Once upon a time, perhaps not too long ago, I’m guessing the Daily Show-watching version of yourself used to think “Axis of Evil” was on the harsh side. That was a “Republicant” thing, right? A George W. Bush groaner, correct? It wasn’t nice to label an entire country as evil incarnate, especially when said country happens to be only a strategic adversary and is filled with millions of people struggling to live their lives amidst the melancholy squalor that is human existence. But then Donald Trump, that bright orange sun around which all the hot takes revolve, went and posed for some awkward family photos with Kim Jong Un, the cherub-cheeked Schrodinger’s Dictator whose flattop haircut is so precise all five of his country’s knockoff Apple watches are set to it. So now, you and national security kingpin John Bolton’s moustache find yourselves in alignment, strange bedfellows indeed! “North Korea delenda est!”
Makes sense, yes? The friend of my “hatespo” is my “frenemy,” at the very least, and it’s all but certain they’re Bad, Actually. Trump has been good at flipping these scripts, far better than even the conservative hawkish Democrats of the 1980s who wanted to cut the taxes, the welfare rolls, and the crime rate. The aforementioned Bolton noted in his memoirs that the most deranged thing he ever witnessed Trump do was hesitate when circumstances necessitated that he “bomb, bomb Iran” (to borrow a line from a popular parody-radio ditty of the 1980s) in retaliation for Iran’s attack on an American drone. Trump, Bolton noted with astonishment, refrained from pulling the trigger because he didn’t want to see Iranian body bags on television. Quelle horreur!
For years, American intelligence services have financed various initiatives, sometimes openly and sometimes covertly, to shape consensus at home and abroad. These initiatives had various degrees of effectiveness—who knows how much Civil Rights photographer and FBI informant Ernest Withers actually compromised Martin Luther King’s later anti-poverty work?—but they were merely the 1.0 version of the fascinating, ever-evolving psyop that has characterized the response to Trump’s blustery, off-the-cuff rhetoric. Trump, by virtue of maintaining at least some skepticism about foreign wars, the Chinese surveillance state, the power of the big technology firms like Amazon and Twitter that detest him, has given others an opening to create arguments that they’re Good, Actually. Trump is the 2.0 release, now no longer in beta, of the “Cootie Theory” we internalized in our childhoods: whatever he tweets or talks about, and he does a lot of both, is now verboten, foreclosed forever to anyone even vaguely aligned with the party apparatus that opposes him.
This represents evolution by devolution in the way news consumers— particularly professional-class news consumers who have lots of time to scroll timelines on their phones yet no time for rhetorical hairsplitting—make up their minds. After all, making up one’s mind has never been easy, and “think for yourself” is a commonplace expression that may as well read “think for yourself, like everyone else.” Quickly grasping what the members of your team or squad value, and then using these heuristics to reach snap judgments, has worked since grade school and will continue to work throughout the rest of your life. I use “work” here in the sense that it allows you to do the work of reaching conclusions without wasted time, not in the sense that this “work” is otherwise productive in ways that lead to a net increase in your ability to accommodate contradictions while reasoning your way through arguments. The art kids don’t like the jocks; the Patriots fans don’t like the Steelers fans; the Flemish dislike the Walloons; and so on ad infinitum.
This kind of community-building is nothing new, but applied to a global overlay—the all-encompassing “world wide web” of social media in which we are entangled—it has accelerated a return to factionalism by increasing the number of groups one can affirmatively if lazily join, as by clicking a button or posting a tweet, as against the number of groups in which one finds himself in by virtue of his residence in a particular region or community. There are so many groups or “teams” one can join, most of them totally “liquid” and without roots in any particular place or even much of a shared history, that a person can be totally rebuilt, as far as identity claims go, within a matter of minutes.
This state of affairs, to quote the ever-so-trite conventional wisdom, “is what it is,” and the pace of its progress is unlikely to decelerate. However, as these liquid, newly-invented, and branded fictive kinships increase, the number of heuristics that accompany them grow as well: arrogate enough identities to yourself and, bang!, you’ll no longer have to make a decision at all— your “identity stack,” equivalent to an “avatar build” in a role-playing game for those of you who fancy such diversions, comes equipped with everything you’ll need to navigate all the critical moments of your increasingly extremely online existence. You’ll have so many heuristics to utilize that your only remaining challenge will be what to do when faced with competing loyalty claims (the answer there is to either employ a bunch of vague weasel words to “split the difference” while really saying nothing at all, or to leave or be ostracized from one or the other community).
For me, alas, the contemplation of this brave new world engenders a profound sense of melancholy. There was never a time in the history of humankind when we didn’t snap to judgment, but there has also almost certainly never been in a time in that history when both popular and elite opinion has been so easy to predict and calibrate. If, say, Tulsi Gabbard endorses some nationalistic Bollywood film, then that film is good for her stans and bad for her foes— and anyone sufficiently interested can “perform” online, signalling adherence to one or the other outcome. The same applies to the Chapos, or any other set of tastemakers who purport to shape the thoughts of some niche or subculture, manufacturing consent for this or that neoliberal, marketplace-of-ideas objective.
The various power players whose invisible hands nudge and prod the consumers shopping at the marketplace of ideas understand this all too well and work tirelessly to exploit it. A Jordan Peterson book controversy, for example, can benefit the publisher of his upcoming book in several ways: either the publisher concedes to its angry employees and shelves the book, winning some “wokeconomic” PR points in the process, or the tempest in a teapot is allowed to boil over and Peterson’s most rabid partisans, aggrieved by the insult to the free expression of whatever they think he represents, rush to pay full fare for hardback copies that matter more to them as mass-produced totems than carefully-read manuals in which important information is conveyed.
In other words, this instant revulsion, occasioned by the rapid-fire hot-takifying made possible by a new and improved “cooties theory,” turns everyone into sitting ducks for the people sitting behind the desks and cashing the checks, pushing buttons to manufacture not just consent but two equal strains of it: dote and antidote, working in conjunction to lubricate the pressure release valve within a rigged and otherwise-untenable system. It amounts to little more than theater, yet what is advertising and marketing but the lowest, most insidious, and most effective form of popular theater ever devised? In a world defined by incessant consumption rather than dignified or meaningful labor, opinions are mere commodities, “to be bought and sold like rock-and-roll,” to paraphrase the Mekons.
Could I imagine anything different, anything besides this sordid outcome? I suppose I fancy myself distant from petty affairs, “Olympian” if you will, but such thoughts are grandiose and should be dismissed out of hand. At best, I’ve aspired to be charitable, not in the sense of “charity” that takes governments off the hook by personally providing for the least among us, but charitable in an intellectual sense. From the time I was a lad, my father—an honest-to-goodness athlete, not a spectator on the sidelines—taught me to admire whenever anyone who entered the arena, sporting or otherwise, made what struck us as a skillful play. For the two of us, there was no beloved “team” that demanded obeisance and sacrifice, only a bunch of people who were doing their best. These doomed stars of the hour would eventually fail and end up on the wrong side of history, but don’t we all, in the long run? Nobody gets out of this world alive, but while we’re still sucking wind, we should endeavor to listen to each other, and redeem each other, and move on.