ON POLITICAL AND CULTURAL BOREDOM
With apologies to Alberto Moravia
Boredom is pervasive, yet so is panic. I could list off current events to prove the latter point and they would include shootings, rollbacks of abortion rights, wars transpiring across the ocean. The suffering caused or to be caused by these events, as well as that caused by other instances of violence, impoverishment, imprisonment, pollution, illness, disablement, and premature deaths are cause for outrage. The outrage is just. The panic is not fake.
Before this begins to sound like the lede of a silly New York Times culture trend piece, I’ll get back to the boredom. The Biden administration, though preferable to the predecessor administration, has been boring. It is too soon to call it a failure, but it has been ineffective in achieving its stated legislative goals. It has seemed to escalate the conflict in Ukraine rather than seeking a ceasefire. It has taken pride in reducing the federal budget deficit, as if austerity were a virtue at this or any time. It withdrew from Afghanistan, then threw the country into famine by freezing its assets. It boasts of diverting leftover pandemic relief funds into policing. But the actual Biden administration isn’t so much my concern here. Symbolically it represents a temporary defeat for the left, and its doldrums open the way for a restoration of the predecessor administration.
The GOP is a bad party, bad for the country and its citizens and everybody else, and I hope it’s defeated everywhere. It’s been pretty worthless and destructive for a long time. The only thing that might be said for it is that it will occasionally buy off the populace shamelessly without the qualms Democrats have about balancing the budget. Something like that happened during the early phase of the pandemic, though perhaps the Democrats would have done better. Both parties are imperialist warmongers and probably will be throughout our lifetimes. They both love the cops and turning Americans into debtors. But only the Democrats have a real left faction and are vulnerable to a takeover by that faction. It didn’t happen with the Sanders wave but it could. Perhaps barbaric rulings on abortion rights will give the Democrats a permanent electoral advantage. No doubt they’ll squander it by pandering to suburbanites nostalgic for Reagan. No doubt they’ll fail to achieve national gun control laws. Perhaps they’ll even fail to restore national abortion rights. Failure on such fronts is arguably to their electoral advantage.
There was outrage at Russia’s predatory imperialist invasion of Ukraine. But there was also the sense that America had finally come to a real confrontation with Russia and that it didn’t even have to do its own fighting. It could just send its billions of dollars worth of guns and weapons systems to the plucky Ukrainians and they could weaken the Russian bear to the tune of decades, a la the Taliban. Hilary Clinton pretty much said this on television. Coming only months after the evacuation of Kabul, it was an expression of American imperialist boredom.
One of the more misguided strains of commentary I’ve seen from the center-left during the Ukraine war has been the tendency of pundits to chide or disparage leftists for not cheering on the escalation of hostilities until Russia is brought to its knees, nuclear brinksmanship be damned. Why aren’t leftists signing up for a new Lincoln Brigade and shipping out? Why are they not submitting workable policy alternatives? The left is out of power and has been since at least the Roosevelt administration (if then). To suggest otherwise is akin to moral blackmail. The role of the left in this crisis is analysis. It seems to me the New Left Review has been doing the best job of it. Meanwhile in America, the most interesting and effective political journalism has been Jacobin’s coverage of unionization efforts and victories at Amazon and elsewhere. These are meaningful interventions.
The outrage that was so evident in the summer of 2020 during the uprising after the murder of George Floyd was not only a response to police brutality but to the sitting president himself. That it was structurally encouraged by lockdown and work-at-home policies is obvious but not explanatory: it was simply convenient that people didn’t have to be in the office. At the virtual Democratic National Convention, the Biden campaign coopted images of the protests and set them to the tune of a corny late-period Bruce Springsteen song to make them palatable to the aging and provincial electorate. Kamala Harris insisted that Americans needed to “do the work” but indicated nothing about what that meant aside from voting for Biden. That protests have not continued during the Biden administration isn’t hard to understand. He has been given the benefit of the doubt. Liberal horror at the prospect of a Trump restoration is real. Yet the uprising could kick off again any day, and I bet if the GOP sweeps the midterms, it probably will. Until then we have political boredom, punctuated by random mass murders and regressive state legislation to do with reproduction and education.
Hand in hand with political boredom comes cultural boredom. Hollywood movies are boring. Television is boring. Pop music is boring. The art world is boring. Broadway is boring. Books from big publishing are boring. All of these industries are averse to risk and chase trends mindlessly. They ignore difficulty. They are humorless. Occasionally they try to make a buck by ginning up controversies, which are also deeply boring and highly repetitive.
Here this essay will take a personal turn.
Ginning up fake controversy through false dichotomy can be the only explanation for Nick Burns’s piece in the New Statesman today. I like Nick and I comped him his seat to Dimes Square. I think the distinctions he draws between Manhattanites and Brooklynites, The Drift and Forever, transgressive and progressive, and so on, is a specious schematic. To call it the narcissism of small differences would also be hyperbole. These people are all swimming in the same soup, going to each other’s parties, buying each other drinks, donating to each other’s kickstarters. No knock on Matthew Gasda but his play is more conventional than it is transgressive. (I think it’s also very funny, with some great lines and characters, thanks Matt!) It merely exists outside the corporate monoculture and the algorithmic delivery system, so ooh, it’s dangerous!
The Drift and Forever are both original projects that pick up strands of the New York little magazine scene of the 2000s. You could call The Drift something like n+3 and that would be no insult. The similarity is formal: the mix of longform essay and reportage, the unabashed intellectualism, the mix of the literary and the political, the fact that it’s in print and not just online, not just a glorified blog, and not overdesigned. Forever picks up on the traditions of Open City and New York Tyrant. The emphasis is on writers’ writers so often ignored by the big publishers because they aren’t obviously slotted into existing marketing categories.
The cult of marketing is the reason for cultural boredom. The books and movies shilled by corporations have started to become indistinguishable from their own marketing campaigns. Indeed, it’s been argued that pop songs are merely advertisements for tours now that albums are dead, movies are advertisements for their sequels, and books are applications for their authors’ teaching gigs or else merely bloated streaming-TV treatments. This is a simplification, but the marketing campaigns have become so boring, so paint-by-numbers, that they are doing a disservice to the product. This is why people start magazines, put on plays in living rooms, and throw parties. As somebody says in Dimes Square, “I’m talking about life, amigo!” So much of the culture with money behind it is lifeless.