the paper

2015-08-06 15.48.34

I’m writing today to announce a little project, one that’s of natural interest to very few but potential interest to a few more. At my feet sits a large box of papers, photos, and ephemera that once belonged to my father and his father. My grandfather John died in 1969, twelve years before I was born;  my mother, who figures heavily if obliquely in the papers from the later years, in 1989; and my father, in 1997. I have little left of my parents but memories, and nothing of my grandfather, save this, the paper.

We had, my siblings and I, my father’s old computers — an IBM 8086, its plastic yellowing, the 386 that played so many of our favorite games, the 486 that was my father’s office computer for ages. They’re gone now. Even if they endured physically, though, what would we be able to extract? The magnetic media would have died long ago, even if could find some way to open it, ancient hard drives and 5¼-inch floppies. I’m sure that, at great expense, if I had that stuff I could have some experts laboriously extract whatever remained of the data. But for all practical purposes, that stuff is gone, including things I know I would like to have, like a copy of my father’s CV. In contrast, letters from the 1910s sit, in fine and readable condition, at my feet. And today’s SSDs and flash memory are hardly better than old magnetic media in terms of longevity. Everybody says, oh well, everything will live in the cloud…. But who would pass on a password to a cloud service, assuming it didn’t become defunct, the way that this old box has been passed down to me? I think it’s a good example of the petty arrogance of the digital age. If I had a son or grandson, what would they have to hold onto of mine? It makes me want to print out my stuff.

That’s an ironic way, I realize, to announce a digitization project. I’m starting a Tumblr to host some highlights from the collection. Nothing private, obviously, though there’s little of that in here. And nothing systematic. Just papers, photos, publications, clippings, and assorted trinkets of their lives, that are beautiful or interesting or just worth looking at. I do this mainly to make some of them accessible to my siblings and others who knew and loved my father; it’s unfair for them that only I should have access to this stuff. But I also want to share on the off-chance that anyone else wants to see some of this stuff, because so much of it is so lovely. My father was a lifelong member of the theater, in New York and elsewhere, and an academic, and his papers are absolutely filled with gems. You can see his old academic work; a few years ago, when I labored to complete my preliminary exams on the history of rhetoric, little did I know that in a box by my computer sat papers my father once wrote on the rhetoric of Sir Francis Bacon in his own grad days. You can see his transition from traditional Western theater to black box to the East Asian puppetry and dance that would become his central concern. You can see my grandmother’s high school photo. There’s old programs from my father’s plays, letters where he and my grandfather have good-natured squabbles, slides, wonderful old theater photos, papers from college and grad school, magazine and newspaper clippings, correspondence from his attempts to secure the rights to put on productions of out-of-print plays, old hippie publications, letters from publishers begging my father to finish revisions to pieces he was writing, and all sorts of ephemera from the worlds of the academy, the theater, and the counterculture in the 20th century. There’s so many beautiful designs. They are records of lives that are, like all lives, gradually disappearing. I thought I’d share them.

So I’ve posted up a half-dozen things already, to give you a flavor of the kind of things I’ll be hosting here. I figure I’ll probably post, I don’t know, three things a week? And there’s probably enough here to keep it going for a couple years at least. Anyway, if you’re into design, or theater, or academics, you might want to check it out. The Tumblr is here.

I have already posted a letter from Henry deBoer, dated March 23rd, 1939. I do not know who Henry deBoer was, beyond the obvious fact that he must have been a relative — I don’t know what his relationship was to my grandfather, to my father, or to me. But he leaves behind a letter that expresses a sentiment I find worth sharing, 75 years after the fact. His letter reads,

Dear Mother,

Monday, March 21 will be 15 years that Pa has been taken from us to his eternal abode. Even after 15 years we mourn his departure. How we have missed him in these troublesome years that lie behind us. We missed him in our family life, in our church and school life and in our business. We often longed for his advice, for his words of encouragement, of comfort and consideration in our troubles and in our sorrows. Just to have him around was joy and contentment, we would feel at ease.

But we do not wish him back, that should be selfish on our part, because surely, he would not desire it.

Our best memory of him can be found inscribed on his monument:

“I have fought a good life
 I have finished the course
 I have kept the faith.”

It should be the prayer of all of us that when our eyes, too, shall close in death, we shall be able to say, “I have kept the faith.”

walking and chewing gum at the same time

Just as an addendum to my last post — I’m frustrated by the rise of false choice thinking, in general, within the left. There’s so many bogus binaries people try to push you into now. We can be the side that insists on the horrors of sexual violence, offers comfort and respect to victims, pushes for punishment of those proven to be guilty, and the side that insists on due process in the court system and fairness outside of it. Just like we can be the side that insists on social censure for those who say offensive things, and at the same time defends the right to free speech from both government intrusion and unreasonable private pressure. (We always have been!) We can be the side that points out the unique challenges and injustice of poverty for people of color while leading the fight against the hardship and degradation of white poverty. We can confront inequality from both a stance of identity and of structural class politics. None of those are impossible. And it’s so counterproductive and frustrating to  act like we’re incapable of doing both.

The only advantage of binary thinking is that it helps you sort the world into goodies and baddies. And that’s no advantage at all.

sexual assault accusations and the left

In the 1980s and 1990s, a sex panic of unprecedented scale and destruction swept the United States and several other places. In over a dozen cases, day care workers were accused of ritual sexual abuse of young children. Often, these accusations included references to Satanic worship and other outlandish details that should have raised red flags at the time. Reading about them now, as you can in this Wikipedia article, it’s almost impossible to believe that many of these accusations became criminal cases.  As a reporter for the New York Times would later say, many of these charges were “wildly implausible.” To pick one example, a day care worker was accused of bringing in a parrot that pecked children on their genitals. Others involved claims that the accused literally flew, or built networks of secret tunnels to underground lairs. Many other accusations were just as fanciful and hard to believe.

And yet not only were these accusations believed, in many cases they resulted in arrest, prosecution, and conviction. It wasn’t just that children, who are notoriously susceptible to adult suggestion and have been shown again and again to be unreliable witnesses, made the accusations. It’s that those accusations were believed without any appropriate skepticism by parents, police officers, jurors, and judges. Dozens of people were prosecuted; hundreds of lives were ruined. People collectively served dozens of years in prison for crimes they were totally innocent of. The human cost was immense. And it all happened within the last 30 years or so.

Looking back now, two things strike me: one, how crazy it is that this hysteria, and the resulting injustice, even happened. And two, that almost nobody ever talks about it. Many people of even my own age, in the mid-30s, seem unaware it happened at all. Younger people appear to be even more ignorant. Yet it strikes me as an absolute perfect historical example for why we maintain rights of the accused in our judicial system, and for why we should operate with caution and care as public citizens when any crime is alleged. Because we know that our justice system routinely produces unjust outcomes, and because we know that our public deliberations on guilt or innocence are often misguided, and have real destructive consequences for the wrongfully accused. Ask the surviving family members of Richard Jewell if the public’s perception of guilt or innocence makes a difference. Or ask the Central Park Five, whose wrongful rape convictions were undoubtedly provoked by public outrage and public certainty.

Today, Gawker ran a piece about a sexual assault accusation against the late British Prime Minister David Edward Heath. Someone in the comments compared this accusation to those against Bill Cosby. I find that troubling: Cosby’s accusations come from far more people and, at this point, seem to me to have far more evidence in their support. So I said so. I didn’t make the case that the accused was innocent. I merely expressed the possibility that he may have been innocent. The response was about what you might expect from the vague 21st century progressivism that is the default in Gawker’s comments:

“Demanding independent corroboration of sexual assault charges is utter bullshit. By law, New York City wouldn’t prosecute rape up through the late 1960s unless there was a witness to corroborate the victim’s story. Guess how often rape got prosecuted then. Get stuffed, you pompous, clueless, sex-crime-enabling windbag.”

To be clear, I never said that every rape accusation needs to have a corroborating witness to be proven true; that’s not a standard I believe in, and I didn’t say anything like that. I did say that this accusation does not seem to have nearly as much corroboration as those against Cosby, where literally dozens of women have come forward to offer remarkably consistent and detailed accusations. That doesn’t mean Heath was innocent; he very well may have been guilty. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the facts demonstrate that he was guilty, and if he was, he deserves all the posthumous condemnation people will bring to bear. I just don’t think the evidence is as compelling as in the Cosby case. (If anything, that attitude seems insulting to Cosby’s many accusers.) It also means that I think a rush to judgment in cases of alleged sexual abuse is a bad idea, as history should teach us. But even the most mundane calls for avoiding a rush to judgment — not just due process in a court room, but fairness outside of one, given the immense damage these accusations can do to someone’s reputation — now results in immediate, angry condemnation. And, inevitably, the enforcement mechanism that people bring to bear in this debate:

“Y’know, it’s fascinating how often I see you worrying about accused rapists’ lives being hypothetically ruined by internet commenters who don’t want to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is doubtless unfair of me and will cause steam to come out of your ears, but your tireless efforts to save accused rapists from nonexistent problems makes me think you’re taking such accusations a little too personally.”

In other words, if you make the case for due process and basic fairness for those accused of sex crimes, you must be a rapist. For the record, you can review my actual output and find that I don’t actually make this case nearly as often as the commenter suggests, but the point remains the same: if you suggest that we shouldn’t operate under a blanket presumption of guilt when accusations of sex crimes are made, you deserved to be accused in similar terms.

The commenters at Gawker are not, I’m sorry to say, out of step with many young progressives today. Many of the vaguely leftish young people I interact with now deride any reference to due process or rights of the accused, when it comes to sex crimes, as inherently evil, conservative, and misogynist. Indeed, the topic of rights of the accused for those who face allegations of sex crimes is now frequently dismissed with eye-rolling and the blanket assumption of bad faith, as if maintaining rights central to a free society is similar to conspiracy mongering about chemtrails.

This would be weird enough, but it becomes even more bizarre when you consider that we are in a moment of unprecedented attention for criminal justice reform. #BlackLivesMatter is one example of a broad, increasingly bipartisan, cross-ideological reckoning in this country with the sorry state of our criminal justice system. Distrust of cops and prosecutors is rampant, and not just among the left-wing anymore. Indeed, that distrust is frequently found among Gawker’s commenters… in every case except for allegations of sex crimes. Most of the time, the progressive street writ large tends to be skeptical of accusations of crimes, and of our ability to secure justice through the criminal courts. But for reasons I can’t understand, when it comes to issues of sexual violence, that skepticism disappears. More than disappears: the conventional progressive wisdom has become that anything other thank blanket presumption of guilt is actively offensive and misogynist. You can read arguments from people like Zerlina Maxwell and Jessica Valenti if you think that’s an exaggeration. Gawker’s commenters have certainly taken that argument to heart. Many of them were certain, for example, of Conor Oberst’s guilt, and of the guilt of the fraternity at the heart of the Rolling Stone University of Virginia story. Not just certain, but actively, aggressively accusatory of anyone who wasn’t.

I’m sorry to say that they’re all the same cops. It’s all the same system. We don’t magically get a better, more just, less racist, more competent, less corrupt criminal justice system when the accusations in question are for sex crimes. That’s not at all an argument against sexual assault prosecutions. It’s simply a call for a similar, natural skepticism — not towards victims, but of the system. And not just the criminal justice system, but our broad public determinations of whether someone is guilty or innocent, determinations that have profound and lifelong consequences for those who find themselves on the wrong end. Victims don’t fail. But we fail, frequently, as the producers of collective judgment.

Acknowledging that failure, acknowledging our own imperfection and weakness, does not at all amount to denial of the fact that false rape claims are very rare, which I believe, or a refusal to treat sexual violence as especially heinous, which I do, or a lack of empathy and respect for those making accusations, both of which I feel. It doesn’t mean that we can’t make adult judgments about cases like that of Cosby, where the evidence is great, the corroboration compelling, and the conclusion obvious. It just compels us to slow down. That’s all.

This has to be repeated to everyone in younger generations, because I genuinely think that many of them simply don’t know this: it is the left that has traditionally defended the notion of due process in the court room and fairness outside of it. It’s the left that has traditionally said to slow down and to get the facts right. It’s the left that has expressed skepticism about the ability of groups of people to arrive at wise and judicious decisions about who is guilty and who isn’t. The speed with which that’s changed, and how little we’ve actually discussed that change, is remarkable.

The broad coalition of the left wing has to come to some sort of understanding about these issues. Perhaps the decision will be that, to be a member of the left, you simply must believe all accusations of sexual violence by default. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen. But we have to actually acknowledge that this is already the general standard among so many young progressive types today, and we have to talk very seriously about what the long-term consequences of that condition are. We also have to ask ourselves how that can possibly not result in inequality and misconduct, given what we know about policing in this country. I would suggest, though I’m not entirely impartial on this, that we must be able to have this discussion without routinely accusing those who argue against a rush to judgment of hating women, apologizing for rape, or being likely rapists themselves.

Ultimately, this question is not merely about the left’s stance towards our police state. It’s about the left’s relationship to certainty. For a long time, I’ve pointed out that the idiom of the left is not just strong belief in the superiority of our values but utter certitude in our superior grasp of the facts. We don’t merely argue that our side is correct, anymore; we argue that anyone who has not already realized that our side is correct is a buffoon, if not actively evil. On Twitter, the default left-wing critique is that of open-mouthed disbelief that people do not already believe what we think they should believe. I think, in the long run, this belief in the totalizing, frictionless perfection of our ideology leads to a very dark place indeed. I ask instead that we remember that doubt has always been a left-wing value.

When I bring up cases like the Satanic day care abuse hysteria with those who express utter certainty about guilt or innocence, I often perceive them to be thinking: that was other people. I’m me. And I know everything about good and evil.

I suggest you read the Times piece I linked to above. It’s about Peggy McMartin Buckley, one of the accused in the Satanic day care hysteria. She spent years in jail and was on trial for far longer. Her reputation was ruined. Her career was ruined. Her life was ruined. To many leftists, Buckley’s case seems to represent success: her accusers were believed by default, and in the long run, she was acquitted. We as a political movement have to ask ourselves if Peggy McMartin Buckley is the kind of collateral damage we can live with. But first we have to acknowledge that those are the stakes.

why academic editing is so awful

I want to be fair, here. I have been edited by some academic editors who have been judicious, wise, and seasoned. I also have been edited in a lot of popular press publications and I can tell you that a lot of editors out there are no peach to work with. Good editing is wonderful; good editing is a classic example of filling the needs you didn’t even know you had. I’ve worked with great, supportive, intelligent editors in both academic and popular publishing. I’ve also worked with a lot of editors who should never have been given the job in the first place. Unfortunately, in today’s publishing world, “editor” is a title that is often given to writers as a form of professional advancement that has nothing to do with their ability to edit. Being a good writer is relevant experience for editing, sure, but being a good writer alone can’t make you a good editor. Sadly, the traditional paths of apprenticeship for editing are disappearing. And bad editing, for me, is dispiriting on a level I can barely describe. When you get an edit back that just fundamentally misunderstands the point of a piece, getting up the energy to fight it out with the editor, and contemplating having that fight without burning that bridge, is immensely draining.

And so much academic editing, whether from editors or peer reviewers, is awful.

First, you should read Gabriel Rossman on how you (yes, you) broke peer review.  You can also read my own complaints from when I was guest blogging at the Dish. The basic problem is that most everyone turns into Loki when they are a) empowered with decisions that mean the difference between a comfortable and fulfilling existence as a professor or a life as a low-wage, no-benefits, no-security contingent adjunct, and b) blessed with the protection of anonymity. It’s a recipe for feckless, capricious control of other people’s lives.

For one thing, there’s the seemingly broad assumption within academia that to be an editor or reviewer requires that you insist on a certain number of changes for every piece, no matter what the piece’s topic, field, or initial quality. Like the old joke about how the Oscars are meant to reward Best Acting rather than Most Acting, editing quality is not at all dependent on editing quantity. Yet so many academics seem to believe that they are only fulfilling their function if they hit a certain quota of requested edits. I’ve had editors at popular press publications — big ones, quality ones — say to me, “This is pretty much perfect as written, here’s a couple of minor stylistic edits.” That, to me, demonstrates someone who knows what he or she is doing and has the confidence to actually edit for the good of a publication rather than to fulfill some Platonic ideal of what editing is. I’m not saying that editing was good because it didn’t change my words; I’ve had great editing that’s savaged my initial drafts. I’m saying it’s good because it privileges the writing rather than the editor. Sadly, the idea of a piece making it through the academic review process without huge edits, whether deserved or not, is essentially unheard of.

Bad academic editing manifests itself nowhere more frequently than in the “insert [X figure/philosophy/movement/article that I try to force feed into every piece I edit because he/she/it is important to me] here” tendency. That’s an absolute constant complaint from academics I know, and I know very many. Yes, if someone has a piece of very direct, very relevant literature to your specific research questions — if they have specifically commented on the specific concerns of your piece in a specific piece of writing — then you can ask writers to respond (to specific pieces that you provide specific citations for). But the frequency with which peer reviewers and/or editors say “Read this through X” or “you need to introduce Y here” demonstrates people who simply do not understand what editing is or how it should work. If a credible piece has been sent to you for review, and you are assigning a laundry list of readings to the author because you think that reading is important, you’re failing your role as an editor or a reviewer. That’s not your job. That’s not your job.

That’s particularly troubling in a field like mine, which is dominated, as Keith Rhodes and Monica McFawn Robinson write, by an in-crowd; the “Foucault this” tendency makes it inevitable that the same ideas and articles get recycled endlessly, which in turn only reinforces the prestige of those within that affinity circle. As Rodes And McFawn Robinson write,

“The main advantages of social construction have been in the professionalization of composition itself, of course. By proper operation of its own theories, once one joins the social constructionist in-crowd, the tickets of advancement become more readily available. Those who are good at social moves advance, entering the position to advance the similarly oriented and gifted. But this interesting professional game would seem to have no practical ends. It threatens to offer status as its own end. Of course, in plain fact many scholars do a great deal of practical and progressive work, essentially ignoring the social constructionist credo even while paying it homage, at least implicitly. Nevertheless, the logic of social construction predicts that we should end up with exactly what we have: more tenured specialists, but few advances in pedagogical methods, few measurable results from improved practices, and little over-all progress for the field of writing even in its political status.”

When you’re teaching a class, then you can devise a reading list. When you’re running a graduate program, you can put together a curriculum. When you’re assembling a textbook, you can decide which ideas and information are important to include. When you’re editing or reviewing, you have no business trying to sandwich in your pet scholars or scholarship into pieces that already contain an adequate amount of third party scholarship.

This, however, is the most important point:

Your job as an editor is never to try and edit away claims that you disagree with.

This is an issue that is existentially threatening to the very practice of editing, and from my many conversations with many academics in many fields, very common. As Rossman says, “On quite a few methodological and theoretical issues there is a reasonable range of opinion. Don’t force the author to weigh in on your side.” The entire point of academic publishing is to present new knowledge. Very often new knowledge is threatening, especially to those who created the old knowledge. If editors or reviewers feel no compunction against using the editing process to deny viewpoints they don’t like, then there’s no chance for the kind of shifts in thinking that are absolutely essential to the progress of academic disciplines. At its worst, this tendency results in an endless reproduction of the same stultifying orthodoxies. Yes, of course, if you find blatant factual inaccuracies, or directly and unambiguously self-contradictory arguments, those should be pointed out to the author. But if you’re saying “My own read on X is” or “My impression of the state of the field is that” or “I would argue that,” you’ve already failed. That’s not your job! If you feel strongly that an article’s argument is wrong, then publish a rebuttal of your own. Don’t use the editing process to prevent that argument from emerging in the first place.

Again, my own field is illustrative. In terms as direct as the world of academic publishing allows, Rhodes and McFawn Robinson indicate within their article that they had a hard time getting it published. Their article concerns the vaguely leftist, ill-defined social constructionist epistemology that is the default orthodoxy of composition. They write, “Nobody can miss the reign of this cloudy theory, nor can anyone miss how closely that reign has corresponded with what Haswell has clearly documented as a ‘war’ on scholarship from other perspectives in the pages of the field’s most central and powerful organizational journals. We appreciate that the editors of JAEPL have permitted this admittedly contentious argument simply to go forward.”

That, if you’ll forgive me, is shade. The Journal of the Assembly of Expanded Perspectives on Learning is a fine journal, but not at all a prominent one. And it seems clear to me from the article that Rhodes and McFawn Robinson tried and failed to place it at a prominent composition journal. Given that it’s a vital, well-crafted argument, the situation to me seems clear: that they couldn’t get it published in those places because the editors and reviewers, necessarily insiders within the field, didn’t like the way in which the field was being critiqued. That’s an absolute failure of the basic premise of free, contentious academic publishing. And by its nature, it reinforces the very in-crowd that is being critiqued: those who get published in the most prominent journals get the most disciplinary prestige, and thus the best jobs, and thus become the gatekeepers who ensure that the in-crowd’s ideas advance in the future.

For reviewers and editors, you need only remember Rossman’s credo: “fixing peer review has to begin with you, the reviewer, telling yourself ‘maybe I would have done it another way myself, but it’s not my paper.'” It’s not your paper. Maybe your disagreements with the author’s thesis are correct. But it’s not your paper.

For myself, I have ended up killing more peer reviewed pieces myself, withdrawing them from consideration when I’ve had the opportunity to continue to revise them in order to get published, than I have had published. Not because I think I’m a special snowflake who needs to get what he wants all the time, but because so often the editors involved have misunderstood their position. I could just be self-deluded — always a possibility — but the gripes with academic publishing, from across a wide variety of fields, only grow and grow. The frustrations that people vent as they desperately try and publish before the job market or their tenure reviews don’t come from nowhere. Meanwhile, I try to engage with my problems with my field publicly through listservs and online communities. Whenever I do, someone will say, not incorrectly, “It’d be better for your career if you didn’t do that.” Just as some will say that about this very post. And thus the circle is unbroken.

die update…Freddie update…Freddie update…Freddie u

Hey gang, so here’s the latest.

While I am up for a few more potential academic jobs, which I’d love to take, I’m also preparing for the possibility that I won’t get one in the coming months. So I’m currently set to teach at Purdue again as a continuing lecturer this fall, go back on the academic job market, and work on a few writing projects that I’m very excited about. I’ll be honest in saying that, if that’s what comes to pass, I’ll have a hard time not letting it feel like failure. But I’ll live a comfortable existence thanks to some freelance writing I’m working on, and my CV should be better, and it’ll give me a lot of time to just write, which is what I need. And it takes a lot of people a couple years on the market. Besides, I finished my PhD early. (People on Twitter love to call me a “perpetual grad student,” which is weird considering that I started and finished an MA and PhD in six years. That’s… not a long time.)

If it doesn’t work for me this year, we’ll see. I may move on. If I do, I’ll still consider going to grad school one of my best decisions. It was six of the most satisfying, enjoyable, enriching years of my life. (Note: don’t go to grad school.)

As far as freelance writing stuff goes, I  know I’ve teased a bunch of stuff recently, but I still have nothing to report yet. I can’t wait to share with you. I’m not trying to be arch; this stuff just takes time. I feel like I’ve been standing at a doorway for a really long time — my grad school self would  call this a liminal moment — and I’m eager to just walk through. The editing process is frustrating even when you like your editors and think they largely get it right. We’ll see. The pieces are good work and deserve to be read, and it looks like they’re going to be.

Miles is good! He’s progressing. (Here’s info on what he’s been going through for those who don’t know.) We’ve moved to a new apartment where I have a much easier time of getting him out the door. He can amble around quite a bit now on his own. His mobility is hugely dependent on how much time he’s had to warm up and get moving. When we first get out of bed, he’s frighteningly uncoordinated, and I have to do a lot of carrying and shepherding. Over time, he gets warmed up and can walk around quite well on his own. (Well enough that I have to keep him from eating the cat’s food.) His bloodwork still isn’t where we want it to be, and I am still taking him in to the vet once or twice a week, but signs are positive. For now, bedtime is the biggest issue. I have not slept through the night since he came home from the animal hospital on the Fourth of July. He often needs to get up in the middle of the night to go outside, and his medication frequently makes him shake and breathe heavily to the extent that I wake up and worry over him. It’s kind of like caring for a newborn. Luckily my current life affords a lot of time for naps. We’re trying to tackle a few stairs right now. It’s slow going but we keep trying.

So that’s the skinny for now. I have been thinking and writing a lot, lately, about the academy and its troubles, and the troubles within my own field. One of the problems with any status hierarchy like academia is that there’s a built-in resistance to critique: those who find themselves in an elevated position within that hierarchy have a vested interest in protecting it; those who are likely to criticize are outside of the hierarchy and thus their complaints are subject to dismissal on grounds of sour grapes and jealousy. I suppose you’d say I’m in the latter category. Well: as someone with a world in both the worlds of academics and media, I’m in the very frustrating position of finding that the types of complaints about the academy in the media are frequently wrong, but that there’s a bunch of accurate complaints that don’t get taken seriously in the academy. It’s  like, “yes, the academy needs reform, but not those reforms!” I wrote a dissertation (that I’m quite happy with, thank you very much) about standardized testing in the American university and the policymakers pushing it. And I look out at the professoriate and I fear that so many of them seem so unaware of what’s happening.

At present, my concerns are with my own field, a field full of brilliant, committed people with great intentions that seem intent on driving themselves and their programs off a cliff. I’m not sure how one goes about being in a position to lay out the case against our current practices, given that having your criticisms taken seriously requires first advancing in the very field that you find to be broken. I’ve previously pointed to this piece by Keith Rhodes and Monica McFawn Robinson as a fantastic criticism of my field. They write within it about the difficulty of getting the piece published, and the journal they published it in, while great, is obscure in the field. The question is, how do you get the people who control what arguments get heard to listen to an argument they don’t want to hear?

But criticism is still worth doing even if few will listen. And perhaps, someday, I’ll be able to lay out my case at length, whether anyone is listening or not.

clicks have no conscience

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

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

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

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

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

Trainwreck: I’m confused

trainwreckThis post has spoilers about the new movie Trainwreck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it’s coming apart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to the horde

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

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

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

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

the night the state killed Michael Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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