In the USA not too long ago, a lady and a man were arguing (I don’t know over what). Guess which one I’m siding with for this weekend:
Man: “Fucking entitled BITCH!”
Woman: “WHY you sayin it like it’s a BAD thing!”
One of the things I most admire about the USA is the way it (somewhat unintentionally) up-skills a politically engaged population through free digital media literacy courses.
I am, of course, talking about the thriving media analysis provided by YouTubers (and, if you want to drop some cash, Nebula).
If you push through the hot takes, the rants, the reviews, etc., you can find some strong qualitative (and surprisingly quantitative) researchers-with-video-editing skills taking apart what US entertainment says about about the US (and US engagement with the world at large – thanks, free speech!)
And the US is a culture built on its entertainment – entertainment is how Americans express themselves, via an endless hallway of fun mirrors (screens) distorting and clarifying and distending how Americans understand America, while American corporate leaders collect and analyze all the relevant private and public data, which Americans display to the world with very few qualms (#bumperstickernation), in order to financially exploit and continue the cycle (#structuralstability).
NB: I actually applaud this individual exposure, personally. It’s a form of radical honesty that Europe is sorely lacking.
Two fruitful lines of current social analysis that require an inordinate amount of individual investment are the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars, both profitable lines of corporate cocaine for the Mouse that is Disney (oh, the emblematic irony!)
The Avengers essentially argues for the status quo, a highly unequal but somewhat stable (because economic, financial, military, and multiverse reasons) hellscape that is the fragile, problematic co-construction of those in power (not calling out any ‘traditional’ IOs here…that would be UN-inspired).
When any MSU super-villian advocates for structural change, s/he(y) always overdoes it with mass murder, allowing the ‘real’ heroes, led by a principled (they always drum this into our heads what with him picking up the god’s hammer and whatnot) Cap’n America, who swoops in and maintains the power balance ‘for the good of mankind’ before, in the latest installment, retiring a la Cincinnatus to his middle-class picket-fence middle-America 1950s family home.
(The MSU, of course, arms Netflix’s ‘The Boys’ with charged scenes to troll, #girlpower #girlboss. In next week’s episode: the dialectical debate continues! Please remember to subscribe for updates.)
The MSU is copaganda that The Wire covered in season one, exposing and exploring some rather obvious structural concerns that The Wire investigated (pun intended) over it’s next few seasons. The Avengers occasionally, tentatively considers this path, but until Omar Little is first resurrected via Dr. Strange and then provided some sort of super-power (I’m advocating for indestructibility), it’s going to be hard to get there.
Which, of course, must be reassuring to Disney leadership given that they are first the beneficiaries of both the MSU franchise (#longevity #money) and then also beneficiaries of the socio-economic inequality and general power asymmetry that the MSU so skillfully illustrates and, again, somewhat ruefully, promotes:
“Aw shucks, it’s not perfect, but it’s better than the alternative (cuz power is binary – you have it or you don’t, right Cersei? #GOT). And look – some of our heroes are nonbinary POCs! Representation matters – especially if you need the status quo to stay current (#wokewashing #greenwashing).”
On from this public-private MSU partnership (and yes, they do get US defense funding for many of their films) to Star Wars (do the Jedi get defense funding – I mean, outside of the Star Wars universe?).
Star Wars is another series requiring inordinate investment and struggling with the idea of regime change vs. structural change (vs. incremental change?), but with more of a political hangover. Star Wars grapples with how even what may initially be perceived as well-constructed trees – that is, trees (trees is a metaphor for systems here) designed to ensure distributive (if unequal) power – can still be exploited to promote and empower bad apples.
Consider Palpatine, who ruthlessly uses the existing political, economic, and cultural norms and rules to basically concentrate power in himself. Then he cruelly destroys any competition or means of overriding him, all with the consent of the governed (until it is too late because they are dead because Palpatine killed them or orchestrated their death.) Palpatine corrupts the clones, the Jedi, the Senate, and all with their (albeit sometimes ‘aw shucks’ rueful) consent.
This isn’t to say that Palpatine is the only one pursuing this path, nor that those who pursue this path are necessarily all evil sociopaths (aka Siths). In the Star Wars series Andor, Mon Mothma is making some dangerous, sacrificial moves in the hopes of weakening the hold of the evil Empire, and she recognizes that she’s bending and breaking her personal and political principles in the meer hope that, in the future, others won’t have to…at least, not as much because, well, humans, er…humans and other surprisingly human-like thinking organic creatures (is structural change even possible? Stay tuned for season two…)
Whenever I watch Star Wars or the MSU or the YouTubers analyzing their meaning and MO, I think a lot about human homophilic (look it up…) tendencies. That is, we are assortative maters – we hang out and marry people that we think are like us, around whom we feel comfortable. Birds of a feather, you lie down with dogs, all those proverbs, are actually accurate.
Assortative mating is a big contributor, according to some studies, to the growing wealth gap. Rich people tend to spend time with and fall in love with other rich people, poor people with other poor people, and the broken social algorithms encourage this toilet bowl effect: politicians, for example, anxious to keep their funders and constituents happy and comfortable, tend to discourage public policy proposals that would address many of inequality’s root problems (e.g., our homophilic tendencies.)
Even on an individual level, we live out these issues. We save for personal ‘rainy days,’ hoarding our wealth, however small, to ensure we can take care of our own. Meanwhile, actual need exists, often right in front of us, and many of us with the resources to address even one or two of these needs choose not to do so because, well, you never know – we might have a need that we know no one else will address, so we *need* to stockpile *our* resources.
Okay, so we’re not billionaires scheduling our private chopper to ferry us to DAVOS (Let the hunger games begin!) rather than funding a living wage for our maintenance staff (cough, cough, Mouse) or a ‘pro-life’ millionaire funneling our chump change into uplifting puppet politicians rather than donating resources to a refugee camp where existing children are literally dying from hunger and exposure.
But we’re still making choices. Choices that may make sense, in the existing systems, but choices that are ours all the same. I’m not pro the ‘sliding scale’ argument, but I do feel somewhat culpable in my personal reaction to social responsibility.
Basically, what I’m saying is that I’m hoping ‘The Good place’ is a real place because I’m not super sure I’m daily adhering to behavoir that merits any sort of reward in any kind of afterlife. I buy unsustainable coffee (and it’s all unsustainable coffee…#sorrynotsorry) instead of bread for the poor. I send my kids to private school. I hang out with people that make me feel comfortable most of the time. Etc., etc., etc. Privilege owned (but, crucially, not addressed…)
This is where the media analyses get particularly interesting. Especially in light of the popularity of ‘anti-heroes.’ (shout-out to the Taylor Swift Universe for staying trendy. #swiftieforlife)
Anti-heroes are fun because they show how we might live with ourselves when we know we are not perfect. That said, anti-heroes don’t always encourage us to improve anything (internal or external), for a variety of reasons…i.e., because improvement is not entertaining (think Vic in Shields, or basically anyone in Blue Bloods – sorry, Dad…), or it is impossible on a personal or ‘I’m in too deep’ level (Ozark or The Menu or Breaking Bad or The Sopranos…), or cancel culture (Veep or The Morning Show or Kevin Hart and the Oscars…), or structural issues (Atlanta or Mo…), or we’re too stupid (The White Lotus or The Office…)…or…well, the excuses are endless (and very creative – it is the golden age of TV.)
Anti-heroes tend to be where most incremental change arguments pop up. If the system is a reflection of our values, and if, in order to prosper, we need to reflect those values back via our actions and words, well, now, who’s wagging this dog? Because most of us, as Hannah Arendt so adroitly (and, at the time, controversially) pointed out, are banal. We are, like technology, not good, bad, or neutral. We are all those things and we are all acting inside of a series of interlocking structures (social algorithms, as Donald Glover called them) designed to perpetuate what indeed exists which is, for may of us, as for the Disney execs but on a much smaller scale, somewhat reassuring given what we invest each day in our existing frameworks and the human preference for predictability and stability and, ultimately, community.
Whenever I go into media analyses, I always end up falling back on The Wire. Maybe it’s because that was my first foray into social discussion on social media about what our media means. So I’m predictable (so people trust me!)
Or maybe it’s the ‘apples’ argument.
The Wire explores this argument beautifully.
First, The Wire reduces (but not really) the interlocking social systems involved into ‘the game.’ The Wire highlights that to participate in society (‘the game’ – an ultimately better metaphor than ‘the tree’ as ‘the game’ implies we are actively playing, not passively growing), one needs
1) access and
2)the capacity to play.
Based on each ‘The Wire’ character’s point of access and level of capacity (nothing to do with beliefs or principles, which are rocks that cannot be successfully argued externally, only individually rationalized), a character joins and plays the game, with results that are statistically accurate (aka Donald Glover’s ‘great algorithm.’) There is little-to-no moralizing, a lot of individual responsibility and accountability, and the most ‘like-able’ (engaging?) players are the ones who don’t shy away from their own agency, however limited this agency may be.
Omar Little’s real super-power, one available to us all if we pay attention, is radical honesty, to himself and to others. He participates with his eyes open, and he doesn’t bother to uphold any false pretences with anyone else, no matter their access or capacity. Omar really up-skills anyone with whom he interacts, educating them in no uncertain terms of the role that they are actively choosing to play in each encounter.
Omar Little is a guru.
Which brings us to the ‘apples’ argument. Omar is a lone agent – he may be a spiritual leader, but he’s not a shepherd and you cannot join his flock for life. At some point, you are going to have conflict with Omar, and Omar would never respect you if you just went along to get along – he’d kick you out of his circle immediately. He’ll kick you out anyways for disagreeing with and/or disobeying him, but he’d respect you for it.
The ‘apples’ argument is the idea that every system (vs. game) has a few bad actors, a few bad apples, and that we can’t really do much about this (the poor are always with us, so keep moving.) Often, institutional rot sets in around the bad apples that the organisation or structure has decided are (somehow, ruefully) cost-effective, and thus must be maintained to maintain the structural integrity of the whole organization which is tied to the perceived social structures which is tied to the game (which is not a tree)….
Resources are poured into justifying and then covering up said justification of these bad apples, and frequently the ‘incremental change’ argument is brought up, advocating eventual ‘regime change’ rather than making the uncomfortable, controversial decision to significantly re-direct (redistribute?) resources (maybe Iron Man should fund universal healthcare rather than the Avengers, who seem pretty powerful sans tech). After all (homophilic reasoning) we know these people, we trust them or at least when know when we shouldn’t trust them (we think). The world is an ambiguous place, it’s getting more ambiguous, we like predictability and stability and we have the ability to keep our community going if we stay the course. Right?
Maybe. What do I know?
But Omar Little (‘A man’s gotta have a code’) would probably caution that we should never accede our individual ability to call people out and switch sides when necessary (‘I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase’), accept any compromises eyes open all round (‘It’s all in the game’), ensure we will call for needed concrete change whenever we can (‘And I keeps one in the chamber in case you pondering’), recognize our faults and our liabilities as well as those of others (‘Enough, though, not to take it personal’), and take agency for our actions and their consequences, especially given our understanding of how society works (‘Look man, I do what I can do to help y’all. But the game is out there, and it’s either play or get played.’)
We all die in the end, but at least Omar’s code ensures we die the Cap’n of our own ship (no hammer needed).
‘You come at the king, you best not miss.’
There are two books that I read during the holidays, mostly for perspective:
L’école du bonheur, published in 1941 by the French government and distributed to all 11-year-old girls lucky enough to graduate from primary school, and Death by Black Hole, by the famed American astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, published fairly recently (particularly in terms of the cosmic concept of time) for any general reader interested in basic astrophysics but lacking the mathematical and scientific background required to grasp some of the sector’s more esoteric explanations.
L’école du bonheur, which translates into ‘The school of happiness’, was an entre–guerre (between WWI and WWII) attempt to support young women in their presumed quest to restore some semblance of health and order to France. Men were returning from WWI shell-shocked (what we now know as PTSD) and heading off to WWII, so why not do an info-dump on the girls that were essential to the home front, such as it was, and hope that made some sort of difference. (Typical government BS.)
About 75% of ‘The school of happiness’ is technical instructions: how to raise, maintain, kill, and cook a chicken, same for a baby – save the ‘kill’ bit, although this part of French history was essential to the promotion of the right to abortion because women were understandably concerned about the amount of work involved in birthing and raising a kid in what we might call ‘adverse circumstances.’ ‘The school of happiness’ includes lots of menus, lots of DIY tips for housekeeping on a budget, etc. Honestly, any individual interested in homesteading or rebuilding society post-apocalypse will find the step-by-step instructions in this book incredibly useful.
My favorite bit, the remaining 25% of ‘The school of happiness’ is pragmatic philosophical diplomacy. Some examples:
‘Il faut réhabiliter le rôle de la femme dans la maison.’ (It is necessary to rehabilitate the woman’s role in the house..)
‘Vertus et qualités de la Femme, épouse, et mère‘ (Virtues and qualities of the woman, the wife, and mother – these include le dévouement, (the dedication, rooted, as the book explains, in the sacrificial abnegation of the female spirit for the benefit of her family), la bonté (kindness, also described as sweetness, a source of firmness and moral authority), la patience, le tact, l’égalité de caractère, which is defined as a virtue without a lot of recognition but when properly espoused allows women – girls, in this case, to create an atmosphere that is not agitated or tiring or ‘pénible.’ Pénible is a great French word describing anything that is remotely uncomfortable in an accusing manner, aka my kid’s inability to sleep past six am on a Saturday is pénible.
‘The school of happiness’ also describes in detail how to avoid conflict and frustration, how to seek always to make peace in the household, how to treat men as volatile geysers (remember, WWI-WWII publication date – men were not in a good state of mental health, we might say today) that must sometimes be endured with the same forceful joy that Disney’s Cinderella demonstrates when cleaning up after her stepmother.
The book sums up one chapter like so: ‘The qualities of a good mistress of the home are love of work, foresight, order (and calm), cleanliness, and economy….her homework is the interior life of the family, including how she cares for her husband and children…her external life homework includes care for relatives, friends, social relations and neighbors…enfin social work.’
Remember, ‘The school of happiness’ was mass-produced and distributed to 11-year-old girls with the good fortune to successfully attend and graduate from primary school at the beginning of WWII in France. There was not any money attached to any of this – women were not supposed to be externally funded by a government grant or themselves gainfully employed at this place and time in human experience. ‘The school of happiness’ contains no talk of self-realization or individual gratification; quite the contrary. Women were quite literally defined by their socially endorsed roles and, according to the book’s preface, the nation depended upon their ability to carry out these roles regardless of the instability that surrounded them. There is even a section in the book dedicated to how to be a good neighbor, how to be a good friend, and how to be ‘social’ – apparently, these were related but separate skill sets.
My second seasonal read is as far from this collection of Christ-like housewife capacities to strive for as one can get. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a master in the big picture. His every sentence drives home the fact that we humans are not even a speck on the immense windshield of the inconceivable huge and ever-expanding mack truck that is the universe, and that understanding this lack of individual importance is the first step to beginning to dimly comprehend the amazing circumstances that led to our incredibly fleeting existence. (Believe me, if you read the book, you realize this is not hyperbole.)
Tyson doesn’t care about individual belief – he is interested in science, and belief, in his mind, only holds the tiny human mind back from the ability to know what little he or she or they can explore. Tyson really loves what he studies, and that comes through in his writing. Tyson has no patience for people who are too mired in their own sense of self-importance (what I believe or what I think or my perspective) to even waste words on pronouns. In his book, the ‘I’ is incidental if it is ever used – he’s not here to think about himself, he’s here to investigate the cosmos as much as he can before his puny existence is converted into alternative energy. Tyson’s opening might as well be, ‘from stardust to stardust in the blink of an inconsequential human eye.’
Yet Tyson’s nihilistic view of human existence is freeing because it is laced with compassion. Because we are so unimportant in the Grand Universal Scheme, Tyson finds his individual relationships with each reader fraught with meaning. If nothing matters, then this, him taking the time to share his expertise with others, is all that matters. He patiently explains difficult science and discoveries; he searches for clear, accessible metaphors that make the impact of difficult equations easy to understand. He makes us feel our infinite insignificance, yet he is never indifferent to the mental gymnastics we must perform to experience this.
In his explanations of physics, Tyson does not value humanity any more than the universe does, but when I read what Tyson has taken the time to clearly outline in language that I, a layperson, can understand, I have the impression he values me and my journey toward comprehending what I can while I’m here. Nothing matters in the end, but I matter, to Tyson, right now.
Assuming that Tyson has not read ‘The school of happiness,’ I have to say that he gets the universal values the book tries to impart. And, despite the conservative bent of ‘The school of happiness’ and its antiquated ideas about a woman’s place, the book understands the intelligence and importance of the individual reader and quite literally details and then appreciates the hard work that goes into caring for an ephemeral human society that at times seems, globally speaking, so intent on self-destruction.
Having worked with, if not the high and mighty, their mundane (Arendt might even say banal) middle managers, I am fascinated by the tension between the institution and individual agency.
UPENN’s elite Wharton School (an ivory tower from whence the high and mighty emerge ever ready to rule) says that an individual cannot, by him or herself, change an institution. David Graeber agrees, in a way, noting that superheroes are, by default, upholders of the status quo, continuously using their excess of power and wealth to maintain some preconceived balance that, once lost, will (according to the script) plunge everyone into violent chaos. (Graeber goes so far as to note that it is the supervillains who seek structural social change but who – again, according to the script – must do so in a violent, mass murdery way so that we, as viewers, don’t identify with the villain too much…it’s better for the film producers if we sort of identify with millionaire playboy Tony Stark or the elitely educated – possibly at Wharton – Hulk. One needn’t wonder why this perspective is cinematically endorsed given film producers tend to be Wharton-types themselves.)
The poor are ever with us, we tell ourselves, so we can buy our food or our elite luxury good or schedule that private plane without feeling bad that many of our fellow humans can’t because, well, food must be bought, right?
We’re essentially victims of our institutional inertia, the means by which an institution and all those who are within the institution are subject to a learned habit to protect the institution.
We’re all superheroes, is what I’m saying.
It’s not that we want to be superheroes. We just have learned our script so well, drunk the (patented) kool-aid, and so we have this knee-jerk reaction to keep things going in the existing institutionalized manner. The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t, and people are devils if we don’t have institutional masters to please and uphold, right?
My interest lies in the tension found in the psychologically abused and the abuser – and it might be a gray area as to who is what when we think in terms of structural abuse endorsed by institutional constructs. Yes, specific individuals act badly – #metoo – but the point is that they don’t do so in a vacuum. A child-friendly social-emotional learning platform points out that children who are ‘mean on purpose’ act ‘mean on purpose’ because they learned it was an effective way to achieve their individual goals within the existing institutional system. Intervention, the platform points out, is key, and must happen at the level of both the individual and the community, backed by the weight of any community-sanctioned institutions: I, when confronted with a ‘mean on purpose’ behavior must make it clear that the behavior (vs. the individual exhibiting the behavior) is unacceptable, and the community must back me up and show the errant individual what sort of behavior (what contrasting behavior, if we’re thinking in binary) is acceptable and effective within the existing structure and its institutions.
Here’s where Graeber gets good and where he and Wharton might even agree. Graeber points out that we’re actively constructing our community each day, and we can choose how we construct it. That said, we are subject to external forces i.e. everybody else and their (oh, come on, you knew it was coming…) ‘imagined communities’ (see Benedict Arnold.) Graeber, being American, endorses anarchy and individual accountability within a recognizably flat hierarchy that prioritizes relationships and independence.
Yeah, I dunno. I’m still re-reading his latest book. I’m sure I’ll circle back on this at some point if I don’t die unexpectedly (‘die unexpectedly’ – now, that’s a moronic oxymoron.)
But you can only construct what you can imagine, and cognitive neuroscientists tell us a lot of what we can imagine is based on exposure. For example, we see a horse and we see a bird and we can now imagine a winged pegasus and tell others who can also imagine it for themselves (though it may look a bit different in their head than in ours), who can write about it in a book or put it in a cartoon, and now we have Tristar Pictures’ mascot thanks to our game of “exposure telephone.” (See, I brought film back into it cuz I’m consistent aka a human who loves to find patterns in bullshit.)
We can’t, cognitively speaking, invent something we haven’t experienced in some way – this is why cult leaders tend to discourage interaction with outsiders. Exposure to external ideas and experiences is bad for cult business. Best to let the cult leader do the external experiencing for his followers and filter it back with notes (have fun at church this Sunday…at your next corporate retreat…at your next superhero movie….)
So my question is, when can personal agency impact the institution in an effective way and who can we trust to tell us how this might work? Because ultimately the institution is going to corrupt any independent thought (intentionally or not) and independent thought is shaped by the ‘imagined institutions’ of our ‘imagined communities.’ Thus to what extent am I able to recognize, much less address, corruption (think ‘mean on purpose’) within an institution that I may inadvertently and almost pathologically be anxious to keep afloat for reasons that escape me outside of ambiguity and change are scary and unknowable and may possibly be worse than what I know?
Three am may not be the best time to mull this one over.
Europe is being cautious about presenting itself as a refuge and rationalist, peace-seeking haven of laws and rules and rights (lots of ‘Rs’). Meanwhile the R*****n recalcitrants blast through the breadbasket of Eastern Europe (and many other parts of the world) littering the ground with bodies and bombs, shooting holes through anything they can’t rip out and take back with them when they are forced to give ground.
It’s not a bad strategy (that of Europe) – and it’s definitely turning out to be much healthier than ‘an eye for an eye’ as very few want to slip into a world war that will make ‘Paths of Glory’ and ‘City of Life and Death’ and ‘The Battle of Algiers’ and all the rest of those gritty realistic depictions of war on the ground (as opposed to in the history books or a la the sometimes defense-subsidized Hollywood films) seem desirable (for those who aren’t living the reality in Ukraine…and other places….)
That said, the other side (not Europe) is making points, however poorly, to which we (Europe) should probably pay attention. David Graeber said it using too many words and a philosophy that is, ahem, not without its problems, but he did say it: extreme wealth is structural violence endorsed by too-often morally compromised bureaucracy, aided and abetted by legislation that protects entrenched interests rather than social equality or justice of any sort.
It’s amazing Graeber wrote so many books – he could have just asked me to sum it up for him and stuck with one pre-Musk Tweet.
(RIP Graeber. As with most philosophers, history lessons will turn you into a bumper sticker, if they bother to mention you at all. C’est la vie, c’est la mort.)
The thing is, it’s easy to forget this. We did it with Me Too, with abortion. We forgot that most Americans don’t have access to basic healthcare or, increasingly a consistent salary to pay for healthcare, so when women that do have access (to abortion, to basic healthcare, to the social system or the internet and the skills to use either effectively, etc.) say we have lost a real right for women, we tend to gloss over access. If you’re a religious 12-year-old in the rural Midwest or a member of a conservative community (of various origins – the US contains an amazing number of conservative religious cults…er, groups), abortion is not on your radar (if you even know what a ‘radar’ is). You never had access to this so-called right, maybe because you didn’t know this ‘right’ existed, you didn’t have the money, or you didn’t have the needed community support and/or understanding to actually pursue ‘your right’ (and community acceptance is something we all crave, even if we manage to realize we don’t technically ‘need’ it).
There may very well be some other reason why this ‘right’ was not in your wheelhouse, a reason invisible to me because I never questioned my right to healthcare specific to the uterus. I did question what was available, the investment offered, the cost of coverage inculcated into my insurance, but never that it was there.
That it was there, in my experience, was understood.
Until I met my second (the first, I assumed, was an anomaly) pregnant twelve-year-old married to a man a good ten years older than her because, well, isn’t it better for the ‘child’ to grow up in a two-parent household? Isn’t that what God and the Government (the ‘good Government’ anyways) want?
We lived within miles of each other, this twelve-year-old and I, but our lives were very, very different, and our expectations were very, very contextualized by the people we’d grown up next to, the ones sitting beside us at the dinner table, monitoring our media, and manipulating (albeit not always intentionally) our love.
We also were going to have access to different things. Children take up a lot of time, believe it or not, and when you are, for whatever reason, in charge of caring for them, you are going to have fewer resources for other things. Oh sure, you’ll have ‘wealth’ but not the sort of ‘wealth’ you can trade for time or security.
That only comes after you get to a point where your children are of ‘rent-seeking’ age, and only if you can still successfully manipulate said children, which is, for most of us, a lifelong struggle.
I may not have a pension, but I have a dependent four-year-old that, if I raise ‘im right, will ensure I enjoy retirement because I will put the fear of God in him when it comes to abandoning me or my way of life.
Insert devil emoji here.
What was I saying?
Oh, yes, to our systemic flaws.
In R*****, inequality, as in many places, is a fact of life. You have what you can take, you keep what you can hold, and the pretty-sounding laws and policies are gosamer gloss that dissolve at the first whisper of rain. Superiority, whether of resources or power (or, as is often the case, a confluence of the two) is an act that requires constant maintenance – mental, physical, emotional….social….economic….bureaucratic…
You may see where I’m going.
Excuse me for a moment, I have to remind my four-year-old that if he interrupts ‘Mommy time’ he is irritating the woman who provides access to the cartoons that I permit him to watch. (Don’t worry, it’s mostly woke Disney stuff. Hah! ‘Woke Disney’, I never thought I’d see the day…)
Laws, for example, did not save Detroit-based, predominantly Black, Americans when city officials re-evaluated their housing value and increased taxes to such an extent many residents lost their homes to private investors who, no doubt inspired by the American origin story, flipped their new publicly protected private property for a profit.
R***** makes explicit what much of our existing socioeconomic system makes implicit, whether you’re an adherent of the caste system in India or a member of a megachurch or a country club in the USA or a monopoly in Belgium or a ‘corporate entity’ represented in Davos or even, according to Taylor Swift, an artist in the music industry.
Or, dast I say it, a highly-paid official in an international organisation….
The point is, we all do it. No high horses here (and I’m looking at you Graeber…do I cast my eyes upwards or downwards? Kidding. We all know where you went…)
We humans misuse our superior resources (in all sorts of mundane and creative ways) at the cost of those with less and when ‘they’ (those with less) get mad, we are surprised. ‘You’re only hurting yourself,’ we tell them, like ‘they’ are too stupid to realize it. Meanwhile, it’s not so much about what ‘they’ do to themselves as much as what we have failed to do for each other because there’s only so much we feel comfortable investing in a system that is not so interested in taking care of all of us as opposed to protecting a few of us.
TS (not Eliot) may have said it best, though I’m not entirely sure my reading of her work is her reading, but that’s art (and legal precedent) for you: ‘It’s me, I’m the problem, it’s me.’
Excuse me, I must go deprive my kid of his noisy toy.
It’s for his own good.
He needs to learn.
There are several versions of Rapunzel, the fairy tale where the parents have to hand over their kid, their future, because they were starving and so they stole some lettuce from the garden of a rich witch who then raises the stolen kid in a tower, telling the kid that the world is evil and that she’s better off above and removed from it in a fortress of isolated privilege. The story ends happily or sadly, depending upon your worldview, with Rapunzel re-entering the world below through the painful experience of love lost, unexpected poverty, and arbitrary tragedy.
I always think about Rapunzel when dealing with abnormally wealthy donors who spend more on their weekly hair blowouts than I do on my rent (and I’m not exactly, um, un-privileged, ahem.) These fairly reasonable, not blatantly unkind, and, obviously supremely wealthy individuals have huge gardens of money that they pay others to tend and cultivate, growing more and more cash that never in several lifetimes will one individual be able to consume (and not for lack of trying in some cases…)
Yet, the architecture of the system is such that if some starving individuals were even able to inveigle their way into these privately owned lush forests of plenty (a la Anna Delvey) and snip a cabbage or two, the weight of the almighty justice system would cast the starving invader from the heights of extreme entitlement, possibly demanding their offspring as a punitive sacrifice but most likely completely indifferent and, for the most part, unaware of the desperate, ultimately unsuccessful raid and the crushing consequences of a cruel and unequal society in the first place.
Just to clarify: most of the world is the starving peasant couple, the witch is ‘the system’ (white women, amirite?), and Rapunzel is the naive wealthy donor who, until thrust from her tower, will probably “innocently/ignorantly” wonder why the unclean rabble don’t just eat cake.
Not that I’m advocating for any sort of revolution or anything…
I tend to suspect any meritocracy is a long con.
The underlying tension to this supposition lies in my experience of hierarchies.
Hierarchies are inherently but honestly unequal, and power, according to whatever your preferred soft magic system is (be it philosophical, religious, spiritual, political, gubernatorial, academic, Instagrammable, or – and ultimately many systems in place today are – economical) hierarchies are bald expressions of power, and the people at the top are willing to fight to stay king of the mountain.
Most of the rest of us are simply desperate not to lose ground.
Thus enters ‘meritocracy.’
The whole concept of meritocracy was introduced as a satire by a British novelist at the height of the British Empire. He suggested that the more British-ness one could achieve, the close one got to the top of the hierarchy, and, as the top of the hierarchy determined what the somewhat elusive ‘British-ness’ was, one could never truly reach the pinnacle of the established quo because one could not be more powerful than the individuals at the zenith who, in effect, determined what actually constituted “power.”
In the USA, this is referred to as ‘game theory’ in that, theoretically, you should never play a game in which you are not making up the rules. Gotcha, globe. America Rule$
I think this view, when I succeed in using it, has cost me external power but given me a wry internal sense of power that, while it rarely pans out IRL, allows me a certain amount of distance in judging the success of today’s leaders.
Of course, I could just be paraphrasing Nietzche, but he was probably paraphrasing someone else, so I think it’s safe under current copyright law to paraphrase a long-dead narcissist, right?
See, it’s all a con. A long, long, long historically repetitive con.
A pyramid scheme, if you will:
I’ve worked and screwed (with) enough engineers to know that Pavlov’s rule applies – they want the food to show up every time they push the button.
Now, some engineers are curious little puppies and when the button gets pushed and the food doesn’t show up, or it shows up someplace new, like in the cage of the dog next door, these puppies get all excited and try to figure out why. These puppies will enlist you in their team to find an answer to ‘the question,’ to better define ‘the question’ or to find a new, more relevant question that needs answering first. These adorable puppies want all hands on deck, stretching all the different options anyone can think of, to figure out how to get control of whatever is making the food show up and how – button or no button – should there be a button? Let’s try a lever, a shelf, just leaving all the food out….you get the idea. These engineers are begging for productive, unambiguous conflict where no individual is without useful contributions, and it’s worth the time to hear everyone out, even if there is no agreement at the end. These engineers want to know: What are we missing (and we are always missing many things…)? These engineers love the ultimate limits to technology and money (these limits are called ‘humans’) because these engineers see humans as the ultimate beneficiaries and partners in their quest to better understand and interact with the world.
Other engineers….aren’t that curious. They just want the food. These engineers would rather starve themselves and all the other dogs in all the other cages than push that infernal button and see it hand out food in a manner that suggests they have no control. These engineers don’t just want the Singularity to get here, they want to BE the singularity. They want to BE the ultimate arbiter in all systems for all things – these engineers (these b!tches – and I’m neutering the term b!tches here) genuinely believe humanity will be all the better for their ascension to the matrix. As soon as we are all batteries in their self-involved system, the world will be a better place. If it weren’t for that pesky little Zion (which is only part of the system BECAUSE humans are such annoying little kinks but apparently necessary, damnit), the world would be perfect.
So now, when asked to work with an engineer like the one just described (the one that is not curious), I must ask myself if it is worth it? Do I want to spend my time mindlessly accomplishing the minimum that is asked of me, understanding that should it fall short (and it will – Zion persists!) that my role is simply to accept blame, to admit I am the faulty battery in a perfect plan that just never seems to work out?
I guess it depends on the salary. I mean, even a sacrificial power source has to eat.
We live in a system predicated on a European concept of cash, which is stupid.
Europeans took what was developed as a means of relational exchange and obligation – trust, essentially, and turned it into something misers hoard in digital cavers and/or use to buy individual airplanes, second homes, and designer bags and shoes while other people can’t feed their children.
Europeans weren’t the only ones who did this, and Dollar knows the Americans have taken our initial strategy and run with it, but we were the originators of a lot of this current financial system. Which, by the way, has gotten away from us.
I worked briefly in the Middle East – not the one you read about in the news, the other one, with the Ferrari theme parks and a man-made mountain (an actual snowy ski slope) in the middle of a mall in the desert.
Those people have taken the whole ‘money’ thing and turned it into a real cash cow, and they use it to buy and sell the rest of the world (they even have an exchange rate. One of the middlemen explained it to me: two white dudes are almost worth an audience with one Arab woman if her dad is feeling generous, seven white women might be equal to one white dude, and a dozen Indians – men – might be worth a pair of skis but you’ll still have to pay the entry fee to make your way down Snow Dunes. Climate change does not scare Emirati developers, no sir….)
It’s a scary thing to realize the exploitative means by which you dominated others is no longer exclusive to you. Add to that the scary warlord on the steppes in the East who has revived the concept that you can ‘own’ whatever you can take and keep by any means necessary, and you start to wonder if we’re all sliding backward into the Cretaceous period during which the trees will inherit the earth, making soil of us all in an act of strange but fitting revenge for us having harvested them to make the paper money in the first place.
Wait, was that the Chinese?
Who cares. Here comes the asteroid. Happy Hallow’s Eve!