Navigating America's Outrage Culture
Since it is obsessed with unreliability, meta-narratives, and publicity, it is perhaps most appropriate to begin discussing Brett Easton Ellis’ new collection of essays, White, by examining its reception. In this, his first book of non-fiction, Ellis, who authored American Psycho and Less than Zero, describes a culture driven mad by Donald Trump. Ellis is less interested in Trump’s policies or behavior than the outraged obsessed, anti-artistic, speech-chilling reaction to his presidency—an approach that has spurred his critics’ indignation. In his widely read New Yorker piece, “Brett Easton Ellis Thinks You’re Overreacting to Donald Trump”, Isaac Chotiner interrogates Ellis almost exclusively on Trump. The Daily Beast calls Ellis a “MAGA Grifter” who is “trolling Hollywood liberals.” And Bookforum likens Ellis to Patrick Bateman, the murderous protagonist in his American Psycho, because they “both admire Donald Trump.”
Though Trump looms, White is only interested in politics from a cultural vantage point. In episode after episode, Ellis describes conversations with long-time friends that turn into hostile arguments at the very mention of Trump. What, Ellis wonders, motivates this rage even amongst intelligent people? When the New York Times ran a front-page, headline story on Trump’s remark that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly “was bleeding from her eyes” and “her wherever,” Ellis wondered if the mainstream media had lost its sense of proportion, and worse, its ability to put themselves in the shoes of those who supported Trump.
For Ellis, the political arena is really only one manifestation of a more fundamental and personal problem. He begins White by exploring the sense that everyone in the social media era must live a public life disconnected from their authentic self. A successful author in his early twenties, Ellis learned early on that on that his public persona was a media creation beyond his control. More than politics, White is about the challenge of being an imperfect individual in an unforgiving and outrage prone culture. The impossibility of expressing a nuanced opinion about Trump is just the most extreme example of our culture’s refusal to tolerate different perspectives.
While Ellis is sensitive to how the outrage culture distorts public perception, he frequently plays with and ironizes his own public image. Once he became a well-known writer, Ellis had the sense that “there were now two Brets – the private and the public.” And even though these two selves coexist, “One Bret bought into the lie of it all; the other Bret was intensely aware that it was only a lie.” Rather than attempt reconciliation, Ellis engages more deeply with the lie. In an early episode in White, Ellis recalls writing an assignment for Vanity Fair on the hippest places in L.A. Instead, he purposefully extolled “some of the most retrograde, least fashionable venues in greater Los Angeles.” With his attitude of playfulness and self-ironizing, Ellis indicates that he is not interested in establishing a sincere public image. He prefers to play with his public persona—and the media itself.
Despite its confrontation with outrage culture, White fails to transcend the culture it critiques. White often wallows in Ellis’ nihilism, his transient opinions, and the reactions they elicit. Similar to Patrick Bateman, who is disgusted by materialistic culture yet murders his colleague for having a nicer business card than him, Ellis complains about easily triggered “snowflakes” while actively inciting them on Twitter. “Social justice warriors never think like artists,” Ellis writes. “They’re looking only to be offended, not provoked or inspired, and often by nothing at all.” But Ellis’ provocations do not inspire. He is much more effective at taunting social justice warriors than in exemplifying a better discourse. It often seems Ellis has just given up.
This is not to say that White presents no positive vision. For example, Ellis writes about how the film Weekend portrayed gay life in a post-identity politics manner. In the film two gay men meet, “Fuck (explicitly), drink, do drugs, and admit their frustrations about gay life, and this guileless movie appears to have no overt agenda.” Ellis compares this with Moonlight which, “Strikes one at times as the strained progressive attempt of a straight artist to present a particular notion of what it’s like to be gay.” Moonlight comes off as engineered to produce a progressive and moral reaction. But for Ellis, good art should not be committed to any political project that requires minority characters to be painted in a particularly virtuous light. Transcending politicized art requires allowing minority characters to be equally complex and morally dubious as everyone else.
In these brief moments, Ellis touches on something that he seems to value deeply and at least suggests what a world that is not obsessed with politics and homogeneity might look like.