This week a poem was published in the “pages” of the esteemed political magazine The Nation. Written by a highly regarded poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, his poem, a 14 line modern sonnet titled “How-To,” was quickly targeted by the niche group of people on Twitter and Facebook I have come to call the Identity Poets. The accusations came swift and hard against Anders Carlson-Wee and the editors of The Nation, with people demanding apologies and for the poem to be taken down. One poet even wrote a response poem to the piece, posted it on Twitter, and had other poets telling The Nation they should remove Carlson-Wee’s poem and put the response poem up instead, because it blatantly ridiculed white people. The Nation did not take the poem down. What happened instead was Anders Carlson-Wee issued an apology for the poem on his social media accounts, and The Nation issued an apology and posted their apology as an Editor’s Note above the poem in question, neither of which seemed satisfactory to the communities of the outraged.

I’ll freely admit, when I first read “How-To” I was unimpressed with it. It seemed a simple take on a subject I myself have happened to write many poems about, being a poem about homelessness. However, I knew from the opening line that people were going to be outraged over it, given what I have personally endured from my own work, and knowing the climate of the artistic community and the sensitivity toward “cultural appropriation” and other such topics the Identity Poets obsess over in order to draw attention to themselves. As soon as I read that opening line, “If you got hiv, say aids,” I said to myself, whelp, that is going to piss people off. If only I could earn a dollar for every time I correctly predicted outrage on the internet, I could potentially have a fistful of dollars!

In spite of myself, the more threads and discussions I saw about this poem on Twitter and Facebook, the more I began to analyze it, and try to find either the truth behind the accusations being leveled at the poet for writing it, or the truth of the merit of the actual poem. The more closely I read the poem, the more the layers peeled off, and the more meaning I discovered hidden in the misleading simplicity of the work. I was drawn into a debate with another poet on a thread hosted by another writer friend of mine, Robert Peate, in which this poet felt inclined to demand us to try and defend the merits of the poem based solely on the content of the poem. In doing so, I had several epiphanies about this poem, about how it succinctly and very cleverly reveals the faux intellectualism of the identity movement by showcasing their brazen nature to jump to conclusions about the artistic intent of white poets and how these conclusions are based on their own hidden biases and their own actual predispositions to fall prey to the same stereotypes they accuse other people of using. In doing this, in proving the fraud that lies behind the motivations of the identity poets when attacking other writers for perceived slights, micro-aggressions, and other offenses, their true natures are thusly revealed, in that all their outrage, all their virtue-signaling, all their attempts at silencing writers for producing work they perceive to be offensive, is in fact rooted in their own biases, their own versions of racism, and their own desires to see their work succeed, their communities succeed, to shift the attention always from the work at hand to themselves. It is simply put, phony posturing, a fallacy upheld by selfishness. And this poem, this utterly brilliant 14 line poem, proves it once and for all.

There are several things about the poem that work on a basic fundamental level. From the outset, the poem plays with the perception of the reader and immediately has the audience questioning exactly what the heck is being said and why. The opening line is a shock to the system. It is outlandish, and yes, offensive, but offensive with a purpose, as the best versions of shock-value ought to be. This is not shock for the sake of shock. This is shock meant to jar the reader and create a different mentality, to make the reader search deeper, to look inward and ask why. Who is speaking? Why are they speaking this way? What is the purpose? The narrator of the poem never reveals that information. The narrator could be masculine or feminine. The narrator could be black or white or any other variable of physical identities. This narrator reveals only that they are homeless, and through the lines of the poem, offers twists upon perception that play into making them more visible to others, and might earn them some version of charity. This is a shapeless entity in the context of the poem because in the world homeless people are generally the most ignored and invisible group no matter what country you reside in, what city you live in, what sidewalks you walk down on a day-to-day basis. Just yesterday, to illustrate this very fact, I saw a post someone shared in my Facebook timeline that showed people eating at a nice restaurant on the outside patio, enjoying their fancy cuisine and sipping wine from goblets, while two homeless men slept on the sidewalk not twenty feet away from them. This is a daily reality. On an even more personal level, when my wife, her parents, and I went out to eat last week in Portland at an upscale seafood place, a homeless man wandered the sidewalk and up and down the road in front of where we sat waiting for our table, shouting obscenities at an invisible person and trying to fistfight him, swinging his fists at nothing as he screamed incoherently, this shirtless man, so thin all the veins in his abdomen bulged bright blue and his ribs protruded grossly with every gasping breath, and NO ONE SAID A WORD TO HIM. One woman walked over from another restaurant at one point to make sure no one was calling the cops on this obviously mentally ill gentleman, but no one offered to help him or to console him or to look after his needs in any way. On his wrist was a hospital bracelet from where he had recently been discharged. Again, reality. Homelessness is a problem the world ignores. Carlson-Wee’s poem highlights this fact extremely well. The narrator even takes a very pointed stab at Christianity, the religion that prides itself on its supposed humanitarianism, when they say “Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is.” These lines point out the hypocrisy of the Christian religion that claims to love everyone, but notes that Christians only use charity to make themselves feel better, rather than to actually make a difference and a lasting change. A very apt, and a very cutting critique of religion, which pays no taxes in America, but generally doesn’t use their power to solve any problems, just let them exist so they can mete out tiny measures of subsistence to make them feel like they’re helping. The very last line of the poem “You hardly even there.” illustrates the invisibility and the bitter truth the world just continues to turn a blind eye toward. This is a solvable problem if only anyone really cared.

So with this very, unarguably and objectively positive message behind the poem, succinctly and pointedly achieved in the 14 lines of a modern sonnet, the most beloved of poetic forms, one must wonder why all the outrage over it? Aside from the shocking lines in the poem about conflating HIV with AIDS, and the word “crippled,” which earned accusations of ableism and insensitivity to the LGBTQ community (another grossly biased assumption there), the poet was accused of donning literary blackface for the language choices in his vernacular usage, accused by many of co-opting AAVE (commonly known as Ebonics) for the voice of the poem. In this accusation, the accusers are truly showing their own inability to fall prey to cultural stereotyping, as it is only in the mind of the accuser that the speaker of this poem is a person of color. There is nothing whatsoever in the poem to lend credibility to the accusation. The speaker of the poem never reveals their identity, as previously stated, the speaker of the poem can be anyone. The language of the poem is a simplified dialect, perhaps someone hardened by life on the street, someone perhaps less educated than most, or just a person used to speaking in shorthand. Nothing about the language is intrinsically connected to AAVE. So, again, the poet has played with the perception of the reader to reveal the inherent biases of the audience! If you leap to the conclusion that the speaker of this poem is a person of color, what does that say about how you perceive people of color? YOU, the reader, have just unknowingly admitted that YOU BELIEVE THIS IS HOW BLACK PEOPLE TALK. This is a stereotype you allow to exist in your own mind. By accusing the author of using a stereotype that they did not use, you are admitting you hold this stereotype in your own psyche, and it is something you must contend with on your own.

This is ultimately why I believe this poem is perhaps one of the most important poems to have been written in the last ten years. It reveals so much about humanity, says so much about human perception, and ultimately pulls the curtain back on identity politics. In causing so many people to leap to such vile conclusions about the nature of the work and the intent of the work, to cause them to lash out at the author, to cause them to demand the work be removed and the author and the editors to make apologies for things they did not do, the outraged audience in this case is shown to lack an ability to think critically about art, to look past their own biases and knee-jerk reactions, and their accusations reveal more about their character than that of the character of the person they are attacking. This is the ultimate example of art being used as a mirror. The accusations came against this poem because the writer happens to be a white male. The current trend in these circles of outrage is to attack, silence, and delegitimize the works of white male authors who dare to write things outside their own identities. But, Carlson-Wee, in his ability to shine his poetic mirror back at the audience, has proven very effectively, that these accusations are coming from a place of inauthenticity. In this case, the accusers are showing their own inherent racial bias, in fact their own guilt of holding racist presuppositions, because in accusing this author of racism, they are the ones being racist. Their racism comes in two forms, first making the assumption that the speaker of the poem must be black, and second, that Carlson-Wee is wrong for writing it because he is white. How beautiful is this twist of irony?

I firmly believe that this was all intended to happen. That the author and the editors knew this outrage scenario would play out just as it has and they would issue apologies knowing those apologies would not be acceptable to the mob. The final act of this should be when Carlson-Wee issues an artist statement explaining everything as I have outlined in this essay, and drives the final nail in the coffin of this phony identity movement in modern poetry. This has gone on long enough. No one has the authority to police others as to what content their art can contain. No one has the authority to demand art be removed from the public because it happens to encroach upon their own sensitivities. No one has the authority to demand apologies from other artists, and artists should never have to apologize for their work. Art is in itself one of the purest manifestations of freedom. And art criticism should have never started meaning artists have to accept censorship by mob rule. The way this has played out shows just how vapid and meaningless the concept of critique has become. There was no real attempt at critique of this poem! It was simply shouted down from the pulpits of self-righteousness by people hoping to earn pats on the back from their conformist peers. This has to be why The Nation, although issuing their seemingly spineless apology as an editor note, did not actually take down the poem in question. They know this is all a performance piece still in action. When it is all said and done, many people will have to eat a large plate of crow and be forced to admit some hard truths about themselves. And for that I say thank you, thank you Anders Carlson-Wee, for writing a brave poem, for being a true poet, and for shining a hard light into the darkness that has become the identity movement in modern poetics. It had to be done by someone, and it is better now than never.

Some thoughts on Identity

The Rise of Identity and the Downfall of Free Thought

There is a culture war being fought right now in America and across the globe that remains mostly hidden because it is happening primarily online, but it has found a pervasive presence in politics and in the poetry community. I am speaking about the war of identity.

In my mind, the identity war built itself on the roots of social media and how this form of online networking worked its way into a staple of average everyday life. Social media has become such a presence in popular culture at this point it seems impossible to imagine life without it. What began as a novel way to connect with people all over the world who shared common interests and to keep in touch with friends and family who live miles to states to countries away, became a way to build networks of entrepreneurship, became a way to broadcast daily lives and build what we perceive as individual audiences we try to hold enraptured by our own personal brand. The larger the number of “friends, followers, subscribers” the larger the perceived audience, and I believe this is what has driven people to feel like their purpose in life is to share opinions on every subject imaginable, no matter the level of education on any given subject, and to develop the perception that every opinion about such subjects holds some kind of relevance to larger society. This has in the end only served to create divides among people and to create bubbles of self-confirmation, and has driven people to seek out new ways to differentiate themselves from the crowd. In effect, I believe our brains are being rewired in a such a way that the dopamine addiction one develops using social media becomes intrinsically connected to attention-seeking behavior.

When a person is seeking ways to get the most attention possible for themselves, of course they will seek to replicate whatever method they have seen work for someone else. It’s a basic concept that happens over and over again in every field imaginable, because the end goal of the individual is achieved perception of personal success and of course monetary gain in a capitalist society. This is why in entertainment industries, if one thing becomes insanely popular, all competitors will try to mimic the concept that achieved the popularity and the original creator will try to duplicate the previous success as well, until the market becomes over-saturated and eventually the public loses interest or a backlash happens. Companies and people see something that works, and they flood the market with what works until it doesn’t work any more. Basic supply and demand stuff. To take this a step further, once the market becomes over-saturated and creators are forced to pull back or find something else that works, if they successfully integrated a large enough supply into the public for a product, eventually what will happen is they can bring that back again several years later for a resurgence of interest due to nostalgia. It becomes a cycle that they can manipulate for a stream of perpetual revenue. This is why film companies build movie franchises, and why music companies build catalogues of similar sounding musicians, and why art goes through community movements, and publishing companies produce swaths of books in the same genres, etc. It’s no coincidence that so many bands came out in recent years trying to sound like Nirvana and then later Nickelback, that so many rap artists have their sounds distilled from the successes of Dre and Tupac, that movie studios today have their entire infrastructure bases around Star Wars and Marvel films. The companies are pushing what works until they reach the backlash stage.

How does this relate to identity? Well, in the age of social media, the individual comes to view themselves as the product that is for sale. And in many ways, that is what the CEOs of companies like Facebook and Twitter are counting on, because to them, yes, you are for sale. You are what generates their income. Some might even say, the users of social media act as free labor for these companies, and have been successfully duped into being voluntary slaves. Everyone willingly participates, or maybe at this point not even willingly, because society is so entangled with social media to try and extricate ones self from this web of voluntary publicity is to become an outcast, a perceived luddite, someone who is “not connected.” The public has sacrificed any illusion of personal privacy for their shot at becoming the next viral hit that gets millions of clicks and earns them a brief or maybe somewhat sustainable moment of celebrity status, depending on how inventive the person at the helm of the viral success can be. How this relates to identity involves an extremely complex narrative build-up of events over time that cannot be seemingly dialed down to one root-cause. It comes from a casual evolution of thought, through repetitive positive reinforcement of what generates the most response from a stimulus. Throughout the brief but total dependency social media has manufactured for itself in its short history, humans are being taught, and teaching themselves that their singular identity matters more than the collective identity of humanity. This manipulation of thought was deceptively easy to conjure in humans, because humans apparently have primitive and innate narcissistic cores in their thought processes. The more positive attention one gets from a stimulus, the more they desire to seek out that stimulus, resulting in a feedback loop, resulting in an addiction to chemicals produced in the brain from that feedback loop, an addiction that becomes harder and harder to break free from. More and more time gets devoted to seeking out the positive reinforcement, and the brain gets hardwired to need that reinforcement, otherwise, like any addiction, it creates an incessant and overpowering urge to come back to it. It’s like any drug really that causes chemical dependency in that sense. What happens next is the brain ceases to be able to function in a normal capacity without the chemical it constantly needs. Critical thought becomes more difficult to manage. Concentration starts to suffer and attention span gets shorter and shorter. In effect, the brain is damaged, unable to do its job at its previous levels of quality, because the neurons have all been recoded and redirected for a streamlined path of pleasurable interactions. We become, basically, hamsters in wheels being fed dope directly to our brains every time we press a button. And we are happy in this version of hell.

Again I went on a tangent, but bringing it back to identity, somewhere along the line, in the public fervor to find more inventive ways to create more unique personal brands in which to create the most attention possible for the self, there has developed a trend to define the self in more constantly varying levels of degree from the previous standards, and then to make everything about the self defined in that perceived value of uniqueness. In order to differentiate one’s self from the massive and mostly homogenous population, the self seeks to find an identity from which it can feel more powerful, more singular in existence, more of a diamond in the rough, from which more attention will become focused from the crowd onto the shiny object refracting light in the dark sea of sameness. Much like companies and organizations mimic and attempt to duplicate the successes of other products, in social media where the person sees themselves as the product, the person tries to mimic the successes of what has worked for others. So, it’s easy to deduce that persons have learned through experience that altering aspects of the individual identity create more attention for that identity, be it through sympathy, or through creating perception of difference, or through genuine achievement, which is the hardest of all to actually duplicate, and thus people will naturally congregate around the easiest tactics to replicate success, while also trying to gain a genuine achievement for themselves at the same time.

What becomes divisive in this quest to build up the personal identity, is that in order to sustain and drive the success of this identity, you have to do two things: you have to create the perception that everything about the self revolves around this created identity, and second, you have to push back against things or ideas that work against this perception, which requires pushing back against everything that is not this version of identity, because identities unlike the identity you create for yourself must be enemies of that identity. This is a reinforcement of primitive tribalism. The groups trying to replicate success of other identities form tribes against the previously held notions of standard identities. This goes on until the new versions become accepted as standards, forcing deviations from the standard to foster a furthered need for separation of the self from the growing crowd of people taking on the versions created before. Take the way fashion trends work. A person finds a way to change their outward appearance, perhaps they decide to wear a shirt with one sleeve when most people are wearing shirts with two sleeves. There’s the initial response of wow, that is different, but some people see it and find the value in it, and so they start wearing shirts with one sleeve. Then, before you know it, most people are wearing shirts with one sleeve, and so the person who started the trend doesn’t stand out any more, and then they find another way to do that, or they disappear into obscurity. The difference on social media and the internet is everything is based on perception of reality rather than physical reality, and so a person can create whatever identity they wish, meaning the limits of what can be changed about the self lie strictly in the realms of imagination. Everything online is simply a sharing of information, and we have seen that information can readily be altered and manipulated to the needs of whoever does the sharing. Boiled down to basics, the internet is an illusion, a shared mass delusion when the information being shared is completely dependent upon perception, and if misinformation is shared widely enough and accepted enough, it can become a perception of the truth, in such a way that the internet has become the ultimate medium of propaganda and allowed for the greatest deception of the public in human history.

These battles of identity have manifested themselves in varying forms, most prominently in politics, with larger and larger degrees of the public aligning themselves in either liberal or conservative camps, and a very complicated fracturing of these camps into more and more fanatical subsets, each fighting over the most preferable version of the truth to their own perception of their identity. This becomes more and more volatile and divisive when factoring in elements of self-affirmation about deeply held concepts of religious belief, race and gender, proliferation of misinformation, and a disconnect from perception with reality, allowing things to happen in the actual world that under normal circumstance would never get off the ground. It is this disconnect with reality that has brought us the Trump presidency and gravely endangered democracy in America because of how far the public is willing to go to push back against perceived threats to their identities. A combination of cognitive dissonance and allowance of confirmation bias through living reality in an information bubble has caused mass-delusion in avoidance of factual information for the couch-comforts of being told what one wants to hear that reinforces preconceived notions and protects the self. In the age of social media, the self has risen to purest manifestation of ego, and proven that humanity loses appreciation for the bigger picture the more the self is nurtured and convinced of its own assured success.

This battle has also reached its fever pitch in the land of independent publishing, and the poetry scene, which is just a symptom of the entire cultural obsession social media has helped produce in mainstream society. The cultivated importance of identity has generated such a tipped scale of relevance to the identity of the writer rather than the content produced, that if one wishes to achieve any sort of wider audience, they have to conform to this notion or be ignored. The groups of identity-centered writers ruthlessly self-promote and self-congratulate those who appeal to this self-aggrandized cult of individuality that is merely conformist thought-policing in disguise. In order to be a member of the club now, you have to identify in some fashion as marginal or have been victimized by the status quo, which is to say, not be a cishet white male. Any casual glance through the popular ranks of current poetry writers and the glut of online independent magazines and journals and prizes reveals that this trend has taken a firm hold on this artistic community. It’s such a widespread phenomenon it is almost impossible to break it down and understand the how and why it has worked itself into the fabric of the arts. From what I have observed personally, the trend established itself through simply an incessant wave of outrage and outright attacks on anyone daring to try and ignore the identity movement. Writers have been attacked and shamed, editors have been attacked and shamed, accused of things ranging from being as tepid as socially awkward, sexually inappropriate (by as little as commenting on a person’s appearance to more serious accusations), cultural appropriation, racism, etc, and these accusations result in instant assumptions of guilt and excommunication, to the point that any writer found to have violated the unwritten rules of the identity movement has had their works scrubbed from online publication and their names routinely blacklisted from future publishing. This is because of one of the main precepts of the identity movement, which is to protect itself at all cost. To protect the notion of identity, any challenges to identity have to be destroyed. In the land of social media, this destruction is applied unapologetically through the means of public shaming, and results in an environment of conformity to ideals out of fear of being the next target, because there is no court of appeals on public opinion or groupthink.

In large, this movement has only taken hold over the past decade. And it will ultimately be unsustainable, due to the transient nature of internet culture and the fickle human attention span coupled with the exhausting struggle of keeping up a facade. An illusion that requires pretense to maintain cannot be maintained on a permanent scale without succumbing to its own inherent weaknesses and fallacies. Application of the ideals of the identity movement will prove themselves irrational in their own biases and self-serving interests in who they choose to praise or ignore, who they choose to shame or applaud, who they choose to critique or award, even when faced with similar scenarios of circumstance. The only thing a rational person can do is choose to wait, to let this movement burn itself out, even as it tries to burn everything else down around it. These outrages flare like candle flames and flicker out, forgotten and easily replaced by the next candle being lit, something political strategists now use so well to serve their interests they practically play the public like a well-tuned piano. In the grand scheme of human history this will be but a small footnote, a brief blip of conflict during which humanity tried erroneously yet again to redefine itself and failed to be capable of elevating beyond its physical form, bound wholly by the gravity of the real world, where these things invented on the internet are merely just a grand illusion of self-nurturing falsehoods. The internet had such potential to bring the world together under a common umbrella of the shared wealth of knowledge, but perhaps we were better off without it. Perhaps this hell by means of good intentions revealed the tragic flaw of the human condition, that we are individually ourselves but candle flames hoping to burn the brightest in a world made from straw.