The Intellectual Situation
Against the Rage Machine
A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us. We are aware that to say so (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.
Consider September. After chemical weapons appeared to have been deployed by the Assad regime for the second time in the conflict with the Syrian opposition, American pundits took to the media to perform the fantasy of omnipotence it seems only Americans engage in: If you were President, they said—meaning, If you were God—what would you do? This was interrupted in our Twitter feed by a host of other controversies (Jonathan Franzen’s opposition to online culture; Miley Cyrus’s performance at the Video Music Awards; the continuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military), and then, toward the end of the month, by the greatest controversy of them all: the 300 sandwiches.
Late in the month, our local paper, the New York Post, ran a personal essay by one of its gossip reporters called “I’m 124 Sandwiches Away From an Engagement Ring.” In the essay, the author revealed that her boyfriend told her that if she made him 300 sandwiches, he would marry her. She was more than halfway there. In the accompanying photo, we saw the reporter, strikingly beautiful and black, with her boyfriend, awkward-looking and white. The whole thing was so strange, so tawdry, so perfectly engineered to offend, that the internet had no choice but to explode with outrage. The Huffington Post, Gawker, BuzzFeed, Jezebel, NPR, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire, Slate, New York magazine, the Telegraph, Business Insider, ABC News, the Week, the Atlantic, the Hairpin, Gothamist, WNYC, WBUR, Flavorwire, the Daily Dot, the Stranger, Fox, Grantland, the Daily Mail, Jet magazine, Time, the New Statesman—all had things to say about the 300 sandwiches. If the US had invaded Syria at this moment, no one would have noticed. A strategic advantage, unless the government’s hope was to be seen invading Syria, in which case it would have been a bad time. It is possible that the 300 sandwiches saved us from war.
Two days later, the author and her boyfriend were on the Today show, telling people to “lighten up.” An accompanying article on Today.com encouraged readers to weigh in. “What do you think?” the article concluded. “Tell us!” The choices were “It’s sweet” and “It’s sexist.” By the time we got there, 15,000 people had cast their votes. You were only allowed to see what they said if you voted too. So we voted. “It’s sexist!” The results were revealed to us: 89 percent had said that it was sweet.