1. Toward the end of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress one of the characters makes a comment that’s proven more than a little prescient. Lily observes, “There’s all this propaganda in favor of uniqueness, eccentricity, independence, etc, but does the world really want or need more of such traits? Aren’t such people usually terrible pains in the neck? What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people — I’d like to be one of those.” The irony is thick, of course, as the characters, by saying something so overtly counter-cultural, reveal themselves to be independent thinkers of the rarest sort. I don’t think it was Stillman’s way of undermining ‘personality’ (as if!) so much as lampooning the cult of the extraordinary (i.e., for its own sake) that one finds in most elite environments these days. It’s what came to mind when I read Susan Cain’s fascinating dispatch in the Times, “Not Leadership Material? Good”. Cain unmasks one of our more insidious cultural imperatives, namely, Thou Shalt Lead. Indeed, leadership has become moralized as an absolute good–a particular aspect of leadership, that is (business and political power)–to the extent that there are few harsher put-downs than “follower”. She writes:

If college admissions offices show us whom and what we value, then we seem to think that the ideal society is composed of Type A’s. This is perhaps unsurprising, even if these examples come from highly competitive institutions. It’s part of the American DNA to celebrate those who rise above the crowd.Yet a well-functioning student body — not to mention polity — also needs followers. It needs team players. And it needs those who go their own way. It needs leaders who are called to service rather than to status…

Whatever the colleges’ intentions, the pressure to lead now defines and constricts our children’s adolescence. One young woman told me about her childhood as a happy and enthusiastic reader, student and cellist — until freshman year of high school, when “college applications loomed on the horizon, and suddenly, my every activity was held up against the holy grail of ‘leadership,’ ” she recalled. “And everyone knew,” she added, “that it was not the smart people, not the creative people, not the thoughtful people or decent human beings that scored the application letters and the scholarships, but the leaders. It seemed no activity or accomplishment meant squat unless it was somehow connected to leadership.”…

Perhaps the biggest disservice done by the outsize glorification of “leadership skills” is to the practice of leadership itself — it hollows it out, it empties it of meaning. It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply.

2. Following up on the middle-age male loneliness tip, Ryan Avent (quickly turning into one of my favorite columnists), wrote a lengthy essay for The Economist on the link between rising unemployment among men in their 20s and video games, “Escape to Another World”. According to research out of the University of Chicago, “As the hours young men spent in work dropped in the 2000s, hours spent in leisure activities rose nearly one-for-one. Of the rise in leisure time, 75% was accounted for by video games.” Wowza. And yet, before we get on the hater train (calling Jamin W!), there may be more going on than meets the eye. Apprehensions, for example, about conceptions of life that do not have work at their center. Yet alongside the stories of gaming addiction, we read a few heartening accounts of, well, fellowship:

Between the game reviews and player tips, online forums for gamers are thick with discussions among those who worry their lives are passing them by but cannot find the will to put down their controllers.

Our instinct, trained to see work as a critical component of adulthood and an obligation of healthy members of society, recoils at the thought of people spending their lives buried in alternate realities... For [one young woman named] Emily, and for many others, games were not the luxury luring her away from career. They were a comfort blanket and distraction, providing some solace when the working world offered only bitter disappointment…

What [one man named David Mullings] got from the game was much more than mere distraction. It was fellowship with others. Indeed, his group of friends has become a broader online community, calling itself Dads of Destiny. The men bonded over shared experiences. “Sometimes a player would say, ‘Guys, I need to change a baby,’ and the other players would provide covering fire while he was gone.” They helped each other. Dads would pass around their cvs and connect with each other on LinkedIn. One of their number, a veteran, credits their gaming community with helping him adjust to life after military service and deal with post-traumatic stress. David is pretty sure they have saved at least one marriage.

A life spent buried in video games, scraping by on meagre pay from irregular work or dependent on others, might seem empty and sad. Whether it is emptier and sadder than one spent buried in finance, accumulating points during long hours at the office while neglecting other aspects of life, is a matter of perspective.

3. Before we leave the male alienation aisle, though, there’s the matter of Father John Misty, AKA Josh Tillman AKA “this white guy who has clearly read too much and thinks he’s so smart”. You may know him as our moment’s most irrepressible wiseass/Schopenhauer disciple, albeit one whose dalliances with ‘big ideas’ have become harder and harder to ignore, in part because the musical accompaniment is so winning. Anyway, in conjunction with the release of his new album Pure Comedy, The Times ran a profile in which Tillman rattled off a number of memorable soundbites about modern life, most of which are trenchant and not all of which are lacking in compassion:

“I have a pretty good idea of what it looks like on the internet today about me. I’m symbolic of a thing white people really hate about themselves. And the fact that I appear to be enjoying it is a bridge too far. It’s like, ‘You should be sitting around, hating yourself on Twitter, like all of us.’ Interpretive thinking, as an art form, is dying. We enjoy the dopamine rush of outrage so much more than the slow-burning nutrition you get from thinking with nuance.”

People think the world of music is so great, and it’s just not. It’s so boring, the way music is conceived and then declawed for public consumption…. [The pop machine] is categorically anti-woman. I know a lot of women in that industry. They were pitched an American narrative about success equaling freedom, when there couldn’t be anything further from the truth…

“I know who my audience is. Not to say it’s only educated, isolated weirdos who grew up on message boards, and for whom the substance of their life is electronic distraction, but there are a lot of them. I think they get a lot of messaging that their pain is invalid, is inauthentic, and the things in life that are hurtful and make you feel alone are [malarkey] problems, and you can make yourself look sophisticated by constantly laughing.”

4. Also in music, The NY Times review of Aimee Mann’s record, Mental Illness, contains a doozie of a paragraph toward the end. No one sings about addiction and recidivism more beautifully than Aimee:

As orderly as they are, the songs turn out to be highly controlled environments for the uncontrollable: irrational passions and compulsions that continue in self-destructive cycles, even when everyone involved knows better. “Here we go again, around and round/ we’re babies passing for adults,” Ms. Mann sings in “Simple Fix,” about the latest reunion of a couple that knows things won’t work out this time, either. She continues: “Let’s call a spade a spade, I’m going nowhere/I’m stuck in this hole afraid to make a move.” In “Poor Judge,” she realizes that “Falling for you was a walk off a cliff” but in the end, “I can see your light on/calling me back to make the same mistake again.”

5. Humorwise, McSweeney’s offered up both the amusing “Adam and Eve Learn of Their Nakedness” and the hilarious “My Fully Optimized Life Allows Me Ample Time to Optimize Yours”. Elsewhere, Dangerous Minds highlighted the time-honored piece of sacrilegious kitsch known as The Jesus Slingshot, one of which can apparently now be yours for the low, low price of $7. Oy vey.

6. Opinion is split on Terrence Malick’s new film, Song by Song. Over at Comonweal, trusted friend and (heretofore) Malick apologist Matthew Sitman writes that “Malick’s admission that the first cut of this film was eight hours long should be taken chiefly as a warning… Sex and love, and how we pursue them and they pursue us, are Malick’s preoccupations in this film, as was the case in both Wonder and Knight. This time, though, he manages to make sex and love boring.” Tim Markotos at AmCon acknowledges the same opacity but interprets it differently, ht RS:

“There’s hardly anything transgressive about Malick’s messages about mercy, grace, forgiveness, and selflessness, and their necessity for the formation of well-ordered souls: they’re as old as storytelling itself, and we’ve been hearing variations of them in lineage of Judeo-Christian art and literature for thousands of years. The fact that Malick has thought to repurpose cinema itself to convey such seemingly simple and longstanding truths about human nature and relationships is the sign of a genius at work. When a culture stops understanding the wisdom of history and tradition, it is not a sign that this wisdom has become obsolete so much as it is an invitation to translate it into subtler languages the surrounding culture will comprehend. Though the haters would claim that Malick’s new language is too subtle to be understood, the ongoing pushback from critics moved by Malick’s pathbreaking new stories are proof to the contrary. We fellow-journeymen on the road of tradition and virtue that Malick is obliquely traveling might do well to seize upon the method to his madness—and maybe even a bit of the madness itself.”

7. Social Science Study of the Week comes to us courtesy of Birgid Schulte, Even Work-Life Balance Experts Are Awful at Balancing Work and Life (!):

“In all my years of working in this field, I’ve never met anyone who’s not struggling themselves,” said Ken Matos, vice-president of research at Life Meets Work, a workforce-strategy consulting firm. “There’ve been way too many moments when I’ve been talking to leaders in the work-life field who work crazy hours in order to get other people time off.”

8. Finally, while I’m hesitant to give Rod Dreher any more press at the moment–what with the Interwebs continuing to spin take after hot take on #BenOp–it was nice to read something by the man that reminded you of why people are paying attention in the first place. I’m referring to the incredibly moving “unpublished epilogue” to his earlier book, How Dante, in which he details his father’s final decline. The whole thing is supremely touching and of interest to anyone coping with reconciliation, grief, forgiveness, or family. This paragraph for example, ht RS:

“I had made an idol of Family and Place, embodied most of all in the person of my father, and without knowing what I was doing, had given my father the place of God in my imagination. This is why I could never escape the sense that God may love me, but He does not approve of me, and that if only I worked harder, I could win that approval. In truth, this was how my father saw me. Becoming aware of this, disentangling God and my father within myself, and repenting of the idol worship, was the first crucial step in my healing.”

Strays

  • We’re running out of seats for the meals in NYC. SO if you’re planning on eating, but haven’t pre-registered yet, we need to know ASAP. Sign up on the conference site or email us at info@mbird.com post-haste. Be sure to check out the full list of breakout sessions, too!
  • According to the WHO, Depression Is Now the Leading Cause of Illness and Disability Worldwide. The worldwide rate increased by 18% between 2005 and 2015. Bummer.
  • The Great Kosher Pizza War happening in Brooklyn will boggle your mind.
  • The Twlight Zone Plot Generator is a lot of fun.
  • The featured image this week is a teaser. For what? You’ll have to wait until April 27th… (The video below too).
  • Oh and apologies for the technical difficulties with the podcasts. More on that soon.