Mad Max’s moderate feminism and radical egalitarianism

max furiosa rifle

Spoilers ahoy.

At the end of writer and director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road¸ a rebooted continuation of his classic post-apocalyptic series, a quote appears: “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?” The quote is attributed to “The First History Man,” a nod to the time before the apocalypse in question. The sentiment, then, comes not from the world of Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky and Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, the warrior woman at the center of the film’s plot and themes and the indelible figure of the movie. It comes from our world, from the pre-apocalyptic world, which means it confronts us in our figurative wasteland as thoroughly as it does those characters in their literal one. What do we have to do in a world that, though lush and bountiful in comparison to the starved world of Mad Max, is still filled with injustice?

We might see some of that challenge in the negative response to the film from a particular, particularly troubling perspective. The film has earned, and thoroughly deserves, a reputation as a modern action masterpiece, a hyperkinetic journey that proves the continuing relevance of practical effects and character-driven storytelling. Rapturous reviews have implored audiences to go see the film, in order to reward the faith of Miller and his team in the ability to create a summer spectacle that has heart, vision, and integrity. But dissent has bubbled up from a noxious source: the Men’s Rights Activists, or MRAs. The MRA movement believes that feminism has corrupted contemporary gender relations, relegating men to the status of second class citizens and upsetting a natural order where men are born leaders, warriors, and workers, and where women are better served in roles of domestic nourishment. MRAs have made news lately for loudly decrying the plot of Fury Road, in which Theron’s noble warrior and a cast of powerful women drive the action and make the most noble sacrifices. To MRAs, this constitutes an inherent degradation of the character of Max and through him, of men writ large.

(Some have complained that the MRA rage over the film is largely a media exaggeration, thinly-sourced and replicated endlessly. Maybe so! But, I mean, this guy exists. It’s not a wholesale invention.)

Some of the film’s champions have played into this narrative, with many reviews calling the film an inversion of the traditional action film trope of heroic men rescuing at-risk women. Deadspin’s Will Leitch, for example, writes that “Max himself is oddly passive and unimportant to the plot: It’s the women, particularly Theron’s Furiosa, who drive the action and make all the difference,” standing in contrast to “idiotic men and their overcompensating toys, killing each other and everyone else, just as they’ve done since the beginning of time.” That seems to confirm the MRA’s take on the plot, though hardly their political stance towards it. Certainly, such a movie could be made and made well, a radical tale in which men are revealed as inherently incapable of reform. I’d watch that movie with interest.

But that isn’t the movie Miller made. It’s just inaccurate, for example, to call the men passive characters. Max takes many crucial actions in the film, as does Nicholas Hoult’s renegade “Warboy” Nux. Without either of them, the caravan of heroes would never have survived. Indeed, the film’s screenplay is as comprehensively egalitarian as I can imagine: every single character within the group of protagonists plays some essential role in the conflict. Yes, Furiosa is the linchpin of it all, the one whose courageous decision starts the plot into motion, and the most effective combatant and driver in a world where fighting and driving are everything. And it’s indeed great to see a blockbuster action film that is so unambiguous and direct in its portrayal of heroic, competent women. But it seems to me to be a misreading to say that the many potent women characters in the movie succeed by replacing the men. The hero of Mad Max is really a family of heroes. The movie’s commitment to a truly communal vision of heroism is perhaps its most radical, most affecting stance.

Watch this scene.

God, I love this movie.

Yes, in this scene, a man in a group of women advocates for the eventual course of action. But he’s been brought to that place by the decisions of a woman, acting on behalf of other women. And the decision is not his alone. Multiple women join in the dialogue, and the person they are trying to convince, the closest thing the group has to a leader, is a woman. People make their appeal; they state their point of view. The group comes to a decision. This isn’t some Amazonian warrior woman leading by imperious decree. It is, instead, a story of a family of spontaneous heroes who, in a world begging them to focus only on their own survival, find within themselves the courage to sacrifice for the good of others. Watching the film a second time, I felt a kick of aggravation at the endless “Chosen One” narratives that are heaped on us again and again in modern movies. Max Rockatansky is the opposite of a Chosen One. He is a guy who wants to care only about survival, and yet finds within himself angels enough to put his life in danger in the defense of others. I think of Ratatouille’s claim that a great cook could come from anywhere, and realize that the claim here is the same: heroism emerges from the flux of life in the hearts of those who are brave enough to choose it in the face of adversity.

These themes are explored in a brilliant essay by Maria Bustillos. Bustillos has, in a low-key and patient way, explored the relationship between feminism and reconciliation for years now. See, for example, her review of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, in which she writes: “I believe that each of us — all human beings who share the same seemingly limitless abilities, and the same unfathomable doom — should be able to develop his or her potential and live freely and on equal terms in a condition of mutual respect and support.” This statement is remarkable in that it is simultaneously natural and unobjectionable, on its face, and yet in context risky, as Bustillos is pointedly contrasting this with the zero-sum school of feminism that she accuses Rosin of. (Accurately.) In the context of contemporary dialogues, such a stance could be easily misrepresented. Some could take Bustillos’s claim as the equivalent of #AllLivesMatter or similar weaksauce derailing, attempts to neuter passionate political rhetoric with waves to vague universal claims as a replacement for the specific demands of outraged people. That isn’t Bustillo’s project, as I understand it. Her goal seems simple and radical, uncomplicated yet challenging: to find within contemporary culture the blueprints for the better society that we must build in order to survive. And she recognizes that we can only make that world together. “Max leaves her at the end of the movie, still the quiet loner who shows no emotions,” she writes. “But I think he’ll be back.” I hope to god George Miller proves her right.

No, men aren’t sidelined in Mad Max. They aren’t considered irredeemable, either. Redemption is in fact that movie’s strongest theme. Max is plagued by visions of the people he has failed to save in his life, a series of hallucinations that strike him at the worst time and contribute to his stance of proud hopelessness. He is granted at least a small reprieve in the course of a film where he helps many women, even though these women are perfectly capable of helping themselves. Nux, meanwhile, is a character that should be as hard to rehabilitate as possible, an angry young man constantly hopped up on chemicals who endured a lifetime of brainwashing and was raised only to be a killer. Yet he is judged and, ultimately, redeemed. When Furiosa leads her caravan to her old clan, a pack of keen-eyed elder warrior women, they initially distrust the two men traveling with her. But Furiosa makes her case, telling them that the men she travels with have helped her and her friends, that they are worthy. So the wise warrior women accept them into their band.

The moment is crucial: yes, men are capable of being redeemed, even in a world ruined by men. But first they must be evaluated. There has to be a reckoning of their individual characters. After all, redemption requires judgment. In order to be redeemed, one most wrestle with one’s past. When Furiosa presents her companions to her clan, she is required to make her case, to assuage their worries, by telling them about the specific actions and character of the men in question. In a similar way, we as thinking, progressive people must be willing to grapple with the past and present of gender relations before we can feel like integrated and valued members of an equal society. None of us are required to answer for the crimes of our gender, and despite MRA rhetoric, essentially no men ever are. But all of us must take stock of the continuing horrors of patriarchy if we are to be part of a feminist, equitable world, and we must be willing to be interrogated on our contribution to the building of that world. Redemption is possible, but only with a willingness to be judged and a commitment to being our better selves.

Mad Max: Fury Road refutes the MRA worldview, then, in two ways at once. It refuses to play to the zero-sum gender narrative that they’ve imagined, where women acting as leaders and warriors must necessarily leave men in the (figurative and literal) dust. But it is unflinching in its portrayal of a world destroyed by men and their violent, rapacious acts. A modern masterpiece, Fury Road doesn’t compel us to hate its titular character or men in general. The film embraces equality, but it’s a hard-won, brutally honest, and adult kind of equality, not the greeting card variety. Without ever falling into moral didacticism or the stereotype both critics and supporters have made of it, the new Mad Max film shows us how rich, entertaining, and challenging blockbuster films can truly be.

all things go

PhD Daddy and Me

Well folks, grad school has come and gone.

It’s beautiful on campus. I grew up on a college campus; my earliest memories are of playing under my father’s desk while he met with students. My parents met on campus. My maternal grandfather ran the post office and general store at a college; my paternal grandfather was a professor. I have spent a majority of my adulthood in school. While it’s a bit embarrassing to say, I really don’t function well anywhere else. Campus is really the only place I’ve ever fit in or made sense.

Now I’m in a spot where it’s unclear if I’ll get to return. I am a good academic. I love to teach and I can really do it. I really can. I really come alive in the classroom. And I’m built to be a researcher, as I am a compulsive writer (in the old school sense of it being out of my control) and habitual reader. I think my stuff is good. But I hardly need to tell you that many talented academics are left out in the cold in current labor conditions. I am hardly giving up. I have a very strong CV, and I’m still applying now, and there’s some jobs I’ve interviewed for lately that would be awesome. I will also give it another go next year if it doesn’t break for me this spring or summer. If it doesn’t work out for me my second go around, then we’ll see. Obviously, my compulsions to write, and my style in writing, do not always help. Like the lady sang, “I need to tame this wild tongue if I’m to touch these white streets,” but all these years later I’m still learning, still regretting. I left my last class a few weeks ago hoping that it won’t be the last I ever teach. I am not complaining. I am in a really rare spot of freedom. I can go anywhere and do anything. I just may not get to stay on campus any longer. If not, I’ll figure it out. You don’t always get what you want in life!

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

I have more regrets than I can count, but the last six years of MA and PhD, the decision to commit myself in this way, aren’t among them. I am a far healthier and more functional human being than when I started, although there too the work is ongoing. Going to grad school was the best decision I ever made. Looking back, I think of the work. The endless hours of reading books, of chewing through terrible old facsimile PDFs, of drafting and redrafting papers, of staring at a paragraph of text from some 19th century Scottish rhetorician and trying to make it make sense, of laboring over a graphing calculator as I agonizingly dragged myself to competence in stats, of grading huge stacks of papers, of mildewy lecture halls, of the stacks in the library, and always of the paper, the paper and the ink. The work is what I was in for. I know that sounds impossibly pious, and I promise that I’m not trying to prove my virtue. I’m only saying that, as the person I am, the work is ultimately the  only satisfaction, the only tool to quiet my unquiet mind. I only regret that those who built this smokeless  fire inside of me and left too soon were not there to see any of it. If I get to stay, I will give thanks every day. If I leave, I will be OK, and I will leave behind a folder on my computer that houses within it 2000 nights of grinding, grinding, grinding away, for my own self, 2000 nights of purpose. And I did it all for you, dear father, nurturing mother, for you.

conversating on #CancelColbert and related

Jay Caspian Kang and I are starting an exchange about hashtag activism, #CancelColbert, and related issues over at Medium. Please check it out.

I’ve got some really cool professional gigs coming up in prominent places. They’re longer pieces so it’ll take some time before you see them, but it’s super gratifying to get these opportunities. (And the money doesn’t hurt!) Stay tuned.

species of compassion

Last night TNR unleashed this thoughtful, restrained profile of Suey Park by Elizabeth Bruenig. I thought Bruenig played her hand well. The profile genre elicits sympathy for the profiled by its nature, and Bruenig was investigating with compassion, and yet she does not dismiss or trivialize the reasons many turned on Park.

Unfortunate, then, that some are reacting to the piece by minimizing the damage Suey once did. Because she hurt a lot of people and took a hatchet to solidarity in doing so. One strange aspect of social media politics lies in the inconsistent reputation of their power. At one moment, social media is capable of sparking revolution. The next, it couldn’t hurt a fly. “They’re just tweets!” Claims to revolutionary power do not live well with claims to that power’s harmlessness. That tension will be, in the long term, the computer virus that replicates its way into the operating system of Twitter political movements and eventually shuts them down.

I think Suey Park deserves forgiveness. Definitely. But forgiveness implies recognition of bad behavior. And I find it telling, and disturbing, that some feel compelled to whitewash her many cruel statements and proudly politicized callousness in order to make an argument for forgiveness. That’s not how forgiveness works. And it plays into the misjudgment that Park and so many others have made, in this new world of purely moralistic politics: the presumption that blamelessness is a necessary requirement for those whom we would treat well, the notion that only those unstained by imperfection deserve sympathy and respect. If you take nothing else from Bruenig’s profile, take the bare notion that we all have to forgive each other because we all need to be forgiven.

a non-exhaustive list of reasons I am in love with Mad Max: Fury Road

This post contains minor spoilers about the movie Mad Max: Fury Road, which is one of the best movies I’ve seen in ages and my favorite blockbuster in forever.

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1. Because hot damn, real physical objects look good on camera. I know it’s a cliche by now to complain about CGI and nothing being or looking real, but this movie justifies it all. It just looks fantastic. Compare the average scene in Mad Max to the average scene from, say, The Hobbit movies and you’ll probably just get mad, you know what I mean? Why are we being forced to endure so many beautifully rendered movies that look… beautifully rendered? Why can’t I look at real people in real places interacting with real objects in big-budget movies anymore?

2. Because it doesn’t explain everything.

3. Because, as goddamn dorky as this to say, Tom Hardy looks and sounds really cool.

4. Because it demonstrates that you can have a tough, near-silent, ass kicker of a protagonist who isn’t some terrible aphorism-spouting cliche or macho goon.

5. Because every since Skins I’ve known that Nicholas Hoult has had a great career in him if he could just find the right vehicle, and he found it in this movie and he’s fantastic.

6.

Not just that moment, though. It’s a movie with almost no romance, in the typical sense, but which is achingly romantic. It just shames so many other movies with explicitly loving relationships or “will-they-or-won’t-they” structures. There is so much tenderness in Furiosa and Max’s brief, quiet, concise conversations with each other. When Furiosa approaches Max and says “Can I talk to you?,” it’s more affecting than every romantic relationship in all the Marvel movies put together.

7. Because it doesn’t do what many of its admirers are saying it does — it doesn’t, actually, replace Max with Furiosa. It doesn’t think that making a feminist movie necessarily involves rejecting the male characters. Instead, it demonstrates the power of shared strength, mutual commitment, and communal goals. Its politics are the radical notion of spontaneous family and leaderless community.

8. Because Charlize Theron plays an impossibly impressive warrior figure without doing some dumb robot voice or similarly affected way to signal “strong female character.”

9. Because of the Doof Warrior, obviously.

10. Because it understands the difference between portraying bleakness, suffering, and pain and falling into teenage grimdark portentous nonsense. Because it portrays a world of terrible darkness without acting like human beings are irredeemable. Because it knows that representing humanity as an unbroken string of senseless cruelty and universal selfishness is the opposite of mature. Because it satisfies the call Anthony Lane has been making for years in marrying the portrayal of violence to a consideration of suffering. Because it’s a sad, hopeful, bleak, uplifting story. Because it’s adult. Not serious. Not grim. Not “dark” in the usual sense. Adult. Of all things. Imagine that.

11. Because it’s an action movie with a plot that isn’t fundamentally driven by revenge.

12. Because, as someone said in a tweet that I can’t find now, it’s a modern tentpole film with strong themes and ideas where no character ever comes out and says what the point is or how we’re supposed to feel.

13. Because its world building is monumental while seeming effortless. Because it has tons of obscure slang that is understandable without some character making a groan-inducingly obvious statement to explain. Because the parts seem to fit together without seeming like some executive is trying to build a franchise or sell me an action figure.

14. Because there’s no goddamn stinger or other commercials for the next movie that make me feel like a chump while I’m watching it. Because the movie itself is not an advertisement for some later experience that we’re assured will be better than the one we’re getting now. Because it’s a blockbuster where I’m allowed to be present in the actually-occurring movie that’s in front of me.

15. Because it is resolutely feminist and unmistakably political without once being preachy or seeming like the type of exercise in moral hygiene that the internet’s culture industry constantly calls for.

16. Because everything about the movie — the plot, the themes, the politics, the characters, the genre — agitates against a romantic relationship between Max and Furiosa, and I agree with that completely, and it makes so much better dramatic and artistic sense for everything between them to remain implicit and unspoken, and I think it would be a worse movie if we saw anything happen between them, and yet I wanted to see them kiss sooooooo baaaaaad and I kind of hate myself for it but I don’t care. They speak a dozen lines to each other and yet their chemistry leaps off the screen, and it’s an earned attraction driven by shared adversity and admiration and a mutual protective instinct, and yes, by the fact that those are two goddamn gorgeous human beings who have never looked better. I’ve always thought shipping was a little juvenile but man I ship those two so hard. Sorry!

17. Because it’s a character-driven, intelligent, action-packed, well-developed, romantic, genuinely epic blockbuster film that doesn’t insult its audience or play down to low expectations, a story with high dramatic stakes that are fully earned and an ending that is deeply satisfying and ultimately positive, achieved with real sacrifice.

That’ll do, for now.

the “not left-wing” claim

Since I frequently get praise and attention from conservatives and libertarians for my pieces critiquing the current state of progressive argumentative and political practice, I am also frequently accused by more partisan progressives of not being left-wing. The funny thing is that these people are frequently incapable of naming a single substantive policy on which we disagree. Well, let me go through the perennial activity of laying it out for all of you.

I am a socialist who believes in the short term in instituting a dramatically more progressive tax system in order to fund a far more redistributive and robust social state, and in the long term in a system of market socialism whereby a guaranteed minimum income is paid to all citizens in order to ensure minimal material security and comfort. I’m in favor of nationalizing the banking industry, or failing to do that, enforcing far more limiting and vigorous regulations on speculative financial trades and rent-seeking. I believe in universal health care partially funded by taxpayers, with something like a one third/two thirds individual/government split on routine care and caps on individual payouts for catastrophic or perpetual care. I believe in free tuition at state-built and controlled public universities, in a system similar to our K-12 system. I support robust protections for teachers and wages that reflect their effort. I advocate for government funding for the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. I think that despite decades of merciless attacks from the moneyed, unions represent one of the most essential and powerful systems for positive progressive change, and I call for enforcement of existing labor laws that benefit unions and the passage of more powerful legislation besides. I believe in the need for an empowered, activist regulatory state to ensure consumer protections and public safety. I am opposed to all forms of sexual conservatism, and regard all consenting, adult sexual and romantic relationships between freely choosing partners to be of perfectly equal legitimacy. I believe in addressing historical inequality and oppression along racial, gender, ethnic, and similar lines. I support race-based and gender-based affirmative action where necessary in colleges and in governmental jobs. I support reparations for slavery and for our aggression and atrocities against Native American tribes. I support an Equal Rights Amendment to ensure gender equity. I believe in abortion rights without restriction, complication, or prior review. I advocate for access to birth control for all people of sexual maturity and comprehensive sexual education in middle and high school. I am a strict believer in civil rights and civil liberties and call for robust government enforcement of equal access to housing and employment, strong protections of free speech, practical freedom both of religion and from religion, and powerful rights for the accused. I am opposed to the Drug War and to the incarceration state. I am against all forms of the death penalty in all cases and without exception. I support vast reforms of our corrupt, violent, and inhumane prisons. I recognize the existence of patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, Western cultural and military hegemony, and neocolonialism, and believe in a moral duty to end them. I support comprehensive gun control. I support immigration without restriction. I am antiwar in almost all cases. I call for an immediate cessation of hostilities against the Muslim world, the closure of vast numbers of American overseas military bases, and drastic cuts in our defense budget. I advocate for a comprehensive dismantling of the NSA and CIA and the end of all programs of mass electronic espionage on the citizens of this country and those abroad. I believe in the need for prosecution of America’s large body of war criminals who have wrought ceaseless devastation on innocent, defenseless people. I call for the immediate, comprehensive, and permanent dismantling of our nuclear arsenal. I support strong environmental regulations and robust efforts to reverse global warming, end the depletion of our natural resources, and save endangered plant and animal species and their habitats. I believe that the most profound moral task of the 21st century is to redress a world of terrible inequality and oppression, a task which can only be completed with a vast effort to dismantle systems of human inequality and to close the vast material gulf between those who enjoy historic, economic, demographic, social, cultural, political, and practical privilege over those who don’t.

But, yeah. Other than that I’m a regular William F. Buckley.

some recommendations for the aspiring fancypants

I’m working on a piece right now for another publication. I’m excited about it and hope to be able to share it soon. Below, you’ll find a section that the editor and I decided didn’t really fit with the rest of the piece. It’s a few recommendations in categories that are traditionally associated with the highbrow– and, as such, are now looked on with suspicion. That’s a shame, because there’s a ton of great stuff out there and it  comes in comic books and operas, ballets and video games. So I thought I’d share some recommendations in a few mediums that you might enjoy if you aren’t usually used to getting into this kind of stuff. None of this is particularly out of the ordinary or hard to find; these aren’t meant as recommendations for stuff you’ve never heard of. It’s more about how to jump into mediums or genres that are often seen as forbidding or inaccessible.

As always: the point is not that consuming this art is ennobling. You shouldn’t go looking for this stuff out of a sense of duty, and certainly not to increase your virtue. You should check it out because they all are rich, rewarding, and ready to be enjoyed. If you aren’t interested, that’s fine too. Just remember that there are all kinds of artistic pleasures out there to be discovered. Try stuff out. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you do, even better.

Novel: War and Peace

Tolstoy’s masterpiece is frequently invoked as a symbol of a big, intimidating doorstop of a novel. And indeed, when you’re toting it around, you’ll know you’re carrying a big brick of a book, as stuffed with pages as it is with prestige. But if War and Peace is a book with a reputation, it’s also a book with a secret: it’s a remarkably fast-moving, fun, resonant adventure story, an incredible romance set against the backdrop of an immensely influential war that Americans rarely hear about. True, its 1,200+ pages (in conventional formats) are stuffed with philosophical digressions and sweeping considerations of the arc of history, and the ability – or inability – of individuals to shape that arc. But the core narrative of Russian aristocrats, struggling to adapt to the seemingly implacable threat of Napoleon’s military, is as compelling and thoroughly modern a fictionalized history as you’ll ever find. Pierre, the novel’s central character, seems remarkably contemporary, someone who presaged 20th century alienation, at once a privileged aristocrat and a consummate outsider. Perhaps Tolstoy’s greatest strength lies in how he shifts from the personal to the grandly historical; I liken him, in War and Peace, to the director of a television broadcast of an NFL football game, sometimes taking in the action from a vast remove so as to see the whole sweep of the field, sometimes diving in for a close-up to showcase human emotion, always with exquisite control. It’s a model for every great epic movie that effectively balances the personal and world-historic.

Starting a novel of this length and complexity is no small decision, and I understand if the size of the effort scares you off. But the difficulty, or the reputation for boredom, absolutely shouldn’t. This is a novel that begs for more reading, and if you can balance the characters and narrative of Lord of the Rings, you can surely tackle War and Peace. Of course, some people who see you reading it will presume you to be pretentious. You’ll survive. The novel is worth it.

Extra Credit: Jose Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon; Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji.

Visual Arts: Helen Frankenthaler

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Unlike the other other works listed here, Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings can’t be fully appreciated in digital form, but if you ever get a chance to check out her work in a museum, I can’t recommend it enough. If you do, you might be forced to live through some version of “my kid could paint that!” or similar art museum cliches. I certainly don’t have the time, energy, or expertise to justify abstract visual art to you all. I’ll just say that there’s an irony in the way that people attack visual artwork that does not represent a specific, real-world subject. Typically people attack abstract art because they think art should be about visuals instead of ideas. The stereotype is of art that lives only in the brain instead of the eyes — that every abstract work is intended to express a message rather than to be absorbed a visual object. But people who come to abstract work in a state of preemptive distrust are guilty of that very thing: they fail to just take in what they see and react to it on a visual level. The best way to get past that mistrust is to think “what do I see, and do I like the way it looks?” Just look at it as an aesthetic object and stop worrying about theories of art and representation.

Frankenthaler was an artist who in fact went out through abstraction and back into something resembling representation. There are no cleanly painted green and rolling hills in her work, but it’s filled with landscapes, with imagery from the natural world. Sometimes you read people talking about the “crisis of representation” that happened in the art world in the late 19th and early 20th century. The idea is that, confronted with the superior power of the photograph to capture the world around them, visual artists began to break from the presumption that their job was to created images of the real world. Self-conscious experimentalists like Piet Mondrian broke from representation entirely, or tried to. I think Frankenthaler, working several generations later, demonstrates the pleasure of abstraction that has let go of those anxieties. Her work is occasionally representational but always evocative. Colors fade and out into her canvases, shapes bleeding into each other, and yet her forms, or impressions of forms, are distinct. There are some great abstract visual artists whose work does lend itself to the critique that “anyone could do that.” Frankenthaler’s does not; her craft is incredible. I value her work in part for showing how abstraction and control can be self-reinforcing phenomena.

Extra Credit: Henry Ossawa Tanner; Francis Picabia

Film: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler

From the outset, Fritz Lang’s first film might seem like a parody of difficult, boring art: it’s a four hour, silent, black and white, German film concerned with the decadence and moral decay of Weimar Germany. You could be forgiven for hearing that and heading for the hills. But that would be a mistake, because the movie is in fact a thrill. The film portrays the reign of a master criminal who rules the underworld through fear and the moneyed through persuasion and hypnosis. Operatic and lush in its imagery, the characteristically exaggerated acting style of the period takes some getting used to. But in time, you’ll catch on to Lang’s rhythms and come to enjoy the profound subtleties hidden within the cinematography, the performances, and the story. The title character is one of the great villains in the history of the movies, and the film deftly pulls off a trick many movies still struggle to get right today: making the villain seem truly capable of defeating the heroes. It’s as suspenseful a movie as I’ve ever seen.

Don’t be intimidated by the subtitles; like many silent film directors, Lang minimizes dialogue and largely allows his visuals to tell the story. And if the four-hour length seems prohibitive, it’s conveniently divided into two parts. If you get hooked, you can follow up with the two sequels, the latter of which was released an incredible 38 years after the original.

Extra Credit: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters; Dogville; Armarcord.

Poetry: Fiona Templeton 

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In an era of mistrust towards art that breaks towards the experimental, the challenging, or the obscure, poetry might suffer worst of all. This is particularly true given that many (though by no means all) working poets have left behind traditional verse patterns and meters. Some incorporate images and music; some give elaborate stage directions for how they’re to be read. I get why some people would be put off by the whole thing.

Under those conditions, you can tack towards the traditional and the orthodox (and I wouldn’t blame you), or you can steer into the skid, which is what I advise. Fiona Templeton, who’s a director and  performing artist and poet and playwright, embodies so many of the things that people hate about “modern art,” which is part of why I love her work so much. She’s still producing today, I think, putting herself out there in a variety of mediums. The above passage is from You–the City, which is perhaps a poem, perhaps a play. Her style, in this mode, is a kind of loping, iterative prose poetry, words that stack into what  seem like sentences which then stack into what seem like paragraphs and yet resemble in the end nothing you’ve ever read before. She’ll  write a passage hat seems quotidian and obvious until its very last part, when it will veer off in a direction that seems perfectly natural and perfectly unnatural at the same time. She writes the kind of poetry that seems to proceed like DNA, like a mutation, a natural unspooling of preordained structures that proceed by rule and yet still result in wonderfully bizarre complexity. Like one of those forced perspective paintings that look perfect until you try to step around to the side and suddenly you’re disoriented, her work looks perfectly straight until it forces you to look at it slant. I’ve never seen her work performed live, but I would love to very much. She has such a wonderful capacity to surprise.

Extra credit: Angela Weld Grimke; Amiri Baraka

Orchestral Music: Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto no. 1

Note that the term here is orchestral, which denotes a kind of instrumentation and notation, rather than Classical, which denotes a time period. On the one hand, orchestral music has the advantage of most people already liking it, at least casually. There’s nobody alive that hasn’t heard a significant amount of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and others, and very few that haven’t found themselves pulled in by NPR on a long drive. That’s no accident; far from being a sight of willful artistic difficulty, orchestral music has largely been defined by the exact opposite, the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure taken to its highest extreme. So most of us come to the tradition with a level of baked-in interest. On the other hand, there’s a frankly astonishing level of knowledge and information out there to be absorbed. I’ve listened to and read about orchestral music since I was a teenager, and yet to this day I usually don’t talk much about it with people I know to be informed. There just seems to be so much to know that I would inevitably reveal my ignorance. It frequently seems as if you need to study endless amounts of musical theory, history, and mathematics just to keep up.

But as with other mediums in this piece, the way forward is simple: try stuff out and enjoy. There is no wrong way to get acquainted with new art forms. If you find yourself moved by some of the orchestral music you connect with, you will find the energy and focus to learn as much as you need. This is for you. There’s no pop quiz.

One way to avoid the feeling of drowning in history is to listen to the work of a living, contemporary composer. Philip Glass fits the bill. You already know his work: you’ve heard it in movies for years. Like Sonic Youth, who have acknowledged his influence, Glass has long held the sweet spot, standing for both unimpeachable artistic integrity and commercial appeal. His soundtrack for the wordless experimental film Koyaanisqatsi lent the movie its foreboding power; his work on the (fantastic) genre film Candyman, its perfect pop horror. Glass has been so prolific, and his work has spanned such a vast array of contexts, that getting started with him can feel as intimidating as getting started with orchestral music itself.

So start with his Violin Concerto no. 1. It’s a remarkably effective introduction to not only Glass’s work, but to the broader world of minimalism, the school Glass is grudgingly associated with. (Like many great artists, Glass chafes against the genre identity that has been foisted on him.) Minimalism is a late-20th century movement defined by a stripping down of music to its essentials. In contrast with the lush, frequently overpowering layers and complexity of much orchestral music, minimalism works through the power of restriction, often utilizing only a few notes, or a few instruments, or a few patterns repeated with minor variations over and over again. The Estonian composer Arvo Part once said (in conversation with Bjork!) that he was a minimalist because he needed space for himself in his music. Part’s “Spiegel Im Spiegel,” though fast becoming a movie trailer cliché, is a good model, spare and haunting, with its sadly plodding piano and aching violin. In his Violin Concerto no. 1, Glass’s work is faster and more complex than that piece, but no less a product of the minimalist school, its central themes seducing the listener with repetition that the instruments keep seeming to strain to escape. Nowhere is this more powerfully achieved than in the astonishing second movement, where the violin seems to weep. (I know, I know. Listen to it. Tell me I’m wrong.) Below, the low strings and woodwinds churn and churn, spilling out anxious grief. The concerto is exhausting and exhilarating and heartbreaking, and it’s only 30 minutes long.

(And watch Candyman. Seriously. It’s a horror movie about urban planning and Tony Todd is a boss.)

Extra Credit: Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa; Dmitri Shostakovich, Tenth Symphony.

Drama: Samuel Beckett, Endgame

There’s a very dumb way to approach going to a play, and that’s to treat it like watching a movie. Complaining about the production values of a movie relative to a play is like complaining that the lighting is better in porn than it is when you’re actually having sex. If we really want to get picky, movies are never “realistic” anyway, and exactly 0% of the time the purpose of a play is to convince you that it’s real life. The purpose of a play is to be present, to be there with real people who are living fake lives to make you feel real feelings. You don’t have to be a Luddite to appreciate, for a brief period, the experience of looking at something other than a screen. The point is that you could jump on stage and ruin the show, and you don’t.

I should say that I grew up in the amateur theater, literally, my father a professor of theater at Wesleyan University, home to a pack of weirdo art-kid students. (Like Dot Com from 30 Rock.) You are entitled to find the weirdo art-kids of schools like Wesleyan pretentious and annoying, just as you are entitled to find plays like Endgame pretentious and annoying. But I urge you to look a bit beyond that immediate revulsion and look for the deeper commitments to asking probably the most basic questions: what are we doing here, and why do we bother to do it? In its inescapable theme of pointless repetition, Endgame asks us to think about why we get up and go through routines we don’t enjoy and largely don’t know why we do. Don’t be put off by that existential bleakness; revel in it. Dive in.

If you’d like plot summary, I guess I’ll just say that there are four grunting characters with monosyllabic names, living in an uncomfortably small, garbage-strewn place, pecking at each other, during what is simultaneously the end times and a time that will never end. In my mind they live in a nuclear silo, but it occurs to me that this is only an artifact of the first time I saw the play, a brilliant production of my father’s, who was at once a generous and ruthless director. It’s Beckett; the play takes place in the same hazy surroundings as his (overproduced) Waiting for Godot. There are, of course, symbols and resonances for you to draw, but ultimately you’ll benefit from not trying to force what you’re seeing into an allegorical frame. Rather just experience Beckett’s world in its hopeless hopefulness: people do things that don’t much matter, they misunderstand each other, and they die, or don’t, and in the end they perhaps offer some modest comforts for one another, when they think enough outside themselves to bother to. I would not think of these actions as plot, exactly; the Sparknotes for the play are probably more confusing than the text itself. They are actions that strip away the various layers of human pretense that we drape on them to make life seem purposeful. Later, on the drive home, you can start the long chew, and think about what it all really means.

More than anything I’ve recommended, this probably sounds like a hopeless,  joyless slog. And indeed you’ll have to let yourself experience it in a different register than you might enjoy an episode of Friends. But it’s like I keep saying: God made chocolate and he made vanilla. The fact of the matter is that all of us live with bleak periods that run in and out of our minds, and frequently they seem impossible to express, on account of that whole “worried about appearing pretentious” thing I keep going on about. At its best, this type of punishing theater of the absurd can reveal, in its relentless darkness, the spaces in our lives where we have room to build a fire. Beckett and creators like him turn up the pain in order to demonstrate the redemptive potential of your own, real life. Once you’ve seen it you can, like the distant boy glimpsed through the window in Endgame, choose to come in or to die outside. If that’s too deep, remember that the unapologetic pleasures of the best pop song you’ve ever heard are just a few clicks away. That’s life; it’s all in there.

Extra Credit: Peter Shaffer, Equus; Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera; Clark Gesner, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

for the Netscape Navigators

I hate to waste your time and mine with this, but I am again being informed on Twitter that several of the ample corps of dad jean models at Lawyers, Guns, and Money have blown the dust off their keyboards and taken another feeble set of pokes at me. As in plural. I gotta tell you, in seven years of doing this I have never encountered a stranger phenomenon than the sweaty-palmed obsession of those middle aged tenured types over there. Obsession is the only word. They have written at least a dozen posts about me, specifically, though I’ve never read but two of them. In my time online I’ve had people post a Google Maps picture of my house in an MRA forum, a reader add me on Facebook and proceed to like literally every photo I had, and a woman who wouldn’t stop sending me pictures of herself wearing nothing but a ball gag. Nobody, but nobody, has had such a relentless fixation on me and my little WordPress here as LGM, despite all that. What, do you guys have that little to do that you spend so many hours obsessing over my every move? Don’t you have families? Hobbies? You could write a fucking dissertation with all of the time and words you’ve wasted, trying to prove to the world that I’m irrelevant by following me around like TMZ. What kind of a pack of tweens gets so bizarrely fixated on somebody with no power over their lives whatsoever? It’s like your some pathetic guy relentlessly hitting “refresh” on his ex-girlfriend’s Instagram.

Did no one ever tell you guys about the principle of least interest? Whenever people say “did you see Centrist Hippie Puncher Sad Sack #4 went after you today,” the answer is inevitably no, no I haven’t. Why would I read the same shitty prose and tired-ass put downs you’ve ladled out about me every 72 hours for years? You might as well just write “He Got to Us Again” and hit post. I’m sorry you get so sweaty and cantankerous that I exist, but you’re going to have to learn to live with that fact.

I have taken as the basic assumption of everything I do online that I am not at all a big deal and that I’m just some guy. So please understand that I am speaking from the irrelevant sidelines myself when I say that your Freddie deBoer News and Occasionally Other Stuff zine there could not possibly be less relevant. I’m not blowing smoke when I say that I never know you’re writing about me unless someone goes out of their way to tell me, because “centrist Democrat political science blog” is so 2006, Akon should sing your theme song. You might as well just save your posts to a Zip Drive. I’m sorry that you have spent all your energy on an enterprise that’s as tired and spent as the failed presidency you’ve carried so much water for, but don’t take that out on me. You think I’m not relevant? Cool. I agree. I’m irrelevant writing about what I want. You’re irrelevant writing about what I write about. You guys link to me all the time and I get more incoming hits from AOL. Mickey Kaus thinks your moment has passed.So let’s be real with each other, alright?

It’s incredible how all of these pathetic internet obsessives have never learned the Streisand Effect. Yesterday half the internet was praising me and half the internet was going apeshit at me The result has been 48 hours in which I’ve gotten more paid editing work, freelance writing work, and pageviews than I’ve gotten in the past three months, to say nothing of gifts from my Amazon wishlist and donations on my GoFundMe. Yesterday paid for my summer, and not despite all the people losing their minds but because they lost their minds, because they’re too thick to under signal boosting. In fact, all of it just proves my point from yesterday, which is that internet lefties telling jokes and being clever and having a retweets circle jerk accomplishes nothing. If anyone should be vulnerable to the scorn of the internet, it should be me, as a broke nobody. But all the zingers just made my life better. You think you’re gonna tear down some conservative hedge fund jerk with your cutting Twitter burns? He knows you’re making fun of him and he doesn’t give a shit. That’s what actual power is. Go ahead and send your tweets; you’ll feel clever for 15 seconds and then you’re just back to being a sad loser in your sad loser apartment. I have people who flip their wigs every time they see my name, whose names I will never, ever bother to learn. Which means they live in my world, and I don’t live in theirs. I got guys who have sent me hate mail for seven years. They write it and Google sends it to the trash can. Who would you rather be?

So please, Lawyers, Guns, and Neckbeards, take my advice: enjoy the same advantage I enjoy and let it go. I am holding down this little corner of the internet. And while there are some very exciting professional projects coming up for me, I think you’ll continue to find me very easy to ignore. Think about the collective wage loss of the dozens of hours you’ve all wasted reading me and writing about me, and think about your sweaty, anonymous commenters, trying to bring the Democrat blog era back like some sad sack who’s holding onto his POGs. Maybe you could all find a more fruitful project, like writing another dozen whiny posts about Glenn Greenwald and the fact that he’s changing the world while you’re trying to spit on his shoes. Or, alternatively, keep obsessing. Write another five posts about me in the next week. Have Erik Loomis hitch his pleated khakis up and spend another hour rubbing one out about me. Keep turning your blog into Freddie deBoer fanfiction. I really don’t give a shit.

maybe time for change

The pressure to avoid criticizing current progressive practice is intense. More and more, though, people seem to acknowledge that we have a problem, a really deep problem that we seem to have no way to find our way out of. To understand it, I present Allan Brauer.

Brauer is a partisan Democrat and Obama zombie of such intensity it almost seems he is out to prove the point of every criticism ever leveled at Obots. He was forced to resign from a leadership position in the Sacramento Democratic party, a couple years ago, for wishing death upon the children of a critic of Obamacare. Yesterday he topped himself.

emmett till

Now. Perhaps you’re a big fan of this TPP plan. Perhaps you are a big fan of Obama. Perhaps you are not a fan of Elizabeth Warren or Warren Democrats. That’s all OK. Comparing criticism of an economic treaty to the lynching of a black child? Not OK. I mean I’m not even really sure what the hell that means, but clearly he’s equating a politician getting criticized for his political views with a teenager being murdered for his race. So people on Twitter, including me, told him about how not-cool that tweet was. His response tells you an awful lot about the ditch we’ve driven this left-wing movement into.

dudebro manarchist

Manarchist, dudebro …. These are terms that are typically employed as a cudgel against the left by centrist Democrats. They argue for dismissing a particular political argument by presuming that a certain set of people makes that political argument. Which, whatever: a majority of the socialists I’ve known in my life have not been white men, and I’ve known thousands, but who cares, right. The bigger question at this point is what any of that has to do with a guy using Emmett Till’s memory to wage political warfare over a trade agreement. What does manarchism or brocialism or whatever have to do with that ugly comment? Who knows? It doesn’t matter: Bauer knows that those are magic words. He understands how today’s progressive internet works. He understands critique drift. He knows that whatever complaints about him can simply be filtered through third-hand appropriated feminism. Because that’s how we do things, now.

white tears What all of this descended into, as was inevitable, was a White Off. A White Off is a peculiar 21st-century phenomenon where white progressives try to prove that the other white progressives they’re arguing with are The Real Whites. It’s a contest in shamelessness: who can be more brazen in reducing race to a pure argumentative cudgel? Who feels less guilt about using the fight against racism as a way to elevate oneself in a social hierarchy? Which white person will be the first to pull out “white” as a pejorative in a way that demonstrates the toothlessness of the concept? Within progressivism today, there is an absolute lack of shame or self-criticism about reducing racial discourse to a matter of straightforward personal branding and social signaling. It turns my stomach.

(If there’s one thing I know about today’s progressive white people, it’s that they are all sure other white people are the really white ones.)

Allan Brauer, I would argue, is today’s progressive internet in its purest form. He’s  someone who’s learned all of the lessons of how we do things too well. I hope that people would recognize that calling criticism of Obama similar to kidnapping, beating, and shooting a child is wrong. Not because of who calls it wrong; not because the side saying it’s wrong gets a 50%-plus-one-vote majority of non-white-dudes on the question. But because it just is wrong. Do we still have the capacity, as a political and intellectual movement, to argue in a way that’s not entirely based on associating with race or gender in a totally vague, unaccountable, and reductive way?

This guy feels totally confident in invoking the spirit of a famous victim of violent racism to satisfy his political ends, and in complaining that his critics are just white men. This fucking guy: 

garbage face

Does that strike you as a good state of affairs? Because if you don’t work to change it, it’s only going to get worse.

*****

The stakes are much lower in our cultural writing, but the problem is largely the same: tired, rote arguments and magic words, treated as cutting rebuttals no matter how lazy and uninspired. You use magic words in your work, and no matter how good or bad it is, you’ll get credit for it. And if people criticize you, you just use the magic words against them, too.

Take this piece that recently ran on The Toast, a website that has taken maximum advantage of this Teflon aspect of progressive argument. This piece is titled “Books That Literally All White Men Own: The Definitive List.” When it says list it doesn’t mean listcle, but list. It’s just a literal list of books. Could such a thing be clever, funny, perceptive? Sure. This is not. This is a list of books that have no particular internal consistency or meaning. If ever a professional writer farted out a piece, this is it. Are some of these books indicative of a kind of vague dude culture? I guess so, although as is typical of these things, it mostly refers to the white dude culture of 20 or so years ago. But besides: you could literally take any twenty of the books on here, substitute them at random with any twenty other books, and the people who are going wild for the piece in the comments would go just as wild. What does that say about the exercise?

Now comes the stock response: white male tears! You dislike the piece because you’re implicated by it! You’re insulted! Well, I’m insulted all right, but it’s not because I feel affronted as a white dude. I’m insulted because an adult got paid to rifle through some Wikipedia list of best sellers and throw it on a Word doc. I wish I was affronted politically or personally, because that would imply that there’s something actually interesting going on in this list. There’s many more subversive ways to try something like this. For example: a more honest version of this list would have to include Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Just like an honest music version of this exercise would require including Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar. Looking at how chichi white culture has grown to use performative love of black culture as a shield against social and political judgment, that might be useful, risky. It would risk, in fact, implicating The Toast’s audience. It would risk shaking them out of their complacency that they are The Good Ones. But if there’s one thing these sites understand, it’s that you’ve got to leave your readership soothed and reassured, confident that all of the social problems described in your work don’t apply to them personally. You let them stay on offense, never on defense.

Instead, it’s yet another tired invocation of “white dudes love Catcher in the Rye!.” (Hey, you guys, seriously: nobody reads Catcher in the Rye anymore. The book had a reputation for being stale and out of fashion when I read it. I was 11.) Altogether the piece is indicative of a growing exhaustion, with desultory, rote online writing. “Hey, you guys like lists. And you love calling other white people white. Here you go. Eat your slop. Enjoy.” Why shouldn’t she write it, though? The comments filled up with preemptive claims that anyone criticizing the list must be crying white male tears– mostly, of course, but commenters who have just admitted that they are themselves white men, just not the same as those other white men. And of course, tons of the comments from white dudes preemptively note that they only own X small number of those books, and then proceeed to hardy-har-har about a critique of white dudes that, they are sure, does not implicate them.

Hacky garbage getting defended on political grounds is a contagion for today’s progressives. Some of the most cynical people in the world right now are pumping out ostensibly progressive cultural writing. They know there’s no standards; the defense of everything they write is baked into their self-identification with their political movement. I cannot tell you how much shitty hack work gets a pass online because criticizing it will just result in the typical litany of bad-faith progressive defenses. The Toast publishes some smart, funny, perceptive stuff. And it publishes some lazy garbage like the above. The problem is that there’s no incentive for them to put in the effort to do the former rather than the latter because their fans celebrate every piece they run as if Clever Internet Moses has just handed down the next clay tablets to the people, no matter how good or bad it is. This is inspired. It’s wonderfully accurate, entertaining movie criticism. This, on the other hand, is just hacky and boring. It’s someone ladling out every cliche about modern politicized hero worship, like a discarded Tumblr post about Amy Poehler from 2009. But it ticks the right boxes and enjoys the stock defense, so who cares, right?

Mallory Ortberg has carved out a really unique voice and place online, but she seems like a victim of her own success. She’s in a “Radiohead recording themselves farting into a paper bag” rut: her fans will call anything she does a work of genius no matter what, in part because they think doing so is somehow a meaningful political act, so there’s little incentive to branch out. I want her to do new, challenging things, just as a fan of her good work. It would be really amazing if The Toast would try to get its own readership to confront themselves politically rather than to see all political engagement as a way to identify who they’re better than. I’d like to see her get out of the very comfortable comfort zone that she has (to her credit) built for herself. But simply identifying work of Ortberg’s that I find better or worse feels like violating some sacred internet compact about Those Who Are Not to be Criticized.

And none of this is even to begin to ask what, exactly, any of this stuff accomplishes, how continuing to build this immense shibboleth White Dudes — made by white people, for the entertainment of white people — actually helps in the fight against racism or sexism. Set those basic questions of what we’re actually doing here aside. How do we separate good from bad when those conversations are inevitably preempted by the same tired-ass slogans, played-out memes, and exhausted insults? I don’t know how to ask people to do better work and have higher standards when they treat any criticism as a political betrayal.

Criticism of today’s progressives tends to use words like toxic, aggressive, sanctimonious, and hypocritical. I would not choose any of those. I would choose lazy. We are lazy as political thinkers and we are lazy as culture writers and we are lazy as movement builders. We ward off criticism of our own bad work by acting like that criticism is inherently anti-feminist or anti-progressive. We seem spoiled, which seems insane because everything is messed up and so many things are getting worse. I guess having a Democratic president just makes people feel complacent. Well, look: as a political movement we are in pathetic shape right now. We not only have no capacity to move people who don’t already share our worldview, we seem to have no interest in doing so. Our stock arguments are lazy stacks of cliches. We seem to want to confirm everything conservatives say about our inability to argue without calling other people racist. We can’t articulate why our vision of the future is better than the other side’s, and in fact many of us will tell you that it’s offensive to think that we have an obligation to educate others on that vision at all. We celebrate grassroots activist movements like Black Lives Matter, but we insult them by treating them as the same thing as hashtag campaigns, and we don’t build a broader left-wing political movement that could increase their likelihood of success. We spend all day, every day, luxuriating in how much better we are than other people, having convinced ourselves that the work of politics is always external, never internal. We have made politics synonymous with social competition. We’re a mess.

If you want us to stop being a mess, you have to be willing to criticize, and you have to accept that every criticism of an ostensibly progressive argument is not some terrible political betrayal. Not everyone who complains about white people has enlightened racial attitudes. Not everyone who constantly drops “mansplaining” or “gaslighting” into conversation actually helps fight sexism. One-liners don’t build a movement. Being clever doesn’t fix the world. Scoring points on Twitter doesn’t create justice. Jokes make nothing happen. We’re speeding for a brutal backlash and inevitable political destruction, if not in 2016 then 2018 or 2020. If you want to help avoid that, I suggest you invest less effort in trying to be the most clever person on the internet and more on being the hardest working person in real life. And stop mistaking yourself for the movement.

Update: Since people keep bringing this up: I know that there are three different authors for the Toast pieces I linked to. Like I said: I like a lot of the Toast’s stuff, particularly Ortberg’s stuff. Some I don’t like. I want to be able to say what I think is good and what I think is bad without that being taken as a referendum on feminism, or liberalism, or whatever. But that kind of site attracts followers who have a hard time  separating their vague cultural affiliations from their politics, and it leads to deep sensitivity about criticism of their favorites. I think that’s not ideal, and I think over a long enough time frame it becomes a kind of disrespect for the craft of the people you’re defending.

Update: Check out this exchange with Jay Caspian Kang on Medium, where we talk through some of these issues at length, and in which I revise some of my ideas.

how about no heroes at all, how’s that

Somebody once said that cruelty has everything to do with abstraction. They probably weren’t talking about the endlessly simmering debates on college learning and college teaching, but they might as well have.

Here’s a piece by Mark Bauerlein in the Times that is attracting a ton of criticism, which is sensible, because it’s bad. Bauerlein seems to be one of these dwindling number of teachers who thinks he’s done his job when students are standing on their desks quoting Whitman’s worst poem. That’s dumb. You aren’t their rebbe, you’re their teacher, and a narrative that ends with you routinely transforming lives is one that’s all about you and not about them. Of course we all want those rare moments of inspiration, but they’re rare for a reason, and they can neither be required nor systemized. So Bauerlein’s piece deserves criticism… but not the kind of criticism it’s getting. Take this piece by Matt Reed, AKA Dean Dad, just as one example among many.  “Every semester, a new crop of strangers come to town.  And every semester, we set a new group of heroes off on their respective quests. The heroes of the story are the students.”

So here’s a few questions I have for Reed. A week or so ago I was pedaling my bike around campus and made the mistake of going around the fraternity loop on Slayter Hill. I was, predictably, serenaded by calls of “fag” from a porchful of drunken students. Were they heroes in that moment? Or how about the student of a friend of mine who referred to an Asian student as a “cat eater”? Or how about the many students out there who could work harder but don’t, who skip class and put in minimal effort, then demand an A when all is said and done? A lot of heroism going on there? I’m sure Reed would say, well, of course not, those students aren’t heroes. But that gives the game away: why bother with the pretense of calling students heroes at all if you drop that label when pushed? In fact I would say that declining to call such students heroes demonstrates more respect, because it implies the precondition of adult respect, which is adult judgement. And you’ll note that there is a zero-sum quality to this discussion. If I’m compelled to see that student as a hero, what might my praise mean of a single mother who attends my class while holding down a job, does all of her work without complaint, and doesn’t grade grub me when all is said and done? Am to see her as just another hero on par with the frat dude who tells me (as several have done) that he thinks he is entitled to do no work and get an A because he pays my salary? That sounds pretty far from respect, to me.

There’s this regular dynamic that plays out again and again with younger graduate students. They come to teach for the first time, stars in their eyes. They wax rhapsodic about the privileges of teaching. They write grandiose Facebook statuses about how it’s all clicking and how their students are the most amazing, incredible people in the history of amazing, incredible people. And then, inevitably, the comedown. Often this coincides with the widely-discussed second semester slump from freshmen. The instructors can’t get the same level of engagement. The students don’t do their work. They won’t talk about the reading. They don’t seem as motivated or as inspired as that last group. Often, this comes with the realization that in the contemporary university, the undergrads have a lot more power than the grad students and adjuncts who teach the courses for pauper’s wages. And this leads to panic on the part of these young instructors: what am I doing wrong? How did I lose them? The dominant narrative in college writing pedagogy these days is of the heroic student, and that couples with the neoliberal service model of higher education in a way that compels these instructors to see anything less than total buy-in from students as a personal flaw. When these younger instructors come to me, I point them in the direction of pedagogical literature I think will be useful to them and give them advice about how to change their own classroom practice. But I also gently ask them: are you sure that student you just can’t reach wants to be reached? Are you sure he’s not some arrogant child of privilege? Are you sure she’s not just lazy and playing on your inexperience and insecurity? Asking those questions isn’t an insult to students. It’s a way to save them from abstraction. It’s a matter of restoring their individual and flawed humanity.

Speaking personally, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a great number of smart, motivated students who did good work, cared to try something like their best, and demonstrated and demanded respect of everyone in the class. It’s my privilege to teach them. I’ve also had a small but consistent number of aggressive, entitled, sexist jerks in my classes who talk down to other students (until I stop them), alternate between a total lack of engagement and dominating the discussion (until I stop them), and do not deserve the status of hero by even the most watered-down definition. Ultimately it’s my privilege to teach them too. But those groups are not the same, a fact that is lost on those who are attached to the heroic vision of students.

The heroic narrative of students is , on final analysis, just as insulting towards students as the heroic narrative of teaching. Both reduce human beings to symbols that have more to do with the person doing the reducing than anything else. The heroic narrative of students drains individuality and responsibility from specific students, a condition which robs them of the opportunity to receive meaningful, genuine praise. What does praise mean if it is ladled out so broadly as to apply to the tens of millions of people who hold the designation “college student”? And are you sure that this stance isn’t just another way to play hero yourself? After all, there’s a lot of hero narrative in the brave essayist defending his or her students against the insults of a tenured bigwig in the New York Times….

In the end, I suspect both those who propagate that heroic narrative of teachers and the heroic narrative of students share the same fear: the fear of the mundane. Grand philosophical statements about the nature of teaching help us to stave off our discomfort with thinking of teaching as a professional practice much like any other. But the mundane is not a condition to be feared or avoided. There are thousands of accredited colleges in this country and some 20 million college students. The day to day interaction between teacher and student can’t be defined through appeals to political idealism or romantic notions of the sublime. Instead, we can  facilitate an environment that fosters mutual respect between all parties which does not depend on a romanticized vision of either. In this capitalist world of ours, a significant portion of our students will always take a transactional approach to learning. The system is lamentable; the way they operate within it, sensible. Like Bauerlein, we can hope for more from them. Like Reed, we can demonstrate understanding for why they navigate our classes the way they do. The mundane is good enough. Respect all of your students; love the ones worth loving. Leave heroism to the movies.