JULY 1, 2019
MEGHAN DAUM IS the author of five books, including The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (2014), a collection of personal essays that she describes in her introduction as being about “life’s most burning issues”: “death, dogs, romance, children, lack of children, Joni Mitchell, [and] cream-of-mushroom-soup casserole.” It is also a book about the unspeakable — as in inexpressible — emotions and meanings that somehow derive from these small objects and, in their sum, make up the texture of our lives.
Her latest book, The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars (due out from Gallery Books in October), promises to be nearly as various in its themes, which include but are not limited to the #MeToo movement, the anti-Trump Resistance, identity and intersectional feminism, and what it’s like to view our current political moment from the knowingly ironic yet earnestly lonely remove of Generation X.
Meghan has previously been a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Book Review, and she now writes a biweekly column for Medium. She also teaches in the MFA division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She spoke with me by email about her forthcoming book.
OTIS HOUSTON: You’ve described your upcoming book, The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, as being about “the conflicted and tortured state of liberalism generally and feminism in particular.” Given the current visibility of the Trump “Resistance” and regular media coverage of the #MeToo movement, what can we expect to find in your book that hasn’t previously been addressed by writers and journalists who follow these topics?
MEGHAN DAUM: Given that, when it comes to this topic, there’s really nothing that hasn’t been addressed by writers and journalists and people on Twitter ad nauseam, I can’t say I’m going into uncharted territory. But what I hope to offer are some new angles and perspectives on many of these issues, especially when it comes to generational divides. I don’t know if this is a wise thing to say from a PR standpoint, but it’s a very Gen-X book. There haven’t been too many of those over the years. That’s partly because our cohort is much smaller than the ones we’re sandwiched between: the boomers and the millennials. But I think there’s something else in play, too. I think the sensibility of the moment, which is marked by an almost willful resistance to irony and nuance, runs counter to much of the Gen-X ethos.
I know it’s dangerous to make sweeping statements about the overall attitude or mood of an entire generational cohort (and I know I just did that very thing), but I think it’s fair to say that we approached the world with a certain wryness and appreciation of the absurd that perhaps allowed us to put things in a little better perspective than sometimes seems possible now. Coming of age before social media is a huge part of that, of course. We metabolized the events of the world and our own experiences through personal reflection and face-to-face interactions — which, frankly, made life a lot easier to take. So a lot of the book involves looking at the current conversation — political activism, memes, feminism and other social justice movements, to name a few — through the lens of a Gen Xer.
The thing is, we’re in sort of a weird spot. We were raised in the pre-digital era, and our values were very much shaped by the analog world. Now we’re having to contend with the post-digital era — not just contend with it but figure out how to sustain long lives and careers within it. Because we’re not that old yet! But we are the last cohort to have known the world in its pre-digital form as adults. I mean, I worked jobs, as an adult, where there was no email and we were still using Rolodexes and Selectric typewriters alongside our giant computers. This was in the early 1990s, which wasn’t that long ago. The pace at which things have changed is breathtaking, really. The result is that Gen Xers can sometimes sound like grouchy old people while we’re still in our 40s. As I write in the book, we’ve grown old before actually getting old. So the book is very much about the way the personal journey of aging is intensified by cultural shifts and, moreover, really monumental changes in the way we communicate with one another and process our thoughts in general. There are a lot of scenes in the book where I’m just staring at my computer screen and basically going, “Are they crazy? Am I crazy? Or am I just old?”
On a related note, given the continuous nature of the news cycle and the speed with which conversations about social justice spread and evolve across social media, isn’t writing a book a bit like trying to hit a moving target? Were you ever worried that the subjects you were exploring might be either settled or passé by the time your book arrived?
Writing the book was like one big game of whack-a-mole. I’d spend days or weeks working on a particular topic or set of ideas, only to have something happen in the news that made those ideas irrelevant or just past their expiration date. I probably wrote four times the material that actually appears in the book. It could have been 600 pages long, but it’s barely 200. Initially, it was going to be primarily about feminism and certain frustrations I had with fourth-wave, social-media-based women’s activism, which seemed to me heavy on hashtags and light on substance. But (and this will tell you how long this whole writing process has been) that was back when I and everyone else assumed Hillary Clinton would be the next president! At the time, it seemed like it might make sense to say, “Hey, maybe let’s scale back some of the more ham-fisted and reductive rhetoric around feminism, the obsession with the patriarchy and the ironic misandry in the form of #KillAllMen and that sort of thing.” Needless to say, that framing went out the window.
Over time, however, it became clear that the memification of feminism was just one aspect of a much larger problem: the deterioration of public thought. The trauma of the Trump election has basically caused much of the political left to declare a state of emergency in which any utterance that could possibly be interpreted as in any way, shape, or form supporting the administration was deemed off limits. If you had ideas about something like immigration or the gender wage gap or gun control that were in the slightest bit complicated or not seen as toeing the progressive line, you were deemed “problematic” if not downright harmful. The result was that the conversations started to get really binary and boring. You had people on the right saying the predictable thing, which I generally disagreed with. You had people on the left saying their own equally predictable things. Generally I agreed with the people on the left, but it was frustrating because my agreement often came with caveats and complicating questions that I felt were somehow not allowed to be asked. So over time, as a liberal and a feminist, which two things I have never stopped being and never will, I started to become mildly exasperated, to say the least. From there, the book became much bigger conceptually.
You wrote an essay for Medium titled “Nuance: A Love Story,” which explored many of your frustrations with the more doctrinaire corners of the political left. And the word “nuance” is clearly pulling a lot of weight in your current political writing, so I don’t want to risk wearing it out through overuse. In that spirit, it seems to me that the related but distinct concepts of ambivalence (in its original sense) and ambiguity are also running themes in your writing. Would you agree? And what questions do you feel most torn on? What are some political debates that seem to have no clear resolutions? Finally, is ambiguity a tough sell for readers right now?
Yes, I fear “nuance” is very close to being weaponized. I saw someone on Twitter refer snortlingly to something they didn’t agree with as “another ‘nuanced’ take,” as if the word is now a dog whistle for bigotry or whatever. (By the way, we should retire the term dog whistle in this context. With such overuse, how will our actual dogs hear us?) The questions I feel most torn on are really … most questions! I’m torn about the definition of sexual assault and notions of sexual consent. I’m conflicted about the layers of #MeToo. One thing I talk about in the book is the tension between what I call “Team Older Feminist” and younger generations of feminists, particularly as it’s evolved in the wake of #MeToo. Team Older Feminist has often taken this attitude of “toughen up! Bad sex is not assault,” whereas younger people seem to expect much more of their encounters.
I’m definitely on Team Older, but I honestly have to say that, after thinking about this for many years, I’ve come around to the idea that it’s really not up to my generation to set these definitions for younger ones. I’m not talking about due process, which I think needs to follow higher evidentiary standards than we’ve had at many places over the last several years. I’m talking about making assumptions or issuing directives about how young people should think about sex. Because the thing is, they’re dealing with a whole host of factors that we didn’t have to deal with. They’re dealing with the proliferation of online porn, of reduced in-person communication, of dating apps that, it seems to me, make it much more likely they’ll end up in sexual situations with complete strangers than it was for us when we were young. I think it’s too easy for older people, including older feminists, to dismiss those factors.
In a recent interview with the Write or Die Tribe blog, you said that, while much of your current writing is on the topic of identity politics, the term itself has become “overused and increasingly meaningless.” I think part of the reason this term has become politically loaded, and has ultimately lost meaning, is that it has come to describe an increasingly broad range of behaviors, and its meaning has become diffuse. Could you attempt to define “identity politics” in a way that makes it more specific and concrete?
Well, there’s good identity politics, which I guess I would define as a political culture that recognizes and endeavors to fight discrimination and oppression based on immutable characteristics like race, biological sex, disability, that sort of thing. And there’s bad identity politics, which Trump played masterfully in order to get elected and which we now see in the form of white nationalism and the “alt-right,” however we’re defining that these days.
Historically, the right wing dominated the field when it came to identity politics; it was what kept rights from African Americans and what encouraged fear of immigrants, among other appalling legacies. But the left has caught up in recent decades. The left was playing the game at a pretty high level well before Trump entered the picture. You saw it through things like the rise of critical studies in humanities departments and the mainstreaming (I’d call it the blunting) of the concept of intersectionality, which started out as a very specific and useful framework for thinking about workplace discrimination and has been diluted into a sort of catchall term for general wokeness. That might not be as immediately harmful as the identity politics of Trumpism, but there’s an insidiousness to it that I think will ultimately make it harder for the left to fight Trumpism.
As with the above, it seems that many of the terms we use to describe contemporary political discourse end up falling out of fashion. You’ve noted that the phrase “speech rights” now has “a tripwire effect for many liberals.” Is this term just suffering a kind of crisis of branding, becoming superficially associated, like cargo shorts and Odin worship, with the alt-right? Or are liberals losing patience with the concept itself?
I think liberals are losing patience with a lot of things, not least of all having their words — and seeing other people’s words — willfully misconstrued by people ostensibly on their own side in the name of some larger social good. Frankly, the only way a term like “speech rights” is going to be considered right wing is if people on the left become too fearful to use it. So I’m going to keep saying it. It’s kind of like back in the aughts when young liberal women wouldn’t use the word “feminist” even though they fully believed in equal rights for women. They’d say “I’m not a feminist, but…” Well, then Sarah Palin came along and called herself a feminist and everyone freaked out. I wrote an L.A. Times column basically saying that, “If the real feminists won’t use the word, a fake one will come along and take it for herself.” I fear that’s what’s happening with some of these free speech issues. Smart people won’t speak out on them, often because they have too much to lose, like university positions and their standing within elite media. So, in their absence, dumb provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and people on YouTube do it for them.
You’ve described Joan Didion as one of your major influences as an essayist and nonfiction writer. In addition to her iconoclastic writing style, Didion has also proven famously difficult to pin down politically. Has she been an influence on your political thinking as well?
Well, she wrote for National Review and voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life. She had some pretty choice things to say about certain prominent second-wave feminists in the early 1970s, which I do get into in some detail in the book, and which might surprise some of the younger folks who revere her today. But, no, I’d say her primary influence on me has far more to do with prose style than politics.
In her recent book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (2018), Rebecca Traister addresses many of the same feminist issues as you do. Her prescription for achieving greater social justice is anger — rage, more specifically. Putting aside the question of whose approach is more viable, is rage incompatible with the kind of moral complexity you seem to be advocating?
It’s not that rage is incompatible with moral complexity, it’s that it has to be the first step and not the finish line. Rage — and its internet component, outrage — is very media-friendly. It works well on Twitter and cable news and on signs at the Women’s March. There’s a place for it, for sure. But it’s inherently limited. It doesn’t work as a strategy. And one thing the left needs to get better at is strategy. We need to come together against a common enemy rather than looking for little mini-enemies within our own ranks.
And, look, I don’t want to simplify Rebecca’s point. She wrote a whole book about female anger, yes, but I don’t think she or any serious person would argue that rage is all we need. Rage is a good start, but I’d like to see us get past it and have some substantive and sophisticated conversations that are less hampered by emotion and visceral reaction to Trumpism. Now, the expected sort of woke Twitter response to that is that this is easy for me to say because I’m a white, privileged woman and I’m not being directly harmed by Trump’s policies on any kind of regular or measurable basis. Fair enough, but I don’t think you have to check the privilege boxes in order to look at empirical data and have rational, fact-based conversations about how we can really solve some of these problems. Assumptions like that are actually disempowering to those people who’ve been harmed and marginalized.
It also seems to me that the rage factor can blunt any sense of perspective. Yes, white men have always been in charge in the big ways. They’re still most of the politicians and CEOs, and that needs to change. But politicians and CEOs are a tiny, tiny slice of the population. Across the wide swath of the population, in all kinds of ways, men are doing worse and women are doing better. So, we’re making progress in fits and starts. People tend to forget that the birth control pill has barely been around for 60 years. It’s been barely half a century that women have had any control over their bodies, their futures, their professional lives, anything. In the scheme of things, that’s a nanosecond of time. We have a lot to figure out about this stuff, a lot of work to do. We can’t expect to solve everything in 60 years.
In another Medium essay, titled “Hooked on Feeling,” you examine, in part, the public responses to initial reports that Jussie Smollett had been the victim of an alleged hate crime. Much of our public discourse, you write, favors “a sort of culturally agreed upon standard of emotional logic” over more objective logical standards. What are some other examples of contentious events in which emotional logic (by either the right or the left) tends to exceed objective thinking? And how would you go about countering the emotional logic of someone you wish to persuade? Is persuading such a person even possible?
The idea that one in five women is raped in college. The idea that women make 77 cents on the male dollar. These are statistical platitudes that do little to advance any conversation that could lead to meaningful change. There’s no question that women are at risk of sexual assault in college. There’s also no question that women, on average, earn much less over the span of their careers than men. But to just bandy these sorts of tropes about is to ignore both the big picture and the smaller, essential details. In other words, it’s pointless, a fail on both counts.
There is a long and complicated story behind the wage gap, a small piece of which can be explained by outright discrimination but most of which has to do with the fact that our corporate and economic systems are not set up to support working mothers. The question we need to be asking is: What, if anything (and surely there are some things), can be done to mitigate this? I recently wrote a Medium column in support of universal daycare that addresses many of these points. As for the sexual assault statistics, like I said, women do get assaulted in college and there is much work to be done. But if anyone really believed the one-in-five statistic, I suspect there would be a lot fewer people applying to college. And God knows that’s not happening.
It can be difficult to talk to people about these things because they’ll come back with responses like, “Well, one rape is too many,” or, “Any wage disparity is unfair.” Well, yes, those things are both unequivocally true. But repeating them and hashtagging them without actually digging into the details won’t lead to the kind of change we need. All that does is give our ideological opponents even more ammunition. We need to be much more disciplined than that.
You’ve written that much of the political writing you currently see is “tribalistic click-bait.” What are the defining features of such writing, and why has it become so common? Is there a lack of critical thinking among journalists today, or are writers just trying to give readers what they want?
It’s cheaper than paying people to actually go out and report. Even sitting down and thinking hard about what you want to say takes time and effort and self-scrutiny. It requires casting doubt on your own assumptions and being tough on your own brain. I don’t know about you, but that’s probably not something I’d want to do for $300, which is the going rate for a hot take these days (and that might be on the high end).
Moreover, the reward system for saying the obvious and predictable, be it on Twitter or in a full-fledged article, is such that there’s really no incentive for saying something surprising or counterintuitive. You get clicks and followers by expressing super-indignant versions of the indignant opinions people already have. If you can do so under the aegis of Trump Resistance or #MeToo or some other form of social justice, all the better. You’re “being political!” You’re “doing social justice.” This seems to me an insult to real social justice, but I’m afraid I may be outnumbered here, at least on Twitter.
Your previous book, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, was a collection of personal essays. In the introduction, you describe it as a book “about the ways that some of life’s most burning issues are considered inappropriate for public or even private discussion.” These issues include such deeply personal topics as your mother’s illness and death, dating and marriage, and your decision not to have children. By contrast, your upcoming book takes politics and public discourse as its focus. But can we also expect your more personal, subjective self to make an appearance?
The book is extremely personal! It has to do with navigating the current political moment and this latest iteration of the culture wars, but the voice is very similar to the voice in my other books, including The Unspeakable. That is to say, it’s my voice. It’s me talking. I know we’ve been having this conversation about fairly abstract topics, but believe me, the book is personal and specific. It’s about growing up in the 1970s and 1980s and being in my 20s in New York City in the 1990s. It’s about the ways Gen Xers fetishized toughness and resilience whereas millennials perhaps fetishize fairness. It’s about how neither of these approaches may be the completely right one. It’s also about aging as a woman while always feeling in many ways like that kid from back in the 1970s. There’s a long section about the PBS kids show Zoom and the changing styles of the cast’s rugby shirts. Alanis Morissette is invoked. So is the girl power of Kristy McNichol and Jodie Foster as young actresses. The Bad News Bears is name-checked. So please understand it’s not just a political book.