Meghan Daum is used to being controversial. A columnist for the Los Angeles Times for more than a decade, Daum has tackled big culture-war subjects, from the right to die to the commodification of feminism to trigger warnings on campuses. But over the past few years, almost so gradually that you wouldn't notice it, Daum has gone from controversial to problematic.
"I've been saying controversial things since my mid-20s," Daum tells me. "That's how I was able to carve out a career. Back then, that was the whole idea. It's what a public thinker was supposed to do."
That, however, has changed. And while there's still clearly a market for controversial ideas (my own continued employment being proof), the backlash for expressing those ideas has grown by several orders of magnitude. Before the internet, before social media, a column might inspire a few irate letters to the editor. Today, it can mean thousands of comments and tweets, and the rage is more often directed at the author personally than the ideas he or she raises.
It's the age of the ad hominem attack, and Daum has watched as so called "bad opinions" and the people who hold them are mobbed by strangers online. Some of these strangers are probably genuinely aggrieved, and some of them just enjoy the sight of a good bloodbath.
Daum's latest book, The Problem with Everything, is, in part, about watching the culture change around her, something she calls "a moment of profound cognitive dissonance," especially on the political left. Values that were once solidly the purview of the left—the importance of transgressive art and comedy, the need for due process, an almost pathological defense of free speech—have been abandoned by the very people who once defended them and co-opted by the political right. It's a shift that Daum is concerned about, to put it lightly.
"There is no room for nuance right now. Instead, we see a lot of purity-policing and authoritarianism," Daum says. "The similarities between the Christian right and the woke left are pretty striking. Except the Christian right at least has the concept of redemption. The left doesn't have that."
As Daum has become increasingly critical of the creeping authoritarianism on the left, she's earned herself a new label, one even more toxic than "problematic."
"Somewhere along the line, I went from being the predictable liberal, feminist, Gen X columnist to being construed as a centrist or even a conservative," she says. It's not an accurate portrayal of her beliefs—she remains a liberal feminist, and she has never voted for a Republican—so the "conservative" label is one she has little trouble dismissing. "I'm not that," she says, "so it doesn't really matter. If someone accuses you of something, it really only hurts if you suspect deep down that they are right."
The Problem with Everything, which Daum will read from at Elliott Bay Book Company on November 1 (an event I will be moderating), is both personal and universal. It's about herself, but it's also about culture, politics, society, how we live now, and the ever stretching divide between older generations and younger ones. Generational divides are hardly new, but thanks (mostly) to the rise of social media, this divide doesn't just play out at intergenerational Thanksgiving dinners, it plays out all the time, everywhere.
Daum, an old-school essayist more in the vein of Joan Didion and Nora Ephron than xoJane and Jezebel, says she will continue to tease out the nuances that exist all around us, even as doing so becomes increasingly... problematic.