Dear Reader (especially those of you secretly recording your would-be bosses because you can’t believe a thing they say),
If you came here for insightful commentary and analysis about the giant Chinese balloon over Montana, I’m sorry to disappoint you—I’ve got little to add to the riot of balloon discourse.
But I do love how so much of our life seems like it was written for Mad Libs. I don’t mean surly or insane editors of the New York Times and MSNBC—those libs are mad! I mean the old party game where you insert random verbs and nouns into sentences to create some whacky content.
We live in an age of whacky content.
For instance, apparently the king of YouTube content is some 24-year-old guy who goes by the nom du internet MrBeast. He has 131 million YouTube subscribers. That’s a lot of people. Only nine countries in the world have populations larger than 131 million. That’s amazing.
I stumbled across the existence of MrBeast when I saw this Buzzfeed article mentioned on Twitter. Apparently MrBeast is popular because he generates content by doing good things. As Buzzfeed explains, “His repertoire now includes dramatic displays of charitable giving, with videos like “Planting 20,000,000 Trees, My Biggest Project Ever!” and “I Cleaned the World’s Dirtiest Beach #TeamSeas.”
He’s monetizing good deeds and, according to some people, that’s wrong. In his latest video he pays to cure 1,000 people of blindness, and that’s really pissed some folks off.
I get some of the complaints: There is something icky about the idea that you wouldn’t cure people of blindness if you couldn’t put it on camera and make money. But that inchoate blob of ickiness shrinks to an infinitesimal blip if you think of the alternative: leaving a thousand people blind to avoid being accused of exploiting their joy at being able to see.
I am pretty sure that at least some of the journalists at Buzzfeed believe they are doing something good in the world. Does the fact they wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t being paid—through ad revenue—rob their work of any nobility or social value? Bob Woodward monetized his journalism to the tune of millions—is that really a useful criticism of his work? Maybe, at the extreme margins, I guess. But for the most part, my response to such complaints is, “Oh shut up.”
I met a doctor who volunteers with other doctors to do free eye surgeries and other good deeds in poor countries that are also close to good surfing. Do I care that they get to surf—or write off some of the trip on their taxes—while also removing cataracts on old ladies’ eyes or fixing kids’ cleft palates? Not at all.
So while I like the phrase used by critics of similar efforts—“inspiration porn”—I find the outrage unpersuasive and more than a little bizarre.
It’s okay to be blind.
But what I find even more bizarre is this critique from the Buzzfeed piece:
Another huge problem: MrBeast’s video seems to regard disability as something that needs to be solved. He doesn’t say in the video or in any of his subsequent public statements whether he consulted with the video’s subjects about how they felt to have their disability treated as a problem. That’s something that’s been argued over in the days since the video was uploaded.
Really? I suspect the fact that these blind people signed up to be cured of their blindness is a really strong indicator that they thought being blind was a problem. Talk about denying the humanity and agency of the disabled; you fools should have been proud of your blindness.
Call me retrograde and bigoted all you like, but I think that curing blindness is good. I don’t think it’s so good that we should drag blind people into hospitals and operate on them against their will. But, again, short of something like that … shut up.
But there is something bigger at work. Allow me a brief digression. Or don’t, you really can’t stop me.
This morning I recorded a solo podcast and went on a tear about how the cult of victimhood is now utterly bipartisan. I’ll spare you that whole argument—for now—and instead pick up where I left off on the podcast. I think America’s problem with victimhood is now an American problem.
Much of our politics is really a contest between adversaries claiming “our” victims and martyrs (of cancel culture, bigotry, whatever) are more “victimy” than yours. A lot of Trumpism is a cult of victimhood. “She called us deplorable!” “They don’t hate you because they hate Trump. They hate Trump because they hate you.” (Apparently Fox is kind of obsessed with the “They hate you” trope). But there’s a lot of stuff on the right that is only tangentially related to Trump. The obsession with the persecution of Christians—sometimes with powerful facts to support it—is bigger than Trump and Trumpism.
And of course, as conservatives argued for decades (me included), the left is drunk on victimhood. There’s a reason so many people fake hate crimes against themselves, especially on college campuses: We live in a culture that makes victims into heroes. “You get what you subsidize” isn’t just true for economics—it’s true for culture, too.
Without a sense of victimhood, identity politics is very hard to maintain—at least in the modern era. In the past, nobles and aristocrats practiced a kind of identity politics of superiority: “We were born better than you.” But our culture despises that sort of thing, mostly for the good. It doesn’t mean people don’t still think that way. Self-hating elites still love their self-hatred. (“He who despises himself,” Nietzsche observed, “nevertheless esteems himself as a self-despiser.”)
But if your identity is wrapped up in the idea that you’re persecuted, the form of your identity becomes psychologically synonymous with whatever it is you think drives that persecution. This can have all sorts of unhealthy consequences. You can start seeing evidence of your persecution where it doesn’t exist, because you need that evidence to sustain your sense of identity. You look for reasons to be offended. You start making up new words so you can demonize the people who use the old ones. You assume bad motives for things that offend you because that’s the only way to sustain the persecution narrative you’ve written for yourself (or let others write for you).
Obviously, this is most acute and relevant for forms of identity like race, gender, sex, and religion.
But this dynamic is not reserved solely for such things. I’ve often said that youth politics is the cheapest form of identity politics. In every generation, there are young people who insist they’re being held down, discriminated against, persecuted, whatever. The Port Huron Statement wasn’t one long bleat about how young people—or young people like the authors—were not having their feelings privileged. Or something.
Indeed, plenty of people argue that any form of judgment—real or perceived—that someone isn’t perfect just the way they are is bigotry. If you’ve ever seen someone lose their mind at being told they must adhere to a dress code, you might have a sense of what I mean. Try arguing in the wrong setting that people should use proper English—or that there’s even such a thing as proper English—and you’ll get an earful. Making someone feel bad about their “choices” is itself “problematic” these days. You have to call prostitutes “sex workers,” because who are you to judge?
A lot of this gets caught up in a related cultural obsession I’ve written a lot about: hypocrisy (which we don’t have room to get deep into). But these things overlap in the fixation with “authenticity.” Be true to yourself and you can do no wrong. If “society” or “civilization”—their air quotes, not mine—judges you negatively, that’s proof that society and civilization are in the wrong. Making someone feel bad, intentionally or not, about their choices is oppressive.
Our culture has taken Jesus’ admonition to a would-be violent mob of hypocrites—“Judge not lest ye be judged”—and trimmed it down to “Judge not.”
(This really isn’t my beat, but Jesus did not think you couldn’t judge people’s bad behavior and call it bad. Just ask the Money Changers. This is the guy who said “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him …” and “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”)
For Nietzsche, this was all inevitable once Christianity took over. I disagree, but his criticism was full of interesting insights all the same. Nietzsche believed that Christianity is the religion of the “downtrodden, the bullied, the weak, the poor and the slave.” He argued that Christianity made the noble wretched and the wretched noble. “I am suffering. Someone or other must be to blame for that.”
One person who got a lot out of Nietzsche was W.H. Auden. In his masterful poem “For the Time Being,” he puts many of Nietzsche’s arguments (and those of other critics of Christianity) in the mouth of King Herod, who was poised to slaughter the innocents to spare the empire the “disease” of Christianity.
Here is an excerpt from Herod’s prophecy:
One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realize that if this rumor is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions—feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmologies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of school children ranked above the great masterpieces …
… Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue, “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.” And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance. The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with the animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.
Now, again, I disagree with Nietzsche and Auden’s Herod (as did Auden!) but there’s power to all of this. We live in a society where people can seriously argue that curing the blindness of people who want to be cured of blindness is “a huge problem” because it insinuates there’s anything wrong with being blind in the first place.
I know I’m running long but this reminds me of a fascinating—and hilarious—2019 profile in the Philadelphia Inquirer that—really—ran with this headline: “To end fatphobia, we need to dismantle Western civilization, says Philly therapist Sonalee Rashatwar.”
Here’s this gem from the piece: “Rashatwar traces contemporary fatphobia to colonial brutality and how enslaved people were treated. Citing researcher-advocate Caleb Luna, Rashatwar said curing anti-fatness would mean dismantling society’s foundation: ‘I love to talk about undoing Western civilization because it’s just so romantic to me.’”
When presented with the choice of tossing-out Western civilization or ending “fatphobia,” it seems reasonable to me that we might say, “Well, I guess we’re stuck with fatphobia then.”
Moreover, in a reasonable society we would think those who believe it’s worth dust-binning Western civilization in order to purge fatphobia from the land, were crazy. But now we’re not even allowed to say “crazy.”
But we live in a Mad Libs world.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: Things on the quadruped front remain largely unchanged. Pippa’s rule over the upstairs sleeping arrangements continues apace. She’s also getting extremely demanding. On most mornings, she expects a minimal amount of belly rubs before she will even agree to leave the bed. This is a problem because Zoë gets very impatient in the mornings. When it’s time to go hunt and explore, she’s uninterested in watching me rub the damn spaniel’s belly. So Zoë starts bellowing at me (“Human, squirrels are getting away with villainy! Let’s go! Aroo!”), which wakes up my slumbering bride. So sometimes I basically just have to pick Pippa up and put her on the floor. This is more difficult than it sounds, because spaniels apparently become boneless, furry, bags of wet cement when they are in civil disobedience mode. But, once I get her paws on the floor, she takes off down the stairs like a wind-up toy. Gracie, meanwhile, continues her eternal dance with Chester.
And now, the weird stuff