political appropriation

Regular readers know that I often find the concept of cultural appropriation unhelpful. That’s not universal by any means – don’t wear a native American headdress, jackass, don’t “talk ghetto” for laughs – but a lot of the specific allegations of appropriation that I see don’t make much sense. When people complain about the cultural appropriation of, for example, white people using ingredients from various ethnic cuisines, I think they’re mistaking the inevitable processes of culture for a sin. All culture is hybrid; all culture is absorbed from the influence of others. There’s no line where one culture ends and the other begins, and if there were, there would be no alternative to borrowing. No cultural practice emerges from thin air – not a lexicon, not music, not food, not morals, nothing. Cultural borrowing is inevitable. I’m not saying that’s good. I’m saying it’s true regardless of whether it’s good.

But there is a type of appropriation that I’m seeing more and more of that I do think is wrong, and preventable, and yet it’s one that seems largely excused, even embraced, by many of the same people who complain the loudest about cultural appropriation. I would call this political appropriation: when members of the dominant classes adopt political critiques that were developed by members of the marginal classes and use them against other members of the dominant classes. I’m here talking mostly about the phenomenon of white men leveling “white male” at other white men, particularly on social media. It’s become ubiquitous, particularly during this primary – I’ve been guilty of it occasionally myself – and I think it really is bad news in all the ways the discourse of cultural appropriation identifies. Every day, I see white dudes who would appear to most of the world to be the epitome of the angry white dude angrily accusing other white dudes of being white dudes. And I think it has non-trivial negative consequences for how we talk about gender and race.

Unlike some white people (mostly conservatives), I don’t find it offensive when people of color use “white” in a pejorative sense. Unlike some men (such as MRAs), I don’t think women making fun of men is offensive. In both cases, people who have traditionally occupied a subordinate social role are drawing from a long tradition of political critique – some serious and weighty, some satirical and insouciant, both often vital and necessary – that has challenged the status quo’s racism and sexism. When a person of color levels a political critique at whiteness, they are reaching into a deep archive of theory and argument about the way race functions in our society. When a woman makes a political criticism of men, she’s taking part in a storied tradition of feminist critique. And despite the fever dreams of the alt-right, these criticisms are very rarely actually anti-man or anti-white, in the existential sense, but instead attack the persistence and destruction of sexism and racism. Yes, there are radical thinkers out there that have genuine existential condemnations of whiteness and maleness, such as the Nation of Islam’s theory of the genetic wickedness of white people or certain radical feminist takes on inherent male destructiveness. Those ideas aren’t really my business. These opinions are, in any event, quite rare, and are invoked more often by conservatives looking to dismiss anti-racist and feminist movements than by most progressive people. Instead, criticisms of white men are usually a reflection of very natural frustration and righteous anger at the continuing power of racism and sexism to shape the world in 2016. That is, at least, my take, as a white guy who necessarily speaks from a limited and contingent perspective.

If you’re a white guy who feels aggrieved that a person of color or a woman has used “white” or “male” as an insult online, maybe you should ask yourself why people of color and women feel aggrieved, and how you could potentially work to change those conditions.

But something very different is going on when white men themselves critique white men as such. I don’t generally believe that the salience of political attitudes stem from identity; that way lies support for Margaret Thatcher as some sort of progressive champion. But I do think that political statements exist in a social and economic context, and that this context complicates how those critiques work. And when some white guy on Twitter with a bushy beard and dumb hat is going long on calling other white guys white guys, as happens literally every day now, I think you’re seeing the exact ugly consequences of appropriation that critics have identified: it’s the capture of cultural and social practices that were developed by particular people facing particular kinds of oppression by those who don’t face that oppression. When a white guy feels no compunction against leveling “white male” as a critique, he’s taking advantage of decades of work by feminist and antiracist thinkers in a way that drains that work of its particularity and thus its power. These casual appropriations of “white male” by white men always seem like insults of convenience to me, a way for these guys to borrow the power of a legacy of political anger that was not developed by or for them. Isn’t that precisely why we’ve become sensitive to appropriation, that kind of casual, entitled, unearned borrowing? What could be a better emblem of privilege than someone saying “even this, even this critique of me and people like me, crafted by people who are not like me in response to an unequal and unjust world, is mine to use as I please”?

Also, as I’ve often argued, these uses of feminist and antiracist politics inherently excuse the white men using them from racism and sexism. They’ll tell you they include themselves in their critiques –  good lord, how often they’ll tell you – but it’s simply a matter of social reality that being in the position of the critic always elevates you above the critique. No matter how sincere these guys are when they say that they are indicting themselves as well, they necessarily have placed themselves in the role of judge rather than accused. Maybe worst of all, these insults are toothless. They don’t threaten anybody. Sometimes when I respond to white men calling me a white man on Twitter, they come back with some version of “haha, white male tears.” But I assure you, few things are less likely to inspire tears than another white dude calling me a white dude. I have received every insult imaginable on the internet, and few have as little power to harm me as a white guy calling me a white guy. The accusation is so inherently ridiculous, and so immediately rejected by so many people, that it can’t serve as a useful social tool. Radical critiques are like antibiotics; the more they’re overused, the less effective they’ll be. That’s particularly sad given that often this type of accusation is just a way for the person using it to locate himself on the right side. Like so many other examples of white male progressive behavior, what is ostensibly done in the service of other people is really done for the service of the white guy in question, for his self-perceived righteousness and his ego.

White people, critiques of whiteness are not for you. Men, critiques of maleness are not for you. White men, critiques of white men are not for you.

That does not mean you can’t engage in feminism or anti-racism. Far from it. You have a great number of tools at your disposal. If you think another white person is being racist, you can say so. If you think another dude is being sexist, you can say so. It’s only when you attack the identity of other white men while you maintain the privileges that identity confers that you engage in noxious appropriation. You might think you’re being radical; I think you’re looking for borrowed rhetorical power and to receive credit for your progressivism. Most importantly, you can do your best to live a righteous life – by treating women and people of color with respect, by working within our political system to attack injustice, by being a good person. I would argue that part of doing so, if you really embrace the critique you are claiming to be a part of, is to pursue feminism and anti-racism quietly. To work and live for real social justice in a way that does not seek credit. I have never seen so many people performing in my life as I do now, in 21st century American political life. The open and ugly question about the broad adoption of the language and norms of social justice is whether most people involved in it would bother if they could not bask in the glow of the attention they receive for doing so. White dudes shouting “white dude!” is always an attention-seeking behavior. Always.

We live in an era of professional anti-racism educators, of commodified political movements, of seminars on the Black Panthers brought to you by banks that defrauded black homeowners, of intersectional education sold at great cost to elite private schools, of college presidents hiring sensitivity counselors while jacking up tuition, of Matt McGorry. The question for those committed to social justice is no longer whether they can get attention or change social norms. The question is whether they can use the attention they’ve gotten to create actual, meaningful change – and if all the pandering and attention-seeking is a means of making that change, or just another example of the privileged getting in the way.

our nightmare

Most of us, I imagine, are not consistent political optimists or pessimists. We instead react – and usually overreact – to the short-term political trends before us, unable to look beyond the next election cycle and its immediate impact on ourselves and our political movements. I remember, immediately after the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, a particularly voluble conservative blogger arguing that it was time for conservatives to “curb stomp” the left, to secure the final victory over liberals and Democrats. Four years later, of course, a very different political revolution appeared to be at hand, and some progressives made the same kind of ill-considered predictions. Neither permanent political victory has come to pass, with Democrats enjoying structural advantages in presidential elections and Republicans making hay with a well-oiled electoral machine in Congressional elections. How long those conditions persist, who can say.

But partisan politics are only a part of the actual political conditions that dictate our lives. Politics, culture, and economics fuse together to create our lived experience. And that experience is bound up in vague but powerful expectations about success, what it means, and who it’s for. There is a future that appears increasingly likely to me, a bleak future, and one which subverts traditional partisan lines. In this future, the meritocratic school of liberalism produces economic outcomes that would be at home with laissez faire economic conservatives, to the detriment of almost all of us.

The future that I envision amounts, depending on your perspective, to either a betrayal of the liberal dream or its completion. In this future, the traditional foundations of liberalism in economic justice and redistribution are amputated from the push for diversity in terms of race, gender, sexual identity, and related issues. Our elite institutions such as exclusive universities, large corporations, and political bodies come to recognize that the dearth of diversity within their halls makes the lie of meritocracy too obvious. It’s not difficult, after all, to look at the Fortune 500 companies and note the great paucity of women and people of color in the executive ranks. This lack of diversity is clear on its face. This is an embarrassment to these institutions, and helps to demonstrate that the great American story of equal opportunity and the self-made man is a myth. This obvious injustice prompts scrutiny, criticism, complaint, even while these institutions have demonstrated their ability to resist reform.

In the future I imagine, these elites essentially “get smart” about their lack of diversity. They endeavor to make their institutions more diverse, not out of any principled attachment to the moral case for diversity, but out of a self-protective need, an understanding that they have to get more diverse in order to preserve the status quo. They thus set about to achieve superficial diversity within their ranks. They probably won’t ever achieve true proportional representation, but will improve sufficiently to quell much of the criticism they’ve engendered. Note that this doesn’t require conspiracy or coordination; it could simply happen over time through the increasing prevalence of diversity discussions in our national conversation, as the savvier among our elite classes realize that they can’t ignore these criticisms forever.

It’s essential to say that this new diversity still represents a terribly bad deal for most people of color, women, and other marginalized groups. The entire purpose of the elite-building mechanisms of our country is to keep that elite small. There’s only room for 1% of people within the 1%, after all. So even if we achieve perfectly proportional racial and gender representation in our elite strata, we’re still talking about only a tiny percentage of these groups enjoying the fruits of their elite status. But those at the top in our country will still point to the diversity within their institutions and insist that this shows that anyone can get ahead in the United States. The social defense of our system will thus be strengthened, despite the fact that this greater diversity will do nothing to address the received advantage and chance that play a large role in ascending to the top. This increasing superficial diversity accelerates an already-existing trend: the tendency of elites to espouse cultural and social liberalism detached from their foundations in economic justice.

Raised in an environment of constant competition to climb the status ladder, from preschool to high school honors society to Stanford to throwing sharp elbows in their entry level jobs, the winners in our social hierarchy are conditioned to believe in their own merit – that they are deserving. The obvious counterpart to this belief is that those who are not winners are undeserving. Such feelings become socially reinforced; the more that this attitude becomes a part of elite culture, the harder it is for individual members of that strata to differ with it. With liberalism increasingly indifferent to economic security and redistribution for all, the ideology becomes defined by the cultural and social cues that are already obvious: an idiosyncratic political vocabulary derived from cultural studies and online media, attachment to certain communally-celebrated pop culture, sexual libertinism, and an obsessive interest in weighing the moral value of all other people through a narrow political lens. Disconnected from the economic underpinnings that were once its foundation, the broad liberal coalition becomes even more associated with vague tribalism, a political movement reduced to a social circle.

Conservatism, of course, will endure, and continue to battle for control. With liberals less and less likely to engage in the kind of economic outreach that has traditionally united voters from across various demographic groups, conservative demagogues become more willing to engage in economic populism, reaching out to those left behind in the contemporary American labor market. Witness Donald Trump’s general indifference to conventional economic conservatism, his willingness to talk about regular people getting left behind, his vague waves to shared prosperity. This populism is empty, pure political posturing, and will be for the demagogues of the future. But for millions of people who are desperate to be told that their economic problems are real, to have a politician reassure them that relief is possible, this message will resonate. In the habit of conservative demagogues, they will marry this message to nativism and coded racism, telling their followers that their economic problems are caused by those who are unlike them. The case for class solidarity across racial and ethnic lines becomes even harder to make.

Nativist demagoguery, in turn, will simply deepen the liberal elite’s distaste for talking about economic issues as such. After all, it will be crypto-racists talking about economic populism the most. With politics devolving further and further into pure tribalism, this type of guilt by association becomes preeminent. The basic political argument, in such a landscape, amounts to “you sound like the bad guys.” Politics will continue to play out cyclically, with one party or the other winning presidential and congressional victories. But with conservatives paying only token lip service to economic populism and liberals increasingly uninterested in agitating for wide scale redistribution, the economic elite will have secured victory no matter what the outcome of any given election. The great promise of shared abundance, expressed most powerful and achieved most significantly in the great American labor and socialist movements of the early 20th century, will be dead.

As the writer Dan O’Sullivan once put it on Twitter, “Our political future: a snakepit of insane fascists on one side, & on the other, a Wall Street party that’s culturally liberal & nothing more.” Whenever I talk about this, I get people saying “lol that’s already here!” But their cynicism reveals a deeper naiveté. First, they overestimate how much work has actually been done to diversify the elite, which remains stubbornly male and white. Second, they don’t recognize how much worse this can all get. It can always, always get worse. Today, there is a least an ostensible connection between the liberalism of diversity and the leftism of equality. Tomorrow, even that thin thread might be cut forever, and so much the worse for us.

*****

Traditionally, both equality and diversity have been important to liberalism. There are obvious reasons for this connection. To begin with, the persistent inequality and injustice that afflict people of color and women in our society are powerfully represented in economic outcomes, with black and Hispanic Americans and women all suffering from clear and significant gaps in income, wealth, and similar measures of economic success. Economic justice is therefore inseparable from our efforts to truly combat racial and gender inequality. What’s more, the moral case for economic justice stems from the same foundations as the case against racism and sexism, a profound moral duty to provide for all people and to ensure that they live lives of material security and social dignity. The traditional liberal message has therefore been to emphasize the need for diverse institutions and economic justice as intertwined phenomena.

In recent years, however, the liberal imagination has become far less preoccupied with economic issues. Real-world activism retains its focus on economic outcomes, but the media that must function as an incubator of ideas, in any healthy political movement, has grown less and less interested in economic questions as such. Liberal publications devote far less ink, virtual or physical, to core issues of redistribution and worker power than they once did. Follow prominent liberals on Twitter, browse through the world of social justice Tumblr, read socially and culturally liberal websites. You might go weeks without reading the word “union.” Economic issues just aren’t central to the political conceptions of many younger liberals; they devote endless hours to decoding the feminism of Rihanna but display little interest in, say, a guaranteed minimum income or nationalizing the banks. Indeed, the mining of pop cultural minutia for minimally-plausible political content has become such a singular obsession within liberal media that it sometimes appears to be crowding out all over considerations.

More disturbingly, it’s become common for economic justice issues to be posed as a distraction from feminist and anti-racist practices. In debates about reparations, for example, arguments that similar positive impacts on black Americans could be achieved through broader redistributive programs are frequently represented as an “All Lives Matter”-style derailing, a failure to “center” fighting racism specifically as the central cause of 21st century liberalism. The ugly Hillary Clinton – Bernie Sanders primary race has devolved, at least within the liberal media, into a stark economics-vs-identity fight, with Clinton’s supporters dismissing the economic reforms of Sanders as a “white dude thing.” The Clinton campaign has deliberately stoked this divide, making broad waves to vague cultural liberalism – having Clinton meet with the stars of Comedy Central’s Broad City, for example, or clumsily using Millennial slang – while undermining the actual substance of economic equality, such as in Clinton’s attacks on single payer health care systems and universal free college. For the long-term health of a functioning political coalition, this is catastrophic, suicidal. But it serves the Clinton political machine, and it suits the needs of Clinton’s many backers within the economic elite. And the most consistent argument you hear for Clinton’s candidacy – that a woman president is such a symbolically important victory that representation outweighs substance – is itself the triumph of representational thinking over mass thinking.

As The American Conservative’s Noah Millman once wrote, “the culture war turns politics into a question of identity, of tribalism, and hence narrows the effective choice in elections. We no longer vote for the person who better represents our interests, but for the person who talks our talk, sees the world the way we do, is one of us…. And it’s a good basis for politics from the perspective of economic elites. If the battle between Left and Right is fundamentally over social questions like abortion and gay marriage, then it is not fundamentally over questions like who is making a killing off of government policies and who is getting screwed.” The point is not that those culture war questions are unimportant, but that by treating them as cultural issues, our system pulls them up from their roots in economic foundations and turns them into yet another set of linguistic, symbolic problems. My argument, fundamentally, is that we face a future where strategic superficial diversity among our wealthy elites will only deepen the distraction Millman is describing. Such a future would be disastrous for most women and most people of color, but to many, would represent victory against racism and sexism.

How likely is this scenario, this liberal embrace of diversity within the elites to the detriment of economic justice? Who knows. Predictions are hard, especially about the future. Economic justice retains its great potential to unite people from across broad demographic groups, even though current liberal political practice does everything possible to waste that advantage. People have a natural drive towards greater equality and for better material conditions; people feel, deep within themselves, that the American way has stopped working for most people. That animus can be tapped. Sanders has run as an explicit socialist, and he has generated incredible passion, though our media has worked with equal passion to attack his campaign and belittle his followers. The potential for change remains.

But I cannot stress enough to you how vulnerable the case for economic justice is in this country right now. Elites agitate against it constantly, and they do so even if they like the right music, watch the right TV shows, and change their Facebook profile picture to support gay marriage. It is not a coincidence that these issues have come to a head so directly in the Clinton campaign. She is a creature of the 1%, an impossibly wealthy woman who earns millions from Wall Street and who protects their interests. The attempt to quiet calls for shared prosperity through appeals to the increasing diversity of the fabulously wealthy did not arise from nowhere. This is a movement, coordinated from above, and its intent is to solidify the already-vast control of economic elites over our political system.

The days to come will be ugly. The stark conflict between diversity at the top and economic justice for all within the Democratic primary will play out again and again in the years to come. The recrimination and personal attacks will continue to be brutal. But we must recognize the potential that exists in this ugly divorce. We should understand this moment, fundamentally, as liberalism going through its long death throes. Liberalism, after all, is a compromise, neither the embrace of markets or the willingness to abandon them. It is an attempt to ameliorate the inequality and immiseration of capitalism, when inequality and immiseration are the very purpose of capitalism. Liberalism has been a deal made with elites, a project of pity-charity welfare programs that the plutocrats traded in exchange for protecting capitalism from the muscular advance of the labor movement in the early 20th century. Depending on your point of view, this was a principled deal made to ensure the material security of destitute people in a terrible depression, or a cynical capitulation to the economic aristocracy. Either way: that moment is over, and liberalism is breaking apart. The compromise cannot be maintained any longer; capitalism’s ever-deepening inequality cannot be arrested.

So the question ahead of us is, what type of world will we build? Will it be a world of Elois and Morlocks, a sea of vast inequality, where winners float above the dirty masses on piles of impossible wealth, and where the very idea of shared political power is rendered a joke? Or is it a world where all people own the productive apparatus of society, and where the great bounty of that apparatus is spread to all who need it? The question today, growing louder by the minute, is the same one we’ve been asking for decades: will it be socialism or barbarism? Will the left be a movement of the people, working to build solidarity across racial, gender, religious, and social lines to build a movement of and for regular people who are being run over by neoliberal capitalism? Or will it be a 22 year old with an Ivy League degree lecturing the poor about their failure to speak in the rarefied vocabulary of intersectionality? And if it’s the latter, who will be left who can tell the difference?

we had all the momentum

D’Agata speaks of his desire to “divorce the essay from being read exclusively as a form that’s tied to its subject matter, or that is propelled by its subject matter.” But what, really, can this mean? Writing is communication, and form is only meaningful—only artful—insofar as it aids and inflects the travel of a thought from one mind to the next.

Vinson Cunningham, on John D’Agata

I could write a whole long thing about the clumsy aesthetic philosophy at play here, which as Cunningham says is old. But Cunningham has wedded his take on D’Agata’s project to the only topic the kind of affluent post-collegiate strivers who read The New Yorker want to talk about these days, which is their politics, by which they mean their righteousness, by which they mean themselves. He references this piece by Jerry Saltz and Rachel Corbett from New York, which purports to name a new movement within the world of (New York, elite, expensive) visual arts. But the movement Saltz, and others, have named is already in the process of dying. Corbett’s history is impressive, but Saltz has always been an undertaker who’s mistaken himself for a midwife. Indeed the very act of being named means that this “movement,” whatever it is, has stopped moving long enough to be pinned to the page, and that’s usually a sign of its impending demise. Like sharks, you know. In the broader sense that contemporary art, music, film, and books are expected first to fulfill the dictates of bourgie political signalling, and then to get around to being good at some point after, there too I find this piece oddly timed. The great pretense of those who talk endlessly about “social justice” as some entity distinct from their own daily moral practice is that we’re nearing the final victory. But neither politics nor history are a march towards progress; both are an endless cycle of advance and retrenchment, and the ricochet is the second part. You can ask Hunter S Thompson about that. And anyway: rich bankers put protest art on their walls and then busily do the work of keeping injustice alive. When you look beyond the performance, when you stop appraising the value of these symbols and instead try to chase down the change they’re meant to signify, what, precisely, has been changed? Who’s chains were broken today?

Do you know what the exhausted final stage of a commodified political movement looks like, one that has become inseparable from the social jockeying of the cultural elites that movement once thought to critique? It looks like Matt McGorry’s Twitter feed.

Given the subject at hand, rather than bore you with an essay I’ll send a fox to catch a foxcatcher instead. And I’ll remind you that the archives are full of works of religious education, and no one reads them, no one remembers them, they just grow more brittle and yellow with age.

“The Creations of Sound”
by Wallace Stevens

If the poetry of X was music,
So that it came to him of its own,
Without understanding, out of the wall

Or in the ceiling, in sounds not chosen,
Or chosen quickly, in a freedom
That was their element, we should not know

That X is an obstruction, a man
Too exactly himself, and that there are words
Better without an author, without a poet,

Or having a separate author, a different poet,
An accretion from ourselves, intelligent
Beyond intelligence, an artificial man

At a distance, a secondary expositor,
A being of sound, whom one does not approach
Through any exaggeration. From him, we collect.

Tell X that speech is not dirty silence
Clarified. It is silence made dirtier.
It is more than an imitation for the ear.

He lacks this venerable complication.
His poems are not of the second part of life.
They do not make the visible a little hard

To see nor, reverberating, eke out the mind
Or peculiar horns, themselves eked out
By the spontaneous particulars of sound.

We do not say ourselves like that in poems.
We say ourselves in syllables that rise
From the floor, rising in speech we do not speak.

 

what do you owe to people who are guilty of being wrong?

Here’s Angry Paul with a take that I’m seeing more and more from our liberal intelligentsia: that Trump’s rise has nothing to do with the collapsing economic fortunes of the white working class and everything to do with racism.

I’ve seen claims that Tea Partiers were motivated by Wall Street bailouts, or even that the movement was largely about fiscal responsibility, driven by voters upset about budget deficits.

In fact, there was never a hint that any of these things mattered; if you followed the actual progress of the movement, it was always about white voters angry at the thought that their taxes might be used to help Those People, whether via mortgage relief for distressed minority homeowners or health care for low-income families.

Now I’m seeing suggestions that Trumpism is driven by concerns about political gridlock. No, it isn’t. It isn’t even mainly about “economic anxiety.”

So let’s take Krugman’s analysis at face value. And let’s set aside that, for Krugman and the authors of those other pieces and many like them, the point of politics is not to help people but to establish the ranks of the holy and the unclean. Either way the question remains: what do we do with these angry men?

I have argued, and will again, that the existence of tens of millions of nativist racists represents a practical problem to be addressed no matter what your take on their origins. I am not talking about giving concessions that we consider contrary to our basic convictions in an effort to court these voters. I’m not necessarily talking about courting them, as voters, at all. I am not saying we shouldn’t defeat them in elections. I am asking, what do we do with them after the elections have been won? More, I am here asking that we consider whether we want to adopt the basic logic of conservatism: that some people’s distress is deserved and thus safely ignored. Because that is the inevitable consequence of thinking like Krugman.

People say, frequently, that after W. Bush and Trump conservatism is finished, and perhaps as a movement committed to specific policies, it is. Certainly free market economics and austerity are alive and well and the dominant tendency in both parties, but I buy that the conservative movement as it has traditionally been understood is facing its Ragnarok. Yet in a deeper sense I think conservatives have won a major victory, one not understood by them or their antagonists: they have written the notion that dignity, respect, and material security must be earned into the progressive imagination. They have made the notion of a moral meritocracy inescapable in American civic life. The terms by which one comes to deserve the good life are different, but the basic logic of meritocracy has been preserved. One can imagine a new America where the ranks of human hierarchy have been jumbled but the existence of hierarchy has been preserved. This is not a future worth pursuing. I didn’t get interested in politics to become a member of an elect, or to decide who deserves to be within the elect, but to help tear down the very notion of an elect. Nor did I get interested in politics for the righteous thrill of lording it over the wrong.

Error has no rights, but the man who errs has equal rights with him who errs not.” That’s the whole idea — not to reorganize Omelas, but to walk away.

TS Eliot’s “Preludes”

This one you can chalk up to “it’s my website and I’ll post what I want to.” Here’s me doing a reading of TS Eliot’s “Preludes” from his book Prufrock and Other Observations, which you can read below. I might do more of these. It relaxes me and I enjoy doing it.

 

3. Preludes

I
THE WINTER evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.

II
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

III
You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters,
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

IV
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Ernest Hemingway Joins the #Content Industry

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With thanks to JB Miller and Papa.

There were twelve of us, in the elevator, myself and two other interviewees and all of the regular readers of Fusion. I was headed to the top floor with the two other bastards; where the rest were going, who can say. Perhaps to hell or to that soft quiet place beyond the hills where old internet commenters go to fade away in peace. The office was on the corner of Thinkfluencer Lane and Rahm Emmanuel Boulevard and the whole building smelled like Axe Body Spray.

The ad was riddled with typos and the address had been crossed off and replaced and the top said “Updated” but I clutched it like a marooned man clutches his last jug of water. I had been a stringer at a small daily with a dental plan and a liberal drinking policy and the work had been tiring but you were paid for the truth, but the dailies had died out with the coming of Craigslist and I could not earn enough to inebriate myself with Pernod as I once had. Worse still my young adult novel Elias Isquith and the Mystery of the Old Box Car had not sold as my agent had hoped and I had taken to trying to trade copies for cigarillos at the old bodegas where the Spaniards sold their wares. I confessed to Mary the streetwalker after one of our visits that I was broke and could not tip as a younger man might, though my erection was as hard and Protestant as it always had been. She smoked a Gauloise as she lay naked on my twin bed and spoke with exaggerated languor.

“Vox has VC cash.”

“Do they?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good.”

“Do you know what VC cash is, Ernest?”

“Forget it.”

“It’s probably good money.”

“Is it?”

“So they say.”

She reached into her purse and pulled out the ad, handing it to me. I read the name out loud and admired its masculine cadence. “Vox,” I said again. It was a good word, a true word, one that stood at attention like the uncircumcised penis of a strapping swole teen. I gingerly folded it and place it inside a messenger bag I had gotten made out of a cape that had belonged to Manolete.

The elevator smelled of the fear of the other two poor bastards and I knew right then that the job would be mine. #Content is for men and these men were boys and I knew with a look they’d never gone into the CSS or fallen on a grenade. One of them couldn’t have been older than 19 and he’d carried his diploma from Brown with him like a wretch and his lower lip quivered until I could take it no more.

“Have you ever seen the light go out of a man’s eyes, son?”

“I- I don’t-”

“Give me your samples.”

It was worse that I’d feared, a Pitchfork review of Modern Vampires of the City that quoted Reinhold Niebuhr and wedged in “on fleek” in an artless and desperate stab at currency. I handed it back to him and only shook my head.

“It’s awful, isn’t it.”

“You’ve just got to bear it sometimes, son.”

“Is #content hard?”

“It gets harder all the time.”

“What should I do, Papa?”

“You should kill yourself, now, while you’re a young man, before your spirit has died.” He merely nodded and rode the elevator back down.

The Vox offices had bean bags and a Playstation and a foosball table and an Adventure Time poster and a vending machine that dispensed Jolly Ranchers and a sign-up sheet labeled “Mandatory Fun” tacked to the wall but the place was in mourning for Ezra had drowned in the ball pit in an all-staff gathering at Dave & Buster’s the night before. The receptionist was Bengali and made 12 cents an hour as part of a program to put Vox’s principles into action and she sent me down the hall. My interviewer was 22 and referred to media as “the game” and listed Dead Prez under Music on his Facebook page though he opposed public education and would have lost a wrestling match to my husky 9 year old son Dakota. He asked me if I thought I could crush it in the game by delivering high quality value add and though I felt my soul die I told him I could and his handshake felt like damp terrycloth. They gave me a Slack password and a copy of The Bell Curve signed by Andrew Sullivan and the strict command never to let Mickey Kaus into the building, no matter how loudly he begged.

I went to meet Papa Yglesias but his door was shut and his secretary shook her head.

“It’s burrito time,” she said.

“Is it?”

“Isn’t it always?”

The days were long. The work was the work, 8 to 5, This One Graph Shows Jon Snow Had the Perfect Response to Mansplaining About Lemonade in the Syrian Conflict Y Nada Y Nada Y Pues Nada Y Nada. There were many daily chores, like teaching Max Fisher the four cardinal directions or finding Zack Beauchamp when he had gotten lost on his way to the bathroom again or wiping cocaine off of the copy machine. I had few people to talk to, as the staff was mostly teenagers and lizard people and members of the Porcellian Club who only ever wanted to talk about the time they played bocce with Ross Douthat. Only Choire Sicha connected with me, and when I asked him “Just what are ‘platforms,’ man?” he would just shudder and sip his creme de menthe and we would sit quietly in the comfort of each other’s fading youth.

Worst we suffered from a lack of leadership, for with Das Klein dead we were left only with Papa Yglesias, and he had contracted Richard Cohen Influenza in a foxhole at ThinkProgress and his heart had died and he would no longer fight as he once had. Those days he was content to crib old David Broder columns and pepper them with words like “priors” and “data” and tweet back to eggs who had tell him the blow them. I longed for the muscular analytics of a giant like Carl Diggler, or the manly women-hating vision of a Nick Denton. But no man chooses his master and I knew I could endure if only I resolved to and that the Cherokee must chase his buffalo and so at night I would steal Swedish Fish from Dr. Vox’s desk.

On my lunch break I would walk the neighborhood for miles. It is one of the old places and it is in the old places that a man truly tests himself. You had to be hard and you had to walk like a man who was hard and keep your wits about you, for you never knew when you might cross paths with an Italian, or perhaps a Mohammedan. The neighborhood had grown noisy as the 538 crew had begun shouting their posts out the window in an effort to double their audience. I would wander past the #content mills and see the long lines of dead-eyed children waiting outside for their turn to get paid 10 cents a word. The lines were long and slow but it gave them time to study each other’s backs to find the perfect place to slide the knife in and they knew they would need it, for in the #content business you must strike once and finally, or consign yourself to a life of misery at Business Insider and other houses of the damned. For lunch I would have brandy with brandy.

One sad day I found a pitiable creature wandering directionless around the #content-strewn streets. He babbled incoherently, cycling through an old person’s idea of how teenagers speak and vague intersectional vocabulary and self-help aphorisms and tech industry cliches about the Internet of Things. He had worked at Buzzfeed for seven whole weeks and as it would any man this labor destroyed his brain, if he had any to begin with. Some on the street tried to comfort him but I had seen this before and it had taught me in the way one never forgets and I knew how it must be. I raised my ivory-handled revolver to his temple.

He looked at me and spoke in a moment of clarity. “Life gifs everyone, and afterwards some are strong at the giffed places.” I could only nod and pull the trigger.

I was fired the next day. I had published a post without remembering to erase my inner monologue and “none of these pussies can drink” had not pleased lefty Twitter. At last I met Papa Yglesias.

“You Slack credentials- ”

“No, God, I-”

“It’s done.” He handed me a triangular shirtwaist as severance and showed me to the door. It was hard and it felt hard and in hard times you drink. The weeks crawled by and at night there was only the whisky and the despair and the whisky. An application to New York as Assistant Editor of Social Justice Yelling was returned unopened and I began to lose hope and when a man loses hope that’s the real death, like when a prize fighter rises from the canvas but knows he will never again answer the bell. I pulled out the revolver and fingered the ivory and thought of Mary.

The phone rang. It was my agent.

“Genius.com will pay you $600K to annotate Meghan Trainor lyrics.”

“That will do.”

“Will it?”

“It must.”

I poured myself a Pernod but didn’t drink. I lay down on my cot and dreamed about Cecil the Lion.

in the end, the work is what matters

Another reader request. Devon:

“What do you think of the controversy over Hamilton and its historical accuracy? Are the criticisms fair? It seems like a good example of politics overriding artistic quality in the way you’ve criticized in the past.”

I can’t say anything about Hamilton critically; I haven’t seen it. I have listened to the soundtrack a few times and it is decidedly not for me. But a play is not its soundtrack and I can’t say if the play is as good as its reputation or not. (And unless I win the lottery, probably never will.) I have certainly noticed the ways in which appreciation for the play has taken on a life of its own. I’ve also read some of the criticism from historians. I feel like the specific question of the play’s historical accuracy is kind of limited and boring. But there are more interesting, larger questions that connect here.

First, I agree with the great Isaac Butler on just about everything in this piece. It’s essential to separate two things: a work of historical fiction’s artistic value and its historical accuracy. Both are important. People who consume historical fiction (or fictionalized history or whatever) should have a basic sense of when and how the fiction diverges from our best guess of the historical record; people who fictionalize history should feel no guilt over liberally departing from the historical record if that’s what’s best for the story. Part of what made Zero Dark Thirty so egregious was that the producers repeatedly insisted it was a work of faithful history, comparing it to a documentary in the film’s publicity countless times. As far as I know, nobody involved with Hamilton has presented it as an attempt at perfect historical fidelity. Like… I’m pretty sure Alexander Hamilton didn’t rap that much. If the creators are upfront about their departures, and the audience understands the nature of historical fiction, no harm and no foul.

The bigger issue, though, I think is more important, which is the question of the correct relationship between the politics of a piece of art and its quality. I do think that we have seen a wide scale, passionate embrace of art criticism that presumes the purpose of criticism is to adjudicate whether and how well art fulfills the functions of contemporary social liberalism. In the era of Takes, there is an entire wing of criticism – a large and growing concern – that asks to what degree any given work of art confirms the kind of vague intersectional race, gender, and sexual politics that have become the default language of our culture industry. That art is considered well crafted which best dramatizes the stories that this form of social liberalism tells about the world. This type of Takes criticism also judges how well a given work practices socially liberal principles through diversity, either the diversity of its perspective or the diversity of its creators. Both of these are laudable goals, though Takes criticism has an uninspiring track record when it comes to fairly and consistently sorting what failure or success looks like in this regard.

I get a fair amount of emails from people who are mad that a work of art they consider undeserving is receiving praise, or that a work of art they consider good is receiving criticism, because of success or failure in properly demonstrating the consensus political norms. Often I agree with them, but I’m forced to laugh, because in their opposition they’ve ended up doing precisely what they accuse others of doing: allowing a work of art’s political reception to overwhelm their aesthetic appreciation. Putting politics first.

There are reams that you could write about this; I already have, as have others. Probably the most important point is simply that, as bad as this stuff can be for aesthetics, it’s even worse politics, as it fits in perfectly with contemporary liberalism’s addiction to symbolism over substance and utter inability to sort one from the other. But I think it’s worth making a smaller point: the short-term political interests of the contemporary audience is precisely the sort of thing that will cease to matter over time, and if we want to engage culturally in the spirit of a longer historical lineage of criticism, we should worry about the demise of aesthetics at the hands of politics. Because it’s aesthetics that endure.

As someone who reads a fair amount of books that were published long ago, I find few things quite as baffling as trying to parse their political context. That’s true even when I’m armed with a good understanding of what the major players and actors were in the given time period. Politics is filled with exceptional nuance, small-but-crucial distinctions, linguistic cues that seem inscrutable to those who haven’t been steeped in their discussions for ages. I find it easy to adapt to the cultural changes that inflect older books; mores about sex and nobility and justice and friendship, I find, are more accessible across the ages. But politics is hard, and the political work that endures is that which most effectively ties immediate and ephemeral political realities to more enduring aspects of human existence. Or so it seems to me.

Look at Gulliver’s Travels, for example. The book was, above and beyond anything else, a political satire, and yet it’s hard to imagine that this resonates with most of its readers. I read it last year for the first time in (god) 20 years or so. I was no more able to really grasp the political implications than I was when I read it as a young teenager and wasn’t even looking for them. I kept seeing aspects of the book that I could tell must have had important satirical elements, but they just meant nothing to me; I’m not a creature of that time. But the book has endured, and not because 12 year olds are masters of 18th century Anglo politics. The story’s fantasy elements, and Jonathan Swift’s verve in delivering them, have survived the passage of time; its politics, for most people, haven’t. Of course, there are politics at work in Aeschylus and Hamlet and To the Lighthouse, but those are the politics which can be removed from their immediate historical context and still enlighten, challenge, or disturb. Critics who want to contribute to developing an enduring and meaningful reputation for a particular book or movie or album should probably emphasize what’s timeless instead of what’s timely. And the kind of politics I’m talking about are very much part of our particular political and cultural moment.

Yet this is precisely what Takes never do. Takes always emphasize the local and the immediate. It’s their nature; the endless churn of the #content cycle ensures that the machine will produce mostly writing of immediate but rapidly-declining relevance. Takes criticism thus most often locates a piece of art in a particular contemporary context, but almost never shows how that art connects to more enduring themes. I know that many people flatter themselves to think that we’re in some sort of unique political era, that we’re on the cusp of a permanent adjustment of how we deal with power and difference. But this strikes me as the pretense of people from every political era.

I have no idea if people think Creed, Transparent, or Lemonade are good art as art, because the focus on their good politics has been so relentless. In the long run that’s good for nobody, artist or consumer.

Think about a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These days it functions as much more of a historical document than a literary one, an archival text used to demonstrate attitudes towards slaves, slavery, and abolition in the immediate pre-war period. We now have a great deal of (convincing) arguments for all of the ways in which the book is problematic, and that work is important. But I think the book is rarely read anymore not because of its various and deep political problems but because it’s just not a very good book. Meanwhile, no matter how many new Takes are written that problematize Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird — and, crucially, no matter how right they very well might be! — I find their reputation secure. When Tolstoy died, people traveled from thousands of miles away to pay their respects. Riots and strikes broke out across Russia. They renamed the village where he died. I don’t think his artistic reputation is going to be affected by talking about what a shitty husband he was, even though he was a shitty husband, and it’s important to say so, and our understanding of artistic greatness should recognize the role gender inequality has played in the production of art.

Look, obviously the relationship between artistic reputation is a huge topic and far bigger than a couple cherry picked examples. I do think, though, that it’s sensible to say that when you constantly put politics before aesthetics you risk making the work you champion appear incapable of standing on its own artistic value. And this is a point that I really wish the people now writing politics-first criticism would understand: the problem isn’t always or just that you’re overpraising art that suits your politics, but that in doing so you’re actually undervaluing that art. That is, by focusing so relentlessly on the degree to which a given movie or book or show satisfies the dictates of limp bourgeois social liberalism, you actually damage your ability to influence its enduring reputation. Perception of mass critical opinion is weird and chancy and uncertain, but there’s little question that the initial reaction of critics helps to determine a piece’s eventual stable reputation. Later critics may affirm that initial reception or reject it, but they almost always read through the prism of what’s been said before. To restrict your contribution to how well a piece of art fits within current progressive norms, which will surely appear inscrutable and arbitrary in just a few decades, is a way to write yourself out of a more lasting conversation.

Good politics are used in the service of making bad art every day. Monsters make masterpieces. This is not news.

So if you’re mad that Hamilton has gotten as much hype as it has, because of the way liking it now functions as a kind of membership card for cultured progressives, and if you’re a Hamilton fan who feels that the backlash against the play sidelines its artistic merit in an unfair meta-conversation, the news is good: time is an imperfect but powerful corrective for overemphasizing short-term political attitudes in criticism. I’m sure some people will intentionally misread this post, but I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write about Hamilton and race or Hamilton and representation or Hamilton and the economics of Broadway. All of those things sound like great things to write about. I am saying, though, that you should ensure that when you do write these things, you write about how well done they are, about how effectively the play wrings drama and meaning from them, about whether the politics deepen and complicate the art rather than merely exist within it. The easiest way to undermine the durability of your opinion on Hamilton is to write about nothing but its role in satisfying the expectations of cultural progressives. The easiest way to undermine Hamilton‘s long term reputation is by praising the show in a way that sidelines aesthetics in favor of those politics.

Stuff that’s lionized today will be forgotten tomorrow. And a lot of it will be stuff that was championed not because of its quality but because of what lavishing that praise was meant to say about the champions. Whether Hamilton will be one of them, time will tell.

cautionary tales: the good shit

It’s hard to write about digital culture. You’re typically dealing in exceptionally complex technicalities or the vague abstractions we’ve come up with to pin them to the page. Parodies and satire like those found in the Professor Jeff Jarvis Twitter account and Silicon Valley have mined this territory to great effect, thanks to the abundance of empty jargon that proliferates in this space.

But it is possible to write well about these topics. Look, for example, at Anna Wiener in n+1.

But this office, of a media app with millions in VC funding but no revenue model, is particularly sexy. This is something that an office shouldn’t be, and it jerks my heart rate way, way up. There are views of the city in every direction, fat leather loveseats, electric guitars plugged into amps, teak credenzas with white hardware. It looks like the loft apartment of the famous musician boyfriend I thought I’d have at 22 but somehow never met. I want to take off my dress and my shoes and lie on the voluminous sheepskin rug and eat fistfuls of MDMA, curl my naked body into the Eero Aarnio Ball Chair, never leave.

This is the high, the first hit, the feeling that demonstrates why people chase this life in the first place. Then, inevitably, the comedown:

WE HIRE AN ENGINEER fresh out of a top undergraduate program. She walks confidently into the office, springy and enthusiastic. We’ve all been looking forward to having a woman on our engineering team. It’s a big moment for us. Her onboarding buddy brings her around to make introductions, and as they approach our corner, my coworker leans over and cups his hand around my ear: as though we are colluding, as though we are 5 years old. “I feel sorry,” he says, his breath moist against my neck. “Everyone’s going to hit on her.”

I know that this is good writing because I already find myself forgetting – that didn’t happen to me. I wasn’t there. That’s what clarity can do for you. That’s what it means to have chops.

Now, let’s look at another missive from the land of the digital, “Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved” by Vox Media’s Josh Topolsky. Topolsky is not so much one for teak credenzas and the feeling of sexism condensing on your skin. He’s more of an idea man. In this piece, Topolsky shares with us a sage wisdom, like Prometheus carrying fire down the mountain: the media companies that survive won’t be the ones that put out the “cheap shit.” The media companies that survive will be the ones who put out the “good shit,” the “real shit.” Such is the insight on which empires are made.

Think of Wiener’s words, and then think of these:

Compelling voices and stories, real and raw talent, new ideas that actually serve or delight an audience, brands that have meaning and ballast; these are things that matter in the next age of media. Thinking of your platform as an actual platform, not a delivery method. Knowing you’re more than just your words. Thinking of your business as a product and storytelling business, not a headline and body-copy business. Thinking of your audience as finite and building a sustainable business model around that audience — that’s going to matter. Thinking about your 10 year plan and not a billion dollar valuation — that’s going to matter.

Let’s try an old trick of mine. Let’s rearrange some of the sentences in this paragraph, swapping objects and verbs between different sentences. Like so:

Compelling talent, new ideas that are real and raw, brands that actually serve or delight an audience, new voices and stories that have meaning and ballast; these are things that matter in the next age of media. Thinking of your platform as more than just your words. Thinking of your business as an actual platform, not a delivery method. Knowing you’re more than a product and storytelling business, not just a headline and body-copy business. Thinking about your 10 year plan as finite and building a sustainable business model around that finite plan — that’s going to matter. Thinking about your audience and not a billion dollar valuation — that’s going to matter.

So, let me ask you: is the original meaningfully different from this? Does the original contain more sense? If you stuck my version into that piece, would you even notice the difference? And can you imagine doing anything similar with Wiener’s piece? Which piece has left you with something of value as you navigate a world of ideas? Which made you feel that rare, exquisite feeling of another human being pulling you out of your life and into theirs? Which is the good shit?

And while we’re on the topic of how the market rewards only the deserving – which of these, do you think, will end up getting more clicks?

planet loser

Why do people still go to grad school? Because our culture has very few visions of what it means to be a winner and a huge number of what it means to be a loser.

Laura McKenna’s piece is part of a perennial microgenre in the world of #Content: the “What Are They Thinking?” piece. It’s a type of essay that presents a certain group’s professional choices as daft and self-injurious, and asks (with more or less faux-sympathy, depending) why they persist. Don’t they know how deluded this is? Don’t they see? The secret sauce in this well-worn type of click-generation is that it provides people who don’t feel very good about their lives with some other group of people who, we are to imagine, feel even worse about theirs. I may never have written that novel; I may not have played past single-A ball; I may have never gotten further than Improv Olympic; but, by god, I’m not some sad French poetry PhD student. That person, that’s the real loser. The person set up as the object of greater scorn isn’t a gas station worker or someone on food stamps, because those people are seen as too lowly to be part of the competition in the first place. The targets have to be people who are seen as potential competition within aspirational culture. The ego-salving function of “What Are They Thinking?” pieces is what they call in the biz the “value added,” the click generator. It’s such a proven revenue generator that Slate hired Rebecca Schuman to do it full time.

The essence of this genre could be seen with the collapse of the legal job market. I grew up in a world in which becoming a lawyer was seen as a mercenary choice, the ultimate example of privileging pecuniary gain over intellectual fulfillment and moral labor. Then the job market for lawyers collapsed. Did we discover new found sympathy for those hurt by this development? No: we instead started to churn out piece after piece asking why people were still going to law school. A type of remorseless self-interest became a type of deluded fantasy in an instant. That’s how the superstructure works. That’s its function.

If you actually want to know why people persist in going to grad school, or trying to be screenwriters or musicians or professional athletes or actors — or, if we’re getting really real about it, journalists and writers, the kind that write for The Atlantic — it’s because our culture insists relentlessly that certain kinds of work have intellectual and aesthetic value, that they are a way to be a Somebody, and also that you never, ever give up on your dreams. There is no message that we deliver to children and adolescents more relentlessly than that they should pursue their dreams with manic focus and unflagging persistence, no matter how hard and often they fail, and that they will be assured of eventual victory. Never, never, never give up. Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right! If you believe it, you can achieve it. Go to a middle school sometime. Look at the posters on the wall. It’s like a one-party state, propaganda of the most ubiquitous and intense variety. When I was a long-term sub at my local junior high I was amazed; it was like some sort of totalitarian reeducation camp, with the purpose being to indoctrinate in all who passed through the doors that failure stems always and only from a lack of nerve.

Then, add to that our persistent cultural critique of safe, nondescript office jobs. This is the critique of Office Space, of Dilbert, of Falling Down, of a million cultural portrayals of suburban and workplace ennui, of the slowly suffocating cubicle drone who longs for another life. You can subvert this condition by undermining your job’s actual purpose, as in Workaholics, or you can leave it, as in American Beauty, but you can’t just do your job and find it meaningful. Is that critique fair? No. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who love those jobs and who don’t fit the stereotype at all. But the culture doesn’t value them, and I find that often people defend them more in the abstract than as something they’d pursue themselves. They aren’t our conventional picture of a successful life, not anymore, not after the counterculture. But the problem is that the counterculture that critiqued the Company Man so mercilessly never really came up with a workable replacement. The hippies (scorned) became the yuppies (scorned) not only because they were lured by the temptations of material wealth but because the sexy 25 year old free spirit reliably becomes the sad old 40 year old burnout. This is why we’ve created all these bullshit “arty” corporate jobs in marketing and related fields, why software engineering is discussed in terms of people really making things rather than in terms of sitting at a computer, staring bleary-eyed at your code at 2 AM on a weeknight, because of the hunger to reconcile the artistic imperative with the need to earn, not just to survive but to be considered a valued human being. Starving artists are sexy but it’s not sexy to actually starve. Be cultured, but for god’s sake, you better have a job and a car. You should never give up, but if you’re still struggling to make it as an actor at 40, god, you’re a loser.

So then you take high school status culture and the phenomenon of the Smartest Kids in Class and a genuine and deep love of learning, exploration, and reading, add in the abundant and real pleasures of campus life, the aforementioned insistence to always pursue your dreams, a job market for recent graduates filled with low-wage, low-status, no-job security gigs, and a little in the way of self-delusion and optimism, and yeah. I get it. I mean, I did it! And for me, even as someone with no long-term job at present, it’s been a good bet. For many people it won’t be, though as I will continue to insist, it’s a mark of privilege to think that the PhD class is uniquely immiserated. I mean, just generically, this is true: many people are willing to trade long odds for a chance at great reward. I don’t know how you could be confused by the fact that, in an aspirational culture, people aspire. It’s the American way.

I mean, look at McKenna. You’ll note that she didn’t give up on academia and then go get a job at Geico. She has stayed in an aspirational, creative, intellectually fulfilling field. So do all the people who write academic “quitpieces,” a genre of pure self-congratulation. Those missives aren’t ever written from the perspective of those who have left academia to chase after old fashioned white collar respectability but those whose new job is “writing that novel,” other pursuits that privilege fulfillment over security, just as graduate students do. But that too is our culture: everyone else’s dream is a delusion. Mine is a tale of noble perseverance. Everybody else should be practical.

Of course these are first world problems. The working poor get neither the psychic and cultural benefits of artistic or intellectual fulfillment nor the financial stability of quiet and boring employment. They get grinding poverty. But we have to be aware of these problems because they undercut the notion that capitalism is somehow giving people in the upper echelons everything they need, and because recognizing the sickness within capitalist “success” is necessary to inspire broad rejection of a cruel, embittering, inhumane system.

Now, you can envision a different culture, a healthier culture, in which we had sympathy and support for everyone — where the cubicle worker was understood to be sensibly laboring to avoid poverty, where the beleaguered grad student was recognized as someone guilty only of wanting to live a life of meaning and challenge, where there were more ways to be a winner than a loser. (And where you didn’t have to use the word “innovate” as a transitive verb when describing your job to be seen as a winner.) You can even imagine a socialist system where, because everyone’s basic material needs were accounted for as a matter of course, people were free to negotiate for themselves how much they should value material success and how much they should value psychic success. But capitalism needs to keep everyone working at a manic pace, boosting productivity endlessly and recouping none of it in real wage growth, and that requires the concept of the loser. Once you are among those lucky enough to pay for your basic material needs, the fear of being a loser keeps you motivated to work those 60 hour weeks that people are so proud of in American achievement culture. In a socialist world, in a more human, livable, healthy world, McKenna’s piece wouldn’t need to fulfill its neoliberal function, But then The Atlantic wouldn’t be The Atlantic.

I’ve got a lot of books to write in my life. God willing, someday this will be one of them.