Mailbag No. 2
You Ask, I Answer
This is the second mail bag post, which I will do every month or so. If you’re a paid subscriber, just respond to this email or leave a comment on a post and I’ll try my best to answer your questions. If I don’t answer, it doesn’t mean I thought your question was bad, just that I didn’t feel I had a thoughtful response.
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First, I want to say how much I appreciate and enjoy your writing. As someone who loves to parse through history and find the rhymes in the present, albeit in a much more hackneyed, bullshit way than you do, I find a lot to like in your essays (columns?).
I'm curious what you make of the conservative instinct to revel in, for the lack of a better way of putting it, "trolling the libs" and whether you see any useful, historical analogues that might put that instinct in perspective. Examples abound, but a few that have stuck with me in the Trump era are Dan Bongino's and Stephen Miller's entire political personas. It's so consistent that it would seem to suggest something that's evergreen to our political psychology. A lot, though not quite all, of the exemplar trolls also seem to be synonymous with the performance of masculinity, so I've always wondered about a connection there too. Moreover, the connection between this trollish instinct and the assertion that the woke liberals control all media underscore a connection to power, or rather, disempowerment felt by the trolls.
No one likes anyone who comes across as having a monopoly on truth. And as someone who's own Irish/Italian/culturally Catholic family and upbringing is a little closer to the Barstool Sports-style bluster of dipshit masculinity than most of my well-to-do progressive friends, I do cringe sometimes at how crude my friends seem to have it even though I basically agree with them. These trolls may be wrong, but that's not exactly the point, and it's not exactly like going around telling the world how wrong they are is going to help very much. Their power isn't in truth or even their messages--it's in what they make people feel.
Anyway, thank you again for Unpopular Front. It's been a joy to read.
Thank you Ryan! Okay, this is a complicated and multipart issue. I’m not sure I know of a good historical analogy for those types of figures off the top of my head, but there is a possible historical narrative one could supply: the rise of radio shock jocks in the 1980s and 90s. Basically, talk radio became a massively successful medium and there was a race the bottom for listenership, with hosts competing with how outrageous they could be. Not all of the shows or figures were explicitly political, but they usually involved a kind of petulant sort of libertarianism as well as disgust and contempt for bleeding-heart liberals, women, gays, and minorities. As far as psychology goes, it’s interesting to me that both Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, who ran quite different shows, but both reveled in being crude and nasty, were both sort of losers and creeps in high school. And both were very introverted and shy, even described as blank or without personality by classmates and teachers. But their personalities changed on the air: suddenly they could be these flamboyant characters and also be quite popular. Rush Limbaugh said he was speaking for conservatives who felt belittled in modern society: “Every day we are inundated by what is supposedly natural, what is supposedly normal, what is supposedly in the majority, by virtue of what the dominant media culture shows, and most often it’s not us. Most often, what we believe in is made fun of, lampooned, impugned, and put down. Then, we don’t want to feel that way. We want to feel as much a part of the mainstream as anybody else.” We want to feel a part of the mainstream as anybody else.
On the masculinity issue, both Stern and Limbaugh were quite unsuccessful with women until they got famous, breeding resentments with contributed to their misogyny. Adam Gopnik wrote something a while ago that stuck with me: “[E]very American man needs to see himself as funny…The real American masculine style, as Sinclair Lewis shrewdly saw, is not tight-lipped-stoical but wheezy-genial.” I think one can build a variation on this. It’s not just wheezy-genial but sarcastic-cutting: part of being macho is having a mouth and being quick with a putdown. There’s a reason gangsters don’t call themselves “tough guys”—that’s in itself a sarcastic insult—they call themselves “wise guys.” A lot of these “owned the libs” combination on YouTubes are valorizations of (usually pretty lame and facile) cleverness. Also, if you think about it, in a lot of the major ethnic subcultures that contribute to the make up of American culture, there’s are traditions of clever roasts and games of wit: Black, Irish, Italian, Jewish, you name it. Even stoic cowboys have occasional one-liners. So, I think the performance of American masculinity is a lot about wanting to be a real fucking smart ass. I’m certainly no exception.
Back to the political level for a moment, though. It’s strange to think of these trolly talk show hosts as “intellectuals,” but let’s try to take seriously Gramsci’s idea that “everyone is an intellectual” for a moment. What function are the playing in the reproduction and maintenance of their party, understood in the broadest sense as a movement? Obviously, they form part of the propaganda wing but why is propaganda keyed to this tone so effective? Well, because, as you point out, it is popular, it is democratic, it sounds like just hanging out with the guys. Often, these sorts of commentators bring people into the movement: they bridge the divide between a kind of pre-political common sense and ideology. As voluntary associations and civil society groups once were, talk shows, podcasts, etc. are as much ways of mitigating loneliness as anything else. And, as anybody with much experience of life knows, making fun of a third party is a pretty surefire way to bond. But there is another aspect here: the cynical and mocking tone itself also provides an effective solvent acid against the ideas and individuals they are fighting. Gramsci speaks of “corrosive irony” that is able to make even charisma wither. Obviously, destroying respect and seriousness weakens your opponents political power. It’s also fun.
There’s a terrific book by Peter Sloterdijk called Critique of Cynical Reason, where he contends that cynicism is “enlightened false consciousness.” At one time irony, satire, mockery were great tools of the enlightenment against tyranny, prejudice, and unjustified authority, but cynicism is cheekiness that has “switched sides” and is now on the side of the forces of order, inculcating the masses with apathy and a downbeat realism. Sloterdijk also thinks a regrettable divide developed between satire and “serious” ideology critique: “‘philosophical’ ideology critique is truly the heir of a great satirical tradition, in which the motif of unmasking, exposing, baring has served for aeons now as a weapon. But modern ideology critique—according to our thesis has ominously cut itself off from the powerful traditions of laughter in satirical knowledge...Recent ideology critique already appears in respectable garb, and in Marxism and especially in psychoanalysis it has even put on suit and tie so as to completely assume an air of bourgeois respectability. It has given up its life as satire, in order to win its position in books as "theory.” (Of course, Marx himself was a devilishly clever and sarcastic writer.) He deplores the divide between the smart and the cheeky: “Only in the twentieth century has impudent cheekiness—the sociopsyetiological [sic!] foundation of an enlightenment on the offensive that does not first ask the authorities whether it is welcome—created subcultural niches for itself in cabaret and in Bohemianism. It failed lamentably to ally itself with the main force of social opposition, the workers' movement.”
The left does have more of these more impudent and Bohemian voices today: think about the “Dirtbag Left,” Chapo Trap House, etc. A lot of that stuff is very funny and I think it has made an important contribution to spreading left ideas. However, there are intrinsic limitations to this form of political engagement. First of all, they are Bohemian not proletarian. It not the voice of the common sense, so much as the common sense of the refusés, the geeks, the wastoids, the dweebies, society’s drop outs and burn outs. It’s the voice of the runts not the bullies, but runts that have honed their wits to be able to fight back. It is by definition a minority party and has a certain counter-cultural elitism. It has no interest in taking over as a kind of hegemonic voice leading the nation: the very idea would be laughable and repulsive to them. They don’t want to be part of the mainstream, like Limbaugh. They will lose out in the battle of populisms because they are unpopular-kid populists. Being oppositional and destructive also becomes an end in itself, both because of temperament but also market imperative. They also have trouble offering a properly dialectical critique: they have one note, calling “bullshit,” and therefore can’t identify or speak to what social ideals and norms are actually worth respecting and developing. For the same reasons, some of these shows and figures tend to just become explicitly reactionary. I also think there is probably a deep psychical reason behind this, too: the id and the superego are not really opposed to one another, they are secret allies. The superego is not the agency of law and justice, it’s really an obscene agency of power that revels in sadistic enjoyment. To quote Adam Serwer, for many, the “cruelty is the point,” and it’s unsurprising then that these supposedly anarchic spirits eventually identify with figures of authority.
Sorry if this got very long and off the point, but I do think that that the left suffers from a sanctimony problem and sometimes lacks both demotic ease and a sense of humor. But you know who doesn’t lack those things? Bernie Sanders! And he’s the most popular politician in the country by some measures. He has a very classically Jewish combination between being sarcastic about bullshit but also deeply morally serious. (Obviously, this is not an exclusively Jewish quality but one that arises from its particular cultural traditions.) I always thought the criticisms of Bernie as a sexist were nonsense, but I guess there is something a little bit macho about his affect: straightforward, tough-mindedness, an unwillingness to put up with bullshit, etc. I don’t think those virtues necessarily have to be gendered, but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think there are also non-toxic forms of masculinity or maybe even homeopathic doses of toxic masculinity. I also really think people like his New York accent, just like they like Trump’s accent: for Americans, it’s the voice of street-wise intelligence. Anyway, thanks for your question and hopefully this was at least somewhat illuminating.
I have a question for your next mailbag. This very Substack is evidence of a move away from the notion that writers, especially political pundits, should aspire to get jobs with legacy media. Those jobs have dried up, and the influence of all but the most powerful media institutions is dwindling. Yet the new model still seems to be developing. Rather than advertising, people turn to individual donators for support, and rather than getting hired by an employer, they have to publicize themselves on social media (or You Tube, Twitch or TikTok) to find an audience themselves. In many ways, this has been a positive move, opening up American politics to voices that never would get jobs with the NY Times or CNN. But it also means that challenging your audience risks ruining your ability to make a living, while insincere contrarianism and hot takes can be a way to cynically build a brand. I also wonder how viable it will prove to be as Twitter collapses and centralized social media becomes increasingly unappealing. Do you think this vision of the current media is accurate, and if so, how do you think it might change over the next decade?
Well, Steve, I think you basically have it all there. It strikes me that this is just another problem with a market society: on the one hand, apparently lot of freedom, but on the other hand that freedom is highly constrained by the necessity of singing for your supper. Writers like me are now directly marketing themselves the public rather than being ensconced in a mediating institution. I feel very fortunate to have discovered a group of readers that are into what I do. I actually think I would not have fared particularly well in an institution. I’d probably get myself fired pretty fast. This is really perfect for me. Some writers do better in an institutional context and that doesn’t mean they are less worthy at all. Magazines and newspapers off all sizes are indispensable: a world without them is too sad for me to even contemplate. They are the concrete manifestation of the spiritual life of the nation. Otherwise, there’s just the incoherent babbling of the crowd. Someone needs to figure out how to make them viable without making them totally bland and lifeless. There is just no intellectual life and no democracy without edited publications. Substack is a supplement to them, a good market-welfare system for unemployable writers like me, but not a replacement.
As for marketing myself, I don’t try to pander, but I also don’t really know what you people even want from me, so it’s hard to pander. I just do my thing and thank God it seems to more or less work. That being said, I know I write for a “popular” audience and I want to make difficult things a bit more accessible without dumbing them down. But there is a bit of pressure to produce now that this is how I primarily make a living. Are there some weeks where I just don’t feel like writing? Sure. But you all presumably work for a living, so why shouldn’t I? I’m too much imbued with the Protestant work ethic to be totally comfortable with the idea of just being an intellectual whose job it is to read and think and not produce much. I want to give you something decent in return for your 5 dollars a month. I don’t want this to feel like a scam or grift. But if any of you happen to be super wealthy and would like to generously endow me with a small fortune so I can just read and think all day, preferably in a villa in Italy, I’m open to discussing it. Sometimes, I see the line of the subscriber chart start to tick down, and I wonder, “could this all disappear one day?” I try not to think too hard about it. I gotta job to do here: bring you your newsletter.
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