For the uninitiated, Big Chungus is a popular meme character you may have seen around the Internet. He is a large, fat version of Bugs Bunny. But he signifies much more. First he represented the power aesthetic of the adorably chunky creature, man or beast. Then, as often happens online, the stakes were raised to…
For the uninitiated, Big Chungus is a popular meme character you may have seen around the Internet. He is a large, fat version of Bugs Bunny. But he signifies much more.
First he represented the power aesthetic of the adorably chunky creature, man or beast. Then, as often happens online, the stakes were raised to absurd—but ironically absurd—heights:
Our lives are measured in years and decades. We wither and die. Chungus is eternal. Before it, we are nothing.
Chungus imposes order on the chaos of organic life. We exist because Chungus allows it, and we will end because Chungus demands it.
Chungus transcends our very understanding. We cannot grasp the nature of Chungus’ existence.
Big Chungus embodies and represents the sublime authority of immense physical presence—but, unlike the Leviathan or the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, benignly so.
There are, predictably, variants on Chungus that may not be so affable and benign, such as the Karen Chungus, but those need not concern us here. Here we are concerned with the prospect that Big Chungus Energy will win big this election year.
At his best, Donald Trump has Big Chungus Energy. At their best, the relief and bailout packages coming out of Congress have Big Chungus Energy. At its best, the America of today has Big Chungus Energy.
Love and admiration for Big Chungus Energy expresses a deep seated wager in the human breast that super size can combine and deploy the moral virtue of good cheer with the salutary effects of many different techniques of competition and combat: intimidation, the establishment of a presence on the field, overwhelming brute force, and sheer physical momentum, to name a few.
At this time America has several different kinds of resources to fall back on amid the often vitality and virility-sapping circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic and the constraints imposed around it. Big Chungus is a taproot of deep American folk power that can be even more of an absolute unit than the virus and the octopus of restrictions and events coiled around us.
Whoever and whatever taps this vast underground energy resource will activate a social force that can and will throw its political weight around come Election Day. If nobody or no organization is able to do it, look out. The leading alternative appears to be that of Joe Necrotic.
Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmixed with baser matter. …
Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmixed with baser matter. Hamlet Act I Scene V
Over the past few days—weeks?—I’ve been deluged with dreams.
Not the kind where you imagine yourself in another place and a better time. The kind where your sleeping mind ransacks the memories locked behind the doors of consciousness, mixing and remixing fragments and phases you hadn’t thought about in years so that you still can’t be sure, upon waking, that all of them really happened.
And over the past few days, as the substance of things like “days” and “moments” begins to blur, the incoherent data dump of my inner life has breached the barrier of sleeping dreams and flowed in to overlay the fitful patterns of coronalife.
It isn’t quite like my life is flashing before my eyes. Nothing so linear, so cinematic and narrative, as that. Nothing has impressed the transformative effect of our digital surround upon me as much as the way my mind keeps coughing up disaggregated memories, vignettes, smells, feelings, situations, regrets, joys, scenes, references, products, trivia housed away in what sometimes feels like the great Alexandrian library of my life—and at other times feels like nothing so much as a vast trash heap receding into a distant dissolute horizon.
These are the two modes in which we encounter the psychological and technological environment shaped around and within us by digital technology: the ultimate library and the ultimate dump. Polar opposites, in one sense, and in another, two symbols or prefigurations of death. Larchivesburn just as well as trash. In the apogee of order, we foretaste what’s left of the now-submerged Alexandrian library—a drowned world; in the apogee of chaos, what remains of a dumpster fire—a charred one. (I’ve always feared drowning more than burning to death. Yet another reason to fear the lung-killer sweeping through the living world.)
But in the meanwhile what is dying is my past. Library or dump, my remembered life is filled with now useless information—records of experiences, things, people, events, objects, and meanings now with no applicability to our point of contact with this virus, our prospective survival, our successful fight against it, or the world we face in the aftermath. There are so many things I have seen and done that have now, at one coup de grace, had all the life struck out of them. There is no point bringing them up; nothing to make of them; nowhere to ride them to, even alone.
I can’t be the only one feeling this way, so even the self-pity I might have felt under different circumstances (waaaah, my forever-unfinished novel) is floating out toward the ice cap on the burning Viking barge of my overstuffed and flame-fueling past. And so for all the alarm or helplessness it seems to impose, the universality or generality of the death blow—the strike of grace—slams home for me the supernatural good news that no one, not even myself, ever knows, ever has known, me better than God Himself.
There never was any way it could have been any other way. This is the feeling, incomplete and provisional as it still may be, of dying to the world.
What way of remembering, of remembrance, emerges, dazed, almost frightened, from this immense extinction? What new (or renewed) understanding of our standing? What deep and towering new growth is cleared for by the sinking of the library and the burning of the dump?
Zeus sets men on the path to understanding. He ordains this law: That learning comes with pain. Grief, the reminder of agony, Drips upon the heart in sleep. Wisdom comes— Even to those who don’t want it. This is the harsh grace of the gods, Sitting in rows upon their awful thrones. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 176-83
The pain of forgetting, of having no use but to forget, is a hard instruction of its own. A hardness that is, paradoxically, a mercy—an unasked-for and profoundly unearned act of grace.
One of the drums I’ve been beating about digital the past few years is that (another paradox) in its very force and authority it pushes us up against a stark realization of the sharpness of its limits, beyond which we can proceed only by recovering a radical and even jealous appreciation of our given biological gifts. While televisual technology leads us on ever deeper into the dream, the illusion, the dazzling spectra of the trivial, digital throws us back at the feet of nature.
How do we know this? Through our natural perception. For what we see in nature are the same shocking and humbling features of life and death as the library-dump imitates.
When I suggest that coronavirus is throwing us back upon the resources of our strangely reopened interior frontier, I think of Tocqueville’s uncanny experience of that inner edgeworld at what for us Americans was its beginning—which I put at the end of my own book’s chapter on death. “The soil is punctured in a thousand places by primitive rocks sticking out here and there like the bones of a skeleton,” he observed, “like a fertile field covered by the ruins of some vast structure.”
“Here, as in the forest tamed by man, death was striking constantly, but it was no man’s duty to remove the resulting debris, which piled up faster than time could reduce it to powder and make room for new growth. New growth, however, was constantly forcing its way through this debris, with creepers and plants of every sort struggling toward the light, climbing along fallen trunks and into the rotting wood, lifting the cracking bark, and opening the way for their young shoots. Thus death in some way helped life forward, as face to face they seemed to wish to mingle and confuse their functions.”
God has given us nature to ensure we need not bear the terrible burdens of being either the masters or the slaves of life or of death. In offering up the nothing that the everything of our lives has become, we offer everything. Only then may we begin again.
Most of our “tech titans” (or whatever) have enough skin in the game to appreciate both the rewards of public life and the routine abuse that so often comes with it. As a result, they provide us regular public statements about the unfolding future—as they see it and as they would like to see it…
Most of our “tech titans” (or whatever) have enough skin in the game to appreciate both the rewards of public life and the routine abuse that so often comes with it. As a result, they provide us regular public statements about the unfolding future—as they see it and as they would like to see it unfold.
Without such statements it would be harder to think on the fly, or in depth, about questions core to our future prospects such as “what is technology,” “what is digital,” “what is happening to us,” and “how much time do we have to stay (or get) ahead of the wave.” At the same time, these kinds of mini-briefings typically have enough nuts-and-bolts detail in them to give us a better shot at not getting lost in schematics and abstractions while trying to tackle the big questions.
Mark Zuckerberg’s latest remarks kicking off the new decade represent an important new iteration of this process.
I’m going to talk about one thread that struck me as an especially clear and powerful example of how to enter into dialogue with a high-level Silicon Valley pronouncement and what we can actionably learn right away from doing so. There are plenty of other threads to pull at in his missive. You might identify an even more valuable one.
I want to focus our attention on AR and VR—specifically, two different ways in which they might be used in the realm of telepresence. It is tempting to say one way is better than the other; and hopefully, by the end of my comments, you will come away with that general impression in a specific sense.
But your takeaway will likely turn on whether you share my assumption or principle that our naturalness as incarnate, biologically real creatures is a precious, inalienable, and perhaps even sacred characteristic of who we human beings are. My goal is to give a suggestive sketch of how what Doug Rushkoff calls a “team human” approach to telepresence can be applied to technology more broadly, and to digital technology in particular.
VR: The Danger of Televisual Enchantment
In his statement, Zuck creditably sets his gaze well ahead in a precise way. He is working on doing some forecasting—a much different exercise than simply summoning up a desirable or seemingly desirable state in the imagination and then postulating how we might approach, approximate, or instantiate it in the lived world.
I’ve tried to think about what I hope the world and my life will look in 2030 so I can make sure I’m focusing on those things. By then, if things go well… we’ll have the technology to feel truly present with another person no matter where they are.
If you are anything like me, the phrase “feel truly present” probably jumped out at you right away. I would submit this is because it is basically an oxymoron, and palpably so, but not like just any old oxymoronic statement. This one gets its big energy from expressing in speech something that’s “like magic” in a way that plays on our deepest desires for illusions to be somehow better than reality, truer to who we are.
These desires are what made televisual technology—the dominant media before digital—so commanding, consuming, controlling, and yes, dangerous. The danger is not increased physical violence; an important element of it is enchantment in the negative sense.
Think of it as a kind of morally kitschy, self-conscious “virtuous delusion.” It’s almost like a “noble lie” you tell yourself—only not noble in the old sense of elevated or renunciatory excellence. This sort of enchantment is praiseworthy more for the properties of the emotional payoff you earn by freely choosing to believe the lie than for the (nevertheless) high quality of the lie itself.
If we can see this aspect of televisual media clearly, we can already also see the mechanism behind the payoff that activates the process, leading to its conclusion in self-congratulatory embrace. There is a deep-seated human longing to present the expertly ersatz as just as good if not better than the real thing, because not everyone gets equal access to the real thing, whether we are talking about emotional goods or material ones.
That longing—for a fake thing to be real so it can be possessed by those who lack it—has manifested itself in many ways over human history. Today’s technology gives it an incredibly powerful new way of appearing at the center of our experience of our humanity. We now place ourselves into the category of emotional goods to which access must be made equal in order to make life worthy of full embrace with a good conscience.
Unfortunately, when we ourselves go into this category of goods, uncanny and unwise things unfold. So an illusion or a representation of a person becomes ethically better and more significant than the actual person themselves—to such a degree that an expert class soon arises to optimize and police discrepancies.
AR: Televisual Means Serving Incarnate Ends
We can go much further down this rabbit hole. But given what I hope is now recognizably a serious problem lurking inside, let us go ahead and compare the interpretation of “truly present” VR experience described above to that encouraged by a different kind of high-fidelity telepresence, the kind Zuck hints at here:
While I expect phones to still be our primary devices through most of this decade, at some point in the 2020s, we will get breakthrough augmented reality glasses that will redefine our relationship with technology.
Augmented and virtual reality are about delivering a sense of presence—the feeling that you’re right there with another person or in another place. Instead of having devices that take us away from the people around us, the next platform will help us be more present with each other and will help the technology get out of the way. Even though some of the early devices seem clunky, I think these will be the most human and social technology platforms anyone has built yet.
At first blush, this sounds a lot like a rephrase or restatement of the initial, semi-oxymoronic form of “feeling truly present.” But at least for me, thinking about what use cases leap to mind from this second account suggests important differences.
Here, instead of the use case being a psychodramatic one—getting enveloped in the pathos or catharsis of illusion or representation as a heaven’s gate to egalitarian emotional communion—it’s, to be blunt, excellence and efficiency in conspiracy formation and execution.
Here, instead of a gnostic escape into divine sparkdom, away from the affrontery of our disgustingly unequal and limited clay bodies, we have end-to-end encrypted private high-fidelity telepresence, radically strengthening the power of actionable group trust.
In other words, the contrast is between televisual means serving the ends of incarnate reality—natural people being and doing actual things in the given world—rather than televisual means serving the ends of unreality, of an illusory realm that asserts a claim of ethical superiority over the naturally real.
There’s a huge difference in moral-cultural trajectories between the two kinds of accounts. It raises big questions about status, prestige, and power. And hopefully it calls us to remember that our given bodies and the given world have primary, fundamental worth and value, no matter how potent our illusions.
All this just from pausing to consider carefully how we benefit from thinking along with Zuck about the decade to come.
As Facebook continues its move toward private comms, Twitter explores a new potential phase of significant decentralization, cryptocurrency regimes continue to strengthen their global presence, and encrypted peer-to-peer internet systems like Urbit roll out and gain users, regular reading and interpretation exercises like this one provide us with a way to develop knowledge and maintain psychological vitality as the digital age sets in.
Professional political analysts are still trying to figure out why the Trump phenomenon has not petered out. To the contrary, it is in at least some respects stronger than ever, not only on the partisan front but the “intellectual” one too. Despite ever more effort on the part of Trump’s adversaries, and consistently little effort…
Professional political analysts are still trying to figure out why the Trump phenomenon has not petered out. To the contrary, it is in at least some respects stronger than ever, not only on the partisan front but the “intellectual” one too. Despite ever more effort on the part of Trump’s adversaries, and consistently little effort on the part of Trump to atone for his many political sins, victory still proves elusive to the “resistance.” The familiar dynamics of Trump’s opponents expecting over and over again to gain traction and momentum only to have it slip away from their grasp make it seem as if some alien entity has utterly transformed the political rules of the game.
Perhaps cognizant of how incapable they are of assessing the mysteries at the heart of their frustration, analysts who themselves feel a deep-seated antipathy toward Trump are inclined to focus their explanatory faculties on Trump’s supporters. Rather than seeking out what all today are ever more inclined to sniff on the wind—a structural account of Trump’s resilience and the persistence of his support—they instead seek to crack open the minds of Trump’s supporters and name and shame what lies within.
I would like to suggest what seems to me to be an obvious point, one Trump’s intelligent critics are especially resistant to considering. Whatever one’s partisan or ideological disposition, there are valuable reasons to seek a sociological understanding of how the expectations of the well-mobilized elite establishment have been dashed—over and over and over again, in a cycle of feverish hope, brittle certainty, shocking setback, and back to feverish hope—throughout its battle with Trump.
In looking beyond claims of transactional politics regarding Trump and his supporters, Kersch smartly seeks out the broader context of the relationship. Rather than zooming all the way up to the sociological level, however, he moves instead to political history—specifically, that of “a little-known but long-standing constitutional argument for an all-powerful, redemptive executive, one rooted in fundamental law and high principle, and one that has underwritten the thinking right’s steadfast support of this president.”
Kersch is wise to note the persistent, indeed renewed, influence of Professor Harry Jaffa’s “West Coast Straussian” emphasis on the necessity of maintaining a philosophical and political unity between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in order to preserve the justice of the American regime. But he rather oddly concludes that, just like the “Christian right,” the Claremont Institute has “arrived at an unshakable conviction” that Trump’s “role as a vindicating statesman and great president” has been “divinely ordained.”
It is hard not to interpret this as a tell—one with relevance to the sociological mystery of Trump’s continued strength and support. The “divine ordination” thesis offers major comfort and convenience to Trump’s adversaries by reducing support for Trump to a product of sheer supernatural devotion. This move turns Trump into a flying spaghetti monster—an absurd aberration to whom loyalty can only be pledged by delusional, irrational minds.
The conclusion is as immediate as it is simple, and, superficially, just as empowering: We are not dealing with people properly committed to normal, rational, legitimate politics. We are dealing not just with fanatics but fantasists!
Therefore, the only possible interpretation of the persistence of the Trump phenomenon is that people who in fact do know better have trumped their own reason with madness, embracing, as Kersch puts it, “a man who would have been the Founders’ worst nightmare, and the antithesis of every Christian or civic value and virtue that conservatives have purported to champion.”
Logically, another explanatory account of Trump supporters’ behavior is possible, but Kersch skirts it: perhaps the Trump phenomenon arises not from a perception that he is a savior who will restore our true moral vision, but from a perception that, (a), his adversaries are scourges who will impose false ethical delusions on America unless a large and solid enough manifestation of reality blocks them, and, (b), the only entity available right now that is large and solid enough to foster such a blocking effect is Trump.
Let us map this possibility onto the reality of the Trump phenomenon. Instead of speculating about what the Trump phenomenon is for, let’s look at the concrete thing it is actually against. Beginning this way, we immediately encounter the biggest sociological story of the decade: the ideological and institutional fusion of human-resources corporatism, administrative progressivism, and militant wokeness into a single entity.
Analysts are still laboring mightily to hang a name around this entity that sticks; Wesley Yang, the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk(2018), has gotten some traction with “the successor ideology,” a deliberately vague moniker, with a deliberate sense of the functionary’s fussily totalitarian management-speak. Whatever we call it, we know perfectly well what it is. It is institutionalized, it is revolutionary, and it is in a state of high-grade panic over the Trump phenomenon.
Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not this entity poses various challenges to Christian morality and Christian life. One of the most interesting aspects of “the culture war” is the way in which Christians disagree on this question! But at this point in time there is no disagreement that this “successor” entity is fully engaged in what it sees as a decisive political battle to obliterate not just the Trump administration, but the American regime as we’ve known it. Transparently, aggressively, implacably, this is what the entity wishes; this defines its identity. All fall short of the glory of the woke corporatist administrative state; all must be dismantled to make way for its great advent. Why yes, this does seem a lot like religious, fantasist language. Intriguing!
The entity’s institutional revolutionaries, committed to replacing our current regime with the woke corporatist administrative state in full flower, understand that their aims are flatly unattainable with Trump in power. And a lot can happen in four years. The revolutionaries plainly see that these four years are especially significant to both their prospects and those of their adversaries. The revolutionaries know Trump’s reelection could result in more for them than additional setbacks: it seems to them that these four more years of Trump have the power to collapse their movement and end the opportunity to achieve their revolution.
The End of Television and the New World Order
But why? This is what goes mysteriously unsaid, unanalyzed, unthought. The entity’s institutional revolutionaries—just like usually more level-headed analysts like Kersch—are either unclear or in denial about why the stakes of this political conflict are so high and why its timeline is so compressed.
This fascinating state of cluelessness has great sociological significance. It is a master clue that points the way toward the solution to our sociological puzzle about the curious resilience and vitality of the Trump phenomenon. What Trump’s adversaries have such a hard time considering and processing, what is “unthinkable” to them, is that the Trump phenomenon is a manifestation of an inexorable, irreversible transformation in our lived reality.
This transformation, the evidence all around us strongly suggests, is not caused by rabble-rousing or extremist-coddling. It is not fomented by resurgent ideologies or intellectual crypto-conspiracies. It is caused by the replacement of the social, psychological, and technological environment that shaped Trump’s adversaries—a media environment they mastered so expertly that it became one with their form of political and cultural rule.
The character of this environment was decisively and definitively shaped by the television. It is impossible to make any sense of our current elite and its full mobilization against the Trump phenomenon without reference to their televisual identity. As demonstrated by the impeachment hearings and all the profoundly televisual battles against the Trump phenomenon that has led up to them, Trump’s adversaries are apex players in the televisual elite—committed to televisual rules of engagement, convinced of the power of televisual technology to cement their legitimate and authoritative rule, and totally incapable of accepting that the rise of digital technology has not just challenged but already obsolesced their entire lifeworld.
Viewed in this way, it becomes clear why Trump’s televisual adversaries, many of whom nominally understand and portray themselves as neutral rationalists simply defending the status quo, have become foxhole allies with the institutional revolutionaries of the successor entity. The “square” establishment and the “hip” revolutionaries are united in their televisual-era faith that the human imagination is the master source of truth, justice, and control. These are the fruits of the nation of the image America became in its TV-age supremacy. The hip and the square merely differ on the question of whether the current regime is adequate to delivering the goods of the human imagination to all.
No Going Back
For both the establishment and the revolutionaries, rationalism is good, but only insofar as it works as the servant of the right dreams, the proper kind of make-believe. That is why Obama’s memoir-writing staffers obsessivelyinvokeThe West Wing. That is why the constant tension between the hip and the square on the justice of the current regime returns again and again to battles over who “gets to” inculcate the ethically correct imaginings and broadcast the ethically mandatory visions.
Is or isn’t America suffused with the spectral malevolence of whiteness? Can or can’t a man transubstantiate himself into a woman simply by saying the magic words? Did or didn’t Epstein kill himself? Even with the existential threat of the Trump phenomenon to superficially unite them, the hip and the square incessantly struggle over who controls the official imagination of the successor entity.
But the rise of digital technology is replacing the televisual environment and its ruling elite with a new environment and a new elite—this time, defined not by the mastery of the human imagination but the mastery of machine memory. The triumph of digital means a few things, but one of the most basic is that imagination no longer defines us and our pecking order the way it once did. As a result, both the established imagineers and the revolutionary dream police are losing status, efficacy, and mind share, no matter how extreme or intense they become in their struggles to keep them. The televisual social environment that once put Trump’s future adversaries in unchallenged power is collapsing, and despite their use of the successor entity to wage in principle unlimited psychological war to defend their position, their underlying weakness cannot be concealed—even from themselves.
There is some debate over the degree to which the Trump phenomenon comprehends or reflects the uncompromising and accelerating character of the digital transformation taking place. But the Trump phenomenon does clearly demonstrate a widening recognition that the conceptual foundations of the successor entity—the legitimacy of the rule of expertly ethical imaginers—have already been destroyed by the digital changeover. Even more so than ideological commitments, what unites the participants in the Trump phenomenon is a perception that the successor entity is hostile to the new reality unfolding amid our newly digital world.
Yet Trump’s square adversaries evince no comprehension that their status quo can no longer be maintained, no matter how moderate or reasonable they strive to be; Trump’s hip adversaries, likewise, cannot countenance their loss of authority no matter how recondite, or ruthlessly enforced, their weaponized imaginings. In short, Trump’s establishment adversaries cannot successfully protect America’s regime, and his revolutionary adversaries cannot successfully replace it. Either road ends only in tears.
In this way, opponents of the Trump phenomenon will be unable to understand what is happening until they realize that their regime plans are so divorced from reality that, for millions of Americans, they are an instinctive deal breaker. The Trump phenomenon is not about the president’s supporters projecting a fantasy of divine ordination, but about the president’s opponents attempting to project the fantasy of their own ordination onto a re-surfaced reality that is no longer a screen.
In an age of commanding machines, the preservation of human excellence can no longer be entrusted to delusional imagineers. It belongs to those who grasp what is by nature human, and what in that nature must be enshrined within a just regime.
However great an act of retrieval such a transfer of power requires, it is plain that—wherever the Trump phenomenon leads—“there is no going back” to “the before times”. Whatever the ups and downs of the political fight over its aftermath, the fundamental change has been made. What the opponents of the Trump phenomenon imagine to be the decisive battle is already over.
Of all parts of life, the internet has singled out sex and sexuality for especially staggering transformation. Until recently much of the change has taken place under the social surface. But it was inevitable people would start talking, and as we know online erotics and the erotic sensibilities unleashed online now suffuse everyday life and…
Of all parts of life, the internet has singled out sex and sexuality for especially staggering transformation. Until recently much of the change has taken place under the social surface.
But it was inevitable people would start talking, and as we know online erotics and the erotic sensibilities unleashed online now suffuse everyday life and ordinary conversation alike, so much so that sometimes it feels as if people need to shut up a bit or there is nothing new worth saying about it.
Nevertheless, only very recently has moral backlash penetrated the conversation. We suddenly hear a lot about maybe banning porn outright and, in the key of Epstein, the internet itself has fueled a mass confrontation with the decadence and depravity of at least one influential corner of the elite.
These criticisms, however, come at a time when the internet has become totally indispensable for people and communities dedicated to pushing out the frontier of not just tolerated or accepted but celebrated and honored forms of sex and sexuality.
Even without considering the role of the erotic, online life can plainly be seen to powerfully push people toward new extremes of the body on the one hand and the spirit on the other.
The old political divide between left and right is being eclipsed in this regard by a new polarity: spirit-obsessed gnosticism versus body-obsessed vitalism. Gnostics insist that special knowledge of one’s own true essence liberates the self from one’s given physical nature; vitalists teach that without proper strengthening and purification of the bodily fluids and the organs they nourish, will and spiritedness decay to repulsively less than fully human levels.
These moves appear to be fueled primarily by the collapse of the mainstream imaginative complex that powered and organized individual and social psychology in pre-digital contemporary life.
Seemingly shallow nostrums like those in John Lennon’s “Imagine” actually described a secular catechism of the rule of the imagination through the televisual technologies that promised to bring full harmony and humanity by equally emancipating the dreaming faculties of all. Under digital conditions, Lennonism has been suddenly and painfully disenchanted, its nostrum complex reduced to just one more piece of content in the commanding context of the vast digital archive. Machine memory alone, and no longer human imagination, encompasses the world.
The result of this overthrow of the magic kingdom of the imagination has been a refugee crisis, with ex-Lennonists scrambling to seek refuge in what they mistakenly believe to be fantasy complexes so extreme as to be hardened against the disenchanting maelstrom of digital life.
For those who were not Lennonists to begin with, the disenchantment effect has had to do instead with the collapse of traditional dreams of a nuclear family headed by an average dad conscripted into the conformist rat race of postindustrial “knowledge work.”
There is no denying that both these mechanisms have been exaggerated and whipped on by the erotics of internet life. Going beyond moralism, what we have to see sociologically and anthropologically is an unprecedented squandering of sexual potency and potentiality.
Already before the internet there was a lot of abortion and masturbation going on. But now, a massive storm cell of sexual fruitlessness regarding reproduction is blotting out the sun. The one thing uniting all the salient trends, from involuntary celibacy to transsexuality, from serial dating to serial monogamy, from the rise of pet culture to the rise of “I could never bring a child into this world,” and perhaps most of all from the tidal wave of orgasmic energy going down the drain every day through pornography, is a huge rechanneling of sexual energies into directions that show signs of serious limitation and instability.
This is a problem we do not need to traverse complex moral territory to confront. And it is not altogether clear that “moar moralizing” will be adequate to address it.
The contemporary sexual economy appears to be deeply caught up with a level of ill-being and reproductive decline that cannot be maintained over time without increasing costs and compounding consequences. The internet may have gathered together all erotic fantasies into an always-on-fire hose of “orgone” content. But in so doing it has also opened up to us the idea of the disenchantment of all erotic fantasies and the social exhaustion of biologically terminal sexual projects of identity. The seed of this idea is growing into an experience with profoundly political consequences.
For those with eyes to see, the sudden freak-out over the evident weakness of Elizabeth Warren as a challenger to President Trump offers a peek behind the curtain of the elite sensibility. A recent New York Times poll—you remember how predictive the election-o-meter turned out to be in 2016—shows unambiguously “bad news for Warren,” as…
For those with eyes to see, the sudden freak-out over the evident weakness of Elizabeth Warren as a challenger to President Trump offers a peek behind the curtain of the elite sensibility. A recent New York Times poll—you remember how predictive the election-o-meter turned out to be in 2016—shows unambiguously “bad news for Warren,” as the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner observes; “against President Trump, she performs worse than Biden or Sanders, with Trump leading or tied in five of six swing states.”
For elites concerned that, on ideology and identity alike, both Biden and Sanders would be unacceptable nominees, Warren held out the promise of a better way—neither “moderate,” “socialist,” nor an elderly heterosexual white man. But this better way now looks worse, or probably worse: because the political science that elites “know” ought to drive public policy is supposed to be fundamentally quantitative, the polls—meaning the pollsters—must be trusted.
The nature of this trust is interesting. Is it a logical imperative? Is it an ethical one?
The Science of Liberalism
The answer is both—if you follow John Stuart Mill, the intellectual godfather of the idea that liberalism is and should be a science. Political polling today exhibits the features of an “exact science” in the terms Mill applied to his theorized “Science of Character,” which he dubbed “ethology”: it is “necessary to the exactness of the propositions that they should be hypothetical only, and affirm tendencies, not facts.” Such “propositions,” Mill urged, “being assertive only of tendencies, “are not the less universally true because the tendencies may be frustrated.”
So our elites have real skin in the game: they must obey this duty to trust polls and pollsters. Failure to do so subverts and undermines the claim that liberalism is itself a science, “the exact science of human nature,” as Mill put it in his essay on ethology. Poll problems sink the operations of democracy into darkness, and we all know what happens to democracy in darkness. Democracy must be open and transparent, not just among citizens but—and perhaps especially—before social scientists. Democracy must show its work to its assessors to receive a passing grade. “Ethology is the science,” as Mill explains, “which corresponds to the act of education, in the widest sense of the term, including the formation of national or collective character as well as individual.”
Ethology in Crisis
If a pattern of behavior opens up too great a gap between monitored and quantified tendencies and real-life actualities, the result is not just a crisis of knowledge but, as the election-o-meter amply showed in 2016, a crisis of being.
The psychic shock and strain of this double crisis places an all-consuming demand on the victims to supply themselves and others with answers. Both fellow elites and ordinary people, both rulers and ruled, must be furnished with an authoritative and re-authorizing account of what went “so wrong”—what made liberalism cease to look and act like a science, and made it look more like just an idea, or perhaps a dream.
In 2016, the poll-discrediting aftermath of Trump’s election required an exonerating explanation from elites who “knew” themselves to be credentialed experts at the science of liberalism. Their explanation was that the tendencies they so grievously mis-measured and misinterpreted were not frustrated in a way social science could be justly expected to comprehend and head off at the pass. Brazen yet crafty actors willfully frustrated the precisely predicted tendencies of democracy—hacking or hijacking the system with coordinated, conspiratorial acts. They must be stopped! And restoring the authority and functionality of polling as an instrument of governance is an indispensable means to that end.
Notice that even incredibly trivial but willful acts of frustration, carried out by the wrong kind of people, could under important enough circumstances be viewed reasonably by elite ethologists as an intolerable infractions—the kind of authority-flaunting mischief that promises mayhem if not made a swift and painful example of. Yes, ethology has its “broken windows” theory of policing too.
Liberalism’s need to rationalize itself and manage democracy as a science is revealed in a recent interview about the Warren polling, overseen by the Times’s Nate Cohn. Cohn, a friend and former colleague of Chotiner, who, well known for his tough questioning, obliged Cohn to get more transparent on a troublingly clouded region of the swing-state map:
IC: Your poll included a note that the Michigan data was hard to gather. What, exactly, was the problem?
NC: Michigan has been tough for us for a while. We just have very low response rates, and a lot of numbers were people saying the person we were asking for doesn’t live there. The people apparently are pretty mean to our interviewers, too. The survey responses don’t come in as balanced as we want them to, which requires more weighting. In this case, we reduced the number of interviews compared to everywhere else. I guess my view is that I don’t think this poll is terrible or something. I think it still obeys the rules of the margin of error. But, by the measures that we use to evaluate our own polling, it’s objectively the worst of the samples. So I would say I have more uncertainty about that result than the others.
If the hobgoblins and trolls of Election ’16 chilled the spine of democracy’s elite assessors, the prospect of a brewing voter insurrection against polling itself promises a panic spiral.
“The backward state of the moral sciences can only be remedied by applying to them the methods of physical science,” Mill vowed, “duly extended and generalized.” If people refuse to become collected information in the way pollsters and their organizers demand, how can politics be quantified into the sort of matter upon which the science of liberalism can act? How will liberalism remain the science which corresponds to the practice of conforming the national character to its principles? How will liberalism remain a science at all?
In the darkness of voters’ own sentiments, sentiments over which they might suddenly become (gasp) sovereign, will it be ethology itself, and not democracy, that will die? A popular insurrection against polling signals an existential threat: the assessors will cease to be able to do their jobs—they will lose their status. They will cease to be able to be who they are.
Threats like this are fought with weapons, trusted weapons, and the ethological elite has had no trouble weaponizing their expertise in the past. “Having ascertained not only the empirical laws, but the causes of the peculiarities” in people’s collective and individual character, “we,” Mill nodded, “need be under no difficulty in judging how far they may be expected to be permanent, or by what circumstances they would be modified or destroyed.”
In the age of television, the means of modifying and destroying unwanted peculiarities of character was, as Jacques Ellul amply demonstrated, propaganda. In his 1973 book on that subject, subtitled The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Ellul strove to show that an ethical definition of propaganda as a bad kind of communication was inadequate; his sociological definition simply described propaganda as a rapid and incessant form of communication designed to shape mass sensibilities at an unconscious level. In making this move Ellul showed that there was a salutary gap between science and ethics: without the gap, there was no seeing how propaganda could carry content you might find ethical, unethical, or neither.
But Ellul also showed that propaganda “is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world.” Our elites are panicking because up until recently the technological world in which propaganda was utilized by democracy’s assessors to integrate people into their order system was televisual. The medium of television made propaganda visual; visualizations could and did work less consciously on the target audience than text or radio, which demanded more active participation. The top-down televisual broadcast of “ethical” propaganda enclosed people within an “attention economy” far more powerful and all-consuming than anything today’s digital titans can manage. But of course, their medium isn’t all about human elites blasting propaganda to the masses. It’s about expert machines graphing the identities of individuals and groups.
The degree to which propaganda relied on broadcasting fantasies created a deep tension. The pre-electric era of print was, for elites at least, an “age of reason.” Enlightenment spread news and knowledge in a way educated people could fruitfully and advantageously use to strengthen their position in life and in the world, drawing them together (as Mill claimed) around the facts and truths that emerged from the open contestation of claims among the brightest and most dedicated of discussants.
The electric era culminating in the triumph of television, by contrast, was an age of fantasy. Order no longer arose from the algorithm of enlightenment, but from expertly-produced scripts of broadcast make-believe. Disciplined interpretation was eclipsed by ethical imagination. But it did not disappear altogether.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televisual
Today’s news elites—journalists and pollsters alike—remain strongly influenced by a view of themselves as members of an indispensable fourth branch of government, giving people the facts they need to make democracy function. But behind this apparently social-scientific commitment to disciplined interpretation has long grown a commitment among news elites to a much different idea: the idea that their elitehood ultimately pertains to their expertise at correctly using their imaginations to grasp the correct ethics—and then to propagandize the people into adopting it.
This notion, that the duty of news is to expertly package and broadcast content such that the correct ethics is input into the minds of the masses, is getting more difficult to reconcile with the older notion that the duty of news is to mount a sustained, disciplined response to the inescapable task of making real events intelligible to people pursuing fruitfully human lives.
The first notion, that the mission of information elites is to install the correct ethics into the masses via the authority of their special expertise in obtaining and presenting “news”, is not just different from the second; it is easier, more alluring, and less demanding of rectitude, self-discipline, humility, and discernment. Relative to the second, the first notion offers a much clearer path to cashing in, hoarding access, and wielding power.
Or it did, at least, until digital technology overthrew the dominance of televisual technology.
One way or the other, characteristically, the richest, most powerful, and most calculating move to the front of the pack. Historically that has meant a leading role in politics—grand politics. Politics as the highest plane humans can operate on. Politics as what encompasses the world, the universe. People can argue over whether war, and “war in…
One way or the other, characteristically, the richest, most powerful, and most calculating move to the front of the pack. Historically that has meant a leading role in politics—grand politics. Politics as the highest plane humans can operate on. Politics as what encompasses the world, the universe. People can argue over whether war, and “war in the grand style” as Nietzsche prophesied, spins up out of that, or whether the arrow goes the other way. I assume it goes both ways.
Right now, something else is afoot. The richest, most powerful, and most calculating in the liberal West are not at all the political people, who are certainly not engaged in politics as the master pursuit. Who are they? Clearly, the technologists. What does this mean?
Currently Western politics has been emptied of founders and foundings. Those things have moved into “tech.” Currently philosophy as the West has known it cannot really be practiced or even pursued in academia as a rule. Betting otherwise is a risk fewer and fewer worthy of doing so dare take. Philosophy has moved into “tech.”
This dynamic also seems to be affecting other areas of life or industries. The drain of brains and ambition and canniness and penetrating thought away from the non-technological elite is a sight to behold, but it has created a common-sense impression that politics is no longer a necessary part of human life—not to the degree once taken for granted. The utter triumph of technologists as human agents whispers that politics is no longer the grandest form of human agency. That it no longer masters the world and our humanity within it.
This is a serious break with all that has come before.
Spirit vs. Body?
One reaction has been to conclude that Man is, one way or the other, obsolete. Nerds, soy boys, transism: abandon your disgusting meat body for immortal online consciousness. Choose your fighter. Biological vitalism? Short swords? Testosterone? Sick gains? We might as well be back in the cave smearing gut juice on the walls. Might as well be dumb beasts. “Tech” means looking down on the body with contempt, if you even look at all. The pathos of distance becomes “yea-saying” only to the highest of the high, pure Spirit, guided to the empyrean realm by the angels, the super-human, the invisible bots.
A different reaction has been the opposite: Man is back, and he is very pissed off. Yes to the body, the male body, and all it can do better than anything else. There is no doubt that the terminal pre-digital age has been disgraceful for men. The consequences of this disenchantment of the masculine have been disastrous for men and women, boys and girls. Just look at the open disgust and resentment and hatred aimed at “dads” and all things “dad.” How could they become so pathetic? They had everything handed to them… just like millennials? New generations of young men look around and say, if I give in to pity, especially self-pity, I am literally ded, online and (looks around fearfully) quite possibly off.
So, not just biological vitalism but specifically a Spartacan revolt—against the world-historical self-own of the West’s pathetic but degenerately regnant dads, and the toxic failure mode they seeded throughout their sons and daughters.
But what can such a revolt be in a time like this? A time when politics is no longer the grandest, the highest, the purifying and the pure? The snowy caps where only the leopard treads and the eagle soars? How could Nietzsche be so right about the sickness and so wrong about the cure?
Because Nietzsche, though he may not have been a political philosopher first, still accepted that the pinnacle of the will to life, the apex expression of life, was in the organization of men until something higher came along. Even though he counseled that it is in the very essence and nature of genius and overcoming and overbeing to squander.
If you don’t squander you aren’t great. It was this squandering that was the eternal recurrence! The life of life itself! Just as you must look back on your life and say yes, all of it again, even with a demon heavy on your shoulder and sticking something in your ear, so did the Dionysiac type lead his followers away from politics, away from regime, only to be ripped to shreds, dismembered, his biological vitality flowing into them even as it dripped from their chin.
A high task, in Nietzsche’s philosophy, that “idiotic” sacrifice. But not what is needed to beat lessons into us such that we become creatures who can promise; not what imprints the memories that enable us to have higher imaginations; not what makes stones of men instead of “iron wood.”
But the apparent overcoming by technology of politics as the apex of human performance has scrambled or slapped around the natural cycle of recurrence and squandering. (The bots dgaf: they are not alive!) On the one hand the decadence and degeneration of politics has made it easier to perform and to squander; on the other, the triumph of digital technology has made it too easy, disgustingly easy. Performance and squandering is now every manlet’s lot, yea, even the most smol. Any idiot can ape Dionysus; yet always in the knowledge that somewhere a bot has produced a Dionysian algorithm that makes his liddle human effort farther beneath pity than ever.
Politics is Dead—Long Live Politics
So people are beginning to think that high art is impossible, that the highest performance art is impossible. Why bother? Is it technology that must be somehow performed against, and no longer politics? Is the god of politics dead? How did we drink up the sea? How can a command performance rise up against when politics has become a dead god?
Interesting questions! But for the philosophical founders in technology who would in prior ages have been political founders, founders of regimes, this problem of a mysteriously apolitical revolt against the dead hand of faildads is of ancillary importance at best. The implosion of politics as even a viable busywork algorithm—the failure of managerialism—raises both practical and theoretical questions, such as, what does it mean for us that San Francisco is a failing city and California a failing state? Has the responsibility finally fallen to technologists to salvage regimes? To have to know about regimes? Zen and the art of regime maintenance? Is it now no longer in technologists’ self-interest to “sneak away” from “the world” in order to master it?
This, too, feels like a significant break with what came before. Money and power and virtuosity at calculation gets you much, but does it mog? Not at the accustomed level, hmm…?
Digital technology, often only with the dim foresight of its own elite, has disenchanted both high art and grand politics—so quickly that the best tech founders now find themselves in danger of having to scramble to resuscitate them somehow before the sky starts falling.
How to do it?
Ideas are percolating, but the important point to poast today is that actually, no—politics, grand politics, the politics of founding and refounding regimes, is not dead, not obsolete. There is no escape from it, not for long, and not without terrible price. That does not mean everyone has to go into politics. Far from it. Long live tacit consent. It does mean that even if a high Spartacan revolt of pure biological aestheticism is enlivening, it is not enough. That even if a Gnostic revolution of pure spiritual essentialism would be liberating, it would not be enough. Not enough to prevent meltdown, pandemonium, radical injustice, piss Earth, choose your fighter.
High technology, high art, and high politics must be reunited—not in the cringe pre-digital sense of spinning up one fantasy to rule them all, but in the careful digital sense of grasping what any people, even or especially the best, needs to survive—function—flourish. Digital does not care about muh humanity. If excellent people cease to foster excellent regimes, a new twilight of the idle will descend. Human life will become disgusting, and human glory will die.
An undercover investigation has shown that CNN is indeed a biased news network from the top on down. As well they should be, some doubtless say. This “reveal” might be important in a couple different ways. The first way counts for a lot according to the televisual rules that politics has played by lo these many…
An undercover investigation has shown that CNN is indeed a biased news network from the top on down. As well they should be, some doubtless say.
This “reveal” might be important in a couple different ways.
The first way counts for a lot according to the televisual rules that politics has played by lo these many decades. TV rules dictate that whoever deploys the best experts at broadcasting visualizations to the masses, and moving the masses to act on them in a certain way, will win. TV rules dictate that what they win will be control of the globe.
In TV land there is always a world war going on for everyone’s hearts and minds—an “info war” or “Great Meme Battle” if you prefer. Ethics is an op. If you want to win you have to play, and if you want to play you have to fight—not necessarily “fair,” even, or especially, if yours are the True Ethics and you truly believe them to boot.
TV rules create a social surround wherein all opinions are created equal but some are more equal than others. Prestigious opinions are better weapons in the Great Meme Battle. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, anyway. If that’s not true, many prestigious jobs are subject to vaporization. And who wants to vaporize lots and lots of lower-upper-class jobs? Certainly not you, comrade…right?
So TV rules say that if you can drive a wedge between your meme opponent’s prestige and his or her opinions then you get closer to victory over them. One especially great way of doing this is by executing this attack within the televisual medium itself. You make someone say something, on television, that they want to say, but which is something they most assuredly do not want to say on television. They go from content producer—high status!—to piece of content—low status!
And since everyone in TV land is fighting with their weaponized image-inations, a.k.a. ideologies, everyone tends to want to lower the status of their opponents by reducing their opponents’ ideologies to mere content—without their opponents’ consent of course, and ideally without their knowledge…until it’s too late.
So if you are in political TV land playing politics by TV rules it matters a lot that this jutsuhas been visited upon CNN in this way. If you’re an opponent of CNN, it marks a big victory in the Great Meme Battle. Even if you are “just an analyst,” you see that a big blow has been landed and you update your reports/books/balance sheets accordingly.
But there is a different way this event might matter to you.
Perhaps you are no longer in TV land, politically or otherwise, and you have stopped playing by TV rules. Perhaps you are now instead playing by digital rules. What would that mean?
Signs you are playing by digital rules: if you care about this event at all—it’s not a surprise to you—you’re concerned with why, sociologically, CNN and “the media” characteristically have moved so far and fast, in such a panicked rage spiral, away from the old Just the Facts model that in a bygone “golden age” cemented broadcast news as a prestige institution/jobs program.
Your concern of this type leads you to look beyond “greed” or “lust for power” or even “desire to abuse women in the workplace” for answers. You look past the institutionalized elite meme warriors entirely to the audience. To what has happened to the audience—how it has been shaped—as digital technology has grown ascendant over TV land and its rules.
You consider that digital rules remind audiences that the always-on fact machine that cable news once semi-honestly presented itself as long ago ceased actually to be helpful to living well. In fact, the fire hose of fact content actually became an impediment to living well. You started needing meta-newspeople to give you Just the Facts about which facts you actually needed to know—premium, prestige facts—and which were low-status facts better off ignored.
This bad infinity problem of violently overwhelming information overload afflicted the audience before “the media” pivoted to takes. The worse the problem got the more “the media” doubled down on becoming an always-on fire hose of takes, breaking takes, takes so powerful that you became the content, in the form of your tweeted reactions to the most weaponized takes, which were then increasingly just read aloud verbatim on screen. You became the content, audience member! The lowest status of all!
No wonder people have begun turning en masse against takes: they stop being funny when they start being you.
Nobody wants to be someone else’s take. But the media professionals stuck politically and otherwise in TV land are out too far over their skis to turn back now, no matter how hard they meme out to audiences that journalism is the fourth branch of government which will now heroically save the Republic by once again delivering Just the Facts. It is not possible to deliver Just the Facts in TV land. TV rules prohibit it.
And what is mandatory under TV rules—fighting the world war of ethical visualizations by memeing the masses into motion—is inoperative under digital rules. In digital land, people know that machines, with their all-encompassing memory, have already won the war for the world. Nothing dreamed up by imagineering professionals can compete.
So just as people are melting away from the “studio audience,” TV elites are infinitying down on their “core value” that only expertly manufactured ethical propaganda can save the world by capturing the mass imagination. But this is the very principle digital is laying bare as impotent, inessential, and therefore cringe. So our elite gets crazier.
The value of the Sohrab Ahmari-David French saga is in what’s unearthed by the reactions it kicks up. Example: National Review Senior Editor Jay Nordlinger’s takeaway is “there’s nothing fancy or philosophical here: It’s just that David won’t bow to Trump and Trumpism, and that is what cannot be borne and must be punished.” We…
The value of the Sohrab Ahmari-David French saga is in what’s unearthed by the reactions it kicks up.
Example: National Review Senior Editor Jay Nordlinger’s takeaway is “there’s nothing fancy or philosophical here: It’s just that David won’t bow to Trump and Trumpism, and that is what cannot be borne and must be punished.”
We (you) can argue about whether this is true. I’m interested in how people could possibly believe it. It is strange to see the idea expressed aloud that nothing philosophical is at stake in the political martyrdom of an unrepentantly principled politico.
Because the original idea behind Never Trumpism was that Trump was unprincipled, a “chaos candidate” who didn’t care about ideological integrity—who had no ideological integrity of his own. Now comes the meme that it is Trumpism which is dangerously principled, and French (in this case) who refuses to kneel before Zod. The details of whatever Frenchism might be are secondary—possibly irrelevant. What matters is here he stands; he can do no other.
In the online era, there is something immensely inevitable-feeling about this revaluation of values. The response on the part of Never Trumpers to the charge of cuckery becomes something intended to occur to those leveling the charge as Cuck Pride. This deeply conforms to the pattern of “the discourse.” Online identity politics means alchemically converting flung poo into precious gold.
You’ll recall the name for the alchemists’ substance that achieves this kind of transition: the philosopher’s stone—the legendary “elixir of life” epitomizing the transcendent bliss of pure and total knowledge. Martyrdom is morality: defeat is life. What could be a more perfect drug?
Beyond “Slave Morality”
Nordlinger and company would surely object that just as French is no cuck, he is also no martyr. He doesn’t give up, he fights—by the rules, whatever they be! A spirited gentleman willing to risk losing with personal honor, even if the honor of the system has failed!
Your mileage may vary. The reason the seemingly minor and ginned-up French controversy keeps expanding is it reaches straight down to the root of foundational questions about the relation between Christian and pagan virtue in the west.
Nietzsche’s most dangerous attack was on Christianity as a death wish, as an elevation of death so total that it put a lifetime of abject servility—a living “death to the world”—even above prompt extinction.
But it’s interesting to consider that Nietzsche’s complex and difficult relations with women led him to a place where, by the end of his life, he had not explored the connection between his theory of the deadly servility of the Christian with the deadly servility of the cuckold. Nietzsche’s attack on Christianity is notably desexualized.
Today that theme is, thanks to the internet, inescapable. It is baked into reality. Today it is a fault that “the shame is part of the kink” doesn’t appear in Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. He won’t quite “go there” in his probes of the psychological imperative to convert erotic urges into ethical principles that defines so much of contemporary life. Our contemporary sexual psychology now leads key critics of French-style defenses of “muh principles” to trace the genealogy of today’s worship of procedural liberalism not to “slave morality,” as Nietzsche would have it, but to “cuck morality:”
Yes, another man should take my wife, I should go live in the shed, it is right, it is moral, it is justice… To live rightly, I must prevent posterity from being identical with me …
Nietzsche doesn’t use the pathos of that kind of “conversion experience” as a precise metaphor or emblem for the kind of willed abasement that so many right-wing critics of liberal proceduralism-worship put central. It is weird that so little has been written about how and why cuckoldry welled up from the depths of online to become the precision-targeted trope that it is, selected out of the sense that none other would be more accurate or suffice instead.
Of course Christianity and cuckoldry are not good metaphors for each other. No good Christian can embrace cuckoldry. But the charge of cuckery, leveled against Christians like French, has to do with the perceived untenableness today of staking out a middle position between the Benedict Option of evacuating from fronts collapsing in the culture war and the yet-to-be-named option of reasserting powerful constitutional authority for localities to resist and reject colonization by the revolutionary vanguard of institutionalized wokeness.
Because there is just no question that the aim of that institutional vanguard is to choke off America’s production of a certain kind of adult male and the architecture of social order that radiates upward from him toward the heights of authority. This project is out in the open and the reams of academic and ideological writing about its details and justifications are widely available.
The metaphor of cuckoldry is selected to the exclusion of all others because nothing else quite as effectively sharpens the charge that your obsession with the details of honor and principle has in fact become fatally abstract: you are being kicked out of your own house by a rival power actively working to take away everything that is yours, your children included. You are becoming the end of your line, forever, in every respect. Yet you won’t even evacuate from your breached defenses before it’s too late. Only the heights of spiritual snobbery can explain such a choice.
From Whence the Cuck?
This is obviously a harsh critique: why do so many people believe it is justified—is necessary? Nordlinger and company are, I think, sincere in their conviction that the answer is ideological. The Trumpy folk running amok yelling cuck do so out of an imperative just as “principled,” only debasedly so, as the conservative imperatives they deride with “muh principles” jokes. The Nordlingerians do not grasp that the rise of the cuck charge is the product of changes in our social and psychological environment that supervene upon, and are independent of, ideological phenomena.
One account of those changes might be that porn, which after all is possibly the most popular form of social media, is now everywhere, and this is why the attacks are cuck this and cuck that.
Another, and I think more sophisticated account, is that while porn has an influence it is mere content, and the context wherein that content swims, as do we all, is our new digital environment. In that environment, the primacy of human imagination as the driver of institutional and elite rule is being totally replaced with the primacy of machine memory.
In this new milieu, social order is being forcibly rearchitected away from the procedural liberal elite that mastered the globalized West through its expertise in broadcasting ethical memes. One consequence of this painful dislocating shift is an upsurge in populism and nationalism. But another is a panicked evac on the Left from the collapsing front of procedural liberalism—into what are thought to be the hardened sites of extreme institutionalized revolutionary wokeness.
The irony—an alarming one, to most populists and nationalists on the Right—is that so many “principled conservatives” reject all evidence that this is happening and, as a consequence of their profound ideological denial, falsely believe that procedural liberalism is tenable in its own right. They conceive of procedural liberalism as a stronghold wherein their way of life can be sheltered without having either to abandon their position or their conceptual apparatus.
French put the idea perfectly in his last exchange with Ahmari: “The only way this place survives as a united country is if we apply eighteenth-century solutions to this twenty-first century division.”
The painful fact is that from the standpoint of someone who understands what digital really is and what it is really doing, this talk evinces a complete failure to comprehend the nature of the new reality unfolding around us. “Rediscover the First Amendment,” French implored. “Rediscover religious freedom.” All as the bombed-out fort of procedural liberalism is being abandoned en masse by Leftist refugees seeking shelter—however foredoomed—in a postliberal cult from which, because it is not quite a religion, the First Amendment cannot protect us.
Without doubt, the digital age throws America into a difficult position. This alien invasion of invisible robots our technologists have touched off makes us feel as if our own creation has betrayed us, because the order of machine memory obsolesces the whole social structure of imagineering that first twinkled into being during the Enlightenment and really took off with the advent of electricity. Even more disorienting, it hauls back patterns of living that haven’t held sway since the last time recorded memory ruled the West’s psychological and sociological milieu—the middle ages. In most respects, “eighteenth-century solutions” is now an oxymoron.
There is, however, some good news. Despite America’s modernist bona fides, as the 1619 Project somewhat inadvertently reminds us, the roots of our social and psychological order do extend, more or less seamlessly, back farther than we think. Medieval perceptions and sensibilities, such as the identification of “the liberal” with the unity of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, have not been zapped away from our collective inheritance. The fundamental divide between us incarnate human creatures and the disincarnate, animate-yet-not-alive bots does point us back toward anthropologies of justice that bridge the Middle Ages and early modernity.
These resources indicate that the political philosophy of statecraft first put to work in America by the Founders does offer an alternative to both “evac” and “cuck.” But only if more Americans begin to accept that our new digital world takes many “conserved” principles and strategies off the table.
The surge of attention around the Catholic University debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, and the ebb that followed, mirrored the reaction to a recent and similarly hot ticket: Jordan Peterson versus Slavoj Žižek. That debate, which pitted capitalism against socialism, and/or Jung against Lacan, packed the house full of youngish intellectuals desperate for…
The surge of attention around the Catholic University debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, and the ebb that followed, mirrored the reaction to a recent and similarly hot ticket: Jordan Peterson versus Slavoj Žižek.
That debate, which pitted capitalism against socialism, and/or Jung against Lacan, packed the house full of youngish intellectuals desperate for someone, anyone, to notch a clean, distinct win—to demonstrate that such a thing in today’s smeary environment was possible.
After both disputants agreed that disaster was probably around the corner and there was probably nothing we could do about it—with the implied caveat that at least the two of them could continue to get paid talking about it—the vital if nervous energy that suffused the room and the souls within was let out with a sad fart, and the queasy feeling that all potential victories and foundations had been smeared away returned.
Similarly, the upshot of the Ahmari-French debate appears to be a vaguely disgusted sense that we remain stuck at aporia in the Western conflict between communitarianism versus individualism, conservatism versus liberalism, Whig versus Continental philosophy, or whatever you want to call it.
The real underlying feeling is that Western political philosophy has sat so long at this impasse that it has become a dead end. Civility and community have become enemies now, and no resource internal to the Western tradition of political thought can locate a ground, procedure, rhetoric, or game that might unite them.
Which is likely why, even if the disputants would demur, it is so tempting to view not just the fundamental contention between Ahmari and French to be a matter of inter-theological disagreement but to view the entire Western problem that way. Liberal proceduralism has failed because Protestantism has failed. Integralism is oppressive because Catholicism is oppressive.
Of course, this frame of mind does not rule out—and possibly demands—the conclusion that we are therefore stuck both with our past failures and new oppressions to come.
But why get ahead of ourselves? The elephant in the room—of the French-Ahmari debate, of the broader debate on the Right, and of the conflicts playing out in the U.S. and across the West—is that today’s agita does not have to do fundamentally with Christianity. What has millions drastically reconsidering their approach to the politics of public life is not a set of Christian disagreements about sin and virtue, but something much more primal and merely natural.
It has always been the case in the West that ordinary people as well as geniuses have wrestled with the unpleasant fact that our fellow humans are often disgusting, depressing, and difficult to be around. But in the new context of today’s mercilessly conquering digital conditions, this familiar psychological and social struggle has changed its character.
My strong sense is that the nature of this change has to do with how life on the internet trains you to see yourself as an utterly inessential instantiation of a completely tired subgroup. Even or especially amid your most incredibly frantic protestations and performances of pride, your increasingly accurate perception is that your identity is inescapably enslaved to the identity of a trivial, exhausted, and in some fundamental sense existentially compromised group.
It’s not that your identity is not still in some way unique; it’s that uniqueness is no longer any protection against comprehensive disenchantment.
The Rise of the Polycule
And yet this smearing away of your own justification for bothering to be is not in most cases unto death. Yes “deaths of despair” are on the rise, but the real trend is lives of despair, lives propped up by the use of various chemicals to induce a kind of artificial pleasure behind which, barely held at bay, is the howling abyss. The life styles layered over this way of life vary as vibrantly as the colors of a dreamcoat, but the technique is the same: acting out one’s identity, whatever it may be, is just a last-ditch effort to get you out of bed in the morning, into the company of people whose identity constitutes a sort of (not at all necessarily sexual) polycule—a self-created super-self that is concrete enough in your perception to shore up your psyche. This pooled personal identity gets its psychic weight from the intimate sense of solidarity and shared dependency behind it—sufficient, despite anything more formal, to help paper over the unnerving smudge where a personal answer to “why bother being?” used to be (if it ever was).
If I’m right, the community-versus-individual framing that defined political philosophy in the terminally pre-digital age is gone—over, not coherent, obsolete. People are trying to work out a different solution to the crushing circumstance Tocqueville described of being thrown back in isolation upon the meager resources of the blooding heart. The politics of identity today is defined by people trying to create post-familial polycules that neither amount to communities in the old sense nor make whole and autonomous their individual selves.
Here comes the key point: amid such a milieu, the experience of being stuck around others’ polycules is getting simply unbearable. It’s painfully evident you can’t just include or be included into other super-selves as a matter of will or imagination, no matter how vein-poppingly hard the culture’s ethics cops strain to meme you into believing and acting otherwise. So too is it agonizingly clear, at the immediate level of percept, and then at the higher level of concept, that the neurasthenic retreat into the culture of the super-self is fairly repulsive and feels shameful even when it is your own super-self you’re bathing in. So, increasingly, the super-selves of others characteristically strike us as radically perverse, decadent, decaying, diseased—against life.
When, against that background, some seem bent on making the best possible go of their particular style of decadence and decay, these instances are apt to pop out in the perceptions of people straining to make a last college try of keeping decadence and decay at bay—resisting the call of the polycule with its strangely inverted pride. Take that as a sociological, not ideological, answer to why all the jabber around which-way-conservatism has been triggered merely by library story time in drag. Parallel reverberations through “the discourse” are touched off by other identities proliferating polycules of their own: “incels,” “neckbeards,” and “reply guys” on the XY end, “wine moms,” “nice white lady terrorists,” and “VSCO girls” on the XX. Myriad polycules are now everywhere, causing nonmembers to recoil out of primal instinct of preservation.
The important thing to observe is this reaction of resistance is not a particularly Christian mode of living and thinking; although it does in some ways overlap with Christian commitments and sensibilities, the overlaps seem to be the decreasingly important factor today. It seems to me what’s happening is people who fear deeply for human vitality (including their own) are expressing outrage in its name against what they perceive to be its mangling by networks of identitarian polycules.
This aspect of our experience seems to me new to the digital age, unlike the identity politics that came before. I suspect its features and its dynamic lurk at the heart of what Ahmari and French and their broader movements and probably disputants across the whole West are anxiously debating about. New social structures are arising that strike adherents to the old as hostile to human flourishing on an even deeper and wider level than sin, even if what they are anxious about is also often considered sin on Christian terms. But sin must be understood in a context of impurity and redemption, and what I am describing is felt reflexively in the context of infection and contagion: toxicity, not fallenness. Instead of closing distances in the name of Christ, the instinct is to widen them for nature’s sake.
“I want drag queens to come into a relation with Jesus Christ.” French argued. “I am not going to usurp the Constitution to do this.” But the sensibility formed in the digital dynamic doesn’t seek to convert members of toxic polycules by any means, Constitutional or otherwise. It seeks to quarantine them.
It is hard to see how any debate, especially on terms that elide the heart of the matter, can possibly resolve something so elemental. I’d suggest this is the matter that Peterson and Žižek too both failed to secure a clean win around, whether against one another or even “just” the monstrous rotting elephantine entity looming and oozing down on them.
So the situation appears to be that neither Christians nor post-Christians are putting the matter to their increasingly desperate audiences in a way that leads them intelligibly toward any kind of firm resolution. Those resistant to polycule life fear their personhood and their social structures will continue to smudge away unless some champions can show they grasp the nature of the problem and see through to an effective response.
I have some provisional and hopefully not-so-provisional things to say and do in response to this intolerable situation.
But the first of them is an exhortation. We have to understand that today’s technological environment is forming our psyches and souls to make questions of human nature even more important to politics than questions of the nature of God. The dominant issue today is not the political upshot of the difference between the human and the divine. It’s the upshot of the difference between the human and the digital.
Our fellow American humans are crying out for a new elite that evinces a full understanding of this earthshaking new reality. The arguments of those who fail to make that demonstration will be without authority and without legitimacy, and the people will increasingly take matters into their own hands in an inauspicious state of mind.
Ryan P. Williams, President of the Claremont Institute, joins the Pacific Research Institute to discuss identity politics and multiculturalism, censorship battles with Google, and how to encourage a more balanced political debate and free exchange of ideas on campus.
“Our emerging post-privacy order isn’t quite totalitarian, but it’s getting there,” writes Ross Douthat in his latest Sunday column. For years, the Left has been shifting from a theory of justice rooted in the public/private divide to a theory of justice rooted in the divide between what’s in the realm of officialdom and what’s outside…
“Our emerging post-privacy order isn’t quite totalitarian, but it’s getting there,” writes Ross Douthat in his latest Sunday column. For years, the Left has been shifting from a theory of justice rooted in the public/private divide to a theory of justice rooted in the divide between what’s in the realm of officialdom and what’s outside it.
Some of us have been tracking that shift from the beginning, or close to it.
Ross reflects that, today, “Western order in the internet age might be usefully described as a ‘liberalism with some police-state characteristics.’ Those characteristics are shaped and limited by our political heritage of rights and individualism. But there is still plainly an authoritarian edge, a gentle ‘pink police state’ aspect, to the new world that online life creates. And what’s striking is how easily we have come to tolerate it.”
Those playing the home game will recall that I coined the “pink police state” concept just over a decade ago, having ruminated for ten years before that on the uncanny message Marilyn Manson seemed to have sent from the future in his splashy 1998 video for the Grammy-winning song “The Dope Show,” the lead single off his prophetic Mechanical Animals LP:
In September 1998, Marilyn Manson, who was then the most dangerous and threatening person in pop music, released his most high-profile album, entitled Mechanical Animals. The video for its lead single, a Grammy-nominated song called “The Dope Show,” teasingly featured an image of riot police, dressed head to toe in pink, drawing one another close in an amorous embrace….
Today, indeed, we confront a transformation in the regulatory state so profound as to indicate a change at the regime level. Today, our regulatory state does not simply promulgate the kind of docile “soft despotism” Tocqueville feared, or blanket the human passions with the kind of bureaucratic uniformity Nietzsche derided as the “coldest of cold monsters.” Instead, as we still struggle to accept, it is aggressively intervening in the intimate details of everyday life as a friend to some kinds of civil liberties but an enemy of others….
Rather than stamping out hedonistic pursuits and pleasure-centered living, 1984 style, the new statism creates a “safe” space for their “healthy” experience. Yet, rather than expanding the project limitlessly, Brave New World style, so as to make all pleasure official, the new statism tacitly acknowledges that our most potent appetites can never be fully domesticated, even with all the tools of force, surveillance, and coercion at the government’s disposal….
In “The Dope Show,” Manson made overt the latently sexual and violent tension between those two realms. “Cops and queers make good-looking models,” he croaked.
For the past twenty years, the concepts or archetypes of copness and queerness have developed a symbiotic relationship as twin secular gods in a new post-political secular theology. No longer are authoritarianism and transgressivism enemies or opposites, but rather mutually dependent forms of mastery: one bloodlessly technological, the other primally occult.
Had my book on democracy in America, where I developed these themes further, come out this year, I might have been able to take advantage of the current craze for 1999 retrospectives to emphasize that The Matrix teaches us the same lesson: it is both an allegory for the realization of trans identity and a master mythos for gnostic terrorism in a digital age. Reflecting on this symbiosis ought to awaken us to what is really confronting us regime-wise today—and what will continue to pose the urgent, defining question of our age.
In fact, the pink police state aspect of the regime change being thrust on us now is not at all a gentle one. Our technocrats today intend to perfect the long-held progressive goal of mastering people by mastering material science. To be granted this power, they gladly bow at the altar of the woke gods and accept its establishment as our official religion.
Their new fusionism is simple: by uploading woke gnosticism to the internet, our invisible robot masters will rule us instant by instant with a perfection beyond even the best of human experts. The posthumanity at the heart of woke religion and technology that enables the nonliving to rule the living merge into a politics of the anti-human, and the will to power becomes the ultimate science of “emergence.” Many of its priests and prophets say with a straight face, which is simultaneously a rictus grin, that they are the partisans of equality, ensuring you your due measure. Yet in truth they are at war with the naturally human creature, and strain to strip us forever of our political nature.
For years it has been important to me to stick as much as possible to simply analyzing the new techno-gnostic regime trying to assert mastery over us, and avoid opportunistically rushing a “politicized” judgment to the hot-takes market.
But the time has come to stop hanging back.
Millions of Americans are now frightened every day by the effects of the monstrous new future they see popping up everywhere, half-hidden deep in the shadow it casts on our present. It is scary to come to grips with how much the partisans of the new regime see being human as bad news—as something to be avenged. But it must be done.
For soon we will have the technology to destroy our humanity, our identity, our natural individuality. To stop others before they come into being. Before they can even be imagined. What will stop us from embracing this alien invasion of demiurges and daemons? Entities neither alive nor dead, God nor human? If your political life and thought isn’t framed around these questions, there’s still time to fix that. But not much.
The power nexus of identity politics and tech transhumanism, of woke religion and woke capital, must be broken and defeated: in academia, in media, in tech, in finance, in entertainment, in the corporations and the bureaucracies—in every cell of the commissars that has colonized the interpretive-industrial complex. Blessedly, digital itself is doing some of this work for us, disenchanting the rule of the imaginary and fantasy almost faster than our televisual elites with their Aquarian cults can escape. But the technocrats are working against us, and their bots know no gods or masters.
Whatever the rhetoric, in reality the power nexus opposes human justice, because it opposes human politics—and human nature itself. Therefore America, the place where the human politics of justice was enshrined in a founding political philosophy based on a grasp of human nature, is a unique stumbling block—an obstacle that must be radically transformed, and not at all gently, away.
Many Americans hungry to reclaim and assert their human agency are in search of the context that can finally explain what is happening to us today politically. This is it.
Must we reconcile ourselves to the federal bureaucracy? Paul Gottfried’s mixed review of Claremont senior fellow John Marini’s summa on unconstitutional government, Unmasking the Administrative State, leaves the reader with the more than sneaking suspicion that the answer is yes. “It represents a dramatic departure from what our federal union was intended to be, and…
Must we reconcile ourselves to the federal bureaucracy?
Paul Gottfried’s mixed review of Claremont senior fellow John Marini’s summa on unconstitutional government, Unmasking the Administrative State, leaves the reader with the more than sneaking suspicion that the answer is yes. “It represents a dramatic departure from what our federal union was intended to be, and a deviant model that may already be beyond our control,” Gottfried sighs. “We are being technically ‘administered’ by congressional agencies that run roughshod over our historic liberties;” worse, “there may be no way out of this situation.”
Also concerning, however, is the pique Gottfried reserves not for the nominal villains in the modern history of American government but for Marini himself. Marini’s account of their origins strikes Gottfried as not just overwrought—”he might have spared us his practice of repeating all the talking points of his colleagues at the Claremont Institute”—but indeed unacceptable: “In the book’s introduction, Ken Masugi lets us know (lest we miss the point) that the author is carrying forward the philosophical tradition of Jaffa, ‘who took account of the radical assaults on constitutional government demanded by Rousseau and above all, Hegel.’”
To his credit, Gottfried doesn’t scrimp on praise for Marini’s attack on Congress for abdicating its duties to the Washington regulatory apparatus. But in approvingly citing Marini’s discussion of Carl Schmitt, who diagnosed the same legislative weakness in Weimar Germany, Gottfried appears to think that “legislatures have been forced into doing what they were not meant to do” by “indecisive” executives—hardly the conclusion reached in Marini’s richer and more sophisticated account that Gottfried rejects. Faced with Marini’s claim that “ideology and politics become intelligible only with reference to a philosophy of history, which originated in the political thought of Kant and Hegel,” Gottfried, “as someone who has written on both German philosophy and the administrative state,” is left “truly puzzled.”
The process by which the philosophy of administrative liberalism was transmuted into practice throughout the West is complex and protracted. But the mystery of how it could have developed in America at all—for it was certainly not present at the beginning—raises questions Gottfried is disinclined to answer. Doubtless, a taste or case for “big government” was present since before the creation of the Republic. But as Marini demonstrates again and again, quantitative measures of the state are not the key to understanding what the administrative is; such understanding concerns the qualities of its force. Therefore me must trace the origin of the turn among American elites to embrace administration as a new kind of power—as a new science of rule that surpassed and replaced constitutional government.
Marini allows that more than one factor may be at work in the rise of administration as an intellectual temptation—and then a self-perpetuating mission—in America. As theorists of American democracy from Tocqueville to Marini have agreed, origins have a privileged and persistent influence over the character of nations, yet, as Marini notes, “some nations with long histories have forgotten their origins, or what it was that made it possible to distinguish themselves from others.” Certain technological developments such as industrialization and electrification surely helped shape a social environment in which administration and regulation took on an attraction they simply lacked beforehand.
But institutions and elites have the power to catalyze profound changes in the social order when conditions permit, and by the turn of the twentieth century, America’s intellectual elite—its academics and philosophers—had turned, too, with unprecedented enthusiasm and credulity, to their counterparts in the Old World, especially Britain and Germany, where notions of a grand unified theory of human organization reigned supreme. From Rousseau’s “general will” to Hegel’s dialectic of history, from Weber’s new social science to “ethology,” John Stuart Mill’s proposed science of character formation, Europe gave American elites a sobering but dazzling sense that if they did not update their approach to statecraft to suit the times, they, and the Union with them, would slip into a kind of civilizational backwater, becoming an orphan of history.
The quintessence of this kind of academized member of the American governing elite, Professor Woodrow Wilson, would run for president and win on exactly this basis. In his 1913 essay “What Is Progress?” (included in his book-length call for “the emancipation of the generous energies of a people,” and, notably, not the people themselves), Wilson put the matter quite bluntly. “From the other side of the water men can now hold up against us the reproach that we have not adjusted our lives to modern conditions to the same extent that they have adjusted theirs.” To the American in and out of government who hesitated to replace constitutionalism with a grand unified science of historic-heroic leadership, Wilson warned that “the world has a habit of leaving those behind who won’t go with it. The world has always neglected stand-patters.” The poor anti-progressive, Wilson said, “is going to be so lonely before it is all over. And we are good fellows; we are good company; why doesn’t he come along? We are not going to do him any harm. We are going to show him a good time.”
Industrialization and electrification may have shaped a public context in which Wilson’s revolutionary content could get the kind of hearing it did; but the formation of Wilson’s own character traces not to the Midwestern factory city or the Western telegraph territory but to the Eastward-looking university town—Baltimore, to be precise, where he wrote his PhD (under the intellectual influence of Walter Bagehot, the editor of The Economist) on the desirability of replacing the separation of powers in America’s constitutional government with a British parliamentarian system that allowed one man to lead the executive and the legislative.
Wilson was not a mere one-man wrecking crew set loose on constitutional government but the leader of a whole new class of American elites educated in such a way that they chose to break decisively with the political theory and political institutions of the Founding. Ignoring this is troublesome reality is not an act of intellectual independence from canned talking points. It is often rather an act of intellectual irresponsibility.
But Gottfried’s determination to set aside Marini’s account of the origins of anti-constitutionalism in America does not seem mainly intellectual but moral. Although he does not say so explicitly, reading between the lines strongly suggests Gottfried understands Marini’s account is what leads Marini to conclude that we must not reconcile ourselves to unlimited administration forever. Rather than casting the administrative state as a wearisome new normal to which we are obliged to submit, Marini’s study proves a political obligation, rooted in our very anthropology, to restore government and retrieve constitutionalism where today mere administration holds sway. Gottfried, by contrast, wishes to signal that the counter-administrative project is quixotic at best—and disingenuous at worst.
Marini recalls the Reagan administration as an exemplar of anti-Wilsonianism. Not so, says Gottfried; by the end, the “vast administrative apparatus” Reagan inherited had “intruded into our daily lives to a far greater extent than the government bequeathed to posterity by the New Deal.” Of course, the Great Society was designed to intrude in a manner quite different, and with different purpose, from Franklin Roosevelt’s immense executive assertions, which arose from a context of economic and ideological catastrophe itself much different from Wilson’s. But in putting forth the wrong measure of the administrative state—its size, not its power—to suggest that Reagan, and by imputation so many other smaller-government crusaders, were really all talk, Gottfried leaves Marini with the better of the argument.
“The Social Security program begun by FDR continued to grow under Reagan, expanding 15 percent during his eight years in office,” Gottfried asserts. “Despite initial efforts to apply strict means tests to welfare recipients, the Reagan administration increased welfare costs by 25 percent between 1981 and 1987.” He finds it significant that “in the early 1980s, most Western countries slowed the expansion of their social services, an expansion that had been going on since the 1960s. In the United States, this slowdown began during the latter half of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and continued at a brisker pace in 1981 and 1982.”
As Michael Anton notes in his own review at the CRB, however, Marini puts the “supernova-like growth” of the twentieth-century administrative state in proper context: expansion “not merely or even primarily in size but more fundamentally in power. He is especially merciless on Congress, which voluntarily and happily surrendered its own constitutionally enumerated powers to an unconstitutional fourth branch—the bureaucracy housed within the executive branch—which looks upon its nominal master with indifference or bemused contempt.”
Marini, as Anton explains, clearly and correctly frames the problem of administration as one of the purposes of government. The question of “limits” when applied to the economic or financial quantity of government is of subsidiary importance. “Every government of course needs executive agencies; politics is about making decisions, and decisions must be implemented. That said, to what ends do executive agencies work? How are those ends determined and by whom? What is the source of those agencies’ political legitimacy? What—if any—limits are placed on their power?” The fundamental limits of a constitutional government are described by the purposes of such a government.
All of which leaves open—not, as Gottfried would intimate, closed—the question of how constitutional government can be retrieved amid a breakdown in the potency of administrative rule as significant as the one that has unfolded in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. For all the administrative state’s entrenched power and overweening intransigence, its history since the end of the Reagan era has been a history of squandering, blundering, blindness, inefficacy, and systemic shock after systemic shock.
This experience has only intensified since the dawn of the smartphone era. Technological conditions are once again forming a new context for political speech and political audiences. As the old context wanes, the Old World dream of a grand unified science of human organization grows deeply disenchanted. Ours is therefore a uniquely propitious time to regain control over our identity and our agency—to rediscover the purpose of our governmental institutions, and thereby find our way out of the dead end that the administrative state has become.
Kids across America know that ads are for skipping and blocking. Their elders are more anxiety-ridden. Having grown up in an America economically and culturally dependent on its fantasy-mongering industries, they look upon ads as key to unlocking the appetites, desires, and dreams that get people moving, and spending. But they also see the purity…
Kids across America know that ads are for skipping and blocking. Their elders are more anxiety-ridden. Having grown up in an America economically and culturally dependent on its fantasy-mongering industries, they look upon ads as key to unlocking the appetites, desires, and dreams that get people moving, and spending. But they also see the purity or good conscience of the fantasy-driven economy as under constant threat of contamination by the secularized sins of greed and selfishness.
So while ads mean almost nothing to everyday kids using social media, elite adults have been freaking out over the way those awful social media moguls have used our love of fantasy to “target” us with ads and “hack our brains,” turning our attention into their billions. If only there were a way to redistribute that wealth and restore the fantasy industry to its blessed purity…
A tax on digital ad spend (*cough* Facebook and Google) could bring in $2 billion for journalism. Free Press is suggesting an analog to a carbon tax on fossil fuels — but atoning for the attention economy’s perils instead of climate change.
Hello. What’s that you say?
Think of it like a carbon tax, which many countries impose on the oil industry to help clean up pollution. The United States should impose a similar mechanism on targeted advertising to counteract how the platforms amplify content that’s polluting our civic discourse.
Levying taxes on products like gasoline, cigarettes or lottery tickets, whose consumption may harm parties other than the user, isn’t new to U.S. policy. The resulting revenue has helped fund public health, infrastructure, education and welfare initiatives.
Unlike excise taxes on products, the tax on targeted advertising would be levied not against individual consumers but against enterprises that profit from targeted-ad sales. The revenues could be used to create a Public Interest Media Endowment, which would support production and distribution of content by diverse speakers — with an emphasis on local journalism, investigative reporting, media literacy, noncommercial social networks, civic-technology projects, and news and information for underserved communities.
Inevitable. Of course, if you really wanted to clean up our civic discourse, you’d skip ads like a ten year old, care less about what random strangers say online, and use the internet to seek out a readily available and roughly $0 education in civics and American history. But the mandarins of the crumbling fantasy economy don’t really want to drain the swamp of the so-called discourse. They want to sail the seas of fake news and useless takes, of performative rage and irrelevant opinions, like Gilligan on the S.S. Minnow — named, they may no longer recall, in “honor” of John F. Kennedy’s FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow, who famously pronounced television a “vast wasteland.” Fun fact:
The phrase “vast wasteland” was suggested to Minow by his friend, reporter and freelance writer John Bartlow Martin. Martin had recently watched twenty consecutive hours of television as research for a magazine piece, and concluded it was “a vast wasteland of junk.” During the editing process, Minow cut the words “of junk.” Minow often remarks that the two words best remembered from the speech are “vast wasteland,” but the two words he wishes would be remembered are “public interest.”
If our wide-eyed media mandarins want to atone for something, it should (*cough*) be their own industry, which has long since ceased — as America’s kids already know in their bones — to be in the public interest.
This State of the Union address was notable for its subtle or quiet articulation of the American Dream, running parallel to the overt one. Beyond Trump’s affirmative messaging was an important theme sketched out through things unsaid. Today and on into at least the near future, the president suggested, Americans still have the needed resources…
This State of the Union address was notable for its subtle or quiet articulation of the American Dream, running parallel to the overt one. Beyond Trump’s affirmative messaging was an important theme sketched out through things unsaid.
Today and on into at least the near future, the president suggested, Americans still have the needed resources to dissipate fears that powerful global trends will overpower the American way, our more or less traditional manner of living. The New World need not yet kneel before the Old.
Despite taking his time with a lengthy speech, Trump devoted no space to the major forces roiling Europe. The grand meltdown of the established political economy, under ever greater populist heat that often takes a post-ideological character, posed no threat to America’s fortunes.
So too with technology. Although Silicon Valley is now held out for bitter condemnation by observers across the ideological spectrum, the dominant tech companies were spared Trump’s chastisement. Neither AI nor automation were singled out as menacing developments primed to take apart America’s social compact or labor markets. Trans-partisan criticism again notwithstanding, neither the deep state nor the Five Eyes intelligence alliance were invoked, or even alluded to, as encroachments on Americans’ freedom or flourishing.
These would be dark notes in any speech, and in this one, clearly calibrated to strike an upbeat tone without losing the political initiative, they might have felt ominously out of place. But they are the preoccupations of the public mind, and at some point they will need to be addressed—whether by Trump, his critics, or the American people themselves.
Ben Collins, NBC News reporter on the dystopia beat, has a gloomy prediction to make about the coming years. The online rule of the algorithms, he writes, “is going to dramatically shape politics in ways that were previously unheard of, and it will not be a party-line phenomenon. It will divide the electorate into groups…
Ben Collins, NBC News reporter on the dystopia beat, has a gloomy prediction to make about the coming years. The online rule of the algorithms, he writes,
“is going to dramatically shape politics in ways that were previously unheard of, and it will not be a party-line phenomenon. It will divide the electorate into groups who rely on empirical data and information from accountable news organizations, and skeptics of all stripes who have fallen down algorithmic rabbit holes based on inflammatory language and feel-good conjecture.”
Collins casts his vision in the now-familiar terms of an attack on social media. The ubiquitous platforms have become the main focus of anti-tech sentiment for making people psychologically delusional and politically extremist—anti-democratic, it would seem.
For people looking to mock or revile online #fullcommunists or nu-Nazis, this critique has its potency. But a different point of perspective offers a more challenging view. On closer inspection, social media is much less of a disruptor than it seems. In essence, it’s just the democratic principle applied to broadcast media. If you like broadcast and you like democracy, you ought to love social media. The fact that people delight in refusing to follow the scripts handed down from the ruling communications class may inspire rage and confusion within that class, but their desired solution is simply to more effectively broadcast the right visions to the masses.
Unfortunately for the comms elite, that ship has already sailed. The way to understand exactly what happened is to recognize that social media isn’t the paragon of digital change most critics think. The real embodiment of the technological revolution is social credit—a system that fundamentally rejects both broadcast and democracy as foundations for social order. Even a social credit regime driven much more by markets than by the state points toward a broad rejection of the old notion that citizens should spend lots of time attending the secular church of the 24/7 news cycle. The rise of technology that sharply divides the real and actual from the made-up and the hyped is bad news for the ruling comms elite that wants to make its every utterance a must-watch, must-listen event—and to rake in big money for their trouble.
This view of things sheds some unusual light on why Trump-like attacks on the media make such an impact. Already the public sense is deepening that what’s sold as the news won’t save us—and that if technology is increasingly merciless in marking off facts from fiction, at least it’s not running a royal scam.
Not that any of this answers the deeper question of how to avoid a new birth of servitude under the rule of those power-hungry algorithms—and the people who want to control them.
James Poulos is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.