For me, it happens when I go to the Twitter feed after some recent ‘problematic’ event or statement has hit the news. Immediately the folks I have chosen to follow, ‘influencers’ among them, stoke the little fires of irritation I might have felt and before long lure me into the Twitter-sanctioned indignation I should be feeling. Whatever niggles and contradictory emotions I might have also had are smoothed by the hot iron of enlightened sentiment. Before long, the idiosyncratic me has been sacrificed to something more communal and tribal.
I am too woke to be bespoke.
I don’t like Twitter me. That Alex doesn’t think clearly. And even if he did, he’d find it hard to get his thoughts down to a 140-character bon mot. The limitations of Twitter do allow for someone to ask for a more complex discussion, but as author Meghan Daum discovered, “if you called for nuance, you were part of the problem.” (170)
Daum’s new book, The Problem with Everything: My Journey through the New Culture Wars, is a breath of fresh air, even if it’s hard to describe what it is. It began as the 40-something Daum’s reflections on 4th Wave feminism, the social-media driven feminism that latched onto intersectionality, #MeToo, and campus movements to curb sexual abuse. But along the way, Daum found a bigger tale to tell, one that highlights a larger generational divide. She also found a more personal story to tell as her journey through divorce amplified a sense of her own isolation.
So The Problem of Everything is an essay collection, a memoir, and a meditation on the state of American culture at the end of the 2010s. It’s also just what I needed to put a finger on what’s been bugging me about Twitter Alex.
Daum began to feel a growing sense of isolation from the culture around her in 2015.
Both online and in real life, people who’d once shared a common set of assumptions about the realities of the world and the nature of human behavior now seemed divided. Questions that had once been treated as complicated inquiries were increasingly being reduced to moral absolutes, at least as far as liberal types were concerned. (170)
Daum is one of those liberal types and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 filled her with dismay. But she worried over the state of the Resistance. The over-the-top reaction to every Trumpian atrocity was making any form of reasoned conversation impossible. “Some liberals, myself among them, suggested that unrelenting outrage, including indiscriminately calling people Nazis, served only to alienate people who might finally be ready to leave the dark side.” (53)
The Problem with Everything is, in part, an extended chronicle of the many ways that discourse, particularly among progressives, has been flattened in the Trump years.
This era routinely brings out the worst in most of us. Trumpism has made us feel that the world is out of control. In turn, we’ve forgotten how to control ourselves. We’ve become toddler versions of ourselves. (214)
Over the course of the book, Daum records how this dynamic shows up on campus, in the relationships between men and women, and in the death of humor. She also documents her own sense of isolation as she becomes more vocal, something that is amplified by her divorce. “The more honest you are about what you think,” she says, “the more you have to sit in solitude with your own thoughts…And if you’re lucky, eventually there will come that rousing, fleeting moment when you hear someone say the thing that makes you feel less alone.” (194-5)
Daum’s voice is that reach into the solitude that I have been craving. It is a call from beyond the Twitterverse—a call to humanity, authenticity, and complexity. “In the end, to be human is to be confused,” Daum says. (217) I’m OK with that. And I believe we’d all be more OK if we trusted that.