From politics


“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

If you’ve been reading the news lately, you might think this came from a particularly blunt self-proclaimed truth-teller following the chorus of millinial-bashers, telling the young’uns to buck up and stop expecting life to be fair. Stop thinking you’re special!  And enough with the trophies already!
But I suspect a certain generational subset (late X, early millennials) will instantly recognize this little bit of “tough love” as the wisdom of Brad Pitt, aka Tyler Durden, aka the “every nice-guy’s” alter-ego anti-hero of the 1999 cult film Fight Club. (I suppose film buffs would say it was too mainstream and popular to be a cult film, but hey, some cults have lots of members.)  Back before the 2008 crash, before the 2001 crash, before two wars, Tyler bellowed out his cry against the spiritual emptiness of nineties prosperity and consumerism. We haven’t had a war he says. We haven’t had a Great Depression.  “The Great Depression is our lives.”

Looking back of course this seems like a dark joke along the lines of the prescient Onion headline marking Bush’s election: “Our national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.” You want a depression to give your life meaning? Done! My friend Ben Balthaser has a smart article about (among other things) how Fight Club combines strains from the nineties global justice movements, a concept of rebellion as a form of hallucination, and a healthy dose of wounded machismo. (Is there another kind?)   Even during a time of prosperity, the film suggests, young men need to realize that the world is dark and violent place and overcome their domestication at the hands of doting mothers, absent fathers, and leather sectionals.  (My extensive research shows that nearly everyone who was a young single woman during the peak of the movie’s popularity had at least one boyfriend quote Tyler Durden asking why a “guy like him” should know what a duvet was when the subject of cohabitation, a trip to IKEA, or the possibility of buying one’s own furniture arose.)  Fight Club appealed to a certain kind of young man, I think, in a kind of masochistic way: it accused them of being emasculated wimps, offered them a fantasy of a way out, then rebuked them for falling for it. In this context, the “not a special snowflake” line serves to critique the hypocrisy of consumerist individualism while also offering a different kind of distinction, the brave world of the ones willing to live without illusion.

I don’t know whether college and post-college kids still go in for Fight Club. That line about snowflakes came to mind recently because now, when you hear about  someone talk about how the young must realize they are not “special snowflakes” it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with resisting coy marketing come-ons. It’s become a way of dismissing the impact of economic crisis as the result of so much permissive parenting, and noncompetitive soccer games, something like when people blamed the hippies on Dr. Spock.  There are certainly some quirks of contemporary parenting in certain social strata that could be described as permissive, and there’s interesting points about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to talk about.  But the subtext of the snowflakes/tropies thing is not about that: it’s about the notion that parenting should be about initiating kids into a world of hierarchies. In a country with shameful levels of inequality and child poverty, it seems a sick joke to try to diagnose a cultural pathology rooted in being too kind to children and having too much equality.

The most terrifying book I’ve read in recent years is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.  The novel begins in a boarding school where the students there are treated well. Their lives seem innocent and their surroundings beautiful, but we are ill at ease from the start. Ishiguro’s tight, unshowy writing has a light touch – the opposite of Fight Club – but the doom is unmistakable: a terrible fate awaits these children.  They are in fact, the most un-unique of snowflakes: clones being raised to provide organs for donation. When you summarize it that way it sounds like that’s the big “reveal.” But what’s fascinating – and terrifying – about the book is that it’s not a sci-fi dystopia, much less a staging of some bioethics debate, as much as an allegory for our world so close to the actual thing that it barely needs its premise. The faculty at the school who clash over how much and when the children should be told about their fate resemble earnest liberal parents and teachers: is it better to shield them from what is to come, if just for a while? Is truth-telling less cruel? But it’s a hard world, after all and we best be prepared. You can almost hear them saying “In today’s global economy, every clone-child must be able compete.”

Crucially, no one in the book rages about the injustice of it all or plots for a Hunger Games-style revolt of the clones. Not because they believe it is just or they have internalized their oppression or some such but simply because that is normally what happens, and Ishiguro is interested in working through how we push against our knowledge of the unthinkable. The children’s one hope lies in the illusion that, in essence, they will be recognized and judged as “special snowflakes.” The boarding school has been collecting their artwork for display. The rumor is that, like in some twisted fairy tale, if two students fall truly in love, they will be spared, and the artwork is the key to their souls that will allow that truth to reveal itself. Of course, there is no such way out. The art is just something for the kids to do, some fuel for their illusion that they are cared for, that their inner lives are cherished. Not long after I read the book I came across a cartoon in the New Yorker where employees of a slaughterhouse are looking out over a pen of cattle. “Just before they’re slaughtered,” one says, “each one gets an achievement award.”

I suppose you could read this as endorsing the crusade against participation trophies. But part of what works about Ishiguro’s novel is that it isn’t about scoring points against the liberal position by pointing out its hypocrisies. On some level, you could say, it’s a conservative novel, showing how we all accommodate ourselves and our children to what is unthinkable: here, that they will die young, the rest of us, that we will die. But I think he also wants us to understand what makes the children take their “art” so seriously, and believe so dearly it will save them. Middle-class and upper middle-class parents get mocked a lot for wanting their kids do art and music, for thinking that they must be “gifted,” for not realizing that talent and the right to do creative work must be reserved for the very few. When decent futures and meaningful work are scarce, expecting them is seen as an exercise in entitlement, and we try to repress all the evidence of how powerfully we desire them. If we can’t make a world where they are available to all, we could at least stop making fun of parents for wanting to shield their kids for it just a minute longer.

On Anger and “Meaning It”

So apparently there’s a new documentary about Morton Downey Junoir  out. People like to talk about how the great things they read when they were young stuck with them like nothing else but of course it’s also the crap that sticks to us. I don’t think I actually watched his show, though I certainly watched a lot of crap when I was in junior high and high school. But I have a clear image of him, in super close up, smoking, holding a noose, saying some one or other should be strung up by his testicles in it. I think maybe it was flag burners. Remember the flag burners?

Now if someone described someone with a noose on TV screaming about who should be killed in what manner for having the wrong beliefs or whatever, and you didn’t know the time or place, probably you might  say this is a dangerous person. We might say “fascist” without being accused of hyperbole. But from the description, it sounds like the documentary makers are more interested in him as a kind of media pioneer, paving the way for the Glen Becks who walk among us, “important” in some way, worthy of more than the expected liberal handwringing.  And while I’m all for avoiding the predictable liberal hand-wringing, there’s something equally tiresome about liberals bending over backwards to lend “complexity” to their discussions about the people who just plain hate them. I’ve been trying for a while to write something about how David Foster Wallace (not exactly a liberal but close enough) falls into this – how he was so much less smart about politics than he was about everything else. His profile of a B-list shock jock is typically brilliant in dissecting all the rhetorical and psychological tics of its subject, but in the end, you don’t really end up with something that different from: white dude pissed off that people are daring to speak back to white dudes.

Presumably the filmmakers, like Wallace, would find the position of righteous indignation towards Downey tiresome and predictable. He’s a buffoon, an entertainer, representative of something or other about relentless American self-invention and so forth. He’s an entertainer, and  presumably “he didn’t really mean it.” But of course we’re quick when it’s other places and times to say those who seem like buffoons can be the most dangerous. In any case, at 14, I didn’t know I was supposed to make those distinctions. I thought he was completely terrifying.

As a kid in the eighties and a teenager in the late eighties and early nineties, AIDS had far more of a  impact on me than anything else that was roughly construed as a “political issue.”  I remember watching The Day After – or maybe I just remember people talking about it – and I remember asking my mother why there was this strange commercial on TV about a bear.  But this fear was abstract, philosophical. AIDS was visceral. I remember my parents recording the 5:30 NBC news every night on the VCR and the sound of Robert Bazell’s voice signing off his dispatches from the NIH, the graphics of the cells that would come and invade your body and turn it against itself. I remember my parents watching the McLaughlin Group and Pat Buchanan shouting about quarantines. I remember our “health” class, where the proto-absitence education of choice was mostly touch-feely stuff about 50 ways you could be intimate without sex, laced with strong doses of gender essentialism. (I remember “Guys give love to get sex, girls give sex to get love” being not just something that was discussed but presented as a clear fact about the world. It may have even been an answer on a test. “There’s no condom for the heart” was also a popular one.) I remember a guest “motivational” speaker saying that Magic Johnson would be condemning his wife to death if he slept with her again even once. I remember people saying that 1 out of 50 – or was it 1 out of 10 – kids in college had AIDS and if you slept with anyone it was only a matter of time until you got it. 
No one was out in my high school that I was aware of. The only time gay people were mentioned was when someone said “It’s not just gay people who get it” (implication: therefore it matters) or when a certain teacher/coach would tell gay jokes to get the kids on his side. There was a substitute teacher who I guess was effeminate in some way – I only remember the way people talked about him – and he got it even worse than the other substitutes, including from the other teachers. There was nothing about gay rights in our very short history section on Civil Rights. Even though I thought of myself as “political” because I’d gotten interested in Civil Rights and feminism and even tried to organize a little “teach-in” when the first Gulf War happened, I’d never heard of Stonewall or Harvey Milk or ACT-UP. This was at a well-regarded, public suburban high school where people did well on the SATs and everyone went to college. And it wasn’t the South. I got into a lot of political arguments with people that ended with them telling me I shouldn’t take things so seriously. I didn’t know what I was angry about yet, but I knew there was something wrong with a world where the “good schools” expected a loud mouth girl to “do well” and “be smart” but found any actually application of curiosity to the outside world embarrassing and a liability. 

Reading about this film made me think about AIDS in those years because of an essay I came across when I was teaching composition in graduate school by Randy Shilts called “Talking AIDS to Death,” a follow up to And The Band Played On, where he talks about the horrible irony of being “successful” with his book while people kept dying.  (I can’t seem to find a copy online but there are lots of student essays for sale that quote it and a link to a database that has an abstract and warns that the information in it was accurate in 1989 but “standards may have changed.” To plagiarize Jamaica Kincaid: there’s a world of something in that, but I can’t get into it now.) In the piece he talks about going on Downey’s show, reluctantly after being assured Downey had a brother with AIDS and would be respectful. Once they’re on the air, it’s all quarantines and fuming. Shilts threatens to walk off, only to be told not to worry, Downey had “a fall back position.” Everyone was in on the act, it seems, but the audience.

Shilts didn’t get tested when he was writing And The Band Played On, reportedly because he was afraid it would affect the “objectivity” and reception of the book.  It’s an old story: feminists who write about gender, African-Americans who write about race are “not objective” or “angry.” Those with less at stake, who wield their real or faked or real but amped up anger for ratings don’t have to worry about such things. The righteous anger of outsiders and people fighting for their lives frightens us: it challenges us. Why aren’t we fighting too, why aren’t we angry?  But reactionary anger we’re meant to take in stride: it’s just how people blow off steam. It’s just good TV.  

Maybe so. But poking around in the much the way these filmmakers seem to have done or the way David Foster Wallace does never makes good on its promise. It never unmasks some legitimate grievance at the root of all the ugliness. It never says anything useful about some populist way for progressives to talk to “the people.” There’s just one layer of ugliness after another. It’s not without its fascinations. But better to rewatch How to Survive a Plague, reread Shilts or Larry Kramer, and imagine how ridiculous the question of whether they “really meant it” would seem.

Self-Help, Politics, and that David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-help lately.  From a left perspective, the critique of self-help culture pratically writes itself: it encourages us to think of our problems as individual, it shuts down critique and collective action, and it blames the victim, telling cancer patients and the unemployed equally that they brought it on themselves but not thinking positively enough. Which is all true enough as far as it goes. But one of the things I liked about Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided  was that, although she makes this case definitely, drawing on her own experience with the truely noxious breast cancer cult , she also talks about the roots of the movement in the nineteenth century, as an attempt mostly undertaken by women to soften the Puritan/Calvinist tradition. There is, of course, a strongly gendered component to the way we talk about self-help: just mention Oprah to the sort of fake-populist who is always waxing poetic about the wisdom of their cabdrivers and watch them go crazy about her self-esteem “cult” and “middlebrow” book picks.

But I’ve also been thinking about the versions of self-help that circulate in liberal/upper middle-class circles: yoga, meditation, the more “spiritual” claims of certain kinds of foodies.  Since it’s graduation season, I’ve been noticing David Foster Wallace’s graduation speech “This is Water” floating around the internet again, and now there’s a “film version.”   Wallace has riffed on self-help ideas in a good deal of his work, most thoroughly in the depiction of addiction and the culture of 12-step programs in Infinite Jest. His personal library contained a huge number of carefully annotated self-help books, as The Awl’s  Maria Bustillos  maticulously detailed. Even without thinking of the tragic end of Wallace’s life, it’s easy to think about much of his work as a way to redeem self-help from the tyranny of cant. I’m thinking especially of that piece at the end (near the end?) of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, in which the interviewee struggles with his contempt for his girlfriend’s New Age-isms which have, despite the aesthetic offense they give him, saved her life. (A side note which isn’t really a side note: it is of course impossible not to think about the end of Wallace’s life, and there’s no reason to feel one shouldn’t out of some lingering New Critical-taboo, which often comes from the same pseudo-sophisicated gendered place as knee-jerk Oprah bashing.)

The heart of Wallace’s speech is his discussion of how, ideally, a liberal arts education should teach one not “how to think” but “what to think about” and therefore a way to manage the frustrations of everyday life. Describing a frustrating trip to the supermarket at rush hour he talks about the choice we have to see the others in the supermarket lines as something other than impediments:

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

It’s good stuff, really.  One of the reasons I like teaching writing and especially “creative” writing so much is how intellectually and personally powerful it can be for students just to take a step back, to reflect, Here’s my question, though: what if you are the “fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line?”  Or the clerk he mentions in a previous section, whose boredom Wallace is sure no one at Kenyon could ever imagine? What inner resources are you supposed to muster in order to not yell at your kids? To feel a little less “dead-eyed?” What about to not yell at the liberal arts grad who is looking at you as a symbol of everything about the world that depresses them? And doesn’t that liberal arts grad deserved to get yelled at, just a little bit? (And, come to think of it, I’d bet that a Kenyon college graduate mother  (or father!) has yelled at his/her kids at least once in the history of the universe.)  Interestingly enough, just a few paragraphs before Wallace himself tries to steer his audience away from the kind of lazy superiority he falls into here:

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on. 

Wallace insists his argument isn’t a moral one, that he’s not trying to lecture the Kenyon kids about how to be, to tell them to be more compassionate, but just to think about the control one has over one’s mind. But it can’t help but be moralism, because he’s punching down. He figures that the main problem Kenyon kids will face is all the ordinariness of the world and the people they’ll encounter who aren’t as special and passionate as Kenyon told them the word would be.  He’s counseling them against despair and anger when they find this out. But for people who already know this, isn’t anger sometimes the way out of despair?

I’m sure that to Wallace or many who love him it would seem like I’m just doing the same thing he’s talking about – running an automatic left tape through the scenario the way the Kenyon students wanted to run the liberal one. They say “modern consumer society sucks”; I say “capitalism sucks.” But the thing is, big cars really are trashing our planet, and long drives to stores with musak really do make us miserable. And things are that way for reasons, and those reasons don’t have anything to do with mothers who wear too much makeup. In reading and writing about second wave feminism, “Consciousness raising” gets mocked a lot but I don’t think you can underestimate the liberating move of saying, this thing – be it rape, sexual harassment, my inability to take my own work seriously – it is a thing, it is not “life.” Unlike a lot of lefties, I don’t begrudge anyone Oprah or religion or anything that helps, and I think a lot of them actually are genuinely helpful, not mystifications or what have you.  But sometimes we fish need to say to each other: This is not the world. This is not water. This is a tank.

More Vanity and More Despair

So, this is what I’ve been up to. Of course, there’s an infinite amount to say about this, all of which is far too much and too overwhelming and too wonderful to give shape to just now. So for now I’m writing about easier things. Sadly, motherhood has not insulated me from the freak show that is the Republican primary, but distaste is a lot easier than love. Hence, Callista Gingrich.

During the 2008 election, I was reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, which revolves around a fictionalized version of Laura Bush. It was an odd thing to be reading at the height of Obama mania. At the end, there’s a “twist”: she didn’t vote for him. On some level because she didn’t want to be First Lady, but also because in her sensible librarian way she thinks the other guy is more qualified. When she thinks about all the decisions the Bush-like character has made, she tells the reader, hey, I just married him, you all elected him. It’s a funny moment. It’s also one that from a certain point of view could be seen as a kind of liberal fantasy, with all the flaws therein, an extension of the old knock against Pauline Kael not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon: the liberal feminist novelist can’t imagine anyone who would vote for Bush, not even his wife. But Sittenfeld can’t really explain why she married him either, except suggesting his sexual prowess from some scenes I’m still trying to get out of my head and which prevent me from recommending the novel to anyone in good conscience.

Another funny moment comes when the Laura character describes the low point of being first lady: the book she writes under the “pen name” of the first pet. It’s a little unfair since as far as my google-fu can tell, she’s penned only her memoirs and a children’s book. Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, is the author of “Millie’s Book as dictated to Barbara Bush,” while Hillary Clinton has Dear Socks, Dear Buddy Kids’ Letters to First Pets to her credit along with Living History and It Takes a Village. It is of course beyond unfair to think this all says anything about these women; I’d wager that none of these were their ideas and that they spent no more than a few hours on them, and even if this weren’t the case, so what?
Still, I’ll cop to a curious fascination with the literary output of First Ladies and those who aspire to be First Ladies, which is how I ended up with a copy of Callista Gingrich’s Sweet Land of Liberty, a romp through American History with Ellis the elephant, on my shelf. I started thinking about Callista after reading this brilliant profile by the always-brilliant Ariel Levy. I remember talking about it when I was in the hospital and a friend was flipping through the then-new issue. When I got to it a few weeks later, I thought, have I already read this? No, that was the profile she did of Cindy McCain the last time around. You have to hand it to these women: god knows it takes a lot of something to do what they do on the campaign trail: as Levy notes, they have to gaze adoringly while listening to the same stump speech over and over.
In Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple’s documentary about Woody Allen touring Europe with his jazz band, we see Soon Yi taking care of his laundry and keeping the outside world at bay. It’s a bit of a shock, given everything, to see her acting as a sort of mother figure to him. You get the same feeling reading about the third Mrs. Gingrich. When Sean Hannity poses and unwelcome question, she “raised her eyebrows slightly and replied in the implacable tone of a kindergarten teacher scolding a six-year-old.” The sentiment seems to extend to her husband: “The woman is always the grown up,” her husband is quoted as saying. “No matter what.” No matter how much younger she is, presumably. It’s been said lots of times before, but it’s always stunning to hear this stuff from the traditional values crowd. Not that we feminist man-hating types never roll our eyes at stereotypical Peter Pan stuff, but we almost always have the good taste not to do it in public about men we supposedly love, let alone ones we’re holding up as great leaders.