The reaction to Meghan Daum’s new book The Problem With Everything has been entirely predictable. So predictable, in fact, that most of the takes seem to have required no human effort, and could just as easily have been written by a media ‘woke bot’. I’m not entirely sure that much of what passes for print journalism today isn’t written by some form of AI. Any one of Daum’s critics, exercising even the slightest bit of judgement or self-reflection, could have recognized that their reviews, far from dismissing Daum’s conclusions, actually come off in service of making her point.
The ‘snark bot’ take appears under the byline Scott Indrisek writing for The Observer. This guy has a serious obsession with Bret Easton Ellis and can’t string together a couple of sentences without bringing him into the conversation. Anyway, amidst Indrisek’s many criticisms of The Problem With Everything, he does concede, “There should be room for uncomfortable conversations about whether the #MeToo movement has overstepped itself, or whether we need to tap the brakes on certain aspects of woke culture.” This is not an uncommon sentiment among journalists and cultural critics. The problem arises when an individual or group decides to engage in these uncomfortable conversations in books, podcasts, or public discussions broadcast on YouTube. People like Indrisek attack these writers and thinkers with charges of being racists and phobes. The ‘woke bots’ always talk about the need for uncomfortable conversations, but rarely care to engage in or with them.
On the “personal is political” front, Indrisek reacts to Daum’s admission that, “there’s no one I’d rather blame for my misfortunes than myself,” by snarking down with an asshole comment that Daum is “stumping for a keynote gig with Turning Point USA.” How far out in the wilderness of leftist political ideology do you have to be to think that a concept like “personal responsibility” is the sole purview of right-wing political conventions? I hope the next time Scott Indrisek tries to hold anyone in his life personally accountable for anything, they tell him, “Get thee to a CPAC convention!”
Another gem comes from Elisabeth Donnelly writing for Buzzfeed. This writer is a long-time fan of Daum, but has found her recent flirtations with nuanced ideas and criticism of left-wing extremism troubling. Of the “Free Speech YouTube” crowd, Donnelly says their “values of ‘reason’ …can easily be interpreted as hate speech….” To view Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, or Sam Harris as promoters of hate speech requires a monumental act of willful self-delusion so great that one would have to sequester oneself in an impenetrable fortress of political correctness, effectively shutting out 90% of the country’s ideas and opinions. Of course, is there any doubt that the Buzzfeed newsroom leases space in such a fortress of wokeness?
Getting to the heart of her problem with The Problem With Everything, Donnelly writes, “instead of documenting her life experiences, something at which she excels, Daum spends far more time arguing over simplified conservative and liberal talking points.” But hold on a second, baby snark bot Scott Indrisek says, “The Problem With Everything is at its weakest when it gets personal….” Jesus, both Indrisek and Donnelly write so forcefully, with such conviction, and such an air of authority that I couldn’t help but think that they’re professional critics and probably know what they’re talking about. Could it be that one or both are wrong? Not being able to agree on the problem with The Problem With Everything reminds me of religious leaders who can’t agree on the most fundamental tenets of their faith, but nonetheless exhibit not a shred of doubt and are one hundred percent convinced they are correct.
The New Yorker’s Emily Witt weighs in to provide a confused and exasperating slice of context. Self-identifying as a Gen Xer because Witt’s only eleven years younger than Daum (okay?), Witt sets about writing a parallel take to The Problem With Everything where the nineties weren’t all that less politically correct than today, and the nihilism of the 2000’s necessitated the woke course correction we’re currently experiencing. “It was people unburdened by Daum’s ideas about “nuance” who took to the streets after police shootings, and named the men responsible for serial sexual assault and harrassment….It is telling that Daum ignores the positive benefits of these movements, or the real risks to safety and reputation taken by the people who initiated them….Didion and Daum may have preferred the status quo of their respective eras, but those who were inclined toward change were always going to be accused of overreach, of making a big deal out of nothing, of refusing to take responsibility for their own problems.” What is telling are statements like this that make you wonder if the reviewer even bothered to read the book. How could a writer for The New Yorker so completely fail to grasp the explicit message contained in the book she’s reviewing? Daum is fully supportive of outing the worst offenders of #MeToo and bringing them to justice. At no time does she ignore the positive benefits of the movement. To make this claim is to willfully mischaracterize Daum’s writing. And by the way, accusations of overreach are not just being leveled by a bunch of defenders of the status quo, they’re being leveled by female Harvard Law professors and increasing numbers of supporters of #MeToo.
The problem with asking complicated questions or presenting nuanced ideas or opinions is that they inevitably get smacked down with snark, willfully misinterpreted and misrepresented, and unfairly taken apart. The title of Emily Witt’s New Yorker piece is “Meghan Daum to Millennials: Get Off My Lawn.” Whether Witt came up with that title or not, it’s clearly how she and the rest of the wokescenti care to engage with Daum’s work. To them, Daum’s just an old, cranky, out of touch Gen Xer who doesn’t recognize the egalitarian utopian dream as it shapes itself right before her eyes.
Can you blame the media woke bots for missing the point? After all, what is an intelligence rooted in identity politics to think of this passage from Daum’s book. “Labels tamp down contradictions. They leave no room for cognitive dissonance. They deny us our basic human right to be conflicted …If you’re not conflicted, you’re either lying or not very smart.” No doubt, the previously mentioned, unconflicted authors view this statement as a personal attack on them. They are sooo not conflicted. In these times of moral certainty, they’ve never felt more sure about anything than their woke programming that allows them to group ideas and arguments into distinct binaries: those that reinforce their faith and those that fall outside its boundaries.
Nuance, doubt and uncertainty are qualities not easily attained by a media ‘woke bot.’ They are mostly incompatible with politically correct ideology. Scott Indrisek writes that in The Problem With Everything Meghan Daum is “exposing her blind spots to the current issues that color our experience: race, gender, capitalism, the internet, and power.” Because these are the issues that preoccupy most Americans, right? Perhaps these issues color the experience of media ‘woke bots’ and their devoted followers, but most Americans could give a shit about the left’s obsession with playing intersectional gymnastics. Polling shows that nearly 80% of Americans, regardless of age, sex, ethnicity or race, think that political correctness goes too far. Is it any wonder that public confidence in the media is waning, and woke media outlets are struggling?
Daum writes, “I’m convinced the culture is effectively being held hostage by its own hyperbole. So enthralled with our outrage at the extremes, we’ve forgotten that most of the world exists in the mostly unobjectionable middle. So seduced by the half-truths propagated by our own side, we have no interest in the half-truths roaming in distant pastures. So weary from trying to manage cognitive dissonance kicked up by our own gospel, we forgot to have empathy for the confusion of those grappling with their own doctrines. We forget that in the end to be human is to be confused.” A statement like this could potentially get Daum in trouble on Twitter – a place where no one at either extreme is ever wrong about anything, and in the rare instance someone is shown to be incorrect, the offender simply deletes their Tweet, thus maintaining a spotless record of habitual truthfulness.
“In the ensuing year, the feeling of irrelevance became a near constant companion. It clouded my vision like the membrane on the eye of a lizard, shielding me from what I couldn’t comprehend, sparing me the mortification of my own cluelessness. It had me both staring at myself in mirrors and avoiding mirrors. It had me lying awake at night contemplating the end of the world, or maybe just the end of my world.” Throughout the book, Daum is her own harshest critic. She anticipates the criticism each line, each thought could potentially receive, which is why nothing the previously mentioned critics have written comes off as at all original. The ‘woke bot’ algorithm is easily adopted by Daum, rendering their predictable responses a part of the larger point of The Problem With Everything.
Having put forth that nuanced thought is a debilitating burden that tethers one to the status quo, that reasoned argument is often just a euphemism for hate speech, and that personal responsibility is a value reserved for right-wingers, it isn’t hard to see why these critics completely miss the point of this work. Incapable of any sort of self-reflection, for them the problem with everything is entirely focused outward on the nonbelievers, the unwoke. How dare someone lay the problem with anything at their feet.
“Oh the irrelevance, the obsolescence, the creak of aging out before you even get old.” There is a lot of great writing in this book, and a lot of thoughtful and illuminating introspection that all of us who are a part of the problem with everything should take a moment to consider. Being a couple years older than Daum, I can appreciate the sentiment of aging out before you get old. However, I intend to fully embrace my obsolescence. I can think of nothing more liberating than being completely irrelevant, brimming with contradictions, conflicted and unsure. Gen X lived mostly in the shadow of the Baby Boomers, perhaps enjoying a brief bit of relevance in the nineties and 2000s. Now the Millenials, a generation as formidable and narcissistic as their Boomer parents, have taken the reigns with a clear plan for establishing peace and equality, prosperity and sustainability for all on earth. Not unlike the utopian dreams that drove their parent’s generation back to the earth and into communal living, this generation will probably save the world with political activism and tech. Maybe I’ll live long enough to enjoy it.