clicks have no conscience

You can be a writer with a conscience; but if the publication you write for has a revenue model based on advertising alone, I’m not sure how you can act in a way consonant with your conscience. You can start a publication with a specific politics; but the drive to secure eyeballs has no politics. I mean, work forces you to make moral compromises, film at 11, I get it. I work for Boeing and Monsanto University. And let’s be real: there were no halcyon days in the past of perfect editorial independence, no time when the published word lived free of the necessity to generate revenue. But the fact that things were never great before doesn’t change the fact that things are heading in only one direction now. The hardy-har-haring the last few days has had the distinct sound of whistling past the graveyard. I hope you like your news brought to you by Skittles.

A website that defines itself through, and prides itself on, its explicit mission of promoting social justice also runs a never-ending stream of propaganda on Venezuela that, many would argue, articulates the views of Venezuela’s small lighter-skinned, moneyed elite, against the interest of its large poor, darker-skinned population. Some might find that discomfiting. But that’s where the dollars are coming from.

Yesterday I was thinking about what I’ve written and been paid for in my life. The ten best-paying web-only pieces that I’ve been paid for in my life add up to about 28,000 words and brought me about $3,200 combined. I am currently contracted to have three big print magazine stories published by the end of the year. If all goes to plan, that will add up to about 11,000 words, and I will be paid $20,000 combined. Guess which payscale has a future, and which doesn’t. (Never mind the billion dollar valuations.)

I say none of this with an ounce of enjoyment or insult. It’s true that I think there are many people who want to be writers more than they want to write, if you get me. But that’s only to say that they’ve grown up in a culture that presents them with a set of increasingly limited definitions for how to live without being a loser. You’re meant to admire the starving artist, but you should skip the starving, thanks, it’s embarrassing. The quest for meaningful work becomes indistinguishable from the quest for minimally-degrading work that allows you to pay the rent. There will remain a small population of people who are able to maintain a reasonably comfortable existence by trading their words for dollars, without having to embed endorsements of the Chocolicious Half-Caf Latte from Sonic in their work. But that will be a rarefied condition, and like almost all success in our system, it will come as a result of chance, received advantage, connections, and whim, rather than merit, whatever that is. And as long as you spend all day reading words people put on the internet for you to enjoy while directly giving them $0, you are as much a part of the cynical manipulation as the CFO at CrankBuzz.

I wish for a lot better for the people whose only sin was being told that writing was something worth doing, and believing what they were told.

Trainwreck: I’m confused

trainwreckThis post has spoilers about the new movie Trainwreck.

I checked out the new Judd Apatow movie Trainwreck the other night. It stars and was cowritten by Amy Schumer, the star of Inside Amy Schumer. Schumer is very talented, funny, and sexy, and she deserves a movie. She’s recently been anointed The Symbol of 21st Century Feminism by our culture industry, which is a terrible burden to place on an actual human being, but she’s handled it well so far. And she’s frequently very charming in Trainwreck, the story of how a magazine journalist who loves to party and fears commitment falls for a doctor named Aaron, played by Bill Hader.

Sadly, mostly I’m just confused by the movie. The essential problem is that almost none of the characters seem to make sense, most especially the two main characters. They’re a collection of traits that seem to have been thrown into a bag and mixed together without much care for story logic.

Take the character played by professional wrestler John Cena, Amy’s boyfriend at the beginning of the film. Cena is game, and Apatow makes good use of his cartoonishly muscled body for comedy purposes. But I am just baffled as to what this guy is supposed to be about. The most consistent jokes about him are that he’s gay and doesn’t know it, and that his weightlifting obsession reveals his latent homosexuality. Which, OK, fine. He also wants to settle down and raise a family. That could work too, I suppose — a closeted/self-misunderstanding gay man who wants to build a family but can’t conceive of one with another man. But that’s not really dramatized at all. He seems genuine when he tells Amy he wants to settle down with her. He’s legitimately wounded when he finds out she sleeps with other men. So who is this dude? I feel like it’s a bunch of different comedy beats — he says weightlifting cliches during sex; he’s unknowingly gay; he’s big and tough-looking but doesn’t know how to be mean; he wants commitment with a woman who is not at all interested — that got squeezed into one character.

Or take Tilda Swinton’s character. Swinton’s been getting raves for her performance, but I find the character so undercooked it’s hard to enjoy the performance. She’s Amy’s mean boss at S’nuff. It’s not really clear what her title is; at one point, both Amy and her friend at work are up for the job of Executive Editor, which would seem to be Swinton’s job. Anyway the comedy comes from her character’s total lack of empathy as a boss, though she shows up to Amy’s father’s funeral, for some reason. She hands out insults in the typical style, but aggressively promotes Amy’s career until she stops. She assigns an interview with a sports doctor to sports-hating Amy because she wants that to bring tension to the piece. Which is OK reasoning, I suppose, but of course the obvious problems immediately become problems as soon as Amy starts the interview. Is Swinton’s character ultra-competent at her job? Incompetent? It’s hard to tell.

Amy’s father, played by Colin Quinn, is an irascible bigot with a heart of gold. Quinn’s pretty good in the part, but aside from Amy telling a story about him beating up a child at his funeral, him having a heart of gold is never dramatized. He’s just sick. Amy’s best friend at work Nikki is played by Vanessa Bayer, who’s funny and cute. But it’s unclear what she does at S’nuff and if she’s any good at it. There’s a very funny part where she can’t stop smiling out of nervousness, which is true to life and well played. But mostly she just kind of vibrates around the office. There’s no sense that she’s good at her job or what she even does. Yet she ends up being given the Executive Editor position that was once reserved for Amy. Why? Lebron James functions as Hader’s stock best dude friend romcom character, and that conceit’s as clever as people are saying. James is a bit up-and-down, sometimes quite poised, sometimes stilted. But the problem is in the writing: why are he and Aaron such good friends? I’m not really talking plot-wise; I don’t need some elaborate origin story for their friendship. But their interactions don’t seem to bring any joy to Hader’s character. The basic dynamic is that Lebron is impossibly nice and Aaron is kind of tetchy and irritable. Lebron shows a loving intimacy that’s not really earned in any way.

My favorite scene in the movie involves Hader playing basketball with Lebron, having the classic/cliched “playing hoops and talking about this crazy thing called love” scene. The funny wrinkle is that Lebron James is Lebron James, and he doesn’t let up at all against normal human Bill Hader. Unfortunately, I feel like the stuff they talk about doesn’t have any connection to the actual relationship we’re seeing on screen. Sometimes the movie says that Aaron is afraid of rejection or of getting too close or similar. In an excruciatingly flat sequence, Lebron stages a love intervention for Aaron with Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick, and Marv Albert playing themselves. I sort of get the absurdism of what they were going for, but holy moly it doesn’t work. Setting aside the lack of laughs for a minute though. I don’t care that there’s no real reason for any of these people to know the things about Aaron that they are saying to him. Maybe Lebron told them, whatever. The problem is that we don’t know any of this stuff because it’s never been dramatized. Marv Albert says in his commentator’s voice that Aaron is afraid of commitment. Really? Since when? When was that ever shown in the movie?

This lack of a coherent vision of the relationship stems from the lack of a coherent vision of the characters in it. Amy and Aaron are just totally underdrawn. For me it kills the movie. Aaron is a guy without serious flaws, as far as I can tell, yet he’s unlucky in love. I am not a relationship guru but in my experience tall, handsome, rich New York City doctors with celebrity friends and beautiful apartments tend to do alright. So why has he not had a relationship for six years? In a typical romcom he’d have some sort of crippling drawback, but aside from an initial feint or two in that direction, there’s nothing; he’s just a good dude. Maybe he’s too busy for a relationship with his career? But that’s never stated, and he seems to have plenty of time to date Amy, hang out with Lebron, and so on. Maybe he’s chosen not to have a relationship? But he’s the one who initiates romance with Amy. Pretty much the initial arc of the relationship is that he likes her, she likes him too, she uses her role as a journalist as an excuse to avoid the commitment that scares her, he basically says “be my girlfriend anyway,” and she does. I expected that, just as he gets Amy to get more serious and take better care of herself, she’d teach him to loosen up a little. But he’s not really ever shown to be too uptight in the first place and there’s no sense in which he evolves over the course of the movie.

The script’s biggest sin, in my opinion, is making Amy into a writer and then demonstrating almost total indifference to her writing. She’s a writer at a national magazine, but we know almost nothing about her writing itself. She never really expresses any ambitions for where she wants her career to go. It would be typical in a movie like this for the main character to aspire to a more adult, more literary/journalistic/serious publication than a Maxim stand-in, but there’s nothing like that here. She writes her profile of Aaron, which ends up getting printed in Vanity Fair after she’s fired for a failed tryst with a 16-year old intern. (Who looks closer to 30 than 16 but that’s Hollywood.) We hear a little bit of it, and it seems she’s pitched it as a semi-confessional about herself as well. Those snippets are the closest we come to having any sense of who Amy is as a writer. Aaron has a successful, well-defined career, and he expresses why it’s valuable and fulfilling for him. He also gets to be shown as a humanitarian. In contrast, Amy’s publication is shown to be inherently unserious and there’s little to demonstrate that she’s talented at her job or proud of her work within it.The movie’s lack of interest in her career is particularly frustrating because a plot point turns on her derision towards cheerleaders, which Aaron then responds to by launching into an anti-snark argument. But is Amy’s writing snarky? I have no idea.

Ultimately we just know more about what Amy isn’t than what she is. She has no female friends who aren’t part of her family or coworkers. She knows bizarrely little about sports despite working for a lad mag. She drinks, sleeps around, and smokes weed, all of which are harshly (and grossly, in my opinion) judged in the movie. But honestly, I kept waiting for a trainwreck in Trainwreck. Even the rock-bottom intern sex scene is played as a matter of miscommunication. The movie wants her to be a trainwreck but refuses to really show her acting like one; it wants Amy and Aaron’s relationship to have these major problems of trust, commitment, and fear, and yet it just never does. The movie’s conflict comes from personalities that don’t seem to exist within the actual movie; they’re just described by characters in it. This all sounds super harsh, and I don’t mean it to be. I’m not an Apatow hater and I’m eager to see what Schumer comes up with next. I’m just scratching my head at the script.

Also Knicks fans going crazy for Amare Stoudemire returning would be like Knicks fans going crazy for Isaiah Thomas returning.

it’s coming apart

The problem with building a reputation on the internet is that character is defined by behavior, not by language, but on the internet all we have is language. Almost all of our interactions online are waged through language. That’s a problem, because as a species we tend to say that language is an inadequate guide to their character – that it’s deeds, not actions, that counts. We don’t have deeds online, really, so we get the performative aspect of online behavior that people are annoyed by. Take white people’s demonstration of their racial enlightment. Plenty of people have complained about the overt “I’m not a racist, really!” behavior of white people online. This is a function of being trapped in language as a medium of expression of one’s character. That’s particularly noticeable when it comes to race because of the very high stakes of your reputation in that regard, but it’s true of essentially any kind of self-definition online: being stuck in language leads to exaggerated performances of self. See, well, me and my abundant online pathologies.

I would argue that there are aspects of the performed self that are close to default in many online spaces, particularly Twitter. I believe that they produce instability that will, I hope, eventually kill the culture I’m talking about.

First, there’s the absolute rejection of sincerity of all kinds and at all times. Some people would deny that this is prevalent, but I don’t know how you can spend a day observing media Twitter without recognizing it as true. There are a lot of people who post dozens of tweets a day without a single one of them that allows for the sincere interpretation of its content, and in particular the emotional, human assumptions we would normally make about the expression as such. That is, for many online, every communication comes wrapped in codes that signal the speaker’s rejection of the emotions that we would normally assume come attached to that communication. Through a series of linguistic signals that are easier to recognize than to define, people let each other know that their tweets can’t be interpreted sincerely on the level of emotions. Sarcasm is not quite the right word, and neither is irony, and neither is snark, but it’d be hard to deny that this is one of the most obvious and universal markers of elite (high follower, high influence) online culture.

Second, there’s the privileging of savvy and knowingness above and beyond any other character trait that you might want to demonstrate to your audience. The most essential trait to demonstrate, in the culture I’m describing, is that everything that you are presented with is something that you have known about all along – something that you have a handle on. It’s not merely an attitude of competence and of being unthreatened, but of being bored by that which others might find novel, confusing, or intimidating. Everything that happens is something that you’ve already known about for some time, and you’re amazed that anyone could be surprised by it.

Third, there’s the default presumption of the correctness of a certain kind of politics, and political vocabulary, descended from the academic left. These politics are radical in their vocabulary, and in their (correct) assumptions of the entrenched and universal existence of social ills like racism and sexism, though they tend in practice to be much more concerned with social and linguistic expectations than with material or class analysis. (Again, trapped in language.) So these politics tend to be rather extreme on the descriptive end but rather inert on the prescriptive end; they’re the politics of critics, not of organizers. This political tendency interfaces with the knowingness tendency to create the basic communicative enforcement mechanism for these politics. It’s not merely that you should have a particular stance on particular political issues, but that you should have already known well enough to know what the correct stance is at the start of every controversy. Politics, in this culture, is analytically easy; every conflict has an obvious and correct stance that all good people assumed in the first place. It’s not just that you are on the right side, but that you can’t believe anyone didn’t already know the correct side at the very start of every debate.

Finally, there’s the insider tendency that both produces and is a product of these other tendencies. You are inside, and others are outside, of a circle of knowledge. People who perform the above tendencies are insiders who understand something fundamental; people who don’t are people who don’t understand. Crucially the presumption is that everyone would enact that performance if they only knew how. People aren’t assumed to reject these tendencies but merely to not understand that it’s been decided that this is the cool, savvy way to behave. Once you do demonstrate these tendencies, you can expect the typical benefits of insider status, which is the kind of social reinforcement  you get when you enact the cultural rituals of these groups – in-jokes, political engagement, reinforcement of norms. That social reinforcement typically takes the form of the kinds of incentives that the internet has made quite explicit and quite quantitative, such as likes and favorites and retweets. Human beings tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded, even if the rewards are cheap (think of how hard you try to get coins in Mario).

I don’t mean to imply that these tendencies are without their virtues. To begin with, oftentimes people really are quite funny in this mode. And Weird Twitter – which is much smaller than the phenomenon I’m describing here, but is a subculture within it, I think – has produced a lot of good art. Though they wouldn’t care for my blessing, some of the better Weird Twitter users really have found a novel form of artistic expression that is perfectly pitched to a unique technological and cultural moment. What’s more, while I am on the record with concerns about some aspects of this political style, there are definite advantages to making feminism, anti-racism, and similar the default political vocabulary of so many. As someone who is constitutionally unable to act in the register I’m describing in this post, I’m also someone who will inherently discount its virtues and play up its vices.

But from 30,000 feet, I think you can see some problems here. To begin with, there really are communicative problems that stem from the death of sincerity. Not emotional or psychic or spiritual problems, as many have identified, but communicative problems in the simplest sense of people not understanding what one another mean. Sincerity, it turns out, has a no-bullshit essential function to play in human communication; when you can’t ever really presume that the person you’re talking to sincerely means what they say, communication frequently fails on the most basic level: on the creation of mutual understanding. Last night someone sent me a piece of writing that he wanted me to look at, as happens fairly often. Unfortunately my campus’s archaic email system doesn’t let you know, on the cell phone interface, that an email has an attachment, so I just wrote “Tell me more!,” thinking he was just asking me if I was interested in chatting. Seeing that, he thought I had insulted him – that I was indicating a lack of interest instead of the precise opposite. Sure, that could happen anytime you’re dealing with a text medium. But I think the universal presumption of insincerity is causing more and more of these minor communications breakdowns, particular on Twitter where the communications are artificially limited in length.

There’s also some real emotional work that human beings have to do that just relies on conventionally sincere expression. I wrote an apology yesterday. It was necessary – apologies, after all, are things that you owe. I was immediately greeted with some “lols” about it on Twitter. I have no idea why; indeed some of the lolers were the people who were telling me to apologize in the first place. I think the kind of unardoned expression that’s required for a genuine, non-weaselly apology is simply taken for ridiculous these days. But sometimes, human beings have to apologize, or plead, or confess, or praise. Praise is a big one for these tensions. The oddest thing is when someone with a meticulously dry Twitter feed suddenly feels moved to praise something in a reverential way, whatever it might be. It sticks out like a sore thumb. Everybody’s entitled to some sarcastic remarks, but when you’re as relentless with them as many people are, it seems almost to degrade the very possibility of genuine expression.

Finally, there are some political problems that come from the frequent melding of social justice politics and these cultural tendencies. I’ve written about them at length, so I won’t rehash here. Again I don’t mean to deny that there are some virtues with making being cool and being socially liberal inextricable. I’ll just say that, as insider politics always are, these ways of political expression are much better at pulling in people already inclined to agree than they are to convince the unconvinced. Because of the preeminent virtue of knowingness – because you are meant to already know everything by the time you come to any discussion or controversy – it’s hard to know when teaching might happen. And besides, teaching always requires a certain unguarded exchange between teacher and student.

Things can change. I don’t think this way of engaging with the world ages well; most people, I’m presuming, don’t want to be saying “lol pigpoopballs lol” when they’re grandparents. There is certainly a sense, in our culture, that endless jokiness is something you grow up from, although the extension of adolescent culture into more and more of adult life is itself a much-discussed aspect of contemporary life. Parenthood would seem to instill a certain level of perpetual minor indignity and fear that makes it hard to maintain this level of studied insincerity. It really does strike me as a lot of work. Seems exhausting to me to have to curate yourself so meticulously.

I don’t know. Things like this often seem intractable until they suddenly change. It won’t come from cultural analysis. To the degree that an essay like this penetrates the environs of this culture, it will itself just be shared with a lol. The endurance of the permanently ironized life lies in the way that you can just turn that attitude back on critiques of it. I don’t know what it is, but between even the most accurate criticism of sarcastic engagement and sarcastic engagement itself, the latter always wins. Besides: insiderism requires outsiders against which to define itself, so every critical take provides the culture with the alternative it needs to sustain itself. lol meme lol gif lol lol.

Maybe the best thing to say is just that contemporary culture is complicated by a deep confusion about underdogs and bullies, that we can no longer identify insider or outsider easily, and that capital has undertaken a deliberate process of mystification about power. The linguistic and culture code I’m describing arose from an insurgent tendency, and indeed, those who use it do not occupy a seat of economic or political power. They have, instead, become part of a dominant cultural force that has been divided entirely from that base in material power. Capitalism has given us cool and kept power for itself, divorced the affect of resistance from actual resistance, and at this stage we have to merely remain alive to what is happening under our noses as we attempt to secure the inevitable next stage of human affairs.

to the horde

So I wanted to wait a day or two to say this, because it’s never a good idea to try and get distance when I’m in the middle of one of these internet scrums. I’m still close enough to it that a bunch of people are yelling at me to behave, which is pretty much asking me to do the opposite of what they want — I tend to dig in that way. And, indeed, Twitter writ large can continue to jump in a lake; I don’t want to be cool with you. But there’s a much more specific, limited group of people who I owe an apology to.

My random contribution to that profile of Ta-Nehisi Coates was not actually about him and was instead about his commenters. That’s never a good look, to begin with. In my defense, it was taken from a February blog post on media sameness and was part of a series of jokey riffs on prominent publications. But the fact is, I have in the past talked junk about Coates’s commenters, who he affectionately refers to as his horde. I have accused them of sycophancy and self-regard. After a day of reading, and of talking to a few members of that group that very patiently explained why I was wrong, I’ve come to regret that a lot.

Communities have secret languages; they have private vocabularies; they have codes. They also have to have certain self-regulatory functions if they’re to work — they have to have ways to enforce internally-generated rules. In my haste, and my efforts to be cute, I misrepresented some of those rules without a real grasp of what they were or why they were felt necessary by the people within the community. Worse, I didn’t adequately recognize that they were attempting to build something, that they had a particular project, or be generous in understanding that this kind of work never goes off without some difficulty or excess. In other words, I was cheap, because of a failure of empathy.

That comments section would never be for me; I like sharper elbows, a little more wildness. But that’s just it: it’s not for me. I should have taken my own advice and let taste be taste, and not try to mine other people’s communities for derision. The fact is, I was glib and callous with an enterprise that a lot of people were very invested in, and in so doing, I insulted them. For that they deservedly got mad at me. I sincerely regret having said those things. It was wrong of me to insult them in that way, and I am sorry.

the night the state killed Michael Ross

Michael Ross decided he wanted to die, to begin with.

Ross was a horrific serial killer, a man who in the early 1980s raped and murdered 8 women, most of them teenagers. He had been on death row for two decades when he decided he would like the state to end it; he had converted to Catholicism while in prison and wanted to go meet the good lordy. The state of Connecticut, for some reason, decided to give him what he wanted. And since the death penalty is an abomination, there was to be a protest.

I was sent to observe. I was asked by Peter Goselin, a man I had known from Connecticut United for Peace, affectionately known as CutUp, and years of local activism. Peter was a great guy and activist, a local NLG lawyer. Big and gregarious, he was the kind of pragmatic radical I’ve always liked. He’s still doing his thing in Hartford. Anyway I had been trained to provide legal observation by the NLG years back; they hold these inservices that essentially teach you how to testify against abusive cops at protests. I went to one, at one of the endless activist conferences I was attending in those days. I had videotaped the local Vets for Peace on a Memorial Day parade for Peter once; this was in 2004, so you can imagine the abuse they received. Peter emailed me and asked me if I would go to the prison for Ross’s execution. There had not been an execution in the state in a generation and no one was sure how the cops would react. I said sure. He dug around in his office and found one of the ridiculous ball caps that the NLG uses to identify legal observers at protests.

“It’s really important to wear the hat!” he said.

I ditched the hat. I mean, it was bright neon green.

The execution was set for not long after midnight on a clear May night. We were meeting in a church, first, somewhere up in the quiet north of the state, a place that would be sleepy even if it wasn’t close to midnight. On the way there I got pulled over at a DUI checkpoint. The cop seemed  impossibly young. It’s funny, how many of them I met, in those protest days. He was surprised when I told him that I was heading to the execution. “I thought that was tomorrow night!” he said as he handed me back my ID. I told him that, because the actual event would take place after midnight, the date of the execution was misleading; it would indeed happen in just a few short  hours. This confusion with the date was, I was fairly sure, by design. They probably hoped it would help keep down the fuss.

At the church, I noticed a different crowd than the ones I had become used to. There were some of the usual socialists milling around, but mostly the crowd was older and more overtly religious than what I was used to. This was at a time when I had been organizing maybe 20, maybe 30 hours a week. It was only a couple of months after we had finally pulled off an antiwar march through the center of Hartford, then as now the hardest thing I had ever been a part of. It was a rousing success. A couple thousand people showed up. I had come to realize, in the weeks that followed,  that I was more exhausted than energized, and though I would not know it at the time, that night at the prison ended up being something like an ending for me.

An older activist, clutching a placard that read “Don’t Kill in My Name,” addressed the group, describing the march, talked a bit about the cops, the timeline. My recollection is that we loaded into some school buses after that, but I’m not 100% sure. One way or another, we ended up at the outskirts of the prison. It was a lot of people, more than I expected, hundreds, but quiet. The protest took the form of a procession. Some people carried candles. Every once in a while I heard people singing, but for the most part people just walked, as I remember. It was an odd but moving sight, to see the long line of people, snaking around the grounds, carrying candles, singing hymns. Not my type of protest, really, but then you go to peace with the army you have, not the army you want. In any event, it was clear that my services that day would be unneeded, hat or no hat. I’m not sure I saw more than a couple cops that entire somber night, and besides, I doubt they’d get too rough with a bunch of old hippies and Quakers.

I wound up walking along these three kids. They were young, probably teenagers, maybe early 20s at the oldest. Two men and a woman. They were grumbling kind of strangely and eventually I realized that they were counter protesters, though I doubt they had thought it through enough to really consider themselves that. I’m sure states that execute people more often have a real smooth system, sorting out your protesters from your counter protesters, this line leads to that holding pen, etc, but this was the first execution in all of New England since 1960. I’m guessing these kids just showed up and kind of got packed in with the rest of us. They kept coming up with slogans that they would have put on signs, if only they had thought them up in advance. “That would be awesome” one of the dudes kept saying anytime they came up with an idea. I admit it was kind of endearing.

I tried, at times, to think about Ross’s victims. The death penalty is an ironic horror; the punishment multiplies the original sin, staining the mechanism of justice with the same blood that set it wheezing into motion. I thought of those terrified women, and I thought of his meaty hands as he strangled them, his pathetic power fantasies animating his sweaty fat frame as he choked the young life out of his defenseless victims, leaving mangled bodies in a ditch, obscenity piled on obscenity. I thought of his sense of satisfaction, however momentary it might have been, and how it rendered the notion of retributive justice so useless and absurd. I tried and failed to put myself in the position of those who thought that there would be some sort of cosmic retribution in strapping Ross to a chair and injecting him with chemicals until he was dead. He was weak and he was frightened and so he crushed young lives and when it was over, we were left with his human garbage in a cell. We then made the choice to climb in there with him.

At some point there was a ripple, a false alarm that it was over and he was dead. There was some sort of delay or complication; practical or legal, to this day I don’t know. A thin old peacenik standing on an embankment, grey beard glinting in artificial light, called out softly to me: “Is it true? Is it over?” I told him I didn’t know. Minutes later, just as vaguely, the word murmured across the procession: he was still alive.

It was long after midnight but physically I felt alert; mentally, I was exhausted. For over three years, I had labored against wars that were, in their own fashion, a kind of death penalty. I was spent, not only by the effort, but by my tangled, dysfunctional attitudes towards that effort, towards the things I knew about my work and could not say. Left-wing organizing is a matter of the greatest moral and political need; it is also, in the main, an object lesson in the worst forms of organizational psychology, a never-ending litany of corrosive and paranoid social practices. There was the splinter groups and the affinity pledges and the secret meetings and the loyalty oaths and the purity tests and…. I witnessed every type of dysfunction you can imagine in those years. One campus group I was in decided to institute a consensus-based decision making policy; they felt democracy was bourgeois and that voting failed to respect minority voices. So they advocated for a system based on universal assent. No decision could be made without perfect unanimity. I argued that this was a mistake. I felt that consensus could never work in groups with true diversity and that this was a tactic for richie liberal arts colleges where everybody was pretty much the same, not a working class commuter campus like ours. But I found myself outvoted, which would have been fine. Unfortunately, they wanted to adopt a consensus decision making process only through consensus itself, which didn’t really make any sense. Since I thought it was a bad idea, I did not consent. After two meetings of a standstill, I was quietly informed I had to leave the group. A change designed explicitly to defend the rights of minority voices had resulted in my expulsion for refusing to conform. Things were like that back then.

But it was the denial of leadership that was worst. Activism is work. It’s other things too, but first it’s work. And work was never remotely evenly shared. Some people took on a lot, spending hours on unglamorous, tiring legwork. Some people came to meetings and sounded off and then never did any of the actual business of organizing. And while I felt and feel that all should have a voice, I found myself increasingly exhausted by the prospect of being lectured to in meetings by people who were doing nothing besides wearing lefty t-shirts in coffee shops. For the big march we had pulled off that March, I had spent endless hours shuffling back and forth from the Hartford Department of Licenses and Inspections to the police department to the mayor’s office, getting Form 21-J signed and then notarized and taking it to some functionary to be told that I first had to get Permit 45 stamped, only that office was only staffed every other Tuesday…. I learned that winter and spring that when state power wants to stop you, it doesn’t always need to send in the thugs. It just smothers you in paperwork. In the end, it took getting the ACLU to shake the tree before the city relented and gave us our permit. I still have it framed in my office. They changed the name of our antiwar march to a “peace rally” on the permit, just one last little fuck you from the system to let us know who was in charge, even in naming our own events. I never blamed the individual bureaucrats, personally. They were caught in it, too.

Throughout all of that, and all of the organizing and bridge building and planning, there had been some who did a lot more and some who did a lot less, and all coming to the meetings. Dozens of people contributed to the effort, and work was not split remotely evenly between them. That would have been fine, if these differences in effort could have been addressed and acknowledged openly. But in those spaces, in that political context, no such recognition was possible.

There was no way to express it in many of the activist spaces I worked within. To assert that some were more responsible for organizing success than others would be seen as to assert ownership, and to assert ownership would be seen as to attempt to dominate and take authoritarian control. Leadership, in so many of these contexts, was perceived as control, and control as the hand of reactionary power, hegemony, colonialism. I once sat in a meeting and had a guy screaming at me, screaming, because I had told the plain truth that he was a leader in our organization. He did lots of work; his voice was listened to and respected; he was inspiring. In every positive sense of the term, he was a leader. But in that context, he took it as a terrible insult. Meanwhile, all around me the antiwar movement seemed to atrophy and rot, precisely because it lacked leaders, because there was no accountability, because anyone could come to any meeting and start to preach, and no one knew what to say when they were disruptive, or undermining, or just useless.

I did not need to be a leader or to be called a leader. I did not want credit. I just wanted it to be acknowledged that there was a difference between a lack of formal hierarchy and equality of commitment; I wanted to speak plainly about the fact that somebody actually has to print the fucking flyers and so somebody has to raise the money to do it and somebody has to be individually responsible, and that as long as the pretense of purely horizontal organizations persisted, there was no way to actually spread the word that  desperately needed to be spread. I wanted to say that the myth of pure organizational equality just made us all vulnerable to the worst who showed up. I wanted to say these things and didn’t know how. I knew how it would go over.

It was that condition – knowing from experience that trouble was coming, group-killing, movement-neutering trouble, and knowing at the same time that there was no way to warn others about that trouble without being accused of ideological impurity – that sapped my strength. The resistance to anything resembling leadership or hierarchy turns experience from a strength to a weakness. It makes for a movement perpetually having the same fights and the same setbacks. I was not tired from organizing and failing, given that left-wing organizing will result in failure most of the time. I was tired from watching groups and people I loved fail again and again in the same ways.

On that night at the prison I had ample time to observe the people around me. They struck me, in large majorities, as the kind to spend their time campaigning against nukes and for dolphin-safe tuna — worthwhile endeavors, sure, but not my speed, not my preference. I’m sure there was a hundred things I disagreed with most of them about. But I also had to admire their focus, the directness of their action, their organization. I realized, in the years to come, that behind the scenes of whatever groups had organized these several hundred people, there was most likely roiling dissent of the type that was perpetually tearing up my own groups from the inside. But on that night, all I could see was sober focus. I thought of the fact that it was the Quakers and their American Friends Service Committee that had brought so many of the local events to fruition. That’s not an endorsement of moderation; many of the Quakers were more radical than I was. It’s an endorsement of their willingness to build an organization, to have a hierarchy and call it for what it was. I envied it; I wanted it for all of us. But what kind of voices were quieted, if not silenced, in building the protest that night? In building the organization? The question, then as now, is how to build the organizations without becoming the Department of Licenses and Inspections. How do you make a movement that works to challenge the state without taking on the state’s form? They say you can’t tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools. But then, without the master’s tools, we aren’t exactly tearing anything down these days, either.

Now, many years after I have thought of myself as an activist, I look around at the world of left online politics, and everything seems so familiar to me. I see so many of the same destructive patterns, all of the old problems bubbling up, so dispiriting, so crushing in their inevitability. I see young people, younger than I was that night, making all of the same old mistakes, and all so proud, as they speed themselves towards their own certain burnout and collapse. I find myself more and more playing the role of left scold, pigeonholing myself as a tongue clucking moralist, forever telling younger people that they’re doing activism wrong. But what else am I going to do, when I see so many of the same old problems, when I can tell what’s coming? The perpetual cycle of outrage, incrimination, exhaustion, and surrender does no favors for the left. It takes our best and brightest and runs them through a meat grinder that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The carnage is then celebrated as some sort of rebuke to establishment power, while actual establishment power can barely contain its laughter. The fact is: this way is not working. I know plenty of people who will defend this tactic or that Twitter storm or this public shaming. I know no one who looks at all of it and thinks it’s healthy, thinks that we stand any chance of winning.

I just want to pull these young people aside, share a little of my own experience. I don’t want to scold them. I just want them to know that some of us have seen this all before, and that it only goes the one way, and that what’s left looks nothing like social justice. I know how people will think that sounds: like I’m trying to be the master, the teacher, the boss. But that’s the last thing I want. I just want to spare them from so many of the ugly moments I went through myself, that I witnessed in others. I don’t want to lecture to them or criticize them or undermine them. I want to save them from a little unnecessary pain. I was changed, by so many things, those days. Everything became so intense. People don’t remember what it was like on September 12th. I felt it changing me, I felt all of those days changing me. It’s left me a stranger to myself.

“You know what would have been the best?” one of the teenage dudes said. “If we had a sign that said ‘We’re not killing in your name. We’re killing in the name of justice.” I laughed out loud. OK, you idiots, OK. That was a good one.

There was another ripple, and this time it came with finality: Ross was dead. He was off to meet his maker, whoever that might be, and in lonely graves the bodies of his victims laid as inert and uncaring as the day they died. Maybe the world got a little more just. Or maybe the state tied a man to a gurney and poisoned him to death. You will view such things as your conscience dictates. For our part, the night was over. Without fanfare, the whole long line of people turned to their cars and went home.

I did not have an epiphany that evening. My frustration and exhaustion seeped in quietly in the night. My father once told me that I was born with fire in my belly. I can’t say that it went out, exactly, but by that point there was more smoke than fire. I did not plan to stop being an activist that night; I never really planned it, at all. But that was the end for me. The green ball cap sat in the trunk of my car until one day it got stained with oil and thrown out. Within a couple of months, I would move to Chicago, where I would sink into a pleasant haze of meaningless work, numb apoliticism, and alcohol. Connecticut would eventually ban the death penalty, though not without grandfathering in two more lives that the state felt compelled to end. On the other side of the globe, the war continued. Day after day, shaming me with their dedication, the real activists pressed on.

Perhaps they press on still; today, the people are in the streets again, demanding justice from a racist and violent police state. I hope they can avoid the terrible infighting that tears such movements apart. I hope they build a movement that endures forever. I hope they get free. One way or another, the future belongs to them, and not to me.


I still like ’em!

Some things don’t change.Today was one of my recurring internet storms, this time about Ta-Nehisi Coates and how liking him a lot is not liking him enough. Like every other internet storm I’ve been in, people want to believe that this is the big one — that this is the one that will really matter, that this is the one that will really get to me. They said that about the ones in 2008, and in 2009, and in 2010, and in 2011, and in 2012, and in 2013, and in 2014. Some things don’t change. They didn’t like me then; they don’t like me now. Then I was just a guy with a Blogger account; today I’m just a guy with a WordPress account. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have a Snapchat channel, who knows. I do listen. I’ve always listened.

I did say, in 2008, that Coates might not have been ready to move up to the Atlantic. To be honest with you, I had forgotten. For context, that was when I really had very few people reading me, and it certainly wasn’t predicated on the idea that I was a big deal — I wasn’t and I’m not. But it was a shitty, childish thing to say and it clearly has been proven totally wrong. I wish I hadn’t written it. I was 26. Not much of an excuse, but best I got. The rest, well. I told the truth. And I said I thought he was good. Best I can do for you.

Somebody told me today I’ll never get professional writing work again. Maybe they’re right. I appreciate the work I get, and if I stop getting it, I’ll move on. Someone said that this will hurt me on the academic job market. This all already hurts me on the job market. Some people say that they’re all making fun of me. But they always were. Some things don’t change. They used to say I was leftier-than-thou, that I always wanted to be left-of-left. Now they say I’m anti-left. I guess that changed. But I didn’t change.

I still like Ta-Nehisi Coates. I just reread his case for reparations. It’s still really good, like I said at the time, like I’ll say again. Some things don’t change.

since apparently I have to do this in list form

  1. When I wrote this piece, I said to myself “It doesn’t matter how sincerely and expressly I register my praise for Ta-Nehisi Coates; some people are going to lose their shit about this.” And lo, on Twitter, it came to pass. That was part of my point in that piece: that people take anything other than unqualified praise for Coates as an insult to his greatness. That’s unhealthy, and it’s weird, and as a successful and celebrated professional, Coates does not need that kind of protection.
  2. I say that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a very good writer because I believe that. I do not give false praise. I have never given false praise. I will never give false praise. The thought of giving false praise physically hurts me. Do not presume to tell me that my praise is not genuine.
  3.  Some people are mad about an argument that I didn’t make, have never made, and will never make, because I don’t believe it: that Coates’s success is the product of liberal guilt, that his celebrity and career are unearned, that he doesn’t have any chops and gets advanced because of tokenism or affirmative action, etc. I agree: that’s a dumb, wrong argument. It’s an argument that has literally nothing to do with me, because I’ve never suggested it and don’t believe it. If that argument bothers you, find someone who believes it and yell at them.
  4. The comparison to James Baldwin was made, expressly and directly, in Benjamin Wallace-Wells’s profile, a profile I was quoted in. (Out of context, as it happens.) It has been made many times before. I find that comparison not entirely flattering to Ta-Nehisi Coates. As I said, that’s not insult to Coates. It’s hard to think of living writers who would look good in that comparison. If that opinion — saying that I don’t think Coates’s work yet approaches the quality of one of our greatest essayists — is too challenging and controversial, then we should all give up on this sharing opinions thing.
  5. Are you mad that I’m making the comparison at all? Then get mad at Wallace-Wells, Toni Morrison, or any of the dozens of other people who have made the comparison. Do you think I shouldn’t compare quality, just subject matter? That, itself, is an insult to Coates. What is the purpose of the comparison if not to consider the quality of his work? I disagree with that comparison because I take it seriously. I take it seriously because I take Baldwin and Coates seriously. How do you show respect to writers? It is bizarre to make a comparison as a matter of praise and then to turn around and declare that the comparison can’t be examined too closely.
  6. I promise you that most of the people going after me on Twitter have not read even two of Baldwin’s books. I would bet my life on it. Baldwin for them is not a writer, as they haven’t read him, but a symbol. Well I have read Baldwin and I refuse to debate the relative quality of his work with a bunch of anonymous Twitter users who haven’t read him. That’s one of the open secrets about our tastemaker class: they don’t read. It’s like when we debate Martin Luther King’s attitude towards nonviolence; it dawns on you, as you read the hot takes, that the people writing them have never read his books.
  7. For the record: Baldwin did not earn his (deservedly) sainted reputation until after his death. During his life, he was considered by many not to live up to his potential. He wasn’t taken for a definitive voice on race; in fact he had a difficult, contested, frequently unhappy relationship with the various civil rights and racial justice movements of his time. He was crabby and liked being crabby. He was difficult and liked being difficult. I doubt he would have enjoyed the venerated esteem we now hold him in. And I like that about him. Because piety does no favors for writers or political minds.
  8. The blog post that my quote about Coates’s commenters comes from is a deliberately exaggerated, lighthearted piece about media consolidation. It was part of a riff where I threw off a lot of hyperbolic shade at a lot of media properties. Coates was an entirely tangential mention in the piece. I teased dozens of publications in that post. I have heard from dozens of people involved with those publications. Not one of the people involved got mad about that post, as they took it for the lighthearted dig it was meant to be. People are getting mad at that quote now because they haven’t bothered to read the post it comes from.
  9. I find, if you look just a little bit under the surface, that Wallace-Wells has embedded a bunch of implicit criticisms that he doesn’t have the guts to quite make. There’s a lot of hinting, a lot of feinting. He brings in my quote, drained of its original context or meaning, to do that criticism for him. That happens a lot, with me. I fulfill that function for people.
  10. For years now, I have argued that our professional writing class is not the bastion of debate and difference it represents itself as, but instead a self-aggrandizing coterie of unanimity and conformity, which uses professional and social pressure to punish anyone who upsets the apple cart. This strikes me as so obvious that it barely needs saying, but people rail against it. This is a good example of when the veil drops. Because what people are asking of me here is literal unanimity: one opinion. No dissent, not even of the mildest form. Maybe they’re right to want that, fine. But that’s what they’re demanding, and I wish we could just be honest about the nature of what all of this writing stuff is, today. It’s about fealty to a set of shifting norms that are decide by the fiat of a hivemind.
  11. I suspect that eventually the worm will turn; success like Coates’s breeds jealousy, inevitably, and sooner or later I think people will get the gumption up to throw the shade they want to throw, and once a few people do it, more people will do it. And the cycle of opinion making will bend the stream. My opinion will remain exactly the same as it’s been, which is exactly the same as I’ve been saying, publicly, for years: that Coates is an uncommonly talented writer who sometimes inspires praise that seems, to me, to be out of proportion with his considerable talents. I said that yesterday, I’m saying it today, and I’ll say it tomorrow, and you know it because I’m telling you.

links and such

  • I had a piece in the Observer about the “born this way”/immutability argument after the gay marriage decision that I hope you’ll check out.
  • I was on TheLipTV, talking polygamy, and you can check it out here. Lots of great questions, perceptive and informed host.
  • I had a similarly good time on Al-Jazeera English this past weekend, my first real national TV hit. My debate partner was informed and smart and had reasonable points. And, by god, TV pays.
  • Noah Davis of the Pacific Standard asked me to talk about money, so I chatted with him. In related news: anybody got a job? Wanna hire me?
  • This Kathryn Schulz piece on the Pacific Northwest’s earthquake is generally very good, but this passage is unhelpful, I think:quibbleFrom what I’m gathering, a recurrence interval isn’t really a “cycle,” which implies a regularity that, as I understand it, really doesn’t exist in these things. And that really demonstrates the uselessness of discussing averages without spreads. If the recurrence is really regular  then this is as scary as everyone is taking it to be. If it’s really irregular (like sometimes a couple decades between quakes, sometimes thousands of years) it’s much less so. This NYT piece has a chart that’s helpful. To be clear, I’m not at all suggesting that there’s no danger or anything, and again Schulz has done great work. I just am disappointed by the way that this is being discussed in the clickfarm press, which has inevitably defaulted to overheated theatrics about the whole thing. The worst part is that all of them individually would be smart about it, and you could talk to them and say “hey maybe this isn’t as immediate as it might seem.” And they’d be super sharp about it. But the system, as a whole, is always dumb.
  • Check out this handsome pooch!2015-07-11 19.20.48

aimer, ce n’est pas se regarder l’un l’autre, c’est regarder ensemble dans la même direction

A friend of mine Gchatted me this Benjamin Wallace-Wells profile of Ta-Nehisi Coates. She said, “congrats! You have the closest thing to a negative word in the whole piece.” But the quote, it turns out, is about his commenters. I tend to disappoint people in that way. Some have come to me looking for a contrarian take, a real vicious takedown, but I can’t provide one. Though I am one of the only writers I can think of who has publicly criticized Coates, in print, I am generally a fan of his work. I think he’s a good writer.

Is he as good a writer as James Baldwin? The profile compares Coates to Baldwin from beginning to end, and quotes several people making that comparison. And yet on that actual question — on whether Coates’s writing is of a quality worthy of repeated and express comparison to that of one of the greatest essayists we’ve ever had — the profile is suprisingly mute. I don’t blame Wallace-Wells, or anyone else, for making the comparison, which has been the fashion when writing about Coates. But I do find the avoidance of the actual essential question (indeed the absence of the essential question) troubling. I think you should take a writer for his writing, and I think if you want the comparison to mean something, you’ve got to say whether you think Coates the writer is like Baldwin the writer. Otherwise, you’re left with a pretty cruel kind of abstraction. I would like to believe that I’m the kind of person who, when I say “this writer is like this other writer,” is referring to the actual writing.

The way people talk about Coates has always seemed like reciting the catechism, to me, and I’m not Catholic. Me, I like writing. And Coates is a good writer — practiced, perceptive, frequently quite funny. Like a lot of strong writers, he tends to stay in a particular register, and I often wish that he would branch out a little more, that he’d subvert the style that has won him the audience that discusses him in such sacramental tones. But if you’ve got a good horse, you might as well ride. At his best, Coates has helped rehabilitate a kind of meditative essay writing that went out of fashion in the more immediate culture of online writing. If that work has been somewhat repetitive, well, that’s the nature of meditation.

I guess that praise sounds pretty mundane. I think Coates is a good writer, not a transcendent one. I think his work displays fine craft, but not genius. I find his writing often stirs me intellectually and emotionally, but it doesn’t move me to the kinds of ecstasy that it seems to move so many others. I find his essays interesting and engaging, but unlike AO Scott, I don’t find it as essential as water or air. Indeed though I’ve read things that have made me feel like the top of my head has been physically taken off my body, I’m afraid I have never felt, in my life, like an essay is as essential to me as water or air. I don’t particularly know what that means or what it can mean for Coates’s actual writing. When I read it, I know nothing more about Coates’s essay. I just know a little more about AO Scott.

I’ll read Between the World and Me, with interest, and with the kind of sympathetic dedication that I try to bring to every book I read. I imagine I’ll like it. If I think it’s good, I’m going to say that it’s good, with enthusiasm. What I won’t do is try to outdo others with my praise. That is not a race that I’m interested in running.  I’m not interested not merely because I have no use for reverence, don’t like going to church, and find mythology boring, but because I believe that adult respect depends inherently on adult discrimination. Your first job is to read the words and to decide whether you think what they say is true, good, and new. Read people’s work before you read yourself into it. Though this piece will inevitably be taken as a kind of disrespect, I in fact find my relationship to Coates’s writing is more intimate and more fun than that of a lot of people who read him and write about reading him. When people talk about reading his work as a kind of soulcraft, I think, god, that sounds awful.

Though I’m willing to be proven wrong, I doubt that, in the end, the comparison to James Baldwin will be flattering to Coates. There’s no insult in that. How many writers could possibly live up to that standard? After all. We’re talking about James fucking Baldwin here.

taste as taste

So: Daniel Engber does not like that you have worries about air conditioning.

In the first instance, Engber’s essay is something like a nadir for fake iconoclasm — the practice common to click farmers of presenting as novel or challenging an opinion shared by more or less everyone. In his own culture, a vast majority of people unthinkingly accept the comforts of air conditioning. The people arrayed against him are a tiny number of environmentalists and writers, people who have absolutely no control over how relentlessly cooled the average bank lobby is and who are generally unknown to the vast majority of the human and American populations. Engber refers to a “war” on air conditioning, which would be apt if a war was something that could comfortably occur in a closet. Nobody but us sad internet obsessives even know being skeptical of air conditioning is a thing. I look forward to Enger’s next brave stances, such as “In Defense of Anesthesia During Surgery” and “Child Murder is Problematic.”

The essay is also more fuel for my long-standing theory that Slate’s fundamental nature is less about the contrarianism it’s always accused of and more about the bitter antipathy bourgie progressivish types feel for other bourgie progressivish types. There is nothing you vaguely left-of-center, vaguely cultured, vaguely human college grad dislikes more than others who share that condition. Like kittens driven to rage by the mirror, theirs is an unfocused but palpable resentment. Slate’s notorious contrarianism exists, but it’s a second order effect, a function of the commodification of this resentment by writers who sell an endless parsing of meaningless fine-grained distinctions to a readership that needs to find them. Look, publications can have characters and still contain lots of good and bad — Slate publishes lots of great stuff and lots of great people, I read it, I’ve pitched to them, I’d write for them if given the opportunity. But to the degree that Slate has a character, it’s the narcissism of small differences, weaponized, and it’s why Engber’s story was predictably a metrics success: don’t you just hate that guy at the office who complains that AC fuels global warming, who by the way looks just like you and me?

But what Engber’s piece really makes me thing of is the contemporary microgenre whereby moneyed 20-something Ivy League grads ascribe tremendous political and moral valence to their cultural consumption. Or, more accurately, the tremendous political and moral valence they ascribe to the difference between their cultural consumption and yours. You cannot have missed them, at Pitchfork or New York or Grantland or, by god, Tumblr. These are the claims that, far more than a mere difference in subjective and contingent tastes, liking one musical act over another reveals fundamental moral character. Your Spotify playlists, in this reading, are existential. From your preference for Beyonce or Run the Jewels over the now ritualistically-derided indy white guy warblers like Vampire Weekend or the National comes not just aesthetic refinement but, in and of itself, anti-racism, feminism, resistance. To like Pepsi spokeswoman Beyonce, and more importantly to like her against others, isn’t merely to have a preference but to be among the elect. That this form of politics is risk-free, work-free, and progress-free should not concern you. With traditional designations of personal meaning long since discarded, the Company Man dispatched with disgust and the hippie who replaced him with ridicule, you will pretty much be what you consume. Given that art is a commodity but more too, you might as well be your music, and God knows, they’ll sell it to you.

And so too with air conditioning. Here, I suppose, the argument is less subjective, the total impact on the world’s ambient carbon level of the world’s ambient BTUs a matter for scientific disagreement. But for all of his references to empirical studies, Engber writes like a man who knows his argument, fundamentally, is one of culture and not of science. After all, Engber cannot possibly believe that people concerned about the carbon impact of air conditioning want impoverished people in Chicago to forego air conditioning if that means risking death. That’s such a fundamentally shiteating notion, so brazen in its substitution of distaste for sense, that it can’t be motivated by a concern with the science. That sort of thing is reserved for the distinct 21st century flavor of internet-enabled deliberate misunderstanding.

What animates Engber’s essay, for all of its studied insouciance, is a kind of terror. It’s terror in the face of the possibility that other adults could review the same evidence he has, experience the same experiences, have the same purchase on the world, be of the same moral discrimination, and yet conclude something different than what he’s concluded. Like the internet essayist who must forbid the possibility that musical tastes are just tastes — that they reflect not the character and content of the person inside but an inscrutable collection of chancey and contingent preferences that could have played out in any other way– Engber invokes the cudgel of racism and inequality to dismiss those who like a different temperature than he does. In recent years, this vocabulary has been brought  to a level of ubiquity never before imagined. While it’s good for these ideas to have gotten such purchase, the inevitable corruption of immediate self-interest has led to their total integration in the project of self-formation and self-defense. Personally, I suspect that Engber’s not so much annoyed that someone doesn’t think every building in Washington DC should be kept at 60 degrees in July but by this understanding that, but for a few random occurrences in his life, he might be that guy. When we attempt to make the self an agglomeration of ready-at-hand takes on the miscellaneous bric a brac of shared experience, when your character is built on as feeble a foundation as your opinions, you will tend to police taste as more than taste. The alternatve is too destablizing.

I’m reading Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Outside Your Head, which like his first book is by turns brilliant and frustrating. I thought of our current refusal to treat taste as taste when I read this passage:

“The fantasy of autonomy comes at the price of impotence. With this comes fragility — that of a self that can’t tolerate conflict and frustration. And this fragility, in turn, makes us more pliable to whoever to present the most enthralling representations that save us from a more direct confrontation with the world. Being addressed to us, these representations allow us to remain comfortable in a little ‘me-world’ of manufactured experience.”

Crawford is talking about a very different subject. He laments the way that our virtual worlds smooth away the insistent frustrations of corporeal reality (the way the wood does not obey the carpenter) and in that way denies us the authentic freedom of constrained experience. But in this passage I see a lot of the current denial of taste as taste that I fear, the denial of the legitimacy of other opinions stemming from fear of the attendant possibility that your opinion might be wrong and that you may therefore be bad. See Buzzfeed’s impossibly creepy position that there is not more than one side on some issues of controversy — not that one position is less correct than another, but that we must pretend no other positions exist at all, or risk the terror of living in an uncertain position, unable to define our character through the correctness of our opinion. (That this comes from an enterprise as thoroughly, existentially corporate as Buzzfeed, and thus amoral in a profound sense, just adds that last little kick.) It strikes me that this posture of an uncomplicated moral universe is a virtual reality in the way that Crawford disdains.

What I want for myself, and for others, is to restore taste as taste, to be willing to float in the possibility that the various expressions of my contingent and limited attitudes, ideas, preferences, and positions could very well indeed be wrong, and in so doing reject the pleasant armor of a finished self. Again I think the challenge today is to find the courage to be human while all other humans ask you to be anything but.