The essay below appeared in much shorter form at Christian Courier three weeks ago, and was paywalled. As always, if you like my work, consider subscribing to this wonderfully trend-averse enterprise, which also features the writing of my BFF Adam Petty, among many other good people.

UPDATE: Brian Bork, the piece’s editor and my dear friend, assures me that he ran all 3100 words, and not the cut version I also offered him. Now that is a commitment to longreads.

I fidgeted a lot about this piece. I worried about the parade of real names in the first paragraph—was I invading the Titusians’ privacy? But without real names, was I reducing them to the identityless specters of blind anecdote? I worried about the fact that when a Christian writer considers a determinedly atheist book within his own terms, it can look like co-opting, no matter how much hesitation you inject into your sentences. I worried that all that hesitation was making the piece boring. I worried about being accused of whitesplaining, though I didn’t worry much, since I’m reviewing Coates’s book, not hogging the microphone at his speech. (This simple distinction is one that users of the various -splaining neologisms don’t always remember.) 

Why do I mention all that here? Mostly because it’s so nice to have the piece appear now, when such worries don’t matter. The book came out seven months ago. The world has moved on and nobody except maybe Adam Petty and Matt Hunte gives a shit what I think. Marginality, when it doesn’t also involve oppression, can be quite liberating! So here goes.


Last June, as I read about the Charleston church massacre—the kind of event folks call “senseless,” and perhaps after all are not wrong to do so, because even in spelling out the logical consequences of white supremacy it only finishes insanity’s sentence—I thought of the years I spent as one of the only white faces at St. Titus’ Episcopal Church in Durham, NC. I thought of my friends in the choir, of Ramon, the underpaid and quietly brilliant educator who led us, of Dr. Armstrong, the pediatric heart surgeon who played along on the organ, of Devonte, her son. I thought of the several children who so enjoyed instructing me in the art of giving dap that I played up my ignorance just for them. I thought of Alexine, who, on learning that I was willing to serve on the vestry but had never enjoyed proper Episcopal baptism, volunteered to be my sponsor. I thought of Mrs. Willis, who still sends my wife and me an anniversary card every year, and of Murphy Jenkins, who never forgets a visitor’s name. (He keeps a notepad in his pocket for this very purpose.) I thought of Ms. Spencer, always the face of decorum till someone mentioned a certain tennis player (“My Roger!”), and of Ms. Mack, who taught middle school to several generations of Titusians and who, at 94, still ran vacation Bible school. I thought of Chuck, one of her students and now a beloved middle school teacher himself, who, noticing that a large group of neighborhood children had started attending the service unaccompanied, urged all of us adults to sit with them and welcome them. I thought of Linda, the youngest of those children, who, one week, for the first time actually registered the words of the liturgy—“He suffered death and was buried”—and looked up at me and gasped, “He what?!”

I suppose that I am trying to render these saints—none of them unlikely to be found in that building on a Wednesday night—as vivid in their goodness, their lovability, as I can, as a protest against the ease with which their lives and goods can be taken, their dignity effaced. Black and other writers have pursued such a strategy for centuries. Results are inconclusive. And you run the risk of sentimentality, of reducing black people to dashboard saints. I saw, in my time at that church, plentiful evidence that the Fall has spared no one, alas (ask me about our vestry meetings sometime!). But I also saw lived out what statistics in fact confirm—that there is no demographic group in the United States more devoted to Christ than African Americans. I often wonder how the US church would look if it distributed its great wealth and influence accordingly; if white Christians turned for wisdom to Lucia McBath (Google her if the name’s not familiar) as well as to, say, Oswald Chambers or Anne Lamott. If the megachurches, determined to strengthen ties among members, sought (and paid for) the advice of those who build communities where the world intends only ghettos—Murphy Jenkins would have some tips. If, showing up for some weekend prayer workshop, you encountered, not a white woman with a “certificate in mindfulness,” but Ms. Mack or Doctor Armstrong, who know the world about prayer.


The broadly Christian character of black American life has made a strong impression on Ta-Nehisi Coates, and he has paid it the great compliment of incomprehension. His new book Between the World and Me—and it is a brilliant book, fully deserving of its saturation-level press coverage—is notable, within the canon of African American literature, for its outright refusal of Christian language and comforts. (James Baldwin, who bitterly reviled Christianity as he experienced it, couldn’t leave its music and metaphors alone. Zora Neale Hurston was an atheist, but you’d never know it from Their Eyes Were Watching God. And W.E.B. DuBois, a self-described “heathen,” wrote one of the century’s finest Christian parables in “Jesus Christ in Texas.”) The book, a series of open letters to Coates’s son, is an examination of what it is to bear—he would say to be—a black body in America. In another writer, this emphasis on the body might merely function to save the book from the kind of mollifying abstraction that mars so many official discussions of racism—to remind us, in Coates’s words, that racism “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth … that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” (This brutal passage is also a digest of Coates’s brilliance as a prose stylist. Those parallel subject-verb phrases—cracks bone, breaks teeth—fall like a hail of blows. The pause, “with great violence,” before the final phrase is like a policeman gathering strength for one last ragged kick.)

But Coates’s use of “the body” is a philosophical choice. You are your body; it is all you have. “My understanding of the universe was physical,” he writes, “and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.” In a passage that will shock some readers, he describes the scorn he felt as a schoolboy, sitting through filmstrip after filmstrip of civil-rights marches:

… The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?

Nonviolence makes little sense if all you are is a body—if it is your “one of one,” as Coates puts it.  Absent King’s “arc of the universe,” it just looks crazy, as enacted Christianity often does look. (Though I should note that the book consistently conflates several distinct claims: that there is no afterlife; that there is no God; that there is no separable soul; that there is no teleological progress within history. This is no criticism of Coates. Christianity itself in its various forms often conflates these claims.)

All of this makes Coates both a literary and a sociological outlier, as the writer Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out in an excellent series of essays. (Though, full disclosure, I’m biased: Cottom is one of the few people whose conversation I prefer to an even halfway compelling book.) She writes: “From the way we dance … to how we laugh and fight for citizenship—it has all always been tied up in a particular brand of religiosity. Part of that is the focus on the afterlife. The appeal to the ‘by and by,’ the post-corporeal inheritance of earth, and the crown to replace your cross—these form the rhetorical foundations of black hope in literature, life, and politics.” For “black people who don’t church,” she writes, Sunday morning is not only (as King said) “the most segregated hour in America” but also “the loneliest.” You hear some of that loneliness in Coates’s memories of the funeral of his friend, Prince Jones, murdered by police in 2000. (They were looking for a dreadlocked drug dealer. Jones, short-haired and nearly a foot taller, “fit the description.” Black men have a way of fitting descriptions.) At the funeral, as Jones’s friends and family call for forgiveness of the man who not only murdered but, in his attempts at cover up, outrageously slandered their son and brother and friend, Coates feels “great distance from the grieving rituals of my people.”

I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh. Prince Jones was a one of one, and they had destroyed his body, scorched his shoulders and arms, ripped open his back, mangled lung, kidney, and liver. I sat there feeling myself a heretic, believing only in this one-shot life and the body. For the crime of destroying the body of Prince Jones, I did not believe in forgiveness. When the assembled mourners bowed their heads in prayer, I was divided from them because I believed that the void would not answer back.


Coates doesn’t come across in this book as hostile or disrespectful to Christianity as such. That is partly, I suppose, because only a moral idiot could fail to be impressed by some of the Christians who appear in the pages of this book. But it’s also because he is targeting a very different religion: that of “the dream,” which seems to be Coates’s term for the combination of white supremacy and American exceptionalism. He writes, for example, “Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” And, much later, he writes of the “forgetting” that is a “necessary component of the Dream”:

They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. … To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

Imagine those words coming over the Fourth of July speakers.

Coates’s attack sticks in part because he admits his own fallibility, wrestling in one chapter with his own youthful sexism and homophobia, his attraction to doctrines of black supremacy. But much of the disturbing power of Coates’s book, and of his writing more generally, comes from his ability to tie white supremacy not only to what is worst in American history, but to what is best:

“The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is—the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.”

How much of American democracy—which truly is a great and unique historical achievement, the destruction of intra-European class and race distinctions that must have seen as immovable in their time as white supremacy does now—rests on racism? Democracy costs money, for starters. “As slaves, we were this country’s first windfall,” Coates writes. “And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers; today, when eight percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white.” All of this is bitter in the mouth. Even my hero Marilynne Robinson, who has written beautifully both about the greatness of this achievement and about the snake-in-the-garden persistence of white supremacy among men as good as John Ames and Robert Boughton, has a tendency to write about slavery and racism as exceptions to the democratic rule, rather than as the exceptions that permitted that rule. Perhaps she’s not wrong. Perhaps Europeans, stepping off their different boats, could have learned to see each other as human beings even without positing a second category of person onto which they could project their hatreds and fears. We can’t know; that is another, sweeter history. This one is ours. And Coates sees it pointing insistently at destruction. “The people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of our private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more,” he writes, and, a few pages later, in the book’s last sentence, he sees the rain “coming down in sheets.”


Whether or not the reader fully accepts his larger conclusions—I am not sure how culturally specific is the tendency to destroy the planet—Coates’s book is an incredibly powerful corrosive to those of us for whom the Dream is an active temptation. Consider the much-quoted passage in which Coates and his son Samori visit New York’s Upper West Side:

As we came off [the escalator], you were moving at the dawdling speed of a small child. A white woman pushed you and said, “Come on!” Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body. And more: There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank. I knew, for instance, that she would not have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush, because she would be afraid there and would sense, if not know, that there would be a penalty for such an action. But I was not out on my part of Flatbush. And I was not in West Baltimore. And I was far from The Mecca. I forgot all of that. I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast. He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son. And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said, “I could have you arrested!” I did not care. I told him this, and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat.

Most white readers will react to this passage more or less as I did: with some combination of righteous anger at that white man and woman and sympathy for Coates and especially Samori. I wanted, frankly, to put that white man’s teeth down his throat. But coming at this point in the book, the passage also forced me to investigate even these reactions, because it is in precisely my shock and anger at the whites’ behavior here that the Dream threatens to reassert itself. First of all because—and pace the inevitable “I’m surprised you’re surprised” chortlers of the internet—racism of this child-shoving kind does surprise me, despite the history of the country in which I live. I can’t name any white women friends (maybe one or two acquaintances) who would shove Samori, or any child, in that way. Statistically, it seems almost certain that I do have such a friend, but I can’t think of any white women of my acquaintance to whom I would quickly attribute such personal ugliness. And that’s the problem. The woman’s meanness is so patent, and so silly, that I might simply fail to register it at all. Whereas Coates’s response to the woman would call up, irresistibly, a lifetime of TV imagery involving public spaces, sudden threats, scary black men. And there’s another piece of this that is almost biological—straight men, as a rule, love a chance to play Sir Galahad. Would I be, in the moment, quick-thinking enough to resist all that programming, in both senses of the word? I have no idea. And I don’t feel safe assuming the most flattering answer.

There are no flattering answers in this book, and little comfort. Nor should there be. I have dwelt, in fact, on Coates’s refusal of the afterlife and its comforts—his, forgive me, coatlessness in the void—because it has the useful effect of throwing into relief the brave absurdity of black Christianity. If one cannot be sure of ever seeing Prince Jones alive again, in any sense of any of those words, then forgiving his murderer is risking more than everything; it is a scandal. I want Christianity, I want me, to be more of a scandal in this sense. The Christian afterlife is not supposed to be a comfort, anyway, and for the freshly aggrieved, it rarely is one. You don’t care that you’ll “see them again”; you want to see them now. If there is an afterlife, it’s a mystery, a sudden upending. It is a subversion of a world in which—as much as we hate and deny death—we also depend on the threat of it to maintain social order.


I thought of all this when I came to the book’s strangest passage, one that I don’t remember seeing discussed in any other review.

I saw Prince Jones, one last time, alive and whole. He was standing in front of me. We were in a museum. I felt in that moment that his death had just been an awful dream. No, a premonition. But I had a chance. I would warn him. … I wanted to tell him something. I wanted to say—Beware the plunderer. But when I opened my mouth, he just shook his head and walked away.

This passage really exists. It’s on page 87. (I had to look it up twice to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.) What on earth to make of it? I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that Coates reneges on his naturalistic worldview here, not one bit. I have no wish to falsely claim Coates for my religion, much as I’d be gratified to see him in the pew any week. Though he doesn’t say so, I am sure that he regards this posthumous encounter (in the body!) as a case of projection, a hopeful misread of a strange face, a what-are-the-odds? run-in with Prince Jones’s double, or a waking dream. Whatever. In any case, it’s just one of life’s little imponderables, like the “voltage conducted through neurons and nerves” that, for Coates, constitute thought. (Science has thus far provided only intelligent-sounding deferrals of the problem of how and when electrical activity gets transmuted into consciousness.) Or, for that matter, like the mere existence of bravery, beauty, and goodness at all, in a world of greed and plunder that bends “nowhere in particular” and “ends in a box.”

But me being who I am, and not who Coates is, I thought of the original, starkly destabilizing end of Mark’s Gospel, in the earliest manuscripts, before someone added that stuff about the snakes: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing.” Trembling and astonishment seized them. The rain falls down in sheets.



The Most Blatant Public Betrayal of Christian Values Since T.R. Malthus Wore a Collar

I don’t know how good of a teacher I am. It’s not a question that’s easy to settle. I don’t mean to invoke some sort of ultimate epistemological skepticism around it, or to deny the worth of all educational metrics, but I ultimately think the question “Am I a good teacher” is closer to “Am I a good writer” or “Am I a good man” than it is to questions like “How much does this tomato weigh” or “What if we subtract six.”

There is one aspect of my job that I am fairly confident I am good at. It is an aspect often neglected in discussions of pedagogy; some would argue it’s not part of the job at all. It’s this: I like my students. I like the earnest achievers who sit down briskly at eight to, open their notebooks to the correct spot, and arrange their faces into a smile. I like the strivers who have made the short-on-the-map-but-booby-trapped march from Detroit or Jackson to U of M. I like the engineers and nurses who expect to hate my class. I like the wealthy frat guys who are so desperate to earn my approval (because I hold the gradebook, and also because apparently I’m one of the “cool” teachers? How the fuck did that happen?) that they pry their minds open, at considerable and commendable risk to their own self-esteem, when I expose them to ideas about white privilege, sexism, rape culture, and the one percent (i.e. mom and dad). And of course I like the earnest future writers, who often stay in touch for years.


This has been a constant of my career. I liked my students when I was at Central. One or two of the more shameless plagiarists lost my respect, but only one or two. (The young man who talked all the way through my poetry class, the young woman who liked horror movies, and the wordhoarder who loved Agatha Christie and bowties remain among my favorite people, ever.) I liked my students at South Carolina. I liked my students at Marquette. Even when I find students’ ideas repugnant or their attitude toward learning frankly insulting, my disposition is to want them to be good people, to do well, and, those things accomplished, if at all possible to be happy. I cannot always manage goodwill towards human beings as a group, but students, perhaps because they remind me of an intense and important and sometimes happy time in my own life, have no trouble securing it from me.

Even in this crowd, some students stand out. I once worked with a young woman whose papers, while they suffered from certain flaws of style or structure (less so as the year went on), showed a passion for ideas and a concern with human suffering that impressed me. In conference, she told me a little bit about her life. For starters, she was from the Middle East.  In fact she was from war-torn Syria. To top that off, her family was Christian and Armenian.

I gaped for a moment; and then, because I have this unfortunate propensity to say exactly what I’m thinking, I said: “I am so thankful you’re still with us.”

“Me too,” she said.

The longer I knew this student, the more extraordinary she proved to be. Except for a hard-to-pronounce first name, I had no idea she wasn’t a born English speaker; in fact she had learned the language mostly as a teenager, by immersion. She started campus organizations and ran others. She mentored younger students. She taught herself coding. But she had nothing of the belligerently self-made person about her; her demeanor was earnest, friendly, humble. She was one of those students who responds to horrible tragedy by living several lives, all of them impressive.


As of right now, Rick Snyder, the governor of my state has embraced a policy that would have kept this young woman out of my classroom. It would have kept her parents in danger during the time she was here without them, living with a degree of anxiety that would literally put me in the asylum. (And parenthetically learning to speak the language and keeping up with her homework and getting into an elite public university. As one does.) He has written an op-ed for Time, in which he makes some reasonable noises on the subject. He just wants us to review our security procedures, he says. The implication here, which he’s surely not expecting anyone to think through, is that the Syrian refugees we’ve already, with great slowness and handwringing followed by self-congratulation, let in to the state were inadequately screened. You know, under Rick Snyder. It’s sort of like when corporate CEOs tell you that taxes must be lowered so they’ll have greater incentive to work: so, you haven’t already been working up to the best of your ability? Should we really raise your take-home pay, then? In any case, Snyder is wrong. No vetting process is ever perfect, and life is not supposed to be entirely risk-free (this is something we used to expect grownups to get), but ours is already pretty good, especially if “good” means “onerous and burdensome.”

Snyder’s move is widely seen as unenforceable, a bit of grandstanding. On some interpretations of the law, governors don’t really have the ability to refuse refugees; this is something that gets decided at the federal level. For practical reasons, I fervently hope this is true. Last week’s attacks on Paris are exactly why we should admit more refugees, not “review our procedures.” (I mean, I’m always for ongoing review of any procedure, security or otherwise, but not while we stop helping people.) The folks who flee Syria are exactly like the trapped Parisians who huddled and prayed and panicked. Syrian refugees are people who badly want to escape from nihilistic assholes with weapons and weaponized religion. That’s why you hope to escape a terrorist attack. And it’s why you flee a war-torn country. Moreover, Daesh has been open about its desire to make Western politicians do exactly what Rick Snyder are doing, and what Barack Obama, in other ways a much better human being than Snyder, has also been doing with those drone strikes of his. (Take that, Afghan wedding party! Death from above!) Daesh desperately needs us to drive Muslims into their arms. They aren’t likable enough on their own to amass the army they want, because they are assholes and most Muslims are not assholes. They need us to be assholes too. They’ve said so very openly. Every refugee we take in is a wooden shoe in their asshole machinery.

On another hand, if Rick (I keep forgetting to add the “P”) Snyder is just playing to the Fox News cameras, that in some ways makes him an even worse person than if he thinks he can actually refuse to admit people like my amazing former student. He knows that the endgame is more Syrians coming to this state. In order to look cool to some very misinformed and sheltered people, he is ensuring that those refugees will come into a state that is a little more scared of them, a little more mistrustful; a state that falsely imagines Syrian refugees as a group to be connected in some nebulous way with last week’s horror. He is increasing the chances that their homes will be vandalized, their children bullied, their tires slashed when they do get here.

On purpose.

So Fox News pundits will like him better.

I am not being very temperate in my language here. And I don’t like myself when I get like this. I want to love my political enemies; it’s literally one of my jobs as a Christian. It’s also one of my jobs as a teacher: to model thoughtfulness and thoroughness and fairness and slowness to judge. But either my blind spot here is simply massive, or Rick Snyder is behaving in a way that defeats my capacity for patience. And that capacity has been defeated; quite overrun. I am enraged. I am thinking of that former student of mine and I am open-mouthed and teary-eyed with anger. I think my former student is worth hundreds of thousands of Rick Snyders. She displayed more courage and fortitude in an average day of her adolescence (a time when most of us, by the way, are too fear-ridden even to let Mom kiss us on the cheek in public) than he has displayed in his entire public career. She is many times the man he is.

Wikipedia informs me that Governor Snyder’s religion is Presbyterian. Jesus was a refugee, if we accept the New Testament as even minimally truthful about anything. He had a lot to say about welcoming strangers, and also about not being ruled by fear. I am willing to swallow the truly infinitesimal risk that taking in more Syrian refugees exposes me to. I take much larger risks walking in Ann Arbor on game day. (Seriously, these people can’t drive.) If Rick Snyder can’t risk some phantom political capital simply to continue in half-hearted obedience to one of Jesus’s most clearly repeated commands, I wish he’d tell Wikipedia to amend that description until, by God’s grace, he fucking grows a pair.

Dear Internet: Performative Ironic White Male Self-Hatred Will Not Fix It

This weekend, the concept “bro” finally ate itself. After years of less and less clear application, a word that once existed solely to help performatively slack but ultimately deeply status-conscious young men identify each other completed its transformation into a word by which those same young men separate themselves from other young men otherwise identical to themselves. “Bro” has traveled the same road as “hipster“: it is a putdown, but one used most enthusiastically by exactly people whose self- and image-consciousness is so refined that it places them directly in the category of people so calumniated.

Look, I don’t know Robinson Meyer from Yon Yonson. He’s probably a fine person. Some of his other articles look pretty good. The point isn’t even that “BernieBro” is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life (though it’s in the running); or that the habits of mind capable of not just jokingly positing but seriously considering such a category are already, for that very reason, harming American political life far more than the most annoying Bernie Sanders supporter on the Internet; or that Sanders is clearly the most democratic Democrat in the race; or that his getting disrupted by Black Lives Matter was almost certainly not about some “problem” with Sanders himself that the media must prove itself relevant by finding but, instead, strategic, a case of pressuring precisely the most sympathetic, not the most problematic, potential inside ally. (And, on that basis, it was a sensible move for BLM to make.) The point is that this is so much of the Internet as many of us experience it these days, this almost neurasthenic fashion-consciousness applied to political and cultural life, this parsing of smaller and smaller types at the expense of, well, everything else.

Freddie DeBoer has been working this beat forever, and he’s written some great takedowns of these people. But I can’t share his anger at them, nor do I think it’s effective to respond to their stereotypes with another stereotype. His analysis of this kind of writing always comes down to some version of This person writes this way because he or she cares more about being cool than about material social improvement. That must be true in at least some of these cases. But when I read a left-leaning white man who argues about politics on the Internet complaining about how there are these left-leaning white men, see, who argue politics on the Internet; or when I read literature-obsessed DFW imitators attack other literature-obsessed DFW imitators as “litbros”; or when I see men who are the targets of jokes from the Toast frantically RTing those same jokes (I always picture the editors squinting at their @mentions and thinking, “No, don’t you get it? I hate you. I think you are cartoons and not people. I think your interior life is inherently laughable. How much fucking clearer can I be“), what I see is magical thinking: if I hate myself, loudly, using people similar to me as proxies, the world will become more just. White men will fall in status; others will rise. It’s our version of what white women do when they call themselves “basic bitches” or say, “I like Starbucks. I’m such a whitegirl!“, as if they could become five percent better people by switching to Folgers or Eight O’Clock or Chock-Full-O-Nuts. It’s not a brag. It’s not even a humblebrag. (A lot fewer people in the world are humblebragging than we assume.) It’s a confession of deep shame, deep embarrassment.

When I read, say, the Awl, I often picture a guy who, when his computer dies and he loses two weeks’ worth of work, he cries for half a moment, and then he thinks, God, what a first-world problem. Quit crying, you fucking baby. When he falls down the subway stairs and tears up his knee, and the tears get infected, and he needs stitches, and they give him an anesthetic but it doesn’t take so he feels each yanks of the thread, he yelps aloud and then grits his teeth and wonders why he isn’t crying but then notices a single hot tear on the end of his nose, of all places—how the fuck did it get to his nose???—this is what he thinks: I am such a whiteboy. If only I had some of that ironic-not-ironic old-fashioned masculinity we’re always talking about. Ron Swanson wouldn’t cry over shit like this. When he loves and is rejected and finds that he’s taking longer to mend than he had hoped, he thinks Who am I, a Nice Guy? Fuck me. I suck so bad. When, decades from now, he gets cancer, and they didn’t catch it soon enough so it’s already spread to his lymph nodes, and the chances aren’t great, he’ll probably think At least there’s one fewer white dude in Brooklyn. 

This kind of self-flagellation is more or less how I spent my twenties. (More accurately, it’s where my twenties went.) The labels were different, and the politics pointed slightly different directions in some cases. But when I was verbally and emotionally abused by my girlfriend, I told myself, Well, men are really terrible to women, so you probably have this coming, right? It all balances out. (It didn’t help that I encountered versions of feminism that basically said as much. They do exist.) When I wondered, silently, whether I would make it to 27, and it wasn’t a cry for help but just a sober assessment, like the way you wonder how many miles the car’s got left, I told myself, You are such a stereotypical male intellectual, look at you introspecting too much. the world’ll be better off without you. When I woke up, regularly, in the middle of the night, struggling to breathe, I thought, God, who are you to have trouble breathing? You know who probably has real trouble breathing? Victims of US imperialism. When I didn’t see doctors for years on end, not only because I couldn’t afford to but because just the thought of being told again, “There’s not really anything I can do for you; you should reduce the stress in your life” made me sicker, I’d think Why should the doctors take time away from people with real problems to listen to you whine, you nerd? 

This went on till the pastor of the church I was attending asked me, with an intent facial expression, whether I was doing OK, and I actually said, “My petit-bourgeois spiritual angst is probably not worth worrying about.” She shut me the hell down: “Your petit-bourgeois spiritual angst is my job.” (And that is reason #2342342 why I will knife-fight for women’s ordination.) The resulting conversation probably saved my life. It led to me finally seeing a doctor, finally talking to a therapist, finally recognizing that I was not an outline of a person with the words “overeducated white male” written from a sign hanging around his neck but a person and therefore someone needing the sorts of things people need, including medical care when he’s sick and advice when he’s confused. It led to me taking myself seriously enough that I could finally be of some earthly use to other people, including, I hope, the people in my life who don’t benefit from the privileges I’ve had as a white straight guy, and also, I hope, the people in my life who’ve benefited from those privileges and others I don’t even have, because they are also people.

But all that mental self-cutting I was doing all those years, those “automatic thoughts” (as my therapist called them) that were so label-filled and judgmental you could get a year’s worth of Gawker posts out of them? I didn’t do that to get other peoples’ political approval. (Indeed, a lot of that stuff I never verbalized. If I had, someone might have noticed that I was crazy and saved me a couple of years.) And the phrase “It’s not about you” (which is sometimes intended as something other than a putdown but always received as one) wouldn’t have done a thing to help. It would simply have—it did—set off more self-flagellation: Yeah, it isn’t about you. You white male narcissist. You’re worse than Norman Mailer. You should just stab yourself with a penknife. I did this to myself because, again, as I hadn’t yet realized in those days, I was a person, and one thing we know people do is that, when they know things are profoundly wrong, perhaps unfixable, they look for something valuable to sacrifice, some really fat really cute cows to slaughter. It is human nature, and it runs through our history from Moloch to nationalist wars to austerity budgets that don’t actually work. We find something we really like or enjoy and we fling it on the fire.

The Internet—by which I really only mean the snarky, US left-liberal young white peoples’ internet—sucks as badly as it does not because the writers are stupid or untalented. They’re really not. (I dissed the Toast earlier. I had to stop reading it because I don’t like being insulted. I also think Mallory Ortberg is one of the most talented humorists I’ve ever read. I’m glad her misandry didn’t go as far as Wodehouse, because she’s done some great riffs on him.) And it doesn’t suck because of peoples’ explicit politics, the principles they actually claim to believe in when they’re being even half-serious. If this post gets read at all, I’m pretty sure that at least some few people will, because I’ve attacked performative white-male self-hatred, think that I’m attacking feminism, or discussions of privilege. But I, like exactly the sorts of writers I’m critiquing here, strongly believe in feminism, racial diversity in the workplace, and reparations. I think the existence of white and male privilege are no more to be questioned than the existence of bicycles. I believe in getting rid of them because I am a humanist; I think humans ought to be in the habit of valuing each other. For the exact same reason, I hate to see gifted people dedicate their gifts so thoroughly to the project of punishing people almost exactly like themselves, for transgressions so minor (using the hashtag #FeelTheBern, for example) that they can’t really be said to exist. I don’t think they’re doing it because they are the terminal narcissists that Freddie DeBoer accuses them of being. I think they know exactly how fucked up the world is, and they want to stab at somebody, at themselves or those like them, till it gets better. It’s human. But also, grow up. Stop it. Not one rape is prevented because you found a new noun to attach “bro” to. Not one ripped-off family gets a reparations check because you invented a new stereotype and called it “problematic.” Black Lives Matter won’t become a powerful movement because you sacrifice the Bernie-loving parts of yourself to it. You are only hurting yourself and wasting other peoples’ time.

New-old article on J. Kameron Carter

This piece on the fascinating Duke University theologian J. Kameron Carter appeared in the Christian Courier a little over a month ago. As it is not easily available online or in databases, they have kindly given me permission to reprint it here. You could also, of course, subscribe. This is worth doing in any case.

It is not enough to be against racism—one must be dedicated to the unmaking of whiteness itself. So we are often told, by scholars of race, by activists, and sometimes by Christians working to make the church more Christlike. The claim sounds suitably radical, but it makes me scratch my head. How do you destroy an incorporeal idea? How do you kill an ill wind? And even if you’ve got that figured out: what is whiteness, anyway?

I’m familiar, of course, with the common scholarly distinction between ethnicity (what we can’t help having, insofar as we come from somewhere and have families) and race (the supposedly biologically inherent qualities of mind and character that place some bodies in charge of other bodies). It’s the difference between being German, British, and Welsh; being the son of Mary and Phil, Sr.; being from central Michigan farming country—and, on the other hand, being the assumed norm for the human race; being by right the loudest mouth in every room; being the sort of person you picture when someone says “average guy.” (The freedom of being average! But also, the self-contempt! I think of the shamefaced way my white Midwestern students describe themselves as being “like anybody” and “from nowhere,” or the terrible, ubiquitous “basic bitch,” a term by which the unique and God-beloved young white women in my classes both exalt and degrade themselves for their supposed cookie-cutter normalness.) These are all awfully hard to disentangle from each other in everyday life. This task of disentangling is made harder by the fact that to be white and to struggle thoughtfully with race at all is to feel stupid the minute you open your mouth. Any moral anxiety, however piercing or painful, the world creates for you by declaring you “white” is a Newtonian infinitesimal compared to the problems it creates when it declares others “black,” and then segregates them in failing schools, stares them out of countenance, treats their sexual consent as already granted, imprisons them, murders them.

Theologian J. Kameron Carter is pursuing what has to be among the most urgent and fascinating projects in contemporary theology in his attempt to disentangle Christianity from American whiteness (and to figure out how they got entangled in the first place). He’s published a number of articles (“Bonhoeffer and the Meaning of Christmas” is one I especially enjoy) and one giant, rich, difficult, worldview-rearranging book, Race: A Theological Account (2008). If you’re one of the millions of Christians who, not being white, cannot help knowing her- or himself as raced: well, I don’t feel comfortable telling you what to do. But my fellow white folks should certainly prayerfully consider what Carter has to say.

Race is a book with many threads, but its overall claim is fairly simple. Why, Carter asks, did Christianity become entangled with European colonialism, with the justification of slavery and Jim Crow, and with the ongoing oppression of black people? (If you can’t immediately name ten ways that such oppression is “ongoing,” you should try tackling a few other books before you read Carter. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Nor would Ta-Nehisi Coates’s already-classic investigative polemic “The Case For Reparations.”) Carter’s answer is that it starts with the split between Christians and Jews. When Christians, starting early in the medieval period, began to theorize (rather than lament) our separation from Judaism writ large—when we ceased to think of ourselves as a Jewish offshoot—we began creating a conceptual armature of “normal” (Gentile) and “abnormal” (Jewish) peoples that was easily converted to the later task of labeling some people “black” and therefore enslavable. I am not a historian, and I cannot verify Carter’s overall contention. But when you read medieval Christian anti-Jewish polemic, with its emphasis on bodily grossness and wrongness (some medieval Christians claimed Jewish men could menstruate, or that all Jews smelled funny), it fits. If Carter is right, then the commonplace idea that there are different people groups—the “nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” of Revelation 7:9—started becoming the pernicious (and scientifically indefensible) idea of biological race when Christians began to feel we were better than our parent religion.  

The advantage of such a big claim, whether true or not, is that it creates a spacious home in which a great scholarly intelligence can pursue many directions. Anytime Carter deals with the early Church Fathers, his writing calls to mind Marilynne Robinson’s remark that “theology is a kind of gigantic and intricate poetry.” If you read nothing else of Carter’s, check out his treatment of Gregory as the first “abolitionist intellectual.” (It’s true; no known ancient writer condemned slavery qua slavery before Gregory did.) About Carter’s engagements with, say, the French sociologist/activist/weirdo nihilist Michel Foucault I’m less certain. One implication of Foucault’s thought is generally taken to be that we should avoid all normative claims, and you can see why this would be useful for someone trying to get white people to stop taking ourselves as the pattern for all humanity, but it’s also a claim that proves too much. After all, “It’s not good for people to be racist” would seem to me to be a kind of normative claim, too. Even here, though, I’m fascinated by the way he links Foucault’s famous if not terribly clear idea of “power/knowledge” to the way knowledge functions in the academy, in business, in everyday life: as a tool for controlling stuff. We think of knowledge as something to use (to make new gadgets, new curricula, new regimes of everyday life); in doing so, we risk the pride that tells us we, and not God, are in control. How theology can be a true branch of knowledge, something people are paid to teach, and yet not be part of this activity is a powerful question. How to disentangle the rest of our knowledges from such pride is another.

I’m not anywhere near doing justice to Carter in this summary. I haven’t said a word about the way he reads classic African American autobiographical narrative—by Briton Hammon, Frederick Douglass, and Jarena Lee—as, in essence, embodied theology. (Think of the way the great slave narrators often return to the story of Moses as a way to interpret their own experiences, and vice versa.) Nor have I said a word about his devastating expose of Immanuel Kant’s racism, which is far more explicit and far-reaching than I’d imagined. (Kant, on Carter’s reading, helped create the idea of whiteness as being a sort of “basic” humanness, on which everything else is a weird and problematic variation. Kant more or less actually says this.)

The book ends—for me, anyway—on a bit of a letdown. In critiquing the out-of-touchness of some contemporary theology, he drops a long quotation from the sociologist of culture Pierre Bordieu—who, with his dismissive and cynical analysis of taste (including artistic taste), has done more than anybody in the last forty years to make gifted and earnest artists and intellectuals trivialize themselves before they’ve properly gotten started. Bordieu blasts the “scholastic disposition” with its “play-world of theoretical conjecture and mental experimentation,” its tendency to “raise problems for the pleasure of solving them, and not because they arise in the world.” Though Carter ultimately pushes Bordieu’s rant in a useful direction—he wants theologians to remember that they’re ultimately working for those navigating “real worlds of pain and suffering and life and death”—I think there is something deeply unChristian in attacking “play-worlds of theoretical conjecture,” AKA the free play of our God-given imaginations. What is Carter’s much-used metaphor of jazz—or really any music, any art—but, among other things, a kind of “raising problems for the pleasure of solving them”? In trying to attack bourgeois dilettantism, he seems to condemn the playful creativity that is intrinsic to being image-bearers of God. If I belabor a sidenote, I do so because I think the mistake is an old one among Christians: the tyranny of joyless, loveless “usefulness,” which at its worst produces people too grim in their piety to be much use to anyone.

Carter, however, is in general a thinker as useful as he is imaginative—useful because he is imaginative. In an era that rarely even understands the meaning of the term “pride” in its theological sense—we think it has something to do with self-esteem, or sportsball—Carter has produced a profound meditation on pride. For there is no other name for the sin by which people saved by a Jew came to understand ourselves as better people than Jews. And there is no other name for taking oneself to be, and in staking one’s sense of self-worth on being, the “normal” or “basic” human, the template person, rather than the strange and unrepeatable being Christ has called one to be.

This is already a pretty long piece for a newspaper. But one other issue I had with the book—and like my mini-attacks on Bordieu and Foucault, it’s more an issue with the way a lot of brilliant people seem to “do” intellectual life in the humanities these days, full stop—is the tendency to treat a person’s ideas as irretrievably interconnected, so that, for example, if some Enlightenment figures wrote racist things: that’s it, their thought is now dead to us, it has no further use to us except, perhaps, as an example of what not to do. This seems to be Carter’s attitude toward Kant. Honestly, I’m not sure that the rightness of Kant’s epistemology (which is the stuff he’s famous for) stands or falls on whether his anthropology is wrong (and evil). I’m sure there are many connections to be drawn between the two, but they’re not the same thing. 

Or, another example: late in the book, he uses some ideas from the late-medieval Thomists, then inserts a long, thoughtful footnote insisting that his use of the Thomists is “strategic”—a term that in its academic uses seems generally to mean “I think these guys are full of it, but since you probably don’t, here’s how their thought could be used to support mine”—and says that Thomism hasn’t yet reckoned with its complicity in the slave trade. Now, I do get tired of the constant, and often insufficiently complicated, appeals to “tradition” in some of the works of the more famous Duke Divinity School theologians—*cough* Hauerwas *cough*—or of their Radical Orthodox frenemies. But, again, I don’t think that because some Spanish and Portuguese theologians of the fifteenth century used the system they considered authoritative to make excuses for slavery, that system is now poisoned all through. Carter seems to, and this in turn seems to stem from his tendency to treat idea-systems as if they were organic beings, their component parts as indivisible as a torso and a head. (You hear such a hint when he speaks of Thomism reckoning with its “complicity” in the slave trade—as if Thomism were a single being with agency and moral responsibility.) To me, it’s all too much like saying “George W. Bush cited democracy as a reason to kill people. LET’S NEVER VOTE ON ANYTHING AGAIN.” 

Briefer: I think ideas are separable from each other. I think one idea within a system being rotten doesn’t mean the whole thing is. I think there probably are no interesting ideas that have never been used in some way for evil. I think well-thought-out and robust ideas, or idea systems, make better justifications for evil than shitty ones. (The Third Reich didn’t last nearly as long as the USSR. There are many reasons for this, but one of them surely has to be that Marxism at least bears thinking about, while Naziism is a bad cartoon.) Separating Kant’s epistemology from his anthropology, or Aquinas’s metaphysics from his social philosophy, is more like playing an old song in a new context than it is like removing a limb from a living being.

I clearly needed to get that off my chest.

I Blame English Departments: An Only Partly Tongue-In-Cheek Response to Alyssa Rosenberg and Freddie DeBoer

Alyssa Rosenberg responds to Freddie DeBoer’s piece on the political predictability of online art criticism and … dear God, just the structure of that sentence is a throwback to the mid-00s Golden Age of Blogging. (“Drum responds to Krugman. They’re both wrong, because…”) Both writers make good points. And they are both right in identifying, and lamenting, a certain sameness. Rosenberg:

The problem with the current state of political art criticism isn’t really that it’s political, but that it’s predictable–and that if we really want our mass culture to be telling dramatically different stories and staging radically different discussions, I’m not sure what we’re doing is actually working. That doesn’t mean that we should surrender, and accept that pop culture simply is what it is, and go back to agonizing over Ross and Rachel’s relationship in re-runs or fretting over the kids and their Ariana Grandes. It means that, having cracked open the idea that Hollywood doesn’t exist divorced from the world, it’s time for the real work to get started.

Right. But at this point in the piece, Rosenberg has already pointed out that there’s no consensus at all on what the “real work” actually is. We don’t have the first clue what art is and how its various imperatives might link up with those of ethics and politics. Rosenberg does a decent job naming some of the more obviously unsettled questions:

Is art meant to inspire us by presenting us the world as it could be, or to galvanize us to action by showing our society in all the astonishing ugliness it so often displays? Is equality putting admirable representatives of under-represented groups on screen? Or is it treating characters of color, women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities as if they’re just as capable of venality and repugnance as able-bodied straight, white men? In treating political systems, are we interested in fine-grained explorations of institutions and individuals within them, or broad judgement? Do we trust audiences to pick up on subtlety, or do we operate on the idea that many people who consume pop culture are either stupid or uninterested in nuance? Do we think political art should serve to deepen the commitment of the already-converted, or do we hope that it can reach new people in part by breaking out of the hardened arteries that circumscribe so many of our political debates? How do we reckon with artists whose technical abilities compel us even as their ideas rattle us?

I don’t, of course, think that any culture-wide consensus on these questions is coming. To go on wrestling with them, alone and with others, constitutes to a great extent what culture and aesthetics and politics are, just as “religion,” often as not, simply names a set of questions one can’t hope to resolve. (A monotheist is not only permitted to ask “Where was God in the concentration camps?”; she or he is, in many ways, the only person who can meaningfully ask it. When Bertrand Russell does it it’s just rhetoric. This is why, among other things, XTC’s song “Dear God” has always struck me as the one really false note on Skylarking.) But there’s productive wrestling and there’s clickbait.

A conservative would surely look at both DeBoer’s and Rosenberg’s arguments and assign the problem to a lack of, that word again, diversity. Online commentary on art is boringly samey because of systemic liberal bias. I am slow to embrace this argument because I am not a conservative! That doesn’t mean that I have such ill-will toward conservatives as a group as to wish that none of them enjoy the powerful and remunerative life of the online cultural commentator. (Indeed, recommending such an existence to conservatives might be a sign of greater personal animus toward them than I do feel.) It’s because many of the political ideas we label “conservative” happen to be ones I think are wrongif I didn’t think so, I’d go be a conservative!and if my principles are urging me to wish to see error amplified and untruths made more powerful, that means my argument’s probably gone haywire somewhere. (That said, there are particular conservatives, Alan Jacobs chief among them, whose bylines I’d like to see far more often than I do.)

But I think the sameyness has nothing to do with ideological conformity, anyway: “left-liberal” names an enormous spectrum and a group of people notorious for their willingness to flay each other alive. (This is, incidentally, why “liberal bias” has always been such an easy charge for conservatives to make. If “liberal” names everybody from Joe Lieberman to Chairman Mao, then it is, to borrow a metaphor from Aristotle, like a door that you can hardly fail to hit. You’d have to work fairly hard not to fit somewhere on that spectrum. Though people do.) Right now, on my TL, two popular internet Marxists both of whose work I like are screaming at each other. It happens every day. We know this.

I think the reiterative quality of this cultural conversation goes back, rather, to who the participants are and how they’re trained. I don’t mean that many of them are male and many of them are white and even more of them are middle-class in origin, though that’s probably true. It makes a great comic trope to pretend that all middle-class white men think the same, but a trope is all it is. No, it’s something else that they have in common. It’s their major.

Is it really going out on a limb to assume that many of the writers we’re talking about were English majors?

Certainly not all of them are. Some of them were Gender Studies majors. (But there’s a lot of texts and argumentative moves in common there.) Some were, I don’t know, pre-med, but they took a ton of lit classes. Some probably did Media Studies, which is so similar as often to be housed in the same department. The tough ones may, at most, have gone Comparative Lit and actually had to learn a second language. But, and again this is an assumption, I suspect many of them encountered the same body of theorists and the same styles of classroom debate that define Englishinsofar as anything, these days, defines English.

I’m going to go out on a second limb and assume that class content and discussion looks for many English majors the way it did for me. I could just be describing the extent of my bad luck here. But my experience as a grad student in English was that you learned literary theory and methods far more extensively than you learned literature, and that the way you learned them made repetitive and fruitless arguments more of a feature than a bug. Fellow English-degree holders, see if any of this is recognizable:

a) You were more likely to be conversant, at least in a name-dropping way, with ideas that have to do with methods of literary study than you are with a large range of texts from literary history.

This is really straightforward. I had to read Derrida’s “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” several times as homework. I never once had to read Chekhov. Long novels don’t fit easily into a syllabus, so I had to do, say, Don Quixote and War and Peace on my own. (Which I did, because I am crazy. But most people aren’t and won’t.) When you think both about how overall degree requirements are structured (everybody has to take a methods class, but period requirements are weak and constantly get weaker) and how individual courses are set up–even if the class is explicitly concerned with novels or essays or poems, a professor who doesn’t assign a ton of difficult, recent secondary reading isn’t properly performing the identity “rigorous intellectual”–you’re just a lot more likely to have been made to read Kristeva, Agamben, Said, Foucault, Gilbert and Gubar, Bhabha, Derrida, hooks, Lacan, Lorde, and Gallop multiple times than to have been made to read, say, Muriel Spark, Gayl Jones, J.F. Powers, William Hazlitt, or Lady Murasaki. (The Anglo bias of English departments worsens this, of course.) If, like most English grad students, you teach, and if your boss is into Ways of Reading, then at least at those schools the tendency is strengthened by the teacher-training process and, for undergrads, it begins as far back as first semester, first year.

b) Your class discussions were far more likely to use literary texts as loci for discussion of problems raised by these thinkers than discussion of, say, poetry or prose rhythm, the use of rhetorical figures, structure, etc.

I assign students in my 221 class to read Richard Lanham’s “The Domain of Style” in the first week of school. He remarks that most grad students in English don’t know what hypotaxis is. I always point out to my students that I do know what it is, but only because I look it up before class.

I do know twelve different ways to spot a Madwoman in the Attic, though.

c) The way you learned theory and methods was typically decontextualized. 

You learn to sneer “pathetic fallacy!” without learning who John Ruskin is, or about the nineteenth century’s medievalism fetish, or how the Romantics relate to German philosophy, or… You get a weirdly truncated, Up-With-People version of Foucault but never learn about the Annales school, or the weird cultural practice that was midcentury French leftism. The articles read in a class are presented as if they are in conversation with each other, even if they were originally in conversation with very different folks on very different issues.

d) The way you learned theory and methods involved a very aggressive version of Peter Elbow’s Believing Game

I was, of course, taught Freudian criticism several times. After the second time, I started admitting up-front that I think Freud is kinda bullshit. This is a legitimate opinion for a person to haveafter all, psychology as a field seems to have reached roughly the same conclusion. But my arguments, even when they reached levels of substance far beyond “Freud is kinda bullshit” (which of course isn’t helpful), were not so much answered as shushed. Professors seemed to want you to put on whole systems of ideas as if they were a pair of glasses, and look through them rather than at them. This is OK to do when you’re trying to ensure basic comprehension, but at some point in the education process it is should stop.

I had heard people say a thousand times some variation on “language is a closed system and therefore can’t refer beyond itself” before someone pointed out to me that this is an argument that wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in a philosophy classroom. (The second part of the claim simply doesn’t follow. You can think of vision as a “closed system” and yet we do seem to go around looking at things that aren’t our eyes.) It’s because nobody was encouraging me to apply basic logic to any of the ideas that came from Methods of Literary Studies or Literary Theory classes. Ever.

The result of all these is that students learn to throw around a series of ideas, tropes, phrases, and bits of argument without stopping either to figure out how they all relate to each other (frequently they don’t) or how much merit any of them carries in itself. People learn to yell “intentional fallacy!” whenever anyone alludes to a writer’s stated and clear intentions, even though the philosophical presuppositions that led Wimsatt and Beardsley to define such allusions as fallacy aren’t shared by a single person in the room. People work themselves haggard trying to ensure that their response to a text is “materialist”… who are not Marxists. People use definitions of “trauma” that only make sense if you think Lacan makes sense.

And here’s the keystudents are encouraged to just dump all of this stuff together, all these “floor sweepings of other disciplines” as Marilynne Robinson put it, and to obsessively reiterate the stale arguments that tend to emerge from unresolved and unarticulated conflicts … and to consider all of this conversation. In grad school I would show up week after week knowing that we would go through the same motions: When this male writer uses this sexist trope, is he parodying or reinscribing said trope? Within a half hour you’d know who is Team Parodying and who is Team Reinscribing this week, and then you’d just listen to them circle the drain. Every week. For months.

To actually resolve any issues, you’d have to do something it is in almost no one’s interest to do: you’d have to define what the hell an English class is for, and what counts as a “good” argument, what constitutes proof one way or the other. Nobody wants to do that. For one thing, you’d be implying that too many people you work with and like are doing work that’s not “really” English. (I mean, wouldn’t want to have to define the discipline’s objectives. I’d surely leave out someone I personally want to see employed.) For another, it better matches the needs of the corporate university for English to be a hodgepodge, a sort of ‘Pataphysics drained of all humor and sense of fun. Students like varied course offerings and they like “contemporary relevance,” no matter how forced. These practices offer both. Teaching Gilgamesh tablet VI as an encounter with a canon of mythology and a set of cultural ideas totally alien to us, and encouraging students to inhabit that strange headspace, is never going to get the same sort of buzz as teaching Gilgamesh tablet VI as a really early Amy Schumer sketch. “Innana is such a badass woman! She really owns her sexuality!” (And everyone else’s!) And the incoherence keeps the English faculty fragmented, thus docile and less likely to respond in an effective way when the business school gets all the fancy new computers.

Is it any wonder if people trained in this way go on to write their weekly variations on the theme “Why This Thing is Problematic,” “Why This Thing Looks Problematic But Is Not,” “Why It’s Great That This Thing is Problematic”; or “Why This Seemingly Common Thing Is Actually Part of the Revolution” vs. “Why This Seemingly Common Thing Is Actually a Common Thing and Not at All Revolutionary”; or “This Thing is Not Diverse Enough” vs. “This Thing Is Not Diverse Enough But It’s OK Because That Makes It an Expose of the White Male Hivemind”? The habit starts at about age 19. And the very repetitiveness of the discourse serves the needs of the institutions that sign the checks. They need short articles that make readers feel smart without ever reaching the point where they’re resolved enough issues that they think, “I need never read a Lena Dunham think piece again! This is the last one!”

Clarity and rigor here serve no one’s interests: not those of the writers, not those of the clickbait factories (who want to generate controversy without resolving it), not those of the artists reported on. (Being an unresolved problem has made Lena Dunham richer.) It’ll keep going no matter how tired we all get. Nonsense conserves itself. Sense, not so much.

New piece on James Wood in BOOKS & CULTURE

I’m always thrilled to appear in B&C, and since I didn’t manage, this time, to prepare some sort of “bonus content” to put here alongside the essay, I’ll briefly say why.

I have no idea what mailing list my dad’s address appeared on that caused him to be sent the first issue of B&C in 1995. A lot of weird print objects of variously Protestant provenances washed up on our shores back then. I do know that I pored over it for a solid year. This is a partial list of stuff I learned from that one issue:

  1. That there was a person in the world named Annie Dillard.
  2. That Dillard was a major Christian writer who smoked, drank, and voted for Clinton.
  3. That there were Christians in the world who smoked, drank, and voted for Clinton. (I knew about Catholics and about liberal Protestants, but they weren’t really Christians, except occasionally, and by fortuitous accident, like G.K. Chesterton. I didn’t yet know of the existence of the Eastern Orthodox.)
  4. That I loved Annie Dillard’s sentences.
  5. That I wanted to marry Annie Dillard.
  6. That there were, in fact, such people as the Eastern Orthodox. I learned about this a few pages later from a piece on icons by Frederica Mathewes-Greene.
  7. That there were Christians who thought affirmative action was a good or at least defensible idea. (There is diversity of thought? Among Christians? About an issue beyond “whether to build a gym out back?”)
  8. That there was a writer named Larry Woiwode, who really liked a writer named John Gardner, and that I needed to get ahold of books by Larry Woiwode and John Gardner immediately.
  9. That there was such a thing as “Christian intellectual life”; that it wasn’t just my dad, alone, up late after his shifts at Wal-Mart, with his books of Protestant scholasticism, Jack Chick-style conspiracy, and (somewhat incongruously) Lewis, Chesterton, and Dostoevsky.

We couldn’t afford to subscribe. (The ’90s were tough.) But anyone who knows me well knows that this pretty much set the agenda for my intellectual life for the next couple of years. Calvin College provided the territory, but this was the first map I ever saw. I feel about B&C the way some guys feel about the first time they saw a Godard film, or heard Wu-Tang Clan, or the Sex Pistols. I feel about it the way many women feel about their first taste of Joanna Russ or Helene Cixous or Gwendolyn Brooks. “This exists. There’s a world where I belong.”

New Piece on Renata Adler! And Adler’s Books, Ranked

My review of Renata Adler’s journalism (in which I have happily wallowed for much of the past year) is live at The Periphery. I also recommend The Periphery more generally for its commitment to publishing marginalized, talented writers (not me: I’m probably one or the other of those, but surely not both), including two of my favorite Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing contributors, Chris Dankovich and Cozine Welch.

In keeping with tradition, I hereby offer readers the following ranking of all of Renata Adler’s books.

9. Pitch Dark (1982)
Beautiful in spots, but I just couldn’t get into it.

8. After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction (2015)
So here is the bad news: the title says “collected” but you still have to buy all the other nonfiction books. (There’s just too much good stuff left on the field.) And here is the even worse news: You still have to buy this one, too, because it has “Irreparable Harm,” her precise, savage evisceration of Bush v. Gore (2000). If you want to know what were all the problems with that decision besides whom it made President, she lays it out beautifully, and also, with unexpected help from Antonin Scalia, she spins out a secret history of the unconstitutional Office of the Independent Council. (Well, it was secret to me.)

7. Toward a Radical Middle (1970)
Dated, most of all by her the-system-is-slowly-getting-better optimism, and occasionally turgid, but she makes some solid and funny critiques of ’60s irrationalism (e.g. what she calls the “single-plane-of-atrocity view of Western man”) and its penchant for psychodrama (which makes a lot more sense after you read her piece on encounter groups). Also, her disciplined, quote-heavy, almost plodding, yet deeply inspiring pieces on the Civil Rights movement will show you that, however much you may in fact love them, you simply don’t, simply can’t love either Martin Luther King or old-fashioned journalistic scrupulosity enough. (I was delighted, in reading an anthology of King recently, to find him actually quoting from one of these pieces.)

6. A Year in the Dark (1969)
A lot of the recent Adler coverage talks about how her movie reviews are fun to read but that she has no feeling for the medium. They are fun to read (in particular, the introduction is a gorgeous mini-memoir in itself), but she has plenty of feeling for the medium. So much so that we can’t allow ourselves even momentarily to consider the main point she makes about it: that violence can’t be depicted without endorsement, because “the camera always says yes.”

5. Gone (2000)
… I know, I know. I know. I never wanted to be the kind of person who reads a whole book about William Shawn’s New Yorker and How We Lost It. Just the mention of the topic makes me feel resentful, like, “Why are you so sure I care?” Even knowing such books exist makes me feel like I’ve been drunkenly assgrabbed by the combined endowment funds of Harvard and Yale.

But this is one of the funniest books in the language.

In this book mere choices of typography make you laugh out loud. Look at what she does to poor old Lillian Ross simply by adding italics. I’ve never read Lillian Ross in my life and yet I totally know how she sounds when she talks, just from those italics. Look at the way she’s permanently damaged folks’ perceptions of Adam Gopnik with that one brilliant adjective, “meaching.” (I still read him, but with my guard up a bit against all those meaches.) This book is too trivial to be the highest evidence of her genius, but it does show her doing many things that only a genius could do. And the book isn’t even really that trivial, because it makes a point that I should have known, always had known on some level, but that a graduate education and TA training in English (with all that talk of Aristotle’s rhetoric and audience, audience, audience) had made it nearly impossible to say: that great writers, and great publications, don’t just reach an audience. They create one.

(And as for the ridiculous Judge Sirica business that made this book notorious, she’s answered that pretty damn conclusively.)

4. Canaries in the Mineshaft (2001)
Have you ever wondered what Renata Adler thinks of “Sesame Street”? Soap operas? G. Gordon Liddy? Monica Lewinsky? It’s all here, and she makes all of it seem every bit as urgent as the prospect of Grexit.

3. Reckless Disregard (1986)
You can read this book-length report on two simultaneous libel trials (Westmoreland v. CBS et al; Sharon v. Time) as a critique of the vague formulation of libel that emerged from 1964’s New York Times v. Sullivan, but more than that, it’s a critique of the American news media in the age of the byline (something my review discusses at length): how the desire to make oneself famous paradoxically causes the whole industry to move in a pack. That Adler picks two people that most of her target audience (me included) hates so much that it requires an effort of moral will even to care whether they were lied about just makes the critique more powerful, because by the end of the book you do care. And they totally were. Adler puts it better than I can (put anything):

As early as the first depositions in Sharon, it was evident that witnesses with a claim to any sort of journalistic affiliation considered themselves a class apart, by turns lofty, combative, sullen, lame, condescending, speciously pedantic, but, above all, socially and, as it were, Constitutionally arrogant, in a surprisingly unintelligent and uneducated way. Who are these people? is a question that would occur almost constantly to anyone upon reading or hearing the style and substance of their testimony. And why do they consider themselves entirely above the rules? These people were, to begin with, professionals, accustomed to speak with finality, never questioned except by their bosses; otherwise (in a field that, unlike, for example, true scholarship, suppresses second thoughts and confirming, or contradictory, inquiry) accustomed, in what they said or wrote, to being believed. In addition, these people had, in recent years, the power and glamour of the byline, and the contemporary notion of journalists as, in effect, celebrities bearing facts. What they were intellectually was in some ways surprising: better educated than their predecessors, they were not remarkable for their capacity to reason, or for their sense of language and of the meaning of even ordinary words. Nonetheless, they appeared before the courts not like any ordinary citizens but as though they had condescended to appear there, with their own conception of truth, of legal standards, and of what were to be the rules. As for “serious doubt,” it seemed at times unlikely that any of these people had ever entertained one—another indication that “serious doubt” cannot long continue as a form of “actual malice” in the law. What was true and false also seemed, at times, a matter of almost complete indifference to them. Above all, the journalists, as witnesses, looked like people whose mind it had never crossed to be ashamed.

Read Adler on the media, and you’ll never again wonder how Judith Miller got a job.

2. Speedboat (1976)

A hideous family pledged itself to margarine.


Margarine to itself pledged family hideous a 

I look and look at that sentence, and it just gets funnier.

1. Private Capacity (n.d.)
This was going to be Renata Adler’s book-length expose of the Bilderberg Group, an ultra-secretive yearly gathering of economic and political elites, the sorts of people whose self-importance the world has decided it agrees with. The fact that the book was announced for publication ca. 2002, then scuttled by mutual agreement between author and publisher, provides it with a far more aesthetically pleasing and appropriate ending than poor old words could ever do. But come on: I still want to see it. My favorite passage is probably the one where Jamie Dimon, Robert Rubin, and Dick Cheney use a small Latin American republic stage a live reenactment of the ending of 120 Days of Sodom.