Don’t Be Fooled, Nerds Are Evil, and Other News


On the Shelf

From Revenge of the Nerds.

  • In the black art of recent years, Thomas Chatterton Williams sees parables of wokeness: a worldview that sees historical black suffering stretching backward and forward through the generations, marked by fatalism and deeply skeptical of any notion of progress. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which won the National Book Award last night, represents his first woke novel, Williams writes, and that makes it a radical departure from Whitehead’s previous work, arguably not for the better: “It’s difficult to accept that Whitehead really did squeeze himself into the artistic confines of wokeness. I would prefer to believe that the story he has given us operates on at least two levels, the second of which many of his new admirers may not immediately notice. I would like to think that he recognizes the patterns we are in thrall to, the ways we have come to rely on concepts such as the legacy of American slavery not as historical fact or even societal debt but as parable, as a teachable moment that can’t be—and never should be—conclusively apprehended. It’s a lesson that gains meaning not in the teaching but in the reteaching. It is here, in the realm of the parable, that most black art right now is being made … But the question remains whether parables of wokeness are the most effective tools for the task. Can you really extinguish a fire with more flames? Can you ever hope to disrupt a cycle of inequality by insisting ever more adamantly that it has and will always exist? At their best, artists like Whitehead show us another possibility.”
  • Remember nerds—the nerds in high school movies? They seem so quaint now, don’t they, always getting shoved into lockers for their squirmy, pale, quietly noble nerd ways. Today’s “nerds,” by contrast, are busy spewing hate online and constructing a massive white-nationalist machine. It makes you wonder, as Willie Osterweil writes, what the notion of “nerdiness” was really obfuscating all along: “The nerd appeared in pop culture in the form of a smart but awkward, always well-meaning white boy irrationally persecuted by his implacable jock antagonists in order to subsume and mystify true social conflict—the ones around race, gender, class, and sexuality that shook the country in the 1960s and ’70s—into a spectacle of white male suffering. This was an effective strategy to sell tickets to white-flight middle-class suburbanites, as it described and mirrored their mostly white communities. With the hollowing out of urban centers, and the drastic poverty in nonwhite communities of the ’80s and ’90s, these suburban whites were virtually the only consumers with enough consistent spending money to garner Hollywood attention.” 

  • Speaking to Rachel Syme, Robert Caro hopes that his political biographies provide useful knowledge on the workings of power: “There is no question in my mind that young people now are much more sophisticated about power … They know more about political power. And they should, because as I said at the beginning, political power affects their lives. It affects your life every day, in the quality of your subway ride, in the cleanliness of your streets, in the access you have to parks. That’s political power. People may not think of it as political power, they may think of it only when a snowstorm comes. But it is there in every aspect of their life. So if there is one thing I feel: It’s worth doing these books, because in a democracy, a lot of power comes from people and the votes they cast.”
  • David Ulin on the face fascism will wear in the U.S.: “If fascism or autocracy takes root here—and the seeds have already been planted, let’s not delude ourselves—it will be a kinder, gentler fascism, couched in the rhetoric of the American experiment. Normalized. That’s the America Philip Roth describes in The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election and brings fascism to the United States. Roth’s country is one in which the World Series is still played in October, and kids sit in the kitchen with their mothers, talking about what they did at school.”