If there is one thing that is clear to me after ten years of regularly blogging on the internet for free, it’s that nobody wants to read anything meaningful I have to say about anything at all.
I started a column on yet another Ingmar Bergman movie; Fanny and Alexander, and its astonishingly deep Jewish content. I fully intend to finish it, but nobody’s going to read it, and I will be stuck as I always have, hoping that in 100 years people will be more charitable and find something valuable in what I’ve left behind than anybody seemed to find it while I was writing. It’s doubtful, but dreams are the one thing you can never take away from a writer.
I’m a compulsive writer, I have been since I was teenaged. For years, it’s been obvious that if I write something reductive and provocative on facebook, I get 50 comments which I get to respond to with more writing. If I write 4000 words on my blog that tries to examine an issue with proper nuance and complexity, I’m lucky to get 50 pageviews. If I lose my temper even slightly about it and decry people’s lack of willingness to think about issues except in one dimension, they get offended and tell me what a horrible person I am for looking down on them. If I trust that eventually people might be interested in anything more complex I might have to say, that time never comes, and I have no audience but myself.
Perhaps one solution to this is fairly obvious – my blogposts will now come as clickbait: 5 ways Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty perfectly describe Kim and Kanye! 7 Goya Grotesques that totally changed my view of Frozen!
But there is nothing in the world as depressing as marketing your passion – diluting those parts of yourself which the world’s weariness should not be able to touch to until there’s nothing of the original person left and all which remains is the person the world wants you to be.
It’s an impossible needle to thread for 99% of us. The way we all gain self-esteem is by society appreciating us, not for what society wants us to be, but to appreciate us as we are; but in order for the world to love us just the way we are (a Billy Joel lyric… EW!), we have to conform what the world expects of us, even if the world demands that we figuratively cut off a hand or pull a leg out of its socket. To the outside world, a psychologically damaged person with the semblance of normalcy is always preferable to a psychologically healthy person who appears weird.
But ‘normalcy’ has become a very damaged concept in today’s world. It is not the people insane enough to have unorthodox thoughts who are the true danger. It’s the people for whom no orthodoxy is extreme enough.
I recently watched a brief excerpt of a talk by Niall Ferguson, the conservative historian who’s suddenly inserted himself into youtube discourse with Jordan Peterson-level frequency (if you don’t know who Jordan Peterson is, don’t ask, you’re better off). Unlike Jordan Peterson, Ferguson is a real expert on the history he pontificates about, and even if I don’t really care for his point of view, he’s a genuinely conservative historian who interprets in a Churchillian framework rather than an authoritarian dinosaur. He’s right about a number of things in this talk. One of them is that Americans hate learning about history, they believe it began in 1776, and whether right-winger or left-winger, they have no interest in learning about history of other places as they believe the history of other places has no application to us. Right-wingers believe that America is the exception and therefore supersedes the rules of history, left-wingers believe that American exceptionalism is a myth used to justify America’s worst practices. The truth, as happens quite often, is somewhere in between. Even on its worst day, America WAS an exception in how well it treated its own citizens, and on its best days, America was THE exception. Nevertheless, American brutality is still plenty brutal, and is only more brutal because of the way our exceptionalism is used every day to justify American brutality. And if people learned the details of American history without giving recourse to indoctrination into the cults of Howard Zinn and Ayn Rand and their successors, the world would not stand on a precipice where an American President may be taking dictation from a Russian one.
Professor Ferguson’s more important point, at least by implication, is that however dangerous Trump is in himself, he is far more dangerous because of the cult-like following he inspires by his followers. The speed with which information travels does not result in a greater proliferation of knowledge if people aren’t trained in the wisdom to identify false knowledge from true.
What we take for granted is that our current partisanship, accompanying people my age for the entirety of our adult lives – since Monicagate really, is almost certainly just the beginning. There is no going back to a world without the internet – an impersonal machine that inflames human passion more effectively than any human contact. There will probably come a time when the internet results in greater proliferation of knowledge, but before books and print journalism could make their best impact, there first had to be 125 years of wars between Protestants and Catholics. Every single day brought a new emergency, a new holy cause, because our eternal damnation would not wait until tomorrow.
We are kidding ourselves if we think that the end result of the internet can ever be any different. If humans convince themselves that every moment they cease to commit themselves to the holy causes of equality or/and liberty is a moment in which they contribute to the suffering of billions, there will be no limit to the horrible acts we can justify in their names. It may have started with Republicans, Conservatives are still much further along the fanatical path – liberals, after all, didn’t elect Trump; but just as the comment section of every article written since 2000 feels packed with conservative trolls who probably own 10 guns each, I defy anyone to gape into the twitterverse and not see a million piggy eyes of left-zealotry staring back. There is no way for so many thousands of people to exist in a fever pitch of rage about the exact same issues without it eventually occurring to them all that mass violence is the best way to enact the futures they wish to see. The social order of a previous age is coming down, and for me at least, it’s impossible to see the future without seeing a renewal of the kind of violence that used to exist between Protestants and Catholics. One side is absolutely committed to equality – equality for all races and genders and orientations and communities, and if they eventually go far left enough, equality of wealth distribution, one side is absolutely committed to liberty – liberty from government, taxes, community responsibility. One side abhors political correctness, the other abhors political civility. And guess who the one people are whom the extremes of both sides always to agree to hate?
There is always a film of truth around what any extremist believes so long as you forget that we’re all living in the real world where nobody gets what they want and nobody can do more damage to more people than a damn fool idealist who had good intentions and will stop at nothing to prove himself right. One of these days, sooner rather than later, the internet’s Martin Luther will make herself known, the writer I could never be. A genius of intelligence and passion who makes herself known because believes she believes herself on a sacred mission to make the world a greater, better, happier, healed place, and he will do so by shaking the Earth to its core, and they will convince millions upon millions that she, he, or they, is right, and when this would-be-secular Messiah appears, the ‘Social Justice Reformation’ will truly begin. It will be brutal not only because of how its most faith militant will commit themselves, but because of the equal brutality of the counter-reformers response. This is the real world, this is history, a dangerous place where every step on the grand march of progress is paid for in the blood of thousands.
The world does not undergo so great a metamorphosis as the internet without drawing forth everything worst in human beings before we get as a species to the good stuff. Thousands of insufferable optimists told us that the internet was supposed to be the great leveler of knowledge which brought true democracy to human beings – ‘transhumanism’ it was called: the belief that through science and invention, humanity can evolve past our physical and mental limitations. And yet with every evolutionary step forward, however small, there is a new correlative limitation. The printing press enabled widespread literacy, but mass literacy magnified the wars of Protestants and Catholics exponentially. The Industrial Revolution built a new middle class at the expense of mass urban poverty. Mass transit enabled urban renewal and the connections of people over enormous distances at the same time that it enabled millions more soldiers to serve on battlefields and millions of Nazi and Soviet enemies transported to horrible deaths.
The Printing Press was invented in 1440, it finally justified itself as a means for total good in 1989. It took 549 years, but freedom of the press had triumphed over government controlled information – there were still newspapers everywhere, all magazines were print-based, and people could be forgiven for thinking that the then-brief decline in the fortunes of newspapers was a mere recession in people’s interest in paying for their journalism.
So since ARPANET came online in 1983, I therefore have infinite faith that the internet can bring forth a Renaissance of human knowledge that spreads light to the farthest reaches of human misery around 2532, and even in 2532, it will be hugely disappointing relative to the expectations people have, the golden age will last roughly twelve years until a mass attack of Islamic/Christian terror (the two great religions having unified because of their hatred of atheist infidels) brings down a 100,000 story building in New New York – a Chinese city that won’t start being built until about 2213 after China completely decimates America over the course of three genocidal World Wars with a biological attack that kills the entire eastern seaboard but leaves their whole infrastructure intact and able to be transported across the world by a 300 mile long cargo ship built from sea plastic. By five years into the Golden Age, everybody will realize that there now exists a whole new mode of information technology to envelop humankind that makes us welcome a more just and free future with open arms, but human beings still won’t be able to save ourselves from ourselves. To get to that brief and disappointing Golden Age somewhere around the year 3081, the world shall yet again witness all manner of hellscaped events. Such are the certainties and uncertainties of history, a nightmare from which we can never awake.