IN VAIN, BY GEORG FRIEDRICH HAAS

Dear ONION,

Your friend Artichoke is going on hiatus. I’m sorry I didn’t write this letter sooner. I meant to write it almost immediately after November 9, but I never actually had the time until just now.

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THE ENDING TO MRS. CALIBAN

This will only really make full sense if you have read Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban. This contains no summary of the book. This is largely a discussion of its ending.

mrscaliban_cover

I read Mrs. Caliban ten days ago in a single sitting, while stuck in a waiting room for jury duty. Mrs. Caliban is a very short book – a novella, really – and it was a swift and pleasurable read, up until the ending, where Ingalls has things crash and evaporate in quick succession.

It is the sort of ending, of course, where you end up re-examining everything that came before.

Today, ten days later, when I think about Mrs. Caliban, I think mostly about the ending, and how my understanding of it morphed in quick succession from “this literally happened” to “this happened in the protagonist’s head” to “this is a metafictional address to the reader”. And then, I watched my understanding constantly flicker between the three.

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A BASIC DICHOTOMY

Dear ONION,

Your most recent letter got me thinking about the way our mainstream/internet culture has been using the term Basic over the past year or two – the 2015/2016 era – and why being called Basic seems to sting so much. Meaning, I just remember coming across so many posts online (thanks, Tumblr) by people that had almost this sense of outraged betrayal at being called Basic – in a way that I never really encountered with people being called Prep or Emo or Hipster or what-have-you.

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BASICALLY BITCHY ONION

My most dear Zanuda, ARTICHOKE,

The idea that basic isn’t exactly the kindest thing to call another person is not new– Buzzfeed had an article on why it shouldn’t be used way back in, like, 2013, and I’m not going to find it and link it, because who gives a fuck what Buzzfeed has to say anymore? (You heard me)

Like Zanuda, Basic (hereby capitalized, to indicate that it is the subject of the sentence and not an adjective within the sentences, for my brain’s continued functioning) has a few, overlapping and somewhat subtly different meanings. First of all, it’s a gendered term (I ain’t never heard of a basic bro, though I suppose there’s potential there), but a weakly gendered term. Any motherfucker can make the argument that a man can be referred to as basic, but in the real world, we all know its exclusively used in regards to women. So, any slang term, intended to shame, and used on women, is always going to be (and I am loathe to use this word) problematic. But that has not even begun to stop me from whipping it out like it’s a snowball at a congressional session on global warming.

Basic refers to consumer choices in regards to heteronormative, present day late- capitalism. (By the way– can I just mention how pessimistic it is to refer to it as “late” capitalism?) Which is to say that basic refers to what you buy, and, importantly, what you buy into, the first in the overt and the second in the subtle.

The first is easier to wrangle with, and much less violent when used by yours truly, so we’re going to start there. We live in capitalism, obvi, wherein trends are a considerable part of the market. That means seasonal trends (I am in this moment obligatorily mentioning the PSL. I am done now. Let us continue) but also means fashions and fads and what not, unrelated to the time of year. I’m going to use the example of walking into H&M, and H&M prominently displaying and advertising a huge kiosk of satin bombers. “You like bombers now!” H&M declares, apropos of nothing, and responding to absolutely no cultural trend that any of us know of. “These bombers are what you want! Buy bombers! Made of satin!”

We all remember the 90s, with varying degrees of clarity, so we at least know when we’re conforming to capitalistic sensibilities and the whims of our capitalist overlords– but no longer with the 90s revulsion towards said conformity (it was all hypocritical then anyway). In this context, to be Basic is to buy into the fads and the trends. This is the definition that  a person, such as myself, might apply to themselves. It’s pretty Basic for me to buy H&M’s satin bombers, and bubble tea, and pumpkins even though I don’t have a stoop to put them on, but I still do it. I’m still a good little consumer in that way, spending my hard-earned dollars rather wantonly. To jokingly call myself Basic is to acknowledge that I know what I’m up to, and I know it’s rather silly, but I’m still going to do it.

This first definition is the part where I have a problem when people use Basic as an insult. Who gives a flying fuck if someone else buys something they want with their own money? It also gets into this very age old idea, that nothing about women is private– any choice she makes, no matter how little it concerns anyone else, is available for public scrutiny. That perhaps we shouldn’t function this way, as a culture, is still a fairly new, and rather confusing idea. We’re so used to having an opinion on everything everyone else wears and eats and reads that the idea that it’s not our business is still uncomfortable– but it’s also beginning to take hold.

The way we seem to be culturally processing the idea that it’s not our business to criticize other people’s consumer choices is to self-deprecate; a kind of, “who among us is free to cast the first stone” response to cutting the difference between the smarmy congratulation of everyone’s consumer choices all the time (Buzzfeed.) and overt criticism. Now, anything I buy that’s trendy or part of a fad, I immediately use to refer to myself as basic, and then promptly forget about.

A quick note here, that I don’t think that Basic is ever going to be co-opted by companies. The thing about Basic is that it, in regards to a product, it refers to the trendiness of that product, meaning that it’s an implicit and inherent acknowledgement that PSLs or flower crowns or crop tops or coconut oil or whatever are a fad of the moment, and, like any fad, will go out of style eventually. No company is going to ever point out the inherently ephemeral nature of what they’re trying to sell you (possible exception for food companies) because why would you buy something with the reminder that it will be useless in six months?

Now, as for the second definition of basic; the heteronormative definition, the more contentious definition, and the definition I use when I have no intention of being kind. In this context, I use Basic, frankly, the way venomous creatures use bright colors– to tell people not to fuck with me.

The thing is, there is still a cultural weight of expectations put on women, regarding their behavior and their life choices. While the capitalist conformity of buying whatever they tell us is going to leave us all broke and in debt, this sort of conformity is more insidious and more damaging. It’s kind of a know-it-when-you-see-it expectation, falling a long way away from the conservative expectations of the good ol’ days, but a ways away from conscientious liberty too. That a woman will be a virgin when she marries is laughable, but she is absolutely expected to get married. That a woman speaks openly of being a feminist is a given, but she’s still supposed to tenderly care for the feelings of all her male acquaintances, coworkers, etc. And as much as they might not seem so at the onset, this definition of Basic is still very much tied to capitalism. The expectation that a person will marry is not a neutral part of culture in a country with a billion dollar wedding industry.

I do not mean that here Basic refers to people who are just less liberal, less woke, less radical, less open-minded than you, or people who are more traditional. Not at all. What Basic is, here, is a way of nosing out just who is going to shame you for not quite conforming enough– and then shaming them instead. A preemptive shame, if you will.

You use it like this:

I have a conversation with, let’s say, Martha, our mutual acquaintance. Martha and I either don’t get along terribly well, or do, but on a surface level. Somewhere in the course of this conversation, I get the whiff of just enough of Martha’s thought patterns and prejudices and beliefs to know that she’s going to make me feel like a weirdo and a loner for my less acceptable beliefs; to use an earlier example, Martha kinda thinks it’s weird that marriage is not a forgone conclusion in my understanding of my future.

Now, as a human being– truly, as homo sapien, the animal– my only real motivation is to survive, which is to say, to not get kicked out of my tribe, which is to further say, to not be ostracized my social group. Therefore, its in my best interests to influence the climate of my tribe into a climate best suited for me. With those intentions, I turn to you, and when we’re gossiping about mutual acquaintance Martha (which we all do, all of the time), I make sure to slip in that she’s a bit basic, isn’t she? and if I’m smart about it, I find a way to say it where I make you laugh, because a laugh is an agreement, and you can’t take that laugh back.

The funny thing, you might actually agree with Martha, in your heart of hearts. The other funny thing is, I might like Martha, quite a lot. But now I’ve fired these warning shots, and now you’re going to make at least a subconscious effort to not appear basic, at least around me– and, probably around our entire group of mutual friends, just in case. It is in your best interests, again as a homo sapien, to make sure that people talking about you behind your back discuss you as positively as possible, again to avoid ostracism, and I have established, with just this one word, that adhering to these old, heteronormative expectations will not go by without comment.

It’s fighting shame with shame. In my godless heathen liberal ways, I think it’s generally a step in the right direction. I also think it’s immoral as hell– from a goodness perspective, absolutely no one should be calling anyone basic. But, when we’re discussing survival and ostracism and tribalism, morality is the first thing that gets chucked out the cave window. Also, it’s all well and good to talk the talk about third wave feminism and shedding cultural expectations for women, but in the practical world, things are going to be messy. If calling someone a basic bitch is unethical, and it is, well, so are any number of my capitalist choices– eating meat, for example, wearing cheap clothing, failing to donate generously. Basic might be a tool of cultural shaming, but if I’m going to be shamed anyway, the least I can do is return the favor.

On a related note, this entire letter has made me crave Starbucks like you would not believe.

Yours in late capitalism,

ONION

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THE GREAT MIDWEST

Dear Artichoke,
I’ve been thinking about what you wrote about Zanudaism.

I’m real curious to know who this acquaintance is (just tell me), but I found the idea in general quite interesting, of course. You’ve told me about Zanudas before, but it’s got me thinking about language and cultural policing in a more general way. I can’t speak to the Russian perspective, but I can tell you that the American modus operandi– even as someone who doesn’t have any other ruler to measure against– is bananas.

English is a motherfucker of a language, because, to use an age old way of phrasing it, we don’t mean what we say and we say what we don’t mean. In other words, an English speaker is always going to communicate their message a little euphemistically, a little between the lines.

We hedge our bets when we communicate; we suss out what the other person might think before we say anything definitive. When we do say something definitive, it tends to be rehearsed, and it tends to be something we know the other person is going to be more than a touch uncomfortable disagreeing with– unless, of course, they’re some sort of non-conformist anti-establishment twit, in which case their opinion can be safely disregarded.

(Consider the example of the SNL skit, The Beygency. It’s an entire skit predicated on the knowledge that you, the average American, is not at all comfortable saying the unrehearsed, anti-establishment line, “Beyonce is just okay”)

As someone who grew up in the Midwest, though, I have to disagree with your understanding of the Midwestern stereotype of the Russian. Not to say that Midwesterners like Russians– they don’t. But, they don’t like anybody. The Midwest is an area settled by people who quite literally couldn’t handle the fact that their neighbor moved within twenty miles of them (please see: Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Frontier, etc). The stereotype of a Russian is of someone who talks too goddamned much. Specifically, Russians are known for TMI, and complaining a great deal.

I’m sure that seems very unkind of the Midwesterners, and yes, it is. But if it helps, it’s part of the Midwesterner stereotype of everyone that they talk too much. It’s merely a matter of what they talk too much about that varies. No one is stoic enough for the Midwest. Hell, Midwesterners’ stereotype of themselves is that we talk too much. (I never know whether to refer to myself as ‘we’ when referring to the Midwest, which is why I switched mid-sentence there. I mean, I grew up in Minnesota… but raised by a Southern mother, and emphatically not of Scandinavian descent, or Lutheran, or drinking the kool aid, if you will. Most of my thought-processes and sensibilities have more in common with North Carolina’s mercenary sense of imaginary practicality than Minnesota’s delicate sensibilities and discomfort any time we have a real fucking conversation. Also, I don’t live there anymore, and even if I were to go back, Minneapolis is culturally a different beast than Minnesota proper. But this is all an aside for a different letter for a different time)

Don’t get me wrong, there is this idea of the ominously silent Russian, but I think that has more to do with Hollywood crafting bad guys (the Cold War was Hollywood’s babydoll, yo) than what a Midwesterner thinks he’ll meet on the train. The thing about Hollywood, of course, is that a) silence is scary, b) how much effort do you really want to put into developing this highly other-ed character, and c) they get to hide behind the excuse of the language barrier, so critics can’t make fun of them for always having the same goddamned villain, a man of few words and a strong accent.

I could make the argument that a term like Zanuda can’t really exist in the Midwest, because we would use it to describe everyone all the time, therefore rendering it obsolete.

The truly insane thing, of course, is that if you ask me, I have met considerably more than my fair share of Minnesotan Zanudas, and I’ve hated every one of ’em. The thing about a culture so determined to be so relentlessly stoic is that within that culture, you can’t really tell someone to shut the fuck up, because any real ability to deliver criticism or engage in confrontation has been strangled out of the culture because we say as little of substance out loud as possible– therefore allowing the people who are a bit clueless, or just don’t care, an entirely free rein to talk as much as they want in the absolute confidence that no one will call them on it. The same thing happens with rudeness– Minnesotan Nice is absolutely a thing, but the rude people are so infrequently called on their bullshit that they behave so rudely that a New Yorker would take umbrage. Then again, maybe my perception here is clouded by the fact that, like it or not, I was raised inside these cultural values.

But before we all throw our hands up at the Midwest’s xenophobia in despair, I do want to point out that the flattened world of the Internet and social media is leveling the playing field in a major way. While Minnesotan baby boomers are the perfect model of everything I just mentioned, Gen Xers and Millennials are a touch more complicated. Don’t get me wrong, they still have some of the traits of their parents, yet to be shaken off, but generally, they’re much more affable, approachable, and even talkative than previous generations. The times, they are a-changing.

As we can see, therefore, the cultural policing of language is a rather complicated thing, and for those Midwesterners, more than a bit fraught. I was thinking, as I read your letter, that I don’t particularly care for language shaming. For example, the way you insult something in Minnesota is to say “That’s different,” which is the most annoying fucking thing in the world. The thing about cultural shaming is that you set up a rule, and then you enforce the rule. You don’t necessarily have to explain to the person you’re shutting up why the rule exists– which also means that they don’t have a chance to explain either why they’re breaking the rule or that it’s a stupid rule that shouldn’t be enforced. The shorthands are useful in the moment, and often fascinating when you articulate what they mean and how they work and what purpose they serve, but it’s hard to defend the continued use of a phrase such as “That’s different” to tell someone, rather covertly, that you’re going to shit-talk them until they’re completely ostracized the second they turn their back. Obviously, language shaming isn’t really a good thing– if it was, we wouldn’t call it shaming.

So. Why do I use the word basic so much?

TO BE CONTINUED…

Yours in Zanudaism,

ONION

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ZANUDA

Dear ONION,

When having tea with my cousins this past weekend, I was describing an acquaintance who tells fascinating stories, and who is so interesting to listen to – if you have nowhere else to be for the next hour. Getting into a conversation with her is a bit like getting stuck in a charming and entertaining whirlpool. Personally I find it objectively fascinating to see the neat way that she dovetails every story or aside into the previous one, so that the conversation unfolds continuously, never allowing for a pause, and especially not the sort of natural pause that happens in most conversations, which most people need, and wait for, if they want to insert a benign conclusion to the conversation and thus go their merry way.

And as I explained this to my cousins, one of them laughed and said, “If she was Russian, it would never be a problem because she would know what it means to be a zanuda! If she knew what it means to be a zanuda, she would at least make an effort to stop being one. If you’re American, you can be a zanuda forever and ever, and no one can call you out for it, or even tease you gently about it, because the word doesn’t exist in English. So on you go, being a zanuda forever and ever.”

So now I am writing you a brief letter about this complicated and hard-to-translate term, and also I suppose a letter about language shaping a culture, and maybe a letter giving some credence to Orwell’s Newspeak notions. Or maybe not. You can decide.

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BREXIT AND AGATHA CHRISTIE

Dear ONION,

Since Brexit, the number of reported hate crimes in England has skyrocketed.

More worryingly, this uptick has been going strong for a month.[1] It has not yet abated.

And, of course, there is that flood of personal anecdotes being shared online about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that experience. Some of the incidents were even prolonged enough, and nasty enough, that bystanders were able to videotape them, and share the videos too.

So, there are always a slew of reasons for why you might vote for one thing or another – in this case, to stay in the EU, or leave. That’s not the thing I want to discuss at this moment.

I am thinking more about the swaths of British racists and xenophobes who are visibly celebrating the Brexit outcome. It is impossible to deny that racism and xenophobia definitely helped drive the Brexit vote, and now the people who voted Brexit specifically for those reasons seem to see it as an encouraging affirmation of their world view. They seem to feel so much more confident in doing and saying things that, until one month back, were considered distasteful and bigoted and “just not done”.

(Just like how, in our own country, we have a former KKK Grand Wizard running for senator – and stating that he would never have felt like he could do this before; but now, encouraged by the tone and popularity of Trump’s candidacy, he feels his views might not be so fringe after all.)

Over dinner, Radish and I were discussing this specific part of Brexit.

Radish said, “Where is this even coming from? All this British xenophobia and racism… I mean, England is so cosmopolitan. This resurgence is some strange recent trend, right?”

And I could have said any number of reasonable things in response[2], but for whatever reason, what I actually said was, “You poor sweet thing, clearly you haven’t read any Agatha Christie.” And then I had to explain what I meant.

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