Meghan Daum, in her latest book, The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, is fed up. She’s a nice old-school liberal who remembers that things weren’t quite the same back in her 1970s childhood or ’90s young adulthood, and she’s the owner of a well dialed-in bullshit detector. What is such an independent-minded person to do? Answer: Describe in personal, convincing, unflinching terms what makes the present so unbearable.
More specifically, Daum is “trying to pinpoint the moment when people became so much crueler than they used to be, and also so much more fragile.” As she describes the project of the book, it was originally intended to be a critique “about feminism and only feminism” provisionally titled You Are Not a Badass, but her eventual book expanded well beyond that boundary. But at the heart of it lies her criticism of much contemporary feminism as jargon-driven emptiness. Addressing alienated and angry younger women who grew up “with the idea that men would be repelled by me unless my entire body was as hairless as a mole rat (for much of the aughts, this was the standard for women),” she concedes that:
I might have wanted to #KillAllMen, too. So I get it that I don’t totally get it. But what I think I’m justified in not understanding is what women stand to gain by reinforcing a narrative that they are a persecuted group. Even more so, what possible use is there in furthering the notion that to be a hip and cool feminist today means you can reduce men to insulting stereotypes in order to, in some sense, beat them at their own assholic game?
Reactionary, radicalize thyself.
“Half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves,” she quotes Joan Didion, before reminding readers just how much “internalized misogyny” and “problematic privileged white feminism” Didion would be accused of today. But Daum argues Didion was a real feminist, while today’s feminists are only playing at the thing.
So what is the problem with everything? The underlying thesis of the book is something that is not formulated exactly, but it is hard to miss: The ideas touted on the speech-policing left these days simply cannot be believed by a thinking person. Everything is not “problematic”; the prevailing moral fashion fads are a load of contradictory and shallow—if putatively well-intentioned—bunk. As she characterizes the media atmosphere post 2014 or so, “just using certain buzzwords—patriarchy, white supremacy, gaslighting—would grant automatic entry into a group of ostensibly like-minded peers. Inside this group, the narrative was already established and solidarity was assumed.” Maybe this sounds like good political coalition-building to some, but to Daum it is inhuman and anti-intellectual.
Literary culture only matters, she shows, if it admits pluralism—and part of her book is an argument for the primacy of aesthetic virtues over political ones. “Virtue signaling” may be the kind of phrase now associated with nasty folk, but Daum defines it as “shorthand thinking”—and Daum the personal essayist has no time for shorthand thinking.
Calls for “nuance” may have become a platitude, but Daum is here to defend them. Why? Because they need to be defended. That much seems obvious.
The closest Daum comes to actual left-apostatizing is in her description of falling completely in and partly out of love with the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. Free Speech YouTube, as she prefers to term that online counterculture of freethinkers radicalized against orthodox liberalism, “wasted less time with ‘to be sure’ disclaimers that now clogged just about any expression of not-perfectly-woke opinion.”
“To be sure, sexual assault is a terrible crime …”; “Of course, as a white person I can’t understand the experience of any person of color …” Whereas newspaper op-eds and magazine think pieces seemed to devote three-quarters of their word counts to anticipatory self-inoculations from criticism, Free Speech YouTube generally dispensed with these catechisms. People just said what they had to say.
The credentializing move of “to be sure” is annoying both because it is tedious bad writing, but also because to be sure is to be closed. The best writing isn’t so sure at all, and Daum isn’t sure.
So has Daum switched sides, or teams? It’s not my view that she’s changed the basic approach from her early essays at places like The New Yorker and The Atlantic or her decade-plus at the LA Times, back in the days of the printing press. But to hear her put it, to whatever degree she’s abandoned old allegiances, she feels something akin to what Ronald Reagan famously said of the Democrats in ’62: “I didn’t leave the Party, the Party left me.” Writes Daum: “I actually think labels are part of what got us into this mess in the first place. Labels—be they badass or bigot, SJW or white supremacist—tamp down contradiction. They leave no room for cognitive dissonance. They deny us our basic human right to be conflicted.”
This has not stopped some of Daum’s fickle former fans from accusing her of heresy for sticking to her guns. In Buzzfeed, a contributor recalls that Daum was like a “big sister” to me, “warm and realistic and not afraid to seem like an asshole.” But, Daum hasn’t kept up reliably enough—and so her refusal to parrot expected moral stances is “befuddling, dissonant, and troubling.” The Buzzfeed review ends on a dully insulting “image of a working woman writer looking at something like her own impending obsolescence and lashing out at the present.” Apparently, it is a sin that Daum isn’t 25 anymore.
Buzzfeed’s reviewer insinuates that Daum’s age is disqualifying for moral thinking—a non sequitur at best, and backwards at worst. Nobody with a sense of wit could be either hurt or convinced by this common species of mean-girl dumb. But I am depressed by it, since it’s the sort of thing getting published these days in the venues that once published writing like Daum’s. Call it Gresham’s law, or the short bus of the blue checks (contra the Long March Through the Institutions heralded by leftist boomers), or the rule of the juice-box commissariat, or the mainstreaming of lunchroom politics in the places that once pretended to be—and often were—devoted to aesthetic and emotional complexity and questioning, in addition to being inherently repugnant hives of racism, sexism, transphobia, etc.. Whatever you call them, those castles are in ruins now. Which bodes ill for a future full of independent-minded, stylish, literary firebrands like Daum or Joan Didion—who was a good generation and a half older than the early-1970s feminists she criticized.
One of the things Daum laments, even as she makes an honest attempt to understand and connect with it, is the emotional and cultural breakdown going on within the lettered class of my generation. If we millennials are going to write in generalizations and speak for others’ identities—and how I wish we would not—we should not merely authenticate partial truths through repetition on social media. If we are going to understand other political tribes, demographic groups, genders, and generations—and even other individual people!—we will have to question our certainties as well as our prejudices. In The Problem With Everything, Daum does both.
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