Fashion & Style

Meghan Daum Interrogates the Purity Police in New Book The Problem with Everything

A couple of weeks ago, an “unpopular opinion” tweet about Joan Didion set off a minor tizzy on literary Twitter. In response to a question posed by Second Shelf proprietor (and ELLE contributor) A. N. Devers—“Why not Didion? #NobelPrize2019”—the writer Lacy M. Johnson acknowledged that while Didion was “very good at writing sentences,” her writing was “very not good when it comes to class and race.”

What followed was mostly civil commentary. There were a few endorsements (someone cited a rumor about an alleged beef Didion had with James Baldwin, and included a gif of Wendy Williams shaking her head no). Someone else accused Johnson, politely, of virtue signaling, aka announcing one’s opinion on a hot-button topic so as to publicly situate oneself on the right side of history. I also spotted a few subtweets along the lines of “And then they came for Joan Didion…” and zingers like “slouching toward mehthlehem.”

To a Twitter lurker like myself, the incident transpired like a three-act play: The curtain closed on Devers and Johnson agreeing that the conversation was an important one to be had, “though preferably in a venue that can better accommodate nuance.” It represented everything that is frustrating and exhilarating about social media all at once.

Similar feelings of frustration and exhilaration—and a slew of Didionisms—are at the heart of Meghan Daum’s polarizing new book, The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars. Daum started writing it in the fall of 2016, “on the cusp of what would obviously be Hillary Clinton’s election to the presidency,” she writes in the intro. It was to be a critique of the “excesses” (her quotes) of feminism—“the one-note outrage, the snarky memes, the exhibitionism, the ironic misandry in the vein of #KillAllMen, the commodification of the concept of ‘giving zero fucks.’” Daum points out that while she subscribed to feminism’s fundamentals (equality for women), she feared an overcorrection was undermining the movement.

Daum had already built a career on going against the grain. In her essay collection, The Unspeakable, she questioned universally accepted platitudes and sentimentality, and as an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times, she railed against Trump and “The Dangerous Irony of Rape Accusation Culture” in equal measure. There was still room for left-on-left critique—we were about to have a woman president, after all.

And then everything fell apart. The country, her marriage, and readers’ appetites for contrarianism. She took a break from her column, the official reason being that she was on book leave, but also because in the early days of the Trump era, her approach of favoring “counterintuitive points over predictable ones” and her resistance to “toeing any party line” suddenly felt inappropriate. Though she was not writing as publicly, she was still writing.

Her book in-progress, formerly known as You Are Not a Badass, evolved into The Problem With Everything, an elegantly-composed treatise against tribalism and cancel culture that seamlessly weaves in personal anecdotes. It reads as a kind of “coming-of-middle-age” tale that will likely feel familiar to many other progressive, (probably) white female Gen Xers. It has great sentences. And some blind spots.

The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars

Gallery Books


To be honest, it’s a little nerve-wracking to write about. The book has been floating around the ELLE offices for months. One colleague was “OBSESSED.” Another said it made her “stomach turn just thinking about it.” My take was somewhere in between. It reminded me of a honeybee—a necessary, dangerous creature that I’d rather let buzz around my head than engage with. The reactions fell somewhat along generational lines, matching up with our current political climate (think Nancy Pelosi vs. the Squad, Hillary Clinton vs. Tulsi Gabbard, and any number of “passing the torch” comments used as debate fodder).

The problem with complaining about the internet in book form, as most people know, is that by the time the thing comes out, the problem you’re going on about has probably course-corrected itself. Case in point: Daum devotes a decent amount of thinking to’s Aziz Ansari piece, and by now, the general consensus—across generational lines—matches her position. Pretty much everyone agrees it took things too far.

Then again, there’s value in capturing the internet’s ephemeral absurdities for posterity. Writers like Jia Tolentino and Naomi Fry have mastered the art, mostly by dryly acknowledging the ridiculousness of it all—on top of making you laugh, it takes away some of its power. While Tolentino is solidly a millennial, Fry, like me, appears to fall in that late-’70s/early-’80s-baby gray area. Like Daum, we came into adulthood in a world where we didn’t have to worry about whether our refrigerator was spying on us, but we can appreciate when it lets us know we’re running low on oat milk.

Daum opens The Problem With Everything with a quote: “The half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves.” It’s from Didion’s 1972 essay, “The Women’s Movement,” in which the author, icon, and Celine model critiques certain aspects of the movement in a way that Daum argues would now be classified as “bullshit internalized misogyny.” It’s a good point.

This stuff is messy, but the general premise of Daum’s new book is not. She is arguing against purity policing because it can lead to self-censorship. She’s reminding us that when a far-right provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos calls for “speech rights,” it does not mean free speech is bad, and that even though campus date rape might be rising, that does not mean, dear god, that we should stop sending our daughters to college. She’s begging us to listen to ourselves—and to hear what she hears.

Daum finds the concept of “the personal is political” to be a little too earnest. But the most universal aspect of her personal narrative—aging, and the inevitable, crazy-making revelation that the more you learn and experience, the more you realize you don’t know—is the best argument against political tribalism I can think of. For example, sure, Nancy Pelosi is kind of a “badass.” But that doesn’t mean she should be sainted with an $18 prayer candle of her clapping sarcastically during the State of the Union. Because sometimes Pelosi makes mistakes. And when she does, that doesn’t mean she has to be “canceled.” Or as Daum puts it, “We need to recognize that to deny people their complications and contradictions is to deny them their humanity.”

In The Problem With Everything’s intro, Daum writes, “I’ve never been more afraid of writing a book. I’ve never been more certain I had to.” It’s a little dramatic, but she was right to be fearful. It’s a brave book. The title alone practically begs reviewers to begin their hot takes with “The problem with this book….” A few have already done so.

While many millennial and Gen Z women will read condescension in Daum’s somewhat oversimplifying generalizations about them, I only see FOMO. Or maybe FOO (fear of obsolescence). When your identity has been tied to your progressiveness for so long, it can be a jagged little pill to swallow when your strongest convictions are seen by today’s most vocal young feminists as oppressive. This is only a guess, but it seems as though most of Daum’s interactions with young women have been in a teacher-student context. Meeting them on more equal footing could perhaps open up new avenues of understanding. And maybe after all of the sensational-headlined reviews of this book have generated their clicks for their respective publications (and book sales for Daum), that conversation can happen. Hopefully in a venue that can accommodate nuance.

Source link