Caitlin Flanagan’s Wheels Are Spinning A Little Too Fast
3:28 PM EDT on October 2, 2023
Somewhere near the end, I realized that I had come to see logging onto Twitter in the same way that your more hair-trigger reactionary weirdos see American cities. For reasons having to do with their media diets and personal inclinations/damage and their political culture's singular combination of credulity and incuriosity, these people see cities roughly as Travis Bickle understood his bottomed-out New York City—as filthy wildernesses populated entirely by predators and snares, poisoned and irredeemable. This sort of judgment is a bit much in just about every instance, and is too harsh even for terminal-stage Twitter. As someone who lives in an American city, I have my own gripes about that experience, which amount in my case to: the rats are large and entirely unafraid; important public stuff is visibly rotting and rusting; there are smells you people wouldn't believe. But while all of those are also to some extent true of Twitter at this moment, the broader issue—the reflective opacity of all that scuzz, and the furious and disapproving incomprehension—is a different thing.
The people that have adopted Taxi Driver Mindset are experiencing a different kind of derangement, in a different kind of way. I don't get upset about how brazen the rats are until I see them sitting in the middle of the damn sidewalk; the people I'm talking about do not ever actually see any of that. Instead, by choice, they chug and gobble whatever anecdote or fudged data or chunk of loose misery they can find to nurture their sense that some other people, in some other place, are living in subhuman places filled with subhuman people. Sick, venal. Just imagine the resulting monologue in a voice that is somehow both more materially comfortable and even more spiritually distressed than Travis Bickle, and update both the abstraction and viciousness of the fantasies of retribution to reflect inflation.
There is an obvious political calculus to cultivating all this disgust, but that only partially explains why reactionary media and reactionary politicians do it. At the levels below those where powerful cynics leverage that disgust to get and retain what they want, all these people are just kind of telling themselves awful stories to keep themselves amused. This is perverse in both form and content, but what is hardest to parse is the extent to which it's a hobby—people, out of boredom or loneliness or just for the satisfaction of scratching some shameful itch or other, have made a leisure-time activity out of spinning their own bespoke fantasies of sprawling crimes and demoniac enemies and righteous vengeance. I say this as someone who affirmatively makes the choice every day to be emotionally invested in a baseball team that has functioned like a joke made at my expense for most of my adult life, but you absolutely do not need to live like this.
This is not just because there are plenty of actual horrors in the world to get upset about, and many places where that anger might be put to more socially productive and less personally corrosive use. This sort of seething involution is just not good for a person; it makes a person small and sour and, eventually, lonesome. Mostly, though, it makes a person weird. Someone sufficiently committed to this diet might not even notice that the things they believe and say have nothing to do with any observable or representative reality, if only because it has been so long since they've heard anyone say anything else. Twitter, as people used to like to say back when this delusion was easier to believe, is not real life. And in the sense in which that statement used to be used—to point out that the hothouse dynamics of a trending topic do not reflect anything about the broader world, and as a reminder that the interpersonal carnage on your phone really does disappear when you put that phone away—this is true enough.
But it misses the fact that Twitter, in its shrinking and chaotic senescence as at its immersive peak, could be real life. Remain immersed in the foul-smelling juice that sloshes around on there and it will saturate various important membranes in ways that are disorienting; it will prune you all up; its fragrant currents will pull you out and away. In extreme cases, even people who once projected haughty command in the safe typeset spaces of fancy print magazines can be carried on those strange tides to remote shores, where they speculate darkly about creeping wokeness and muse about the personal bravery of Bari Weiss. They will decline rescue if it is offered. They like it out there, and anyway couldn't go home at this point even if they wanted to.
Some of these people are just creeps or sadists, or truly committed to some corrosive ideology or other; the rest are still figuring all that out. That latter group, who might once have thought of themselves as sensible and moderate and mainstream, clearly continue to see themselves that way, unaware that their new diet of skunkmeat and various brackish oozes has in fact left them extremely ill. They have been consuming this stuff to the exclusion of any other nutrient for long enough that their only response to, say, an Andrew Sullivan newsletter headlined "Could MLK Give A TED Talk Today?"—on account of wokeism, that is—would be "that's some delightfully salty ooze right there."
Caitlin Flanagan, who has been a writer for The Atlantic since 2001 and is a fellow at Weiss's University of Austin and a serial signatory of letters that aim, in a principled but firm way, to wrest control of the culture away from the culture's least powerful groups, is not the most deranged member of this fractious, anxious community. But she is a representative one, in large part because of how her new, powered-by-skunkmeat worldview has built upon her old role as a wry and charming herald of establishment disapproval. Her past work was never what anyone would call good; it's a sort of We've Got Joan Didion At Home situation, or just Didion if she never got over her early interest in Barry Goldwater. But while that beat—are our elite universities inconveniencing our terrible sons?—is a lousy useless job, she carried it off with some panache.
She plainly believes that she is still doing that job, even as those currents have carried her into the sort of company that she would otherwise not seek out—open bigots of more and less bookish varieties, tacky old-money reactionaries and greasy new-money Caesarists, twitchy profiteers looking to leverage the taboo appeal of the most odious ideas in human history into vacation homes. It is the nature of the way in which Twitter can become real life that even someone as highly attuned to status and politesse as Flanagan wouldn't notice or care that she has suddenly found herself at a dinner party with like Richard Hanania and The Bronze Age Pervert. It might even be easy to miss. They are all talking about the same things, after all, and delighted to find themselves in agreement.
What they're talking about would be very strange and outwardly unpleasant to someone who had not already replaced all of their previous thoughts and points of reference with those new things, but again a sufficiently committed person might not notice or care about any of that. Anyway, this is something I have been thinking about since encountering a post that Flanagan wrote last week. It has been pushed down her timeline by the sort of discourse that she's into, now—maundering about charter schools, videos of high school fights posted by transphobic influencers, a conservative intellectual complaining that his TED Talk was not as widely viewed as he believed it should have been, that sort of thing—but it is one of the best examples I have seen of what happens to people who have been out there in The Juice for too long.
Now, I think I could tell you what all of this means, or anyway what it is referring to. The short version is that the people who make their living getting these types of people upset have lately become concerned about a Paw Patrol spinoff that may or may not be Going Woke. But it is more important, I think, to read the sentences as what they are, which again are: "Paw Patrol put these wheels in motion 18 months ago, when these issues weren't a parent flashpoint. Now it's too late to turn the train around without getting into a Target situation." Roll it around in your mind, let it open up a bit. Paw Patrol put these wheels in motion, albeit at a time when These Issues weren't a Parent Flashpoint. Surely you've noticed this.
Anyway, now, as a result of that, they are powerless to prevent a Target Situation, given that they cannot turn the train (?) around. Simply because this can be parsed doesn't mean that it should be. These are two sentences in which every subject is either absurd—"oh," a person reading it might ask, "the cartoon show for very young kids, with the dogs?"—or completely unintelligible without a deep understanding of various crusted, coded referents and rhetoric. The tone is sneering and urgent but opaque and also a little strained, because Flanagan still retains enough of her manners that she can't quite say what she thinks about all this in the Bickle-ian tenor that would spell it all out more clearly.
All those teasing, daring Forbidden Thoughts tend to look more like what they are, which is raw and unreasoning bigotry and musty smallmindedness, when spoken aloud as themselves. The discourse unspools in skeins of euphemism and begged questions and increasingly fervid requests for permission. So instead: A Target situation. A parent flashpoint. Wheels in motion, a train roaring down the track with a woke cartoon beagle driving. An illegible text, a smudge or a stain or a shipwreck full of eels. At any rate, it reads like the end of something.