Dear Slate Plus readers,
Slate has a reputation for being “contrarian” or “counterintuitive,” but when I look at our vibrant, polyphonic magazine, the adjective that comes to my mind is challenging. As a writer here, I am most attracted to pieces and projects that complicate my own gut reactions and strain my areas of expertise—articles that, when I start them, I am not entirely sure how (or if) they’ll turn out. And as an editor, I’m drawn to writers proposing arguments that expand my thinking in new directions, especially those that directly confront positions I may have taken in the past. (Pro tip: If you want to engage in a battle of ideas with me, don’t waste words on Twitter … send a pitch instead!)
Since you guys are all Slate superfans, I expect you share my appreciation for a challenging bit of prose—which is why I’ve chosen to organize this compendium of the week’s happenings around that theme. These are the Slate pieces from the past week that gave me pause, whether out of writerly admiration or intellectual indigestion.
Currently, my main role at Slate is to be, along with the always natty June Thomas, a shepherd of Outward, our LGBTQ section. (We will be celebrating its first birthday next month!) I like to think we publish challenging stuff constantly on the blog, but this week included some particularly notable provocations. Reaching back a little to the Fourth of July holiday, I found Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart’s introduction to “B Siders”—out gay people who remain celibate due to their Christian faith—to be troubling in the best way. Despite her own discomfort with the Side B lifestyle, Urquhart suggests that these people are deserving of inclusion under the LGBTQ banner—and while I share many of her qualms (without gay sex or gay culture, what does being “out” even mean?), I’m not sure we can dismiss the queerly pious out of hand.
Moving forward in the week, the crackerjack Mark Joseph Stern asked us to consider why gay rights are faring better than women’s reproductive rights in this country; it was a comparison I hadn’t thought to make, and Stern’s identification of a rhetoric of dignity vs. one of sexual freedom was compelling. Similarly challenging—at least to one person—was Nathaniel Frank’s excoriation of disgraced “researcher” Mark Regnerus, who was really asking for it by offering up, yet again, his discredited views on gay families. And finally, in her first piece for Outward, Parker Marie Molloy challenged all of us to stop demanding that transgender people educate the cisgender public on issues that pertain to trans lives. I, along with figures like Andrew Sullivan, have suggested that a willingness to educate is necessary in the past, but Molloy’s piece convinced me that expecting such tutelage is a kind of laziness at best.
Challenges were to be found elsewhere in the magazine, of course. On Sunday, education writer Rebecca Schuman called out the phenomenon of professors dating graduate students—a type of relationship we often treat with a wink—for the exercise in departmental and career sabotage it so often represents. Over on Behold, photographer Susana Raab documented America’s fast-food culture in chilling detail: Her image of three men competing in a Colonel Sanders look-alike contest reminded me of the little-seen film Branded, which, though kind of terrible as a narrative, nevertheless showed the grotesque ways in which brands can attach themselves to our brains. Lastly, Katie Roiphe, one of my favorite polemicists working, offered up a startlingly incisive thought experiment exploring what the reaction might be if Karl Ove Knausgaard’s domestic meditation My Struggle, currently the darling of the Paris Review set, had been written by a woman. After all, Mrs. Dalloway bought the flowers herself decades ago—why should we be so impressed that a man has decided to do it now?
On the lighter side of things, Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens challenges us, along with director Richard Linklater, to rethink cinema’s relationship with temporality in her beautiful review of the new film Boyhood. Similarly, Moneybox columnist Jordan Weissmann invites us to question the Internet’s relationship with fundraising and irony in his coverage of the $40,000 (and rising) potato salad Kickstarter, and Gentleman Scholar Troy Patterson tests my patience by not recognizing the inherent relationship between undershirts and tackiness. Speaking of patience-testing, culture intern Eliza Berman’s investigation of why the lyrics of so many hit pop songs fail under grammatical scrutiny—turns out it’s a Swede’s fault—is well worth your time, assuming you can deal with syntactical atrocities.
I think that’s enough challenges for one day (written ones anyway: I still have to deal with the challenge of my lovely colleagues screaming like banshees at the television whenever someone kicks a ball toward a receptacle … though I hear that will all be over soon?). Have a fine weekend, and be sure to come back to Slate next week for all manner of provocations, instigations, and even castigations—we’ll be more than happy to provide.