Binging Purging: Why Are Decluttering Videos So Popular?

One year ago, I launched a writing project on Patreon called Brisket. It was a home for essays I was writing that needed to be written “low and slow.” I recently sunset Brisket, and will be sharing the essays here on my blog throughout the coming months. This was the second piece, published in May 2018.

A few months ago, I was watching YouTube before bed when a new video by one of my favorite beauty vloggers, Shaaanxo, popped into my subscription feed. Shaanxo usually posts makeup tutorials and product reviews, videos that are about 10-20 minutes in length. Recording in a room of her New Zealand home that is entirely dedicated to storing her massive makeup collection, Shannon Harris turns on the camera and begins applying her makeup, chattily telling her 3.1 million subscribed viewers why she has chosen each primer, foundation, eyeshadow palette, bronzer, contour, powder, and lipstick to accomplish that specific look and giving her first impression on products she is using for the first time. She also does monthly roundups of her favorite new items, unboxing videos showing her viewers what the PR departments of makeup companies have sent her to try out, and vlogs about fashion, decor, and fitness.

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This video, however, was different. First of all, it was almost an hour long. In it, Harris opened one of the massive drawers of what is best described as a custom-designed bureau—each drawer contains dividers specifically constructed to store lipsticks, or eyeshadow palettes, or pans of powder and blush and bronzer—and showed her viewers how overstuffed each one was. Then, after pulling out every item and piling it on the floor, she went through each one and selected what to keep, what to donate, and what to throw away. The keepers were lovingly rearranged back in the drawer, the rest relegated to a cardboard box to be taken to a local women’s shelter.

A decluttering video sounds like the most boring content that the social media ecosystem could ever create, like what reality TV would be if it was true to its name. But this new genre of programming is as alluring and popular as some of the smaller reality TV franchises, if not the Kardashians. A search for “decluttering” on YouTube in April 2018 returns 581,000 videos, though the videos are diversified across the categories of home design (organization and storage solutions) and fashion (closet purges) as well as beauty. Like this unreal, soapy genre, to watch a decluttering video requires no intellectual engagement whatsoever. They’re the perfect digestivo after a mentally and physically taxing day. Both mediums also prize beauty. Whether it’s the tanned, glam talent and elegant homes on TV or YouTube videos of colorful makeup in decorative packaging, the emphasis is placed on aesthetics. If they’re so alike, however, why wouldn’t viewers just defer to HGTV and Bravo? Why are they flocking to YouTube, and why to decluttering videos in particular?

While some of us were off watching Mad MenThe AmericansGame of Thrones, and the other premier shows that have characterized this “golden age of television,” YouTube quietly grew. From its founding in 2005, the site developed multitudinous ecosystems devoted to every interest and hobby as users uploaded new videos and learned how to build (and monetize) communities of like-minded enthusiasts. This became the hallmark of YouTube: consistent new and niche content. In just twelve years, the platform has grown to 1.5 billion global viewers—and it’s projected to reach 1.86 billion by 2021. By comparison, Netflix reported a record 117.6 million subscribers at the end of 2017. One billion hours of YouTube are watched daily.

Many of those hours have accrued to Shaanxo’s makeup decluttering videos. She has the most-viewed decluttering video on YouTube, with 2.3 million views for the video in which she sorts through 1,000 lipsticks. In fact, of the 10 most-watched decluttering videos, five of them are from Shaanxo’s channel. [1] While other beauty YouTubers have created their own copycat content—trying to take advantage of how YouTube’s “suggested videos” algorithm rewards content tagged with trending keywords—the other five videos reflect the variety of the genre. Three focus on decluttering homes more generally, and three are by women who market themselves as experts in the field: Marie Kondo, Melissa Maker (@cleanmyspace), and Alejandra Costello (@alejandra.tv). [2] Focusing on the most- viewed videos, however, obscures the many content creators with fewer (but loyal) subscribers.

Clutterbug is one of the mid-size players on YouTube, with only 278,000 subscribers, but the channel has three videos that have garnered over one million views (and three more with over half a million views). [3] Like Melissa Maker and Alejandra Costello, Cassandra Aarssen also built a business around decluttering. She has published books and produces a podcast, in addition to blogging and running her YouTube channel. The Canadian mother of three developed a system to categorize everyone into “bugs” according to how much visual clutter they can tolerate and how devoted they are to organizing systems—“crickets,” for example, hate visual clutter and love organizing systems, whereas “butterflies” like to be able to see all of their stuff and can’t really deal with complex organization systems. Her videos make reference to this variety in people’s styles, and she rejects out of hand that there is any one “right” way to keep your home organized.

Regardless, decluttering is a priority, and in October 2017 she did a 30-day decluttering challenge on her channel where she went through her entire home purging unnecessary items. These very short videos tackled one small space at a time, such as underneath the kitchen sink, and Aarssen offered suggestions for what to do with old flower vases (repurpose them to hold plastic bags until the next time you buy flowers) and the best type of storage containers to use in this particular cabinet (flexible ones that can fit between pipes). Aarssen ends her videos with personal stories, freely admitting her imperfections. Her followers’ comments alternate between references to her stories and remarks about home organization; it’s not uncommon to see a comment like "You have the best, crazy stories!” right above a solution for organizing leftovers (“I put a small post it note on the front of the left over bin with contents and date, a little clear tape over”). Her subscribers tell her that they find her “motivational” and an “inspiration.” “Awe, thank you for being so supportive,” Aarssen wrote in response to one such comment.

So while channels like Clutterbug’s have pragmatic value, fans of decluttering also use the comment threads of YouTube channels to connect with the creator and with one another, building the kind of differentiated, unique community made possible by social media. Unlike celebrities that fans can only connect with on the stars’ terms, content creators on YouTube, Instagram, and SnapChat in particular interact with fans in order to build their audiences. This intimacy fosters loyalty between subscribers and channels, to the point where we will even watch our favorite beauty vloggers sort through old bottles of face wash.

We are undeniably in a period obsessed with minimalism, organization, and cleaning. While women’s magazines likeGood Housekeeping and Real Simple have long specialized in articles about how to creatively store gift wrap in guest room closets, organization and minimalism have become a mainstream concern (albeit still a gendered one). On HGTV shows like Love it or List It and Tiny House Hunters, organization and storage is routinely the primary concern for designers and home buyers. Several of the design overhauls featured in the new Netflix season of Queer Eye centered on organizational solutions; the Fab Five also preach minimalism to their mentee-men, purging old clothes and possessions in favor of carefully curated closets. Americans watch Hoarders with fascination and disgust; it’s relieving to know that your house isn’t that bad, even if every closet is filled with sentimental junk.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Marie Kondo, creator of the KonMari method of decluttering. Kondo has sold 8 million books worldwide about how to purge the objects in your life that fail to “spark joy.” She published her first book, The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in Japan in 2011 and in the United States in 2014—where it spent 143 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Through her books, consulting company, and now an upcoming Netflix series, Kondo attempts to fundamentally change people’s relationship to their possessions. To “KonMari” is to deploy her distinctive method, a prescribed set of steps for how to evaluate each object in your home and decide whether it adds value to your life or contributes to your happiness. What makes the KonMari method so attractive is this union of prescription and promise. Kondo recognizes that you’re overwhelmed, assures you that you will be happier with less, and then commands you to start sorting through your clothes (then books, paper, and miscellany, before finally tackling the sentimental).

Why have organization and minimalism become a mainstream concern now? What is it about the 2010s that inspired this efflorescence of tidying? The recession tightened Americans’ belts—specifically, it left millennials with student debt, smaller incomes, and a preference for experiences over stuff. That explains why some Americans are buying less, buying more mindfully, and living in smaller homes with fewer things. It is an unsatisfying answer, however, for why people feel compelled to purge belongings they already own.

Since the recession, paid work has become more precarious and insecure. [4] According to a Marketplace Edison Research poll conducted in February 2018, although economic anxiety is on the decline generally, certain segments of the American workforce remain wary of the future. The poll found that workers in the gig economy, as well as “African-Americans, women and 25-34 year-olds are the most anxious about their personal economic situations.” [5] Eleven percent of Americans now work full-time as independent contractors and a quarter of the American workforce participates in the gig economy. For these workers especially, control is something that can more readily be exercised at home than at work. A woman I am friendly with, who runs a communications consulting business, told me that decluttering “feels like the one thing I can and should be in control of with everything else out of control. I don’t know when I will get paid next, if I will have work next week/month/year, I don’t know how much the pay will be if I get it, I can’t plan for my future, I can’t control my health, I can’t control my pets’ health, nothing.”

And that’s what Marie Kondo promises: the chaos of clutter can be controlled. You may be losing sleep over whether you’ll lose your job, or the country will go through another recession, or you’ll land a new contract and if so when you’ll next get paid, but most of this is beyond your immediate control. You can, however, control your closet. By taking control of the chaos of your home, Kondo argues you will have more time to spend using the things you love, ultimately making you happier. Fewer possessions means fewer items going missing and less guilt over expensive purchases sitting there unused (a guitar for me, an elliptical for you). Consequently, taking time to declutter is an act of self-care.

Minimalism—an unselfish, ethical approach to consumerism—feels virtuous and altruistic in comparison to other forms of self-care, such as spa days or retail therapy, that seem to only benefit yourself. Despite a booming market for health, wellness, and beauty products and services, I regularly hear people justifying the time and money they spend on themselves—there needs to be a reason that one “deserves” self care. [6] A close friend describes how, at a weekly meeting where snack is served, the women in the office routinely say a variation of “I worked hard today,” or “I’ve been eating really healthy,” as they pick up small pieces of chocolate and place them on their plate next to cut vegetables and gluten-free pretzels.

In his 2005 book Born Losers, historian Scott Sandage explained how Americans’ understanding of failure evolved over the course of the nineteenth century; whereas in 1800 failure meant your business went broke, by 1900 it described your own personal failing to be ambitious and strive for something bigger. “Ours is an ideology of achieved identity,” Sandage wrote, “obligatory striving is its method, and failure and success are its outcomes.” He explains:

We do this because a century and a half ago we embraced business as the dominant model for our outer and inner lives. ... We reckon our incomes once a year but audit ourselves daily, by standards of long forgotten origin. Who thinks of the old counting house when we take stock of how we “spend” our lives, take “credit” for our gains, or try not to end up “third rate” or “good for nothing”? Someday, we hope, the “bottom line” will show that we “amount to something.” By this kind of talk we “balance” our whole lives, not just our accounts. [7]

There is no “obligatory striving” when you sit in a spa luxuriating. Although your muscles may relax, it cannot calm the anxiety that the time could be better spent pursuing grander ambitions. So we gravitate towards activities like decluttering, a form of self care that needs no justification—it’s hard work that demonstrates our striving towards the big goals of “zero distraction,” “maximum efficiency,” and “minimal waste.”

But it’s one thing to declutter your own home, and another to watch someone else do it. If we accept that people are obsessed with decluttering, it makes sense that they would be interested in watching people do it well. That explains the rising popularity of HGTV, and the general obsession with competence porn. Certainly there are some tips and tricks to be learned from observing how other people clean. Another explanation might be that people vicariously feel virtuous after watching someone else clean. If after a long workday you cannot muster the energy to reorganize a closet, but still feel a compulsive need to exercise control over disorder in a way you could not while at work, isn’t the next best thing to watch someone else do it? But these factors alone cannot explain why 581,000 videos on the subject have been created. Clearly, YouTubers have realized that a large audience exists and that these viewers are willing to watch multiple videos of people purging their possessions.

Over half a million decluttering videos exist partly because viewers use them to relax and fall asleep. Viewers commenting on Shaanxo’s decluttering videos describe them as “soothing,” “satisfying,” and “relaxing,” and I personally share this assessment. After watching Shannon purge liquid lipsticks from a giant drawer for 40 minutes, I feel purged of shpilkes (a great Yiddish word meaning nervous energy or restlessness). There is actually a phenomenological explanation for why these videos relax people: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. For those unfamiliar with ASMR, it describes a sensation of tingling that radiates from the scalp down the neck and arms that is triggered by sounds like whispering, tapping, and swishing water. Not everyone experiences “the tingles,” as they are referred to in internet parlance, and not everyone experiences them in the same way and as the result of the same stimuli. Even for people who do not experience the tingling sensation, however, these triggers induce relaxation.

If ASMR sounds made up, that’s because to some extent it is. The term was coined in 2010 by an active participant in online forums about the phenomena (after earlier proposals didn’t stick, including Attention Induced Head Orgasm and Attention Induced Observant Euphoria). According to Dr. Craig Richard, a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences and author-creator of ASMR University, discussion of the phenomenon originated in an online forum in 2007 when a commenter asked for an explanation of the sensation she had “as a child while watching a puppet show and when i was being read a story to” and “as a teenager when a classmate did me a favor and when a friend drew on the palm of my hand with markers.” Subsequent commenters could not explain it, but shared their own experiences with what would come to be called ASMR. Between 2008 and 2011, a subculture developed on Yahoo Groups, Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and blogs as people, searching for explanations, found one another and began to share sources for “the tingles”—old episodes of Bob Ross, random videos on YouTube of people whispering, makeup tutorials, and unboxing videos. In 2009 the first YouTube channel dedicated to ASMR was created, but it took another three years for the genre to really blow up on the platform; Richards estimates that at least 60 new ASMR YouTube channels were established in 2012, eclipsing the 40 ASMR channels that existed in 2011. A search in mid-April of 2018 reveals that there are currently over 12 million ASMR videos on YouTube.

Unsurprisingly considering its grassroots origins, little scientific research has been done on ASMR; there’s scarce evidence to contradict the prevalent perceptions that ASMR is fake, exaggerated, or sexual in nature. According to a cursory search of PubMed, only five peer-reviewed studies attempting to explain ASMR have been published since 2015, though on ASMR University Richards also catalogues several studies that are in progress. When read together, the findings from these few research projects seem to indicate that the relaxing sensation of ASMR is the product of a heightened ability to imagine connecting with another person. Recent survey findings from a British team confirmed that those who experience ASMR are consistent in how they describe the sensation, about when and why they watch (at night, to relax and fall asleep), and their preferred triggers (whispering, personal attention, and slow, repetitive movements). A Canadian fMRI study comparing 11 people who experience ASMR to 11 controls found that the ASMR group had lower functional connectivity in certain areas of the brain as compared to the controls—the same areas of the brain were active in both groups, but in the control group those areas talked to each other more. This structural difference, the researchers hypothesize, may mean that people who experience ASMR have a “reduced ability to inhibit sensory-emotional experiences that are suppressed in most individuals.” This finding jibes with two other survey- based studies that found that participants who experience ASMR scored higher than control groups on the personality trait of “openness to experience” and the empathy trait of “fantasizing,” or the ease with which one becomes immersed in a story.

Finally, Richards has put forward the hypothesis (but not in a peer-reviewed publication) that, “Triggers that stimulate ASMR in individuals may actually be activating the biological pathways of inter-personal bonding. ... Some of the basic biology of bonding is well established and this involves specific behaviors which stimulate the release of endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. These bonding behaviors and molecules may provide a good explanation for most of the triggers and responses associated with ASMR.” This is consistent with the centrality of personal attention in ASMR audio and videos (“ASMR art”), which is done to evoke the tingles and relaxation. One ASMR artist (ASMRtist) on YouTube describes first discovering ASMR as a young child. While watching a classmate coloring she was overwhelmed with a feeling of relaxation and felt the tingles because she felt certain the drawing was being made for her. Most ASMR videos are a form of role play, where the ASMRtist pretends to give you a haircut, or a spa treatment, or draw your portrait. They can get pretty out there, such as the Yeti Hair Salon video by ASMR Latte—a Korean ASMRtist who generally films more conventional videos but must be running out of generic concepts. You feel silly watching it, playing along as a yeti who needs its full-body coat of hair detangled, but the effect of the brushing sounds and the whispering is undeniably relaxing. I have always loved having my hair washed and brushed before getting a haircut, and it’s amazing how you can have the same physical response from simply imagining the sensation.

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Decluttering videos include many traditional ASMR triggers— personal attention, tapping, soft voices and non-stimulating conversation—and so viewers are watching these videos to help them fall asleep. In the makeup decluttering videos on Shaanxo’s channel, Shannon positions the camera so you feel like you are sitting on the floor with her—a supportive friend willing to listen to why one color or formula is more favorable than another. The tapping sounds are made when Shannon empties her drawers and, post purge, reorganizes the items she keeps. When sped up—because usually these slower parts are fast-fowarded in the editing phase, to prevent the videos from being hours long—the clicks and clacks of the makeup bottles and tubes knocking into one another produces a tapping noise that reminds me of rain sticks or speed skates hitting the ice.

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Fans of Shaaanxo’s channel, who come for beauty content not ASMR, comment with surprise that they’ve found the videos relaxing; without intending to do so, Shannon created videos that people were watching to relax. While not the most popular of her content—only one video of the 19 from her decluttering series, a lipstick purge that garnered 2.3 million views, is in the top 12 most-watched videos on her channel— decluttering videos are popular enough to encourage her, and many other beauty YouTubers, to keep making them.

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The large and active communities and subcultures on YouTube put to bed the myth that the internet and smartphones have reshaped us into a society of unsociable, disengaged, and egocentric people—though internet subcultures certainly underscore that social bubbles and vacuums are strong. But YouTube also reveals that demand exists for a media ecosystem devoted to quelling anxiety, asserting control, and feeling virtuous. That’s what decluttering videos offer that reality TV does not. They’re as unintellectual and aesthetically- minded as the Kardashians, but they also offer connection to the content creator and a community of commenters, a way to engage in decluttering vicariously and find catharsis in someone else’s ability to control their environment, and, finally, a sensation of calm.

Ultimately, in watching these videos, people are doing themselves a kindness. No one is really learning anything from them (or rarely). There’s really very little to analyze, even if you have strong opinions about the items being decluttered. It reminds me of vacationing at a friend’s house, when they have some minimal obligation to keep up with the demands of their own life but you have the luxury of sitting on the couch without responsibilities, enjoying and providing company to a dear person. In those moments, you’ll happily listen to them prattle on about how they can never find anything in their kitchen junk drawer or watch them spend five minutes trying to find new batteries for the remote. Your job is to relax and not get in the way, to provide conversation while making yourself usefully useless. Watching a decluttering video takes this luxury one step further—you get to listen but never have the pressure of responding.


[1] Using the search term “decluttering.”

[2] Unsurprisingly, the creators and viewers of these videos are overwhelmingly women. A search for “decluttering men” returns only 8,000 videos. A quick scan reveals that many of these videos are made by wives decluttering their husbands’ closets.

[3] She is equally in the decoration and home organization space, which is why her most-viewed videos do not appear in the top 10 decluttering videos.

[4] Between 2005 and 2015, the number of Americans with “alternative work arrangements” or engaged in contingent work grew by 50%, from 10.5 to 15.8 percent.

[5] An anecdotal perspective.

[6] Case in point: In the “Pawnee Rangers” episode of the NBC comedy Parks and Rec, which originally aired on October 13, 2011, municipal workers Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and Donna Meagle (Retta) devote a whole day to “treat yo self,” their annual tradition of taking the day off to buy thing for themselves without justifying why, so long as it makes them happy.

[7] Scott Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 264-5.

Passover: A Holiday of Love and Liberation

Earlier this morning, my husband and my mother were in the kitchen strategizing about how to cook a brisket and bake almond macaroons at the same time. My husband patiently reviewed the detailed timeline he outlined two days ago--the gefilte fish out of the oven by 10 so the macaroons can get in and out by 11:30, when the vegetables go in, followed by the brisket and then the meatballs at 4:30. A few minutes later a storm rolled in, knocking out the power and forcing them to figure out how to continue without a functioning oven.  

Over the past week, Kevin has read through recipes, consulted with my mom, written and revised shopping lists, visited two grocery stores and Bed, Bath, and Beyond, helped switch out the normal dishes for the Passover dishes, cleaned out the fridge and pantry, and cooked. This is what true love is: taking on the most labor-intensive holiday of your wife’s religion despite being an atheist. My family does this to feel connected to an ancestral tradition and to a global community. Kevin does this to feel connected to us. 

* * *

Last night, we went out to Los Pollos for dinner with my parents. We sat at a picnic table on the restaurant’s porch, enjoying our last rice and beans before a week without bread, grains or legumes. My father fumbled with the ribs we had ordered, struggling to remove a serving for himself.

“Have you ever had ribs before?” Kevin asked.

“We had Chinese spareribs on our first date,” my mom recalled, “which almost didn’t happen because your father told me the wrong corner to meet him on, the southeast instead of the northeast. Then we saw Yentl, which your father hated.”

My father nodded in agreement.

“Abba,” I said, “tell me your version of how you and mom met. I’ve only heard the story from her perspective.”

“It was in December of 1983, at a Hanukkah party organized by and for Israelis at NYU. It was held at HUC [Hebrew Union College] in the West Village. I went with my friend Shaul…”

“Describe Shaul to them, Ido.”

“Shaul was also at NYU, writing a dissertation on dreams in the Hebrew bible. He was diminutive and dressed slickly.”

My mother interrupted. “I went with a friend, an occupational therapy student, who was short and I was tall. I convinced her that we should go over and dance and she started dancing with Shaul and I started dancing with your tall father.”

“Yes. We danced and then I asked her for her number. I didn’t have my cell phone so she couldn’t just type in her number. She had to write it down on paper.”

“Show them, Ido.”

I gasped. I had heard this story from mother so many times and never once did she indicate that any evidence remained. 

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“It’s practically disintegrated.” Nevertheless, my father pulled out his wallet. Out of one of the smallest compartments he extracted the 35-year-old scrap of paper, in two pieces. In her familiar handwriting, but in Hebrew, she had written her name—Jodi Barkin—and two phone numbers, the one for her apartment and for her parent’s house on Long Island where she often spent the weekends. I flipped it over and found course listings for HUC seminars. They must have picked up whatever was on hand in the room. 

My father called a few days later and asked my mother out to a Chinese restaurant at 97th and Broadway. By New Years they were living together in my mom’s studio apartment at 71st and Columbus. In December of 1984, one year after they met, my father proposed. 

* * *

A few years ago I invited a friend to have lunch with me and my parents in Georgetown—I can’t remember why we were in D.C., but this friend lived there. It was her first time meeting my folks, and as we were leaving she turned to me and said, “your parents are so in love.” It took me by surprise, because although I knew my parents had a happy marriage and that they loved each other, I did not realize that it was evident (or of interest) to other people. It’s only now that I am older, having seen many unhappy and dysfunctional relationships, that I realize how lucky I am to have been able to take love like my parents’ for granted. 

* * *

Love may seem like an awkward topic of reflection for a holiday that’s about freedom from the bondage of slavery, but I would argue that it’s the crux of freedom’s goodness. There is an anecdote in Te-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” which I assign to my undergraduate students, that describes an enslaved man watching his wife and children sold away.

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Every time I read this article, this line makes my chest squeeze and my breath hiccup. The image is so vivid, and if the situation is not relatable the sorrow of loss certainly is. Students always bring this anecdote up in discussion. Whereas the labor and economy of slavery is abstract to them, family, and love, is not. Liberation from slavery (whether in Egypt or the Americas) was not only motivated by love—the need for agency, autonomy, safety, equality, and power were also essential drivers—but it is my students’ visceral understanding of the former and their uneven experiences of the latter that provokes their empathy. Reading this anecdote, students come to understand that slavery is more than just a “bad” thing to do to other people; slavery is a personal terrorism of separation from, loss of, and grief for the people you love.

* * *

So I feel fortunate, on this holiday, for my freedom and the love that surrounds me. It is not to be taken for granted. It is a reminder to fight for a just world in which everyone shares the same freedom. For once we were slaves in Egypt.

You Can Love Cities without Hating the Suburban Shopping Mall

I am in Philadelphia for the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians. The meeting is being held at a hotel near the convention center and Reading Terminal Market, in the heart of downtown Philly. Here the buildings are tall, the sidewalks are crowded, and at 8 am this morning commuters poured out of the subway stations. 

My close friend Amanda and I are staying in a neighborhood about a mile away, at the home of my cousins-in-law. It’s on the border between Hawthorne and Queen Village, on a quiet street of row houses just off bustling 8th Street. Within walking distance are hundreds of bars and restaurants and unique local businesses. There is a park a block away, and on our way to the conference this morning we passed many neighbors on their morning rounds with their dogs.

This is the beauty of cities: the density, cosmopolitanism, and options. It’s why I love cities, and study cities, and travel to cities whenever I have a chance. Despite this, there are two suburban institutions that I (controversially) find superior to their urban counterparts: the grocery store, and the mall.

There is something to be said for the limited selection and convenience of a small neighborhood grocery, but suburban grocery stores are cheaper, offer more choices, and the aisles are three carts wide. You never get stuck behind someone trying to choose between pamplemousse or passion fruit La Croix. Yes, you have to drive there, but there is always ample parking. It’s a pleasant experience.

The mall is superior to the urban alternative of shopping at individual, non-contiguous retail locations. It is much more convenient to enter a single, climate-controlled edifice where all of your shopping needs are served. If you need an outfit for an event, or a new suit, you can walk around comparing options until you find stylish, well-fitting pieces in your price point. Then you can find shoes to go with it, eat deliciously shitty Chinese food for lunch, and walk out with a Cinnabon for dessert. It’s all right there! When it’s hot or cold or rainy, you’re protected from the elements. When you need to kill some time, you can window shop and exercise at the same time. If it’s your local mall, you’ll likely run into an acquaintance you haven’t seen in a while—though you could also run into your high school English teacher at Victoria’s Secret. Either way, it’s a quasi-civic space that brings people together. 

I hear your arguments that the mall is a soul-sucking, anonymous, conformist, local-business-killing capitalistic hell hole. But sometimes you need something, and that something needs to be acquired quickly, or you need to try it on first, or you don’t know which store will have it. And that’s when the suburban mall beats urban retail. 

Photo by author at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. March 2019.

Photo by author at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. March 2019.

Although the topic of this newsletter is light, I have one new and one new-ish essay on the internet this week that tackle weightier subjects. 

The first is The Historian's Craft: Thoughts on Reading and Making History in the Wake of Tree of Life, part of a series on the blog of the Political and Legal Anthropology Review entitled Speaking Justice to Power: Local Pittsburgh Scholars Respond to the Tree of Life Shooting. This is the third of three essays I wrote about the tragedy. The first, on teaching after the shooting, can be found on The Metropole. (The second is currently unavailable).

I also re-published the first essay from my Brisket Patreon project, The Pundit vs. The Public Intellectual, on my personal blog. Throughout the coming year I will be making these essays available, without a paywall, on my blog. I hope you find them thought-provoking reading!

The Pundit vs. The Public Intellectual

One year ago, I launched a writing project on Patreon called Brisket. It was a home for essays I was writing that needed to be written “low and slow.” I recently sunset Brisket, and will be sharing the essays here on my blog throughout the coming months. This was the inaugural piece, published in April 2018.

I’ll begin with a story. In February of 2017, I was finishing a dissertation about the history of Jewish Community Centers in the United States. Also in February of 2017, Jewish Community Centers in the United States began receiving phoned-in bomb threats on a weekly, then a daily, basis. Local papers from San Francisco to Nashville to St. Paul to New York ran articles detailing the events of those frightening days: a call received, a Center evacuated, police summoned, the building searched, an all-clear, and a politician quoted condemning anti-Semitism and lauding their community for its tolerance. 

It was the perfect opportunity to write an op-ed. To the New York Times and Washington Post I pitched the question: Why was the perpetrator targeting JCCs and not synagogues? I argued that it was because the Jewish Community Center, unlike synagogues, served both Jews and non-Jews. As a pluralistic space, it represented the fullest threat of intermixing between white Christian Americans and the Other—an affront to the “alt-right” white nationalist groups that I assumed were perpetrating the calls.

The Grey Lady passed, as did the Post, and so did the Jewish Forward and some other regional newspapers. The online op-ed page of the Nashville Tennessean finally accepted it, but the editor published it almost a month after I submitted my final draft. By the time it appeared online, in late March, the facts of the story had fundamentally changed. A Jewish teenager in Israel, not an American white nationalist, had been arrested and charged with perpetrating the bomb threats. And now my name appeared above an untimely, outdated argument that made no sense but would nonetheless live forever on the internet.

Understandably, the experience left me with a sour taste in my mouth. No one could blame me for assuming that the threat was domestic, a product of the hatred that the Republican presidential candidate intentionally stirred up during the 2016 campaign. Moreover, the paper should have killed the op-ed rather than publish inaccuracies. But it led me to realize that I had unwittingly engaged in punditry.

When we think of pundits, it is predominantly television personalities who come to mind. Whether Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity on the right or Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow on the left, we know that they are filtering their news analysis through a sieve of moral values and political positions. This behavior, however, is not limited to the studios of Fox News and MSNBC, and many average folks comment on current events during meetings at work or around the dinner table. To be a pundit, as I see it, is simply to speculate, extrapolate, and theorize about present events in the news based on personal experience and expertise. That’s where my op-ed went wrong. I took an activist stance in defense of JCCs and argued that democratic pluralism offended my assumed perpetrator, rather than asking, “how can the history of the JCC movement help us understand why it might be targeted?” I offered an interpretation of a current event and argued why I believed it to be true. That was not necessarily a bad thing, and it could have provided a useful service to the audience if the story had not ended with a third-act plot twist. But had I taken the latter approach I would have done the work of an educator, foregrounding the context and not  my own (incorrect) analysis.

* * *

As of late, it has become fashionable to lament the death of the public intellectual—writers and commentators like Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley Jr., Norman Mailer, and Christopher Hitchens—who used current events and trends as a launching point to discuss the larger questions of the human condition. First of all, this is argle-bargle. White, predominantly male philosophers are still given platforms from which they can monologue their ideas at the masses, though I believe that the era of their supremacy has, mercifully, passed. The fragmentation of the media and publishing industries and the declining market share of the legacy outlets has allowed new, diverse voices—women, persons of color, LGBTQIA individuals, immigrants, and religious minorities, among others—to find audiences interested in their ideas and arguments. Moreover, plenty of academics contribute op-eds, offer public lectures, serve on museum advisory boards, and even write New York Times bestselling romance-adventure series steeped in scholarly research.

“I want to make it clear that I am not saying that in order to write well, or think well, it is necessary to become unavailable to others, or to become a devouring ego. This has become the myth of the masculine artist and thinker; and I do not accept it.”


— Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” 1971

Second of all, this narrative of decline is a response to the rise of pundits like Bill O’Reilly, who serves his political agenda with a small side of purported academic expertise—the cable equivalent to being able to call macaroni and cheese healthy when you mix in a cup of frozen peas. O’Reilly is  an egregious example of this phenomenon, but I think that the line between punditry and public intellectualism is not clear cut. In fact, according to the dictionary there is not much of a difference. A pundit is defined as an expert called on to share his opinion with the public. The term apparently derives from the Sanskrit word pandita, or learned man. And isn’t a public intellectual the epitomal pandita

The temptation might be to call those with PhDs the intellectuals and label everyone else as pundits, but plenty of PhDs engage in punditry and plenty of public intellectuals don’t have PhDs. This also excludes artists, musicians, and novelists like Ai Weiwei, Beyoncé, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose works regularly critique racism, gender inequity, and governmental and social neglect of vulnerable citizens. The temptation is even stronger to assume that these are static categories rather than descriptors of behavior. I want to suggest that we forego labeling individuals as one or the other, and instead rethink “punditry” and “public intellectualism” as behaviors or approaches. To act as a public intellectual is to share ideas and arguments inspired by the present moment that provide the audience with context, helping individuals to better analyze and understand current events themselves. This is the work of the intellectual: to teach and inform and ask critical questions. It is not to advocate, it is to educate.

A public intellectual is someone whose opinions help to set the moral and aesthetic standards of her time; she draws fault lines, explains the stakes of present-day conflicts, interrogates collective intuitions. But more specifically — and more strangely — a public intellectual is someone who articulates alliances between seemingly disparate cultural and political opinions. It’s not self-evident that one’s stances on, say, abortion and what counts as a good movie should align, but they do, remarkably, again and again. To believe in enough of these correlations, and to convince others that you are right, is the role of the public intellectual. It is to possess Susan Sontag’s definition of intelligence as “a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”

— Alice Gregory, “Is it still possible to be a Public Intellectual?,” New York Times, November 24, 2015

This is righteous work, but punditry can also be righteous. Sometimes the best approach is to take a strong, unequivocal stand for what you believe in, even when your information is incomplete and you are forced into the realm of speculation and hypothesis. It’s a mistake to see public intellectualism as the only virtuous and high-minded contribution to public discourse. 

There is a particular value to acting as a public intellectual, however, and that is to model informed citizenship and mold an informed citizenry. Recently a friend remarked to me that she only hears citizenship discussed in terms of passports and immigration these days, not in reference to voting and civic participation. Her point reminded me of the hundreds of pages of archival sources, written in the 1940s, that I read as part of my dissertation research. The frequent mentions of democracy and citizenship are noticeable, in contrast to their relative absence today, and signal that people valued these concepts (even if they could not agree on their meaning). Indeed, even an institution as specialized and exceptional as Jewish Community Centers claimed in the 1940s that their purpose was to promote “the development of Judaism and good citizenship” in their members.

Of course, this was during a period of war that pitted social democracy against authoritarian fascism; Americans have understandably become more jaded about democratic participation in the intervening years as political leadership ignored the will of the people and agreed to wage the Vietnam War, the Wars on Terror, and neoliberal capitalism’s war on the middle class. I cannot fault Americans for believing that there is little benefit to being an informed voter, when they have watched their elected representatives repeatedly do the bidding of moneyed interests rather than acting in their constituents’ best interests, and I cannot fault Americans for replicating the self-serving individualism modeled by those who wield their power over us. But the truth is we are all intermeshed and that our decisions all affect each other, and that the collective still matters, and that this is what humanistic and social science research bear out: none of us exist in a vacuum. Scientists have even found evidence of trees communicating with one another through networks of fungi. As citizens of a shared collective, a democratically governed republic, the onus rests on us to come together and make smart decisions. 

So as a historian acting as a public intellectual, my role is to tell stories that show how decisions have cascading effects on others, and to explain how and why people made those decisions. As a historian acting as a pundit, I may even justify certain ideas and call for certain actions. The lesson from my unsavory op-ed is that we must make conscious choices about when and why to favor one approach over the other, and, if choosing punditry, to humbly admit when we are speculating or theorizing about present events in service of our interpretations and analysis.    

My Week of Known Knowns and Known Unknowns

“The more you learn,
the more you know you don’t know!!”

I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement when I read this line on Tuesday morning. It was written in response to a question I asked a fellow historian in her Member of the Week post on The Metropole⁠. One of my responsibilities as co-editor of the Urban History Association’s blog is to run the Member of the Week series. I send emails asking fellow urbanists to respond to a set of canned questions that apply to almost everyone, but I also write one personalized question for each member. This week I featured a PhD who left an architectural preservation consulting firm to start a whole-animal butchery business with her husband. “The more you learn, the more you know you don’t know” was her immediate reaction when I asked her what parallels she sees between academia and entrepreneurship. 

My week has been defined by this uncomfortable tension between knowing and the unknown. Two weeks ago I began teaching a mini-course at Carnegie Mellon on the evolution of “the ghetto” from Venice in 1516 up to the segregated black neighborhoods of present-day American cities. The first four class sessions are focused on Jews in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, and the rest of the course focuses on black Americans in the twentieth century. There are a few Jewish students in the class, but the majority are not, and so I have spent a lot of time explaining everything from the definition of “a Jew” to the diaspora to the distinction between “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardi.” On Wednesday night I broke down the differences between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, and described why tensions ran high between the established German Jewish community that immigrated to the US in the mid-nineteenth century and the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who arrived at the turn of the twentieth century. Standing up at the front of the room, in the role of professor and speaking as a Jew, for most of my students I am their foremost authority on am Yisrael, the Jewish people.

And then…. I go home, and return to my real life and the recognition of how little I know. On Twitter this past weekend I noticed a stream of tweets directed at a non-Jewish woman who described herself as a shiksa and expressed a desire to “rage bake” Trumpentashen in a show of interfaith solidarity and political resistance.⁠ I thought her tweet was fine, and didn’t blink twice at either her use of shiksaor baking hamentaschen. I appreciated the interest in our tradition! As I read through the replies, however, I learned about the origins of this derogatory term for non-Jews—⁠and how hurtful it is for converts to Judaism, in particular.⁠ And I realized that other Jews on Twitter felt like she was appropriating Jewish culture.

It prompted me to think about the overlaps in the venn diagram between myself and other American Jews. I grew up in a smaller city with a small Jewish community. I was one of only a handful of Jews in my high school. Back then I would burst with pride and happiness at any expression of interest in Jews and Judaism from my peers, because the norm was being invited to church or overlooked. My senior prom was scheduled for the first night of Passover, forcing Jewish students to choose between attending seder or prom. That one of my peers would think to make hamentaschen would have thrilled me, not felt like appropriation. 

And then yesterday on Hey Alma (which, by the way, I can’t recommend more highly) I read an article about Christian seders⁠. I completely understand the argument that this is appropriation, but I also cannot tell you the number of times that I have been able to connect with non-Jews because their experience at their church seder familiarized them with Jewish traditions. I have hosted non-Jews at my own seders here in Pittsburgh who felt more comfortable joining in an interfaith celebration because they had a basic familiarity with how the meal would go. Do I think that this ultimately justifies the practice? Probably not. But I also don’t find myself mad about it.

Where I do find myself is stuck in the knowing/unknowning murk. I know enough to teach my non-Jewish students about my identity, religion, and culture, and I know enough to know how much I don’t know about Jews, Judaism, or Jewish culture. I think this is a point that often gets lost in our contemporary debates about identity politics. Many members of identity groups are still learning the contours of their histories and cultures. Tweets and articles like the ones I read this week are informative and important, but also speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community. Speaking for myself, I find this behavior alienating—even when it’s educational and in our own defense.

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In addition to shouting out Hey Alma, which even some of my non-Jewish millennial girlfriends enjoy reading,  I want to recommend a few other things I've been enjoying on the internet lately.

I love watching @julierosealex do her bold, colorful eye makeup looks on Instagram Live. 

I'm obsessed with the podcast Erin and Aliee Hate Everything, particularly their feminist/queer hot takes on politics and pop culture. 

Apps are not really the internet, but we do get them from the internet, ergo I include Woody Puzzle--my current favorite mind-numbing game.