We Need to Defund Dumb
A culture of mediocrity is holding America back. Enough!
People online chewing up people more famous than them is a blood sport that still powers the internet despite the pandemic and despite civil unrest during an election year. If you too are experiencing an acute case of mediocrity fatigue, you can thank algorithms and America’s endless appetite for sensationalistic garbage that floods social media regardless of where you are in the world.
The girth of the online garbage patch is proportional to the country’s size and corresponding greed. Then again, what else could we possibly expect from a culture that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency?
Since 2016, anti-intellectualism has intensified to unprecedented levels while media outlets, platforms, social media marketers and influencers have all been lining their pockets with the proceeds of outrage. As CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves candidly told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016 before his comments angered some people, Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” And what’s damn good for TV is damn good for the web, too.
Capitalism only cares about bottom lines, not democracy. Victor Pickard, associate professor at UPenn’s Annenberg School for Communication sums the situation up succinctly: “Donald Trump’s election exposed structural pathologies in America’s media system”.
Extreme commercialism has a lot to answer for.
If greed is eating the internet one pair of eyeballs at a time, it’s simply because making America dumber pays. Trump and his ilk are playing an entire internet for suckers. Although media wunderkind and all-round in-your-face celebrity Alex Jones recently exposed one of the formulas that has made them so popular, no one batted an eyelid.
“My superpower is being honest,” he boasted, staking claim to the truth despite being a noted purveyor of disinformation, or, as the Trumpian term goes, ‘fake news.’
But Honest Jones is only the tip of the clickbait fatberg clogging up the internet. We now live in a world where words have become their antonym, as illustrated daily by POTUS who is never not doing a ‘great’ and ‘terrific’ job, at least according to himself.
Even outlets and platforms once synonymous with editorial quality, integrity, and accountability have lowered the intellectual discourse to better fit — or, rather, serve — the Trump age. The spectrum is broad and contains multitudes of echo chambers. On the one end, you have the NYT running the Cotton op-ed calling for the use of military force against anti-racism protestors and on the other, you have opinion-havers gleefully pulling down other opinionators from the pedestals they had previously placed them upon.
Much like America has the president it deserves, it has the cultural references it deserves, too, i.e. people who have no claim to fame other than fame itself and millions of hangers-on attempting to become famous by riding their coat tails in a constant feedback loop of mind-numbing mediocrity.
Props be to the dude bros who hopped on the philosophy bandwagon when it had a moment with the Stoics but what a pity many remained wannabe thinkers recycling the Greeks instead of becoming thought leaders in their own right like, say, Alain de Botton or Noam Chomsky.
For all their expounding about the art of living, the dude bros do surprisingly little intellectual heavy lifting. In contrast, the formidable Maria Popova remains relentless in her pursuit of interestingness with Brain Pickings, a bottomless repository of interestingness that never wastes anyone’s time. Her site is 13 years old, carries no advertising, and is entirely ready-supported while making content available for free to all.
Popova is an outlier though.
The hallmark of America’s consumerist culture remains a collective failure of curiosity on a scale that is hard to quantify.
The problem is us: We like our internet to tell us what we want to hear. Covering up lack of knowledge and the absence of reflection or critical thinking with wild imaginings is routine. And sometimes, American life gets hyperreal and you end up with Space Force, a show and a branch of the US military but Netflix trademarked the name before the US military could.
Life is no longer stranger than fiction, it is indistinguishable from fiction.
What’s real? What’s not? Who cares? Just be the loudest or get there first. Ultimately, you crush someone else or they crush you. Capitalism only loves winners because even their downfall is lucrative. Success doesn’t stop paying when it turns to failure. Instead, your failure becomes someone else’s success but, alas, you don’t get royalties.
This alone explains why reflection and debate are so rare online while loud virtue signaling is a quick ticket to riches.
Disposable content won’t get you a book deal or a Pulitzer but if it trends and offends, you get paid. As Jessica Valenti argues, not all opinions matter and yet much online content has been pure rage against the dying of the spotlight as online typists scramble to remain relevant despite being upstaged by the news.
People who are the news and make the news aren’t used to being denied attention so they’re doing all they can to hang on to it, including turning on their own. If you want eyeballs on your words, pick any celebrity and eviscerate them in print, pointing out how disingenuous their narrative is even though you’ve never met them and you don’t have access.
What do you need facts for when you have opinions?
And so the online supply of controversy, outrage, and schadenfreude continues apace despite the political climate. Clickbait garbage by garbage people about garbage people is what pays, dialogue and social change do not, certainly not when your livelihood is predicated on maintaining the status quo.
White supremacy combined with capitalism is one hell of a drug.
To the internet, it’s as powerful as a Fentanyl patch. It kills brain cells on contact, assuming you make it past the twenty-seven two-line paragraphs with eye-popping formatting designed to rile up the skimmers as much as the rubberneckers.
For example, The Daily Mail doesn’t even write headlines anymore.
The headline is a paragraph and, most of the time, that’s all people ever read before commenting. Although the site literally sucks your brains out through your eyeballs with mind-numbing garbage and they’re not big on fact-checking or reaching out, the Daily Mail is still, regrettably, journalism.
The bar is that low but social media goes even lower.
How personas picking personas apart based on ‘big feels’ and opinions and a great big orgy of white envy can be worth anyone’s time at the moment boggles the mind. Then again, the consumer craves entertainment and so the clickbait producers produce.
Why come to the internet to inform and educate yourself when you can be entertained instead? Cue ‘newstainment’ or ‘infotainment’, a uniquely American take on turning current affairs into a spectacle.
News isn’t entertainment.
Save for the oddities which every single news agency and news outlet offers, news isn’t entertainment, save for one notable exception: Entertainment news, i.e. what’s going with actors, artists, musicians, and occasionally writers when they hit the big time, their words turn into movies, and they go on social media and let rip.
Thanks to the internet, we’re all media, whether we get paid or not. We all feed our data into platforms who then use it as a product, occasionally conducting experiments with democracy. In the EU, we have Brexit. In the US, we have Trump. In both cases, social media emboldened deceit, lies, and manipulation. And in both cases, social media speaks fluent swamp.
Free speech dictates we do not de-platform dumb but we can all do something much, much more powerful instead: Defund it.
Once the money stops pouring in, dumb will stop pouring out.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.