Monday, July 9, 2018

the &^#!@(* side of history, cont'd

From a recent essay by Jon Baskin, a portion of which includes an excellent meditation on my least favorite idea:
"The notion that history has a definite direction, and that only some people are on the "right side" of it, has always been attractive to intellectuals on the left; among other things, it offers a clear cause and mission to those of us prone to worry about being decadent or superfluous. On the other hand, it makes history into a bus that will run us all over at some point...and it threatens to render intellectual debate a strictly intramural affair. If politics is a war between the allies and the enemies of history, then arguing in good faith with the losers can only be either a sign of weakness or a waste of time. It's a high-theory variant of the mindset that animated our in-house demographers at the Center [for American Progress], who used to delight in proving, with the aid of laser pointers and the latest in data analytics, that there was no reason to consider the arguments of red-state Bush voters, since they would all be dead soon. This was 2004."
It is delightful have my views on the "right side of history" upheld so perfectly—an extremely rare delight!—so my sincere thanks to Jon Baskin. I would, however, encourage him to go further: I would say that the idea of right side of history is not just attractive to those on the left, but to all humans who wish to feel secure in their ideological worldview, which is to say: pretty much everyone. (Myself included—no one in their right mind writes a whole dissertation about an idea they find uncompelling.)

Baskin is correct to call out the left in particular, however, insofar as the phrase, "the right side of history" has a progressive pedigree. I applaud the right for avoiding the phrase, if only because it irks me mightily, but the idea is still everywhere in right-leaning thought. It's just that, for the right, history is regressive, a story of the slow withering of ideals, moral character, and general uprightness. And for the left, the story of history is the slow flowering of inclusion, enlightenment, and general wellbeing. For both sides, these tendencies are inexorable, born along by trends so all-encompassing that they seep into our mass consciousness and shape our material lives without any effort on our part. The end result is that all you, Dear Reader, need to do to ensure history happens is to jump aboard ship (the correct ship!) and dip the very tip of your oar in the water. You don't need to get sweaty at all, and there's no need to consult the map; just watch your cable news channel of choice, send out a few choice tweets, and bask in the glow of historical righteousness.

I've had people dismiss my argument about this by pointing out that if we were so sure we knew where we were headed, we wouldn't all be so anxious about the other side winning. But the anxiety is not about history, which we're pretty sure of, it's about ourselves. For the left, the right can't possibly succeed in the long-term because their goals are ultimately too small-minded, bigoted, and backwards; for the right, the left can't possibly prevail because their goals are ultimately too depraved and untraditional. Even the victory of the opposing side actually spells their defeat; they might be winning now, we think to ourselves, but it'll end badly and we'll right the ship. What makes us anxious is the everyday impact of these short-term reversals: what if the other side doesn't lose until after my 401K is wiped out? What if the other side wins before I can buy enough guns to form a well-regulated militia? What if the disaster happens before my kids need student loans? What if my life is inconvenienced by those idiots over there who chose the wrong boat?! 

Baskin is quite right that this view has the terrible outcome of making history into a bus that will run us over: we don't want to ask difficult questions, or listen to the idiots in the other boat, because it's all a waste of time—history will straighten them out in the end, so why bother? But what Baskin might be discounting is the great comfort we find in this approach to history, and by extension, in ideology—even if we're about to be squashed like bugs, at least we know where we're headed, and we can plan for the approaching impact. It's a comfort that's utterly wrongheaded and breeds terrible politics, but a comfort that is nearly impossible to discard.

Friday, June 29, 2018

annals of (re)reading

I'm sure you will all be thrilled to learn that one of my book clubs is still going strong. Using the word "club" to describe it may be a misnomer, actually—it's just me and my friend Ashley meeting up occasionally to talk about books. The whole thing nearly petered last year due to a bad book selection; we tried and failed to read Don Quixote and didn't meet for six months because we both stubbornly refused to concede defeatWhen we saw each other for other reasons during that time we would just whine about how much we hated the book and gleefully confess to each other all the other things we'd read.

(And in case you're wondering, the other book club I was in died a quick death for me when someone who went only once (but was still on the email list) insisted that we shouldn't be reading so many books by white men. But that's...another story.)

Ashley and I just finished The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (we didn't love it), and before that we read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (we loved it). Our chats about the assigned reading are very enjoyable, of course, but I've found that decisions about what to read next are often the best part of being in this book "club," because we both read a lot and that means we just end up talking about books in general. Case in point: we spent a good half hour last time we met talking about Brideshead Revisited, which Ashley had just finished reading and which has long been a favorite of mine.

Talking about the book with her, I realized I needed to at least skim through it again: I had a definite memory of what it was about but I couldn't recall most of the details. So I came home, dug out my copy, and started rereading. A few days later I'd finished the whole book, and I realized two things: 1) it was way, way better than I remembered, and 2) I hadn't understood it at all the first time.

I actually have no memory of when I first read Brideshead, but I do know for sure that my mother recommended it to me and that I didn't read her copy, which means I must have bought it myself, and the earliest I would have done that was my first year in college (15 years ago, bah!). One thing I know for sure is that I must have read it before 2010, because by then I would have certainly realized that the central theme of the book is Catholicism, and I definitely missed that on the first reading. (I'm certain my mother, who spent 12 years in Catholic school, did not miss that in her reading.)

How I could possibly profess to have read and enjoyed this novel without understanding the religious themes is frankly ridiculous to me. Julia of ten years ago may not have been very smart, which I guess is not altogether surprising: she did, after all, start this blog.

The experience of rereading Brideshead was a little like having an encounter between me now and the me of 10 years ago, which is a strange and uncomfortable experience. I've done it before: rereading The Republic in grad school with all my college marginalia was definitely like having a frustrating conversation with a dumber version of myself. But the space of time was shorter in that scenario: just 4 years between readings as opposed to 10, and it felt much less disconcerting to learn that I'd misread The Republic, which I never really felt I understood, than that I'd misread a novel I loved and thought I got the gist of.

While it's encouraging to know that I've learned something in the past 10 years, it's disheartening to realize that I now need to go back and reread my favorite books from pre-2010 to make sure I understood what the heck I was reading. It's going to take a while.  

Thursday, June 21, 2018

An Open Letter to Tourists and Interns on the DC Metro

Dear Tourists and Interns on the DC Metro,

I hate to be cruel, but frankly: I wish you would all return to whatever suburban prairie or college town you came from. Why must you be here, on my train, plaguing my daily commute? Do you see me snarling your freeway traffic? Do I come to your town and occupy 10 spots in the strip mall parking lot? No, I don't mess up your transportational life, so why must you blight mine? If do you insist on staying here, Tourists and Interns on the DC Metro, then please, please, learn how to ride a subway.

This is the mistake that you make: you think that there's nothing to learn! You think that correct subway etiquette isn't a skill. I am here to inform you that you are incorrect. I have three solid decades of subway experience: I began my studies on the New York subway at age two; I currently ride the subway every single day during rush hour; I've ridden subways in Chicago, Moscow, London, Tokyo, Singapore, Delhi, Paris, even Philadelphia. I'm a goddamn expert.

So, Tourists and Interns on the DC Metro, here is my public service announcement: Julia's Rules of Subway Etiquette:

  1. Do not stand directly in front of the door when boarding: stand to the side and give those exiting some room. If you are standing in front of the door when I'm exiting, I will walk straight into you as though you don't exist.  And I can do this because to me...you will simply not exist. 
  2. Do not dally in the doorway when entering the train car. There is no need to hesitate: simply enter the train and go anywhere (anywhere!) there is space. If you dally in the doorway while I'm trying to enter, I will push you from behind, and possibly step on your foot. And I will not apologize, even when you say to me, "you stepped on my foot!" Yes, I stepped on your foot: your foot was not moving your body forward as it ought to have been.  
  3. Do not lean your entire body against any pole in a subway car. A pole is not for your personal bodily use, it is for everyone standing within arms reach. You should take up no more room on a subway pole than the width of one hand. If you lean against the pole, I will force my hand against your arm, thigh, head, or any other body part touching said pole, and proceed to poke you forcefully. 
  4. Do not keep your backpack on while on a crowded train. I repeat: DO NOT KEEP YOUR BACKPACK ON WHILE ON A CROWDED TRAIN. Use some common sense: there is more space between your legs than between you and the person next to you. If you keep your backpack on anywhere in my vicinity, I will use every excuse to brush against the zippers on your bag and make you think I'm trying to rob you. I will be convincing. I may even rob you. 
  5. Do not enter the car, look around, and loudly proclaim you had "no idea it would be this crowded," and "isn't there a seat available somewhere?" If no one got up for that pregnant lady standing next to you, no one on earth is going to get up for you. 
  6. Do not ask the person sitting next to you when your stop is coming up. The person sitting next to you is not a map. The map is on the wall. Can you read? 
  7. Do not look anyone in the eye. The only way to get through a daily commute in close quarters with fifty strangers is by protecting the illusion of privacy. If someone is looking at me while I'm sweaty and tired and annoyed, I cannot pretend that fifty strangers aren't watching me be sweaty and tired and annoyed. If you look me in the eye, I will look right back at you, and roll my eyes
  8. Do not brush your reading material (phone, iPad newspaper, book, parchment, scroll) against anyone's arm, face, chest, or any other body part. If there are two inches between you and the human standing next to you, then your reading material is eliminating their one inch of personal space. READ LATER. 
  9. Do not get up and move toward the exit until the train has stopped. Subway trains aren't big: you can be in the furthest corner hedged in by six linebackers and still get to the door in time. If you do try to push your way forward while the train is still moving, you will make everyone shift around, let go of their poles, and fall into each other. And when you get to me, I will just ignore you and make you stare at my armpit until the train doors open. 
  10. Do not pretend that you can balance without holding on to something. I can't and you can't, so don't. Just hold on to something, look off vaguely into the middle distance, and try not to mess it up for the rest of us.
If I haven't inspired you to start taking an uber to your destination, then I guess...I'll see you on the train. 

Curmudgeonly yours, 
Julia

Monday, June 11, 2018

a real adult

Recently, someone told me that she doesn't feel like a "real adult" because she is single and childless. To be clear, this is a complaint: she would like to have a husband and children, but has neither, and feels, in her own words, "inadequate." She believes herself to be "behind schedule" on the checklist that women of my acquaintance torture themselves with: college, career, husband, house, kids, to be completed in that order and achieved by...oh, right now.

Due to moral failure and general cold-heartedness, I have limited sympathy for complaints like this. The complainant just wants to complain: there is absolutely nothing I can say to make her feel better (trust me, I know, I've tried). She's playing a dangerous game, though, because one day I might crack and tell her what really I think, and she really doesn't want to hear it. Because this is what I think: I think it's quite possible she may never get married and she may never have kids. I think it's quite possible that she may get married and have kids and hate every minute of it. I think it's quite possible that none of us get what we deserve, and that life is an unmitigated and unfathomable pain in the ass.

She may also regret complaining to me because one day I'm going to ask her to explain just who, exactly, qualifies as a real adult. Not just an adult, a real adult! Am I a real adult only because I'm married? A semi-real adult because I'm married but have no children? And if I never have children, will I remain in this state of semi-adulthood, or will advanced age eventually get me admitted to the club? I know a lovely person who has never been married and never had children, and is about to retire: shall I inform her that, despite all signs to the contrary, she has not yet reached adulthood?

Someone once told me that a real friend is someone who lets you use their toothbrush. Perhaps a real adult is someone who buys a toothbrush when they need one? All I know for sure is that nothing makes you a real adult, nothing—not marriage, not children, not a PhD, not a million dollar salary, not divorce, not age, not retirement—except acting like one. You are an adult when other people's life choices do not immediately make you feel insecure. You are an adult when someone tells you you're being an asshole and you can totally see their point. You are an adult when you realize that no one is out to get you. You are an adult when you recommend your favorite book to a friend and they dislike it so much they don't even finish it, but you can still admit they have good taste. You are an adult when it's a beautiful summer day and by some miracle you have the rooftop pool all to yourself, and instead of needing friends or kids or a husband to confirm that you should be feeling happy, you just think: this is all I've ever wanted.  

Friday, May 11, 2018

auto-da-fé

You know how there are some words you just never quite absorb into your vocabulary? Like, it doesn't matter how many times I look up the definition of ontology, nonplussed, or deus ex machina, I just never quite internalize what they mean. In the case of ontology, I think this brain block is the result of a deep-seated dislike I have for all philosophy grad students. (Sorry.) Nonplussed I get confused about because there are two opposite definitions, and only one of them is correct, but I can never remember which one. 

And then sometimes there are words I just never bothered to look up before. Auto-da-fé  came up somewhere in my reading today, and did you know that it's Portuguese for "act of faith"? It's the name of a ritual from the Inquisition, where condemned heretics and apostates made public penance before execution. I had no idea. 

What I want to know now is how the phrase made it into English. Is it really so specific an idea that we needed to import a Portuguese phrase from the 15th century? I guess it sort of is, actually. Auto-da-fé is a lot pithier than "a public penance of heretics and apostates." I will work really hard to drop this into casual conversation soon. If only I knew how to pronounce it! 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

those human swarms

Why should any given thing have happened? No theory, no convention or prejudice, should take precedence over the fact that if it did happen, it arose out of the endless complexity of human life, human lives. The Puritan Thomas Shepard, generally credited with founding Harvard, remarked that a man with a wooden leg could trim his foot to fit a shoe, but in the case of a living limb this would not be advisable. By all means those who think about history should avoid such trimming, since they deal with living flesh, specifically those human swarms whose passage through the world is the sum and substance of history.

We have not yet absorbed the fact that history has fallen into our laps, and we hardly know what it is, let alone what we should do with it. We have been busy destroying the landmarks that might otherwise help us orient ourselves. We have impoverished ourselves of every sense of how over time a society emerged that we and most of the world have considered decent and fortunate. Could we save this good order from a present threat? If it collapsed, could we rebuild it? These are real questions.

—Marilynne Robinson, Old Souls, New World

The founders knew that without a virtuous citizenry, the Constitution was a mere piece of paper and, in Madison’s words, “no theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure.” Franklin was blunter in forecasting the moment we are now in: He believed that the American experiment in self-government “can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” You can impeach a president, but you can’t, alas, impeach the people. They voted for the kind of monarchy the American republic was designed, above all else, to resist; and they have gotten one.

—Andrew Sullivan, Can Donald Trump Be Impeached?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

on not giving a shit

Thoughts from an interview with Caitlin Flanagan, who I think is a very good and interesting writer. (She's published a lot, but this article, which I can hardly believe was published over 10 years ago, is the first I remember reading by her. I still think about it.)

The interviewer is Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic. The whole thing is worth listening to, but here's a bit from the very end, where they're winding down a discussion of sex, #metoo, toxic feminism, and fraternities:
Goldberg: “Caitlin Flanagan…”
Flanagan: “...You’re fired!”
Goldberg: [Laughs] “No, we love having you at The Atlantic, because you say interesting things and you don’t really give a shit.”
Flanagan: “I don’t give a shit.”
Goldberg: “Why don’t you give a shit? Because so many people give a shit right now.”
Flanagan: “Because this is why…it sounds so corny…I love America. You don’t have to be liked. Willy Loman should stop worrying. We have these freedoms that everybody mocks. You can say whatever you want. You know, you’ll get a lot of enemies, but…there’s 20 people I really care what they think about me. My family and my closest friends. After that, I don’t care. If people are offended or they don’t like it then they can turn this podcast off...It doesn’t matter if somebody likes what you say or not, you have the right to say it, you have the right to think it, you have a right to read the great books, and be the “artist reader” of the book as Nabokov would say and make your own meaning of the book. Beyond that it just doesn’t matter.”
First of all: excellent use of literary references. Second: I admire the sentiment. I doubt many people (myself included) would be able to carry off not giving a shit as well as Flanagan, especially since she can apparently not give a shit and keep her job, but I admire the sentiment nonetheless. And Jeffrey Goldberg is right to mention that she says interesting stuff and doesn't give a shit in the same breath. Because when everyone gives a shit things are so boring. If you watched the Oscar's this year, you know what I mean. A room of people carefully selected and eager for approval; I've been to academic panels more exciting.