"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 1 November 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Self Sacrifice



Magazine editors will dog

humankind all the way to our

collective grave without for a

single moment abandoning the

hugely unfortunate premise of

the Themed Issue, a collection

of stories on a particular,

generally too-clever, topic; on

17 October, the folks who run

The New York Times Magazine gave

the hapless world a package of

lamentations on a ghastly new

discovery known by the label,

"The Me Millennium." The idea is

that in the year 1000, the

markers of individual identity

— last names, private

property, Prince Alberts —

were unknown. The issue purports

to track the 10-century rise of

the individual "and concludes

with reflections on how hard it

is, in a time of gathering

global conformity, to find one's

own way."


And there, on page 120, we find

the beginning of a cluster

headache that starts to pound up

at the subhead, before the first

word of the essay itself: "What

it's like being 30-something,

overpaid, and totally

disconnected." (Strangely, the

article turns out not to be

about even a single one of the

disturbing individuals we've

dated.) David Samuels is both

the rat and the researcher in

the magazine's lab, seeking the

pathogenesis of the era's

supposed "Radical Selfishness."

He's a good choice for the

subject, too, since — as he

quickly explains — he

actually has some background

with the thing: "The year I

turned 30, when my interest in

the self began ..." ("Honey, do

you notice anything different

about me, this morning?" "It

looks like you've gone and grown

yourself a self!")


You get a nasty feeling, reading

Samuels' essay, that he was

explicitly commissioned to write

something Important; the deadly

earnestness is spread all the

way to the crust. His first

apartment after college? Hey,

get this: He encountered the

"self" there! And it was a big

fucker: "There was an

overflowing toilet down the

hall. For lunch I ate spaghetti

on a Formica table whose surface

was cross-hatched with the marks

of many aimless generations of

forks and knives. Countless

people had sat here before me

and imagined the moment when

their lives would be filled with

meaning and purpose. When I

looked closer at the table, I

saw tiny flecks of gold." Makes

you wish someone had imagined

the moment when they would fix

the toilet, mostly. (And

"aimless generations of forks"?)



In an anecdote we strongly

suspect was cribbed from a

Levi's commercial, a friend of

the author has a pregnant

encounter with a woman in an



On the evidence of her clothes
alone, she looked like a
composite portrait of a dozen
girls you see every day,
cutting class at NYU or living
postgraduate lives as dancers
or choreographers or painters,
or as the next Tama Janowitz
or Toni Morrison in the East
Village, where a job as a
waitress supplemented by
modest contributions from a
trust fund might buy you a
300-square-foot third-floor
studio walk-up with the
kitchen sink right next to
your bed. On days when the
boyfriend had band practice,
or when the writing or the
dancing or the painting wasn't
going so well, you could see
them gathered together in
girlish knots drinking coffee
from paper cups outside the
Astor Place subway station and
pretending they weren't 25
years old and scared....


Note to David Samuels: You're

the next Tama Janowitz is

generally understood to be a

threat, or at least a grave



But Samuels is after bigger game

than 25-year-old trust fund

recipients struggling —

presumably at tables scarred by

aimless forks — with the

terrible fear of being so old

and not yet a success. At

article's end, he wraps up with

a Scholasticist peroration that

seems intended to bring us right

back to the year 1000: "The self

is the root of selfishness, and

selfishness is what makes us

unhappy. Too much concentration

on ourselves makes us anxious,

because the self cannot support

the weight. That is the

difference between the self and

the soul."


On the way to this realization,

however, Samuels drops big

steaming loads of exactly the

sort of self-involvement and

lost perspective he's trying to

digest: "An actor friend in Los

Angeles," he informs us,

documenting the terrible, empty

selfishness of his generational

peers, "hoped that having a

child would provide a sense of

consistency and purpose to his

life. It was something to do. It

was what all of us were doing,

looking for a way to fill up the

empty spaces at night." Dear god

yes, David — we all see

through the emptiness of these

people who go around wanting to

start families and stuff. What a

self-involved thing to do. This

is what happens when you present

only the top slice of meaning,

flat and cold on the plate.



If we seem to be paying too much

attention to yet another

journalist Golden Boy, it's not

just because David Eggers won't

return our phone calls. Sadly,

we must admit that Samuels is

onto something with his

delineations of selfish

bastardry and its discontents.

Call it Nonidentity Politics.

As the Me Millennium draws to

its slow-moving anticlimax, the

chorus of citizens shouting

"We're all different!" is being

drowned out by the one guy

mumbling "I'm not different."

Ambitious young thinkers

reassert the need for community

over rugged individualism. The

very notion of an individual

self gets worked over in movies like

Face/Off and Being John Malkovich,

while Fight Club takes a swipe

at the material largesse that

allows us to mark our territory.

Underlying the Times Magazine

special issue is a suspicion

that the 1000-year dethroning of

God and king wasn't such a hot

idea: The centerpiece is a

Richard Russo essay speculating

that "there are worse things

than being 'of service,' and

being granted freedom without a

sense of purpose may be one of

them." Luc Sante chimes in

with a paean to pointless

accessorizing titled, "Be

Different! (Like Everyone

Else!)." In a tangential case of

confused identity, Sante's piece

is barely distinguishable from

John Seabrook's recent New

Yorker article on Nobrow Culture

— which in turn ponders the

difficulty of signaling status

when everybody can buy decent-

quality cocktail sets from

Pottery Barn. (With daily trials

like these, it's amazing that

well-heeled Americans somehow

manage to survive.)



Of course, taking a perspective

on a 1,000-year span is

basically a parlor trick. If you

know how to get published in a

slick magazine, you also know

that history began in the '60s,

so it isn't long before the

Magazine turns to that

contemporary touchstone of pity

and horror, Woodstock '99. Here,

in a stunning rebuke to the

original "Arts" festival, we

discover an inland sea of

nonconformist conformity —

"baseball caps worn frontward or

backward, golf hats in various

degrees of floppiness, T-shirts,

shorts, sneakers." If W99's orgy

of rape and arson didn't have

you reaching for the brown acid,

this kind of writing will.


Of course, skylarking about

group identity only works if

you're the only one with access

to your E-Trade account. In

parts of the world where the

decision to have a baby has less

to do with filling a spiritual

gap than with getting another

salary from the Gap factory, the

party animals at this year's

Woodstock seem just about as

obese and superannuated as,

well, the longhairs at the

original Woodstock. Not that

that stops our young writers on

the make from making lengthy

distinctions. Take, for example,

a story in the November issue of

Harper's — a story by a guy

named ... David Samuels.

Wandering the grounds of W99,

Samuels spots the social

contradictions around every

corner — and slings them

around with a gleeful lack of

restraint. Watching Alanis

Morissette on stage, he

discovers the key to her

success; she has, he theorizes,

opened a "common space where the

performer and her audience can

coexist on the same emotional

plane of hunch-shouldered

embarrassment." Then Rage

Against the Machine takes over,

and "The cultural contradictions

involved in playing agitprop to

a $150-a-ticket crowd are

evident from the band's first

song, 'No Shelter,' a Marcusian

anthem and also the band's

contribution to the soundtrack

for the movie Godzilla."


Samuels interviews Woodstock

performers and asks questions

like, "Why is this festival so

awful?" (Performer: "Festivals

always are.") He interviews the

festival's promoters and

organizers, who express a desire

to donate money to socially

responsible movements and

groups, "which in turn

strengthens the Woodstock

brand." And he keeps coming

around to the chasm between the

notions of community peddled

with that Woodstock brand and

the reality of another shitty

rock festival staged in a giant

pit of mud and sewage:


On my way to the backstage
press area the next morning, I
find two young kids sitting
cross-legged in the dirt with
a disposable lighter, burning
sticks of incense and looking
like they have washed up on
the island from Lord of the
The taller one is
Patrick Kraus, fifteen, and
the shorter one is Ben Smith,
thirteen. They are from
Shelter Island, New York, and
they are wearing expensive
sunglasses. Ben Smith's
sunglasses are coolest, they
agree.... They came here with
someone's older sister, as a
reward for getting good grades
last summer.... People on
drugs are scary, they say.
Naked men are scary, too. The
bare-breasted women are okay,
they blushingly admit. They
are well-spoken and obviously
responsible, and so it makes
sense that their parents felt
safe sending them off to a
three-day rock concert with
somebody's sister. One of
their fathers went to
Woodstock in 1969, they say,
and told them how a vendor was
charging too much for hot
dogs, and so the crowd burned
down his stand.


David Samuels sees and

documents the commoditizing of

identity, you notice, and the

whole thing looks strangely like

human life; the currency of

personal and popular culture

locates and demonstrates the

humanity. And in the opposite

corner, ladies and gentlemen

— standing in contrast,

carrying the weight of the

universe — we have the

terribly serious representative

from the land of personal

integrity. Who, you can't help

but notice, just keeps talking

about himself.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers