The Disease of Our Age

Last week my friend Allison put on her facebook, “Did anyone read the NYMag cover story?” She received a single response, besides mine, from a mutual friend who said “Mine hasn’t arrived yet!” Granted, we were all busy, it seemed, so very busy: Sept. 11th and the Koran burning seemed to have taken over all of our lives, and if it wasn’t that, then here in New York it was Fashion Week, and Brooklyn Bookfest, and then also Rosh Hashanah, and the end of Ramadan. When I found out the VMAs were tonight, I thought, really? Who could possibly care?

And so a story that I thought would attract a lot of attention on, say, social media, at least, was a non-starter: a lamp discovered with a shade made from human skin, alleged to be one of the famous lamps the Nazis made. It didn’t make any sense inside of any of these narratives, but also, it was just too horrific, I think, to take in. The cover of NY, with its image of a lamp, ostensibly the lamp, and the quote from the article, offering the lamp for 35.00, felt, when I saw it, like a voice from a dream . And the story itself was then easy for me to forget, except for every time I walked by it. All of which is to say, I was blocking it out, too. I think we were all blocking it out.

Observing this in myself made me turn my thoughts to my loose approximation of Freud’s idea of the self: that we are all what we agree to be, and that there is more to us out to the edges, rejected and ostensibly annihilated by that, except, it waits for those moments when we say “I don’t feel like myself right now”, or, “I don’t know why I did that.” This felt like part of that but perhaps also for the larger national mind. As I thought about it, though, it was easy to touch on something else: a weariness, I think, of being trapped in this story of how we think of our country and our culture and it is breaking down. One place you can see the rest of the story, as it were, is in fiction, and I thought of it reading Sigrid Nunez’s self-interview over at The Nervous Breakdown, where she said, of her new book, that while it has elements from dystopian novels, it is more about “a near apocalypse” and a temporary dystopia. I feel we live in a world of near apocalypses, adrift in temporary dystopias that seem never to end at the same time. Or as Fareed Zakharia recently asked, regarding our country, “when do the emergency powers end?” More importantly, when does the emergency end?

I thought saw the rest of the story also as I read my friend Porochista Khakpour’s op-ed this weekend, a thoughtful, searching response to the Islamophobia the Right has stoked since Obama was the nominee for president, and then Maureen Dowd’s latest, most hopeless column ever. I don’t know why she has her spot in the Times, and it continues to make me think less of the paper that they carry her little fictions. Never is she more incensed than when someone is performing their gender or race incorrectly—Hillary is mannish, and “Barry” (her condescending name for our president) is effete, also “colorless”, and is allegedly being abandoned by “Obamicans”, in this case represented by her transparently fictive Peggy, the character she tells us is telling her all of these things about our president, and who… has no voice from Dowd’s that sets her apart. While I do think it is the disease of our age, to just believe something because we feel it is true, despite evidence, I read it and thought of how much I wished Porochista had her spot instead. Not just because of her being my friend, but because her op-ed described life as I know it to be, as lived by me and the people I know. Dowd’s op-ed is, to my mind, what I’d call in a workshop “overdetermined”, i.e., it is a narrative trying to sell you something and is too neatly organized to do so to be drawn directly from life. For all she claims to understand the troubles of “regular people”, Dowd is very much from “the narrative”, the one elite members of the press write in advance of the news and then fits the news into, such as the alleged anti-incumbent fervor before most of the summer’s primaries, which then led to…just seven incumbents losing their spots out of 324 elections. This narrative is the same one that led also to the war in Iraq. Dowd, who made her name really by mocking the Clintons, now writes columns that have more in common with the Tea Party’s conservative white angst of “wanting their country back” than with the troubles of the average American, because the identity of that “Average American” has moved on, which is the whole reason we see the Tea Party agita at all. And Dowd is then part of a kind of Exquisite Corpse, written collectively by a punditocracy that struggles to be as inflammatory as the average sign at a Tea Party rally.

Porochista’s traffic on her op-ed did climb into the top ten of their most-emailed and most-read last night—here’s hoping the Times editors are as fed up with Dowd as the commenters on Dowd’s column, who, hilariously, one by one, took the time to take her to task.


  1. The scary thing about these lamps made from human skin is that Jonathan Swift predicted the depths to which humanity could sink in “Gulliver’s Travels”. Remember in Part IV (Chap 10), he writes “…I supplied it with the skins of the Yahoos dried in the sun…” Later, when he’s making his boat, he goes on to say “…covering it with the skins of Yahoos well-stitched together…” and “…stopping all the chinks with Yahoo’s tallow…”

    Aren’t those statements awfully chilling when read from a 21st century perspective with the Holocaust and gas chambers and soap made from human fat (tallow) in the recent history of human kind? Remember Gulliver saw himself as a Yahoo (“…my countrymen or human race in general, I considerd them as they really were, Yahoos in shape and disposition, perhaps a little more civilized…”) so he used the skin and tallow of what he saw as his fellow-species!

    Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726 and still the general mass of humanity didn’t realise the depths to which they could sink (even if Swift’s visionary genius did!). And that’s the real tragedy, because Swift also saw that humans, as a species, could live up to the potential of the Houyhnhnms, the virtuous and civil species that “preserved decency and civility to the highest degrees.”

    The NYMag cover story is very depressing. And have we grown any better in the years since WWII and the Holocuast if we’re selling lamps made of human skins and burning the Koran or burning the Bible (as someone here in South Africa wanted to do in retaliation for the Koran-burning American pastor)?

    1. Judy:

      Sarcasm is hard to read online, so I think you should be given the benefit of the doubt, but it sounds like you’re praising the race that taught Gulliver that the best way to deal with the humans/Yahoos was to enslave or exterminate them, and that almost definitely wasn’t meant to be accepted uncritically. Gulliver “praises” their supposed good qualities, but there’s no evidence that the Houyhnhnms *are* any more reasonable.

      If you’re not being sarcastic about humanity’s potential to be like the Houyhnhnms as a positive goal, consider this. The Houyhnhnms see humans, even Gulliver, as so much less intelligent than they are that if they are not slaves or prey to be culled, they are not to be respected even if, as Gulliver does, they accept Houyhnhnm ideals and their idea of racial superiority. Are there any other Swift works in which Swift parodies racist thinking with ridiculous or horrifying proposals?

  2. Whoa, to call Maureen Dowd’s column the most hopeless ever is saying something (not that I don’t believe you!) — I cannot make myself click through to read her because it’s too depressing/exhausting for the reasons you identify. If I were running the Times, all of the op-ed writers would have term limits.

  3. Thanks for the link to the Khakpour piece. We don’t dare put the news on in the house anymore after our nine year old daughter asked us why Republicans hate us and want us out of the country–you know, what every child should be worrying about.

  4. Maureen Dowd makes me crazy. She reminds me of a queen bee/popular girl in some small town high school who is driven absolutely nuts when the bookish smart girl (Hillary) or the brainiac nerd (her snide “Barry”) somehow succeed despite her machinations. Or, even if they don’t succeed, they somehow live life ignoring her approved categories of behavior and infuriate her. When Hillary was doing well in the 08 primaries Dowd was practically apopletic.
    I keep imagining her as a character in some kids movie–the evil headmistress who, in the comeuppance scene, runs around with her hair disheveled, screaming at the world about how smart she is, and howls louder when she is ignored

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