Impotent Rage

Here’s Freddie Deboer with a point he has made many times before, but perhaps never so eloquently:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary left is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get reparations, the more we rename buildings; no end to mass incarceration, but recasting of cartoons; no seats in the Senate, but oh, how we make the Poetry Foundation shake…. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

This is such a good question…and not just to progressive leftists. What do you think would happen if we swapped out certain words in that paragraph and turned into a question for, say, Christian conservatism? It might look something like this:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary religious right is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get Roe reversed, the more we call out media hypocrisy; waning evangelism and theological education, but protesting COVID-19 masks; no institutions creating Christian culture-makers, but oh, how we can trigger the libs …. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

Hits close to home, right? The more I reflect on it the more I can’t stop suspecting that a large swath of conservative evangelicals are in a similar position as the leftists Freddie describes. Genuine cultural influence, meaningful institutional power (not just the power to appoint judges—an unreliable perk, as we’ve seen this month)—these things elude us. Baptisms keep declining. For every healthy, biblically literate church there are 4 more where Father’s Day is the least attended day of the year. Christian media, such as music, is often aggressively banal. Our cultural engagement is reactive, caught at opposite polarities of either total appropriation of secular culture (to own the fundies) or heavy-handed worldview exercises (to own the libs). The closest Christians come to a rigorous, relevant expression of principle that commands the attention of the public square is a Jungian psychologist.

Here’s what I think might be going on. Similarly to how Freddie’s fellow leftists feel politically impotent, many conservative evangelicals despair of their prophetic power. The Left processes their failure by redirecting energy to symbolic causes, trying to gain in the arena of words and names and celebrities what they feel they keep losing in the arena of policy. Likewise for religious conservatives: the Trump era represents not an attempt to re-Christianize America as much as an acceptance that we’ve lost the first battle we wanted to win (a regenerate public square). Despairing of the church’s power, religious conservatism has, like the Left, turned its attention toward victories that seem more doable: owning the libs, triggering the media, preserving 20th century cultural inflections, and having “Merry Christmas” printed on Starbucks cups. In this understanding, evangelical outrage over meaningless minutia is not arrogance, but defeatism.

This is why I don’t anticipate the recent Supreme Court losses to inspire much reevaluation of things. If the above thoughts are close, the Courts are not downstream from evangelical strategy. Rather, the current state of the church reflects acceptance of the Courts. The most pressing issues facing the church, such as racial reconciliation/justice, require spiritual revival, and it is spiritual revival that we’ve already punted on. Thus, the current status quo will continue until there’s a radical un-acceptance, a rejection of defeatism and a new conviction that the fix isn’t in, the game hasn’t already been decided, and the kingdom really doesn’t depend on the things we thought it depended on for so long.

Somewhere along the way we stopped believing gospel-shaped people really could change the world, so we stopped worrying about making gospel-shaped people. Maybe we ought to stop looking at The Washington Post and New York Times’s scoreboards because they were always showing the score of the wrong game. Impotent rage is an equal opportunity employer.

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.

Does Sex Make Movies “Authentic”?

I have a quick word on this take on movies and culture from Freddie deBoer. I agree with 99% of what he says, and have tried at various times to make the point he makes. But I do have one issue with his thinking, and that is his notion that a film without sex is hollow and inauthentic. I think the equivocation of sexuality with authenticity in movies is actually a terrible idea that is ironically responsible for some of the dysfunctions in Hollywood that Freddie picks up on.

Freddie is hardly alone in supposing that sexlessness means inauthentic. Most respected film critics would agree, and most successful film studios seem to as well; for a long time there’s been a disproportionate amount of sexuality in Oscar-contenders, compared to the high grossing blockbusters. Sexuality means seriousness, so goes the thinking.

I see immediately 4 problems with this idea:

1) Healthy people usually devote a comparatively small amount of their life to their sexuality. The idea that a film without sexual activity is “inauthentic” should trigger the response, “Inauthentic to what?” 

One of the major realizations of adulthood is that what Hollywood and pop culture think of as “sex” doesn’t really exist. If you go into marriage expecting that part of your life to look like the hot and steamy stuff you’ve seen onscreen, you will be incredibly disappointed, and such disappointment can indeed threaten relationships. Cinematic sexuality is not authentic to begin with. It’s not really designed to be. It’s designed to be sexy: titillating, exciting, and perhaps more than a little addicting.

I’m reminded here of the stories about the lead actors of “50 Shades of Grey” and their offscreen awkwardness, frustrations and even hostility. There’s something about the exploitation of sexuality for public enthrallment (read: money) that actually undermines the healthier sexual impulses of real people. In much pop culture, sex is the center of existence for everyone. In real life, sex is only the center of existence for desperate, sad, lonely people.

2) Most of the movies that spend a lot of time “exploring” sexual issues are gross-out comedies, not profound artistic pieces. 

Admittedly, this point may not have been true 30 years ago, but I think it’s true now. Equivocating sexuality to authenticity may sound good in theory, but if you look to sexualized films for existential meaning and aesthetic weight, you’re going to be frustrated. The overwhelming majority of films most fixated on sexual themes turn those themes into set ups and punchlines. If there’s anything meaningful to say, it almost always comes in the form of a half-baked, whimsical moral in the conclusion, usually about the very cliches that Freddie talks about (“Everyone is special,” “You shouldn’t be mean to people,” etc etc).

3) If truly authentic films depict sexuality, most of the greatest movies of all time are at least somewhat inauthentic. 

Citizen Kane, The Godfather Part II, Vertigo, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music–all these films would, by this standard, be inauthentic. Obviously that’s not a position anyone would want to seriously take. But flip the equation around. Accepting that these are indeed existentially “authentic” films, what makes them authentic, in the absence of overt sexual themes or scenes? It’s an odd question, because the answer really is: Well, everything! We don’t doubt the profundity of these stories. It’s self-evident. The fact that these movies are “sexless” doesn’t at all mitigate their effect on the imagination, precisely because an emotionally healthy audience doesn’t look for authenticity merely in sexuality.

It would be a strange person indeed who came away from It’s a Wonderful Life frustrated that the film didn’t really probe into the images and inflections of George Bailey’s bedroom. Most people would agree that such a response would be not only wrong, but troubling. The very modern, very Freudian, and also very market-driven notion that all humans are walking around obsessed with sex is merely a projection of our culture’s anxiousness to justify itself.

4) Perhaps it is not the superhero movies that are remarkably sexless. Perhaps its the recent corpus of Hollywood that is remarkably sex-obsessed.

My theory is that audiences flock to superhero films not because such experiences are blissfully sexless but because they are, however inconsequential, 120-minute reminders that courage and intelligence and goodness are real things, not just euphemisms. Perhaps the Avengers and Star Wars are refreshing breaths in the digital age that has monetized sexual addiction and dysfunction more aggressively than any other generation in human history. Perhaps “sexless” stories are not sexless after all, but are actually stories that speak to our sexuality by pointing us to life beyond passion and pleasure. Perhaps, at the end of the day, pop culture’s lack of authenticity is traceable to its insistence on a hedonistic, flawless, pregnancy-free existence.

Perhaps.