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.


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.

OK.

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.

On the Absurd, Wearying AMERICAN SNIPER/Umix Controversy

When your university makes national news, and your freshmen are asking you what you think about it all, you should probably go ahead and say something.

1. Universities are, first and foremost, places to learn, and learning hurts. It destabilizes. It can drive you insane. That’s just part of the ball game. If a film professor wants to show American Sniper and discuss its qualities as a work of art, she should do so. If a propaganda historian wants to show American Sniper and discuss its ideological implications, she should do so. If a support group for student-veterans wants to show the film for its cathartic and therapeutic qualities, they should do so. If a student wants to watch the film in his room, he should do so. All of that is Freedom of Speech 101 and I condemn any view that would water it down.

(PS: Insofar as a little-read Twitter account is “public,” I’ve already publicly opposed trigger exemptions on syllabi; scroll down).

2. Campuses are also social spaces. Umix is, my students tell me, the “dry” alternative to another bar-crawling Friday night. In addition to scheduling, canceling, and then rescheduling American Sniper, its recent activities include “Build-A-Bear, Massages, Bingo…Karaoke, Asian Food Buffet, DYO Picture Frames, Inflatable Laser Tag and more!” Umix is not a film society. Umix is not, from the sound of things, particularly educational. It’s the equivalent of the pool table in the dorm basement.

3. Throwing an all-ages, PG-rated, for-the-entire-student-body event, a dry event (which religion forbids alcohol again?), at a school located near Dearborn, and then showing a movie that praises the courage of those who fought in a war of choice against Arabs, is, at best, like inviting all your Japanese friends to go see Bataan with you. It’s a like using church funds to throw a Sunday school class party where everyone watches Irreversible followed by Cannibal Holocaust. It’s just a weird move.

4. Canceling all campus screenings of American Sniper would be censorship and no sensible person should stand for it. Canceling this screening, and replacing it with an inoffensive and surprisingly well-made kids’ movie, is effective event planning.

5. I am not sure how far I want to enter into the controversy around Chris Kyle himself. I certainly do not condemn him. Had he adopted any other attitude than “they were animals” toward the people he shot, he may not have survived deployment. That is no justification of the war itself, but since Chris Kyle is not the architect of the war—that distinction belongs not only to the Bush Administration, but to many, many liberals and even some leftists—it would be unfeeling to blame him for getting through it on whatever terms were available to him. Certainly Michael Moore’s comments regarding his “cowardice” were absurd; just about anyone who signs up to fight in an army is brave. (It is unfortunate that our culture celebrates this form of bravery so much more, and more officially, than other forms of bravery, but that doesn’t make soldiers less brave.) Of course courage is no guarantee of the rightness of one’s cause; I’m sure Confederate soldiers had brass balls, and they were fighting for slavocracy. Our soldiers in Iraq were fighting—on pain of imprisonment, or death, or the death of their fellow-soldiers—for the lies of our foreign-policy establishment, which those soldiers had no hand in creating. Ideally we’d find a way to honor their selfless courage while regretting the purposes to which it was put, but that doesn’t make a good bumper sticker.

6. But while I’m on the subject, there is one argument that I heard regarding American Sniper and Chris Kyle that I will go ahead and grump about. I heard again and again, when the film was first released, that critics of the film or Kyle are attacking someone who “fought for them.” This would be totally admissible if we were talking about the Revolutionary War. It would be totally admissible if we were talking about the Union side in the Civil War. (If you’re white and Southern, you could also apply it to the Confederate Army.) When we come to Vietnam and Iraq and Grenada it’s not admissible at all. Who seriously believes that the average American’s safety was protected, their rights advanced by those wars? And I have heard enough disgruntled talk about civilians from veterans—one of whom once said, in front of me, “`Thank you for your service,’ they say. I didn’t do it for your lazy ass,” thus implying that every non-veteran in the room was a bad, lazy person—that I feel pretty skeptical regarding the claim “Chris Kyle fought for you.”

7. This touches on the meaning of patriotism. Of course it does. Members of my own family have more than once called me “unpatriotic” for voicing opinions like this. But I believe in an America that Chris Kyle can live in, and where every veteran comes home to a safe job, decent pay, and all the help they need, at whatever expense. I believe in an America that asks him (and all able-bodied adult citizens, including me) to defend, but never to invade. Meanwhile, during the Iraq War, I heard proponents of the war say, again and again, without any qualification, that everyone who protested the war was committing treason. Treason is a capital offense. This doctrine was a more immediate threat to the liberties and lives of millions of actually existing Americans than any Iraqi. So is the national security state that that war helped bring into being (and that Obama has continued to nurture). So is the assumption that black men are inherently criminal. There’s more than one way to threaten American rights, and more than one way to fight for them.

8. You should go see Paddington, seriously. It’s way funnier than the trailers.

“I am Taking a Religious View of a Form That Is Very Earthly”: What Do These Words Mean to James Wood?

James Wood is a vexed subject. Like Jonathan Franzen, he inspires such polarized reactions that I can’t even begin to recognize the writer I read—who does some great work and some bad work, some beautiful pieces with dumb moments in them and some dumb pieces with the occasional sentence that brings you up short—in the reputation that billows around him. And again like Franzen, he seems to have gotten cast as the figurehead of various ideas and tendencies to a degree that completely overshadows anything I find on the page. In the mid-2000s, he was decried as a proponent of Biedermeier novels, a latter-day John Updike; the term “social realism” was, rather bizarrely, redefined from its original meaning (Soviet-era boy-meets-tractor stories) and used to describe the kind of fiction he was supposed to prefer. When he proved to have a larger and more flexible view of fiction than this stereotype allowed for, and championed writers outside his supposed bailiwick, this was taken as further evidence of his perfidy. When people hate you for being a way, and then also for being any other way, the problem is not you. This is prosecutor logic, or gameplaying.

All of this should not be taken to mean that I invariably agree with him, love him, or even read everything he writes. I am an adult with a job, and I have sat out at least a few Wood-related Twitter cycles. Yesterday this interview came to my attention, especially this bit:

Could there, I asked Wood, be such a thing as a religious novel– a book that is positively for God, not against him?

“Probably not,” he replied. “I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels—To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway—and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying—though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.”

My first thought is that, on this reading, the Bible itself is not good religious writing at all. The OT patriarchs are notoriously corrugated. (This was one of the French Enlightenment’s big problems with the OT.) Jesus’ disciples are corrugated; the New Testament goes out of its way to portray them as clueless and intermittently treacherous. (“Get thee behind me, Satan.”) Wood seems to think that a “properly” religious novel would call no attention to the fact that religious people have feet of clay. It seems to me that such a fiction, if it could even exist, would be incredibly dangerous, to that religion most of all. What an inducement to self-righteousness.

The more I think about it, the less I understand what Wood thinks a properly religious or, since that’s what he’s really talking about here, properly Christian fiction might be. Does he think The Brothers Karamazov, which actually kept me in the fold when I was eighteen, would be even more “Christian” of a novel if we edited out Father Ferapont, the sudden rotting of Zossima’s body, or the great confrontation between Ivan and Alyosha? These are what make the book work as a piece of fiction, and also as a work of Christian art. They allow the reader to entertain other possible ways of life seriously, and make it possible for Alyosha’s continued belief (and mine, the first time I read it) to demonstrate, not its Final Triumph over those alternatives, but its durability against them, and its ability to survive change. Since I take it that Final Triumph isn’t on the table right now, for anyone—nobody really knows what the hell is going on here, and we don’t find out till we’re dead—a book that shows how Christian faith can sustain, deepen, fortify, and provoke growth in the character of a thinking adult is doing all the work a Christian novel would need to do. Flaws and ridiculousness are very much to the point.

It occurs to me that Wood’s comments make sense if we swap out one word: wherever he says “religious,” read “fanatical.” And I’d agree that there are no good fanatic novels. Left Behind, Walden Two, Atlas Shrugged, The Celestine Prophecy: they all have their fans, but what those people love is the clarifying and simplifying power of having only one answer to every question. (Talk about lifehacking!) Truth in these novels is something suddenly announced to the world from without, rather than messily lived through, and with, and toward. If that’s Christianity, or religion more generally, or the novel, you can keep them all. I will keep attending to whatever it is that Robinson is doing in Gilead, or Dostoevsky in Karamazov, or for that matter what Al Green is doing in his music. And what James Wood does, intermittently, in the best of his criticism, when he’s not falsely pitting the two great, tortured loves of his life, God and the novel, against each other.