Private hell made public

The Trouble With Cancel Culture | On the Media | WNYC Studios
Natalie Wynn doing a video while getting plastered

1. Natalie Wynn: A Study in Angst

Therapy has established itself as the successor to rugged individualism and to religion as the organizing framework of American culture. The therapeutic outlook threatens to displace politics as well, the last refuge of ideology.

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 1976

Natalie Wynn, creator of the Contrapoints YouTube channel, makes a regular practice of baring her soul to strangers on YouTube. She seems to have some talent at turning her angst, conflicts, and hurts into compelling viewing, at least for someone like me who follows argument, but has little understanding of transgender people specifically. Her video essays extend well beyond the 10-minute guideline suggested by YouTube, and followed by the most popular bloggers. Her last one, a video on “Cringe culture” was nearly 90 minutes. Her topics range from politics to online culture to gender identity issues. Wynn herself has been transitioning from being a male since at least 2017.

Natalie uses theatrics and fictionalizations, to explore and try out different popularly-held views and misconceptions of the day, using spectacle as part of a more serious point she is making. For me, the spectacle aspect is attention-grabbing, and for videos that run 30 minutes or more, one can make a pretty good case for it. It does little to advance the points she is making, but one must give her credit for her one-woman-show production values.

Surprisingly, while trolls are present, by far the most dominant comments on the Contrapoints channel comes from decent people who give empathy, support, encouragement, and share their stories. It would be disheartening to see that taken for granted, and I hope she sees them as the light when everything else feels like darkness.

2 Binge watching the multi-car pile-up that is Eugenia Cooney

There was also a vlogger Natalie mentions regarding one woman named Eugenia Cooney, a fashion and makeup vlogger who has a very large YouTube following. She was in what is called a “5150 hold” for an eating disorder about a year ago, which under California law means she was sent to a mental hospital and kept under observation for 72 hours. To see her videos, she herself seems like a harmless person, acting and speaking like she is a waifish 13 or 14 year-old girl. She is actually 25 years old, and close to 6 feet tall, but appears to be less than 90 pounds, going by her most recent videos. After her release, she appeared to “fall off the wagon” soon after, and she actually looks thinner than before her incarceration. What commenters on YouTube are witnessing is her slow death, with her occasional guest, her mother (who buys all her clothes and makeup) acting silly and behaving as if every day is Eugenia’s birthday. Viewers had never been sure what to make of her mother, according to comments left on Eugenia’s videos.

There is a lot of plausible speculation on YouTube regarding her mental state, her mother, her friends, and her prospects for living beyond six months. But speculation is speculation. We only see what the camera and editing allows us to see. Like every video on YouTube down to iPhone unboxings, we are only allowed to see theatre, and some approximation to The Shopping Channel. In Eugenia’s case, she shows off her new makeup designs, new clothes and jewellery, and discusses them in her videos.

Beyond speculation, there appears to be no dispute about the 5150 hold, or of Eugenia choosing to travel to Connecticut for 4 months to be treated for an eating disorder.

Eugenia just before her 5150 hold. This is not the worst picture of her by far, but it furnishes a reason why I find her videos hard to look at, by and large.

I think I am one of those who is watching videos about Eugenia. I emphasize: “about” Eugenia: as told by friends, interventionists, therapists and former anorexics and addicts as though they know her personally, and that she is some kind of science all her own.

I never subscribed to her channel, nor to any channels talking about her. But today I did succumb to the temptation of viewing “related” titles that wind up on the list of suggested/related videos on the right side of my browser, and I hear analysis about Cooney from every Monday morning quarterback under the sun. The videos I prefer to view are from qualified people, but even then, they are mostly people removed from the action, who never met her.

These “quarterbacks” claiming counselling experience and certainly sound professional and appear to have a fair bit of knowledge. Social worker Kati Morton had an idea for them to appear as guests on each other’s channel, and discuss eating disorders and her 5150 hold. People in their comment sections had some serious criticisms about this.

The criticisms regard 1) Is sitting with Eugenia and discussing her difficulties for the consumption of thousands of viewers (close to 350,000 at last count for Kati’s video), many of whom leave hostile comments for various reasons, helpful to Eugenia? Another criticism: 2) The discussion glossed over pertinent details that let us know Eugenia is facing her problem squarely and is truly on the road to recovery, which means she is surely hiding more than she is revealing.

These are good and proper concerns, but Eugenia’s and Katie’s defense, both of these Monday morning quarterback criticisms gloss over what may have been unavoidable things:

  • Eugenia is very tied to YouTube and has millions of subscribers, thousands of commenters, and whether Eugenia likes it or not, her personal life has already been public for some time. Her personal deterioration has been observed and well-noted by any casual observer without her saying a word about it, for some years.
  • While quarterbacks for point #1 accuse her of saying too much; those accusing her of point #2 accuse her of not saying enough. If Eugenia’s mental health is any kind of priority, these #2 quarterbacks will never have their way. A person who delves into their most private details in a public space like YouTube is not doing any good for their mental health in any capacity. Private should be kept private, except for people you feel safe talking to, such as close friends or relatives, and mental health practitioners. You can’t get a support network from random strangers.
  • The only outcome from airing out your dirty laundry in public is public humiliation and shame. Eugenia already had that in spades well before Kati’s interview. This is a simple idea, but this has been much written about from the days of Oprah, Donahue, and other popular “talk shows” from the 1990s, where this mistake is repeated over and over, turning the private hell of people and families into a freak show, to boost the TV ratings.

I cannot possibly fathom the illnesses that are the eating disorders. Listening to therapists explain “how to talk to anorexics” or to friends that understand the mindset of sufferers of eating disorders make me feel that I could read and listen to vlogs, books, essays, and online articles about this until the cows come home, and I don’t think I could ever feel that I fully understand it. I think I can understand parts of it; empathise with various fleeting things, and sometimes even be able to feel some tenuous connection with the sufferer, but I have trouble seeing the whole picture.

While some vloggers look at Eugenia and feel that they know how to act and intervene, I am more like a rubbernecker slowing down to see a highway accident. I had no knowledge of Eugenia before today, and now it is dawning on me that Eugeniacooneyology appears ready to be its own university major, judging by all of the material, authored by anyone who thinks they can provide a different angle on her, whether qualified or not. Some seem sincere, some are doing it for YouTube hits, and some are doing a combination of both. Always, there is a videographer gunning for a piece of the Eugenia Cooney action. And always, there is YouTube, happily documenting the entire spectacle.

But to me, she is just like a vehicle pile-up, and I am like a rubbernecker, possibly slowing down Internet traffic when I could be viewing something sensible like The Crown on NetFlix, or developing lesson materials, or correcting assignments. Eugenia is a case of suffering served up to viewers as spectacle.

Our therapeutic culture operates here with or without the presence of an actual therapist. We are so immersed in therapeutic culture that we all feel superior to the sufferer and feel we have all the answers, and will offer what we feel to be help. Rather than increasing our understanding of each other, therapeutic culture has more likely made it easier for us to pigeonhole others, and let the label definition fill in the blanks as a pseudo-understanding, similar to how some people use a person’s horoscope in the same way. Rather than contributing to social cohesion, it intensifies feelings of alienation, while giving the labeller a false feeling of empowerment.

Critique of the “Mindblowing Fact” video on income inequality

The video in question  is quite “mind-blowing” as promised, indeed, at over 13 million hits, it can even be called “viral”, but there are problems in how it presents and handles facts and references. While I don’t have a problem with the facts, and I am quite certain they are based on serious numbers, the presentation was too slick, with style clearly triumphing over detail.

The speaker begins by saying he was disturbed by a Harvard study that said that the actual distribution of wealth, what Americans think that distribution is, and the distribution of wealth idealized by Americans is totally out of whack. Americans are aware of existing inequalities, but have not the slightest idea of the extent of those inequalities. While he cites the Harvard study in his presentation, his only printed citation in his list of references at the end was the Mother Jones website, which, if you scroll down, you will find the “source”. In effect, the speaker, whom I didn’t catch the name of, is in effect citing Mother Jones citing the study by Professor Norton of Harvard Business School. I am aware of “Worstall’s Fallacy”, touted most of all by Forbes commentator Tim Worstall himself (Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute, and self-described as a “world expert on Scandium”, a transition metal), that “income” and “wealth” are different ideas that seem similar, and that the speaker in this video was committing “Worstall’s Fallacy” by confusing the two. I am never told quite where the speaker in the video does this. But then I thought that even if you corrected for that in the video, it would not change the overall message, just dull it a little bit.

But an even more worrisome statement in the video was at around 2:24 or so, where he derides socialism. Why does he feel he has to separate himself from socialists? Socialism should not be considered a dirty word. The distribution he labels “socialism” is actually Communism. You can only have absolutely equal wealth distributions (as in Communism) in a command economy where you have “no freedom to choose your major”, as Abbie Hoffman once said about Maoist China in the late ’60s (why else other than in an unfree society would you study medicine if you were only going to make as much as a janitor?). And the “ideal” American distribution cited as supportable by 9/10 Americans (where rich and poor coexist) would only be possible through wealth redistribution. I think the word for that second option begins with “S” and ends with “m” and rhymes with “populism”, and exists to some extent in most advanced capitalist democracies around the world. In fact, capitalist democracies are the only places I think that socialism is possible.

A choice joke I heard making the rounds is the one about a Union worker, a Tea Party supporter, and a millionaire Industrialist in the same room where there is a plate with a dozen cookies. The Industrialist takes 11 of them, and whispers to the Tea Party supporter: “That Union guy is trying to steal your cookie!”

[Video] The Politics of Dancing I: The Hambone

This video gallery started as a tribute to those talented enough with rhythm to do The Hambone properly. To see most of the performances on YouTube, it would have appeared to be a pasttime of redneck white Southerners, but this is so far from the case, that I have to conclude that everyone is into it.

In the American South, it’s called The Hambone; in the North, it’s called The Hand Jive; in West Africa where it originated, it’s called The Juba Dance, a relative of the tap dance. It is an art involving lots of clapping, body slapping, and other artfully noisy uses of the hands. The Juba Dance, a dance which involves both hand percussion on the body as well as toe tapping, was brought to The States during the antebellum period where slaves were not allowed to use drums or other instruments for fear it would be used as a method of communication.

But once blacks started doing it, it quickly caught on among whites, where it became known as “The Hambone”. NCAA basketball coach Bo Ryan explains how he learned The Hambone while attending grade school in Philadelphia:

Now throw in some vocal noise and hand farting, and you have a comic act by The Hambone Brothers on the popular ’70s TV show “Hee Haw”, seen here with Roy Clarke:

Steve Hickman throws in some mouth popping and seems to slap himself in the head several times, to the amusement of many giggling children and their parents:

I thought I would save the best for last. Samuel Hicks hails from North Carolina and was just doing the hambone in front of a relative’s video camera in the early 90s. He is so fast, one may be led to believe that those aren’t really hands and more like bionic prosthetic devices:

Next in this series: The Hand Jive