Last Look at the Lilacs

Beauty is Truth, Truth, Beauty. Or, Why I'm Quitting Substack

Note: I mention acts of suicide in this article, including those of trans people. I also discuss harassment and abuse of our trans brothers and sisters.

It had been about a year since my last trip to a botanical garden, on the last day or so when it would have even been possible. In under the wire, right before Covid blew the gates shut, the first cherry trees I saw in bloom there had even greater resonance than usual. It has haunted those Japanese hermit poets for centuries now, the impermanence of those pink blossoms, stoking the souls of crazy Zen searchers like Basho and Ryokan and Shiki, the baseball-playing haikuist. The beauty of those pink and orange and plum-colored flowers, blossoming on the fruit trees each Spring, were not merely enchanting, though. As their petals wilted and fell, in delicate piles on a forest floor, or as single pistils, floating down and carried away on water, they were bittersweet proof that all things must pass. Change is constant; it cannot be stopped.

Writing has been one of the most important ways in which I have marked change in my life, a practice in which I have found deep fulfillment as a worker among workers and writer among writers. But recent developments have compelled me to try to offer some explicit comment on what’s happening on this platform, Substack. Fed and reinforced by cowards who style themselves as writers, and abetted by opportunistic greedheads eager to monetize bigotry, a malignant force has found a foothold here.

I am of course referring to transphobia, spewed on this platform by hatemongers, with no moderation coming from our hosts. There is only ever one outcome to this kind of behavior: a rising tide of hatred, discrimination, and violence. For reasons I’ll get to a bit later, I am pulling up stakes here; I’m finished with Substack, and sickened, too. I am moving my newsletter to Ghost, an open-source newsletter and hosting service with a nifty non-profit structure. If you have an existing subscription, or are simply signed up for emails for free, don’t worry; the migration process should be painless, with no change at all to how or when you pay or receive emails, and should be complete at the start of next week.

The fact is, I don’t want a single dollar—a single penny—of the money you subscribers pay to in any way benefit some of the most destructive and hateful people in America. And as your support constantly humbles me, I feel I owe some humble explanation as to how we got here.

The impermanence of all things—embodied in the concept of mono no aware, that wistful recognition that nothing lasts forever—was not cause for pure melancholy for those Zen priests of the past. Indeed, it is the awareness that cherry blossoms only last a short time which lends them their emotive power. Matsuo Basho, the most famous Zen poet, found great satisfaction spending his life on a constant journey, wandering Japan to return only to a simple hut. For poets like Basho, the small phenomenon of Spring encompassed the vast mystery of life—a finite experience, expended with the awareness it will someday end:

How many, many things

They call to mind

These cherry-blossoms!

The master of understatement, Basho’s simple haiku belies the profundity of those spring flowers. In the words of another mystical poet—almost a brother to Basho, separated though they were by many miles and centuries—William Blake wrote:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour…”

When we’re contemplating Blake’s grain of sand, or gazing upon Basho’s cherry blossoms, or biting into Marcel Proust’s madeleine, the torrent of memory rushing forth, we are experiencing a gift of art. Time and place have collapsed; what we are experiencing has no beginning and no end. If this sounds nuts, go see the magnificent Van Gogh collection housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a lifetime of seeing these paintings on TV and in textbooks, you stand in front of Bedroom in Arles and the blueness of those walls, undiminished for over 130 years, emanates from the canvas like moonlight off water. Gaze into The Drinkers, and feel greenness—of moss, liquor bottles, dirty fingernails, sod, teeth—waft off the wall and into your nostrils. Stare at Van Gogh himself, in his Self-Portrait, and you are encountering the man as if he walked into the room. Bound only by a surprisingly small frame, Van Gogh stands before you: eyes, face, beard, red, blazing with life.

One of my heroes, the author Steven Pressfield, believes that when artists create in this manner, they slip loose of the physical world. The ascend to an upper level of the universe, then back again. “They perform this simple but miraculous act a thousand, ten thousand times a day,” writes Pressfield. “They enter the Second World and come back to the First with something that had never existed in the First World before.”

It’s that powerful. The possibilities are that potentially explosive when you and I follow that muse, which is what we should feel ordained to pursue. When we rise to meet our destinies in this manner, we are being true not only to ourselves; we are unfolding our petals as part of a vast cosmic dance, one budding flower on one branch of one tree in a grove of them. Fitting ourselves into the grand process of life, rather than trying to wrestle control over infinity, we follow the seasons. We travel with the sun. We live an authentic life.

Americans have a strange idea of freedom, and its an almost entirely toxic one. Freedom is accumulation, being able to buy anything—a 4K television, a Big Mac hand-delivered to your door, an arsenal of military-grade weaponry—with the implicit hope it will make you happier. Diagnosing consumerism as a major issue here is hardly novel, but less acknowledged are other, trickier ways our bottomless appetite robs us of freedom.

Take a lesson I learned that at my first minimum wage job. A salaried assistant manager at a retail store, forced to do overtime for no extra pay, doesn’t just have money stolen from them. They have the freedom of those hours stolen, too. They’re exhausted when they are finally free, thus corroding whatever time wasn’t gobbled up by work, too. All the possibilities available to them are gradually pruned, with no recognition the theft is even occurring. And over the course of decades spent under such conditions—which is to say, over the course of an average American adulthood—it adds up to an entire unlived existence. A shadow life.

Pursuing that unlived life—the one we know we’re meant to be living—is no small task. Inertia is comfortable; the familiar may not be great, but it has its own gravitational pull. But the persistent, nagging voice inside of each of us, telling us what we actually need to be doing, performs an awesome service. If we’re lucky, it doesn’t let us accept an unacceptable state of affairs.

Take this stirring declaration of independence from such anomie, penned by a Los Angeles Times sportswriter in a remarkable 2007 column:

“Today I leave for a few weeks’ vacation, and when I return, I will come back in yet another incarnation.

As Christine.

I am a transsexual sportswriter. It has taken more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy for me to work up the courage to type those words. I realize many readers and colleagues and friends will be shocked to read them…As extensive therapy and testing have confirmed, my brain was wired female.

A transgender friend provided the best and simplest explanation I have heard: We are born with this, we fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins.

I gave it as good a fight as I possibly could. I went more than 40 hard rounds with it. Eventually, though, you realize you are only fighting yourself and your happiness and your mental health — a no-win situation any way you look at it.”

Christine Daniels inspired many other people, cis and trans, with her courage and vulnerability, making a lasting impact on others. But this generosity was not always reciprocated by the rest of the world. A wrenching 2010 LA Times article recounts the struggles she faced after her 2007 column, and the cruelty of many of those encountering her as she attempted to blaze a new path. In 2009, she died from suicide.

I wish this was an isolated incident. But studies have shown staggering rates of attempted suicide among trans youth, while 2020 marked a record year for violence against trans people. What seems clear is that the world we all make together is not a welcoming enough place yet. Yesterday was the International Transgender Day of Visibility, and it made me think a bit about the past. Over a decade ago now, in my early days of writing—when I was earning no money, writing late at night on an old card table in a spare bedroom—I noticed that some of most enthusiastic readers were transgender.

I am no expert on the challenges and possibilities which animate the lives of our trans brothers and sisters, and certainly knew less then. But these readers loved me—or at least something I produced—before I loved myself or anything I produced. It’s pretty simple, fundamental stuff. It was an affirmation of my worth and humanity, in need of no greater explication. In the same way I was becoming the truest, most fulfilled version of myself, in transitioning, my transgender brothers and sisters were doing the same.

Doesn’t everybody deserve that chance?

Don’t trans people deserve that passage into the person they long to be?

No, is the answer of some. Which brings us to the hatemongers.

Devoted as they are to making a special project of trans people as some sort of eternal threat, I don’t really want to call these prevaricators “writers.” To my mind, they’re not, really. Not any more than a junkyard dog writes when he’s biting into your leg. If drooling for hours and hours out of the same side of your mouth was a craft, the spittle a constantly salable good for an army of sycophants, that would render more accurately what it is they do, and the valuable service it is they provide.

See, to me, what these people do flies in the face of the purpose of any kind of good writing. Here is the feat artists like Basho and Proust and Blake accomplish: they imbue ink and paper with the ineffable. Cosmic rays flow out of a page of text, and the more economy with which the writing is constructed, the more awe-inspiring it is. The most bewitching mysteries of the universe flow forth from the simplest language—complexity transmuted through the everyday. In the hands of an American master like Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, it is from the mouth of a child, spoken as a child in Missouri would speak, that the sins of an entire nation are confronted.

When possessed of this creative power, such artists can enchant everyday objects—a piece of paper, a sketchbook, a roll of film—with the ageless spirit of the universe. The complex, the inexplicable, the unnamable is somehow corralled with a ghostly lasso, flash-frozen in amber like lifeforms of an ancient era. I firmly believe this is what John Keats meant when he concluded this, one of the most famous poems ever, with a simple piece of advice:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

The truer it is, the simpler it is, the more beautiful it is, too. Eternal truths crystallized. The world in a grain of sand.

For bad writers—immoral writers, unprincipled writers, poison toads with typewriters—the philosophy and effect is the opposite.

For the kind of people who make it their job to obsess over attacking trans people, they never venture to that upper sphere of which Pressfield wrote. Here in purgatory, the job is to complicate and obfuscate simple truths, while also puffing up weak or spurious claims. They bear no responsibility to anyone; they alone are truth, and they alone are beautiful. Under a welter of words, they try to break the backs of their targets. And if you engage with them at all, they’ve already marked an initial victory. Like alligators, they clamp their rows of teeth down upon your flesh not to kill, but to immobilize. Then they drag you underwater to drown you.

I’ve developed a theory of such a figure; they’re what I call “the intellectual scab.” While writers of conscience would never stoop to defend quack doctors attempting conversion therapy on trans kids, for the intellectual scab, it’s an opportunity. Like all scabs, the more integrity others show, the more there is to gain from doing what they won’t. Only in this case, the scab isn’t being called in to dig coal or repair phone lines; as intellectual scabs, their job is to peddle the basest, most vile ideas, the ones those writers with self-respect and brains and talent and conscience are picketing. Short-term, they take home a fat pay packet, with some ready-made branding baked in: they are mavericks for “just asking questions,” it never occurring to their dopey followers that the questions might already have answers.

I’m not the person to debunk their schtick; that has already been handily done, by people much more knowledgeable than myself. Check out the work of author Julia Serano, as well as the stellar show The XX Factor, which recently (and very comprehensively) shredded the work of one of this Substack racket’s worst offenders. As with the mid-90s effort to revive the rankest nostrums of racist pseudo-science, the obvious falsity and fraud of the claims is never in question; in fact, it’s always inevitable this kind of filth will be debunked. The best these people can come up with in an eight-hour day is the same junk about public bathrooms, youth sports, and pronouns. It never changes.

The problem is that people have to work hard to do so, and in the meantime, the garbage has already circulated in open air. Consider Sartre’s description of how anti-Semites operate:

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

What did the Boy Scouts teach us kids to do if encountering a bear in the wilderness? Raise your jacket over your head to appear bigger than you really are, and scare off the far superior creature. The crop of transphobic writers who have found a home on Substack make a living doing this, play-acting at being journalists or activists or even posturing as defenders of women. Convinced that they are the ones under attack, inexcusable behavior becomes entirely permissible. In the funhouse mirror into which the transphobe gazes, they are the victim. Blinkered by all the resentments one develops living a life spent grinding gears, aggression becomes an exclusively defensive maneuver.

It’s how one truly sick person, banned from Twitter for their unrelenting transphobia, can testify before the UK Parliament as to his victimhood at the hands of as vulnerable and assailed as the trans community. Crocodile tears, coming from the psychotic creep who just weeks earlier, did this:

“The disgraced Father Ted creator joined Her, a dating app designed to ‘connect womxn and queer people’…In a second blog post, Linehan shared screenshots of various women and non-binary people’s profiles from Her, declaring that they should not be on the app because they are ‘not lesbians.’ Linehan posted screenshots of 20 separate profiles from the app and suggested that they should not be using Her, despite the fact that the app welcomes them…”

Can you guess what website hosted these blog posts? Why, Substack, of course. While the above article notes that Her was working to get the Substack post mocking these poor women taken down, it’s still up. I just checked. As crude and hideous as this is, it’s also clarifying. Stripped of the prolixity which usually distinguishes transphobic writing, Linehan’s post is just pure hatred. His aim is to shame the looks of these women—totally non-public figures, whose crime was joining a dating app to look for love. This is appalling. But it apparently breaches no terms of service to do so on Substack.

It’s already become a joke among journalists that “Substack writer” is synonymous with a certain type of “Cancel Culture” con artist. As anyone acquainted with internet writing knows, the intellectual scabs figured out that they can make a lot of money off the right-wing culture war grievance machine. Stoking a sense of of siege, even putative liberals and leftists have gotten in on the act. After all, there’s moolah to be made. And as the big established internet platforms are finally forced to squirm a bit about being hate merchants, others have stepped up to fill the void.

Substack has actively participated in this greed-soaked courtship. As we now know, massive amounts of money have been dangled before writers to join the platform through the Substack Pro program. Which writers have received six-figure payments, exactly, is a secret Substack won’t divulge. But as fellow Substack writer Elizabeth Spiers said, “I think if you’re a progressive, you’d want to know if you’re publishing on a platform that is essentially subsidizing a Breitbart.” For the many writers who joined Substack years ago—including a number of trans writers—the sudden prominence of and possible payments to some very nasty figures was a slap in the face.

The question of who specifically got a fat check is in some sense immaterial, though. As tech writer Peter Kafka put it, “Substack is aware that it now has a reputation as a platform for white guys who don’t want to or can’t work at traditional publications anymore.” That’s their branding: the home of aggrieved white blowhards (myself hopefully excluded), constantly incensed by SJWs online.

Substack CEO Chris Best seemed saddened by that perception, talking to Kafka:

“It’s good for us to manage the perception [that Substack caters to conservative writers]. It would feel really bad for me if people who would be really great on Substack don’t feel like it’s a good place to be for them.” 

I wonder where anyone could have gotten that idea, Chris. Was it when Substack CEO Chris Best appeared on former Murdoch propagandist Megyn Kelly’s podcast to promote the company, in the same episode as a segment featuring the CEO of neo-Nazi network Parler? Was it any of the times Best tweeted out the usual banal dog whistles that are music to the ears of the usual right-wing goblins? Or was it, in the wake of renewed focus on its hosting of anti-trans voices, the $65 million vote of confidence it received from one of the most obnoxious right-wing plutocrats in the country? Did that all maybe signal, to those intolerant writers retreating in the face of human decency, that they might find a home on Substack?

George Orwell famously wrote that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Consider, despite all this kind of mendacious whining they do, what these transphobes, and cynical enablers like Substack, are actually empowering around the world. Just this past week, two US states, Arkansas and Tennessee, passed laws which target trans children, barring them from participating in athletics alongside certain kids. The trauma these children will experience from such discrimination will be lifelong, and invariably lead to worse life outcomes for many of them. Mississippi passed a similar law earlier this month, and dozens of states are considering such legislation. Trans inmates face horrifying dangers in American jails, prisons, and institutions, with little official recognition of their identities. “The trans question” has become a fixation of America’s hydra-headed fascist movement, embodied by the Republican Party. This hatred will not go away any time soon.

And these cowards, and their paymasters, will declaim all responsibility for it all—for Trump and for any other Nazis who will take their claims and draw their logical conclusions. Well, as I said earlier: good writing makes complicated things simple. So I’ll keep it simple: I, for my part, just won’t deal with these people at all, or do anything that would financially benefit them. Let’s leave them to the Hell in which they are going to live out their lives.

I take great solace in a letter a great writer, William S. Burroughs, wrote to Truman Capote, decrying the In Cold Blood author’s loathing of due process in police investigations. I feel it has great relevance applied to this rogues’ gallery working today; I have emphasized my favorite part as well:

“I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early work was in some respects promising—I refer particularly to the short stories. You were granted an area for psychic development. It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant. You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell…You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit.” 

There are many steps each of us might take on a journey as perilous as that of becoming our true, authentic selves. And just like Basho, trudging along the five highways of Edo Japan, we may be drawn toward new destinations throughout our life. Speaking for myself, it’s been many wonderful things: becoming a professional writer, an uncle, a healthier person, moving across the country. My journey has mostly been through rolling meadows and along grassy pastures, insulated from many of society’s worst depredations. I am a straight, white, cisgender man—buffeted, I feel it important to say, by the vanishing rarity of parents with good-paying blue-collar jobs and union benefits.

So what then about people whose path to self-realization might take them along the mountain routes—through deep snow, blinding rain, and bitter cold? Those forced to travel without any companions to help them along the way, prey for the bandits and goons lurking along the roadway?

Well, we help those travelers as best we can. As they say in 12-step recovery programs, we don’t shoot our wounded. What do we make of the kind of people who’d target the most vulnerable on their life’s journey? I’d call them people in dire need of their own cosmic change. If what Keats wrote all those years ago is true—and I think it is—then becoming your true self is among the most beautiful things you can do with your life. I hope, for those youngsters coming into their own as transgender in 2021, that the future is an increasingly kind place in which they can dwell.

Despite the rocky road ahead, I am confident it will be. The bigots who make life so hard for trans people will be remembered years from now the way we remember people who whipped up panic about gay marriage, affirmative action, and interracial dating. How foolish it is to fear this passage of time—to grip too tightly, to lash out in fear, is true foolishness.

After all, as I look out my back window, having completed this essay, I see something new. In the yard next door, the white blossoms have come in on the orange tree.