The "Socialist" Success Two-Step
we have this generation of people who have ironized traditional success but have nothing to replace it with, and the results are weird
I published a piece in the Daily Beast this week on mental illness and mass shootings. Please give it a read.
Recently some middle-aged “irony boy,” I believe a failed podcaster and failed musician, came after me for whatever inscrutable reasons. This person saw my office in a video I had posted and decided it was the entirety of a studio apartment, then extrapolated from there that I was poor, or something. This is all very strange - if I was that person’s age and still Doing Irony Online I’d probably be too embarrassed to critique anyone about anything - but hey, it’s the internet. People are weird. There’s zero vetting before anyone goes off on any strange diatribe on social media. For the record the supposed sad studio apartment is in fact the extra space in a not-terribly expensive but nice two-bedroom in Park Slope. We’ve just re-signed the lease. My girlfriend and I aren’t sure if we’re staying in Brooklyn past this next year, but whether we do or not we’ll upgrade to a nicer place, as I’m in a different tax bracket than when we first moved here.
The trouble is that what I’ve just said will inevitably be represented as untoward bragging by the very people who themselves invoked my supposedly sad living situation - they’ll switch from mocking their impression of my economic situation to insisting that speaking positively about one’s economic situation is somehow low class. After fifteen years of writing I recognize it as a common gambit. There's this little two-step that happens when I react to these things.
“You're a broke loser!”
“Actually, my newsletter makes a lot of money, I just sold my second book for a big advance, and I do some ghostwriting on the side. I have somehow ascended to the top 2ish% of the American income distribution, and all I do is write. It’s all pretty weird, I know.”
“Oh, you only care about money?!? Cool story, bro! I thought you were this big Marxist!”
So my lack of monetary success is pitiable, but when I point out that I’ve objectively been quite successful they see that as somehow reflective of poor character; my material conditions are only relevant if they discredit me, and if they don’t, then they’re embarrassing to discuss. Or there’s this other variation I often get from other writers, creative types, and media people.
“You just toil away in your little Substack world! You can’t get published in any big places!”
“Actually, if you check my credits you’ll see I've published for many of the biggest magazines and newspapers in the world, The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian and Harper’s and Politico and Foreign Policy and Playboy and n+1 and a bunch of pubs I’ve forgotten. I'm still publishing for big-name places, and again I've just signed my second book contract with one of the Big Five publishing houses.”
“Oh, so you really care about all that ‘prestige’ shit, huh man? You really bought into all that nonsense? I thought you said what matters to you is the work itself. All you care about is validation from the man.”
Happens all the time. The same person will mock me with references to conventional definitions of success and, when I suggest I’m doing pretty well according to those definitions, they’ll immediately pivot to saying that kind of success is bad.
For the record I don’t take that stuff very seriously, and I’ve always been motivated by my own weird impulses and pathological need to write. But it’s strange to be made fun of in material terms and then to be criticized for making a material defense. Look, thanks to biographical quirks I’ve experienced being desperately poor, and I also know how quickly fortunes change; in February of 2021 I accepted a $15/hour job for a junk-hauling company, only to have this newsletter fall in my lap later that week. I know I could be right back there in no time. But because I’ve experienced what I have I know I would survive, and I think I could be happy. And while it’s true that I’m something of an existentially sad person, that sadness is in reaction to the permanent tragedy of human life, and I’ve always said that there’s a kind of optimistic toughness about that state of affairs that people can embrace to find nobility in their lives.
I don’t know, there’s a slice of the internet that’s really invested in me being unhappy, but I’m afraid that after a rough few years things have gotten really good for me. I’m very grateful and take none of it for granted.
(There’s another weird dynamic online where people find someone talking shit about me perfectly normal and fine, but if I talk shit back that’s somehow disordered. Early in the life of this newsletter the freelancer Sara Jones came after me, completely unprompted by anything I had said or done, so I responded in kind; I was then treated to a month of people saying that it was abusive for me to criticize such a delicate flower. As usual the only principle that reigns is “I hold people I don’t like to incredibly stringent standards; my friends may do whatever they wish.”)
One part of all this is simply the weird way you become a character in the minds of strangers when you become a minor internet celebrity. I sometimes have to remind myself that most of the people complaining about me are in fact reacting to some visceral emotional force in their life that they project on to me, to create a tangible target. (Far easier to get mad at me than to deal with the fact that you no longer have any passion for your boyfriend.) But I also think that this speaks to a strange place a lot of educated people are in these days: they’ve ironized and critiqued the concept of conventional success in our current system, but have no orienting principles for how else to define a “valuable” person. I’m sure many people would join me in saying that the definition of human value should be about your principles and how you treat others - your kindness, your integrity, your patience and thoughtfulness, your courage in the face of physical danger. The trouble is that the internet is the place where we do much of our social jockeying now, and you can’t see any of that stuff on the internet. In any event, as is true in many arenas in post-collegiate educated-class life social competition has been influenced by a critique of the way things are without any attendant better alternative emerging.