From Pundit To Troll: My Journey With Matt Yglesias

Matt Yglesias and some of the Twitter back-and-forth with Vox staffers over his signing of the Harper’s Letter.

Late last month, I posted about how Elon Musk was basically a giant troll.

I used him as an avatar for a greater trend in The Online Discourse of people who seem to post things just to get people angry at them. That is being, in the language of online colloquialisms, a troll.

This leads me to Matt Yglesias.

On Tuesday, soon after the Texas school massacre, Matt did a version of telling people at a funeral for a murdered loved one to chill out, life’s great, and stop it with the crying. Except much worse.

This led to some appropriate reactions, such as this from New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie:

Might not have been as bad of a look for Yglesias, but he decided to double down by doing the equivalent of sneering and sarcastically saying “oh what, do people gots the saddies so they’re mad, bro?” in my funeral analogy:


So anyway, I’ve read him for a long time. At first, it was hate reading his pro-Iraq War posts during the Aughts and the early days of blogging. He was still in college and part of the pro-war crowd coming from the left (along with Christopher Hitchens, who for an atheist who ridiculed faith, sure put a lot of faith in Dubya’s WMD story), and I was most certainly anti-war. His posts were sort of abstract in exactly the way you’d think a Harvard kid who grew up privileged would sound.

But in 2010, he owned up to his error, and which I respected him for. By this time I had followed him from The Atlantic, to the blog ThinkProgress, to Slate and then to Vox, which he co-founded with Melissa Bell and Ezra Klein. I began to see a maturing thinker, someone with interesting perspectives on economics and other policy.

During that time, he then posted what I feel is the first time he wrote something almost sociopathic in its level of callousness: this odd defense of low safety standards for workers in Bangladesh immediately after a building collapse in the country killed 87 people.

His response to this included a very telling insight into how he thinks:

It seems like the entire Internet has registered its objections to this piece I wrote on the Bangladesh factory disaster. And I have to say that my overwhelming personal response, as a writer and as a human being, is to be annoyed by the responses that I’m getting. But let me try to be mature about it instead and say—what happened in Bangladesh is a tragedy and a human disaster, and to the best of my knowledge it’s also quite literally a criminal disaster under the existing laws of Bangladesh. The perpetrators ought to be punished. More broadly: Bangladesh ought to enforce its laws. Even more broadly than that: Bangladesh’s citizens deserve honest and uncorrupt government rather than government that’s excessively under the sway of the interests of apparel factory owners.

Everything after the dash in the third sentence is great, but the first two-and-a-half sentences reveal a tendency for thin skin and an “okay, if I have to, I’ll offer the right opinion” vibe. You can almost feel the editor’s gun to his head.

However, during Yglesias’ run at Vox, his writing was often thoughtful, and as a co-host of the excellent political podcast The Weeds, he often made good points even if his voice could get a wee bit grating.

Then he left Vox in 2020 after a rather ugly public fight with his staffers over signing The Harper’s Letter, which was a major salvo in this very odd war The Reasoned Members of the Discourse were/are waging on trans people. His name on the letter was greatly upsetting to one of his employees, the excellent trans writer Emily VanDerWerff, who spoke up publicly. Then others at Vox followed suit. There were a few allusions to Yglesias arguing that he shouldn’t do his dishes at the Vox office because he isn’t paid to do so (office yellow-card level penalty!) but overall, most of it was the same. He’s nice to his employees, but this was crossing a line.

This is a general theme with him, by the way…in person, he comes off as rather affable. In fact, I know two people who have met him and found him to be pretty pleasant.

Back to his Twitter presence: Right before this time, I noticed that sometimes he would post these odd, hard-to-parse Tweets that seemed to be kind of espousing a shitty take. This is basically the definition of trolling, so it was a bit jarring. I knew he liked to joke around and take light-hearted pokes at critics but this felt different.

Around the time he left Vox, he wiped his Twitter account clean but restarted it with exactly the same odd mix of mundane insights and Tweets so contrarian it’s hard to imagine their having any use other than getting a rise out of someone. I began to think of this as Dr. Yglesias and Mr. Troll – Dr. Yglesias offering thoughtful insight on say the economy, and then minutes later Mr. Troll posts something like defending police killings of Black people.

The 2013 response to his Bangladesh piece, which was basically “I hate being told I’m wrong but okay, I’ll try to be an adult” was something I thought of immediately when he left Vox, and then had my suspicions confirmed in interviews later when he discussed why left Vox. It was, in his mind, not being allowed to write what he wants. He became part of the CaNCel CuLtuRE crowd, who think being told they are a silly wrong person on the Internet is the same as The Night of the Long Knives.

He got a sweet deal at the blog platform Substack, where he can write what he wants without an editor saying, hey, this isn’t great, bud. Since that time, his common complaint is people put words in his mouth, but a lot of that is due to what he’s putting out there on Twitter often being sort of vague but also sort of mean or callous. Which is a troll strategy.

I will offer him the benefit of the doubt, of sorts. He seems to be afflicted with Pundit Brain, which is explained perfectly here:

He now is something of a professional contrarian, which often is not the noble endeavor many of its practitioners believe it to be. You feel like everything is now a game to him, that he’s comfortable with his life and the only concerns that really matter are his immediate, pet ones.

It is really hard, and not really fair, to analyze someone online. But at the same time, you can see a lot of stuff that’s not great about Yglesias as a pundit in his long back and forth with people after Tuesday’s terrible Tweet and callous, mocking response about “reading the room.” Eventually, he walked it back, and apologized.

Part of me thinks I should hate the game and not the player. After all, the current media/social media incentive structure is disturbing in how it rewards the most contrarian and the most callous (see a lot of the COVID writing coming from the “center” over the last year or so). Cold detachment and thinking that benefits the comfortable are viewed as reasoned. There is money to be made making people angry and hurt. Yglesias is just running that playbook.

But sometimes, the decent thing to do is read the room.

The last word goes to rapper/artist/producer/storyteller extraordinaire Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover. The video makes a powerful statement about gun violence in America.

One thought on “From Pundit To Troll: My Journey With Matt Yglesias

  1. There’s a point with some writers you’ve followed because of something they wrote that seemed smart to you once upon the time where they’ve written so many bad takes/troll posts that you wind up concluding the seemingly smart piece(s) must have been the proverbial blind pig coming up with a truffle.

    Yglesias, for example.

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