Counterweight, and the continued enabling of bad faith ‘anti-woke’ actors

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Aaron Rabinowitzhttps://voidpod.com/
Aaron Rabinowitz is a lecturer in philosophy at Rutgers University, and host of the Embrace The Void and Philosophers in Space podcast.

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In my previous articles on the culture wars, I’ve covered their history and some of the bad faith actors driving the conspiracies and moral panics currently dominating the social discourse. This month I want to tell a story that, for me, characterises how members of the anti-woke media ecosystem continue to collaborate with particularly egregious bad actors while trying to avoid a cost to reputation. This story gets very ‘inside baseball’, but hopefully conveys what it’s like “reporting” on anti-woke activism.

Our story begins on January 24th of 2021, with the formal launch of the UK based Counterweight website, billed as “the home of scholarship and advice on Critical Social Justice ideology”, and committed to “individualism, universalism, viewpoint diversity and the free exchange of ideas”. Counterweight is one of many anti-woke activist organisations that has popped up in the past year to provide resources for organising against wokeness. Despite providing scant evidence that there was a substantive problem their organisation would address, Counterweight’s debut was uncritically covered by several news outlets, including The Daily Mail, Russia Today, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times – the latter two of whom felt Counterweight’s launch warranted front-page coverage. Counterweight’s founder, Helen Pluckrose, was invited to give numerous interviews in the mainstream media.

These sorts of organisations and their membership tend to be pretty interchangeable, and I usually don’t spend much time keeping track of them. By offering to provide resources for individuals dealing with a ‘wokeness’ problem in their lives, groups like Counterweight solicit and consolidate lists of typically unverifiable grievance narratives to sustain what I consider to be little more than a moral panic. The only reason Counterweight caught my attention is because it was founded by Pluckrose, one of the grievance hoax trio. Pluckrose and I have a contentious history, including a a Letterwiki exchange and several disagreements online. My opinion is that she – quite possibly unknowingly – enables bad faith actors and bad ideas in an earnest attempt to defend liberalism, and she appears to think I’m a bad faith actor, as you’ll soon see.

So, my curiosity brought me to Counterweight’s new website, which contained a predictable mix of questionable partners and resources, including Toby Young’s Free Speech Union and New Discourses, the website run by James Lindsay as part of his business with Michael O’Fallon, founder of the Christian Nationalist group Sovereign Nations. Given that Lindsay and Pluckrose are longtime friends and have collaborated on several projects, I didn’t think much of any of this, but I did email Counterweight to see if someone would be willing to come onto my show, Embrace the Void, to discuss their project. They initially responded positively, though when I brought up my prior history with Pluckrose, they stopped responding.

Four days after Counterweight’s website premiered, on January 29th, Lindsay uncritically promoted an antisemitic White Nationalist talking point about ‘woke Jews’:

Tweets from "James Lindsay, guy who Putin sits like" from January 29th, 2021:

"Anti-Semitism is on the rise again, truly. Wokeness contains left-wing anti-Semitism. Normal right-wing anti-Semitism is flared up because of conditions and identity politics. Extra right-wing anti-Semitism is arising because lots of progressive Jews are nonsensically Woke." (696 comments, 916 RTs, 2.2k likes)

Blaming progressive Jews for right wing antisemitism is a key piece of the cultural bolshevism  or Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory that I’ve talked about previously. This tweet alone was bad enough, but when you combine it with Lindsay’s tweet from two weeks prior that the “asset-holding class” plan to kill off 5 billion people in the next 10 years, you get a maximally dangerous promotion of antisemitic conspiracy theories:

Tweets from "James Lindsay, guy who Putin sits like" from January 13th, 2021:

"If you didn't know, "the plan" involves reducing the world population to under 2B, perhaps by the end of the decade. That's about 3/4 people who are excess population" (195 comments, 275 RTs, 1.1k likes)

"The asset-holding class doesn't really need people anymore, they think,. and see them as "the virus", so since they don't meaningfully participate in the real economy, which is all trading, they don't really know what to do with us. Time for a Great Reset".

James had already promoted election conspiracy theories and other anti-globalist conspiracy theories before, sometimes under the paper-thin guise of “satire”. These threads caused a few prominent individuals within the anti-woke community, including Cathy Young and Claire Lehmann, to openly break with Lindsay. Pluckrose even posted a tweet appearing to distance herself from James’s conspiracism, before deleting it and blaming alcohol for the poor judgment in commenting publicly at all. Since I covered Lindsay’s public spiral on Embrace the Void 150, his tweets were only surprising in that they earnestly revealed the depths of his conspiracism.

When I saw the antisemitism thread, it occurred to me to check if New Discourses was still listed as a partner on Counterweights newly-launched website. I assumed it would be, and so was very surprised to find the following results:

Counterweights page listing partner organisations, which lists Aero, Critical Therapy Antidote, and The Moral Courage Project, but has no reference to James Lindsay's New Discourses website.

I was so surprised I hopped in the wayback machine to make sure I wasn’t just remembering wrong. Sure enough, New Discourses had been removed from the list of partners, sometime between January 25th and February 1st:

The internet archive "Wayback Machine" page for Counterweights list or partner organisations as of January 25th, 2011, clearly lists New Discourses as an official partner, along with Aero, Critical Therapy Antidote, and The Moral Courage Project. The page describes New Discourses as "a media site and an educational resource", which accuses the 'Critical Social Justice movement' of seeking to "control the discourses of our society" through "heavy-handed, even bullying tactics" and "having changed the meanings of many words themselves".

The most plausible explanation I could think of was that all the heat on James had pushed Counterweight to remove him from their fledgling partners page, so I contacted them via twitter and via email asking why New Discourses had been removed. I received no response. Off and on over the next several months I tried to get answers to what I believe are reasonable and straightforward questions:

  1. Is New Discourses still a partner of Counterweight?
  2. Why was New Discourses removed from the partner list roughly a week after launch?
  3. If it was because of James’s internet behavior, why remove him from the partners list but leave up all the links to New Discourses in the resources section? Do you worry that sends a mixed message?

Last month I finally got a response from Helen, which I’m going to reproduce in full to avoid any accusations of misrepresentation:

Is New Discourses still a partner of Counterweight?
No. 

Why was New Discourses removed from the partner list roughly a week after launch?
ND is approaching the problems of illiberal ideology in a profoundly different way from Counterweight and this is why our team decided to remove them from the partners list. There is no hostility attached to this decision. ND publishes some excellent scholarship and we continue to feel they are making an important contribution to the discourse on these issues, albeit in a different way to Counterweight. This is good. A plurality of approaches is highly desirable.

If it was because of James’ internet behavior, why remove him from the partners list but leave up all the links to New Discourses in the resources section? Do you worry that sends a mixed message?

As it says on our links page, the resources listed there have been recommended by the Counterweight community and contain a diverse range of views.

It is not necessary to agree with everything a person says in every place in order to publish good work. You may recall that I published a good piece by Rod Graham on Areo and was going to publish an argument by you on Areo until you backed out. This does not mean I endorse everything else you’ve both ever said. In fact, I disagree with most of it.

While I appreciated getting a response, the answer to the second question is more confusing than clarifying. In what sense is New Discourses’ approach “profoundly different” from Counterweight’s? What makes them a bad choice for partner, but a good choice for filling Counterweight’s links page? Here is their “understanding critical social justice” links page at present, with the New Discourses links identified:

A list of linked resources on Counterweight's "understanding critical social justice" page, as linked to in the preceding paragraph. Of the links, five are highlighted - these are links to content on New Discourses, written by James Lindsay.

I asked for clarification, but never received a follow-up response, which is not surprising given how Pluckrose signed off her first response:

I hope this satisfies your curiosity. I decline to engage with you further since I have previously spent considerable time and energy discussing my values and motivations with you publicly. I thought we had come to an understanding about where we differed but accepted each other to be genuinely trying to make the world a more just place, even if we thought the other did more harm than good. Then you told people on Twitter that my motivations are financial gain. In fact, I took no salary from Aero and take none from Counterweight. That was a malicious misrepresentation. I do not forgive it and will not engage with you again after this email because I do not trust you to represent what we are doing honestly.

To be clear, I refute the suggestion that I accused Pluckrose of seeking financial gains, and don’t actually believe her motivations are monetary. But more to the point, I asked these questions of a professional organisation – one which has received prominent and uncritical coverage by multiple UK national media outlets – and while I’m not a full-time professional journalist, I was asking these questions explicitly as part of trying to write this article for a legitimate publication. Given that everyone at Counterweight knew exactly who James Lindsay was on January 24th when they launched the website with New Discourses as a partner, it is perfectly reasonable to ask what happened between then and February 2nd when I noticed the change to the page. The most obvious explanation I can think of is that in the intervening week Lindsay unquestionably exposed himself as willing to share potentially dangerous conspiracy theories, and enough of their group got anxious about it to pull his partnership. So why not just say that? If Pluckrose is really afraid that I’ll misrepresent the group, the best protection is giving a straightforward response that doesn’t raise more questions than it answers.

I don’t know the answer. Maybe Pluckrose’s personal relationship with Lindsay prevents her from giving a clearer answer. Maybe it’s that the group is worried to go on the record condemning Lindsay’s behavior, knowing he has an increasingly large and aggressive following, and has shown that he is willing to lash out in response to any criticism. Maybe they really need to keep using his content on their resources page, even though those links seem full of the sorts of “profoundly different approaches” they claim to want to avoid.

One other possibility, though the timing doesn’t make sense, is that they object to James’s support of the “ban divisive ideas bills” that the right wing has been pushing in red states across the country. If that was the case, I would recommend they remove the first amendment article they’ve linked from New Discourses, as it provides one version of the highly specious legal foundation that anti-woke advocates have used to justify these bills: that ‘wokeness’ is a religion and so can be banned from schools.

It does, however, seem striking to me that Counterweight is happy to continue promoting the “excellent scholarship” of someone who has openly promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories. The obvious irony here is that if an organisation was partnered with someone who had made similar comments about white people, Counterweight would be first in the queue to condemn them as an example of out-of-control wokeness, and they’d find sympathetic ears from journalists across the mainstream press. Instead, they quietly remove New Discourses from the partners list and hope nobody notices.

This isn’t just about Counterweight. The number of orgs relying on New Discourses and the propaganda that Lindsay has developed with Chris Rufo and Michael O’Fallon is going up, not down, despite Lindsay’s explicit promotion of white genocide conspiracy theories. James Lindsay openly promotes potentially dangerous conspiracy theories and these groups promote his work like they simply disagree with some of his tactics – disagreements that they refuse to clarify. You can’t heavily cite someone like David Icke and say “Oh, but we disagree on some stuff too”, without making it very clear where you disagree, and why you’re continuing to collaborate with someone who promotes antisemitic conspiracy theories.

In the meantime, this enabling behavior allows Lindsay’s influence to keep growing, driving the anti-woke movement deeper and deeper into moral panic territory, ensuring more escalation and conflict… and, ultimately, more “need” for Counterweight’s “services”.

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