I’m turning 38 in a few days, it’s 2021, and I’m not sure if I can make sense of anything anymore.
I thought we were going somewhere, like a grand story was unfolding. And I saw myself in it, maybe not the main character, but certainly contributing to the plot somehow. My actions had purpose, my role mattered. I was part of a “together”, a unified “we”, and together we would overcome.
And everything that resisted, resisted us. And everything I did was validated and meant one step closer. The end is nigh, if you will. One turning point after another, after another, after another, until I realized – we’re running around in circles and I seem to be swallowing my own tail.
I can’t build an argument to explain what I’m experiencing, so I’m gonna spit this freestyle. But my thesis, in brief, is that I’m feeling completely lost right now.
Meanings have changed too much, and we’ve taken paths that I can’t follow. Follow. Follower.
There’s this girl on TikTok and she’s got 9 million followers. Why? Well she’s ridiculously attractive, for one. But that’s not all. She also blinks her eyes and moves her head, “cutely.” Of course, she does all this to music you can vibe to, so there’s that. Sometimes, she just posts glamour shots with “Hey bub” + black heart – like it ain’t no thang that she’s completely dolled-up and seducing you with her perfectly photo-edited face.
“Why you mad bruh?”
Yah, no it’s cool. It’s cool that these “influencers” are making six digits per post, upwards of millions of dollars a year in revenue by…influencing. Influencing, what exactly? Oh yah: buying decisions.
They influence what we see, click, and buy.
OMG! Travis X is so cute. Look at how he pops his chest and stares at that girl psychopathically before handing her a bouquet of roses, in slowwww motionnn, despite the fact that she’s with another guy who appears to be her boyfriend, but this video isn’t about moral acts – it’s about those shoes that Travis is wearing, and what’s that purse she’s clutching?
Why does this bother me though?
Maybe it’s about 21st century virtues: Achievement. Growth. Impact. Influence. Recognition. Fame. Wealth. It’s about your brand, the brand of “you.” You have literal value as a marketable commodity, and you can sell your “self” with one click of a button. So chase your dreams – chase them, don’t resist them. Live. Life. To. The. Fullest.
And let the haters, hate. Right?
Am I a hater? I don’t think so. I mean, good for Travis and the girl with the blinky eyes. I’m sure they worked hard and earned their way. Seriously, I’m happy for them.
I mean, look at me. I turned down a lucrative family business because I didn’t believe the commercial construction industry was heading in a good direction. Each extrusion of aluminum, each window, each nail and rivet, was a testament to heartless capitalism. The environmental wreckage left behind by natural resource extraction, not to mention the economic pillaging of developing countries, well, it all made me feel uncomfortable (to say the least).
So I chickened out in good conscience.
A few years back I turned down a promotion because the government policy shop I was working for at the time was failing to advance progressive social policies. They were so entrenched in their bureaucratic self-soothing that they could no longer tell the difference between “neutrality” and “negligence.”
Three years ago I joined an arms-length government agency that oversees prison compliance with human rights standards. I feel like I’m still making moral compromises, but I can live with them. I’m getting paid for something that (mostly) aligns with my moral compass.
I also set a wage cap for myself because I already make more than I need, and I hope I never forget that. When you’ve got too much to lose, you’re less likely to put it all on the line.
But now I’m not sure about all that.
I thought self-restraint and moderate living were the small personal acts that, when embraced by a critical mass, could change the world. But where’s the critical mass? Does anyone give a damn about virtue anymore?
I have to ask myself if it’s worth hanging on to these self-imposed restrictions, remnants of an ancient time when folks trapped themselves with silly maxims about the ethic of hard work, the nobility in a humble disposition, and the honour in civic action.
Why not embrace the new reality? Have I become a troglodyte, hiding in my cave of anachronistic values, growling at the forward march of “progress”?
Progress? I just see this massive amoeba, luring us in with the promise of prosperity and happiness, consuming us completely and leaving nothing but devastation and degeneracy in its wake.
It conditions us to chase profit, and then enrolls us into the game of making profit out of profit. It starves us of sweetness and then offers us cakes. It plucks out our eyes and then offers us beauty, with the purchase of sight at a discounted price. It preaches authenticity, individuality, and democracy, and then leads us in chains into the swelling belly of an insatiable hog.
We think we’re all independent thinking beings, but aren’t we just drifting about in a vat of ideologies; fed, raised, and nourished on our own excrement?
Our thinking and decision making is encumbered by the prevalent discourses, the trends and appetites, the forces of influence at work in our time.
Is today’s full-body tattoo and axe-throwing hobby not just yesterday’s walking cane, Georgian Wig, or foot binding? Do we not paradoxically distinguish ourselves by adopting the fads of the day?
Trends become market commodities, commodities become brands, brands draw consumers and endorse Influencers: Eye-blinking, cute head-bob, “hey bub”, Black Heart emoji — 9 million followers, $six-figures-a-post on TikTok.
What is this?
“Social media is a democratizing force.”
I think you mean that it’s an entertainment platform with infinite growth potential. Lots of people participating in something destructive does not make that thing useful to democracy. Justifying digital platforms like social media by appealing to principles of democracy, is like soothing the conscience of Starbucks drinkers by telling them that a portion of their purchase dollars will be invested into reforestation.
Who’s challenging the hyperconsumption of coffee? Who’s challenging the moral limits of markets? But we live in an age of secular government, which means political neutrality: Equal opportunities for all to thrive, but to each their own Good.
With no room in the public arena for advancing common notions of the Good; with moral relativism implicitly adopted as public policy; with political parties emerging as sounding boards for populist outrage and our highest ideals splintered into opposing – yet, equally valid? — truths; where is the space for reasoned compromise?
Live your truth.
You do you.
Let the haters, hate.
Live life to the fullest.
Are we ready to critique these empty mantras? Have we really settled on “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”? Really? We’re good with Rand?
This is an age when, left to their own devices (literally), kids aspire to become instruments: horns blown to the tune of the market; their “communities” are hosted on servers owned by businesses that profit from every click, like, and share; and their political arena consists of two options: Us and Them.
I’m not sure how we can turn this thing around, and I’m not even sure that enough people want to. There’s no evidence to suggest that the direction will change – at least, not by our will or the courageous deeds of a few. An avalanche has begun and nothing stands in its way – the future is likely to be just more…of this.
“Propose some alternatives”, you say?
Alternatives and solutions assume that there are problems. But I’m not suggesting that there IS a problem, only that I have a problem with what is. It might be fine, I don’t know. It’s 2021, truth is whatever.
Live your dream.