what’s happening, and why, and why does it matter


A few times now I’ve praised a couple of pieces by Grantland’s Bryan Curtis, in which he reflects on the sudden way in which social progressivism became the default orientation of mainstream sports commentary. In one of the pieces, Curtis writes

“Something pretty interesting has happened to sports opinionating in recent years…. A certain opinion — and I’d argue that this is, in nearly every case, an opinion that falls on the lefty side of the political spectrum — is articulated. It surfs Twitter. The opinion builds momentum until it becomes, with a few noisy exceptions, the de facto take of the entire sportswriter intelligentsia (perhaps the wrong word)…. It’s something like the sports-page equivalent of community organizing.”

In his follow up, he writes that “the sportswriting class had gone from holding a range of political opinions to fusing into a single, united liberal bloc.”

I liked these pieces in part because they do what I keep asking for in nonfiction writing: asking questions instead of answering them, thinking through and around a subject rather than simply thinking from point A to point B, and avoiding pat or trite answers about what this all means. He doesn’t quite lament or criticize this condition, and despite what you might think, I’m told that he’s a progressive guy himself. But I think he did a real service in trying to open up a conversation to say, “this is a thing that’s happened, and it’s going to have consequences, and we should talk about it even though it probably makes progressive people uncomfortable to do so.” Unfortunately, few people seem to have taken him up on it.

I would like very much to have a similar conversation about our artistic and cultural writing, the book reviews, movie criticism, TV recaps, music coverage, and similar. Because it seems to me that the progressive takeover that Curtis describes in sports media has been, if anything, even more comprehensive and obvious in the world of art and culture criticism. This morning I was browsing The Atlantic and I was struck by the degree to which I just expect all of our cultural criticism to function as a checklist for socially liberal politics — knowing when I sit down to read a piece on a movie or book or music, particularly when addressing some sort of controversy, that such a piece will undertake an obligatory exploration of the degree to which the art in question satisfies contemporary progressive political expectations. More, art and artists who are seen as symbolically satisfying the dictates of progressive social politics will be celebrated, and their supposed lack of critical respect will be complained about even if they are among the most celebrated artists on earth; conversely, art and artists who are seen as deficient in this regard will be denigrated, and their supposed abundance of critical respect will be complained about even if they are ritualistically criticized by every prominent publication on the internet.

These predictions are almost never wrong, and it can now be expanded far beyond the usual suspects like Salon to general interest publications of all stripes. Indeed: the only places where I now expect to encounter artistic criticism that does not stem from an explicitly socially progressive standpoint is in explicitly conservative media — which tends to mean more explicitly political artistic criticism, just coming from another direction, which doesn’t solve any of the potential problems.

Now: despite what many people will assume, I am not here to  say that this is all bad, that it stems from insincerity or signaling, that the people who do this are bad people, or that we should stop producing this kind of work. I am trying to follow Curtis’s lead in saying: this has happened, and we should probably talk about why, and about what happens because of it, and what comes next, and how it will affect what comes next. I can see people who find this all a natural, healthy, and benevolent evolution, but I cannot imagine an honest person disputing that it’s happened. Not after the Iggy Azalea cottage industry in our media, for which I could easily find another two dozen examples.

Unfortunately, I am exactly the wrong person to ask for this discussion. My reputation (which as always is a prison of my own making) means that some people who are already inclined to see the hand of progressive politics in everything will agree with me, whereas everyone who is actually involved in the production of this kind of work won’t bother to read this or will dismiss it out of hand if they do. “There he goes again” is not a productive way to start a conversation! But I do wish someone of greater prominence and preemptive buy-in would talk about it.

Part of the problem is that, these days, questions of progressive practice are so often derided as inherently conservative; we’re living in an era of teams. This debate has been made explicit by the endless, wearying #GamerGate fiasco. As I said at the time, #GamerGate is a terrible movement made up of alternatively terrible people and deeply misguided people, and yet one which hit on one or two truths on its path to being a symbol of all that’s wrong with “geek” culture. Unfortunately, precisely because the movement has  behaved so horribly, those true complaints hiding within the misogyny and insanity get reflexively dismissed, and understandably so. (I thought that the #NRORevolt phenomenon on Twitter last night was similar, in the sense that the hashtag was the product of some of the very worst human beings alive, and yet was a reaction to a genuine reality those people have discovered: that National Review and similar GOP-mouthpiece publications have never served the interests of the members of the white working class who vote Republican, but rather the plutocrats that actually control the party.) In a similar way, because those who are most inclined to complain about the politicization of artistic criticism are those that hold opinions considered offensive by the people who make up our cultural writing industry, questions about this change never penetrate. As in so many other things about the intermingling of our media and our politics, there is a baked-in missile defense system that precludes the people who need to be reached from being reached. I was criticizing a particularly lackluster example of this kind of writing on Twitter a few months back, and I got the inevitable rejoinder, “you sound like #GamerGate.”

This thinking seems to preclude several different points of view that strike me as legitimate and worth thinking about. Like

  • That there are many people with left-wing or progressive political sympathies who recognize that art can be interrogated for its political beliefs but nevertheless want to read art and culture criticism that does not consist primarily of explicit progressive political complaints;
  • That there are many people who are undecided on a given political question, or indeed on the entire social progressive platform, who might be reached by cultural inquiry but who find the heavy-handedness and explicit righteousness of this type of work off-putting;
  • That there are conservative or apolitical readers who would like to read more cultural commentary that does not involve an explicit rejection of their politics and who have suddenly found the world of artistic criticism has dramatically shrunk;
  • That a time-honored and cogent school of thought suggests that evaluating a work of art for its political hygiene before and above more traditional aesthetic criteria leads to bad art criticism, art criticism that is incapable of working in the spirit of nuance, shades of grade, uncertainty, and instability that is so essential to deep artistic thinking;
  • That many of those who have traditionally belonged to that school of thought have been people of impeccable left-wing credentials;
  • That the degeneration of artistic analysis into political list checking provides incentives for creators of art to serve those interests, rather than actual aesthetic goods, a surefire way to create terrible art;
  • That it’s very easy for art and cultural criticism to appear powerful in its ubiquity and explicit politics, but to actually serve as a kind of political silo, one from which no actual progress can emerge to impact a world filled with injustice and inequality;
  • That everyone already knows what the internet’s opinion will be on Miley Cyrus, on Jonathan Franzen, on Kanye West, on the Entourage movie, and sundry other pre-digested cultural artifacts, and so you’re left wondering why anyone bothers at this point;
  • That after years of reading this stuff, it’s become incredibly boring.

I don’t mistake any of those for inarguable positions. I recognize that they themselves reflect underlying value systems and ideological preconceptions. I think reasonable people can reasonably object to any of them. But they all stem from first saying “this has happened, and we should talk about it.” And this has happened, and people should talk about it.

happy anniversary, Jeff Goldberg

Five years ago this month, Jeffrey Goldberg staked The Atlantic‘s credibility on a sensationalistic cover story proclaiming that an Israeli attack on Iran was imminent. The story included the typical weasel words and qualifiers, but the message was unmistakable: an Israeli attack on Iran was coming, and coming soon, which Goldberg knew because he had such extensive contacts within the Israeli government. The most likely explanation for the story remains that Goldberg was played like a fiddle by hardliners within the Israeli government, seeking to use Goldberg’s article and the prominence of The Atlantic to force the issue, to make the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran a self-fulfilling prophecy. Regardless, it’s a half-decade later, and no attack has come. Goldberg expressed his prediction with as much certainty as conventional journalism allows, which would, in a sane world, have left his magazine’s reputation severely compromised when no such attack came to pass.

Jeffrey Goldberg is still employed by The Atlantic.

how do I get out of this suicide pact


I have always rejected the David Horowitz-style argument that our universities are indoctrination camps for left-wing politics. These claims seem to draw extensively on innuendo, rumor, and myth, with very little in the way of concrete evidence. Long, detailed investigations of such claims, such as Michael Berube’s 2006 book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, often reveal accusations based on half-truths or out-and-out fabrication. And though my own impressions are of course anecdotal and limited, in my time within the university system as a faculty brat, an undergraduate, a grad student, and a teacher, at institutions both small and huge, public and private, research-oriented and teaching-oriented, I’ve found faculty to be remarkably respectful to conservative students and their points of view. In fact, many professors are so sensitive to the impression that they’re biased against their conservative students that they bend over backwards to accomodate them. I’m just a limited observer, and absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. But the best evidence available to me suggests that the contemporary American college is not inhospitable to conservative students.

But, god, we seem desperate to give the opposite impression.

I am just consistently agog at how little strategic thinking there is among my fellow lefty academics, particularly grad students, when it comes to how we present ourselves publicly on the issue of conservatives within our schools. Recently, there have been controversies concerning conservative student resistance to material assigned on college campuses. Some incoming Duke freshmen objected to having to read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, on the grounds that it conflicts with their Christian beliefs. Similarly, students at the University of North Carolina have objected to the syllabus for a class on 9/11. Both of these incidents occur in the midst of a national conversation on trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other tactics deployed by progressive students and educators to ameliorate the purported trauma of being exposed to uncomfortable material at college.

Not being a religious person, I’m unmoved by appeals to religious convictions as a reason to do your college reading. Being educated about 9/11, its antecedents, and the broad history of American foreign policy, I’m unmoved by claims about the proposed curriculum in that UNC class. In both cases I would argue that the discomfort that students feel is precisely the goal of a liberal education, that exposure to the controversial and the challenging is why we bother with this enterprise in the first place. But as an academic, and a socialist, in the humanities, I would be very very careful about how I made that case. I would be strategic in my discussion. I would pay attention to how an unsympathetic reader might cast my resistance. I would take great care to insist that this rejection comes from my view on the purpose of a university education, and not from my disagreements with the politics of the students in question. I would make the conversation about procedure and not politics. Because we are threatened, we have been threatened, and the people arrayed against us are relentless in using our politics as fuel for defunding our programs and imposing rules on us from above.

In contrast, many academics I know have reflexively, unthinkingly laughed off these conservative complaints. They’ve bombarded social media with “lols” and “wtfs.” They’ve mocked these students as rubes. They’ve given every outward appearance of not even attempting to evaluate these students’ claims with the same care, sensitivity, and fairness that they evaluate the claims of progressive students invoking the language of trauma and triggers. In other words, they’ve rushed to confirm every complaint conservative critics of the academy has made, and the most damning one in particular: that we treat our progressive students with more kindness and approval than our conservative students, and that we use the formal procedures of the university to do it. All I keep thinking to myself is, Christ, these people must love Scott Walker.

And, again, I don’t think any of them is actually out to hurt Republican students. I think if you actually went into their classrooms, in the vast majority of cases, you’d find that they are sensitive and caring towards their conservative students. It’s when they consider conservative students in the abstract — and publicly, on social media — that they are dismissive and snide. What an utterly unforced error! It makes it so, so hard for us to defend ourselves. Please, you guys: don’t mistake social media for your graduate humanities seminar or your trips to the bar after class.

Unlike many of my peers, I do think that there are direct and relevant connections between efforts by progressive students to regulate content Look: I have already said more about trigger warnings than I want to. I will simply note that every trigger warning necessarily contains ideological presumptions and political baggage. Someone I know said “I don’t want to ban American Sniper on campus, but I do want it to carry a trigger warning as war propaganda and Islamaphobia.” That trigger warning preempts the very critical conversation that we should be having about it! It’s a classic “when did you stop beating your wife?” tactic. It’s tautological; it presumes precisely the issue in question. Clint Eastwood, who made the damn movie, called it an antiwar film. I disagree with him; I quite despised it, actually, and for political reasons most of all. But I don’t pretend that my opinion on this question amounts to proof positive. Every trigger warning ever devised makes presumptions about the nature of trauma, the treatment of PTSD, and which kinds of content are potentially offensive. You would think that a bunch of close-reading academics would recognize that.

That doesn’t mean I’m in blanket opposition to trigger warnings. If you want to use them, as an educator, I find that a perfectly valid use of your freedom as an instructor. But please, think about what presumed values you’re demonstrating in what you choose to call offensive.

Some have said to me “conservatives do have the right to request trigger warnings or alternative material in their classes, just as their progressive peers do. They just have to make a similar argument about trauma, safe spaces, and self-care.” In other words, conservative students do have the same rights as progressive, they just have to become rhetorically and analytically indistinguishable from them in order to invoke those rights. Corey Robin is fond of quoting Anatole France in saying that the law, in its majestic equality, prevents both rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges. Well, this is the lefty academic equivalent: both liberal and conservative students alike have the right to invoke intersectional feminism as they work to enforce norms and regulations on campus.

Both students who don’t want to be exposed to content they find traumatic and students who don’t want to be exposed to content they find unChristian are making an appeal to a value system. If we accept the former and deny the latter, we’re making the kind of preemptive value distinction that we keep telling the Scott Walkers of the world we don’t make. What we should say to both groups is this:

“You’re going to be exposed to stuff you don’t like at college. We will try to give you a heads up about the stuff that might upset you, but what is considered potentially offensive is an inherently political, value-laden question, and we aren’t always going to agree with your prior beliefs about that question. We cannot guarantee that everything you might be offended by will come with a warning, and we are under no obligation to attempt to provide one. We will try to work with you with compassion and respect, but ultimately it’s your responsibility to deal with the curriculum that we impose, and not our responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t bother you. If you can’t handle that, you don’t belong in college.”

People are really, really invested in consistency and fairness. And if academics don’t make a huge improvement in projecting them, they will be the razor with which our throats are slit.

not lyric, but

This piece on Graywolf Press is charming and sharp, but I leave it feeling even more sure that the “lyric essay” is not much of a definable thing. Any genre that could include Karl Ove Knausgaard and Joan Didion and John D’Agata and David Foster Wallace just can’t be much of a genre. It’s a genre the way “realism” is a genre.

But I suppose I appreciate the existence of a discussion of lyric essays, as I am increasingly desperate for nonfiction writing that treats the explanation of reality and the presentation of facts as a minor aspect of its purpose, a begrudging chore or a necessary evil that we have to get through together to get to the actual important work of nonfiction writing. Reality is a prosaic and pointless thing, and I have increasingly little patience with it as I get older. If “lyric essay” is a clumsy term, a panchreston, then it at least opens the door to the consideration of an alternative to the current vogue in nonfiction writing, which is as didactic and stepwise as a manual for a vacuum cleaner.

In a Longform.org podcast with the great Renata Adler, she says, “Unless you’re going to be fairly definite, what’s the point of writing? I mean I don’t think I write into situations in which I don’t feel some confidence that what I’m saying is likely to be true.” In similar terms, Dayna Tortorici of n+1 said on that same program that she wanted to make that journal simpler and easier to understand.

To each their own. But this impulse — to explain more, to handhold more, to make every essay into a matter of A+B=C — is precisely the opposite of what I want, as a reader of nonfiction. I don’t mind nonfiction writers who know things definitely, but I want them to leave their explanation of the definite indefinite. For n+1 to become more undergraduate in its approach would be the easiest way to lose my interest. We’re living in an era of explainers, slideshows, how tos, “you’re doing it wrongs,” and all sorts of summaries, condensations, simplifications, and lessons. That’s fine. I don’t mind that those exist. God made ants and elephants. But I have personally felt that there’s a creeping cartographic approach to nonfiction that hides all the things I like best in the form. To be clear: I’m not talking necessarily about fact-fudging in the habit of D’Agata; I neither prefer nor avoid that kind of work. I’m not necessarily talking about experimental nonfiction or creative nonfiction, whatever those are. I’m talking, instead, about nonfiction writers who, like burlesque dancers, know that the most powerful tool in their arsenal is the ability to conceal. And I’m talking about the kind of nonfiction writers who ask not “do you understand?” but rather “do you dig me?,” digging implying effort, a need to move an essay’s earth to reveal the precious metal underneath. The nonfiction writing that moves me the most is the kind that asks the most of me, that demands my effort, out of a conviction that I can be trusted to provide it. That’s what I’m talking about.

I like difficult people. I’m attracted to them. I like people with sharp elbows. I do not recognize “easygoing” or “laid back” as compliments. I like the kind of people who it costs something to know, who bring risk and angina into your life, and whom ultimately are worth it, the kind many people don’t have time for. I like essays to be that way too. I like nonfiction when it’s a fussy little thing, cranky, unwilling to part with its opinion unless you really ask the right way. It’s OK for writing to contain secrets, but I’d prefer for writers to part with them only begrudgingly. My favorite writers are all misers.

I would like a better term, so I that I can ask for more. I would like to be able to ask nonfiction writers, and editors, and publications to, as the man said, “make the visible a little hard/ To see….”




Life at home was like any kid’s life — safe, numb, warm, days stretching out forever, no sense at all of the passage of time besides the markers of our heights, penciled next to the basement door, until she got sick. My mother, wild and warm as a spare sunbeam, a human presence of such comfort and attachment I’m not sure I ever really learned to conceive of her as a corporeal being. She was sweet and funny and gave ceaselessly, and then one day she had a headache. Something had grown in her brain, boring its way furiously but quietly into the tissues, killing her slowly and then quickly. She complained of terrible pain, and then she went to the hospital, and very suddenly the adults around me became both urgent and quiet. My father visibly, audibly trembled. He took us in to see her. I saw the docile body lying on a gurney, tubes and wires, and a white head wrapping that covered her eyes which, brain dead as she was, must have stared into the empty horizon forever. I squeezed her hand and thought to myself, that’s not my mother, and in the room surrounded by everyone I knew and loved, I felt alone. I knew right away, but then when my father came home from the hospital to tell us a couple days later, I still felt a dull, dumb, numbing shock, right in my abdomen, like someone had jammed a syringe of novocaine right into my guts. I went and sat in the middle of the stairs, neither up or down, as if I could hide in that place between places forever.

In the years to come I would learn to clutch, hard, to my father. Gentle, wise, and alcoholic, his sweet cracking voice would wake me up in the morning, would tell me smart things as he tied my shoes every day until I reached the 7th grade. Big old belly to grab, knee to sit on, old artist’s hands. Dedicated to freedom, he taught me how to do everything but the little things I needed most at school, never telling me to wash my hair or brush my teeth, which was the worst and the best thing for me. In time, that freedom became my most reliable and terrible teacher, as our broken blended family succumbed to its internal dysfunction as surely as his body broke down from the liver cancer. It took him years to die. I look back at pictures from the last couple of years, and his jaundice looks shocking, but somehow I never noticed at the time, I never knew. They sent him and my younger brother and our stepfamily to Los Angeles. My older brother and I, teenagers, hid out in our home in Connecticut, alone, waiting for the inevitable.

He came back for a visit, just a long weekend. He was weak; I felt fear as he struggled to control the car. One night as I walked past his room to mine on the floor above, I thought I heard something, but let it go. Coming back downstairs, two hours later, I heard it again; he had fallen out of bed and had been unable to get back up. He must have laid there for those two entire hours, calling out for me in his rasping, broken voice, as I sat unaware up above. A man of impregnable self-belief, vast and proud, he had to be picked up by his 15 year old son, like a baby, and placed back into his bed, cancer-ridden and weak.

In Cedars Sinai, near the end, I went to visit him. He was hooked up to more tubes and dials than I could believe. I will go to my grave remembering the exact shade of purple that his skin had turned where wires had been inserted into his neck. For years he had struggled with a debilitating and mysterious skin illness, and in his hospital bed he was draped with a clear plastic hypoallergenic blanket, and when he saw me approach, dim and confused from drugs and weakness, he tried to cover himself, to protect his modesty in his hospital gown, in front of his teenaged son. I squeezed his hand and told him I had to fly back to Connecticut, to keep going in my high school life, and in front of me and my stepmother and a team of doctors and nurses, he cried. That was the last time I ever saw him.

They had gotten married a couple years before, though they had been dating for longer. I have spent more than a decade not thinking about her, and I have no desire to break that habit now. I wish, in the early days, that I had tried harder, for him. But in the end it was clear that we had no future together. She turned on my older brother first, telling him he couldn’t come home. And then the long, wearying, debilitating, confusing, crushing split, the rending of a blended family that had lost the person who it had blended for. Life became unknowable, a series of decisions made about your life, in secret, by people who did not know you and would not represent your interests if they did. The whole world is a conspiracy, a series of whispered agreements and meetings you weren’t invited to. Whose money was that, and where had it gone, and who got the house, anyway? It took years, years, for the last trappings of connection to  rot and fall away. I had taken his leather jacket, and hung it in my closet with pride and love, and the one day I came home and it was gone. She had given it to her brother. My fucking father’s fucking leather jacket.

And, in time, year by grasping year, the four of us have endured, and we are building something, I suppose, like we were a decade and a half ago, and we advance for forever, all of this prologue to our inevitable triumphant rise.

Understand: I have never experienced trauma, according to the theories of the time. Not in the way that politics recognizes. Not in a way that they regard as legitimate. Because the deal now is that you will receive deference, and the right to speak with command, and the greatest laurel progressive culture now gives, the right to declare offense. But first, you have to play by their rules. You have to take that trauma and render it in the dullest, most cynical, most motivated language, a language of opportunism, subtlety-killing, particularity-killing. You have to submit. You have to take that part of you and make it into just another vehicle for someone else’s political pretense. Then, they’ll bless you with the right to trauma. They’ll let you take communion, but first you have to pray the rosary. The only thing that’s required is that you take the one thing that is most yours and give it to them, a human sacrifice, submission to their enlightened, benevolent, paternalistic authority.

So it’s true: I’ve never experienced trauma. I will go on owning every sad step of this sad journey, I will preserve a space within myself that is known by no one but me, and is for no one but me, and I will have the courage to be human though everyone and everything around me tempts me to be otherwise, and I will keep my own counsel on the meaning of suffering, and I will not serve.






one rule

Over the years I’ve become used to (and associated with) a certain style of pugilistic political argument. That style is fine by me, and I think indicative of a healthy political culture. For as much as people complain about hyperpartisanship and “the state of the discourse today,” there’s no halcyon past where everyone was civil to each other (whatever that means), and anyway political debates about the fight for justice and equality are naturally and necessarily passionate. Making the world more just and equal, after all, is the most important human project. So, I’m happy to received intemperate criticism and to deal it out when necessary.

However, there is one type of engagement that I have grown more and more tired of, and have now adopted a policy of zero policy towards: people lying about what I believe. You are allowed to say “what you believe is dumb, wrong, evil, etc.” You are not allowed to say “you believe X” when in fact I don’t believe X. If you say it in a way that seems motivated by genuine misunderstanding, I’ll correct you. If you continue to say that I believe something I don’t believe, then I end all communication permanently. If you say something that’s particularly inflammatory that I don’t believe and haven’t said, I’ll just cut off contact immediately. If you’re on Twitter, I’ll block you, if you’re on Facebook, I’ll unfriend you, if you’re in my blog comments, I’ll ban you. Life’s too short. Those kinds of engagement never go anywhere productive at all. Because the one and only way for people to access each other’s political beliefs is for one person to say “I believe X and not Y,” and for the other people to believe him or her, a political conversation that is premised on ignoring such statements is in fact an anti-conversation. Nothing can rescue or redeem it. So, zero tolerance.

For example. There is this guy, Noah Berlatsky. He is one of these writers that has made a living being a professional The Only Righteous White Man Alive. Much of what he publishes amounts to an attempt to represent himself as a beacon of political morals shining out from a fallen gender and race. In order to play that game, though, you have to constantly be identifying others who share that identity in order to assert your superior morality. So Berlatsky is one of those critics of mine who reads my work with manic attentiveness, poring over my tweets, looking for something to seize on for one of his goodness performances. It seems exhausting, but I guess it’s a living.

Anyway, today Berlatsky just straight lied about what I believe, taking a tweet — a form of communication permanently hampered by a very limited character count — and baldly misrepresenting what it said. I have noticed, recently, that a lot of people have expressed support for trans rights in a way that actually ends up as a kind of gender conservatism. They insist that trans people just are a particular gender, that they were born that way, and that this is biologically prescribed, unchanging, and out of their hands. It’s another example, in other words, of trying to argue for rights through a “they can’t help it, so we might as well let them do it” philosophy. It’s conservative, in that it robs from individuals the right to self-define, and it’s all part of really noxious, destructive historical tendencies, echoing the tradition of eugenics. I heard someone on a local radio show asking about a potential future where we have a medical test for the “trans brain.” I don’t know what kind of vision that is — handing gender identity over to doctors rather than to individuals, the potential of someone being denied the right to the gender identity they choose because they failed some test — but it is not a vision of justice, equality, or progress.

Some people never waver from their preferred gender identity. Which is fine. Some people continue to explore their shifting gender identification over a lifetime. This is also fine, but it is directly rejected by strict gender binarism. I know someone who was female identifying for most of her life, then transitioned to a male identifying. She began hormone therapy. Then, over time, she transition back to female identifying. I have no idea how common that is. But it’s real, a real, human condition. Rigid gender binarism and aggressive “born this way” rhetoric erases such conditions. So I reject them. You’re free to disagree. But you are not allowed, as Berlatsky did, to say that I “blame the gender binary on trans people,” a ludicrous claim that I reject utterly, or to call me a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, as Berlatsky’s fellow Professional Righteous Dude Arthur Chu did. (One of Berlatsky’s constant tactics is to chum the waters by lying about what someone else said, throwing it on Twitter, and trusting that no one will actually check if it’s true or not.) That’s just lies. That’s all they are.

The essential thing to understand about guys like Berlatsky and Chu is that it’s all performance, no practice. They aren’t engaged in political action; they’re engaged in political posturing. And they do it professionally. In a very direct and uncomplicated way, they’ve monetized a certain kind of affected progressive posturing, totally dividing those beliefs from actual political sincerity and turning them into just another profit center.

Now: how do you know I’m not a TERF, and that I don’t blame trans people for the perpetuation of the gender binary? Because I’m right here telling you that I’m not a TERF and that I don’t blame trans people for the perpetuation of the gender binary. On literally every issue that define TERFs — you know, the actual positions that make up a political tendency — I disagree with them. I don’t think trans women should be excluded from women’s bathrooms. I don’t think genitals determine gender. I don’t think trans women should be prevented from being active feminist leaders. I don’t think you need to have been born with a vagina to know what it means to be a woman and suffer from sexism. I believe none of those things. And I am the only arbiter of what I believe.

Of all of the ways in which our political conversation is broken, all of the endless petty erosions to the basic ability to meaningfully discuss politics in any constructive way at all, I think this tendecy is the worst. It is the single most undermining, destructive way to behave. “I want you to be saying this thing that I think is wrong so that I can get mad at you for being wrong about it and get others to condemn you.” That’s where political progress goes to die, and I have no more patience for it. Sorry. I’m too damn old.

round and round the trigger warning maypole

I got into another discussion of trigger warnings last night that really crystallized why that discussion is so immensely frustrating for me.

First is the now-ubiquitous claim that trigger warnings are only warnings, and that they have no connection whatsoever to an actual censorship impulse. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, with absolute confidence, that “no one is talking about actually regulating content!” Which just is not true. Again, I’m forced to invoke my greater personal experience and knowledge of actual campus activists, rather than the purely abstract version that so many people in the media embrace. I have spent my entire life in campus lefty circles, was a campus activist when I was on campus, maintain an active network of people involved in campus politics today, and keep my ear to the ground still. And there have always been campus leftists who think that many types of speech that we generally acknowledge as legitimate political expression should be banned. When I was growing up on campus, there was already a robust hate speech discourse in campus activist circles, and they tended to take a very expansive view on what hate speech constitutes. I know campus antifa types myself who think that anti-abortion attitudes should be no platformed as a matter of routine. Stop telling me from the media bubble you live in that these attitudes don’t exist, just because they resemble a conservative stereotype.

Yes, you can articulate a view that trigger warnings are entirely distinct from actual regulation of intellectual content on campus, and you are certainly free to support the former and not the latter. But there is real overlap  between the people who push most forcefully for trigger warnings and those who want to push ideas they find offensive off campus. The Laura Kipnis affair was frightening because it was an escalation of a pattern of attempts to regulate ideas on campus, bringing the power of the federal government to bear. But it wasn’t surprising, to me, at all. Again, because I know people who actually want to limit speech in the way that drive-by liberal writers say don’t exist. The University of Michigan American Sniper incident was a minor moment, sure, and the movie was eventually broadcast on campus. But I was just arguing with someone who said that the movie should be banned from campuses because it’s violent propaganda, not legitimate expression. You can call that view fringe. You can claim it doesn’t actually have power on campus. But it exists, and it’s held by many of the same people who push most forcefully (and accusingly) for trigger warnings. To say that there’s no potential connection between these things simply isn’t credible. I don’t understand why people can’t say “I support trigger warnings, but I acknowledge that there are genuinely censorious forces on campus, and I don’t support that.” Why is that so hard?

If you really support trigger warnings on campus but oppose actual regulation of intellectual content on campus, you might get around to saying the latter once in awhile, rather than circling the wagons and insisting that it’s all a conservative conspiracy.

Next, the relationship between PTSD and trigger warnings. There’s absolutely no clarity on a very basic question: are trigger warnings intended to help those who suffer from PTSD? The very notion of a “trigger”  comes from discussion of PTSD. And when it suits them, those who aggressively pursue trigger warnings certainly use the weight of medicalization to get what they want. But there is no corresponding claim that only those with PTSD should be invoking triggering. In fact, trigger warning proponents tend to take a very expansive view of who gets to invoke feeling triggered, generally arguing that anyone who claims to be feeling traumatized legitimately is so. But that’s not at all the standard of medical science on PTSD. So the standard seems to be that when it comes time to argue for the righteousness of trigger warnings — and, naturally, the evil of those who oppose them — trigger warnings are a matter of medical necessity. But when it comes to who gets to invoke them, there is no medical standard that needs to be invoked at all.

When we talk about “triggers,” are we talking about PTSD? I have read thousands and thousands of words on this subject, and I have no idea. 

Nor is there any notion of how to handle cheating and abuse, because questioning whether someone actually suffered a trauma is considered anathema. This is a constant aspect of contemporary progressive politics: assigning special rights or privileges to groups that have a certain condition, but treating investigating whether someone actually has that condition as the most offensive behavior possible. What are we supposed to do with students who frivolously claim to have suffered trauma? I have been told directly by people who are in favor of trigger warnings that to attempt to determine if someone really has PTSD, or some other, vaguer form of trauma, is to “revictimize” them. So what are educators and institutions supposed to do? The closest thing I get to a response is “no one would  do that.” No one would do that? Really? No college student would take advantage of a special dispensation you’ve created that inarguably gives them a certain amount of transactional power in their interactions with an instructor? There are millions of people in college. They come in all different forms. Many of them are great, both honest and ethical. And some of them are very bad people. So what do we do to decide who can fairly claim to have suffered trauma, and access the special dispensation that might come with it?

Then there’s the fact that, in the actual medical literature on PTSD, triggers are discussed not as intellectual subjects like rape or war but as sensorial impressions like a sound or a small or a play of light. Or the fact that there’s no extant medical literature that demonstrates that trigger warnings actually have provide demonstrable relief to the people who suffer PTSD. That stuff isn’t even discussed.

Finally, there’s the rhetorical condition of the discussion we have. I think this piece from Lindy West emblemizes it:

Maybe we can all get flippant and condescending about trigger warnings after we build a world where more than 3% of rapes lead to conviction, where we don’t shame and blame people for their own victimisation, where men don’t feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where millions of people aren’t moving through life yoked with massive, secret traumas.

This strikes me as a classic example of a common progressive category error: this terrible injustice exists (and it does), so therefore you have to get on board with this heavy-handed policy that cannot possibly actually reduce that injustice. I am totally unclear as to how trigger warnings actually combat any of the problems that West identifies in that paragraph.

But more importantly: how exactly is anyone supposed to have a conversation after a statement like that is made? How are we supposed to sort good from better when the rhetorical cudgels of rape, victim blaming, male entitlement, and secret trauma have been deployed? The trigger warning conversation is so impossible precisely because of tactics like this: using the reality of trauma, and the horrors of trauma, as a means of guilt by association and ratcheting up the emotional stakes of the discussion. The whole conversation tends to get dragged down into recrimination and acrimony precisely because of this kind of argument, which seeks to cast people asking questions and raising concerns as apologists for terrible crimes. How can you have a conversation that way?

I don’t think political correctness is ruining campus, no matter how often I am accused of thinking that. In fact I don’t even like the term “political correctness” at all. I don’t think trigger warnings threaten the fabric of our education system. I do think that there are some legitimate problems with them and their use, and more, with the way that people who advocate for them go about arguing in their favor. And unlike so many others, my concerns in this arena come because I want to spend my life on campus and have direct personal stakes in the health of our institutions. I genuinely believe that there is a meaningful common ground that people can find on this issue. But I have no idea how to find it, when as soon as you raise concerns with the practice, you’re relegated to the role of victim blamer and trauma denier. There’s no way to address this issue constructively under those conditions. None. So the question becomes, as it is for so many other issues within the progressive coalition these days: do we really want to be the side of “you’re either with us or against us”?

Jonathan Franzen: why bother?

We’ve entered late August. The days are growing shorter and cooler. Before you know it, the first leaves will start to change, and autumn will be with us. If you’re keeping your ear to the ground, though, you’ll note another season, just as certain and predictable, is coming near: Jonathan Franzen season.

The internet does not like Jonathan Franzen. Jonathan Franzen has a new book coming out. And so it follows, as the night the day, that we’re in for a lot of pro forma Franzen hate pieces. They’ll all be written in the same tired idiom, the worn out snark that you’ve been consuming by the gallon since 2004. They’ll make the same rote claims about privilege and publishing. They’ll play to an audience that is made up largely of people who are expected to dislike Jonathan Franzen and who in fact take disliking Jonathan Franzen as part and parcel of the social culture to which they belong. In other words, there will be no challenge to their presumed readership. These pieces won’t be bad because they’re mean, or because they degrade our capacity for empathy, or because they’re cheap. None of those usual complaints. No, it’ll be bad because they’re boring. Worn out. We’ve all heard it ten thousand times. Whatever about that vocabulary once seemed fresh and cutting now seems rote and predictable. We’re dealing with a class of young writers for whom that style has been the assumed language of the internet since they started reading online, which means that many of them use it not because they want to but because they figure that’s just what you do.

What is the value of writing a piece on the internet about how you don’t like Jonathan Franzen in 2015? What in that genre could be done that hasn’t already been accomplished? Why bother?

You might imagine that I’m a Franzen fan. Well, I thought The Corrections was a good book, it’s true. Didn’t care much for Freedom. His thoughts on contemporary fiction, as epitomized in his essay “Mr. Difficult,” are as offensive and wrong to me as literary opinion can be. Ben Marcus’s takedown of those ideas is one of my favorite magazine pieces ever. The general notion that artists should be elbowless crowdpleasers, eager to flatter their audience, drives me completely insane. I’m not a Franzen partisan. I have no interest in protecting the reputation of a wealthy and successful novelist. I am a partisan, however, for a culture industry that is something more than the endless sifting of personalities — goodies and baddies, the cool and the uncool, the savvy and the chumps, the complimented and the ridiculed.

When the Entourage movie came out, the result was as predictable as you can imagine. The internet hated it, and hated it for perfectly predictable reasons. And you know, if you had forced me at gunpoint to see that movie, I’m sure I would have hated it for the exact same reasons. But I was struck by the utter exhaustion of it all. Everyone knew what the internet would think about the Entourage movie. The tropes were all the same. It felt like everyone, writers and readers alike, was going through the motions, but nobody could just decide to opt out. I guess it’s just another example of the taking of the media, only it’s a matter of style and attitude rather than subject matter. Somehow that makes it so much worse.

Why does the internet bother telling itself the things it already knows about itself?

Complaints about the contemporary economics and culture of online writing are ubiquitous and tiresome. I write more of them than I should. I’d much rather identify what I like than what I don’t. And I’ll tell you: I think there’s more talented writers regularly writing online right now than ever before. It’s just that the economic structure they’re caught in compels them to write the exact same things. So let me identify a piece that I read that avoided all of the things that I’ve grown tired of. This Stassa Edwards piece for the Awl is just a beauty. It’s subtle, deeply researched, quiet. It has no punchline. It teaches you things while avoiding the dulling, clumsy, ham-fisted “A+B=C” school of essaying that editors are infatuated with today. It’s deeply political without seeming to  fit into any obvious political lane. It displays loving craft without being crafty. And it deploys irony in the pursuit of sadness rather than comedy. More than anything, it made me say to myself “this is not a feeling I thought I would feel in reading today.”

I’m just a greedy, undeserving reader, and you are free to ignore me. But god, please, stop churning out pieces that fall along the same predictable political lines. No more of the same sarcastic hit pieces. No pieces where, when I see the headline and your name, I can guess every beat you’re going to hit. No more adults complaining about the banal daily indignities of human life that everyone has always had to deal with. Say a thing that another person in your exact position at your exact publication would never say. Surprise me. Challenge me. Make it new.