Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fiddle, Burn

The impending collapse of Western civilization weighs heavily upon me, readers. I'm not talking about the financial crisis: it's clearly a symptom of the problem, but it's not necessarily the means of our destruction. It's perfectly possible, likely even, that we'll weather another two or three major recessions before the shit really hits the fan. I'm more concerned about my overall sense that the jig is up. For the past few centuries or so, we've been in a growth model whereby we consume now under the assumption that the next generation will find it easier to clean up our mess because there will be more of them. In fact, a few days ago, I was sitting in a stall in the men's room reading an editorial in the Wall Street Journal (always a mistake, whether you're in the men's room or somewhere else) wherein the paleocon editorial board argued that spending stimulus funds on family planning was misguided because it would slow the population growth rate, which would cause economic problems. The problem with this sort of thinking (aside from the self-evident truth that anything the WSJ editorial board says has to be wrong) is that it assumes a world of infinite resources. If, however, you live in a world of finite resources and you count on eternal growth for continued success, you will eventually come to a point where the resources can't sustain the growth, and then, well: Bernard Madoff.

But, as I said, it's not the financial crisis per se that has me concerned. It's the unrecognized moral/aesthetic crisis. And, believe me, I'm not talking about sexual morality here. Sexual morality needs to be a private matter: it needs to be entirely off the table when we're talking about matters of public policy. It's a great thing to talk about on your blog or with your friends when you're out ogling the fresh meat, but the last thing any of us needs is some diaper-wearing Senator telling us who to fuck. (Not Senator Huggies, by the way.)

The easiest way for me to discuss the real moral/aesthetic crisis of the early twenty-first century is through the example of reality television. I don't know whether our collective attention spans are long enough for anyone to remember the early days of, say, Survivor, but I'm pretty sure (or I'm just deluding myself) that people tuned in primarily to point and laugh at Richard Hatch and company. A million dollars was on the line, surely, because that was the minimum compensation required to allow someone to humiliate himself or herself so thoroughly in front of so many people. Schadenfreude is, to be sure, an ugly emotion, but if we're all pointing and laughing together, then we at least haven't lost our moral compass. We all know that there are plenty of idiots out there, but if we're all laughing at them, then we outnumber the idiots, right? (Don't answer that.)

I don't know when the shift happened. I first noticed it during the first season of The Apprentice, I think. We had people being every bit as rotten and ridiculous as the people being voted off the island, and a lot of people were still laughing at them, but it seemed that more people wanted to be them. And if you look at, say, The Real Housewives of Orange County, as the seasons have passed, the people being filmed have gotten more and more vapid and morally reprehensible, but they appear to be role models for a significant amount of the audience. When I first saw the series (and its spin-offs), I thought that perhaps Bravo was subtly undermining the excesses of capitalism, but it's become clear that it's now celebrating those same excesses.

Now I'll be the first to admit that the hero worship of reality TV subjects is personally vexing to me because I find it harder and harder to watch, for example, Bromance as harmless entertainment, when it becomes yet another example of people wanting fame for the sake of fame. (Though I suppose they also want it for the sake of wealth.) If everyone recognizes that Brody Jenner is ridiculous, the show is a guilty pleasure. When everyone wants to be him, the pleasure goes away, and there's nothing left but guilt. And maybe some outrage. But my personal vexation isn't really the point: the point is that we appear to have a full generation of people who think that it's reasonable to expect something for nothing. And that sort of person, no matter how many of them you have, can't be the next generation that pays for the last generation. These days we all seem to have consumption down, but if you never produce anything, consumption eventually becomes problematic.

All of which was an overly long prelude to the real issue I've been grappling with. I've always subscribed to the notion that it's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. The corollary to that notion is that it's not okay to become part of the tidal wave going the wrong way and that it's not even okay to just move inland: we're meant to struggle against error. We're meant to do what we can to stop the lemmings from going over the cliff.

But at some point, it becomes hopeless, doesn't it? If you can't stop something bad from happening to everyone, surely you have the right to keep it from happening to yourself and the people you care about, don't you? If you're a tiny, tiny cog in the financial system, it doesn't seem to make much sense to try to do the right thing in the hope that you'll delay the collapse by a few seconds if you have the ability to insulate yourself from the effects of the collapse instead.

Indeed, if you have the ability to go your own way, then one could argue that you have the moral responsibility to do so. Or at least that to do so is a moral good. If, for example, you find a nice farm in some place like rural Virginia or Pennsylvania, move to it, and create the ability to sustain yourself on the fruits of your land and your labor, then maybe, when the world descends into chaos, you'll be in a situation to save some of our accumulated knowledge and to provide a haven for some who would otherwise starve or be forced into a sort of Mad Max sub-human existence.

And, heck, if it turns out that the collapse isn't imminent, then you've still got a nice piece of property, a quiet pastoral life, and -- if you've been industrious about gathering disciples -- a group of like-minded people to hang out with and fuck. Really, there are much worse existences, and if nothing else, you'll be thirty percent smarter for getting away from the reality television.


Will said...

I'm not so sure the moral crisis in public policy et al is unrecognized. I think some of our leaders have finally understood that things cannot remain as they are.

The crisis has come, in my opinion, from people with no humanistic moral center rising (or getting themselves elected fraudulently) to the top and then giving the worst possible example. This is happening in virtually all segments of society: government leaders lying to their countries and running rampantly corrupt careers; religious leaders practicing what they condemn and fostering bigotry, contempt for their fellow human beings; financial leaders betraying our trust and embezzling millions and billions of dollars entrusted to them for their own bottomless gratification.

What we need is not a religious revival--the stuff is far too powerful as it is--but a revival of a sense of our obligation to our fellow beings, a simple morality that is community-oriented, the community being mankind.

asspanther said...

Ah, when you do get that monastery going I'd love to be one of your monks.