Brian passes this along:
(3) Why do we do this?
My wild guess: we suffer from a lack of seriousness, so that our opinions on important issues becomes matters of tribal identity and entertainment. In fact the tribal beliefs — including the exaggerations and lies — function as group markers. Much as did the dietary laws of the ancient Israelites.
In our nation of increasingly atomized individuals — without the clan, community, and corporate loyalties that for so long defined Americans — these provide new allegiances for the New America. Best of all, they’re free of any cost. Strongly held identities, dedicated to saving the nation or even the world, with no obligations for personal action.
These are unlike the allegiances that built America. Abolitionists, suffragettes, unionists, civil rights activists — all of these were tied to reality, which limited their fantasy football-like disregard for reality.
Can’t really argue with that. Freddie deBoer writes about this theme often, as he did in this essay:
Contemporary strivers lack the tools with which people in the past have differentiated themselves from their peers: They live in a post-virtue, post-religion, post-aristocracy age. They lack the skills or inspiration to create something of genuine worth. They have been conditioned to find all but the most conventional and compromised politics worthy of contempt. They are denied even the cold comfort of identification with career, as they cope with the deadening tedium and meaninglessness of work by calling attention to it over and over again, as if acknowledging it somehow elevates them above it.
Into this vacuum comes a relief that is profoundly rational in context—the self as consumer and critic. Given the emptiness of the material conditions of their lives, the formerly manic competitors must come to invest the cultural goods they consume with great meaning. Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value.
Freddie, of course, is writing more specifically about status competition over consumer taste in this instance. But Fabius is writing about how even our opinions on “serious” sociopolitical issues become game tokens to redeem toward the same kind of empty entertainment. Political identity becomes just another means of social sorting in the high-school cafeteria environment of the twitosphere. For a perfect example, take this post that I saw on the Slymepit a few months ago:
I don’t watch any of that celebrity crap either, but I do loathe the fact that we in America (and probably elsewhere as well) are so obsessed with celebrity culture. People like the Kardashians are famous for… what, exactly? Artistic achievement? Nope. Corporate leadership? Nope. Acting ability? Nope. Political acumen? Nope. Anything at all? Nope. They’re famous for absolutely fucking nothing.
I don’t watch sports either. Fucking bread and circuses. Yay, I barely make enough at work to feed my family and the NSA spies on my phone calls, emails, internet surfing and text messages, but who cares about all that. I’m all upset because my favorite athlete got traded to another team.
As a matter of fact I haven’t watched broadcast or cable TV of any kind in over two years. Netflix and my movie and documentary collections are more than enough for me. When I hear the people at work excitedly discussing whatever the fuck the latest episode of “Housewives of Fill in the Blank” or “Swamp People” was about, I just inwardly roll my eyes and try not to tell them they’re PART OF THE PROBLEM!!! 😆
Reminds me of that joke: How can you tell if someone doesn’t watch TV? Oh, don’t worry, they’ll tell you. But that part is just generic anti-mainstream snobbery. The second paragraph is what I found interesting. Leave aside the obvious fact that plenty of people manage to pay attention to sports, entertainment and other hobbies while managing to stay au courant on world news. Answer honestly: what difference have the NSA revelations made in your life? Have you changed your browsing habits as a result? Your purchasing habits? Are you going to vote differently? Have you done anything whatsoever of a political nature, even something as weak as signing a petition or writing a letter to your Congressman? Or have you, like most of us, shrugged at the confirmation of what you assumed they were doing all along? Isn’t this just one more bit of depressing news to add to the rest of the pile? How has knowing about this benefitted you at all? What kind of ridiculous, petty pride is there to be taken in such a distinction? We’re all helplessly constricted in the coils of the State, but hey, at least I saw it coming!
All such snobbery reduces to empty signaling. “Hey, I’m one of you, the cool people. I’m definitely not like those wrong-thinking morons over there.” A bunch of insignificant lightning bugs flashing their little green asses at one another. It doesn’t matter whether the flashes are in reference to brand loyalties or sociopolitical differences; the medium itself, the social web, makes them equally trivial. That’s one of the things I find so strange about the twitosphere — you might see a blogger one day acting out an anguished performance over the latest gun massacre. Then they’ll post a link to something like Patton Oswalt’s tweets on the massacre, as if his nerd-cred means he’s going to have something profound to say about it. And within a couple days, they’ll be back to posting pictures of a handmade Boba Fett oven mitt — “OMG. Coolest. Thing. Ever!” Serious topics and silly trifles are all presented in the same deracinated context, rendering them all slightly surreal, detached from the real world. It’s all disposable, everything’s always becoming old news.
The funniest thing about the above excerpt is that it comes from someone who’s been a registered member of the forum since its inception, a regular with over 3400 posts to his name. It seems safe to say that he’s found plenty of frivolous things to do with his time rather than wallow in useless angst about the Orwellian super-state. I mean, look, some people like watching Kim Kardashian’s ass. Some people like laughing at lolcats. Some people like watching basketball games. Some people like trawling the blogosphere, looking for confirmation of their biases toward Republicans, Christians, southerners, whatever. Some people like engaging in endless Twitter spats that contribute nothing whatsoever to anyone’s edification. And some people like making funny Photoshops of various morons in the online atheist environment. It’s all entertainment. What Thomas Frank was just saying about journalism is even more true with regards to the twitosphere — sound and fury, signifying nothing, just another comfortable niche for people to waste time in. All these people could be doing something more “important” with their time and energy. But though the Kardashian-keeper-uppers may be vapid and boring, at least they don’t take themselves as seriously as those who prefer their entertainment with a coating of faux-gravitas.