The eternal 1993

Today's culture war looks an awful lot like one we had three decades ago.

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Quick announcements: There was more interest in my summer online Spiritual Nonfiction class than we could accommodate, so I will be offering it again through Writing Workshops Dallas, beginning August 31. For more information and to register, click here.

Also, I am a guest on today’s broadcast of “The Attitude” radio show, hosted by Arnie Arnesen, at noon Eastern. You can listen at the WNHN website. Arnie and I spoke about Rust Belt culture, burnout, and what the two things have to do with each other. An archive of the show will be posted at

As you may be aware, we have a culture war going on within our institutions concerning identity, speech, and what social justice demands of us. This past month the battles were waged in open letters, counter-letters, and multiple levels of metacommentary on the letters. I will confess to having read way more about this debate than was good for me. If you missed it, then I envy you. I won’t rehash it here.

When I wasn’t reading about open letters, though, I was reading Wendy Kaminer’s 1996 essay collection, True Love Waits. Kaminer, now in her 70s, signed the open letter on speech and justice that was published in Harper’s last month. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was writing cover stories for the Atlantic about debates within feminism. She was, at the time, considered a “contrarian,” confounding the ordinary battle lines. As she jokes in the volume’s introduction, “I have always believed in complaining, and in one view, that makes me a liberal. But I complain only in private, to friends and relations, not to the public at large, and maybe that makes me a conservative.”

Kaminer was dismayed that a growing segment of feminists seemed to value “protectivism” more than they valued equal rights. That is, feminist figures from Carol Gilligan (whose 1982 book, In a Different Voice, articulated a feminist ethic of care) to the anti-pornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, argued that women needed a protected sphere within law and culture. To Kaminer, these disparate thinkers, along with the burgeoning talk-show self-help industry, wanted to preserve femininity more than promote equality.

(In some ways, the 1990s debates echoed the 1970s debates over the Equal Rights Amendment, so brilliantly dramatized in the FX miniseries, “Mrs. America.”)

Kaminer thought the protectivists had an overblown view of women as victims of predatory patriarchy. She also criticized their suggestion that femininity made women inherently more moral than men. She thought they were making a mistake in calling for limits on First Amendment rights, arguing that once you curtail one right, you invariably give up other ones. All of these concerns are back. The principles that were debated within (white) feminism in the 90s are up for discussion today within the broader liberal-to-left political spectrum.

As a result, much of Kaminer’s writing seems uncannily topical right now. For instance, here’s a passage from a 1993 essay:

This exaggerated fear of images and ideas we don’t like, this tendency to imbue them with magical power reflects, in part, a pervasive sense of victimization shared today by even the most privileged. “Women aren’t free. Women don’t have First Amendment rights,” a Harvard undergraduate once told me. When a Harvard student tells you she is oppressed, you know you have stepped through the looking glass.

Kaminer laments the lack of nuance in public discourse, distorted by writers’ economic incentive to build a following through personal branding. “What is most marketable is is absolutism and attitude undiluted by thought,” Kaminer writes, citing Camille Paglia as an example. Or, as she also wrote in 1993:

Today the concept of a feminist movement is considered to have commercial viability once again. The challenge is to make public debates about feminist issues as informed as they are intense.

Leigh Stein’s hilarious new novel, Self Care is about that exact same challenge in the era of Trump (which is to say, the era of social media). For a few days last month, I was alternating an essay of True Love Waits with a chapter of Self Care. I found remarkable resonances between the books. In Stein’s novel, the founders of a social media platform for women (think Goop meets Instagram) are great at turning likes into venture capital but ultimately cannot control the discourse on their site, which devolves according to a pattern that will be familiar to anyone who has been online recently.

We are often led to believe that the internet has changed everything, that life before 2005 or so was Ye Olden Tymes, essentially the same as the 1950s or the 950s or the 50s.

No: the internet has changed nothing. At least not in our fundamental intellectual situation. We are having some of the exact same debates we had before the internet. Only the vocabulary has changed, and it really hasn’t changed that much. It’s true that there is more attention now paid to the role of race in society, culture, and law, but the way we talk about race still falls into the basic protectivism vs. equality framework Kaminer identified within feminism.

Indeed, Kaminer wrote, again in 1993, “Nearly thirty years after the passage of landmark federal civil rights laws, we still have no consensus on the relationship of individual rights to social justice.” And nearly thirty years after that — we still don’t.

Why is that? Why have we not only failed to resolve these debates but failed even to change the way we debate them? Is it because the intellectual architecture of the debate is simply fixed, just as that architecture always seems also to force debate between, say, realism and idealism? Or is it because we live in an exhausted, decadent culture that can’t imagine progress and just wants to re-tell its old stories, as Ross Douthat argues? I fear that I know the answer.

The philosopher Richard Rorty said that when you find yourself going around and around the same debates, it’s time to radically change the terms. I don’t know what new, more pragmatic terms will help us find consensus on the relationship between individual rights and social justice. But we desperately need some.

Links and recommendations:

My friend Anne Gray Fischer wrote an eye-opening essay on the history of sexual violence perpetrated by police for Boston Review.

Agnes Callard drew an important distinction between literal speech and “messaging” to help answer the question, “Should We Cancel Aristotle?

L.M. Sacasas, writing in his always-thoughtful newsletter, “The Convivial Society,” re-examined James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book, Culture Wars, with an eye toward illuminating present conditions.

Meghan Daum has a new podcast, “The Unspeakable.” This week her guest was Leigh Stein. Great conversation about Self Care and much more.

I was in despair over Twitter discourse recently, but then I watched this discussion of George Scialabba’s new book, How to Be Depressed. It’s a lovely example of the ideal of conversation. It renewed my belief that the intellectual life was still possible. It also strengthened my belief that serious, nuanced discussion is only possible with intimacy.

Again, my Spiritual Nonfiction class begins August 31. More information is here. And while I know budgets are tight in colleges, universities, and religious organizations right now, I am still available to speak via Zoom about burnout and many other topics. I have spoken a few times about “Burnout and the Academic Vocation” at colleges and universities and would love to talk with you about how I could bring my expertise on burnout to your organization.

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