Last August, when the writer Meghan Daum published her essay “Nuance: A Love Story” on the Medium publication GEN (where she’s a biweekly columnist), it touched a nerve. The love story, as detailed in this 28-minute read, was about how Daum — a lifelong self-described liberal — fell into a YouTube hole populated by the “intellectual dark web,” the sticky neologism that applies to a loosely connected group of professors and podcasters, including Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Joe Rogan.
The group’s members, first introduced to the mainstream by a 2018 New York Times piece by Bari Weiss, present themselves as self-styled public intellectuals who argue that their values of “reason,” which can easily be interpreted as hate speech, are “under attack” from today’s politically correct attitudes. Daum refers to her “new friends” (which she’s careful to note include a “handful of this cadre” of the intellectual dark web) as “Free Speech YouTube.” In the piece, she outlines how she went from watching Bloggingheads.TV to curling up with a two-hour interview with Evergreen College professor Bret Weinstein, the locus of a campus controversy on racism and intolerance, on The Rubin Report, a YouTube show hosted by Dave Rubin. “I was invigorated,” she writes, “even electrified, by their willingness to ask (if not ever totally answer) questions that had lately been deemed too messy somehow to deal with in mainstream public discourse.”
For longtime fans of Daum, “Nuance” was befuddling, dissonant, and troubling. Daum is something like a senior statesperson for the young, striving white nonfiction woman writer. Her 1999 breakout essay and subsequent 2001 essay collection, My Misspent Youth, is a cult classic about the pleasures and perils of pursuing a passion for an intellectual life. Her books captured a generation’s experience in funny and devastating prose: In 2010, she published a memoir about yearning for real estate, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, and her fourth book, 2014’s essay collection The Unspeakable, looked dead in the eye of traumatic events: sick parents, the question of motherhood, and near-death experiences. She was able to write personal essays from a white liberal feminist perspective that pulled off the neat trick of seeming utterly confessional while also sharply summing up the zeitgeist.
So how did Daum, critically acclaimed and considered a voice of a generation (X, in this case) as well as a pioneer of the 2000s personal essay boom, end up publicly sympathizing with a cohort of self-described public intellectuals who make their money claiming to “own” “social justice warriors”?
In some ways, Daum’s pivot isn’t surprising. For many years, she has been a writer committed to saying “Hey, maybe it’s like this and not this.” Part of that perspective is her love of nuance; it’s also a useful contrarian pitch against whatever might be the day’s accepted ideology among mainstream media’s centrist liberalism. (For anyone looking to be published: Editors will often respond to pieces that can be sold as edgy and against the grain, especially when you’re just starting out.) As a white woman who votes Democratic, Daum can explore more conservative perspectives and give credence to what she views as its more palatable ideas, if only because they wouldn’t affect her day-to-day existence.
Her new book, The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, out on Oct. 22, continues in this vein, wrestling back and forth with what “the polarization of America” means in a world where a significant part of life is played out on the extremes of the internet. But instead of documenting her life experiences, something at which she excels, Daum spends far more time arguing over simplified conservative and liberal talking points, exposing her blind spots to the current issues that color our experience: race, gender, capitalism, the internet, and power.
In 1996, a 25-year-old Daum had the break that most writers dream of, selling an essay to the New York Times Magazine about how Generation X reacts to the message of safe sex. Published under the title “Safe-Sex Lies:” the “final edit was abrupt, not all that coherent, gratuitously provocative, and suggested that I might have had unprotected sex with upward of five hundred people,” as Daum would write in the Believer years later. The Times received hundreds of letters in response, Daum appeared on NBC Nightly News in black leather boots, and she had her first experience of what it was like to be “the voice of a generation.”
Three years later, the New Yorker published Daum’s essay “My Misspent Youth.” It’s a psychologically astute portrait of a suburban New Jersey twentysomething who accrued more than $60,000 in debt in order to achieve “a life that had less to do with overt wealth than with what I perceived as intellectual New York bohemianism.” She discussed her student loans from her Columbia master’s degree, credit card debt acquired from dental care, freelance taxes, and daily purchases of fresh flowers. She was funny and self-aware about why she was pursuing a romantic version of poverty. Daum closes with the ultimate flex: While she had a “very, very good time” in New York, she writes that she’s now moving to Nebraska, where she can afford the price of living. (Thanks to a freelance career that she says yielded around $40,000 a year 20 years ago — good for her!) The essay is a wonderful piece of writing, and still feels fresh in 2019 — even if the average debt for a suburban girl turned aspiring bohemian may be a little bit higher these days, and the possibility of making a living wage as a freelance writer is increasingly diminishing.
How did Daum, a pioneer of the 2000s personal essay boom, end up publicly sympathizing with a cohort of self-described public intellectuals who make their money claiming to “own” “social justice warriors”?
My Misspent Youth would also be the title of Daum’s first essay collection, published by the now-closed indie publishing arm of the late magazine Open City. Its best essays were concerned with the minutiae of Daum’s twentysomething life: “On the Fringes of the Physical World” discussed an internet courtship that consisted of enthusiastic emails; “American Shiksa” detailed what it’s like falling for Jewish men when you’re not Jewish; and “Variations on Grief” is a tough, honest essay about a friend’s death at 22, in which Daum writes, “Brian is someone who accomplished nothing in life other than his death.”
In 2003, Daum published her first novel, The Quality of Life Report, a funny and light read that the original paperback cover marketed as edgy chick lit. By 2005, Daum had landed a weekly op-ed column for the Los Angeles Times, a position that she held for over a decade. In 2010, Daum’s second nonfiction book came out, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, and it solidified her position as a writer who could be wry and heartbreaking.
When Daum released her second book of essays in 2014, The Unspeakable, I wrote in a review for Flavorwire that Daum was like a “big sister” to me, “warm and realistic and not afraid to seem like an asshole.” There are some duds in this book — do I have to dig into “Honorary Dyke,” an essay whose cringey title really says it all? — but there are resonant essays too, like “Matricide,” about her mother’s death, and “Diary of a Coma,” about her own near-death experience. Instead of boilerplate reactions to brutal life events, Daum was willing to express her ambivalence in the face of subjects as heavy as death.
There’s an essay at the heart of The Unspeakable, one that shows the force of Daum’s talent, called “Difference Maker.” She writes about her experience as a volunteer court-appointed advocate for foster children, centered on her relationship with a young kid named Matthew. Age, race, and circumstances mean that as much as Daum wants to be a positive presence in this kid’s life, she’s trying her best in a situation that’s set up to hurt, and Matthew is well aware of it too. This attempt at caretaking contrasts with her own explorations of potential motherhood, a subject about which she is mostly conflicted, and she remains rooted in that ambiguity as she and her husband deal with the aftermath of a miscarriage. All of this familial questioning in her marriage is referred to as the “Central Sadness,” and it holds a lot of weight — especially when compared with Daum’s faltering forays into the foster care system.
On the heels of this book, which won the 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, Daum edited Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids. I interviewed her when the book was released, noting its “calm, fair tone” and lack of sneering at either side. She said, “The conversation [on whether to have kids] gets framed in this hyperbolic way that doesn’t serve anyone.” At the time, I appreciated her thoughtfulness, and her willingness to discuss, off the record, the looming specter of my own mother’s death. Daum was frank and unsentimental. It wasn’t what you’d expect to hear from a writer — and death can inspire the most sentimental clichés. At the time, her words served as a kind of balm as I was stuck in a liminal space, waiting for the next terrible phone call that would change everything.
Daum didn’t set out to write a book that’s nearly punditry; as she writes in the introduction of The Problem With Everything, it began as “a critique of the current state of the women’s movement,” delving into her frustrations about the “lack of shading” and the “bluster” from social media. Over the period in which she wrote the book, starting in late 2016 and finishing earlier this year, the work shifted from being solely concerned with feminism to looking at sexual harassment at work, sexual assault on campus, comedy, the #MeToo movement, identity politics, social media politics, divorce, the intellectual dark web, Bari Weiss, and aging.
Daum wrestles with “both sides” of issues in a manner that she would classify as the pursuit of nuance, but too often she just ends up seeming out of touch with people’s everyday lives and excessively attuned to arguments on the internet. She writes, for example, about the term “woke” in a manner that is wholly ignorant of the word’s roots in black activism — she attempts, embarrassingly, to coin the term “wokescenti” about NPR-listening liberals — turning the term into a catchall for yuppies who love to “virtue signal” and “tone police.”
As a white woman who votes Democratic, Daum can explore more conservative perspectives and give credence to what she views as its more palatable ideas, if only because they wouldn’t affect her day-to-day existence.
Then again, Daum oversimplifies constantly. Take her perspective on #MeToo and its consequences. Discussing the “Shitty Media Men” list in the first essay, "Sign the Petition: From the Meat Grinder to #MeToo," she jokes, “Weird lunch! Welcome to publishing! I’m going to write a memoir of my early days in New York and call it Weird Lunch.” She’s wary of the idea that #MeToo will fundamentally change how men and women treat each other in the workplace and in relationships.
For Daum, #MeToo is less about women coming forward with stories of sexual misconduct and potentially changing society, and more about younger feminists’ cluelessness. She takes special pleasure in criticizing an “as told to” Babe.net piece about Aziz Ansari, widely considered by conservatives and some older feminists (such as Daphne Merkin and Caitlin Flanagan) as a classic case of #MeToo run amok. Daum claims that the story, about a young woman’s experiences with Ansari, was received entirely along generational lines: Older feminists thought this was an unremarkably bad date, while younger feminists thought it was assault. She fails to recognize how many millennial feminists were skeptical of Babe’s decision to publish the story, and how many millennial feminists are, in general, skeptical or ambivalent about some of #MeToo’s influence. Weiss, who’s made a career of pointing out that her peers are wrong, naturally pops up as the only millennial with a tolerable point of view because she claimed that Ansari’s only problem was not knowing what his date wanted. (The two are now friends: Daum appeared at the “Moderate Chic” book party for Weiss’s How to Fight Anti-Semitism; Weiss will be interviewing Daum on her book tour.)
Daum is all over the place, arguing against one strawman after the next from a perspective that ends up feeling blinkered. She raves about her childhood, growing up in the ’70s as a “kid,” “gender-neutral,” and not being classified as a “girl.” She argues that this shared childhood is why Generation X is invested in being “tough.” She compares this toughness to what she classifies as the millennial obsession with “fairness,” which, to Daum, creates a slippery slope toward a sense of protracted victimhood.
She argues against corporate feminism, circling back over and over to the idea of branded products imprinted with words like “badass” or “male tears,” which she views as part of the “angry” younger generation. She’s a bit obsessed with ironic feminism, in fact, citing memes that are nearly a decade old. (She mentions “confused Betty White” GIFs so often that I’m convinced we’re not on the same internet.)
But again, Daum fails to recognize the fact that millennial feminists have also been critical of the commodification of women’s empowerment. Jia Tolentino discusses a similar scourge in a small section of her new book, Trick Mirror, called “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” digging into #GirlBoss corporate feminism trends (she also cites the “male tears” mug). The difference between the two writers — to some people, the voice of Generation X and the voice of the millennial generation, and who are both compared ad nauseam to Joan Didion — is that Daum’s observations ultimately peter out after she’s satisfied with berating angry millennial straw women. Tolentino, with the advantage of her experience at Jezebel, places the corporate feminism trend in a greater context; internet memes go mainstream, she argues, due to the celebration, exploitation, and mainstreaming of feminism under capitalism.
It’s hard to know, according to Daum’s worldview, who the real villains are.
By writing that current feminism is angry, Daum’s arguments have more than a whiff of maternalistic condescension. She writes that young women swear a lot and that their language ruins the efficacy of their protests against the cruelty of the current age, a “both sides”–ism that she admits can be boiled down to respectability politics. She applauds the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement for being dressed well; she then, with all the cluelessness of white feminism, wonders why young women of today can’t do the same.
It’s hard to know, according to Daum’s worldview, who the real villains are. She’s correct in saying that when Justice Brett Kavanaugh was first nominated to the Supreme Court, the sexual assault reports distracted from Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony — a subject that’s reported on with far more authority in Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s recent book, She Said. But then Daum uses the bizarre rhetorical tactic of trying to establish that women can be abusers too by writing, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever threatened to harm yourself if a man breaks up with you or doesn’t want to see you anymore.” She follows this up with seven other mundane and ridiculous hypotheticals. To quote Tolentino once again, Daum relies on the kind of whataboutism that’s “appealing to people who wish to seem both contrarian and intellectually superior.”
What’s frustrating about Meghan Daum is that, ultimately, she is a good writer. She knows how to put together an argument (even when she’s only arguing with herself). The effect can be seductive. But the aimlessness throughout The Problem With Everything is confusing — even though, in some ways, it feels as if she’s been writing toward this kind of contrarianism throughout her whole career. Exploring “both sides” is an obsession that doesn’t feel particularly useful or urgent. It seems to me that these times call for action rather than intellectual hedging.
The conservative streak that blossoms here may turn Daum into a full-on professional pundit, someone with a future discussing the problem with something — women, men, misogyny — on someone’s angry podcast. It’s a shame, however, as there’s so much more to pay attention to these days — so much more that’s worth the time of someone as smart and concerned as Daum is. Younger writers like Tolentino have taken on the internet and expanded what it means to write about this new world from a feminist perspective, looking at how capitalism affects young people, even when they don’t see themselves as consumers. The feminist perspective that Daum brings here isn’t nearly as expansive, let alone accurate, at times.
The lasting image I’ve retained from The Problem With Everything is one of a woman alone at her computer, in her New York apartment, reading as much as possible and arguing with herself. It’s a lonely image of someone producing writing of the laziest sort: shaped by YouTube, Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle. It is the image of a working woman writer looking at something like her own impending obsolescence and lashing out at the present.
For the first time, Daum’s writing feels evanescent, and that’s because she’s solely interrogating the online world, and not herself. At the heart of things, these incoherent arguments seem to be someone wanting — despite their best instincts — to connect. ●
Elisabeth Donnelly is a journalist and screenwriter. She has written about books, culture, and other passions for numerous places from Oprah to Topic Magazine to New York City Ballet. You can find her writing at elisabethdonnelly.com. She’s currently working on a nonfiction book about wellness.