At the Kids Table
Way back when, in 2006 or 2007, I started commenting on blogs. I was bored in my second year of living in Chicago, where the initial rush of being young and free had given way to the tedium of bullshit jobs and loneliness, especially when the big old house I had been sharing with roommates was sold and we were forced to move away. I was full of inchoate political feelings; I had not long before spent three dispiriting years deeply ensconced in the anti-Iraq war movement, and had received an education in both the resilience of the American war machine and the toxicity so often found in left spaces. It’s hard to believe now, but politics online seemed refreshing, compared to the drudgery of daily activism and a war we couldn’t stop. Commenting was fun, blogs felt approachable, and in that era of the internet identity was a squishy thing. Mostly I just commented as “Freddie,” but sometimes I’d use “Fred deBaser,” “Freddie diAblo,” “MisfitOfScience.” Sometimes I would pretend to be a 90-year-old professor of classics or a professional lacrosse player. I know that sounds like dishonesty but you have to understand that things genuinely were different back then.
By 2008, though, I was using my full legal name and my real identity. It felt weightier and more responsible and in greater accord with my belief in speaking freely and standing by what you say. I became prominent enough in several comment sections (which is to say, a big enough pain in the ass) that I was frequently encouraged to write my own blog. So I did. I named it after one of my favorite short stories, “L'Hôte,” which was a little joke - in French it means both “the host” and “the guest,” a nod to my hybrid role as a commenter and a blogger. Precisely because I was such a prolific (and I’m sure annoying) commenter, some established bloggers signal-boosted my work and helped me carve out an audience. I would make zero dollars as a writer for the first three years of my career, but I had a niche, one that I enjoyed.
But it soon became clear that there was a certain way that I would have to comport myself in order to be taken seriously. One little indication of that was when a writer, a big-name type who now writes at one of the biggest publications in the world, reached out to tell me that it was unseemly that I still popped up in other people’s comment sections when I was trying to build a writing career of my own. If I wanted to be taken seriously, he said, I needed to stop doing that; it would make other writers look on me less highly. Though he didn’t come out and put it this way, the gist was that commenting was low class. This was an early and unusually stark lesson in what it meant to be a Very Serious writer, to be accepted by peers and seen as professionally and socially desirable. To be cool. And I knew, even as I softly thanked him and acknowledged to myself that he spoke out of a genuine desire to do right by me, that I wanted my career to live in open and unhumbled defiance of that whole attitude.
Over the course of about a decade and a half, that’s been the most constant element of my writing and the context in which it appears. Absent any other scandal and long before my mental illness became public, I was always being disciplined. People would express perpetual exasperation with me and a certain lack of social polish. You’re a good writer, they would always say, but - you’re too earnest; you’re too embarrassing; you’re too self-serious; you’re too sincere; you’re too tempestuous; you’re too emotional; you’re too unguarded; you’re too pretentious; you’re too unhinged; you’re too sanctimonious; you’re too unstable; you’re too uncool. Any of those things may be true. But they all represented a value system I wanted nothing to do with, that I still want nothing to do with.
Even many writers who have been friendly to me, people I admire, have bought into this vague and shifting sense of what it means to be a savvy insider, a professional. Some have tried to actively drag me into line or mock me for stepping out of it, usually via Twitter. Mostly writers would indicate my current position in the hivemind by being friendlier or colder to me as time went on, almost always for reasons that felt inscrutable to me. This is a weird business; people will often lose your number, so to speak. With my specific past scandal, I of course expected many previously-friendly people to walk away, and for the record I’ve never blamed anyone who did, at all, and many did. But even long before that there would be these weird rises and falls I never understood, where I would enjoy a friendly correspondence with another writer and then suddenly they would be cold or not respond at all. (I am thinking of some specific people.) But then, I was always writing, and I produced such a volume of work that it could always be something I had said, and I wasn’t about to ask anyone. What I understood then, and understand now, is that the wages of being a writer who jealously guards the right to be imperious and unshackled are that sometimes people don’t like what you say and don’t want to associate with you anymore. Which is cool. I just wish I knew how many drifted because they didn’t like something I wrote and how many did because they were afraid other people didn’t like something I wrote. It’s always a prisoner’s dilemma, these professional-social worlds.
The trouble is that there has never been, in this profession, a particularly coherent sense of what good behavior entails. What rules exactly reign, when it comes to being taken seriously as a member of the profession in good standing? I’ve discussed the concept of prestige before, which is related but not the same. You could look at Glenn Greenwald as an example of someone in the business who enjoyed success, popularity, and prestige, but who was never granted the laurel of seriousness and coolness by the people who make up the industry. He was always a little too shrill, a little too on-the-nose, a little too moralizing for the chattering class. Being earnest and strident certainly seem like major detriments to being cool, in a social culture that’s defined by affected affectlessness. You can, though, be extreme. Being an insider in this sense is sometimes equated with being decorous and civil, but that can’t be true; you can tweet “suck shit, you neoliberal fuck” in this business and see your professional stature only rise, after all… if you say it to the right person. I don’t know. I have certainly thought far too much about this, the past decade and a half, more than is healthy, and yet I still don’t really get what the most basic rules are.
Publications, too, will just lose your number in this business. I think a big one recently lost mine. Several times in my career I would find that a publication that had happily published me in the past, a place that had reached out and ask me to pitch, would suddenly stop answering my emails. No reason why, and I would always be too proud to ask. But those ebbs and flows can mean the difference between a freelancer paying the rent or not. And though people make fun of me for saying so, “Do Not Quote/Do Not Link” lists are actual things that exist at some publications, and of course you can get blackballed. I’ve been quite lucky, all things considered, in my freelancing career. My point is that this vague and seemingly arbitrary sense of who is serious and who is not, this weird way of being a member of the profession in good standing and the sweaty obsession so many in the industry have with it, has teeth. It has a lot to do with who can make a living doing this and who can’t. And I desperately wish that writing as a career did not have anything to do with this kind of conditioning.
It’s here that I’ll make a turn that many of you won’t understand, but which makes very real and deep sense in my heart: my great unhappiness with the communal tone in comments the last few days stems from the same alienation and sadness. The way people have been talking here reminds me so, so much of the tone of media’s social world. Many people in that world are wonderful, but the communal personality is a fucking drag, man. And it’s this same narrowing of how to be, this obsession with appearing serious to the right people, this substitution of pose for principle, this attempt to do with a sneer what should only be done with arguments. I really, truly do not like the intrusion of Very Serious People into my home, when I have spent so much of my career trying to defy that entire philosophy for how to write and how to live. I’m sorry if that’s abstract, but the abstraction lives comfortably with very deep feeling.
The idea that America’s history of destruction means nothing for current events and has no connection to any bad behavior by anyone else, anywhere, does not disturb me; that is, after all, the default stance of both political parties and both major American ideological wings. The attitude that has been expressed in comments here lately, though, is something else. It’s a haughty, supercilious, righteous, you-can’t-sit-at-the-cool-table tone, an attitude that there’s a very small number of serious arguments and a very great many unserious people, and that to take seriously the question of self-determination as a morally universal principle is to necessarily render yourself ridiculous. It’s an argument made through reference not to facts and principles but to social desirability. It feels exactly the way I’ve been made to feel by peers in the world of professional writing for the past 15 years. I’ve been told my politics are wrong and bad my entire life, I don’t give a fuck. But it is the experience of once again being disciplined, and in my own space, that I can’t countenance. I am too old to be told that I deserve to sit at the kids table. Not here.
It’s enough to make me rethink that offer to use this space to market tequila!
You may do what you will in the comments, though. Have at it. I cannot violate my responsibility to the principle of free exchange. But I’m bowing out for now.