There was recently a, um . . . I don’t even know what to call these things anymore; it doesn’t rise to the level of like “controversy” or “scandal” or anything, but it’s a “thing that people on the internet get offended about for ten minutes.” You know. Anyway it was about how The Simpsons is totally racist, and it was notable for its display of near-complete point-missing in all available directions.
So the usual thing happened where someone was expected to “respond” to something and they did a bad job of it, and this caused “outrage” and etc., but the thing about this is that nothing else was ever going to happen. The thing that is currently being called “The Simpsons” is not a good show, by which I mean it is not a worthwhile show, by which I mean it is not worth anyone’s while to see what it “has to say.” Paying attention to it right now is equivalent to huffing the fumes that it’s running on. By extension, there’s no point in criticizing the current iteration of the show, either, because there’s nothing there to criticize.
Of course, the original criticism about Apu being a racist caricature was mainly directed at the actual show back when it was an actual show, because that’s the part that people actually watch and therefore know the character from, so that’s an entirely worthwhile endeavor (I’m judiciously avoiding adjudicating the substance of the criticism itself here). But precisely because this endeavor is worthwhile, it’s also non-trivial. It’s not enough to merely point out that the character is a racist stereotype, because the fact that the show was well-written means that it did something with the stereotype (actually, pretty much the entire show can be described as “doing something with stereotypes.” Homer is also a stereotype, obviously), which means you have to go a step further: you have to argue against the thing that the show actually did. So a lot of people have responded to this by pointing out the ways in which Apu went against stereotype or was just a well-portrayed character in general, but this is only a valid defense against the simplistic (which is not to say incorrect) argument that Stereotypes Are Bad. It can be overcome by the stronger argument that a well-written and intentionally positive portrayal can nonetheless insidiously advance racism.
And succeeding in making this argument is a real achievement: it changes people’s understanding of the situation and refines the lens of analysis that we can then use going forward. (I mean, this is the only possible purpose. You can’t go back and un-write the show and reverse the influences it’s already had on people. You can only do better in the future.) But in the same sense, succeeding with the trivial version of the claim only results in a trivial achievement. You can successfully advance the proposition that Bad Thing Is Bad, but this doesn’t actually help anyone or change anything in any significant way.
This is why it’s crucially important to not merely attempt to position yourself on the right side of an obvious bright line, but to make an argument that’s actually worth making. For example, people have pointed to the fact the Apu was in an arranged marriage and had eight kids as examples of how he’s a reductive stereotype, but the reason these things happened is specifically because the show was out of ideas and therefore resorting to hackneyed bullshit to keep people attention. Of course they’re reductive, because the show was precisely being reductive at that point. This isn’t evidence of how racism works or anything like that, it’s just evidence that hacks are hacks. This is the furthest thing from aesthetic snobbishness; it’s a strong contrast with the argument against the good version of the show. If you have an argument against the show when it was good, you have an argument about how racism perpetuates itself even when people are doing a good job with things and even trying to be actively anti-racist, which means you have an argument that matters, because it can actually be used to help people do anti-racism better in the future.
In short, two things that initially look like slightly different versions of the same thing – the argument against Real Apu and the argument against Hack Apu – are in fact complete opposites. One of them maintains everyone’s existing understanding of the situation by arguing against something everyone already knows is an Official Bad Thing, and one of them advances the existing understanding by demonstrating that something people were assuming was good actually has practical negative consequences. Thus, choosing the wrong thing to argue against here does not merely weaken your position, it inverts it, such that your efforts end up having the opposite of their intended effect.
This is such a major problem that there’s actually a significant sense in which the internet has reduced the total amount of discourse happening. There’s plenty of talking going on, but so little of it is about anything relevant to anything that the net elucidation has been reduced. People think they’re arguing about things, when what they’re actually doing is preventing those issues from being argued about. I mean, it’s too much to claim that this always happens and that internet discussions never go anywhere, but it definitely is a real and serious problem that no one’s really trying to do anything about. And at any rate you can’t un-invent the genie, there’s no actual “anti-internet” argument to be made, which is why you – meaning you, personally – have to make a serious effort to talk about things that matter and ignore things that don’t, to eschew easy targets and make the effort to reach higher ones, and to cease to avail yourself of convenient arguments and accept the constraints of making correct ones. Only you can prevent garbage fires.
So let’s work an example. We’ve got a convenient one right now, because we’re right on the tail end (Eris willing) of a vomit cyclone exuded by one the true masters of the form: Kanye West. If you haven’t heard (in which case I envy you more than words can convey), it turns out that West is a supporter of the Bad Politics Person, which by extension makes him a Bad Politics Person, which means it is the solemn duty of all Good Politics People to respond with Stern Moral Denunciations. I can assure you that my dickishness here is sincere. What I just wrote is the actual substance of the event. There isn’t any “underlying meaning” or anything to “interpret” or “analyze” or “understand.” There’s a completely clueless person being completely clueless and a bunch of thirsty social-climbers building their Twitter brands in response.
I want to make sure we all understand what’s really happening here in technical terms. Politics matters. It is a supremely practical subject that directly impacts the daily lives of everyone who’s alive. So the fact of Donald Trump being president is among the most important of our current issues – it is perhaps the defining intellectual challenge of our time, and its resolution may well determine the future course of human history (if any). So what paying attention to the wrong thing here does is prevent this challenge from being met.
If, by promoting certain types of stories and advancing a certain narrative, we understand Trump as, for example, a Russian plant, then that’s necessarily going to lead to actions that respond to that understanding – for example, starting a new Cold War. So the thing about this is that a lot of the Russia claims are probably true; just given the facts of who Trump is, he’s more likely than not in hock to Russian gangsters (and of course the claim that Russia “interfered” with the election is trivially true; every large country does this all the time). But mere fact that a fact is true isn’t actually enough of a justification for saying it, because saying something is an action, so the question necessarily has to be: what are the results of your actions going to be? (This also includes the opportunity costs of not taking different actions.) And the more prominent of a platform you have, the more salient of a question this is, and the more variables you have to consider in order to answer it correctly.
The more important an issue is, the less effective it is to throw the kitchen sink at it. The kitchen sink approach works fine for trivial issues precisely because they’re trivial: you only need the one good hit to knock them out. But hard targets require more than that: they require focused effort against their specific vulnerabilities. Any effort that isn’t correctly targeted is effort that isn’t being applied where it’s needed. Worse, hard targets are complex, which means feedback effects: something that seems like it ought to be effective can easily trigger counterproductive responses. So the more hardened the target is, the more important is is to attack from all correct angles, and from only those angles which are correct.
If there actually was anything at all going on with West’s politics (that is, if he actually had politics), then that would be worth addressing: it would be among the correct angles. But the problem with West is not that he’s getting involved in politics, it’s that he isn’t. He isn’t actually talking about Trump or the underlying political situation or history or America or race or anything. He’s talking about dragon energy. So the practical consequence that transpires from talking about Kanye West talking about dragon energy is that attention and energy that would otherwise be spent on addressing the most important issues of our time are otherwise being spent on nothing.
It is also not the case that West has “lost his way” or gotten “confused” or anything along those lines. The fact of the matter is that West said one sort of on-point thing one time and has just been a provocative jackass the entire rest of the time.1 Statistically, the only rational conclusion is that the one good thing was a fluke. And what really mandates this conclusion is the fact that the one good thing wasn’t even any good. It’s actually a shame that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is such a classic line, because it’s entirely beside the point. What George Bush does or doesn’t care about has nothing to do with what happened in New Orleans or with anything else. I mean, Barack Obama presumably does care about black people, and his administration oversaw a massive destruction of black wealth. That’s not how any of this works. Talking about things in this manner specifically means understanding things wrong.
This is not a call for naive intellectualization. Sometimes the stupidest explanation really is the real explanation, and figuring it out requires you to look at and properly analyze the stupidest available evidence. Maybe Trump supporters have thoroughly-considered grievances against globalization and modern liberalism, or maybe they’re a bunch of racists who fell for history’s most obvious con. (The real explanation generally requires taking a little bit of everything into account. It’s a big world out there.) What being a real intellectual means is not picking the explanation that seems the “smartest,” but figuring out which one is actually real. Either way, though, West is the absolute least representative person to look to for insight on this issue. One could, in theory, figure out what West actually believes and why he believes it, but precisely because West is an “exceptional” person, this information has no bearing on anything besides West himself. This is the part where the “real Americans” cliche actually has its merit: if a person is a clueless sucker, but is also a representative example of a large number of clueless suckers, then the question of why that person is a clueless sucker matters, because answering it tells us something we can do about the situation. Paying attention to people like West takes us further away from this goal: what we learn from his situation, if anything, is incorrect when applied to almost any other situation. It’s a test graded with the wrong answer key.
This also doesn’t mean that the only valid response is stone-faced just-the-facts asceticism – in fact, that’s almost always a version of the wrong response. It’s worth shaming someone for their opinion on an issue when that opinion is actually based on a particular understanding of the issue and they’re actually capable of shame, neither of which applies to West. It’s even, on occasion, worth issuing a Stern Moral Denunciation when there’s actually a substantive issue on which moral clarity is useful, which is not the kind of thing that West has ever engaged with. And there are plenty of times when cultural or aesthetic events point the way to deeper understanding of important issues. Arguing about the portrayal of Apu during the good episodes of The Simpsons really is useful anti-racist praxis. Indeed, there are also plenty of times when stern discussions of policy and economics function precisely as means of avoiding real discussion. The entire Hillary Clinton campaign, for example, was about “qualifications” and “pragmatism” and was in precisely this way not about any actual issues. Talking much about policy can also be a means to conceal policy. The point is simply that there are useful things to talk about and there are useless things to talk about, and picking the useless thing isn’t a simple inefficiency or a matter of preference. It’s a serious error that causes real harm.
It’s also important to understand that we’re talking specifically about public discourse here – that is, we’re talking about The Media. Obviously, chatting with your friends about whatever random bullshit you happen to find enjoyable is entirely laudable behavior. The problem is that bullshitting on the internet looks like a casual conversation, but it’s actually not – it’s actually what The Media is now. When you have a platform – when a certain number of people are guaranteed to read what you’re writing simply because of where you’re writing it (this is the specific things that it means for something to be part of “the media”: it mediates) – you have a responsibility, because what you’re writing creates the context in which other people have discussions. Any media piece that claims to be “responding” to what “the media” is doing is fundamentally lying: said piece is itself doing the thing that it’s pretending to respond to.
For example, the only reason anyone thinks that there’s a “campus free speech” issue is that a bunch of prominent columnists keep writing about it – it is the columnists and not the protesters who create the issue. You also see this any time anyone claims that something is happening “on Twitter.” What actually happens is that writing about Twitter is itself the thing that draws attention to and frames a certain sector of activity and therefore creates the event that is claimed to be happening “on Twitter.”
Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. A lot of people would argue that they have to “respond” when someone like West starts mouthing off, simply because he commands attention; that is, even though what he’s saying isn’t at all relevant, the fact of him saying it is. This isn’t totally a defeatist argument. It’s true that if the situation is such that people are already engaging in a bunch of useless gibbering about something, or if you can accurately predict that that’s going to happen, then ignoring it doesn’t accomplish anything, so you might as well try to up the average by saying something slightly more useful. But the thing about this is that it doesn’t justify just any response. It justifies exactly one response: to convince everyone else to stop paying any attention to Kanye West, and in so doing redivert attention onto the real issue. Trying to explain what he’s saying or argue against him has the opposite of the desired effect: it doesn’t elucidate anything, because there’s not actually anything being talked about, and it draws more attention to West and to what he’s saying, and therefore necessarily diverts attention away from the actual substance of the issues that are supposedly so important that they must be responded to immediately.
The real reason this is important is that the media’s power to create issues can also be used positively: it can create real issues. A strong example of this is the opioid crisis. Because this is largely a regional phenomenon, a lot of people don’t have direct experience with it. Also, the people who do have experience with it are generally not in much of a position to raise the issue themselves. It actually is the media’s job here to create this issue: to inform people that something as bad as the AIDS crisis is happening right now, and to insist that they care about it. So hyping trivial bullshit isn’t just a foible or an annoyance: it has the total opportunity cost of the difference between the negative value of the useless vector of discussion and the potential positive value that could be realized by discussing the same thing along a worthwhile vector. For example, every time you read an article about some dumbass thing Trump says about North Korea, you’re both damaging your brain in the amount of how dumb it is and missing out on learning something about what’s really going on with the Korean conflict.
You can obviously go on all day with this; to take just the most obvious examples, global warming and nuclear weapons are our two main civilization-level threats right now, and they get almost no accurate coverage. Nuclear weapons coverage is always about what might happen if those bad people over there start building nukes, and not about the people who actually possess and are potentially willing to use world-destroying amounts of them – such as, for example, any of the times the United States itself has almost blown up the world, and how our constant warmongering is making nuclear accidents more likely. And all of the stentorian prattling about “accepting the facts” of global warming doesn’t really help as long as any discussion of anything serious that could actually be done about it is preemptively removed from the table (not being a denialist doesn’t really count if you’re still in denial about any way to solve the problem). So this isn’t, y’know, “media criticism.” This is fucking serious. It’s not just that it’s within your abilities to avoid falling face-down into the mud at every opportunity, it’s that you could be saving the world, and instead you’re choosing to eat garbage.
Going after easy targets is one thing. It’s dishonorable, but we’re only human, and in a situation like that it’s at least possible to make worthwhile arguments. But going after inaccurate targets is another thing entirely – it’s actively counterproductive. The only person you’re clowning in that situation is yourself.
Also, it’s highly likely that West’s behavior is not the result of him being “provocative” or even being an out-of-touch rich fuck, but is in fact the result of serious mental illness, which isn’t being treated because everyone thinks he’s a wacky savant or whatever. So in this case specifically there’s actually a whole other level of harm that this is causing: everyone treating West like a provocateur is preventing him from getting the help he needs, and also preventing us as a society from treating metal illness with the seriousness it deserves. ↩
As the first episode of Season 2, which is when the show really started to get its act together, “Bart Gets An F” is a pretty standard Simpsons episode. It has a basic sitcom-y plot: Bart gets in trouble at school, engages in a variety of hijinks attempting to get out of it, and ultimately pulls through at the last second. There are, of course, the characteristic Simpsons twists: Homer actively impedes Bart without realizing it, Bart gets consistently screwed over by the casual malice of his peers (both when they’re trying to hurt him and when they’re trying to help him), and the final cause for celebration is “just barely” a D- (part of which belongs to god). On closer inspection, though, the true situation is considerably worse, as the episode indirectly raises but never actually addresses a much deeper issue – one with horrifying implications.
Contrary to popular belief, Bart Simpson is not proud of the fact that he is an underachiever. Even before he’s threatened with retention, the episode specifically shows him trying to succeed. But his plans get derailed when Homer ropes him into watching Gorilla the Conqueror (“the granddaddy of them all”), and when he finally manages to sit down and study, he doesn’t really have any idea what he’s doing. He knows he’s supposed get some kind of information out of a textbook, so he opens it up and just starts reading. But with no contextual understanding and no ability to locate and retain relevant information, he doesn’t get anywhere. Keeping all of this in mind, the events of the episode begin to take on a much less innocent cast.
When Bart falls asleep studying, Homer and Marge come in to fawn over how cute it is, and this is disgusting. They think it’s a good thing that he’s “trying so hard,” not realizing that the reason he has to try so hard is that he needs help (and, in Homer’s case, not realizing that he himself is a large part of the problem). The idea that “parents know what’s best for their children” is one of our major political talking points right now, even when it comes to patently insane behaviors along the lines of refusing vaccinations. The fact is, “parent” is not any kind of privileged moral status. Any idiot is capable of becoming a parent, and most parents, like most everybody else, have no idea what they’re doing.
A worse dynamic applies in the case of Mrs. Krabappel, the person whose job it is to help Bart with precisely the difficulties that he is encountering. When quizzing Bart on his book report, she asks him for the name of the pirate in Treasure Island, and Bart mentally runs though a list of famous pirate names before settling on the wrong one. The thing is, though, one of the names he thought of actually was correct, so the fact that he answered the question wrong was basically a coincidence; Krabappel is implicitly teaching Bart that education is a matter of accumulating random facts. Hence, for Bart, the fact that he’s failing is also essentially a coincidence, leading him naturally to assume that there isn’t really anything he can do about it other than “try” and hope to get lucky. Similarly, when Krabappel chews him out in detention and he isn’t listening, he again guesses at the response she wants, but this time he gets it right. There really isn’t any reason for Bart to listen to her, because she isn’t saying anything helpful, or anything that he hasn’t heard before.
Even when the situation becomes critical and the school psychiatrist is called in, there is still absolutely no discussion of anything that could be done to actually help Bart. He gets interrogated as though he were hiding something, as though there must be a “reason” why a kid wouldn’t be doing well in school. In fact, it’s the opposite: doing well in school is not default behavior; the question that ought to be asked is why none of the authority figures, the people who are supposed to be in charge of this situation, have ever done anything about it.
Incidentally, the rarely-seen Dr. J. Loren Pryor is a perfect microcosm of this problem. Every character on the show is fundamentally a stereotype, but each of them is twisted in a way that makes them particularly ill-suited to the actual requirements of their job. Moe is unfriendly, Skinner is inflexible, Lovejoy is uninspiring, Hibbert is unsympathetic, and of course Homer is the least safety- and technical-minded person imaginable. Pryor fits the same pattern: his job is to deal with children’s emotional problems, and he’s a completely flat and uninsightful thinker. In each of his few appearances, his characteristic behavior is to deal with a nuanced problem by papering over it with the thinnest possible solution – to the extent that he here recommends a course of action which he himself characterizes as “emotionally crippling.”
So what’s notable about this whole sequence of events is that, throughout it all, Bart receives zero institutional support. His teacher chews him out several times and finally calls in a psychiatrist to chew him out some more, but nobody offers him any help or tutoring or anything. The system is quite happy to punish him as harshly and frequently as possible, but it’s not going to bother making his success possible in the first place. And this isn’t just a random event – the fact that everything that’s happening here is entirely quotidian, that there is nothing unusual about Bart’s situation, that exactly this happens to many people, every day, means it all points to one of our greatest lies. Even aside from all of the very explicit problems with our current educational system, the basic structure of it is also unsound. And, of course, the structure of our educational system is merely a reflection of the overall structure of our society. We do things that look “civilized,” we button up our shirts and sit down at desks and fill out paperwork, but we don’t actually engage in the practice of civilization. We don’t help each other, we don’t make space for failure, and we don’t learn.
The common idea is that everything we do in society has the basic justification of avoiding Hobbes’ “state of nature,” where the only thing that can be accounted for is survival. But as things actually are, this only pertains to a charmed few. Most people are still solely engaged in the struggle for survival, it’s just that it’s a different type of survival. The fact that you won’t get eaten by a wild animal doesn’t mean you won’t get eaten. We strut around like we’ve created an infallible safeguard for human dignity, but all we’ve actually done is to create alternate sets of claws for people to be impaled on. People like Bart are merely being thrown to different wolves.
More than that, far from everyone’s perception of Bart as a “problem child,” Bart himself is the only one who even cares. Nothing actually requires him to succeed. Saying that people like Bart are the people who “fall through the cracks” of society implies that society was trying to help them in the first place, when in fact they are merely the “surplus population,” people who can be taken or left as is convenient. Bart was preemptively placed in the cracks, and it’s entirely of his own volition that he is attempting to climb out. Even as Bart defines himself primarily based on his resistance to authority, he does not want to be a failure. There would be no story to this episode at all were it not for the basic human dignity inherent to his lonely struggle for a passing grade. See the sincerity in his eyes? See the conviction? See the fear?
And so, Bart has to take it upon himself to get the help he needs, and with all authorities being entirely useless, he can only turn to the other kids – which almost ends up being worse than nothing. He tries to get help from “good kids” Sherri and Terri, and they stab him in the front out of pure malice. He calls up his actual friend Milhouse for backup, and that just ends up screwing him over even worse. The fact that Bart is failing while Milhouse is apparently passing is yet another mere coincidence (Bart does worse than Milhouse despite copying his answers exactly).
(Incidentally, it’s notable that the world of adults in this episode is flat and monolithic, while the world of children is varied and dynamic. More broadly, it’s notable just how muchstuff is crammed into this episode. This post is however many goddamn words long and I’m still glossing it. You can say that about almost any Simpsons episode, but it’s still impressive.)
Ultimately, then, Bart has to resort to bargaining with something that is within his abilities. The one thing Bart is genuinely skilled at is evading the rules, and this becomes his ticket to success – or so it would appear. He has something that he can offer Martin in exchange for what he needs. But careful consideration of the ensuing montage reveals otherwise. The things that Bart teaches Martin are substantive and apropos (the “inverse proximity to authority figures” line is particularity great – Martin translates Bart’s advice accurately and Bart understands and verifies the translation). Martin ends up successfully applying his new abilities and adventuring away from the forecastle of the Pequod.
In contrast, everything that Martin teaches Bart is entirely superficial. He cleans up his study area and gives him a plant and shows him how to use a highlighter, but they never get around to the one thing that Bart actually needs to learn, which is how to study. The bit with the highlighter is particularly pointed: Martin closely monitors Bart’s progress before concluding, “pretty soon you’ll be ready to try it with a real book.” Bart learns that he’s supposed to be highlighting key passages in his reading, but he never learns the thing that actually matters, which is how to identify those passages in the first place. Worse, Bart doesn’t even realize that he’s missing something here; he thinks the problem is that he’s just not good enough. In the last studying scene, we see Bart doing the exact same thing he was doing in the first one: reading straight through a chapter and trying to cram all the information into his head, indiscriminately (and, worse, without understanding it; he tries to memorize the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” but he doesn’t know what it means).
And this isn’t Martin’s fault. Unlike almost everyone else in the episode, he is good-natured enough to make an earnest attempt to help Bart succeed. The problem is that Martin is actually in the same position as Bart: he happens to be good at school, so he thinks that this is just who he is, and he doesn’t realize that there are actual skills involved. Hence, he is only able to teach Bart the surface-level stuff that is under his conscious control. Even if Martin hadn’t ended up betraying Bart, he still wouldn’t have been able to provide any real help.
In other words, Martin, someone who really is smart and good at schoolwork, also has no idea what he’s doing. This is set up rather subtly by his introductory book report. By obediently following the dictates of his social role, Martin is able to recite what Hemingway had to say about life, but it’s not until Bart takes him outside of that context that he is able to understand the practice of what he was preaching. Hilariously, Bart is the one who holds up his end of the deal here: he really does teach Martin how to be less of a square. Furthermore, it works, and it’s basically the only thing that anyone in this episode accomplishes successfully. Bart is very close to being the only person in his social sphere who is actually competent at what he does.
So with nothing on Earth to rely on, Bart’s last hope is otherworldly assistance. Lisa’s observation here is actually inaccurate: prayer may be “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” but Bart hasn’t been scoundreling. He’s been trying, and nothing has worked. His resort to prayer is a genuine last resort. As such, the miracle that saves Bart is portrayed as a literal miracle. This is unusual. Fiction normally tries to avoid this sort of thing, because it strains credulity. When you have to rely on a deus ex machina, you want it to be as understated as possible – you don’t accompany it with the literal Hallelujah Chorus. Here, though, this is the point: Bart’s situation requires a miracle. The show means us to understand that, from any kind of realistic perspective, someone like Bart is deeply fucked. That’s what makes the ending more than just a cynical TV joke; indeed, it’s not really a joke at all. There are a great many living humans for whom the equivalent of a lucky D- constitutes literal redemption.
But even then, it isn’t the miracle that saves Bart. He’s more than ready to waste the day playing in the snow – and this is actually entirely justified. Everyone else really does have a great time. The fact that Bart can’t join in because he has to memorize a bunch of dumb history facts for basically no reason really is bullshit. I mean, he’s ten. The psychosis of a society that requires a ten-year-old to hole himself up doing paperwork like a listless accountant cannot be overemphasized.
Anyway, the point is that, as events unfold, god has nothing to do with Bart’s salvation. It is Lisa and not god who causes Bart to put in his final effort, and she does it for no reason. She didn’t make a deal like Martin, and there’s nothing in this episode giving her a positive motivation to want to help Bart. In fact, she has reason to resent him, as she knows that he faked an illness to get out of his responsibilities. She acts out of pure principles, and not even particularly well-developed ones (this is actually-an-eight-year-old Lisa, not Magical Buddha Lisa); she simply has a general sense of what the right thing to do is. And this is able to accomplish what the weight of society and the power of god herself could not: it gets Bart to hit the books.
This points to the fundamental problem with appealing to god or any other source of external authority in order to get people to behave in a certain way. Any god that happens to exist can say or do whatever it wants, but it’s still up to each individual human to choose whether or not to obey. Lisa convinces Bart of what the right thing to do is, which is something that can only be done on the human level.
And yet, even in the circumscribed world of happy-ending fiction, this is still not enough – nothing is enough. Bart does the right thing and tries his hardest (he actually barricades himself in the basement in an attempt to avoid distractions, which doesn’t work. He just ends up imagining something more interesting than what he’s trying to read), and he fails. And this is where the claws really come out: Bart applies his full effort and is still unable to accomplish a basic, everyday task.
The episode moves through the last test scene so efficiently, even including jokes (“it’s a high F?”), that it’s almost difficult to notice how harrowing it really is. The uncomfortableness of Bart’s breakdown is the synthesis of everything that’s so deeply wrong about the events of this episode: the fact that Bart was constantly harassed by his ostensible caretakers and never helped, the fact that he tried everything and was screwed over at every turn, the fact that his future hinges on a number written in red marker on a piece of paper, the fact that he just plain lacks the ability to do what he’s trying to do and he doesn’t even have the most basic understanding of why that is, and the fact that all of this is happening to a fucking ten-year-old. And it’s the last, undeniable bit of evidence that Bart really does care, that his apparent nihilism is something that society has forced on him against his will, that he does not want to be a loser.
But Bart is saved in the end, and what saves him is not society or friendship or innate ability or divine intervention or moral principles. It’s pity. His burned-out, apathetic teacher, a natural enemy, someone who has never helped him and towards whom he has never been anything less than a headache, takes pity on him, and gives him a passing grade for no other reason. It’s important to realize that Krabappel’s justification for the extra point is total bullshit. Her line saying “it’s only fair” is a particularly incisive bit of dialogue, because the entire point of this scene is precisely that it’s not fair. Nobody else got the chance to blurt out random facts for extra points, and indeed, from a structural perspective, there’s not really any reason why Bart’s knowledge of extraneous material that isn’t on the test is at all meritorious. The deciding factor is basic, in-the-moment human emotion, and it isn’t even one of the good emotions. It’s something that motivates Krabappel to break the rules and pass someone who doesn’t deserve it.
So the real happy ending here is not that success is still possible under even the most dire of circumstances; indeed, the episode establishes thoroughly that this is not the case. Rather, it is that even without success, even as one’s bones are being crushed by the unfeeling gears of the machine, there is still such a thing as human decency. We value mercy, not despite but because it is the absence of justice.
The classic Simpsons episode “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” is about a crooked businessman who self-finances a political campaign based entirely on cheap pandering, solely for his own self-aggrandizement. This is somewhat relevant to the current situation.
The episode’s framing device is Burns’s team of political hucksters and bagmen, who slowly massage his image through a series of hacky political gestures (it’s not clear whether the laser-like focus on impossibly precise poll numbers that spring up immediately in response to each new plot event is itself intended as satire). His ratings slowly but surely climb with each rote cry for lower taxes, until, inevitably, he’s at exactly fifty percent on the night before the election, and everything hinges on dinner with the Simpsons.
The ending is, first of all, amazing. The “card question” Burns’s team gives to Lisa compares his campaign to a “runaway freight train,” which, in context, is supposed to be a positive image, but it’s actually a veiled criticism. It’s a big, dumb hunk of metal, unstoppable, surging inevitably into oblivion. It is under the control of forces larger than humans; no one can stop it.
Homer, for example, supports Burns for no other reason than that he’ll be fired if he doesn’t. That this is illegal is irrelevant; what matters is the bare fact of it. Marge and Lisa want to stop Burns, but there’s nothing they can actually do. The least they want is to not be complicit in evil, but they can’t do that, either. When Burns’s team descends upon the house, what anyone wants becomes a moot point; structure takes over.
This is illustrated by Bart’s and Lisa’s actions at dinner. Bart doesn’t care about the situation either way. He almost screws things up just by instinctively mouthing off, but it doesn’t matter. One quick brush-off from Burns and the scene rolls along as scripted. Lisa, by contrast, understands what’s happening. She wants to screw things up, but she’s desperately aware that she can’t. She sees the cameras, the suits, the eager reporters attuned to Burns’s carefully scripted reactions, and she realizes that anything she could possibly say would just get turned to Burns’s advantage, that she’s no more capable than Bart of having any effect at all. She resigns herself to the inanity of “the card question” out of sheer hopelessness.
Marge seems to be equally powerless. Whe she objects to the dinner, Homer tries to ameliorate her with classic sexist condescension: the big, important world of politics is for men; women should be content to clean up afterwards. Homer, of course, is being genuinely conciliatory; he has zero understanding of the context of his statements. Yet, in his way, he stumbles upon an important truth: the domestic sphere is a real thing, and relegating it to women gives them control over its power. It’s a specific, contingent type of power, obviously, but it’s something, and Marge takes it.
The episode only offers one line of explanation for Marge’s actions: she reassures Lisa by telling her to “always give your mother the benefit of the doubt.” This is not some nuclear-family bromide; what it means is that there’s no such thing as inevitability. Total control is an illusion that the ruling class projects for its own safety, to cover up the holes. As meticulously as Burns’s people prepared every aspect of the evening, they completely missed the most obvious danger. They assumed, without even thinking about it, that the housewife would do her job and prepare a nice, inoffensive meal.
The entire story of this episode is told in one shot that lasts for about 2 frames. When Marge uncovers the main course, everyone in the room freezes in shock. The script has been unwritten, reality has entered the room, and no one has any idea what to do. Lisa smiles.
But the actual reason that Burns’s campaign fails is ultimately ambiguous. One of the reporters calls in the headline “Burns Can’t Swallow Own Story,” which has two possible interpretations. One is that Burns is a hypocrite, that the significance of the dinner was that it unmasked him as a phony. His spit-up was a “gaffe” that punctured his polished image. In this sense, despite the outcome, incumbent governor Mary Bailey was wrong to rely on the voters’ “intelligence and good judgment.” Neither of these had anything to do with what happened. Burns lived by the sword and he died by the sword. The truth was never part of the equation.
The other interpretation is that it was actually Burns’s story that mattered, the story being that Blinky was not the canary in the coal mine but merely a harmless aberration. This is the story that Burns advances in his first campaign ad – he unwittingly foreshadows Marge’s coup de grace when he describes Blinky as having “a taste that can’t be beat” (it is, of course, impossible for him to know this, as there’s only one Blinky).
Thus, when Marge concedes that she’ll “express herself” through her housekeeping, she’s not kidding. Her dinner surprise is not a stunt; it’s a specific, relevant political argument. The cause of Burns’s downfall is not at all that he is made to look like a fool or a hypocrite, it’s that his environmental recklessness really is dangerous, and he really would be a bad governor for that reason (speaking of which, 2x relevance combo). From this point of view, the truth outs. All of Burns’s high-priced machinations are entirely successful, but they end up being for naught, because the truth is that which kills you regardless of whether or not anyone believes in it.
So, the premise of this episode is that American politics is all a big show, an endless procession of photo ops and empty promises with no connection to the question of who’s right for the job. This is certainly the case. One recalls Obama’s 2008 campaign, a towering edifice sure to loom large in the annals of advertising history.
And yet, you can’t build a house on sand. The only reason Obama was able to gain any traction was because people wanted something in the first place, and Obama happened to be poised to exploit that desire. True, much of the antipathy towards Bush II was superficial, based on his sloppy speech and glib demeanor. And much of Obama’s support, even to this day, is based on the fact that he talks good and he seems like a nice guy. But he didn’t pick “hope” and “change” as his slogans for no reason. He picked them because people were actually hopeful, and they actually wanted change.
This time around, things are looking a little different. There’s nobody running a super-slick advertising blitz. On the contrary, the candidates that are getting people excited – on both sides – are the ones who are being completely brazen about their values, and expressing those values through specific, if ridiculous, policy proposals, allowing themselves to look like fools in the process. Furthermore, there have been gaffes-a-plenty from all comers, but pretty much no one cares. Lacking Obama’s elevation of empty rhetoric to an art form, this go-around is illuminating the real values conflict at the heart of the current political situation.
There’s been a lot of talk about “policy specifics” and whether things are “practical,” but none of this actually has anything to do with anything. Consider: The Wall. When people try to argue against The Wall, they’ll point out that you can’t actually build a wall along the whole border, or that it won’t stop immigration anyway, or that immigration doesn’t actually took our jerbs. None of this fucking matters! The Wall is a symbol. It means “keep those brown people the hell out of my country.” It is for this reason alone that immigration is currently a hot-button issue among Republicans. Are there really any mushheads fickle enough to have wondered whether or not deporting all the Mexicans was a good idea, and then changed their minds based on the evidence? I submit that there are no such people. People know which side they’re on, it’s just that they rarely get the chance to express it.
Look, I’m not exactly sanguine about living in a country where half the population holds violent racism among their core values. But given that this is the case, I’d rather know about it. After all, it’s the same situation on the other side. Until just now, everyone thought that any invocation of “socialism” was a death sentence in American politics, that everything had to be argued in terms of efficiency and progress instead of common welfare. As it turns out, this is not the case; it turns out that a lot of people will not only accept such arguments but are thrilled to be able to support a candidate who represents these kinds of values. The truth is strong.
In other words, the idea that we can fix things by getting rid of the spectacle and focusing on the “real issues” is entirely misguided. The real issues are contained within the spectacle, and they’re what people are actually responding to. Bamboozlement is not the problem. This is why there’s nothing more tiresome than the constant condescending cavalcade of “experts” offering “explainers” to help people make “informed” decisions. People are making values-based decisions; offering them facts misses the point.
The whole “disruption” thing is obviously bullshit, but if there was ever an industry that deserved to get the hell disrupted out of it by technology, it’s punditry. The entire job of pundits is to create a fantasy realm where politics is all about strategy and tactics and has nothing to do with actual values. And because those values determine what kind of society we’re going to live in, not to mention who is actually going to get to stay alive in it, pundits are very close to being the worst people in the world. The fact that the internet is allowing people to engage in politics on their own terms is very close to being a real coup.
But the rise of the internet is full of (apparent) paradoxes, and one of them is that the internet is simultaneously stripping away the old veneer of pre-produced talking-head artificiality and creating a new layer of mediation, something different from what we’ve seen before. Twitter, for example, seems spontaneous and authentic, but it’s actually a highly artificial form of communication, the existence of which motivates people to say things they wouldn’t otherwise, in a manner they wouldn’t otherwise adopt. This isn’t about being “real” or “fake”; the situation is not contradictory. Everything is mediated, and every layer of mediation includes aspects that obscure the truth and aspects that reveal it.
Furthermore, the truth is much, much simpler than the professional unexplainers make it out to be. People know what they want, and if you offer it to them, they’ll take it. Some people find this scary. I find it to be the only thing that’s actually heartening.
While it’s a moderate amount of fun to go through and debunk all of David Foster Wallace’s silly arguments, there’s a real mystery here: how he could be so serious and thoughtful and yet so fundamentally clueless. While I very much don’t buy the whole “genius” angle (either in regards to DFW or in general), he does seem to have been smart enough that he shouldn’t have failed this comprehensively without a good reason. In other words, there must have been a fundamental flaw in his general approach – one which would be worth our while to identify and correct. In order to get to the bottom of this, we need to unpack the closest thing he wrote to a mission statement: “E Unibus Pluram.” This essay is where Wallace fully articulates his stance with regard to Our Modern Culture, which stance is, in short, opposed to irony and in favor of a sort of refined banality.
As usual, Wallace is taking a pretty basic idea, padding it with vague intellectualism, and using his substantial writing talent to make it look good. The idea that society nowadays is “too ironic” and “nothing means anything anymore” is common enough to have become its own cliche. As a result, there is a significant anti-DFW contingent that is largely motivated by an instinctive skepticism of anyone making this type of argument, which is a good instinct. Banality actually is a seriously bad thing and anyone who winds up in the vicinity of advocating it really needs to watch their step.
But we can do better than merely rejecting Wallace’s arguments on these grounds. First, this line of argument merits a thorough counterargument precisely because it’s so common. Second, if we accept that Wallace was a reasonably smart person and that he put a lot of work into his arguments, then it will be at least interesting to figure out how his efforts led him here. Finally, figuring out what Wallace’s deal was will help us come to a more complete understanding of what his work was really about.
In order for any of this to make sense, we need to start with a critical correction to Wallace’s framework: we need to define “irony.” I’ve mentioned that Wallace has a bad habit of not interrogating his framework that leads to him drawing overly broad conclusions, but in this case it’s worse. If the claim is that “irony” is destroying our ability to create meaning, then what we mean by “irony” is the entire issue.
Despite all the conniptions that people whip themselves into over the topic, the basic definition of irony is pretty simple: irony is when you use words to express something other than what those words actually say. The simplest example is sarcasm, which is when you use tone to indicate that what you mean is the opposite of what you’re saying. But irony in general does not necessarily convey the opposite of what you’re saying, it merely conveys something different. Note also that this definition does not imply any kind of motivation or ideological stance.
My favorite example for understanding irony is the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar(it’s in Act 3, Scene 2). As you’ll recall, Caesar has just been murdered by Brutus and the other senators, and an angry mob is at the capital demanding some answers. Brutus gives a simple explanation that satisfies the crowd, and then, being one of literature’s great honorable morons, leaves to allow Mark Antony to deliver the eulogy. Antony famously states that “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” but the key to his speech is that he’s actually there to do neither. He’s there to incite a riot. The usual sense of irony is present when he repeatedly says that “Brutus is an honorable man”; certainly, this is the opposite of what Antony believes. But that’s not the point. Antony isn’t trying to convince people that Brutus is dishonorable, he’s trying to enrage them. Furthermore, Antony is being entirely sincere here. He actually loved Caesar and he’s actually pissed about him being murdered. Irony is merely the means by which he is taking this one action to advance his cause. It’s perfectly normal for irony and sincerity to coexist, because irony is not a worldview, it is a rhetorical technique. It can be used for whatever purpose one requires.
Despite this, it’s easy to see why various other concepts such as “detachment” or “cynicism” or “apathy” have glommed onto the concept of irony. Accepting irony as a legitimate method of communication is sort of like opening Pandora’s Box: everything becomes possible. It’s possible, for example, to use irony to avoid actually saying anything, or to use it to denigrate broadly without allowing for the possibility of a better alternative, but these are only possible uses of irony. Irony itself does not imply any particular motivation, which is why it’s so silly to say, as people so often do, that we’re living in an “ironic culture” or that irony is over because of a Broadway musical or whatever.
Okay, so, what’s the big deal if Wallace used a word wrong? He was referring to something with the word “irony,” so we should just be talking about whatever that thing was, right? Perhaps Wallace specifically meant the use of irony to stay cool and detached and avoid committing oneself, and that’s what he was arguing against. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. The problem is that Wallace and the other cultural critics who lament our “ironic” society vastly overestimate the amount of irony that is actually present, because they lump together everything but the most po-faced sincerity under the “irony” label. This is ultimately the same old problem of Wallace using a broad brush to paint over the cracks in his actual analysis. If we go through Wallace’s arguments with a more rigorous understanding of what irony is and what it can do, we can both fix his conclusion and figure out where the flaws crept in.
So let’s talk about TV.
TV is My Friend
Wallace’s basic charge against TV is that it’s created a pervasively ironic culture through its combination of ubiquity and self-reference. Briefly: once TVs wound up in everybody’s homes and became a normal part of human life, TV programs then had to incorporate TV itself into their own content in order to maintain verisimilitude. One generation later, this self-incorporation has itself become part of everyone’s life experience, so now TV has to refer to itself referring to itself. Note that this is as far as it goes; there’s not an infinite number of possible layers of reference because at this point the Ouroboros has caught its own tail. If you try to add another layer you’ll still just have TV referring to itself referring to itself, which is the same as the third layer. Also note that the timeline for this checks out: TV first becomes ubiquitous during the naive 1950s, gains its first level of detachment one generation later, in the cynical 1970s, and achieves its true form of black-hole postmodernism in the nihilistic 1990s.
This is wrong. That is, all of this stuff did sort of happen in a basic sense, but it’s wrong to accept this as a complete explanation of American culture, which is exactly what Wallace is doing in this essay. The simple fact is that it’s a big world out there and there’s tons of other shit going on. Part of the problem with Wallace is that he’ll say one thing that’s correct in a limited way, leading people to accept his argument, but then go on to draw an unacceptably broad conclusion from it.
Wallace evokes the pervasiveness of TV with the statistic that “television is watched over six hours a day in the average American household.” He describes the situation is follows:
“Let’s for a second imagine Joe Briefcase as now just an average U.S. Male, relatively lonely, adjusted, married, blessed with 2.3 apple-cheeked issue, utterly normal, home from hard work at 5:30, starting his average six-hour stint in from of the television.”
Now, this is obviously a rhetorical description. Wallace is aware that an average is not a quota. But these sorts of clever flourishes are dangerous precisely because of their ability to smuggle in unintended assumptions. That’s why it matters that the situation Wallace is describing here is totally impossible.
If we assume that Joe here works for 8 hours a day, sleeps for 8 hours, and spends 2 hours on commuting/eating/errands/etc. (a significant underestimate), the six-hours-a-day statistic then implies that he spends 100% of his free time watching TV. Also, in order for six hours to be the average, some people would have to watch more than that, which is mathematically impossible. So, what does the six-hours-a-day statistic actually mean? For Wallace, its only significance is that it’s a big number. But if we consider the actual circumstances required for it to be true, we come to a very different conclusion: most TV watching occurs in the background.
This is fatal to everything that Wallace goes on to argue. If people are mostly watching TV in the background, then they are precisely not obsessively analyzing it and drawing deep philosophical conclusions in the way that Wallace needs them to be in order for his analysis to be applicable. The person who is doing that is, of course, Wallace himself. This is what I mean about smuggling in assumptions. Wallace is trying to create a “general” description of the TV-watching experience so that his argument can apply to everyone. But of course, there is no “everyone.” Each person has their own circumstances and personality, and as such, will interpret the same content in a different way; this is not the kind of thing that can be generalized. I’m sure that, for Wallace, the experience of watching TV was a deep source of existential anxiety in precisely the way he describes. But Wallace has no justification for projecting his own experiences onto everyone else.
In short, the content of TV or any other medium cannot cause the kind of broad social pandemic Wallace is attempting to diagnose here, because everyone will have their own idiosyncratic reaction to it. There is, of course, something that can cause broad social effects: structural conditions, which do affect everyone in the same way. This is what it means to say of TV that “the medium is the message.”
To understand this, let’s consider the current televisual situation and what it means for Wallace’s arguments. In this regard, “E Unibus Plurum” is seriously dated; it was written in 1990, and time has staggered on quite a bit since then. But this actually useful to our analysis: because both the content and the situation of TV are bit different now than they were in the early 90s, anything that’s the same between then and now cannot be explained by TV in the way that Wallace argues.
The structural change is that the rise of on-demand TV (first via DVDs, now via streaming) means that it is no longer “background viewing.” Quite the contrary, the current M.O. of the TV audience is “binge-watching,” which you can tell is a new thing because we had to make up a term for it. The result is that the TV experience is now more analytical and fannish, rather than merely fodder for small talk. The evidence for this is quite apparent: first, geek culture, using the definition that a “geek” is someone who’s a little too into a niche cultural product, is now mainstream. The current run of superhero movies, for examples, is starting to rely on its audience having the sort of obsessive in-knowledge that used to be the provenance of only the geekiest subcultures. Second, there’s about a billion thinkpieces all over the internet analyzing any new TV show that achieves any kind of popularity.
And third, the content itself has changed to better fit this new reality. Rather than sitcoms with recognizable premises and easy-to-get jokes, long-form dramas with complicated plots are now the order of the day, precisely because viewers can now be counted on not only to be capable of sorting such stories out, but to want to. This also means that TV shows tend to be less “zany” and more substantive; the sort of self-reflexive irony that Wallace opposed is no longer in vogue, precisely because TV shows now need to engage viewers for a long commitment and get them to talk the shows up to others, rather than merely flatter them with a cheap sense of recognition.
Furthermore, TV’s new angle is merely one aspect of a broader cultural shift away from the “ironic” 90s. Fannishness and hyper-engagement are the new normal, not just for TV but in general. The proliferation of spammy listicles and hyperbolic headlines demonstrates that the internet is replete with an aggressively (which is to say intentionally) naive sincerity. Our disdain is now reserved not for earnestness and candor but for hot takes and “negative” criticism. A lot of this is of course due to the structure of the internet itself, which allows people to coalesce around niche interests and choose not to read things that make them feel bad (or challenged, or like they might be wrong about something important). But in a sense it’s also just a mere trend, just like the whole “dark and edgy” thing in the 90s was a mere trend.
But isn’t this exactly what Wallace predicted, that the next trend in media would be one against irony? It would be – if Wallace were talking about trends. But he’s not, he’s attempting to diagnose a pandemic: the modern trap of informed meaninglessness. Thus, the question to ask is: now that the alleged virus is gone, what of the patient? Do we live in a just society that provides everyone with the opportunity to find meaning in their own lives? Are we no longer haunted by a vague sense of anxiety and guilt over our position in the world? Is image now less important than substance?
Indeed, the fact that Wallace’s analysis is still popular and people are still looking to him for guidance answers these questions all by itself. Irony was never the problem, and Wallace’s argument can, fittingly, be reduced to a cliche: he mistook the symptoms for the disease.
It’s TV’s Fault Why I Am This Way
To understand how Wallace got this wrong, let’s take a closer look at some of the examples he uses. By identifying the errors in his specific arguments, we can move toward a correction of his overall approach.
One of the central arguments in the essay is Wallace’s analysis of a Pepsi commercial. This is kind of an own goal all by itself, but I’m going to go ahead and take it seriously. The commercial is your basic “crowd of attractive young people having fun” type of deal, which Wallace analyzes as follows:
“There’s about as much ‘choice’ at work in this commercial as there was in Pavlov’s bell-kennel. The use of the word ‘choice’ here is a dark joke. In fact the whole 30-second spot is tongue-in-cheek, ironic, self-mocking . . . In contrast to a blatant Buy This Thing, the Pepsi commercial pitches parody. The ad is utterly up-front about what TV ads are popularly despised for doing, viz. using primal, flim-flam appeals to sell sugary crud to people whose identity is nothing but mass consumption. This ad manages simultaneously to make fun of itself, Pepsi, advertising, advertisers, and the great U.S. watching consuming crowd.”
The Pavlov reference is apt, if obvious, but how does this make the commercial ironic? If it’s “utterly up-front” about what it’s doing, doesn’t that make it entirely sincere? Given that all advertisements necessarily have the same purpose, isn’t a “parody” of an ad actually just another ad? Certainly, one can discern a contradiction between the preaching of “choice” and the fundamentally coercive nature of advertising, but is the word “choice” doing any actual work here other than supplying a vaguely positive connotation? Is this supposed contradiction actually relevant to what the ad is doing?
In fact, when we’re talking about commercials, we should be looking at the most superficial interpretation, because that’s the one that the vast majority of people are going to pick up on. In this case, there’s a bunch of attractive young people having fun and drinking Pepsi, so the message is pretty obviously that Pepsi equals fun party times. No analysis required.
And this is exactly how commercials actually work. The point of a commercial is very much not to act as some sort of intellectual Rubik’s Cube; the point is to throw a brand name at you along with some positive images to create an association in your mind between the brand and whatever the images connote (fun, adventure, sex, whatever; usually sex), such that the next time you see the brand in a store you’re subconsciously more inclined to buy it. This is why commercials are such a rich source of social stereotypes: they can’t afford to portray anything that isn’t instantly recognizable.
And even if you do accept an ironic reading of a commercial, it’s ultimately beside the point, because the functional purpose of a commercial is to move product. Nobody really cares what you think about it. Companies aren’t spending billions of dollars a year producing these stupid things as some kind of grad school art project. They’re doing it because it works.
Consider what Wallace claims is a typical reaction to this commercial (he does this by once again invoking “Joe Briefcase” from above – keep this guy in mind, because he’s going to turn out to be pretty important):
“The commercial invites Joe to ‘see through’ the manipulation the beach’s horde is rabidly buying. The commercial invites a complicity between its own witty irony and veteran viewer Joe’s cynical, nobody’s-fool appreciation of that irony. It invites Joe into an in-joke the Audience is the butt of. It congratulates Joe Briefcase, in other words, on transcending the very crowd that defines him. And entire crowds of Joe B.’s responded: the ad boosted Pepsi’s market share through three sales quarters.”
But that last line is a non-sequitur: how do we know that this analysis is why the commercial was effective (also, it’s one data point out of about a billion, but let’s stay focused)? If Wallace’s reading is correct, if you actually saw the commercial and then felt this way, why on Earth would this convince you to go out and buy a Pepsi? Wouldn’t you simply pat yourself on the back for getting the joke, and then continue to express your superiority by not buying the product that you’re supposedly laughing at? On the contrary, if the ad was successful, it can only be because it operated in the usual way: by creating a subconscious positive association in the viewer’s mind. This is why it doesn’t matter what your intellectual analysis of a commercial is: because commercials operate below the level of conscious analysis. Watching a commercial automatically creates an association in your mind, and that’s it.
So that’s the first half of the problem: any one line of intellectual analysis can only get you so far; sometimes it’s just not applicable. The second half is that, as mentioned, irony is a lot more versatile than Wallace makes it out to be.
Wallace’s claim is that TV’s approach functions as an “ironic permission slip” for harmful behavior. That is, it criticizes from a safe distance, allowing the viewer to accept the criticism of their own behavior without actually feeling the need to change it. Since the issue has been addressed but the viewer hasn’t really been challenged with anything, they’re free to resume their old habits, only now they’re able to pretend that they have a real justification for doing so.
You may recall that this is precisely the accusation I’ve made against Wallace’s work: that an essay such as “Consider the Lobster” gives the impression of having addressed an important issue but ultimately allows the reader to accept the argument and then keep doing whatever they want. Given that Wallace was not being ironic, it’s clear that irony itself is not the relevant distinction; just as easily as one can be glibly ironic, one can be glibly direct. We can complete the argument by noting that the inverse is also true: a truly challenging argument can be made directly, or it can be made by using irony. Wallace’s own examples of “ironic” television prove this point.
Here’s Wallace’s list of examples of TV’s patriarchal authority figures, meant to illustrate a decline into ironic shallowness:
“Compare television’s treatment of earnest authority figures on pre-ironic shows – The FBI‘s Erskine, Star Trek‘s Kirk, Beaver‘s Ward, The Partridge Family‘s Shirley, Hawaii Five-0‘s McGarrett – to TV’s depiction of Al Bundy on Married . . . with Children, Mr. Owens on Mr. Belvedere, Homer on The Simpsons, Daniels and Hunter on Hill Street Blues, Jason Seaver on Growing Pains, Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere.”
Well, that certainly is a lot of names. So Wallace must be right, right? Unless, you know, these examples actually aren’t all the same thing.
Let’s compare two contemporaries: Al Bundy and Homer Simpson. The point of Al’s character is precisely that he’s a terrible person, and we therefore enjoy pointing at him and laughing. We may even feel a smug sense of superiority, knowing that, however much we may suck sometimes, at least we’re better than this asshole.
This is not at all how we feel about Homer. The fundamental difference is that we’re rooting for Homer, even as we recognize that his problems are often his own stupid fault. Indeed, Homer’s foolishness is presented in such a way that we actually identify with it; the fact that Homer’s annoyed grunt has become a universal expression of self-directed frustration demonstrates our collective recognition that there’s a little Homer in all of us.
Furthermore, using Homer as an example of a subverted authority figure is well off the mark, because Homer is rarely presented in this context. We most often see him being kicked around by the uncaring forces of the broader world, in which he is merely one more fork-and-spoon operator in Sector 7-G. In fact, the Simpson family unit is actually the one place where the show’s usually unsparing satire balks. Not only does the family always stick together, but it is specifically as a father that Homer is able to achieve the few victories available to him in life. The ironic angle of The Simpsons does not prevent us from caring, as Wallace would have it. It’s precisely the opposite: by portraying a recognizably broken world and showing us the kind of moral victories that can be realistically achieved in such a world, The Simpsonsmakes caring a plausible option.
Next, here’s a list of examples of, uh, something related to “postmodern irony,” I guess:
“The commercials for Alf‘s Boston debut in a syndicated package feature the fat, cynical, gloriously decadent puppet (so much like Snoopy, like Garfield, like Bart, like Butt-Head) advising me to ‘Eat a whole lot of food and stare at the TV.’”
Seriously, I have no idea what all these characters are supposed to have in common. It’s times like this that the accusation of “name-dropping” is more than just an easy diss; it’s nice that you can think of a bunch of supposed examples of whatever it is you’re talking about, but guess what, you still need to actually support your argument.
Anyway, this is wrong, again. The counterexample, obviously, is Bart Simpson. Bart’s mischief is not an expression of decadent nihilism, it’s his attempt to be a person in a society that is trying to turn him into a robot. The fact that The Simpsons “ironically” validates Bart’s bad behavior (to an extent, there are also counterexamples such as “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” when the show clearly intends us to understand that he’s gone over the line) isn’t supposed to make us feel comfortable with it; it’s actually an incisive criticism of the society that has produced him. Contra Wallace, the purpose of the parody is not to allow the audience to laugh at the situation from a safe, comfortable distance. The purpose is to make the bizarre world of Springfield seem all too real.
So hey, did you notice that Wallace used The Simpsons as an example in both lists, and that in both cases it was wrong in the same way, and that if we consider this example more comprehensively it completely undoes his argument? You did, right?
Teacher, Mother, Secret Lover
The Simpsons is a fundamentally ironic show. The setup is actually a specific parody of the stereotypical 80s family sitcom, though this is somewhat difficult to understand from a modern standpoint, as said sitcoms have largely ended up in the dustbin of history. The point is, the setting and characters are basically all explicit stereotypes, and, per Wallace’s argument, we as the audience are expected to understand this “ironically,” that is, to recognize the stereotypes and see through them. Wallace’s claim is that the function of this sort of irony is to merely criticize without committing to a real position, such that anything the show actually tries to say can be dismissed as just being “part of the joke.” But this is deeply incorrect in both ways: first, the function of irony on The Simpsons is not merely to criticize; second, and more importantly, the show’s irony does not prevent it from making sincere statements.
While I could probably make this argument by just picking random episodes, let’s try to identify some of the more provocative examples. “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” is a good fit, since it’s one of the classic “ironic take on social issues” episodes. Marge fulfills the role of the stereotypical “concerned housewife” when she organizes a boycott of The Itchy & Scratchy Show due to its violent influence on children. This episode lambasts both the priggish moralists of the censorship campaign and the hack corporate cartoonists who just want to be left alone to churn out their mindless program in peace. Wallace’s claim is that this sort of setup allows us to laugh at the issue from a safe distance without actually engaging with it. But this is not so: the purpose of the episode’s ironic tone is precisely to engage with the issue in a deeper way than by merely taking one side of it.
Consider the scene where Roger Meyers, Jr., the cynical, cigar-chomping executive behind Itchy & Scratchy, argues that cartoon violence can’t be a real problem because violence already existed before cartoons were invented. We’re meant to read this argument ironically: to recognize both that it has a basic validity and that it’s fundamentally fallacious, and also to understand why Meyers is making it. This ironic angle actually draws us in to the argument; we think: “well, of course TV didn’t invent violence, but that doesn’t mean it has noeffect on anything.” Furthermore, it’s clear that Meyers doesn’t actually care and is just making the easiest, most self-serving argument he can come up with. Meyers is the villain here, and not in an “ironic” way: he’s actually a bad person for not caring about the social effects of his program. This directly challenges the prejudices of the viewers, who are naturally expected to be receptive to the anti-censorship argument.
On the other side, consider how Marge’s protest ultimately fails because she’s unwilling to go along with her histrionic supporters in boycotting Michelangelo’s David. The relationship is supposedly that these are both issues about “freedom of expression,” but we can see that this is absurd. Marge has a specific grievance against Itchy & Scratchy; she started the protest because the show actually caused Maggie to attack Homer with a mallet. That’s the actual issue, and the fact that the episode uses irony to deconstruct the standard protest narrative without ignoring the human aspect at the heart of it shows us that there’s a better way to handle the issue than to engage in tired arguments about “censorship.” The point of the irony is that the framework we use to talk about this issue is flawed. This episode is not mere criticism; it encourages us to look beyond the usual rhetoric and focus on the things that actually matter.
The Simpsons is also full of entirely sincere moments, one of the deeper ones occurring in “Bart Sells His Soul.” The episode begins with a fairly standard ironic take on religion, mocking both Reverend Lovejoy’s cynical approach to pastoring and Milhouse’s naive acceptance of all manner of pseudo-religious nonsense. Bart takes the expected position of the viewer: totally unmoved and entirely willing to give up what little remains of his spirituality for $5. But it’s Bart’s position that the episode goes on to attack; while nothing that happens is dramatic enough to really disprove Bart’s argument, the little details of his situation add up to a deep feeling of wrongness. We come to feel that, while Bart’s position may be a smart one to take, it’s ultimately not a wise one.
By the end of the episode, the ironic angle is totally gone, and the show, through Lisa, ends up making a straightforward philosophical argument:
“But you know, Bart, some philosophers believe that nobody is born with a soul, that you have to earn one, through suffering, and thought, and prayer, like you did last night.”
But this statement is only meaningful in the context of the episode’s previous disdain for religion as it is normally conceived. It is precisely through this criticism that the show is able to suggest to us that there may actually be something there, deeper than where we normally look (certain modern atheists could perhaps learn something here). Furthermore, while Bart appears to ignore Lisa’s philosophizing, he does so while eating the piece of paper symbolizing his soul, implying that, even without accepting the explicit argument, Bart has internalized something significant through his experience.
Finally, let’s consider a counterexample. “The Principal and the Pauper” is precisely the kind of thing Wallace is complaining about: an episode whose self-referential irony prevents it from saying anything about anything other than itself. I actually have more sympathy for this episode than most people; I recognize what it’s trying to do, and I can understand why someone writing for Season 9 of The Simpsons would be interested in making an episode like this. But the fact remains that it’s fundamentally hollow, and compared to the show’s prior greatness, it’s no surprise that this episode came as a bitter disappointment.
And that’s precisely the point: this episode is universally reviled. Not only is meaningless self-referential irony not taken for granted, it isn’t even expected. This episode is an outlier in terms of up-its-own-ass-ness (or at least it was, back when the show was worth talking about). And people responded to it in exactly the opposite way from what Wallace is claiming: they didn’t pat themselves on the back for being in on the joke, they were fucking pissed. The vehemence of the reaction was enough that the writer, future Futurama stalwart Ken Keeler, used the episode’s DVD commentary as an opportunity to try to explain himself.
And while The Simpsons is unique in many ways, it’s far from the only counterexample to Wallace’s argument. Along the same lines as “The Principal and the Pauper,” Family Guy is widely hated for using shallow irony to avoid being meaningful in any way whatsoever. Shows that used irony constructively include The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which increased political engagement and helped make liberalism cool again (how effective this was at actually changing anything is a separate issue). Consider also the environmental episodes of Futurama, which use satire to make the vital point that there’s no such thing as short-term environmentalism. Shows that are enjoyed specifically for their lack of irony include Last Week Tonight, which is popular due to the fact that it actually explains political issues, and Friends, a still-beloved show which surely ranks among humanity’s most painfully earnest creations.
[update: when I wrote this I actually had no idea how popular Friends still was. Turns out it’s like uber whoa. Where’s all that irony when you need it?]
Furthermore, ironic self-reference is not confined to TV, and it’s hardly a modern invention anyway; stories about stories are as old as, like, stories. Examples can be found even in the work of a writer whom Wallace upholds as a shining example of how to address serious issues in fiction: Fyodor Dostoevsky.
The Brothers Karamazov begins with a “From the Author” note, which is in fact not from the author, but from the narrator of the story. This is interesting because the narrator is not actually a character in the story. He sometimes refers to himself as “I” and references his own location and observations, but we never actually meet the man. At other times, his voice completely dissolves and the book defaults to standard third-person omniscient narration; many sections are about the private thoughts of the characters when they are alone. Yet when the narrator’s voice does emerge, we see that he has his own quirks and is in fact a bit of an overwriter – the reader (that is, the reader of late-1800s Russia) is expected to notice this and to understand it as a deliberate choice on Dostoevsky’s part, rather than as bad writing. Furthermore, the opening note itself actually expresses an opinion on the story and suggests an interpretation, one that the narrator himself admits we might not agree with.
In this way, the line between fiction and reality – between the narrator, the characters, and the actual author of the actual book – becomes blurred. This exactly the kind of thing that people would describe as “postmodern irony” if someone like David Foster Wallace were doing it (Wallace’s use of narrative voice is actually quite straightforward by comparison). So, doesn’t Wallace’s critique also apply to Dostoevsky? Isn’t the function of devices like these to distance us from the story, to let us experience it from a safe remove without actually grappling with its ideas? As another example, Dostoevsky has a habit of mocking his real-life political opponents by placing their arguments in the mouths of his more ridiculous characters; doesn’t this allow us to merely laugh at these ideas rather than engaging them?
This line of thinking is obviously silly, because Dostoevsky is a Serious Writer whom we are required to Take Seriously. And we are correct to do so; when we’re talking about someone like Dostoevsky, we understand quite well that his artifice is a crucial part of how he achieves his intended (or unintended) effects. Yet when we’re talking about TV shows, the name of the game is to find a way to dismiss any possible importance in the actual content as quickly as possible. In this way, we can see that by ascribing an improbable amount of influence to TV, Wallace is in fact not taking it seriously; wrapping up the whole enterprise in a box labelled “irony” is a way to avoid engaging with the many things that are actually going on (The Simpsons being merely one of them, even in the 1990s). Wallace implicitly assumes that, unlike real art, TV is just a thing, and is therefore susceptible to a simple explanation of its one ideology and the one effect that ideology has on society. This becomes even clearer when we realize that Wallace’s argument treats TV shows and advertising in the same way, as though they were the same thing just because they’re located in the same place. This is as foolish as trying to come up with one single thing that all of “Russian literature” means and explaining all of Russian society on that basis.
Finally, Wallace’s argument that we’re all trapped in Ironic Purgatory is actually self-refuting. If we were, how could any of us understand what Wallace was saying? On the contrary, the fact that his charge against irony was met with such a fervently positive reception (viz. that fucking commencement speech) proves precisely that we are not all entangled in a morass of ironic self-reference, we are not content to be merely “in on the joke,” and we can quite easily recognize genuine emotion when we encounter it.
The truth is that there is no irony problem, and the reason I spent forever getting here is that this myth just won’t die. Irony is a tool, it has a variety of uses, and the idea of “ending irony” is as nonsensical as it is undesirable. Wallace paints a provocative picture of “postmodern” paranoia, but the truth is he’s tilting at windmills. He’s Don Quixote in reverse: so entranced by the mythology of “postmodern irony” that he is unable to see the basic nobility of the real world.
Reading is Fundamental
Wallace’s excursion into TV land is actually the lead-in to a point about literature. Specifically, Wallace claims that the self-referential irony of TV has spread out to infect avant-garde literary fiction. As an example, he cites Some Book, by Some Guy, which appears to be one big meaningless ironic pastiche of consumer culture, or something. Here’s the thing. I could obviously check what book Wallace is talking about and try to assess his argument, I’ve got the essay right here, but I have no reason to actually care, because I’ve never heard this book or its author referenced in any other context. I’m not the most clued-in when it comes to cutting-edge literary fiction, but when Wallace talks about people like Pynchon or DeLillo, I know what he’s referring to; indeed, Wallace is able to easily explain the influence of these authors in his essay. On the contrary, when he gets around to talking about Leyner’s book (the guy’s name is Leyner), he analyzes it convincingly enough, but he fails to do the one thing that’s required for his argument to actually matter: demonstrate that Leyner is actually representative of, like, anything at all. As it stands he’s just one guy who wrote a goofy book.
If we think about why Wallace chose this example, the mists begin to clear: Wallace is talking about literary fiction because it’s his genre, and he’s worried about the use of irony because that’s the problem that Wallace himself was trying to deal with when it came to his own work. The rationale Wallace gives for talking about Leyner’s book is that it was apparently “the biggest thing for campus hipsters since The Fountainhead” (I don’t understand this joke); all this means is that it was popular in Wallace’s milieu. But the fact that this is a particular concern of Wallace’s is precisely why he does not have license to portray it as evidence of a broad cultural malaise.
So, why is this a problem? Wallace is just talking about an area of his own personal experience, right? He isn’t making a broad argument about American culture, he’s just talking about one particular use of irony and one particular response to it, so I’m totally missing the point here, right? Except not even, because Wallace totally is claiming to make a comprehensive argument that applies to all of TV, all of literature, and therefore all of America. Remember good old Joe Briefcase, and how Wallace presents him as a generic American in order to make a completely general argument, and how this is a huge problem because it allows Wallace to project his own assumptions onto everyone else without justification? Observe how he initially sets the stage:
“Every lonely human I know watches way more than the average U.S. six hours a day. The lonely, like the fictive, love one-way watching. For lonely people are usually lonely not because of hideous deformity or odor or obnoxiousness – in fact there exist today support- and social groups for persons with precisely these attributes. Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly. Let’s call the average U.S. lonely person Joe Briefcase.”
First of all, Wallace’s argument here is self-contradictory. If “lonely people” are well above the average in terms of TV watching, then the broader population of non-lonely people must be well below the average. But if this is the case, TV should be catering to this broader group of people, on account of there’s way more of them and TV is not a niche interest, meaning all of the conclusions Wallace draws about TV on the basis of what “lonely people” are like are wrong.
But the real significance of this quote is that people who “decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans” are not necessarily “lonely” – they are specifically introverts, and, as painful as it is for me to admit this, most people actually do have the particular mental disorder that allows them to be at ease around other humans. The reason Wallace focuses on introverts here is, of course, that he himself is an introvert. But given that he fails to explain this, he seems not to understand that this is something that makes him different from most people. That is, I’m sure Wallace started from the point of wondering why he felt differently than everyone else seemed to, but he then went on to, through projection and overgeneralization, explain his own problems as problems of the world.
With this in mind, we can see what Wallace is doing as he continues his setup:
“Joe Briefcase fears and loathes the strain of the special self-consciousness which seems to afflict him only when other real human beings are around, staring, their human sense-antennae abristle. Joe B. fears how he might appear, come across, to watchers. He chooses to sit out the enormously stressful game of U.S. appearance poker.”
Note not only the way Wallace is attributing specific characteristics to what is supposed to be a generic example character, but the evocativeness of this description of “Joe’s” feelings. Isn’t it terribly obvious that Wallace can only be describing the way that he himself feels? (I’ll vouch that this is a pretty decent expression of what moderate to severe introversion feels like). But why doesn’t he just say so? Why, indeed, does his example person appear to be designed precisely to be as unlike Wallace himself as possible? Consider that Wallace was certainly not the briefcase-carrying, 9-to-5 sort, and consider the earlier description of Joe of the head of a stereotypical nuclear family – also very much unlike Wallace.
The move that Wallace makes here is crucially important: he starts by describing his own feelings, invents an example character to embody those feelings, and then goes on to use this character as a fully generic example of whatever he feels like talking about at the moment. In this way, Wallace fools himself into thinking that his own feelings apply to everyone else, allowing him to draw broad conclusions through mere introspection. And this is not a con job: Wallace is not conscious of the fact that he’s doing this. Examples:
“We are the Audience, megametrically many, though most often we watch alone”
“One reason fiction writers seem creepy in person is that by vocation they really are voyeurs”
“by 1830, de Tocqueville had already diagnosed American culture as peculiarly devoted to easy sensation and mass-marketed entertainment”
“We,” “They,” “American culture.” So yes, Wallace does think that when he talks about TV he is talking about the TV audience in general, when he talks about “Image-Fiction” he is talking about literature in general, and when he talks about culture he is talking about America in general.
And he is, of course, wrong to be doing this. Being stuck in a rut of over-self-conciousness is Wallace’s problem, not TV’s. Being unable to work through modern meta-irony in order to say something meaningful is Wallace’s problem, not fiction’s. And the dearth of meaning in our semantically overcrowded society is . . . everyone’s problem, obviously, but Wallace’s entire explanation of how and why we got here is completely wrong, because the whole time he was only talking about himself.
David Foster Wallace Was Wrong About Everything
This realization recontextualizes the essay quite a bit. In order to correct Wallace’s fundamental error, we must not only avoid his generalizations, we must comprehensively edit his “we” to an “I,” his “U.S. Culture” to “my subculture,” and his “Joe Briefcase” to “David Foster Wallace.” We must understand Wallace’s work not as analytical or investigational or even observational, but as confessional.
The key, finally, is that is applies to everything Wallace wrote. Sometimes this is unproblematic, for example, when Wallace gives his thoughts on Kafka or David Lynch, he’s performing straightforward criticism; we understand that these are his arguments. But Wallace evidences this kind of restraint only rarely. When Wallace celebrates a new usage guide that supposedly resolves the deep political problems of language, it’s because said guide resolves the problem of Wallace’s own relationship with language; he assumes everyone else feels the same way; he’s wrong. When Wallace gets excited about McCain’s candidacy, it’s because McCain is providing what Wallace wants out of politics; he assumes everyone else wants the same thing; he’s wrong.
But it’s not enough to just reinterpret Wallace as a personal writer, because it is the specific move he makes of starting from a disguised version of his own prejudices and sublimating them into an intellectual argument that makes him actually wrong. Because he starts on unsteady footing, he stumbles with each step. The best place to see how this works is in “Authority and American Usage,” as this is both Wallace’s most comprehensive and most personal argument.
When Wallace finally gets around to addressing the actual “Descriptivist” linguistic argument – that languages have a set of real rules about how they actually function and several sets of fake rules that people make up for various reasons – this is how he begins his counterargument:
“A listener can usually figure out what I mean when I misuse infer for imply or say indicate for say, too. But many of these solecisms – or even just clunky redundancies like “The door was rectangular in shape” – require at least a couple extra nanoseconds of cognitive effort, a kind of rapid sift-and-discard process, before the recipient gets it.”
This is literally an unbelievably weak argument. Wallace actually has to say “nanoseconds,” because if he had phrased this in the usual way and said “seconds,” he would be making a stronger claim – one that is obviously wrong. But by softening his claim, he makes the argument worthless, because a) we can’t possibly determine the average cognitive “work” of an utterance down to the nanosecond and b) if it actually is just a nanosecond, then it’s not worth the effort to correct it. Ergo, since this argument is not plausible, it must not be Wallace’s actual argument.
But of course, Wallace is not making a linguistic argument at all; he is merely expressing himself, which is to say venting his own prejudices. The feeling that Wallace identifies as “extra work” is in fact nothing but his own feeling of irritation. This insight explains everything that is so odd about that essay. It explains why Wallace doesn’t properly engage with the work of professional linguists, the people who actually study the things he’s talking about. It explains why he meanders so broadly through so many different perspectives and ideas without properly connecting them to his main point. It explains why he chides others for making shallow, self-serving arguments and then makes even shallower, more self-serving arguments himself. And it explains why he gets an issue that he’s so passionate about so fundamentally wrong.
And so, when Wallace laments the “dead end” of irony, he’s merely addressing his own limits as a thinker. Consider his conclusion:
“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. . . . The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal‘”
Think about what Wallace is actually saying here. He’s seriously claiming that anyone making a sincere argument is necessarily subject to ridicule and eyerolling. He has to be, because otherwise he has no argument. If this is just something that happens sometimes, then the “problem” is just that some people are jerks. But the idea that there are literally no sincere statements anymore, that ironic parody is just so devastating that no one’s willing to “risk” making them, is ridiculous. Again, what’s happening here is that Wallace is making a broad cultural pattern out of his own anxieties. It is Wallace who is constantly afraid that someone will laugh at him if he comes across as too sincere. Most people do not have this problem.
Indeed, the idea that irony has a vastly increased prevalence in modern times is itself highly debatable; given that the concept dates back to at least Socrates, I’m pretty sure people have had a handle on it for a while now. Frankly, the whole thing about Vietnam/Watergate/whatever being some kind of crucial turning point for cultural values is basically one big Kids These Days rant. Which, temporally speaking, you’d think would be over by now, but it seems to have stuck for some reason. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are still conventionally patriotic, even those who are “cynical” about politics, and the number of us who actually want to fundamentally change the structure of society, as opposed to “reforming” it to curb its “excesses,” is statistically insignificant.
Second, even if we assume that we are “more ironic” now, this really means that we’re better at communicating. We can understand complex arguments at various levels of remove. We are less easily fooled by the stated beliefs and motivations of deceivers. And, of course, we can use irony ourselves in order to say things in more effective ways than merely blurting them out and hoping for the best. By realizing that irony is a tool rather than an ideology, we can actually use it to express our sincere feelings more effectively.
Thus, Wallace’s core point, that we’re all lost in the labyrinth of irony and we need to find our way back into the daylight of sincerity, is ultimately an expression of his own discomfort with the conclusions we’ve drawn from the events of the 20th century – and with the realization of where we need to head next.