Anne Helen Petersen's semi-regular collection of writing, links, riff-raff, piddlewinks, Paul Newman, celebrity gossip, stories from the reporting trail.

it's that simple

Peggy doesn’t even know what burnout is. Imagine that! I mean, many of us don’t have to imagine, we can just remember: a time, likely in childhood, when life seemed to limit itself to the small world around us. There’s a time when the world and desires, if unfulfilled, potentially fulfillable: I want that doll. I want that box of Lucky Charms. I WANT TO STAY UP LATE. I yearned for things (going to the pool, Christmas) and feared things (the dentist, talking on the phone with my grandparents) but my world was small, the demands on me smaller.

But the privilege of living without anxiety starts young. I had two parents and felt continuously loved and cared for and cherished. I was white, and middle-class, and lived in a town where both of those things were venerated. I went to the “good” public elementary school. I did not experience gender dysphoria. My “work” was to empty the bottom half of the dishwasher. I was not teased for who I was, or who my parents were, or where I lived. I didn’t feel afraid in the home, or of family members. I wasn’t abused by people I trusted in my church. I was not disabled, or grappling with illness, and neither were my parents or anyone else in my immediate family. I ran around my neighborhood without fear. I was never hungry, or worried where my next meal would come for. I had a home, and knew where I would be sleeping the next night. I was able to grow up surrounded by joy and knowledge and promise.

Yes, some of that joy and knowledge and promise transformed into perfectionism and anxiety. But I was not born tired, already exhausted with my parents’ and grandparents’ weight of survival in America as a black or brown person. As poet Tiana Clark wrote in her incredible response to my piece, “I wonder if this zeitgeisty phenomenon — this attempt to define ourselves as the spent, frazzled generation — has become popular because white, upper-middle-class millennials aren’t accustomed to being tired all the time? Aren’t used to feeling bedraggled, as blacks and other marginalized groups have for a long time?”

There are no Burnout Olympics. I cannot stress this enough: acknowledging the ways in which other people are burnt out does not diminish your own feelings of burnout. Reading the hundreds of emails in my inbox from disabled people, caretakers, stay at home moms, students from India and tech workers from Ireland, political activists, genderqueer people, social workers, neuroatypical people, elementary school teachers, high school students, parents of burnt out kids, Indigenous people, pastors, priests and grad students did not make me feel like my experience was less valid, or that I shouldn’t feel burn out because the parameters of my experience were different than theirs.

People wrote me that they felt seen in the description of burnout: that the contours of their experience were articulated. But they wanted to tell me more about the specifics of their experience. They wanted to me to see them even more clearly. That doesn’t feel like work to me, or some due diligence I must fulfill because of my privilege within the world. It feels like community. It makes me feel more empathetic and generous — with others and with myself. It reminds me of the passage I quote in my original piece from social psychologist Devon Price: “If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you,” Price writes, “it is because you are missing a part of their context. It’s that simple.”

My own behavior didn’t make sense to me because I didn’t recognize it as burnout. But everyone’s burnout works differently — which is why my immediate follow-up to the piece was to collect 16 different accounts of how burnout accumulates differently for people from different backgrounds, with different life conditions, with different contexts. As I said last week, no one’s “bottom half of their to-do list” — the things they avoid and find themselves incapable of completing — are exactly the same, and the consequences of the inability to complete them are different. If I don’t get my knives sharpened (still haven’t! the sharpener guy wasn’t at the store!) I might accidentally cut myself while cutting onions, but no huge deal. But if one of the things on my list was my inability to go renew my driver’s license, or make a doctor’s appointment, or find shoes that are comfortable for walking, or have a conversation with my kid’s teacher, or tell my boss about a coworker who makes my life hell — the consequences are different.

Which brings me to one of the things I’ve been thinking about all week, and what I’ve been asked, over and over again, in interviews about the piece: what can we do? My general answer is that giving the condition a name, and language to talk about it — and recognizing how unalone we are in the experience — lifts the shame and embarrassment, and liberates us to think and act differently. But I’ve also been thinking about my friend Jonathan Malesic’s response to my piece, and what he suggests at the end:

It may be impossible to eliminate burnout altogether. As long as we toil, there will be pain. But we can surely ease it. Burnout arises in our organizations, but it’s a product of the unhealthy interpersonal relations we have there. That means it’s not fundamentally an economic or political problem. It’s an ethical one. It stems from the demands we place on others, the recognition we fail to give, the discord between our words and actions. The question can’t just be how I can prevent my burnout; it has to be how I can prevent yours. The answer will entail not just creating better workplaces, but also becoming better people.

The question can’t just be how I can prevent my burnout; it has to be how I can prevent yours. Put differently: trying to understand others’ context. Not competing to see whose context is “worse,” but just trying to understand and empathize, and not in a hackneyed way that involves trying to compare your experience to theirs (“I know all about racism because when I was young people made fun of me because I was tall,” etc. etc.) It means listening, and positioning yourself as someone willing to listen, and actually internalizing what you’re told. It believing others and their narration of their experience. But it also means trying — as a parent, or a manager, or a friend or family member or coworker — to avoid creating situations that invite more burnout.

How can you communicate to your kid — in a way that they will actually hear and trust and internalize — that you care about them learning, but that their ability to get into a “good” college is not tied to your love for them? How can you work to make the “mental load” in your household visible to your partner, and collaborate with them, in a way that’s not passive aggressive or creating even more load, to share it? How can you implement policies in your workplace that don’t incentivize demonstrations of “overwork”? (It’s not just saying that there’s no expectation to answer emails after 6 pm, for example, but that no emails should be sent). Or even just simply acknowledge that events that seem like fun work “escape” to some people on your team feel like much, much more labor to others?

A lot of the messages I’ve received have started with “I’m sorry to give you yet another thing on your to-do list.” But that’s not what those responses feel like. They make me feel seen. If you’re feeling burnout, if you’ve felt burnt out all your life, I hope you find someone who makes you feel seen. I hope we can practice radical empathy while also acting and moving forward with the understanding: it doesn’t have to be this way. But the only way to change things is by acknowledging that this isn’t a personal affliction. It’s a societal one. That doesn’t absolve us from responsibility. But it does mean that changing it has to mean thinking beyond one’s self.

If you haven’t already, please do read Tiana Clarke’s piece. And here’s some other things I read and loved/was compelled by this week:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox every week-ish, please forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can find the archive of previous posts (and click on them as if they’re blog posts) here. You can follow burnout-less Peggy on Instagram here. Please forgive typos/weird sentences; lack of close attention to detail is what allows me to get this thing out every week. And while my inbox is indeed clogged, I always love reading feedback — just respond to this email.

how millennials grew up and burned out

A few months ago,  my editor very kindly suggested: “Maybe you’re just dealing with some burnout, and could use a few days off.” My reply was adamant: “I’m not burnt out, I’m just trying to figure out where I’m going to go from here.” I’d *had* the rest after election. I was supposed to be refreshed. I wasn’t burnt out; I was just floundering.

Still, I did take a few days off, and you know what I did with them? Tried to write a book proposal. But I didn’t feel better, because I didn’t really feel anything. Sleeping didn’t really help. Exercise didn’t help. Reading sort-of helped, but the reading that interested me most was politics reading, which just circled me back to the issues that had exhausted me. I got a massage and a facial and they were nice but meh. In hindsight, I was totally burnt out! I was so burnt out I was smoldering! Not by the specifics of the reporting I’d just done, but by the baseline of my entire life. I thought burn out was like a cold you could recover from — which is why I missed the diagnosis altogether.

Even if I refused to call it burn out, I knew there were things I was avoiding. And if I couldn’t figure out what else I was excited to write about, at least I could write about my “errand paralysis.” When I talked about it on Slack, one of my editors was dubious: she took pleasure in completing household tasks like laundry; it felt cathartic. But I could do the laundry. I could make meals, and walk the dog, and clean the house (I love cleaning!) The thing about errand paralysis is that it applies to the things on the bottom half of your never-ending to-do list, and everyone’s bottom half is different.

Was I just bad at my job now, or bad at life? I asked my Twitter/Facebook followers if they had something akin to “errand paralysis,” and the answers became the foundation for the essay to come. A few of the most compelling:

Okay, I had a thought about this, but it's kinda inchoate and it's late here so please forgive any conceptual muddiness... I think this is symptomatic of alienation? The thought I had, as I was standing at the coffee machine interrogating why I was putting off a half-dozen quite serious 'errands', like, preventing myself from getting kicked out of grad school, getting paid for my day job, was: I put them off because they're *about me.* They're not about a career, or study, or pleasing my parents, or serving the community — all those things I've been raised and conditioned to care about. I was raised in the Catholic social justice tradition, where spending time and money on caring about yourself is seen as shallow and self-obsessed. But I was also raised in the neoliberal tradition of being deeply attentive to the hoops I have to jump through next. If it's 'just' about me, then I can let them slide without letting anyone else down. Sure, I build up a *ton* of anxiety worrying about them, but that's just anxiety, I'm used to that.

I've heard Noam Chomsky talk about "efficiency," and I think it's related, but I don't know where to read up on it. But for example, Comcast (the example I think he used, or at least a call center) optimizes their own efficiency at the expense of the customer's. So seemingly small tasks really are burdensome. You spend 90 min on the phone being passed from person to person and put on hold because it saves them money and manpower. A trip to the post office or bank is tedious because there aren't enough people working there, and they aren't all trained to do the things you need them to do, because that is more efficient for them. So I think it's a combination of everyone working more (no stay-at-home spouse), and also the businesses or institutions you have to deal with helping you out less in the name of increasing their profits.

Emily McDowell Studio had a great post about this on Instagram a few months ago. She calls it self-parenting vs. self-care. "Something I learned the hard way: for a lot of us, including me, 'self-care' does not mean, 'allowing yourself to do whatever the hell you want.' For a long time, I was like, 'Pint of ice cream!' 'Sleeping until noon!' WOO SELF-CARE! And then I realized that none of those things helped me be any less of a mess or feel any better. I need to think of 'self-care' as 'self-parenting' in order for it to work, and self-parenting means I end up doing a lot of stuff that I actually don't wanna do. I consider my self-parents to be, like, Mr. Rogers and Oprah. And they make me take care of myself by getting off my ass and exercising, meditating when I'd rather watch some Housewives, and eating a dinner with nutritional value instead of a Haagen-Dazs bar from the gas station. Discipline as self-care: WHO KNEW?"

"Self parenting" is a lot more useful than "self care". I don't need to be told to take a bath, I need to be told to go to the doctor before my Rx all expire.

These were just a handful of the hundreds of responses I received — there was something bigger here, something I couldn’t quite fully theorize, and as an academic the thing you do when you know there’s an idea but can’t quite articulate it = you start amassing what I call “the blob.” You read as much as you can, you follow diversions, you try to organize it. I emailed my friend Jonathan Malesic, who burnt out of his tenure-track academic job and now spends his days writing and thinking about burn-out (and labor). I asked him for some reading recs. I started googling “adulting” and “burn out” just to comb through the rhetoric that’s been used to describe it, especially in shorter, dismissive pieces and in pieces in millennial-directed publications (Bustle, Elite Daily, etc.) I read Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, which lays out the ways in which millennials have been “optimized” for labor from childhood. (Buy this book, I can’t recommend it highly enough). I gutted (the academic word for finding the heart/essence of a text) a dozen “self-help” and burnout-assistance books. I thought about each of the industries/objects that millennials have supposedly killed, and what’s actually going on with each. I read about anxiety baking and the relentless of parenting and the year in chores. (If you’ve read this newsletter for any amount of time then you know that I organized all of this using Scrivener.)

A framework started to emerge from the blob. And then I put that framework on top of my own life — which then forced me to reconsider my history, and the way I’ve narrativized it. I went on a long walk with my partner, who’s a “prime” millennial raised in an even more self-optimizing environment, and compared notes: what changed in the handful of years between my childhood and his? When my friends and I made fun of the next generation of students at our college, what was the actual shift? Why had my students reacted so emotionally to my well-intentioned suggestion that they just go work at a dude ranch for the summer after graduation? What was really going on with the joke, developed amongst my Master’s cohort, that “everything good is bad, everything bad is good?” Why did I feel great about writing my dissertation on CHRISTMAS?

Sometimes, when you’re writing, it feels like you’re fingers are chasing your brain, trying to get all the thoughts out on the page before they run away. I felt addicted to writing this piece. It felt like it had its own gravity that kept pulling me back to it. The draft ballooned: 3000 words, 7000, 11,000. (Don’t worry, we edited it down) I wrote 4000 words in one day and felt like I’d written nothing at all. I felt like I could write it forever, in part because writing it felt great: clarifying, cathartic, therapeutic. Not because I was wallowing in self-pity — I don’t feel pitiful! — but because I was giving shape to the condition that had become so familiar, so omnipresent, that I’d ceased to recognize it as a condition. It was just my life. But now I was amassing language to describe it.

new year old reading

You’re supposed to write these things before the end of the New Year, but that’s when everyone writes these things, and I find them melding into one mass of lists and conclusions and meditations. I read “Best Ofs” to see if I agree with them; I internalize the weariness of everyone’s year and allow it to compound my own. I always resent the snatch of days between Christmas and New Year’s — no one should be working, many people are, it’s difficult to calibrate yourself to work place rhythms because they’re so off-kilter. Over the holidays I find myself eating too much meat and too many cookies that aren’t even that good, they’re just there and they’re cookies and they’re supposed to be eaten.

And then there’s New Year’s! Few things remind me of how weird the contemporary condition is quite like New Year’s: a holiday that millions have come to resent almost entirely based on the fact that they feel they should do something (drink, stay up late, make resolutions, wear sequins, be at a cool party with cool people taking cool Instagrams) and yet, with all of their hearts, do not wish to do. You could bottle New Year’s resentment and market it as a poison. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, good for you! You have no social anxiety! You’re the worst!)

This year I took a vacation over those dumb in-between days and did my favorite thing on New Year’s: went out to a very good dinner, got slightly blitzed on champagne, talked with my boyfriend about all our favorite things of the year and the favorite things to come, and then fell asleep before the streets of Tulum filled with fireworks and revelers burning effigies of Trump. I read five books, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the project I’d started before signing off for vacation: burnout as the millenial condition. It’s still very much in progress, but writing this ballooning, unruly draft, attempting to tie together my own experiences and so much writing/theorizing/surveying about the way millenials work and live has proven surprisingly therapeutic. Nine days off work doesn’t fix my own burnout, but writing this piece — and actually staring the condition and its causes straight on — is clarifying. Treating burnout by thinking about burnout! What a cure!

The beginning of the New Year is often focused on looking forward, but I’m still thinking about what I’ve loved from the last year — — things to revisit, things that have beguiled and challenged me, things that make me want to be a better writer and thinker, things that will continue to motivate me even though the calendar year has switched over. One of the things I hate most about the current velocity of the news cycle is how little time it affords revisiting or even just actually visiting pieces that are a day, a week, a month old. Which is why I think it’s still worthwhile to make a list like this: think of this as your opportunity to savor something outside the bounds of the social media echo chamber, without the responsibility to summarize it or comment on it, just to absorb it or hate it or love it and not even have words to describe why.

I can’t wait to discover all the things that will make this list in the year to come. But for now, here’s to a the New Year and old reading:

The Smartest Writing on Horrible Things:

The Pieces That Explained America in 2018:

Pieces That Fundamentally Shifted My Thinking:

Culture Pieces So Good They Made Me Want to Throw Something:

Most Blissful Escapes:

The Best Of “Just Trust Me”:

And finally, some things I wrote and love the most from the past year:

Here’s to reading things when you find space for them and letting the sadness and joy and thrill and thought expand inside you. I can’t wait for more.

digital reading hygiene

I spent the weekend in Seattle, eating a delicious meal here and spending time with friends’ babies (this gift was a MASSIVE hit) and piddling around on the proposal for my next book. I published a piece on Square One, a PBS show near and dear my micro-generation of Old Millenials; I went on On the Media to talk about last week’s newsletter; I guest edited The Sunday Long Read, one of my go-to sources for the pieces that go on to fill my Pocket for the week to come. (You can read my edition here and subscribe to The Sunday Long Read here).

I’ve been asked a several times over the last few months about my “work flow” and how I organize what I want to read/have read. I find my answer pretty unsatisfying, but people have also told me that their all-time favorite newsletter was when I laid out all the small dorky ways I make my life easier when traveling for work, so maybe my “digital reading hygiene,” for lack of a better phrase, will also prove weirdly satisfying.

In short: I abuse Pocket. If you don’t have Pocket, it’s free and available as a Chrome plug-in here; if you want to live your best Pocket life, you should also download it on your phone. When something comes across your digital life (your social media feeds, your newsletters, emails or slacks from friends or colleagues) that you want to read but know will just hang out in an open browser tab haunting you, you press the little “Pocket” icon in the upper right hand corner of your browser, and it’s put away for later. If you open it on your phone, there’s always a way to click on it (as if you’re copying the link) and the Pocket icon shows up. If it comes via Facebook, which tries to keep you in-app and won’t let you pocket directly from there, just copy the link, then open Pocket, and it’ll prompt you to save the last link you copied.

Pocket has a lot of features I don’t use — you can tag a piece the way you would a blog post, so that all pieces tagged, I dunno, “Montana” would show up when you click on that tag. But I find Pocket to be great for all sorts of saving — the sort formally reserved for old-fashioned web browser bookmarks. I pocket recipes, I pocket vacation advice, I pocket hotel information and PDFs of academic articles. The beautiful thing about Pocket, after all, is that it’s not just a repository, but one that’s also available offline, so you can still look at the ingredients to your recipe even when the LTE in the grocery store is atrocious.

That’s a detour from my main use of Pocket, which, again, is a means to store all the interesting longform and shortform stuff that comes my way. I actually read very little during the work day, which is largely spent writing, editing, scrolling Twitter and shooting the shit on Slack, where I accumulate more things I want to read. The vast majority of my Pocket reading then takes place (this is embarrassing!) at the gym. People tell me that you’re not working out hard enough if you’re able to read at the same time, which might be true — there are things at the gym (like the rowing machine!) that make it impossible to read and are, indeed, harder. But you can train yourself to read while spinning and the massive stair-climber (which I believe is called a “step mill”), and reading makes exercising inside far less mindnumbing.

When I get to the gym first thing in the morning, I immediately torture myself by reading Axios. It’s great to start the day with a briefing that also demonstrates just what kind of reading and contextualization you don’t want to do for the day. Then I read the morning newsletter briefings from the New York Times Politics section and BuzzFeed News. I next go to Nuzzle, an app that shows you the articles that have been tweeted the most by the people you follow, and catch up on basic news (usually each of these takes just a few minutes to read; longer stuff I Pocket). And then I go to Pocket, and work my way through what I’ve filed away over the last day. Sometimes I’ll run out of stuff, which means scrolling down to something from the week before I didn’t get to, etc etc.

Because Pocket “scrapes” an article and then stores it, when I read in the app, I don’t have to deal with ads crashing my browser, or the fact that NewYorker.com signed me out of my subscription for the fifth time that week, or the rare chance that I run up against a paywall (it can still scrape the text). (To be clear, I believe in paying for journalism and accidentally click ads on sites all the time when I’m on my laptop; I also pay for many subscriptions, but not for every last thing in the digital universe).

If I like a piece, I generally tweet it or post it. It’s almost a compulsion, and I think it stems from how much I appreciate discovering things I might not find on my own vis-a-vis others’ recommendations. I love talking to people about what I just read, and if I can’t do that as I used to — in the classroom, with my students, with my classmates — then a (non-toxic) internet community (a good Facebook group, a Slack room, email replies to this newsletter) will do.

Pocket has seemingly unlimited storage. If I wanted to, I could scroll back to 2012 and the first things I saved. Like all internet technologies, I’m terrified that it’ll one day go away and leave me with no straightforward way to transfer all I’ve filed away. But it’s better than the alternative: cataloging nothing of my digital reading trail, or keeping browser windows open until they accumulate to the point of paralyzing my computer.

My entire reading history isn’t on Pocket — I also, uh, read books (not on Kindle, unless I’m on a vacation that makes lugging books difficult) — but the vast majority of my digital reading trail is. If I haven’t Pocketed something, I’ll remember something about an article five months later, try Googling key words, find nothing, and resort to querying Twitter to try and find what I’m looking for. If I did Pocket it, its search component is fairly robust, and searching by those same key words always brings results.

Clearly I am a Pocket evangelist, which means that the last thing I do every night before falling asleep is say a prayer that it doesn’t go the way of Google Reader, my last truly beloved internet function. But there are other small things I do to organize myself/my knowledge: I never have more than ~eight browser windows open. I use this Leuchtturm1917 Academic Weekly Planner, because it has slots throughout the day, a place for my To-Do List at the bottom, and I can’t handle Google Calendar open in my browser. I use Scrivener for long writing projects, and Google Priority Inbox for my work email. I have a beloved setting on Instagram that reminds me if I’ve been on it for 15 minutes. I follow under 1000 people on Twitter but follow thousands and thousands more through Lists (like “Mountain West”) that are always open in my Tweetdeck. I put books I want to read into my cart on Amazon and then buy as many as possible at the local bookstore. I use “Notes” on my desktop for supplemental To Do lists and to store a running list of potential future story ideas. I don’t have many apps on my phone but I swear by Sleep Cycle to guilt me into sleeping at least eight hours a night. If I actually want to follow a group/site on Facebook I click the setting that puts all new posts as “See First.” I followed these incredibly simple directions to make every screenshot go into a folder on my computer desktop. I pay Apple 99 cents a month to back up the photos on my phone so I don’t have to worry about them. I avoid Facebook messages (and refuse to install Messenger) and still forget that Instagram messages exist. And finally: I stopped being so allergic to the phone. Reporting as much as I do reminded me it’s not so horrible — and if can take care of an item on my to-do list with a phone call, I just do it first thing and feel fucking great about myself.

Hopefully you’ll either find all these tips helpful or hilarious, and if one of them proves useful, I’d love to hear about it. But for now —

Things I Read & Loved This Week:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow Three Leg Pegs on Instagram here. You can reply to this email with comments or questions, and you can excuse any weird sentences or typos, as tolerance for them — on my part and yours — is what makes getting this thing out every week possible.

the cumulative effect is 'lying'

When people ask me what I do, I’ve recently found the most satisfying answer for everyone involved in “culture reporter, broadly defined.” Culture, under this definition, means everything from celebrities to how people engage with larger cultural ideas (politics, public land, religion, etc. etc.) That explains why my political reporting is a bit different — I’m always more interested in talking to the volunteers and crowds than, say, political analysts.

Which, in turn, helps explain my reaction to the death of President George H.W. Bush, who has been roundly remembered, at least in political circles, as a highly decent (even “prudent,” to use the word that, thanks to Dana Carvey’s impersonation of him, I’ve always associated with him) leader, the last of his political kind. As my editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, put it in his obituary for Bush, he died “every Democrat’s favorite Republican.” He resigned from the NRA when it became too extremist and ideological; nearly twenty years after that resignation, when Americans were clamoring for a conservative who was not beholden to the NRA, that resignation letter went viral. His “restraint” while intervening in Iraq is favorably compared with his son’s; as Smith points out in his piece, Obama compared his own “traditional, bipartisan, realistic” foreign policy strategy to that of HW Bush’s.

But the main thread of appreciation for HW Bush, in this moment, is not tethered to the whole of the historical record. Instead, it’s largely rooted in appreciating who he was not: he was not his son, and most importantly, he was not Donald Trump.

That’s why the artifact that began to circulate more widely, after his death, was not the NRA resignation, but the letter he wrote to President Clinton on the occasion of the transition of the presidency. CNN called it “a lesson in grace,” highlighting HW Bush’s belief that “Just because you run against someone does not mean you have to be enemies . . . Politics does not have to be mean and ugly.” (Secretary of State Colin Powell: “I wish we could get some of that back in our system now.”) USA Today calls it “gracious”; the Washington Post’s Alex Horton labels it “an artifact of political humility”; CBS News declared that it demonstrated President Bush’s “civility.”

Don’t get me wrong: it’s an important letter, and it is all of the things for which it’s been lauded. But the main reason that the letter has guided the overarching note of remembrance is, again, because of the contrast between its tone and posture and that of the current leadership. The sentiment driving its virality is the same sentiment driving the appreciation for Bush’s son sharing candy with Michelle Obama. Look at these men in power, not being Trump!

Part of the magnetism to the letter stems from nostalgia for a leader who does not embarrass his country on the national and international stage; part of it is a yearning for “civility” which is another way of saying the “non-polarized, non-hyper-partisan politics” whose decline started right around 1994, just two years after Bush’s loss to Clinton. (For more on that point, I strongly recommend Alan Abramowitz’s The Great Alignment)

That means that many are remembering Bush partly for who he was — but largely for what many wish the current president would be. It’s significant, too, that the primary point of remembrance centers on an interaction between HW Bush and another person in power. And while it makes sense that other politicians and political reporters would look to such a moment — that’s their world! — that doesn’t mean that it’s an adequate or even fair representation of Bush’s legacy. As historian David Greenberg explains, of course, in our attempt to grapple with Bush’s death, there should be respect for both the president and the family that mourns him. And yet: “respect for the dead must coexist with respect for the historical record.”

Writing for Politico, Greenberg offers a clear-eyed look at Bush’s legacy on the right. But another strain of that legacy was highlighted by the timing of Bush’s passing — just one day before World Aids Day. When The New Yorker tweeted that Bush “had irreducible niceness to him, an appealing mixture of noblesse oblige, parody-begging goofiness, and boy-next-door bonhomie,” author Alexander Chee responded with a YouTube clip of the ACT UP Ashes Action from 1992, in which hundreds protested Bush’s inaction on fighting AIDS by sprinkling the remains of those lost to the disease on the White House lawn.

Politicians are challenging figures to eulogize — they are people, and thus have family and others who react to their deaths as one would react to any other death. (When I say eulogize, I don’t mean the actual eulogy at the burial; I mean how they’re eulogized within public discourse). But in addition to their status as humans, politicians are also symbols: the cumulative sum of the actions as leaders. To remember them solely in terms of how they interacted with the powerful and the privileged, without consideration of how they ignored or elevated “the least of these,” to quote the Book of Matthew, who were most acutely affected by their decisions as a leader, strikes me as both ahistorical and incomplete.

Yes, that means that every politician’s remembrance is complicated and mixed. That means remembering that Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and did little to stop the AIDS epidemic in America until it was associated with an “innocent” boy instead of gay men. Which is another way of saying that a leader should be remembered politically, but they should also be remembered culturally. And to acknowledge their cultural legacy isn’t to attack them. It is to do them justice.

“Using the occasion of a person’s death to attack them isn’t edge or cool, it’s childish and cowardly,” political journalist Olivia Nuzzi tweeted after John McCain’s death. “You’re not Christopher Hitchens, you’re an asshole.” The sentiment was retweeted more than 11,000 times. And while I agree that “attacking” isn’t necessarily the right angle, I also think that the word mischaracterizes most of what’s actually happening, either to McCain or Bush “Most figures do bad things and good things,” Texas journalist Chris Hooks responded yesterday, when the tweet began circulating again. “When saccharine hagiography is permitted but not its counterbalancing opposite, the cumulative effect is ‘lying.’”

The problem with eulogies and remembrances is that they are history absent historical training. A historian recognizes how spectacularly easy it is to craft a narrative of a person or event or group vis-a-vis the present: the object of analysis becomes what society needs them to be, in order to fit a certain socio-psychological gap, not what they actually were. Historians are trained to resist that impulse — both in the way they perform research and they way they transmit that research to the public. Good historians are also keenly aware of the limitations of their vantage point: that the sphere of a presidential historian is separate from, but should, in this case, overlap, with that of a gay rights historian.

But pundits and journalists are rarely historians, even if they are versed in history. Remembering a leader is remembering how power was wielded — which means it’s ultimately also always a remembrance of how their power affected, ignored, or elevated the powerless.

Things I Read and Found Compelling This Week:

Odds and Ends Recs:

  • This very good Buddha bowl recipe (I substituted farro for quinoa and added tofu) and this thread of go-to-I’ve-made-100-times recipes

  • The Korean film Burning (reviewed here by Manhola Dargis)

  • The Paul Dano-directed Wild Life (trailer here) based on the Richard Ford novel of the same name, set here in Montana. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are mesmerizing.

  • This week’s “aerial view” book, mentioned above, is Alan Abramowitz’s The Great Alignment. It’s somewhat less readable than Uncivil Agreement, which I wrote a bit about two weeks ago, but for someone without a background in political history, it was deeply enlightening — and explains so much about the current reaction to Bush’s death. I threaded some highlights here.

  • Sufjan Steven’s massive collection of Christmas songs (Spotify link here), including the most beautiful arrangement of Holy, Holy, Holy I’ve ever heard.

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can get Montana Instagrams of dogs and trees here. You can buy my book (WHICH JUST EARNED OUT!) here or here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences (I realize there were WAY TOO MANY last week; my apologies, I fixed them); the lack of hyper-vigilance is what allows me to write this every week. I received so much incredible feedback from last week’s newsletter on “certain vs. seeking”; you can always send your own by simply replying to this email. Until next week, thank you for reading and finding all of this [GESTURES WILDLY] as important as I do.

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