Tuesday, November 22, 2016

on staying woke

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

It's been two weeks since the United States held its breath, pulled the lever, and committed plebicide. I know I'm not the only one for whom hopping on Twitter has been like poking my head into a hive of agitated and extremely pessimistic wasps. It can be overwhelming, all this news of all these unhatched catastrophes pecking at their shells. The Muslim registry, which might still be on. The promotion of cronies and/or bigots to cabinet positions. The newfound bullishness of white nationalists. The tweets from President-Elect Trump himself, which suggest there's very little chance of him actually rising to the occasion and taking his new job seriously.

The people promulgating this information understand the cumulative effect of it (they wouldn't be tweeting so frenetically if it wasn't making them crazy) and occasionally take a break from retweeting another media personality's admonition not to normalize authoritarianism/fascism/racism to urge their friends and followers to practice self-care: if it's getting to be too much, step away. Unplug. Take a break from the news, eat something sweet, hop on Netflix for a while, try to think about something else.

By the look of things, people are taking the advice. Little by little, my Twitter feed is returning to normal. Amid all the scary shit about Trump's claim that if the POTUS does it, it can't be illegal it can't be a conflict of interest, and the reopening of the investigation into the humanity of Jews, people are tweeting about Steven Universe, Hyperdimension Neptunia, and Overwatch again. After a lull, there's been a resurgence of corgi pics. "1 like = 1 character I like" is the prevailing participatory meme of the day. And did you hear about Kanye throwing shade on Beyoncé? How DARE he. Etc.

Actually, they probably didn't need any encouragement. It would have happened anyway. People don't need to be coaxed into choosing Entertainment over scary shit.

Devil's advocate: maybe self-care isn't what should be advised.

We experience pain and stress for a reason. A Pliocene-era man-ape who remained perfectly calm as a giant snake began coiling around his ankles had a poor chance of passing along his genes. A person who doesn't get an intensely unpleasant feeling when he sets his hand on a stove probably won't be enjoying the use of that hand for long. Distress is feedback, and feedback is only useful to the extent that it is constructively acted upon.

B.F. Skinner is instructive here. You've heard of positive and negative reinforcement before, yes?

Positive reinforcement is easy enough to understand: an organism performs an action; the feedback it receives (often pleasurable) is such that it becomes more likely to repeat that behavior under similar circumstances on a future occasion.

Negative reinforcement (often confused with punishment, which is quite different) is the elicitation of behavior in response to a painful or unpleasant stimulus. Taking aspirin to relieve a headache is an example of negative reinforcement. So is turning off the news when it makes you anxious for the future.

Closing the browser midway through an article about the likelihood of Trump reneging on the Paris Agreement and opening up Steam is convergence of positively and negatively reinforced behavior.

As long as a President Trump can expect more people to be watching and blogging about Game of Thrones than observing his activities and giving his performance the feedback it deserves, why should he care what any of us think?

If, when Trump occupies the Oval Office, his politics are just as odious as they've appeared in the hypothetical distance, you may wish to push back against them. That's understandable. But to do that, you must embrace that icky feeling instead of avoiding it. You need to be stressed. You need to be worried. You need to feel sick and sad. And you can't give yourself an easy out. Burn your ships behind you. Cancel Netflix. Uninstall Steam. Make Trump and the fallout of Trumpism the sole dish of your media diet. See what ideas and strategies for resistance and change you come up with when Trump is not only intolerable to you, but inescapable. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all—and if you remove the impetus, you obviate the action.

Let's see how important all of this really is to you.

For the record, I am absolutely not practicing what I preach.

As I type this, I've got Dragonball Z Abridged on in the background. When I wrap this up I plan to catch up on the two episodes of Bob's Burgers I missed on Sunday. And then, who knows, I'll probably catch up on the new issues of Batman and Suicide Squad. I will be doing this instead of making phone calls, writing letters, or checking the calendar to see if there are any rallies or town hall meetings I can attend. Because cartoons are what I know. Because the implosion of Western liberalism goes away when I'm watching cartoons.

Because America's dominant ideology isn't progressivism, conservatism, capitalism, nationalism, or even Trumpism. Entertainment is our guiding principle. (Why else would CNN treat presidential and midterm elections like EPSN covers the NFL playoffs? How else could a reality TV buffoon like Donald Trump become a viable candidate for Commander in Chief?)

The most pressing question of the 21st century isn't "how will we deal with climate change?" or "how will we keep the global order from violently destabilizing?" or "how will we achieve a greater measure of social and economic equality?" The answers to all of these depend our solution to the riddle: "why should we act—how can we act—when inaction is more immediately rewarding?"

How can anyone be expected to stay woke when they're encased in a cultural apparatus designed to keep them inside and asleep?

Prove me wrong. Wake me up.


  1. Occasional reader of the blog here, Patrick.

    The Frankfurt School is all the rage these days, but when it comes to Trump I think it's worth taking Benjamin's ideas about the evil of the aestheticization of politics.

    Having spent my formative years in Latin America before coming to the US of A as an adult, I can tell you that I find this Huxlerian fear that what we love will take us, listless, down the tube to our (political & otherwise) doom to be misplaced.

    Games are great, Reality TV is always on, but then, like middle-class Argentinians in 2001, one day you wake up and there's no food in the fridge, your paper currency isn't accepted anymore and the nice couple next door is on the streets... burning buses.

    This "waking up" might come late, say, as late as Berlin 1945 or Chile in 1973. But it always comes.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. I'll admit I had to run a search on Walter Benjamin. The implications of what I'm reading are chilling.

      I don't see why Huxley's admonitions can't be taken along with Benjamin's observations—particularly now that we've got a President-elect whose campaign began as a proxy renewal of his reality TV show. I do worry the media will find it more profitable to present him as though he were some outsized cartoon character than an irresponsible commander-in-chief, and that the Netflix-watching public will conflate his image on their screens with the villains of all the other entertaining stories of human conflict they consume. That politics occupies the same "layer" of public life as TV.

      My fears are often misplaced. I'm happy when they are.

      I don't fear we'll never wake up, but sleeping too late can be its own disaster.

      Thanks for reading, A!