How long have you been online, and how many accounts do you have? O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, consider Mike Pesca, who once was as liberal and loved as you.
In the first few weeks the cancelations would be constant. Celebrities and politicians and journalists would be lit up by online mobs. Regular Joes and Regular Jos would be swept up too. Apologies asserting that the offender would "do better" and "listen" would be ignored as the DM raiders moved on to their next target, their next scalp.
After a few weeks many of the leaders of this mass canceling event would themselves be canceled as their own emails and Slack channels would be turned inside out for any joke--which would of course be not taken as a joke at all but as a deadly serious (trigger warning, bad word coming) microaggression. The mob leaders would then apologize, assure the mob that they see the harm they caused, that now is a time for them to listen and do better, but the mob would not accept it. They'd make sure those people were fired and deplatformed and then they would move on, over and over, crossing the digital landscape, setting companies and foundations and theater troupes and rock bands and political parties ablaze, and thousands and thousands and thousands of newly unemployed men and women would curse the day they ever dared make a light joke about an ethnic group on a private message board in 2004, back when that was OK and everyone knew they were half-Bulgarian besides so could say that. Like Roko's Basilisk, the tyrannical AI machine which goes back in time to exterminate any person who stood in the way of its development, the mobs would fly through each of our digital histories and purge each and every one of us for wrongthoughts like slut-shaming, dialect appropriation, and microgaslighting.
Within 6 weeks the great mass of humanity would be cancelled and the only ones left standing would be those people, now in their mid-to-late 90s, who could never quite figure out the email their grandsons set up for them. They'd come down from their recliners and tell the rest of us to "knock off all that goofiness!"
At this point, we would reach herd immunity. With every last person with a working smartphone canceled, the virus that has afflicted us since whenever Aol.com started would die off. The Great Password Rapture will then in retrospect be seen as a brief, painful time, but one that purified us and made us all a tad more sympathetic to someone who types out a commonly-held but rarely-expressed opinion.
I have summoned this vision of Apocalypse and Restoration of the Kingdom again today after having read, "Who is the Bad Art Friend," by Robert Kolker in the New York Times. (AKA the Kidney Story or Kidneygate.) The story is a kind of instant "Who Let the Dogs Out?" for the American literary scene. Just as we have argued over that question ever since July 26, 2000, when the Baha Men released their seminal hit of the same name, literary America will likely accuse the two protagonists-- or no, antagonists--Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, of being the real bad art friend until the end of time. Within each person the debate will rage. Maybe it is Dorland, the possible narcissist who gave her kidney away just to lord that fact over other people. Or maybe it is Larson who took that story and assumed the worst of the donor-- not just narcissist but malicious White Savior--and turned her life story into a hit-piece-as-fiction. (Or maybe it is neither. Dorland may be the "kindly" benefactor and Larson may be the fiction writer just doing her job.) Cards on the table: as of this moment, I am team Larson.
That is roughly what the piece is about, one woman seeing her life experience turn into a celebrated story without her consent, but really you gotta read it. Or listen to it, there is an audio version on the webpage. It takes an hour to listen and there is really not a wasted word. It's tediously complicated in a sort of good way, if you are doing busy work at the time like I was, full of back-stabbing and bitterness and even that post-modern moral crusade known as Wokeness poking its head in now and then.
And as you might guess from me dreaming about a Great Cancelation, it includes a bunch of private emails, where a group of friends get together and let the shit-talking rip. At some point in the long, mountain-from-a-mole-hill tale, Larson sues Dorland for defamation and Dorland countersues Larson for copyright violation. And that's when things turn really ugly:
"The litigation crept along quietly until earlier this year," Kolker writes, "when the discovery phase uncorked something unexpected — a trove of documents that seemed to recast the conflict in an entirely new way. There, in black and white, were pages and pages of printed texts and emails between Larson and her writer friends, gossiping about Dorland and deriding everything about her — not just her claim of being appropriated but the way she talked publicly about her kidney donation."
I won't cut 'n' paste the whole dirt beyond the first quote Kolker pulls, by a friend of Larson's and which is also the gist of the whole trove: “I’m now following Dawn Dorland’s kidney posts with creepy fascination." As for Larson, I feel her response is likewise a succinct explanation of her role in the exchange, “Oh, my god. Right? The whole thing — though I try to ignore it — persists in making me uncomfortable. … I just can’t help but think that she is feeding off the whole thing. … Of course, I feel evil saying this and can’t really talk with anyone about it.”
So who is the bad art friend? Let he who has not talked shit in a private email be the first to judge. Let's repeat, or repaste, what Larson says, "I feel evil saying this and can’t really talk with anyone about it." That means two things-- even to her friends she feels remorse for the natural, almost irresitable urge to judge, and that she believes "can't talk with anyone about it."
It's good, though, to have people we can talk to about anything. We need people who, knowing us well, will give us the leeway to risk being blunt without assuming we are cruel. And now, a mini-version of the Password Rapture has happened to Larson in the form of a subpoena from a federal court. Not only Larson but her friends have been exposed.
And exposed as what? As being people? As being the kind who might roll their eyes at something they see posted to Facebook by an old friend or acquaintance?
There have been many smart, sympathetic takes in the wake of the story, and many of them are along the lines of two Tweets I stumbled across by the writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy. She wrote first, "The popular kid and the embittered reject: irritating in different ways," and later, "As has come up elsewhere in the commentary: who amongst us has not been both."
Man, man, Dostoyevsky wrote, one cannot quite live without pity. The line is an epigraph to Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. That novel is about a true Great Password Rapture, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, in which the Soviet state had a kind of master key to all of its people's thoughts. (Back then you did not just get deplatformed. After millions made a 1930s version of a speech about doing better and now being a time for listening, they got a bullet to the back of the head.) Kolker's "Bad Art Friend" is entertaining, but by the end I felt a great deal of pity for all involved. In some way, simply by listening to the story, I felt complicit in a kind of a potential cancelation of Larson for her crime of talking like a person, for joking, riffing, sharing her inner thoughts, and saying the things she cannot talk to anyone about.
While Larson may have meant that she cannot talk about the matter for the time being, until the feud blew over, she may mean it now in a more complete sense-- that she should not talk about such things with anyone, ever, period. She now may be reluctant to put an eye-roll into words lest the inspiration of it one day sue her, try to get her work pulled from the shelves, try to extract money from her all over again, all for just... shooting the shit and then doing the work fiction writers have always done, turning the raw material around them into a new form called fiction.
Darkness at Noon begins, "The cell door slammed behing Rubashov." For a time at least, on social media at least, the cell door has slammed behind Sonya Larson. As of this writing if you go to her Twitter page you will see a padlock icon and the words, "These Tweets are protected."
We all know what that means.