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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.


Oct. 9th, 2010 08:18 pm (UTC)
Oct. 9th, 2010 08:18 pm (UTC)
Have you ever read a book by Otto Bettman, The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible? It's a wonderful corrective to the "people and things were so much BETTER way back when..." mindset.
Oct. 9th, 2010 09:46 pm (UTC)
This is really true. I have to admit, though, that I DO really like that song, but more because it's really fucking catchy than that it's SO RIGHT OMG.
Oct. 9th, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC)
You have expressed something I only vaguely felt. Thank you.
Oct. 10th, 2010 01:38 am (UTC)
Oct. 10th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
The Miniver Cheevy Project
I want to write a series of stories about Miniver Cheevy types from our time who take one-way trips to the past so they can live the _right_ way.

The stories will be told from the point of view of people living in the past who suffer when the Cheevys show up--for example, a black kid living in 1950s Alabama when the future people give ray guns to the Klan, or a medieval lord who has to watch the future people buy serfs from the king--serfs whom they treat worse than serfs were usually treated--with nuclear bombs.
Oct. 10th, 2010 07:35 am (UTC)
Re: The Miniver Cheevy Project
You might want to read Alfred Bester's short story "Hobson's Choice".
Oct. 10th, 2010 09:10 am (UTC)
These are definitely good points to keep in mind.
Oct. 10th, 2010 12:35 pm (UTC)
Dead on. I live in China, and everybody who can get out of the rural life and move to the city does so. It's not just jobs and prosperity, though that's obviously a big part of it; it's also just extremely hard and boring living in the countryside here for any extended period of time. The kids are all more into computer games, milk tea, and finding boyfriends/girlfriends than mixing mud with straw to fix the outhouse again, boiling water with orange peels so that it's drinkable, or marrying some other kid you barely know at 20 and having kids at 21. As well they should be! In the US I notice that my friends who pine for some kind of rustic bullshit existence could do it if they wanted to, but they're just captivated by the idea; and indeed they're invariably the people I know most addicted to modern conveniances. I think that the modern world has some gigantic problems, but in a lot of ways it's an Epicurean paradise. Knowledge is awesome, lesiure time is awesome, and a significant portion of the world has finally proven Hobbes wrong about that whole "nasty, brutish, etc" bit. I'm a leftist but I find this kind of pastoralist, anti-intellectual bullshit is, if anything, more common on our side of the aisle. I used to buy into it myself.

-Dave SA
Oct. 10th, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)
You are so not wrong.
Oct. 12th, 2010 06:52 pm (UTC)

Good commentary, as usual. But this begs the question: If one's job requires one to move chunks of data from folder A to folder B most of the day, interrupted sporadically by having to fill out menial paperwork verifying said data movement occurred, might one still be entitled to say "This is fucking stupid"?


flavored with age
Gun-totin', Chronic-smokin' Hearse Initiator
Ludic Log


Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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