- The Racket
- The social network
The social network
And an update on the hosting of this newsletter
I’d hoped to close out the year with a mailbag1, and maybe another note on Gaza, but—with apologies to Rusty Foster—Our Regrettable Platform is making itself the story. Well, that’s not the whole story; I definitely helped2. But the response from Substack’s co-founders to my revelation of their Nazi problem was so crushingly bad that it became national news, including today’s New York Times:
There have been some really excellent things written about the situation; I suggest you check out ’s essay in particular. I also got a lot out of these from and from . I just want to add a couple of notes that others may have missed.
First off, I’m glad that co-founder Hamish McKenzie finally engaged with the platform’s critics, albeit a full six months after I sounded the alarm on his promotion of the openly racist—and later found to be a white nationalist—troll Richard Hanania. In doing so, McKenzie helpfully acknowledged that, despite the claims of some of Substack corporate’s defenders, there are indeed Nazi voices on the platform and that some of them are making money for themselves and Substack’s investors.
Above all, what the signers of the Substackers Against Nazis letter (shout out to for organizing it) wanted was for Substack’s chiefs to state their position having full-on Nazis on the platform. That position has now been made abundantly clear.
That said, the supposed basis for that position makes no sense. Hamish writes:
Setting aside the first line as a big “citation needed” (which views specifically, Hamish?) there is no logical throughline from “open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power” to the need to ensure that “bad ideas” have unfettered access to funding—funding from which, again, both Substack’s investors and payments provider Stripe get a cut.
I get that he, like many others, have convinced themselves that letting literal Nazis disseminate their views as widely as possible on private platforms is not only a necessary condition of but the emblematic use case for free speech. This is, I should note, not even necessarily the case. Here’s a quote from journalism professor Whitney Phillips that ended up on the cutting room floor of my Atlantic piece:
In short, by welcoming Nazis onto your platform—and make no mistake, that is exactly what McKenzie is doing: “You are facilitating less speech overall, period.”
Maybe McKenzie honestly disagrees. Maybe he does genuinely think that the ideal way to facilitate free expression is to put gender-queer scholars and street-fighting Nazis on the same platform (but not sex workers or pornographers, they’re still banned), and have them hold an essay contest to see which minorities get to live. Yet even then, even if you subscribe to that very specific understanding of free speech and censorship, how on Earth does that lead to the conclusion that you need to white nationalists fundraise.
And more than protecting free speech as its own good, McKenzie claims that he is doing something that is intrinsically biased: that he and the platform’s managers are trying to make Nazis less powerful. This blows up the pretense that the platform is a perfectly neutral arbiter. (And good! no one should be neutral when it comes to fascism). But it leaves a glaring question: How exactly would denying Nazis—including several organizers of the deadly riot in Charlottesville—the use of Substack’s fundraising, dissemination, and email list making tools make “the [Nazi] problem … worse?”
How, Hamish? I’m genuinely curious.
This leads us to the “promotion” part of McKenzie’s post, and the debate. Substack, as I’ve said, is not a neutral arbiter. Nor is it even strictly just a newsletter-hosting platform anymore. When you sign up for a Substack account in 2023, the platform pushes newsletters it thinks you should read, driving readers to preferred writers and encouraging them to pony up money for subscriptions. Newsletter-writers are asked to recommend other publications; those and others identified by the algorithm also periodically get pushed to user’s mailboxes and phones. Many readers don’t even get email newsletters anymore; the platform encourages you to read them in the proprietary Substack app, which further drives them to the Twitter clone Substack Notes—the algorithm-run sub-platform on which co-founder Hamish McKenzie hung his big “Nazis welcome” sign.
Knowing what the platform’s founders actually think, and which ideas they think are worth promoting, thus becomes more acutely important.
McKenzie ignores all the other examples of far-right, “top of the funnel” writers he has gone out of his way to promote of late, including Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, Chris Rufo, and the quasi-fascist podcaster Darryl Cooper. Instead he chose to focus on his decision to promote Hanania on a Substack podcast back in June. There’s been some confusion on how I and others categorize Hanania. That’s with good reason: Hanania—a foundational “thinker” of the former alt-right, who was invited by Richard Spencer to contribute to AlternativeRight.com—has made an entire career out of mixing bog-standard Nazi eugenics with “heterodox” poses (he’s pro-choice!) and academic language, in an attempt to make racial hierarchy and anti-democratic views seem more widely palatable to both highly educated and naïve audience.3 Just as his former patron Spencer eschewed skinheads and swastikas for hipster haircuts and khakis, Hanania consciously blurs the line between the sort of white supremacist and authoritarian writing that is currently considered acceptable in certain elite circles, and the harder-edged, openly fascist stuff that until recently was consigned to the fringe of online discourse.
The relative skill with which he toes that line would probably be enough to keep Hanania on the right side of the terms of service, even if Substack chose to enforce them. But regardless of whether Hanania is still a white nationalist, his writing inarguably serves the Nazis’ goals. As I’ve noted previously, a reader who followed Hanania’s reading recommendations on his podcast with McKenzie would have found themselves reading a newsletter that claims most Black victims of U.S. lynching deserved to die; that eulogized the “scientific racist” and father of neo-eugenics, Richard Lynch; and wrote a spirited defense of (pre-Nazi but no less genocidal) German colonialism in Africa. Follow that Substacker’s recommendations, and you’ll find yourself on a newsletter that obsesses over “Jewish IQ” and the allegedly diminishing cultural power of “white gentile men,” in a post that, not for nothing, is a “behavior-genetics inspired” response to—the work of Richard Hanania.
And again, that’s the point: As one of Hanania’s first editors, the movement white supremacist Greg Johnson, wrote after the HuffPost exposé: “The most charitable interpretation of Richard Hanania’s career trajectory is that he remained race-wise and Jew-wise, but edged up to the mainstream to inject good ideas and shift the Overton window. He was wildly successful.”
Does Substack’s leadership agree with those views? At no point during his interview with Hanania did McKenzie so much as push back on the writer’s positions that the Civil Rights Act should be gutted, or even bring up his “spicier” (to use McKenzie’s word) claims that Black and Latino people are inherently less intelligent than whites, that Black people are “animals” who should face even higher rates of incarceration, that trans activists shouldn’t be allowed to post on social media, etc.
In short, the problem wasn’t that McKenzie was exposing Hanania’s ideas. It’s that he was helping laundering his racist views to make them more palatable to a larger audience. And McKenzie kept on laundering them that very post—claiming that Hanania “went on to disavow” those views, when he functionally did the opposite:
And I might also note that, I—unlike McKenzie, or most of the “free speech” absolutists rushing to show solidarity with white nationalists—did engage directly with many of those aforementioned “bad ideas,” on their own terms:
It’s funny to me that the guys who claim to be so deeply invested in free discourse and open debate have so steadfastly refused to engage in either.
So what does that mean for this newsletter? I haven’t made a final decision yet—among other things I need to talk some of my fellow SAN letter-signers and decide whether and how to take a coordinated step forward—but it seems highly unlikely that The Racket is going to be on Substack next year. I’ve held my nose writing for a lot of places over the years. But it is going to be extremely hard to justify giving 10% of my revenue to a company whose definition of “civil liberties” includes an obligation to fund Nazis.
I’m gonna just use the same language as , who put it very well in his farewell note:
Same for me. If you aren’t on the list yet, you can get on it now, and be the first informed when I decide what’s next, and ready to go with me when it’s time. If you are, please hold tight. I deeply appreciate everyone’s support over the years, and especially throughout 2023. And thanks for your patience. The only way through is together.