Hello and Happy New Year!
Of course, it is not really happy, nor does it feel meaningfully new. There is still a global pandemic; it still feels dangerous, to say nothing of unethical (ahem, ahem, party-goers), to meet other people indoors; the days are still short and sunless; the Trump loyalists are still crazy; in short, the world is still bad, and badness is still unrelenting.
The fiction that a new year inaugurates a radical break with its predecessor is always difficult to credit—but nonetheless, I’m surprised to find myself irrationally disappointed by the dullness of everything remaining not just terrible but also largely unaltered in 2021. Despite the high volume of “unprecedented” news, every day in quarantine is a virtual replica of all the former days. I think over and over—I do everything so much over and over that I hardly seem to be doing discrete things at all—of Emily Dickinson’s refrain: A Day! Help! Help! Another day!
All of which is to say: I hope your new year feels newer than mine does. And now that I’ve dispensed with the obligatory and despondent preamble, here’s the stuff you subscribed for. Big believer in institutional support for writing (editing, fact-checking, etc) that I am, I envision this less as a forum for the publication of writing that rises to the level of my magazine pieces than as a journal-cum-newsletter-cum-venue-for-unhinged-ranting. Before the unhinged ranting portion, here’s the newsletter bit:
Things I wrote recently that I hope you read
The first, which appeared in the TLS, is about a new (and pretty good) novel by the Croation writer Robert Perisic: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/no-signal-area-robert-perisic-book-review/
The second, which went up on the Poetry Foundation website today, is about the poet Paul Celan. Perhaps sacrilegiously, I am fairly ambivalent about Celan. Like everyone else in the world, I love and admire “Todesfuge.” But a lot of the rest of Celan’s poetry—and I read all of it, as well as hundreds of pages of commentary about it, for this essay—leaves me…baffled. Many of the critics who unreservedly love Celan report that they’ve had mystical experiences while reading him. The implication is that we cannot come to understand him (or perhaps more aptly, cannot come into non-cognitive or pre-theoretic contact with him) by means of intellectual exertion; instead, we must access him by means of revelation. Celan himself encouraged this approach to his poetry, insisting that every poem functioned as a communicative gesture. (I hate to say it, but in this respect Celan resembles Heidegger: for Heidegger, knowledge is not a question of identifying correspondences between propositions and the world, but rather a question rendering oneself susceptible to flashes of “unconcealment.” It is in part for this reason that Heidegger understands poetry to stand in such an intimate relation to what he calls “thinking,” which he understands to be worshipful. There is a lot to say about Celan, a Holocaust survivor, and Heidegger, a stubbornly unrepentant Nazi. Celan read Heidegger carefully, and the two had a fraught meeting that inspired an inscrutable poem. I’m sorry to say that, in the end, there is no denying that the poet and the philosopher are theoretical and aesthetic allies to at least some extent. But I digress.) The fact is, I did my best to cultivate a mystical susceptibility to Celan, but to no avail. In the piece, I try to answer the question of what, if anything, Celan offers those of us who are not graced with immediate comprehension when they read him: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/155169/the-thousand-darknesses-of-murderous-speech
Things I read/heard that I hope you read/hear
I should have said in my last newsletter—the reason that so few of the books on my ‘best of 2020 reads and re-reads’ list were published in 2020 is not because I read a lot of new books and made a considered judgment that the ones published in 2020 were worse, but because I didn’t really have time to read even the handful of new books I was excited about (and the new books I did read, with the exception of the three I reviewed in the NYT, underwhelmed me). Believe me, I have self-flagellated about this a lot. But I am doing my best to keep up with all the reading I’m supposed to be doing for graduate school, as well as all the background reading I need to do for pieces. (I read many, many books about Celan alone!) It is just not possible for me to read as many new books as immediately as I would like. I’m looking forward to reading 2020 titles by Phil Klay, Chris Beha, Zena Hitz, Marilynne Robinson, Rita Fleski, and Elisa Gabbert. I would be surprised if books by any of them were not excellent.
The first book I finished this year was Blindness by Saramago. I enjoyed the spate of Camus pieces that came out at the beginning of the pandemic, but I feel that that some Blindness pieces may be in order at this stage. (Blindness is about a sudden, inexplicable epidemic, and it is very good good!)
I loved this strange, beautiful, surprising essay by Ann Patchett in Harper’s: https://harpers.org/archive/2021/01/these-precious-days-ann-patchett-psilocybin-tom-hanks-sooki-raphael/
Despite my total insensitivity to/ignorance of music, I will read James Wood on any topic, and I liked this essay on Beethoven a lot: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n01/james-wood/a-great-deaf-bear
Agnes Callard is a delight to read because she does not toe any predictable party lines, and as a result, she comes to very unexpected conclusions. This piece was very interesting and original: http://bostonreview.net/class-inequality-philosophy-religion/agnes-callard-more-perfect-meritocracy
Historically, I have not been much of a podcast-listener. I have nothing against podcasts (okay, I have something against dirtbag leftist podcasts, but that’s because they’re dumb and immoral, not because they’re podcasts; don’t “@” me), but I am much better at processing what I read than what I hear. Before the pandemic, the only podcast I had ever seriously listened to was S-Town (which is beautiful and brilliant!). Now that I spend an hour a day walking around aimlessly, I’ve started listening to more podcasts, and I have fallen completely and totally in love with “Manifesto! A Podcast.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that it has basically restored my faith in contemporary intellectual life. I would die for Phil Klay or Jacob Siegel. Die.
And finally, I was so refreshed by the manifest sanity of this piece about Trump by Richard Seymour: https://newpol.org/is-it-still-fascism-if-its-incompetent/.
This brings us to the unhinged rant portion of today’s missive. Who could write an entire newsletter on January 11, 2021, without succumbing to the temptation to pontificate about the state of the union? Not I. I recognize that you probably subscribed to this to read about literature and the arts, which was wise of you, because there is pretty much nothing else that I’m remotely qualified to write about. But the whole point of Substack (and maybe of the internet writ large?) is to enable amateurs to go on tirades about topics about which they know very little, right? So here I am, doing exactly that. If you’re just here for the books, feel free to skip this bit, not that I could’ve prevented you from skipping this bit (or indeed, the Celan-ambivalence bit) anyway. Do what you want! Be free!
With that said: I like the Seymour article not because it takes what I deem to be “the right” stance on the tired, boring, aggravating, is-Trump-a-fascist-what-is-a-fascist-anyway question, but rather because it takes a serious issue seriously. My controversial position is that it is good to take serious issues seriously. Bring back seriousness in 2021!!!!!!
Whether Trump meets the necessary and sufficient conditions for “fascist,” or whether his acolytes’ little charade meets the necessary and sufficient conditions for “coup,” is just about the least interesting question in the world. People ask it with such tireless vehemence not because they have managed to explain why it matters—in four years, they have not—but rather because they are desperately invested in proving themselves infallible on Twitter. What follows if Trump is a fascist, as opposed to just a democracy-undermining piece of shit? Does he have to be a fascist to be bad?
In any case, the answer to the question that will not die is obvious: it is yes and no, or as Germans say, “jein.”* Trump is like Hitler in some ways and unlike Hitler in other ways. (This is not surprising: most things are like some things in some ways and unlike most some things in other ways.) It is important that Trump has attempted to undermine democratic norms and that he has a blindly loyal, bigoted base, comprised in part of literal neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It’s also important that he lacks many of the institutional controls Hitler did, that he lost the election, and that he wasn’t good enough at undermining democracy to fix the outcome of the election in the first place. Whether you think we should consider him a fascist or not depends on which parts of fascism you emphasize and which parts of Trumpism you emphasize. That’s fine; I don’t think there is some Platonic ideal floating out there in the ether with the word “coup” or “fascism” pinned onto it. You are allowed to define “fascism” however you want, given the aims of your discussion.
What you shouldn’t do, on pain of being a big idiot, is minimize the severity of Trumpism, or take it solely as some sort of ludicrous joke. This may come as a shock, so make sure you’re sitting down: something doesn’t have to be fascist to be a cause for concern.
It remains a complete mystery to me why some members of the New York media feel such a pathological urge to trivialize everything of any importance (except, for some reason, universal healthcare, which is the one thing they love to be scolding about). Is it because their whole mythology is premised on their exaggerated insouciance (and if so, why not base their mythology around something better, like being passable at writing)? Is it because uncool, liberal pundits have exhausted the takes that actually make sense—takes like “it’s serious and bad when a mob storms the capital” and “actually, it’s unethical to throw a party during a pandemic”—so the New York media waifs are left to rebel against the establishment by becoming ever more inane? Is the pathological trivialization of Trumpism part and parcel of the broader urge to insist that what happens online is somehow sharply distinct from what happens in real life? Is the thought that, because the Trumpists bear such a close resemblance to trolls, they can’t have any real-world significance? Who am I to judge, some people might think, but I live to judge. And I am judging the people who think Trump is not a big problem. The internet is real life now. The Trumpists’ sense of grievance is real and concerning. What matters is not whether Trump Is a Fascist, Technically. Trumpism, fascist or just anti-democratic, coup-attempting or just mob-storming-Capitol-inspiring, is bad, and real, and it’s not over. Yes, he and his followers are also buffoons. But there is no inconsistency whatsoever in thinking that something is ridiculous and that it is menacing. It is psychotic to think that Trump is only a problem if he actually manages to install himself as a dictator. That he has catapulted half of America into an alternate reality—an alternate reality apt to give rise to racist, anti-Semitic violence—is bad enough, from where I’m standing.
So—what is to be done? I have no idea! I have a lot of questions! In part I’m allowing myself this rant in hopes that some of you all can recommend some books or articles to me. I would love to hear from you if you can recommend anything that would tie together any of the thoughts that are whirling around in my head. Some of the relevant considerations seem to me to be these.
First of all, is there some way to combat online radicalization without suppressing freedom of speech? Is radicalization a necessary consequence of communication on the internet, or a product of contingent social circumstance, or both? I don’t think we are well-served by the standard class-analysis-solves-everything-and-no-one-would-ever-be-radicalized-under-socialism line in this instance. Because…really? Is that really true? I’m sure that functional social welfare policies would sap some of Trump’s appeal, and I’m just as sure that they’re an independently good idea, but I’m highly skeptical that the whole of Trumpism can be explained with reference to economic alienation.
It seems that something has to be done to curb the spread of misinformation online, but what? I am not at all convinced that social media companies arbitrarily deciding to kick dissenters off their platforms is an acceptable solution. Twitter et al. do not seem to have anything approaching a consistent policy when it comes to which speech to restrict, and I’m not sure that I trust them to come up with a consistent policy, much less to enforce it. They aren’t moral philosophers, and they certainly aren’t elected officials. I suspect that Twitter et al. are part of the public sphere, and that we should regulate them accordingly, but I’m not sure about this.
In any case it does not follow from anything I’ve said that Twitter should not ban Trump. I think most defensible free speech policies would vindicate a Trump ban, at this point. So it might still be the case that someone, albeit someone responsible and accountable, should step in to police some online speech. Perhaps the only way to prevent people from becoming convinced that COVID is a hoax or they can sense celestial vibrations emanating from the earth’s core via their bare feet or whatever is just to keep conspiracy theories from circulating. If this is so, who should keep them from circulating? (Certainly not private companies subject to no real oversight.)
But of course, how we ought to stop people from believing falsehoods seems to hinge on why people do believe so many falsehoods. So a related question is--why are people like this? Why did so many people vote for Trump? I know that the popular position is that all Trump supporters are unusually irrational and evil. Anything else is supposed to be “whataboutism” or “bothsidesism” or some other “ism” that must be rooted out. I do not doubt that some Trump supporters are unusually evil people; he is beloved by white supremacists, chauvinists, and Nazis, after all. But are we really to believe that the millions of people who voted for Trump are all unusually evil and irrational? Don’t leftists seek, by and large, to explain mass behavior by appealing to structural factors, rather than individual psychological quirks? So what are the structural factors at play here? Could educational reform mitigate the problem? Is something dramatic, perhaps something akin to denazification, required? How would that work? Have any specialists in extremism/radicalization experts weighed in on this?
I hate to end up with a whimper, but unfortunately I have no bangs or answers to offer. I have a lot of questions, and I have not been sleeping a lot. Do you have answers? Let me know.
*I originally misspelled this “yein,” the result of dipping into german while thinking in English. Anyway, for non German speakers, “ja” (pronounced “ya”) means yes, and nein (pronounced “nine”) means no. So “jein” is yes/no. This is why you need copy-editors!
Re: the "Why did so may people vote for Trump?" paragraph. The questions there proliferate beyond the taming guidance of synopsis. So while I'm going to suggest a book, I'm not sure I can say with any crispness which itch it's intended to scratch.
I have in mind Overdoing Democracy by Robert Talisse, a philosopher at Vanderbilt. In particular, what he says about (what he calls) the political saturation of social space will, I'm guessing, play nicely off of the Robert Putnam book Tyson recommended (if the Putnam of that book is still anything like the Putnam of Bowling Alone.) The work is largely diagnostic, but it's an interesting diagnosis. Of what? Of the cold civil war that preceded Trump but has been aggravated by events during his tenure as president. At any rate, it tells a story that supplements the economic-alienation story whose exhaustiveness you rightly doubt.
Do note that the book is idea-delivery, businesslike. So the prose, while having a certain craftsmanship, isn't meant to be relished. But at least it's not too distracting. (Unlike the prose of many other academics who write public-facing work under the hideous assumption that doing so means adopting high TED-Talk-style.)
I feel like I'm going to have to go into the woods with Celan. Great piece!