So I have no idea what the ‘ aside’ post-type looks like. So I’m finding out.
Maybe I’ll make my pithy observations here. At least it allows editing.
So I have no idea what the ‘ aside’ post-type looks like. So I’m finding out.
Maybe I’ll make my pithy observations here. At least it allows editing.
I believe life is hard. The Buddha said all existence is suffering and any Bengals fan can attest to that. I don’t know if everyone is basically good or basically bad, but I do know everyone is just trying to get through the day. Get up and try to make it to night. Try to be better off if you can, but try like hell to keep from slipping backwards. Rinse and repeat. You’re just trying to get through the day. Just like everyone else. It’s never easy. For anyone.
To me the greatest sin I can commit is to make someone else’s life harder. I can’t always make it easier, though I should if I can, but I should never make it harder. What other people do to me is up to them. My actions are not contingent on theirs. I have no obligation to allow someone to make my life harder, by the way, just as I can’t try to make my life better by making yours worse. Make someone else’s life better if you can, but never, ever make it worse.
I do not write the name of the short-fingered vulgarian in the White House. He values it more than anything, so it’s the thing I’ll always deny him. It’s symbolic, petty, and utterly ineffective. That’s my wheelhouse. If clear writing demands the use of a name, I use Don Palmturd (anagram!). Comic Colin Mocherie is a strong proponent of Lord Dampnut and it’s hard to beat. The juxtaposition of mocking nobility with incontinence and impotence is hard to pass up. Mine starts off with a double entendre. It’s a casual nickname sure to annoy someone who uses his full name and middle initial to refer to himself, but also a title of respect — among criminals. The surname juxtaposes shit in the tropics. Like Mar-a-Lago.
They aren’t mutually exclusive names, of course. I like the image of a shabbily-dressed Englishman doorman announcing “The Lord Dampnut, Don Palmturd” and the two-bit Il Douche strutting into the room, jaw-jutting with the smirk on his face. He thinks everyone is applauding him, but they’re really applauding the doorman behind him air-wanking and rolling his eyes.
Don Palmturd doesn’t believe what I believe. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can’t look into the hearts of others and all that, but come on. This guy enjoys making people’s lives harder. He gets off on it. Many of his supporters do too. You ask them how they’re buying any of this crap and they tell you “Ha, ha, ha libtard, we won and you lost.” (Even though they’re speaking aloud they’ll still manage to misspell three words, but that’s beside the point.) It’s an entire political philosophy built around “neener, neener, neener.” They didn’t win. You lost. That makes them happy. That’s all that matters. They believe their lives are better if someone else’s is worse. That’s winning. That’s making America great again.
Nope. It’s not politics, it’s potty training. I can’t fix it. I won’t accept it. I don’t have to.
I actually don’t care who they hate. I don’t care who you hate. Your hatred doesn’t give you the right to make other folks have a harder time getting through the day than they would have had otherwise. Remember, you don’t have to make anyone’s life easier, you just don’t have a right to make it harder. If I consent to let someone else make your life harder, then it’s as if I did it myself. No one gets a free pass. Making someone’s life harder is always a choice. You make that choice and you’re giving everyone permission to do the same to you.
Make no mistake. They will get to you eventually. There are people who currently reside outside the top 1% of wealth-horders who think they’re safe from all this stuff. They tsk, tsk, tsk about everyone freaking out about losing their health insurance, for example, because they get theirs through their employer. As if somehow providing health insurance is something employers will always be required to do no matter what, forever and ever, Amen.
Let’s try a thought experiment. If you have employer-provided healthcare, what would happen if your company decided they didn’t want to offer it anymore? How easily could you change jobs? Remember, you’ll likely be competing with every single other person at your company who does what you do. You that good? What if you’re wrong? And it’s only going to be an “issue” if your company is the first. All someone has to do is be the first. By the second or third it will be the new normal. If you complain you’ll be an entitled whiner-loser-millennial. There will be Wall Street Journal features on the titans of business who disrupted human decency and made the stock market soar. And after all, isn’t that all that really matters?
Of course, it can’t happen. It’s ridiculous. It’d be like an airline started charging you for carry-on luggage! No one would stand for it! Until the FAA becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of United Airlines and standing-room-only flights are approved, of course. Then flight attendants crews will have to be issued cattle prods, if only for appearances sake.
Yesterday the Senate of the United States of America voted to make a few people more wealthy without having the slightest idea how many people’s lives they’ll make worse. Much effort has gone into not knowing because it doesn’t matter. If you think anyone will hesitate to make your life worse if they think there’s even a chance they can gain from it, you’re delusional. You represent nothing they can’t find in a million other places. You are a commodity. Raw material from which wealth can be extracted. Then you’re slag. To be discarded.
So go ahead and say nothing when you see other people’s lives being made worse. They’ll get to you eventually. And you’ve already given the folks who could say something about it permission to say nothing. Good job!
Your time is coming. Get your hating in now. You’ll be too busy later.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that Mike Pence took the deal John Kasich was offered. The Grifter doesn’t want to be President. He just wants to be in charge. He wants to be the top of the food chain. As long as he’s El Jefé Anaranjado¹ who gets his cut from whatever money’s being made, he’s going to be happy. He’s going to reward those who helped him and punish those who hurt him. He’s not worried about the details. That’s what he has Pence for. Oh, and how Pence has taken the opportunity! Want to be in the Cabinet? Be white. Be rich. Be opposed to anything that wouldn’t fly in an Indiana town that has more churches than liquor stores. I have this picture in my head of Pence Interviews: The Musical where a chorus of interviewers sing (to the tune of The Spice Girls Wannabe): “Tell me that you’re white, that you’re really, really white…If you wannabe in my cabinet, you really gotta hate the gays…”
We’re going to start hearing a lot about rights soon, especially religious “rights.” I have a complicated relationship with religion. My first and foremost belief is that my religion is none of your business. The second is like unto it: I don’t want to hear about yours. I’m interested in what you do. I couldn’t care less why you think you do it. You have a justification? Yay you! Want a cookie? Regardless of what you do or don’t believe about life, the universe, and everything, the authority of your belief system ends where your skin meets the air. Your moral code has an intended population of one: you. What you do to me matters to me. What I do to you matters to you. Everything else is rationalization.
Here’s what I’ve decided is going to be my standard going forward: No one has the right to make anyone else’s life harder. It’s a good thing to try to make people’s lives easier if you can, but it’s not always possible. It’s never OK to make someone’s life harder,
Life is hard all by its own self. You can do everything you’re supposed to do and try to be good to people and still get slapped upside the head with a metaphorical frozen fish. Make the circumstances weird enough, it becomes a real one. If something can go wrong it probably will. If there’s a bad time for someone to lose hope, that’s when it will most likely happen. If there’s a really bad time to become overconfident, someone’s going to ask you to hold their beer. If there’s any evidence it doesn’t work that way, I’ve yet to see it. Given that the essence of human nature is to screw thing up, the least we can do is not make anything worse for anyone else. When we rise above our natures we might actually make things better. Hippocrates got it right, though. First, do no harm.
If the news from the past couple of years is to be believed, the biggest threat to religious liberty are selling wedding cakes to people who you don’t think ought to get married and signing the legal documents necessary for the same. Forget the fact that refusing to sell the cake doesn’t stop anyone from getting married or that the state gets to tell you what forms you need to sign if you’re an elected official. What you think is going to happen to your soul is your business, not mine, but what you’re doing is making someone else’s life harder just because you want to. That’s not OK. Your life doesn’t get any worse if you sell that cake or sign that document. It goes on just like it did before.
“OK,” you say, “so I want to rob a bank. That guard at the door is making my life harder.” Yes, but you’re planning to make other people’s lives harder. The people in the bank. The people you’re stealing from. That guard is preventing you from making other people’s lives harder.
“Oh, OK, then,” you say, “so what about abortion? You’re making the fetus’s life worse, aren’t you?” Not so fast, Skippy. The fetus doesn’t exist separately from the mother. That fetus is entirely dependent on every decision the mother makes no matter what. Sounds like to me the only one qualified to make any decisions vis a vis the fetus is the mother. Someone does have to decide. It’s just not you. Unless you’re the mother. Otherwise all you’re doing is getting mixed up in something where you’re more likely to make someone’s life worse than better.
So as we enter these dark days ahead — and make no mistake, dark days are coming — hold on to simple truths. Evil isn’t complicated. “Fuck you” is a pretty simple concept. It pays to have simple truths for yourself to hold onto. The simplest truth is this: no one has the right to make someone else’s life harder.
Anyone who tells you otherwise will be happy to make yours harder.
¹The Orange Chief
This is not normal.
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
He has no proof this happened, of course. He can point to nothing because there’s nothing there. It’s not on me to “prove” millions of people didn’t vote illegally. It’s on him to prove they did. And he can’t do it. Because it didn’t happen. The only reason you write something like this is to delegitimize your opposition in the minds of your supporters. He won the election because of a loophole in the electoral system that was put in place to block the direct popular election of the President. As with most things having to do with the Yam-Colored One, this has been floating around for a little while.
This, in turn, apparently has its roots in a series of tweets from some guy with a Twitter account named Gregg Phillips who claims to have a database of 180,000 registered voters “tagged with non-citizens.” Whatever the hell that means. Other than blustering statements about how the evidence is solid, he’s so far refused to let anyone see it. It doesn’t matter of course. It’s “out there.” It’s already been accepted as truth by the base. Like all stories having to do with the person who I’ve privately started calling The Last President of the United States, the details of this particular train wreck are mostly irrelevant. I’ll only throw out that the “story” begins emerging around the time it became clear Clinton was going to win the popular vote by a large margin. The fact that people keep harping on that and the margin keeps growing and Jill Stein decides to ask for a recounts before she returns to whatever cicada nest she sleeps in until Presidential election season rolls around again has really harshed the mellow of The Hairpiece that Roared. Forget the fact that the rules for being elected President of the United States don’t require you to win the overall popular vote. It’s a wrinkle that’s been in the rules from the beginning. It’s happened before. The popular vote? Sure, it’s nice to have. It’s not required. Them’s the rules. Say what you will about Shrub back in the day. He’d just shrug and say “I won.”
So why is it such a big deal to Herr Twitler? It’s part of a pattern that makes perfect sense if you don’t mind being utterly terrified.
So a couple of the classes I’ve been teaching this semester deal with games. In the process of the crash course I’ve had to subject myself to on game theory, I’ve had the great fortune of being introduced to a delightful book called The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits. It’s a deceptively simple book written (partly) in the style of a Socratic dialog using the fable of the Grasshopper and the Ants as its basis. The Grasshopper isn’t an irresponsible slacker here. He’s actually a subtle thinker who develops a philosophy of life that sees Utopia in a life of all play and no work — even when that life leads to his inevitable death. It sounds depressing, but it’s really a book that attempts to refute Ludwig’s Wittgenstein’s assertion that games can’t be formally defined. Suits didn’t care for this position and wrote this book. The centerpiece of the book is his formal definition of a game:
“My conclusion is that to play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.”
Later he sums it up even more succinctly:
“…playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
Compare this to anthropologist Mary Douglas’s description of an institution in her masterpiece How Institutions Think:
“Minimally an institution is only a convention. David Lewis’ definition is helpful: a convention arises when all parties have a common interest in there being a rule to insure coordination, none have a conflicting interest, and none will deviate lest the desired coordination is lost.”
Games, conventions and institutions all require willing participation, what Suits called the “lusory attitude.” Lusory is a term that’s pretty common in Game Studies. It more or less means “playful,” but sounds better when talking to colleagues from other departments at faculty gatherings and you don’t want to keep saying ‘playful’ all the time. Most everyone but the physicists will let it slide and who cares about physicists anyway? Screw those guys.
Willing participation. I’ve mentioned it before in another context, but I can’t think of this without thinking about this George Carlin routine:
“‘Cause that’s what they taught us; it’s what’s in your mind that counts; your intentions, that’s how we’ll judge you. What you want to do. Mortal sin had to be a grievous offense, sufficient reflection and full consent of the will. Ya had’ta WANNA! In fact, WANNA was a sin all by itself. “Thou Shalt Not WANNA”. If you woke up in the morning and said, “I’m going down to 42nd street and commit a mortal sin!” Save your car fare; you did it, man!”
Can anyone point out anything the Yam-Man has done that could reasonably be interpreted as wanting to hold the country together more than getting his way? The fainting-couch crowd will gleefully point out that I’m being rude to him. That I’m not showing any respect to the duly-elected Grifter-in-Chief. And you’d be right. I’m not. I won’t. I don’t have to. That’s one of those unnecessary obstacles that’s built into the game. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. I, as a citizen of the United States of America, have the right to believe that the man elected to be President of These Here United States is a simpering bag of pus with tastes that would make a bordello owner say “Jeez, that’s a bit over the top, isn’t it?” The fact is, my opposition only matters if you favor the less efficient means of putting up with it over the more efficient means of lining me up against a wall and shooting me. He’s not allowed to have me shot yet. Yet.
The most dangerous time for him is right now — before the reins of power are handed over to him. This is not a man who handles pressure well. We have to keep it up. Don’t let the bastard breathe. We don’t have to give him hell. All we have to do is tell the truth and he’ll think it’s hell. But also remember we’re all asked one question every single day: is this country worth it? What are you willing to give up and set aside in order to keep the country together?
Then ask what is he willing to give up to keep the country together?
That’s really the biggest question of all.
If there’s any lesson I’ve learned in life it’s that you’re welcome to hold any opinion you want as long as it’s well-known that it agrees with everyone else’s. I find being around people draining, which is why it’s so odd I’ve spent so much time on social media. I’m increasingly turning into the least social person I know. And I’m OK with that.
I’ve been uneasy with Facebook for a long time. I resisted getting on it in the first place. While I’ve been able to reconnect (and, in some cases, connect) with people I genuinely like, the cost has been high. I’m not going to go into any detail here, but this morning I expressed an opinion that proved to be wildly unpopular. I’ve never been good at saying what people want to hear.
Craig Ferguson has a bit he does that I think is dead on. He says that before he says anything he asks three questions:
I’m not sure which of these I did wrong this morning. Number 3, I think. Maybe #2, but I’m leaning towards #3. The point here is that I got up on a beautiful (if a little sticky) Friday morning and immediately managed to piss people off and, in turn, get pissed off myself. I don’t need this shit. No one does. I’ve got work to do.
I’ve deactivated my Facebook account. For my own sanity. If I feel like I have something I want to say I have a perfectly good place to say it right here. I don’t have to worry about accidently harshing the mellow of those with delicate mellows who might be exposed to a contrary opinion through the vaguaries of Mark Zuckerberg’s latest timeline algorithm. No one’s going to accidentally stumble on something here. You come here and you get what you pay for. Don’t like it? Don’t come here. The other side of it is that it’s not as quick to write things here as on Facebook. There are many more chances to heed Craig Ferguson’s wise counsel. I can have opinions and the world can easily ignore them. Which is how it should be. Everyone seems to be happier.
Like I said, I’ve got work to do.
It’s really all about power, isn’t it? All this stuff that’s going on in the world. It’s about power. The power to make your little part of the world the way you want it. The power to decide what little part of the world is your little part of the world. Call it control. Call it agency. It’s power. It’s the ability to affect — and effect — how things turn out for you, short-term and long-term. And it’s also about frustration. What you do when you realize you don’t have power or agency or control.
This hit me as I was commiserating with a friend on Facebook. I don’t want to say too much out of concern for privacy, but sufficed to say neither of us are having an especially good time right now. I was trying to explain my philosophy of “fuck it.” Basically it boils down to me doing this re-evaluation of the things I like to do and the things other people seem to expect of me. Those things I like I keep. Everything else gets stuck onto the “fuck it” pile. This is still a work in progress and I don’t recommend tossing everything and making it your life plan, but my thinking is that I’m not going to get to the point of
suckering people for money earning an honest day’s wages until I know what the rubes will pay for what I have to offer my fellow passengers on this trip though the cosmos.
I’ve been re-reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. It’s such a good book. It was written in the 1950’s so it’s a nightmare in terms of gender-inclusive language, but it’s clear the guy had it together and he’d have written it differently if he were doing it today. Anyway, it’s about how individuals decide to join new mass movements. His examples come from the rise of Christianity, the Protestant Schism, the Bolshevik Revolution and, because it’s written just after World War II, Hitler and the Nazis. An Andrew Sullivan piece that was otherwise a nightmare reminded me of Hoffer’s book. I’ve been thinking about nucleation points — places where conditions are right for a system to start to change from one thing to another — and it hit me that Hoffer’s book is a taxonomy of how that works. He’s not polluted or distracted by the present day because it hadn’t happened yet. All he had to go off of was a past that was less distant to him than us. And there was that whole “being a freaking genius thing.” He had that going for him.
Anyway, he talks a lot about frustration. He’s careful not to use the term clinically. Hell, he’s careful with all the words he uses, but especially that one. A good chunk of the book is a compendium of how different life circumstances can lead to frustration. He then illustrates how a new mass movement can give people the hope that their frustrations can be relieved. It’s been a long time since I read it and I’m not all the way through it yet, but one thing that’s becoming clear is that it’s not a good idea for a new mass movement to be too specific with details. People are happy to fill in the blanks.
It reminds of of something I’ve encountered a millions times when sitting down to talk to someone about me writing or making a new thing (video, educational piece, whatever). They generally have a pretty good idea about how they want to feel when the whole thing is done. What’s going to make them feel that way is pretty much a mystery to them. Experience has taught me that whatever they think is the answer is probably wrong (or so hopelessly incomplete it amounts to the same thing). It’s not their fault. If they knew what they needed or wanted they’d have already done it for themselves. They’re not stupid, after all. They spend their days happily doing stuff I can’t — or don’t want to — do. Part of my job is getting them trust me that it’s OK they weren’t born knowing how to do whatever it is that needs to be done. And trusting me to do it. My job is figuring out how to make the thing that’s going to make them feel the way they want at the end. And then get them to pay me that sweet, sweet money for it. People: good at knowing how they want to feel. People: pretty sucky at figuring out how to get there. Me: just like everyone else.
I think I “get” Trump now. And guns. And abortion. And how you can repeat all this crap about Obama that just doesn’t hold up to even cursory examination. The thing itself is not that important. It’s the ability to believe in the thing. You get to control that. You can own it, literally and metaphorically. Sure you’re more likely to shoot yourself or a loved one than you are a crook trying to rob you, but you own that gun. You can have that. You can make that happen. And before you start feeling all that damned superior yourself, you might want to be aware that you’ve got just as many blind spots. Think about that stereotypical person on Facebook that really pisses you off. What are their characteristics? Congratulations. You’ve just listed the things in your life you are frustrated about. You’ve done a chemical analysis of the soil that will list in great detail what will sprout and grow in you. You want to control, those things. You want to affect how those things turn out. And you’ll overlook things and gloss over things and do everything the person you despise does to prop up the hope that you will some day. “If people would only just…” So don’t get too full of yourself, Spanky. You’re just someone else’s garden.
A couple loose ends: None of this is new. Or original. People have been frustrated for as long as there have been people. It’s one of our defining characteristics as things that exist in three-dimensional space and fart. The new twist is we have a much wider assortment of things to be frustrated about because we have such visibility into the lives and thoughts of others. We simultaneously know way to much about other people and way too little about ourselves. That’s not a particularly good recipe for happiness. Then there’s the whole thing where somehow we’ve decided that “stuff” is what it’s all about. Whoever controls our ability to get stuff controls us. That’s kind of weird.
Waiting for the punch line? Waiting for the solution? Sorry. Not going to find any answers here. For my part I’ve been looking around a lot lately saying “What the fuck?” I’ve been seeing a lot of other people doing the same thing. I think I get it now. It’s about power, or the lack thereof. It’s people working out frustrations the only way they can.
I don’t know what to do about any of it (if, indeed, there’s anything to be “done”). But at least I know what I’m looking at.
It’s a start.
It’s sort of odd, but I’ve gotten to the point I really hate seeing video on the Internet. It’s funny because I love video. I’ve been shooting it since I was in middle school. I think my first gig was recording a training seminar for teachers. That would have been in either 1976 or 1977. In high school I had access to this weird-ass Akai VT-400 camera/ recorder combo that I used to record whatever I could talk anyone into letting me record. I spent a lot of time with the basketball team. Up until five or six years ago my professional life revolved around making video in one way or the other. Back in 2008 Streaming Media Magazine named me a Streaming Media All-Star. As best I’ve been able to determine, my team at UC was the first ever to stream a high school graduation live on the Internet back in 2001. That’s a footnote-to-a-footnote kind of accomplishment, but it illustrates the point that I’ve been at this for a while. I still care about video a lot. I’m enjoying this writing thing, but I’d kill to direct a multi-camera shoot just one more time.1,2. But I do hate seeing video pop up on social media.
It’s not the production values (or lack thereof) that bother me. I can’t tell you how many “Intro to TV Production” courses I’ve taught. When you see some of the stuff students do intentionally for a grade when you warned them not to, you’re not terribly overwrought when you see people with no training fall into the same traps. It’s definitely not vertical video. I feel the same way about people who get all holier-than-thou about that issue as I do about people who turn up their noses at a well-made lager because, well, it’s a lager. The phrase “douche canoe“ comes up almost immediately.
After putting milliseconds of thought into it while making a Facebook comment on this topic, I came up with three reasons I dislike most video on the Internet:
If you have a video of your cat doing something adorable and you label it as such, I have all the information I need in order to decide whether or not to watch it. And let’s be real. I probably will. Because cats. On the other hand, I have no interest in watching a recipe. Some of the best recipes in the world have been passed down through generations on 3×5 index cards. How is making a video supposed to improve on that? Some particular technique in some step? That’s fair, but then just show me that. You can just write out the rest and I’ll be very happy.
Video is good at showing complex spatial relationships among multiple objects. That could be anything from a baseball game to a gymnastics meet to a video on how to remove a car stereo from a car. Video is good at showing parasocial cues like smiling and body language. Video is good for demonstrating complex techniques. We’ve all seen the line drawings of how to tie a tie or assemble some piece of furniture. Most of the time there’s this one key step that video is perfect for. You look at the drawing on the instructions and you wonder if Screw 2B goes into hole 3C or whether you’re supposed to invade France by way of Belgium4. There are certain things video is good for. It’s not good for everything.
I always liked to tell my students that it’s nearly as hard to make a really crappy video as it is to make a good one. The amount of effort that goes into something has absolutely nothing to do with how good or appropriate it is. The flip side to that is that just because it’s easy to shoot a video and put it up, it doesn’t mean you ought to. I could go on for at least another thousand words about the crime against humanity that is the “video user guide” for most software. Just admit it. You were too lazy to write out the text for what each menu item does. That’s all I want to know. I don’t have to see you do it.
To get my point across do I need anything more than words? No? Then stop. Can a picture help show a two-dimensional relationship? Yes? Add that sucker in. Is there something we absolutely have to see in motion and hear in order to understand? Yes? Then video is a good idea. Otherwise it’s not. It’s not that complicated.
1OK, maybe not kill. I’d be willing to kick you. Call me?
2I did order one of these things way back. It was supposed to ship this month but it’s been delayed to July. Not perfect, but it could be fun.
3As an aside, I think 360-degree video is a cool and interesting technology, but I’m betting people are really going to struggle to find a good use for it in a story-telling setting. How do you direct attention when you just opened up the world by a whole lot? I’m definitely not saying it can’t be done, but I sure don’t know what it looks like. Then again, that’s the fun part, right?
4I’d like to apologize again to the governments of Belgium and France for that misunderstanding when I was assembling my Weber grill.
·I’m better but still not back. This morning a local journalist I know a little shared this article on Facebook. I had one of those rare moments that the words just flowed out in response. The thrust of the article was that a lot of journalists have s low regard for their audiences. Once upon a time I wanted to study audience behavior for a living. Then, like the seminarian who becomes an atheist on the eve of ordination, I quit believing in audiences.
The following is what I wrote in my comment:
“The disconnect comes from the use of the word ‘audience’ as if it were a good analogy for the actual relationship between parties. If we’re in a theater or classroom or concert hall the audience is easy to pick out. It is useful to think of them as a group because they are linked through physical proximity and all the usual social psychologies of the mob apply. Laughter, anger, applause, boos, and standing ovations are ad-hoc conventions tacitly agreed upon by people who have formed a group, at least for the duration of the performance. Ever had a stranger you were in a theater with want to keep applauding the movie once you’re outside? You run. The group bonds no longer exist.
The first requirement of a group? A collection of people who say to themselves “I am a member of this group.”
Media doesn’t have that. When I consume media it’s a solitary act. I have my own reasons for doing it and it seldom has anything to do with anyone else. You get people who bond over TV shows at work and book clubs form up but it’s the exception not the rule. It’s ephemeral.
If modern media has a motto it’s “don’t read the comments.” That’s the opposite of an “audience.”
It’s not that there aren’t people actually watching and reading and listening. There are. It’s just that they aren’t doing it as part of a larger social process. Social groupings may form over particular content, but filling a bucket with content doesn’t mean the people who show up are a herd. They all just showed up. You can call them an audience, but they aren’t one. No matter how badly you want them to be one.
Back in my grad school days, one of the big research programs came under the heading of “Uses & Gratifications of Media.” Ask someone why they’re watching or reading or listening to whatever and I’ll lay serious cash on the chances the answer will be “I’m bored and had nothing better to do.” I once suggested we start a publication called “Studies of People with Nothing Better to Do.” Another colleague suggested forming the Center for Frivolity Research.
Here’s the dirty little secret: communication among large groups of people will continue to happen. It always has. What’s not required is that someone makes buckets of money doing it. That’s the historical anomaly.”
This is how media sees itself:
A friend posted something on Facebook the other day expressing frustration with the state of the country and its discourse. It concluded with the question “Are we REALLY so small-minded and selfish that debate is impossible and compromise is EVIL? What the hell is happening here?” There are versions of this question being asked on Facebook, in coffee shops, in bars, in living rooms, and around kitchen tables all over the country. How did we get to the place we are now? I don’t know if it was the emotion or the clarity of the question (or a combination of the two), but something snapped into place. It was one of those nucleation points I’ve talked about. Whatever the conditions, they were what they needed to be in order for an idea to form. This post is based on the comment I made there.
I think things started to fall apart when ‘citizen’ and ‘consumer’ became interchangeable terms in the popular mind. I can’t point to a specific date when that happened, but I know there was a time in my lifetime they weren’t the same thing. I hear the Gorden Gecko “Greed is Good” speech from “Wall Street” much differently now than when I first experienced it in a theater.
It’s a much more recent phenomenon than you might think. Calvin Coolidge famously stated to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1925 that “… the chief business of the American people is business.” In a soundbite-driven world it may seem as if that puts an end to my thesis. In a world where that line has a context, it’s the exact opposite. Here’s an extended excerpt from the speech:
There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life. The opposite view was oracularly and poetically set forth in those lines of Goldsmith which everybody repeats, but few really believe:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Excellent poetry, but not a good working philosophy. Goldsmith would have been right, if, in fact, the accumulation of wealth meant the decay of men. It is rare indeed that the men who are accumulating wealth decay. It is only when they cease production, when accumulation stops, that an irreparable decay begins. Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today. Just a little time ago we read in your newspapers that two leaders of American business, whose efforts at accumulation had been most astonishingly successful, had given fifty or sixty million dollars as endowments to educational works. That was real news. It was characteristic of our American experience with men of large resources. They use their power to serve, not themselves and their own families, but the public. I feel sure that the coming generations, which will benefit by those endowments, will not be easily convinced that they have suffered greatly because of these particular accumulations of wealth. [Emphasis mine]
“Of course the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence?” Who was this guy? Bernie Sanders? Coolidge is saying this at the height of the Roaring Twenties. “The Great Gatsby” won’t be published for another four months. He’ll leave office just before its all falls apart four years later and he’ll be dead before these words are ten years old. He never sees the end of the Great Depression. “So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it.” Can anyone look me in the eye today and say with a straight face that wealth isn’t the end nowadays? What’s it the means to? More wealth? When did that become OK? I’m not asking that for rhetorical effect. I honestly don’t know the answer to that.
What I do know is that we lost something important when we created an environment where greed is good — as long as you’re the greedy one. The last thing you want to have to deal with at that point are people who consider themselves equal citizens. Citizenship requires active participation in a larger community with a voluntarily sense of duty to others, even when fulfilling that duty doesn’t have immediate and direct benefit to the self. It’s acting on the idea that a society is judged on the lives of the least of its members, not its greatest. Everyone counts the same. Some have more to give than others, but everyone has the same basic value. Coolidge wasn’t talking out of his butt, either. Look at the infrastructure we rely on to this day that was built in that era. Where’s all the money going now?
For “greed is good” to work you need consumers. Consumerism is based on the immediate gratification of personal needs. Period. Nothing is more important than getting what you want for as little cost to yourself as possible. If someone else suffers, that’s just too bad for them. There is no problem that can’t be solved with the application of enough money. Your worth becomes a function of the amount of money you have to spend. There is no greater atrocity than a price being raised to benefit someone who has less than you. If they get more, you will have less. You may not know how much less. You may not have any idea to what use you’ll put that which you’ve “saved.” The point is you have it and they don’t.
Citizens say “we’re all in this together.” Consumers say “I’m buying a gun so no one takes my stuff. Stuff is important. It’s more important than you.” In a weird way I think this explains the recent outbreak of zombie movies and stories.1 That’s pretty much where we are nowadays. We’re on our own. And there are all these things that aren’t us who want what we have.
I don’t know how you make citizens of consumers again. I don’t know if you can. All I know is that citizenship and consumerism are incompatible unless you’re willing to work at it. And I’m not seeing much evidence that anyone wants to work that hard at it. Yelling is apparently more satisfying.
1See what I did there?