It Could Be So Much Better Than This

you get what you allow

The internet sucks. It’s a pestilence on mankind. It destroys empathy and promotes division and eradicates community. A generation’s confidence and sense of transcendent meaning is being destroyed with this technology as we speak. But it at least allows us immense possibility in the forms and lexicons of textual expression; the potential for human creativity in the written word is limitless, given that there are no space constraints or costs associated with experimentalism. Unfortunately, we don’t tap that potential. 99% of stuff written for the internet write in the same way. “Conventional wisdom? Everything you know is wrong! Fact fact dubious fact. Tedious qualification. Unconvincing aside. To be sure. Overdrawn conclusion. Joke.” It’s all the same. People are afraid to stick out and so they don’t get playful and try different forms. And it’s such a loss. Unfortunately, the culture of professional writing has created a powerful conformity among its constituent actors, and because writing is a profession that attracts the insecure and the desperate to please, very few people attempt anything that transcends the same stale blogging form pioneered 20 years ago.

My post from yesterday had some people feeling feelings. There was some love for it and a lot of hate that clearly transcended anything that was on the page. Here is a more measured and kind take that of course produced the requisite contempt.

Warzel seems like a good dude and I have no reason to doubt that his question was sincere. But this looks like a very classic example of what I call “chumming the water.” Chumming the water is a practice in media Twitter where someone will drop the name of a disfavored person in an ostensibly neutral way, knowing full well that, because that person is disfavored, the replies and quote tweets will become a pile on, a pile one which juices “engagement,” without any meaningful propositional content, risk, or thoughtfulness. I’m far from alone in fulfilling this function in media Twitter, serving as the free square on a People We Hate bingo card; Michael Tracey’s name immediately comes to mind. It’s a fundamentally passive aggressive technique, a way to incite abuse without owning it and an easy vehicle to mine RTs and likes not on the virtues of your tweet but simply drawing from that forum’s addiction to generating insider status through the identification of communally-hated figures. (There is no dynamic on Twitter that cannot be explained by the fact that people on Twitter hate themselves, and someone must pay.) I have to assume that Warzel knew what would happen in the replies when he tweeted it, and it happened.

But OK. Here you go.

There is a social tendency, typically mistaken for a political tendency, which has a contested name. I have tried to call it social justice politics, but it is typically referred to as “wokeness.” This tendency has achieved a remarkable level of hegemony in many areas of elite American life, particularly within cultures and industries related to ideas, education, the dissemination of information. Many now lament that this tendency cannot be defeated. I believe this is powerfully misguided. 20 years ago paranoia militarism and ultra-patriotism were mandated attitudes; if you think we can’t be right back there faster than you can blink, you’re delusional. In particular, I believe that “wokeness” is vulnerable not to formal and explicit political critique but to brute and unfocused distaste for moralism and self-righteousness. And I further believe that this functionally apolitical resistance can be observed in a few edge cases in our culture, strange and idiosyncratic spaces which demonstrate how this resistance to the preening moral arrogance and overpowering conformity of our era is slowly coalescing in ways that will eventually cause real social change. This tendency is not my political tribe, is not really a political tribe at all, but is an elemental force of resistance that can't be harnessed or fully understood. But change is coming and out culture industry seems utterly unaware that it's even possible for their current identity fads to fall out of fashion. Tomorrow will not be like today. And I do believe, in a vague way that I can’t define, that mayhem is coming, that there is real genuine civil unrest on the way in the United States of America that will shake its complacent people in painful ways.

There. Isn’t that boring? Isn’t that ugly? Couldn’t you get that anywhere else? Nothing is risked and no one is inspired. It sits on the page. I get depressed just looking at it.

Why would I write something in the way I did? Why have I written in an aphoristic and oblique style many times in the past?

  • Because fuck you, that’s why.

  • As suggested above, I think the internet is a powerfully boring place that could be so much more, and though I’m not what you would call a person of influence I still want to model other forms of engagement than the tired, limiting conventions of “hello this is literally true and this is what I directly think and here’s everything for you to think and believe yourself and my job is to make sure that you have to do absolutely zero thinking of your own.” You know how people used to say “can you dig it”? They said it that way because to understand was to work. I want to write in a way that inspires that work. It’s supposed to be work.

  • Because being divisive is good for business. You have to be weird. I’m making more money than I ever thought I would in my life because what I write is not easily found elsewhere. Niche tastes can still be popular ones. 90% of people in media write in the exact same style of sneering haughty disdainful liberal contempt, so it’s no surprise so many of them struggle in a flooded market. Twitter’s effect on people in media is to sand off all of their rough edges; they’re scared to be individuals because individuals get made fun of. But individuals also get dollars. Why would readers pay for that which they can get anywhere else? For my whole career the purpose has been to target and cultivate passionate feelings among the rare 10% rather than to be vaguely unobjectionable to the common 90%. It’s a living.

  • My core audience vibes with me and they loved it, and I knew they would.

  • I am self-consciously invested in writing as a craft and as such I am committed to stretching myself beyond my limits; you can’t get better unless you’re regularly trying to do things that are different from what you’ve done before.

  • Across various genres and projects I write on the order of 30,000 to 40,000 words a week. I have to try different things to stay interested.

  • Sometimes I like to show off.

  • It was fun, and writing should be fun or there’s no point. If writing’s not fun I might as well be an actuary. I write for only one person, myself, and if I ever catch myself not writing something for fear of its potential reaction I’ll never forgive myself.

The post isn’t really about Red Scare as such, but - the connection is that Red Scare is a strong example of the threat to social justice’s hegemony and what it is not. Red Scare does not try to convince anyone of anything and it doesn’t need to. Red Scare does not have political power; Red Scare has soft power. 19 year olds who list their pronouns on Instagram and never say “Black people,” only “Black bodies,” and otherwise do the ritual ablutions of social justice nevertheless listen to Red Scare and chortle every time they say the word retard. That picture shows the obvious and loud and explicit political resistance to the social justice era, the old version, epitomized in Alex Jones. It also shows the new axis of resistance, the strange one, the oblique one, the opposition that sneaks into your house in the middle of the night and vapes on your futon while you sleep. Red Scare is not respectable, but Red Scare is cool, and its gay army as a mass rides indifferent to the mores that its members dutifully honor as individuals in so many other contexts. Red Scare also shows the cracks in wokeness’s most impregnable fortresses. One of the hosts is on that show Succession on HBO; in related news Louis CK just got nominated for a Grammy. Hollywood shows both the universal reach of social justice’s vocabulary and also how tenuous and inconsistent its hold really is. Red Scare is popular with a caste of people the social justice set thinks it owns and trespasses into spaces the social justice set thinks of as safe territory. I write essays that change nothing. Minds are changed by animal spirits; there are those who look for lessons on how to live not in dull and boring lists of political rules or in abstract arguments but in fashion, in aesthetics, in everything conveyed and unsaid. Adolescents don't get radicalized by NPR but by mean girls who smoke cigarettes and talk shit.

Other than that stuff, you know… I understand that our culture is attached to a tedious literalism and that most people aren’t used to engaging with anything that doesn’t proceed from A to B to C. But there are all manner of other ways out there, other modes and genres and moods, and we could be enjoying them all, but we aren’t. No insult to the Ezra Kleins and Matthew Yglesii of the world, but there’s something tragic about the fact that so little is published on the internet, at least in prominent places, that transcends the form of busy little facts and mundane little arguments and plodding this and then this and then this and then this that they pioneered. I am desperate for invention. I miss IOZ. There was a time when people online surprised me. Now I rely on the accidental profundity that slips out before it’s quickly deleted; I look for inspiration in error. This is a tough business but there is such opportunity to be had in sheer undiluted formal ambition. You can write takes about how that thing everyone else loves is secretly white supremacy for the rest of your life, or you could remind everyone that text has no limits, that no one ever said that you have to mimic the rhythms of a David Brooks column, that Hunter S. Thompson was a legend because his manic and uncompromising style never stopped and asked if you needed to take a break. You can escape, you can tunnel under the prison walls. All it will cost you is the approval of the kind of people who tell jokes on Twitter to distract them from everything they hate in themselves. You'll have to live with being the example they make of those who don't conform.

It’s perfectly fair if you desire comprehensibility above all things in what you read. You don’t have to read a word that I write. This newsletter is very easy to avoid. But making sense is not at the top of my list of priorities. My readers pay me to cook; they give me money so that I can cook and then get out of the way, and I do, and they trust that I will produce things they didn’t expect, and they are not disappointed. That is freedom, the kind that demands hard work in return. And so many other people should be taking advantage of it. You can also freely say that I am simply not good at the unconventional style I attempt. But there are ways to do that which don't leave you resembling the town elders from Footloose, or performing confusion to assuage your cohort's fear of the new.

Because I really do feel a loss. There is such talent out there, right now…. The level of ambient prose chops is remarkable. Head and shoulders better than when I started 15 years ago, just leaps and bounds. But it’s all in the service of the same stale patterns, the shuddering climb down a ladder of sense, rung by endless rung, slowly descending to the place of pure conventionality that masquerades as “meaning.” I can think of so many writers whose talent I marvel at and who are doing nothing that captures a fifth of their potential, desultory columns, parodies of insight, essay collections that they could have written with their eyes closed. With so many I think, with genuine respect, “when will she do it? When will he do it?” I feel am epidemic of people with talent, poise, and insight who seem to never find just the right vehicle to express them. The easy thing to say is that they’re wasting it on TV recaps and listicles, on the effluvia of a wounded industry. But I don’t think that’s right, not entirely. I think they’re serious people in a trivial age, and they cannot find the words to find the words. They strain for meaning but are afraid of appearing to pursue the profound. I wish they would let go. The industry's mortally wounded financially. Can’t hurt to try and break out.

The problem, as in all things, is Twitter. People think I hate everybody in media, but there are tons of brilliant and talented and perceptive people. The trouble is that their diseased social culture causes them to live in fear, fear of stretching out, fear of transcending what they’ve done before, because the final destination of all of their work is a terrible grinding machine of unhappiness, a collection of little people who peck and claw at everything everyone else does, looking for the slightest hint of pretention and in so doing destroying the potential for ambition. You hang it out there and it’s tens of thousands of amateur comedians who feel that they are filled with ashes inside, and they will punish that which is not wrapped in the ill-fitting business suit of The Essay. It’s no wonder most don’t try, with that pack of insecure jackals waiting, that chorus of scared children who project their disdain outwards in the misguided hopes that it will distract them from the disdain inside. Imagine if professional writers loved the craft enough to demand that each other try and fail and to encounter the new in failing. Imagine that.

Oh, by the way - because Twitter is Twitter, some attempted to hang an anti-Semitism charge on me. I wrote “the rabbis will be chased from the temple.” Of course, you’d have to be powerfully stupid or powerfully disingenuous to think I’m talking about actual rabbis and actual temples. What I wrote is what’s known as “figurative language,” which according to a helpful resource from the Australian government “creates comparisons by linking the senses and the concrete to abstract ideas.” I understand that this is advanced stuff, beyond the reach of most people who write for a living. It was, in fact, figurative language first employed by a Jewish writer, who also did not mean actual rabbis in actual temples. But you all already knew that.

Also the goblins are a reference to this. Come on, guys.