Here’s something the world needs like a hole in the head: an Instagram platform for children under age 13. Considering that the world already has a hole in the head called Instagram, I suppose you’d have to call this a matching hole (like those Lilly Pulitzer mother-daughter dresses).
Luckily, after a wave of outrage from anyone with a stake in childhood, Facebook has temporarily put the project on hold, supposedly to listen to “parents, experts, policymakers and regulators.”
There is already an established genre of internet writing you can call Twitter Quitter—admitting your addiction to the platform and making the case for why you (and everyone) should quit. Even though this disquisition is not being done on Twitter, I think of these professions as “Queets,” since they serve to strengthen the writer’s brand by articulately describing the feelings of people who loathe but can’t quit Twitter.
Probably the most entertaining Queet I have read is Caitlin Flanagan’s in the Atlantic. The tone is vintage Jennifer Weiner novel addressing fellow Weight Watchers alums: We joke about how we always cave, but we are so funny and witty that it doesn’t even matter in the end. Flanagan tells us the tweets she wished she could have posted during her self-imposed 28-day detox, thereby managing to deliver them in an alternate format. The saga of her temporary separation from Twitter reads like one Gilmore Girl sequestered from the other.
I love seeing the red dot on those stationary public maps in an unfamiliar place: “You Are Here.” I love that the place where the map stands was there before I arrived and will remain after I’ve moved on. It’s not like your phone’s GPS showing you as the center of the universe—or the Uber map where that coveted role temporarily goes to your approaching driver. No, it’s the real world that Copernicus grabbed hold of to shatter Christian illusions that the sun and planets revolve around the Earth.
The red dot is humbling—a minor footnote to Carl Sagan’s pale blue one. The red dot says that you are the variable, whereas this place (museum, town square, whatever) is the constant with longitude and latitude. Many among the more privileged of us have spent a year and a half being paid for our non-physical presence. We didn’t have to get dressed for things, didn’t have to put money on our Metro Cards or gas in the tank. We had only to trudge as far as our phones and laptops. Our lives became impressionistic, the question of when we’d return to the workplace as fog-shrouded as Monet’s Houses of Parliament.
A few months before the 2016 election, the New Yorker ran a cartoon by Paul Noth that has become iconic. It shows a wolf in a suit on a campaign billboard over the words “I am going to eat you,” while nearby one grazing sheep says approvingly to another, “He tells it like it is.”
What’s interesting about that cartoon beyond its prophecy is that it came from the left. For more than a generation, charging Democrats with being “sheeple” to the lockstep of political correctness has been a core tactic of conservatives and their libertarian apologists. The first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell was, after all, a fluffy thing named Dolly, prone to being herded and led, not a vicious lone carnivore howling in front of a full moon. The cultural implantation of the sheep/wolf metaphor gained traction with The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 and hoofed along to the Wolf of Wall Street, the 2013 blockbuster for which Donald Trump supposedly requested a role that wasn’t just a walk-on.
Once in a while you read articles in the same sitting that seem to be parts of larger narrative, or maybe it’s that the second one is a clap-back to the first.
This happened recently when I read an archived article by A.J. Liebling that the New Yorker online reprinted after the death of Prince Philip. Liebling’s post from November 29, 1947, looked at how the press was covering the royal wedding of the future queen, honing in specifically on reportage by one correspondent billed as “Noted American Society Woman and Authoress.”
Sometime during the COVID spring, I was walking behind a young couple and overheard the guy ask the girl, “Did you hear the Luke Combs cover of ‘Fast Car’?” I wasn’t familiar with Luke Combs, but I was surprised to realize that the Tracy Chapman song had remained in the pop vernacular for more than three decades.
As a Black lesbian folk singer appealing to white audiences, Chapman was a pop anomaly. But her song is a perfect slice of Americana. I heard her busking “Fast Car” in the Harvard Square subway station a few times in the 1980s. I remember hearing it once from another part of the station, and the reiteration of “be someone, be someone” in that large space seemed portentous to my young self.
Back when airline emergency instructions came tucked inside the seatback pockets in front of you, I’d sometimes get unnerved by the illustrated mother putting on her mask as a child sits next to her. Yes, it’s logical to secure your own breathing device first. But I couldn’t help envisioning the masked mother turning to find the kid already dead.
As the life-giving conduit of oxygen, masks have (save for a few scenes in Blue Velvet) long represented protection amid catastrophe. Infantrymen in World War I lived in mortal dread of the shout for “Gas!” Gas masks became the symbolic escape hatch of battlefield carnage well beyond the next World War.
Americans generally care little about history, but they do like a good “if only.” If only JFK wasn’t shot there’d have been no Vietnam mess and no Tricky Dick taping in the Oval Office. If only his brother had dodged a bullet, Ronald Reagan would never have got his mitts on a government to gut.
The concept hinges on the belief that events involving a single life can change world history, à la the wing-flapping butterfly creating a tsunami. But the contemporary origin story is the 1914 assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, that was said to have triggered World War I.
Great fiction has been partial to this device. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, if only Annushka hadn’t spilled the sunflower oil near the railway turnstile, Berlioz would not have slipped and been decapitated by the train and the poet would not have been compelled to pursue the evil magician for the length of the novel.
The most Simpsons of Simpsons moments in my reckoning occurs not in the television series but in the 2007 feature film. When the biohazardous Springfield is threatened to be destroyed under its giant glass dome, the family and fellow residents gather in church, where Homer grabs and frantically thumbs through a Bible, exclaiming, “This book doesn’t have any answers!”
By 2007, the series was more than a decade past its prime, but the movie was peak Simpsons—first because this was the last time religion was important enough to warrant a joke, and also because it identified what Americans at the dawn of social media’s chokehold could not find in church: answers.
A long time ago I made up the term literary enabler. I use it for something I read that perfectly articulates a half-thought-out, non-logic-based sensation that might well be the first thread of a very important philosophical insight.
One of my favorite literary enablers was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—specifically, the passage where the protagonist sees The Oxbow Incident at the same theater where he first saw the movie fourteen years before. Back then, he had emerged from the theater to the scent of privet, the camphor berries on the sidewalk popping under his shoes. Now the same exact thing happens, and he becomes fixated on this perfectly bookended capsule of time:
But what about the intervening fourteen years? What has happened in them? What, for example, about the split plywood seats in the theatre, enduring nevertheless as if they had waited to see what I had done with my fourteen years. There was this also: a secret sense of wonder about the enduring, about all the nights, the rainy summer nights at twelve and one and two o’clock when the seats endured alone in the empty theatre. The enduring is something which must be accounted for. One cannot simply shrug it off.