The Writings of John Wenz

Philadelphia-based freelance writer for The Awl, Popular Mechanics, Mental Floss, Hear Nebraska and other publications.

You can reach me at john.wenz@gmail.com

The State of Affairs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Everybody knows the narrative – in 2010, a sweeping election ushered in a number of ultra-conservative politicians to power nationwide – not only in the U.S. Congress, but in governor’s mansions and statehouses.

While governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Scott of Florida have captivated much of the headlines with their far-right policies, there are other, Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania is certainly doing his part to make things as hard as possible on his own citizens.

Corbett, the former Attorney General for Pennsylvania, came to power after defeating a weak candidate in the governor’s race in Dan Onorato, the county executive for Allegheny County, which contains Pittsburgh. Corbett took similar tactics to now-Michigan Governor Rick Snyder – hew closer to the image of a non-idealogue, as can be seen in his campaign website, which reflects a solutions oriented potential administration.

But once in office, Corbett made it obvious from day one what kind of business he meant from day one – and since then, it has shaped into a narrative that if you’re an energy company, this land is your land. If you’re poor or a woman, you’re on your ass.

Right now, the biggest headline maker is the Voter ID laws being upheld by state courts. These laws force Pennsylvania residents to provide state issued ID cards at polling places. According to state estimates, 750,000 voters in Pennsylvania lack proper identification. The plaintiff in the case contended that the poor and elderly will be most affected by these laws.

Most recently, Corbett stopped funding for low-income tax preparation programs. These state funds helped bolster capacity for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs nationwide, which provide free income tax preparation for families earning less than $50,000 in a tax year while avoiding the predatory lending practices of commercial preparers. Many of those coming through the doors of VITA programs are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. According to the Brookings Institute, in 2010 39 percent of filers claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit, originally a GOP initiative in the 1970s to incentivize work while creating a tax credit that helped the working poor make ends meet. This program has been increased by subsequent administrations since Ford enacted it in 1975. President George W. Bush, while governor of Texas and a presidential candidate, said that we shouldn’t balance the budget “on the backs of the poor.”

That last quote has a bit of irony – perhaps the GOP efforts to distance themselves from the Bush administration instilled the idea that we should, in fact, do just that. Certainly Corbett has taken it to heart, such as when he re-imposed a stringent asset test on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) recipients. Have more than $2000 in savings? Well you certainly can afford food – nevermind if those savings are all you have to your name. It’s not the only safety net program to feel the sting of Corbett. The General Assistance fund, which provided cash support to individuals and families in need, was eliminated entirely, as were state programs for the homeless, the elderly, those with disabilities and recovering drug addicts. AdultBasic, a popular state health insurance program for low income adults was eliminated, with enrollees being told to sign up for a private program that costs up to five times as much as AdultBasic. The AdultBasic insurance wasn’t funded out of the general tax fund, but instead through settlements from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.

His budgets have cut spending on education by $900 million – forcing the Chester Upland school district in the economically blighted city of Chester to run out of money entirely before a judge intervened. It also forced the dissolution of the Philadelphia School District and provided charter companies with an opportunity to takeover those schools.

And thanks to Voter ID laws, many of those affected won’t be able to show their disgust at the polls.

But of course, Corbett’s draconian vision doesn’t end there. If you’re a woman trying to exercise your right to choose, you’re also screwed.

When trying to pass a fetal ultrasound bill amidst criticism from women’s groups, he simply told those seeking abortion services to “close your eyes” during the screening. That is, for those who can find a place to have the procedure done, thanks to Pennsylvania reclassifying abortion providers to ambulatory surgical facilities, subjecting them to minimum spacing laws that many of the 22 abortion providers in Pennsylvania won’t be able to accomidate. In fact, thus far, only 14 pass muster – and only one of those past 18 weeks.

So who isn’t hurting in Pennsylvania now? If you’re a natural gas extraction company, you’re doing just fine. Taxes can only be levied in and by affected counties – and no money for investigating potential environmental impacts. And according to the states own Public Utilities Commission, those meager drilling fees – which could economically bolster many of the hemorraging programs in the state – will lower more and more each year.

A few points I should add to my last post:

  • I believe Kurt Vonnegut was a writer who took some of these same conditions and turned it into a force of good. A cursory look at his essays confirms a strong secular humanist worldview intent on alleviating the suffering of others, while his fiction at times self-indulgently explored his own personal demons but tempered them with humor. 
  • I think those conditions can be stretched into the whole umbrella of Gonzo journalism - a need for it to be druggy and weird and seem to many to speak a truth, but instead speak an account of the truth through the lens of the author and their own concepts of reality. And thus it tends toward this same narrative. 
  • Bangs himself summed up this attitude, indirectly, with his writings on The Marble Index by Nico: “So I guess my editor and I are smitten. But the quality of the smiting is more than just peculiar; this article was assigned and written for fear as much as love, or the love of fear. In his poetically definitive book Stargazer, Stephen Koch, in trying to come to some understanding of his subject Andy Warhol, resorts to a quote from Baudelaire: ‘Half in love with easeful death.’ Then, just to drive home the point he is making about the intimacy between narcissism and Warholian deathly otherness, he writes: ‘Half in love. Exactly.’”
  • Art is not more interesting with suffering. Art is more interesting with how you use it and a wide range of other emotions too. Art does not have to be dark in order to be art.
  • These arguments can stretch into music and self-fulfilling prophecies and narratives in the music of misery. Which we all listen to at times as a cathartic experience, but when we live them (Ian Curtis, Elliot Smith, Kurt Cobain) it becomes an entirely different beast.
  • This is not to undercut the experience of depression, which is a horrible, infectious creature. But rather to say that when we romanticize the spectacle of it and treat things as a visceral experience then we’re dooming ourselves into repeating this same values system. 

Young fools all reading Lester Bangs

I didn’t write this. That should be obvious from the fact that this ran in the New Yorker and I’m not at that level. Yet. But it does remind me that one of the first times my interest was piqued in writing was discovering rock criticism.

At the time, I did it through the highly romanticized movie Almost Famous. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman played Lester Bangs. Upon seeing him, I almost certainly had to read what he wrote and after graduating from high school I hunted down a copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung and consumed it. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write like that and be like that. I tried so hard to be that upon entering my writing “career” at our student newspaper. Sometimes, I even drank Nyquil recreationally, not realizing the punch wasn’t remotely narcotic, but just sad. 

But here’s the thing - at that age, when you’re weird, when you’re male, when you don’t like your friends much, when you don’t seem to know what your life is or what it means - you end up with the exact heroes you shouldn’t have. People who romanticize misery. People with druggy hazes around the aura they’re trying to project. People who, had they not picked up a guitar or typewriter, would almost certainly be in a gutter. And even then, sometimes, they still ended up in the gutter.

Take Lester Bangs. He idolized the beats - a group that are vaunted for their literary genius but steeped instead in misogyny, or open pedophilia like Burroughs, or romanticizing the use of heroin or or or … In other words, for every reason to like them there are two or three not to. The genius cuts off when you realize that this isn’t just about your idols but what they come to represent and how that reflects on you. Kerouac’s supposed stream of consciousness was the writings of an inveterate drunk. And for all the mystification of him in the counter culture, he was a cultural conservative and a racist who supported the Vietnam War and loathed the counter-culture itself. And even Allen Ginsburg - who, along with Amiri Baraka, I find to be one of the few beats to write home about and I can at least enjoy that Greg Orlovsky had a chapbook called Clean Assholes - at one point joined pro-pederastry organization NAMBLA in a supposed defense of the First Amendment. I guess the right to say that you’re a pederast?

At any rate, Bangs grew up worshipping the Beats, and their freedom. He himself resisted the allure of supposed “street drugs” and ended up instead scummily guzzling Romilar cough syrup and aping, at points, Kerouac’s miserable alcoholism. He wanted to write stream of consciousness rants about music - and while it worked sometimes, at other points his own sad misery shown through as he laid himself bare. Bangs, the wannabe moralist who couldn’t get over his own obsessive need for self-destruction. Bangs, bordering on misogyny and who brandished a shirt with the N-word on it in some supposed edginess. Bangs whose tender care for beloved musicians was matched by withering reviews often bordering on spite. And it’s the latter attitude that infects much of rock criticism. It’s hard to write about a good album and get to the core of why it’s good. It’s better to insult a mediocre album to the point of oblivion. It’s easier to hate than to embrace, and it’s a cynical, repetitive mindset less about the music than about some form of inward misery and how this mediocrity reflects on your own need to destroy the mediocrity. Because maybe your insecurities are what are really at the core.

It’s a dialogue for the lonely depressives that, at the same time, reinforces the loneliness and the depression. 

I remember wanting to be the person to destroy albums and artists. It was harder for me, at a young age, to write about what made something good. To construct why something can be great. Or to listen to something that doesn’t affect you at all. Or, in turn, to write supposed defenses of schlock or “skronk” as Bangs would call it by way of Robert Christgau. 

This is not to say that Bangs - and those who follow him - are incapable of empathy or joy. Self-indulgent as he could be, he seemed to have a lot of heart that he couldn’t always adequately muster. 

But it’s sort of like High Fidelity, a state of arrested development. At 18, the three record store clerks are the pinnacle of cool, the tastemakers, the people you want to be. You want the obsessive evisceration of the mundane, to take the boring and raise it to the status of the infidel. You want songs to be a reflection of your own life - even if it self-reinforces notions of negativity, or makes you fall into the “nice guy” trap of seeing yourself as the victim of heartbreak because despite your best efforts you seem unlovable - and you want to project that it’s not your fault. Or something of the ilk.

This piece points out David Foster Wallace’s own love of Lester Bangs - two men intwined by misery and pomposity and a need to correct their flaws with more flaws or inadequate Band-Aids. Both men whose writing was steeped in moments of self-indulgent sadness.

It’s seemingly a mostly male phenomenon. And why wouldn’t it be? The Beats were, a handful of exceptions aside, almost uniformally male and writing of the male experience. It’s hard to create a safe space for women when your resident junkie pederast shot his wife in a game of William Tell. And music writing is of a similar ilk - still, to this day, a boy’s club where women struggle with preconceived notions of both what their writing can be and in performers what their art can be. And I’m not entirely sure where to put David Foster Wallace in literary canon - we haven’t had the need to do some revisionist naming of it - but he is most certainly in that breadth of self-indulgent male writers like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen. And when this canon of post-9/11 literature is written, where will the women be? 

I still enjoy Lester Bangs. I would probably enjoy Infinite Jest if I had the will to take the time to sit down and read it. I still have a collected Allen Ginsburg that survives every book purge. I still will pick up almost any music book, whether history or criticism, and it’s the genre I most often finish instead of trailing off and returning it to the shelf. But these are people whose works we can enjoy while trying to avoid internalizing their actual lives - lives of misery, lives steeped in ultra-self awareness and also oblivious to how that interacts with the outside world. Lives lived not in hiding but in tempering expressions of sorrow with expressions of joy. Lives where we’re not a victim of life but a participant. We can enjoy these writings without internalizing a cynical world view. We can appreciate them as art without imitating them.

In other words, we shouldn’t idolize the behaviors of these authors, even if we find ourselves gravitating toward their writing. We can take the parts we like but try to extract from this the problematic elements. We can try to not reinforce another generation of male writers ultra-aware and also completely oblivious to their own faults, and not reinforce them as debilitating failures. We don’t have to kill our “idols,” but we can become better people by not reinforcing their behaviors. 

The Awl: What Did You Want To Accomplish When You Grew Up?

Now I can say Cory Doctorow and I were in the same breath in the same article!

Here’s my specific contribution:

I became an iffy believer in the concept of God sometime around when I was 13. And I was in Catholic school at the same time, which put me in a weird, weird place. After being told the concept of God and Heaven for so long, suddenly the most terrifying thought to me was the concept that of consciousness ending and that being it when I die. So of course my iffy understanding of science led me to the ultimate idea for an invention I couldn’t possibly implement: I wanted either a robotic body I could put my brain into and live forever, or I wanted to entirely digitize my brain and be able to live as a sentient computer program, like a really boring version of The Matrix entirely design to allay my fear of death. Some of the details of the robotic body have changed—I no longer need it to withstand the vacuum of space—I’m not entirely sure I’ve given up on this dream.