10. The opera teacher Salvatore Fisichella’s master class with tenor Andrew Owens: when Cait showed this to me, she said, “This is why I hope humans don’t go extinct.” I don’t understand more than few phrases of what he’s saying but when his (very famous!) student gets it right, I feel it too.
9. Moira Donegan, “Sex During Wartime: the return of Andrea Dworkin’s radical vision.” In college, I knew from my radical friends to dislike and disparage Andrea Dworkin, the unfun dogmatic anti-porn scold, without having read more than a few pages. But ideas central to her work are now being shone back to our larger culture, and I was very grateful for Moira Donegan’s reflection on Last Days at Hot Slit, a new selection of her work. Donegan, summarizing Dworkin’s thinking, writes that “[rape is] not an anomaly, but the fulﬁllment of a foundational cultural narrative. Rape is not exceptional but common, committed by common men acting on common assumptions about who men are and what women are.” Male power-over, our reduction of women to compliant or brutalized objects, for Dworkin prefigured all other forms of oppression and societal violence; but Dworkin also remained intersectional in her thinking, advocating for accessible trans healthcare and charging middle-class white women to reject the false comforts of their relative privilege to stand alongside, and support, women of color and poor women. And what is the spiritual work of men in undoing the antagonism, humiliation, and violence we’re taught to apply to women? In 1983, she addressed a male audience: “Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.” Can we men imagine and work for a world where non-men are equal historical selves? Our humanity depends on it.
8. A cheat/double: a special shoutout to bad reviews. Most big juicy bad reviews are fun but pointless— critics implicitly flattering their own taste, giving themselves over to purple writing whose insults aren’t as evocative as they think they are. Youngish critics, in their bad reviews, tend toward an overstated outrage at the violation of their precious sensibility; oldish critics in their bad reviews turn “shrill and stale at once” (James Wood on Harold Bloom), pounding at the same advancing targets long past anyone caring. Both types of reviews are fun are fun to nibble on and have next to zero shelf life.
But there are exceptions. Literary critic Andrea Long Chu reviews Jill Soloway’s way-acclaimed memoir She Wants It, on Soloway’s self-discovery as a director and her work creating the TV show Transparent. Chu’s tone is a measured disbelief at the narcissism, sloppiness, and vacuity she finds in Soloway’s book. In Soloway, Long Chu writes, “one finds the worst of grandiose Seventies-era conceits about the transformative power of the avant-garde guiltlessly hitched to a yogic West Coast startup mindset”; on Soloway’s own performance of identity, Chu writes that “all we need remember is that being trans because you want the attention doesn’t make you ‘not really’ trans; it just makes you annoying”; as to the book’s damage-control subtext, Chu decides that “Jill Soloway has an unstoppable, pathological urge to tell on herself.”
And an ever-relevant good oldie: Eugene McCarraher, a history professor at Villanova, produced what’s still my favorite critical response to the New Atheism, a scrupulous dismantling of Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great called “This Book Is Not Good.” I went back to McCarraher’s essay after reading John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, curious to see if I still loved it, and boy I do. Hitchens’ book, McCarraher says, is a “haute middlebrow tirade” that has nothing insightful or honest to say about theology, philosophy, or history and is fed by “a gooey compound of boosterish bromides and liberal nationalism.” As to a dreamt-of world free of religion, Hitchens’ moral imagination sees only “in terms of professional and managerial expertise,” a world given over to technocratic bosses who are in reality every bit as capable of obfuscation, domination, violence, and backwardness as theocratic states. Our war in Iraq, McCarraher says, should show us the brutality and ideological folly our secular, capitalist state is capable of; Hitchens’ delighted assurance in the virtue of that very war sickens him.
7. Our president, wayward and flatterable, has wandered off from his own stated intent to withdraw troops from Syria. Too bad. But Matt Taibbi’s piece in Rolling Stone on the planned withdrawal is still outstanding. Taibbi describes the outrage Trump’s decision drew from our two war parties, and he captures the absolute mind-boggling scope of our venality, violence, and never-ending military mission drift in the Middle East. It can be easy for those of us resisting imperialism to assume our enemies are cunning and all-powerful. It’s not true. Read Taibbi to be reminded just how dumb empire can be. (See also this essay from a genuine conservative on the credulousness and bullying self-importance of two extremely famous pro-war #nevertrumpers.)
6. Obsessed— obsessed obsessed obsessed— with Tierra Whack’s 15-minute, 15-song music video.
5. Journalist Jesse Singal, with Freddie de Boer’s permission, returns to online availability three of de Boer’s bombthrowing essays on the state of Left cultural and academic discourse. I don’t agree with everything in these essays, but de Boer’s moral rage at the left’s internalization of cop culture– what Sarah Schulman would call the equating of conflict with an existential assault, complete with a pile-on on the offender led by a mob of virtuous citizens— is a tonic.
4. Just how much does it cost to call out love-and-light good-vibes spiritual thinkers for their ignorance of racism, persistent inequality, and state violence? Black Muslim feminist spiritual educator Layla F. Saad answers: “I Need to Talk to Spiritual White Women about White Supremacy” part 1 and part 2. The culture industry Saad identifies is associated with female entrepeneurs, but the apothecary-nice-guy subculture is just as guilty of checking out, repeating platitudes, and getting ugly when confronted. Dig the workbook on Saad’s main site too.
3. Lindsay Zoladz is one of my favorite music critics, a brainy and nimble writer who can set a scene in just a few sentences and who’s unafraid to fan out on her loves; her “December Boy: on Alex Chilton” taught me a lot about the lost years of this mercurial genius and reminded me of what I freaking love about Big Star. Growing up weird in a Navy town, my 12-year-old self found in indie music the immense relief of knowing my sensibility wasn’t alone. But most of what I found– John Fahey, Kate Bush, Aphex Twin, Husker Du, Sleater-Kinney, the Velvet Underground– wasn’t remotely utopian. These temperaments had survived, but they didn’t have an imagined better world out there to point me to. Big Star felt different: what was so cool about Big Star’s first two records was how they posited a whole alternate adolescence. In their music I could hang out, fall into a crush, break up, get my ears blasted in the backseat, watch the sunrise.
2. Who was King writing to in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? Broderick Greer gives the answer, quoting from “A Call for Unity,” the 1963 letter from white Alabama clergymen who sympathize with civil rights protestors’ “natural impatience” but call their continued direct actions, demonstrations, and protests “unwise and untimely.” King’s letter, smuggled from his cell, is his reply. The voice of the sensible middle never, ever changes. More and more I think of social justice work in terms of strategic radicalism: not “how can we reach across the aisle to create a compromise that will satisfy everyone,” but “how can we tactically force our sorta-allies in the middle to join our moral stand against what we find intolerable”?
1. And: live your best 1:14 by watching this clip of King on the origins of entrenched racial inequality, and the sole demand that will undo it. I showed this one to Finn.