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Culture

9 Questions for Ayesha A. Siddiqi

The writer and cultural commentator on the 'Bush Era Redux' and how to forecast trends.

Courtesy Ayesha A. Siddiqi

Ayesha A. Siddiqi is many things, among them a writer, a doesn’t-miss trend forecaster, editor and board member at The New Inquiry, and a clear-eyed commentator on style, politics, humanity, and beyond. She has a unique way of capturing and contextualizing the texture and feeling of being alive in the 21st century, one dominated by mass surveillance, unfettered capitalism, and cultural hegemony. Siddiqi also has a great Substack that’s well worth your support.

So, naturally, I asked her about the aesthetics of George W. Bush’s presidency, American pathos, and generational angst.

You’re working on a book about the “Bush Era Redux” we’re living through. For the uninitiated, could you explain the term and what it says about our current politics and aesthetic? Do you think the “redux” will ever end?

Sure, essentially I argue that everything that has occurred in America in the last 10 years was the predictable, inevitable, consequence of events that occurred during the Bush administration. I spent most of the Bush era anticipating what we’ve seen occur these last few years; the book is an attempt at drawing out those throughlines in a way that others can follow and hopefully find useful to their understanding of the world today. I use the term Bush Era Redux to broadly organize and reference echoes of the early aughts in current politics, pop culture, prevailing aesthetics, music and fashion trends, policy and life experience. I would describe the time period from 2012 to 2021…possibly 2022 as Bush Era Redux. 

What’s something the media has obscured, either intentionally or unintentionally?

The role of history and emotion in ideology. Those are the main subjects of my writing and I feel they’re the least recognized in American media, or at least the most misunderstood. To be honest it’s my understanding of both that have led me to make a living as a trend forecaster. All you have to know to know what’s coming is what came before and how people feel about it. Then you can answer what they’ll be attracted to in the future, whether that’s a particular style of clothing, demagogue, or even a color.

Mainstream American media, and those that rely on it, seem to live in a perpetual state of incredulity. Everything comes as a surprise to these people. Trump was a shock to them. Vaccine denial was a shock to them. The way YouTube and Facebook have radicalized people was apparently a shocking phenomenon. None of these would be surprising to anyone who has studied American history. Currently people are taken aback at the “culture wars” over critical race theory. The Americans who would have protested school integration are still alive today and so are the people they raised. The backlash to “critical race theory” is manufactured in the sense that there was an organized campaign to teach white Americans the phrase “critical race theory.” But there is nothing manufactured about what that phrase has come to signify and what it activates in the people campaigning against it. It’s funny, emotion is the primary lens through which American media analyzes other countries—by pathologizing the result of political and economic forces as products of culture. I guess it’s apt that in my own work I’m more aware of how American culture and emotion drives politics, since I experienced America as a foreign country. However I’m less likely to make the same mistakes American journalists do. I know America better than they tend to know other countries. 

What’s your favorite figure of speech and why?

I like wishing people goodnight. I like the finality of it. It’s such a satisfying sign-off. I say it online a lot regardless of what time it may be. It’s a way of saying you’re drawing the curtain on something, the way nighttime does. And it’s so often I wish to do that. I also mean it quite sincerely, I like wishing people well. It’s like playing someone off the stage with music during an awards speech, except less disruptive. You’re simply taking your leave, and they could carry on if they wish. 

You’re known for forecasting trends. Is there a recent trend that’s surprised you and, if so, why? What’s one that made you reappraise your outlook—for better or worse—on something?

This was the hardest question to answer, because the most honest one may not be the right answer. But the most significant impact on my outlook, to the extent that it’s also affected my choices, has resulted from a deeper understanding of loss over the last few years. I think it’s accurate, if a little inelegant, to say loss has been trending. I was definitely surprised by how much I still had to learn about it. There’s so much you can only learn meaningfully through experience. 

Do you think the kids are alright?

I think they’re great. I love kids. Generational terms can be a convenient shorthand through which to analyze society, and I often use it. But it’s also a very flawed framework and should only be used with its limitations in mind. I’m more interested in, and encouraged by, the ways future generations can be better than us than how their distinctions make them any worse than us. Right now we’re beginning to experience a fresh wave of commentary on Gen Z because they’re entering the labor market in a way the New York Times notices. It doesn’t matter how many hours these kids have already been working in their lives, like most commentary on generations, it’s being produced out of a tiny sample size’s consumer choices and some workplace anecdotes. Someone at the NYT will know someone who has an intern that doesn’t use a specific emoji and suddenly there’s “news” coverage dedicated to generational differences in emoji usage. I don’t really care about that. We play the cards we’re dealt. I’m interested in being honest about what future generations are being dealt. Every generation refuses some of what it inherits. I’m excited to see what Gen Z refuses. I support refusal from outside the status quo. It’s usually hard-won. 

Do you still find utility or enjoyment in using social media? 

I do. I use two right now, Twitter and Instagram. When people complain about social media I can’t relate. I like using Twitter because it brings me the perspectives I’m interested in. I’m always either being informed or entertained. A lot of complaining about Twitter strikes me as an admission of being bad at curating for yourself. Or it’s from people who work in media and feel obligated to follow people for career-related purposes and as a result have a timeline they resent reading. I’ll be enjoying someone’s thread of funny TikToks or fascinating archival photos someone shared or a helpful reply to something I’ve posted, and someone with a blue check who’s online all day will be like, “this is a hellsite.” They could be laughing at a funny joke instead too. Or discovering something cool. Short of targeted harassment campaigns, we still have a lot of agency in curating our social media experiences, especially on Twitter. You have some responsibility to yourself and others regarding the attitudes you allow.

Facebook I haven’t had since Obama was elected. I saw where it was headed. It’s not a choice I’m self-satisfied about, there are a lot of people whose kid’s photos I’d love to see more regularly and be able to hit like on. But beyond that the value proposition of having a Facebook account just wasn’t convincing to me. As for Instagram, I use it like a diary of images. I post things I personally like looking at and I don’t follow anyone. It’s not because I don’t care about people, I care about my friends and family very much. But I don’t care to broadcast who they are by engaging with them in front of a public audience. Instagram is not where my social life lives. And Twitter is not where my professional life lives. They’re both just places to find me and my online posts. I recommend not letting the role of social media grow outsized in proportion to the rest of your life. I know that can be difficult given our contemporary social and professional demands. But you can exercise some discretion over what you experience. Make choices that serve a good life. 

What’s the worst movie you’ve watched recently?

Haha I think you can guess what my answer will be, thank you for the opportunity to share my review of Promising Young Woman.