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August 6, 2018

Meet David Klion, the UChicago Left’s Extremely Online Favorite Son

The Twitter avatar of David Klion (MA '09), designed by Tom Tomorrow.

The Twitter avatar of David Klion (MA '09), designed by Tom Tomorrow.

Courtesy of Tom Tomorrow

I recently shared a beer in a Brooklyn dive bar with alum David Klion (@DavidKlion), a rising left-wing journalist and Twitter commentator who  earned a masters in Soviet history from UChicago in 2009.

In his writing and on Twitter, Klion argues for court-packing, universal health care, a jobs guarantee, basic income, #AbolishICE – the sorts of positions centrists dismiss as naive or self-defeating, and that are viewed by today’s left as not only morally imperative but also good electoral strategy (technocratic twiddling, they reason, is unlikely to get out the vote).

Klion runs in the informal circles of the ‘dirtbag left,’ a subculture that pits itself against smarmy Beltway insiders and We-Go-High civility politics. And he basically fits the bill: he’s a former ‘lib’ disillusioned with Democrats’ insistence on submitting to norms and incrementalism.

Yet, if the left has two reactions to the smug cant of Beltway pundits – caustic humor that implicitly communicates radical demands, and what Chapo Trap House host Will Menaker has called the “quaver-voiced earnestness” of Chris Hedges types (sober, direct, imploring) – Klion falls somewhere between the two, even errs on the side of the latter.

Mainstream commentators have been able to capture the vulgarity of the dirtbag left. What struck me was Klion’s earnestness.

In contrast with some in his circle whose political vision is generated by what they (often correctly) deplore, Klion’s radicalism seems to derive as much from his capacity for imagination as from his abundant contempt. His hate might be pure, but so is his hope.

We talked about his time at UChicago, his analysis of Russia scandals, and the future of the left.

Lefty Twitter clout

I asked Klion to tell me about his growing online audience – in particular, his rise to a cult following on Twitter.

“It’s very, very funny that it’s framed as my ‘rise,’ because I think my parents would still like me to have a real income – I mean, I have an income, but one that is commensurate with my needs and age and maybe their expectations for me, which maybe were not realistic,” he said.

Klion says he intentionally set out to get really good at the “giant open-ended cocktail party” that is Twitter – to learn the in-jokes and cadences, to develop a persona – because the platform provides a unique opportunity for new perspectives to bootstrap themselves into positions of influence.

Still, while Klion sees Twitter as a generally positive force – “a meritocracy in a society that doesn’t have many real meritocracies” – he acknowledged that it can be meritocratic to a fault, like when it rewards “being really good at being a Nazi, or a troll, or a bully.”

Twitter is also one place he interacts with writing subjects. After he published ‘The Loud American,’ a recent piece in The Baffler on Michael McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador in Moscow unblocked him on Twitter.

Campus free speech posturing

Klion said that while visiting campus this June he picked up a copy of the Maroon in Plein Air Cafe and noticed an ad by Student Government touting that they had secured a public audience with President Zimmer – the first in five years.

“It was the most backhanded thing I’d ever read,” Klion said. “I couldn’t help but note that Robert Zimmer, who apparently didn’t have time to meet with undergrads for five years, does have time to fly to New York City to the inaugural Heterodox Academy.”

“If you’re a free speech champion, it seems to me, for starters you should recognize the grad student union,” he said. “And you should maybe, ever talk to your undergrads. I mean, five years may as well be never. There’s a whole class, start to finish, that never got to talk to Robert Zimmer.”

“I’m not surprised that educators balance their educational duties with their fundraising duties, or real estate duties, or glad-handing celebrities. But I am surprised that Zimmer doesn’t even really pretend the educational duties are part of his job at all.”

Moreover, the “lazy Zimmer-esque construction of free speech,” Klion argues, “has no acknowledgement of power, like so many things in mainstream liberalism.”

He suggested that campus free speech apologists play dumb about the role of power – potential speakers’ wealth and extant ability to influence public discourse – precisely in order to ignore the way that granting a platform to some speakers over others skews the free exchange of ideas.

Grim feelings about UChicago

Klion attended undergrad at Columbia, and says memories of UChicago and Columbia run together in his mind. Both schools “constitute gentrifying, expanding real estate bubbles in previously underserved minority neighborhoods.” Also common to both: stellar academics, bright students, and presidents who avow commitments to freedom of expression while neglecting to recognize unions, while focusing on their roles as real estate magnates.

“Even a decade later, it’s hard for me to parse out all the different reasons why I was unhappy at Chicago,” Klion told me. He began a PhD program for Soviet history in 2007 that was meant to take five years, but after a year became disillusioned with grad school.

“No one really told me in 2007 that a) the economy was about to collapse and screw my whole generation, or b) the here’s why grad school is actually a scam talk, which I then read a million times when I was there, and every year since.”

Klion decided to stay another year when the economy collapsed in 2008, and left with his masters degree in 2009. It wasn’t a great climate for journalism, he said, and still isn’t.

“I spit myself out into the recession job market, and I might as well have been 3 years younger than I am. It’s just a series of screwed industries, especially if you’re in journalism, academia, public policy.”

The impossible job market for PhDs was just one thing making Klion unhappy. He struggles with (and has written about) depression, which he says was compounded in grad school. Klion had deep misgivings from the start, and said PhD programs generally, and UChicago in particular, require unwavering, blinkered faith in the academic project.

“I found it really daunting, as I started to absorb what I had really signed on for. There’s the sense that, if you’re not fully invested in grad school, do you even matter? And for a certain type of brain, that can be really devastating.”

The structural violence of the South Side, too, was disconcerting. On Chicago’s segregation, he said, “nowhere should feel smug towards anywhere else in that regard – it’s our national history – [but] there is something about Chicago that I often try to communicate to people on the East Coast who haven’t spent time there: that it’s just really stark.”

His “grim feelings about the place” aside, Klion maintains affection for the architecture and the bookstores. He insists that, like Columbia, Chicago offers a first-rate education. And, as evidenced by his tweets boosting graduate student unions at both schools, Klion is encouraged by the student organizing at his Alma Mater.

A newly radicalized left

Unlike some leftists, who cast themselves as eternally woke, born out of the seafoam as scathing smarm-crushers, Klion freely admits to having once been a mere mortal, just a “lib,” in the days when he read Politico and kept up with John McCain and Sarah Palin’s latest gaffes.

Like most students at the time, he said, he wasn’t yet politically radicalized while at Chicago.

“I wasn’t left. I guess I would have said I was very liberal, but I wouldn’t have seen myself as someone who was fundamentally critical of capitalism… and I wouldn’t have been anti-union, but I wouldn’t have thought about it much.”

While at Chicago, he was deeply invested in the Obama ‘08 campaign – politically engaged enough to travel to Indiana every weekend to register voters – yet Klion told me he doesn’t remember whether the Graduate Students’ Union existed yet when he was at the school. (It did, in fledgling form – GSU was founded in 2007, the year Klion arrived).

“I would have thought I was very ‘political,’” Klion said, “but the notion that your politics are your life – that it concerns your own wellbeing, your own opportunities, your own community in a really intimate way – was not there for me.”

Looking at Chicago and Columbia now, he says, he sees a “much more openly antagonistic relationship” between radicalized students and out-of-touch administrations than existed when he was in school.

“I meet undergrads and recent graduates who aren’t very different from me and my friends. They’re not the kids I would have seen as the ‘protest kids’ handing out Socialist Worker a decade ago – not to disparage them – but I see people who I think might have been on a more conventional or white-collar trajectory a decade ago, who are really angry, because they see the world clearly and see their expected place in it clearly.”

While Klion describes a mutinously angry young left, he also insists that leftist demands aren’t actually very radical. (If that sounds like a contradiction, consider that mainstream talking heads’ characterization of the new left as extreme might just index the rightward lurch of the political center.)

Klion urges people to reconsider the idea that the upper middle class enjoy “gross luxuries” in being able to consume comfortably and access basic services. Were it not for the hoarding of a grotesquely moneyed few, he pointed out, all of society could enjoy the standard of living of upper middle class professionals (ideally, without inheriting the attendant repression & affectation).

Obama, lawyer liberalism and polite conservatism

I suggested to Klion that the young leftists he’s noticed are increasingly radicalized might be reacting, in part, to a certain ethic of politeness, a false both-sides-ism espoused by their white-collar parents.

“I think that’s right. I think that [lawyer liberalism] is the culture of Hyde Park and UChicago, to its core. That’s the culture of the Obamas, and Robert Zimmer. And maybe what gives UChicago even a little bit more of a footing in that, than some of its peer institutions, is this homegrown libertarian streak, which I don’t think describes most people there, but is definitely a presence,” he said.

“One lens through which to understand Obama’s mistakes in office, or even just the false premise of his famous 2004 speech to the DNC, was that liberals and conservatives are reasonable people who can come together. Which, I want to say, is a stupid thing to think – if you think it, you are not reading the news carefully.”

In Klion’s telling, Obama is a fundamentally decent and well-meaning president who incorrectly thought that if he could just have a reasonable adult conversation with “UChicago cerebral conservative types” like David Brooks and Bret Stephens, they might reach a consensus.

Conservative columnists and academics, Klion says, no matter how erudite or how lofty their intentions, produce work that basically exists to serve a very specific set of right wing policy objectives.

“Those people are, whether they realize it or not, useful idiots for the Republican party, which is a radical far-right party. And it was at the time, too; it just disguised it a little better. It took Obama almost his entire Presidency to figure that out,” he said.

Obama, he pointed out, “had never lived in red America, he had only lived in blue enclaves, including Hyde Park, and the only conservatives he knew were these UChicago bubble conservatives. They gave him a completely misleading idea of what conservatism really is. I’d like to think that today’s campus left, including in Hyde Park, is much savvier than that.”

‘Bougie’ socialism

“Taxing the rich is an end in itself,” Klion cheerfully told me when I asked how he’d like to see government spend the money of the wealthy. However, beyond the singular pleasure of eating the rich, he’s also given some thought to how he’d distribute the money piles.

He wants to get rid of means-testing and set up “universal everything” (basic income, jobs guarantee, health care, basically run down the slate of economic justice proposals).

On foreign policy, Klion is equally unassuming: “I want to see the demilitarization and peaceful winding-down of the American empire.”

But Klion is a pragmatist, and doubts that class oppression will vanish anytime soon.

“I am not that radical,” he said. “I would be thrilled, in my lifetime, if we got to a Canadian level of social contract. We should aim higher than that, but that would be such tremendous progress – and that’s not any great compliment to Canada.”

Although I never questioned his suggestion that people should have access to consume basic goods and services, he seemed prepared to stave off the accusation that his appeal for robust antipoverty programs like national healthcare and free college would represent a too extreme expansion of benefits.

“There’s a very bougie quality to my socialism,” he granted, unprompted. “What I want is an America in which everyone can take for granted what upper middle class kids take for granted.”

“I have nothing against a certain level of bourgeois luxury,” he explained. “I have nothing against nice restaurants or dressing well or having a nice house. But, for the super rich, that’s a minuscule fraction of their fortune. Most of it is power. Most of it is seized from society to give them leverage over politics, over what things get funded and don’t.”

Russiagate and corruption

Klion studies Soviet history and has written extensively on Russian election interference, which he views as a result of both Russian and American oligarchy.

While he can’t stand the “lazy mainstream coverage” of collusion, Klion is confident that “there exists a Russia-Trump collusion scandal of some scale that will out in due course.”

I brought up an analysis by The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill that argues for extending scrutiny of foreign governments to potential collusion with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, rather than focusing exclusively on uncovering Russian collusion.

Klion heartily concurred: “I am for going after all corruption scandals, domestic and international.”

Accordingly, Klion thinks Russiagate should be put in context – explained not as a one-off event, the scheming of a few crooked bureaucrats, or the grift of one dishonest president, but as the wholly predictable result of institutionalized, miasmic corruption.

“The people running Washington – the Republican party, the entire White House, everyone they hang out with, their media friends – they’re crooks. They will take money from Russians, they will take it from other foreign governments, including ones that are US allies, they’ll take it from domestic billionaires and corporate interests. They are blatantly milking the public for money.”

Klion thinks the Democratic party should adopt a rhetoric of anti-corruption – a populist platform he thinks would have mass appeal. (One strategic draw is the solidarity it inspires: “racism, sexism, homophobia – all of it is ultimately in the service of corruption.”)

He said an anti-corruption message for the party would work well because it would make things pretty awkward for venal Democrats attempting to campaign on the party platform.

“We live in a kleptocracy,” he said. “I want to see every Democrat run on that message. And I don’t think you can, if you’re Bob Menendez in New Jersey… or the Clintons, for that matter, and you’re fully implicated in that kind of corruption.”

The lessons of #MeToo

For Klion, the #metoo movement has proved a useful litmus test for Democrats, exposing many in the party who willfully ignore how workplace power operates and settle for dethroning a few high-profile individuals.

“Certain so-called liberals and centrists have endorsed the most cut-and-dry aspects of #MeToo but otherwise tried to stoke a backlash, because they’re actually afraid of anything that challenges the powerful.”

The backlash to #metoo has also revealed the ways people fetishize status and wealth, he said.

“You hear people say, “it’s career death if you’re accused.” Nevermind that’s not really true, what’s fascinating to me is that notion – ‘oh God, career death’ – that deep sense that people are entitled to their lucrative careers.”

“That it would even occur to you to feel sorry for such a person, with all the people in this world who have nothing, is unbelievable to me. No one is entitled to a TV show, to a record deal, to be a Hollywood producer. No one is entitled to be a boss.”

Righteousness

Klion gets away with admonitions like “Do better” and “Own that” – phrases that could be misread as preachy virtue-signaling – because his demands are utterly sincere. His anger isn’t performed; it conceals nothing. Whatever you think of his proposals, Klion’s ethic is a reminder of what moral clarity looks like – it has political enemies, not just policy adjustments.

To the general amusement of the dirtbag left, mainstream critics remain perplexed at the notion of subversive humor – that ‘irreverence’ turns out to correspond to, and reinforce, real politics.

Meanwhile, to anyone but a Very Serious Person, the revolutionary immediacy of political humor should be obvious. Commentators like Klion use their nihilistic banter in the service of a radically righteous worldview.

When I was preparing to interview Klion, I came across his obituary for Anthony Bourdain in The Nation. He wrote: “Anthony Bourdain at his best was like punk at its best: profane and combative, but righteous rather than cynical or nihilistic.”

‘Punk at its best’ – Klion seems to like that line. He used a similar formulation in a January 2017 Medium essay on political virtue. Defending the musical Hamilton, he wrote, “Hip-hop at its best is also about confrontation, much like punk at its best.”

I don’t know much about punk. But for an Extremely Online guy, Klion manages to consistently deliver fresh, penetrating content that stands out on a platform full of warmed-over takes. I suspect that’s because he actually has convictions. Talking to him, it struck me that the missing referent – whatever it is he thinks punk achieves at its best – that’s Klion, too.

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