In the maze


Lola Rose Thompson, Everyone Pretending To Be Fine And Dandy Until They Can’t. 2016, watercolor on paper. IMAGE/Lola Rose Thompson

Must history have losers?

One of the purposes of this section is to provide a testimony of a moment?—?to recognize and record, as C. L. R. James said?—?the questions and debates that preoccupy us. But sometimes life furnishes situations that cannot be approached intellectually. None of the usual keys fits the lock. An intellectual situation grades into an emotional situation and becomes untouchable. How do you write a history of the present, then? Sublimate, sublimate?—?until that stops getting you anywhere.

Two years ago, in January 2016, I wrote to my coeditors with a proposal for an Intellectual Situation about what I felt was an impending male backlash. One colleague asked, “What backlash?” Another worried it was too close to the bone. In the end I abandoned the essay because I couldn’t find a way in. I couldn’t figure it out.

What was happening was that the men I knew were beginning to feel persecuted as a class. They remarked on it obliquely, with jokes that didn’t quite sound like jokes, in emails or in offhand remarks at parties. Irritation and annoyance were souring into something worse. Men said they felt like they were living in Soviet Russia. The culture was being hijacked by college students, humorless young people who knew nothing of real life, its paradoxes and disappointments. Soon intellectuals would not be able to sneeze without being sent to the gulag.

Women, too, felt the pressure. “Your generation is so moral,” a celebrated novelist said to an editor my age. Another friend, a journalist in her fifties, described the heat she got from online feminists for expressing skepticism toward safe spaces. “I’m conservative now,” she said, meaning to the kids. But the most persistent and least logical complaint came from men?—?men I knew and men in the media. They could not speak. And yet they were speaking. Near the end of 2014, I remember, the right to free speech under the First Amendment had been recast in popular discourse as the right to free speech without consequence, without reaction.

The examples in the press could be innocent and sinister. A Princeton undergraduate, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, could not argue he was not privileged in Time magazine without facing ridicule on Twitter. A tech executive could hardly make a joke without being fired, a young tech executive told me. “Take Mahbod Moghadam,” he said. Moghadam was one of the founders of Genius, and had been dismissed for his annotations of the shooter Elliot Rodger’s manifesto. (“This is an artful sentence, beautifully written” he wrote. Of Rodger’s sister, he added, “Maddy will go on to attend USC and turn into a spoiled hottie.”) Once, on my way to work, I heard a story on NPR about a Pennsylvania man named Anthony Elonis who was taking a First Amendment case to the Supreme Court. He was defending his right to make jokes about murdering his ex-wife on Facebook, in the form of non-rhyming, rhythmless rap lyrics. “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, / soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts,” he posted. When she filed a restraining order, Elonis posted again. “I’ve got enough explosives / to take care of the state police and the sheriff’s department.” Posts about shooting up an elementary school and slitting the throat of a female FBI agent followed. When he was convicted for transmitting intent to injure another person across state lines, via the internet, he argued he was just doing what Eminem did on his albums: joking. Venting, creatively. Under the First Amendment, the government had to prove he had “subjective intent.” His initial forty-four month prison sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court but was ultimately reinstated by an appeals court. I learned later that he had been fired from his job for multiple sexual harassment complaints, just after his wife left him.

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