So Michelle Dean has a typically sharp post on the accusation of “making it about gender.” She’s 100% right. The basic reality is that, if you find yourself asking why someone is making it about gender, it was already about gender. The fact that things are always about other things than gender too doesn’t change that.
There is a moment in the essay that I want to look at a bit, though, because I think it speaks to a certain danger we can fall into when we voice exasperation about this sort of thing. Dean writes, “one of the other students starting waxing philosophic about fact-checking and John D’Agata.” There it rests; Dean is a writer of exquisite reticence, which is a rare and valuable skill, these days. She lets the associations with those subjects remain tacit, which makes them more effective.
But not everyone has Dean’s ability, or her poise. In many progressive contexts, that detail would become a trope — fact-checking and John D’Agata would not merely be the concern of this particular bro but would rather be rendered as somehow intrinsically bro-y. Despite the neutrality of fact-checking, in the current idiom of progressive elites, the subject could very easily become a Dude Thing, to which an appropriate level of derision would be applied by all good and right people, many of them dudes, but Not That Type of Dude Dudes. The transitive property of symbolic gender would apply: this thing has been associated with a spate of shitty behaviors (in this case, casual sexism and defensiveness in the face of accurate identification of that sexism) and so this thing becomes a way to signal to the right crowd ridiculousness and political imperfection. It’s shorthand politics for a generation of people who take their political arguments predigested.
Take, say, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac is a good example of a subject that has become so associated with dudeism that just his name functions as a kind of shorthand for that small sliver of humanity that, like me, is turned on to post-collegiate culture vulture social signals and dog whistles. Kerouac = sweaty self-important bro earnestness. These codes are, now, all around us, a digital bath. It’s one of the many, many ways in which the aforementioned elites treat each other with an aggressively reductive disdain, a kind of ritualized intellectual violence that I can only presume is part of the legacy of growing up desperate to get into Harvard or start for the field hockey team or be the furthest ahead in second grade reading group or whatever. You can see this particular manifestation expressed perfectly in this piece by Kate Hakala, titled with admirable clarity “Why I Will Never Sleep with a Kerouac Fanatic.” Human behavior is reduced to a series of shallow affectations and loose associations that are nevertheless rendered with the certain superiority that is the default vocabulary of The Way We Internet Now, and all framed, of course, in terms of who you would deign to fuck.
Hakala has a series of complaints about the kind of dude she’s talking about, and they’re indeed frustrating, cliched behaviors. The connection to Kerouac seems less entirely clear; for sure, there are those associations with him, but mostly I think those guys misread him, as thoroughly as his critics do. Which isn’t to say that I’m a fan. It’s been many years since I’ve read Jack Kerouac. There was a time in my life when it was time to read Kerouac, and then that time ended. I’m meant to be embarrassed by that, I suppose, just like I’m meant to be embarrassed by all the sadboy emo I used to listen to in my early 20s. But that was what I did at the time I was meant to do it. I was once a sad boy, after all. I will never quite understand the notion that you should be embarrassed to have once been the age and the person you were.
In any event, this is what I’m talking about: the way in which certain subjects take on a kind of unchosen symbolic weight which elite culture then uses for its favorite band of affect politics. Few things are more valuable to that crew than a spiteful association. The problem isn’t really that those Kerouac boys might have their feelings hurt; there’s little danger in that. The problem is, first, that these associations always exclude those who aren’t actually dudes, and in that way contribute to the kind of savvy essentializing that is part and parcel with these aggressive cultural politics. It forces female fans of Kerouac to ask, am I a dude? Here’s Katie J.M. Baker asking that essential question. But more importantly, because this reflex ties genuinely undesirable social behaviors to particular interests, even though the actual associations are so loose, it makes it harder to address the actual shitty behavior. The problem with the men Hakal describes is the entitlement and the self-importance, not their choice in novels. By making those synonymous with a book, you encourage men who like the book to reject the critique of the behavior and confuse those who have no opinion of the book and don’t plan on developing one. This is part of a broader phenomenon where many cultured progressives seem to address secondary phenomena related with political problems more than the problems themselves.
If the question was just opinions about Beat writers of declining reputations, there would be little at stake. But this transitive property has a really distressing habit of occurring even with vitally important political issues. I got into a useless argument about a puff piece about Samantha Power, and the woman I was arguing with said only that criticizing Samantha Power is a “dude thing.” Power is one of the most destructive political figures in the world today, someone who has championed absolutely calamitous military interventions, like the one that made Libya a hellish quagmire. To defend Power by arguing, inaccurately, that only men criticize her, you lose the opportunity to talk about America’s terrible legacy of causing misery through its “humanitarian” interventions. (And I know plenty of women, not all of them socialists or anarchists, who hate Power more than I do.) Dean quotes Rebecca Solnit. Solnit has done more than anyone to write about mansplaining. Mansplaining is a real, troubling problem. But Solnit also has written utterly terrible pieces of redbaiting, anti-left invective. She’s forever inveighing against those of us on the left who think we have a project that goes beyond celebrating the Democrats. When people dismiss any criticism of her as ipso facto mansplaining, we have no room to talk about what the left needs to do to challenge the terrible, centrist myopia of the Democrats and their president. The only thing I want to explain to Solnit is that her politics suck.
Lately, I’ve noticed a deeply, deeply harmful divide between some of those who talk primarily about identity and cultural politics and some of those who talk about civil liberties and foreign policy. That divide is often rendered in starkly gendered terms. That’s an analytical mistake, as these problems are connected at the root, and a political disaster, for everyone involved. Not to mention an enormous victory for the forces of conservatism. Whenever someone starts complaining on Twitter that only bros care about drones, I imagine the guy from the cover of Monopoly chuckling to himself as he lights a cigar with a $100 bill.
I guess it all comes down to a choice that I have identified many times. Progressive elites have built themselves something of an enclave, one which encompasses many in the media, in politics, in professional writing, and in the general class of tastemakers. I make fun of that class quite a bit, but in many ways it is my own culture, and while I disagree on many subjects, more or less those are my politics. The question is who the political expressions of this class should serve. Should it be turn inward, to make the members of the enclave chuckle? That’s a forgivable, human impulse. But it just doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t solve the problems that create the exasperation, exhaustion, and rage for which the jokes are a temporary, limited antidote. And I think that, with more and more people seeming to recognize the depth of the failure of the politics of outrage, we need to find some other way to go about doing this. Progressive elites have to decide whether the care more about pleasing each other with self-aggrandizing jokes or about winning through appeals to those they find culturally distasteful.
In the end, it has nothing to do with being nice to the dudes. It starts, in fact, with recognizing that, in a very real way, keeping it all jokes just leaves them off the hook.