A few years back, I was walking past the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange downtown, a neo-classical building that had, by that time, become a luxury gym, and I noticed this large image hanging between columns:
I imagined what it would be like to be seen or ‘read’ by this ad, feeling like I had nothing to commit to other than $200 a month to have a body shaped aesthetically. Fuck off, Equinox I said to myself. I’ve committed to lots.
But had I?
I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot lately, likely prompted by a post by Zohar Atkins, a rabbi, theologist, and philosopher whose substack, What Is Called Thinking?, asks questions I often find myself surprised to care deeply about, and I appreciate his means of thinking through them. This post is about the difficulties of desire, knowing not only how to get what you want, but what, even, to want:
[M]odern liberty means we have choice but not all choices are equally good or good for us, so if we worship liberty alone, we’ll have nothing to help us know what to choose. We have more choice than ever yet the overwhelm from it can lead to fatigue or even despair, a life of constantly weighing options.
Leo Strauss might say that the ancients were aware of the modern tendency to excess and so curtailed our options intentionally. But the more interesting question to ask is whether we can celebrate choice itself without cheapening the importance of a counter-veiling weight in life, commitment.
Maybe there’s a thing called Compassionate Hedonism that continues to seek as its core ethos the increase of pleasure, but does so in a way that understands the sources of that pleasure and simultaneously minimizes any ancillary pain or harm.
A reckoning of accounts was the idea, every pleasure of the hedonist—whether it’s being fed grapes in your divan, spending all night at a sex club, or even reading for hours and hours—having a cost, and the hedonist being sure to ‘cover’ those costs in some way. Pay the people feeding you grapes a living wage. Vote for policies that value and protect the laborers in the vineyards. Etc.
Atkins’s notion of commitment gives me a more interesting idea for a kind of check on hedonism and gluttony and such: What are you remaining committed to other than yourself and your pleasure?
When I talked before about the hedonist being, traditionally, a gross figure in the stories in which they appear, I think that disgust comes from the image they cast: here’s a person who uses their unimaginable privilege only for their own benefit. The hedonist’s commitments turn always back to themselves.
This idea also helps me understand what bothered me and my friend about the sober conference-goer. To recap:
We ordered cocktails and talked of hedonism, my friend telling a story of someone at a writers conference who announced, amid a group discussion about bars and favorite drinks, that she felt ‘Othered’ as a person in sobriety. My friend wondered about the rise, lately, in sobriety / restraint / asceticism pleasures in the U.S.
Ascetic pleasures are the other side of the same coin as hedonistic pleasures—both commit the self to the self. When it comes to sobriety specifically, that commitment is to be honored, after a history of the sober person abandoning and betraying their selves and their bodies. Perhaps this is one of the allures of 12-step programs: your newfound commitment to yourself is always also a commitment to others, through sponsoring, through sharing at meetings, etc.
So: what am I committed to?
My partner, and the parts of my job that involve other people (students, colleagues). My newsletter, which while others have told me doesn’t need to come out every other week I’ve committed to writing and releasing it every other week. This is chiefly a commitment to myself, but people have told me they enjoy Shenny, so it’s also a (small) service.
But I’ll confess here to feeling very non-committal. I don’t volunteer. I don’t have a group or club I meet with regularly. I have 2 sets of friends with whom I still hangout on Zoom, every other week, like clockwork, all these many years after shelter-in-place orders. In wanting to catalogue my commitments, I’m returned to the question What for?
Why is commitment so important? Isn’t hedonism about achieving a freedom from commitments? Atkins sees in this approach a deadening of the mind, not by being spoilt through excess, but by being dried up inside the self, atrophied in the absence of external motivators.
This I agree with, particularly as a teacher. Commitment to others or something outside the self is a virtue because, in opening ourselves up to others, we learn more about them. This world can’t move forward with all of us living with, acting for, or believing solely in ourselves.
Hedonism teaches us to value pleasure as a moral good. Its check need not be a balance of pain or drudgery. Commitment—of course its the ending I’ve been aiming for—can in this regard become a pleasure in itself.
In sixth grade, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, which is about a young boy in the Ozarks with two dogs. In the story, he gets in a fight with a neighbor, who falls on an axe and is killed on the spot. Later he watches a mountain lion kill one of his dogs. The other dog dies of grief. I remember WTRFG as being a Good and Important book, and I think I felt this because it was one of the first books that led me through grim deaths and how it felt to grieve somebody.
It was also the first violent book I remember reading. I was 11 years old, the sort of kid who avoided any fight I saw coming on the horizon. You could say, then, that WTRFG violentized me—if, that is, we had a word for such a process. But we don’t, because we don’t believe such a process exists, because we understand that since Cain slew Abel, the capacity for violence lives in every human body.
We don’t believe the same about sex, and children are worse off for it.
As you may know, I’m on Substack now. The platform has an app for reading-on-the-go-toilet, and in looking for good Substackers I browsed last night around the Faith & Spirituality category, because I wanted some new ideas and there’s only so much I can read about books and literature. There, I found ‘Unashamed with Phil Robertson’, with a pic of one of the guys very carefully groomed a decade ago to make a lot of money on TV as part of the ‘Duck Dynasty’ franchise.
The post I tapped on had an irresistible title: ‘There’s Nothing Progressive About Sexualizing Children’. Phil talks about a public school teacher fired for showing her students ways to access books online which had been banned by their school district:
[F]rom what I’ve been able to determine, some of the e-books she made available for her high school kids to read were far from harmless. For example, a book entitled “Gender Queer” graphically depicts a character performing oral sex on what I will politely call a prosthetic male sex organ. […] Truthfully, I’m not shocked that we’re talking about some public-school teachers encouraging our kids to fill their pliable minds with moral filth. But I am saddened by it. I can’t think of a single good thing that could come out of hypersexualizing people who are only just beginning to blindly navigate their own sexuality.
My emphasis there. Gender Queer is a memoir-in-comics about a nonbinary adolescent. Phil is correct about there being a scene of a teenager going down on another’s strap-on dildo. What’s fun about the Gender Queer controversy is that it began in my home county of Fairfax County Public Schools, which initially banned the book after one mother got enraged in a meeting, but then reinstated it after reviewing the book’s contents.
To break down Phil’s argument, children are born asexual, and then in adolescence they begin—blindly, note—to become sexual (like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis I guess is the metaphor). This is a ‘natural’ process that happens booklessly, on their own. If a child reads a book that depicts other children ‘navigating their own sexuality’, that book has somehow adulterated this natural process of a child finding their own sexuality. The book has, thus, ‘sexualized’ what was not yet (ready to be) sexual.
Of course the argument can’t stand on its own, specious at every point. But the counterargument I need to stress here is that when Phil imagines children blindly navigating their own sexuality, he’s only imagining cis-hetero kids. Those kids are never blind to what has surrounded them: a culture of stories that repeat and affirm cis-hetero sexuality.
When Cinderella or Star Wars or Genesis fail to tell you stories about who you are, when even the story of your family is false to your lived experience, you grow up feeling shitty, wrong, and suicidal. Phil and the millions of parents caught in these false moral crusades have no fucking clue what this kind of adolescence feels like. If you can survive that adolescence, and if you’re a creative person, you feel impelled to make art that might fill the void you grew up in and help others feel less shitty, wrong, and suicidal.
That’s the progressive identitarian argument for queer books in schools. But I’m here to write about ‘hypersexualization’. You can’t sexualize a child anymore than you can sterilize rubbing alcohol. It’s already done.
Not by porn, that is. A counterargument you hear often is that porn / the internet are sexualizing children far earlier than library books can. It’s (a) not necessarily the case with all kids and (b) just providing additional fodder for Puritans on censorship crusades. And it leads me to want to make a distinction between two notions of ‘sexualization’:
Sexualizing1 = turning a child into a sexual object legible as such by an adult Sexualizing2 = initiating in a child a desire for sexual activity (i.e., ‘turning them into’ a sexual subject)
S1 is what right-wing folks are talking about when they use the word ‘grooming’—though as manyhavepointedout, what is posing as a warning about pedophilia and child trafficking is actually just old-fashioned anti-queer hate. I’d argue that more grooming goes on in the apparel industry with the advent of the child-size bikini, or in the fashion photography industry. Shutterstock.com has 14,917 photos of ‘young child bikini royalty free images’ you would not want to be caught scrolling through at work.
S2 is what, I imagine, Phil et al. believe happens ‘naturally’ around the time that children start to discover masturbating to orgasm. Or maybe it’s even as specific as when cis-male children start to want to put their penises inside vaginas. Or likely it’s more innocent, as when cis-children want to hold hands and go on a date and maybe kiss a child of the ‘opposite’ sex.
S2 is hormonal and biological, goes I think the argument and the fact. But two things happen when we take a narrow view of what constitutes ‘sexual activity’:
We fuck up the health and well-being of queer and trans kids.
We blind ourselves to sex enough to create the ‘blind navigation’ Phil et al. understand.
If that’s what ‘sexualizing’ means, then what does ‘hypersexualizing’ mean? It means queer sex practices. That’s all. Queer sex in the duck-dynastic imagination is not another form of sex—with its own values, shapes, procedures, and paraphernalia—but something beyond sex, something outside it. A perversion. ‘Hypersexualizing’ is anti-gay bigotry as old as the fucking hills.
Which brings me back to violentizing kids. It becomes a foolish concept the moment you see a 2-year-old push another kid out of the way to get what they want. We can see that violence as being not just different in degree from shooting an AR-15 into a crowd, but different in kind and still categorize it as violence. Violence inheres in us, and we do our best to teach its proper place and time.
Sex inheres in us exactly the same way. When I played doctor with little girls, or dared boys to show their wieners, or rubbed the cup of my athletic supporter for a while before pulling up my baseball pants, or humped my dick on the mattress, or put little objects up my butthole and pulled them back out again—all before the age of 13—I was doing things with my body solely to make my body feel good, while also making my heart feel good about how my body felt good.
That’s being sexual. Your kids are doing it the way you did it. The fear of sexualizing kids is a Puritan ignorance of what sex is. If we don’t want our kids to enter adulthood blindly, learning what sex is from porn, let them have the tools they need to see.
It’s important to say that these novels [Anderson covers] do not just depict a character dealing with failure, as if providing examples of how others navigate the disappointments of life. For that, we wouldn’t need literature; journalism would suffice. Anderson is after the essence, the form of the literary imagination, and she pursues it by asking how characters’ own limited desires and beliefs link up with the novel’s omniscient perspective—the godlike capacity to see and know everything in its world, by virtue of having imagined it. Think of how the narrator in Eliot or Dickens will generate sympathy and identification with a character by depicting their moral challenges and their always-partial ability to meet them. For Anderson, the text and its characters are engaged in a complex reciprocity. The characters are trying “to meet the exacting demands of the novel’s informing moral doctrines,” and yet these ideals themselves only acquire moral weight—only come alive—through the characters’ failure to live up to them. The novel succeeds because its characters fail.
I’ve got a PhD in the novel form and I’ve never seen it understood in this way.
Since I’ve lived here, my governor (who doesn’t in theory represent me, but as we’ll see has begun starting to) has been Gavin Newsom. [UPDATE: This is untrue; he’s only been governor for 4 of the 19 years I’ve lived here, and I’m struck by what it means that I so fully wiped Jerry Brown from my memory.] My U.S. representative is Nancy Pelosi. My senator, for a smidgen of years after Barbara Boxer (who once starred in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm) stepped out was Kamala Harris. Likely you’ve not only heard of these people, but you can pick their faces out of a lineup.
I don’t think I could pick out the faces of Florida’s or Texas’s governor if there was a prize involved.
Anyway? It blows.
I’ve been thinking about representative democracy a lot this weekend, after reading first this L.A. Times article on my governor going on Twitter to tell another governor his own fans that the two should debate. ‘[C]learly you’re struggling, distracted, and busy playing politics with people’s lives. Since you have only one overriding need — attention — let’s take this up & debate,’ Newsom wrote, a pot calling the kettle smutty (as Montaigne once put it).
People in different parts of the country tell me they like my governor. Why don’t I? And why I don’t I like my representative in Congress? When I try to think clearly about it, I run again into my lifelong contrarianism, my distrust of quickly beloved people and things. I spent ten years in Nebraska and Alabama feeling not once represented by the officials my fellow citizens elected. Why can’t I just let myself be happy now?
Let’s table those questions and look at the other thing I read: Adam Gopnik’s review of some recent books on democracy in the New Yorker—headline: ‘Can’t We Come Up With Something Better Than Liberal Democracy?’ (Short answer: not really.) Gopnik is unmoved by the belief these authors hold that we can have a better republic once we improve our democracy’s workings. Here, for me, was the operative ¶ (mind the wacky Oz analogy, which refers to points made earlier):
The perennial temptation of leftist politics is to suppose that opposition to its policies among the rank and file must be rooted in plutocratic manipulation, and therefore curable by the reassertion of the popular will. The evidence suggests, alas, that very often what looks like plutocratic manipulation really is the popular will. Many Munchkins like the witch, or at least work for the witch out of dislike for some other ascendant group of Munchkins…. The awkward truth is that Thatcher and Reagan were free to give the plutocrats what they wanted because they were giving the people what they wanted: in one case, release from what had come to seem a stifling, union-heavy statist system; in the other, a spirit of national, call it tribal, self-affirmation. One can deplore these positions, but to deny that they were popular is to pretend that a two-decade Tory reign, in many ways not yet completed, and a forty-nine-state sweep in 1984 were mass delusions. Although pro-witch Munchkins may be called collaborators after their liberation, they persist in their ways, and resent their liberators quite as much as they ever feared the witch. ‘Of course, I never liked all those scary messages she wrote in the sky with her broom,’ they whisper among themselves. ‘But at least she got things done. Look at this place now. The bricks are all turning yellow.’
I’m a leftist tempted perennially by this line of thinking. I Know In My Heart that we can have a better world if social media was outlawed and everyone in this country got a quality education in how to think critically. It took a while after November 2016 for me to accept that D. Trump had won the election fair and square (well, as fairly and squarely as anyone wins elections post–Citizens United). Even if the majority of voters didn’t vote for him, there were 62 million people who heard what he said and saw what he did and said, Yes. Please be our leader. And in 2020, there were 74 million people who wanted to keep going.
D. Trump is a fascist the way I’m a native Virginian. It’s in everything he says and does. I know this because I’ve read about fascism, and I also know that no fascist government has ever taken power by force. Fascists get voted in. They give people what they want. It boggles my mind how many people—and how many different kinds of people—deeply and passionately want authoritarian men to rule discompassionately.
But they’re my fellow Americans. Gopnik’s conclusion is that human variation will always make democracy a mess, and it’s the job of politicians (and all of us) to manage the stresses of living in a mess without the bridge between us crumbling to bits.
I like messes. I find myself most content when I accept and even enjoy that life is chaos, and as I’ve written about before, I distrust any thinker pundit who claims to ‘make order from the chaos’:
[I]f you can’t handle chaos you can’t handle the everyday mess of life on a globe of difference. And if you look for leaders, charismatic or otherwise, who promise to lead you away from this discomfort, they’re going to need to make that messy world smaller, and more sterile. They’re going to point you to a future where that seems possible. And the only way that’s truly possible is by controlling people until they make sense, or eradicating those who don’t from the face of the planet until the planet makes sense.
I’m far off my train of thought now, so let me steer us back. I’m talking about accepting two things: chaos and the (to me awful) desires of the right. I’m not talking about centrism, about ‘meeting those people halfway.’ I’m talking about recognizing sameness across differences while holding on to our differences.
Let’s go back to the Gopnik ¶. Typing it out, it hits me what a shame it is that these good ideas are so inaccessible to the people who may need them—i.e., who may not already agree with them. I’ve complained about activist language before, but I feel I’m in need of activist language that crisply and forcefully demands greater nuance in our thinking.
THINK FROM YOURSELF might be the sign I’d most like to hang in my street-facing window.
If I can be allowed to simplify Gopnik’s somewhat brainy language, I start to see something interesting come through his ideas. Something instructive:
Leftists believe time and again that the reason their ideas aren’t more widely popular is that rich people keep lying about them. The solution: remind the public that we outnumber the rich, and remove those liars from power. Except: history has shown, time and again, that the public often wants exactly what rich people want.
Okay, so I’ve removed some of the nuances to the ideas, but not to the main argument. What I like about looking at it this way is that when you swap ‘Trumpists’ for ‘leftists’ and ‘politicians’ for ‘rich people’ you get the ideology behind Drain the Swamp.
That Gopnik’s idea applies, through transformation, to a different voting bloc helps me see how much I have in common with them, and how my political imagination—though aimed at different ends—is made up of much similar stuff than I’d otherwise like to admit.
This sounds like Trumpist ‘both sides’ rhetoric, but it’s not. Both-sides centrism reduces or denies difference between groups—even when done in a positive light, as with the current president’s message of UNITY. UNITY is such a shitty message because it implies that one group ought to conform to another, or that we ‘need to set aside our differences’ to come together as one, an impossible proposition that’s never once occurred in the history of this country.
The better slogan, though it would look worse on a placard, is basically this post’s whole thesis: PLURALITY. Or the weird phrase on all our money: E pluribus unum. The ‘one’ that we are as a nation is ‘out of the many.’
I feel like a happier person, and a more contented U.S. citizen, whenever I try to fathom the manyness of that many.
When I tailgate somebody going 10 miles less than the speed limit (not everybody on the road can play defense), three things happen: they speed up, or they move out of my lane, or they do nothing. Maybe they don’t notice me, or maybe they don’t care to correct their behavior.
But sometimes a fourth thing happens: they slow down even more.
It’s a power move, wielded in a moment I imagine the person in the car in front of me feels that power has been taken away from them. It baffles me. I’m just trying to get off the road as quickly as possible. But it’s this drive, fully nonpartisan, that I’m getting at: I don’t like what that person is doing, I don’t share their values, so their values are wrong to me, and so I’ll either hurt them in this small way, or feel better when I see they’ve been hurt.
Why it blows to be represented by celebrities is that they too often play to this desire, having as they do more fans than constituents. What benefit is it to California for our governor to debate another one? And rather than tell me how she plans to serve the needs of San Franciscans in the next congress, what does it say that the Pelosi’s campaign website offers me this sticker to buy:
I’m likely in the minority by feeling ashamed or embarrassed when my representatives dunk on conservatives. I wish this wasn’t as much a drive on the left as it seems to be on the right. As I argued in my previous post, letting politicians go on TV to ‘debate’ each other benefits nobody except the people on TV, because they’ve been given more time to be, again, on TV. Nobody’s debating anything about policy. They can’t afford to take that much time away from their image.
Back in Pittsburgh, when I was young and online so much that I felt very connected to this 2-sides, dunk-on-the-GOP mentality, I remember loving Michael Moore—not so much for his films but for his position. They’ve got awful Rush Limbaugh, and he’s our version of that, I remember telling a friend.
‘But why do we want our version of awful?’ he asked.
I was liking Moore the way many people outside California like Newsom and Pelosi, the way many gays I imagine bought this terrible hat. I wanted a version of This Conservative Thing Getting Lots Of Attention which instead affirmed my values, forgetting, as Audre Lorde reminds us, that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
The high road, if it ever existed, was bulldozed decades ago. Another myth I’m tempted perennially to believe in.