Black Ribbon Award

CASTLES OF FILTH

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When you are in kindergarten you are in a state of relative innocence about the tragic nature of existence and the fallen state of mankind. The world of the kindergartner is smaller, and therefore brighter, more innocent, and free of hostility and fear. It is certainly free of loneliness. Every other kindergartener is your friend and you are glad to be the friend of every other kindergartner. Things like chemistry, taste, and humor do not enter into the equation. Kindergartners have the same simple chemistry, the same dumb taste, and the same crude humor. The trappings of refinement and the discriminating urge are problems for third-graders.

As such it is not unusual to have birthday parties where you and everyone else are invited, because these are the only people you know, and “knowledge” is a fluid concept. I was no different. My life between 1989 and 1991 felt equal to that of a socialite’s. Parties, parties, parties. Almost chainlike in procession. The kinds of parties with hats, noisemakers, balloons, goodie bags, over-rich cake, bowling, ball pits, and, on extremely halting occasions, clowns. It amazes me as an adult how I ever managed to endure these festivities, let alone hold any of my own. But I did, and I cringe to think about it. Not because I was always naturally retiring, rather because I was the opposite.

My birthday is in the beginning of the summer, so we’d celebrate it outdoors in the afternoon heat. The one I’m thinking of took place in the spacious backyard of my childhood home in 1990. I believe almost all of my classmates from my out-of-town school and a handful of neighborhood kids were in attendance. We had a wooden swing set where all the kids crowded around. There were some plastic cups and sand pail strewn about as well that one of the attendees gathered up, filled with water, and carefully placed on one of the planks next to the slide. I had no idea why my classmate was doing this, but without much thought I proceeded to grab a stick and knock over every container, spilling the water in all directions. My mom chastened me and I probably felt some degree of chastisement, but not so much that I could totally suppress similarly disruptive urges at the gift-opening stage of things. No present was spared my harsh analysis. Even if I liked a present I still found grounds to excoriate it and, by extension, the giver, whom I probably made cry. I never had a birthday party ever again.

If the notion that our inner-character stops forming about the age of 15 or 16 is more than something I conjured by casual observation, it may appear that my own inner-character froze in place somewhat earlier than that. Whether that is a mark of real distinction I don’t know, but from that moment on I never deviated from my core energy of malcontentedness. In my heart I was always a shitlord.

I make no claim to being the first shitlord, mind you. Shitposting, like punk and heavy metal before it, is a recent term meant to describe something that has been with us since the crystallization of our thought. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the very first truly human thought was a shitpost. That makes it seem a bit more than singular to the character of the species, and maybe it isn’t, but the exacting nature of shitposting makes it something greater than a leisure hobby. Some people take to it more than others. People, that is, with a mission for which shitposting is a most suitable vehicle of delivery. People like me. That seems specious given that shitposting is thought to utilize a narrow stylistic range that is always overtly vulgar and aggressive, by shitlords who are expected to be always forceful, outrageous, and, depending on whom you ask, brave. I’m not known for possessing any of these characteristics, though I will get to matter of style momentarily. First I must address the substance of my shitposting, so far only approached in broad strokes.

As shitposting is as old as our consciousness, many other words can be applied to it as being more or less equal on the surface without corroding its effects: cynicism, nihilism, blackguardism, or anything else found in three or four overlapping thesaurus entries. But I would say that these are antecedents to a more agile and intensive heir. Cynicism is an affection; shitposting is a mode of action, which a cynical person may faintly recognize but not want to undertake depending on their temperament and needs. But I’m not being any more precise, so let us go back to six-year-old me. Six-year-old me, I can confirm, had no concept of cynicism or nihilism, he also had no sense of righteousness and no injustice to inveigh against. I’m pretty sure he had the best childhood of all time. And yet here he was in his backyard, looking at his guest gleefully playing with his cups, pails, and water supply. A guest for whom he felt no ill-will so far as he can remember. He did not even care that the guest wasn’t including him in his weird activity. But six-year-old me found his conduct distasteful; his attitude offensive. Here was a vulgar display occurring before his very eyes, on his goddamn birthday. His classmate’s galivanting was taking him and, by extension, everyone else at the party down a sordid path. Six-year-old me didn’t know what that sordid path would lead to, but clearly it was nowhere ideal, so it had to be stopped. Six-year-old me had to disrupt this affront to basic goodness for everyone’s betterment, even if they didn’t know it. It is also possible that six-year-old me was kind of cranky and needed a nap, but I will leave that aside to consider what, in all likelihood, was roiling inside me at a very spiritual level.

Maybe it helps to invert the problem. No one is a shitlord as such, but there are things that move people in such a way that shitposting is the only logical method of redress. I don’t know what those things are for other shitlords. We are not like the serial killers in Hannibal or Mindhunters, forming an infernal network. I am only speaking for what moves me. At age six it seems like mindless happiness was all it took. Yet happiness, mindless or otherwise, is so scarce among adults that that hardly does it for me anymore. Even if my core functionality is unchanged, I must aspire to greater heights to give it the most optimal release. Triumphalism is one. Every time I see triumphalism among a certain group, even if it is a basically friendly group, I can’t help but find it fraudulent, exclusive, and egomaniacal. Where triumphalism thrives, I must do everything in my ability to sow defeat. Certainty is another one, and chases the same energies as triumphalism. The certain carry themselves like Henry Ford with a Model T of an idea. And they’re going to ride that idea right over you unless you find a way to pound some doubt into their skulls. Their skulls are thick, so you need a reliable hammer.

You are confused. “This sounds like bullying, Mr. Morgan.” It’s a fair deduction, given that our own former President, the Platonic ideal of a bully, spent much of his time in office engaging in what passed for many in America as shitposting. But this was a pathetic and opportunistic appropriation compared to the real artistry. Bullies, like the rest of us, are inert creatures. What they are, they will remain. But unlike the rest of us, their humanity is incomplete—or just failed. When they dominate someone, they know they are dominating someone, but they do it instinctually, as an animal would, with a conception of power or consequence that is simplistic at most. It’s appetite all the way down. And a bully is forever feeding. It’s a habit that can be utilized for the designs of others with a flair for manipulation, the only thing that can control bullies. Bullies are capable of real hurt and inspire in their victims feelings of condemnation and retribution. These feelings are genuine but overtaxed relative to the size of the object. Though unchanging at their core, bullies are also shrinking. No one feels it less than their former objects of torment, who simply see it as a matter of distance. The bully, ever hungry but without sustenance, knows the truth and pulls himself into pieces as if tied to four horses at the wrists and ankles. Only the cruelest of us would wish that on anyone.

But that is still not shitposting. The shitlord, unlike a bully, is not a half-person. He knows there is such a thing as wrong, that he is in the wrong 95 percent of the time, and has earned admonishment for being so. He knows the depths of his own appetites. But as my six-year-old self has shown, he will return to the wrong in due course.

The shitlord is distinct moreover from those who might be called the professionally wrong, those culture-warriors who flock to the nearest wrong thing to make a totem of it. These legionnaires for truth are more accurately dealers in validation of their audience’s immobile prejudices. This would be fine in any media environment other than the one we live with, where the cyclical intensity of opinion-giving resembles a vomitorium, only where wine is replaced by the previous pool of vomit. Rewards are conferred to those who take the most pleasure in perpetuating the cycle, as mere tolerance seems to be impossible. Shitposting has no connection to that cycle, having accepted being wrong as an unavoidable condition rather than a strategic point in a game where the clearest winners are dead. Shitposing is the greatest means by which the condition of wrongness is made clear for the majority to whom it is still obscure, whether they want it to be clarified or not. Correction is found in the proliferation of error.

It is curious, though, how someone so rife in elegant essays and so lacking in good tweets and fresh memes can be counted as a shitlord. But this is to confuse effective methods with truthful ones. Those who emphasize the former betray their narrow minds so fixated on best practices, resulting in popularity for the sake of being popular. I work with the tools that are given me by whatever power that gives them. I approach every essay as an opportunity to shitpost, in part or in total. Any essay that doesn’t meet this objective lives on in my mind as a failure, no matter how “good” my mom says it is. I can only assume that history’s great shitposters held themselves to the same standards, whether it was Diogenes, Derrida, or Death Grips.

At the same time, maybe the perplexed are right. Maybe “shitpost” is too base for what I create, which is closer in resemblance to a castle. A castle of the most refined craftsmanship, using the most putrid construction materials. A castle of filth. Unlike your standard shitpost this castle has a staying power, it can be lived in. And it will be some time before the resident notices the framework of bones, tendons, and ligaments giving the dung its fine shape and resilience. But when they seek me to ask from what source these bones were extracted, I will have gone. A shitlord does not take shelter in his own castle. He goes onward and upward to a place beyond the scope and conception of those he corrects: a place of endless birthday parties, in which he is at once the celebrant, the guest, the clown, and the cake.

OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL ANXIETY

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Lent is not a fun time for Christians. Some don’t see much distinction between Lent and Ordinary Time to be sure; but even for the most heterodox among us, the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday are that part of the Christian experience at its least holy and most mortified; whatever can bring the Christian closer to the severity felt by the Apostles and their early congregants, to say nothing of Christ himself. It is less about what the Christian “gives up” in that span of time than it is about what it the Christian gains (or regains) by giving something up. It is, as a youth pastor might put it, a matter of strengthening your spiritual core.

Not that I have been doing anything even close to that. Less than a week into Lent 2021 I’ve gone and fucked it up already. I was negligent in keeping track of when Ash Wednesday fell this year. It was left to my dad to remind me, on Mardis Gras. This has been typical of my faith journey of the past year, which saw it go from erratic and isolate verging on complacent to pretty much unmoored. I am hardly blaming the pandemic for this discovery of my half-dormant spiritual laziness, but spiritual laziness is not something to let a good crisis go to waste. And like a good Catholic, the only way to meet this crisis with dignity is to compound it with guilt and disappointment. It’s very clever, you see; if all you’ve done with your devotion is make damnation more certain, you can, theoretically, make it more bearable with committed prep work. Never do you expect to find respite or clarity. Certainly you never go out and find it yourself.

But then it is in those moments of lowest expectation that those very opportunities for clarity present themselves. Or so I was recently willing to consider.

I started hearing about Rose Glass’s debut film Saint Maud a few months ago. As the latest horror cash cow for A24, it entered my consciousness as these things always do: in a procession of critical praise. With a Rotten Tomatoes score presently in the low 90-percent range, it is being not unexpectedly heralded as the scariest thing on God’s green earth that you simply have to see. Critics insist that it is beautiful and intense, moody and meditative, and with a non-zero presence of serious religious themes. I didn’t discount these plaudits but I was reaching a point in my life where this was starting to get old. A24 couldn’t rule the roost forever. The most recent films I’d seen of theirs—Hereditary and Under the Silver Lake—verged on self-parody. I posted some incredulous tweets about it and put it out of my mind. But then it came back into my life, on the first Friday of Lent, as an “EPIX original” ready to be viewed. Only two things were possible: A24’s promotional department is craftier than I’d given them credit for; or A24’s promotional department was briefly appropriated as a messenger of the divine to nudge me into a Lenten Mindset. There was only one way to find out, and the answer is a complicated matter. Obviously it is or I wouldn’t be writing about it, would I?

The Maud of Saint Maud is a Welsh palliative caregiver living in coastal England. In the events before the film she was a hospital nurse until a fatal accident caused her not only to change careers but to convert to a Christianity that has overtaken every aspect of her life. She is heard in voiceovers praying to God in a chatty, diaristic tone. In one prayer at the beginning of the film she expresses reservations in her new client, Amanda, a non-believing avant-garde choreographer with a penchant for unsubtly uterine wallpaper and who is in the terminal stages of lymphoma. Creatives, she prays, tend to be “self-involved.”

The earnest Maud and the acerbic Amanda seem destined not to get along at all. But it doesn’t take long for Maud’s missionary impulses to kick in, believing that with enough zeal she can hand-deliver this woman’s soul to Heaven. At first it works. Amanda is moved by Maud’s displays of devotion, for at least it makes her an attentive nurse. She respects Maud’s need to say grace before meals and is intrigued rather than moved to condescension by her claims to hear God’s voice in prayer. She gives Maud a book of William Blake’s art with a note calling her “my saviour.” Maud has brief but intense moments of visible ecstasy at these efforts, strange facial contortions that seem only partially of her doing (and will become more important later). But this does not last once Maud oversteps her bounds and meddles into other aspects of Amanda’s life, specifically Amanda’s female lover whom she clumsily tells not to return. This backfires spectacularly when Amanda holds a birthday party with her lover and her other hipster guests and mocks her in front of everyone. Maud strikes her and is fired, sending her down a self-destructive spiral and a crisis of faith. From there things go in an expectedly stranger and darker trajectory, to which I will return.

Saint Maud is not A24’s first religious-themed film, and it helps to be compared against its two predecessors: 2017’s First Reformed and 2015’s The Witch. Like the first two, Saint Maud has been lauded, justly, for its brilliant performances (especially Morfydd Clark as Maud) and visual craftsmanship. It in no way departs from or exceeds the quality we’ve come to expect from this company’s output. More importantly it also does not depart from their depictions of religion, and Christianity specifically. Though The Witch is steeped in deep research of 17th century American Puritanism and First Reformed‘s director was raised as a Calvinist, both take a heavily existentialist view of spirituality, wherein God exists but is antagonistic or perhaps a bit aloof, and where hope of redemption is almost impossible. Yet while The Witch is more religiously literate and First Reformed is more spiritually fraught, Saint Maud is the more intimate and the more visceral of the three.

Maud’s faith has been described as Catholic in the press on Saint Maud I’ve read. I didn’t hear that addressed directly while watching the film but there are enough indicators so as not to require it. She has a patron saint (Mary Magdalene) and goes by what I’m guessing is her confirmation name (her real name is Katie). She partakes in what can be called “Catholic things”: she keeps a shrine in her apartment, takes a wall crucifix with her to Amanda’s house, has rosary beads, kneels on popcorn kernels to pray, and walks with thumbtacks in her shoes. She goes through the film in an unending state of penance, though she is only once seen looking at a church from a distance rather than going into it and her voiceover prayers, though constant and verbose, do not contain anything confessional or doctrinal. This is by no means meant to question the validity of Maud’s faith as she sees it, seeing has how it’s not all that different in substance from a lot of Christians. Nor do I question the motives of Glass in depicting it. I believe she is accomplishing something a bit more complicated, in which faith is a kind of symptom of something rather than a cause.

Maud’s prayerful talkativeness is offset by Glass’s preference for visual narrative. Through this we learn pertinent, if still speculative details. We see the scars on her stomach. We don’t know for certain if they are self-inflicted but we know that extreme self-mortification and -flagellation come naturally to her. We know she accidentally killed a patient while performing CPR and his haunted by it. We know that she is virtually friendless and starved for connection in that awful, awful town she’s stuck in, though there are suggestions that this was not always so. We don’t know much about her past but we know she neither looks well upon it nor can she simply revert back to it. (A very difficult scene at this point intercuts flashbacks of her hospital accident with a one-night stand that ends up as a rape.) We are given much less to go on as to what led her to embrace this ultra-penitent Catholicism as opposed to anything else, but we are also given just enough to dispel our judgment for her doing so.

Yet something doesn’t sit right with her choice. Something at some point of her journey toward God led her astray, or misled her completely. On the surface this is quite ordinary. The excess of zeal we find in recent converts, or even in ourselves, can just as easily be a longing for zeal. You seek something that is capable of eclipsing whatever lesser person you used to be. This isn’t a matter of believing in how the universe is ordered. Methodists believe in things. What you want is a righteous path. You want holiness.

We’ve seen holiness granted enough times, but not all the time, and not usually to people who go out in search of it. Saint Maud is strongest when capturing its protagonist’s clear pursuit of this state, for good or ill, and provides for her the direst consequences and nothing else.

As the film careens into its third act, Maud becomes more untethered from earthly life. She has visions and levitates, she projectile vomits all over her apartment, God talks to her in Welsh, telling her she knows what to do. For Maud everything is falling into proper order. But at any of these points, the viewer is led to conclude that something other than God is in operation. This creates a rift in interpretation. Some viewers will see the demonic as a manifestation of her psychological break. Other viewers will see her psychological break as a receptor for the demonic.

I’ve seen plenty of horror films where fringe cults are vindicated; and I’ve seen plenty more where demons are literal entities. Because this is a prestige horror film, Saint Maud prefers to cultivate ambiguity. Glass portrays the literal and figurative cases with equal intensity. It’s good art, but if it is to be taken as seriously as approving critics insist, that means questioning whether it must be seen. A24 horror is often complained of as being boring, but it also cuts the other way as being far too confrontational toward any viewer’s greatest vulnerabilities, whether of their grief, their traumas, or their belief in Hell. And the latter merits some special attention.

A few weeks before I watched Saint Maud, I started reading the J.M. Cohen translation of St. Teresa of Ávila’s autobiography. This was not out of any pious intent. Cervantes’s Exemplary Novels didn’t do anything for me so I went for what I thought was the next best thing. In addition to being much more readable, it made me wonder how First Reformed would have gone if Ethan Hawke’s anguished pastor had read her instead of Thomas Merton or The Cloud of Unknowing. St. Teresa’s book is full of sickness, of continuous lapses into mortal sin, of mystical and otherworldly visions, and of the struggle to love and honor God in all sincerity. But where Hawke’s character was trying and failing to find an appropriate, non-murderous mode of prayer, St. Teresa seemed ultimately unfazed by existential qualms. Perhaps having the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation, things more immediate and tangible than climate change, hanging over you has a way of fine-tuning your thinking. What effect might that have on our existentialist horror?

Naturally I thought the same for Saint Maud only to be led to the suspicion that maybe Glass had read St. Teresa. Maud endures the same hardships as the Spanish nun, but the manner in which she pursues the holy life indulged everything St. Teresa cautioned against. “When one begins to enjoy the calm and fruit of prayer,” she wrote, one is tempted “to wish everyone to be spiritual too.”

For when … I persuaded others to practice prayer, on the one hand they heard me say so much about the great blessings that come of it and, on the other, they saw how poor I was in virtues although I prayed. Thus I led them into temptations and foolish conduct …

This is the devil’s work; he seems to make use of the virtues in us to sanction, in so far as he can, his own evil purposes. … We all have a zeal for virtue and feel distressed when we see the sins and faults of others. The devil tells us that this distress is caused only by the desire that God may not be offended, and by our concern for his honour. … The greatest harm of all lies in our thinking that this is a virtue, and a sign of perfection and great zeal for God.

Humility is a constant theme in St. Teresa’s writings. We gain virtue when we “consider everyone else better than ourselves.” Saint Maud avoids humility almost with a vengeance, offering in its place self-loathing, pain, solipsism, and anxiety. It may be that for most viewers the latter attributes are perfectly digestible, and offer easier catharsis. For others with a less fluid view of evil, however, this may be simultaneously not enough and asking too much. It is not enough to reestablish the cyclical nature of suffering in this or any life and it is asking too much to deny, once more, a path of faith without redemption, or even love.

Others with a more resolute faith and greater theological literacy, who also love horror as I do, may find deeper nuances that I have overlooked, and I welcome clarification. As to why this confluence of mediums worked on me in this way, and at this time, I have no good answer at the moment. But I guess I have seven weeks to figure that out, and to do so with care. If Saint Maud offers no other wisdom it is to be wary when things not seen speak in your own language.

THE ASSHOLE (A FABLE!)

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Once upon a time, a couple threw a dinner party in which an asshole had showed up. Neither of the hosts remembered ever inviting him and wondered how he even heard about it, especially after every guest categorically denied he was their plus-one. But, in accordance with contemporary etiquette, they decided to let him stay. Maybe he had turned over a new leaf, the hosts thought, and was rather a reformed or apostate asshole.

There was some evidence that validated their hypothesis. The asshole was, at minimum, convivial. He did not do assholish things like eat hors d’oeuvres without a plate or double-dip. Neither did he interrupt a conversation, speak or act lewdly toward other guests. He did not tell deliberately unfunny or sinister jokes, among other such behaviors assholes are wont to do. It was such that the hosts felt secure in bringing a mismatching chair from the kitchen to give the asshole a place at the dining room table.

Here the optimism had reached its limit. For without notice, the asshole turned to the guest to his right and made a comment of such provocation that the guest rose from his seat in confrontation. The asshole did the same to exchange more heated invective. No one could really say what the argument was about. Some thought it was about Wonder Woman 1984 or some horseshit like that. But before the hosts could separate the two, the asshole had grabbed a hold of the edge of the table and overturned it completely. It sent everything—wine glasses, beer bottles, green beans, caramelized Brussels sprouts—flying. The asshole stood statuesque amid the surrounding bewilderment. When one of the hosts asked him in a far less polite tone than he was received what his problem was, he merely laughed and flipped everyone off before leaving.

It turned out that the asshole did turn over a new leaf of a kind. Rather than reject being an asshole he had honed being an asshole. He had become a table-flipper—and he was only getting started.

While the victims at the dinner party were still trying to come to terms with their encounter, the asshole did not waste time with a new target. He’d gone to a Super Bowl party, where a table with plastic utensils, Solo cups, chips, pretzels, mozzarella sticks, hot wings, guac, blue cheese, and deconstructed casserole dishes like French onion mac and cheese and “fully loaded” nachos grande was practically waiting for his disruption. No one recalled an argument taking place. One minute the table was upright, the next it was not. The smearing on the bathroom wall of “JETS! JETS! JETS!” (who were not playing in that year’s Super Bowl) in dripping spicy buffalo sauce was also attributed to the asshole.

It was evident from then on that these were not spontaneous eruptions of rage. The arguments were but faint pretexts to some more nefarious design on the asshole’s part. And no party that couldn’t function without a table was exempt from it. Barbecues, block parties, bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras, office Christmas parties, weddings, anniversary dinners, kids’ birthday parties at Dave and Buster’s. Even closely guarded surprise parties fell victim to this asshole. In fact some started to wonder if the asshole had gained sympathizers. People who, whether out of personal cowardice or sheer nihilism, egged the asshole on. Dual waves of distrust and apprehension washed over the land. Some people (event planners mostly) worried that no one would want to have parties ever again. At least not until the asshole and his shitty enablers were safely ostracized.

If any of that concerned the asshole he hid it well. He had other things on his mind. Deep down, the asshole wanted his assholishness to about more than just literally flipping tables. There was meaning behind it. Deep meaning. But people didn’t seem to understand it. Some people took him for a purely mercenary saboteur and wanted to hire him out to ruin potentially bad dates or get-togethers. Others simply didn’t appreciate his care and crafting. Once when he attended a woman’s surprise 80th birthday party, he’d considered prefacing his flip by putting shrimp scampi in the octogenarian grandmother’s hair. But he demurred, thinking it would spoil the anarchic precarity he most wanted to cultivate. Sometimes the asshole appended his flips with a diatribe about an abstract concept like “complacency” or “justice,” though they seemed only to confuse people already fairly unsettled and pissed off.

He could still find a vague sort of satisfaction that he was making an impact anyway. One time he had gone to a girl’s backyard birthday party, where his flip sent the Frozen-themed cake down on the celebrants like a rectangular asteroid. He never forgot the moment when the mother of the girl approached him, face striped with running mascara, and embraced him like a long-lost half-sibling, making nonverbal gestures that implied, to him at least, that she’d orgasmed. He could think of this and find more than enough reason to persist. He even thought it was possible to encourage others to take up flipping, at least as long as he could maintain his own purity of intent. A whole league of assholes in his asshole image.

Before pursuing these higher ambitions, the asshole decided to take a hiatus. He did not want to risk overextending himself and wanted to foster a false sense of security for this more intense wave.

When he deemed his hiatus to be of sufficient length, he made an audacious reentry to the home of the original dinner party, which, if carried off successfully, would carry immense symbolic profit.

Things went well. The asshole gained access as easily as the first time and was received no less politely than before. It was actually a little strange. Surely he had not been away for that long. But that concern proved trivial compared to the subsequent discovery. When he went up to the dining room, he noticed that the table he’d originally flipped was not only been replaced but it was already upside down. Yes, the top was on the floor and the legs were facing the ceiling; while everything else—the chairs, the dishes, the silverware—were unchanged. And it was not limited to that one table. Every flat four-legged surface was overturned: the kitchen table, the patio table, the coffee table, end tables in the bedroom—all the same.

The asshole confronted the hosts as politely as he could manage. “What the fuck is with the table?”

The wife of the house returned a warm but halfhearted smile that one might give a tourist asking for directions. “It’s from Ikea,” she said with a proud chirp. “Isn’t it fab?”

“I don’t think people say ‘fab’ anymore, sweetheart,” the husband said, putting his arm around her waist.

“I haven’t been called ‘sweetheart’ since high school!”

They chuckled to each other having virtually forgotten the asshole was standing in front of him. The husband looked over the table with fondness, as if it was a precocious child.

“Pain in the ass to assemble. But a pretty sweet bargain for that quality.”

The asshole felt a sharp flutter in his chest. He’d stored up so much energy he had to flip something, which ended up being a footrest in the den. But he’d so overcalculated his force that he rotated it a full 360 degrees. In any other context that probably would have been cool, and the couple making out in the sofa beside the chair gave him some light applause. But the asshole was not sated. His exit was more abrupt than his first, so much so that he nearly tripped over the curved leg of the coffee table.

“Jesus Christ, does anyone not see how dangerous that is?”

There were faint chuckles and someone turned up the music.

The asshole was beside himself. He’d never been so blindsided. It was a prank, he thought. That’s the only way it makes sense. Someone tipped them off. He could rationalize that this meant he was really getting to them. He kept on rationalizing when the next few house parties had the same setups of overturned tables. His inquiries wrought the same casual answers. “Good quality,” they said. “Fairly priced with easy installment.” “Ideal for a new family or for making new friends.”

The rationalization became harder to maintain when he went out into the public. Restaurants and bars followed suit. Picnic tables in public parks were overturned. Flea markets and garage sales did the same. Pretty soon it had reached office and school desks.

The asshole revised his rationalization. He took credit for this change. He told anyone who would listen that, actually, he had planned for this to happen the entire time. Not that many did and those few who did listen were skeptical. “I heard it was from Denmark or Slovakia or Moldova or wherever.” One person said he could trace it back to Baudrillard and the asshole very nearly knocked his teeth out.

But soon it had spread to a scope that he had to admit was far beyond his reach. Instagram influencers posted their overturned tables with DIY decorative leg cozies with googly eyes and with text like “BE KIND” and some such. n+1 ran essays on “counter-interiors” and “spatial reflexivity.” The front windows of Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn Kids, the Restoration Hardware catalog, and even Architectural Digest further normalized the shift.

The fate of the asshole thereafter remains unclear. Some say he drove off a cliff. Others say he suffocated himself with an issue of Kinfolk. Still others think he just deleted all his social media accounts and rented out a trailer where he sits outside all day flipping a domino table he found on the freeway, laughing in the darkness to the displeasure of everyone around him. Most people don’t really give a shit. He was, after all, an asshole and a new world had emerged with no room for his type.

No table was ever flipped again, and in time no one knew what the hell that meant.

GRUDGE MATCH

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2014 saw two important cultural events: the debut of Serial and the release of The Babadook. Neither are immediately connected: the former being a true crime podcast and a spinoff of This American Life, the latter being a horror film. Yet both played the same role of ushering their respective genres into the platinum era as had occurred with television drama a decade before with each being marked with exalting critical praise and (at least in the case of Serial) significant audience popularity.

Few need reminders of this given how ubiquitous both quickly became in the zeitgeist. The glut of prestige true crime is impossible to keep pace with, dominating every medium available. Every premium cable channel has at least one true crime docuseries a month. Netflix alone can vomit out as many as three or four in a week. They all carry the same style markers descended from Errol Morris: the dreamy recreated events, the static, neutral talking-head testimonies, the solemn, almost pious fealty to truth coexisting with the insatiable appetite for any alternative theory of the facts. It’s a wonder how the trend didn’t self-cannibalize when Morris found himself the subject of a true crime documentary for his work on the Jeffrey MacDonald case. Prestige horror, though not nearly as popular, fell into its own pattern of pristine cinematography and production design, ambient scoring, and glacially paced narrative minimalism.

Another commonality is that even after seven years both trends seem to show no sign of decline. This leads me to suspect that the current media environment so abundant in venues for broadcast has made a dead letter of the pop culture trend as previously understood. We are now a culture of memes, in which a formula is recycled and reëxperienced in phases or mutations. If Serial was the formula, then My Favorite Murder was the next phase followed again by Tiger King and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (the book and the documentary). If prestige horror had appeared in 2004, it would have fizzled out by It Comes at Night or Don’t Breathe; instead it redoubled with The Invitation and Hereditary. One cannot help but appreciate the genius of this moment that found a way to stay true to form while also appearing fresh. Neither trend has been without some form of backlash. Rachel Monroe’s excellent book Savage Appetites examines the unusual, sometimes troubling variations true crime obsession takes on, from Columbine shooter fandom on Tumblr to engaging in “sensory experiences” of violence at crime conventions. No one has, so far as I know, done a similar critique of prestige horror, though one suspects audiences who vociferously dissent from the critics over how nothing happens in these movies do that enough.

Yet the memes are invulnerable to conventional weapons. If a more effective remedy exists it must be as strange and as anomalous as that which it seeks to destroy. Many may search in vain for it if they care that much, but of course such a thing does exist and of course I know what it is.

There’s no doubt that Scott Derrickson had certain ambitions when he directed his 2012 film Sinister. It seemed altogether elevated above his more generic horror entries like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser: Inferno, or Urban Legend: Final Cut. Like prestige horror he was trying to reinvent a formula, albeit a more classic one, bringing his own idea of a neat narrative framework and an iconic antagonist of the slasher film to be judged against all those that had come before. The results were mixed. Sinister received a Rotten Tomatoes score of 63% and a Metacritic score of 53%, which puts it in the Chernobyl range of “not great, not terrible.” It recouped well above its $3 million budget in theaters justifying a less successful sequel. Despite its efforts it fell short and didn’t really stick in the public memory. I can’t help but agree. The most formulaic aspects—the exposition, the big-reveal ending, some of the jump scares—had an overworked quality that weighed down the genuinely unnerving buildup. (It also deleted the scenes with Angela Bettis, but that is a personal gripe.) Nevertheless, and despite its intentions, it persists in a very low-key fashion; and alas it’s for its most overrated but still kind of valuable trait: its prescience.

Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswald, a true crime author who is seeking to restart his lagging career, not unlike the actor playing him at the time. His solution is to write a book about the unsolved murder of a Pennsylvania family, which he begins researching by moving into the house where it took place, a fact he does not tell his own wife and children. The film opens in chillingly audacious fashion with the murder itself, shot with a Super 8 camera: the family’s heads covered in burlap bags, tied by their necks to a tree in their fog-strewn back yard. An unseen figure saws a branch on the other side of the tree; as it goes down, the family goes up, flailing and squirming as they slowly choke to death. In addition to the killer never being caught or identified, the family’s youngest daughter is missing.

Almost as instantly as Oswald is introduced, his career is under scrutiny by the film. He is met by the antagonistic county sheriff (Fred Thompson playing basically himself) who helpfully informs the viewers by telling Oswald that he “got it right” in his first book that made him famous, but his “bad theory” in a subsequent book “let a killer go free.” Seeking both redemption and renewed fortune, Oswald is willing to make a flagrantly sketchy bet, which begins to pay off in unexpected ways before it doesn’t in all the expected ones.

For all the film’s formulaic qualities, it is also strangely meta. When not being spooked by the spirits Oswald enables with his arrogance, he is a walking self-commentary: obsessed with his craft, his lost fame, and the increasing assurance that he will get it back. He also consumes other media: police files, his laptop, videos of his old interviews, and filmed murders.

Sinister is framed around additional creepily rendered Super 8 films of ritualistic family killings that Oswald just happens to find in the house’s attic. They are a little too perfect for his instincts, opening with voyeuristic footage of the victims living in their mid-20th century suburban idyll before cutting to their violent deaths, each titled according to the method of execution with CSI: Miami one-liners. The family in “BBQ” is burned alive in their car; in “Pool Party” they are drowned while tied to patio furniture; in “Sleepy Time” their throats are cut in their beds; and the family in “Lawn Work” is run over with a lawnmower on a rainy night. (Critics didn’t like “Lawn Work” but for me it’s still the most effective jump scare in the film.) Oswald is visibly disgusted by what he watches, but he’s compelled to keep looking knowing he’s struck oil with what at first appears like the work of an as-yet-undiscovered serial killer.

The truth is more complicated than that, it turns out, as Oswald places himself in confrontation with a being that has needs far beyond our understanding and hardly applied to our advantage. I suppose many viewers can take or leave the angle about the forgotten Babylonian god in Cradle of Filth makeup who eats the souls of children. The more it was explained the less interested I was. Here the vagueness of prestige horror, wherein the child-eating god becomes a random nightmare creature of unclear origin and motive but immense allegorical richness, would have been more satisfying. Though it probably wouldn’t have been able to serve the higher purpose in playing out the film’s central meta theme compared to the hyper-specified antagonist and all that flows from it.

In a genre strewn with guilty pleasures like bodies on a battlefield, horror’s own guilty pleasure is that of the villain mashup. They are probably outnumbered by gratuitous remakes, but the desire to make them is always simmering at a low but detectable hum. The mere suggestion is cause for commotion. Rumors of a Freddy Krueger/Jason Voorhees mashup film circulated for more than a decade before Freddy vs. Jason was released in 2003. This was followed by Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. Most recently was 2016’s Sadako vs. Kayako combining the ghost women of Ringu and Ju-on respectively. These films are almost always panned by critics, but they don’t lose money. And though I never understood their appeal, I can’t see Sinister as anything other than a villain mashup of its own, and a very successful one at that.

Horror mostly combines genres to create hybrids, never to take a genre on. If Sinister is trying to combine with true crime it does a shitty job of it. It takes every opportunity to undermine and toy with its protagonist who thinks he’s on the cusp of something momentous but which only seals his fate the deeper he goes. Sinister enjoys making Oswald flail about in his own grandiosity. “This could be my In Cold Blood!” he rasps to his now understandably very pissed off wife having discovered what he’s gotten her into. The film doesn’t take his ambitions or his paeans to seeking truth and justice very seriously. Only his obsession to know, understand, and see more is serious—because it is debilitating. Critiques of true crime are mostly critiquing unchecked obsession. Horror already had a template for the lethality of curiosity and perhaps if prestige true crime never took off, Sinister would have been just another middlebrow fright fest, a few notches below The Conjuring but certainly above, like, Darkness Falls. But in our present context it is, or deserves to be seen as, a devastating gut check to a culture now teeming with Ellison Oswalds looking for their ripped-from-the-headlines triumph that they will never get though with fewer damnable consequences.

Maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense or doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort relative to other priorities; but true crime and horror have a key incompatibility that can only lead to confrontation. It boils down to a difference of view. True crime is always looking down from a pedestal over the pieces it wants to put together at its own whim. (Incidentally, pornography looks the same way.) Horror, on the other hand, is always looking up from an abyss to see its own components swirling about it with their own agenda. It’s actually quite clever to see how Sinister shifts from one view to the other: from the truth-seeker watching the film to the victim being filmed; and all the while using formulaic devices that prestige horror does not often find worth getting out of bed to use. It should probably be thankful though for how conclusively Sinister proves their unified superiority. True crime’s illusion of mastery cannot withstand horror’s certainty of dominance.

NORMAL PEOPLE

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The incident that took place at the US Capitol Building on January 6—a riot, an insurrection, a coup, a happening, whatever you want to call it—was not wanting in iconic moments. There was the instantly famous image of the man we now know as Jacob Chansley standing on the floor of the House of Representatives in red, white, and blue face paint, raccoon skin cap, and horns erroneously identified as being in a “Viking” style. There was the man lounging at Nancy Pelosi’s desk and the man gleefully looting a House lectern. There was the statue of Gerald Ford in the Rotunda decorated in MAGA paraphernalia. There was the bespectacled, not a little bewildered-looking man crouched behind a riot shield while a man to his right waved the Confederate battle flag. And there was the video of a lone Capitol police officer singlehandedly, and with minimal force, preventing a mob from entering the Senate floor.

Those are the ones I could remember off the top of my head. There were countless more images because, as others have speculated, that was largely the point. The storming of the Capitol Building was as futile and stupid as it was shocking and embarrassing. What indeed is more annoying about it: that it happened at all and so easily or that it did not have a larger goal outside of causing chaos? I guess in an era in which “disruption” is a virtue, and of very fluid definition, what more can be expected?

But the most significant detail to come from the incident was not a singular image, but a face in the crowd.

Jennifer Ryan was spotted amidst a swath of people pouring into the front of the seat of federal power. She wore a Trump winter cap and a US flag scarf, her phone continuously in front of her face. Like many others with her she almost compulsively livestreamed her experience, posting video of the riot on Facebook and warning her viewers that this action “is a prelude to the war that’s about to happen” and exclaiming that “we are going to fucking go in here. Life or death, it doesn’t matter.” Though she now claims that the violence was entirely unintended she and others are facing federal charges for her actions.

“I consider Trump the biggest threat to American democracy since Robert E. Lee,” Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic. But while Robert E. Lee had an organized, and for a time terrifyingly formidable, army to threaten the Union, Trump amassed “very loosely, a gang of self-marginalizing anti-Semites, cosplay brownshirts, and flabby gun nuts, plus others who may be high-functioning in normal life but on January 6 were too stupid to refrain from geotagging their crimes on Facebook.” For Wood and for other commentators like him, the storming of the Capitol was an apocalypse in the strictest sense of the word: an unveiling of a force in American politics that tremored their hearts for the past half-decade. Trump warned at his inauguration that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” To that Wood adds “it turns out his most fervent supporters thought that the best way to resist oblivion is to dominate others’ attention for attention’s own sake.”

This being America, where it is everyone’s God-given right—a right that is sparingly waved at that—to dominate others’ attention for attention’s own sake, that is not sufficient to distinguish the behavior exhibited on January 6. Wood knows this, and so he required a more compelling rhetorical garnish, which he found and promptly served:

At noon tomorrow, our four-year experiment in being governed by the political equivalent of the Insane Clown Posse will finally end. It is ending in Juggalo style (some have called it “Trumpalo”), violently and pointlessly, with a handful of deaths, the smearing of various bodily fluids, and a riot on the way out.

Wood does not specify on the nature of “Juggalo style” beyond it being violent, pointless, and smeared in various bodily fluids. Though it would not have been difficult for him to find incidents appropriate to his description. Most infamous among them occurred during the 2010 Gathering in which Tila Tequila, then famous for being a MySpace celebrity and not for photoshopping herself into pictures of Auschwitz for some dumbfuck reason, was met by a hostile crowd while performing. They made obscene comments and pelted her with rocks, bottles, fireworks, and excrement for which she had to get stitches. After leaving the stage the Juggalos chased her off the festival grounds. The event was widely covered and, as the saying goes, “not a good look.” Insane Clown Posse reflected remorsefully two years later, chastising themselves for their poor research into Tequila who it turns out did not fit the Gathering bill as well as they thought. The Juggalos seemed to not like her at all, and despite their efforts, ICP failed to prevent any harm from coming to her. Though ICP’s Violent J framed it in a bizarre way, claiming that “we couldn’t shield her lameness.” Perhaps. Festival organizers claimed to have warned her about her unpopularity there, and according to accounts Tequila’s performance consisted mostly of antagonizing the crowd and she made her injures more inevitable the longer she stood on stage. But the claim of “lameness” isn’t very persuasive when even Andrew WK was pelted with urine-filled water bottles during his own Gathering set.

These grotesque displays at the Gathering set up against the “carnivalesque” atmosphere of the Capitol Hill storming would confirm that American politics has gone the way of the Juggalo. But the strength of that comparison is not quite as bearable as appearances suggest.

Appearances are sort of important here, as there was no evidence to suggest that anyone identifying or appearing as a Juggalo was present at the riot on January 6. Juggalos, in fact, had already been to Washington in the summer of 2017 for their own march. It was a source of internet amusement and media attention but was otherwise calm. Whether they had actually considered approaching any government building in the process, let alone forcing their way inside it, is not known, though it is fair to assume that they hadn’t. When the object of your march is to protest your designation by the FBI as a gang, committing violence is maybe not the strongest mode of persuasion. Indeed, far from “forgotten men and women,” Juggalos are an endlessly scrutinized subculture, not only by law enforcement but by documentarians, pop anthropologists, and other would-be professional voyeurs. The need to understand this group almost approaches an impulse, far outpacing our attempts to understand Trumpism. This seems easily dispelled already. Unless Wood’s comparison is not meant to be taken literally, but as a kind of implication.

Wood actually received a good amount of blowback on Twitter for his piece on behalf of the Juggalos, but Wood did not back down, replying to one tweet that “[w]hen you make psychopathic spree-killing the theme of your musical revue, you make yourself hostage to this kind of distortion.” Well there you have it, don’t you? We must now relitigate it all. Not just ICP but horrorcore, not just horrorcore but hip-hop, not just hip-hop but metal, punk, Robert fucking Johnson, and any other godforsaken permutation of our pop cultural landscape. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Tipper Gore R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. It is our solemn duty if all it led to was the rise of Donald Trump and his mentally obliterated sycophants.

That’s probably not quite what Wood intends in his rhetoric, but it’s where his logic leads. The subversion of our democracy can be traced in some manner to the existence of vulgar subcultures, made up of vulgar people from vulgar places, seeking nothing but vulgar acts of self-gratification and indolence in all their manifestations. Us humanitarians can only cower in the face of their tyranny if the proper “mental hygiene,” as Wood puts it, goes unadministered. Fine. Let’s see how that will work out.

Jennifer Ryan stood out to others because of her circumstances. She had come into Washington, DC on a private jet from Texas, where she works as a real estate agent and, apparently, a life coach. She did not conceal any of this as she posted on her social media accounts, and even pitched her services as a realtor in one of her since-deleted videos. She stormed the US Capitol in her capacity as an entrepreneur, just as the man who stole the lectern stole it in his capacity as a stay-at-home parent, and just as Derrick Evans helped lead the charge in his capacity as a West Virginia legislator. Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old woman who was shot and killed during the riot, was an Air Force veteran. They all came upon the Capitol, that is, in their capacity as Americans. If it appeared that the lunatics really had taken over the asylum, it also appeared that the lunatics were neither Juggalos nor Antifa, but your mom.

One of the least appreciated effects of the Trump era was the effect its emergence had on normal people. “Normal” is a complicated word in this country, to be sure, I use it here to denote those who give a specific outward appearance of non-specificity. They do not identify with subcultures beyond, say, attending Phish or Train concerts or being a member of SoulCycle. They have the appearance of stable incomes and households, the appearance of obedience to generally accepted rules, to the civic good, to fellow-feeling, to freedom at home and strength abroad, blah blah blah blah. You know these people. You are related to these people. They’re nice if not kind; polite if not warm. They’ll help you if you ask. They went to decent schools so their kids could go to slightly better schools. They go to some kind of church. Or they don’t; live and let live! If you thought about them at all for more than you had to you probably still wouldn’t go beyond how boring they are. They watch Dancing With the Stars and have a really nice grave plot scoped out just off the highway. Life is good; it says so on the t-shirt.

Normalcy is rooted overall in the appearance of control. Even “going with the flow” is a kind of control, with preordained curves and velocities. Normalcy is sensitive to any kind of hiccup in that appearance. If pushed enough they are given to panic and petulance. This isn’t too off-base, I think, given that we’ve spent a couple of years pointing these very traits out in faceless haircuts we like to call “Karen” and “Becky” and “Matt” who present a special degree of lethalness to any small thing that upsets them. The degrees to which this control was upended for normal people was not evenly distributed. For some it was a vague feeling of dread at increased uncertainty Trump brought with his election, not to mention complicity in his rise. Talk of politics increased in households. But it was agitated rather than impassioned or sophisticated talk; talk of people trying to catch up, to make some kind of sense of what was happening, and to not be lost in the maelstrom.

For the MAGA crowd it was a little more intensive. Some leaders like to soothe passions, but here was Trump saying in so many words that it was okay to panic; in fact, it was right. The intricate reasons for panicking could be various, some long-dormant or obscured. The general feeling, however, of a future disintegrating before their eyes, plans long ago set in place going belly-up, and the feeling of increasing superfluity, however rightly or wrongly perceived, was nearly uniform and converging in a significant way over the past few years. Such a loss of normalcy would make a normal person, or a whole mass of normal people, do brazen things because deep down they believe they can in ways that others cannot and do not.

Throughout Trump’s term, we have heard pleas for a “return to normalcy.” Yet normalcy never really left, only its behavior had changed. Where in happier times it was polite, competent, and reassuring it turned a corner into anger, ignorance, and paranoia. In all cases, however, it remained triumphant and domineering. Wood hopes that the exit of Trump takes with him the Insane Clown carnival he perceives to have come in his wake. “One generation of political Juggalos,” Wood writes in an allusion to Buck v. Bell, “is enough.”

But focusing on the bad behavior of the Juggalos still overlooks an important aspect of the subculture: their independence. Juggalos do not seem very interested in engaging the mainstream when they don’t absolutely have to. They have cultivated a world largely separate from ours. The gesture, more than the content I think, is what really drives our curiosity. It is something that at once cannot have been created by any other country but is not in the sway of the country’s priorities or destiny, which many find hard to identify today anyway. There is power in being able to state unequivocally what one’s “style” is, even if bodily fluids play some sort of role in it, and to set the terms on how others engage with that style. A frayed national psyche, with a whole population in no hurry to do anything other than idly suggest that someone should mend it, will make this power more emulative, not less. It is enough for more than a few burnt-out onlookers to want to let a million Juggalos bloom.

PULP CIVICS

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As Donald Trump’s presidential term went (technically) into its final stages, I considered whether it was valuable to participate in that scribbler custom of “explaining” the “meaning” of the outgoing commander-in-chief. I rejected this idea, seeing as we’ve been engaging in it continuously throughout his term to no profit as there is little about Trump that requires extensive explanation. Moreover, it took away from what I thought was actually interesting about that time.

The thing is, I’d discovered an irony: Donald Trump, the most anti- or non-intellectual president in a long time, coexisted alongside a volatile intellectual climate—particularly when it came to politics. Though this seems less ironic in its context. Trump’s disruptive leadership compounded an already exhausted and cumbersome state of the federal government. Disruption led to disenchantment which propelled an escape into a mindset I call “pulp civics.”

I stole pulp civics from a friend who coined it in 2017 to describe a stylistic trend in which political writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Sam Kriss traded in concrete analysis for speculative, baroque polemic. But as the Trump era trudged on, I found that it could be applied more widely to the ideas themselves. The dreary mediocrity and alarming dysfunction of American politics instilled bright, usually extremely online anxiety-havers with a thirst for adventure. Political philosophy (or something like it) is an adventure of a kind, sometimes a risky one, but the sheer frenzy and frequency of the adventuring seemed noteworthy to me. At times it felt like there were too many ideas to keep up with. I wanted to take stock in the activity and this is my attempt.

This is not a complete list, and some omissions like rationalism and neoreaction will be noted. Here I exerted my intellectual license. Some ideas didn’t interest me while others had clearly taken a back seat to successors noted below. The summaries are pretty much all critical, but maybe I’ll post a prescriptive appendix at a later date, as this piece is already too long for its purpose.

If there is a finer point to pulp civics in the Trump era, however, it is that our incapacity for being governed is equal in our capacity to dream about being governed by literally anything else. Or something like that.

Illberalism
The election of 2016 not only ushered Donald Trump into the White House, but a new and very precarious political moment: the crisis of liberalism. New political moments require a new class of political sage, which this moment was more than ample in its supply. Everyone, it seemed, had something to say about the crisis of liberalism, though none were more well-regarded (or in any case consistently referenced) than these four: Patrick J. Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, Rod Dreher, and Curtis Yarvin. Each represented the crisis in different capacities. Deneen and Vermeule are university professors, Dreher is an opinion journalist, and Yarvin is a computer engineer-turned-blogger.

Not that this helps clarify the core of illiberal thought. Illiberal views on liberalism depend on the thinker, or even the context or mood. It is either an inherently weak worldview undone by its own principles of tolerance and human rights or an intolerant, vengeful hegemon that will destroy anyone who dares dissent from it. Their views on Trump are no less varied. He is either the answer to the crisis of liberalism or its symptom.

Nevertheless, liberals who for decades were unaccustomed to being on the defensive proved a fumbling match for the rigor and confidence of these writers. They cut impressive swaths into the discourse itself. Dreher’s writings encouraging orthodox Christians to turn away from the influence of mainstream culture, so infected is it by the liberal progressive ethos as much as they can have become bestselling books. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed was name-checked by Barack Obama. Vermeule was published in The Atlantic this one time.

How willingly their ideas are embraced by the American readership beyond their perceived freshness is another matter. It’s not so much that they suffer from the limitation, common among these other trends, of being diagnostic rather than prescriptive, but that their prescriptions tend to go beyond American shores, to nations like Poland, Hungary, Brazil, and Franco-era Spain. Nations with present or historically noteworthy regimes high in Catholic piety, low in democratic sentiments, and which have next to nothing in common with the United States. Illiberalism has a way of presenting its ideas as a reflection of globalism, prizing a set of ideas regardless of any one nation’s reasons for applying them. It has also encouraged the wider intellectual trend of skepticism, if not outright hatred, of the American project. Ironic, since there is nothing more American than treating smaller, dependent nations as political Lego sets.

White Nationalism/Alt-Right
White nationalism and the alt-right entered the American collective consciousness in 2016 conjoined at the hip before imploding in the same manner a year later in Charlottesville. “Alt-right” did not survive for long as a countercultural signifier and faded even as a derogatory term, the elements comprising it having splintered into stranger, more niche variations in more obscure online forums and even more obscure lingo and signifiers.

White nationalism’s adherents spent their time in the limelight desperate for the acknowledgement of the president, who seemed only to do so obliquely and clumsily, either because he was as racist as everyone says or because doing otherwise made him look weak. They trudged along the zeitgeist more as an anthropological subject for The New York Times occasionally pontificate on when there was space to fill. Like the skinheads in Green Room, they are ominous but anachronistic. They belong in gritty dramas and HBO documentaries from the ‘90s. They are out of joint with the times where “whiteness” is a broad threat, at once covert and obvious, detectable in the CEO, the beat cop, the suburban mom with the angular bob cut, or the Walmart greeter. The idea of an explicitly racist white person is a redundancy, less a position than a defect of the mind, one that we are allowed to ostracize, which is, after all, the dream. 

Intellectual Dark Web
The people who make up the “intellectual dark web” spend a lot of time telling others what they’re not: they’re neither “far-right” nor are they fascist or even automatic Trump supporters. They are a rather eclectic grouping of entrepreneurs, entertainers, pundits, professors, writers, and various self-professed “dissident” types who run the ideological gamut from mainstream conservative to disillusioned liberal. They are in all cases truthtellers, advocates for freedom and whatever other humanistic ideals are lying around. That’s fine as far as it goes. Voltaire and Diderot were such advocates. Is Jordan Peterson our Voltaire? Is Joe Rogan our Diderot? Maybe it’s more that the philosophes were imprisoned, suppressed, and exiled so that the IDW could be suspended, deplatformed, and heckled.

The IDW has a larger appeal than most of their critics are willing to admit. Joe Rogan inspires easy hatred because he will talk to anybody with the same affable and reasonable comportment. Rather than get censored, Rogan is, in a sense, failing upward into larger audiences. Neither will the publishing middle-management meltdowns prevent Jordan Peterson’s books from being sold in sufficient quantities so long as the market finds them amenable. But that hatred has its role. The IDW thrives all the more on adversity. If they can’t satisfactorily cohere themselves, their haters will do it for them, and people who already hate the haters will flock to them just as quickly, a festival of animosity and self-absorption ensues. The IDW is the Jim Rose Circus of the intellectual landscape, an entertainment sideshow fueled by the transgressive rumblings from underground and a public willing to imbibe them at a safe distance.

And yet even that is too high praise. For with the exception of Rogan, the IDW is marked by a brutalist joylessness. Jordan Peterson’s self-appointed quest to rescue the lost boys of Western Civilization has an interesting loophole. Lost boys tend to have lost minds, and they are eager for the knowing guidance of any father figure who’s offering. The IDW don’t believe in coercion because they don’t need to coerce anyone. Their followers are “guided” to read whatever they suggest—their own books and content, of course, 1984, and, time permitting, the Bible. What they call “postmodern” is strictly forbidden. It never occurs to the IDW that their followers might have inclinations of their own that compel them to “postmodern” thought and writing. Why? Who knows? And who gives a shit? In the end true freedom is attained less by cleaning one’s room or triggering social justice warriors than by biting the finger that wags.

Bronze Age Perversion
It was only a matter of time before the right-wing would get its answer to Subcomandante Marcos. Someone, that is, who would come out of nowhere, his identity mostly concealed, with only his flair for writing and for charming the media to carry him. Such was the effect of Bronze Age Pervert who like Marcos wants to build an insurrectionary force (albeit a force armed with memes rather than guns) to take on the decadent and sclerotic political mainstream. And also like Marcos, one needs always to discuss BAP, if discuss BAP one must, in a two-tiered process.

The first tier is explaining the BAP phenomenon. That phenomenon came and went in a minute, but it was a very hot one. BAP’s seductive aura, or in any case his aura as clickbait, was difficult to resist. Conservative outlets like The Claremont Review of Books and its satellite site The American Mind committed considerable words to BAP Thought—some of them BAP’s own. Vox and maybe one or two other semi-mainstream outlets also made some mention of him. I can’t remember anything specifically written, only the pervasive tone of self-assurance of having discovered something that has evidence of intellectual depth and not a little street cred. These were more or less intelligent people trying to grasp at whatever the zeitgeist was throwing their way. That’s life, I guess, but it didn’t need to appear so unseemly and self-satisfied. The moment didn’t get too far because it was rooted in the idea of BAP and not BAP’s ideas, which are a little more difficult to parse.

The second tier, then, is explaining BAP as best as one can. I’ve read Bronze Age Mindset in its entirety to make sense of the circular and bizarrely acrimonious flame wars raging around it. It is at once hard to summarize adequately and not nearly as interesting as some BAPtists have insisted it would be. BAP is sort of like an intellectual collage work, a kind of cerebral folk art. BAP takes ideas and styles from the darkest corners of philosophy and literature: the mystical reactionary thought of Julius Evola and Yukio Mishima, the Great Man fetishization of Carlyle, the urban existentialism of Michel Houellebecq, occasionally the bombast of Nietzsche, but mostly the dourness of Schopenhauer. BAP is kind of racist—or as David Duke would put it, pro-white. He describes anything he doesn’t like as being “sperg” or “autist.” He is unequivocal in his disdain for democracy. He celebrates Caligula as “the greatest troll ever.” He praises the conquistadores at the expense of the Church, and the freelance mercenary activity of Bob Denard. Though he holds Charles I of Anjou in the highest regard, which is to say, with the most plausible sincerity.

BAP classes himself as a dissident in the Solzhenitsyn mold. The conversation of how, exactly, one qualifies as a dissident in the United States remains to be had. (Is he more of an outlaw than, say, the imprisoned Barrett Brown? Does relative obscurity make one a dissident? If so, that is great for me.) At least with Biden coming into the White House and a continuously volatile political situation BAP has an oppositional edge he didn’t have before. How he decides to use that, and whether people should prepare in some special way for that use, I have no idea. Maybe like his pipe-smoking lefty counterpart in Mexico he will settle into postmodern mythology, an ambiguous nether realm where he is equally real and fictional. He will be a new kind of icon for aspiring rebels, who will go on to do only God knows what; they will probably read more if nothing else.

Wokeness
The tremors of 2016 were felt at every level of American society, but none felt it more intensely and more ominously than suburbanites. Suburbanites had grown accustomed to a regime that favored their way of life and aspirations. It lasted for decades and was little affected by changes in parties. The perpetuity of the middle-class regime is easy to take for granted. While some suburbanites welcomed Trump’s election, others felt that he threatened the middle-class regime in unprecedented ways (he did not) or were made uncomfortable by the moral cost of maintaining the regime his election exposed. Trump put suburbanites in the awkward position of having to think about their role in American society. Polite neutrality was no longer acceptable; no more sleepwalking into the wrong side of history and all that.

The ideas that make up woke intersectionalism have been floating around the United States in one form or another since the 1920s. They congealed into a kind of practice run in the universities in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. By the 2010s wokeness became the most popular ideology in the developed world. Growing off the social liberalism of mainstream America helped, but so did the internet which made the severity of certain social justice-related concerns (police brutality) more concrete and information about these concerns easier to distribute. The woke phenomenon isn’t really about a set of beliefs or actionable demands as it is about finding the most accessible language to articulate them to the widest possible audience and at the most optimal time. 2015 to 2020 was the high point of reaching out from the campuses and into the McMansions.

Wokeness in its present form is similar to Bronze Age Pervert’s work in that it’s a hodgepodge of different, not always copacetic ingredients. It seeks the moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement, but it’s charged with the righteousness of the student left and the rhetoric of critical theory removed several generations from its French sources. But its crux goes back further to Rousseau’s infamous paradox in The Social Contract: “In order that the social pact should not be an empty formula, it contains an obligation which alone can give force to the others, that if anyone refuses to obey the general will he will be compelled to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free …” “To force a man to be free,” Isaiah Berlin put it more succinctly, “is to force him to behave in a rational manner.” And like good followers of Rousseau, they do not need to read Rousseau to achieve that freedom. One does not need to read to be awakened to the Truth.

For all its good intentions, and outward appearance to the contrary, wokeness rivals Trumpism in its anti-intellectual sentiments. This is the nature of activism generally but it has become starker here as the ideas spread. People who have never uttered a single political opinion become, almost overnight, policy experts and speak like wobbly agitators who’ve read the same five pages of Judith Butler. At the same time, it doesn’t seem to matter that there is no one understanding of what it means to “defund the police” or that few can tell the difference between racism and systemic racism, so long as the terms are known and in circulation. When Nikole Hannah-Jones expressed interest in writing “about how Latino is a contrived ethnic category,” it was not out of genuine desire to highlight the little-appreciated complexity of Latin American society but because certain Spanish-speaking populations broke the wrong way in the 2020 election.

The pretension and conformity fostered by the spread of wokeness is far more pertinent than the typical laments of cancel culture. It mostly shows that liberation and equity are giving way to power. Whereas IDW needs its opposition to be seen and heard in order to have definition, the enemies of wokeness need to be silent and invisible but still omnipresent. That is how it always goes. Any group that wants power in the widest operational capacity also wants—or needs—the power of inquisition.

National Conservatism
National conservatism had all the potential for success. It brought together some of the smartest writers in the American conservatism (Julius Krein, James Poulos, Daniel McCarthy, Yuval Levin, among others) it had a well-regarded magazine to publish them (American Affairs), it had a sizable convention with guest speakers like Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley, and J.D. Vance. With all that networking prowess and funding capability, not to mention the aid of press controversy, national conservatism’s vision could dominate in a crowded field. If only it did not have two major weaknesses.

First was its failure to cohere. Broadly, national conservatism had a promising appeal to the wider right-wing movement. The sea-change brought about by Trump’s election called for a radical rethinking of what conservatism means in the 21st century. That meant ditching the Reaganism of the past with a conservatism better attuned to the priorities of working-class people and more antagonistic to corporate oligarchy and free-market economics for its own sake. It wasn’t socialist per se, but it seemed eager to compete for the fiscally liberal, socially conservative voters the Democrats weren’t interested in cultivating. It was in the details where they faltered. There were far too many ideas with regards to the economics, political theory, and tech regulation, and far too few—or far too conflicting—ideas in matters of culture and foreign policy.

Second was national conservatism’s appearance in 2019 rather than, like, 1974. It may not have been successful from an electoral standpoint, but it was a context better suited to plant roots for later success. I could be wrong here and national conservatism is just as capable of doing that now, but from where I sit it had to struggle in a level of intellectual anarchy not seen since the Revolutionary era. The most influential intellectual ideas emanated from the dingy spiders’ nests of the internet, not from think tanks. It is a time when dazzling the imagination with DIY systems and influencing the discourse with bespoke jargon took precedence over building coalitions or arriving at solutions to concrete problems.

This is unfortunate, for there was also no better moment for national conservatism to rise to the occasion than the COVID-19 pandemic. Here was a crisis that called for sober leadership and national solidarity that did not seem out of place with national conservatism’s stated purpose. Clearly neither of those things appeared on their own accord, and whether national conservatives were unwilling or unable foster them themselves may be debated forever by those who care enough.

Dirtbag Leftism
It helps to think of the dirtbag left as something similar to neoconservatism. Like neoconservatism it is a “persuasion” rather than a newly synthesized ideology. Like the neoconservatives, dirtbag leftists were “mugged by reality” away from their earlier idealism, just switch Leon Trotsky for Che Guevara, Ayn Rand, or Air America-era Rachel Maddow. Though they may not have a large audience, they are savvy at getting their message out to those most in need of hearing it, sometimes through magazines but often through podcasts. And also like their neocon predecessors, they are at once capable networkers and fervent infighters. The comparisons end there.

Instead of going explicitly right-wing, the dirtbag left went backwards in the ideological timeline to a pre-New Deal labor- and class-centric socialism that they express with a contemporary irreverence. Imagine a Clifford Odets play with characters from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, they’re like Christopher Lasch with dick jokes; or anyone who’s watched an Adam Curtis documentary in its entirety. Their positive program is focused squarely on making Bernie Sanders president; but their negative program of irritating mainstream Democrats and liberals understandably attracts a following that crosses ideological lines.

The Trump era was a disappointing time for the dirtbag left. Like their liberal enemies they were both certain of and hoping for Hillary Clinton’s victory, if only because the dirtbag left’s offensive arsenal was designed to go up against pseudo-imperial technocracy, not another version of populism. But with Trump out of the way, they can return to their polemical happy place. Indeed, the coalition assembled by Red Scare, TrueAnon, What’s Left, and others are poised to be more at the forefront now than they were in the last five years. A government that employs Neera Tanden is probably not good for the country, but it’s great for Cum Town.

Post-liberal communitarians
Of all the ideologies here presented, I thought this was the one I could work with best. I, too, understood that the surest way to restore social bonds was through fostering small-scale communities and that the pre-existing ideological spectrum was insufficient in breaking down the needs and aspirations of real people trying to navigate an increasingly isolated society. Some of my best ideas were geared toward articulating this view as I saw it. Such as here, here, and, to a certain extent, here and here. But they did not gel to any extent that I noticed. At least not for very long. This is mainly to say that I, too, was enchanted by pulp civics. I just wasn’t very good at it.

Trumpism
I was going to say that Trumpism was the Trump era ideology that got closest to having real power. But this is not strictly true. Donald Trump had real power; the Trumpists waited and hoped for him to use it in such a way that it would satisfy them. Of course satisfaction for Trumpists, like power for Trump, is a relative term.

I saw less of Trumpism than I did of wokeness in my daily life, and I wonder if I’d been in a more Republican part of the country (though the GOP presence in my congressional district is not trivial) that I’d write about the former as I wrote about the latter here. It would certainly be easy to go that route; Trumpism took about as much oxygen as wokeness did in the era and each thrived off of the energy of the other. But that would mean discounting those aspects I did see that make them more distinct.

My main impression of Trumpism comes from a flag I saw flying from a house in a neighborhood I frequently walk through. I could tell it was a Trump flag by its shade of dark blue and huge white letters. It was hard to make out the details if the wind wasn’t blowing especially hard; but when it did, its bottom text of “NO MORE BULLSHIT,” though smaller than the above “TRUMP 2020,” was striking. I was less surprised by the profanity itself than by the fact that it was profanity being displayed in the middle of a suburban street, less than a mile away from an elementary school. This was instructive to me; just as the people who drove around town flying full-sized thin blue line flags from their rears of their trucks and jeeps were instructive. They were far outnumbered by the profusion of “IN THIS HOUSE” lawn signs, which blended into a cozy sameness as perhaps they were designed to do. These displays were unsurprisingly more intrusive. On the surface the dueling signage appears to be matter of virtue signaling against vulgarity signaling, though it’s more accurate to say it’s between quiet certainty and showy desperation.

This may not seem likely looking back on the course of about 2015 to 2019. In that time, Trump exuded plausible confidence in his leadership capabilities. It radiated like a spray-tanned sun onto his supporters eager for validation. It is a bit glib and liberal of me to render a purely psychological verdict onto a political movement, but I’ll be fucked if anyone can make sense of what Trump’s presence in the White House was supposed to be about beyond that. He ran as a populist but levied a pretty mainstream Republican tax cut. He promised to curb illegal immigration but deported fewer people than Obama. He did not start any new overt wars but he didn’t significantly lessen our foreign presence and he even ramped up our already hellacious drone program. Are these the faults of experimental governance or the continued resilience of saying one thing and doing another?

It makes more sense to say that Trumpists hold a certain view of the presidency, which is hardly limited to them but which serves as an extreme culmination. It’s the president-as-advocate, in which the chief executive’s actions are measured against how favorably they signal to his or her given base. No signal is ever unfavorable, of course, even when actions run contrary to a professed promise or platform. The special twist of Trumpism may be that actions were also measured against how much it perturbs the opposition.

Trump derived most of his confidence from a sense of having control over events. Anything could be a medium for the art of the deal. Lots of presidents can coast on that, for good and ill consequence, provided no unforeseen events burst like the Kool Aid man onto the national psyche. Trump, to say nothing of the citizens he governs, were not so lucky in this regard. In that light, the aesthetics of Trumpism took on its negative meaning. Every public display—the boat parades, the highway-congesting mini-rallies—seemed as much urgent as they were gleefully disruptive. It seemed always to be working toward something bigger. Storming the Capitol Building was not how I thought it would crescendo, but the progression tracked; something had to give. I suspect many of them thought they were giving their leader a gift.

People watching, whether in horror or delight, probably felt the catharsis as well, but no release of tension. Anxieties were cycling anew; uncertainties piled upon older, still-lingering uncertainties. A movement noted for its regression now sets the tone for the future.

REFLECTIONS ON 2020

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Maybe the best way for you to understand my present situation is for me to describe it as a situation of constant wetness. It cannot be avoided. Wherever I go I am doused in fluid. It is by no means the same fluid. Sometimes the fluid is obscure and fetid, it is narrow but still splashes everywhere. Other times it is clear and fresh, it surges all around me. But even the clean fluid has its less than wholesome qualities; it cannot be consumed, at least not with any satisfaction. Either way there is no escape. This is my life now.

I know that it’s never advisable to make assumptions, let alone mass assumptions, but I believe I’m on safe ground when I assume that most people do not see themselves spending any portion of their lives trapped inside of a toilet. We were just never raised to think in such terms. The inside of a toilet is not a very practical place to be. Maybe there are some people who consider what it must be like to be trapped inside of a toilet, maybe they even delight in the thought. But I’d say that these thoughts are abstract and unserious. It is the mark of a privileged mindset. But let me tell you, friend, when you do find yourself trapped inside of a toilet, you begin to look at common notions of privilege as you would look at the moon.

Often the setbacks or adversities we encounter are all the more severe because they are the ones we least expect to happen. In the months leading up to January 1, 2000, there was this onrush of collective anxiety over this thing called “Y2K.” I was alive at the time but I cannot for the life of me tell you what Y2K even was. People stocked up on supplies and panicked in the streets, and news crews were there to capture all of it. But the thing itself never happened, or was trivial compared to the hype. My point being is that I guess you can say that not being trapped inside of a toilet is my Y2K.

Before this point I had constructed my entire life around the certainty that I would be living it on the outside of a toilet bowl. If I had given it even a second’s thought, I’d know how poorly advantaged I’d be it if it would turn out otherwise. Living inside of a toilet bowl calls on skillsets and bodily stamina that are applicable in no other life situation. I’d be in big trouble. And as present experience dictates, I would have been right.

The toilet in which I find myself is dark blue porcelain, which in itself is a stroke of good fortune. Even before I was inside of one, I never liked light-hued toilets: the ones colored rose, pink, teal, white, or whatever. Why give a toilet a color that clashes so harshly with the colors of bodily waste products? Here that sort of sensory abuse is somewhat soothed. From my vantage I can’t see very much outside besides the plaster ceiling painted bright yellow and the circular light that shines directly over the bowl like its very own sun. A sun with a dimming function that each user likes to adjust to their own preference, not that I see it much myself. I’m led to conclude that I’m stuck in a residential toilet, another bit of good fortune.

I like to sit at the far end of the toilet opposite the trap. For one thing it is logistically advantageous. You can’t completely avoid what comes in but you can avoid it somewhat more so than anywhere else. When nothing is going on it can be like sitting at the shore of an artificial lake. Just get a decent enough grip and you can stay there for hours. Before I was down here I found it hard to sit still. I paced compulsively and walked for miles. There’s not much room for any of that here. Getting used to a more stationary life was the hardest transition, but that was only one of several to follow.

There aren’t many opportunities for reflection under the toilet seat as there are while sitting on the toilet seat, but I am at least grateful to not be anywhere worse: a prison toilet, a military latrine, a music festival port-o-john, even an office or restaurant bathroom stall. Even if the duration of activity may be prolonged in a home toilet, the duration between activity is mercifully expansive.

You can imagine how this affects my relations with other people. The present dynamic is at once very simplified and very revealing. The humdrum mechanics of nature are transformed into a display of horror. I was going to say unspeakable horror but in truth it is pretty speakable, and boring. At the same time I’ve come to prefer it this way. Any interaction with people now would only revolve around questions of how I got into this situation in the first place. I don’t remember how I got into this situation, and it doesn’t really matter to those who’d ask so long as they get enough out of me to satisfy their smug confidence in how much better they’d handle things were they in my place. Like, how? Getting stuck in an urban penthouse as opposed to a suburban McMansion or a divorcee’s condo? Good luck with that. But that’s not as bad as the others who would already know the answer: my poor life choices or my abject character or my lack of self-esteem. You know, the classic kind of sentiment that does me no good and shows how the little person offering it cares.

My most consistent interactions these days come from the incidental visitations of flies, centipedes, spiders, and other multilegged house creatures. These are frequent but fleeting. Besides our close vicinity, I have nothing in common with them. Spiders get bored and crawl back out. Flies are stupid and drown. A life trapped inside of a toilet is a life of solitude for the most part.  

You might be thinking: Why not just leave the toilet and return to my rightful place among mankind? Of course I’ve considered it. Every time I saw a flap, a tag, or even a sturdy enough-looking hair that was within reach, I thought about mustering the resolve to latch onto it, and to lift myself up as if ascending to a higher consciousness—higher consciousness is probably a lot like a bathroom in a lot of ways when I think about it. But every time I failed to do so. It may be that I am too slow a thinker to follow through on what to others are very obvious positive opportunities. I think the matter is more complicated.

I mentioned earlier about transitions. I probably made it seem as if they would be difficult to achieve. Maybe for some people they would be, like for people who are more accustomed to taking risks or who have a minimalist conception of a “comfort zone.” I never had a high aptitude for discomfort, for taking risks, or for shaking things up. It’s just not my way. When a new situation comes at me, resistance lays a burdensome tax on my energy. It was always better for me to adjust, to assimilate.

How do you assimilate into a toilet? I have a few ideas but there’s not much time left to articulate them. No one is hearing this. These are the final flickers of my inner monologue, like the pulsing orange embers of a dying fire. Where I’m going I won’t need an inner monologue, or an outer monologue for that matter. If you can’t rise up from a toilet, where else to go but down into it? People still living it up in the above-world, the world where no form of excrement may pass unpunished, will find such a notion utterly ludicrous. Of course they would, and I hardly blame them. I would neither impose upon my enemies this kind of existence nor encourage my friends to embrace it. I certainly want no one to follow me, whether out of perverse curiosity, a sense of solidarity, or to play hero. Some things, you see, just make sense. Sometimes there is no returning; there is only progression, or whatever you want to call it, in another, less familiar direction.

So here’s to something new—whatever it may be.

A PROFICIENCY IN BEING SEDUCED

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I don’t care what the papers say
It’s just another intern with a resumé
Angel Olsen

I once rode the New York City subway carrying a dead monkey in each arm. Granted, they were stuffed and secured with plastic wrap and masking tape; but together they took up a great deal of space and were cumbersome to handle. Any apparent comedy in the situation was derived less from the objects themselves than from the man tasked with holding them.

This was about 2008. I was fulfilling a request from an editor at the magazine publisher at which I was then, in a matter of speaking, employed. They were brought to the offices for temporary use in a photoshoot for the cigar magazine we’d recently launched. They were never actually used if memory serves, so back to the store in the East Village that lent them to us. I don’t believe any bike carrier in their right mind would risk their bodily or material safety transporting them, so having nothing better to do at the time and a willingness to get out of the drab offices we inhabited on West 35th St., I volunteered. In truth I undertook this with an ulterior motive. After a year of nonstop declarative egotism, I launched my zine and needed places to “distribute” it into the general population, if only as a marker of its legitimacy. I found independent clothing boutiques in lower Manhattan most practical, because Vice magazine, the edgy aura from which I was eager to siphon, listed them on their website. The mission was accomplished without incident, because I don’t believe the store managers cared or took me all that seriously, and for all I know may have thrown out anything I sent them. I returned to the office with a copy of Arthur. (You remember Arthur, right? No? Well, fine.)

I must have told, even written, this story multiple times. It is the most amusingly “New York media” of my experiences working in New York media. Though it is not the most illustrative. That particular span of time from 2007 to about 2009 or 2010, in which I worked for Double Down Media, a publisher of luxury lifestyle magazines marketed for the high finance set—with titles like Trader Monthly (it was bimonthly by the way), Dealmaker, Private Air, Corporate Leader, and so on—is singularly bizarre to the point that, had it not been for the grueling daily commutes from across the Hudson, it would be hard for me to believe it had happened at all. There are things I did that would never have occurred to me to do two years before while I was in college. Nothing salacious, that was left to the ad sales department if the gossip is to be believed, but things for which no book-learning or “student journalism” could prepare me.

For about two weeks of my time at that company, the fashion editor drafted me to assist her in a spread. I was to help her acquire luxury accessories—watches, luggage, cufflinks, etc.—to be photographed on the floor of the lobby over a faux-marble background. I had no previous experience in the fashion side of things other than fact-checking the credits and watching her audition models in the back office we shared. (A note: though the circumstances probably dictated this, I will always believe that some of the nicest people you can meet in New York City are fashion models.) In truth most of what I did was make phone calls and arrange deliveries. I remember it took up enough of my time that I went into the office the day after Christmas, with only one other coworker, to work on it. I also remember that the only thing I was expressly forbidden from touching was a watch marked at $100,000; my grubby mitts being too great an insurance liability.

There were some hiccups. I got chewed out by a manager of a luggage store to whom I may not have clearly communicated the nature of my borrowing the suitcase the editor was insistent on having, but did not use. The matter was settled with a $50 restocking fee and a lot of yelling. Then there was the fact-checking of the credits. This was usually a nightmare because they were handed over to us in a rather confusing fashion, and made no less confusing by the fact that fashion industry publicists were cagey about the exact value of the goods they represented. The rule of thumb, I’d later learn, was to always overvalue a good whose price proved elusive; or even better, mark it as “price upon request.” In any case, I hoped to provide the text with as much accuracy as could be managed, with all the necessary contact information. Somehow, the fact-checking process fucked this up in ways inconvenient enough to necessitate additional communications of a less than cordial manner. I placed the blame for this lapse on the fact-checker, who was new, did not adapt to the role very quickly, and had lucked out with a better job mere weeks after starting, so I apologized for him to the fashion editor. She was not upset, in fact she otherwise approved of my performance, mostly because I took her directives without hassle, being not terribly ambitious about the project and being incapable of questioning her judgment. As a result, there is an issue of a magazine dedicated to people who gazed rather shallowly into the message of Wall Street where I am listed as a “market editor.”

What links both of these events is that I received no compensation for either of them. Nor did I receive compensation for my primary task of fact-checking the magazines. Such is the inverted nature of the internship, in which your lack of monetary value is proportional to your professional elasticity. Someone who is not paid a certain amount for a certain task is magically capable of doing any odd thing. This is not a major revelation. The internship was always a source of both comedy and glamor in depictions of urban office life. Indeed, in addition to—and perhaps as a result of—the release of The Devil Wears Prada, MTV spun off The City, from the earlier spin-off The Hills, in which Whitney Port could be seen around Manhattan surrounded by camera crews as an employee in some manner for Diane von Fürstenberg. She was not probably an intern proper; more an “administrative assistant.” At least as I can deduce in my own experience, in which I was never an intern but an “editorial assistant,” even more boldly an “assistant editor” in a position with even fewer notable responsibilities. Port, and her “nemesis” Olivia Palmero, were of course being paid obscene sums to play these parts, to affect a lifestyle and to represent a social situation I, as someone in their immediate age group, just happened to be living out.

One of my greatest regrets is that I will likely not live long enough to see this situation brought forth to the judgment of historians of our era. But this is a sad necessity. Only after the extensive passage of time, and the demise of entire generations, can the internship be examined with the most clarity, with the least amount of skin in the game, and the least amount of dependence upon or survival imperative through this institution. My own assessment, scabrous and embittered but in a fun way, will prove the necessity of this task if not assist it in any positive way.

The internship, more than the sexual revolution or the collapse of governmental integrity or the perpetuation of social media, is the symbol of our cultural decadence. Nothing better exposes the tensions between luxury and exploitation that American society subsists on than the opportunity to be “paid in experience.” It is in itself a luxury exploitation. It never seemed so at the time since, for a while anyway, in a certain level of industrial stability, it worked. “Industry” is the correct term here, as the intern was very much a supply that came and went with the glide of the conveyer belt. A steady stream of potential helpmates could easily be vomited out of NYU or Bard or Vassar or Oberlin or wherever and onto a cubicle desk for a summer. Often, however, they came with certain attributes that reinforced this unusual arrangement, such as a trust fund, easy access to a city that did not necessitate relocation, or the position as the coke-addicted niece or nephew of a creative director. Questions as to individual sustainability were not an issue under these conditions. But that supply is meager and once exhausted would require replenishment with a more abundant but lower-quality model: people who came from middle-class homes, having no apparent connections, and carrying degrees from giant state-funded warehouses or private liberal arts cottages. People, that is, with very definite conceptions of transactional work, personal merit, and expectations of success. They would abjure decadence in no uncertain terms assuming they ever encountered it. 

What value can be found by the purveyors of internships in taking these hordes on? The possibility of seduction. The seduction can be literal, of course, though here I speak of a general seduction in which a naif intern is convinced to turn away from old values of merit, utility, and dollars as a feasible currency and toward newer values of clout, frivolity, and access as a feasible currency. What an internship lacks in stability it makes up for in temptations, even when you have no interest in them. I am not an enthusiastic drinker, but as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my being handed an alcohol beat from an outgoing intern brought me into a pipeline where booze otherwise unaffordable to me in regular circumstances was for the taking—or rather for being given freely. I can’t remember the exact haul, but it included three Macallans (two 12-year and one 18-year), a Highland Park, and a bottle of port that came in a fancy wooden box. I was invited to many fancy press get-togethers at places like BLT Steak to hear about and taste similar products. I learned that you could make a living just traveling the world proselytizing about booze. During a one-on-one at this high-end bar in the Financial District, a Highland Park representative claimed that he was either almost of very briefly a drummer for Mogwai, something that seemed so unexpected, and not too widely impressive to anyone else in this context, that I felt compelled to believe it.

These are small beans compared to various parties and lavish press trips that were just as common and happily taken up on by people with stronger stomachs for socializing and travel. Not that that convinced anyone. At a certain point, it had to be stared at that career advancement in the traditional sense, let alone financial stability, was not a given without a certain degree of luck and networking prowess. It was especially hard at that point when magazines, never solvent endeavors to begin with, were dropping dead and hemorrhaging staff at unprecedented frequency and volume. Despite constant assurances to the contrary, Double Down was in free-fall after the market crash. Weirdly by that time I was brought back on at an hourly rate, but layoffs were becoming more frequent, and the ad sales team was working for commission only. Eventually the bottom dropped out and I absurdly made a claim in the bankruptcy case for the $600-ish that was and remains owed to me. Only a few of my fellow interns stuck it out in the industry, though some of those left New York. Others went into other professions like yoga instruction or carpentry. I just drifted away from lifestyle media to intellectual media, which I discovered had many head-spinning distinctions from the former. That is an essay for another day.

Before I came to Double Down I was an “assistant editor” at GO! NYC, a sort of New York for lesbians. My time there was shorter and my job was more malleable. I did lots of proofreading, inputting changes in the back-of-the-book listings, and various menial tasks, like going out for gummy worms. I worked the ticket booth for their anniversary party, held in some warehouse behind FIT and hosted by some realty show/fitness celebrity. I remember that the fancy famous local journalist Michael Musto had showed up at some point, apparently unexpected going by the look of panicked delight on the managing editor’s face upon telling us, though I myself never saw him. The only notable experience I felt I took from GO! was a “proficiency” in Quark, which is sort of like saying you have a proficiency in mouth-breathing.

My training at Double Down was comparatively more intensive. For magazines that were routinely derided on Gawker and Dealbreaker, great care was taken to maintain their credibility with their equally derided, and soon-to-be-hated, readership. Fact-checking had me breaking down a single sentence as one would an engine and reassembling it in more working order. To the managing editor, who arrived at the office before anyone else (provided no one was sleeping there overnight, which was frequent), to drop copy at our desks, this was an important defensive measure. But a magazine dedicated to finance and lifestyle created certain conflicts in editorial style, even philosophy of language itself.

The finance editors prized technical accuracy reliant on industry jargon, statistics, and interesting insider information that could not be gotten by the reader from anywhere else. Imagine how foolish I felt and sounded trying to get wholly foreign data straight in my own head before trying to cogently convey it to the subjects, actual professional traders and M&A honchos who could be as abrupt as they could be patient and helpful. The lifestyle editors, on the other hand, prized narrative flourish; fact-checking for them was more of a creative exercise. One of these editors had a particular way of going about it, taking certain details and reshaping them, sometimes paying no mind to the writer’s intent, to suit a more aspirational reality. Manufactured details, in other words, that were plausible but which we were expected to confirm as true or, if not, then to replace them with the next best thing. This approach caused the most hassle because it gummed up an already complicated editorial process and steered interns and writers into unnecessary ethical quandaries. Most annoying for me was the expectation that I had to intuit this process, the editor’s intentions in using it, and conceive of a piece of information as highly sought after and as a placeholder. In my calmer moments I couldn’t help but marvel perversely at this man’s stubborn drive to bend reality to his niche whims. I hope this person is writing or will at some point write an adventure novel.

There is no question that I took from my tenure some precious experience; and I’ve managed to carry it on elsewhere to greater profit. But even, perhaps especially, with that knowledge safely implanted, I am still aware that it too was specially formatted for the intern institution. The intern, whatever their level or prestige or sophistication, is in the business of satisfying desires with a wide, unpredictable range. I look back and am a bit shocked to remember how pliant I could be; it was the only way I could tell I was doing a good job. Had this been a time of more elegant corruption, I imagine I would have made a very dedicated courtier or mandarin in service to an empire worthy of the status. I cope with my chronological ill fortune by remembering that, though I could be yelled at, overwhelmed, buttered up by flaks, and shat upon by pigeons (which happened once), I never needed to worry about, like, syphilis or being disemboweled.

Yet it was from appeasing these desires that I ended up being seduced myself. The editors were some of the most overworked people I’ve ever met, but the perception of their power by calling upon my service made it worth emulating. An ironic outcome of this was that my writing was shielded almost entirely from this pursuit. I did so little of it while there, and what I did write had to be overhauled to fit the house style. I was ambivalent about writing at the time; being an editor, my thinking went, would distract me from that ambivalence forever. I even approached the zine in this manner for the first two issues. I won’t say that my God-given talent was working its resistance against some unfortunate quest, but rather when that quest inevitably imploded, writing was the only thing that was left. It was waiting, with a detectable smirk, to be applied in face-saving instances such as these to the fullest extent of its power. Good thing, too, as I have lost my proficiency in Quark.

THE BEST POSSIBLE PODCAST

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Synopsis: Ryan, Jeff, and Del are three tight bros from State College (I can’t remember which) just living their best lives to the max. You’re invited to ride business class for their crazy adventures and simple, from-the-gut wisdom.
Seasons: 1 (8 episodes)
Tags: real talk, inspiration, getting shit done, for the boys, marketplace of ideas, self-care

Episode Summaries

Episode 001: “FnlyOans”
The boys admit that they’re too online these days and need to take drastic measures to unplug. They go all in on a sensory deprivation tank. But there’s a problem when it arrives: there’s already someone inside it, and he refuses to get out. To make matters worse, flies infest their condo out of nowhere, all their beer turns blood red, and they get erections whenever a phantom Pat Boone song plays on a cold breeze. It turns out they were sent the sarcophagus of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh by mistake. The boys conclude that there are worse things out there than being extremely online, so before they take the bubble wrap out for the return, they do some “Go off, King” reaction memes to send to bar waitresses on Facebook. Run time: 3 hrs 43 mins

Episode 002: “Secretly Catalan”
Jeff claims he’s discovered the true identity of Jack the Ripper after going on a Hinge date. The boys beg for clarification: did the Hinge date tell him the identity of Jack the Ripper or was his Hinge date the Victorian serial prostitute murderer himself? Jeff demurs, saying all will be revealed by the episode’s end. But every time the boys try to end the episode, Jeff goes into an extended discourse on a magic trick. The boys begin to suspect that Jeff fabricated the date, either because it did not go as he’d hoped or because the condo was triggered to explode if the episode came to an end; the result, no doubt, of Jeff being extorted for bit-torrenting episodes of a rip-off of NewsRadio set in Geneva. Run time: 6 days 4 hrs 23 mins

Episode 003: “Revenge Porn, but Your Checking Account and Social Security Number”
Del announces that he booked Riley Reid on the pod, but that she’s running late. The boys take the extra time to prep. Del has some softball questions about her dos and don’ts on set, her dream scene partner (dead or alive), and her ideal Sunday afternoon. Ryan wants a more cerebral approach, with pedantic questions related to the theory and praxis of popshots. Jeff wants to bet the boys a whole 30-pack that he can successfully proposition her by the end of the episode. When she arrives, it’s apparent that Del got confused and actually invited Rhys E. Reade, his old shift manager at HomeGoods. They have a pleasant conversation about bathmat designs and such; and to Del’s question: John Quincy Adams. Run time: 48 mins

Episode 004: “RIP to a Real One: John Mulaney”
The boys are locked out of the gym, so they come up with a contest to see who can catfish whom more effectively. Ryan gets caught up in storytelling, making pained, eloquent pleas for the boys to Venmo her funds so she can finish Zumba teacher certification and get a chemistry set—because science is her passion. Del uses a picture of Ryan’s sister from spring break in Acapulco, less to catfish than to low-key show her the kind of woman she’s capable of becoming if she applies herself to her studies: interning for a state Senator, joining the Peace Corps to teach kids English in Winnipeg, waving at disabled kids on TikTok, etc. Ryan is at once sickened and touched. The boys scrutinize the integrity of every dick pic Jeff sends them. They forgot to name a prize, so they just buy and split a 30-pack. Run time: 2 hrs 16 mins

Episode 005: “Gouging My Own Eyes Out and FedExing Them to Your Mom, As One Does”
Del won’t shut the fuck up about this history podcast he binged on the German unification, so they decide to go back in time to the Kingdom of Prussia to challenge Minister President Bismarck to a keg-stand contest. But the time machine they ordered being made by child labor in Laos—or wherever—it instead sends them forward in time to 27th century California, which has been divided four ways between three warring empires and one galactic federation overseen by an extraterrestrial race with the bodies of Venus flytraps but the heads of fleshlights. Del claims that a sordid affair with one of the alien colonists resulted in a case of cosmic gonorrhea; the boys insist it’s just residual food poisoning carried over from the past, which totally happens. Still, best to hightail it back to normal times because intergalactic intimacies, to say nothing of inter-chronological intimacies, are still a far cry from social acceptance. Such is the frailty of Man or some bullshit. Run time: 645 years 3 hrs 34 mins

Episode 006: “Basquepilled”
Ryan spends the entire episode trying to win the love and approval of his father, having deduced that his real father is Matthew McConaughey after being able to write his name correctly three separate times without having to consult Bing. To do so, he tries to hack into his Official Instagram account so that he can post his haikus and free verse about banging Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders on the Wyoming plains, despite the fact that Ryan has never visited them personally and the fact that McConaughey lives neither in Wyoming nor Dallas. Meanwhile, Del wants Jeff to beta test his groundbreaking and exclusive new direct message app, which turns out is just literally a telegraph machine, so they both try to learn how to spell “bukkake” in Morse code. Ryan tries every possible variation of “alright alright alright” but fails to break through. The episode concludes with the sound of Ryan sobbing onto his phone, something to which the boys have long ago grown accustomed. Run time: 1 hr 41 mins

Episode 007: “New Password: M@ke1t5t0pM@ke1t5t0pM@ke1t5t0p69”
This time the boys get locked inside of the gym. Sitting in the spin room, Jeff has a thought that gyms are like little countries, you gotta take what’s yours and control your territory. Del argues against pure warlordism and insists that you have to exert your influence to build alliances and federalize, federalize, federalize. Ryan makes a point that he’s “read Xenophon” and knows how this all plays out. Undeterred, Jeff is already thinking if he has the resolve to eject people from a helicopter into shark-infested waters for not sitting down when they pee, something he doesn’t condone personally but thinks is more moral and more effectively inspires deference to authority. Del, annoyed now, asks how he expects to maintain a shark population in the swimming pool and fit a full helicopter into the gym. Jeff says it will be a small two-seat chopper and it will fit just fine in the basketball courts. They come to blows and try to choke each other on Pilates mats. Ryan insists more strongly that he’s read “most of” Xenophon and it’s all going according to plan. Their first political act is to resign from all political activity. Run time: 12 hours 20 mins

Episode 008: “Karen? Karen, Call Me the Fuck Back. KAREN.”
The boys go to a custom car show and, time permitting, a strip club. Time indeed permits, but in line at the breakfast buffet, Del spots his first stepdad being led by hand into what he suspects is the room behind the lap dance rooms. His feelings are such that he leaves the high-five offers from the boys hanging; they return to the condo to stream the lesser Porky’s sequel, Porky’s Redemption and Ascension into the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, Jeff develops a tic in which he pronounces the word “post” in a hard eastern Pennsylvania accent (piewst) and refers to every 7-11 as a “bodega.” The boys logically conclude that he’s the victim of a gypsy curse, the result, no doubt, of his bit-torrenting episodes of a Turkish version of Suddenly Susan—and watching drug cartel beheading videos on Xhamster. The closest thing to a gypsy they know of his Del’s third step-aunt Tove who is from Copenhagen and makes candles. Del overcomes his lingering fondness for Tove in favor of the boys’ plan to capture her and burn her at the stake on their condo’s volleyball court. But when they come to her house, she greets them wearing a Best Possible Podcast t-shirt. She apologizes for making them wait as she was taking a nap with her Best Possible Podcast electric blanket and Best Possible Podcast throw pillow. The boys have no memory of ever making merch, to which she says that she knows: she made them herself. Burning this woman alive quickly loses most of its appeal. She serves them macaroons and mimosas in gratitude for creating such inspiring content. The four of them return to the strip club on an unstoppable wave of triumph and validation. Run time: 2 hrs 37 mins

ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED bonus episode: “Operation Vibecrime”
As partial payment for the defense against his indecent exposure charge, Ryan has his ex-girlfriend’s lawyer uncle as a guest. What luck! The boys finally have a chance to settle their long unresolved debate: does the First Amendment permit an American citizen to fuck the Grand Canyon or merely to be sexually suggestive in its general direction? Uncle Lawyer says the question can cut in either direction depending on a Supreme Court justice’s philosophy. But if he’s learned anything from the American Constitution Society gala dinners he’s heard about on his various members-only forums, it remains hotly contested as to how many generations must pass before recent immigrants, naturalized citizens, or women will be able to do either. Uncle Lawyer is not 100 percent on the matter as his specialty is real estate. But as he undertakes his solemn civic obligation to confiscate what remains of their beer, he reminds Ryan maybe for a sixth or seventh time that podcasting does not count as community service. Meanwhile, Del tries to reconnect with his status as an American colonialist oppressor by being rude to waitresses at a tiki bar. His experience backfires, however, when he learns that the waitstaff for that shift includes two sisters who are one-quarter Piedmontese, and technically his superior. Jeff develops a Slovakian mail-order bride bot, OLGA-5000, to practice his conversation skills should he find it necessary to order the real thing. He spends much of his time heralding the yields on his trades on cryptocurrencies such as the Euro. He will not notice that OLGA-5000 will become sentient and coax him to Venmo his student debt payments to her with promises of nudes that will be deepfakes of his mom’s face on a manatee body. Run time: 47 mins.

COMMUTER VIBES AND TRANSPLANT FEELS

The Morris and Essex line on New Jersey Transit takes New Jerseyans directly into New York Penn Station. If you take it enough times you can pinpoint the exact location where the suburban becomes the urban. It is at a spacious park just after South Orange and just before Orange. The further east you get, the homes become more compact before they fade out into scores of high-rise buildings, office parks, and warehouses in various stages of decrepitude. Somewhere outside Secaucus, amidst a terrain of hilly marshland, is a junkyard for disused cars, buses, trucks, and boats. The tractor trailers make for reliable canvases for graffiti, which seems to be added onto every few months. Up until I went to college, Newark Broad Street Station was overlooked by the ruins of a Westinghouse plant. I was transfixed by it every time we passed it, though people who had to wait under it every day probably felt imposed upon by this wreckage of another time. For the time being it has been replaced by a vast vacant lot. The minor league baseball stadium just across from it had the same fate.

I find it hard to concentrate on the train. I get very agitated by the crowds and of all the things that can go wrong over which I have no control. Once when I took the very late train home on a Friday night/Saturday morning, we had stopped for nearly 20 minutes at Milburn because a very drunk man had vomited all over the floor of a vestibule, was unable to tell conductors where his stop was, and had to be taken off by EMTs. Another time someone tripped an emergency break, though an inspection from end to end detected no apparent emergency, it jolted everyone, especially a baby a car ahead of me. On another late trip, the doors at my stop didn’t open, so I got off at Chatham and had to carpool back to my own car in Summit with some kind strangers in the same situation. Then there was Halloween eve 2015 when a friend took me to Koreatown for sake and I had to wander the empty streets of downtown Summit while I sobered up—though that one was entirely my doing. Those are the mishaps I prefer to remember.

To calm myself on my rides I stare out the window. To most of my fellow passengers it might blur into a topographical nothingness. I could never see it that way. Even when it’s dark out, and especially when it’s twilight, its charms never lose potency. It is as if the state is trying to tell me a story in images. The story of various, not always reconcilable elements being stitched together in uncomfortable closeness. What exactly it’s supposed to tell me I haven’t figured out. But when the train is moving the cadence of the narrative is soothing enough and never dull. I find I always discover something new; not newly placed items, but things once hidden shyly coming to light.

There are a few names for the type of person I have just described: namely “commuter” and the “bridge and tunnel set.” That last one always amused me because I fucking hate that goddamn tunnel. The one that turns me and my means of conveyance, briefly, into a suppository for the digestive backside of the beast I must entire to seek either commerce or entertainment. I’ve heard stories of trains breaking down inside it. One outbound train, another late-night weekend one, got stuck because a pipe had got loose and breached the top of one of the cars. It took a beating during Sandy in 2012; it has come to symbolize our shabby infrastructure, which Chris Christie infamously refused to solve with a newer, better tunnel. It’s not really the fault of the tunnel. The tunnel, so far as I know, has no opinions on the matter of its upkeep or of the tension I feel while enveloped in its blackness, the relief I feel when I pull up to the subterranean track outside it, and the immediate despair that rushes over me as I enter Penn Station, for God knows what number of times.

These names and the corresponding emotional rollercoaster of the people (or person) on whom they are bestowed has one underlying correlation: being an outsider. This is both in the literal sense in that we come from outside a given border, and in a cultural sense in that our relationship to the border we cross is unmistakably distinct. I’ve been told that commuters represent the most abrupt, bustling manner of New York City. Commuters always have something to do and somewhere to be and it is always of the highest importance. They are also highly sensitive to the most bustling part of the city: midtown Manhattan. Truly the most annoying, sensorially oppressive place in the developed world. It is like our own personal gauntlet through which we must plow to accomplish our objective. As I don’t much like the subway, I actually like braving this terrain even in adverse weather. I even get a strange exhilaration dodging the scores of tourists, happy attractive couples, and people yelling into their phones. Once I passed by a couple on rollerblades. Of course they were French.

This attitude leaves a certain impression upon New Yorkers. To us the cityscape has a function; we are pragmatists who see only what we need and none of the splendor, whether natural or artificial, that the city has to offer. To this I, at least, readily affirm. There is only so much time in the day and only so much city to take in. I’m reminded of this whenever I have business in the West Village, which I find frustrating to navigate, as if it spatially shifts for the sole purpose of provoking me. “Oh, fuck off!” I yell at this cobblestone passageway that seems to have appeared out of the ether, and with shops of no use at all to my purposes or for killing time if it’s there to die for me.

This attitude is not in evidence on “Welcome to New York,” the opening song of Taylor Swift’s 2014 album 1989. “Walkin’ through a crowd, the village is a glow,” it begins, “Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats/Everybody here wanted somethin’ more/Searchin’ for a sound we hadn’t heard before.” The song is filled with awe for this city where “lights are so bright but they never blind me” and where “everyone was someone else before/And you can want who you want.” “It’s a new soundtrack I could dance to this beat, beat forevermore.” All tied up by a chorus that bids you

Welcome to New York
It’s been waitin’ for you
Welcome to New York, welcome to New York
Welcome to New York
It’s been waitin’ for you
Welcome to New York, welcome to New York

A strange song, personally, as I needed no introduction to New York City by that point. Though Swift did, having moved there not long before from wherever the hell she’s from in well-publicized fashion. Who can forget the time T-Swift went out shopping for plants on the city sidewalks? Or when she was spotted perusing the shelves of McNally Jackson, a store that holds special resonance for me not just because it is a good bookstore generally but it is the only place in the city where my zine sold consistently? She fell in love with the place in a special way. She donated the proceeds of the single to NYC’s Department of Education, and the city made Swift their “welcome ambassador” for tourism.

Sometimes I am conscious that a lot of the changes made to New York City in the 1990s introduced under Giuliani and solidified under Bloomberg—broken windows policing, the aggressive devulgarizing and revulgarizing of Time Square, making the streets barely drivable, and the shifting around of the homeless population—were done specifically for the benefit of me and my kind. Though the influence, even the allure, of the New York City transplant is deserving of equal if not greater attention.

Swift’s song received critical backlash for what was seen as a narrow view of New York City. It lacked the authenticity of the massively populated metropolis that crosses class and ethnicity in sharp ways. This is most clear to those who run for local office. People come to the documentary Weiner for the sleazy scandals and fly-on-the-wall voyeurism of watching a prominent political marriage implode, but they stay to watch Anthony Weiner as he traverses the unreal demography of New York City with insane self-confidence and barely controlled enthusiasm. In places like New York City, political success is sometimes contingent on such details as knowing which variant of Spanish to speak to which potential constituent. Such details are not unknown to transplants, but it is not central to their vision of the city. For all the criticisms of the song, Swift’s portrait was an accurate one.

Like the commuter, the transplant identity is rooted in a vibe. Swift’s lyrics suggest naivety, but I think zeal is better suited to them. The transplants need it, moving to New York City is no easy task. Granted, moving from one part of Hoboken to another is no easy task—but Hoboken does not build character. Hoboken is not terra nullius in the mind of those who find themselves there. They do not feel like the conquering colonial emissary in an environment that is both empty and rich.

Most of my social circle in the city is (or I guess in short order, was) made up of transplants. I have rarely met anyone truly new to the city. They’ve been well assimilated into the fabric of the grid for the most part. When I am in their presence it is understood that I am the guest and they are the hosts. They are by no means poor hosts. They know how to get the most of their surroundings in ways that would never have occurred to me in my greedy haste to accomplish things. Indeed, in my spastic abruptness I may bare little distinction from the tourist who scours Little Italy in search of the gen-yoo-WINE—no idea what I’m doing here—slice of New York pizza. But transplants have their own abruptness. It is a sense of time that is not time as you and I, who are not voluntary New Yorkers, understand it. It’s disjointed and fragmentary, kinetic but also a bit lethargic, tragicomic yet comically tragic. What art, you may ask, best exemplifies this strange pattern of being? Not, alas, “Welcome to New York,” not Girls, not even Bright Lights, Big City, but Speedboat by Renata Adler, of Danbury, Connecticut.

Still, the accumulated knowledge of the transplant of their surroundings is practically complete. And even if it is not complete, it quite outpaces even those whose proximity to the city extends their own. They will make you feel like a provincial schlub even as they are practically standing in your own kitchen helping themselves to the sugar. Transplants can conceive of history. They know it exists to a certain extent; but they are not themselves historical. History begins at the moment of their settlement. I suppose being without a history is better than losing track of it. Such as when I was leaving from a lunch at the Commonweal offices in uptown Manhattan, I belatedly realized that my grandmother went to school nearby. Whenever I replace my phone it seldom occurs to me that my grandfather worked for New York Bell … as a telephone repairman. But what need have I for this history when I fail to appreciate the subtle distinctions of the bagels at the place on First Avenue against the inferior bagels sold at the place in Chelsea or Fort Green, as if bagels were extinct on my side of the river?

It is important to meet a transplant at the right time. Too late and their cynicism begins to show. It’s a curious kind of cynicism. On the one hand it may be genuine, the mark of the ambient drain living in the city for an extended period of time exacts on everyone. On the other hand it could be affected; a sort of studied jadedness creeps in contorting confidence into arrogance and aloofness. It’s the same malaise that asserts itself whenever a colonial hegemon overstays its occupation. Often, the only solution is to leave. And just like colonial occupiers they make a grand show of it, sending notifications, citing various reasons, and airing various regrets. But unlike the colonial occupier there are no vestiges of the occupation. In fact once the transplants leave it is as if they were never there to begin with. This is partly due to the reality that the transplants, whatever their past or present affection for their adoptive city, are replaceable.

I had hoped that by the end of this essay I would have upended the common notions of outsider and insider in this context, and riven them with a starker line of demarcation. But I find this neither to be the most logical case nor even the most interesting. Commuter vibes and transplant feels are different only in matters of degree. To native New Yorkers, who I assume exist in sufficient supply today, they are exhausting in basically the same way. Being a commuter does not make me an insider, just an outsider with a competitive edge. The kind of outsider who can say that, at a time somewhere between its being bombed and my parents’ separation, I had visited the original Twin Towers with my family. Granted, my sole memory of that moment was waiting in a line that ringed around an enormous reception hall; I may have made it to the observatory, but I also may have gotten impatient and pitched enough of a fit to get everyone to leave. It could go either way.

But even that confers a kind of experiential prestige compared to my competitors. As such, they can consider this essay a kind of service to them. Those transplants who are getting the itch to un-transplant themselves, and even those who have already done so, are relieved of having to formally give their reasons. You have not quit, for I have just fired you.

Postscript
In the spring of 2016, I took the eastbound Morris and Essex train with the intention of getting off at Newark. My brother was graduating from Montclair State University and the commencement ceremony was being held at the Prudential Center, where the Devils play. While waiting for the Light Rail at Broad Street Station to take me downtown some five or so minutes away, a small man in a construction hardhat and an orange vest approached me. In a low, soft voice he began to make small talk with me. Much of what he said I can’t recall; I only remember that he didn’t stop even after we were on the train. Soon his aim was clear: to sell me weed. He made several pitches to me that were neither aggressive nor very casual. I refused them all. Not on any fault of him, mind you, but because I don’t smoke weed and even if I did, being cold-called in public for drugs seemed somewhat improper.

He stuck with me though. We walked together into Newark Penn Station, which unlike its counterpart on the other side of the river, retains much of its original early 20th century art deco aesthetic. I had actually only been there one other time and was quite lost. My middling drug dealer colleague asked me where I was going, and once I told him he pointed me in the correct direction, allowing me to make the ceremony on time. And we parted ways forever.