Stop feeding Joe Rogan's trolls: Progressives must reclaim the politics of pleasure

The right is trying to take away books and sexual freedom — time for the left to remind folks ours is the fun side

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer
Published February 4, 2022 1:11PM (EST)
Updated February 4, 2022 3:17PM (EST)
Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan and the Proud Boys (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan and the Proud Boys (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There are lots of versions of the story I can tell about how I transitioned from the Republicanism of my childhood to become a progressive in my late teens: critical thinking skills, education, relocation from a small town to liberal Austin, Texas. But likely the truest story is the simplest one: The left was a lot more fun.

The progressive world had better music, more interesting books, and entertaining parties. Feminism interwove political discourse with pop culture, fashion, and sex. Liberalism was an ideology that promoted curiosity, beauty, humor, and freedom — so totally unlike the small-minded and boring conservatives I grew up around. When I think about attracting people to the left now and getting them motivated, however, I have to admit that it no longer seems so obvious that liberals are the fun ones.

It's not just that the right has done a surprisingly good job at marketing themselves as edgy trolls and painting the left as a bunch of dour snowflakes. Progressives in the past couple of years haven't been doing ourselves many favors. The dominant discourse is so often focused on suffering and surviving, without any talk about happiness and thriving as a counterbalance. (Calling the stimulus checks "survival checks" is a good example of the grim vocabulary that dominates lefty rhetoric.) Humor is in short supply. The gleeful progressivism I used to know has been replaced by competitive self-denial. 

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The recent kerfuffle over Spotify is a good example. The ostensible goal of deplatforming Joe Rogan is a good one. But I'm not so sure that the main avenue that the protest has taken — people showily unsubscribing from Spotify — is really about that, especially since this boycott is unlikely to work. The action feels more about performing self-sacrifice, proving liberal bona fides by showing off the small indulgences you'll give up. That garners likes and retweets, but as political action, it's likely to backfire. It will be used as confirming evidence that liberals are fun-hating scolds — which makes it easier for Rogan and his allies to recruit more young people to the right. 

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I'm far from the only one who has noticed. On "Pod Save America" this week, host Jon Lovett complained about the "grim and joyless aspect" of progressive politics and warns "nobody wants to become part of a sour and sanctimonious movement." It's not a popular message, but it's uncomfortably true. 

There's good news, however, in 2022. The right has granted the left a golden opportunity for liberals to remember that we're the ones who value pleasure and beauty and creativity. And conservatives are, Greg Gutfeld-style window dressing aside, the ones advocating for a sad and colorless world.

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That should be obvious when we look at the two biggest culture war issues that are rising up this year: Reproductive rights and book banning. This is the year that Republicans are almost certainly going to overturn Roe v. Wade, uncorking what promises to be an onslaught of laws meant to punish sexually active women with forced childbirth. On top of it, conservatives are waging all-out war on classrooms and libraries, trying to snatch some of the greatest books of the 20th and 21st century out of the hands of curious young readers. If liberals can't use this moment to remind the public that we're the ones who want you to get laid and enjoy a good book, then truly, we deserve to lose. 

On the talking-about-pleasure front, both these issues should be easy lay-ups for the left. The longstanding opposition to abortion rights — and to contraception access — on the right is certainly about misogyny and racism. But also, conservatives are a bunch of prudes. Remember Ben Shapiro getting grossed out at the idea of vaginas being wet during sex?

It's the same story with the right's censorship campaign. It's about racism and homophobia, sure. But it's also because right-wingers have no real love for art or beauty. On the contrary, there's a lot of suspicions aimed at people who find pleasure in reading, for the same reason that conservatives still think it's hee-larious to make jokes about how modern art just looks like a bunch of scribbles to them. Expanding the imagination and exploring new ideas are antithetical to conservatism, and it's a good time for the left to start talking about that again. 

And yet, so much of the progressive response to these attacks on reproductive rights and literature has been about literally anything but pleasure. We talk about the importance of educating children about history and how books like "Maus" and "Beloved" can aid in that education. But what we haven't been talking about — and I'm as guilty as anyone on this front — is why. Reading these books doesn't feel like homework. The subject matter may be somber, but the narratives are so graceful and beautiful that it's transporting. When we hand these books to kids, we're not just teaching history, but teaching them the deep pleasures of a good book, even when that book is about dark topics. 

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On abortion rights, it's long been a problem that liberals shy away from sex talk and instead talk strictly in terms of suffering. The focus is on the rape victim forced to carry a baby, the pregnant teenager with abusive parents, the domestic violence victim trying to escape a bad relationship, the woman with health problems who can't carry this pregnancy to term. Such a grimness-only mandate seems to have hardened in response to the Texas ban on abortion and the upcoming likely overturn of Roe. We talk about bodily autonomy, about health care, about the damage that forced childbirth does to women's lives.

But we don't talk very much about the cause of most unwanted pregnancies — people having sex for pleasure. We, of course, should talk about pleasure, because a woman's right to enjoy sex is central to why abortion rights are so important.

Republicans very much prefer to fight over abstractions like "autonomy" and wish to avoid having to explain why they don't think women deserve to feel good about their sexuality. It certainly cuts against GOP efforts to convince people that they're the fun ones! There's a reason people — even Republicans — want to date Democrats and not Republicans, and it's not because they deleted Spotify. 

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Grimness becomes a habit, and it's been hard in the past couple of years not to fall into it. The political polarization of COVID-19 turned a discussion about the temporary-but-necessary pandemic restrictions into a moralizing discourse. Wanting the simple pleasures of a happy hour or a gym class stopped being just an understandable desire to be temporarily deferred, and became a sign of moral weakness or even suspicion of secret right-wing impulses. Plus, things have just sucked a lot lately. Voting rights failed, fascism is rising, and Democrats couldn't even hang onto the child tax credit. It's hard to talk about positive things when everything seems to be collapsing.

The problem is that darkness has spread across progressive discourse, sucking light and color and fun out of everything. Liberalism has focused so long on subtraction that we forgot that our main appeal is additive. Equality and justice aren't just about bodies surviving, but granting all people the opportunity to feel good, to feel fulfilled, to have a chance to use their precious years on earth actually living. We don't just want people to survive. We want them to thrive

Well, 2022 is the year to get our groove back. The right has opened the door, by inviting us to debate whether sex should be fun and reading should be pleasurable. That's a fight that the left can win, easily. We just have to remember that fun matters, beauty matters, and people are drawn more to the light than the dark. We used to be people who knew this. We can get back to who we once were. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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