The Essayist Essay


A student at the University of Chicago, which recently declared itself a space safe from safe spaces. PHOTOGRAPH BY B. O’KANE / ALAMY

I have just read the most remarkable short essay (or is it a blog post?), the best in a very long time because it is eloquent, wrestles with important ideas, and is very timely. Although the title of the essay has a reference to a divisive character who I do not look forward to reading more about, I nonetheless waded in because the writer has written some of my favorite reported pieces in the last couple years.

And it was rewarded quickly, because as soon as the second paragraph he used a word that I did not know, a beautiful word. And followed that with a couple beautiful sentences opening the third paragraph. I was hooked. And in less than half an hour I was fully rewarded with inspiration and motivation.

Essays and the essayists have been the topic of numerous posts here over the years, because we have many language-lovers and word-players among our ranks. (For silly example, the first word in the title of this post is meant to convey “the most essay-ish of all” while using the word that normally just means someone who writes an essay.)  But also because, as we have tried to also communicate, words matter alot in translating ideas and ideals into actions. So, may I recommend:


By Nathan Heller

A while back, I went to San Francisco to report a piece about some protests happening in town. The conflict, as narrated in the local papers, puzzled me. Although it supposedly centered on private buses for tech workers, the concerns had a more broadly political air. This was not surprising—San Francisco is the capital of broad politics—but I couldn’t see where ideological disputes actually arose. Protesters painted themselves as grass-roots liberals, speaking up for poor, creative, or countercultural outsiders. The techies involved also considered themselves grass-roots liberals, creating apps to fight the Man, effect philanthropic efficacy, and support the same outsiders.

I stayed in the Bay Area awhile, interviewed forty or fifty people, watched protests, attended tech events and community meetings, and flew to New York City to tear out my hair. Writing long articles always involves muscle strain, but the parturition of this piece (which ran in the summer of 2014) was excruciating, because the material seemed to lack any conceptual edges. The ferment had been billed in the press as a “culture war.” And yet the two sides of the conflict—in terms of beliefs, ideological lineage, and language—were almost entirely the same.

I worked over my notebooks like a Rubik’s cube for days and weeks, trying to understand where the lines of dispute and interest arose. When some clarity came, I found myself looking past these post-hippie preoccupations. Today that article is nearer my heart than most, because of what it forced me to confront: a new relationship among language, identity, and public process, and a way that they were nullifying one another across public life.

In that piece and some previous Bay Area reporting, I pointed out a generational trend toward privatization in both a literal and an abstract sense. We had entered an era of the mainstream bespoke, it seemed to me: a time when technology helped individualize personal experience. It had become normal to scroll through an algorithmically curated feed while listening to our own music in a busy café. Social media made public self-definition instant and easy: I am X; I am Y. Personal meaning thrived. During the spring when I reported in San Francisco, Burger King switched its slogan from “Have it your way” to “Be your way”—a broadening from condiment preference to ontology which, as the chain told it, reflected a turn toward “self-expression” and a belief that “it’s our differences that make us individuals instead of robots.” No freethinker could disagree. I began to wonder, though, about the effects of this individualization on public language and, as a result, political life. The trouble in San Francisco, I realized, wasn’t that the warring tribes followed different doctrines. It was that they followed the same doctrine, abstractly stated, but had less and less of a way to gather and work from the abstract into the specific. Everyone was operating as a good San Francisco liberal, struggling against the establishment, outside the system, for the people. Ironically, this meant there was less and less system left, no common terms by which the whole community could move ahead. Public language, as I put it in the piece, was coming unmoored from public process. I wondered what the future would bring if the rhetoric of our best ideals kept moving in this direction—if people of a single political identity couldn’t agree on the real sense of the words that, they were certain, gave voice to their values…

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