Doing the Work

Log onto social media, particularly Twitter—that crucible in which so much mealy-mouthed consent is manufactured—and you’ll see the kids doing the work of firing off their performative hot takes and think pieces. Those “takes” and “pieces” comprise the “work,” and the “kids” are those clout-chasing constituents of an amorphous, aging youth cohort that has gotten extremely online for the purpose of building their personal brands. Perhaps, if things break their way, these kids will branch off into podcasting or journalism or one of the other careers open to folks looking to earn a little something while doing nearly nothing.

Some people, perhaps the kids themselves, would argue there’s a qualitative difference between hot takes and think pieces. The latter grouping, one assumes, has some thought behind them. But what type of thoughts? They’re all just bland thinkable thoughts, the ones everyone has and no one bats an eyelash at, whether embedded in “take” or “piece.” If you study the smart set, the twitterati with the fat follower counts who fire off insults at the likes of Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait while secretly dreaming of becoming them, you’ll discover they say almost nothing at all. They’re playing the game, be it the game of life or the game of takes, and this means they’re always triangulating the takes: this rather conventional leftoid person has become worthy of cancellation, this implausible idea (“abolish ICE,” “abolish the family”) is the one we’re all pushing this week, this isn’t the time to come down hard on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign yet because we might upset our friends supporting it (we’ll wait until it doesn’t matter whether we’re right or wrong; that’s the way to play it!).

These kids are certainly busy doing the work, but they’re not actually working. I’ll be studying their goings-on in a browser at my actual job while engaged in stultifying work, annotating a casefile as I watch the extremely online kids—usually a bunch of privileged “white knights” advancing their own interests by pretending to speak for the interests of others, others who likely aren’t anywhere near the extremely online because they’re working—go ham on nazbols, TERFs, and all the rest. My work amounts to little more than hewing wood and drawing water, but this fast-paced thought policing is the real work, the work they’ll tell you to do if you dare question them. “Do the work,” they’ll tweet ex cathedra if you’ve landed on their radar screen and warrant a course correction. “Read this take. Do the work. Do better.” My stepfather, who mined coal, used to tell me never to trust anyone who “works” in the labor “movement.” It was, he reasoned, the work of “movement” done by people who aren’t rendered unable to move by strenuous working. He didn’t realize he had missed the point: these movement kids, now firmly ensconced slacktivists of the Twitterati type, don’t want to work; they want to do the work. That is precisely the point.

They don’t want to be right or wrong, although they don’t mind if you correct them or scold them

The elite kids among this smart set, the ones at the “cool” lunch table, produce writing for the popular leftist magazines or siphon Patreon donations onto the big-budget leftist podcasts. There really isn’t much money to be made here, mind you, but there’s some visibility: they are seen and recognized for doing the work. The work product they produce, the “content” in web-speak, is beside the point. One of my own grad school advisors used to say she had written nine books and read over half of them, but these kids needn’t so much as read the sentences they type. A few have even paid me, a mere worker bee, to write their takes, and I’ve taken their money and heated up the discourse accordingly. Miss Piggy guilty of manspreading? Pretty stupid, but you bet! A personal essay about your own #metoo moment? Are you sure you want me to do that? And yes, they were sure; why, they were damn sure! But the words amounted to so much lorem ipsum: I could’ve written “Peter Piper picked a peck of peppers” five hundred times and the effect would be the same. It was mere content, content that served as ballast for the brand—no different than when the Steak-Umm social media feed spews a bunch of clever-sounding nonsense in the service of raising interest in the company’s terrible underlying product, the only difference being that the architect of that feed periodically tells readers exactly what he’s doing. 

The point of this should be clear enough by now: these people you and I watch, these kids, want to be visible. They don’t want to be right or wrong, although they don’t mind if you correct them or scold them because that reaffirms their belief that these “fascist Bernie Bros”—as rare in real life as Bigfoots—are hunting them down in their mentions to mansplain to them. But having correct takes doesn’t matter. The best takes, like arguing that “chill is bad” or that “nerds drool and jocks rule,” bear no relation to anything yet get people talking. For some of them, visibility is enough. But for others, there’s a chance to seize the brass ring. When Lauren Duca turned a Teen Vogue hot take about how Trump was “gaslighting” America into a viral piece, she went on Tucker Carlson. She was now a brand, someone the literary agents can package and sell like nobody’s business: you’ve got the take, you’ve got the virality, now package it between the covers and push it out the door. Never mind that the resulting book is some paint-by-numbers thumbsucker that is sophomoric even in comparison to the unreadable five-paragraph essays churned out by college sophomores. “The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind,” explains “aesthetic sham” pseudo-intellectual Reginald Bunthorne in Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera Patience

A few of us, deranged though we might be, crave untimely meditations and thoughts out of season. I search for novelty and insight, not to build any brand, but because living’s mostly wasting time, and that quest is how I waste my share of mine. But the voices for our ears are few and far between. Often these wayward souls have been canceled by the outrage mobs, made irrelevant by the passage of time, or become yet another premature casualty of life itself. A prophet is not without clout except on their own timeline, among their ostensible fellow-travelers and within what was once their inner circle. 

Let me lay a cancellation-worthy hot take on you before I call it a day of doing the work, a take the kids are going to loathe: what if you’re attracted to a person’s physical feature that they really hate? Imagine your paramour has this big pimple on their nose, and that pimple is your fetish. Your paramour wants you to love them for them, but you want to let their pimple grow for a decade and then pop the white goo out of it. They want you to love them with all of your heart, and yet you love them with none of your heart. You only love that pimple, even if you invent a lot of ideology and discourse about how yours is some kind of perfect platonic union between “comrades” or whatever the non-ableist term is nowadays. But what if your life is happy and fine, even if it’s lived entirely for the pimple and nothing but the pimple? Is your life together a lie? Is your truth not the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

What I’m saying here with this little fable of a take is that the kids are so selfish that even their altruism is selfish. They objectify everyone and everything. Their moralizing is intended to make themselves look good, because nothing outside the branded self, captured these days in likes and shares, matters to them. The only people you can trust are the ones who spill this straight tea right in your face, rather than pouring it down the back of your extra-long, super-loose sarong. I might be a thief, stealing money one invoice at a time from the rotting carcass of for-pay journalism, but I’m not a liar.

I wish I could help you, friends. Oh, how I wish I could help. But this World Wide Web is long and deep, and I have miles of takes to write before I sleep. But let me end by pouring you a little more tea: I really like the work you do. I know most people just say that, but I mean it. It’s great stuff. Compelling, even. Keep going in that direction. It might seem hopeless, but remember, it’s always darkest before the dawn. The work you’re doing is big league. It matters to me, and I’m sure it matters to your mom and dad, your nine New York City roommates who depend on you to pay your ten percent of the rent, and 5,000 random people on social media. And if you enjoyed that encouragement, please don’t forget that I’m out there doing the work, too. I’m here for it.  I’ve turned up. I’m doing better at doing the discourse. I’m going to get mine until I get got, kids. This is a good grift, if you don’t end up on one of those shitty media men lists.