Are we still too busy being entertained by our own downfall to fully consider it, even now, four years after the unthinkable happened and during a pandemic? Or is imminent danger as much make believe as our mythical former greatness, our exceptional, self-made soul that systematically excises all those who make our success possible while exalting the freedom to choose our own destiny?
We’re the Statue of Liberty, the torch, and the light, a bundle of awesome and a feedback loop of idealism that often precludes self-awareness.
Whatever it takes, we take it before someone else does.
Take the eyeballs!
Take the words!
Take the democracy!
One day, all this will be yours, my child. You deserve the world but do beware of those possessed with curiosity, asking the questions no one wants to ask and holding words accountable. In the current anti-intellectual climate where a shouty POTUS with restless tweeting thumbs either propagandizes or antagonizes with vague language, short sentences, and typos, curiosity is hella unwelcome. Bizarre no longer bats an eyelid. Drinking bleach was never a good idea though, that’s why there’s a pictogram on the bottle, usually a skull and cross bones. It doesn’t mean bleach is pirate whisky, it means it can kill you if you ingest it.
Platforms turned industrial versions of The Apprentice where hopefuls compete for eyeballs, coached by an army of self-styled guru parasites feeding off the most desperate dreams and even deeper insecurities. Focus on the disenfranchised, the erased, and the fearful and make them feel like they belong so you can milk them for every last shred of dignity they have. And so we pilfered, purloined, and plundered the human heart and the dictionary with impunity. If Alex Jones can declare being honest is his superpower and Trump can pride himself on doing a terrific job then so can we if we damn well fucking please.
You’re the CEO of your own shit show now.
Look at me, hopefuls bleat in unison, look at me, me, me. Platforms promised anyone with an internet connection and a device the digital American dream and anointed us all as creators and writers, terms now as vague as the Great that makes up the G in MAGA or the A of again, that mythical golden age no one can date or define.
And so we turned our existential angst, financial desperation, and last creativity over to content aggregators whose algorithms dictate whether or not we might eat, pay a bill, or make rent. Many artisans defected to the content assembly line recommended by their grifter of choice, churning out shocker after shocker, rant after rant, and illusion after illusion while bragging about being inspirational figures. Those who had no qualms about tapping into a zeitgeist of unprecedented obfuscation, distraction, and confusion took over whole ecosystems; those who had qualms came to the conclusion that coffee is cheaper than food and an effective appetite suppressant, at least until it begins to give you ulcers. At some point, many qualms were lost in transit, too.
Predatory capitalism isn’t designed to help anyone thrive unless you promise others you can help them survive. Imagine going to bed knowing you’re making a living out of enabling Donald Trump. Redesigns and new legalese all over the internet should give us all pause for thought. Tech is going for granny panties, not a thong. Then again, do you blame the hammer for your broken fingers, the hole in the wall, and the roof of your house collapsing?
Honesty divorced accountability long ago. Honesty is telling it like it is, or rather, like it trends, honesty is Alex Jones, honest is anything but self-evident and implied. Instead, honesty is the pizza base you get charged for because it wasn’t included in the price but the cook gave up and threw tomato sauce and a bunch of questionable toppings into a box instead. Good luck trying to make a meal out of something that looks and smells like a health hazard. If you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, maybe don’t rub your eyeballs with it. And wash your hands because the ‘rona is roaming.
Accountability died from clickbait poisoning.
Abuzz with one lone, familiar-looking fly, the soggy, smelly cardboard box that is American democracy is streaming live online, growing green fuzz and inviting us to subscribe to its membership platform for exclusive content and candids. Moral mold is a brand, spiritual bankruptcy is another, and philosophy adapts to whatever is most needed at any given time. Current trend: avert your eyes with a stiff upper lip, bite your tongue and bide your time.
The power of repetition will wear most anyone down until you tune out. Only social media is designed not to let us, with algorithms skewering our eyeballs around the clock to maximize engagement that triggers emotional reactions that get us and keep us down. Meanwhile, scammers continue to preach self-empowerment through entitlement. In theory, believing you deserve everything your heart desires is the quickest way to manifest it. In practice, look at Donald Trump.
If you’re not a little disturbed by now then I am failing you. In a few weeks, we can laugh together at the abundance of caution of an immigrant turned citizen turned expat turned paranoid motherfucker and there’s nothing I’ve wanted more that this release in the last two years. I yearn for the utter embarrassment of having entertained the possibility of my history books coming back to life in America, of all places. When I began to consider the uncanny parallels between depression and fascism, I thought I was losing my mind.
Instead, I lost my words again for another year.
Hanging on to words when the zeitgeist has robbed them of meaning is hard.
Disinhibited greed and grift have turned platforms for connection, dialogue, and collaboration into arenas where pummeling reason into a pulp is a sport. Sensationalism and schadenfreude buttress individual and corporate media empires now.
The media public has turned public media, broadcasting to all against sundry donations like exposure, a coffee bean to suck on, and that very first hit of possibility that comes with seeing your name in print somewhere other than on your tax return. Many of us became convinced of our own importance because we suddenly had a byline on a screen we rent yet very little heart or courage to honor it with. And so we made do by turning ourselves into freak show personas in the hope of being visible to someone other than ourselves, perchance a celebrity like those we love to opine about, those who seem to have it all and deserve knocking down a peg or two.
Predictably, mooching celebrity is a niche but Perez Hilton you’re not.
No respect, no respite, no relief for the cultural machine, greed is never sated so grift never sleeps. The cycle of production is continuous, create and be counted, you, countless content cogs of the omnishambolic clusterfuck that is the masked orange being squeezed for maximum ROI for as long as we possibly can, until the last drop, until it wears an orange jump suit and transmogrifies into a human-sized cheese puff. Until then, stay angry, stay fearful, stay greedy and make sure you meta-meta-meme yourself into oblivion. For extra virtue-signaling points, keep sharp by ranting at Trump on Twitter even though he doesn’t know you exist, little fly.
Dehumanization is almost complete unless we somehow manage to contain it.
Things no longer have to happen to be true; it is enough for the screen to say or print they did happen or are happening. The more surrogates you have, the better it works. If you can spin a good yarn, others will add their words to yours, unbidden. Desperation dispenses with due diligence when the pitch is convincing. Who has never ordered a useless piece of tat from the internet or succumbed to some BOGOF offer on something that turned out to suck twice as much for half the price? We dream of a quick fix as much as we dream of a good deal because American reality doesn’t exactly set you up for success. There is no universal health care and education costs a fortune when it’s not downright fraudulent, i.e. Trump University. Same guy as the steaks and the tower and the continuous multimedia broadcast that started on Jan 20, 2017.
Stay tuned is the catchphrase traumatizing a planet, forever implanting Donald Trump into our brains.
You may not have TV but you have social media. It is enough. You cannot get away from the zeitgeist even if you only look at your cell phone once a day. I’m a concerned person who reads news notifications out loud. It isn’t an endearing trait. I do not want to be one of those people who saw the future but, either way, time has come to shut up about it so this is my last hurrah. No one wants to be writing the same thing for two years without a single plot twist. So far, there have been none. Not even the pandemic could rein in greed and grift.
What have we created? To what end? Are we too far gone?
Every single aspect of the human experience has been commodified, branded, and traded for clicks and bucks in the pursuit of influence, fame, and fortune until the majority of users — you and I and everyone we know — bought into the belief we were on the cusp of something life-changing.
So then we went ahead and made it happen.
Are we really ready for the big reveal? Sneak preview, anyone?
Based on what trends on social media, Trump embodies who we often are.
Sure, scapegoating culture, media, and tech is tempting and immediately gratifying but no platform ever shackles you to its digital properties or produces your content for you. Platforms host and aggregate and distribute whatever maximizes audience engagement and profitability. Your product is your responsibility.
What came first? The hammer or the grabby fingers?
Over the last four years, the dominant discourse has echoed the megaphone braying ways of Donald Trump, crass, branded to the hilt, repetitive until lies become so familiar they lull you into a false sense of security. Staying on brand and on message is key to wearing people’s resistance down.
Accountability is dead. Much of social media is a repository for everything we’ve chosen to magnify because we hope it would make us rich and known. As a result, society became poorer, less articulate, less critical, and less empathetic. Although we’re communicating more than ever before, we aren’t yet able to have the conversations we need to because our worn out, overwhelmed brains cannot cope with more chaos. It’s easier to pretend it’s business as usual, at least until people die. And they already have. Is there something we can still do right here, right now, before it’s too late? We can’t know if it works until we try. The personal has never not been political. Once every four year, our vote is our voice but the words this voice speaks and amplifies and abides by every single day is who we really are as a society, a democracy, a country.
The page is a mirror. If you don’t like what you see, write better words.
Or live with the consequences of the ones you chose.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For everything else, deets in bio.