A Future of Snark, Not Ideas

Last week I saw several friends and fellow bloggers talking about this post, which, in bullet form, lays out a fairly scathing case against Twitter as a social media platform. The majority reaction to the post was that it was mostly hyperbole, mixed with an occasional insight and an occasional moronic statement. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I have to laugh at the way social media culture virtually never fails to justify the harshest critiques of itself.

Case in point. Apparently the Twitter cool kids thought David Brooks’s column today was pretty dumb. It was allegedly so dumb, in fact, that it merited enough scorn, ironic memes, and sarcasm to appear on Twitter’s utterly unfortunate “Trending” sidebar. Why was it so dumb? Well, apparently Brooks’s mid-column anecdote about taking a less educated, less urbane friend to a hip sandwich shop was just, ya know, lolz. Mind you: Actually finding folks among the Snarktariat who could explain why this was such a groan-inducing paragraph is pretty difficult. No one seems to want to say the punchline out loud. Instead, Brooks’s paragraph got parodied, jeered, and turned into a kind of self-referential inside joke among twenty and thirtysomething content managers and social media journalists. If you spend enough time of day immersed in the timelines of the kind of boys and girls who really want to edit Buzzfeed one day, you didn’t so much get the joke as kind of absorbed it. This is what the Right People find funny today. Ha ha.

Why did I find this annoying? Well, as I’ve written before, I think the ascendancy of snark to become the reigning lingua franca of the internet is a bad thing, a trend that our already fraying public square can ill afford. But there’s another reason. While the Twitterers were obsessing over a single paragraph and turning it into a monument of sophisticated political signaling, Brooks’s observations about the increasingly fanatical caste system among educated urban progressives came alive. Read:

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.

Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else. We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.

The only people who could read this and dismiss it with snark are people who perceive–correctly–that Brooks is talking about them. It doesn’t take long at all to realize that the most important political divide in this country is not between Republicans and Democrats, Christians and secularists, or even whites and minorities. The most important divide is between those who care that places like Owensboro, Kentucky exist and those who don’t. You can theorize about the reasons behind the working class/higher ed class gap all you want, whether you blame income inequality, geopolitical snobbery, the media, etc etc. The reasons are secondary. What matters is this: Election 2016 went the way it did because the overwhelming majority of people who have been groomed to run the country fundamentally misunderstand it, and most of them do not care if that’s true.

Of course, maybe I’m just a curmudgeonly conservative who hates his fellow millennials and is sticking up for columnists who remind me of my Dad. Could be. But consider the perspective of someone who cannot be confused for yours truly. Freddie has been making this point in his own corner of progressivism for years now, but I don’t know if he’s ever made it as clearly and forcefully as he has right here:

I am increasingly convinced that a mass defunding of public higher education is coming to an unprecedented degree and at an unprecedented scale. People enjoy telling me that this has already occurred, as if I am not sufficiently informed about higher education to know that state support of our public universities has declined precipitously. But things can always get worse, much worse. And given the endless controversies on college campuses of conservative speakers getting shut out and conservative students feeling silenced, and given how little the average academic seems to care about appealing to the conservative half of this country, the PR work is being done for the enemies of public education by those within the institutions themselves…

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

Have you ever read a paragraph that describes social media culture more accurately than that one? It’s almost as if the same impulses that try to create this utterly inwardly obsessed, virtue signaling ethos on college campuses do the same thing online and in the city. Culturally, those who are being invested with the training, money, and influence to exert real power over American politics are learning how to think via memes, ironic jokes, and most importantly, identity markers. Debate? That’s just marginalizing and erasure. Exchanging ideas? That’s an assault. Freedom of speech and religion? Pure euphemism for bigotry and injustice.

And this dynamic endures challenges and resists constructive change because it draws strength from social ladders and club pledges that threaten to cut off community to those who don’t go along with it. That’s exactly Brooks’s point. Whether you think Brooks is mostly right or mostly wrong about economics, politics, culture, whatever, is completely beside the issue. The issue is that Brooks has correctly identified what’s driving the intellectual formation of the “educated” American adult. It’s not reasonableness or transcendent values or even ideological commitments. It’s the fear of alienation, the fear of being anathematized by a secular, fundamentalist, sociopolitical religion whose shaming scaffolds would make Nathaniel Hawthorne blink.

Freddie is right to be concerned about the future of public higher ed. But I don’t think its problems lie with GOP de-funding. I think the far more likely fate for so many community schools and teachers is that eventually, people raised to be on the right side of history at all costs will discover they don’t need student loans, lectures, or textbooks to do it. My fear is that schools will look more like Mizzou–crushed under the weight of a nihilistic pedagogy that bears the fruit of an unteachable activist class, incubated from all attempts at reason or restraint by an impenetrable code of coolness.

Thus, we circle back to Posner and his 20 theses about Twitter. He may be underselling the value of social media in a breathless information age. And I’m sure there are good uses for Twitter that he doesn’t grant. But I do have to wonder if the neurological rewards of being in the in-group–the Retweet, the Like, the Follow–are subtly warning us about the future. If life in 10 years looks more like Twitter than it does now, it won’t be a good thing, no matter how many people get the joke.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

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