Volume 3, Issue 29: That’s Not the Issue

"You've got a problem, I think you know. I'll tell you mine before you go."

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I’ve never had a dream writing gig, a specific job I’ve been wanting my entire life, one Moby Dick that I must chase down or my career will have had no meaning. There was a time many years ago, before the newspaper industry imploded, that I wanted to take over for Roger Ebert as film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, and if tomorrow they offered me a spot above the fold on the front page of The New York Times every morning about whatever I wanted to write about—Trump Declares Victory, Institutes Martial Law and Instructs Military to Commandeer All Absentee Ballots, But First, Here’s Will Leitch With 2,500 words on Side B of Wilco’s “A Ghost Is Born”—I’d be likely to consider it. But there’s no mountaintop. The goal is to be paid to write every day until I have to stop because I just died, and as long as that keeps happening, I’ll have all that I need.

But if there’s one column I would love to tackle someday, it’s The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine. The column has been around for decades, originated by former Letterman writer Randy Cohen back in the late ‘90s, and it has an incredibly simple concept: Readers run into ethical quandaries in their lives, they write into The Ethicist with questions about what they should do, and The Ethicist gives them their answer. I know that sounds like an advice column, and I guess it is, but The Ethicist has never been Dear Abby. The Ethicist is, or at least should be, less about specific practical advice in any situation—Leave him! Give him another chance! Quit that job! Demand that raise! Get that money!—and more about one central question: How do you combine the theoretical with the practical? What happens when lofty idealism collides with the ugliness of the real world? It is easy to say what one should do. A great Ethicist column argues what you can do.

Cohen always took a humorist’s view on the column, usually more concerned with a good joke than tackling every issue head-on. (Which is fine: A laugh is generally more valuable than any long-winded discussion of ethics anyway.) He was succeeded by Chuck Klosterman, who wrote the column for two years (and made me incredibly envious) and who took a much colder, more clinical, rigorously logical approach to the column, as anyone familiar with his work might suspect. (It was still funny.) He tended to have clear, distinct, easily understood responses that left little little room for nuance or misinterpretation. He told you explicitly what he thought you should do, and he told you why. He also nailed down, succinctly, the sort of inquiries he typically received:

A sizable chunk of the queries I receive are complicated versions of four abstract scenarios. They are as follows: a) “I need to do something bad in order to achieve something good,” b) “I received something valuable that I did not deserve,” c) “I feel a moral obligation to become involved with an affair that is none of my business,” or d) “Is it O.K. to take something if that something will not be missed by anyone else?”

This clear “you asked, and I answered, and if you don’t like it, then perhaps you should not have asked” style was compulsively readable but inevitably polarizing: Readers were constantly yelling at Klosterman. (“What I did not anticipate,” he wrote, “is the intensity of emotion so many readers invest into this column.”) When Klosterman left, the column became, for far too long, a “discussion” between various writers about what, empirically, ethics really are, man; it was as jumbled and pointless as you might suspect.

For the last few years, it has been written by Kwame Anthony Appiah, an actual philosopher who wrote a book called “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.” Appiah’s style is more academic, which is to say it is fair and even-minded and thoughtful and, to be honest, perhaps a little bit dull to read at times. But his approach is the right one, I think. There aren’t “right” answers to any questions actually worth asking, and pretending there are is being intellectually and emotionally dishonest. Appiah, being the right kind of philosopher, recognizes that the world is too complicated and infinite to give all-encompassing, one-size-fits-all answers, and that every action has consequences. In a recent question, he was asked about what to do with a friend who has expressed racist views about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. His response is detailed and incredibly expansive, ranging from “your friends should be similar in virtue” to “no one is truly virtuous” to “caring about your friends means caring about their faults too” to “you can’t map your life experience on anyone else’s” to “yes but there has to be a line your friends can’t cross with you” to “your friends have the same obligations to humanity as you do” to “if you can’t stomach this person’s views it might just be good for your own soul to let them go” to “yes but then by casting them off you are setting them up to be preyed upon by extremists” to “perhaps you should be one positive influence in their lives?” That’s an exhausting journey to travel, and I’m not sure the person who asked the question is any closer to an answer than they were in the first place, but that’s what I love about The Ethicist column: That any of us are actually contemplating any of these things is three-quarters of the battle. The point is not to have a definitive answer. The point is to be thoughtful. The point is to just do your best.

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I consider myself a good person. But then again: Doesn’t everybody? Is there a person who walks around every day and thinks, “I’m going to do everything I can to make the world actively worse for everyone around me all day?” Now, we all know people who actually do do that for all the people that they meet all day. But I doubt they’re actively trying to. I think they think they’re right. I think they think they’re doing the right thing.

This is a hard thing to wrap one’s mind around, particularly when you see such avarice and greed and flat meanness in the world. And I know that the simplest explanation is the canard it’s difficult not to fall back on sometimes: The cruelty is the point. (It’s certainly hard not to look at a twerp like Stephen Miller and think that.) But I do, perhaps foolishly, believe that is more complicated than that. I think most of these people, probably all of these people, are being cruel. But I also think that they think they are right.

There’s a difference, isn’t there? Between active malice and tragically misguided self-assurance? I do not claim to be the grand arbiter who is able to decide who is delusional and who is just an asshole, and I’m pretty sure in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter all that much anyway—it’s what you do, not why you do it, that defines you—but it does seem worthy of consideration, doesn’t it? Those idiots running through a Target screaming about masks may be selfish and cruel and shitty (and very possibly mentally ill, a consideration we should probably keep in mind every time we gawk at a viral clip), but in their minds, inside their heads … don’t they think they’re right? Don’t they think they’re standing up for something important? They’re wrong—they’re so, so fucking wrong—but in their story, the one where they are the protagonist, they one they’re telling themselves … they’re the good guys. They think they are right.

Remember that woman a while back in July who destroyed all the masks in a Target store? The one who said she’d been waiting to do this for years, the one who said she is on the phone with Donald Trump all the time? This one?

Her name is Melissa Rein Lively. She was a successful marketer in Scottsdale, Arizona, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder earlier in the year. According to a very smart, empathetic piece about what social media is doing to our brains in the pandemic by Ben Collins for NBC News, she had a manic episode. To quote:

Cooped up inside her home and losing work due to the pandemic in the weeks before her outburst, Rein Lively filled the time she would've spent hanging out with friends and emailing clients by diving down conspiracy-fueled rabbit holes on Facebook and Instagram, worsening her feelings of isolation and fear. … Rein Lively said her viral outburst was in part a product of a depressive episode, a symptom of the bipolar disorder she was diagnosed with last year. "It's really intense for a few weeks when you're going through the mania part," she said. "Then what happens is the depressive episode, in which, for all intents and purposes, I destroyed my own life." But in the moment, Rein Lively believed she was doing a public good, speaking for the fellow followers of Facebook groups and Instagram pages who spoke out against masks, calling them "muzzles" and a form of slavery.

"There's just such a lack of human connection right now," Rein Lively said. "That engagement that you're getting on social media, it's addictive."

Does this make what she did OK? Of course it does not. But it is yet another reminder of the signature maxim of this moment: No one is at their best right now. Whether or not you choose to forgive people for what they do during this is your decision, and yours alone. I struggle with it myself. But it is always, always worth keeping in mind.

And because of the total lack of leadership during this harrowing, never-ending, completely unprecedented period, no one knows what to do. They have to figure it out on their own. It can be alarming, some of the things you end up learning about the society in which you live. Apparently American society, or at least the part of American society I reside in, has decided that playing football and opening Hooters is more important than my third grader and my first grader going to school. A legitimate question I keep screaming into the mirror: When there is a public health crisis going on, one that’s so bad that the Athens school district has decided it cannot safely get its children back in in classrooms, maybe having 20,000 fans converge in a stadium on Saturdays is maybe not the most responsible thing for the community in which your university and your athletic program resides? But then again, there are also financial considerations that are not irrelevant to the health, even the survival, of thousands of people. Will having football keep more jobs? Will opening shitty chain restaurants help a family in poverty make it through this? I do not know. In the absence of anyone in charge, we’re all just guessing. We’re all just winging it and trying to make it out alive.

I like to think that I’ve always tried to do the right thing, even as I’ve failed on more occasions that I could even possibly remember. But I’ve never thought more about ethics—about trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, even if there is no right thing—more than right now. We all have to. Every day is a desperate, surely doomed struggle to figure out how to navigate this world, to integrate the theoretical into the practical. The safest thing is to keep my kids away from other children, but what’s having him spend a whole year (or more?) isolated going to do to them in the long term? I want my parents to be safe, but they’ll go crazy locked up for months, and isn’t going out and doing things when they retired what they worked all those years for? I need to get and see people and maybe even have an outdoor meal or beverages, but what does it say about me that I’m willing to exploit wait staff by making them put themselves at risk just to serve me a vodka tonic? And it’s constantly shifting. I’m routinely doing things now that I would have been terrifying to even consider back in April, and I suspect you are as well. There’s no clear path to go down, no rope to grab onto. This leads inevitably to shaming: I’m doing the right thing, why can’t they do the right thing? But then again with that more uncertainty. Our circumstances are different, and what do I know, and who am I do act any better, and I’ve probably cut a corner once or twice myself, and around and around you go. Every day is an endless series of tests that are impossible to pass. The more you think about it, the farther down the rabbit hole you go.

It is perhaps inevitable then that the ones who seem to be handling themselves the best through all this are the ones who do not bother themselves with these questions at all. They just do what they want, thinking only of their own well-being, charging forward unabated. Remember: A lack of shame is a superpower. I wonder if this is why the particularly craven are constantly claiming “markets” can handle situations like this. (In a story that’s infuriating in every way, that’s the most malevolent line: “Free markets will solve this. That is not the role of government.”) Markets, by nature and by design, have no ethics. To rely on markets is to absolve yourself of any ethical obligation. It is an abdication of ethics. Whatever enriches, that’s what right.

But I’m not sure I’m correct, even saying that. I’m not sure I’m correct about anything. Are you? Do you lie in bed at night, looking up at the ceiling, thinking, “every single decision and action I made today was 100 percent right. I am so awesome.” That’s what this moment has brought so vividly to the format: Every choice is wrong. There is no North Star, no obvious direction where you can’t make a wrong turn. Everything is out of your control. Everything is just a guess.

To me: All you can aspire to is just to try to be as thoughtful as possible. Be aware. Be humble. Be uncertain. Weigh every option you can, make the decision from the best information you can gather and hope to the heavens that it works. Give yourself a break. And maybe give everyone else a break too. Your best is all you can do. Maybe it’s all they can do too. Maybe that’s enough.

Please consider this my long-form application to someday take over the Ethicist column. Know that I do not have any answers, and that whatever decision you choose will be wrong. And in the end, we’re all dead. Please keep those letters coming, New York Times Magazine readers. You are welcome for all this wisdom.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG

If you are looking for signs that your life was richly lived, you can do worse than, when you die, tens of millions of people scream, “HOLY SHIT” at once. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday night was another of those 2020 moments, maybe one of the biggest ones, when you remember that you are just never going to get a second to catch your goddamned breath. Much will be written, has been written, about the political battle that’s about to ensue, about the rank, craven hypocrisy already on display. The fight that’s about to go down will be bloody, and, alas, necessary. (Advice from Ginsburg herself: “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”) But for this morning, if just this morning, simply mourning the titanic American figure seems more than sufficient. This woman was one of the favorite writing students of Vladimir Nabokov, and it’s probably not one of the 20 most fascinating and important things about her. I don’t want what’s going to happen in the wake of her death to distract, too long, from her life. Let’s honor her … and then get to work.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. The Best Way For Players to Truly Make Change Is Not To Play, New York. As a fan of watching sports, I can’t say I’m rooting for this. But I do find it difficult to argue with the logic.

  2. Is This the Best Team in Padres History? White Sox? Dodgers? Rays? MLB.com. Comparing modern baseball to old baseball is always a fun thought experiment.

  3. This Week In Genre History: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, SYFY Wire. Never forget how mesmerized we once were by CGI technology you could do on an iMac.

  4. The Worst Playoff Teams in History, and How They Did, MLB.com. This is my Cardinals hope right now.

  5. Is There Hope Next Year For 2020′s Most Disappointing Teams? MLB.com. Red Sox fans, you may find your optimism here.

  6. The Thirty: The Breakthrough Players For Every Team, MLB.com. This season isn’t a total loss, for anyone, really.

  7. Potential Playoff Matchups, Ranked, MLB.com. Just one more of these left!

PODCASTS

Hey, I started a new podcast! Why not, right? The podcast is called People Still Read Books, and it’s a weekly conversation with a book author about their book, the world of publishing, what it’s like to be writer in the year 2020, so on, so forth. The first guest was the wonderful Linda Holmes, author of the NYT bestseller “Evvie Drake Starts Over.”

Subscribe to it:
iTunes
Spotify

I think you will like it.

Grierson & Leitch, Grierson and I tried to figure out what happens next for the world of movies, and we also discussed “Paper Moon” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

People Still Read Books, with “Evvie Drake Starts Over”’s Linda Holmes.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, our big season preview show, with special guest Seth Emerson.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“How Climate Migration Will Reshape America,” Abrahm Lustgarten, The New York Times Magazine. When David Wallace-Wells is your editor, you get caught up on climate business rather quick, but this was a harrowing, very convincing look at how this country is going to look over the next few decades. I always imagined retiring to Southern California someday. I’m not sure now.

Also, Irin Carmon’s RBG piece in New York is an obvious must-read.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

Christopher Nolan Movies

  1. The Dark Knight

  2. Dunkirk

  3. Memento

  4. Batman Begins

  5. Inception

  6. The Prestige

  7. Insomnia

  8. The Dark Knight Rises

  9. Interstellar

  10. Tenet

  11. Following

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

It has been raining here all week, so it’s possible my notes back to you—on very fancy new stationery—might have been a little wet.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Stop Whispering,” Radiohead. I recently came across an extremely old Radiohead bootleg, back even before “The Bends,” back when everyone was just there to see them play “Creep.” I know they became a more expansive, much better band throughout the years, but one of my favorite things about them is that if they’d have just stopped evolving after “Pablo Honey” and just made a version of that album over and over … I still think they might have been one of the best bands of the era? I truly love this song.

Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.

The school pictures are now taken from 10 feet away from the “classroom” these days, but they’re still worth taking, regardless.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Best,
Will