Virtue Signaling and Other Heresies
Subterranean Press, 2018
“’Virtue signaling’ is a phrase the dim and bigoted use when they want to discount other people expressing the idea that it would be nice if we could all be essentially and fundamentally decent to each other.” —John Scalzi
When a blog has been going on for twenty years, it becomes a gold mine for anthologizing. Over the whole process hangs the possibility the topicality of the essays maybe work against them, words circling an issue not only well but appropriately forgotten. However, this concern is balanced out by those much more numerous occasions where gems of clarity are embedded in lost history of the moment. Famed science fiction author John Scalzi has collected essays from his blog, Whatever, from 2013-2018 in his new book Virtue Signaling giving readers a fascinating survey of the daily writing he’s done during that period.
As we read Virtue Signaling it becomes clear we are experiencing a steady hand knowing when to make an ancillary comment but avoid tangent, when to inject humor to cut the somberness and vice versa, and when to link his subjective takes to broader cultural events. Most importantly, over his time online Scalzi has been able to participate in a kind of ongoing revision of self, coming to understand that those
“knock-down, drag-out friendship-ending fights on topics I personally consider absolutely trivial. Turns out these topic aren’t trivial to many people–and it also turns out that ‘trivial’ topics have social and political aspect to them that make them far less trivial than those outside those interest groups may initially expect. If one were to ‘take a more neutral stance’ on any potentially polarizing topic, one would have to say nothing on anything, ever.”
And so, Scalzi speaks or, rather, writes knowing “to write publicly is to be judged and to be criticized and to be polarized” while also knowing full well “No one is obliged to have a conversation with you.” With this freedom, his writing on Whatever can be thought of as musings swinging from topics such as mortality from fan submitted questions, to ranking of the quality of months in a year, movie and culture event reviews, personal muses on being a father, and, of course, political ruminations.
It is a treat to read. Oddly, it is also a relief to read. There are essays here from before we found ourselves in the darkest timeline and encountering them feels strange and distant. For example, the 2013 government shutdown orchestrated by the GOP ‘tea party’ caucus, the attacks on the magazine Charlie Hebdo, or former Speaker of the House John Boehner stepping down are all massive cultural moments in the very recent past that feel as though they are ages away from us. This is due in no small part to the barrage of scandal and nonsense we are enduring. Yet, what makes Scalzi’s essays more than topical is his ability to distill the element in each event that can and often does continue to resonant once the fact and/or memory of the event has passed.
His pitch perfect breakdown and dismissal of the ‘not all men’ retort to the seemingly endless parade of sexual abuse and assault or his assertion to those taking umbrage with being called sexist or racist “What makes us not a sexist, or a racist, or a homophobe, or whatever, is what we choose to do when we recognize our discriminatory behaviors or attitudes (or have them pointed out by others)” are necessary challenges. Perhaps the most moving essay in the collection is a series of matter-of-fact descriptive sentences reminding us of the time, place, and number of people murdered in an act of gun violence and our collective response of offer ‘thoughts and prayers.’ The essay ends with a moral challenge to the reader, “We pause here a moment, and wait to see what happens next. And then they come. One after another. What more do you have to offer?”
Scalzi knows “the US has always had a mean streak in it” but he also firmly believes “All things being equal, people are friendly and supportive rather than not.” It seems his work here is filling the space between, giving us the tools to overcome our mean streak and be what we want to be, friendly and supportive. Because he writes from a place where neither art nor entertainment are rarified things, but rather “separate conditions with substantial but not perfect overlap,” each of his essays from the lighthearted and charming to the political jeremiad and even the deeply personal are attempting to show ours is an imbricating experience of the world. That is, there is no divide between high and low art, there is no neutral experience or expression because everything overlaps. The task is articulate this and Scalzi succeeds.
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About the Authors
John Scalzi writes books, which, considering where you’re reading this, makes perfect sense. He’s best known for writing science fiction, including the New York Times bestseller “Redshirts,” which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. He also writes non-fiction, on subjects ranging from personal finance to astronomy to film, was the Creative Consultant for the Stargate: Universe television series. He enjoys pie, as should all right thinking people. You can get to his blog by typing the word “Whatever” into Google. No, seriously, try it.