I’ve spent part of the week at a retreat with my brilliant coworkers at AlterNet, trying to put our fingers on the pulse of the political and cultural “zeitgeist.” And while we brainstormed a lot, and the ideas we came up were incisive, they were hardly sunshine and roses. These are dispiriting days, indeed, in which “the best lack all conviction;/while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats sure knew a thing about Democrats and the Tea Party, huh?)
One concept we bandied about a lot which is a personal hobbyhorse of mine is how individual narcissism, how Americans’ tendency towards making themselves into islands instead of seeing themselves as part of a collective, has contributed towards our current gloom and doom environment. It’s evident most especially in abortion and contraception politics (I needed my abortion, but she’s just a slut) but also in economic ones. We attach shame and stigma to failure or foreclosure or layoff and immediately try to distance ourselves from those who have been hurt, instead of seeing them as an extension of us, instead of saying “there but for the grace…”
The fact that I can attribute at least some of our political mess to ego and hubris and ignorance and personal corruption, of course, explains my lasting love for fiction with political undertones. I’ve just started watching the Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” which he wrote in horror when returning from abroad and discovering the decadent, dissolute, corruption of the gentry and the stultifying environment of his native country. Sound familiar?
I love the idea of these big 19th century novels which try to, themselves, do what we attempted at our retreat: nail down the zeitgeist through the use of fictional characters, which in Trollope’s case included layabout caddish types, unscrupulous newspapermen, and of course grossly stereotyped conniving bankers (yes, dude was a major anti-Semite). Still, what an accomplishment. And isn’t it the mark of a successful artistic endeavor that I’m now delving into these socially-conscious works of yore as both an escape from, and a means of reflecting on, our current catastrophe?
Here’s Jonathan Franzen’s Water Berglund being irritatingly didactic, but somewhat insightful, on the Way We Live Now.
“It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.”
Googling oneself is sort of like obsessively scrutinizing one’s reflection in the mirror, but worse. Having just written an article about radical women who are sick to death of the body image blues, I took their message to heart and decided to address my love-hate relationship with my Google profile.
I had never had a huge self-Googling problem. After I happily first set up a website to catch all queries for my name, I was confident that people were seeing what I wanted them to when they sought me out. But then this past fall I wrote this article which took a slightly heated tone about Americans being moronic pawns of a nefarious right-wing media which takes cruel advantage of their fallibility. It “went viral.”
Cool, most definitely. But I was a woman, writing something controversial on the internet. And so the anti-Semitic, misogynist and nasty responses trickled in at a steady rate, and apparently with good SEO skills—they put my name right in the subject line (you see what I did up there? Yeah, take that, trolls), and in all the tags, and so on. And voila! They replaced my hard-won labors on my own website at the top of Google searches (and remain close to the top on all the other search engines).
So now, every so often, I sneak back to that tantalizing white homepage with the bar in the center and type in my name to find out if folks who seek me out will see all this stuff before they see “my side of the story.” Silly, but given the tenor of the attacks I got, hurtful to see those attacks still there.
It’s ironic, in a life imitating art kind of way, because in a piece of fiction I was working on long before this happened, my character was slammed by far worse attacks from fictional right-wing bloggers and the poor thing fled all the way to France because of it. I’m still here and happy, but sometimes I dream about rewriting my online presence to erase all the scars of ideological internet warfare.
It would consist only of this innocent-looking picture from my wedding:
…and a biography about how Sarah Seltzer loves fairies, France, 19th century novels and of course would note that I recycle and am trying to eat vegetarian and visit my grandma (who’s turning 96 today) more frequently and am always kind to puppies and infants.
But of course, we can’t erase the imprint we leave on the world, or the web. My righteous anger at injustice and my sharp tongue are a huge part of me, so I have to let it be a major part of my google profile—just as we women should allow our blemishes and wrinkles to be a proud part of our faces.
On good days, I wear the attacks like a badge of pride (all publicity is good publicity) and fight back with spirit and irony intact.