While reading this article about the trendy socialism among New York City’s “creative underclass,” I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. Then I realized it wasn’t that I’d read the article before; it was that Eric Hoffer had already summed it up much more succinctly in his book The Ordeal of Change: “Nothing is so unsettling to a social order as the presence of a mass of scribes without suitable employment and an acknowledged status.”
the geist of the zeit
While the motivations of the movement for more diverse voices in young adult fiction is commendable—YA fiction, like many other areas of publishing, has its fair share of access problems with regard to class and race—the manifestation of this impulse on social media has been nothing short of cannibalistic. The Twitter community surrounding the genre, one in which authors, editors, agents, and adult readers and reviewers outnumber youthful readers, has become a cesspool of toxicity.
“Young-adult books are being targeted in intense social media callouts, draggings, and pile-ons—sometimes before anybody’s even read them,” Vulture’s Kat Rosenfield wrote in the definitive must-read piece on this strange and angry internet community. The call-outs, draggings, and pile-ons almost always involve claims that books are insensitive with regard to their treatment of some marginalized group, and the specific charges, as Rosenfield showed convincingly, often don’t seem to warrant the blowups they spark—when they make any sense at all.
It often seems like the web consists of nothing but dispiriting stories like this. You could set your watch by the tumbrils as they trundle past each day, carrying a new batch of thought-criminals to the guillotine. On the bright side, though, it’s been years since I’ve seen one of those insipid articles claiming that reading literature makes one a better person and contributes to moral progress. (Speaking of fiction, it would be nice if critics like Singal could stop pretending that the motivations are “commendable” and somehow unrelated to their utterly predictable manifestations, but I suppose that’s just my undying optimism shining through.)
That Neeson’s expression of regret for his past thoughts counts for nothing in the eyes of the new morality police is striking, and worrying. It points to a streak of very anti-human fatalism in the Twittermobbing phenomenon. The new witch-hunters are not in the business of forgiving people — even people who confess to their one-time horribleness — because they fundamentally believe that people cannot change. That if you once had a racist thought you will always be racist. That if you made a homophobic joke ten years ago, you will be a homophobe forever. This is why they engage in the low pursuit of ‘offense archaeology’, as the journalist Freddie de Boer described the trend for poring over public figures’ every past statement and deed in search of something nasty or embarrassing that might be used against said public figure today — because they think people do not change, that their wickedness is ingrained, that they suffer from original sin and it cannot be washed away.
Intellectuals will always, always overvalue the need for theory, but again, there’s no need to ferret out philosophical convictions which likely don’t even exist. The “new witch-hunters” don’t have a robust theory of human nature underlying their actions; they’re motivated by the same base incentives and cynical calculations as ever. Liam Neeson is more valuable to them as a target of their insatiable spite than he is as a political ally. Or, to put it another way, all he is to the Twittermob is an entertainer. The entertainment might entail watching him star in a movie, or it might entail trying to destroy his reputation and career just because they can. Social media is the insane, decadent emperor, and we’re all gladiators competing for its amusement. Apparently Neeson’s latest performance has gotten the thumbs-down. So it goes.
We’re living in an age of social norms being in flux. Many would say t’was ever thus, but I’m specifically talking about the sort of flux facilitated by the rapid expansion of personal technology. Let’s recall that smartphones and social media have only been ubiquitous for ten years, if even that long. The effects, however, have clearly been profound and widespread. For our narrow focus here — namely, the birth of a vanguard of Javerts who specialize in public shaming and mob behavior — it’s enough to note the leveling effect whereby a resentful nobody with too much spare time can now easily attack and humiliate a celebrity. Imagine what a rush it must be to see someone famous or powerful having to grovel and apologize because of something you found and publicized from their social media history. Imagine what a heady feeling it would be to be part of a news story, mentioned in the same sentence with your formerly-exalted victim. If Nietzsche were here, he would instantly recognize it for what it is — a flexing of muscles, a testing of strength, an indulgence of all sorts of normally-forbidden urges as people, free from the old norms and hierarchies, recognize a newly-opened path to status and influence and set about exploring the boundaries. New norms are still evolving, but it will be a while before there are any widely-accepted rules about how to behave on this electronic frontier. It’s a tale of two Williams — Golding was much more percipient than Godwin about what is likely to happen in the anarchic interlude between the decay of old mores and the birth of new ones.
Still, not all of the mob behavior is attributable to a new breed of resentful revolutionaries practicing the same old cutthroat political maneuvering. There’s also a different primal reaction that plays a significant role. Some of the critiques of social-justice fanaticism talk about the concept of moral pollution. The reaction to Neeson’s story of attempted vigilante vengeance was visceral, not philosophical. The absolute refusal to countenance any ambiguity resembles a moral germophobia, a reflexive desire to avoid contamination. The easiest way to stay safe is to culturally quarantine all the bad people with their bad thoughts so they can’t infect the rest of us. It would be useless to explain that you can’t catch racism by sympathizing with a man telling a story of being enraged beyond reason by the rape of his friend. They’re too busy frantically washing their hands for the hundredth time today to entertain any nuance.
Perhaps next time in amateur sociology hour, we’ll consider whether the dramatic increase in diagnoses of Asperger’s and autism has any correlation with this widespread social maladaptation and inability to process ambiguity. Also, Marie Kondo: symbol of the zeitgeist? Maybe the trend of denouncing and renouncing the Four Olds (or the Four Unwokes?) is just a political form of decluttering.
I’m bothered by the fact
You cannot take it back
It goes on record and multiplies at that
Subtlety under political correctness is out. So, too, complexity of character. To be politically correct one must also firmly believe that people do not change: If they were the least racist, sexist, homophobic forty years ago, they must still be so now.
Eh, I don’t think that’s true. The same double-standards of tribal solidarity apply here, as always. The rhetorical jazz hands of justification aside, Sarah Jeong and Joy Reid’s social media histories, for example, didn’t ruin them because they’re both members of the right tribe. They were allowed to “learn” and “grow” when someone less well-connected or less useful to other people’s ambitions (Razib Khan, Kevin Williamson) would have been abandoned. “Belief” can be as flexible as a yogi in service to political maneuvering. What’s more interesting, in my view, is to wonder why so many people go along with this charade. We all know better. We’ve all made off-color jokes and entertained scandalous thoughts. Not one of us would survive the Intersectional Inquisition with our reputations intact, even, or especially, those who are most loudly and fervently denouncing others. So why do we pretend that a decades-old photo or a disowned remark say anything significant about a person’s character? Laziness? Cowardice? Both?
Like quite a few people in this area, my next-door neighbor has a Confederate flag flying underneath his American one. That alone would be enough to make him persona non grata in the eyes of most bien-pensants, should he ever rise to their attention. But he and his family are good people. He’s given us much free advice and free labor when we’ve needed it. After every major snowstorm here, he gets on his small tractor first thing in the morning and goes up and down the road, clearing people’s driveways for them. When we had the severe ice storm in November, he and his son were awake for more than 24 hours straight, helping to chainsaw and remove all the downed trees in the area. Years ago, when a corner of the embankment by our bridge washed out, he had one of his crew come over with a backhoe and spend several hours digging out the creekbed and filling in the collapsed area (refusing to even allow us to reimburse him for the gas). When we offered to pay, or even feed, the guy doing the work, he told us no. Our neighbor, he said, had been the man willing to give him a job when he was fresh out of jail for drug possession, so as far as he was concerned, he was just paying that kindness forward.
I don’t know why he flies the Confederate flag. I don’t know if it’s just a generic expression of affection for rural Virginia or something more sinister. If I wanted to know, I’d have to ask him, but of course, I really don’t care. I know enough about him to have a sense of his character without having to rely on superficial clues. Again, we all know people like this, and we all know better than to entertain snap judgments and assume the worst. The most corrosive thing about this trend of replacing the personal with the political is that it destroys precisely that sort of nuance which allows people to forgive and trust each other without expecting perfection. In our laziness and cowardice, we willfully forget that most people are too complex to be reduced to a snapshot or a soundbite, even though our complicity won’t protect us when it’s our turn.
“Do not imagine that you will save yourself, Winston, however completely you surrender to us. No one who has once gone astray is ever spared. And even if we chose to let you live out the natural term of your life, still you would never escape from us. What happens to you here is forever. Understand that in advance. We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back. Things will happen to you from which you could not recover, if you lived a thousand years. Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”
“They can’t get inside you,” she had said. But they could get inside you. “What happens to you here is forever,” O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover.
I don’t wanna work for the corporation, but they’re tryna tell me that I must…
You know the left has really changed in this country when you find its denizens glorifying America’s role in the Vietnam War and lionizing the social attitudes of the corporate monolith Procter & Gamble.
The Lady of the House was telling me about a conversation between two Facebook friends over the recent Gillette “toxic masculinity” ad. One person griped about it, and the other responded by saying, “Well, I think it’s great that the message is getting out there!” The message? Who looks to corporate ad agencies for moral instruction? What kind of frivolous egotist is so easily flattered by a barely-concealed sales pitch? And these true believers volunteer to proselytize for the product! It struck me that however irreligious these people consider themselves, their appetite for sermons and missionary work is insatiable. If priests and ministers would adorn their vestments with corporate logos à la NASCAR drivers, they could probably get people to start attending church again.
He goes on in his next essay to attack “professional victims, those who make a nice living off their victimhood”, by which he implies everyone who is not also a privileged white man. He writes off both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, saying that their support comes in large part from guilty voters, not from political acumen on their part. He characterizes Toni Morrison as “a connoisseur of victimhood”. And so on and so forth. He recycles and churns out a succinct array of half-baked bigotries in essays such as these, which will no doubt be picked up within a few years by men’s rights activists and neo-nazis and other distasteful reactionaries. One can’t help but wonder what Epstein feels at churning out fuel for those reactionaries most determined to wreck “the best that has been thought and said” in liberal culture.
Joseph Epstein, guilty of giving aid and comfort to neo-Nazis. And here I thought there were no new smears under the intersectional sun.
The tone of Andy Richter and Judd Apatow’s tweets was not that they were disappointed that C.K. had done a bit that wasn’t funny at a show neither of them had attended. No, Richter and Apatow are outraged. And outrage is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Comics don’t want to admit they’re outraged. Because outrage traditionally makes you a butt of jokes, a bit like the teenaged pearl-clutching brigade C.K. mocked.
What is driving this episode of cultural citizens’ arrest is that the Parkland kids are untouchable. They can’t be made fun of. They are . . . icons. Comics can’t say that because labeling the Parkland kids sacred cows would acknowledge the existence of sacred cows. And they want to reserve the right to barbecue everybody else’s sacred cows.
It’s true that the woke left are the new Moral Majority, and it’s deliciously funny that, like all self-righteous prigs, they honestly don’t see it. Still, not to overanalyze a comedy bit, but I thought the premise of C.K.’s joke, that youthful rebellion should always be cumulative in one direction, the direction of thoughtless hedonism, was pretty flat. And not to lean too heavily on generational stereotypes, but doesn’t it almost seem like a caricature of self-satisfied Summer of Love attitudes to take pride in the idea of your children being even more “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” than you were at their age? How far can things go in one overindulgent direction before it gets predictable and boring?
A friend of mine has an academic career centered on video games and LARPing. Her husband is a guitarist. Her teenage son, she once confided to me, was causing her concern because he seemed to be showing, well, almost Young Republican tendencies. He was interested in the stock market and making money! She was genuinely baffled as to why he would feel the need to differ from their example. “We’re artsy and tolerant!” she actually said to me in bewilderment. How could this Alex P. Keaton have appeared in their right-thinking household like Milton Friedman springing from Jerry Garcia’s forehead? Shouldn’t the old dialectical tension between the thesis of parental authority and the antithesis of adolescent contrariness have resolved itself in the peaceful synthesis of ageless domestic utopia, enabling each individual to create subversive art in the morning, tend an organic vegetable garden in the afternoon, and share free love in the evening, in accordance with their whims? Interestingly, her older daughter superficially adopted all the trappings of hippie nostalgia to which her mom was sympathetic, from tie-dyed shirts to pot smoking, while still being quite angry and traditionally rebellious, rather than archly skeptical like her brother. Unintended consequences are so fascinating.
And unintended consequences are precisely what the censorious among us can’t tolerate. Ironically enough, many people would like comedy to keep moving cumulatively in one direction, always predictably attacking safe targets like bourgeois morality and organized religion with the same old profane weapons. They want it to remain forever 1984, reprising their role as the rebellious kids in Footloose, outfighting the rednecks and outwitting the Reverend by quoting his own holy book at him, winning the right to dance and party the night away. But taboos are comedy’s natural prey, and currently, all the meatiest taboos are grazing in progressive pastures. Good luck trying to keep nature from taking its course.
After reading yesterday’s post, the Lady of the House, who is an exotic foreigner and sometimes unfamiliar with common rites of passage in American cultural life, asked me why The Catcher in the Rye was ever banned. I’m not really sure, I responded. I assume it was somehow shocking to mid-century sensibilities. Like most people, I had to read the book in high school English class, but it didn’t impress me then and I’ve rarely thought about it since (except for that one time). But while browsing some literary blogs later on, my eye was caught by a link to a post asking if Salinger’s novel was still relevant on the occasion of his 100th birthday. With the Lady’s question still fresh in my mind, I thought that maybe I would find something informative there.
Holden is Patient Zero for generations infected by his misanthropy. We live in a world overpopulated by privileged white guys who mistake their depression for existential wisdom, their narcissism for superior vision.
I’m not sure how this residual naïveté lingers in my soul; I can’t say why, just because I was visiting the column of a Washington Post book critic, I thought I might find something more interesting than another woke sermon. More fool me, though. It’s just the usual potpourri of clichés, presented, as always, by a not-at-all overcompensating middle-aged white man hoping his fervent testimony keeps him one step ahead of the intersectional tumbrils. Caulfield represents the monochromatic past; the new hotness in young-adult literature is a book about a black French-Canadian boy who moves to Texas (whether these cosmetic traits make the book interesting or not is a question left unaddressed). Salinger’s reclusiveness suggests mental illness — the bad kind, apparently, the kind that would make you avoid social media, not the sympathetic kind that can be talked about endlessly on social media and used as the cornerstone of an entire identity. And, of course, Salinger was an abusive creeper, which we no longer tolerate in the era of #MeToo. For those obsessed with the trendy and topical, everything, even a paean to diversity, becomes an excuse to think and talk about themselves and the moment they inhabit. As Auden said, Any heaven we think it decent to enter/Must be Ptolemaic with ourselves at the center.
It’s quite funny because again, just yesterday, I learned that Holden was allegedly the harbinger of Marxism and nihilism in America, the spearhead of a leftist plot against decency and family life; today, I’m told that he’s actually the epitome of white privilege, emblematic of the bourgeois insularity that has oppressed so many for so long. How can he be both at once? Is he a rabbit or a duck? Is he a vase or two people kissing? Whatever the case, at least we can all agree that he’s to blame. If only his name had been Wayne.
There are a lot of different views on climate change on the right. (I myself am mostly in the Matt Ridley “lukewarmer” camp.) But he ignores all of the competing views in favor of an argument that amounts to little more than fan service for liberal readers. One can believe that climate change is a real concern, with some legitimate science on its side, while also believing there is a range of available policy options that do not conform to the liberal party line and declining to act in a spirit of righteous panic. (Noah Rothman notes how the enlightened position on climate change must always be even more “hysteria.”)
I have dogmatic family members who typically take the talk-radio party line on the political issue du jour. You know the type — they greet every snow flurry with triumphant cackling and a hearty chorus of SCREW YOU AL GORE. It’s probably fair to call them “deniers,” since their positions are usually reflexively determined by whatever they perceive to be the official stance of liberal elites. But the Lady of the House has a cousin, a geologist, who visited us at the beginning of the month. While we were hiking, she succinctly summarized her view on climate change: “Is it happening? Yes. Is human activity contributing to it? Most likely. Is there anything we can realistically do about it? Probably not.” She’s not actually a conservative, but among the conservatives I read and talk to, I find that to be a fairly typical view. One of them had a useful rule of thumb for weeding out the cranks — if they’re opposed to fossil fuels but refuse to even countenance the idea of nuclear power, they’re not serious enough to bother with. It may well be that I’m just inclined to hear what I want to hear, but I find the stoic pragmatism and lack of hysteria refreshing. As Auden said, we are changed by what we change. We’ll adapt, or we won’t, but when has that ever not been the case?
The received left-wing wisdom, by contrast — well, it’s usually facile to compare various beliefs and behaviors to religion, but in the case of climate change, I’m not sure what else to call it. As I mentioned before, I check in with The Week as part of my daily bookmark routine, to keep tabs on what the somewhat-sane left is talking about, and I’ve been amused to see the resident fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist Ryan Cooper pounding the pulpit recently. “Climate change is going to fry your state,” he thundered toward a heretical Utah senator. “Wealth cannot save you from climate change,” he warned us in the prior week’s sermon. Sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia, indeed. But for the clearest, most painstaking demonstration of how so much green activism is nothing but a surrogate outlet for moral evangelism, you can’t do better than read Peter Dorman’s steamrolling of Naomi Klein’s recent spasm of righteousness posing as a book, This Changes Everything. If this were a boxing match, it would have been stopped after the first few paragraphs.
I don’t have any strong views on climate change, but what I find most interesting and amusing is the idea that I should, like it’s a dereliction of my duty as a citizen to avoid pronouncing on events that I can’t influence. I couldn’t be more ordinary and anonymous. What practical use could I possibly make of a doctrinaire opinion? Too many people seem convinced that a diploma and an advantageous upbringing qualify them to serve as volunteer policymakers and amateur heads of state. I think I’d like it better if they devoted that time and energy to church activities.
I break through all boundaries. If I see a boundary, I eat a boundary. And wash it down with a cup of hot, steaming rules.
This cult of the will did not end with classical totalitarianism. An ideal of self-creation has returned in 21st-century liberalism. Part of the craze for identity politics is the insistence that each of us can be whoever and whatever we decide to be. Not fate or accident but untrammelled choice must shape our identities. It is an illusory vision, since identity in practice is never unilateral. Everyone’s identity depends on recognition by others – a relationship that must be negotiated, one way or another. Yet pursuing a fantasy of autonomous self-creation has come to be seen as the fundamental human freedom. The fact that the demand for recognition of one’s chosen identity leads to the fragmentation of society into warring groups has not diminished the appeal of this vision.
The problem is that identity is being asserted in a cultural vacuum. According to the ruling philosophy of deconstruction, freedom is not exercised within a matrix of practices and institutions. It is found in anomie – the normless condition of insatiable self-assertion that the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called “the malady of the infinite”. Individual autonomy is fully realised only once the structures that helped form identities in the past have been demolished. True freedom means creating oneself, a god-like power which requires that the norms that defined western civilisation be left behind.
I’m of the opinion that all of this identity-fluidity is going to be one of those era-defining oddities we look back on one day and laugh about. Ah, those crazy twenty-teens... I mean, defining reality according to individual will and whim is one of those things that can only be tolerated as a fringe eccentricity; by definition, it can’t become the norm without unleashing epistemological anarchy. But for whatever mysterious reason, this strange dualism is the thing that a significant number of youth have seized upon in this day and age to deal with the angst and confusion that is central to the human condition — “I’m not actually what I appear to be! I’m something else on the inside and you have to take my word on it!” Eventually, some of them will realize that there is no cure for the human condition, and the marketplace of ideas will present the rest with a new identity that promises to alleviate what the old one couldn’t. Ploosa shawnje.
The Lady of the House had a former acquaintance who is, in the parlance of our times, an “otherkin.” That is, this person “identifies” as an extinct apex predator. (How conventional. Always an apex predator! Never an insect or a bacteria!) As I tried to make sense of this (which was new to me at the time) and articulate my disbelief, I offered an analogy. Imagine you had a friend of average height, I said. Imagine that this friend is very sensitive about his height and wishes he had been several inches taller. Now, imagine that he insists that you refer to him as tall when talking about him in the third person. Imagine that he urges you to warn him to duck his head when entering a low doorway. Imagine that he gets upset and casts aspersions upon your character if you hesitate. Wouldn’t you feel like telling him that it would be much better for everyone if he just accepted reality for what it is, rather than trying like Procrustes to stretch and mutilate it to fit his wishes? I feel like I’m being ordered to participate in someone else’s delusion, I said, and I’m not interested.
Now, someone else has used the same comparison in what I can only assume is a masterful job of trolling which went undetected. You see, Slate’s advice columnist is a man named Daniel who was, until recently, a woman named Mallory. (I promise, I read neither advice columns in general nor Slate in particular; this was all passed along to me by an informant.) Daniel’s advice for a reader who claims to have a 5’8” boyfriend who insists that he is actually 6’0” is to pursue a strategy of “acknowledging reality.”
Ah, those crazy twenty-teens…