I must confess (though to do so is to slash At my own grapevines), we poets often do Great harm to ourselves — for instance, when you’re weary And distracted and we bother you with our poems; Or when our feelings are hurt because a friend Is brave enough to criticize so much As a single line; when, uninvited to do so, We recite all over again a poem or passage, One of our own, that we’d just got through reciting; When we lament the fact that people never Notice how hard we work to create our poems, So finely drawn, so elegantly spun out; And when we hope that the very minute you hear That we are poets you will summon us Into your presence, command us to write poems, And forbid us to be poor.
– Horace (as translated by David Ferry)
Gods want offerings. In almost every myth, in almost every religion, the gods desire offerings from humans, and usually they are expected to give something in return. They don’t always, but that’s those mysterious gods for you. Whether they’re the human-like gods of Olympus, Yahweh in the Kingdom of Heaven, or the sprits of animism, they want humans to offer something of themselves, and in reciprocation they might be inclined to grant some sort of boon.
Give some of your crop to the spirit of the harvest in the hopes you won’t starve. Sacrifice a human life to the volcano god so maybe it won’t erupt in anger and kill us all. Send your checks to the televangelist to increase the chances that God might favor you with riches.
The “maybe” is important, because the god (or, more precisely, the idea of the god) has to have some wiggle room for all the times it fails to deliver. You didn’t give your best crops, so there was a drought and we all starved anyway. The human sacrifice wasn’t sufficiently innocent, so the volcano erupted and killed us all anyway. You didn’t give enough of your life savings to the televangelist, so God kept you poor anyway.
It’s important that a god’s followers don’t get to know exactly what the god wants, precisely what it will take to win a specific good in return. It’s all trial and error, but folks we sometimes call priests start to believe they can home in on what a god wants, and followers trust them to get them pointed in the right direction, generally. But even the priests don’t know for sure.
Now, I’m thinking about this after having read Anne Leckie’s wonderful novel The Raven Tower. I’ll do my best not to give away anything too central to the plot, but suffice it to say, some of its main characters, including its narrator, are gods. They vary in their relative size and power, but they can increase that power through humans’ offerings. If you get a small band of hunter-gatherers to make small offerings to you, you suddenly have more god-fuel to do nice things for them (if you want to). If you get an entire continent full of humans to dedicate shrines, prayers, and sacrifices to you, well then you’re probably a pretty big, badass deity, strong enough to fight and destroy rival gods.
But the catch is that the gods always have a limited pool of power from which to draw. A super-god who gets plentiful offerings from hundreds of thousands of humans might be seemingly invincible, but to wield that power — by waging a war, making major changes to the environment, or bringing things into being — drains those resources. A super-god who squanders their power, their “God Points,” can become a puny god rather quickly. Think of it like your “magicka” bar in a role-playing video game. You can cast your most powerful spells, but you need to replenish that resource before you can do it again. In the meantime, you’re probably rather squishy; that is to say, vulnerable.
If you’re someone who, like me, does not believe in any gods or other supernatural entities, it’s easy to begin reading something like The Raven Tower and default to an attitude of superiority or condescension. Ha, well, it’s a good thing I don’t believe in any gods, and I don’t have to sacrifice anything to some unseen being in the mere hopes of a possible boon that may or may not ever come.
But you’re smart. I’m sure you can see that the attitude represented in the preceding paragraph need not solely apply to the supernatural.
That’s what I’m thinking about. Again, you’re probably a really smart person so you’ve probably already thought of a bunch of things you could substitute for gods; ideas or institutions or principles to which we give and give without ever really knowing whether we will receive any blessing or salvation. I bet a lot of you thought of The Market, and that’s a great example, and maybe the best one as far as our global civilization is concerned.
I also bet some of you thought of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, which pits the old gods of mythology against the modern gods of technology and mass media and whatnot. I’d understand if you thought of that, but I’m one of those very few sci-fi/fantasy geeks who was thoroughly unimpressed with that book, but that has more to do my own particularities about storytelling, and less to do with whether the book makes a Good Point or says Something Important. I’m sure it does, I just don’t think it said it very well.
For me, the most salient modern analogue to gods and our offerings is close to what Gaiman was getting at: social media. Social media is our pantheon.
Let me tell you where I’m coming from, so you can decide if I’m just too awash in self-pity to be taken seriously.
I’ve been doing this being-a-person-on-the-internet thing from the moment I got a 2400 baud modem in my Packard Bell PC from 1990 or so, when I wrote album reviews on my friend’s local BBS. I played a character on a Ren & Stimpy-themed Star Trek board on the Prodigy network. I have written thousands of blog posts. I have been a writer for a couple of well-known outlets. I have started dozens of websites. I have launched a handful of podcasts. I have emitted well over 100,000 tweets. I have written and recorded dozens of songs and put them online to be bought, downloaded free, and streamed. I have uploaded dozens of videos of all kinds. I have self-published an ebook. I have shared untold numbers of photos and even drawings. I have established a few Facebook pages. I have participated in several subreddits. Though I have never TikTok’d, I did make a few Dubsmash videos and Vines. And yes, I have a Substack.
None of it has made a dent. None of it has broken through. None of it has “gone viral.” None of it has validated my existence.
My latest attempt to be a Relevant Person on the Internet is on Twitch, streaming myself playing the games I love while chatting with the folks who are watching. I’ve been doing it on a regular schedule for about five months, and apart from a couple of truly kind and delightful people who have graciously given me their time and attention, almost no one watches.
I have no illusions that this will make me “famous” or even provide a meaningful income (I don’t even qualify to make money on Twitch yet), so what is it I’m after? When I began, I think I was sincerely more interested in Twitch becoming a kind of substitute for real-world socialization. As someone with Asperger’s/ASD and no real friendships in my geographical area, I was feeling genuinely lonely (regardless of the pandemic). Having recently become obsessed with a couple of PC games, this seemed like a great way to find that kind of connection without having to, you know, go to dinner parties or whatever the hell it is you humans do.
And let me say this, those two or three of you who do show up to my Twitch streams? If you’re reading this, I can’t tell you how much it means to me. Thank you.
So why isn’t that enough?
Let’s get back to the whole social media pantheon thing.
There is a Twitch god. There is a Twitter god. There is a YouTube god. And so on. Maybe each platform has several gods attached to it. For example, maybe there’s a “Just Chatting” Twitch god and a Fortnite Twitch god, as well as a Journalist Twitter god and a MAGA Twitter god (but I guess that one might be too literal).
With every selfie we share; with every sub-256-character joke we tell; with every rant we vent; with every second we livestream; with every retweet, like, upvote, and upload; we are offering ourselves to the gods. We are sacrificing to those unseen forces that we believe control our destinies. We may not give them our crops or our corporeal bodies, but we do give them those things we value most and have in limited supply — that’s what makes it a sacrifice. Our time, our efforts, our attention, our images, our faces, our stories, our identities, our preferences, our connections to others, our feelings, our supplication, our gratitude, our fear, our personal information, and our deepest thoughts. Every stream is an offering. Every tweet is a prayer. We are feeding and refueling the gods.
And the priests — sometimes we call them “influencers” — try to guide us in how best to maximize our relationship to those gods. They can’t make promises! We know the false priests by their claims of “10,000 followers overnight!” They can only tell us what they have learned from their years of scrying and exegesis and, yes, sacrifice, and we can follow their lead or not. We can never know what is enough. We can never be sure whether an offering will be accepted and what blessing, if any, will be granted.
So we pray harder, and we offer more and more of ourselves. Favor me! we cry.
What do we want? Some want fame and fortune and, seeing that some have achieved this through social media, we know it to be possible. Some want to become priests themselves, to be shepherds to those who were once, like them, lost. Some want to right a wrong or defeat an enemy, and each prayer or offering is akin to a complaint to the manager or a report to the principal: Did you know what that person just did? We demand retribution!
Some — and I suspect most — want to feel like they matter. They seek to justify their existence. I seek to justify my existence. What more important question does anyone ever ask of a god than Why am I here? We seek the answer through the metrics of retweets, shares, likes, follows, and subscriptions. We don’t know what counts as enough, what number equates to an existence justified. But we keep offering and praying all the same.
Or, at least, I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing.
Now you, who are very smart, might expect me to talk about how I need to stop this nonsense, how we all need to wake up and realize, Eureka, there are no social media gods, and that we sure as hell don’t need them to tell us we matter! And that is entirely correct, we don’t need them. You are indeed very smart.
Because if, as in The Raven Tower, the gods have a limited supply of power, a pool of magicka that can be spent, well, we can simply refuse to feed them! We can starve these gods of their sustenance and in so doing free ourselves. We can diminish them to demigods or sprites, such that they can no longer control us. Others can be wished out of existence by our determination to ignore them.
But that’s not what I’m going to talk about.
Instead, I’m wondering if it might be better — for me, anyway, probably not for you — to give in to this idea. To just go with it. To own it. Maybe there is more sanity to be had in conceiving of these unknowable paths to personal validation as gods — as beings, persons — to be appeased and appealed to. Maybe if I stop thinking about whether real people are paying attention or assuring me that I belong to the human family, and instead think of these platforms as supernatural forces, the failures won’t feel so personal. The unanswered prayers won’t feel like a rejection by the tribe.
The gods are, after all, mysterious! There’s no way to know what they really want. A mere mortal like me can’t be expected to divine their unfathomable thoughts. Best I don’t try, and just keep offering. And maybe I’ll stumble upon a blessing, and, like Skinner’s pigeon, keep doing that one thing over and over again, like a rain dance or a mantra or a holy rite.
I’m tired of trying to get other people to care. But maybe I can please a god.
About a year ago, I announced my intention to complete a major writing project that I had begun, and subsequently abandoned, two and a half years before. Publicly declaring my intention to finish this piece, “The Big Thing,” was a way to hold myself accountable. I was generously granted two weeks at a writers’ retreat and the necessary time off work to bring this project into being, and my failure to actually make something out of it, no matter how well justified, was a stain on my sense of self that all great Neptune’s ocean could not wash clean.
And besides, it was about stuff that’s really important to me.
Long story short, I buckled down and finished the damn thing, and it’s now the cover story for the April-May 2021 issue of Free Inquiry magazine. It’s 11,300 words-and-change comparing and weighing two views of humanity’s future: transhumanism (we’ll all be saved and improved by technology) and “collapsitarianism” (we’ve blown it and civilization will crumble).
Why these two? Because I feel pulled toward both so strongly, despite their disparate outlooks. It’s the longest piece ever published by Free Inquiry (for which I am immensely grateful) and its editor, Tom Flynn, says it “just might be one of the most profound” (for which I am immensely humbled).
In this post, I offer an excerpt from the main article, its opening “chapter,” as it were. I do ask that you’ll take some time and read the whole thing. It’s been made free to non-subscribers of Free Inquiry, so you are welcome to simply click over, read it in your browser, or add it to whatever read-it-later service you prefer (but please do actually read it later, don’t let it just be another link you totally intend to get to someday).
It begins like this:
Not too long ago, humans believed that the stars determined their fate. Some still do. It was a belief born of naïveté, misunderstanding the nature of those diamonds in the night sky. But it was also a sign of our hubris, to presume that those lights in the firmament could have any interest in us.
Rather than feel controlled by them, we now understand that the stars are not gods or arbiters of fate but places we now aspire to explore. The knowledge of what stars actually are, and how insignificant we are in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos, has humbled us. And yet we are brash enough to speculate that one day we will be determining the destinies of stars, not the other way around.
Today it’s pretty hard to see those stars. Pollution from smog and the spillage of light from our cities obscures our view of the heavens. The haze through which we must squint to glimpse the constellations reminds us, or reminds me anyway, that humanity’s upward trajectory is not a destiny but a story. A wish.
I am torn. I am stubbornly attached to the idea that one day we’ll all be living on starships, exploring the cosmos free of hunger, disease, poverty, and tribalistic conflict. Looking around at the pace of technological advances today, it still feels possible. I want it to be true.
But one only has to consider the speed and breadth of humanity’s destructiveness to have those dreams thoroughly dashed. Whether we look to the exhausted vitality of the natural world or the buckling integrity of our modern, enlightened societies, we can no longer deny the obvious. The world we made is crumbling.
I dread a global, systemic collapse for my own selfish reasons, of course. As much as I sometimes crave the solace and remoteness of a more rustic, pastoral life, I know that when the shit hits the fan, I’ll be one of the first to die of starvation or disease or be murdered by wandering marauders. I’m very much attached to, and a person of, the current age.
I dread it for my children even more. While they’re growing up faster than I can replace their socks, I can’t quite escape the guilt I feel for even bringing them into being when things are so dicey for the civilization they will have to make their way in. I desperately want them to thrive, not merely struggle to survive in a world their parents couldn’t keep.
Vacillating between hope and despair, I have somewhat paradoxically found myself captivated by two starkly divergent lines of thought, two seemingly opposing prophecies about the fate of humanity that at different times have seemed to me equally persuasive. One camp posits that human civilization is ripe for collapse and that industry, governments, society, and much of the ecology that sustains us will soon run aground, leaving the remainder of our species to cope with a blighted aftermath. The other proposes that despite the enormous challenges before us, human ingenuity will find solutions through technology and biological enhancement, defeating not just climate change but perhaps even death itself. I deeply yearn for the latter to be true. I am anguished that the former is much more likely.
In a more hopeful time, I was drawn to the optimism of transhumanism, the PhD-riddled intellectual movement that once excited my Star Trek–saturated imagination with its often-rapturous predictions of a humanity augmented with unimaginably sophisticated technology.
More recently, however, I have leaned away from utopian thoughts and into a palpable despondency. I have since recognized this feeling for what it is: grief. I am grieving for the world I once believed existed and the future I know never will.
Just as I was beginning to acknowledge this grief, I discovered a movement known as Dark Mountain. Not a formal association or ideology, Dark Mountain is a sort of cultural banner under which those who await the fall can gather. For me, it has served as a way to process what has become increasingly obvious: collapse is coming.
And yet, all the while I have been holding onto the wish that we are mourning prematurely and that there is still something better coming.
We might very well be capable of transcending our biological and corporeal limits and achieving wonders not yet dreamed of. Or we might soon be forced to reckon with all we have wrought upon this world and then struggle to find some way to atone and survive.
Transhumanist utopianism and collapsitarian despair. They may appear fundamentally at odds, but I think what attracts me to them both is their implications of inevitability. Both presume their vision of the future is inescapable, and their adherents suggest we not waste energy fighting that future; we should instead start preparing ourselves for it. It is the overlap of “the end is nigh” and “resistance is futile.”
What I need right now is clarity. I need an honest appraisal of where we are and where we are headed. Maybe you need it too. Are we doomed? If so, let’s face that hard truth and decide what to do from there. Are we going to save ourselves? If so, how will we do it and at what cost?
In either case, collapse or transcendence, who and what will we be when we come out on the other side? To answer that, we probably have to figure out who we are right now.
This is about more than trying to guess how things will look a century from now. This is about what it means to be human and deciding whether that, in itself, matters at all.
It’s freezing. I can’t stop shivering. I’m in the middle of a snow-blighted wasteland, and everything is white, and it would be hard to tell day from night if not for the fact that night is much colder. My only source of heat is some threadbare clothing recently issued to me, that at least includes a hood. I’m exhausted, badly needing sleep, and starving, but carrying precious little food. There’s a school—my school, actually—that’s really not all that far off, but the last time I tried to take shelter there, a mob of criminals tried to kill me. I barely escaped with my life. I know they’re waiting for me back there. There is a world of other places I could go—safe places, warm places—but I am on foot in this blizzard, and I don’t think I would survive the walk.
It doesn’t help matters that we reptilians are especially sensitive to cold.
I’m obviously not describing real life, but a scenario from a video game. I’m playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but with a twist: I’ve activated its official “survival mode,” which adds a slew of extra hinderances to the normal game experience. My character can not only be hurt by the usual melee blows, magic attacks, and dragon bites, but by much more banal forces: hunger, fatigue, and extreme temperatures. Skyrim’s survival mode requires one’, would-be dragonslaying adventurer to eat at regular intervals, keep cold and heat at bay, and sleep—leveling up actually requires shuteye.
Okay, fine, so you carry a lot of food, bundle up, and rest whenever you can. Except that survival mode also significantly reduces your character’s maximum carrying capacity, so inventory management becomes an even bigger headache than it normally is. And one can only sleep in specially designated places that are not owned by somebody else. You can’t just plop down on the ground and sleep, you have to find an inn or a friendly house or eventually learn how to craft camping supplies—supplies which, of course, use up carry weight.
And honestly, one’s Skyrim character is supposed to be the Dragonborn, the prophesied savior of all Tamriel (the major continent and empire of the Elder Scrolls franchise). You’d think they’d be a little more, you know, hardy.
I am not usually a fan of survival type games; keeping myself alive seems difficult enough without having to worry about a fictional self. And I definitely don’t go out of my way to make difficult games even more difficult. But I have been playing so much Skyrim over the last year, I kept finding myself to be too powerful, too easily defeating even the toughest enemies, sometimes to a laughable extent. (My sneaking abilities were apparently so refined that professional murderers couldn’t see me as I stood directly in front of them, turning their faces into pincushions for arrows fired point-blank. Dude, I‘m right here. I’m the guy stuffing you with arrows.)
Watching Twitch streamer LucindaTTV a few weeks ago (I’ve started streaming on Twitch myself, so you should come and follow me there), I heard her talk about playing the game on survival mode without any other character-enhancing modifications (or “mods”), and how she found it a very satisfying challenge. Well, I wasn’t prepared to abandon my favorite game (and favorite alternate reality), so I decided to give it a shot. I fired up a new Skyrim game, set it to its highest difficulty setting (“Legendary”), and clicked on survival mode.
And then, the freezing, the starving, and the getting killed over and over and over.
Here’s the thing, though. As maddening as it’s been, Lucinda was right. Having the game layered with these additional handicaps has been oddly illuminating, and my victories—now much fewer and farther between—are all the sweeter. They are also usually by the skin of my teeth.
Along with the heightened difficulty of the game, survival mode also brings a heavy helping of tedium. I already mentioned the many frustrations of inventory and carrying-capacity management. But there’s also the raw consumption of real-world time taken up by simply going from point A to point B in the game, as, I think I forgot to mention, survival mode also disables “fast travel.” Normally, once the Dragonborn has visited a location, they can essentially teleport back there at any time. You want to start working on a quest based in far-eastern Windhelm, but you’re mucking about in Markarth in the west? No problem. As long as you’re outdoors, you just, as the Muppets put it, “travel by map.”
No more of that in survival mode. If you want to go from one major metropolis (or “hold”) to the other, you have to either walk or get a horse. There are some carriages and boats for hire in some places, but they are rare, and they don’t go everywhere. I started my game, like a genius, in a town called Winterhold, where there are no forms of transportation at all. And it’s always cold there. And I’m a lizard-person (or, in the game lore, an Argonian or a Saxhleel). Smart move, me.
This all means that there’s a good deal of planning that goes into every task you set out to complete. Let’s say the local jarl (sort of a duke or governor) wants me to go to such-and-such dungeon to fetch some artifact or other, which, successfully done, will see me rewarded with gold and maybe even a fancy title of nobility. Normally, you’d just stock up on your healing potions and head out. If you’ve already been to a location sort of near the destination, you zap yourself there and hoof it the rest of the way.
Not so now. In survival mode, you need to consider your current levels of fatigue, and decide whether to sleep first, and then take a guess at whether you might be able to find places to stop on the way to get more sleep and perhaps restock on food and supplies. How cold will it be? Maybe your best fighting gear isn’t sufficient to hold back the elements, but you can only carry so much, so you have to choose. Bring a wide variety of weapons? My heavy armor? A barrel’s worth of potions? If I own them, but can’t take them with me, there’s nowhere for me to store them in the meantime (at least until I’ve advanced enough to purchase property, but even then, it would all be stored in that location, which I’d have to travel back to the hard way in order to make any use of it.)
It’s like planning road trips for every time you play, planning stops for food and overnight stays. Except you’re not driving. And you’re probably going to get killed by something called a Deathlord.
And I’m a lizard.
But because of the additional drudgery imposed by survival mode, I’ve found that I’ve done much more exploring than I had when I was much more powerful and less apt to get killed. Indeed, forced foot travel in Skyrim necessitates exploration, trudging one’s way across vast expanses of a fantasy world that has been littered with surprises and mysteries, many I had missed when playing under normal circumstances. Very early in my survival mode playthrough, desperately trying to make my way to some kind of safe harbor in the blinding winter of Skyrim’s northeast, I happened upon a lighthouse I had no idea was there. It was pitch dark outside, and my character’s vision was blurred with exhaustion, hunger, and hypothermia. With my last ounce of strength, I made it to the door of the lighthouse and entered, delightedly warming up from the fireplace in the next room.
Seconds later, of course, I found that the living area had a recently-murdered body splayed on the floor with an axe in its chest. Despite the clicking sound of nearby monsters that reminded me of A Quiet Place, my weary reptilian gratefully ate the food that had been strewn about the floor in the preceding struggle, and slept happily in the bed of the recently departed.
The discovery of the lighthouse of course kicked off an entire quest, a quest that I was utterly unable to make headway in because of all the limitations I’d placed on myself with the game’s difficulty level and survival mode. So I had to abandon it halfway through, and once again cast myself out into the freezing cold to find the next oasis, and having no idea where it might be. (I had some idea, as I have played the game a lot, but as anyone who knows me will tell you, “direction” and “understanding my orientation in space” are not my string suits.)
And I knew that at some point, lord help me, I’d have to come back. Ugh!
And I did! Much later, of course, when my character was strong enough to stand a chance against the enemies lurking in the tunnels beneath the lighthouse. But even then, it was crushingly difficult, requiring innumerable do-overs.
But even these seemingly impossible quests have been deeply satisfying, in that they have asked much more of me as a strategist. No more can I trust in my character’s durability to withstand an onslaught of enemies as I hack and slash my way to victory. These guys were killing me in one or two strokes. I couldn’t count on supernatural levels of stealth to save me; not only were enemies far more keen to my whereabouts, but because they could now take much more punishment on Legendary difficulty, I’d find myself constantly running out of arrows, my only projectile weapons. Skyrim became more and more similar to Metal Gear Solid and Bushido Blade…but in good ways, I mean.
In other words, I could no longer simply think, well, I’m at level X, and I have these weapons and spells, so can safely assume that I can fight my way though any quest. No, I’d have to take each chamber, each corridor, each corner as its own quest, every turn was a new battle that required new tactics, and always mitigated by my constantly-dwindling resources.
It sounds cliché to say it, but playing Skyrim on survival mode has helped me appreciate what’s required of all of us when we want to accomplish anything meaningful. We don’t have unlimited resources, we don’t have unlimited energy, and so we need to plan. We need to make difficult choices; choices about what we will keep and what we will leave behind; what we will dare to attempt, and what we must wait to pursue; what ideals we will hold fast to, and which ones we will have to abandon.
(I steal a lot more in this playthrough than I ever have before, and keep singing to myself “Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat…”)
I’m not entirely sure I’ll stick with survival mode for my entire playthrough as Luap-Keshu of the Black Marsh. Sometimes the tedium does overpower the fun, and the last thing I ever want is for my precious video game free time to feel like work. But then I find a new location I’d never known about, or overcome some challenge I never thought I could, and I think of how much more meaningful those victories are. And if my lizard-guy ever gets far enough to own a home, adopt a child, marry, earn a lordship or several—and maybe save the world—I’ll know that for each of those triumphs, he’ll have truly earned it.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so they say. Wicked deeds and ideas can be defeated by offering them up to public scrutiny, exposing them as morally unacceptable and shaming them out of the mainstream and out of power.
There are times when this has been true, when the public has been exposed to some gross injustice, rejected it, and appealed to authorities to make a change.
Cable news and social media are fueled by these kinds of appeals. During the Obama years, I had to stop watching cable news because I could no longer stomach the hours of broadcast dedicated to telling me how racism, religious zealotry, and plutocratic criminality were taking over the country. To save my own sanity during the Trump era, I tried to prune my social media feeds of accounts that shared primarily political content, because nearly everything I saw was dedicated to making me angry about every single morally repugnant whim expressed by malicious actors. And it was all terrible and morally repugnant!
But my attempts to lessen the amount of political outrage in my feed were futile, for in the era of Trump, it feels like it’s all there was to talk about. I began the (also futile) practice of replying to or quoting tweets about the latest horror by appending, “So what do we do?” I wanted more than tattling. I wanted marching orders. They never came.
Because it’s not just regular folks tweeting out their outrage. It’s politicians, prominent media personalities, major cultural figures, renowned academics—people in positions of real, genuine power. If all they could do was point to bad things happening to say, “You see???” then what were we of the unwashed masses supposed to do about it?
But who are we talking to when we do that? Every time we stoke our collective ire and give attention to the genuinely destructive torrent of moral and ethical horrors, whether they come from presidents, media figures, local politicians, or everyday despicable people, we are pointing it out for a reason. We are asking for someone to do something about it.
We are aggrieved customers in the marketplace of ideas, and we are demanding to speak to the manager. We are all Karens now.
Here’s the problem I think most of us have yet to acknowledge: There is no manager. Our emails to customer support are bouncing back. We are dialing a complaint hotline to nowhere.
There are elections, of course, in which the customers can, in effect, hire and fire the managers of the store’s government and policy department, but this has little to no impact on the store’s other aisles. The racism section is still being stocked, the science-denial section is getting novel new products in every day, and the theocracy department just opened up an outlet store. Business is booming.
It doesn’t matter how much we complain about what are objectively abysmal things being done and the abysmal people doing them. Those managers don’t hear our complaints because we’re not their customers.
One such abysmal human with abysmal ideas is Jordan Peterson, and you may have heard that employees at Penguin Press are disgusted that they are publishing Peterson’s latest book, as I would be if I worked there. Fredrik deBoer, whose post on this subject helped clarify my thinking for this piece, says this is an example of a poor tactic on the part of progressives: appealing to authorities to protect them from people with harmful ideas:
What if there is no authority to which you can appeal to make Jordan Peterson go away? What if Jordan Peterson is a fact of life? Let’s set aside God for a moment. What is the authority that could shut Peterson up? A Canadian citizen with tenure, a large network of conservative admirers, the ability to broadcast directly to his fans, and a talent for encoding reactionary ideas without the out-and-out hateful trappings of many of his contemporaries, he simply does not strike me as someone you can silence even if you wanted to.
Now, that doesn’t change the fact that Penguin Press could make the moral choice not to be part of the machinery that helps Peterson spread and profit off of his message, even knowing that someone else will gladly do it instead. But the larger point holds: Peterson will get his captive audience regardless of any complaints to the manager.
DeBoer says the only real solution to the problem of Peterson and what he represents is to persuade people he’s wrong and make a convincing case for something better. “I get that this is more complicated, and less emotionally fulfilling, than running to the teacher to get him in trouble,” writes deBoer. “But what’s the alternative? … There is no authority which will simply remove Jordan Peterson from public life for you.”
For public officeholders, usually the best we can do is to know who we’re dealing with and vote accordingly. But at some point we have to acknowledge that all the things that horrify us about politicians like Trump, Louie Gohmert, Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, or any other garbage officeholders and candidates, are the very things that give them their power. For their market, their vileness is their primary selling feature. Pointing it out over and over mostly serves as free advertising.
Instead, we have to be better. We have to build movements, support candidates, make arguments, develop ideas, and produce media that are better than theirs. We have to be more than aggrieved, we must be active. We must do more than point out the bad things, we must, ourselves, be the sources of good things.
I wrote a sonnet about a TV show that’s been on for a while.
I have really been enjoying the “Arrowverse” shows, Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl. They’re so much fun, in large part because they so gleefully embrace their inherent silliness and absurdity.
I‘m hoping to get fully caught up with all of the shows in that universe before I watch the big Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event, so I was overdue to get started on Legends of Tomorrow, which debuted in 2016. So I watched the two-part pilot.
And it’s pretty dopey. I may or may not trudge through the whole series, but the pilot was definitely rougher than the shows off of which it is spun. Maybe it’ll get better.
I was looking for an excuse to write a sonnet. And I thought it would be fun to pick a subject that wasn’t all that important. And “Legends of Tomorrow” fits so well into a line of iambic pentameter. Although, it turns out I didn’t actually use the title in the actual sonnet, but NO MATTER.
Here you go. A two-part, non-rhyming sonnet. About a TV pilot. About superheroes. You’re welcome.
Let’s put aside the fact that Snart and Mick Are not endowed with any superpowers; But only have the fancy guns they stole From heroes on another show. The team To which they’ve been conscripted has been told By some time-hopping malcontent that none Of them have value on their own, and must Abscond into the past to thwart the plans Of some immortal fascist demigod Before he murders billions decades hence. It’s only then that these fantastically Empower’d also-rans will find a sense Of worth. I think that’s just a bit absurd.
There’s Ray, a supergenius billionaire Who built a suit combing powers of Mans Both Iron and Ant. The odd couple that forms Into a human conflagration? Holy crap! The oft-respawning couple with the wings Would seem to me to be a pretty damn Big deal. And Sarah Lance! She once was dead! And now she’s not! And smashing many heads. It takes a special kind of asshole to convince These Legends that they’re both of no import Yet also indispensable. Come on. I simply can’t believe how easily they’re duped. (And what was up with Martin drugging Jax?) They’d have been fine if they had just stayed put.
I am trying to disconnect without isolating. I am trying to find meaning without validation. I am trying to unburden without irresponsibility. I am trying to be aware without being overwhelmed. I am trying to be at peace without being passive. I am trying to matter without having to ask whether I matter. I am trying to fit in without being too ordinary. I am trying to stand out without jutting. I am trying to have hope without being crushed by it.
Maybe it’s that last one that needs to go.
Derrick Jensen wrote a few years ago in praise of giving up on hope. He’s talking about this in the context of his struggle to defend the natural world from decimation by humanity. To me, it applies universally. It’s not even about rejecting hope, but simply not dealing with it one way or the other. Once hope becomes irrelevant, Jensen says:
…you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems … and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.
This is not the same as hopelessness. Hopelessness implies defeat, pessimism, resignation to things getting worse. This is something else.
Here’s the part that’s both the most appealing about this idea and the most frightening:
When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they — those in power — cannot really touch you anymore. … The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.
And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are.
As someone who has wasted so much precious life trying to define himself through others’ perceptions, who could not find any value in himself without the explicit approval of everyone else, this is tantalizing and bewildering.
Later, I began to take a more nuanced view. While I must still learn to accept my unmasked, unfiltered self, there is still power to be had with intentional masking, endowing myself with aspects of an identity in order to achieve the things my unmasked self might seek. One can adapt without self-deception. One can modulate one’s behavior without imprisoning oneself. One can augment, and those augmentations are under the control of the “true” self.
But whether one is masking, passing, augmenting, retrofitting, or what have you, I wonder now if it’s hope that is still an ingredient of falseness. Maybe I can’t get free of the fetters I’ve fitted myself with, nor the ones that the culture has clapped onto me, because I maintain a delusion that meaning, peace, and validation will still be given to me by Someone Else, by some force Out There. Maybe by shedding hope, I empower myself to provide it on my own.
“When you quit relying on hope,” writes Jensen, “and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.”
In my case, “those in power” are the imaginary blessings from an amorphous other. That’s what I’ve allowed to have power over me, the wish, the hope, that at some point I’d prove myself worthy to be One of You, worthy to belong to this world.
Maybe if I give up on hope, the ache for validation, the yearning to matter, will ease.
A million years ago, when I was attending the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, my class took part in a fascinating three-week workshop on performance in masks. While considered sort of avant-garde today, theatre more or less began with performers masking themselves or disguising their faces to tell stories. The classics of the Greeks and the slapstick buffoonery of commedia dell’arte were all originally performed in masks. The most common icon for theatre today is a pair of masks, one for comedy and one for tragedy. So this was going to be some exciting work in getting back to the roots of our craft, learning some vital fundamentals.
The sessions began even more fundamentally than we expected. To the surprise I think of many of my classmates, the first week’s session was absolutely free of masks. After a rather reverent introduction to mask work, we spent the rest of our time staring at our own faces in the mirror. Up close.
Literally face to face with ourselves, we were instructed to look deeply and coldly at our reflections. We were told to examine every line, curve, spot, and flaw with excruciating detail and meditative patience. We were made to drop all attempts at animation or expression, to let our faces find a state of absolute rest, to give up control of our facial muscles to gravity.
It was difficult and emotionally challenging, and yet we were to refrain from showing that emotion. We needed to simultaneously investigate our own faces with impartiality while also retaining mastery over them. This would be hard, I think, for anyone to do, but imagine the struggles of a room full of actors, all building their careers and lives on the imperfect, asymmetrical image before them.
As the workshop sessions went on, the reasoning for subjecting us to this became clear. Before we could ever be allowed to put on a mask, we had to reckon with the ones we were already wearing.
It’s a cliche to say that we all wear a mask to some degree, actors and non-actors alike, but it’s also true. The metaphor of the mask has special resonance with me, not just because of my life as an actor, but for the masks of normalcy that I have shielded myself with for decades. I won’t recount all the ways in which I am an odd duck, but consider the utility of “masking” for someone who has always been small, anxious, and awkward, creative and highly sensitive, bullied mercilessly in childhood and subject to other traumas in adulthood, and, for the kicker, on the autism spectrum.
Particularly since being diagnosed with Asperger’s only a few years ago, I have been working very hard to deconstruct those masks, to peel them away, layer by layer, and discover who the person behind them actually is. To pass as human had been the enterprise of my life, and over time it exhausted and sickened me. I lost myself within those masks, and I was terrified of who I’d find once they were gone.
I didn’t need to be. Here I am in my early 40s, getting on just fine, all things considered. It was enormously difficult, but I have learned to accept a great deal about who I am and who I never will be. I have grown to appreciate things about myself I never allowed myself to before, and I’ve acknowledged ugly truths about myself as well.
But just as I miss my life as a professional actor, taking on roles and living different lives, sometimes I miss the masks. Just as a costume can help bring an actor more fully into the mind of their character, a metaphorical mask allows a person to adopt qualities they might not otherwise possess. A personality enhanced by a mask may not be “genuine,” but is it necessarily false?
As part of coming to terms with my true self, I’ve had to accept and own my introversion and social awkwardness. But in the areas of my life where more confidence and gregariousness are called for, as in many work-related situations, am I better served by resigning to my “true self,” or might it be warranted to augment myself with the traits necessary for success? In other words, if I’m shy, but I decide to pretend to be outgoing, am I betraying myself?
A few years ago, I might have answered yes.
Part of the work of self-acceptance has been to insist on that same acceptance from everyone else — not for my own validation, but to be able to present myself truly, as I am, without the need to excuse or apologize for who I am. It’s been an essential part of this journey.
But that doesn’t mean that my “true self” always serves me best. An easy example of this comes from parenting. While I am very honest with my kids about who I am and what I’m like, there are always going to be moments when I am doing my duty to them as a father by presenting to them a person who is stronger, more assured, and wiser than I know myself to be. This isn’t to fool them, but to give them the care or the example they need in that moment. It’s not false, but it is a kind of mask.
And of course, there’s work, as I mentioned. As a communications professional, I can only achieve so much with creative-but-anxious, and I fail my employers if I shrug and say, well, this is who I truly am! Like an actor putting on a costume and reciting lines written by someone else, I have to put on my mask, the one that represents a character that is more confident and assertive than the real person wearing it.
This is a case of mask-as-augmentation, and I think it’s distinct from mask-as-shield. In a less self-accepting time, my masks were ways to hide who I was, to defend myself from being identified as different, to thwart anyone’s attempts to scrutinize my true self.
A defensive mask is always ill-fitting. It slips off too easily, or else constricts one’s circulation. The eyes don’t line up with the holes, or it makes it hard to breathe. To wear a mask defensively is to be in a constant state of disaster-aversion.
The relationship changes, I think, once we’ve come to accept our true face, when we take ownership of who we really are, for all our flaws. If we can get to a place where we have a handle on the whole of ourselves, strengths and weaknesses together, I think then a mask is not necessarily a shield or a disguise, but a tool.
If we mask with intention, we can thoughtfully and deliberately augment ourselves to better navigate different situations. When our natural state isn’t suited to a meaningful undertaking, we can choose the mask that supports our goals, adopting the specific qualities that help us get where we need to go, or build what we want to see come into being.
This is what we were learning in those first hours of that theatre workshop. Before the instructor would allow us to put on one of the masks she’d brought, and begin to inhabit — and be inhabited by — the character the mask represented, we needed to accept and master our own faces. We needed to take off our defensive masks, stop hiding from ourselves, and see our true faces as they really are.
To have used those masks as disguises would have been to miss the point. The goal must never be to disappear. Rather, the mask allowed us to bring something new into being. The mask was not hiding our true selves. Our true selves were giving life to the mask.
Accepting who we really are is just the start, not the end. Self-acceptance isn’t about stasis. It’s about taking responsibility for who we really are, and with intention and new understanding, finding the strength to see what else is possible. One way to find out is to try on a few masks. Who knows who might show up.
There is the moment, at the point of a major crisis when it can no longer be denied, and must now be accepted as a new part of our everyday reality, that we tell the kids that everything has changed.
I didn’t have children at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but I can imagine that parents of young kids at the time had to find that right moment to explain what had happened with those planes, and why everyone was sad, scared, and angry. All of a sudden, everything was different. So much so that the kids needed to be sat down and told so in serious yet reassuring terms. I don’t know, of course, but I can guess.
I am a parent of young kids now, when the COVID-19 pandemic has really, truly changed everything. 9/11 probably didn’t fundamentally alter anything about kids’ lives back in the early 2000s, but the pandemic has utterly upended the lives of today’s kids, and it shows no signs of stopping any time soon. When schools shut down last spring as the virus broke loose, in a United States too stupid and delusional to even acknowledge it, the everything-has-changed conversation was inevitable.
My own kids had known that something called the coronavirus existed, and it sounded scary, but they had been reassured countless times that, while it was a serious problem for many people, it was not something that was likely to affect their lives or put them at any risk. I strongly suspected I might be wrong about this when I said it to them, but I didn’t know. Americans had largely avoided any upheavals due to the first SARS, West Nile Virus, H1N1, and Ebola, so it seemed like a safe bet that we’d be alright this time too. Ha.
Those several conversations with my kids over a period of weeks and months, about how they wouldn’t be going back to school for the rest of the year, about how there would be no summer camps or activities, how they couldn’t go and be with their friends, how we couldn’t bring them into the grocery store with us, how money was suddenly tighter and we wouldn’t be ordering pizza as often, and how they would be entering into a weird new quasi-school situation in the fall, they all bore the weight of that central premise: everything was different now.
Here’s the part where I admit to something uncomfortable. I genuinely regret all that my kids are losing and missing during this pandemic, and I grieve for the millions of souls lost or made to suffer from this disease. But I also felt (and, I suppose still feel) a certain twinge of satisfaction as I delivered the news of a New Normal to my kids. I think it’s because I know that the world desperately needs a new normal, a realignment of what we value and prioritize, a sober and clear-eyed look at the absurd fragility of our society. Maybe this pandemic would give our shallow, boorish culture the chance to reevaluate what really matters.
That’s not all. On a much more selfish level, I actually like some of the changes to interpersonal interaction that the virus has necessitated. I’m a severely introverted autistic with Asperger’s, I already work from home, I have little desire for travel, and I don’t have any meaningful non-familial connections that live anywhere near me. My pastimes of choice do not involve me leaving my home. The situation to which everyone else was suddenly struggling to adapt was already my comfort zone.
It’s more than that, though, because I have to hope that after such a major disruption of everyday life for an entire society, some reconsideration and recalibration will have to occur. There must be a new way of being that emerges from a disaster that is largely and plainly of our own making. If nothing else, perhaps we would experience something akin to the classic tech support cliché: we turn the whole thing off and then turn it back on again. The reboot clears away the cruft and bugs, giving us a clean slate and a fresh start.
But like me, he is skeptical. “What this virus has taught me is the supreme durability of normal, the dogged survival of the mundane world, the near-impossibility of some new era in which all old expectations of civility and social norms will just extinguish or burn away…”
This is indeed what I see. While the pandemic has certainly brought out the best, most charitable, and most empathetic selves in many of us, I think for most Americans, it has simply been a pain in the ass that we need to be done with as soon as possible. Not, I should say, as soon as is best, or as soon as it’s safe, but just, like, now. This is obviously the mode of the utterly corrupt Trump administration, and we see it all the time in the outrage-inducing stories of churches flaunting social distancing rules or stupid teenagers mass-infecting each other at parties. But it’s more insidious than that, more subtle.
It’s in the insistence that we shove our kids back into classrooms rather than decide as a society that we should just pay people to stay home. It’s the delusions about how death statistics are being exaggerated (they’re not), how kids are magically resistant (they’re not), and the absurd tribalization of mask wearing.
It’s in the excuses we all keep making about who we imagine it’s safe to congregate with, because they’re family, close friends, or just people that we somehow simply know have been safe and surely aren’t carrying the virus (and, of course, neither are we!). I’m sure I’ve done it, and I bet you have too.
And yeah, it’s in the polls that show that despite the mass death, suffering, and economic calamity, we’re still a coin flip from reelecting (or reinstalling) the guy who’s primarily responsible for running us through this meat grinder.
We are simply determined not to give a shit.
Many of us have given many shits. Many of us have no more shits to give. Too many of us never did to begin with.
In a recent piece for OneZero, Douglas Rushkoff recalls the tech billionaires who have been constructing self-sustaining fortresses in remote locations to shield them against coming disasters such as climate change, global unrest, or pandemics.
“These solar-powered hilltop resorts, chains of defensible floating islands, and robotically tilled eco-farms were less last resorts than escape fantasies for billionaires who aren’t quite rich enough to build space programs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk,” he writes. “No, they weren’t scared for the Event; on some level, they were hoping for it.”
Well, if I had their resources, I don’t think I’d hope for disaster, but I can imagine having a silent wish in the back of my head that I’d get some excuse to go ahead and take refuge in my own personal — and perfectly furnished — Helm’s Deep.
Indeed, Rushkoff says those of us who enjoy the privileges of being able to work from home and not be gripped by the terror of imminent eviction or starvation are making a calculation: “How much are we allowed to use our wealth and our technologies to insulate ourselves and our families from the rest of the world?” he writes. “And, like a devil on our shoulder, our technology is telling us to go it alone.”
I have always found it easiest to go it alone, and I have long been grateful to the technologies of the Information Era that have given me the means to do so, ever reducing the frequency with which I am required to involuntarily interact with humans on any meaningfully personal basis. I have been trying to insulate myself for decades.
I suppose the difference is that I have not by any means lost my sense of moral responsibility to the world I share with these inconvenient humans. The fact that the current crisis resides in the form of a highly infectious pathogen, and that I live with and care for children and a severely immunocomprised partner, limits what I can do outside the home. But I try to play my part from here, with donations to those who need it and can best use it, advocacy for the right causes, and, minimal as it may be, sharing thoughts like this with you right now. It’s not enough, I know.
I do prefer the safety and distance of the domestic-digital life. I do wish, fervently, that this crisis will shake us out of our collective stupor and make us appreciate each other at a basic level. But I do not wish for the end of all things. I do not want to hide while the world burns. I want a new world to grow from this one, a better one inhabited by a people with better hearts. A new world where I don’t need to hide, but in which I retain the option to do so when the time comes.
Everything has changed, and yet it feels like nothing has. Let’s not have gone through this for nothing.