I would like to thank Andrew, Patrick, Chris, and the entire Dish crew for the opportunity. (And the money.) It’s been a lot of fun. I want to thank the team here for making things so streamlined for me, particularly given that I sent like a dozen emails asking questions, and I want to thank Andrew for the chance to put my feet up on his desk. It’s been fun.
I also want to thank all of you, for the opportunity to invade your space for awhile, and for all the emails. Even the many, many cranky ones. I am not an easy person to know. I have pretty much been a take-it-or-leave-it, love-me-or-hate-me deal for my whole life, even as a little kid. So I appreciate your patience and your candor, and I’m glad to have had the chance to occupy your space for a little while. Writing, for me, is pathological in the simple sense. I don’t stop for long mostly because I don’t know how. This is about the only way I’ve ever found to distract my mind for long enough that it stops beating itself up, and so I have to thank Andrew and his team and all of you for the opportunity to seek that solace here. It’s my privilege. It’s my privilege.
As for the future, you can check me over at my website, although I reckon I’ll be pretty busy this fall. In the long term, I hope I still get the opportunity to speak to fine people such as yourselves, and that when I do, I tell the truth. Cheers.
I did not have a lonely childhood, although sometimes I remember myself as having one, in that way that you make your own childhood more like a story than it was. I had three siblings and lots of friends. But I also had books, and books were a kind of chosen loneliness– an exciting loneliness, sometimes almost an illicit loneliness. Because when I was reading, I was probably reading about magic. Magic was, for me, all the things I wanted and did not believe. It was the vehicle through which I would gain the control that all young people long for, the adventure I yearned for and knew I would never achieve, and in time, religion, the traditional family, and America. I poured all of these superstitions into my belief in magic, and I would clutch books about magic to my chest on the bus to school, counting syllables and thinking about the places I would go if I only had the power. And I believed it all willfully until I found that expenditure of will too much to give, and then one day I didn’t believe anymore.
But before that were my books, and the ones I loved more than any others were by Diana Wynne Jones. Jones should be more well known than she is. She was a favorite and personal friend of fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman; one of her best known books was made into a movie by Hayao Miyazaki; and her stories, filled with wizards and spells and schools, would seem a perfect fit in the post-Harry Potter world. And yet I find she’s still somewhat unknown, even among fans of fantasy and Young Adult. Google lovingly celebrated her 80th birthday just a couple weeks ago, and yet I think many people responded with confusion. That’s a shame. All these years later, she’s my favorite.
Certainly, the things that are great about Jones’s work are things you might look for in any fantasy author. Her imagination is expansive and individual. With fantasy, it’s not just about the degree of someone’s imagination, but the style, and Jones imagined unlike anyone else. It’s a well-worn notion that the trick in fantasy lies in how to describe the mundane, and at that task, Jones had few peers. Her worlds are lived-in and worn, never terrifying but never quite comfortable, filled with details as familiar as your grandmother’s house but as disconcerting and alien as a dream. Her settings are frequently cold and foreboding, but her characters are warm and familiar, her books filled with knowing, kind, distracted, difficult, smart, flawed, headstrong, clumsy, misunderstanding people. People in Jones’s books are forever hurting each other through their distraction, or through their misunderstanding, or very often, through their genuine desire to help. There is warmth and friendliness in her world, but there is also the real-life condition of the endless harms we pile up on the people we love and do not understand.
I truly believe Jones is one of the greatest chroniclers of childhood we’ve ever had, and it’s because of nothing so much as her utter rejection of romanticizing being a child. The world she describes, for kids, is strange, rule-bound, fickle, and unknowable. Children are hurt, mostly by other children, and they all grow up too fast. I don’t mean to make her work sound impossibly depressing or grim; in fact her books are frequently joyous affairs. But there is an absolute and unwavering commitment to reckoning with the disappointment and confusion of being young, in her work, an honesty that is wonderfully supportive simply in its willingness to confront the way things are when you are young and your life is not yet yours. It’s a rare and valuable message to get as a kid, the recognition of loss by an adult who understands. Throughout all of it, there’s possibility, teeming and inventive, a world of magic and adventure that most children want beyond wanting. Some children, in her books, get that magic and that adventure. But never without a price.
There’s been lots of talk, going around, about the demise of the comments section. This has been spurred in long part by some truly noxious trolling and the seemingly intractable problem of online harassment. Given those realities, I’m amenable to major changes, although I doubt you can really solve this kind of problem. These aren’t platform problems or technology problems. They’re human problems. Humanity exists online, and this is the way humanity is. But if we can avoid even a little of the terrible abuse that people receive online, women especially, it might be time to consider letting comments go, at least in many places. And I say that as someone with an obvious affection for how good comments can occasionally be.
I do think, though, that this is a good opportunity to finally let some of our old myths about the internet die. It’s still common to hear people talk about the internet as this open space where only talent matters and where everyone has a chance to impact the discussion. And it’s time we put those myths to bed.
It’s not like people are totally unaware of all this. Certainly, the way in which major bloggers were largely absorbed into legacy media companies and think tanks is part of the story. One of the things I’ve always liked about Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein is that they’ve both always been upfront about the fact that their success depends in part on having been in the right place at the right time, and that building a career now is a lot harder than it used to be. Hierarchies harden, alliances form, and given the brutal economic realities of the online writing profession, the game of musical chairs gets more and more brutally competitive. The end result is, inevitably, that people feel more and more pressure to find a niche and to be liked. It’s a word of mouth business. And while the world of commenters may seem far from that of the pros, I think that many of us envisioned a future where commenters could, at their best, provide a kind of counterweight when professional and social pressures influence what the pros think and say. Well, I’m not sure it ever worked that way, but it was nice to dream.
While I’m on the subject of making professional online writing sustainable– yesterday, Amanda Hess at Slate took a look back at the first year of Bustle, the controversial women’s site that launched to much derision. That criticism largely stemmed from Bustle’s founder, Bryan Goldberg, and a disastrous announcement he made that made his site sound simultaneously self-important and condescending to its own audience. Internet infamy followed. And yet Hess has found that Goldberg has wooed many of his old critics, and that Bustle has been a massive success in terms of building an audience and securing ad revenue additional capital. To which I say: good, I guess?
Goldberg is a dink. His initial rollout of the site was plainly dopey, although from a troll bait, “any publicity is good publicity” standpoint, kind of genius. I can understand why people would be upset that this guy has become a powerful force in women’s media, and that he’s raking in more money. But I think there was a simple reason to cheer Goldberg’s site even back before he did his apology tour: Bustle pays, and it pays women, and that in and of itself is a kind of victory online.
So it won’t surprise anybody to learn that I really, really don’t like Buzzfeed.
Sometimes, when I consider the Buzzfeed phenomenon, I think I’m living in some sort of fictional satirical world where Buzzfeed is a symbol of how far media can fall. It’s like living in a Douglas Copeland novel. Buzzfeed’s particular brand of lowest common denominator clickbait, their “14 Giraffes Who Totally Look Like Steve Buscemi,” their “25 Things Only People from [Insert Geographical Area Here] Understand,” their “Which of Fat Cat’s Minions from Chip’n’Dale’s Rescue Rangers Are You?” quizzes, their corpsefucking glurge, sitting side-by-side with their “branded content” like “12 Most Crunchtastic TV Moments Brought to You by Frito Lay,” subsidizing imperial stenographer Rosie Gray’s smears of Max Blumenthal (an actual journalist), powered by an aggregation model that comes pretty close to plagiarism even when it doesn’t devolve into the serial copy-and-pasting of Benny Johnson (thanks BlippoBoppo and CrushingBort), in an environment where they can memory hole 4,000 posts and think they don’t have to say anything in particular about it publicly, all lorded over by dumb-faced Ben Smith’s dumb face…. It’s bleak, man. I mean, I can see somebody getting a job offer from Buzzfeed and trying to rationalize it, telling themselves, “well, they’re not so bad….” Yes, they are. They are exactly that bad.
The thing is, I don’t know if there’s some more ethical path writers these days can walk and still end up being able to support themselves. It’s looking pretty grim out there for our professional online writers.
I’m someone who writes a lot of what I guess you would call media criticism. And that means that I’m frequently in the position of saying some not-very-nice things about people who write professionally online. But I criticize because I think that job is important; I happen to have some old-fashioned, corny ideas about the role that journalism and political commentary have to play in a democracy such as ours. We need professional writers– not just dedicated amateurs– to observe and comment on our society and our government, in order to ensure that both are functioning the way that they should, and to give our people information they need to make rational political choices. The problem is that the basic economics of that work have become so threatened that I don’t know what independent writers are supposed to do. I hate when talented people join up with outfits like Buzzfeed, which I think are genuinely making our country a stupider place. But I don’t see any clear path that people can take to preserve both their integrity and their ability to eat.
For awhile now, I’ve been arguing against the notion of a STEM shortage, the idea that our labor problems stem in part from a failure to produce enough graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields to meet demand. This idea is, well, just wrong, plainly wrong. I aggregated a lot of the data here, and here’s a great piece from The Atlantic by Michael Teitelbaum making the case. I have been committed to debunking this idea for two major reasons. First, because facts matter, and one of the most dangerous things to us as a society are those ideas that sound good from a narrative point of view but lack factual backing. The idea of the STEM shortage plays into a bunch of our petty prejudices, most powerfully our idea of the future. But the data simply doesn’t back up that notion.
The second reason is because the notion of a STEM shortage plays into a misguided and destructive vision of our economy– a moralizing notion of our labor market where your outcomes are all a matter of choices that you have made. This is the chumps narrative, where people who have suffered in our labor market have done so because they have pursued foolish, “impractical” careers or education. Virginia Postrel has written cogently about this phenomenon in the past, pointing out, among other things, that it isn’t the case that people with supposedly impractical majors systematically underperform the average, and also that they are such a small slice of the labor force that they can’t possibly account for our problems. I’ve pointed out many times before that going to law school went overnight from being the mercenary path for those bent on riches to a pie-in-the-sky, impractical move for dreamers, as soon as the law job market collapsed. The narrative changes to preserve the idea that individuals are responsible for their own joblessness, and in so doing keeps us from pondering systemic change.
Look at the app economy, which was meant to be the hot new ticket into the land of abundance. (See this 2012 piece from The Atlantic for an indicative example of app economy woowoo.) What could better play into our notions of how to get ahead in America in this new age than the app economy? It’s dynamic! It’s innovative! It’s disruptive! Gone are the days of putting on a suit to go work in some stodgy firm. These days, it’s all about being your own boss, building an app with some buddies in your dorm room, and reaping the whirlwind. It’s a Tom Friedman wet dream, an Aspen Ideas Festival panel sprung to life, the validation of every buzzwordy Wired article and Business Insider post you’ve ever read.
I’ve developed something of a reputation as a socially liberal critic of today’s social liberalism. I got an email from a Dish reader who asked me to flesh out where I’m coming from.
I guess what it all comes down to, for me, is that social liberalism was once an alternative that enabled people to pursue whatever types of consensual personal behavior they wanted, and thus was a movement that increased individual freedom and happiness. It was the antidote to Jerry Fallwell telling you that you were going to hell, to Nancy Reagan saying “just say no,” to your conservative parents telling you not to be gay, to Pat Robertson saying don’t have sex, to Tipper Gore telling you that you couldn’t listen to the music you like, to don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t wear those clothes, don’t walk that way, don’t have fun, don’t be yourself. So of course that movement won. It was a positive, joyful, human, freeing alternative to an exhausted, ugly, narrow vision of how human beings should behave.
It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks. The hundreds of young people I teach, tutor, and engage with in my academic and professional lives teach me about the way these movements are perceived. I have strict rules about how I engage with students in class, and I never intentionally bring my own beliefs into my pedagogy, but I also don’t steer students away from political issues if they turn the conversation that way. I cannot tell you how common it is for me to talk to 19, 20, 21 year old students, who seem like good people, who discuss liberal and left-wing beliefs as positive ideas, but who shrink from identifying with liberalism and feminism instinctively. Privately, I lament that fact, but it doesn’t surprise me. Of course much of these feelings stem from conservative misrepresentations and slanders of what social liberalism is and means. But it also comes from the perception that, in the online forums where so much political discussion happens these days, the slightest misstep will result in character assassination and vicious condemnation.
I want to put my discussion of Israel to bed for the week, as some emailers are complaining that I’m “fixated” on the issue. I’m writing about Israel and Palestine a lot in part because I’m getting the most emails on that question.
Many people who have written wonder, with various degrees of indignation, why I don’t perform the typical preemptive apologetics that so often come with criticism of Israel. Why don’t I take time to balance my complaints about Israel by mentioning all the bad things about Hamas? Where are my explicit denunciations of anti-Semitism? Why don’t I come out and say whether Israel should be wiped off the map? I don’t do these things for two reasons. One, because I think it’s in the best interest of everyone– including those committed to the defense of Israel’s government and policies– to return normalcy to this debate. On what other issue am I expected to explicitly disclaim attitudes that I don’t believe and haven’t mentioned? No, it’s true: I’m not anti-Semitic, I don’t think Jews secretly run the world, I don’t believe in Islamic governance either, and I don’t want Israel “wiped from the map.” But when did I suggest such a thing? Acting as if this issue has to be treated with kid gloves in a way that is wholly unique in American politics does no favors to either side of this debate. I have been counseled many times in my life to avoid this specific issue because of the potential professional consequences. I appreciate that people are talking out of a desire to help, and situations like that of Steven Salaita and Norman Finkelstein demonstrate the sense in this advice. But to not engage out of fear of the consequences exacerbates the problem, and incidentally plays into the hands of anti-Semitic tropes. My country spends billions of dollars and an enormous amount of diplomatic capital on Israel, that makes Israel my business, so let’s hash it out. We are adults. We are capable of arguing as adults. So let’s just argue the way we usually do.
I also don’t seek balance because I don’t pretend that there is equality of blame in this issue. Many smart, decent people I know treat this issue with a “plague on both houses” attitude, talking about a “cycle of violence,” or “ancient grudges.” They speak as though this issue is so polarized and so complex that we can’t make meaningful judgments. I find that, frankly, bullshit. I’m not usually a big fan of Max Fisher’s work, but he had this perfectly right: the occupation is wrong, it is the problem, and Israel is to blame. Israel has been illegally and immorally occupying the Palestinian territories for almost 50 years. And Israel has the ability to end it. The Israeli government could unilaterally withdraw from the territories and leave the Palestinians to build their own state, or they could fully incorporate Palestinians into a new unified Israeli-Palestinian state that recognized total and complete political and social equality between all people. If you find those ideas radical, consider that they are merely what basic liberal democracy requires. I am completely agnostic on the notion of one state or two, but I know that what our most basic political ideals require is a world where we have achieved perfect political equality between Arabs and Jews. Israel is capable of creating such a world. Palestinians are not.
The emails filling my box about Israel function as a remarkable document. They are a record of seemingly reasonable people who have completely lost track of basic moral reasoning. And that represents itself nowhere more consistently or powerfully than here: treating what could possibly happen to Israelis as more important than what already is happening to Palestinians. It’s such a profoundly bizarre way to think, that only this maddening issue could bring it about.
“Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist!”
Indeed– and Israel not only denies Palestine’s right to exist, it has achieved the denial of a Palestinian state in fact. What kind of broken moral calculus could cause someone to think that being told your existing state should not exist is the same as not having a state of your own?
“Israelis will become second class citizens!”
Arab Israelis already are second class citizens, and Palestinians in the territories no citizens at all. They are denied freedom of movement, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly. They are systematically discriminated against for jobs, especially in government. They lack adequate representation in government. Their leaders are kicked out of Knesset meetings for questioning the IDF. Racist, ultra-nationalist mobs marched through their streets, chanting “death to Arabs!” Their weddings to Jews are the subject of vicious protests. They live side-by-side with racist teenagers who unashamedly trumpet ethnic warfare. They must live in a society where men like Avigdor Lieberman, an explicit racist and literal fascist, serves in a position of power and prominence. Where Meir Kahane is memorialized by groups receiving state funds, where the JDL’s thugs march, where Lehava preaches against miscegenation. A society where the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset openly calls for ethnic cleansing. Palestinians live in a society where a tiny fraction of government funding is spent on their communities or their people. Where human rights organizations like B’Tselem are oppressed by the state. Where they have to endure Kafkaesque application processes to prevent their homes from being bulldozed, if they are given that opportunity at all. Where they live under fear of reactionary, fundamentalist Orthodox settlers who call for death to the Palestinian race.
“Israel is diplomatically isolated unfairly!”
Palestine is diplomatically isolated in a way Israel cannot imagine. The United States uses its veto power to unilaterally deny even the possibility of full membership status for Palestine in the United Nations. The US has used its foreign aid programs and incredible diplomatic leverage to marginalize Palestine and protect Israel. Israel enjoys the protection of the most diplomatically powerful country on earth; Palestine cannot even claw out formal recognition of its borders.
There’s a movement afoot among writers whose work has appeared at Thought Catalog, the tween slambook of the grown-up internet. These writers are trying to have their work pulled from Thought Catalog not because the site is a disgrace but rather because ape-faced racist Gavin McInness wrote a piece justifying transphobia there.
Now, I have no problem with people trying to get their work removed from Thought Catalog. Lord knows, if there was anything on that website under my byline, I’d be working like to hell to get it pulled, transphobia or no. You don’t want to associate with McInness, I get that. But I think that we should all consider: this is the perfect example of why we shouldn’t censor and don’t need to. Go ahead and Google around or plop the link to his piece into Twitter. The large majority of the reactions he’s gotten have been some combination of anger or ridicule. His argument hasn’t gotten any traction. On the contrary: it’s gotten a lot of people talking about transphobia and how mainstream it can still be. His piece has been undone by the reaction to it. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. If we were to forbid him from expressing his opinions, we wouldn’t know how dopey he and they are.
Now Thought Catalog has pulled a pretty phony move, plastering a big disclaimer on front of their article. (After counting those sweet troll bait clicks, natch.) You can supposedly click through but I’m not able to load the actual piece that way, and had to consult a cached version. That strikes me as a weenie move; you published it, you got the attention, now leave it up for people to laugh at. And again, it’s unnecessary. I mean, this Tweet demolishes McIness in a way that’s far more effective and far more cutting than deleting his piece ever could: