auckland, it is a dominant secular religion. (Though as Purplecat notes in the comments, that is not to say the decisionmakers are themselves secular or respectful of science)

• This viewpoint (if not necessarily Quillette itself) reflects a thin overton window exposing a peculiar British-ish spectrum of political positions, superficially left and right, which align well with that media culture. From the center-right, a contemptuous yet tolerant Toryism and its jocular, slur-blurting belletrists. From the center-left, the Grauniad cult of crypto-Blairites, Mattachines and trans-exclusionary feminists.

• This is all vaguely compatible with the American tradition of "scientific racism", of the sort sublimated by The Bell Curve, but arriving at points of shared interest from opposite directions. And it must be said Quillette is interested in things far beyond race; it is not back-handed praise to admit Quillette's universal interest in the subjects of science and culture.

• A hidden gust in Quillette's sails (at least to American readers, I feel) is the anti-religious "skeptic movement" whose admirable work debunking psychics, aliens, popery and so forth once helped made the internet fun. This movement ossified as the perceived public influence of its traditional religious enemies waned, and its scolding attitude toward religious authority was brought to bear on other, less establishmentarian foes. This made the movement, such as it was, fertile ground for young reactionaries. A place where the old religions are absent but the new enemies are shared.

• Hypocrisy is tolerated as praxis. The "intellectual dark web" of free-speech absolutists, as it was self-defeatingly named, is a regular source of legal threats and covert (if perhaps naive) support of authoritarian personalities and institutions. The "censorship" they complain of often amounts to mere criticism, experienced by their giant egos as injury. But the formal state-backed censorship they threaten to use themselves is all too real. Lehmann herself once threatened to sue someone for "defaming" Quillette because it's "going to be fun".

• Quillette reeks of insecurity and paranoia. This is partially rooted in the society of marginalized Galileos it imagines itself to revolve around. But it's more deeply about the fear that civil society's hosts are being dethroned by guests who do not truly belong. In a broad sense, this is the truth at the heart of the rhetorical hyperbole asserted in calling Quillette "white supremacist". Consider the current panic on the right, that tolerating discussion of historical racism yields authority to victims set on illiberal aims. Same thing.

• It can't stop inserting thought-stopping cliches. Quillette allows plenty of work to go up in its own voice (and its dire reputation may even deny its best articles the audience they deserve) but anything that gets close to the pitcher plant of its obsessions ends up peppered with the same keywords, slights and idées fixes we've been familiar with for years. "SJWs", from downvoted reddit comments six years ago via tabloid columnists in the Trump presidency to God's ears.

• Conspiratorial thinking. In fairness, Quillette is often scientifically reliable—it's been thorough and solid on vaccines, for example—but the further it gets from overwhelming consensus the more likely it is to fall for a crank with the right message and a big pile of numbers.

• Good vaccine coverage aside, it does the "climate change is real, but everyone complaining about it is a whining fraud, shut up shut up shut up" thing now and again. Screaming at environmentalists the way Arnold Vosloo in The Mummy screams at cats always makes me think of rich libertarian donors, for some reason.

• The accusation of crypto-fascism, made by one critic of Quillette, masks a point better made by pointing out they simply don't accept that fascism meaningfully exists at all. This lets them explore the old haunts without all the baggage, without being told what to do or think by anyone. South Park for skull-measurers.

• It's significant, I think, that Quillette has difficulty impressing nerds: people with a highly technical education and, stereotypically, an aversion to identity politics. You'd think this would be a key audience (cf. libertarians and techbros and whatnot) but it seems that they can smell Quillette's delusional self-regard even if they agree with whatever point it is currently making. Quillette desperately wants to be taken seriously by the people it considers serious. But they can only be flattered once. Such are the vicissitudes of "identity politics".

• So with Quillette and like minds we find a tangle of contemporary beliefs and presumptions that make them (in their own perception) the flag-carriers of a historical scientific tradition in desperate need of defense and revival. The best term to understand Quilette, then, might be "reactionary humanism." It appeals to the "real" and offers "realism" about things, a "realism" obvious to itself but whose roots could not be less obvious to itself. Gender realism and racial realism, realism about all the things people feel bad about thinking, all in hopeless ignorance of the tired and tragic ideas that still animate its tired and tragic politics.


Well, there you go.