This is a post about Seth Oelbaum, and I wish that it wasn’t.
I got my copy of the keys to this blog while I was unemployed. I had just quit a job not because I hated it, and not because I didn’t like the people there, but because I wasn’t very good at it. This was hard for me because I am the sort of person who needs to believe he is the best at basically everything. I am a teacher’s pet, a perfectionist, a people-pleaser, a needy pile of nerves, sometimes. The way I started writing here is this: I had written at the blog for my magazine for a while, and some people here had liked some of the posts. Roxane Gay was one of those people. She told me she had suggested to Blake Butler that I be invited to post here. Blake seemed receptive, but nothing happened, and meanwhile I was looking for work but not finding any and I spent most of the day sitting on my couch reading job listings and feeling my heart hurt. I needed to feel like I was succeeding in something. I thought that one way I could feel like I was succeeding would be to write for this blog, which had been a comfort to me in grad school, where two different instructors made me openly cry by telling me that I was no good at fiction. I liked to tell myself that the sort of people who read this blog would like what I was writing, and in fact had liked it in the past, as evidenced by certain posts and discussions, and that there were a lot of people who read this blog, and so I couldn’t be all bad. Now, unemployed, heart aching, I thought that writing things here might help me feel better again, and that it might advance my writing career in some way, which is important to me, because of said personality defects. So I sent Blake a gchat and asked him if I could please start writing here. I think I e-mailed him about it too. He said yes. And so I did.
So for a while I posted a lot, and I watched my posts closely to see how they did in terms of traffic and comments, especially as compared to other posts by other, more popular writers, to the extent that the WordPress back end would let me discern that. It made me feel productive. My heart hurt a little less.
My posting slowed to a trickle when I found new (and very stressful) work. I also had a super-long novel to finish, and a story in Best American Short Stories, which made me feel that I needed to do other things (like finish said super-long novel) in order to capitalize on this success, for the sake of the aforementioned writing career. For a while, I didn’t read this blog, except very occasionally when I saw that A D Jameson had written something especially geeky, which is basically my jam. When I started reading again, I saw that Seth Oelbaum was posting with some regularity. And that made me want to never write here again. It made me want to stay away.
Like a lot of people, I sometimes find some of this blog’s writers and commenters infuriating. The thing I like least about this blog is when it tries to be cool. (This is also the thing I like least about other human beings in general.) The usual strategy for achieving coolness around here seems to be some combination of disappearing up your own ass, demonstrating value, and saying bewildering, inflammatory things in such a way as to create the illusion you are a radical dissident, important thinker, etc. These qualities, combined and multiplied, describe the Seth Oelbaum persona in its entirety. (Well, almost: Seth also likes to post jpegs of people, including himself, in ugly clothing, and to sometimes write like an infant.)
If Seth had ever written something genuinely interesting or provocative, this is where I would feel obligated to respond to the meat of his writing. I might quote some especially frustrating passages and respond to their particulars. Because he has produced literally nothing of any value in his time here — even the comment threads in response to his posts, in which he rarely deigns to participate, are hideously dull and repetitive, especially my own contributions — I feel no such obligation. There is no there there. It is enough to say that his work is uniformly ugly, boring, and totally devoid of insight. It is hateful, bigoted, witless, and misspelled. It contributes less than nothing. It actively detracts from everything else that happens on this site. I feel less alive when I read it. I feel less capable of love.
Seth may or may not believe that he is bringing attention to injustice. But I can’t name even one of the atrocities he’s written about. The Oelbaum persona overshadows anything it purports to discuss; everything the persona creates is subordinate to its creator. The dead bodies Seth posts are not dead bodies: they are advertisements for the Oelbaum persona. Seth accuses “the white race” of indifference to the suffering of other people. I would accuse Seth of using the suffering of other people as a platform for his own self-aggrandizement. He expresses his privilege by using their bodies as fuel for his tacky machine.
It may well be that Americans, and perhaps even white Americans in particular, do not think often enough about the ways that other people live and die. I probably don’t. I’m not sure how my thinking about them would help, in all fairness; Seth claims to hate money, but money is probably what most of these people need most of all, so that they can feed themselves and their families, and so they can use their money to buy politicians, so that they will own these politicians, so that they can tell these politicians to stop ordering and allowing their deaths. I do not give enough money to other people. I do not help them as much as I could.
But worse than that, I don’t love them enough. I have limited money, but my love is potentially infinite. I choose — and it is very much a choice, one that I make actively each day — not to give it to them anyway.
I began with how I started posting to this site because I’m curious about how Seth got here. Did Blake give him the keys? Maybe he did. Did someone invite Seth? Did Seth invite himself? Did he tell anyone what he was planning to do once he got here? Is there someone here who likes the Oelbaum persona? Does the person who gave him the keys regret it now? I have no Earthly idea. I regret it on that person’s behalf.
Seth believes that we care too much about Jewish people. He claims that we care too much about the Holocaust. He claims that we care too much about the deaths of people in Boston. He claims that we only care about the deaths of white people. He apparently feels that these are very important points, because he returns to them again and again. He is wrong on all counts but the one. (We who are white Americans may genuinely only care about the deaths of white people, though I don’t think this is the result of racism so much as a more practical concern: we’re so relieved it wasn’t us, and that it won’t be us, that we forget to empathize. I don’t offer this as a defense, but in an attempt to more precisely define the problem the Oelbaum persona is so clumsily addressing.) The problem is not and never has been that we care too much about anyone. It is that we have never cared enough.
We can mourn two things at once. Better still, we can love them. In Seth’s imagination, there is a limited supply of love. He claims to want to give it to the people who need it most. In reality, the only limits on our love are the ones we impose. If Seth wants to love the people who are suffering in this world, then he can do that. And he can help us do it too. He can write informative posts about them. He can send them money. He can encourage us to send them money. He has chosen to make us love less. He begins by making us hate him. He hopes to make us hate each other. He imagines this will lead us to love more deserving and more needy people. He’s wrong about that too.
I’m not writing this in hopes Seth will be “fired.” That’s not really how this site’s culture works, though if he were fired, I would welcome that. I’m not writing this in hopes that Seth will stop posting. I don’t think that he will stop until no one’s reading, which might take a long time. Let’s be honest: I am writing this to hurt Seth. I am writing this to give you an opportunity to hurt Seth too. I’m writing this because I want him to stop, and because I want him to know how badly I want him to stop, and so that other people can let him know also. I’m writing this because I want it established very clearly, here and now, that participation in this site does not imply any kind of association with the Oelbaum persona. I have no idea where this jerk came from, folks, and when he’s gone, he won’t be missed, by me or anyone I love.
I want to love everyone. (I want to want to love everyone.) I want to be kinder and more generous. (I want to want to be kinder and more generous.) But I can’t love Seth Oelbaum. Not even a little. My heart is hard, and I’m not even sorry.