So I'm sunbathing on this hammock, right, and I can't stop thinking about Joseph Kony...
A few words on why the personal affects us all.
This issue looks different than the last. (There’s a sentence you should get used to seeing.) I’m switching up the order of my RRRs and skipping the section headings, an acknowledgment of how porous the boundaries between them really are. I’m hoping this lets me better capture the nature of what I’ve been feeling these last twoish weeks — to more effectively access the range and intensity of my thoughts.
This issue is also weightier, maybe even strident. I suppose that’s how it is when one tries to talk politics. First, though, let me tell you about my trip to Mexico.
I began writing this missive from my favorite place on this planet: the white macrame hammock strung between two palm trees in my grandma’s backyard outside Tepoztlán, Morelos.
My family spent the holidays there, very much on vacation. We drank micheladas, played dominos and ping pong, feasted on handmade tortillas, chilaquiles, mole, papaya and Chinese pomegranate.
My sister, Denise, scooping out what’s nicknamed “moco chino” — Chinese booger. It’s a strange, tasty, fruit.
My aunt was there, too, with her baby — my new cousin, only four months old. She wrapped her tiny, tiny fingers around my pinky every time I held her hand. She studied everyone and everything with intense focus. (How can any infant grow into a monster?)
A week passed this way. It was supposed to be a reprieve. It was a reprieve! Not that my life’s been particularly arduous as of late, but here was a chance to get refreshed, to get off my phone, to get some reading and writing done. To start planning where I want this year to take me. As is my habit when I visit Tepoztlán, I spent a significant chunk of time laying in that hammock with a book in my lap.
(BOOK RECS: I’m grateful to have read Cleanness, a breathtaking novel by Garth Greenwell that’s coming out next week and proved how much I’ve yet to learn about pleasure and desire. The book is set in Sofia, Bulgaria, and chronicles the narrator’s relationships with other men. Greenwell’s graphic descriptions of sex heighten the emotional heft of his gorgeous prose. It’s a quick read. I also raced through Maggie Brown and Others. Reading a Peter Orner story is like taking an entire lifetime to the face. He distills all the vicissitudes a person might experience into three short pages. And if you’re in similar shoes as me, constantly worrying about the financial precarity of your ill-defined, writerly future, you should check out the essay anthology MFA vs. NYC. This Elif Batuman piece is a highlight, but I found the whole collection concretely informative and entertaining.)
But I didn’t get much done. Afternoons passed me by as I gazed at el Tepozteco, the mountain that towers over the valley. This mountain has long been considered sacred by the people who dwell in its shadow. It is now also an attraction weekenders flock to from Mexico City, just an hour-and-a-half to the northeast. Tepoztlán — a Pueblo Mágico — offers tourists a vibrant cobbled-street market in the morning and a spa visit in the afternoon. (I saw the word “holistico” on a lot of hand-painted signs.) There’s now a boba shop keeping the ramen place company.
For folks like my grandparents, Tepoztlán also offered land to build their second home. My grandpa passed away in 2005, the week after my youngest sister was born. I remember him best in Tepoztlán. From the hammock I’m able to see everything he and my grandma built for me and their future grandchildren, almost twenty years ago: There’s the pool, lined in brilliant blue tiles; there’s the Demolition Man-themed pinball machine, and next to it the billiards table; then the lawn chairs; beyond them, the trampoline, squatting next to the futsal nets; keep going and there’s the avocado tree, just in front of the paddle tennis court. I can almost smell his cigar.
All this to really say: I carry different baggage around Mexico than I do at home.
Class divisions are starker there. They correspond with color rather clearly. Social dynamics are reflected in the language I speak imperfectly, with a hybrid accent, a limited vocabulary, and stilted slang. These were the sorts of things I was thinking about this time in Tepoztlán, where we cook zero of our meals, make none of our beds.
But rather than engage with my mounting discomfort, it was easier to stay mesmerized by the mountain, to let it serve as a fixed point against which to measure the passage of clouds. I spent hours trying to capture in writing what it’s like each evening, when that agglomeration of boulders and fissures and crags catches the setting sun; what I felt, instead, when el Tepozteco pinkened, and briefly glowed. (There’ll always be a distance between language and light, huh?)
As we left, I realized that all the shit I’d lugged with me — a certain sense of smallness, of unfulfillment; confusion and indolence; guilt — had only amplified. And a new question stung in my chest: Is this really as good as it gets?
Okay. Pivot time. Here are some other questions to ask yourself as you keep reading:
How responsible are you for your own emotions?
Can emotions be useful on their own? How are they exploited? Politically? Economically?
Why might “electability against Trump” not be the most important question for the primaries?
What do you want our society to look like in 25 years?
In Tepoztlán I also dragged my eyeballs across a decent number of end-of-decade roundups. Enough to have expected to find greater mention of one particular cultural moment I haven’t gotten over.
Looking back from the far side of my adolescence, it seems like nothing prepared me better for 2020 than KONY 2012.
If you’re not familiar with KONY 2012, and very reasonably don’t want to subject yourself to it now, here’s what you need to know:
In March 2012, a nonprofit called Invisible Children posts a ~30-minute movie.
The movie asks the American public — and American youth in particular — to harness the power of social media in order to draw the nation’s attention to an ongoing conflict in Northern Uganda.
The conflict: A rebel force led by Joseph Kony has been kidnapping children from their rural homes in the middle of the night, conscripting the boys as soldiers and the girls as sex slaves.
The movie contains footage from the filmmakers’ trips to Uganda; it shows lots of helpless African children.
The narrator and protagonist, Jason Russell, is a blonde, chipper USC film school grad.
Russell puts his (adorable, golden-locked) toddler son in front of the camera in order to introduce him to Kony’s evil deeds.
In his unapologetically sincere voice, Russell goes on to explain how, together, we can “Make Kony Famous”; how, if we do this, we can end a war.
The movie goes viral. More viral than any video has gone before.
After the initial crest, fierce criticism of the video and of Invisible Children gains traction. The most straightforward rebuttal: Kony and his army were driven out of Uganda years ago, and are no longer a serious threat.
Under intense public scrutiny, Jason Russell has a psychotic episode that results in 24-karat paparazzo gold, staining his credibility less than a month after the video was uploaded.
Fast-forward to today: KONY 2012 is remembered only as one of the memes that defined the decade.
What I remember most clearly about the whole ordeal is the feeling of galvanization. Sitting at my desk, right knee juddering up and down, homework forgotten, night stretching into morning, I knew I had to do something. Not acting would be tantamount to not caring; it would reflect on my character.
I resolved to buy the $30 action kit, to wear the bracelets. On the day of action, April 20th (of course they chose 4/20), I would take to the streets and plaster posters everywhere and ensure my country ends this atrocity. I was ecstatic. I believed. It felt so good. (Sound familiar?)
It makes sense that this is how I felt. It makes sense that Russell uses his toddler as a surrogate for his viewer.
[O]ur findings suggest that when a complex adverse situation is reduced to the actions of a clear enemy, this inspires moral outrage against the enemy. However, if the complexity of the situation becomes clearer, the enemy inspires less moral outrage and determination to act.
If it weren’t for the backlash — some of which must’ve reached the 9th-grade lockers, seeped into our social imperatives — I guarantee you that I would’ve done more than just share the video to my timeline. (Regardless, the fact that my righteous rage abated says something about the efficacy of slacktivism: sharing a video does just enough to scratch our moral itch.) I scrolled back through my Facebook and found my post buried between Truth Is… and “hacked” statuses. It didn’t have any likes.
The emotional arc I describe — from energized to deflated — remains distinctly clear as I write these words, at the same desk, right knee bouncing just as fast. It remains clear because it remains familiar. Because then begat now: It was always a horrorshow.
Enter the rabbit hole. I found Invisible Children’s first attempt at a viral campaign: a musical number from 2006, “performed” in front of a “high school audience.” Witness the same exact strategy, the same exact message: get people’s attention, keep it simple, apply pathos, donate a few dollars, problem solved.
I’ve watched the full seven-minute monstrosity a few times now. (They levitate at one point, if that’s any motivation.) When I actually listen to the refrain, it becomes unbearable. Did you hear the words the group chants as it marches into view near the end of the video? (Go to 2:42 above.)
“We are here to change the world,” the people sing together.
“Gonna change the world!” a disembodied voice roars in affirmation.
I wish these guys were the Lonely Island.
I wish these clowns were anything other than the activists who first roused my political consciousness. But that is what they are.
KONY 2012 epitomized what Teju Cole called the White Savior Industrial Complex. Cole, a novelist, critic, and photographer, penned his essay in The Atlantic after a series of his tweets went (relatively) viral. Here’s two of them:
Cole argues that KONY 2012 gained such traction because of American sentimentality. In a society governed by social media, it continues to be true that our desire to feel good undermines our best intentions. Though (I hope) we’ve come to appreciate the perils of slacktivism and white saviorism, the sentimentality Cole denounces still runs rampant — it’s one of the things animating Joe Biden’s campaign.
What we’re still desperately missing is what Cole calls “constellational thinking.” Because 14-year-olds with unfettered access to Facebook aren’t taught that their subjectivity might be determined by larger systems, we grow up without seeing “the patterns of power behind the isolated ‘disasters.’” Without connecting the dots that matter.
The result: by this country spent its 800th million chasing Kony, years had passed, and we no longer cared. So what did we take away? What did KONY 2012 teach my generation?
The biggest lesson: we must do as Cole urges and ratchet up the scale of our attention.
Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to "make a difference" trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don't always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives.
But there are corollaries to disillusionment, consequences felt at the individual level. I think KONY 2012 is partly why I feel extremely self-conscious at rallies, why I’m embarrassed by the sound of my own chants. I’ve learned — the hard way — that my emotions are suspect.
To keep up the daily roil of indignation, today we have the descendents of the KONY 2012 model. On the left, we get snippets of news “curated” by NowThis and AJ+. (Now that I think of it, I can’t remember the last time I saw a clip from either brand?) I don’t know the equivalents on the right. Turning Point USA?
I’m not saying the answer is to ignore the throbbing of our bleeding hearts. Just that it’s really hard to keep the proper perspective.
The current U.S. birthrate is the lowest in 32 years. In 2015 life expectancy began to decline for the first time in 60 years. Over this decade, addicts turned from prescription opioids to heroin to fentanyl; since 1999 the risk of death from drug overdoses spiked 909 percent for people ages 55 to 64. The largest relative increase in contemporary suicide rates occurred among children ages 5 to 14, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This decade started in the wake of a Great Recession — followed by mass demonstrations against Wall Street and the 1 percent — and will end with the 400 wealthiest Americans paying a lower tax rate than anyone else. This decade, for the first time in human history, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 415 parts per million — exactly as Exxon predicted 40 years ago, before it began to promote climate denialism that remains alive and well.
What is going on here, America?
What’s going on here, America, is that so much sucks!
(The article, by Dan Zak, is actually terrific. In content it reminds me of another newsletter I’ve come to cherish, called “Welcome to Hell World,” whose author, Luke O’Neil, dials the dourness to eleven.)
I’ve heard it said that my generation sees the world with a cynical eye. That we’re too quick to pry the worst out from under every rock. I think this is true. I hope this is true. Because the things happening around us are the same things we were taught, as children, in school, to identify as evil.
I remember an assembly, at my Jewish middle school, with Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine. He explained how racism hurts everyone with lucid force. In 2020, North Carolina Republicans are once again trying to suppress Black votes, because last year the Fourth Circuit finally made them redraw their gerrymandered districts.
I remember my teachers, at my Jewish elementary school, showing me pictures of Manzanar, one of the camps where the FDR government imprisoned citizens of Japanese descent. Apart from bringing us back to the brink of war, this week’s edition of “Our Government Threatens to Repeat Historic Acts of Evil” included CBP baselessly interrogating Iranian-Americans — citizens reentering the country they’ve lived in since birth.
I had to rewrite those last two sentences. I almost left them in the passive voice. It’s important to recognize who benefits when we leave subjects buried.
Not being cynical would be irrational. Not finding the worst in what’s happening in the world would be denying history. Not admitting that some things really are black and white would only be feeding the logic of Capital — would be forfeiting our capacity for constellational thinking.
So, forgive me if I ever reduce a complex adverse situation to the actions of a clear enemy. I’m but a child of the internet.
Okay, you’re almost there, sorry for dropping the C-word in there. Here’s a sweet tune to cleanse your ears as you keep reading this last section.
I was thinking about two additional writers over the holidays, and as I was writing this newsletter. One is a British critic named Mark Fisher. The other is a Polish philosopher named Leszek Kołakowski.
Thanks to an application called Libby and the LAPL, I’ve had Capitalist Realism, Fisher’s short 2009 treatise, downloaded on my phone since the end of September. The Libby application told me it took 2 hrs 45 mins, spread across 11 pickups, to reach the last page. In Tepoz, I finished Capitalist Realism and also ripped through half of his second: Ghosts of My Life.
This book, Fisher explains,
is about the ghosts of my life, so there is necessarily a personal dimension to what follows. Yet my take on the old phrase ‘the personal is political’ has been to look for the (cultural, structural, political) conditions of subjectivity. The most productive way of reading the ‘personal is political’ is to interpret it as saying: the personal is impersonal. It’s miserable for anyone at all to be themselves (still more, to be forced to sell themselves). Culture, and the analysis of culture, is valuable insofar as it allows an escape from ourselves.
Fisher writes about music (on Joy Division). Fisher writes about movies (on Star Wars). Fisher writes about mental health (on his own depression). Fisher uses the densest cultural theory to show, with forceful clarity, that capitalism itself is the root cause of our cultural and social stagnation — the reason why our pop songs all sound the same, why so many of our movies are derivative, why more of our children are killing themselves.
I must have first heard of Fisher through the obituaries published when he himself committed suicide, three years ago this Monday. Looking back on those obits, I found that several featured the same quote from Capitalist Realism:
Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order,’ must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.
Do these directives ring a bell? Destroying the appearance of a natural order? Why, that’s Silicon Valley’s bread and butter. Making a better world seem attainable? Well, that’s its emptiest promise.
I tried to get at this core hypocrisy when I wrote about Uncanny Valley last week. (That book, out this Tuesday, was recently reviewed in the New York Times. C’mooon, mine’s just as fun, send it to some friends!) But I didn’t articulate the logical conclusion emancipatory politics actually demand: In the unlocked future the tech industry claims to strive towards, we have no need for its problematic solutions.
Here’s historian Jill Lepore, putting the cult of disruption into context, then tearing it to shreds:
The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.
It’s important to remember that the very notion of progress is contentious. Leave that can of worms open and it starts to look like even Darwin missed the point. (What does it matter if a generation reproduces if its offspring are doomed to suffer?) Lepore wisely cautions that when “innovation” replaces “progress,” we’re stuck swimming in circles: “the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.”
But it remains true that we need all the hope we can muster, even in its hollow forms. Mark Fisher, these past weeks, has given me hope I can sink my teeth into.
And then there’s the Polish dude. I studied Kołakowski (i.e. skimmed four of his essays) in a seminar I took my sophomore year at Yale, on 20th-century Eastern European intellectual history. Kołakowski began his career as a Marxist, a staunch supporter of the Soviet project. After the atrocities of Stalinism, he joined with the intellectuals fighting for “socialism with a human face.” Then he was exiled.
The class was a beautiful blur, but there was an idea in one of Kołakowski’s essays that I’ll never forget. (It’s called “The Concept of the Left,” and was first published in 1957. I dug it up. It’s neither so dense nor so long. If you’re at all interested, I encourage you to give it a read.) Writing about the nature of leftist political ideology, Kołakowski observes that one of its defining features is the pursuit of utopia.
I saved that word for the end of this newsletter. We’ve been taught to distrust the word utopia. And yet:
Yet why is a utopia a condition of all revolutionary movements? Because much historical experience, more or less buried in the social consciousness, tells us that goals unattainable now will never be reached unless they are articulated when they are still unattainable. It may well be that the impossible at a given moment can become possible only by being stated at a time when it is impossible… The existence of a utopia as a utopia is the necessary prerequisite for its eventually ceasing to be a utopia.
Those italics are his own. The point is profound: What seems impossible now might become possible once it’s been articulated. (Can somebody make a viral video out of that?) If we study history, we understand that this is how lasting change really begins.
Even though it is at times weak and invisible, it is nonetheless the dynamite of hope that blasts the dead load of ossified systems, institutions, customs, intellectual habits, and closed doctrines. The Left unites those dispersed and often hidden atoms whose movement is, in the last analysis, what we call progress.
This same principle is what Hua Hsu identified as Fisher’s reason for writing: he “feared that we were losing our ability to conceptualize a tomorrow that was radically different from our present.”
But Fisher could only do so much of the work; the rest is up to us:
Inventing new forms of political involvement, reviving institutions that have become decadent, converting privatised disaffection into politicised anger: all of this can happen, and when it does, who knows what is possible?
I mean, what isn’t?
If you’ve made it to the end, thank you, thank you. This issue got out of hand. (I think that’s what I’ll be calling them: issues.) I waited too long to start writing and packed way too much in. But, I don’t know, I’m glad I went for it. All this and more has been occupying my mind. This is what I’m thinking about as I lay in bed at night, as I drive through traffic. And I really do want to honor my thoughts and feelings in this space.
This email is going out to 130 of you. The list is starting to get weird: I see grandparents and cousins, friends’ parents and friends’ siblings and siblings’ friends. When I use the second-person plural, I’m sometimes unsure to whom I’m referring. But isn’t the point always to widen the “we”?
As always, please get in touch if you have any observations or suggestions. Even if it’s to tell me this issue was too long. (The length of the next depends on it…) And especially get in touch if you’d be interested in contributing to Sintext. Seriously! What rabbit holes have you stumbled into recently? If you don’t fancy yourself a writer, I’d still love to build issues around ideas not my own.
Substack also gives me other data: I know that 458 people viewed the last issue. (Though a dozen of those views are probably me.) And that 84 percent of you who got it in their inbox opened the email. And that another 41 percent of you clicked one of the links I embedded. That feels auspicious. Let’s leave it there.
Sintextually yours, on a high note,