#69: Envy brain (& a newsletter update)

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Good morning!

Life on Earth™️ continues to spiral out of control, thank you to the labor movement for this three-day weekend, and happy Maybe Baby #69 to all who celebrate.

Envy brain

Join me, if you will, on the island of Mallorca, where a group of young beautiful people gather every year to fall in love. Close your eyes and imagine the AirBnB mansion teetering on the empty ocean-side cliff. Take note of the bargain-bin decor: the bright pink lawn chairs encircling a T-shaped pool and the kindergarten bean bags plopped artfully around an outdoor gym, the surrounding grass so manicured it looks like astroturf. Read the cheeky neon signage throughout the estate: “tasty” in the kitchen, “steamy” in the bathroom, “eat, sleep, crack on” by the pool. Observe the British plumbers and account coordinators milling around: the women in lip gloss and thong bikinis, the men in tiny swim trunks and bucket hats. Watch them gaze upon each other curiously, lustily. Watch them lie to each other and themselves. This is Love Island UK.

I could talk for hours about this godforsaken franchise and in fact consider myself its prisoner. But today I’m here only to discuss a social phenomenon I’ve observed on the show and extrapolated (naturally) into a conclusion about society writ large.

For the unfamiliar, everyone is single at the beginning of Love Island, and over the course of two months, falls in love. By the finale a good number of the pairs are in committed relationships and at least one of them has named their hypothetical children. This essentially makes the show an anthropological window into the strange courting rituals of a particular club-kid variety of 21st century British straights. Please pass this on to the academics in your life. But more interesting than that is how the personalities of the contestants transform over the course of the season. Specifically, it’s impossible to ignore the transformative power of security in one’s lovability: When contestants feel content in their relationships, they tend towards generosity and forgiveness. When they don’t, they can be petty and vindictive moral charlatans. This dichotomy isn’t necessarily transparent—it’s one I’ve clocked only through my own subjective interpretation of events. Most often it presents as salacious drama, but once you see the pattern, it’s hard to unsee.

While I regularly slam my head against the wall at the contestant’s inability to navigate mild, fixable conflicts, I’m not above this kind of blindspot. Insecurity of any kind has a way of mutating our perception, leading us to believe others are out to get us when in fact we’re only at war with ourselves. I’ve been thinking a lot about this perceived inadequacy as a kind of bias: one that stirs our inner peace, deludes us, and often leads us to false conclusions. This idea came to the fore for me when I read a column by art critic Dean Kissick that was published last month. Titled “The Downward Spiral: March ‘20 Through August ‘21,” it was a sort of cultural record of what had transpired in New York over the course of the pandemic, concluding like this:

“Those who stayed in the city last year had a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience of stalking fear, collective mania and slow, gentle release, watching the hours come back, and those who fled to the country, many found they loved their rural idylls and didn’t want to return. So many of my friends, particularly those collecting unemployment, had one of the best years of their life, they say. We said it at the time, and miss it now that it’s gone. I know people who had terrible things happen, but they’ll also say it was bliss to leave behind their old lives, and step outside of time, and now we’re returning to normal and that’s a shame; except I don’t think we are, because so much has changed and it’s not coming back.”

Kissick belongs to a particular downtown art crowd, and I’ve historically been a fan of his observational, irreverent tone, but I found myself bristling throughout this piece. I didn’t believe the pandemic social scene he described: one of wild secret parties filled with artists, poets, and drag queens. I dreaded how we described this awful time in such romantic terms, filled with little vignettes he’d collected over several months, presented in such quick succession they seemed to be happening all at once, all around him, as if in the final number of a Broadway play. I rolled my eyes at how he imbued these unethical parties with a streak of subcultural rebellion. And I especially resented how he presented his version of New York as the gravity of the city itself. Who was sacrificed in the making of it?

On my own downward spiral I started thinking of other figures who have narrated New York in a particular way. Did their peers ever get annoyed? This is Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe shot by Norman Seeff in 1969.

I considered mentioning all this on my podcast, which I’d planned to record that night, but found myself thinking in circles, unable to come up with a valid critique of the column that didn’t just make me sound bitter and defensive. Even my attempts at moralizing his exclusionary tone fell flat, because who cared? This was just a column in a small art magazine; it’s supposed to be a little spicy and for a certain set. After a while, I was forced to consider whether the real problem was me: Not only had I not attended any wild secret parties during lockdown, but I hadn’t been invited to any. While he name-checked tons of newsletters that took off during the pandemic as proof of a growing subculture, he didn’t mention mine, which didn’t surprise me so much as remind me that my kind of writing would probably have no place in his conception of what’s interesting right now—it’s not edgy and dead-eyed enough. Finally, not only had I failed to have “one of the best” years of my life, I’d had one of my worst.

Can you see it? My insecurity is leaking out of my very pores.

The truth is Dean Kissick’s column made me feel dour and left out. It seems silly to me now, since I like my New York (even feel protective of it), but for whatever reason I was feeling small and unseen that day, afraid that what I was doing wasn’t good or worth remembering. I’ve long believed that most of us are still tending to our high school wounds, and that day, Kissick pressed his thumb into mine: Everyone’s hanging out without you, he seemed to say, your life and work don’t matter. Insecurity was flooding my system, and I was so eager to stop the flow that I was desperate to discredit him. His writing is dishonest, I reasoned, totally detached from the real New York, which I was apparently more acquainted with. Kissick and his friends are try-hard, I thought, as if I never try. In the end, I was the fraudulent one. No different from a Love Island contestant who insists their unrequited love interest is a bad person instead of admitting they are simply hurt by the rejection.

In her most recent video essay, popular YouTuber Natalie Wynn, a.k.a. ContraPoints, examined the insidious, often invisible, role envy plays in our lives. In her opening gambit she describes the response to Kim Kardashian’s infamous 40th birthday party on a private island, which Kim tweeted about in the middle of a pandemic. Outrage followed, with thousands accusing Kim of being tone-deaf and failing to “read the room.” Wynn says: 

“The response on Twitter resembled moral outrage, but what people were upset about was not that she had a party—I mean, wouldn’t you escape to a private island if you had [the money]? The problem was more that she tweeted about it, and that the tweet was [cringe]. But if having the party wasn’t wrong, then why was tweeting about it wrong? This isn’t a good look. Bad optics. Not relatable. But relatability is not a moral category. This is PR, it’s not ethics. … Isn’t the issue that when Kim tweeted this, most people were trapped in quarantine? We didn’t get to have birthday parties—some people couldn’ t even travel to visit their dying relatives. So watching Kim get to travel and celebrate her birthday like normal was...painful. ‘Pain at the good fortune of others’ is how Aristotle described envy. And I think it’s interesting that whenever social media erupts in outrage over luxury music festivals or Kim Kardashian’s birthday party or Jameela Jamil’s privileged pores, nobody ever uses the word envy. It’s like we’re averting our eyes; avoiding confrontation with this dark aspect of our own psychology.”

Wynn goes on to examine where envy comes from and how it impacts our social fabric and political beliefs, especially as they’re mediated online. Since watching it, I’ve noticed a shift in my own perception: sniffing out envy in myself and others. The other day, when my sister asked me if I liked a podcast run by two New York tastemakers, I started to tell her that I found it vaguely annoying, because nothing they say is particularly interesting or funny. But before I finished, I paused and considered whether in fact I was envious of them—of their lack of shame at putting out a product without overthinking it. The existence of their podcast didn’t actually affect me at all; my issue with it was only that it reminded me of my own self-consciousness.

These examples have so far painted me as a fairly petty person, which is devastating to my self-perception as a fair and compassionate angel 😇, but as Wynn points out, once you start looking for envy, it’s everywhere: in the anger at people who socialize during covid; in the refusal to support student debt cancellation because “I had to pay for school”; on incel message boards about women “hoarding” sexual power; in the way the public turns on celebrities as soon as they get too popular; in the racialized resentment of “welfare queens”; in the moral pile-ons of powerless figures, even if their downfalls solve nothing. “The basic logic of envy is: If I can’t have it, no one can,” says Wynn, “which is a purely negative, destructive style of thinking. It’s taking privileges away not for the material benefit of the underprivileged, but merely for the psychological satisfaction of the envious person. And that’s even worse when you consider that envy is subjective. It doesn’t necessarily target objective power and privilege.”

Of course, sometimes it does. There’s certainly a valid argument to be made that it’s morally reprehensible that some families have the ability to weather the pandemic in luxury on a private island while others are left to die in poverty. The presence of envy doesn’t necessarily negate the soundness of a critique, nor should being in an enviable position make you immune to criticism—but criticism is stronger when it’s not a cover for something else. And envy, meanwhile, is a shitty moral navigator, leading us only to short-term, punitive solutions. There are so many forces conspiring to generate envy in modern society: social media, rampant income inequality, profligate consumerism which begets more consumerism. Envy, in other words, is good for business. Which means we only stand to benefit from better understanding its role in our opinions and behaviors. “You’re just jealous,” is an annoying, thought-terminating cliché, but what it gets right is that envy can serve as a powerful form of bias. We lose something when we deny that.

When my insecurity drove me to critique Kissick’s skill as a writer, I was obscuring my own envy via moral one-upmanship. It’s a tale as old as time: If I could think of a reason Kissick was somehow inferior to me, then maybe I could right the scales and feel more worthy of whatever small space I take up as a writer living in New York. That’s not to say there’s nothing worth unpacking about the prevalence of exclusionary myth-making in New York. The stronger version of that argument, though, is one that takes aim at the power structures that make that possible. Not Kissick himself, whose imagined disdain for me and my writing was actually just me shit-talking myself on a bad day. Maybe an ideal world would allow everyone to have a voice in creating and sharing their version of a place, no matter how romantic. My instinct to position myself in opposition to Kissick specifically, then, was just a form of envy bias.

Being conscious of this may seem small or even trite—like something you’d learn on a yoga retreat repackaged as learning to love yourself—but I’m finding it illuminating as a lens through which to understand modern discourse and my role in it. Sometimes it feels like our culture runs exclusively on schadenfreude. The takedowns are just a little too gleeful to be as moral as they claim; the arguments a shade too fiery to be purely intellectual. Even the fascination with harmless cringe (of which I’m undoubtedly guilty) can register as a kind of envy: at the shamelessness required to post, so inaccessible to those of us pointing and laughing. We avoid admitting our envy as if it’s immoral, but the immorality is in the avoidance itself.

The poetic irony to insecurity is it tends to only harm us more, alienating us further from other people and ourselves. The most precious aspect of Love Island UK (which is no less vampiric than any other surveillance reality show, to be clear), is watching the contestants soften under the spell of camaraderie. They fall in love with each other and also become best friends. They’re forced to hash out conflicts and learn to apologize. The self-delusion resulting from their covert insecurity buckles under the conditions of their strange confinement, and it’s easy to trace the effect this has on their relationships. As they form bonds and grow confident, they become buffered by their solidarity, less likely to blow up over nothing or resort to false moralizing. I’m making this idiotic show sound so much more heartwarming and intelligent than it actually is (Cat, my only friend who watches, is screaming right now), but its appeal remains. Maybe I see a little bit of myself, and all of us, in the way these people fool themselves.

Acknowledging envy doesn’t necessarily solve what’s fundamentally broken about us or our society. I’m not convinced all conflict would be resolved if we just accepted ourselves (although this works remarkably well on a game show). But I do think we’d argue better and waste a lot less time hating each other if we did, and that has to count for something.

  1. “Leon Neyfakh Always Waits Too Long to Eat,” my favorite Grub Street diet I’ve ever read.

  1. The definition of “fecundity,” which means the ability to produce an abundance of offspring or new growth; fertility.

  1. An older man sitting outside a Bedstuy cafe with a kitten, feeding it little bites of his bread, declining a photo when someone asked but offering a fist bump instead.

  1. “Hurricane Ida Makes a Mockery of Big Oil’s Philanthropy,” by Sharon Lerner for The Intercept. Nothing is particularly surprising in this article but it’s a nice summary of how some of the largest contributors to climate change have somehow positioned themselves as environmental saviors. A commentary on the power of PR in the 21st century, and applicable across so many industries.

  1. An inexplicable deep dive into Hellen Keller, including this 1954 video of her talking.

  1. The band Big Red Machine, which is a collaboration between Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dressner of The National that has apparently been a thing since 2018??? Anyway I like their new album. It’s called “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last.” (Peep the song at the top of this email. Of course it features T Swift.)

  1. “The Roys Summer in Italy,” Hunter Harris’s thrilling on-location profile of the cast of Succession for Vulture.

  1. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, one of Richard Pryor’s most famous standup sets, after I read about it in Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings. Some of it has not aged well 😬, but it’s an outrageous piece of cultural ephemera. You can watch it on Netflix.

  1. This pillow by Eli & Elm designed for side sleepers. Not cheap but thus-far excellent.

  1. “A System That Makes Housing a Commodity Can’t Serve Human Needs,” an interview with Dianne Enriquez by Fran Quigley for Jacobin about the ongoing (and accelerating) housing crisis, plus how to help.

“The concept of housing as a mechanism for wealth-building and as a commodity is fundamentally flawed. When we acknowledge and recognize that housing is as essential as oxygen and water for human beings to thrive, we see how terrifying it is that corporate landlords have been able to use housing to extract so much wealth from poor and middle-class communities.”

  1. The totally bonkers (and strangely delightful but also demonic?) trailer for the new A24 movie, Lamb. Excuse me but what the fuck is the movie about!!?

  1. The Wikipedia for the Euthenasia Coaster 😳 and this video simulation of it, care of my brother (obviously).

  1. ”The Ambiguous Loss of (Probably) Not Selling My Novel,” by Danielle Lazarin by Lithub, about the liminal space between grief and hope. 

  1. The phrase “whip cream, nuts, and a cherry?” over and over in my head. This is something I used to have to ask Baskin Robbins customers after they ordered a scoop of ice cream in an attempt to upsell them and it periodically gets stuck in my head 20 years later. Always be closing baby. 

  1. The revelation that removing berries from their store-bought containers and storing them in reusable containers makes them last longer and also makes you feel wildly self-righteous.

Last thing! 3 changes @ Maybe Baby

  1. This will be the last “15 Things” I include with my free newsletter! I’m going to try moving it to Friday afternoons for paying subscribers only. It’s always felt a bit tacked on given the length of my essays and I think it will feel better as an end-of-week snack. Free subscribers: I’ll still include a couple recs on Sundays, you’ll just miss the full list. Paying subscribers: Thank you for funding this newsletter. Without you it wouldn’t exist!

  1. Comments are officially open on all my paid content: my advice column (Dear Baby), my podcasts, and now my 15 Things. I’m still wary of comment sections but the silence has been making me feel a little nuts. I’m excited to read your advice underneath Dear Baby and your consumption recs under my 15 things!

  1. If you’d like to become a paying subscriber, I’ll be running a 20% discount on annual subscriptions for the rest of September (that’s $40 for the year, $3.30/mo). Get it while it’s hot 🔥 Or it’s $5/mo and you can cancel whenever. Reminder that if you’d like access to the paid benefits but can’t afford them, you can get on the waiting list for a comped subscription here. I give out 10 for every 100 paid sign-ups.

    SALE: Become a paying subscriber now!

Thank you so much for reading this far. I hope you have a nice Sunday!

P.s. If you have any money to spare this week, I’ll be donating to Hurricane Ida relief and these Texas abortion funds if you’d like to join. Donating isn’t really a solution obviously but at least it helps people in the short-term.

This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to Center for Popular Democracy, a pro-worker, pro-immigrant advocacy group and network of over 50 community organizations working in low-income communities across the United States. They’re currently focused on the eviction crisis.

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