As the media has fragmented, its funding has relied on diverse sources of patronage. People who agree with me have offered excellent products and appealed to readers, listeners and viewers to support them in bettering the world. People who disagree with me have exploited herdlike fools with glib, crowd-pleasing nonsense for the sole purpose of self-enrichment. They have, in other words, become “grifters”.
Who is a grifter? A grifter is someone who puts themselves first and their cause second, third, fourth or fifth. A grifter is someone who smells profit like a dog smells stale pee. A grifter is a mountebank, a soulless salesman, someone who seeks out earnings and attention like an addict.
Yes, grifters exist. It would be pointless and divisive to offer examples. Needless to say, grifters are very clear about how to pay them and a lot less clear on why they should be paid. Needless to say, grifters produce content for markets like a tailor cuts expensive suit for wealthy customer. Needless to say, there are few depths that a grifter will not sink to in moral, intellectual and aesthetic terms for likes, shares and donations.
Still, the “grifter” charge has been misused, much as I misused it in my opening paragraph. It has become a quick way to impugn the motives of one’s rhetorical opponents, which, even if it complements rather than replaces a response to their ideas (which it often does not) demands justification, just like “liar”, or “fraud”, or “creep”.
Jamelle Bouie, the American progressive commentator, recently called Quillette’s Coleman Hughes a “grifter”. Elliot Kauffman of the Wall Street Journal saw some irony in this, as Bouie is a columnist for the New York Times while Hughes is a college student who writes in his spare time. I had the same thought when I read Matthew Yglesias of Vox snarking about how contrarianism of the “Intellectual Dark Web” variety is an easy route to riches. Mr Yglesias has earned millions of dollars as the in-house contrarian of websites like Vox, which are swollen from the proceeds of venture capitalism.
Still, Bouie and Yglesias could respond that they have earned their fame and riches through sincere, substantive arguments rather than, well, grifting. But where is the substance of Bouie’s accusation? I have never interacted with Mr Hughes, and have no special insight into his soul. Perhaps he was sitting around on campus when – boom – an idea struck him with sinister force. “How about I become rich and famous by, get this, writing long articles about African-American culture for an Australian web magazine.” Perhaps he was. But it seems unlikely, no?
Bouie called Hughes a grifter simply because Hughes disagreed with him, and “grifter” was a more modish, subtle and damning insult than “idiot”, “imbecile” or other insults that for all their crassness would at least have sullied his intelligence rather than his intentions.
It is easy to grow cynical online. As commentators steer their audiences towards Patreon, PayPal, SubscribeStar, crypto-currencies and other means of paying their bills and funding their vacations it is tempting to assume that they must be opportunists. Perhaps they are. But some things should be kept in mind. The first is that the media has always relied on patronage and it need have no less integrity if this comes from a wide range of backers than if it comes from the pockets of a billionaire. The second is that patronage is not, at least in principle, the same as charity. Whether you like Jordan Peterson or Chapo Trap House, if you have supported their respective Patreons you have done so not because you want to keep them off the streets but because you want to keep them making new content. The third is that the alternative to patronage is inevitably advertising, and producing adverts for oneself might be preferable to hosting adverts for dubious sexual performance supplements and boutique handbags.
Even when someone is obviously not making full use their intelligence, they might have motivations other than greed: the desire for status, the desire to propagandise or just the unconscious urge to defend a cause they have emotional investment in by any means available. All this means we should be careful not to use the “grifter” epithet promiscuously and without just cause.
Still, there is a very different angle to see this from. The ability to monetise one’s interest in politics and society does add dangerous incentives into one’s work. Most of us who have found a place in the online media, thanks to magazines, or YouTube, or Twitter, have or have had normal jobs with less obvious potential for wealth, status and excitement. The desire to turn one’s hobby into one’s career does put a devil on one’s shoulder, whispering about what is and is not a good take, or style, or argument to monetise. As writers, comedians and documentarians increasingly depend on freelance work and crowdfunding, the desire to please one’s editors and audience is unavoidable.
Sometimes the consequences of this are minimal if not actually harmless. Occasionally, I choose a subject that my readers are interested in rather than a subject I find more interesting – but sometimes I look back and see that my readers have been right. More damaging is the temptation to make arguments that will be welcomed by one’s editors and audience, and to avoid arguments they will find misguided or offensive. There is no way to avoid this temptation. One can only ask oneself if it is better to die having contributed some small things of value to the world or as a hack with a slightly bigger house.