Black Ribbon Award

Month: May, 2018

AGAINST GOTHS

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Like a dead bat in a slingshot, “World Goth Day” came and went last week. When I started noticing Instagram posts about it on May 22, I was in the throes of a fleeting Twitter fast, and could not, on principle, log on to make fun of it. By the time I was back on a few days later, some other thing that is also now completely forgotten had taken hold of the public gaze, and all was futile.

Something about this apparent lapse seems fortuitous. Why, indeed, upon hearing for the first time of this Day dedicated to celebrating the enduring culture born of Gothic rock, was insulting it my first impulse? I’ve left in my digital wake an extensive trail of evidence to suggest that nothing would be more amenable to my tastes. My copious posting related to horror, the tragic bent in much of my writing, my love of hipster metal and “doom folk,” and my dark-hued fashion palette all suggest goth-adjacent sympathies at the very least. And yet just as I reach the precipice overlooking that black velvet void, an unseen force pulls me violently away and leaves me to sigh eternally on a cushion of damp moss in a cloudy sylvan glen. Or so the dream always goes.

There are reasons for this, of course.

One is the most obvious: World Goth Day is dumb. One would think that, in a society that has Halloween, a World Goth Day would be superfluous. What more, for those who are ever antsy for its approach, there is precedent—a radical one, but precedent nonetheless—which posits that to the goth, every day is Halloween. (Jourgensen, A., “(Every Day is) Halloween.” Wax Trax, 1984)

The blowback to that might be that Halloween is for kids and hardly compliments the profound decadence authentic goth culture embodies. And, fair, I’ve heard proposals that there should be a holiday that separates the childish revelry from the various forms of adult bacchanalia. But I am not seeing that from most goths who take advantage of both days. I know this from careful observation. Which brings me to my second reason: goths are boring.

A friend of mine some years ago, just after the goth characters started appearing on South Park, expressed skepticism that such a subculture could ever actually exist. We of course knew goths in our high school days, though they never admitted to being so, and I guess he, unlike me, is kind and took their words at face value. But those were the innocent days before the internet’s performative stage. Before such things as Instagram’s “Explore” function could bring you right to them.

They have their initial appeal, these goths, let’s admit at least that. The goth lifestyle is one of complete and utter commitment to its look and its attitude. Every day the goth wakes up knowing he or she doesn’t just get to be goth but, at his or her core being, must be goth. The goth is compelled to dress, to adorn his or her surroundings, and to consume culture according to goth dictum of memento mori and the infinite sadness. In other words, it’s very fun knowing that someone lives in an apartment in New England with antique furniture, dark drapery, some skulls, and some old Vincent Price vehicle posters—and who probably doesn’t care much for sports.

It was only until I started following several goths that the appeal had faded. I started to notice that one’s routine did not diverge too radically from any of the others. The goth life is one of graveyards, pumpkin patches, “morbid” museums, abandoned hospitals, abandoned prisons, more graveyards, cool arts fairs, the Jonathan Corwin House in Salem, the Edgar Allan Poe mural in Philadelphia, blighted fields of endless fuck-all, and still more graveyards. It seemed to me that the distinction between goth tourism and the Nashville bachelorette party tourism Anne Helen Petersen took great pains to scorn at Buzzfeed was one of style.

To be fair, there are some mitigating factors for why this might be. The algorithm limited my scope to a certain clique in a certain region. Who’s to say that goths in Arizona or Idaho don’t have markedly different points of interest to frequent? This seems only barely possible, but I have not seriously inquired. There is also the broader disconnect in how Instagram works: simultaneously exploiting the curiosity of the followers and encouraging monotony in the followed. But that is a free service that for all its manipulation does not force me to follow anyone. So it might be, as ever, a problem born of someone so vulnerable to boredom that a demon must be dragging him there by an invisible choke collar.

That last one is quite salient, if only as a byproduct for what I believe is the more central reason for this discord.

A recent goth post, another gloomy cemetery, included in the caption a quote from Stephen King’s The Shining. The novel, if you don’t know, tells of a troubled family man and failed writer who takes a job as winter caretaker at an isolated luxury hotel that turns out to be maliciously haunted. At its heart it is a story about overcoming ghosts, actual and personal, in order to save oneself and one’s family. For King, who had his own issues with substance abuse and career struggles, it is a very personal book with a hopeful message. Which makes his giving the rights over to Stanley Kubrick an even greater mystery than any dreamt up by the Room 237 fan theorists. King has regretted it ever since, effectively drawing a line in the sand between the warm, genuine horror storytelling of his novel and the “very cold,” ornamental horror tourism of the film.

I first saw The Shining in full around eighth grade—some 20 years ago—with my mom in the sunroom of our old house. I have watched it at least once a year ever since. Though The Innocents is much better, The Shining is still one of the best horror films ever made. But King’s complaints are not invalid. Kubrick was less concerned with the struggles of Jack Torrance, whether Tony is real, or even with the actual shining, and more interested in exploring the effects of isolation and the incompatibility between man and nature.

It’s not impossible for goths to like both the film and the book, or even to prefer the film to the book as I do. Yet I still sense a philosophical rift between us that is facilitated by King’s distinction-making. The extra-expressive nature of the goths bends them, I think, toward the hopeful view of King. Horror is an expressive palette, an outlet, and an extension of their morality. There’s safety in horror, or what King calls in his horror survey Danse Macabre “reintegration … that same feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.”

I believe it’s this reintegration, arising from a field specializing in death, fear, and monstrosity, that makes the danse macabre so rewarding and magical … that and the boundless ability of the human imagination to create endless dreamworlds and then put them to work.

King’s ultimate concern with Kubrick’s adaptation might be in its power as a gateway to aesthetic extremism. Indeed, what is Kubrick’s The Shining if it is not a rebuke of horror’s escapism? Instead of King’s reintegration, Kubrick’s vision is one of assimilation: Torrance cannot leave the labyrinth, let alone Overlook, and neither can we. King, again, is not wrong. This vision of horror as a continuous, overpowering force rather than a passing, peculiar delight greatly appealed to me. It is not the adventurism of exploring a derelict asylum, but the despair of being restrained in a functioning asylum. This is horror not as a lifestyle but as a way of life. There horror finds its most complete expression and unshakable justification.

It is possible that some goths might be inclined to agree with my view, and that the only thing that truly separates me from them is that they are more proactive in dealing with it. Still, I would be happy to meet the goths and get their side of it. It is the polite thing to do after what I have written. But I still get the feeling that whatever superficial understanding we have of each other, the deeper friction will remain. It is possibly the most crucial dispute I have with anybody, and it is the dispute I am least eager to mend. Horror does not have converts; it’s something you’re in. You either see it or you don’t.

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ARTISANAL FOG

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Angst, by Jean Davis

Jordan Peterson is not a fan of “white privilege.” Or rather, Jordan Peterson is committed to telling anyone in the English-speaking sphere who will listen that “white privilege” does not exist. It is a phantasm, or a vapo(u)r. To say that it is anything substantial is less to make an argument than it is to show one’s cards. This, says the card-shower, is the system I have built over me; This is the archetype I recognize; This is the myth I bought into, etc. And so long as Dr. Peterson fills his dance card with opponents who share his proportions of nuance, he will not get to the root of the problem but he will have sufficient material for his “How I Spent My Indefinite Sabbatical” Power Point presentation.

The second half of this decade has been haunted by privilege. Though the nature of its haunting is more intrusive than unsettling. It is like a sitcom neighbor who comes in the door without knocking at any given time whether he is welcome to do so or not. For Peterson it may be more like putting a bow on top of a landfill. There he has a point, though it is not original to him, and his solution of total demystification is one I am less certain about. There is use, and maybe not a little obligation, in recognizing that the best parts of our lives are in some way fueled by privilege, perhaps even more than one form of it. This is certainly the case for me, having been given unsolicited advantages that free me from certain burdens. I try to remember this because, for one thing, my disadvantages would run riot through my life if I did not have them. But also because it contributes substantially to how I determine what is good—or more recently, in desisting on whether anything is good at all.

Lately my life has been overcome by, for lack of a better term, paralysis. I have all the energy and capability common to those around my age, yet it is frequently halted in its tracks by this one neat trick in my head that creates a kind of mental checkpoint. It is attended by no one and guarding against an indistinguishable plane, mist-shrouded with no evidence of construction, vegetation, or people. The short term for this is ambivalence. It has come to make a permanent place in my character. Since its residency, clarity and determination no longer seem as easily located as they once were. In fact I can’t remember a time when they ever were. At its most acute, I suspect it manifests visibly and audibly. My gait goes from a stride to a shuffle. My posture, never perfect, turns to a more pronounced hunch, covered over by a grey cardigan with ever widening tears at my elbows. My voice, neither too strong nor too weak, deflates to a mournful Jimmy Carter-by-the-fireplace cadence. I watch old episodes of Chuck on Prime. It is a malaise. It is not defeatism or laziness, but a confusion of purpose, a deficit of enthusiasm, and a tangling of direction.

It may be that this ambivalence has always been a part of me, but only began to lay wider claim with each new life decision being given back from the whims of others. This seems at first like buckling under the tedium of adult responsibility. That may be true, but likely a result stemming from the more critical incomprehension in having gained personal freedom. Most long for freedom, and in each instance more is attained it is grabbed with anxiety as if it was in danger of being immediately rescinded. Many of today’s social ills can be traced to gaining far too much freedom or failing to gain enough. Someone perplexed by freedom seems more isolated. For the ambivalent, an open job may close, a budding romance may wilt, or a warm friendship may cool … then freeze altogether. These are letdowns, but slight ones. Fading with them are any number of setbacks, frustrations, compromises, and risks. It is the classic you problem, that has only one source of solution. For decades it has been tolerated, but that may change.

That ambivalence is a marker of privilege is not obvious until the conditions that make ambivalence possible are brought to light, often as a contrast to a changing sensibility. Ambivalence requires time, which not everyone can afford to leave unfilled. There is an air of decadence about ambivalence that is unrivaled in America. With no authentic aristocracy to speak of, it was left to the ambivalent to take up the reins of his European predecessors, and to uphold and preserve their most cherished principles in the New World.

In times of greater prosperity and lower stakes, decedent affectations like angst, diffidence, apathy, skepticism, and even indifference could exist harmoniously with the prevailing joie de vivre. Ambivalence is like a kinder, more guilt-ridden indifference, for the ambivalent knows at heart what is being wasted. Yet in times of thrift and tension, when one must ultimately finalize who one is and what one stands for, ambivalence is a paramount offense. It is a detachment laced with cruelty. It is a bespoke confusion, a fog carefully spread around every object and pathway where what will save you is no clearer than what will harm you. And ambivalence, within this mindset, would seem to be making an unconscious choice: complicity over solidarity, frivolity over commitment. (Essayism, the mother of all frivolities, has distressing overlap with the ambivalent.)

What is the ambivalent to do other than to stay as he is? It would seem that deeming him a social enemy—presumably after everyone else has already been pegged—would only be met with the same crippling indecision. Indeed, the committed-Americans will have never met a more pliable foe, who can be dragged hither and thither, shackled, shamed, and maimed and still come to no resolution on any of it. And yet there is something to suggest that his persecution is the one thing to which he will, to some significant distance, commit. The ambivalent is neither a rebel nor an existentialist Other. If he does not appreciate force, he still respects it. More than that, the ambivalent is not a proud practitioner, and will accept attempts at reform, even brute ones if need be.

The ambivalent’s fog, like most artisanal products, has a surface appeal that belies how much it actually compounds the problem it was meant to circumvent. Though hatched in privilege, ambivalence is incubated in fear, specifically the fear of the future.

Fear is a tempting option for framing a life. Total submission to it means that one is at once never bored and, without impetus or obligation to act first, never responsible. Not that that can be sustained over time. Eventually it does become boring, or it becomes stressful. The comfortable obscurity the fog brings degrades into ignorance. But the ambivalent having no recourse or drive for escape falls instead into diversion. What the ambivalent will divert himself with or what happens when he succumbs to diversion completely are not known. But now the persecution has become either a rescue mission or a tragicomic entertainment. Either is plausible, but at least a choice will be made, and the ambivalent has all the time in the world to find out which one it will be.

LETTER OF CONSOLATION FROM AN EXILED SON

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Dearest Mother,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All my love,

Your son

***

INTERNAL MEMORANDUM—CONFIDENTIAL

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

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

A WILDERNESS OF LABELS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON DEVOTION

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Wedding gown by Cristóbal Balenciaga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE HERESY OF CELIBACY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ONCOMING FEVER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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