Jagged Little Redpill

The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars BY Meghan Daum. New York: Gallery Books. 256 pages. $27.

The cover of The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars

Everyone who’s writing essays professionally these days owes a debt to Meghan Daum, whether they know it or not. Her 2001 collection My Misspent Youth paved the way for many people’s careers, including my own. More than any of her contemporaries, Daum staked a claim on the trickier-than-it-looks style that combines journalistic rigor with exactly the right amount of subtle humor. She wrote about getting deep into debt and continuing to buy flowers from the corner bodega. She coined a term for the existential discomfort of aesthetic wrongness: Wall-to-wall carpet, famously, is “mungers.” She described the life of a friend who’d died young as pointless, a cold assessment that, like most of her cold assessments, rang true even though no one wanted it to. She examined her self-delusions unsparingly, without apology, sentimentality, or cuteness. She was resolutely not the kind of writer people want to be pals with, and we valued her for her prickly honesty above all else.

Her masterpiece, in the 2014 collection The Unspeakable, is an essay called “Difference Maker.” In it, she grapples with her ambivalence about having children, while simultaneously working with a local group that provides mentors for disadvantaged youth. She experiences the loss of a pregnancy as a reprieve, and her designated mentee as a dead-souled jerk. Her absolute refusal to sentimentalize these experiences is magnificent to behold. Authors are routinely called “brave” and “risk-taking,” but in the case of this essay, those threadbare superlatives apply. Daum took a risk; in the piece, she comes off as selfish, but also dauntingly self-aware. Most people are not capable of thinking the kinds of things Daum was able not only to think, but to express, in that essay. “Difference Maker” also foretold the end of her marriage, which had at its foundation something Daum described memorably as “the Central Sadness.”

Her next book could have been about her divorce, her 2015 move from LA back to New York, and the death of the beloved Saint Bernard who accompanied her on the journey, and these things do provide the backdrop for her new collection of essays, The Problem with Everything. But here, personal crisis takes a back seat to political catastrophe and Daum’s flailing attempts to make sense of it. Daum’s attraction to exploring whatever can’t be said in public—which she instinctively feels must be the truth, and not just our worst impulses—has at last led her astray. Though the collection is framed as a response to the 2016 election, the ghost of another potential book on fourth-wave feminism, begun when Hillary’s victory seemed assured, is still hanging around. The traces of the earlier book, which Daum planned to call You Are Not a Badass, are most present in essays about campus politics and what she sees as the failure of the #MeToo movement to grapple correctly with women’s own agency and culpability. Daum writes often about the gulf that separates her and her fellow Gen Xers from the generation represented by her Iowa and Columbia MFA students. There’s also a long essay about the appeal of what she calls “Free Speech YouTube”—videos by people like Jordan Peterson and Christina Hoff Sommers, which became important aspects of her post-divorce life.

Meghan Daum, 2019. Nina Subin
Meghan Daum, 2019. Nina Subin

It would be pointless to go into exhaustive detail about what Daum gets wrong in these pages, and it would also play right into her sense of being a fearless truth-teller in the face of a creeping leftist authoritarianism. A new evil at work in the world, which she calls “wokeness,” enforces unquestioning acceptance of the ideas of figures like Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose work white people—or at least the ones Daum encounters at literary parties in Brooklyn—feel uncomfortable critiquing. The nefarious force of wokeness also leads to rhetorical reliance on overdramatic language and profanity, which leaves us without meaningful weapons against the Real Enemy, Trump or whomever—she never quite makes clear what, exactly, she deplores about Trump, beyond saying that she has never voted Republican. Reading this book is like reading Twitter for hours on end, which is what Daum admits she has spent most of the past few years doing. Daum has, in the past, been a near-perfect chronicler of the texture of her own experience. The experience she describes most often in this book is the experience of sitting in front of a computer, alone.

The most galling moments in The Problem with Everything are the ones that make me wistful for what might have been possible if Daum had pushed herself to go beyond her immediate responses to the outrageous events of the past three years. The closest she comes is in the chapter about #MeToo, in which she remembers that in her mid-twenties she had a series of what, in the parlance of the Shitty Media Men list, would be called “weird lunches” with an older male colleague. Her descriptions of the weird lunches, and dinners, are some of the most vivid narrative detail we get in this book. “I remember the sinking feeling I got every time I picked up the phone and heard his voice. Every once in a while, as a sort of gift to myself, I’d allow myself to turn him down.” In the fall of 2017, reading someone else’s Facebook post, she encounters a description of a similar situation, but at first she refuses to accept that it actually describes the same man who weird-lunched her, because the “post was about feeling victimized”—“not a word,” Daum notes, “I’d ever applied to my situation.” Rather than reckoning with the ways that women’s agency and their structural disadvantage can coexist, the essay ends abruptly, with Daum seeking comfort in the idea that her generation belongs to a different “species” than younger women who’ve grown up with the internet, as if this excuses her from further attempts to understand them.

I used to marvel at the cruelty of Gen X female writers who are eager to tell young women they should toughen up about sexual violence, or who question whether sexual violence is as bad as we say it is, or who prefer to think of abusers as a bunch of bad apples rather than products of a foundational flaw in our culture. The sentiment Daum expresses here, a little self-mockingly—“Why can’t they be tough like we were?”—is the one I imagine women her age thinking all the time. But there’s more to it than that, and Daum is so brilliant that I’m still shocked she hasn’t considered that congratulating yourself for toughness is much less important than making a world where toughness isn’t necessary. In my experience, admitting that things you’ve mentally glossed over may have been more wounding than you were able to acknowledge can be profoundly destabilizing, but it is also necessary. It’s disappointing, on a personal level, that Daum doesn’t want to go there. Since anatomizing her own self-delusions has always been her greatest strength as a writer, it’s also a professional failing.

In her essay on the campus rape crisis, Daum interviews a man she calls Joseph who claims he’s been falsely accused of rape. She says that it would have been impossible to include an interview with his accuser. Moreover, she doesn’t interview any victims of sexual assault. Explaining this decision, she writes that “their stories are everywhere” and that she doesn’t want to include one “just for the sake of including” it. What she does include is a series of condescending hypotheticals, in which she imagines the woman who accused Joseph as, variously, naive, angry, or brainwashed by internet groupthink. Worse still, she wonders what accusers are “getting out of it”—“Is there something more intrinsically satisfying about seeing yourself as a victim/survivor rather than a normal human capable of making mistakes that might result in unpleasant situations that leave you feeling icky for a while?” She never imagines the most obvious explanation for the discrepancy between Joseph’s account and his accuser’s: that he is lying, to Daum and the authorities. In my most hopeful moments, I allow myself to imagine that younger generations of women are different from Daum in this one particular: that we have begun to lose the habit of automatically assuming men’s words carry more weight than our own.

If the intoxicating substance Daum got hooked on in the immediate aftermath of her divorce were anything other than Jordan Peterson YouTube videos, the collection’s best essay, “On the Right Side of Things (Until I Wasn’t),” would be a Daum classic. As it is, it still has its moments. Once Daum gets past her introductory assertion that any and all support for social-justice movements constitutes false, performative “virtue signaling” and a protracted riff about a very dumb social-media kerfuffle that everyone but Daum has mercifully forgotten, we get into more familiar territory. Daum, alone in her new apartment post-divorce, must find some replacement for her conversations with her husband, and is soothed by watching Bloggingheads.tv for hours on end. As she describes the baroque emails she sends to friends about her new obsession, she allows herself to be funny and vulnerable; she understands herself to have become ridiculous, though she doesn’t go so far as to admit to being “redpilled”—“It was more like an assortment of pills.” She details her wish to be put into a time machine and sent into orbit, reawakening when the pain of her divorce is less fresh and the last embers of her marriage are long extinguished. “The signal along which our wavelength traveled was growing weaker,” she writes of her ex’s decision that they stop having regular phone calls; he’s in a new relationship.

Eventually, she winds up at a party hosted by a conservative magazine, surrounded by mostly young men—people who, like her, are fans of the libertarians and evolutionary biologists whose videos she watches compulsively. She is surprised that she is alone in her “granular” level of fandom, disappointed to find no kindred spirits, though she acknowledges that this was unlikely in a group of people united mostly by their avowed commitment to avoiding groupthink. Walking home, she realizes that her political loneliness has been masking a deeper kind of disconnection. “The sky was heavy with waiting snow that night. I left the meeting and walked up lower Fifth Avenue in the darkness,” she writes. And we feel her aloneness, and are with her, in that moment, as we have been for years, waiting to see which way she will turn next.

Emily Gould is the author of And the Heart Says Whatever (Free Press, 2010), Friendship (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), and Perfect Tunes (Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 2020).