Another Week Ends

The New Puritans, the Stress Metric, Hidden Fridges, and Other Dimensions

Bryan J. / 9.3.21

1. During my tenure at a large public state university, I witnessed firsthand that the topics covered in Anne Applebaum’s recent essay, “The New Puritans,” were alive and well. The essay outlines how a mix of online outrage and illiberalism has fueled a new secular moral system that lacks important structures of due process. It also, notably, lacks forgiveness:

We read [Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter] with a certain self-satisfaction: Such an old-fashioned tale! Even Hawthorne sneered at the Puritans, with their “sad-colored garments and grey steeple-crowned hats,” their strict conformism, their narrow minds and their hypocrisy… Scarlet letters are a thing of the past.

Except, of course, they aren’t. Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything—jobs, money, friends, colleagues—after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all. It is not always easy to tell.

It’s not just college campuses, of course. The desire to be righteous drives us all, and that desire is magnified when we group together.

Some of this is, I repeat, positive: Employees or students who feel they have been treated unfairly no longer have to flounder alone. But that comes at a cost[T]he formal and informal administrative bodies that judge the fate of people who have broken social codes are very much part of a swirling, emotive public conversation, one governed not by the rules of the courtroom or logic or the Enlightenment but by social-media algorithms that encourage anger and emotion, and by the economy of likes and shares that pushes people to feel—and to perform—outrage. The interaction between the angry mob and the illiberal bureaucracy engenders a thirst for blood, for sacrifices to be offered up to the pious and unforgiving gods of outrage—a story we see in other eras of history, from the Inquisition to the more recent past. […]

The censoriousness, the shunning, the ritualized apologies, the public sacrifices—these are rather typical behaviors in illiberal societies with rigid cultural codes, enforced by heavy peer pressure. This is a story of moral panic, of cultural institutions policing or purifying themselves in the face of disapproving crowds. … After Alexi McCammond was named editor in chief of Teen Vogue, people discovered and recirculated on Instagram old anti-Asian and homophobic tweets she had written a decade earlier, while still a teenager. McCammond apologized, of course, but that wasn’t enough, and she was compelled to quit the job before starting. She’s had a softer landing than some—she was able to return to her previous work as a political reporter at Axios—but the incident reveals that no one is safe. She was a 27-year-old woman of color who had been named the “Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists, and yet her teenage self came back to haunt her. You would think it would be a good thing for the young readers of Teen Vogue to learn forgiveness and mercy, but for the New Puritans, there is no statute of limitations.

When it comes to matters of sex and race in the age of social media, throwing out either justice or mercy would be a baby-in-the-bathwater blunder, but it seems that the New Puritans eject both. Applebaum’s entire piece is worth your time if you’re interested in exploring the intersection of morality, purity, religion, forgiveness, secularism, and self-justification.

2. Secular moralism also came forward in The New Yorker this week. Cal Newport offers a thoughtful insight about work and workplace culture: What if feelings of stress, the default metric for judging whether we are busy enough, is a bad metric?

Most workers who are fortunate enough to exert some control over their efforts—such as knowledge workers and small-business entrepreneurs—tend to avoid working way too much, but also tend to avoid working a reasonable amount. They instead exist in a liminal zone: a place where they toil, say, for the sake of fixing a specific number, twenty per cent more than they really have time for. This extra twenty per cent provides just enough overload to generate persistent stress—there’s always something that’s late, always a message that can’t wait until the next morning, always a nagging sense of irresponsibility during any moment of downtime. Yet the work remains below a level of unsustainable pain that would force a change. […]

Many of the recent takes on this overload problem adopt a classical Marxian conflict-theory perspective: if you’re working too much, it’s because the capitalists are exploiting your labor—either directly, through unreasonable demands, or indirectly, by propping up a culture that valorizes industriousness… Many of these overworked individuals don’t have a manager directly measuring their output and pressuring them to do more—and, far from embracing a culture that valorizes busyness, these workers tend to think of their freneticism as a weight that they desperately wish to shed; indeed, they are often frustrated by their inability to do so. Losing the comforting clarity of conflict theory is a problem: If we can’t point to bad actors causing our misery, where do we aim our urgent conviction to do something about it?

Newport goes on to suggest that the solution is reprioritization and management intervention, but I think his core observation is worth serious consideration: We are not good judges of what constitutes reasonable work. Our tendency will always be to think we can handle more than we can. It’s no wonder God had to bring about managerial intervention and mandate the Sabbath!

3. Caity Weaver’s exploration of the newest kitchen trend — hidden fridges — caught my eye this week for what it says about wealth and work. One of my friends noted that “It does the very New York Times thing of ogling ‘the rich’ but even so, the article is very funny.”

The kitchens of the wealthy in the United States today are capable of providing a humbling experience to the uninitiated. Attempts to procure ice cubes can transform the most dignified guest into a hapless burglar rummaging through drawers for loose gems.

“I don’t think I’ve had a client that’s wanted to reveal their fridge for a very long time,” said Martyn Lawrence Bullard, an English interior designer whose namesake firm in Los Angeles has evanesced major household appliances for the likes of Cher, Tommy Hilfiger and Kylie Jenner. “In the last five years, everything we’ve done has had a hidden fridge.”

Many things that are immediately identifiable as things in the majority of American kitchens — appliances recognizable from their size, shape and the general appearance they have had since roughly the 1940s — are, in the homes of the wealthy, increasingly being transmogrified into cabinets.

“Panel-ready” refrigerators, the facades of which are designed to accommodate (typically via systems of brackets and screws) custom pieces of wood indistinguishable from a kitchen’s built-in cabinetry, have become standard. Thus, it is not only possible, but usual, to look at a newly built luxury kitchen and be unable to immediately ascertain whether it contains an icebox.

I mean, it’s a style, but styles mean things. What do these hidden fridges signal? Is there a desire to hide the fact that one must, occasionally, prepare food to feed oneself? Or are we perhaps hiding away the moldy sour cream, the shriveled uneaten peach, and the disintegrating salad-in-a-bag we’d be embarrassed if others discovered? I can’t help but wonder if the hidden refrigerator is a way to display a level of wealth that transcends work, which not only requires more work but also conceals our culinary intimacies.

4. The videos are all very funny this week, even if I’m a little late in finding them. See the clever explanation of algorithms in the Other Dimensions video, a classic fall sendup with local favorite Pittsburgh Dad, and the music video from Bowling for Soup. Other fun reads this week: H.P. Lovecraft Writes Olive Garden’s Dinner Menu and What Your Favorite ’90s Rock Band Says About the Type of Bored Suburban Dad You Are Today. But if you’re looking for the best grace-turned-law laugh of the week, I recommend “We Have the Best Damn Little Free Library on the Block.”

5. This video on the unexplored moral drama of the sacred and the profane in Martin Scorsese’s films gets two thumbs up. Well worth 20 minutes:

6. In the latest episode of The Mockingcast, which returned this week after a summer hiatus, the trio mention the untimely death of Thomas McKenzie and his daughter Ella in a car collision. It was the first day of his sabbatical, and he was taking his daughter back to college. On the ’cast, the trio mention listening to his last sermon, and for your sake, I’ve linked to it here. Make sure you’re sitting when Thomas says, “What is my last word for you before I take off?” Listening to it is a haunting exercise in pride, surrender, and wondering exactly what it is that the Lord wills.

Strays:

  • Elizabeth Bruenig on mocking the unvaxxed dead: “These stories also reflect (unflatteringly) some of the feelings of the vaccinated set toward the willfully unvaccinated: anger in need of discharging (plenty have written as much) and its cousin schadenfreude—glee at the radically false notion that dying of an illness is a form of moral comeuppance. (NB: No one here gets out alive.)”
  • Church musicians purchase 1 out of every 3 new guitars sold in the United States.
  • David Sedaris on losing his father: “Also, don’t use the word ‘passed’ at this table unless it’s as in ‘Tula passed me the salt so I could flavor my tasteless tzatziki sauce.’”
  • An excerpt from Meghan O’Gieblyn’s upcoming book, which is sure to be excellent: Can Robots Evolve into Machines of Loving Grace?