On Being Wrong

Also, an announcement.

I've been very disgusted by the apparently now weekly phenomenon where Tucker Carlson's friend Glenn Greenwald launches some vicious personal attack against a less powerful (usually female) journalist who then receives an onslaught of rape threats and death threats from Greenwald's massive following while he says this is just reasonable criticism and he's the victim. He did this again yesterday to a USA Today intern who co-wrote an article about Capitol rioters using online payment platforms to crowdfund their legal fees, or as Greenwald described it, who tried to "pressure tech companies to terminate the ability of impoverished criminal defendants to raise money for their legal defense from online donations." Thus began another of his cruel, dishonest, tedious day-long meltdowns whose aggregate effect will be to drive journalists out of an already dying industry. It's very depressing stuff that I'm horrible at looking away from, which is how I found myself chewing over one particular rhetorical thread in Greenwald's responses to this current round of people telling him he's an asshole: that actually he's popular.

I've previously written about how important it is for artists to recognize that people liking a piece of work does not in and of itself mean the work is good. This is a subset of a broader truth about the world, one so obvious you've known it your whole life but which our entire society requires us to politely ignore: lots of people can be wrong. Lots and lots of people can be wrong. Overwhelming majorities of people can be wrong. Whole countries have been created and run by wrong people given their power by other wrong people who fought and died in wars against even more wrong people. The fact that thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people agree with something does not mean it's right. It just means they agree with it; that it serves them. Maybe it serves them for reasons correlated with its rightness, maybe it serves them for reasons divorced from its rightness. The belief that popularity confers rightness is fundamentally a belief that power confers rightness, an extremely dangerous idea not unrelated to all those wars and dead people.

Again, this is a super obvious thing everyone learns from a young age. You would think a critical mind like Glenn Greenwald's might be able to remember that what's popular is seldom indicative of what's good. Unfortunately the world conspires to make us forget this, especially those of us in the arts and media, where if you wish to make a living you are obliged to seek out large audiences who like you and agree with you and constantly tell you so. One illuminating and obliterating quirk of my job has been the front-row seat it affords to the psychological ravages of being liked, how often it cleanses a person of all the doubt and shame essential (in my opinion) to critical thought. How can you discover what's right without the perpetual nagging worry that you're wrong? How can you responsibly wield an audience's trust without some conception of what it would mean to abuse that trust, let alone the fear that you may already be abusing it? What if everyone who agrees with you is a fool? Once you get a large enough audience you'll never have to bother yourself with these questions. The positive feedback will always drown out the negative. Go deep enough and you'll eventually stop asking them, if you ever did at all.

A post shared by @thegoodseth

A few years ago in a poetry workshop my friend Anna observed that many of my poems were about failure. It's true and I can't really articulate why other than to say I'm interested in the very cliché thing where our entire existence on this earth is defined by loss and we still have to go about enjoying our lives and trees and birds and walking the dog who's going to die in ten to fifteen years if we're lucky. For me reading and writing poetry is a way of practicing holding these irreconcilable ideas in my head without falling apart. Everything is incredibly bad and also incredibly good and beautiful and I love it. I don't think I'm particularly unique here. Practically all narrative fiction through all of history is about failure. We tell stories about people trying to get something and failing and trying harder and failing again and trying even harder and then finally they get it but it comes at some terrible cost and/or isn't what they thought it would be. We're all taught from the moment we understand language that getting what we want is dangerous. It changes us, it takes from us. And yet here we all are trying to get it anyhow.

This is all a long way of saying that when you find an audience who loves and supports what you do, if you haven't already, I hope you hold onto your skepticism, your doubt, your curiosity, your capacity to believe that you're the asshole. I hope I do too and I trust you to tell me if I don't. Also, I'm going to take a short break from this newsletter. I'll pause billing tomorrow night and turn it back on May 1st. I've been writing this in earnest for a little over a year now, the entirety of the pandemic. It's a chill-ass job that I'm incredibly lucky has somehow become my main source of income. The thought of stepping away makes me nervous—I'm saving up to move out of Boise when my lease ends, and growing this thing pretty much depends on regular publication. But yesterday I found myself debating whether tweeting a picture of my dog wearing a bandana with his trainer's name on it would put her at risk of getting doxxed, which I realized is probably as glaring a sign as any that I need to clear my head, something I can't possibly do while writing several posts a week about the thing fogging it up in the first place. I'm a firm believer that writing and reading should be more interesting than thinking. Lately my thoughts haven't felt up to snuff; best to take some time and replenish them.

When I come back it won't be on Substack. You may have seen the flurry of discourse over the last few weeks about this platform's refusal to enforce its policies concerning harassment and hate speech. If you haven't, I'd recommend starting with Emily VanDerWerff's take on the matter, which I pretty much agree with wholesale. I see no compelling reason Graham Linehan's harassment of trans people falls outside Substack's terms of use. I'm not interested in using a platform whose highest-profile users are people like Jesse Singal, whose writing on detransitioning helped set the groundwork for the violent transphobic legislation being enacted around the country, and Glenn Greenwald, who seems set on leveraging his larger-than-ever audience to harass women in journalism. I'm sure it's true, as some have said, that all platforms are corrupt and no writer can make money without selling some portion of their soul. But only one newsletter platform has done the specific objectionable things Substack has done, and the only reason I can see not to draw a line is the slight inconvenience of drawing it. Right now I'm planning to switch over to Letterdrop. The move should happen seamlessly on your end, but check your spam folder if you haven't heard anything from me by early May.

Anyway, I'm being dramatic. Probably I'll send out a few posts next month as events or boredom warrant. Please email me whenever you want; that's usually a better way to reach me than Twitter DMs.

Finally, so long as we're here: before "Shrimp Guy" Jensen Karp was widely outed as a bad guy last week, he claimed that the National History Museum of Los Angeles reached out to him offering to analyze the shrimp tails he allegedly found in his Cinnamon Toast Crunch. When I contacted the NHM to confirm that this happened, a spokesperson told me that while one of their scientists did reach out to Karp, they understood that the samples were instead being sent to a team at UC Santa Cruz. The director of UCSC's Institute for Marine Studies told me he hadn't heard of anything like this and suggested I reach out to two other scientists at the IMS. Neither of them had heard of it either. Both suggested I ask one Dr. Giacomo Bernardi, whom they described as the guy at UCSC who'd conduct that sort of molecular analysis of shrimp tails. Dr. Bernardi told me he was not involved in any sort of viral shrimp tail-related activity. Karp did not respond to a request for clarification.

So, you know, make of that what you will.

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