October 9th, 2010

retro fever


There is a tendency in contemporary thought, sort of a hybrid of white guilt, anti-intellectualism, and free-floating postmodern anxiety, that I like to call Bad Religion Syndrome, because it is perfectly encapsulated in the lyrics to that band's song "21st Century Digital Boy":

"I don't know how to live, but I've got a lot of toys."

Basically, this theory -- which, uncommon to most such neurotic self-delusions, is as commonly encountered on the left as on the right -- holds that modern urban citizens have lost sight of what makes people human; that they have become 'soft' and 'weak' and incapable of doing any 'real' or 'meaningful' work and so they distract themselves with meaningless fripperies like the internet, the iPod, and whatever other cultural or technological obsession holds sway at the moment.

Like most such manifestations of un-reflective nostalgia, this one is total bullshit. Here's why.

1. IT'S SELF-CENTERED. Folks, there are almost seven billion people on the planet Earth, and most of them do way more work than they need to. No one cares that you're not out there plowing or putting up shingles, and no one should. There's someone else picking up your slack, believe me. Work has whatever meaning you choose to give it, and no form of human endeavor is any more real or vital than any other.

2. IT'S PATRONIZING. Human adore leisure, and they always have. It's one of the reasons that authoritarian organizations -- religions, governments, and corporations -- have had to come up with bullshit rules and ideas to make people think that hard work is virtuous, because they want someone to do it, and they don't want it to be them. If work was so great, rich people would keep it to themselves. Assuming that some poor African goat-herd or Sri Lankan fisherman is purer and more noble than you, and wouldn't like to be dicking around his hut playing Angry Birds on his iPad, is patronizing, gullible, fetishistic, and borderline racist.

3. IT'S SHORT-SIGHTED. People living in a society tend to develop the skills those societies need them to have in order to survive. Getting mad at yourself for not being able to farm is like getting mad at a 16th-century farmer for not being able to drive. It's not just that the farmer didn't have access to a car; it's that him being able to drive would have fulfilled no social function. Mostly, what we need people to do is consume things, and we're very good at that. And if that makes you feel spiritually empty, fine; go learn to be a blacksmith. Just don't expect anyone to think you're noble for learning what is in our time and place a completely useless skill.

4. IT'S AHISTORICAL. Leaving aside the fact that people in more primitive societies loved leisure as much as we do, there's also the fact that this argument reduces them almost to the level of automatons. Primitive people were just as smart as we are, but they were remarkably ignorant; they stayed in the same occupations for generations not because they thought there was any nobility in it, but because they were forced to by their masters, and kept from doing anything else by a forcible lack of education.

5. IT'S IGNORANT. Yes, people are fatter now, largely because food is cheap and easy to get and socioeconomic fluctuations have made it so we live much more sedentary lives. But are we weaker and softer than our forebears? Not hardly. We are bigger, stronger, more physically fit; we have better hygiene and know more about medicine; we have access to better weapons and are more capable in hand-to-hand combat; we even know more about survival, terrain, and other essential skills because of, not in spite of, our ample leisure time. The average contemporary American, who has probably been hiking, visited foreign countries, and read about/seen shows about all sorts of natural conditions -- and who knows a lot about health, hygiene and medical care -- stands a far better chance of survival in any kind of situation than a medieval peasant who never read a book or traveled more than 10 miles from his home his entire life. A life which, by the way, was far shorter and more plagued with disease, pain, agony and filth than most Americans can even imagine.

So, to recap: shut up.