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Weekend reads: On the road
Lean Out heads to Louisiana
By the time you read this newsletter, I will have escaped the slushy streets of Toronto for warmer climes. I’m taking some time off for an American Thanksgiving trip to Louisiana, though you’ll still be getting a podcast, a transcript, and another Weekend Reads throughout the next week. In the meantime, I’ll be roaming the French Quarter, hitting a football game, eating too many beignets, and listening to lots of Lil Wayne.
But before I sign off, I wanted to leave you with some reading recommendations.
Many in the mainstream press took a different tack. The response to Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live monologue — which addressed the recent Kanye West controversy — is epitomized by this piece by Yair Rosenberg at The Atlantic, who argues that mocking anti-semitism is dangerous because, well, the public is not very bright:
The problem, I realized, is that as anti-Semitism and related conspiracy theories become more normalized in our discourse, laughing about them becomes harder, because you never know who might not get the joke.
I share Rosenberg’s concerns about rising anti-semitism, but I strenuously disagree that the solution is to make the topic off limits. (I also happen to have more faith in my fellow citizens.)
Jon Stewart had some thoughtful comments about all of this this week, defending Dave Chappelle, free expression, and comedy (on the humourless temple of “woke” that is Stephen Colbert, of all places). It’s worth a watch, especially from 4:00 on.
“If the point of all this is to heal people, the only way to heal a wound is to open it up and cleanse it,” Stewart said. “And that stings. That hurts. But you have to expose it to air. And I’m afraid that the general tenor of conversation in this country is to cover it up, bury it, put it to the outskirts — and don’t deal with it.”
This is an excellent point.
Speaking of comedians and social commentary, Canadian comic, author, and essayist Charles Demers has a great piece on the bizarre climate activism stunts we’ve been seeing lately — including the latest one in Vancouver, which saw zealots douse an Emily Carr painting with the most Canadian of liquids, maple syrup.
Here’s Charlie on that:
Is the maple syrup supposed to make the protest more relatably Canadian? Is it a parody of the very idea of anything being Canadian? Have I already put more thought into the semiotics of this protest than did those who carried it out?
I can’t say for sure, of course — but it does seem to me that just a few moments’ reflection would show up the obvious liabilities of this “strategy,” even before the unanimous comments sections underneath reporting of the story rendered their verdicts. First of all, when you’re part of a movement already accused of trying to drain life of its comforts and pleasures and denounced, usually at least somewhat unfairly, as a form of contemporary Puritanism, maybe almost-defacing cherished artwork like an inept vegan ISIS auxiliary isn’t the best foot to put forward.
Elsewhere on the web, the also very funny Matt Taibbi has an essay on the ongoing Elon Musk hysteria. Here’s the money quote:
If you think the occasional offensive tweet is scarier than the government being able to seize any business on arbitrary national security grounds, you’ve been online too long. Donald Trump makes it difficult-to-impossible to speak out when politicians and journalists break rules to oppose him. But Elon Musk, national security threat? That really is a witch hunt. It’s as absurd as calling someone like Russell Brand right-wing because he’s insufficiently exorcised at the existence of people who think differently. The Musk version of a radical idea is allowing “all legal speech.” If that turns out to be enough to trigger a successful national security review, what chance does someone without $200 billion have?
The people who worked “on climate” at Twitter, now being given the ax by the perfidious Elon Musk, are openly complaining that they won’t be able to find jobs anywhere else in this economy. They are, of course, right to worry. One of the biggest and least-talked-about social questions in the West is how to economically provide for our own modern version of France’s impecunious nobles: that is, how to prop up high-status people who can’t really do much economically productive work.
In my own country, Sweden, the state picks up a lot of the slack. Here, small municipalities hire dozens or hundreds of communicators, consultants, and other plainly nonproductive personnel, and attempts to do something about it run into a very simple question: Where else are these people supposed to work? Who else would hire them? Though few will say it openly, the city of Uppsala’s nearly 100 communicators have nothing to do with communication, and everything to do with preserving social stability. It is, in essence, just part of a massive jobs program.
Wokeness flattens art, and it seeks to flatten our response to art. It wants us all to have the same response to any given work: outrage or disgust or solidarity or revolutionary fervor, as the case may be. Woke art (any art, under the aegis of wokeness) is not, in that sense, art at all. For it is a decent working definition of the difference between art and entertainment that the latter seeks (like propaganda, advertising, or pornography) a uniform, predictable response—a laugh, a scream, a throb, a thrill—while the former inspires a different response in each of us, and different responses at different times, and complex, unpredictable responses always. Which is part of what is meant when people say that art enables us to be more fully human.
Before the internet, a politically unpopular story might trigger a flood of nasty letters to the editor, but as long as it didn’t upset any major advertisers, the haters could be safely ignored. Now that it was the readers paying the rent, things were different. A revolt by your readers, if you were a newspaper publisher post-2016, was a direct threat to your bottom line.
But there was a threat even more perilous than that: a revolt by all the young reporters you hired to cater to the millions of outraged new subscribers you had enlisted in the fight against MAGA authoritarianism. Those young reporters were true believers. They’d never known the old, aspirationally nonpartisan mode of journalism. They had joined your outlet to fight for social justice, wielding their pens as swords. So had all the app coders you had enticed away from their overpaid but unfulfilling Facebook jobs with the promise that here, you might take a pay cut but you could also change the world.
Today, a politically unpopular article or personality can leave a publisher besieged from the outside while facing a revolt from within.
Over at the Persuasion Substack, The Hill’s Daniel Allott has piece on “Why Trust In Journalism Has Collapsed” — and some thoughts on how to rebuild it. Here’s my favourite part (and something that I’ve been saying for ages):
Political journalists live and work disproportionately in deep-blue coastal cities, attending the same universities, going to the same parties, and using the same social media platforms, i.e. Twitter. Many rarely leave their ideological bubbles long enough to challenge their own biases.
This insularity is a problem because, in a newsroom, reporters and editors turn to one another when they have questions. They provide key counsel to each other, offering input and solicited as well as unsolicited advice on a range of issues. If the person sitting next to you has had different life experiences, comes from a different place or espouses different political beliefs, he or she can act as a check on your own biases, and vice versa. But when those experiences and beliefs are the same as yours, the newsroom can become an echo chamber where biases and beliefs are reinforced and groupthink prevails.
Media organizations have come to appreciate the importance of gender, racial, and ethnic diversity so that newsrooms look a little more like all of America. The same logic should apply to political ideology. This is especially true for national outlets that aspire to cover and engage with the entire nation. Those outlets in particular should have newsrooms that represent the entire country in all its diversity.
Finally, on the excellent-journalism-being-done-despite-it-all front, Lean Out guest Amanda Ripley has a fascinating piece at Politico, interviewing former gang leader Curtis Toler on how to deescalate tensions between the Democrats and Republicans — and their hyper-polarized supporters.
If you missed it last week, professor Deborah Appleman was on the Lean Out podcast to talk about how the culture wars are impacting the teaching of literature.
And this week, policy scholar Richard V. Reeves was on the podcast, talking about his new book Of Boys and Men.
Stay tuned, next week I’ll be joined by political economist Nicholas Eberstadt for a conversation about his book Men Without Work.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers. Also, go Saints!
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