[Note: This is a transcript of a keynote address I delivered this week as part of the Münster International Summer School (Topic: “Tacet ad Libitum! Towards a Poetics and Politics of Silence”), sponsored by the Graduate School Practices of Literature at the University of Münster.]
Since my return to active blogging, I have been reluctant to post about politics, choosing instead to retreat into aestheticism. Today I feel I have to respond to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in some way, because I feel implicated in the decision as a former evangelical. My church and family were never particularly politically active, and I was mercifully spared the lifelong shame of attending an anti-abortion protest or harrassing women outside a clinic. But it was the one absolutely unquestionable goal — the one trump card that meant conservatives always had the moral high ground against liberals. What could possibly be more important than stopping the genocide against the unborn?
For such an absolute axiom, however, we never seemed to place much weight on it. Continue reading “When the worst people in the world keep winning”
It’s a small mercy that I at least never attended an anti-abortion protest. That was a little too tacky, too “political” for my upwardly mobile family at our upwardly mobile church. God sent his Son to die on the cross so we could clean up and move to the suburbs, and his perfect will for our life obviously didn’t include yelling and screaming and getting arrested. Nonetheless, the pro-life movement is driven by “my people,” the evangelicals, who are now on the cusp of victory in a generation-long battle that has deployed all available tactics, from the long march through the institutions to harassment, terrorism, and assassination. They wanted it bad, and now they’re getting it. We’re all getting it.
Recently I was talking to a friend from a similar background to mine. Though he was a little younger, we both shared the experience of living through the Bush years in a conservative Christian college milieu, and both of us found it profoundly disillusioning. He put it well when he said that both the Christian college community and the Bush administration represented a world in with “our people” had won, and both were unlivable. I can’t help but notice that the same pattern held when the evangelicals won by catapulting a man who exuded the sleazy menace of a televangelist — preaching the prosperity gospel without the tedious “gospel” part — into the White House against our will. And it will continue to hold when Roe is overturned, as the result will be a moral, social, and political disaster that will make Prohibition look like a well-considered public policy intervention.
[A blogpost version of a Twitter thread from earlier this morning.]
I grew up as a conservative evangelical and understand why the appeal to the life of the fetus has proven such a powerful argument. But forced childbirth is ghoulish and dystopian and it concerns a 100% definite human being we can see and talk to right now.
A few months ago, my friend Anthony Paul Smith posted a couple tweets that I have continued to mull over. Responding to some online discourse worrying about the declining birthrate in the US, he wrote:
There’s something deeply, ontologically creepy about birth rate discourse and how so much is tied to the Ponzi scheme we’ve set up as a society that requires unlimited population growth to support unlimited creation of wealth, unmoored from ecological connections.
Also I think we’ve reached a stage in human development where most people don’t know what the point of the future of the human race is. Make iPhones by oppressing a majority of the world? Helping Elon Musk send a bunch of corpses to Mars for his own ego? Unlimited breadsticks?
I think the same about returning to “normal” after the pandemic. I have certainly longed for normality, but now that it’s becoming more of a reality, I’m reminded of all the annoying and boring and mildly humiliating things that we accepted as “normal.” Why were we in such a hurry to get back to this? And why — despite all the early-pandemic articles speculating that this massive disruption could be a social reset allowing us to clarify our goals and values — does there seem to be no alternative to the binary of pandemic misery or everyday normal misery?
I don’t like Christmas. I especially don’t like going home for Christmas. In fact, a couple years ago I cancelled a trip home at the last minute — a dramatic, and frankly hurtful and inconsiderate, action — because I just couldn’t bear it. The amount of emotional energy that goes into this aversion seems disproportionate at times. Is it really such a burden to visit home for a few days and go through the motions of a few traditions? Apparently, to me it is.
I have sometimes mentioned to my family that I don’t like Christmas, and the reaction is always: “Yes you do.” Talking to my dad after cancelling a couple years ago, I mentioned that Christmas was hard for me and cast a cloud over the two months proceeding. He was absolutely shocked. And I suppose they have a point, because Christmas was a very happy time for a long time. Continue reading “The Problem of Christmas”
On a certain level, every human culture is fake, in the sense of being made up by human beings. Greater authenticity means little other than greater success in covering one’s tracks. That being said, there are some cultures that are more overtly fake than others. In The Total Art of Stalinism, Groys describes Soviet culture under Stalin as very self-consciously artificial — creating new cultural forms, new approaches from the past, even (improbably enough) new clichés, with no pretense to authenticity or rootedness. Indeed, the artificiality was the whole point. When the Soviet leadership de-Stalinized beginning in the 1950s, then, that meant that the “native” Soviet generation was informed that their entire cultural tradition — the only culture they had ever known — was not merely artificial, but defunct. And a big part of Groys’ motivation in writing the book was to share late-Soviet artists’ attempts to grapple with having been formed from the ground up by a political project that had run aground.
Groys’ argument resonates for me, because I, too, was raised in a fake culture: American evangelicalism. This point was really brought home to me by my reading of Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, where she deconstructs the cultural fabrications of the Reagan reaction. The fate of American evangelicalism is deeply intertwined with that act of cultural construction, to the point where I have been willing to declare that “evangelicalism” as we know it today has no authentic connection to pre-“religious right” movements.
This summer, a lot has changed in my life. We moved from the apartment and neighborhood where we had lived for seven years, which felt more like home to me even than my hometown did when I was a child. I am in the midst of a job transition as a result of North Central College’s acquisition of Shimer College, and I am also completing a manuscript that marks something of an endpoint of the “devil project” that has been guiding my research since my dissertation. I have taken the opportunity to change a lot of other, more trivial things — switching banks, opting for a Mac for my work computer after years as a hardened PC user, even changing my hairstyle — and decided to spend the last few weeks of summer vacation learning biblical Hebrew, a long-delayed goal that felt right precisely because it is something of a non-sequitur.
Yet in my unguarded moments, I realize that I still expect things to go “back to normal.” When I shared this with The Girlfriend and tried to articulate what that “normal” was, it turned out to be a relatively short window — perhaps my second or third year at Shimer, when the dog was still with us and in good health, before The Girlfriend went to grad school and changed careers. Things felt more open-ended then, like it could stay that way forever. I knew Shimer was fragile, but had no way of anticipating the obstacles we would face, nor of course any glimmer of the possibility that we would join a larger institution. I was not involved in any major projects other than translation and the occasional invited article or talk.
The fact that this situation was actually very unusual and short-lived is not lost on me. Continue reading “Back to normal”
I have written before about my struggle to come to terms with my parents’ decision to vote for Trump, and I have it relatively easy. My family has tended to avoid politics over the years, and few if any of them appear to be pure Fox News zombies. Many other people — such as this black author who has had major conflict with his Trump-supporting white mother — have had it much worse and have reached the point where they need to break off contact.
I don’t claim to know what’s going on in people’s heads in specific cases, but this trend of family strain related to right-wing indoctrination does seem pretty widespread. As we know, systemic effects have systemic causes, and the biggest systemic cause for the last forty years of American life has been the radical reworking of the economy through the bipartisan consensus known as neoliberalism. It is well known that that consensus has favored capital mobility and concentration in a way that has led to a hollowing out of the economic prospects of vast swathes of the country while benefiting a handful of urban areas, which have become basically the only place to find any real opportunity.
What is less noted is the way that this dynamic tends to tear families apart — and to create braindrain as the urban centers basically poach the most talented and creative members of other communities. In a setting like this, going to college, adopting more liberal values, moving to the city, etc., take up a very fraught status. On the one hand, it’s the only way to get ahead in life, and families are often proud of their children who “get out” and make a life for themselves. On the other hand, that means that the parents who have done the “best job” are often punished with the effective loss of their children — not only through less frequent contact, but through a changed lifestyle, values, and expectations. They did everything they were supposed to, and the reward is that their children hardly visit and look down their nose at them when they do. For how many Fox News viewers, I wonder, is the archetypal smug liberal elitist their own child?
The way they react to this pain and loss often isn’t healthy, but I’m less interested in judging individuals than in pointing out the ways that right-wing media have exploited this grief by pushing it toward anger and resentment. Becoming a Fox News zombie of course only exacerbates the problem, as it becomes increasingly impossible to talk about important national events or, more broadly, about values or ideas. Every episode of conflict only hardens the dynamic, until it becomes very unclear for the children what this relationship is even supposed to be about. I suspect parents know what’s happening, but they can’t help but double down — and what are we in the younger generation really offering them? Should they uproot and move to the city, too? Would the problem be solved if they watched “All In With Chris Hayes” religiously instead of O’Reilly or whatever?
We talk about broad-strokes when assessing the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but what if — alongside the racism and toxic nostalgia — there is a more intimate way people are hearing it: make my children love and respect me again, make my community a place where people don’t automatically want to leave and never come back again, make America a place where getting ahead in life isn’t synonymous with dissociating yourself from me. Right-wing media — and here I am thinking of Trump fundamentally as a media phenomenon, which is how our parents experience him — has exploited this situation in a despicable and probably unfixable way, but they didn’t create the underlying dynamic. In other words, ultimately Fox News isn’t what’s tearing families apart, but it’s profiting from the fact that they’re already being torn apart by the geographic concentration of wealth and opportunity.
I have taken particular joy in the jokes surrounding Mike Pence’s refusal to eat dinner with a woman other than his wife. This is because I grew up in an evangelical Christian culture where such rules were very much in force — to the extent that they didn’t even need to be talked about. In fact, it is only the Pence controversy that made me consciously aware of how pervasive they were, and the experience has been like recognizing a pun for the first time in a phrase you’ve been repeating for decades.
The rule is that every male-female relationship tends toward possession — marriage being the logical endpoint, though dating is supposed to operate by the same logic. (By the way, to the women I dated while I was still processing all this: apologies for the weird possessiveness.) There is a felt pressure to stake a claim (one must “officially” be on record as being attracted to some member of the opposite sex at all times) and any interaction between your possession and another potential rival is a challenge. There is a certain egalitarianism in this, insofar as women are supposed to be just as possessive and suspicious. The ideal order of operations is to get married and then express the ultimate possession through having sex, but if the latter occurs first in an irreversible way (i.e., pregnancy), the order can and must be reversed.
My dad shared with me a tendency to prefer the company of women, and in retrospect I realize that this caused a degree of uncomfortable joking. Everyone realized that he wasn’t a threat, hence joking rather than hostility — but potential friendships were definitely thwarted. People, including family members, even joked around about his relationship with my aunt, i.e., his own wife’s younger sister whom he had known since she was a very young high schooler.
What is the purpose behind such norms and prohibitions? In retrospect, I believe it was actually to incite heterosexual desire. By making hetero-eroticism omnipresent, dangerous, and perpetually endangered, it aimed to introduce a certain drama and intensity to the ostensibly “natural” course of things. The difficulty, of course, is that a form of desire sustained by the danger of transgression is not going to be very functional once the prohibition is lifted — hence the proverbial decline in sex drive among married couples. The network of prohibitions remind you that your possession is never fully secure and hence that your claim must be perpetually renewed, but more importantly, the implication that you will attempt to have sex with everyone you take to Panera Bread after work reminds you that you are supposed to have these dangerous desires and must channel them in the appropriate directions. Without the prohibition to lust after another man’s wife, they would forget to lust after their own.