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.

Why, As a Religious Fanatic, I Applaud This Decision

I have many, many Christian friends and family members who feel differently about today’s Supreme Court verdict than I do. I have many, many other friends, both religious and not, who were not raised in conservative households as I was, who only dimly understand what conservative Christians’ problem is, and who suspect that it is rooted in pathological killjoyism. I very slowly, over the course of years, came to hold the position I do today—people who knew me in high school can attest, to my shame, that I was sometimes a nasty little homophobe—and I reached this position in continuous mental argument with conservative Protestant Christianity, because that was my world. In case anyone from either side wants to know, in detail, how I got to the point where I am now, here it is.

Disclaimer 1: I’m not going to lecture or mock anyone about “being out of step with history.” When my fellow people of the left say things like that, I wonder to myself what the hell they think history is. From my point of view, history is amoral and progress is a short, short blanket. We’re not slowly moving into the light. The Singularity is not coming to save you. The Revolution, if it happens, will be another stupid massacre that leaves only the biggest assholes standing at the end. And being at odds with your era is often a perfectly respectable, sometimes even the only respectable, thing. I just don’t happen to think this is one of those cases.

Disclaimer 2: I think that people who morally disapprove of gay and lesbian sex, for whatever reason (whether we label that reason “religious” or otherwise—Freudianism defined itself as anti-religious, however much it functioned as a religion in its own right, and those guys were homophobic as all hell), should retain all their constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association, whatever. If you’re afraid of being forced to hold a gay marriage in your Southern Baptist church, I don’t think that’s very likely, but I’ll march against it with you if it ever happens.


Most of the arguments against gay and lesbian sexual relationships that I was taught as a child just do not stand up to any scrutiny at all. So, for example, “It’s against nature” is just silly. Homosexuality and bisexuality are rampant in the animal kingdom. And anyway, isn’t that one of conservative Christians’ beefs with Darwinism: that it suggests we are just animals and should behave as such? (I don’t think that assumption automatically flows from evolution, especially for us theistic evolutionists, but whatever.) Or, to take another example, arguments that have to do with “proper gender roles” usually involve some theory of gender roles that was worked out in the nineteenth century by some British person theorizing in a vacuum, with very little reference to how women and men (and intergender folks—by which I mean naturally occurring hermaphrodites; they exist; look it up) have lived throughout history. “Proper gender roles” usually involve stereotypes about men that place Jesus Christ right out of his own gender. Jesus was emotional, a crier, humble, he hung out with women and listened to them for heaven’s sake. If some of the more popular Christian apologists for machismo met Jesus in the street, they’d wedgie him to death.

There is one argument that I respect, though I disagree with it. It is, very simply, the argument that at least two New Testament passages say or clearly imply that gay/lesbian sex is a bad thing. (There’s also a passage where Paul is hard on cross-dressing.) Therefore, as Christians bound by the New Testament, we have to obey them. I know a guy, a conservative, tender-hearted, loves his gay and lesbian friends, supports civil marriages between them, etc., but can’t quite agree that what they’re doing in their bedrooms is OK. The thing is, he wants to. It really breaks his heart that he can’t. But he’s got his Bible and he’s agreed to live by it. I know, in fact, lots of people like this and I adore them. A few of them have experienced same-sex attraction themselves, and resist it on principle. I don’t have to agree that such resistance is necessary to admire the strength of character it discloses.

Sidebar for People Who Consider Themselves Secular
By now, you’re wondering two things: a) Why do you people obsess so much over this one book? and b) Why do you people think you should get to force your book on my life?

a) We obsess over that book makes a historical claim—that God, the Supreme Being, whatever term you use, the being towards whom human beings have blindly gestured toward from pretty much the beginning of history (and we continue to do so), entered history, became a vulnerable person from within a vulnerable people, died, and was resurrected, and in the process somehow reconciled our fucked-up species to Her/Himself. That claim, about that moment, is the whole point of our religion. The NT writers seem to have been close to that moment, and so their words carry at least some varying degree of authority for most people who are serious about being Christian. (How those degrees of authority vary is something I’ll talk about later.)

If your response to all of that is “That is a crazy-ass thing to believe,” my short answer is: Sure. But literally everything about human existence is crazy. It’s crazy that anything exists. And here is one of the few conclusions that an immersion in philosophy really licenses a person to reach: Every worldview that seeks to explain this crazy world we live in has some crazy in it somewhere. Every worldview at some point involves some seemingly irresolvable contradiction, some indefinable idea, or some deductively uncertain leap of faith. And that knee-jerk secular instinct inside so many of us, the one that says “I’m sure there’s some perfectly rational explanation for everything,” is just a projection of bourgeois ennui onto the entire universe. It is, to me, the craziest-ass idea of all.

As to b) I agree. Younger conservative Christians often support gay marriage on exactly this principle: we can’t do it, but there’s no reason y’all can’t. However. The principle underlying this complaint is often stated as “Keep your religion out of public life.” And this I can’t agree with because it’s impossible—logically, conceptually, practically impossible. I use the terms religion and worldview interchangeably; in my experience, everyone has a set of beliefs that they live by, that they didn’t reach via a long chain of deductively certain reasoning, and that involve some leap of faith, some personal risk. Everyone. If you’re an atheist and you believe that human rights are a thing, well, that’s not a conclusion you reached by math. It’s a choice. It’s a damn good choice, in my opinion, and one that creates considerable common ground between you and me, and I hope you’ll bring that conviction right into the public square with you. But when you do so, you’ll find some people who don’t share it. And at that moment, you’re in the exact same boat as us weirdo religious people: You have convictions that not everyone shares, and you have to figure out what that means and what to do with it. There isn’t some enveloping, larger structure of beliefs that “we all” share that can adjudicate this conflict for us. There are just contending worldviews, and an ongoing cultural negotiation over which elements of those contending worldviews are widely enough shared to form the rickety basket of our laws and social structures. We could all stand to be more explicit about where we’re coming from, and the term “secular” is a smokescreen that makes that harder. (My support for pluralism doesn’t come from an overarching belief in pluralism itself; it comes from a desire to love my neighbor, who may not share my religion.)

OK, Back To Paul
So. The Bible says some things about same-sex activity. As it happens, interpreters have done all sorts of things with these texts. So, in Romans 1:26-27, where Paul writes of people so idolatrous that they take up sexual practices that are “against nature,” he could be talking temple prostitution or pederasty, not about strong and mutual love between two women or two men. Exegetes go back and forth, often arguing from different sets of facts about the ancient world. If they can’t settle this debate amongst themselves, then I sure as hell can’t settle it out here on my own. I only know like six Greek words.

But there’s something more fundamental about the Bible that I need to say.

All this focus on two or three New Testament texts only makes sense because of a specifically conservative protestant belief: that the Bible is inerrant. It has no mistakes, about anything. Among Protestant Christians, it’s ultimately this belief, I think, that forces people into condemning same-sex attraction. So it’s ultimately this belief that those of us who both affirm Christianity in general and want to support same-sex relationships have to look at. I think inerrancy is wrong. I think the Bible is important because it was written by flawed people trapped in history to whom God happened in a particular, unique way, not because God suddenly overruled the individual personalities of the authors and made them incapable, for a time, of being wrong about ancillary matters.

People to whom this is all strange and ancient and academic need to understand that belief in inerrancy comes from real people grappling with a real epistemological problem, one that imposes itself in some form on everyone. Some Christians believe in inerrancy because these claims about the universe, about whether there’s a God or not, about what is right and what is wrong, are about really important things, and when it comes to our most basic commitments we want to be right. It’s important to filter truth from bullshit, to the best of our ability. Some people mock this instinct, but I think it’s honorable, even if life doesn’t always offer us as much certainty as we want. People who believe in Biblical inerrancy know that Jesus must be right, and they want an epistemological principle that secures that. Guys, I get it.

The fundamentalists I know (Protestant fundamentalism is distinguished from all other kinds of Christianity by its belief in inerrancy) also don’t want to be guilty of picking-and-choosing within their own philosophy. I think that’s an even more important instinct. If I say that the New Testament is unlike all other books, that it’s the product of people who knew Jesus or knew those who knew him, but that there are some merely cultural prejudices in there as well, then that raises the possibility that I’ll just winnow down the New Testament to those claims that feel congenial to me. You don’t have to be formally religious to feel that that’s not the way to do this Christian thing. Everybody, even liberals, thinks there’s something essentially wanky about “cafeteria religion.”

Here’s the thing, though: We don’t have a choice about whether to pick and choose. The Bible explicitly says (Psalm 137:9) that you’re blessed if you crush a Babylonian baby’s skull. This is not something that an inerrant book would say. Crushing the skull of a child, even the children of your colonial oppressors, is not a state of blessedness. It just isn’t. Once you acknowledge that, you start noticing other things. For example, the Bible has two proof texts (as we call them) against homosexuality and not one verse that actually says slavery is wrong. (I do think that Christianity put some ideas out into the world that ultimately led to the conviction that a human can’t own another human, and it was monotheist intellectuals who first condemned ancient slavery as such, rather than merely criticizing its excesses. Still: the proof text is just not there.) More to the point: I grew up hearing that, if a person allows for the morality of gay and lesbian relationships, s/he now has no grounds for condemning adult-child or adult-young-teenager relationships. This is precisely ass-backwards. There is no proof text against such relationships in the Bible, and Christianity coexisted for several centuries with societies in which it was not uncommon for adults to marry children. In medieval England, the age of consent was (yuck) twelve. Gratian thought consent could be given as young as seven. I’m vomiting just typing that. Again, I think that the concept of the imago dei and Jesus’ respectful attitude toward childhood as such probably helped pave the way toward modern conceptions of childhood that in turn (whew!) led to the condemnation of such sexual relationships. But it took till the eighteenth century for that to really get underway. (And some figures of the far left who are skeptical of the Enlightenment era, such as Michel Foucault, regret that it did so. Another reason I wish he weren’t so revered in American academia. Oh well.) But the proof text isn’t there, and I think we can all agree that it would have been really useful. If the Bible were the dictated word of God, I’m almost sure we’d find it. Right?

This is not nearly enough to prove that there are gay and lesbian relationships blessed by God, of course. It just opens up a little epistemological room. What finally convinces me is far closer to home. I attend church with people who do and believe the things that Christians are supposed to believe and do. They tend the sick, visit widows and orphans (metaphorically), feed the hungry, write to the imprisoned. They live lives of humble service to others and they credit Christ’s work in their lives as the source of that activity. And some of them are women who are in love with a woman, or men who love a man. As a Christian, I really only have two options here: I can call these people dangerous fakers, working on the power of Satan, or I can believe that God uses their unions as God has used my union with my wife, as a sort of extended training in unselfishness, in dying to oneself.

I often refer to “the church that saved my life,” St. James’s Episcopal in Milwaukee. What I’m referring to when I say that is that that was the place where I learned that it is not normal to have trouble breathing every day for a decade, that most people don’t wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, that the “fist in my chest” (as my daughter calls it) has a name, and that that name is general anxiety disorder. If I hadn’t learned this, I would have gone on destroying myself in various little ways, and I might very well have opted for something more final. But learning the name of my disorder wasn’t enough; I had to see a doctor and get help. And I just didn’t have the money. It was only because my pastor (a woman, and thus forbidden from her office, if you believe inerrancy) offered to pay for the medicine out of her discretionary fund that I finally made that phone call. The relief that I have felt in the years since amounts to nothing less than a spiritual transformation; I finally actually came to believe that God loves me only after I stopped practicing the mental self-harm that comes with general anxiety. And I’ve been immeasurably freer to love others as a result.

That church had a little rainbow flag on the sign.

When Jesus healed people, one of the things his critics said was that he did so by the power of some malignant spiritual agency. That he cast out demons by the prince of demons. (Jesus’ snappy comeback to this criticism is where we get that “house divided against itself” quote that high school debaters are so enamored of.) I don’t believe there was anything “demonic” about my anxiety; it’s just a thing that happened. But it was the kind of condition that causes people to reach for that language. It was a delivery from living death into life. And that deliverance happened in a church utterly dependent on the life and ministry of actively gay and lesbian people.

I can believe a lot of crazy things, but I’ll never believe that St. James cast out demons by the prince of demons.

Taking Advertising Seriously: On the Last Shot of MAD MEN

1. I hope that this is not a hot take. If any subject deserves cool, thoughtful consideration, it’s Matthew Weiner’s study of 1960s haute-bourgeois New Yorkers, Mad Men—a show far more cerebral than the cable dramas (Breaking BadThe Wire) to which it is often compared, if only for lack of competition.

2. One can read the final shot of last night’s final episode any number of ways. The most obvious is that Don, having abandoned his usual personality and habits so thoroughly as to find himself at an Esalen retreat, hugging strangers and meditating, finds himself, on the far side of his own self, suddenly inspired to write ad copy again: the classic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. (Some arguments that we are not meant to infer said authorship are ably examined here. Still, I think Aisha Harris’s argument that he did is pretty definitive.) When we adopt this reading, the next step in the argument, at least in the recaps I’ve seen, is some version of: Oh, Matthew Weiner, you twisted genius. You’ve shown us once again how the counterculture is always coopted, betrayed, and twisted by capitalism. Don’s beatific smile, his seeming escape from the cycle of ambition and self-hatred that drove him through seven seasons, will now be turned into more grist for capitalism’s dark, satanic mill. Mad Men has always examined the ways that bohemia, marginality, or wildness intersect with The System, and this finale just puts the exclamation point on that. “Flower Power protest, experimentation and consciousness-raising didn’t amount to much: In the end, all it wrought was a new way to sell products.” Or, put another way, “Yes, everything, even our personal moments of clarity, can be co-opted by industry and turned for profit.”

3. I think this reading gets the details right but the big picture wrong.

4. One of the things Mad Men has always done well is that it’s a great workplace show. It gets us interested in the process by which Peggy, Don, and the others develop a campaign: a subject in which I, for one, would have thought I had no interest whatsoever. The main way in which it does this is to apply many of the tropes of the tortured, suffering artist of kunstlerroman and literary biography to a field not generally considered one of the fine arts. To put it simply, this is a show about suits who often found themselves creatively blocked by suits. Again and again, we saw Don or Peggy’s brilliant pitches misunderstood by executives who lack vision. Or we saw Don or Peggy so ravaged by a creative block that we could have been watching a Beethoven biopic. In fact, Don’s most recent West Coast sojourn was exactly such a block: again and again since the first season we’ve seen him attempt, or propose (to poor Rachel Mencken, among others), or consider, a similar self-abandonment, and he always came back with a great new pitch, something better than his best previous work. (Like the credits: He always looks like he’s falling, and he always lands safe.) This show made us interested in ad copywriting, in other words, by proposing that good advertisers go through the same sort of drama in executing their work that the “fine artists,” generally understood to be operating somehow outside capitalism, are known to go through (the benders, the shouting, the rooms littered with false starts, etc.).

5. You could take this as Matthew Weiner clowning on the fine arts in the same way that Don’s final plot arc is supposed to be clowning the counterculture: You think you’re outside it, but capitalism gets you in the end. I think it’s more likely, though, that Weiner is arguing that we should take advertising seriously as an art. This doesn’t mean that I think the show is saying we must embrace advertising or admire it or treat it as the art form de nos jours, but keep in mind that Matthew Weiner himself is a television writer. In other words, he has pursued, with all the intelligence, perseverance, imagination, and sensitivity at his disposal, an art form that, like advertising, literally exists to sell products. (Public TV has always been marginal in America. The day advertisers give up on television is the day we stop having prestige cable dramas.) I don’t want to be reductive: ad money is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the Golden Age of Series TV that we’re living through. Ad money alone doesn’t give us Mad Men any more than DNA in a test tube gives us a person. But it is the foundation. And just as we have learned to take this art seriously, Matthew Weiner has spent seven seasons proposing to us that what Peggy does, what Don does, is at least some kind of art.

6. Further—and I say this as a fully-paid-up mass-culture skeptic—I think he’s right. One of the things you learn, if you watch John Berger’s classic documentary series Ways of Seeing, is that it’s frighteningly easy to make the argument that much classic Western art was, in its time, little more than advertising, or pornography: a thing for rich men to masturbate to, or a thing by which they showed off the sumptuousness of their lifestyles. I think Berger massively overstates this argument, but I also partly take his point. And yet as a result, one of the effects on me of watching Ways of Seeing—an effect that I think Berger never intended—was that I started to notice, and appreciate, the aesthetics of good advertisements, even as I continued to resent their attempts to manipulate me psychologically. If nothing else, a good ad is more honest about what it’s doing than is the entire post-Warhol tradition of gallery art that frames itself as a commentary on advertising. Just as I’d rather read a real comic book than look at a Roy Lichtenstein…

7. Environmentalists go back and forth over the notion of “wilderness.” Is it better to mark certain parts of the world as “wild places,” untouched by humanity, and fight to preserve them as such, or to admit that we’re well into the anthropocene, that humans have always been part of nature, and that we need to think about how to be a better part, rather than trying to keep ourselves aloof from some of it entirely? I tend toward the latter view. We can’t save nature by pretending we’re not in it or that it’s not in us.

8. The way some people talk about capitalism has some of the same pitfalls, in my view, as does the concept of wilderness. Many intellectuals, on all sides of all sorts of culture wars, have described capitalism as if it were an alien imposition on humanity. Max Weber’s thesis is only one of the more famous versions of this argument—it was that narrow-faced race of Calvinists who made us all so hateful of the poor and obsessed with work! They put us in the iron cage! Traditionalist conservatives have their versions of this idea; so did the battier, more essentialist forms of second-wave feminism (which posited that women were too holistic, or pantheist, or goddess-identified, or whatever, to subordinate so much of human life to buying and selling), or the battier, more essentialist forms of cultural nationalism (Europeans are “ice people” and therefore like to reduce everything to transactions; the white man is intrinsically incapable of caring about anything but money; etc.). It’s ultimately, I think, what “Lizard People”-style conspiracy theories are about. Those of us who hate one or more or all aspects of life under capitalism don’t want to think that it could be an expression of anything indigenous to ourselves. It must have come from some group of irreparably bad people over there: WASPs, the rich, somebody. But I think we have to entertain the other option—that capitalism could have happened to anybody; that it’s an expression of some of the things that are in us. (Not all of them, thank God. But some.) We have to entertain that, or else posit some form of biological or spiritual essentialism that, at least, doesn’t correspond to my experience of human beings.

9. This is why I’m increasingly skeptical of any paradigm for thinking about culture in which we try, as Don Draper repeatedly tries, to find some aesthetic or sexual or psychological wild place, declare it off-limits to capitalism, and then, when it’s inevitably “coopted,” debate whether it was “always already” part of “the system” or whether it could have been protected better. If our test for whether something is real, or valid, or important is its uncooptability, we had better give up now. Anything human can be coopted by capitalism because capitalism is, however destructive, just another one of the things humans do.

10. This leads me to the other most-debated moment in the finale: Peggy and Stan hooking up. People have argued that Peggy finding love “undoes her character development” (I have never felt that marrying Ashley undid everything I’d learned up to that point, and we’re later given graphic evidence that Peggy doesn’t betray herself into some kind of seen-not-heard housewifedom, but whatever). But most of all, the critics of this scene were put off by the romantic-comedy dialogue, the meet-cutesiness, the goofy sweetness of it all: Peggy realizing she’s still talking on a dead line and, just as you start to wonder whether Weiner has cynically given Stan a heart attack, he appears in Peggy’s doorway. Their whole story, it turns out, has been a screwball comedy; it unfolds using conventions from the movies in which Hollywood is held to have coopted and corrupted romantic love. But for Weiner, cooptation isn’t the horror-laden process of the Evil Alien Intelligence taking over the Authentic Human Thing. It doesn’t have that finality. Goofy-sweet love affairs don’t stop happening just because Hollywood turns them into cliches. We all know couples whose stories really did unfold in a way that seems eerily like a movie. (I, for example, really did marry the one who got away.) If that weren’t the case, I don’t think those conventions would have half the power they do. Stories that get coopted by capitalism, whether in the form of Hollywood or Madison Avenue, don’t therefore become lies; they don’t curdle. What capitalism takes, it doesn’t take forever. A screwball comedy may only be a screwball comedy, but Peggy and Stan may really have a good thing here. An ad may be only an ad, but Don Draper still knows himself better than he once did (as his wretched phone call to Peggy shows). That moment of peace on the mountaintop isn’t undone simply because, like any artist, he plows it back into his art the best way he knows how.

The Top Ten Kids in the Hall Sketches: A Dissenting View

If you live long enough, everything comes back in fashion. The most popular street musician in my area is the guy who sings the worst of the post-grunge canon (“Mr. Jones”; “Sex and Candy”; “Push”) in a fuck-me-because-I’m-raspy voice that Adam Duritz himself would envy. My students love him, bless their hearts.

Myself, I wasn’t that enamored of the nineties the first time around. But when I think of things from that era that I was happy to see return, the sketch troupe Kids in the Hall outrank everything. 

The members of the troupe, on the eve of another tour, have offered up a list of their best work to Esquire. I hate to argue with men who helped form my sensibility, but those would not be my choices. With all due respect, these, my friends: these are the Daves I know.

10. “Darrill and the Flying Pig”

Some sketches are like Ravel’s “Bolero” in that fucking to them is overrated they explore a single premise in a linear, logical fashion, moving to an assured climax. A lot of the best sketches are more like good instrumental hip-hop, though: here’s a lovely oddity, and another, and another, all looped together into a kind of gentle surrealism that goes nowhere and never ceases to delight. With this one, you get the idea that Bruce’s silly, eager, desperate-to-please pig voice came first, secreted a personality and mythology, and got stapled to an everyday situation (the long ATM line). Then Mark’s inimitable Darill character got thrown in so that we wouldn’t be bored during the setup. Like bacon-flavored ice cream, it shouldn’t work and does.

9. “Menstruation”

This alliterative ode to the “monthly miracle” points up both the silliness of the trying-too-hard male feminist and the odiousness of being weirded-out by periods: surely a message every junior-high boy could stand to hear. At least, I needed to hear it, because I come from the kinds of people who grunt their disgust whenever Tampax commercials play. I always giggle at this sketch, and when seventh-grade me first saw it, he stopped giggling—or gagging—at its subject.

8. “Boo”

With this one, even more than usual, it’s the timing: Dave takes just long enough to gasp at Boo!, Scott paces just long enough, the brakes squeal just in time. A lot of KITH fan-favorite sketches come from the first season, when the show was partly documenting already-road-tested live material; this sketch shows how quickly and brilliantly they adopted the resources unique to TV. (Scott’s anxiety-ridden writer may also suggest some of the behind-the-scenes anxiety that came with the transition.)

7. “Gavin and the Evangelists”

Bruce has two modes: belligerently insecure and winsomely insecure. He owns them both. Gavin is winsome, and he may well be my favorite recurring character.

6. “Running Faggot”

You don’t get a lot of straightforward political skits on this show. The indirect approach is so much more effective. “Running Faggot” is a parody of folk music and its earnest revivalists; of the wandering-teacher-of-wisdom character who shows up in so much American West folklore dispensing bromides in an oracular tone; of Clint Eastwood movies (“Well, I’ll let you have it straight”); of so many things. But by giving Scott Thompson the central role, and sending him sprinting through Texas as if (rightly) afeared for his life, they got the message through to even the mean little homophobe I was when this show first aired: hating gay people is even crazier than not knowing to feed your puppy puppy food.

5. “Headcrusher Vs. Facepincher”

This isn’t comedy. It’s ballet.

4. “Bass Player”

Someday Kevin’s awkwardness will cover the earth.

3. “Kathy and the Blues Guy”

I wish they hadn’t tinted Mark’s skin for this, but his imitation Delta idioms are so wonderfully zany (“shut my eyes fo’ me, I got the blues”), and when we find out who the “real professional” was who “hoit” him… Well. The Kids are often singled out for the high quality of their drag performances (unlike John Cleese or even Terry Jones, they aren’t afraid of being mistaken for feminine), but Bruce goes above and beyond here. He’s every woman my mom ever talked to at a church supper.

2. “Communism”

This early-90s bit anticipated Glenn Beck with such eerie accuracy that Keith Olbermann once invited Dave Foley on his show to explain how he predicted the future. (KITH fans know the answer already: “E-villll!”)

1. “Preacher Character”

Few things are inherently funnier than the sweaty eighties televangelist. In his very person, he offers the comedian a direct line to greed, sexual repression, Grundyism, and other worthy targets; his hypocrisy makes him incongruous, the quality that Chesterton thought central to humor; and he also offers the late-night, cable-affording audience a guilt-free snicker at the bad, obvious tastes of the lower orders. That we have all laughed so often at half-assed televangelism humor only makes it more astounding to watch Mark set about impersonating his preacher with such almost loving fineness of observation: these kinds of people are so easily stereotyped that they’re hard to see properly at all, but Mark misses nothing (note the way his lip curls when he says Bag-da-hava GI-ta, the resort to unsourced “worldly scholars and scientists” to establish a point that’s meaningless anyway, the scolding repetition of “That old preacher character don’t make me laugh anymore”), and each fugitive detail stands out as the superfluity of genius. That he then makes the whole thing a meta-joke, the preacher calling us back from worldly whoredom to a simpler time when a man could laugh at a preacher character, just makes the whole beautiful assemblage work on two levels. This is the greatest sketch, by the greatest sketch team. This is why we crawled out of the swamps.