Black Ribbon Award

LETTER OF CONSOLATION FROM AN EXILED SON

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Dearest Mother,

Your heart, I fear, is at its heaviest as I write this, coming into my fifth month of exile on this godforsaken island off of the coast of Maine. Staring out on the rocky shore, batting against the midday winds under an endless dome of grey, I see only you, unmoved from your favorite chair in the living room, tears flowing without relent from your eyes to the point that it forms a pool about the carpet. You had such hopes for me when I was given the job in Washington, and you were not alone. I entered that hallowed metropolis in considerable favor, and favored by no greater a person than the President himself.

Alas, the favor of you and the President could not outmatch the disfavor of Fortune herself. Like a hawk she sat perched, fixing her glare down on me, but a meager mouse fit for her claws alone. I will not bother you with the details of the preceding circumstances, only that what has been made public is not the fullest account. I will instead offer some words of consolation in this trying time for you. For what little time I had in the service of the President, I earned esteem for how quickly my words could soothe him at the most crucial times. I can only hope that they have the same effect on you.

Holy shit, Mom, exile fucking RULES. This is fucking amazing. Why didn’t I think of this before? What a moron I was! Clouded by the fever of ambition! What a fucking joke. Honestly, I cannot think of a better place to be on this dumbfuck planet than right here, right now.

Sure, it doesn’t seem that ideal at first. No doubt the President was shrewd sending me up here as he did. In the middle of February. By fucking fishing boat. How foreboding it looked from afar. How ghastly it looked on the shore, welcomed only by a wall of trees and mounds of snow and ice. My journey to the island was marked by psychological exercises to wrestle with the inevitable loneliness of island solitude. They seemed woefully inadequate by the time I landed. Sitting in my a glorified concrete cell of a cabin the first night, the surrounding natural world never felt so hostile as it did then. The trees stood over me in place of my scolding judges and my silenced allies. The night winds howled like echoes of condemnation.

Now everything is fucking great. It’s like a mandatory vacation. Sure, it’s not paid, but I’ve got everything I need. The Secret Service shows up every month to replenish my supplies. They keep me well fed with the basics: cold cuts, bread, cheese, milk, canned fruit, Hydrox. Once they noticed I wasn’t squandering anything instantly they gave me a hotplate and some Chef Boyardee. The next month they gave me a six-pack of Natty Ice. They don’t like me on the count of my treachery and all, but we’ve reached a manageable stalemate: they do not want me martyred at the behest of that idiot, nor do I want to be. The President and taxpayers are is careful that I see out my punishment in due time. One month they did take my space heater for unclear reasons, but I persevered learning to cut wood and build fires.

The clothing is secondhand and makes me itch sometimes. They dump it on the floor and watch me sort through it. I’m in some paint-stained jeans, a Dartmouth sweatshirt and some Timberlands at present. All around not my style. But who gives a shit since no one else is around? I go outside to walk in the morning and look straight ahead: trees. I look to my right: trees. To my left: more trees—and some stupid fucking rocks. I close my eyes and listen to the world around me: absolute fucking silence. Holy shit, that silence. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard before (or haven’t, rather). It’s a warm kind of silence that fills me rather than empties me. It’s quite a shift from the hustle and bustle of DC. A welcome one as it turns out. Here there is no one breathing down my neck, no courtiers watching my ever move, no backbiting, no lost friends, no grubbing sycophants, and no bumbling interns. There’s no one. Literally no one. This island is population: 000,000,001. There are no demands on my time and no obligation to set my life to anyone else’s.

Even better: I have no idea what’s going on. The Secret Service people don’t tell me and I don’t want to know. I don’t know if the cities are burning to the ground, if the people have stormed the White House, or if a land invasion is underway. That we have not been nuked is a mere assumption. I have no access to news or television or internet. All I have are a few books, all by Stephen King. You know, I never really got into him before. I never really tried, but now that he’s all I read boy was I wrong! That man can tell a fucking story. I retain the substance and craft of his work like no other writer. In fact he is replacing the full store of knowledge acquired up to this point. The best writers I know of now, by the narrowed confines of my objectivity, are Stephen King and me.

But of course I can’t spend all my days cooped up reading. The island isn’t that big. I’ve explored most of it within two weeks. So mostly I just meditate and chill. I don’t actually know how to meditate, so I kind of play it by ear, sitting on a soft spot, clearing my head and manage not to think about a single thing for about an hour. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? What is your maiden name? These questions mean nothing, do not occur to me, and have no answer anyway.

Of course when I’m not meditating I’m building fires and thinking of ways to prolong my stay. Soon I will be sent back to shower the President in my contrition, and presumably get shoved away to one of that city’s innumerable policy corpuscles. You see, Momther, there is no one way to be in exile. Work is exile, home is exile, marriage is exile, friendship is exile. I understand this as I endure [sic!] the best exile fucking imaginable. Ever. I might even request a Bible if death is anything like this.

I would like, Mother, for this letter to leave you not more dejected, but uplifted! Be assured that my exile has not been wasted on an encirclement of thoughts of bitterness, vengeance, and loathing. There is peace here—and time—so that I might ruminate on my power to bring harm to and spark disappointment from our President and, to a lesser extent, the country. I see not confinement here, but possibility! The possibility to start maturity anew; indeed the possibility to transform. It may be that when I see you again I will not be recognized. I am confident that this is for the better. I understand now that my character upon arriving at this place was not fit for the country the President will have made by the time I leave it. Perhaps, in time, this forthcoming America will allow the entirety of its people their own private exiles.

All my love,

Your son

***

INTERNAL MEMORANDUM—CONFIDENTIAL

From: Office of the Attorney General
To: United States Marshal Service—District of Maine
CC: United States Secret Service
Re: Special Resident, Island X

By order of the Attorney General and with the approval of the Commander-in-Chief, the subject [REDACTED] is hereby ordered to transfer to Staten Island as soon as actionable. Extend sabbatical to remainder of presidential term. Coast Guard schooner with copies of Joel Osteen and YAF en route.

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A WILDERNESS OF LABELS

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I’ll admit that when I first caught wind of a feature written about this thing called the “intellectual dark web,” it piqued my interest. In this time of socio-politico-techno-philosophical tumult, many secluded hubs of unusual thought have appeared just outside conventional wisdom’s periphery. And what new decrepit corner has been overturned and exposed to show the general reader, at turns desperately complacent and hauntingly frazzled, the extent of this encroachment? Often the quality of the answer depends on who is holding the flashlight and who is supplying the batteries. When I found it was Bari Weiss and The New York Times respectively, I realized my hopes were too high.

In Weiss’s words, the intellectual dark web (IDW) is “a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation … that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.” Among these people are Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Sommers, Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, and Ben Shapiro; though their website includes a host of others such as Steven Pinker, Alyaan Hrisi Ali, James Damore, and Owen Benjamin.

These names are recognizable to anyone who follows web-based ideological blood sport. One can even make trading cards out of each of them with their stats and signature moves. Their areas of interest center on the biological distinctions of gender, the hostility toward free speech, the toxicity of identity politics, and generally the preservation of Western Civilization. To their opponents they are the un-persons of humanity, the archenemies of all that is good, an advanced placement Legion of Doom. So one can imagine that when this feature ran touting “renegades” in a melodramatic desert photo shoot, there would be much backlash. And lo, none were disappointed.

I’m not surprised that such an article exists. The United States finds itself governed by the first non-intellectual president since the 1950s, and the most anti-intellectual president in maybe ever. The novelty of any cerebral person becoming widely popular is, in the strictest sense, newsworthy. It is about as newsworthy as the “libertarian moment” was four years earlier, which the Times covered with similar panache. And this time the paper just happens to have recently hired this particular movement’s most effective whisperer. “Like many in this group, I am a classical liberal who has run afoul of the left, often for voicing my convictions and sometimes simply by accident,” Weiss writes.

But “newsworthy” and “valuable” are not always one and the same, so it helps to cast, at the very least, a cold eye on what Weiss and the Times are selling its readers.

The people who make up IDW are a diverse bunch. Rogen, Benjamin, and Rubin are comedians. Peterson, Pinker, and Jonathan Haidt are academics. Ali, Lindsay Shepherd, and Maajid Nawaz are activists. Shapiro is a conservative pundit, while Harris voted for Hillary Clinton. With no single area of expertise, no single style of expression, and no apparent partisan overlap, it is hard to imagine how these people get along. But they do; in fact they spend an inordinate amount of time talking to each other. There’s an answer for that, thankfully, on their website: “Where [the IDW] begin to converge are on issues of the individual vs. collectivism, liberty over authoritarianism, and the importance of freedom of speech.” That seems fairly commonplace in any Western democracy, and it makes them very approachable to the intellectually curious. And yet there’s sufficient reason to be put off by them as a whole. For they embody what I’ve come to call the Janis Ian rule.

I always thought that Janis Ian was the actual villain of Mean Girls. Certainly much of the film’s plot is driven by her and her worldview. Through her, Lindsay Lohan’s deer-in-the-headlights ex-homeschooled protagonist Cady learns how the school is socially arranged—preps, jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don’t eat anything, desperate wannabes, sexually active band geeks, etc.—and overseeing that arrangement are Regina George and the Plastics. The film does little to counter this view, but it also does not sidestep that Janis is deeply invested in this order to the point of obsession, and so embittered that Regina is its leviathan that she will break down Cady’s unique personality to subvert it.

Spend enough time with the denizens of IDW and one will start to see a similar obsession with labels and an arranged order. They are champions of the individual and stand athwart all politics, but at the same time cannot escape explicitly political frameworks. Everything can be deduced by what table one sits at: liberal, conservative, libertarian, classical liberal, feminist, regressive leftist, Antifa, social justice warrior, and so on. They are, moreover, highly sensitive when labels are imposed on them:

If ‘alt-right’ was your initial thought, you may be suffering from Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome or captured by a political ideology. You might also live in a mythical place called the left pole where any opinion that doesn’t conform to your orthodoxy is considered far-right. The exact same applies in the opposite direction. Check yourself.

Ideas are potent on IDW. They are an amalgam of currency, malady, and demonology. An encounter with a Bad idea, even a casual encounter, leaves one mutated. The writings of Marx, the poststructuralists, and postmodernists are corrosive elixirs that can only be cured with the fabled red pill, a kind of reverse wokeness. Everything, in fact, is a reversal: reverse enlightenment, reverse ideology, reverse religion, reverse identity. IDW functions best with opposition. Peterson said that the root of his success was in his “figuring out how to monetize the social justice warrior.”

There’s a simpatico relationship developing here that almost approaches the parasitic. A member of the IDW will go to a speaking event which will inevitably be disrupted by the SJW, who will either get booted from the premises or force the event to cancel. One will claim oppression, the other to be upholding the principles of free speech. The confrontations will go up in social media, the substance of the subject being spoken about will be lost, and it seems wholly beside the point. This occurs with such frequency that performance art would not be an unfair suspicion.

Their more dreaded enemy, however, is the mainstream media. Like Regina George it is the police of their idea society, and when it attacks, it hurts. For instance, IDW and their followers have developed a curious revulsion to being called “far-right.” Doubtless this is lazy catchall on the part of the media in a lot of cases; a kind they are very good at, because “far-right” can mean anything. Yet because IDW is cripplingly invested in understanding each shade of the ideological spectrum, they are prevented from simply turning the term on its head and owning it in some ironic way. For me it doesn’t matter what ideological hat(s) their godfather Christopher Hitchens wore, it matters that was he for the invasion of Iraq before he was … still for it. “His allergy to one kind of bullshit, that propounded by some of his erstwhile left-wing allies, blinded him to other, ultimately more pungent varieties,” read Hitchens’s obituary in The Economist. “As a result, on the most consequential political issue of the last decade of his life, the bullshit got him.”

Part of me wants to end this piece on a dickish note, albeit a slightly clever one. Rather than go the safe route and apply a new label onto them without prior consent, I would instead remove one: intellectual. That’s a bit rich given the credentials of many IDW members, but it’s not totally brazen. After all, Weiss implies in the first paragraph of her piece that the ideas of IDW are only as interesting as their censors allow them to be. But my understanding of what it means to be intellectual is different.

IDW member Camille Paglia wrote a scathing essay on Susan Sontag, attacking her for abandoning her pathbreaking mass culture criticism and becoming a cliquish, dated, and pretentious literary insider. Of course one person’s “pretension” could just as easily be “doing your fucking job.” Whatever Sontag’s personal and intellectual faults, Sontag was guided by a spirit altogether distinct from Paglia. Paglia spent decades essentially circling back to her thesis in Sexual Personae, while Sontag could never stay in one place for long. She was ambitious and curious; she took risks, she explored, she made errors, walked things back, changed her mind, had doubts, and wrote beautifully while doing so. I don’t know a more fitting and reasonable set of expectations for an intellectual than that.

Still, another part of me knows that IDW is a loud, maybe even sizable, but not total encapsulation of the intellectual landscape of the moment. It is far vaster and more substantial than a bunch of podcasters with a marketing angle are letting on. Moreover, neither The New York Times nor I are qualified to say with finality what ideas will matter the most in the long term. I just know that the most interesting, vital, and dangerous ideas, as always, are not so easily cordoned off by a label, and are more likely to alter rather than preserve order in ways few can anticipate.

ON DEVOTION

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Wedding gown by Cristóbal Balenciaga

There is a photo I have of my grandmother Virginia, dated from the mid- or late-1960s, in which she is holding a newborn in her arms and wearing a black mantilla over her head. Not that there’s anything strange about it in the immediate context. The baby is a cousin of mine, X-times removed, who was then being baptized into the Catholic Church. Grandma Virginia was called upon to be her Godmother, and prepared accordingly. I’d looked at the photo many times in the past and thought nothing of it, at least until recently when it started to take on new meaning.

Grandma Virginia died at age 57 from breast cancer in 1979, five years before I was born. What memory I have of her has been transmitted in part through photos spanning the interwar and Cold War eras; and in part from certain items she personally left behind: crucifixes, prayer cards, and a tangled rosary. The latter being all lost now, because I was all of 10 when I found them, trying and failing to connect their various meanings to existence as I then understood it. They were the possessions of a Hoboken-born, Manhattan-raised woman, but whose first language was Galego. By all accounts she was kind and evidently quite funny, not to mention a good mother; she was also a lifelong, devoted member of the Church.

My understanding of Spain and Spanish Catholicism, in scopes historical and intimate, is riddled with ghosts, and they are not pleasant. The Inquisition, Jewish expulsion, colonialism, the Armada, the Civil War, Falangism and Francoism, do much to mold the country and its faith into its peculiar shape. For my great grandmother Maria Encarnación[1], being Spanish meant routine encounters with toil and death. Growing up in the impoverished coasts of Galicia, she left school at age nine to work, and many of her 11 or so siblings died young. Like most Galegos, she and her surviving family left as soon as they could, landing, atypically, in New York City. Talking to my great aunt Merida some years ago (who is actually still alive at 103), she recalls her mother being glad to be rid of her homeland.

Of the three most well known “autonomous regions” in Spain, Galicia is the most obscure, an isolated corner of an oft-isolated peninsula. But like Catalonia and the Basque region it is easy to romanticize. It’s filled with verdant, cloud-strewn landscapes and a culture of outsider mistrust and superstition. “Galicia has long been the heartland of Spanish witchcraft,” John Hooper writes in The New Spaniards. “Belief in the evil eye is widespread and the region is rich in sabias (wise women) and curanderos (folk doctors). It is a legendary haunt of the werewolf, called lobos-home in Galician.” It is also home to the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route ending at the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, where St. James is supposedly interred.

In the effort to assimilate, the most logical remnant to keep close by was that last one. My father, my mother, my brothers, and I were going to be and became Catholic. Everything to follow was more complicated. In elementary school, my parents switched from the local parish to a more liberal one in a neighboring town where I took First Communion; in middle school I stopped going altogether. I don’t remember talking about Catholicism or my Catholic “identity” after that, but I also never concealed or denied it. I did not believe I had sufficient reason to do so. This thing I inherited and subsequently mishandled was not something I could just blithely throw out, let alone replace. It wasn’t just a catechism or a set of doctrine or even a tradition handed to you, but a level of devotion.

C9yZmWXXsAA0uCODevotion is at the heart of Catholicity, which is quite obvious to say in the abstract but wholly essential when one contends directly with the strangeness of the Catholic faith. Of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine to flesh and blood of a divine man, who was born of a virgin, died for our sins, and rose from the dead; and of the (historically) ornate ritual, sacraments, and aesthetic meant to reinforce and commemorate those tenets. For people who share my situation, the scale of this devotion is immense even without baggage. It is easy to admire, difficult to disdain, and impossible to imitate. Indeed, it is quite easy to level criticisms against “cafeteria Catholics,” or some such moniker, for any number of transgressions they may commit on a given day. Yet it is less remarked that those very Catholics know devotion when they see it.

While I did not see it on display as such at the Met Gala last night celebrating the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, it did not lack in tasteful tributes to its reality. Amidst the various “deconstructions” of the Church’s concepts, icons, and vestments, I was transfixed by four attendees: Rita Ora, Lily Collins, Cara Delevingne, and Jill Kargman. I was first taken by what I took to be variations on the peineta comb, and more generally an ultra-gothic approach to what Eve Tushnet called the “blood-and-roses” aesthetic of Catholic Spain. But the dresses mean more than that. Whatever one’s lineage, indeed whatever one’s place in their faith, their sublime tribute to the devotion of the whole Catholic laity was quite clear. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd at Jezebel, for instance, praised Delevingne for “basically going as a confessional booth … conceptual, self-effacing (a primary facet of Catholicism), and referential.”

This tribute carries over into the exhibition itself. Among the work included is that of Cristóbal Balenciaga, a Basque designer whose Catholicism was inextricable from his practices and designs. According to Mary Blume “he had a feeling for ritual and for the large gesture”:

He despised useless detail; he spoke little. From this he grew a public image of finicky austerity and frequent descriptions of his fashion house as a monastery or church. Exaggerated, and yet his clothes had what only can be called a mystical, even a moral, effect on some of his high-stepping clients. Diana Vreeland found biblical implications in the harmony of his clothes: “women are at one with creation.”

In Lumen Gentium, the principal document of the Second Vatican Council, it reads: “Each individual layman must stand before the world as a witness to the resurrection and life of the Lord Jesus and as a sign that God lives.” Though to speak of the Catholic laity often means to speak of divisions and of divergent points of experience. This is true, and entirely unsurprising for a church as long lasting as this one. There are, on the one hand, those who have inherited the faith, who tend to it to various degrees but still remind us that it lives. On the other hand there are those who have entered the faith, sensitive to its traditions and its teachings and its beauty, who remind us that it is true. But I prefer to see it more as complexity than division, as there is much nuance and overlap being ignored. In fact, Heavenly Bodies suggests such a universality. It almost amounts to a kind of accidental apologetic—though I see it as something much deeper.

In anticipation of his seminal 2013 album Virgins, Tim Hecker released a video for the song “Black Refraction.” Director Sabrina Ratté married Hecker’s somber looped piano melody to distorted footage of the swinging botafumeiro—aka the Catholic wrecking ball—a large incense burner hanging in the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. The effect is sublime, like the final moments of a dream. I know nothing of Hecker’s or Ratté’s religious convictions, but the video, for me anyway, served to illuminate the vitality of the Church rather than trivialize it. Conflicts like past versus present or mystery versus clarity were dissolved into a total experience. I disagree with most cradle Catholics I know that the Church can and must evolve with the times to stay relevant. I prefer a Church that is continuous, for whom the past is not past, and from whom the mystery is not hidden. Indeed, it makes itself known in ways we would not expect, for any Catholic to sense it.

1 She was one of several Marias apparently, including two sisters, Tia Maria and Maria Rosa. Her husband, my great grandfather, was Josemaría, though he mercifully changed it to Joseph.

THE HERESY OF CELIBACY

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Everyone agrees that the “incel” (involuntary celibate, for those still on the outs) should not exist.

That’s not as simple an agreement as it first seems, as how that is achieved has more than one answer. A few might echo Ellen K. Pao’s implicit sentiment that incels should somehow be regulated among the general population, if not banished from it altogether. While incels themselves would happily be banished/reformed if they are given what they desire/demand.

I suspect that the greater feeling lies in why rather than in how. The incel does not seem to be a proper part of this world for most upstanding people. It is a literary motif come to life, like something out of the pages of Burroughs, Gibson, or, most commonly alluded to these days, Houellebecq. And most social commentators forget that even dystopian fiction, like pornography, is read more as fantasy than as prophecy.

Alas, the incel and the world are not without their internal consistency. I’m speaking less of Ross Douthat’s argument that “forms of neoliberal deregulation [of] the sexual revolution created new winners and losers” (though that is accurate) and more of incels as an extension of the human tendency to seek. We will make a religion out of literally anything. The incel ideology shares the same core principles that drive the Church of Satan, Objectivism, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and most self-help: what’s happening to us has meaning, good or bad, it matters, it gives us purpose, and it is the truth.

Depending on whom you ask, the incels are either an exceptionally ironic postmodern religion for professing openly their being denied sex and defining themselves by it or an exceptionally perverse one for letting themselves be radicalized by it. Thought another way, however, the incel phenomenon is more a religion in reverse.

Incels take from religion and secularism alike the dictum of sex’s centrality in human life, and that one who indulges excessively in sex is distinct in form and character from one who abstains. Incels take this to the utmost extreme to believe that one who indulges in sex even once is fundamentally transformed. And here matters get confusing. Incels ostensibly want that transformation, and yet have been moved to actual violence more than once at those who have been transformed—their dreaded “Chads” and Staceys.” They long to be “saved” yet find the most meaning believing that no one will save them. They want acceptance into the mainstream yet not on the terms it sets for them.

Much of the previous commentary is fixed on swimming against the logical whirlpool of what the incels want; or rather what they don’t want. At heart, they do not want to be forgotten. But this is to bring incels closer to the rest of us than we would like. So incels are better assessed by their errors. They’ve made two.

First, and most obviously, the world the incels have designed is wholly mythical. When they talk about Chads, they are applying a fantastical framework. It is like a Tolkien saga from the point of view of the orcs. It does not seem to cross their minds that Chads and Staceys are actual people, whose foibles and faults are not erased with their talent for bodily vulnerability. Incels are, in effect, forcing fantasy and reality to fuse where it is impossible to do so. “What is humiliating,” Wayne Koestenbaum writes, “is the sexual body itself, its humors and swellings, its pulsations and emissions.” Reflecting on that quote, Sarah Nicole Prickett concludes that incels are most caught up in trying to square “risks of humiliation, abasement, and animal glory that multiply so quickly when you take off your clothes and just ask.” And this is plausible so long as incels treat celibacy as a curse to be lifted.

And so the second error is the abuse of celibacy itself. They are not the first to abuse it, to be sure. Celibacy has long been hindered by a romantic delusion that is connected with virtuous suffering: denying nature, in oneself or from others, to attain purity. Incels are only distinct in that their delusion is gothic, turning the purity into leprosy and chivalry into barbarism. Celibacy suffers twice over.

Celibacy’s relationship with the modern world has always been fraught and is often a nonstarter in general discourse. Failed Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell based part of her political and personal persona on being chaste, that is, on being a reformed virgin. During her 2010 campaign, Gawker published an anonymous account of a “one-night stand” hoping to snake out her hypocrisy. It caught backlash, which Gawker defended as being a reaction to something O’Connell herself started. We will never know what O’Connell would have done as a senator as she is not in office, but the nuance of her example—idealized “virginal” language aside—of one who can be sexual, then abstain and profess it as positive, was lost.

That we should curb violent acts carried out by incels and root out their toxic thinking is without question. But perhaps this should not be done at the expense of celibacy itself. Indeed, those inveighing against the presence of incels à la Pao are not helping with their lack of clarity as to whether they should be monitored via ideological or social activity. Sexual freedom being seen as a given in modern life, despite some assurances to the contrary, has solidified into an absolute. Koestenbaum writes of humiliation as “as a rite of passage, as a passport to decency and civilization,” and so brings us back, if inadvertently, to yet another form of religion. Voluntary celibacy (“volcel,” because we are idiots now) constitutes a dual heresy.

A case for celibacy that is nonreligious is not an easy one to make. As any Feuerbachian edgelord can tell you, morality stripped of God is morality stripped bare. Yet at the same time, the case might not need to be made. For all the claims of free love’s triumph, there is little to suggest that it is practiced as widely as it is assumed or hoped. Upheavals in economy and technology have disturbed multiple humanistic projects, including the Sexual Revolution. Sex, or just finding a long-term mate, is a draining task even for the “normal,” or just tedious paging though files on an app. Social life and mobility are less stable than they once were; everything feels too contingent to plan for more than maybe six months ahead.

But rather than find the narrow worldview of the incel compelling, those who find less fulfillment in sex might be compelled to find fulfillment elsewhere. They will perhaps heed the temptation to put away their screens, taking up more meditative habits. If they turn them back on they will be as a means and not an end, to pursue interests and to meet others connected to those interests. Whether romance emanates from in those pursuits is incidental. Friendship and culture freed from the biological drive assumes a more human character.

Out of this change a deeper appreciation of not having sex, one that is distinct from being alone, might emerge. The remaining challenge is to usher it in, or to use that bloodless modern parlance, to normalize it. Its embrace may not encourage decency or humility as Koestenbaum conceives it, or encourage virtue as the religious conceive it, but will bring its practitioners closer to the human reality as it now presents itself. It will also, in one way or another, prevent the proliferation of incels.

THE ONCOMING FEVER

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There is an adage, spoken every now and then by American office-seekers just before they are about to make a contingent promise, that you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose. My own prejudice toward prose has left me with an annoyance far above the average level I’d give towards a cliché; but I also understand why it is one. It is an eminently modern cliché. By the mid-20th century, politicians had become actors rather than monologists and hence formed a different relationship with language. They give little time, or are given no time at all, to study the shape and content of their own thoughts in relation to their goals. Words on the campaign are glimmer for spectacle, provided by speechwriters; words in office are the tools of business, provided by experts. This outcome is broadly desirable, however, providing comfort to certain fidgety Americans that executive supremacy is still subject to the committee process. In this sense, the cliché is more than cliché but a clarion call, or even a spell, to instill hope in the public for a balanced and sane system. For who would be so mad as to govern poetically?

For the keepers of the spell there is only one person. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, previously a two-term Congressman from Nebraska, attended the Democratic National Convention and gave a speech. “You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies,” he said. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

The “Cross of Gold” speech remains one of the classics of English language oratory, in which its obscure speaker spun dry—but then-important—economic policy into the first of three Democratic candidacies for the presidency. Bryan is the quintessential American populist politician, speaking boldly and eloquently for all Americans who, he presumed, were as steadfastly opposed as he was to the damaging effects of the gold standard and territorial expansionism. Going by the results of those elections, this was not the case. Moreover, Bryan’s candidacy sent the Democratic Party into a decades-long tailspin. When the American people wanted a vacation from Republican dominance in 1912, Bryan’s longevity was repaid with a brief and retrospectively pathetic tenure as Secretary of State just before the United States entered the First World War. Bryan, correctly, opposed entry into that war, but his influence waned against the waxing influence of his boss, Woodrow Wilson. Though Wilson had less government experience than Bryan, his eminence as a man of the Academy and a political theorist took precedence over Bryan’s rabble-rousing. Bryan’s career in politics was over.

Though rather than dispense with Bryan entirely, Americans were content to achieve a kind of synthesis between him and his usurper. Bryanism is more than encouraged on the campaign trail, so long as it is tempered with a Wilsonian coolness that makes actual reform possible. This poetry-prose synthesis has had impressive staying power. It brought the Democrats back to life with Franklin Roosevelt, ditto the Republicans with Reagan, with Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama serving as lesser versions. It seems to be at the heart of what makes the United States an exceptional country. Where most nations would succumb easily to the dynamism of poetic governance, we through our unique sovereignty can embrace it while also keeping its worse effects at bay. Though lately that seems less certain.

Poetic governance can mean a few things. Baldly it means rule-by-eloquence, and hence, rule by mob. Though it can just as easily mean something more vague but still sinister like rule-by-impulse or instinct. That is not exactly new to us. Andrew Jackson remains the standard-bearer of this type. His time in office saw displacement and death of thousands of Native Americans, economic upheaval stemming from his Second National Bank veto, near civil war, total bureaucratic overhaul, and a redrawing of the political landscape that would last for 30 years. Jackson may never actually have dared the Supreme Court to “enforce” its decision protecting Native American tribal sovereignty, but the tone is very much Jacksonian. It is a legacy long spoken of indirectly until President Trump hung up Jackson’s portrait in the oval office.

In a word, poetic governance is a euphemism for the looming threat of dictatorship, if not dictatorship itself. Perhaps, then, American exceptionalism is rooted more in the nuance our system brought to strongmanhood. We as a country get not enough credit for how thoroughly we demystified the romance of the autocrat. Yet this and the synthesis bely our mystification of a unique type of strength with its own elevated language.

“We are in the presence of a new organization of society. Our life has broken away from the past. The life of America is not the life that it was twenty years ago; it is not the life that it was ten years ago. We have changed our economic conditions, absolutely, from top to bottom; and, with our economic society, the organization of our life. The old political formulas do not fit the present problems; they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.” So wrote Wilson in his 1913 book The New Freedom, his term for the proposed and copious domestic reforms of his administration. For foreign policy, Wilson coined “moral diplomacy,” which sought to advocate for nations that shared American political ideals. Many politicians dream of becoming modernizing statesmen, in which the structure of government and public life are chiseled to fit their expansive visions. Or even if they don’t, they still pine to be a moral example for their people. Wilson managed to do both, reconfiguring the role of the presidency that combined a parliamentary political acumen with a monarchical higher purpose.

Moral authority can be considered its own form of poetic governance, though it is a very elusive kind. It is sought after and claimed by many, but it’s not limited to public office and so has more competition. The 1960s was a veritable Olympics of moral authority which saw the Kennedys having to share space with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Reinhold Niebuhr, Eugene McCarthy, Dag Hammarskjöld, Pope John XXIII, and Cesar Chavez, to name a few. But it is also not the domain of the pulpit populist; in fact it is seldom available to them compared to the statesmen who have defeated them. It favors not so much eloquence as elegance, even remoteness. One needs remoteness in order to have clarity. The populist voices the people’s concerns of the moment, the statesman—the moral authority—does the same while also staying many steps ahead. A moral authority’s responsibility is not just for the people he or she governs today, but also their descendants. “Today, many things indicate that we are going thorough a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born,” Vaclav Havel said just after becoming president of the Czech Republic. “It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.”

Assessing the moral authority of the United States, as Americans are lately wont to do, has become quite fraught. It is to see the “shining city on a hill” reduced to the decrepitude of Grey Gardens. Trump skulks in bed as “Big Edie” while we as “Little Edies” prance around in our furs and headscarves bemoaning our faded beauty while raccoons infest the walls. A simple Google search shows that complaining about “moral decline” is a years-long pastime at least. Not that this is wrongly the case. A generous person might say that we as a country have had a staggering streak of bad judgment calls. Wilson’s moral diplomacy, for instance, constituted meddling in the Mexican Revolution, sending four million men to fight in Europe (many by force), and further destabilizing the continent after the fact. The ramifications of those calls served only in triggering panic reflexes in hopes of quick reversal or at least abatement, which of course have only entrenched all the more. It is unfortunate, and at times not a little unsettling, but it is part of a pattern if the past is anything to go by.

Populist poetics and moral poetics, while not copacetic, have a codependent relationship. One tends to ascend as the other is descending. Jackson arose in the dying gasps of the aloof Founding generation. Jacksonian Democracy split the country only to be repaired by Lincoln’s messianic Republicanism. Imagine, in other words, a body whose entire life consisted of trading one delusive fever for another; then you might have an approximate idea of American political history. Whether the hybrid approach of the 20th century was a temporary remedy or simply another, more lethargic fever is a matter of dispute. In any case it weakened and then it broke, and now we’re left with a resurgent, pure populism that is utterly predictable in how unpredictable it is.

Though severe from its extended incubation, the symptoms of the new populist fever are difficult to pin down. I divide Trump supporters two ways. One believes sincerely that he is fostering revolution; another believes he is a symbol for eventual revolution. The former bases his or her findings on how Trump meshes with his or her prior commitments—extremely well across the board. The latter has no illusions on Trump’s consistency but sees him as the clearest message to the liberals that they are hated. If you observe the phenomenon clinically enough you’ll begin to see that both are correct to some degree. Yet the Trump symbolist is instructive in hinting at what awaits once this fever passes.

Illiberalism is something of a sideshow in the wider discourse, with more sensationalist and ideologically simplistic versions taking up most of the oxygen. It takes away from ever having to consider that there might be more intellectually nimble pockets posing with the utmost delicacy that granted concepts like rights, pluralism, and secularism are not that granted, and probably should not be. These intellectuals are hindered somewhat by their lack of endgame. It is one thing to establish that liberalism is bad—like really bad this time—but quite another thing to commit to a replacement. Now, perhaps, is not that time. Eventually it will be. Much of what Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans ushered in during the 1860s were either too abstract (a centralized, indivisible, and singular United States) or totally unthinkable (abolition of slavery) a decade before. Whether one finds it good or bad, the probability of a moral reorientation along illiberal lines, led by someone with solid principles, an indomitable will, and the clarity to see how both will be put to use, is not low. It is worth considering and anticipating because it is possible yet not inevitable.

The current popularity of illiberalism rests largely on its lacking imagination[1]; that is, in its contrarian stance against the current trend of liberal progressivism. But moral authority is first a work of moral authorship, and the wider plain of post-liberalism provides ample creative space, and has for some time.

“What man loses in the social contract is his natural liberty, and a limitless right to all that tempts him and that he can reach” Rousseau wrote in Of the Social Contract. “What he wins is civil liberty and ownership of all that he possesses.” Rousseau’s treatise is much maligned for how enthusiastically it had been appropriated for French revolutionary carnage. But the work is too personal, and in some places too open-ended, to be so reduced. At its simplest, the work reveals modern liberalism’s narrow thinking about freedom. His critique of “natural liberty, which has no limits other than the powers of the individual” in favor of the civil liberty of the general will does not sound very far removed from many communitarian projects[2]. But Rousseau raises the stakes: “the gains of the civil state might be added moral liberty.” For some reason, he did not feel like explaining in precise terms what “moral liberty” meant. Christopher Bertram, in his introduction to the latest Penguin Classics edition, describes it as “obedience to a law [the general will] have proscribed to themselves.” For Bertram it is “frustratingly” vague, where otherwise it might seem simply naïve. For others, however, it may serve as an empty frame in which they may fit their own ideas to break the fever or the spell or whatever, and which, despite my own aforementioned inclination, maybe too outsized for the confines of prose or poetry.

1 Followers of Nick Land’s phantasmagoric science fiction-made-real accelerationism might disagree. Though I believe its appeal is more aesthetic and philosophical rather than strictly moral.
2 This is not new, Rousseau has his conservative interpreters, but seems worth repeating anyway.

THE MONOTONY OF DARBY CRASHISM

Darby-Crash

The first show the Germs played was at Hollywood’s Orpheum Theater in April of 1977. They were to open for the nascent Weirdoes, who picked the Germs because they were even more nascent, having only just formed that month with no rehearsals, no songs, and no knowledge of their instruments. Their set lasted 10 minutes before they were removed from the stage. The band, with guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Lorna Doom, and drummer Donna Rhia, blared feedback at the audience (which included The Damned) while singer Darby Crash wrapped himself in licorice whips, that soon melted, and slathered himself in salad dressing and peanut butter on top of that. For a later show, the band would tell their friends to bring food of their own; during a rendition of The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” they poured bags of sugar on the audience.

In every regional scene one was likely to know at least one band purely by reputation. Even if its members were not the most proficient musicians, and their songs were rudimentary at best, their shows were not to be missed. They were more social experiment or life sculpture than musical act, demolishing the invisible wall between spectator and spectacle, along with actual walls. Seattle had The Mentors (among others), San Francisco had Flipper, Detroit had The Meatmen, Austin had Scratch Acid (among others), and DC had No Trend. One band for my cohort was The Ultimate Warriors, from Nazareth, PA. When they played our town’s recreation center in 2000, they (or their entourage) donned luchador costumes and other wrestling-themed gear and wreaked havoc in the pit. I believe they also brought fruit as the venue smelled of bananas after they played. They are now Pissed Jeans.

Within this ilk the Germs were very much among their number, even their ancestor. Even at their best they never played technically well. Slash writer Claude Bessy described their debut single “Forming” as “beyond music … inexplicably brilliant in bringing monotony to new heights.” But at the same time, the Germs were able to shake off their “joke band” status, in part because getting constantly banned from venues was a net negative, but also because something more powerful was at hand. By September 1977, the Germs were headlining shows with massive turnouts. As Geza X recalled later, “it was the buzz on the Germs as a social force more than a musical one that caused a line to form outside The Masque for the first time.”

Darby Crash (née Bobby Pyn, née Jan Paul Beahm)[1] was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. His childhood was one of routine instability. He lost a brother to a heroin overdose. His mother struggled with minimum wage jobs, often working nights. The closest thing he had to a father figure was a stepfather who died when he was 13. His education, which he neglected, included an experimental program that combined Werner Erhard’s est with Scientology. Darby was precocious, however, with his mother carving out sections of her stringent budget to appease his voracious intellectual appetite with books and a typewriter. He developed interests in Nietzsche, Charles Manson, Herman Hesse, Hitler, and Oswald Spengler. Typical interviews included the following: “Fascism is not a philosophy. It’s a way of life. Fascist is totally extreme right. We’re not extreme right. Maybe there’s a better word for it that I haven’t found yet, but I’m still going to have complete control.” And: “I can respect Hitler for being a genius in doing what he did, but not for killing off innocent people. [His genius] lies in his speech. What he could do with words.”

Darby Crash’s vocal style relied on barely annunciated snarls and screeches. Perhaps you’d rather not imagine a cat being processed by a wood chipper, but that is the image conjured for me whenever I hear him. Yet the words were there. Indeed, the quality of Darby’s lyrics was a surprise even to those who liked the band. “Standing in the line we’re aberrations/Defects in a defect’s mirror/And we’ve been here all the time real fixations/Hidden deep in the furor,” goes the first verse of “What We Do is Secret.” But so, too, was the personal charisma to which chaos and music alike were subsumed.

“I completely control a number of people’s lives,” Darby Crash said. “Look around for the little girls wearing CRASH TRASH T-shirts and people like that.” Darby had a gift for branding. In a way, the Germs became a serious enterprise for him not with the refinement of their artistry but with the aesthetic identity he crafted around it. “Everything works in circles,” he said. “[L]ike something you’ve done maybe eight years ago, but all of a sudden it feels like you’re in the same place doing the exact same thing.” They adopted as a symbol of a clean blue circle, to match Darby’s eye color, which appeared on their merchandise, flyers, and recordings. Germs fans were collectively called “Circle One,” who wore “Germs burns” on their wrists, which came from a cigarette. “I think we should make a new shape for flags. Round flags.”

R-1107962-1317595483.jpegDarby’s proposals did not stop there. He dreamed of putting “allies in key positions,” in such places as the postal service and newspaper presses who, with little more than flicking a rubber band, could jam the gears of society and bring it to its knees. When appearing on a radio show, Darby rang off a series of satellite numbers that would allow anyone to make long distance calls for free. He became obsessed with L. Ron Hubbard and, according to the Screamers’ K.K. Barrett, “talked about how religion was just basically a funnel for lost souls.” “Darby Crash completely resocialized me,” F-Word singer Rik L. Rik recalled. “He taught me to question everything and how to make up my own mind by evaluating reality and drawing my own conclusions. … He did this for everybody he came in contact with. It was a whole retraining program.”

These ambitions were quickly derailed; first by Darby’s abrupt sabbatical in London, which broke up the band, and then by his death at age 22 by intentional heroin overdose once he returned. It is on this morbid crux that Darby’s legacy is balanced. As he’d often voice is intention of dying young, sometimes at the exact age when he did, I can’t say it is altogether unfair—but it is also too simple.

Darby returned from London in 1980 sporting a Mohawk haircut and face paint. He’d met and become enamored with Adam and the Ants, much to the bewilderment of his friends. Indeed, when Adam and the Ants were doing an in-store appearance at Tower Records around the same time, Black Flag disrupted the proceedings, throwing around their trademark flyers reading “BLACK FLAG KILLS ANTS ON CONTACT.” The Hermosa Beach-based band formed a year before the Germs, and promoted a stripped-down version of punk that favored brutality over—or rather, in addition to—chaos. The Hollywood scene did not appreciate it as it attracted a more aggressive police response and repelled their female fan base. But like Darby Crash, Black Flag’s Greg Ginn had his own ambitions, involving hours-long daily practices, endless touring, and sustaining his own record label. Darby never even held a job. Ginn’s efforts helped make hardcore a national concern, eclipsing the more nuanced Hollywood scene. Ultimately the flag shape was to be deconstructed rather than changed outright.

Whether longevity was ever a possibility for the Germs, its undesirability is less arguable. Darby Crash was a genius. He was among the first to understand that this youth phenomenon was more than a temporal market demographic. He understood that its adherents’ idealism and energy could be concentrated into an overwhelming counterattack against the predominant culture, so long, of course, as their cry came from his voice. “Whatever it is people like that have in them that enables them to attract a following, he had it in him,” Pat Smear said. “I’m talking about some guy coming from a log cabin and ending up being president of the USA.” Darby Crash was the earliest, and perhaps the only, self-made cult of personality in punk, at least the cult that was focused on an individual. His vision of punk was ceremonial, historical, and abstract, but it was not ethical.

Not that Darby Crash should be forgotten. He was too right and too wrong in equal measure to be damned either to obscurity or infamy. And the path he chose made his gifts too evident after more than half a lifetime of deprivation. Whether or not punk’s more ethical turn was warranted, or whether or not it is comparably better, is a matter of debate that will never properly be settled. Nor should it be, for punk is in all respects a movement against monotony. It is also a movement that, having embraced Darby Crash’s world-historic call to greatness, was quite efficient in finding it disappointing at best. Punks have travelled too many shapeless roads and found too many permutations of themselves along the way to abide by the dull logic of a circle.

1 For background of this piece, I am indebted to this article, these books, and the liner notes to this album.

THE ANONYMOUS PUNK

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I.

“Look at us today/We’ve gotten soft and fat/Waiting for that moment/It’s just not coming back.” So sang Ian MacKaye in the Minor Threat song “Salad Days.” The song stands out in Minor Threat’s small but monumental catalog for a few reasons. First it is among the last songs they ever wrote. It was performed only once at their final show in 1983 and not released until 1985. Second is that it is one of the five songs, out of a total original output of 23, that exceeded two-and-half minutes. And third, it marked a complete tonal and operational shift from that which established the band two years before. Yet because of all this, it is crucial to our understanding of why Minor Threat is remembered at all.

Minor Threat were one of the more peculiar bands to arise out of the 1980s post-punk milieu. They were one of innumerable acts then embodying the hardcore scene that was overtaking all of America’s major cities and not a few of its minor ones. Compared to their peers they hardly qualify as originators or refiners. They were not as foundational as The Middle Class, as nuanced as Hüsker Dü, as technical as Bad Brains, as angry as Negative Approach, as clever as Dead Kennedys, or as provocative as MDC (Millions of Dead Cops). Yet the 20 minutes that comprise their first two EPs, Minor Threat and In Your Eyes, are among the most revered by the genre’s fans, almost rivaling Catcher in the Rye in fervor of imitation and abuse. Contrarianism plays a role here certainly, with MacKaye’s rejection of punk self-destruction in favor of self-preservation that saw the hazards of recreational drug use and promiscuous sex. But that was nothing without the band’s larger accomplishment: their cohesion. What Minor Threat lacked in technical or creative prowess, they more than made up for both in their synchronization. Minor Threat stands as one of the tightest units in rock music. A typical Minor Threat song combines four separate sources of youthful energy to emit a brief but riveting jolt of power. It is more engine than song.

Salad Days” is the exception that proves the rule. By 1983 the engine was not so much out of steam as it was breaking down altogether. The band was at cross-purposes. Members Jeff Nelson, Lyle Preslar, and Brian Baker were pushing for a more accessible sound, rather inexplicably along the lines of U2, a change which included the option of signing to a major label. MacKaye disagreed and they opted instead to go their separate ways. “Salad Days” shows the extent of the disintegration. The music is the most polished of Minor Threat’s oeuvre, including a slow-building—some might say ponderous—intro with bass and the tolling of a bell that ascends to a properly crafted hook. But MacKaye, who had recorded the song under duress and laid down his vocals quickly, is having none of it. Where he put any effort into his singing at all it was to convey the disillusionment that had overcome him in those short two years. He saw what was best in hardcore—its expressive freedom—accelerate in the wrong direction while the worst in hardcore—its mindless aggression—fused itself in place. The strange cross of evolution and inertia understandably propelled a reflective mood of purity corrupted and good intentions set aside.

MacKaye’s laments were premature, of course; not simply because he was 21 when he wrote the song but because he would eventually find footing again in subsequent bands, refining the style and stretching the reach of his message to the extent that it shapes more than just punk. Nevertheless, “Salad Days” typified a widely shared feeling among his cohort. “At the time everyone was bummed at how stagnant and separated and elitist everything had become,” Marginal Man guitarist Kenny Inouye said. “When that part came in that says, ‘Do you remember when?/Yeah, well so do I,’ I just lost it.” And it continues to be felt.

II.

Nothing quite prepares punks for when their first bout of nostalgia sets in, but many know it when they see it in someone else. That punk, whom I will call Alex, is nigh on the ripe age of 27. Just 10 years before, Alex gained prominence as a bassist in at least three bands and one basement “side project” that doesn’t really count. Alex may be a fixture on demos but not on debut EPs, let alone proper albums. Alex eventually moves to a larger city to attend college, leaving the gear at home. Alex takes up graphic design or communications or “comparative literature”, though, in hopes of giving back to The Scene. Alex dreams of starting a label or a zine, or at the very least joining an ethical public relations company. Alex interns at a nonprofit to gain some experience. Alex gets hired to the junior staff of a prominent firm, and commits all spare time and funds to fostering any project, or tries to. Alex makes account manager and tries to focus on “community awareness” rather than just “hot brands.” But Alex wants a bigger apartment. Alex makes account executive and starts “building relationships” with microbrews, influencers, and venture capitalists. Alex finds a partner and a dog.

Alex ventures back home for a holiday or an anniversary or something and meets up with an old bandmate who never left. He is gainfully employed at a local bar that requires suspenders, gingham, denim, and regular gym visits. One arm is covered in clouded tattoos; the other is around a woman decidedly younger than both of them. She is the designated driver, and she takes them to an old haunt of theirs, a ragged, barely livable house that was a meeting point for denizens of The Scene. Attendance never required explicit invitation yet everyone always knew who would be there and who wouldn’t. The neighborhood looks slightly more cleaned up than Alex remembers and there is a FOR SALE sign on the front lawn. Inside Alex recognizes no one, though they bear hints of familiarity in manner and dress. The continuity is comforting until the younger occupants talk admiringly of bands Alex never heard of or dislikes and indifferently about bands that meant everything to Alex at their age. Almost worse is when they talk obsessively about those latter bands, which they probably never saw live and never listened to the first seven-inch Alex cherishes despite not being able to find. But Alex hits it off with someone who says all the Correct Opinions, is full of energy and idealism, and who is not there just to party. She and her friends have a group blog that promotes positive action and calls out negative vibes. But then she hands Alex something, a demo cassette. “It’s a throwback, I know,” she says with a self-conscious giggle, before mentioning that the email address in the insert is not run by her but she checks it if s/he has feedback. Alex thanks her and motions his/her companions to leave. In the high school parking lot the two agree to listen to the demo while their chaperone smokes outside. Neither of them say anything as one song transitions seamlessly into another. They don’t have to say anything. They just face forward in silence. Alex isn’t sure if the demo is actually good, but is nonetheless overcome by a dread that had long been on the cerebral periphery. A dread of time passing and new generations ascending, not doing anything differently but somehow doing it anything done before better. That dread would have its hold on Alex all night had it not been broken by the fermented stench of the friend’s vomit that appeared all over the glove compartment and his fancy work denim.

The malaise of punk nostalgia always has the air of a rite of passage. The final rite, that is, in which one realizes one’s own shelf life. One ideally hopes to grow out of punk while staying somehow within it, often as a kind of elder statesman. All projects are not projects in themselves as they are means to achieve that end. The end is often deferred, however, whenever one encounters those whom elder statesmen would seek to minister. They seem arrogant, speak more readily on any matter regardless of knowledge, and denounce the errors of the past without admitting any of its virtues. It hits home once one realizes that one did the very same thing years before, and the malaise is of one’s own making. And it’s going to hit much harder when one finds the very fount of that nostalgia entirely erased.

III.

When one has been involved in punk long enough, one often speaks as if they had been punk since birth. The idea of existing before or without punk is unthinkable. That person would have been beneath contempt, a hopeless and hollowed-out shell of a human. But such is the passion that comes from conversion. The appeal of punk is rooted in understanding, or rather in being hypersensitive to, what is not punk. It is, to be sure, a tundra with many routes: the boredom of suburbia, the meritocratic bloodlessness of modern education, the upending of divorce, a sudden and inexplicable gulf between one and one’s peers, really any kind of trauma. Many manage to bear with these obstacles as best they can, but some cannot accept the landscape as is and long for an oasis. Punk is one such oasis and to find it one must often look very intently for it.

The cultic element of punk has long been a matter of contention for its critics, and punks have flirted with this from time to time. Germs frontman Darby Crash instituted the “Germs burn,” administered by pressing a lit cigarette onto one’s wrist—always by someone who already had one—as a sign of allegiance to the band. But in truth the majority of punks do not prefer a zero-sum initiation. One either encounters punk by sight or by sound, and if one is compelled they begin immersion: going to shows or buying an album or two. If one is immersing with friends, which is the preferable method, they would naturally trade tapes or CDs.

If nostalgia is the final rite of passage then immersion is the first. But it grew out of necessity. Punk long functioned in scarcity, with mass media attention being intermittent and fleeting. Its perpetuation and maintenance has been left almost entirely to those who listened to it. The journey into punk was predicated on what one heard and what one was able to get. A punk, whom I will call Pat, hears about an album. Great! How is Pat supposed to get it? Buying the album. Does Pat have the disposable income? Pat will pay Mom back. Is the album distributed at Wal-Mart? No. At Sam Goody? No. At the 10 sq. ft. record store 30 miles away next to a body shop and has no parking lot? Yes! Does Pat have a car? No. Do any of Pat’s friends have a car? Yes! Do they have gas money? No. Does the internet exist? It’s 1998. Can Pat’s friends make a tape with their copy? Pat’s friends are high right now, they promise to do it later. (Repeat.) Special order that motherfucker locally and wait 14–21 business days.

I’m being somewhat reductive, but this was broadly the process by which immersion took place. And punk culture was shaped by it. At its best punk was a deeply social cultural formation in which peers at once refined their own tastes and instilled communal bonds through the local scene. At its worst, however, particularly enterprising punks could build didactic walls around sections of the scene separating, arbitrarily, those with “correct” formations from those without. This predominantly comes from my own experience. My own formation was regrettably done in isolation, which produced an unusual palate and made me more of a satellite in the scene. My formation was dependent largely upon reference books, oral histories, anything I could buy or check out.

But it was also a time of transition in which technological progress made access somewhat easier. One friend had a CD burner on his computer and was offering to provide CDs from his own library for a small price, maybe even nothing at all; he even provided an inventory list. From him I got several Hot Water Music albums I haven’t listened to in ages, as well as Cave In, Botch, Bad Brains, and others. Message boards did as much to empower word-of-mouth as set the stage for memes. And this is to say nothing of Napster, the legacy of which is better seen as a hands-on consumer guide than as a treasure trove of free goods of consistent quality. But technology, like most scientific applications, is not a moderating one.

Steve Albini notoriously lambasted CDs as “rich man’s eight-tracks.” They threatened his aesthetic sensibilities, which were analog in the extreme. He was partly right in that CDs are now these cumbersome, space-wasting reflective circles. But the fervor to vinyl remains a niche concern. Most of the purchasing public, as James Poulos wrote, prefer access to ownership, which digitization has provided in unprecedented depth and change so far-reaching in punk as to utterly mutate it.

IV.

At the conclusion of his memoir Your Band Sucks, former Bitch Magnet guitarist Jon Fine lamented that “nothing I’d hoped for twenty-five years ago had happened. The weirdos hadn’t taken over. Our bands hadn’t changed the world, or destroyed the big, bad major labels. (That was the Internet’s [sic] job.) Or even changed the mainstream that much.” His parenthetical is a significant one. Fine is no critic of the web, which “provided a central place—more precisely, a decentralized place—where many small campfires could be tended, around which widely dispersed but unusually ardent audiences traded tales and live recordings.”

20 years ago, a nascent punk like myself had to undertake considerable sleuthing in order to find even the most basic information about even a contemporary obscure band. Many bands, in fact, seemed more like cryptozoological legends. Deadguy, a short-lived and still ferocious New Jersey band, impishly shrouded themselves in so much mystery that I suspected them of being a shady front operation. But the increasing sophistication of the internet provided for an extensive lifting of veils. If one wants to listen to The Faith’s influential Subject to Change EP, two versions of it are on Spotify. If one wants to watch 25-year-old footage of Universal Order of Armageddon, there’s YouTube for that.

That is territory well-trodden compared to the greater change that has come to punk culture as a result. As the internet decentralized the music industry it, too, decentralized punk. More than that, it delocalized, demystified, and, in a way, destigmatized it. It sewed shut the word-of-mouth and replaced it in the code of algorithm. It purged the gatekeepers and replaced them with “curators.” Punk’s scarcity has given way to extreme abundance, its hidden nature is now fully transparent, almost naked. For bands this might not actually change much. Though this at first saves many more bands from being “criminally overlooked,” the nature of the search has mostly changed from a treasure hunt to landfill scavenging. But the implications to the punk on the street are immense and the implications should be divisive. Indeed, this moment has a peculiar and, I think, illustrative parallel.

I am led, in other words, to the mid-20th century, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, SJ and his theory of the “anonymous” or “implicit” Christian. It proposes that one can accept God’s salvation without ever having heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “The person who accepts a moral demand from his conscience as absolutely valid for him embraces it as such in a free act of affirmation—no matter how unreflected—asserts the absolute being of God,” Rahner wrote, “whether he knows or conceptualizes it or not.” Its central inclusivity was popular in the heat of the Second Vatican Council, even leaving its fingerprints on some of its documents; it also reflects some of punk’s highest ideals, which are now more applicable than ever before.

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As I have written elsewhere, punk has long been an ethical and creedal endeavor. Its ethics have helped to assure its survival against the predation of the mainstream rock industry and the decadence of its culture. “Fuck your trends, fuck your friends/Fuck your groupies who try to pretend that you’re down/You’re fucking not,” goes the Nails song “You Will Never Be One of Us,” “Nobody wants what you’ve fucking got.” But translated at the local level it’s cold dogma—rules, restrictions, and pedantry. It doesn’t so much keep the scene pure as it makes it socially uniform and aesthetically anemic all for the end of purging posers. Post-analog punks have never been freer from this stranglehold than at this moment. Even if they can’t hear everything, they can hear anything at their own discretions and set their own limits. After Spotify, everyone is a punk.

The most positive result, then, is a total reversal of Ian MacKaye’s initial concerns about hardcore. The authoritarian tendencies are gone, and expression is finally flourishing. But the erosion of authority also leads to the erosion of the community and its immense benefits. Peer relationships will be less instrumental in immersion. Immersion won’t be tempered by the guidance of a mutual explorer, but will be overwhelmed in aimless indulgence. Punk then vindicates its most vulgar critics by becoming what they always said it was: noise. The anonymous punk risks becoming an atomized punk.

Rahner’s anonymous Christianity was controversial in its day, and remains so among those who remember it. It has its critics on the traditional wing (it’s relativistic!) as well as the progressive wing (it’s paternalistic!) of the Church. His most thoughtful critic, though, has been Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who responded to Rahner’s project with a clarity and a commitment to striking at the heart of the matter that I find both familiar and helpful. “Is it true that Christianity adds nothing to the universe but merely makes it known?” he wrote while still a Cardinal. “Is Christianity really just man as he is? Is not man as he is that which is insufficient, that which must be mastered and transcended? … A Christianity that is no more than a reflected universality may be innocuous, but is it not also superfluous?”

Outwardly at least, little seems all that different. Bands still form, shows are put on and attended, merch is made and purchased, and music is at least made. Communities, of a sort, still convene, though they do so largely online. Rather what I am arguing has changed is the intimacy that punk engenders. That indescribable sense of belonging fostered away from the crowds and within the microcosm of friendship. There were limitations in that enclosure, sure, but there were no rules imposed from on high or procedures to follow. Not everyone was punk, perhaps, but punk could be anything, whether a shriek of catharsis, a moral reinforcement, the courage to say something one cannot yet say themselves, or a reason merely to live.

It’s possible that despite the static, that intimacy is maintained, that its custodians are aware of the static’s volume, and are now committed to its abatement. It’s possible that I, like everyone else, am just old and should forget. And for once that would be nice to do, difficult though it is.

LUXURY VS. CULTIVATION

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Last summer I was visiting a friend, another writer, and we got almost immediately to doing what writers do when writers are in the same room: talk about writing. Perhaps because I was the guest, I recall having considerable sway over the course and tone of the conversation. It centered largely on anxieties related to being a writer: whether one is ever as good as one imagines in one’s own mind, whether one has done enough to provide evidence for the case, and whether one will be justly remembered regardless. Something along those lines. Anyway, in the course of talking, my friend made an observation that, generally, collections of writings by a single author seldom contain work from the first 10 years of their career. Fair enough, but of course there are exceptions to this. One is the iconic author, who tends to encourage completism among publishers if not readers. The other is the prematurely deceased author.

There are many examples of the second kind; Rimbaud is probably the most obvious, and maybe infamous. But her point connected me immediately to an author who’d been on my mind for much of that year.

“I suppose I am not a truly dedicated artist, whatever that is. I’ll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what?” So Lester Bangs assessed of himself in 1968, at the age of 20, the year before he came into prominence as a contributor to the fledgling rock magazine Rolling Stone, and later Creem and The Village Voice.

Few would disagree with that assessment. Bangs never did write a masterpiece as commonly understood. Though it was not for lack of trying. In early the 1980s, Bangs was writing a book called Rock Gomorrah/Tales from Beyond the Grooves. Bangs had written two previous books, on Blondie and Rod Stewart, but they were more like unauthorized hackish fan guides. Rock Gomorrah was more ambitious, a musical complement, it seems, to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Bangs completed a draft in 1982 and submitted it to its publisher. He celebrated later that day with Valium and an over-the-counter cold medicine. He went into a coma and never recovered. He was 33 years old. Rock Gomorrah was shelved and, going by what his biographer read of it, will remain so in its present condition.

Bangs’s legacy has since rested on his shortform work, which spans two collections. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus, is seen as the authoritative collection. It amasses his most accomplished pieces, including his tense feature on Lou Reed and his survey of racism—ironic and otherwise—in New York’s burgeoning punk scene. It also features some of his failed attempts at “serious” narrative literature. This was followed by John Morthland’s Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, the authentic collection that expanded upon the first, including more fugitive pieces but also his Rolling Stone debut: the hatchet job on MC5’s Kick Out the Jams.

While it’s one book more than Robert Warshow, Bangs, as a result of his brevity, joins a long line of writers who are esteemed almost exclusively on style points. It’s the kind of inverted hex that renders a writer all but invisible to a larger public while being fiercely polarized among specialists. As a writer with a knack for criticism of a pop cultural bent, I am no exception. I own a poorly printed copy of Psychotic Reactions, which I bought not after watching Almost Famous, but after putting “rock critic” into Google (or whatever I was using circa 2003). The purpose was then to explore the form I was intent on pursuing at the time. I studied his work with caution. I had already understood the spell of imitation being caught from other “impassioned” stylists of very recent antiquity, and the Bangs style was and is especially potent.

In 2016, Art Tavana wrote a column for LA Weekly on Sky Ferreria. It received backlash from other websites for its exaltation of the singer’s “sex appeal” at the expense of her actual music. It has all the markings of a deliberate troll, given that “sex appeal” was in the title, but also of being poorly written. The piece froths over with tacky imagery (“Sky Tonia Ferreira … has a name that reads like a turbo-charged Italian sports car.”), pedestrian comparisons (“When I say Ferreira looks like Madonna, I also mean to say she has the same kind of innate charisma that most normal people lack.”), and equivocating abstractions (“Male subjectivity aside, the cosmetic potency of Sky Ferreira’s sex appeal shouldn’t be objectified …”) But so intense was the ire that he wrote a formal apology for it. “As a disciple of Bangs and [Richard] Meltzer,” he wrote, “I have cultivated an intentionally provocative prose style that thrives on enacting a certain disregard for the conventions and protocols of polite society.” The word cultivate is significant, because Tavana’s piece is a case study in precisely how it should not be done, in the sense that it was not done at all.

More than his own writing, Bangs lives on in those who invoke his name in an amalgam of tribute and protection. He gives power to a certain kind of nerd with a certain kind of self-confidence to remove the shroud of Tavana’s dreaded “protocols of polite society” so that their opinions charge free like wolves through an opened gate of a sheep enclosure. Bangs is not so much a writer as a Promethean figure, a motivational speaker. It’s a representation that reminds me of Dave Grohl’s lecture at SXSW, which pounded in the skulls of every listener, with Grohl’s trademark indelicacy, a single theme:

There is no right or wrong. There is only, YOUR VOICE. Your voice screaming through an old Neve 8028 recording console, your voice singing from a laptop, your voice echoing from a street corner …. It doesn’t matter. What matters most is that it’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone.

Despite, or because of, the positive intonations of self-actualization inherent in it, writing of this kind is divisive. For the haters it is self-indulgent, vulgar, and/or pretentious. For its admirers it is authentic or uncompromising. I prefer the more all-encompassing term luxuriating, for that is what it is, whether good or bad. It is the championing of the singular voice, and the strident self against the trembling many. It is a mud bath in one’s total subjectivity. It is the triumph of and unflinching allegiance to lived experience. At its best it reveals writing’s immense flexibility and can clarify or simplify ideas for any lay reader where more restrained writing may obscure or flatten. Montaigne was of this bent, as were Thomas De Quincey, Friedrich Nietzsche, G.K. Chesterton, Virginia Woolf, Eric Hoffer, and James Baldwin. Good contemporary examples include Annie Dillard and Jessica Hopper.

The luxuriant voice can break bad in two ways. One way is in authority, a word-vested priesthood, if you will, where the voice is the doctrine. “This effect [of Emerson on his audience] was by no means due to the possession … of the secret of the universe, or even of a definite conception of the ultimate truth,” George Santayana wrote. “The source of his power lay not in his doctrine, but in his temperament, and the rare quality of his wisdom due less to his reason than to his imagination.” The other way is in performative detachment, where a writer livens up a given space by the gravitas his being there lends to it. Think David Foster Wallace on the cruise ship, or John Jeremiah Sullivan at the Creation festival:

I suspect that on some level—say, the conscious one—I didn’t want to be noticing what I noticed as we went. But I’ve been to a lot of huge public events in this country during the past five years, writing about sports or whatever, and one thing they all had in common was this weird implicit enmity that American males, in particular, seem to carry around with them much of the time. Call it a laughable generalization, fine, but if you spend enough late afternoons in stadium concourses, you feel it, something darker than machismo. Something a little wounded, and a little sneering, and just plain ready for bad things to happen. It wasn’t here. It was just…not. I looked for it, and I couldn’t find it. In the three days I spent at Creation, I saw not one fight, heard not one word spoken in anger, felt at no time even mildly harassed, and in fact met many people who were exceptionally kind. I realize they were all of the same race, all believed the same stuff, and weren’t drinking, but there were also 100,000 of them. What’s that about?

Tavana’s piece hewed closest to this kind. At bottom, what hinged most on his column was not what it said about Ferreria, though she was understandably unhappy, but simply that he was saying it. He could have written similarly steamy prose about bass fishing for all anyone cared. True, this is the essayist’s power, but it’s also the essayist’s responsibility not to drift into inanities and platitudes, which in this case it did at the very least. Of course this is only one piece, and singling him out overlooks that he’s apparently been publishing since 2013, and so is protected by my friend’s 10-year rule. Tavana, after all, did write an engrossing feature on Milo Yiannopoulos, the sadness of which verged on gothic.

But luxuriating one’s voice, whatever its timbre, is an affirmation rather than cultivation. Writing that is cultivated is not as passionately contested, but has its own line in the sand. For its haters it is studied, arch, cold, and, also, pretentious. For its lovers it is elegant, disciplined, witty, and respectful. It pays heed to past forms and is concerned primarily with following Swift’s dictum of “proper words in proper places,” so as best to illuminate the subject at hand. But the subject may not be one especially called for by others. Cultivated writing is no less idiosyncratic than luxuriant writing, but it is idiosyncrasy of judgment more than voice. The finest examples include Edmund Burke, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt (for the most part), Walter Pater (most of the Victorians really), Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Maggie Nelson. But also Lester Bangs.

“I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own,” Bangs continued in 1968, “and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet where reading Aeschylus.” Certainly on the surface that rings like luxuriating pomp, but the word choices of “Sound” and “boogaloo” give the game away. Bangs’s style, in the end, is in his subject: rock and roll. His style was not mere opinion-dispensing or shit-shooting, but a compound of knowledge, passion, and a gift for turning sound into language. But there was much clarity as there was passion. He wasn’t so much a polemicist or an iconoclast as he was one to call things as he saw them. “Another reason for getting rid of all those little verbal barbs is that no matter how you intend them,” Bangs wrote in “White Noise Supremacists,” “you can’t say them without risking misinterpretation by some other bigoted asshole; your irony just might be his cup of hate.”

Things like the Creem articles and partydown exhibitionism represented a reaction against the hippie counterculture and what a lot of us regarded as its pious pussyfooting around questions of racial and sexual identity, questions we were quite prepared to drive over with bulldozers. We believed nothing could be worse, more pretentious and hypocritical, than the hippies and the liberal masochism in whose sidecar they Coked along, so we embraced an indiscriminate, half-joking and half-hostile mind-lessness which seemed to represent, as Mark Jacobson pointed out in his Voice piece on Legs McNeil, a new kind of cool. “I don’t discriminate,” I used to laugh, “I’m prejudiced against everybody!” I thought it made for a nicely charismatic mix of Lenny Bruce freespleen and W.C. Fields misanthropy, conveniently ignoring Lenny’s delirious, nigh-psychopathic inability to resolve the contradictions between his idealism and his infantile, scatological exhibitionism, as well as the fact that W. C. Fields’s racism was as real and vile as-or more real and vile than anybody else’s.

Eventually I drifted away from Lester Bangs as I drifted away from writing about music. But Bangs’s example never really left me. Bangs is at heart a model critic for those to whom analytic faculty comes easily but cultural pedigree does not. My personality makes it impossible to assimilate his attitude, but his senses are something to strive for. Maria Bustillos wrote that Bangs “had the most advanced and exquisite taste of any American writer of his generation, uneven and erratic as it was.” Where he was most free, radical, and interesting was in where he chose to look, letting his talents guide him to his conclusions. There is no uniform way to sharpen that sight, and there is no way to control one’s blind spots. The endgame is not to replicate Lester Bangs or any other critic, but to have a criticism, that continues to be as sharp, committed, and has fun as his was.

THE ANTI-HORROR OF NEIL HAMBURGER

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In a previous post, I alluded to the fact that I have a soft spot for upbeat viewing. In that specific case, it was as a way of unwinding from my cerebrally taxing endeavors. But even before I was knowingly engaging in criticism, I always found comfort in the light and cheerful. In fact it is possible that I consume these products more correctly than I do the graver materials. There is no shortage of good media that is also optimistic; just look at Parks and Recreation, Portlandia, or Clueless. But their quality is a secondary matter to the escapism they offer. Left to my own devices, my mind is that of a hyperactive, neglectfully attended child atop an Action Park waterslide that slopes into darkness.

That in itself is bad, but these thoughts are of such power that I always feared they could sniff me out of hiding. And my fear was vindicated following an umpteenth viewing of Napoleon Dynamite.

Jared and Jerusha Hess’s 2004 debut feature is eternally polarizing. Some love it for the excessive quirk of its world and the almost childish guilelessness of its characters and some do not. I was perfectly at peace the first time I saw it the summer it was released, with my father and one of my brothers in tow, in a Montclair movie theater that no longer exists. All three of us were delighted and remain so. At the time it seemed quite appropriate that it was contrasted against Todd Solondz’s similarly styled but far bleaker depiction of awkward adolescence, Welcome to the Dollhouse. But lately I’ve come to realize that this was an error.

My error is twofold. First, Welcome to the Dollhouse is not similarly styled. It is a realistic portrayal of a gawky, inept child stuck in a suburb whose alternating hostility and emptiness is rendered with a classical sculptor’s precision. Second, Napoleon Dynamite is actually the bleaker of the two films. This might seem ludicrous, but it makes more sense when you see what Napoleon Dynamite is presenting: a tightly contained ideal. It is a kind of rustic snow globe where the depravity of the outside world is prohibited, and this is portrayed with delicate suggestion. “I don’t know how they do things down in Juarez,” the school principal tells Pedro, “but here in Idaho we have a little something called pride. Smashing in the face a piñata that resembles Summer Wheatley [his rival for class president] is a disgrace to you, me, and the entire Gem State.” The film does end on an upbeat note, with Napoleon playing tetherball with his love interest Deb, but we are left with the suggestion that things go downhill the moment he stops playing.

This interpretation was given greater illumination when I recently watched Rick Alverson’s 2015 film Entertainment. It tells of a standup comic, simply identified in the credits as “The Comedian” as he goes on tour through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, performing to audiences in bars, restaurants, and prisons who are varyingly unreceptive. He is played by Gregg Turkington, and is actually a revival of his character Neil Hamburger, a dark parody of a night club comedian, with a cheap tuxedo and a greasy comb-over, who seethes with unfunny one-liners (“Why does Madonna feed her baby Alpo brand dog food,” goes one of his “jokes.” “Because that’s what comes out of her breasts.”) while clutching multiple cocktails in his arms as he holds his microphone. When Norm Macdonald lambasted the performance criticism of anti-comedy, Hamburger is doubtless the example he had in mind.

Turkington was initially approached with the idea of playing Hamburger as interacting with people on the street. But rather than risk devolving into a Borat knock-off, Turkington preferred “a Two-Lane Blacktop art film kind of vibe.” Its conception was not so much ambitious as it was shrewd. It is at once a kind of lyrical road film and an upending of the character vehicle. It demystifies Hamburger’s persona even further by showing him out of character, so to speak. Off-stage, Hamburger’s grating register reverts back to Turkington’s more introverted tone and manner as he shuffles through venues, tourist traps, guest rooms, motels, party houses, and endless stretches of hot desert road. The most time he is seen speaking, outside of performance, is into his phone as he leaves rambling messages to his estranged daughter Maria, who does not answer or reply.

Like Napoleon Dynamite, the film is framed in static but beautiful establishing shots of vast western wilderness and tacky, time-abandoned interiors. But whereas Napoleon Dynamite’s Idaho was a safe enclosure of expansive blue skies and knick knack-filled homes, Neil Hamburger’s California is an endless scorched waste of airplane graveyards, sterile lodgings, strung-out hipsters, a very creepy Michael Cera, and minimal—seldom warm—human contact. Entertainment comes closest to a kind of spiritual sequel to Napoleon Dynamite, in which a singularly odd character is stranded from his home, trying to survive in a much less hospitable world. It is Napoleon Dynamite in exile.

Entertainment is neither a comedy nor an anti-comedy, nor is it really a drama. It tows the line between the realistic and the absurd and leans deeper in either direction. But no matter which way it leans, the result is always a variation on emptiness. The story is more of a series of incidents strung together than a narrative. He is patronized by a more successful cousin (played by John C. Reilly) on his expansive ranch, he has an ethereal but opaque session with a traveling chromotherapist, an eye doctor forgets about him mid-appointment, he agrees to, then abandons, a shoot for an internet comedy video in the middle of the desert, his opening act is a silent clown. His most receptive audience is politely laughing convicts. His strategy for interruptions is to verbally lacerate. A drunk woman cuts off his train of thought and he proceeds to call her a “whore” with “syphilis breath” as she stares back at him with a mix of shock and familiarity. She accosts him outside and breaks his glasses. When you see Neil go low, he goes lower still. When a private party requires him to jump out of a large cake, he breaks down and jumps into the pool.

Entertainment was little seen upon its release while being more praised than not by critics; with an 82 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. One dissenter was Vulture’s David Edelstein, who watched it twice but couldn’t be convinced “that Alverson and Turkington had made an authentically punk art movie.” For all its willingness to examine “the skeletal remains of a snobbish, viciously exploitative America,” it lacked a compelling explorer. “Neil is quite a character—he’s unforgettable. But he doesn’t have the stature for tragedy.” He’s not wrong. Excessive cynicism can be every bit as unpalatable as excessive whimsy. But maybe that’s not really the intent of the film—or anyway it’s not its most interesting attribute.

Todd Solondz has dodged accusations of his own of being misanthropic, but as The AV Club points out, that is a gross simplification of his work. Though his films examine “the minds of the unlovable and unforgivable,” not only pitiful adolescent nerds but also pedophiles and anti-abortion terrorists, he does so with an aim towards humanization and empathy. “Where other filmmakers strain to give us protagonists that are immediately identifiable, Solondz tends to confront us with someone who, for most of the audience, is an ill-fitting subversion of a stereotype we didn’t know we had.”

Looked in this way, the effect of Entertainment might not be in how we respond to Neil Hamburger, but in what Neil Hamburger reflects back at us. Hamburger may not have “the stature of tragedy”—but we might. Indeed, Turkington’s creation is not a very effective commentary on standup comedy hackery—compared, anyway, to someone like Dan Nainan. Instead he strikes more broadly at the sense of exhaustive despair that is either felt or feared but never easy to articulate. Neil Hamburger is a kind of manifestation of our greatest weaknesses, our laziness, our vindictiveness, our drift into mediocrity, our isolation. He embodies Ambrose Bierce’s definition of being alone: “in bad company.” Rather than a jester of anti-comedy, Neil Hamburger is a specter of anti-horror.

But through all this, Entertainment reasserts itself as two films in one. It is a brutal trek through the American frontier’s social excrement. It is also a character study of our encroaching moral and emotional solipsism. It is suited for a warmer reception now that the rest of the country has more or less caught up with its corrosive pessimism and now that the film is on Netflix. Yet Entertainment does have one thread through which it could have stitched a timeless, or at least more coherent, work.

In one of his several calls to his daughter, Neil, drunk and on the floor, sings “Ave Maria” into her voicemail. Edelstein points out that these iterations of Maria are not accidental. Over the course of the film, the invitations to conversation assume the cadence of prayers to a being he can’t quite distinguish. In one call he asks her point blank if she believes in God. Yet these read less like a thematic undercurrent and more like a missed opportunity. With the amorality of the era well established by now, the creative curiosity not just for moral narrative, but religious narrative, has been on the rise. If mother! was an imperfect entry, it was also an indicator of further commitment. Neil Hamburger’s Dark Night of the Soul might have elevated the broadly tragic and shocking non sequiturs into more classically grotesque observances of the suffering and humility that can give way to grace. Michael Cera’s menacing but pointless cameo could have made an unsettling case for the demonic presence. “Neil is desperate for salvation,” Edelstein writes. He could have had it.

It is possible that I’m reading too much into this with the religious road movie I already have in my head. But Entertainment at least understands more concretely, and with far less words, what most proselytizers can only speak of in the abstract: we are exhausted trying to fill our spiritual absence with empty calories. At the film’s best, Neil Hamburger’s hopeless binge veers on the poetic. The power inherent in finding one is no longer hungry remains unrealized.

POSTERITY BITES

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When I take actual stock in what it means to be a millennial, I find myself always settling on the image of a floor of a burning skyscraper. The floor itself is not burning, but the floors just above it and just below it are one by one being engulfed in flames. These dual infernos, I suspect you will have gathered, are meant to represent the animosities of the surrounding generations. The top-down flames are the boomers, possibly also a select chunk of generation X. The bottom-up flames are the succeeding generations.

This metaphor functions on a certain level of speculation on my part. Compared to the animosity of the baby boomers, little can be said of the generations to follow us—that is to say, “generation Z” and anything after. The flames coming down are certainly much closer than those coming up. But I’m placing my bets squarely on the likelihood that the rising flames are in fact rising.

Of the older generation’s laments, we hear about them often. Their thinkpieces of avocados, selfies, pornography, and narcissism speak volumes. Time, you see, is a great obstacle course of struggle. It is not up to the elders to tell you just how those obstacles are placed or when they will appear, but only to be ready when they do. But then some obstacles appeared that not even they knew how to overcome, and so the only reasonable solution was to place a greater onus upon us. Up went our potential, up still went our destiny, and with that all outside hopes and expectations. And yet by all appearances we dithered and floundered.

If this is worth responding to at all, I suppose it can be along these lines: lay the fuck off, you prigs.

As with any other generation, the millennials are a complicated lot gathered together by the fortune—or misfortune—of the temporal lottery. For all the overlap we share there is a far greater reserve of difference between one another in how we approached our bizarre age. Some, when the War on Terror had commenced, reacted to it by volunteering to fight for it, while others endeavored to protest its excesses if not its entire existence, and others plowed forward regardless of either for various reasons. Some are excited by the sudden explosion of technology and its revolutionary implications and others are not. Some are ennobled by the liberal order the previous generation established and want to usher it into their own age in their own image while others would rather not do that and wish to consider less favored alternatives. Some can thrive amidst the shifting economic plates beneath them while others are still trying to figure it out. Some are invested in cultivating stability and family life and others are just not. To hound us for our failures to rise to the occasion seems, firstly, to be very rude to your children and, secondly, to plead blindness to human experience, which guides itself by no one social framework.

The ire of the subsequent generations is another matter, especially as it is starting to take shape as the new one coming into adulthood.

Those who make up the Parkland teens were born in or around 2000. As victims of or witnesses to one of the deadliest school shootings in the United States, they are both symbols and leaders of a mass movement to bring about greater gun control laws in the country. They and other young people have proven remarkably savvy in carrying out their message. They made the cover of TIME magazine this week in anticipation of the March for Our Lives, which took place on March 24 in 800 cities around the world, with hundreds of thousands of attendees in Washington, DC alone.

Those sections of the media not antagonistic to the phenomenon have explained it with an air of destiny. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students were “trained for this moment” thanks to a curriculum that includes forensics and public speaking as well as high-quality drama and journalism programs. They have also been reared in the morals of young adult fiction. “Emma González’s extraordinary, uncomfortable, unexplained silence was one of the most transformational political moments of my lifetime,” Dahlia Lithwick writes on an instantly iconic moment of the march.

The coverage is instructive more of the people doing the covering than on their subjects. The teens are not just aggrieved high school students, but keepers of the progressive flame that others have failed to kindle. It is not simply arms legislation they seek to change but The Culture. In other words, they make up one branch of the continued assault on the Trump presidency (the other, currently, being Stormy Daniels). As of right now, the teens and their supporters share the same target, but The Culture is vast and entangled. At some point, another rising young person of equal command will have sharp and impassioned things to say about others. Quite possibly us.

It will doubtless look typical that a millennial should wonder whether anyone is thinking of him and his cohort in any intent way. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to do so. Seeing as how millennials, quite against their wishes, achieved their own quasi-mythical status, it would make some sense for the next crop of thinkpiece fodder to assess us with their hindsight. I can’t say that I’m incurious. I was a freshman in high school when the Columbine shooting took place killing 13 people, four less than the deaths at MSDHS. If there was any mass student-led movement in its wake it is not remembered. “There’s a part of me that says, ‘You could have done more. You could have been more active,’” Columbine survivor Andy McDonald told Vox. “One of the things that crossed my mind was, what if there were changes that were made after Columbine on a policy level? What could have been different today as a result? Would it have become part of the culture? That was part of my frustration.”

Columbine was something of a transitional moment, as with any other major millennial event. But it was the transition of one form of backlash—politicians blaming popular culture for violence—giving way to another—politicians arguing the how versus if of gun control. Columbine was when the cycle as we’ve known it for years was created and calcified with each new shooting. What student protestors could have done at the time is unclear. The media, for one, was much more controlled than it is now, and social media was rather … limited. I defy anyone around my age to remember his or her first AOL screen name. Moreover, the character of the time was much different. Even after Ruby Ridge, Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots, Waco, the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, and the Seattle WTO riots, the era was an optimistic one. Trust in government was considerably higher than it is now. In fact, Bill Clinton’s approval rating was hovering around the mid-60s in the first half of 1999. The idea of protesting and moral outcry seemed less attractive than simply processing the trauma and letting the kids be kids again.

Seen less generously, the millennials look to those younger like an age demographic reared, willfully, into an age of complacency, with some even longing for a return to that complacency. This perception would not be any more deserved than the one lobbed from above, but it is more understandable.

There is a greater rift separating the millennials from generation Z than the rift separating the boomers from the millennials. Our recent culture and politics have been framed by and to the benefit of those who witnessed the 9/11 attacks in real time. Little has been thought of those born just before or immediately after the attacks. It is entirely plausible, likely even, that their views will be markedly different from ours. They look much more skeptically toward power structures, or at least those structures that exclude them. With greater means to participate in social activity, they are less passive or curious. To that end, the internet is no longer a wondrous novelty but a functional tool. I won’t say that they’re unsentimental, but they might have less patience for the sentimentality of millennials.

Millennials are left to wonder: how are we to respond if they come calling? My answer is: we don’t. Not out of callousness, mind you, but out of acquiescence. It’s become clear in the last several years that millennials are not actually going to Inherit the Earth as each generation has in the past. The bill of damages racked up by those generations had to be handed down at some point, and it fell to ours to default on the debts. The generational wars are over—in stalemate. History is bored with us. Millennials in this sense, and only in this sense, are free. Free, anyway, to address their responsibilities in different ways. Say, for instance, in managing multigenerational homes, which will reassert age divisions not as cultural signifiers but as levels of experience in carrying out familial and communal roles. For many millennials, the world is looking smaller than it was initially promised, and so retreat from worldliness into something more local may be more attractive, or at least more sustainable.

The experience of a millennial, then, is still a burning building but with different accelerants: the contradictory expectations of the recent past burning from above and the succession of social and cultural upheavals burning from below. Yet the millennials are in themselves a singular phenomenon, in the sense that they can exit the generational structure, walking away as the building burns down.