When, barely two weeks after the global crisis and lockdowns have begun, a New Age writer with zero background in epidemiology or public health posts a 9K word novella called “The Coronation” — a play on the “corona” of the virus’s name — what do we suppose it is about? Do we have to read all 9K words to find out?
We could. But what would that investment of time and attention be predicated upon? What new and helpful information could we expect from such a long piece of writing, by a New Age writer, with zero background in epidemiology or public health? And at the very time that specialists around the world — people who spend their lives navigating medical complexities — are struggling, out in the open for everyone to see, to understand what they are dealing with?
To his credit, Eisenstein tells us within the first dozens of hynoptic grafs that new and helpful information about a uniquely terrifying global event is not his jam. He opens with a refrain of “not-knowing”. This makes the core of his New Age theme clear, and roots it in the vein of New Thought, which is not about useful information or analysis, but something better: aspiration. The not-knowing theme of New-Thought-to-New-Age literature offers the following workflow:
- Thoughts make reality, and therefore can change reality. (Consider the title of Eisenstein’s 2013 book: The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. I didn’t read it.)
- However: thoughts conditioned by conventions like science, the narratives of civilization, or emotions like fear impede the capacity to imagine a More Beautiful World.
- Therefore, our first task is “un-knowing”, “un-schooling”. We need to strip down our fixed ideas about the way things work, including politics and economics, to connect with something beyond common thought, something Our Hearts Know.
For the most part, I’ll leaving aside the fact that several chapters down in Eisenstein’s viral novella he begins to suggest that he does have specialized insight into COVID-19, by presenting cherry-picked bits of early reporting on death rates and comorbidities, flanked by idealizations of abstract indigenous cultures. Eisenstein’s “not-knowing” begins to slide into a kind of “alternative knowing” that shares space with American spiritual libertarians and anti-vax activists.
For those who are interested in a critique of the novella’s content as opposed to its structure, Jack Adam Weber has done a good job. Sentence by sentence, Weber’s painstaking dissection reveals a banal mess of poorly-researched, logical-fallacy-riddled, culturally homogenizing and appropriating, romantic-yet-emotionally-avoidant claptrap. But it takes Weber over 10K words to dispense with Eisenstein’s 9K words: evidence that the latter functioned as a Gish Gallop, in which the shear number of weak arguments overwhelms the capacity for concise refutation.
Did Eisenstein really offer content worthy of all this effort? Or is The Coronation a charismatic performance of self-entrancement that hijacks attention — even the attention of critique?
I’m going to argue here that it’s the latter: that in The Coronation, form trumps content. That the novella isn’t about the novel coronavirus, any more than Mikki Willis’s “Plandemic” is about the novel coronavirus. Eisenstein’s novella rather appropriates discourse about the novel coronavirus to mesmerize a privileged demographic during a volatile time.
What else, besides COVID-19, does Eisenstein apparently know nothing about? One doesn’t have to read the essay to find out, thankfully. Here’s the pdf. One can use the search function to look for the following keywords — all of which have been central to the data and analysis produced by real specialists so far. These are also terms that many people believe are key to the kind of “unschooling” that actually leads to something beyond the weekend workshop.
- “Public health” does not appear.
- “Race”: does not appear. But “embrace” does, six times. (Nor do “Black”, “Color”, “Latino”, “Latinx”.
- “Racism” does not appear.
- “Oppression” does not appear.
- “Privilege” does not appear.
- “Justice” does not appear.
- “Indigenous” appears once, with reference to a 1975 book by an American writer. No indigenous writers or wisdom holders are cited or linked to, even with respect to the keyword “initiation”, which anchors the trite conclusion of the novella. (I too am uneducated in this field, but starting to learn a bit, and will share an interview with Stan Rushworth below.)
- “Systemic” appears once to impugn a global shift towards “ever-increasing control” carried out by governments. Appears a second time in the phrase “systemic change towards a more compassionate society”, but with no details offered.
- “Structural” does not appear.
- “Inequality” appears once, but in a neoliberal frame, as an “intimate” problem, like homelessness, for which there is no external solution.
- “Healthcare” appears three times in a single graf that crescendoes to the spectre of compulsory vaccines.
- “Poverty” appears once, but not as a risk factor, but as something that control freaks foolishly believe they can eradicate.
- “Politics” does not appear, but derivatives appear ten times, always to imply a degraded activity, not a series of positions and values. The takeaway is that the novella is “apolitical”.
- “Marginalization” does not appear.
“Margins”, however, appears three times, twice to refer to alternative health, and once within the one graf in the conclusion that functions like a white-saviour TUMS to readers who might identify as left/progressive, and needed reassurance of the novella’s virtue. It’s worth quoting from that graf here, not only to spotlight the single moment the essay steps out of its own trance, but because it begs the next level of text analysis:
What should we do about the homeless? What should we do about the people in prisons? In Third World slums? What should we do about the unemployed? What about all the hotel maids, the Uber drivers, the plumbers and janitors and bus drivers and cashiers who cannot work from home? And so now, finally, ideas like student debt relief and universal basic income are blossoming. “How do we protect those susceptible to Covid?” invites us into “How do we care for vulnerable people in general?”
“Who is the ‘we’ here?” Does the novella contain a positionality statement? Who is this writer? What are their skills, biases, blindspots? What are their privileges? Who are they more likely to cite? Who are they speaking for, and to? As the above graf alludes, the pandemic’s impacts are unevenly distributed. Wouldn’t it be good for the reader to understand where in that uneven landscape the writer stands? Costa Rica, or Compton? Venice Beach, or Venezuela?
The pronoun “I” appears 30 times in the text, but not one of them offers insight into any of these questions. This alone creates the impression that the writer’s identity and position is assumed to be universal. Using this analysis tool underscores the point. It generates a list of keywords by usage. Here’s the data, which shows that the word “our” is the most-used word in the novella, at 66 times. The undefined “I” doubles in transmission rate as it becomes plural.
What, then, is this novella about? On Facebook, back when more people were talking about it, I quickly argued that it was mainly about Eisenstein’s brand. But what is that brand?
I haven’t read his books, and based upon this novella I won’t. But on the basis of what this novella does I would argue that the Eisenstein brand isn’t about useful information, applicable to daily life in the midst of an horrific crisis. It seems, rather, to provide an alternative space for retreat from the world of evidence fact-checking, and consequences. I really do mean “space” here, because the sheer time it takes to read 9K words creates a bubble apart from other media and experiences.
I believe that reading The Coronation is like going on retreat, for about thirty minutes. During lockdown, it’s a great way to keep your jammies on and drop in at Esalen, Omega Institute, Wanderlust, Burning Man, or Sandals for Progressives. The novella is an escapist geography you can mind-travel through, if you have the time. Meaning: if you’re not a frontline worker. If you’re not driving a car for Instacart. If you’re not in the food bank line. If you believe that the novella’s “we” includes you.
What else happens in that landscape? Basically: anything at all connected with New Thought / New Age ideals — which, when they intersect with a pandemic, seem to work against the values and principles of public health, through fervent appeals to individual intuition and private rights. It’s no surprise then that we see Eisenstein sharing a stage with Goop expert “Dr.” Kelly Brogan, whose dangerous claims about COVID-19 are reviewed here.
That’s not a casual connection. More recently, Eisenstein shared his podcast platform with Sayer Ji, founder of the anti-vax website greenmedinfo.com. The podcast title is a clue to the grandiosity on offer. Two non-specialists, speaking under the banner of “Beyond the Coronavirus.” So not only have they understood the pandemic — as countries struggle to bury the bodies — their visionary insight is able to pontificate about what comes next.
In the show notes Eisenstein describes Ji as “a prominent holistic health researcher.” (Rationalwiki has another way of spelling that.) In the intro Eisenstein describes Ji as his friend. Ji opens by remembering Eisenstein coming to his and Brogan’s wedding.
As I wrote on Facebook, I’m not proposing a counter-conspiracy of wellness industry moustache-twirlers, seeking to make a buck on the fear they tell us is the real virus. Neither am I implying guilt by association. These folks don’t need to be villains to cause a lot of damage. It’s more like an opportunistic convergence of landscape and actor, and the engine of neoliberal content-production that rushes to fill every emotional void.
The novella rolls out a geography of not-knowing, of asking leading questions, subtly conflating “universal health care” with forced vaccination, for example. Into the open space stride Brogan and Ji with the activities and products. They set up the pamphlet tables in the lunch hall at the retreat centre. It’s like Esalen — an open space of questioning — hosting the juicing and magnet healing retreat. All while a war is going on outside.
Is it wrong to go on retreat, or even vacation? Is it wrong to want cognitive and emotional relief from a fright without solution? Not at all. At best, The Coronation wraps the reader up in a spa-towel of vague encouragement.
At the level of meh, it pretends to be philosophy instead of affect regulation.
But at worst — and this is a real tragedy — The Coronation silences a diversity of feeling and imagination, and not only by what its positionality excludes. I believe that the logorrheic rollout of a novella-sermon, only two weeks into lockdown, that waffles between “not-knowing” and conspiratorial knowing, can tranquilize the creative responsiveness of its readership. So I’m wondering what better thinking got numbed out because this went viral.
A very prolific and highly ethical writer friend of mine summed it up:
“I’m just not ready to write anything about this yet. I don’t know enough about what is happening. And I’m having two many intensely personal responses to be of broader service. Writing some big thing right now would feel sacrilegious.”
Here’s Stan Rushworth.
(adapted from Facebook entries that reflect on the intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness crowds and COVID-19 conspiracy discourse)
Yoga Culture Can Train Us to See Conspiracy
The intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness interests and conspiracy discourse makes sense.
The history of yoga/spiritualism/wellness is a history of understanding the conventional as illusory, or bankrupt. Society itself is typically seen as a conspiracy against the inner self.
More recently, the yoga/spiritualism/wellness world exists in part as a response to scientific materialism, and a rejection of biomedical objectification.
It gives a lot of people a renewed sense of agency in relation to their bodies and ways in which meaning is made.
Yoga/spiritualism/wellness also rebels against the caste structures of bureaucracy and professionalism.
It rebels against the gatekeeping that invalidates intuition and minimizes body memory.
Through meditating on principles like karma, yoga people can rightly claim foreknowledge in current fields of study, like trauma.
Through meditating on principles like renunciation, yoga people can also develop a keen sense of where social conditioning is inauthentic, limiting, or exploitative.
When yoga/spiritualism/wellness isn’t conveyed by cults, it really can push back against authoritarianism. Where it does not victimize, it really can nurture survivors.
But COVID-19 doesn’t care about any of these things.
It’s not going to work to displace a generalized spiritual feeling of distrusting convention and rationalism onto this crisis.
And public health people care that yoga/spiritualist/wellness people don’t die, or endanger others. Like everyone, they might not have all the answers, but they’re practicing too, in ways that we may write epics or sutras about one day.
If Conspiracy Discourse Intersects with Cultic Behaviour, How Do You Help?
There are a number of ways in which those who have been recruited into social media conspiracy discourse behave like high-demand group (i.e. cult) members.
Two caveats, however:
- Conspiracy discourse rarely has visible leadership, whereas most cults do.
- Conspiracy discourse that spreads online is unlikely to enforce a key aspect of cultic control — behavioural control — except in the broadest sense of “You must be online most of the time.” Other than this high demand, it’s implausible that an online group could control food, dress, sexual activity, sleeping hours, etc.
Questions of leadership and online vs. IRL aside: if conspiracy discourse maps onto parts of the cultic template, it might mean there are ways of helping recruits you know and care for, or at least showing them that consensus reality is not as threatening as they feel, or have been told to feel.
I see four qualities in social media conspiracy discourse that approach or the standard of thought or information control (cf. Hassan), by which a group cannot admit outside data or sources of authority that would disturb the ideology:
- Black and white, all-good/all-bad thinking;
- Unshakeable belief in a grand civilization narrative;
- Inability to distinguish charisma from evidence;
- The willingness to absolutely isolate oneself from consensus reality.
I see three qualities that meet the standard of emotional control (again Hassan), by which a group enhances bonds and compliance:
- Extreme hypervigilance. The group takes great pride in being constantly and uniquely awake to the highest truth of things.
- Frenzied defensive certainty expressed through endless comments, tagging, link-dumping.
- Affect of pious devotion that must remain impervious to evidence.
Cult analysts mostly agree that the person who has been recruited is extremely difficult to communicate with. Their new value system obstructs all former closeness, understanding, and generosity. But Hassan and Alexandra Stein and others suggest that if you knew the person outside of their cult behaviour, you can actually play a role in helping them remember that part of themselves.
In other words: if you had a relationship with the person pre-cult, you are keeping their pre-cult self accessible, perhaps even alive. This means that nurturing the relationship, despite how despicable their views are, can be important — and that you’re in the position to do it. Stein says that the cult member is in a disorganized attachment relationship to the group, which has offered a “false safe haven”. The antidote is the real safe haven of the secure attachment.
But simply considering this might be impossible if they are spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 and 5G, and you’re immunosuppressed, and/or you just can’t even. Their behaviour is directly and palpably endangering you, and maybe the best thing is to block them.
But if you value the relationship —again, not saying you should — and Stein is right that the person presenting cultic behaviour is acting through an attachment wound and/or trauma bond, it literally cannot be repaired through dismissing, abandoning, patronizing, or humiliating them.
Maybe “Oh wow, I hear that you’re scared, and I am too” can go a long way.
Ignoring Direct Testimony is a Form of Silencing
Generosity dictates seeing the person engaging conspiracy discourse, or the subtler versions (“I’m just asking questions no one is allowed to ask”) as earnestly trying to be helpful, defend the vulnerable, nurture intuition and personal agency, and see through the illusion of an abusive civilization.
But there’s a moment when that earnestness turns a corner and is revealed as either a deception, or as immature, or as self-centred. I’m seeing this a lot.
It happens when someone posts a conspiracy theory doubting the existence, power, or origin of the virus, citing an indirect source. Then a friend, obviously triggered, posts a comment like:
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is a front-line health worker and this information endangers them.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is terribly sick (or has died) from this disease, and your post will endanger others.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. I’m recovering from this disease and I don’t want anyone else to get it, because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through.”
The key moment is when the OP doesn’t respond to that comment. What that shows is either that they value their idea over the direct testimony of the commenter, or that they believe the commenter is lying.
Valuing an ideology over testimony is at the root of systemic abuse.
We might consider the non-response to be a form of survivor silencing.
Conspiracy Discourse is Not Pessimistic Enough
The paranoia conceals an unreasonable hope.
The iconography of warfare and cast of evil and angelic characters presents a morality play in which, if Bill Gates (or whoever) is outed and defeated the truth will be known and the world (righteousness/purity etc) will be restored.
In this light, the pandemic is a chapter in a necessarily heroic narrative that places the underdog truth-tellers – the brave few who get it – at the centre of a transcendent revolution.
This is not pessimistic enough, in my view, because there really are no grand heroic narratives in the age of climate collapse.
To my eye, what’s happening now is basically what we have going forward, unevenly distributed: one unsolvable crisis after another rolling around the globe and intersecting, with little to rely on but the ability to discern solid sources of information, the capacity to strengthen secure attachments, and willingness to listen to the indigenous, who have been here before.
A non-grandiose framework is not depressive. Within it, there are innumerable loving, nameless actions, compromised by blindspots and anxieties, but also enriched by good instincts and earned resilience.
In October 1960,
A gas explosion tore off the back wall
Of the Metropolitan department store in downtown Windsor.
Nine seniors sitting on chrome stools at the lunch counter
Were crushed under the rubble,
Along with one young girl, who bled out
In the arms of two firemen who couldn’t pry her free.
One five year-old boy was small enough
That the blast threw him free and clear.
My great-grandmother ran the flower shop
On that street, and over the next days
My mother, fourteen, worked with her through the nights
Making the funeral bouquets.
The current explosion, also accidental,
is slow, almost invisible.
The elderly vanish. The shops remain intact.
No one is allowed inside them,
But the shopkeepers are still working
Through the night, or whatever we call time
In the enclosed and sleeping city.
The flower shop at the end of my street is closed,
But the keeper curates her shrinking deliveries
As people call in for wreaths, centrepieces.
We can still do funerals, though no one can attend.
Two blocks down, my barber visits his quiet shop
To sit in his own chair
And listen for the echo of banter and trash talk.
To watch the sunlight pass through the barbicide
And the shears glint gently on the flannel.
Beards are growing in homes,
Like the community gardens, locked up and tangling.
An arthritic priest fumbles with his iPhone
On a tripod, on the altar, trying to frame
His face, the book, the chalice, stained glass behind him.
A parishioner Amazoned him a selfie ring-light
And it glows like a hollow monstrance.
He’s joining an ancient line of hermits
Performing rites for laypeople, remotely.
There have always been funerals that no one attends
Except those who are working on them.
Poverty, trauma, and alcoholism socially distance.
Once a month when I was a church organist,
I’d play at the service of some war vet
Who’d died on the street.
The Legion paid me, the priest, a bagpiper,
And five bucks for the altar boy
To carry the candle and fold the flag.
I sat up in the loft and listened to the gospel,
Stared out the clerestory,
Shivered when the pipes droned and cried Going Home.
Three men, a coffin, and a boy,
Standing more than six feet apart,
Saying nothing to each other apart from the ritual,
Watched by no one, careful to get it right.
Except for the boy: young, easily distractible,
Not quite part of this slow disaster.
Lake Ontario has gone still, reflecting the city.
The beach is hushed with the open secret.
Young children and dogs see the shapes of the letters
Of the signs telling us to keep our distance.
Looking south, if the day was clearer,
I might see the shadow outline of New York State,
And hallucinate the wheeze of ventilators
In the swirl of open air that is the border.
My partner plays balance beam on bleached driftwood
With our seven year-old.
She mirrors his overflowing age,
And shows him how we come from each other.
Our four year-old commands his nana
To stand six feet back;
He holds up a stop-sign hand and grins
As if the world were a traffic game.
But she can’t help herself from reaching for him.
The generations want to collapse into each other.
Some of us will never understand
How this is suddenly dangerous.
My own grandmothers no longer have bodies.
Eyes closed, I can fall into their talced arms.
They breathe out soft, clipped stories
Of the war, rationing, polio, standing on the road
To sell sandwiches to truck drivers.
Hanging out laundry in the attic.
Of a baby born premature and kept warm
In a cooling bread oven,
And making Sunday dinners for twelve on a single dollar.
As a child I saw their eyes gleam and took it for devotion,
But missed the spark of holding me to account:
“How will you make good on all of this?”
I missed the winces of pain as they shifted
From hip to hip in the twilight armchairs.
Neither had a place to name their feelings,
Nor, perhaps, anyone to hear them.
I’m ashamed for the time I spent mistaking
Silence and class dignity for avoidance.
What were all those books for? The wandering?
Why am I only learning to garden now?
Why did anyone give us credit cards?
Why did I always find something to do
To keep me hovering above this moment of water?
How did it happen that I was distracted so often
From the most fragile, vanishing things?
Why did I pry these minutes apart from each other
As if my life resided between them,
Gazing at imaginary problems,
As if these grains weren’t the continuity I sought?
None of the scriptures or poems prepared me,
Or maybe all of them did.
Like the one where the son asks the father
“Tell me about the innermost self.”
And the father says to the son,
“Like the salt mingled in ocean water,
You are that, you are that.”
Today the son would ask
“Tell me what the virus is.”
Because religion left me nothing but kind guesses,
I would say: “It’s not quite alive, but it can die.
It doesn’t know chest pain, or the feeling of drowning.
It thrives when it is within us.
It makes us aware of each other.”
I had a friend who died in his car
After swallowing a little white pill.
He was a Buddhist who helped and didn’t help people
In relation to how much he marvelled and suffered.
He taught me the phrase, “trouble and joy.”
He’s sitting with me here, closer than six feet,
We talk about impermanence, which he no longer has to test.
I murmur “I can’t believe you’re missing this”,
Meaning children, a partner, the virus.
I hope he ate that pill like those monks
Who pretend to eat the last plum on earth.
He was obsessed with the resonance between
The suffering self and the suffering world, and
I still can’t tell whether this is perceptive or grandiose.
White men can be both as we fantasize
About helping more than we help.
But sitting here now, body and ghost,
Perhaps we waste less time.
The seven year-old comes in for a hug.
He’s too big for my lap. I’ll be getting smaller.
My wife continues balancing practice, for her own joy.
The light changes. It doesn’t matter how.
I’m grateful I didn’t bring my phone.
Sitting back on the kitchen counter,
It fills up with exponentials:
infection rates, grief, financial ruin, platitudes.
If I had brought it, I may have thrown it,
To skip on the glassy water like a mute black stone.
At about ten days into social distancing — and improvised homeschooling — this tweet sailed across my feed:
I laughed, but it hurt.
We have an almost-4 year old and a 7 year-old at home. Last night the provincial government sealed up the parks and beaches. The boys haven’t been within six feet of their grandparents for weeks. Yesterday, everyone over 70 was asked to self-isolate.
Parents are on their own these days. It’s one thing to not have access to child-care. It’s totally another to not be allowed to have any, or to get any from extended family. Every family, in every configuration, is on its own island of togetherness and aloneness.
It’s challenging, and we’re meeting it — to the point of it being a transformative experience in some ways. Relational peace and resilience is an incredible privilege. And I know we’re a thousand times luckier than so many. Anyone who is parenting solo now, or exposed to substance abuse or domestic violence — my heart just dies. When the vulnerable are isolated, the veneer of nuclear family safety and its independence cracks.
Back to the tweet: I’ve never, to my recollection, said anything so intrusive and insensitive as what wittyidiot reports to any of my non-parent friends.
But I sure have felt it.
And when I recognized myself feeling it, and I realized it felt off, I took a look at where that feeling was coming from.
On my generous and gregarious side, there is, without a doubt, some inexpressible joy that parenting has filled me up with, to the point that my prior life feels unrecognizable and haunted. And I wish I could just share that with everyone. But on my narcissistic side, there’s a part of me that wants non-parents to validate my choices with their bodies. I want them to share my stress — as if they didn’t have their own. If I were to speak wittyidiot’s quote aloud, I would be speaking from that voice.
wittyidiot’s burn is on point. Whoever said that to him, intentionally or not, was inflating a selfish and defensive need to the point of trumping basic manners towards the many reasons, chosen or not chosen, for not being a parent.
The tweet also points out that the sentiment of “the greatest joy” is, when spoken aloud, disingenuous. When the shit hits the fan, it goes silent. Shouldn’t being a parent be “the greatest joy in life”, for better or worse? Yes, it should. Unless what the parent is really saying, in a passive aggressive way, is: “When are you going to take on the same stress that I have?”
The inflated parent is forgetting, of course, the stress of loneliness, or of building a chosen family, of miscarriage, or moral and political conviction, or simply other work in the world.
They’re also failing to anticipate just how much worse the stress of parenting can get, to the point of that unforgivable thought: that they wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
For me, the last time this issue popped out of the collective unconscious and into the memosphere was from the other side, when that “Lady No-Kids” cartoon by Will McPhail made the hetero-normie rounds:
I laughed then, too, but it didn’t feel clean.
I especially didn’t feel comfortable that the target was a non-parenting woman, contrasted with the mature mother pushing the stroller and herding the 4 year-old. It deepened the misogynistic double-bind of “You’re either frivolous, or responsible for everything.”
Happily, it looks like McPhail evened out the scales with a follow-up:
Gender aside: McPhail illuminates the bald fact that through lack of experience or imagination, the non-parent can be blind to their privileges of time and relative autonomy. And if they flaunt this, knowingly or not, or make assumptions about what their friends who are parents can and can’t do, it can be frustrating.
Or worse: for some it might provoke a grief — shameful because it’s not easily admitted — for a former life, or for choices that could have been. There are now 15K in the “I Regret Having Children” Facebook group.
The first time I clued into this tension was when the priest who was the principal of the Catholic school where my mom worked asked the staff to take on a bunch of extra tasks as though they would be giving up happy hour. I remember my dad grumbling, “Father So-and-So needs to wash some diapers.” I was young, but I understood that this wasn’t just about the work itself. Dad was talking about the kind of work: we don’t float above anything when we’re up to our elbows in crap. We don’t sit in cathedrals in contemplation. We don’t do yoga vacays.
But McPhail’s exaggeration leaves a sour taste. The heteronormies are buttoned-up. Lady and Lord No-Kids are obviously silly.
The problem with the caricature — maybe part of its purpose, in fact —is that it conceals the more stark challenges to parenting as an existential identity.
I have anti-natalist friends who say outright that it’s immoral to have children, given the imminent timeline of ecological collapse. It’s hard to argue with them. I have feminist friends who say that we just don’t have enough justice to allow for parenting partnerships — especially if they are hetero — that are structurally equal. It’s hard to argue with them. I have anti-capitalist friends who pinpoint the heteronormative family as the heart of consumerism, masquerading as love. I have climate collapse friends who say: “There’s no problem in the world that can be solved by bringing more people into it.” I know birth-striking millennials, melancholic but resolute.
All of these folks have good points. None of them are following geese around while not wearing pants. If you were to feed them wittyidiot’s line, “When are you going to have children?”, they would hear: “When are you going to conform to your gender identity? When are you going to accept your fate? When are you going to just admit you’re a producer and a consumer, just like everyone else? When are you going to get down in the shit with us?”
But there’s a lot of ways to wash diapers, and everyone has a fate. Many of these same non-parents are masters of the “chosen family” structure, which binds together those thrown out of the nuclear shelter, or those who had to flee. It’s not all extra yoga and non-fiction. They’re the ones who often have more time to volunteer, reach out by phone, share their baking, or take on an extra therapy client, pro-bono. One anti-natalist I know is spearheading vegan food distribution for the homeless in Santa Barbara. He’s committed to never having children, but he works as hard as I do, or harder feeding people he’s not bio-responsible for.
Here’s something else I’ve noticed: many of the most influential eco-prophets of our time — the “doomers” who can say what others are afraid of saying about tipping points and mass extinction events, for example, and how close they are — are non-parents. Do they have less to lose in speaking the truth? Conversely, many of the most prominent boosters of green capitalism or Green New Deals, or the belief that there are political or technological fixes for collapse — are parents. I think there’s a connection between the biological hope of parenting and maintaining a politics of progress, even when the cold hard math is all wrong.
So far the lockdowns are shining a blinding spotlight on certain differences between parenting and non-parenting life. But what if we looked for something else?
In previous lives I’ve lived on several sides of this divide, albeit in my white, male and hetero way. I’ve been single (obviously), and I’ve step-parented for seventeen years, and now I’m partnered with two young boys.
As a stepfather I was devoted and committed. But I was also resigned to always being on the bio-responsible periphery of more central relationships. The buck never stopped with me. There were years in there where I didn’t think I would be a parent in what I conceived of at the time as a more meaningful way. I’m not saying that step-parents can’t have or feel exactly what bio-parents do — if that can even be generalized — but I didn’t, not quite. Part of that may have been my own emotional avoidance, but a lot of it was circumstance
It did however give me a powerful experience of simultaneous inclusion in and exclusion from the most privileged unit in our culture: the nuclear. This, along with other life circumstances — like being recruited into two cults in which family life was present but ambivalent to the point of being devalued — meant that I also socialized on both sides of that divide.
Back then, I had friends with children and friends without. Childless friends who were happy that way, and those who weren’t. Friends who had taken vows of celibacy that suited their introversion. Friends indoctrinated into celibacy who were quietly raging. Friends who grieved miscarriages and not finding the right co-parent. Friends who felt the clock run out. Friends who knew that having a lot of sex partners wasn’t conducive to parenting, and they weren’t about to change. Friends with children who talked about it, too loudly and defensively, in the way that wittyidiot skewers in his tweet. And also friends with children who were overwhelmed, depressed, terrified that they were passing on their trauma to their kids.
Later, when the stars aligned and I did become part of the nuclear club, I was rudely awakened to the fact that I might not continue to have that same connection with friends without children. The first volley was fired by a good friend at the time. When I told him my partner was pregnant, he ghosted me.
It really hurt. But it made sense. We never got to talk about it at the time, but my guess is that he was betting I wasn’t going to be as available to him, and so he cut his losses.
He was right. No more two-hour lunches, spontaneous cafe chinwags, or hanging out after events. He’d probably seen it happen with other friends: that tunnel-vision-descent into worry and expectation and rearranged values in service to the imaginary baby, but on a functional level can feel pretty narcissistic to the person who can’t share it.
And what a paradox. Expectant-parent worry puts you in a place where you really don’t want to be disconnected from anybody important to you, and yet it is exactly this narrowing vision that can drive key people away as if you had a virus.
At the same time, I felt myself being recruited into a new club. Men who were already fathers smiled at me with a mixture of fatigue, recognition, pride, and schadenfreude: “You won’t regret it,” but also “You won’t know what hit you,” and “See you on the other side.”
And the weird thing about that club? Its impersonality. For me, it feels more symbolic than embodied. I’ve noticed that the men seem to nod at each other more than converse. We share that peculiar nuclear alienation: we belong to families that are largely hidden from each other, but we also share an abstract social power.
Much of the abstraction is a function of time. The demands of the nuclear arrangements that we have — artifacts of patriarchy and capitalism — simply don’t allow for the same levels of sharing time between equals that often characterizes non-parenting or pre-parenting life. Add to that the fact that parenting seems to shunt many families into social funnels determined less by shared interests than biological circumstance. In the meeting places — playgrounds, schoolyards, gyms, instead of parks and cafes — there’s less talk about life in general than about life with children.
And this must make us very narrow-minded at times to our non-parent friends. We don’t have time. Or we don’t share the same timeline. It might also make some of us angry, in that wittyidiot passive-aggressive way.
My gut says there’s some intrapersonal confusion as well: when the parent is trying to communicate with the non-parent, they might feel they are looking back into a life they remember. It’s not true. They’re looking at someone else. Some whose path, with a slight shift in perspective, can be an object of admiration, simply because it is so different.
I don’t have any big “Can’t we all just get along” ideas. The exchanges that wittyidiot lampoons and McPhail exaggerates should obviously just stop, or be kept private.
But there are a few public behaviour things I think we can agree on, especially on social media. That is if you care enough about this particular tension to help build a culture in which parents and non-parents empathize with each other. And especially if your social feeds contain a mixture of parents and non-parents.
IMHO, parents should really own that it’s tempting to use their children to self-object all over Facebook. To use them to show how busy or stressed or fun or woke they are. Or to hide behind. Beyond the massive consent issues involved in using your kids this way — something that non-parents may be more attuned to and put off by than we know — there’s a difference between recording and performing what happens in one’s life. The more one does the latter, the more abstract parenting becomes for everyone. Our relationships need less symbolism, not more. And if you’re a heteronormie, you may be contributing to conventional narratives that continue to bury other experiences.
If you know non-parents who are lonely, maybe text them? Explain your time is limited, but that you’re thinking of them?
And non-parents: pandemic lockdown might not be the best time to post pics of yourself in bubble baths or meandering diary entries about how bored you are. If you know parents who are struggling — reach out to them, maybe? You could read a book to a friend’s kid over Zoom. It sounds small, but it’s extraordinary what even a half-hour of relief can give.
Maybe it’s also for you. Imagine that book you read to that kid over zoom contributes to their ability to concentrate and focus, and that they take that skill and develop it to the point where they’re able to intubate you smoothly when you need ventilation during whatever pandemic hits us in 20 years.
As for me, I’ll continue owning my feelings and softening my judgements. I don’t know what life I would be living if I wasn’t parenting with my partner. But I trust there are men out there who are living non-parenting lives with integrity, supporting the world in amazing ways I cannot.
And maybe one or two out there will see that I’m trying to work on unknotting a primal jealousy of parenting: to fantasize that someone will take care of you unconditionally when you become a baby again. I’ll admit it: I regularly visualize my deathbed, and imagine my sons on either side, holding my hands. The stories starting to pour in from Italy and Spain of parents dying alone fill me with longing and terror.
But something tells me a fantasy that rides on a notion of the care to which parenting entitles me won’t soothe longing, nor overcome terror. I want to fantasize about fostering a future of care for everyone.
A starter list, mainly for me. Feel free to add your own questions in the comments.