It’s probably possible to put a ‘snake oil’ label on a bottle of water and sell it to the public as a cure-all. A con that lends its name to a stereotype yet isn’t obvious enough to fool many. This is the America of the free, the brave, the determined, the strong willed, and insanely stupid. The America that has transcended truth and come out on the other side proud to be unencumbered by the need to know, and basking in the cloak and pride of exceptionalism. Where deep-seated cruelty towards anything that stands in the way of naked power is celebrated.
It’s hard to explain how we got here. I don’t believe new media inherently makes people more stupid. Even though it’s been frequently argued since the advent of television, the internet, gaming, and social media. No, stupidity is instead a choice. It’s a lack of effort. A desire to never be challenged. To never be confronted with the realization that we’ll only ever scratch the surface of knowledge in most subjects, and there will never be enough time to go deeper. The pursuit of basic knowledge, to be engaged in the world, understand nuance, and be a savvy consumer of information will always elude us because we don’t care to try.
So we substitute substance with entertainment. Our gods – the people that show us there is a fundamental pride in stupidity – speak to us through media and bubble to the surface of our collective imagination through repetition and by appealing to our most basic instincts. This is a culture where an inane video about a baby shark has garnered over seven billion views. Where young people perform a curated version of real life and hundreds of millions adoring fans gobble it up at the speed at which it’s produced. It’s like each of us is on a slow moving train to nowhere, surrounded on every surface by stimuli that wants nothing other than to be seen. It asks no questions because there is no meaning.
We have over seventy million people in this country who’ve been watching a proverbial car accident for four years and want to keep watching. Car accidents are the perfect analogous event to our present moment because of the curiosity they engender. We all feel a need to pause and look, even though we fear for what we may see. It’s hard to look away but impossible not to. A lot of the entertainment we use as numbing agent is predicated on that inherent desire we have to look at what is sensational – oddities existing solely to capture our attention. To look, to stare, to consume for extended periods of time transfers our eyeballs into advertising value, then ultimately money earned on our passiveness. In the wake we’ve devolved to appreciate the worst forms of entertainment culture – endless confrontation, shamelessness, craven striving, violence perpetrated on an ‘other.’
Which brings me to the 300 pound orange elephant occupying an inordinate amount of space in our heads. A clown who reflects the worst impulses of what at least half of us have become. Thoughtless idiots poking around in the proverbial dark, acting purely on impulse, winning at all costs, denying reality, fearing bogeymen, ‘owning’ the opposition, distracted by everything, performing. This project was never meant to be political, but these last few months have made that impossible.
The worst may be over, and we are probably not beyond saving. We still have choices. We can turn off the blue lights and live together in a complicated reality where words have meaning and stupidity is dismissed out of hand. I’m moving on and not holding my breath.