What Andrew Potter and I were arguing against, in The Rebel Sell, was a certain political idea, which originated in the 1960s, but remained enormously influential during the punk era as well. The thought was that, in order to have a truly revolutionary politics, it was not sufficient to oppose just the capitalist economic system (as previous generations of communist revolutionaries had done). Capitalism was thought to be just one manifestation of a larger problem, which affected all aspects of society – the education system, the military-industrial complex, the church, the family, in fact the entire culture. In order to be truly revolutionary, one needed to oppose “the system” in its entirety. The central characteristic of the system was taken to be its fixation on order and discipline. If the entire culture was repressive, then liberation was possible only by forming a “counterculture,” which would celebrate the disorderly and the anarchic. This had a huge impact on left-wing politics. It explains how, as we put it in the book, “the hipster, cooling his heels in a jazz club, came to be seen as a more profound critic of modern society than a civil rights activist working to enlist voters, or the feminist politician campaigning for a constitutional amendment.”
The countercultural analysis, unfortunately, turned out to be mistaken. There’s no other way to put it. The idea was that if certain forms of discipline broke down – for instance, if people overcame their sexual repression and discovered free love, or if people began to reject the soul-destroying conformity of the suburbs, that a new era of freedom and individuality would break out, as a result of which, people would no longer tolerate the exploitative conditions of assembly-line labour, or military conscription to fight wars of imperialism. In other words, it was genuinely believed that countercultural rebellion would undermine and destroy “the system.” In the end though, it turned out that “the system” doesn’t actually require mass conformity, or sexual repression. So all that “rebellion” just became a new source of competitive consumption. The sexual revolution, for instance, immediately gave rise to the pornography industry. And clothing companies are just as happy selling leather jackets as they are grey flannel suits. So countercultural rebellion immediately became a part of the system that it believed itself to be opposing.
This is not to say that art cannot change things. But it cannot change the fundamental nature of commercial society. Artists have been condemning bourgeois society and its values for well over 100 years, and all they have succeeded in doing is showing how deep and liquid the market is for anti-bourgeois products.
Second — and it’s impossible for any brief excerpt to do it justice — David Chapman:
At the beginning of this page, I asked: “What is ‘Buddhist ethics’ for?” My answer has been that it’s a strategy for advertising yourself as a “good” person—good to work with, hang out with, or have children with. I’ve explained why this strategy worked. I say “worked,” because it no longer does. Various trends I described have progressively lowered Western Buddhism’s signaling value. “Buddhist ethics” isn’t fooling anyone anymore; everyone understands, implicitly, that there’s no such thing. Buddhism isn’t daring and sexy and hip anymore; it’s your batty aunt’s quaint, harmless, old-fashioned hobby. And it has gone from an upper middle class religion to a middle-middle one, and now probably a lower middle one.
Lower middle class people are not losers! There is nothing wrong with lower middle class Buddhism. In fact, the Aro gTér lineage, which I practice, was almost entirely working class in the 1980s, and is still mainly working and lower middle class. I myself am working class by some criteria, and lower middle by some others.
There is nothing wrong with comfortable, simplified, status-quo Buddhism, either! The Consensus impulse to create that was well-motivated and useful. I would like to see different Buddhisms available for all sorts of different people.
By “Buddhism is for losers” I mean that, at this point, saying you are a Buddhist is likely to signal that you are loser in the eyes of many people who, a couple decades ago, would have been impressed. For them, “Buddhist” now means “well-intentioned but ineffectual”; someone who can’t get their stuff together enough to do anything significant or interesting.
What’s dysfunctional is using Buddhism to signal high status if that doesn’t work. That is definitely a loser’s strategy. It was bad enough that Consensus Buddhism was mostly empty posturing. Empty posturing that doesn’t fool anyone is totally pointless.
There is a word for ideologies, religious or secular, that seek to politicize and control every aspect of human life: totalitarian. Unlike most such ideologies, SocJus has no fixed doctrine or clear utopian vision. But in a way, its amorphousness makes it more tyrannical. While all revolutions are prone to devouring their children, the SocJus movement may be especially vulnerable to self-immolation: its creed of “intersectionality”—multiple overlapping oppressions—means that the oppressed are always one misstep away from becoming the oppressor. Your cool feminist T-shirt can become a racist atrocity in a mouse-click. And, since new “marginalized” identities can always emerge, no one can tell what currently acceptable words or ideas may be excommunicated tomorrow.
…The social justice movement has many well-meaning followers who want to make the world a better place. But most of its “activism” is little more than a self-centered quest for moral purity.
Irving Howe wrote a viral post identifying the key characteristics of the social justice movement. It was not based on a “politics of common action”, because that would require them to make common cause with “saints, sinners and ordinary folk”; rather, it was a “gesture of moral rectitude” designed to set them apart from this fallen world. But none of them actually believe in the possibility of Marxist-style revolution, Howe wrote, and combined with their unrealistic standards and demands, there’s nothing left for these would-be radicals to do but maintain “a distinct personal style”. Howe noted how strikingly often these fundamentalist preachers of privilege-checking were themselves the privileged offspring of the white middle-class, and fretted over their radical zeal to jettison everything valuable in their Western heritage in the process of striving for “a mode of personal differentiation” in which style becomes “the very substance of revolt”.
Now, alert readers, having clicked through the link already, will have noticed that I was funnin’ with them a bit. Irving Howe was actually an anti-Stalinist leftist critic, and his essay “New Styles in ‘Leftism'” was written in 1965. To go ahead and put a fine point on it, nothing significant has changed about these people in over fifty years. They’re still using the same counter-productive tactics that their parents (or even grandparents) were using, still trying to extract ore from the same exhausted vein of narcissistic identity politics. Envisioning themselves in the moral vanguard, they’re blind to the ways they’re bound by thoughtless tradition. Believing themselves too clever to learn from history, they’re oblivious to how their radicalism follows the cyclical whims of fashion. Desiring a world filled with culture wars of liberation, they find themselves within shrinking horizons, isolated and constrained by atavistic tribal enmity.
Delight in book collecting, and in showing off one’s book collection, is common, if not universal, among readers and would-be-readers. The biggest reason we spend money on books is because we want to read them (eventually), but that isn’t the only reason: we also like to look at them, and to look at other people looking at them.
…The way I treat my books shows that no matter how important they are to me as things to read, they also exist as decorative objects and status symbols. Luckily for me (and all other similarly afflicted book lovers), recent technological advances have provided something like an alternative to this “literary materialism” in the form of e-books. If collecting physical books distracts me from a humbler and less self-centered reading experience, then eliminating the physical component of the books seems like it would help to eliminate the vanity that comes with them. I could free up a lot of shelf space, make a fair amount of money at used bookstores and clean my environmental conscience, all while getting the same edification that I have always gotten from novels and essays. The only downside is that nobody would be able to tell from visiting my apartment that books are my body and soul.
He goes on like this at length, chastising himself for not being ascetically devoted to the disembodied Platonic essence of study and inquiry. Well, let me suggest that if your book collection is becoming an object of vanity and status, you can always eliminate all the relationships which might entail someone coming over to visit and laying eyes upon it. No audience, no problem. I mean, assuming you’re serious, and not just a poser.
The ancient Greek moralist Theophrastus coined a useful term, microphilotimos, which means ‘attaching importance to unimportant things’.
This begins a brief section of the book in which Armstrong looks at ways we can find meaning and satisfaction in the ordinary details of everyday life. It’s misleading here, though, because the image Theophrastus actually intended to convey with that term is not serenity, self-containment, or imperturbable philosophical depth, but vainglorious posturing, the strutting of a cockalorum concerned with status and validation from others. He used the example of a cavalryman wearing his spurs in the Agora; if you prefer a modern version, picture George W. Bush in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier. Anyway, it doesn’t have exotic flavor, and it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but I use the term “bonsai minimalism” to symbolize a life concerned with simple pleasures, indifferent to status, wealth and power.
What Russia does, with its massive military arsenal and its historically rooted resistance to absorption into the US- and NATO-dominated order, is far more important than anything the American left is currently focusing on. It’s far more important than anything ISIS does, than anything alienated European-born jihadists do. No sense can be made of it if one’s categories of analysis are ‘white’ and ‘non-white’, which again are mostly just memes disguised as categories of analysis. My own view, for which I’ve argued before, is that the best the left could do is to engage truly progressive, internationalist, anti-Putin forces within Russia, which do exist, even though most in the western left have no idea of them. Even this probably wouldn’t help much. Putin is too powerful. And neither he, nor Kadyrov, nor anyone else in the former Soviet bloc, for that matter, could care less about who won the latest White Off on Twitter.
Less identitarian caterwauling, frivolous posturing, and community theater, please. More deep history, real analysis, and global scope.
To a casual onlooker, many of the issues being discussed on the web have a political appearance. The manner in which they are being discussed, though, demonstrates their lack of serious content. As anyone who has taken DeBoer 101 knows, race, gender, economics and geopolitics are mere tokens in a game of social media sorting, where the players compete for meaningless status. I don’t disagree with anything Smith says in his post. I just don’t know why he’s expecting to find mature discussions of serious issues in this environment, as if the average schmuck on Twitter has anything remotely insightful to say about Russia. Perhaps it’s just a rhetorical trope, intended to shame people out of their adolescent superficiality, in which case, good luck.
Many people have remarked on the paradox of an academia made mostly of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners trying so very hard to find reasons why lots of things are the fault of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners. The simplest example I can think of is attributing the woes of Third World countries to colonialism; without meaning to trivialize the evils of colonization, a lot of academics seem to go beyond what even the undeniably awful facts can support. Dependency theory, for example, is now mostly discredited, as are a lot of the Marxist perspectives. I would provide other examples if I weren’t satisfied you can generate them independently.
This is on the face of it surprising; naively we would expect people to cast themselves and those like them in as positive a light as possible. Forget about whether these attributions of blame are right or wrong. Even if they were right I would not expect people to believe them as enthusiastically as they do.
The theories I’ve heard to explain this paradox are rarely very flattering; usually something about class signaling, or holier-than-thou-ness, or trying to justify the existence of an academic elite.
I want to propose another possibility: what if people are really, fundamentally, good?
I think he’s overthinking it. Why waste time with an unanswerable question like whether people are essentially good or bad? Either way, can’t we agree that they are often driven, probably by evolution itself, to take the path of least resistance? I’m not saying “people are lazy” in a moralistic, judgmental sense, I’m saying that people are always alert to the possibility of getting what they need with as little effort as possible. Work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes.
As we learned in high school biology class, parasitism is really an excellent evolutionary strategy. A parasite gets all the sustenance it needs at a minimum of effort and risk. In the online ecosystem, many parts of which significantly overlap with the academic ecosystem he’s talking about, sustenance comes in the form of praise and recognition. One could certainly earn a lot of praise and recognition by being a highly moral person who performs a lot of good deeds. But then again, if you’re the kind of person who’s spending a lot of time righting wrongs and actively doing good deeds, you probably don’t have much time to be monitoring Google alerts on your name to see who’s talking about you on Twitter. And going out into the world to confront injustice might entail a lot of hard, thankless work for little reward. How could one receive praise for hizzorher exemplary righteousness and have the time and energy to bask in it?
Thus did natural selection inevitably produce the remoras, fleas and tapeworms you encounter every day on social media, which it has equipped with just enough inchoate political awareness to allow them to fasten on to a passing discussion and suck all the goodwill and usefulness from it. Alexander seems to think that all the overwrought performances of moral outrage are well-intentioned, if irrationally ineffective, attempts to actually change things. They’re not. Elevating people’s sense of guilt to near-existential levels is a way to ensure a constant supply of hosts upon which to feed, as the Catholic Church might be able to tell you off the record.
Likewise, I have no idea why he finds it puzzling that some educated, progressive, white Westerners are eager to quickly denounce others like them. Freddie there might say that these people are preemptively exempting themselves from their own critique, implicitly suggesting by their analysis that they are somehow morally superior to those who remain in the outer darkness, denying their own sinfulness. Or, as we learned in history class, up the stairs and down at the other end of the hall from biology, while studying the Salem witch trials, the best way to deflect suspicion from yourself in a volatile, hostile environment is to point an accusing finger at someone else first.
But where is the prescriptive element? I mean, I get that Ramsey wants white Americans to rise up and work to fix things. But how does he propose that we actually inspire them to do so? Sure, it should be enough to show them the reality to provoke them to fight for change. But should is a word of remarkably little relevance in the real world. 50 years after the most important Civil Rights legislation, it seems obvious that just pointing out that our society is unjust is not enough to provoke the white majority to create change.
In other words, the piece recounts in exacting detail a political problem but does nothing to establish a political solution. It begs for a next step– “here’s what I would do to convince white Americans to get on board with a political movement against racial inequality”– that it never takes. And in not taking that next step, it falls perfectly into line with the general, bizarre trend, the trend to say “it’s not the job of oppressed people to educate you.” Really? Then whose job, exactly, is it? I hear that all the time, and I find it such a bizarre attitude for self-described activists to take. To call yourself an activist is precisely to say “It is my job to educate you.” Change is active by its nature. The status quo doesn’t need activists. Change requires that you make it your job. So where’s the political strategy? I don’t pretend that it would be obvious or easy– in fact I think it’ll be incredibly hard– but, well, 200 years ago you could buy people, and the ability to do so was deeply embedded in the economy. Things can change, but you’ve got to make them happen and you have to motivate people who aren’t inherently predisposed to be motivated in order to do so.
Freddie is asking rhetorical questions, of course. He’s patiently trying to lead some incredibly stupid horses to water. I, on the other hand, don’t believe that these particular horses actually want to drink. That bumper sticker image up above (courtesy of Tom Tomorrow) perfectly encapsulates what they’re all about. The “political” twitosphere is nothing more than a bunch of people complaining that “somebody should do something about this, that and the other fucked-up thing!” Not them, of course. They’ve already done their part by writing a multi-part tweet that went viral, dintjasee? They’re the “ideas” crew. They just want to heave the ball of their righteous wisdom down the online lane and watch all the opponents of progress scatter like pins.
That’s why I put “political” in scare quotes. These people are not activists, they just play them online. They’re the political equivalent of Monday-morning quarterbacks. Real activists are far too busy with the never-ending, thankless hard work required to make actual political change happen in a world where, honest to God, believe it or don’t, three-quarters of the inhabitants don’t even use Twitter, let alone know that some celebrity totally won the Internet with their post about gun control in the wake of another mass shooting (which continue apace despite near-unanimous opposition on social media, strangely enough). They don’t have time to waste on social media posturing and performing for several hours a day.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not condemning a tabloid site like Gawker for failing to draft intelligent policy proposals, as if they’re capable or willing. They’re only playing their role as the cool kids’ table in the social media cafeteria, just as they were designed. I’m merely underlining the point that the “political” web exists almost entirely for signaling and venting, nothing more. It’s a way for people to yell at their TV in public. As Freddie keeps saying, if you want to win enough support for unpopular ideas to turn them into policies and laws, it’s suicidal to act as if the truth and righteousness of your position is self-evident, and if your opponents can’t see that, well, it sucks to be as stupid as them. And yet, that’s the attitude you see displayed time and again. Even at a more intellectual site devoted to the history of ideas, where you might reasonably expect a post titled What Is The Left, Anyway? to offer up a more substantial vision of what it even means to be a leftist today, you get this kind of vapid rambling, where empty snark is about as close to a serious point as you come.
If you want to put your politics into action, put the computer to sleep and go find some activist groups in your area to get involved with. Spend your free time and weekends working with them. Or go find people who don’t already agree with you, but are at least reasonable enough to converse with, and try to sway them to your way of thinking. Any of those things would be more meaningful than sitting on your ass reading yet another post about how awful and stupid your opponents are. What are you going to do with that information? Vote for Democrats? You were doing that already! Vote even harder for Democrats? Please. The “political” web is just another form of entertainment for people who are too status-conscious to be seen keeping up with the Kardashians.
Thus, there’s a very sinister and disturbing implication to be drawn from Carr’s work—namely, that only the rich will be able to cultivate their skills and enjoy their life to the fullest while the poor will be confined to mediocre virtual substitutes—but Carr doesn’t draw it. Here again we see what happens once technology criticism is decoupled from social criticism. All Carr can do is moralize and blame those who have opted for some form of automation for not being able to see where it ultimately leads us. How did we fail to grasp just how fun and stimulating it would be to read a book a week and speak fluent Mandarin? If Mark Zuckerberg can do it, what excuses do we have?
“By offering to reduce the amount of work we have to do, by promising to imbue our lives with greater ease, comfort, and convenience, computers and other labor-saving technologies appeal to our eager but misguided desire for release from what we perceive as toil,” notes Carr in an unashamedly elitist tone. Workers of the world, relax—your toil is just a perception! However, once we accept that there might exist another, more banal reason why people embrace automation, then it’s not clear why automation à la Carr, with all its interruptions and new avenues for cognitive stimulation, would be of much interest to them: a less intelligent microwave oven is a poor solution for those who want to cook their own dinners but simply have no time for it. But problems faced by millions of people are of only passing interest to Carr, who is more preoccupied by the non-problems that fascinate pedantic academics; he ruminates at length, for example, on the morality of Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner.
…How, the critics ask, could we be so blind to the deeply alienating effects of modern technology? Their tentative answer—that we are simply lazy suckers for technologically mediated convenience—reveals many of them to be insufferable, pompous moralizers. The more plausible thesis—that the growing demands on our time probably have something to do with the uptake of apps and the substitution of the real (say, parenting) with the virtual (say, the many apps that allow us to monitor kids remotely)—is not even broached. For to speak of our shrinking free time would also mean speaking of capital and labor, and this would take the technology critic too far away from “technology proper.”
I don’t have the breadth of knowledge to be an actual critic, so it pleases me when someone who does have it says what I’ve been saying all along. It makes me feel a bit like the kid who first noticed the emperor’s danglies swinging in the breeze.
Leaving aside the whole difficult question of whether most people actually want to live up to Carr’s ideal vision of the contemplative, literate citizen, or whether they just dimly recognize that it makes them look good to at least profess to want it, the simple fact remains that most people simply don’t have the fucking time and energy after a long day of work to relax by reading modernist literature before bed instead of scrolling aimlessly through Facebook (or to go for a walk according to the exacting standards of another elitist twat). People who actually, you know, work for a living have bigger and more urgent problems to worry about than whether their brains are getting the correct sort of exercise by sending text messages instead of composing letters with quill and inkwell.
And so fretting about one’s technological consumption habits is becoming just one more trivial class signifier, one more way for people with the money to afford artisanal, free-range, handcrafted leisure time to conspicuously signal their status. The revolution is over, or, rather, it was stillborn to begin with. The bums, as always, are the ones who lose.
Someone meditates for a long time and has a profound insight into the nature of reality. He or she then decides to try and teach that insight and how to reach it to others. This goes fine for a little while, but then an institution is established to try and make the lessons more standardized, efficient and accessible. At this point certain people notice that there are opportunities for power, authority and money to be had within that institution so they get involved. Once these weasels start running things the original purpose is lost. Then someone else has to come along, call bullshit on the institution and start the whole thing up again as an outsider. The same pattern occurs with predictable regularity.
Right now in the West, we are in one of these transitional periods. Back in Japan, Zen has become an orthodox institution that offers its members opportunities for power, authority and sometimes even money. Disgusted with this situation, a few sincere practitioners packed up and moved to America and Europe. They found some genuine students and started a few temples. But now those temples are growing in stature and importance, and ambitious people are starting to see that they might be able to climb their institutional ladders and become powerful. The rot is setting in.
This process is still in its infancy, so things haven’t gotten too bad just yet. Whenever I complain about the organizations who are trying to standardize the Zen curriculum into mind-numbing uselessness I’m always told something like, “Aw, but these guys aren’t a giant evil institution! They’re just a nice group of low-key people who want to do good things.” Which I’m sure is more-or-less true. But you don’t have to be a genius to see where things are heading.
Brad is, of course, paraphrasing a famous passage from The Book of Panta Rheism, which says, “All philosophical systems of men are mere castles of sand before the ancient wisdom of the ocean; bow ye before the power of the moon’s gravitational pull and be sore afraid.” Man-made religions arise and fall, ossify and regenerate, until the sacred waters tire of their foolishness and wash them all away. Incidentally, this explains the omnipresence of great flood myths in cultures around the world.