Subscriptions live - Check your email if you subscribed during the fundraiser ~

The Former Essayist

On the Decline of Wesley Yang

The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays by Wesley Yang, W.W. Norton (2018)

On a warmer but still chilly day early last March, with stubborn piles of snow squatting the curb and COVID still in the air, a friend and I met up in a small New Jersey town for a coffee. We each got our cups from the opening in the door of the café (which had been converted into some kind of a drive-thru window) and then sat down at the two facing benches in front of the post office. I remarked that we were at least eight feet apart and got a sardonic laugh. It was good to see him in person, though. My friend pulled down his mask to take a sip of his americano and then repeated the question that had been dogging us: What happened to Wesley Yang?

This essayist who won a National Magazine Award in 2012 and, over the decade or so before Trump, combined rawness and restraint to produce some of the most brilliant critical writing of his generation, had become, it seemed, an essayist no more. My friend read me some @wesyang tweet from the day before that ranted about “the Successor Ideology” and the Democratic Party. I shrugged, and eight feet away, he shrugged too.

Indeed, my friend knew about Yang mainly through such posts on social media – of a “radical centrist” or “neo-reactionary” bent, as my friend put it – which is pretty much the extent of Yang’s output nowadays. This friend did know about The Souls of Yellow Folk, Yang’s debut essay collection, from the pinned tweet reminding the Twitter reader of the book’s inclusion in the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2018.” But he hadn’t read it and was a bit surprised when I told him its backstory.

Yang made his name in 2008 with “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,” a powerful, self-searching essay on the discontent of the Asian-American and the “loser.” He had tried something daring, as a writer: to understand the young Korean-American man who had killed 32 of his classmates at Virginia Tech, from the inside out, from a position not of distanced denunciation but of a disturbed understanding. The readers of n+1, the small left-wing magazine that published the piece, took due notice. This dark empathy, combined with a keen, sardonic sense of the uses and motivations for provocation, served Yang well in the next few years and earned him broader recognition as a contributing editor to New York Magazine. In 2011, his essay “Paper Tigers,” a veritable manifesto on the whole Asian-American issue that Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother had sparked earlier that same year, seemed to be everywhere. According to Yang it was the most-read piece in the history of NYMag (indeed, my friend remembered reading it), and soon thereafter, it won him his National Magazine Award.

Yet, what had been so remarkable about Yang in this 2008-2014 period was the curiosity and facility with which he stepped outside of precisely this trademark issue and wrote compellingly on a range of American cultural figures and issues: political theorist Francis Fukuyama, Gen X cultural malaise, dating culture, etc. Even those who had only read “Paper Tigers” knew that in a Wesley Yang essay you could expect his voice with its irony-laden contemplativeness (“But what I feel in these moments is its strangeness to me. It’s my face. I can’t disclaim it. But what does it have to do with me?”); but the tensile strength of that voice would inevitably propel itself out towards other personalities, other people (not ideas) animated by similar anxieties, desires, and little moments of joy. Against a general tendency in writing at that time towards memoiristic self-description, Yang made himself into a literally self-effacing critical personality, a writer who seemed to exemplify – or at least show what it would look like to work towards – that old Whitmanian ideal of “embodying multitudes.” In this, for some, he stood for the newest cultural impulse of independent publications like n+1.

Man. So, what happened? By the time he became a columnist for Tablet in late 2017 and started writing his anti-identity politics pieces, Yang had apparently given up the essay for the editorial. His last column in “Meme Wars” would come out in 2019; sometime around then, he gave up the editorial for the tweet. Smack dab in the middle of this metamorphosis, in 2018, he put out The Souls of Yellow Folk, a book bringing together his essays in various magazines, spanning the whole period from “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” in 2008 to the Tablet column he started in 2017.

My friend leaned back and knit his brows. Was I going to explain how Yang had gone from one of the best writers of the left-leaning little mag moment in the late aughts to one of the dominant Twitter personalities of political centrism post-Trump? That is: why Yang had turned right? Not exactly. But I wanted to try to make sense, for myself and my friend, how a writer who once displayed such range and sensitivity could deny his own talent and reduce himself to little other than tirades against identity politics. This felt urgent.

To better illustrate this feeling of disjunction to my friend, I told an anecdote from a Zoom call with another friend of mine, a writer who had started following Yang’s writing earlier than either of us. For this writer-friend, a former fan, What happened to Wesley Yang? had a plaintive, even nostalgic ring. He and I were talking about The Souls of Yellow Folk, and I read aloud a sentence from one of the vintage-Yang pieces: “Those were the days when (if I wasn’t watching the Box) I would work my way through the dense thickets of the pseudophilosophical jargon that proposed to name this condition in which I was living, to dignify it with a lofty vocabulary that radiated a paranoid dread,” here my writer-friend wrung his hands, why doesn’t he write like this anymore?! “that seemed to be the only feeling worth feeling back then, the only feeling that was real and alive.” We just didn’t understand. We couldn’t see why someone would give up these reflections – these sentences! – for the monotony of the Twittersphere.

Reviewers of the book in 2018 didn’t seem to quite understand either, however confident they were in their political judgments. Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in the New York Times that Yang “fails either to consider what sort of defiant political struggle would force recognition or what an individual solution might look like.” Similarly, Frank Guan remarked in Bookforum that “Yang, the radically self-centered individual, has reformed himself into a grim apostle of radical centrism and its ‘liberal individualist emphasis on laws and rights.’” Almost everyone, including the “William F. Buckley Fellow” who was very happy about this reformation, admitted they couldn’t figure out what held The Souls of Yellow Folk together, let alone what progress the soul of Wesley Yang had undergone since around 2014-2015.

Perhaps our experience of living in New Jersey and driving through the soulless landscape of the NJ Turnpike would give us some insight, my friend offered half-jokingly. After all, Yang is also from this same late-industrial heartland; that bit about “a paranoid dread” (and concomitant desire for the “real and alive”) comes from a scene where he’s driving on Route 18.

Maybe that would be the best, or only, approach: to try to understand and retell Yang’s story as it unfolded from its own pushes and pulls, not terribly foreign to our own. I wouldn’t meet with him and write a profile, but I would in effect be playing (an earlier) Wesley Yang to Wesley Yang.

This same author had remarked in a 2020 interview about the pieces collected in his book: “Despite the fact that they were not written with any design in advance, they had a kind of coherence, not as a set of propositions, but a coherence of sensibility, which was mine, and they had a kind of relevance as well.” He looks back on a time in his life when he made a living and a name through magazine writing; he calls the whole project a “record of ten years of that work.”

So, perhaps the answer to this case, one of the most understated but pressing cultural puzzles of our time, had been looking us right in the face since 2018, assembled by the author himself. What is Wesley Yang’s answer to the question, What happened to Wesley Yang? I realized that this was indispensable to the whole query, even if it wasn’t the solution. I had a Yang-ian feeling that here lay something emblematic about American culture – less in each scene than in the (tragic?) arc of the play.

This, then, is the story – the erstwhile “coherence” – of Wesley Yang, the writer, from cover to cover of The Souls of Yellow Folk.

An Essayist Is Born

In his introduction to the book, Yang does not make any programmatic statement about how he collected and ordered his essays of the past decade, let alone how the reader should make sense of them. The W. E. B. Du Bois allusion of the title does not take one farther than the three essays in Part I – the only ones out of thirteen total, in four parts, that deal explicitly with Asian-American identity. (Anyway, Yang is trolling us.) However, he does set the scene with an origin story – let’s listen in.

In 2007 Yang was asked by an ­n+1 editor to write about the Virginia Tech shooting, just a few days after it happened. In writing this piece, he made his name; but even some ten years later he returns to feeling he had of being struck by something personally disturbing about the request: “I resented the implication of his request. The implication was that there was something about that episode that would be particularly salient to me.” Trying to articulate this gut reaction, he realizes: “What we were presumed to share in common … was the peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility, that is a condition of being an Asian man in America.” Forced to confront his subject, Yang found himself staring into less a human face than a blank mask, the fact “that this face was in our culture a kind of cipher, a void, and all the more so to those of us who had to confront it gazing back at us from a reflected surface.”

Here we find the writer simultaneously powerless against an imputation of identity and hovering with a certain freedom above it. His silent “resentment” and reflection afford him a vital distance, from which he contemplates the mask-and-mirror of so-called “Asian-American identity.” Not unlike a protagonist from a Poe story staring at their double with a mixture of horror and fascination, he finds that his imbrication in cultural forces beyond his control and his special position as a writer – an Asian-American writer – are in fact one and the same. Hence, he will not protest this “implication,” which seems to grip him; at least at that moment, when he responds to it with a “10,000-word essay … composed in Gmail in one feverish night,” the idea of “microaggression” probably does not even occur to him. Even if it had, it would have in all likelihood failed to satisfy that unnameable pang within him.

Instead, a certain kind of writing would respond. He would restage what he had seen without understanding. He would do it without blinking: “The perpetrator of the largest mass murder in American history was an Asian boy who wrote poems, short stories, a novel, and plays. I gazed at the blank mug of Seung-Hui Cho staring out at the world on CNN.com.” The irony of Asian identity – Yang begins the piece recalling how he laughed upon learning that “the first school shooter of the 1990s was an Asian boy who played the violin” – is what makes the matter so real, and difficult to place.

In an interview with New York Magazine on the book, Yang recalls that this debut piece became a “kind of eruption or effusion of some deeply unresolved psychological … I won’t even call it a trauma, but a meta-trauma.” He did not seek out the topic; he had been “conscripted into it.” His editor had solicited his Asian-American identity, and out of a certain fatalistic insight, he had complied: “I felt, looking at the photo, a very personal revulsion. Millions of others reviled this person, but my own loathing was more intimate. Those lugubrious eyes, that elongated face behind wire-frame glasses: He looks like me, I thought.”

The (at the time) surprising success with which the literary world awarded him for probing painfully into his own thoughts about ugliness, vulnerability, and the desire for love seemed to raise that mismatch to a higher order. “It was on the basis of that piece of writing that people became interested in me as a writer.” Yang rolled with it. An editor asked him to write about Amy Chua’s book on the superiority of Chinese mothering, and after some protestation (“No, I do not want to write about this, what do you want me to say?”) he did, producing “one of the early examples of how a story could go viral by battening on to racially charged questions.”

If this kind of narrative – of a shrewd writer establishing their specialty and making their name by riding the rising tide of race as a topic in American cultural politics – sounds all too familiar by 2018, it is no coincidence. Yang, as a Gen-X-er and Asian-American who experienced the past decade’s upsurge of progressivism and its influence on culture at a lag or skew (in comparison to Millennials such as myself), sees some of his own early career in those who came after him. But the wave of 2007 has been crested over by those of 2014, 2016, 2020. Yang is left with the “meta-trauma” of the identity into which he let himself become “conscripted” as a writer – of the identity politics that, just a few years later, would take over American culture. “In an age characterized by the politics of resentment, the Asian man knows something…”

This is the origin story Yang chooses to tell in the book. It rewrites the rawness and aimlessness of “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” into a paradoxical Asian-American “cultural project” that would reject the very same hyphenated label. The innate incoherence of that non-identity would transform into the coherence of a political position above other political positions. Speaking as much for himself as for the category of the “Asian man,” and just as much about political centralism as for cultural “centrality,” Yang writes in 2018: “This condition of marginality is both the cause and effect of his erasure—and perhaps the source of his claim to his centrality, indeed his universality.”

But behind this story lies another, which he tells in a more intimate setting, at the aforementioned interview in 2020, (uploaded by New York State Writer’s Institute to YouTube): that of the preceding ten years since 1997 when, having graduated from Rutgers with a strong but vague desire to become a writer, he made a living churning out pieces for local newspapers – in his words: “the ones they throw on your lawn whether you want it or not.” The book’s introduction mention skips over these Clinton and Bush years, a time when, through a friend who wrote for Salon in early days of online journalism, Yang made contact with the New York City literary world and met Keith Gessen, who with a few others was putting together what would become n+1, in 2004.

I try to imagine Yang’s excitement in those early years that led up to where he begins his story in the book: after a time of producing commercial bits in a cultural wasteland, he had found himself at the center of a new culture, in the midst of intelligent and original characters who promised to be the audience and community he needed as a writer. A non-white outsider from the suburbs, he more likely than not felt a disidentifying twinge when he met up with the members of this new intelligentsia. But he had arrived in the city, and now he would write.

He has a throwaway version of this story in “The Face of Seung-hui Cho”, that goes very simply: “I had come to New York five years earlier, to create a life for myself there. I had not created a life for myself there.” End of flashback. But read this prehistory against the book’s introduction, and you wonder where this cynical but intensely compelling attitude has gone:

I had wanted to find the emerging writers and thinkers of my generation. I had found the sycophants, careerists, and media parasites who were redefining mediocrity for the twenty-first century. I had wanted to remain true to myself as a writer, and also to succeed; I wanted to be courageous and merciless in defense of the downtrodden, and I wanted to be celebrated for it. This was a naïve and puerile desire and one that could not be realized—at least not by me, not in this world.

This very same essay, published in 2008, would earn him his longed-for recognition, but perhaps not in the way he had expected or hoped for. So, that story would begin to change, just as it was beginning. “I wanted to be courageous and merciless in defense of the downtrodden,” he says in the past tense. By 2018, where has he channeled this energy – as a writer? By that time, we are left with this retroactive refashioning described above: a map for the road of Wesley Yang’s writer’s autobiography and the ordering of his essays in The Souls of Yellow Folk. Let us follow it as it unfolds across the four parts of the book – more thematic than chronological divisions, which I will hazard to supply with titles – and read how the writer presents himself.

Part I: Asian-Americans

Aside from the pathbreaking piece on Seung-hui Cho, Part I interrogates the cultural significance of two other Asian-Americans who made their names for more salutary reasons than the former: Amy Chua, controversial author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in “Paper Tigers”; and chef and media icon Eddie Huang in “Eddie Huang Against the World”.

What becomes clear through Yang’s wide-ranging interrogations of Asian-American life (he mentions interviewing dozens of Asian-Americans for “Paper Tigers”) is that common problematic he formulated in the introduction: Asian-Americans are at once given access to power and prestige in American society but also fundamentally blocked from the higher rungs by a “bamboo ceiling” and a lack of coherent identity; they do not occupy the conventional positions in the “American racial hierarchy” of the privileged or the oppressed. This uncomfortable in-between position gives rise to a peculiar resentment that allows Asian-Americans to connect to radical race politics while, as Yang insists, precluding full identification with the discourse of identity politics. What is left is a kind of pure radicalism, an irreducible and implacable resentment, the bearer of which turns out to be, unsurprisingly: the individual.

While this seems to imply an analysis of Asian-American culture as such, it is not difficult to see that such a coherent identity is precisely what Yang’s understanding of the individual denies. He says: “I wanted to be an individual. I had refused both cultures [Asian and white] as an act of self-assertion.” For Yang, the only positive value of Asian-American identity was that it was not white identity and that unlike Black identity, it was (as far as Yang is concerned) not an institutionally and historically coherent identity at all.

In a time of increasing polarization and increasingly fixed identities, the non-identity called “Asian-American” would seem to provide Yang, the cultural critic, with an Archimedean point from to lever all other American identities, and with them the whole of American culture, up off the ground. It would become his master trope, his calling card as a (self-identified) race-troll: people would see the yellow face or the surname and think “Asian-American”; and he would roll with it, let them think that. He, an Asian-American man, would delve into his own emotional life and those of other Asian-Americans – but this line of investigation would eventually lead to the undoing of the category itself.

The Asian-American experience is (so the punchline goes) an experience of nothing – a lacuna, a Freudian slip in the American racial consciousness. (And yet, one reading of the arc of the book seems to argue that Asian-American identity was supposed to be the tool one discarded after use, nothing substantial, but a springboard for a broader cultural-critical project. That Yang has since failed to cast off his identity topic is the irony, his own double, lurking behind these pages.)

In talking to a young Chinese-American man, Yang is surprised to see in the millennial the same “embers of Asian alienation” he thought had since died out after his generation – pleasantly surprised, because it was precisely this alienation that fueled his “defiance,” one of Yang’s favorite words. Yang knows the (particularly American) datedness to barefaced appeals to individualism, so most of the time he must make the idea pass through a good wash of irony. However, speaking to that younger version of himself, he finds himself speaking forthrightly:

Sometimes I think [my defiance is] the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life. So this is what I told Mao: In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost.

What becomes apparent about this self-understanding of defiance in Yang’s readings of Tiger Mother Amy Chua and restaurateur and hip-hop media personality Eddie Huang is the paramount importance of that “cost” borne by the defiant individual; Yang’s paraphrasing Huang on the latter’s identification with hip-hop speaks to his own notion of an authenticity in resistance: “It [hip-hop] was … a means of survival—not some glib, touristic fascination, or even a way of being cool.” Chua too serves as a figure of “proud defiance” in herself, less a spokesperson for Chinese mothers than an individual who would balk at the polite lies of American society in general and “dare to be interesting.”

In a word, Chua, along with Huang, stands as the very figure Yang himself wants to embody as a writer. Here he is, still looking into a mirror, confronting an identity; but now it is not that of a “tractable, one-dimensional simulacrum of a person,” a neglectable yellow man. Rather, to use Yang’s last word on Huang, it has become “an identity capacious enough to contain all his contradictions and ambivalence.” It is not even a (racial) identity but the simple, lived fact of individuality: the person who figures out their own self-expressive language in a struggle with the formulas of others – the Asian-American who refuses to be “Asian-American.”

Part II: Loners

It seems only natural that Yang should proceed in the following section to four controversial figures, three of whom are white (as for the Japanese-American, Yang says nothing of his “identity”): for they are activists and thinkers of the very same “obdurate singularity” that Yang distills from his, Chua’s, and Huang’s “Asian-American” experience. Drawn from Yang’s work for New York Magazine (where his n+1 essay had gotten him a position as contributing editor in 2011) and other publications, these magazine profiles are the proving ground for the post-“Seung-Hui Cho,” post-disappointment Yang and his now trademark critical style.

Each profile starts out with the usual exposition of what each man (they are all men) does and is known for; but it’s when the prose zeroes in on the alienation that man faces that you know you’re reading a Yang profile. However brilliant and determined each profiled individual is in his field, he cannot escape some kind of  marginalization in his life. Yang shows us: Aaron Swartz, the hacktivist who ended his own life after federal prosecution for mass downloads of JSTOR articles, oppressed by the world and unable to emotionally relate to others; Tony Judt, historian and author of a seminal history of postwar Europe, struggling with the debilitation of Lou Gehrig’s disease; Evan F. Kohlmann, counter-terrorism consultant, spending his days and nights analyzing jihadist media on the internet, with few friends outside of that same digital platform; and Francis Fukuyama, political theorist of the triumph of liberal order, feeling that his work has been misappropriated.

Whether looking at Swartz’ hacktivism or Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, Yang is more interested in examining how these men were formed by personal experiences of alienation from the same world; analysis or debate of the viewpoints themselves matters less. (And this matters enormously.) He sees all four as practically defined by tragic-heroic self-conceptions, whereby their individual quests for truth and justice inevitably marginalize them socially and intellectually.

This profiling method allows Yang to pull together otherwise disparate threads in the lives of brilliant and tormented individuals to form coherent and non-intuitive wholes – much as he does with his own personality. Yet, such a biographical criticism ends up serving Yang as a double-edged sword: many of his insights are accompanied by the uncritical presentation, sometimes even praise, of that person’s views, just because those views, and that person they are part of, fit the Yang model of “defiance.” Since he shows himself to be so adept at satirizing personal qualities and ideological positions alike, it is difficult to miss the moments when Yang implicitly identifies with his subject and serves them an easy pitch.

Here Yang’s attention has shifted from suffering to something else not entirely new but once suppressed: suggestions of ways out. Swartz and Kohlmann may be loners on the outside, but online “they develop ties with their message-board brothers possibly stronger than any they have with people in their real lives.” Judt and Fukuyama may have earned public ire for their outspoken views, but both have in their role as speakers enjoyed the attention of large, receptive audiences. Yang may be wise to the dangers inherent in these interpersonal relationships, but as a fellow “loner,” he cannot help but sympathize with such temptations to exit one’s valorized solitude and plunge into experiences of mass confirmation. Yang will end up calling this phenomenon “love,” as in what Fukuyama experiences when giving talks to receptive audiences in Ukraine. This is at once the least and the most Yangian of tones, when Yang quotes Fukuyama saying with simple satisfaction, “It’s in those moments that I feel most fully that I’ve made and am making a lasting contribution.”

Yang’s defiant individual, as exemplary and defiant as he may be, is never complete in himself; that very lack of identity that he affirmed and made into a calling card comes back to threaten him with (self) destruction. The four loners of Part II are also all high-achieving and well-known individuals; but just as, for the model minority, the “paper emblems” of elite education and employment do not an identity make, no amount of work and achievement can fill the existential gap of loneliness.

Part III: Love, Sex, and Loneliness

The problem of loneliness: this is the simple reason as to why Yang chooses to follow up these profiles of loners with meditations on sex and dating culture. In the sequence of the overall argument of the book, it poses the question that seems to develop logically out of identity-less identity of Asian-Americans and their defiant loner analogues, and it takes the discussion to the dark but sensitive realm of Yang’s earlier work. Indeed, there is a kind of deliberate anachronism in placing first the four pieces of Part II, which were written either just before or after 2011, when the mainstream breakthrough of “Paper Tigers” earned Yang a job at New York Magazine; and only then moves back in time, in Part III, to the 2008-2009 debut, when Yang was still very much the writer of uncensored, first-person emotions and unconventional sentence structures.

“I was ready for what was to come,” is how Yang ends the refection on the culture of sex in “Inside the Box.” (Unmistakably, the n+1 author, the guy who made an ironic trademark out of bemoaning, half sincerely, half tongue-in-cheek, his lack of success on dating websites.) He tells the story of how he and his generation went from masturbating to music videos on the video-request TV show “The Box” to standing at attention, in awe before the grand, sanitizing unification of past smuttiness into a single figure and the accompanying arrival of broadband internet. “Britney Spears was something else—an inflection point in the culture.” Here the driving force is not really some desire to understand and even less a message to get across, but a sexual frustration and frustration with the wasteland world in which Yang finds himself – the “paranoid dread” that he feels speeding through New Jersey, yearning for something “real and alive.”

But just as he did so well, the year before, with “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,” in this essay he turns the reflection on his own wretchedness into an opportunity to create himself a witty, worldly voice: “Britney, the former Mouseketeer, literally straddled the divide between Times Square’s old and new identities.” Like the loners profiled in the previous section, Yang portrays himself as knowing more than most precisely because he feels himself incomplete and needy. The world seems to be coalescing and cleaning up around him – “Giuliani’s quality-of-life police ran out the junkies and the prostitutes. Disney remade the square as a gleaming, candy-colored monument to anodyne, family-friendly, corporate-sponsored mass entertainment.” – and though he doesn’t exactly resist it, he marks his pained difference from it, in writing about it at a skew. His hot desires amidst the cold landscape of the late 1990s (including that desire of his to become a writer) refuse to be domesticated; even if they cannot be fulfilled and have to make a seeming retreat under the cover of disenchantment, their embers continue to smolder, unmistakably:

We believed that there was something inherently precious and singular in everyone (but particularly in ourselves) that deserved to be loved, something that was endlessly fragile and heedful of protection. Even if we held the hysterical aspects of campus feminism at a remove, we believed that equality was the foundation of the true love that would express itself in an intimate, mutually fulfilling eroticism. That’s what we thought back then.

Something of this hunger and idealism, chasing after an increasingly mirage-like equals sign between “sex” and “love,” stayed with Yang and, it seems, the whole post-Britney world. Not just for horny NJ boys aspiring to become writers but for anyone trying to make it (or just be) in late capitalist America, this tension between a deep malaise and an all-encompassing façade is inescapably formative – so he seems to say. Technological and commercial possibilities multiply, while the webs of interpersonal relations fray; and somewhere in the midst of all this, one tries not only to stay alive but to feel alive, maybe even to feel loved.

 “On Reading the Sex Diaries” shifts this discussion of desires from Yang’s first-person to the dozens of first-persons on the “Sex Diaries” blog of the New York Magazine, which had anonymous New Yorkers share stories from their love lives; this is brave new, but also overwhelmingly anxiety-ridden, world to which “Inside the Box” was the prehistory. Now, Yang writes, “virtually everyone under the age of thirty has grown up with their sexuality digitally enhanced.” Tasked by the editors of the magazine to read “all 800 pages” of the Sex Diaries and “develop some kind of taxonomy of contemporary sexual anxieties,” he comes up with a list of ten, starting with “1. The Anxiety of Too Much Choice, 2. The Anxiety of Making the Wrong Choice, 3. The Anxiety of Not Being Chosen,” and running to “9. Separation Anxiety” and finally “10. The Anxiety of Being Unable to Love.”

This last item is the most telling, a sort of meta-anxiety about the condition of one’s love life being constricted by at least nine other anxiety archetypes, in the first place. The cool, analytic voice lets out an excited, empathizing exhale: “And yet perhaps the most surprising psychological attribute of the Diarists, despite weeks upon weeks of guarding their vulnerabilities from the brutality of the marketplace, is their romanticism. True love! Who could say these words in public without acute embarrassment.” Yang, describing himself as “as disenchanted a reader as any alive today,” hasn’t discovered some positive category to affirm against anxieties; he recognizes “true love” as “an odd, negative sort of tribute—a vague longing for something all but lost, but perhaps worth clinging to nonetheless.” What knowledge of, and the willingness to hold onto, something of this ideal gives him is a heightened sensitivity to the lack of it – in himself, as in others. “Reading the Sex Diaries all in one enormous gulp,” he writes, “I thought of the many wounds I had myself endured and inflicted during my brief career as a person with a New York City sex life.” So, pathos and wounded idealism may have led to the writer’s becoming numbed; but that numbness smarted still, beneath any “obdurate singularity.”

Even in “Game Theory,” where he plumbs the minds of the “seduction community,” a loose online group of “losers” (Yang’s trademark mocking-sympathetic epithet) who try to pick up women according to a Machiavellian and self-aggrandizing kind of social arithmetic, Yang goes straight for the love-hungry jugular:      

The men gleefully pursued an antinomian goal and grew powerful because of their disregard for limits that other less desperate and disenchanted men still obeyed—the illusions that give love whatever meaning it still sustains in a world that has systematically converted every transcendent value into a mere advertising slogan, except for the one illusion whose sanctity we cannot yet extinguish, advertising slogan though it may be—that two souls might meet and assuage each other’s loneliness.

The misogyny of these men who reduce women to targets and “crash-test dummies, identifiable only by hair colors and numbers – a blonde 7, a brunette 10,” as Yang quotes one of the leading figures of The Game, has been lost on very few; but Yang is relatively unique in taking seriously their underlying desires and trying to find some sort of emotional promise in even the most pitiful attempts. The story ends up being less about women per se than the bonds formed among (otherwise socially isolated) men; the emphasis is less on individual achievement than the social means that can prevent – or hasten, as he sees this pickup artist community doing – “a descent into total solipsism.” Yang seems to be shifting momentum from the preceding sections’ praises of the individual who refuses group identities to a consideration of (the longing for) belonging.

Part IV: Identity Politics

But in fact, he is setting himself up for another disaggregating critique – the sympathetic rhetoric of “true love” becomes artillery against what he sees as hypocritical appropriations of it. This turning of the cannons against identity politics, in these most recent pieces that conclude the formative trajectory of the book, does not come without precedents: see the dig at the “hysterical aspects of campus feminism” that qualifies the idealization of “equality” and “true love.” Yang sees it as at least analogous to, if not a piece of, the same corporate advertising culture and internet marketplace dynamics that he had seen twisting true desire since the beginning of his writing career.

In “We Out Here,” a 2016 essay in Harper’s Magazine, Yang profiles a seemingly very different demographic – Black female progressives at Yale –  but reads behind their slogan “We are loved” the same cynical insight he had been making since “Seung-Hui Cho,” “the sad but unmentioned fact that seemed to be at the core of these campus protests.” That is, “while you can prohibit the use of racial slurs through rules and norms, no administration or law can force someone to befriend you, or to love you, or to see you as a person who matters, or to notice you at all.” The idea of “true love” must be fleeting precisely because it cannot be demanded by “force,” whether on the scale of lonely individuals in New York or race politics in the US as a whole – this is what Yang has to say. In the order of the book, this essay on these protestors follows immediately after the piece on the pickup artists. There are rules one can use and systems that can maintain power, the implicit argument seems to be, but the true belonging, the genuine end to loneliness is beyond all these – is suffocated by all these.

In 2008, Yang wondered whether Nikki Giovanni, a prominent member of the militant Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and a poetry teacher of Seung-Hui Cho’s at Virginia Tech, would have seen her student differently if he had “found a way to connect his pain to his ethnic identity,” as she herself had in a more politically active time in American history.

Giovanni knows black rage, and she knows the source of women’s bitterness. We all do. We know gay pride. We know, in short, identity politics, which, when it isn’t acting as a violent outlet for the narcissism of the age, can serve as its antidote, binding people into imagined collectives capable of taking action to secure their interests and assert their personhood.

Though Yang does not mention identity politics in the context of the sexual politics of the previous section, we can see, spread among this group of pieces from a decade ago, some remaining optimism towards collectivities that counterbalances the intense focus on the individual. This, however, isn’t what the  book’s narrative tells: we read the above passage in the first section, whose later pieces inoculate the raw group-longing of “Seung-Hui Cho”; the profiles of the second section lock in the focus on the individual; the third section runs the early pieces on longing through this individualist funnel; and finally, when identity politics reappears, it seems to fall right into position opposing the individual and his true desires.

Of course, the intervening years between the early and current pieces saw the emergence of Black Lives Matter onto the national stage in 2014, in the wake of protests over the police shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “Identity politics” had come to mean something very different by 2017, when Yang, finished with his stint at New York Magazine and newly hired by Tablet, committed himself to write “Meme Wars.” No longer constrained by the occasional work of profiles or corralled into writing about the Asian-American experience, he had his own column; and he would put it to use to do something he never really did before, something many of the readers he drew over the past decade would not have expected: to push his own program.

What Yang had once, in the n+1 and Bush years, described as a slogan-saturated world without depth had, he claims, become a cultural battleground. The injustices and anguish borne by so many losers or oppressed people had, in the hands and tweeting thumbs of activists, coalesced into its own infectious “jargon’ and spilled out of the campus bounds into the public, cultural, political discourse of national life. As he writes in “We Out Here”:

The new vocabulary provided confirmation of what young people have always had reason to suspect—that the world was conspiring to strip them of their dignity and keep them in their place—and elevated those grievances to the status of a larger political project. Of course, the terms could easily become totalizing and portray the world as an ‘iron cage’ in which crude identity categories determined everyone’s fate.

Yang is dead-serious about the quasi-totalitarian threat of identity politics; but at the same time, he will have us believe that this critique of his (which will henceforth take up practically all of his literary production!) is the culmination of his work as a critic. All the wide-ranging and sensitive cultural work over the past decade is lined up into the following teleology: the same “violent outlet for the narcissism of the age” in Giovanni and the same reduction and “descent into total solipsism” in the pickup artists have led up to faults of the student activists. Yang saw all this already in 2008, when he wrote about a school shooter who disturbingly reminded him of himself; now in 2017, he saw his own idealism and sensitivity to hurt in those mini-authoritarians.

In November 2017, he posts the first installment of “Meme Wars,” titled “Is It OK to Be White?” This becomes the second of three pieces in Part IV of the book. The announcement for the column, originally appended to the end of the article, is however not included. So I will quote this manifesto for the New Yang, “A Note on ‘Meme Wars’,” in its entirety:

Meme warriors of the social-justice left and the alt-right have successfully polarized the world into antagonistic camps, hollowing out from within support for the meta-discursive rules that permit the peaceful co-existence of diversity. The meme war has already changed the world and pitched the country into a condition of hostility that some have likened to a “Cold Civil War.”

My method in this biweekly column will be twofold: to chronicle and track the unfolding in real time of the identitarian meme war, and to parse out its intricacies in a disinterested way by revisiting the theoretical and empirical scholarship – in critical race theory, “whiteness studies,” the works of the radical-feminist canon – from which the meme war takes its direction. My goal is to survey from a distance the polemic, making legible its unstated premises, rather than becoming a combatant myself. I’ll also revisit works by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Samuel Huntington, Richard Rorty, and Mark Lilla, that attempted to hold at bay the onslaught of the identitarian Left, and measuring these arguments against our present conundrum. I wish to create a venue for sustained reflection on the process that triggers us into the tribalism that first emerged online and has since consumed the country as a whole.

Earlier readers of Yang’s may hear in this naming of leftist academia as the enemy an echo from the end of “Inside the Box”: the scene where Yang sells his “theory books” on Amazon and casually repudiates what guidance the leading academic philosophers of the 1990s may or may not have given him. Then they had simply failed to give him the direct vision of reality he found in Britney Spears. Now they – the critical race theorists and the “hysterical” feminists – had swung into power, and he could no longer dismiss them with fine writing and clever innuendo about the future “coming.” The language game was turned around; he would have to put down the artful sabre for the blunt mace and shield.

This first “Meme Wars” piece does not hesitate to name names and lay out a programmatic analysis: Step one: “Reprogramming language to achieve a political end is a strategy derived from poststructuralism, which holds that language is a system of difference in which the endless flux of signification is only arrested by the operation of power.” Step two: “Social media provided a medium for an iterative and collaborative process to turn critical race theory into sticky and contagious progressive memes.” The result:

This intricate system of racial casuistry, worthy of Jesuits, is a beguiling compound of insight, partial truths, circular reasoning, and dogmatism operating within a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.’

Perhaps the way I have pulled out these three strongly declarative quotes seems to reduce the circumspect and sensitive writer with whom we acquainted ourselves above (at times with, at times against the book’s own sequence) to a box spitting out so many fine phrases to hammer at the same nail head – to smash back against “the onslaught of the identitarian Left.” But I am afraid that in this case the choice of selection (or constriction) was his own. Though some of the inimitable style is preserved, the weight of the passages shift to editorializing sentences such as these, without signs of going anywhere else.

After a certain point, the distinction between Yang’s new persona as Tablet critic and the identitarian movement that he targets seems to blur. When in the other Tablet piece that forms the final essay of the book (“What Is White Supremacy?”) Yang describes a group of Black Lives Matter protestors disrupting a speech by an ACLU lawyer and chanting “Liberalism is White Supremacy,” his analysis begins to sound very familiar: they have brought “to completion certain latent tendencies bubbling up on Twitter.” Poststructuralism plus social media equals system. It is not clear whether Twitter really is so totalizing or if Yang himself only thinks so because he’s gotten sucked up into it – or what the difference would even mean. At any rate the two are like a binary star system, locked in an endless dance – and one struggles to tell the dancer from the dance. Now, whenever he encounters a story that lets him go off on his pet theme of identitarians-gone-wild – whatever lip service he may briefly pay to such minor nuances as the influence of the educated class, affirmative action, or pay discrepancies – he has at the ready his position before he’s written a word, and he does not hesitate to repeat it with the consistency of a canvasser.

Yang seems to have described a very bleak vision of American cultural and racial politics (with plenty of epidemic metaphors that must read very interestingly to anyone who picks up his work in 2022). This last section on identity politics seems to have offered a teleological explanation at a time (which may not have ended) when such straight lines of doom were quite fashionable. Speaking of racial tensions in the last lines of last piece in the book, Yang remarks: “There are factions of awful people who benefit from this polarization. One of them occupies the White House.”

And so, we come full circle to the introduction of the book, to what special position that old bugbear, “Asian-American identity,” might offer in this polarized world:

In an age characterized by a politics of resentment, the Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man … and something of the resentments of the rising social-justice warrior … Tasting of the frustration of both, he is denied the entitlements of either.

The condition of marginality is both the cause and the effect of his erasure—and perhaps the source of his claim to his centrality, indeed his universality.

Agree or disagree with Yang in content, this position has great internal coherence. On the one hand: the “identitarian meme war,” claustrophobic, unsparing, all-consuming. On the other hand: the “Asian man,” the wildcard, empathetic, distanced, sober. There is a “cultural project,” Yang claims, that can be accomplished with this unique position, the suggestion being that essays selected in the book do just that. And perhaps, in one reading, that is indeed what they do: ten years of gearing up for a showdown with the identitarians and polishing one’s liberal credentials. But who would want to read such a critic? (Just go pick up a book by Mark Lilla!)

My Twitter-savvy friend compared the Tweets he had seen from @wesyang to the pinned synopsis of the book and figured the latter wasn’t worth it; by all appearances, there wouldn’t be anything he hadn’t already seen before as a hot take. I begged to differ about the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk, but then I tried to imagine what the author of Meme Wars, what @wesyang would say.

Part V: The Columnist

“The Bari Weiss Pile-on,” the third installment of Meme Wars (February 2018), opens with a Twitter scandal and a familiar take:

In the past 18 months, I’ve had many debates with friends about whether the fractiousness and hyperbole about identity that has long been endemic to academia and the activist left would intrude into the wider world.… A close reading of the text, subtext, and context of the Bari Weiss pile-on is therefore in order. It presages what will soon sweep through every institution in America.

I don’t want to say “I was ready for what was to come,” but it doesn’t seem awfully difficult to guess the conclusion of Yang’s “close reading”: “It is my experience, and that those who come to share the anxieties and resentments of prior cohorts largely do so not on the basis of systematic ill-treatment but rather on the basis of a conscious effort by ethnic and Asian-American studies programs and by the activist left to inculcate them into resentments they would not otherwise feel.” At a certain point reading through these columns, you stop caring whether you agree with the substance of Yang’s academia-media hypothesis and, especially if you count yourself among the readers of his earlier work. Instead you wonder: where is the inflection point where a consistent, identifiable voice becomes a fixed, predictable position? When does a writer become merely a megaphone? But then perhaps there follow little moments when you catch a hint of the writer who once made you laugh and feel, like when you read at the end of the Bari Weiss piece:

Was there a relationship between the fact that policies intended to preserve the racial character of the United States in the late 19th century essentially barred Chinese women immigrants from the United States, making urban Chinatowns into weird, squalid bachelor communities in which the male-to-female ratio in 1943 was 9 to 1 – and the dearth of replies I received on online dating sites? How could there not be?

This sort of long sentence that begins as a glum sociological question and curls up into a gag should have, by all rights, been the beginning of a Wesley Yang essay; but the first-person makes its exit all too soon. The title of next month’s installment speaks for itself: “Asian-Americans Can Blow Up America’s Racial Quota System. Will They?”

I’m reluctant to dig, but I try to find some deeper reason, besides Yang’s race theory, for the direction he’s gone with Meme Wars. As expected, the really telling part is in an anecdote. Here he attends “a weeklong executive-training session for Asian-American corporate leaders” (read that again) and is deeply impressed by a highly successful Black consultant who has “mastered” the “skill” of defusing racial tensions in boardrooms by talking about his past in the Deep South:

Bringing that authentic part of his story into the conversation in a way that showed he was there to share his experience rather than blackmail anyone into acquiescence to whatever he demanded increased rather than reduced trust and emotional connection – and laid the groundwork for him getting whatever he wanted. He made sure to exploit it.

I couldn’t believe what I had read; and if you’ve been following along, perhaps you too caught onto the most unexpected combination of vintage Yang interests: the sensitivity to deep, genuine pain, and the ability to manipulate people. If we compare him to the roster of characters Yang has profiled, he seems to be some chimera of an honest pickup artist and an un-coddled identitarian. He pursues what he wants single-mindedly without covering up his hurt, and he can demand justice without self-pity or the surrender of his autonomy. He just has to pursue his own interests – ruthlessly.

The argument about Asian-Americans and the racial quota system makes more sense with this Übermensch ideal in mind. Yang states, matter-of-factly, that Asians, especially more recent Chinese immigrants, will push for a purely meritocratic school admission system regardless of how much it may destabilizes affirmative action: “They are, in fact, the only racial constituency that embraces this principle, because they are the group that would benefit most from such a system.” Of course, the point isn’t whether this “sharp-elbowed ethnic lobby of Chinese immigrants” is in the ‘right’ or not; Yang likes them, just as he likes the Black consultant, because they just say what they want and go for it – and in so doing, bring about the collapse of the American status quo on race and culture that he finds hypocritical. The Chinese bloc “doesn’t care about the other parts of the multicultural coalition of which the Asian-Americans feel themselves to be a part. It’s not concerned to preserve the tense compromises around affirmative action.” Nor is it overly obsessed with its own cultural-ethnic position; it is zeroed in on its “interests,” meaning the two factors that seem to arise out of nowhere into Yang’s value system: education and income. He doesn’t make fun of them, even though he almost certainly could; rather, he pays them a half-cynical respect, not attempting to justify them except with the brute argument by demographics: their population is growing, so like it or not, they have the right to demand more.

Both the Black consultant and the immigrant Chinese parent knew their respective strengths and refused to play the administrative game of identity politics. Meanwhile in the rest of the US, “a model of the human personality that regarded the psyche as inherently fragile” had become the norm, Yang argues in another Meme Wars piece, “Microaggressions.” “Adversity had ceased to be a stimulus to growth and strength. It had become a source of trauma that we now had the morality, the wisdom, the will, and the means to combat.” All this battle-and-war talk, the drumming up of strength and the belittling of weakness, but perhaps most of all, the terrible clarity of the distinction between the two American types – the kid who whines and the kid who will ‘have his way’ – come to our ears as a shock, but also a strange, distant echo. Asian-Americans must choose to become one or the other: “whether they will be guided by their interests or their resentments.” Whose voice is it now that speaks these words? Now, behind every reiteration of the academia-media claim, every litany in the same key, sounds darkly: interests or resentments, interests or resentments…

You have to back up a minute, rewind to 2008 and 2012, when editors asked our critic to write about an Asian-American topic, because he was Asian-American, and remind yourself: this wasn’t originally the path he had in mind as a writer. Sure, he ended up having a lot to say, and with the timing just right, those ended up being the two defining moments of his career – but his whole shtick was that he wouldn’t let Asian-American identity define him. Maybe he would take the assignment, and maybe that’s how he would title his essay collection, because he was perfectly comfortable defining himself as was an ironist and provocateur; but he wasn’t going to start writing op-ed pieces about Asian-Americans in current events, valorizing the immigrant work ethic, basing arguments about electoral politics on demographic shifts. Above all, this essayist was not going to give up the essay after having left such a mark on it. A Wesley Yang who just writes six tweets and then calls it a day?

Okay, but in 2018, when Yang wrote a glowing profile of Jordan Peterson in Esquire, he said something interesting. He concluded with: “Something about the intense earnestness with which he approached ideas and sought to communicate them in his lectures touched me and, in an odd way, shamed me. I had grown facile in the manipulation of words and ideas without feeling in any significant way invested in them” – and remarked that “under different circumstances, I might have gone into a church” to “begin the long work of regeneration.” But nevertheless! This is how he ends the thought: “And yet I don’t think I could have. I am by nature a skeptic and an unbeliever.” So, it looks like our critic won’t be giving self-help speeches or TED talks anytime soon. It appears that he might even return to the work of “manipulation of words and ideas” he excels at, to producing the sweeping trains of thought and cutting insights that made us come to respect him. We can assure him that he may expect a cultural significance far truer than that of the likes of Peterson’s for it.

Epilogue in the Twittersphere

At this point, the friend I had been speaking with stood up, stretched his back, and then sat down again on the bench. Simultaneously, he and I each picked up our coffee cups and gave them a shake to see if there was any liquid left. He had a half a gulp to go. So, was I feeling optimistic about What will become of Wesley Yang? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t have an answer to this new question, just as I didn’t have an idea of what would become of the US and its culture. Hell, at that point I didn’t even know when I would be able to get vaccinated.

We made free throws with our empty cups (I missed wildly on my first attempt) and started walking to where my friend was parked. He got his phone out and read me a few more tweets:

I have never had a sense of agency and have always been content to posture as (and be) merely gadfly and flaneur. But I have been toying lately with the idea of actually doing something, attempting something, mustering the wherewithal to act in the world.

Isn’t he like a propagandist for Andrew Yang now? I didn’t know, I hadn’t read those articles or seen those interviews, I yawned. He keeps telling this story about how Andrew Yang makes jokes about being Asian to defuse tensions at fundraising events, with mostly old white men, and how this is the way forward for American racial politics. I stared at my friend but didn’t say the association that leapt to mind.

And then there’s this whole “Successor Ideology” idea. A term Yang coined himself to great success – it even has its own Wikipedia page – it is very much a creature of Wesley Yang the Twitter personality and not Wesley Yang the essayist. The idea of a Successor Ideology is just the old “Cultural Marxism” canard by a different name, my friend explained. Sometimes he tweets about it in this quasi-conspiratorial sort of way:

A question historians will ask is: “Was Successor Ideology co-opted by the natsec priesthood and American oligarchy to engender Woke Capitalism Managed Democracy, or was it in fact manufactured by it in the first place?

And sometimes he’ll explain it more coherently:

New moral emergencies to declare, new warrants for the expansion of government power to administer and regulate, and there is now an iron triangle of nonprofit and governmental rent seeking embedded within the structure of the Democratic party.

~

Which happens to align well with the incentives within the media and cultural industries for new novelties to manufacture and sell.

~

The ideology of those committed to the ever metastasizing movement to cannibalize existing institutions in the name of a cosmic justice is what I call “the Successor Ideology” – that which posits the world as a unitary matrix of oppressions.

So, I thought to myself, is this what the Wesley Yang first-person perspective has come to – spawning jargon on the regular and then doing that “what I call ….” thing? I tried to imagine an actually interesting essay that would begin with the idea that an unholy trinity of academia, activism, and social media was subverting good, innocent American liberal institutions – and not immediately making fun of said idea – but I couldn’t. Maybe that’s the new Yang’s point?

Non-black, non-white America has to assert itself and manifest its own distinctive vision of the country, provide stability and balance by rejecting both the MAGA and CRT visions of the future.

MAGA and CRT are both outlying ideas (MAGA has many more adherents while CRT is much more institutionally entrenched) that the many more [sic] black and white people reject than accept. But the new diversity in America has a special role in articulating a third way.

What’s CRT? Critical race theory, my friend explained. (Funny to think at this point this was all academic and rarefied to me. Yang must have felt pretty smug about himself as 2021 rolled on.) I thought of how Yang, in “Is It Okay to Be White?” sees poststructuralist theories about racism and sexism as essentially paranoid suspicions that the whole “system” of society is set against one as a marginalized person. He makes the point that these ideas were “sequestered” within the ivory tower – in the “loneliness” of it, one could say – “but it took the intervention of social media to realize the potential inherent in a deconstructive strategy to change the world. Social media provided a medium for an iterative and collaborative process to turn critical race theory into sticky and contagious progressive memes.”

I stopped. Though my friend hadn’t lifted his eyes from the screen, he too stopped as if in response to what he sensed in his peripheral vision. Didn’t this sound familiar? Couldn’t Yang hear himself? The guy literally just churns out anti-progressive tweets now. We were nearing the end of our afternoon hang-out, so I hazarded a grand conclusion: Yang has come to see identity politics (including both “CRT” and MAGA) as the omnipresent oppressive system to fight. Just like the face of the tormented “loser” Seung-Hui Cho, which had become, as Yang writes at the end of his essay, “a spectacle for the world to witness on TV,” so too had a theory, an academic subculture, a clique of higher-educated losers broken out of its solitude into public recognition – and it had done this with a righteous violence, courageous and merciless in defense of the downtrodden and desirous for love. It had destroyed not lives but living culture.

When I finished this paraphrase, I found myself a bit taken aback by the tone I had gradually slipped into. My friend gave me a funny look. He shrugged at the word “culture” – or at the italics I spoke it with. I let out a long exhale and then shrugged back at him. We started walking down the street again, kind of nonchalantly, kind of listlessly, each grappling with his own thoughts. Then I was jolted back to myself by a laugh, something I wasn’t sure was more a scoff or a wail:

There is a danger of becoming too good at Twitter, of overindulging one’s penchant for writing aphoristically.

Someone had replied: “I think the danger generally lies less in overindulging in writing aphoristically and more in overindulging in pandering to the prejudices of a particular group.” And then Yang had replied: “That’s the typical danger, I’m referring to one that faces writers.”

Here I was, not even on Twitter, having the sort of conversation with a friend (complete with the coffee and the walk) that tends to spawn an essay, serious rereadings of a book, self-reflections, and the like; and it seemed the same change had stolen up from behind and attached itself to me without my noticing. What happened to me? I wasn’t trying to grapple with identity politics per se. I was just trying to figure out the career trajectory of this one writer, and then it seemed the same thing I was trying to isolate and analyze had leapt from the petri dish and infected me.

This was the problem, in the end, and maybe the reason I felt the need to go back to essays of The Souls of Yellow Folk in the first place: it’s really hard to talk about the more recent Wesley Yang without falling into the same kind of quipping and scoffing facetiousness and, what is perhaps worst of all, schadenfreude. A part of me wanted to cover my ears when my friend read to me tweets like “Another much beloved narrative collapses,” referring to a 2018 story that 1,500 Latin American children were not “missing” (that they were in fact detained and separated from their parents was less relevant than that the progressives were wrong); because how was one supposed to engage with such a writer? There didn’t seem to be much of a point to judge him, let alone pin him to some political position; one learns little from such writing. But I knew there was a story in Wesley Yang, perhaps even one in which I could see myself. The past-tense of the first half and the particulars of the second half aside, I surely wasn’t the only one who could sympathize with the torn feelings of a tweet like: 

I wanted to be a genteel belletrist and writer of narrative nonfiction; I did not want my career to coincide with a razing of old institutions and values, a technological succession, an ideological frenzy, the recrudescence of Schmittian politics, a cringe apocalypse.~

Author

  • Alexander Lin is a writer and critic based in Berkeley, California. He is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.