Cancellation and the art of writing

On Meghan Daum's "The Problem with Everything" and the problem with everything

I recently wrote a short review of Meghan Daum’s new book, The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars for America magazine. Faithful readers of this newsletter know that Daum is not just one of my favorite writers. She is one of my chief inspirations — stylistically and intellectually, but more important than that, vocationally. I am a writer today because I read her 2001 collection, My Misspent Youth. My very first published essays, written for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “First Person” series, were my attempts at writing a Meghan Daum essay. Eh, they’re OK. They seem obviously immature to me now. But I did my best, and people seemed to like them. (This was before Twitter, so I don’t really know how terrible they actually were.)

The Problem with Everything is Daum’s attempt to understand how she, a Gen Xer with impeccable feminist bona fides, came to feel so alienated from the feminist movement as it is today. The awkward position of Generation X is an abiding theme in Daum’s work. Her earliest work was as a sort of native informant about the life of then-young Gen Xers, explianing their (our) baffling proclivities and fears to their elders. A decade later, in her brilliant essay on nostalgia in the 2014 collection The Unspeakable, Daum asks, “How did I get to be middle-aged without actually growing up?” Five years after that, in The Problem with Everything, she writes, “my generation will be the last to have known the world in its analog form. As a result, we’ve grown old before actually getting old.”

I recently saw a chart that showed the number of members of each generation in the workforce over time. Baby Boomers made up the largest share of the workforce for decades. Millennials became the largest generation of working people a few years ago, and will likely remain so for quite a while. Gen X was the largest for just three years — indeed, the years right around when The Unspeakable was published. By that measure, at least, our generation, a deep valley between two massive ridges, had only a brief moment in the sun. It’s no wonder we feel both like we never grew up and like we somehow turned prematurely old. We were overshadowed by our elders, then by younger people immediately after that. (And while I’m on this point, I strongly endorse this conversation among Daum and the hosts of the Feminine Chaos podcast, Phoebe Maltz Bovy and Kat Rosenfield, concerning feminism, the generations, and more. It’s also here.)

Daum sees in the younger generation of feminists (and liberals more generally) a quite different approach to activism than the one she grew up with. To her eyes, they have less tolerance for ambiguity and less patience. They mistake online burns for political victories. They are “insufficiently awed by toughness” and “refuse to be shamed by vulnerability. In fact, in a brilliant move of jiujitsu, many have figured out how to use their thin skin as their most powerful weapon.” (I’ll come back to this point in a moment.) My favorite sentence in the book sums up a major part of its thesis: “I can’t for the life of me see why a GIF of Emma Stone rolling her eyes in disgust is considered a substitute for a counterargument.”

What’s great about The Problem with Everything is the way Daum engages intellectually with the new culture wars in terms of her lived experience. The generation gap in feminism reflects her own experience crossing the gap between youth and middle age by leaving and then returning to New York City. Her fascination with “heterodox” YouTube thinkers has something to do with the breakup of her marriage. She wrote in My Misspent Youth that the book was “about not knowing what things are about and trying to sort matters out by using one’s own personal experiences and observations as a tool.” That’s always been Daum at her best, and it still is.

I don’t love everything about The Problem with Everything. Daum relies on speculation more than I wish she did; that’s a problem in a book that argues for nuance and rigor. And in a chapter that includes an analysis of the Kavanaugh hearings, she makes a strained case for the existence of toxic femininity without acknowledging that toxic femininity, however defined, doesn’t have a seat on the Supreme Court, while toxic masculinity does.

But the book has been echoing around my head since I read it, alongside several essays and a video that are all approximately about the problem with our cultural discourse. The echoes haven’t yet resolved into a coherent — what, melody? — but I’m convinced that they are the components for making sense of why conversations about culture follow such frustrating and predictable paths, whether the topic is campus politics or Kenny G.

Broadly, the problem has to do with the intersection of discourse and power. How does one speak to and from different points on the power spectrum? Who has authority to speak about what subjects? The old magisterial stance — I have power and thus the authority to speak — is still very much with us, but it isn’t considered cool to speak that way. Doing so, almost regardless of what you’re saying, makes you a target for critique. (Though the critique probably won’t seriously damage your position in the hierarchy.) We believe that those who lack power, who are marginalized or underdogs, have a certain authority by virtue of their position. This is generally a good thing, though it gets used in bad faith pretty frequently. I say “we” not to signify just people on the left who are often accused of mobilizing victimhood for rhetorical advantage, but everyone. The right is every bit as invested in giving rhetorical authority to those on the margins as the left is. They just think different people (i.e., themselves) are marginal. If you don’t believe me, read any article in The American Conservative or First Things.

B.D. McClay analyzes a common type of bad-faith use of self-marginalization in her recent essay, “A Decade of Sore Winners.” She starts with the example of Taylor Swift, who had a very good decade in the 2010s, yet whose songs are thematically about how she’s constantly being wronged. Swift “is always rising,” McClay writes, “above the haters, up from the dead, in fame — even when she doesn’t seem to have any space left to rise to.” The greatest sore winner, of course, is President Trump, who seems to believe he is the most-wronged American in history, an underdog who nevertheless reminds us daily that he has the power to order death from above upon any person, anywhere. McClay doesn’t mention the New England Patriots, perpetually set-upon despite their utter dominance of the NFL for two decades. Of course they love Trump; of course he loves them.

McClay takes the argument in a far more interesting direction beyond Trump and toward how we should look at the cultural and political facts of the world: “There is something to be said for developing a critical sensibility, in which passion and detachment can coexist and enforce each other, in which things are serious (sometimes deadly serious) without being about you.”

I read McClay’s essay around the same time I viewed Natalie Wynn’s latest Contrapoints video, a 100-minute investigation into cancel culture, spurred largely by Wynn’s own cancellation by a segment of the online transgender community, over her collaboration with a trans actor whom many other trans people see as “problematic,” in the parlance of our times. Wynn’s critics justified abusing her on Twitter and elsewhere on the grounds that they were “punching up” at a prominent figure who could afford to be taken down a few pegs. But as Wynn shows, a hundred or a thousand angry people are pretty powerful, when their anger is directed at you.

The video is a typically sharp and funny analysis of how cancellers reason. In short, they do it in extremely bad faith, willfully committing a series of thinking errors. Like McClay, Wynn calls for better, more honest interpretation as a way to rein in the excesses of online cancel culture. Together, they contend that there are intellectual and moral virtues associated with having a voice in the public sphere.

This is what people get wrong when they view the problem with our culture in terms only of free speech. They look only at discourse and ignore power. They think it’s enough to say that you should be able to say whatever you want, to whomever you want (so long as you’re willing to bear the consequences). But in fact, what you say ought to be shaped by intellectual virtues of careful reading and reasoning. That means adopting something like the critical sensibility McClay is talking about.

The good critic’s virtues aren’t just incumbent upon large-platform commentators like Daum or Wynn. They’re incumbent on anyone contributing to the cultural conversation — as even the people trashing Natalie Wynn on Twitter are. They may not have a lot of followers, but some people are looking to them for commentary. You may not be online at all, but you talk about the world with your family and friends. You owe it to them to read the world fairly.

The virtues also explain why most cognitive psychologists and venture capitalists and college debate champions are such shitty cultural commentators; they haven’t practiced the virtues of reading and interpreting cultural objects with the tricky combination of passion and distance that McClay and Wynn and Daum advocate (and practice). They claim authority in areas where they lack expertise, and they don’t even see that there are virtues associated with speaking in the venues they claim for themselves. Then they get upset when they aren’t taken seriously.

Am I just calling for more snobby elitism? The kind we spent the 2010s getting over? Aren’t I saying that only rich and well-educated people ought to receive a hearing in the conversation of culture? No, not really. It doesn’t cost anything to be less of a jerk. You don’t have to be born into privilege to tell the truth or to realize that the person you’re criticizing is, however wrong they may be, a person. Good faith is accessible to all.

I have said a lot already without mentioning two essays from last year that are also shaping my thinking about the tricky intersection of discourse and power: Two editorials in The Point by Jon Baskin and Anastasia Berg, one on the term, “cultural Marxism,” and one on “Left Straussianism.” Also Wesley Morris on “The Morality Wars” and, always, the classic n+1 editorial, “Revolt of the Elites.” So I’ll just mention them and leave it at that.

Oh, yeah: This all started with my review of Daum’s book. Here it is again.

Some news:

The past year was a good one for my writing, and I learned at the end of it that an essay from 2018, “When Work and Meaning Part Ways,” which was published in Hedgehog Review, received a special mention in the latest Pushcart Prize anthology. That means it was not among the 20 or so essays reprinted in the anthology (the Pushcart Prize winners), but was rather among the 50 or so listed in the back (runners-up, I suppose). Writers I greatly admire like Leslie Jamison and Kiese Laymon also received special mention. I don’t think I’m really in their company, but I’m thrilled by the association. And I’m beyond thrilled to have received a Pushcart special mention and a Best American Essays notable (“A Burnt-Out Case,” for Commonweal) in the same year. I would keep writing regardless of this validation, but I’m grateful to receive it.

I plan to post the newsletter monthly, rather than semi-monthly, for a little while. I need to focus on my book manuscript through May, and besides, I won’t have much new writing to share with you between now and then. (There will be something March-ish, but nothing else that I know of.) But as always, you can keep in touch by replying to this message, and you can read the full archive and share your favorite (or least-favorite!) posts here.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year.