This post, containing links to my work, will stay pinned at the top of this blog.
Erik Loomis has an excellent response to Vox and friend’s neoliberals-circle-the-wagons routine. As he and Jeff Spross point out, the “if you care about the American poor, you hate the Chinese poor” claims are bogus, eliminating other alternatives that would improve living conditions for both Chinese and American workers alike, playing both against our capitalist overlords instead of against each other. I highly recommend both pieces.
Rather than taking Annie Lowrey’s lead in ridiculing poor people in Mississippi from her Macbook in Manhattan, let’s consider a common Marxist take on globalization instead. Globalization, in this view, is a kind of fake internationalism, a phony one devised to eliminate some walls between countries (the ones that impede the flow of profit-generating capital) while maintaining others (the kind that create different levels of worker protection and wages, allowing capitalists to use one group’s powerlessness to reduce the power of the other, and prevent international worker solidarity). As Loomis says, playing different groups of workers against each other this way is bogus; there is no a priori reason why the gains of the poorer nations couldn’t be achieved without the ludicrous wealth and income inequality that’s occurred in the richer. If you truly eliminated the borders that divide workers, they could work together for universal rights to workplace regulation and worker power, eliminating the threat of shipping jobs to more favorable regimes. That, of course, would be bad for the profiteers at the top. Well, when you have the base, you have the superstructure, and the DC neoliberal politburo is playing the role of capitalist enablers — excuse me, explainers — to a T.
Should we take Vox’s advice about how the American worker can get ahead? Let’s check the recent record of the publication’s chief chin scratcher, Matt Yglesias.
Now, as those of us who followed his career for a long time know, it was during his ThinkProgress tenure that he came out as a particularly unimaginative neoliberal, essentially abandoning any pretense to the traditional American liberalism that had built his readership in the first place. A few years back, in those ThinkProgress days, he really got ginned up about the idea that high-quality service jobs were the wave of the future. In particular, he developed the weirdest fixation on yoga instructor as the hot job of the days ahead. His regular commenters (we mostly threw in the towel when he took the Mickey Kaus Endowed Chair at Slate) used to joke about how often he mentioned it. In fact, he even called his vision for the future The Yoga Instructor Economy. Behold:
“The people of the future will be richer than the people of today, and therefore will more closely resemble annoying yuppies. Nicer restaurants are more labor-intensive than cheap ones, and the further up the scale you go the more specialized skills (think sommelier) come into play. Annoying yuppies take yoga classes, or even hire personal trainers. Artisanal cheese is more labor-intensive to produce than industrial cheese. More people will hire interior designers and people will get their kitchens redone more often. There will be more personal shoppers and more policemen. People will get fancier haircuts.”
Upon such wisdom are media empires built, apparently.
Four and a half years later, how are Yglesias’s yoga instructors doing? Not well! As Michelle Goldberg at New York Magazine says, while the yoga industry is doing fine, the actual instructors — the workers — are facing brutal economic conditions. The market has been flooded with instructors, thanks in part to the advice many of our sage economic thinkers ladled out, relentlessly driving wages down. In a particularly cruel twist, Goldberg notes that studios often make the most money by training new instructors, who then go on to further flood the yoga labor market. She quotes several veteran yoga teachers as saying that it’s become far harder to make it in the industry in recent years. Goldberg’s reporting matches well with this excellent piece by Ned Resnikoff from last year, which demonstrates similarly bleak labor prospects for yoga instructors and a similar downward trend.
Being wrong on the internet happens, but 2011-era Yglesias’s love for yoga instruction as the job of the future is an uncommonly direct and unambiguous example of being totally wrong. Obviously, the service economy is larger than that one profession. But in so many ways, yoga instruction epitomizes all of the rotten things about the 21st century workplace, such as “the low pay, the gig-based nature of the job, and the unpaid overtime” that Resnikoff notes. In particular, these workers lack worker organization and thus worker power, unable to come together to bargain collectively for better lives (and note that Yglesias was specifically offering service jobs as an alternative to Paul Krugman’s call for more unionization). And boy, it sucks to be a service worker. Waiters average less than $11 an hour in this country. Is the fancier haircut game a rocket to economic success? No. Artisanal cheese? Hard to say, but as this Beer Hole post on the exploitation in craft brewing points out, artisanal food production and similar “identity economy” jobs are often brutally bad deals for workers. Altogether, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the median income for Personal Care and Service Occupations in 2014 was about $25,000. So… yeah.
Perhaps poor people in Mississippi should take their economic advice from elsewhere. And tell Dylan Matthews and Annie Lowrey and Charles Kenny that if they find it so easy to be poor in America — think of the people of Zimbabwe! — they should give up their cushy gigs in the media and try yoga instruction for awhile.
As you know, I’m part of a nascent but growing movement within the left to question the efficacy of current left political and rhetorical tactics, particularly concerning the privilege frame that now frequently seems to be the only discourse we take part in. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe privilege is real; it certainly is, and it has many harmful effects on our society, and deepens racial and gender and related inequalities. But the privilege frame is a deeply limited way to look at the world, and at times it leads to perverse consequences. To see the way in which they can really screw up political analysis, check out this Daily Kos piece by Shaun King.
Let’s set aside the actual racial demographics of the incident, which involved at least one black gang member and at least three dozen Hispanic gang members. King styles himself a criminal justice reform advocate; he’s part of a movement to put scrutiny on the police and prosecutors, in an effort to reduce police aggression, prosecutorial overreach, and mass incarceration. And yet here he’s engaged in a white-wash of police misconduct! There is abundant reason to believe that the police directly and significantly escalated the violence. Conor Friedersdorf had a good rundown of the deeply troubling evidence of bad police behavior in this case. King glosses over the fact that while everyone has been released, many of them have been released pending trial, and there’s nothing stopping prosecutors from adding additional charges later. King complains that no one has been charged with murder, but it’s unclear if any of the victims were killed by anybody but the police! And the legal case has obviously been affected by the police’s complicity in the violence. Friedersdorf quotes a law professor who says “Any time a prosecutor’s office does not want people talking about something, one should raise a red flag. They may say it is to protect the investigation, but they are protecting themselves from whatever it is that they don’t want us to see or know about.” That’s a facet of the petty corruption of the criminal justice system, the corruption that I thought King was interested in fighting. I guarantee you that part of the reason the prosecutor’s office has been lenient is because they know there is evidence of significant police misconduct and that pressing these cases too strongly would open the cops up to legal repercussions.
Does it seem right to you that an activist who has been made famous by his association with a movement against police violence has gone out of his way to ignore the outrageous violence of the police in this incident?
I see this happening all of the time. It happens, certainly, in carceral feminism and the way people seem to think that you can fight the police state while simultaneously enabling it. It happens when people fail to distinguish between privilege that we want to end and that which we want to spread. Awhile back someone I’m Facebook friends with posted a video of a white kid mouthing off to a cop, and complained about the kid’s white privilege. Many of his friends commented on it to explicitly wish the kid had gotten arrested. Certainly, it is a white privilege to be able to be belligerent with the police in that way and avoid police violence, but it’s a privilege we’re trying to spread, not end. When liberals on social media call for harsh legal punishment for the UConn mac and cheese kid, they’re doing the police state’s work for them.
When progressive people insist that leagues like the NFL never again employ a professional athlete like Greg Hardy, who is indeed a bad person but who has finished his legal obligations, they’re directly cutting against the goals of the criminal justice reform they are simultaneously calling for. Reducing the employment prospects of released criminals simply encourages recidivism. And after all, meaningfully reducing the prison population will necessarily entail releasing people with criminal histories like Hardy’s — people with charges of domestic violence, or assault, or gun possession, or making threats, or the like. Only releasing nonviolent offenders is not enough. Yes, releasing many from prison will release some who are there for minor or nonviolent crimes, and some who were unjustly arrested and convicted. But to reach the scale we want, it will also entail releasing a lot of people that actually did genuinely violent and immoral things. That’s just reality.
The question for people like King, and for progressives in general, is whether or not they really want to oppose mass incarceration and our current police state. Because that edifice is so powerful, and so deeply embedded into our system, that it will take a genuinely unified front to oppose it. That means not siding with the police against white and Hispanic bikers who were, indeed, up to no good and are probably not very good people. What’s the priority? Scoring the purely rhetorical point of identifying privilege? Or actually transforming the system that hurts so many poor people and people of color?
Alan Jacobs has, in the past, tried to put his finger on why some of us find podcasts so unsatisfying, even as they’ve become wildly popular. (I remain convinced that there are more people making podcasts than listening to them, but still.) Alan hits on a couple plausible problems here, but I don’t think that’s my own issue. I’m someone who often will get the urge to listen to a podcast — who likes them in theory — but ends up unhappy about the ones I actual listen to. I think the real problem is that there is just about zero conflict in the average podcast; the tendency is for people to be friendly with each other and say friendly things and arrive at friendly conclusions. Which is fine in bits and pieces but frustrating for an entire medium. Note that I’m not even really talking about out-and-out mutual admiration, here, although there’s plenty of that in the podcast form, but just the cult of congeniality that dominates these things. Congeniality is nice for small talk but not very useful when you’re trying to get to the truth or to drama. I don’t think people have to be strangling each other from across their microphones, but more disagreement and more conflict would go a long way.
So this New Yorker podcast about how podcasts are great, with all of the guests just sort of saying “you know what’s great? Podcasts” over and over again ironically demonstrates to me exactly why the medium is so limited. Or, similarly, here’s this new Longform.org with Karina Longworth, where the host is like “your podcast is great” and the guest is like “well thank you, I appreciate that.” And, hey, that’s fine, I’m not that big of a hater to undermine the praise. I just don’t see what it provides to me, as a listener, either in terms of education or entertainment.
Sometimes I just want to hear pleasant people pleasantly conversing. But my appetite for that is small, and usually if I want to experience it, I’ll just get together with friends over beer. And if people really want podcasts to be something other than an excuse for listening to themselves talk, they have to get past the ingrained blank politeness and agreement that dominate the form now.
Like most everybody, I found this New Yorker article by Emily Nussbaum an unusually sharp piece from a preternaturally sharp writer. In it, Nussbaum considers not just paid advertising and product placement in TV, but TV’s relationship to commerce, and art’s in general, and ours to art and commerce and commerce in art. As I often do, I stuck the link to Nussbaum’s article into the Twitter search bar, eager to see what the tribe had to say. I saw many people praising the article, which is good, because it’s good and deserves the praise. But I couldn’t help but be annoyed. After all, many of the people celebrating Nussbaum’s article have contributed, albeit indirectly, to the condition she laments.
We have lived through a period of studied artistic populism that I have written far too much about already. An aspect of this change has been a persistent microgenre of essays arguing that “there’s no such thing as selling out.” Often packaged with the annoying (and flatly false) attitude that this argument is novel and daring, these essays appear with periodic frequency, reassuring their readers that the challenge of anti-commercialism is just one of the many artistic challenges that we can now safely discard. As is typical with arguments that tell capitalism what it wants to hear, there’s a fussy, desperate nature to these pieces; you can really feel the sweaty effort as people convince themselves that everything is already good. But look, they’re playing with house money, at this point. That there’s no such thing as selling out has risen to that rarefied territory of being an orthodoxy that represents itself as apostasy, and people believe it, and will go on believing it, and they daily slap on more paper mache to that creation. There’s no such thing as authenticity, don’t you know.
Whenever I see this stale routine, I think of Liz Phair, or more precisely, Liz Phair. I will be restrained and say merely that this self-titled album is shockingly bad. Much worse than bad, from front to back the album is generic in a bone-deep way. The single, “Why Can’t I?,” easily Phair’s biggest hit, could have been sung by almost any pop singer of its time. I’m sure the album bought her a house, and good for her, get your house. And certainly everybody is free to disagree with my take on the album. But if you too think it’s as bad as I do, and if you too think it’s a shame for as distinct a voice as Phair’s to be rendered indistinguishable from everybody else’s, then you should consider the obvious. You should consider the possibility that selling out actually is real, and that it actually is pernicious, and that it takes talent and difficulty and individuality and sands them down into whatever the market demands, and that there’s nothing particularly secret about any of this. I want you to consider the possibility that life is not as complicated as a thinkpiece pretends, but as is simple as a smile bought with a $5 bill.
When I read John Hermann’s mournful response to Nussbaum, I want to say, to him and to Nussbaum, hey, punk exists. There’s a lineage here, there’s a discourse, there’s a whole tradition of aesthetic resistance. And when I say punk I don’t just mean punk, but a whole long family tree of aesthetes and bohemians and crabby old refuseniks and lonely old hermits and honest-to-god starving artists smoking cheap cigarettes in their dirty garrets and the prematurely aged, like me. I want to say there are countercultures. But of course there aren’t, anymore. We smothered them, under a blanket of ironized mainstream culture, pathetic petty resentments of those we’re afraid are cooler than we are, the semantic horrorshow that is the term “hipster,” and that commissar’s ideology, poptimism, enforced with a predictable progression of complaints: first that these countercultures were in fact the constricting authority, then that they were ridiculous, then that they were elitist, finally that they were sexist and racist and whatever else. We’re left with where we’re at, where we’re allowed to love everything and question nothing.
Capitalism is remorseless and counterculture could never stand against it. That capitalism appropriated punk and every other anti-capitalist and anti-establishment movement before it stands as the most worn-out cliche in culture. But reading Nussbaum’s essay, I feel more sure than ever that these cranky, niche movements served essential purposes. They could never have prevented the rise of product integration or sponsored content or any of their ugly cousins. But they made good martyrs. Those movements stood proud against a whole host of insults, petty and grand, that capitalism hangs on art, and they provided the comfort of a community that refuses while knowing that refusal is doomed to failure. And they did so in a way that caused and should cause deep, real discomfort to our current presumptions, the genuine shivers of genuine incompatibility. Like George W. S. Trow, who Nussbaum disdains but can’t dismiss, these movements could be pretentious and phony and sanctimonious and provincial and could throw the aesthetic baby out with the ethical bathwater. But they needed to be, it was necessary, to stand for saying no, and to stand in defense of the new.
As is so often the case, our culture industry and the people who make it up have tried to have it both ways at once ,and found that they can’t. We can’t, it turns out, have a critical culture predicated on the celebration of totally unapologetic art populism, suspicious and resentful of artistic ethics that go beyond aesthetics, without that nasty capitalist aftertaste. “Pop,” after all, has always been a more coherent economic phenomenon than an artistic one. That’s not to dismiss the abundant pleasures of pop art, an artistic category that has the entire weight of capitalism behind in and thus does not need defending, and which, as Nussbaum says, has already won. It’s merely to point out that populism, in art as well as in politics, is disturbingly susceptible to being co-opted by the capitalist impulse; the money is where the people are, after all. And once you’ve chased away the various anti-populist countercultures, once you’ve declared them socially and politically undesirable, you can’t be surprised when you find there’s no one to help you ward off the pimps from the multinationals, sticking a Snapple ad in your favorite show. I’m not so deluded as to ask that we abandon our addiction to the novocain of pop triumphalism. I merely ask that we count the costs. We’ve put out our lips to be kissed, and we’ve found that the grimier sides of the entertainment industrial complex are more than happy to use a little tongue. We made this world, and now we’re living in it.
But there is still hope. When the internet’s social culture isn’t functioning as a giant machine for enforcing consensus of tastes, the internet’s lonely corners are the perfect spaces for letting niche tastes, and niche aesthetics — which, if they mean anything at all, involve the critical judgment we have been taught to disdain — bloom into cranky flowers. Things can grow in those spaces. If you’re of the poptimist bent, you only need to leave them unpruned, to treat them with benign neglect. For those who are dissatisfied with the state of things, you can roll your shirtsleeves up. Plant a new counterculture. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest of elitisms. Protect it from writers that hack. Then punk and all of its friends may yet come back.
Many people I know would assume that pretty much anything published by Breitbart is not worth rebutting, and particularly not this missive by Milo Yiannopoulos, arguing that the real source of America’s perpetual mass murder problem is, of course, feminism. Yiannopoulos argues that these lone wolf killers, like the one responsible for the horrific recent Oregon community college attack, stem from a sense of resentment and marginalization felt by men in a world where men are supposedly no longer valued. To stop them, he claims, we have to rebuild the patriarchal world in which, according to Yiannopoulos, men were truly valued. I don’t blame you if you find this self-refuting.
But I think it’s worth saying that what he’s saying is not just wrong, but just about the opposite of the truth. These men are expressing rage not towards a world where men are not valued, but where they personally are not valued, where they haven’t received what they think they deserve. The culture of traditional, competitive masculinity that Yiannopoulos advocates could never heal these men. That’s because what Yiannopoulos is celebrating is not a culture that values men but a culture that values certain men, and not many of them. The whole point of the school of masculinity that Yiannopoulos defends is to shrink the number of individual men who receive validation and treasure. The cultures of violence and aggression that Yiannopoulos praise are ever-tightening hierarchies, competitions that shrink the number of winners relentlessly. The term “alpha male” — a cross-species analogy based on thoroughly discredited science — implies one, one at the pinnacle, and a world full of varying levels of loser beneath them. Yiannopoulos poses as a societal solution a set of norms and practices designed to reward the very few. (Indeed, very often the various laurels of macho competition are pursued so zealously precisely because they are so exclusive.)
This competitive ideology seeps into and ruins everything. It makes every good contingent on that good being enjoyed by a small and shrinking few. As a guy, this competitive urge is a contagion, it gets in everywhere. I love guitars but hate guitar stores; I like lifting weights but I hate the weight room. Those places are poisoned by male competition and the male insecurity that attends it, almost inevitably.
I suppose I share with Yiannopoulos one thing: I do believe that preventing this type of horrific violence will ultimately require reducing the rage these men feel by stopping their pain. Some people see that as offensive; it seems to place the onus on society to keep these men from killing, rather than on the men themselves not to kill. I understand that perspective. But these incidents are so constant, and their effects so horrific, that we have to do whatever we can to end the conditions that cause them. My solution is pretty much the opposite of Yiannopoulos’s: egalitarianism, a society based on the universal recognition of all people’s value, and a recognition that in the world of shared abundance we’ll build, there’s no need for men to feel that they have to be on top to be treated with respect. A collaborative, communal culture of masculinity would be one in which all men could find value and meaning. These men kill because they think it makes them powerful; they desire power because their culture teaches them that if they don’t have it, they will be preyed on, humiliated, discarded. It’s the weak who feel the need to tell you that they’re strong, after all; the strong never feel the need to prove it. Fear is the source of this anger. We attack that root fear by building a society based on the notion that we are all responsible for each other, that we all are born in the business of helping each other survive and excel.
Lately, some conservative forces have questioned the left’s commitment to this vision. They claim that, in its antiracism, feminism, and similar movements for equality, we simply work to invert the status pyramid, not to create equality but to create an inverse of current inequality. That’s a caricature of left-wing practice. Statements like “All Lives Matter” speak to this fundamental misunderstanding. We say “black lives matter” and not “all lives matter” not because some lives shouldn’t matter but because right now, black lives don’t matter, not to our cops, our courts, our lenders, our employers…. To say “all lives matter” in an America whose black people are harassed, impoverished, degraded, assaulted, and murdered is to direct attention away from one of our most pressing moral challenges. We embrace feminism not because we want to pursue some matriarchal world of a conservative fever dream but because gender inequality is one of the most powerful and pernicious impediments to the kind of egalitarian world we need to build. It is natural to pursue the cause of equality by focusing our attention on the clearest victims of inequality. But the cause is equality, and the cause is a just and bountiful world for everyone, and if men are willing to set aside their desire to always come first, they will find that this cause is ultimately the only one that will secure their own well-being.
Whatever you choose to call left-wing practice, of my kind of left-wing practice, that is its goal, its only victory: a world in which every life is protected and given what’s necessary to flourish because of the universal recognition that every life has value.
No one, I’ve come to think, would be less happy about our latest canonization of James Baldwin than Baldwin himself.
I’ve been rereading a lot of Baldwin, this early fall. I’m doing so to rescue him, for myself only, from what he’s been made of by the mob, the sermonizing left that owns media and writing and books right now, the dull, dim, gladhanding, influence-peddling, consensus-worshipping, joke-telling, meme-spreading, cleverness-obsessed mass that owns the internet and guards that ownership jealously. Well: Baldwin was not your wisdom-spouting gay black uncle. Baldwin was an irritable and tetchy person by his own admission, and not in a sense that is easily bent into the comfortable political pablum that is the stock in trade of today’s white liberals, people for whom comfort with black complaint is just another performance, just another means of self-definition, taking other people’s lack of satisfaction and making it an instrument of protecting their own. Now frequently placed on the imaginary Mount Rushmore of black politics, Baldwin in reality had a deeply vexed relationship with both the black liberals of the Civil Rights movement and the black radicals that came after, one marked by mutual distrust and angry disagreements about goals and means alike. Typical of him, he recognized that the shared struggle and shared injustice did not make him part of some community of friends. When he went into exile in Paris, he intended to leave more than just racists and racism behind. That was his posture: refusal, always, the stance of someone who was not merely uncomfortable around other people but who refused to treat comfort, for himself or for others, as a goal worth pursuing. When he talked about being in a rage almost all the time, he did not mean for the people of the future to tame that rage for him, to make it interpretable for purposes of celebrity and consensus, to make it something else than rage at us, at our complicity, and our desire to share the rage rather than be targets of it.
Maybe the easiest thing is just to point out that the people who praise him most vocally have, with few exceptions, read almost nothing that he’s written. In her discussion of “litchat,” Laura Miller got to heart of it. What Dan Brooks calls the aspirational internet has a strange and unhealthy relationship to books and reading. It’s a kind of vaguely literary culture, in the sense that people feel social pressure to be able to speak intelligently about books, but not really a reader‘s culture. As Miller suggests, people feel much more external incentive to have an opinion about books than they seem to feel internal incentives to read a lot of books. That condition is wedded to a general social prohibition against judging people for not reading more, or be accused of being a snob, elitist, know-it-all, and which prevents anybody from diagnosing that status. What do you say, when you know that someone droning on about the meaning of James Baldwin probably hasn’t read more than a book or two by Baldwin, if they’ve read any at all? When Osama bin Laden died and people were debating whether a distorted Martin Luther King quote really reflected his sentiments, I was struck by how few people seemed to have ever read Strength to Love, despite how many of them probably consider King a hero.
Every day, the circle tightens; every day the things that people think become reduced to The Things That People Think. No one else seems to see the fog of consensus everywhere. But I see it.
In Baldwin, I find this comfort: that he was someone who knew that universal praise was universally useless, that the spirit of inquiry is the spirit of agitation and dissent, that to be popular is a condition to be actively mistrusted. Personally, I am drowning, drowning, drowning in other people’s goodness. It’s like to trying to swim upwards through maple syrup. What makes the climb so much harder is the posture, so popular these days, that the dull consensus is risky, is challenging, is dangerous. But Baldwin was right: there is hope, there is hope in other human beings. People of integrity are real, the quiet and reserved ones are out there, even if you have to look your whole life to find them, and when you find them, you want to hold them forever.
The truly remarkable thing about Baldwin’s present popularity is just how antithetical his aesthetic philosophy stands to our current political mania, a condition shared by the vast majority of people who now lionize him. The blunt Manicheanism of Goodies and Baddies that spread like syphilis from the George W. Bush right to the toddler left could not be further from the pensive, skeptical withdrawal of a man like Baldwin. I wish that he were alive today to skewer that great mass of people who do not read him and profess to know him. In the world of tweets and thinkpieces and performative praise, all act is affect, nothing is challenged, no one is brave, everyone gloms on to the same stale sermons. And somehow in that place this singular, crabby old refusenik has become an unwitting and unwilling hero. When I read him, I know that, as rare as they are, there are others out there who understand the challenge today: to be ruthless, always, in our rejection of all piety. For his efforts, he’s been made into a celebrity, into a postage stamp. Against that I can only bring to bear the certainty that he himself would have had nothing to do with it.
Someday, no one will be able to find me, and I’ll have walked off into the night, thousands and thousands of miles away, having journeyed to the land where nothing is settled, where no one agrees, where there are no heroes and no geniuses, the land of sharp elbows where I was born to be.
This summer, Alan Jacobs had a great post responding to a recent biography of Virginia Woolf. In the post, Alan points out that actually respecting Woolf means taking seriously her heart-wrenching last letter to her husband, in which she praises him in some of the most genuine and intense language I’ve ever read. Instead, the biographer in question, Viviane Forrester, apparently makes Woolf’s husband the villain of her story, rather than respecting what Woolf herself had to say on the matter. I find that kind of ostensible respect, which actually depends on minimizing the agency of the people supposedly being respected, is pretty common. (I see it all the time, for example, with college instructors who want to love students the most, but who end up diminishing their individuality, and in so doing demonstrate profound disrespect to them. Adult respect depends on adult discrimination, on adult judgment.)
Something similar has been happening with Pope Francis. I am very happy that the pope we have cares a great deal about inequality, about social justice, about poverty…. We’re gonna have a pope, it seems, and I’m glad that we have a pope like Francis instead of one like Benedict.
But, look: the pope’s a pope, and I’m an atheist, and an anti-clericalist, and I think the Catholic Church has been guilty of a lot of terrible historical crimes (and, I admit, of doing a lot of important charitable work), and I’m just not keen on popes in general. If you dissolved the Vatican and sold all the treasures and the churches and the real estate, you could save countless lives from misery and death with that money, and since I don’t believe in a Catholic god or any other, that’d be my preference. I have friends who are Catholic, just like I have many friends who are conservative and libertarian and Patriots fans and other kinds of people who I think have made a pretty profound error in judgment, and it’s not like I’m purging my Facebook feed of any of them. But I do think that if you want to like a pope, you should take him seriously as a pope and not as a receptacle for your desires. I don’t mean to police other people’s enthusiasm, but a lot of lefties I know seem to be slipping from “all things considered I’d rather have this pope more than any other popes,” which I agree with, into “this pope is an objectively good person, and I’m not gonna think too hard about his opposition to abortion, same sex marriage, gender equality, and all the rest.” What else to make of something like this? I think a lot of people have been seduced into thinking that the pope’s insistence on the horrors of capitalism, the need to fight poverty, and similar lefty-friendly ideas stems from a desire to woo said lefties. I think it comes from a genuine belief that these issues are central to the doctrine of his church and the will of his god. And so it comes as little surprise that he apparently met with Kim Davis, given his own, unambiguous opposition to marriage equality.
Francis over Benedict, no doubt. But I don’t think this pope is cool because I don’t think popes are cool. He thinks, among other things, that crackers and wine literally become flesh and blood in people’s mouths. That seems like lunacy to me. But I think recognizing that he really believes it and the other things his church preaches entails a kind of respect that’s not shown by some of his more enthusiastic supporters, for whom his belief is a temporary inconvenience, a set of minor embarrassments best left unspoken.
Hey gang, I’ve got a piece in The New Republic today, riffing on my upbringing at Wesleyan University, my piece for the New York Times Magazine, and campus activism. I talk about why I have love for college activists in general and Wesleyan students in particular, and then lament the way in which today’s campus activists tend to ask the power structure for change, rather than working to undermine it. I counsel them to work up from below, not to try and work from the top down.
This weekend, I had a fun conversation with two of my favorites, Kevin Gosztola and the fierce journalist Rania Khalek, in which I talk the corporatism on campus, the future of activism, the Rich Uncle PennyBags test, and why the left is weak.
Check ’em out.
I am disturbed, frequently, by what seems like a growing cultural tendency to teach children that their fantasies are real, to insist to them that they should will a belief of fantasy into being when the natural process of life begins to erode that faith. Because Superman isn’t real, and neither is Dr. Who, and while fantasy and escapism are a wonderful part of both childhood and adulthood, it’s necessary for everyone to understand that what you’re escaping from is reality, and that you always eventually have to go back and confront things there. I think that’s a very important lesson for children of all ages to absorb, because perhaps the most important lesson of childhood is that life isn’t fair, and you’ll spend a lot of it unhappy, and you don’t get what you want in life.
But I’m whistling past the graveyard, here. Because the fact of the matter is that our culture industry, and pretty much all of our other industries, are moving us relentlessly into a space where you are encouraged to crawl deeper and deeper into the most important fantasy world, the world of what you know you already like. It’s not just the widely-lamented franchising mania, which has spilled from movies into TV, video games, and now infected the books and comics that were often the original inspiration for the franchises in the first place. It’s not just the degree to which the old parodies of movie merchandising are now less intense than the reality. (Thanks for making me hate Chewbacca, by the way.) It’s the creation of an economic, social, cultural, and even political infrastructure to convince you that your urge to dive deeper into the stuff you already like is always the correct feeling. It’s an ideology of taste that is totally unfettered by anachronistic compulsions to be more widely read, or to try new things, or to acquire a cultural literacy other than the stuff that you have always loved.
I read someone online somewhere once, I think maybe on Tumblr, stating that he reads The Hobbit, the three Lord of the Rings books, and the Silmarillion, and then just starts over with The Hobbit again. Over and over again. The other day was “Batman Day.” Batman Day. Not to be confused with two separate holidays to honor Star Wars, by which I mean to buy Star Wars stuff.
Like LEGO? Like the small world of pop sci fi, comic book, and related genres that dominate our current cultural conversation? Good news: you can now not just play with LEGOs based on those properties, you can play with them all together, and in both physical and digital forms, at the same time. Like a TV show that got cancelled? Good news: a remake or reboot or sequel or prequel is coming, featuring all of the original cast, plus a bunch of zany celebrity cameos. Everybody wants to be in on the joke; nobody wants to spoil the party. Certainly, a concern such as whether there’s actually any narrative or artistic justification for such new material shouldn’t get in the way of everybody’s good time. Like video games? Not only can you play video games, and read and engage with an absolutely vast amount of subsidiary media about video games, you can now join huge communities watching other people play video games during those rare leisure hours when you aren’t yourself playing video games. Like beer? Not only can you enjoy an immense variety of different kinds of beers, you can make liking beer the singular aspect of your personality. You are actively encouraged to be The Beer Guy. Like the current sound of pop music? More good news: every aspect of the current production of pop music is designed with the explicit goal of making more of the same sound, with conformity the unapologetic vehicle of success, and where literal formulas are not just not denigrated, but openly celebrated. If you don’t like current pop music, what’s wrong with you? Some kind of awful, pointy-headed elitist?
The internet’s favorite: This Thing You Like Plus This Other Thing You Like. Look, it’s the Avengers done up like Harry Potter! The Muppets and the Ghostbusters, together at last. Great.
The algorithms are on your side. We’re creating more and more systems to allow you to consume nothing that you don’t already like, funneling your prior preferences into ever-more-accurate recommendation engines, impossibly intricate machine learning systems that exist to prevent you from ever being exposed to something that you might not like, something that might challenge your prior aesthetic preferences.
But more important than any of this: not only is what you already like the only thing you ever have to like, what you already like is moral. As I said, it’s not just the people who are selling you the actual commodities that fit your taste. It’s our culture industry selling you the reassurance that your already-existing taste is always perfect. Once assumed to have a responsibility to expand the artistic preferences of their readers, to challenge them once in awhile, now the role of the critic seems to be to reassure audiences that anyone who challenges their preexisting tastes is a political undesirable, surely guilty of problematic thinking. We churn out an endless supply of essays lamenting the pressure we feel to eat our pop culture vegetables, despite the fact that no one can point to anybody actually pressuring the rest of us to do so. And always, always, the use of politics, antiracism and feminism instrumentalized to celebrate our taste. Somebody you know prefers experimental fiction to romance novels? They’re probably sexist. Somebody doesn’t like Rihanna? Definitely racist. You have a small army of pop culture commentators from which you can sample, all playing out this basic theme, that your taste is both aesthetically superior and politically purer, the better to forbid the idea that legitimate, conflicting tastes exist. Like Taylor Swift? I have good news: not only are you able to enjoy Taylor Swift’s music, at any time, in a variety of media, along with millions of others of her adoring fans, including most of the world’s prominent music critics, you can do so knowing that the only reason someone might not like her as much as you — the only reason — is because they are a bad, bad person.
And yet you can still complain about disrespect! Because we’ve invented, out of thin air, this illusory group of elitists who prefer “high culture,” sneering fops who wear top hats to the opera and love only classical music except when they love Bob Dylan, and who function like the red-clad monsters from The Village, their ability to keep us all in our safe provincial hamlet not remotely constrained by the fact that they don’t exist.
Should all of this still prove insufficient for your desires, rest easy in the knowledge that the cult of fan service is relentlessly pushing artists to stop getting in the way of your vision. The combination of endless rating systems and review-aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes will bring enough of the economic pressure, while the legions on Twitter, buffeting artists every day with increasingly-entitled demands for getting what they want, will make it clear to people who create this stuff that they had better get on board if they want to maintain any kind of public presence at all. In time, the term “fan fiction” will become unnecessary; that will be the only kind.
If we giggle at the image of the VR-wearing adult, sucked entirely into his or her own world, blind and uncaring towards everyone else in the broader social space, it’s nervous laughter. Because whether or not average people end up strapping goggles to their faces for significant portions of their day, not just at home but on the subway or at a bar (which I witnessed myself recently at a bar near Purdue), the trend is clear: the weight of capitalism and culture is pressing you to withdraw deeper into your preexisting preferences, deeper into yourself. Whether or not we get the full VR experience, it seems we’re all going to be diving into our own worlds, and paying for the privilege. I lament all the things that people might like but will never discover, secure in the right(eous)ness of what they already like, but I suppose that’s not my business. Snob that I am, I do maintain a basic belief that while it’s never shameful to love something, even to love something obsessively, it’s always shameful to love only one thing, or only one kind of thing. But that’s not even on the table, right now. The real question is, how much further do we have to go before we eliminate that one last impediment to our real bliss, our awareness of the existence of other people?
Gang, I’ve got a piece I really loved writing in the new issue of Full Stop Quarterly, an online magazine that’s available here for $5 in both PDF and epub formats. I know we live in an era where writing is assumed to be free, but they’re paying me as well as a bunch of other great writers in this issue. $5 for 68 pages of interesting reading is a good deal. My piece will be released for free in short order, so you can wait until then, but if you support independent writing, please pay independent writers. Thanks.