Bobos in the Panopticon; or, Why Does the New York Times Hate Freedom?

American culture abounds with knee-jerk displays of patriotism.  Fourth of July fireworks, Presidents’ Day, elections, baseball games, football games, gun shows, the Country Music Awards, pep rallies, NRA conventions, even the state fair — all come with flag-waving, anthem-singing, and the implicit belief that America is the best because we have the most “freedom.”  But does this assumption comport with facts, or is it a reductive, even jingoistic oversimplification?  The naïve citizen would claim that freedom means the ability to choose the direction your life will take, or a lack of undue burdens like oppression and bigotry.  These definitions create a false binary, putting freedom in the “good” category while consigning so-called “evils” like slavery, totalitarianism, unjust laws, bigotry, poverty and lack of opportunity to the “bad” category.  That kind of black-and-white thinking might fly in kindergarten, but it simply won’t do for the sophisticated readers of the Paper of Record!  They demand nuanced, rigorous thought.

New York Times editorialists are ready to give it to them.  And for most, that can mean only one thing.  For “freedom” to be a worthwhile concept, it has to be paradoxical in some way.  Like, maybe it’s simultaneously the best and the worst thing that ever happened to humanity…or maybe every advance in freedom perversely contains the seeds of un-freedom within itself.  Or wait, check this out.  What if “freedom” is an aporetic cultural space always in the process of deconstructing itself, thus showing itself to be a logocentric construct engaged in a futile rhetorical attempt to deny its own self-referentiality and ontological hollowness?  Yeah, that’s more like it!  Now you’re thinking like an intellectual!  This scholarly tradition of thinking weird thoughts about freedom has many instantiations, but for a conveniently recent example, we can turn to Kurt Andersen’s “The Downside of Liberty,” published this Independence Day.  In the essay Andersen, a novelist, explains how 60s ideals of social equality caused rampant social inequality.

He begins thus:  “This spring I was on a panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. An audience member asked a question: Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?”

I know what you’re thinking:  “That is a complex question, to which a multifaceted answer is required.  Any response must account for the existence of an entrenched system of government that rewards politicians who can please wealthy donors, thus ensuring economic reforms that benefit the less fortunate are never enacted.  It should also consider the ideology shared by Americans — our desire to believe that poverty can be overcome with nothing more than hard work and grit.  After all, it’s easy to see the injustice of sexism and racism, while naïvely believing that income inequality could be solved if only those darn poor people would work harder.  Further complicating matters, the people calling for greater rights are rarely the same individuals as those demanding laissez-faire economics and tax cuts for the rich; the reason a political party might succeed with one part of their program but not another are multifarious….”  Blah, blah, blah.  You’re just a typical American for thinking like that.  You fall back on the whole “life is complicated” thing to preserve your pro-freedom bias, whereas if you could just understand the paradoxicality of the American weltenschauung, you wouldn’t be worried about the supposed intricacies of history.

Kick all that complexity to the curb.  Nuance, as practiced by the New York Times editorialist, is the enemy of the complex.  Thus Andersen didn’t need to go through the elaborate though process indicated in the previous paragraph, and it’s a good thing he was there to save the day.  “I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room.”  Humblebrag alert!  If someone had an epiphany, and it depressed that many people, it must be nuanced as hell.

“What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.”

This makes perfect sense.  The Bush tax cuts are an example of extreme individualism, but so are women’s rights (what do women have in common? they’re all individuals), gay rights (like women’s lib except more so, because gay people are eccentric), sex (you’re having sex with whoever you want, instead of letting the community have a say), drugs (which are legal now), rock ‘n’ roll (form of music dedicated to liberating women and gays, as evinced by such protest anthems as “Brown Sugar: Boycott Products of Industrial Colonialism” and “Wang Dang, Sweet Marriage Equality”), and ecology (hipsters who just want to look cool like Al Gore while they ride their bicycles to the recycling center; if they get their way, our children won’t have any gas stations or Wal-Marts to work in).  Don’t even get me started on that black president.  How selfish can you be?  A black man sees a plum job that pays $600,000 a year, and immediately has to have it for himself.  Living in a mansion, being driven around by chauffeurs, giving free health care away to millions of people, some of whom are black — they’re all part of Barack Obama’s me-first lifestyle.

“From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal. The document we’re celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — individualism in a nutshell.”  Yes.  Pursuing happiness is only possible in a radically individualist worldview in which society is meaningless and human connection doesn’t exist.  I mean, how am I supposed to enjoy myself with a bunch of undesirables around?  You know who I’m talking about.

“But the Declaration’s author was not a greed-is-good guy: ‘Self-love,’ Jefferson wrote to a friend 38 years after the Declaration, ‘is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.’”  He sounds pretty conflicted.  One day he’s all like, “be free and pursue happiness,” and then another day, 38 years later, he’s all “don’t violate your moral duties to others.”  Make up your mind!  It’s almost like Thomas Jefferson didn’t think there was a huge paradox between being a free citizen and a useful part of a community.  The apparent lack of tension between the two ideas just makes them all the more tense, like estranged lovers trading icy smiles and strained banter at a cocktail party.  Yes, at the center of the DNA of the American Idea is Jefferson’s 38-year struggle between being happy, and not being an inconsiderate jackass.

“Periodically Americans have gone overboard indulging our propensities to self-gratification — during the 1840s, during the Gilded Age, and again in the Roaring Twenties. Yet each time, thanks to economic crises and reassertions of moral disapproval, a rough equilibrium between individualism and the civic good was restored.”  Well, that sums up that 190 years of American history.  And without reading a single book!  If you follow Andersen’s math, you can see that between the 1770s and the 1960s, there were 16 “good” decades (during which most Americans were busy earning a living, raising kids, doing housework and spending time with loved ones) and only three “bad” decades.  Human nature was 81 percent good!  What went wrong?

Let’s look at the transition in more detail.  “Consider America during the two decades after World War II…. Just as beatniks were rare and freakish, so were proudly money-mad Ayn Randian millionaires… Sex outside marriage was shameful, beards and divorce were outré — but so were boasting of one’s wealth and blaming unfortunates for their hard luck.”  Well, now I’m torn.  I value individualism and beards, but I can’t dismiss Andersen’s point without doing extensive research on the relationship between the beatnik movement and Ayn Rand. {Does extensive research}  Hey guys, I just found out that in the two decades after World War II, Vibram 5-Finger shoes were almost nonexistent.  That does it, I’m going back to the 50s!

“My conservative Republican father thought marginal income tax rates of 91 percent were unfairly high, but he and his friends never dreamed of suggesting they be reduced below, say, 50 percent.”  Your father sounds like a truly selfless person.  I mean, a Republican in the 50’s, and he didn’t want marginal tax rates on people like him to be reduced by more than 40 percentage points?!  Let’s not set our standards too high.  I’m sure a list of things Kurt Andersen’s father never dreamed of suggesting (cunnilingus, white caddies at a golf course, vegetable dishes other than succotash) would be enlightening indeed.

“When I was growing up in Omaha…”

You know whatever comes after this is going to be amazing.  Sometimes I’m reading the front page and I think to myself, It’s all too depressing.  Wars, jihads, Joe Paterno, climate change.  There has to be an answer, I say to myself.  If only a baby boomer would share some anecdotes about his childhood in Omaha, surely the world could be healed.

“…rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees.”  This is truly an inspiration to contemplate.  A bunch of conservative Nebraskans, tactfully refraining from taking any more than the bare minimum they needed for a mansion, servants, two late-model cars and (I assume) a vacation home.  Just like the Native Americans used every part of the buffalo, the traditional Omahan used every part of the palatial home.  It’s like a real-life Real Housewives of Omaha, except realer.  Please tell me there’s a memoir in the works.

“Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name.”  And I know which one of them I’d rather have around.  I mean, at least investment bankers have the decency not to carve those annoying holes in the walls of bathroom stalls.

“But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed.”  People were wearing assless chaps and growing beards at an incredible rate, and for some reason, this caused politicians to vote in ever lower tax rates for the wealthy, even though it wasn’t the politicians themselves who were wearing the assless chaps.  It was a kind of hedonism contact high, or secondhand depravity.

“Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.”  It reached its apex on January 21st, 2010, when the Supreme court took a break from an enormous gay pride orgy/marijuana rave/Take Back the Night rally to rule that corporations are people.

“People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967.”  Yes.  You see, the U.S. is like a big libertarian coin.  There’s a pot leaf and a condom on one side, Ted Nugent shooting a gun on the other side.  The coin is made of hemp, because it was minted in the 60’s.  It has no monetary value.  The hippies destroyed our currency!

“Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.”  But thanks to the 90s, we’re too slacker-y to do anything about it.  And thanks to the 70s and 80s, we all have lots of pet rocks and Frankie Goes to Hollywood cassette tapes.  Maybe it’s not selfishness that’s the problem, but the existence of decades.  If we could return to the gold standard and institute a binary calendrical numbering system, all our problems would be solved!

Despite the limpid clarity of Andersen’s ideas, he was still forced to explain himself to obtuse members of the public.  Thus this tweet:

Are “good” and “bad” selfishness like “good” and “bad” cholesterol? Maybe if Americans eat more olive oil, we can lower our levels of “bad” selfishness and reduce our risk of arterial plaque, which in this analogy is equivalent to reckless dismantling of the social safety net.  Although I’m still worried about our triglycerides (drone strikes against civilians).

As Andersen’s editorial and tweets prove, we as a society can’t expect to become “free” from racism, sexism and homophobia without paying a terrible cost.  But freedom comes in many forms, each with their own terrifyingly inevitable side effects. National I.D. cards are one example:  Many Americans oppose them.  Who wants to be tracked by some sinister Big Brother-like entity?  Perhaps the real question is, who wouldn’t want to?  After all, we don’t know what we’re missing out on by not requiring them, as Bill Keller explains in “Show Me Your Papers.”  Keller is the former executive editor of the Times, and a regular columnist.  He has drawn criticism for lending support to the Iraq war, but his opinion was shared by “a large and estimable group of writers and affiliations, including, among others, Thomas Friedman,” plus he “wanted to be on the side of doing something,” and besides, he was a dad: “I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter.”  You’re not going to get mad at a dad for being protective, are you?  Anyway, despite any previous errors in judgment, he has the one single qualification necessary for high-profile, elite journalism:  The ability to get lots of articles on the “most e-mailed” and “most blogged about” list.

In this frequently-blogged-about piece, Keller writes that “this country, unlike many other developed democracies, does not require a national identification card, because the same electorate that is so afraid America is being overrun by illegal aliens also fears that we are one short step away from becoming a police state.”  Another paradox!  When will you electorates stop holding completely contradictory opinions?  And don’t give me that line about different members of the electorate disagreeing with each other.  That old excuse.  “I don’t live in xenophobic terror of race-mixing, it was someone else!”

Keller suggests “Americans should master their anxieties about a national identification card.”  He continues, “I understand that the idea of a national ID comes with some chilling history…. Opponents associate national identification cards with the Nazi roundups, the racial sorting of apartheid South Africa, the evils of the Soviet empire. Civil rights groups see in a national ID — especially one that might be required for admission to the voting booth — a shadow of the poll taxes and literacy tests used to deter black voters in the Jim Crow South. More recently, accounts of flawed watch-list databases and rampant identity theft feed fears for our privacy. The most potent argument against an ID is that the government — or some hacker — might access your information and use it to mess with your life.”

Wow, that all sounds pretty convincing.  On the opposing side, “on the subject of privacy, we are an ambivalent nation. Americans — especially younger Americans, who swim in a sea of shared information — are casual to the point of recklessness about what we put online.”  This fact tips the balance in favor of the national ID: You can’t just go around putting all your information out there promiscuously, then say no when someone wants you to put other, different information out there!  Sure, Nazis are bad, and Jim Crow sucked, but consider this:  Everyone already knows that you had a mushroom panini for lunch, and you loved Moonrise Kingdom.  So you’ll share all that with your friends of friends, but not with an all-powerful centralized authority?  I think you’re being just a little hypocritical, and, frankly, kind of a tease.  Besides, “the only way to completely eliminate the risks of a connected world is to burn your documents, throw away your cellphone, cancel your Internet service and live off the grid.”  If you’ve already done that, and you’re reading this blog post in the library after a morning of canning wild game in your cabin or whatever (??), screw you!  You’re even worse than the Facebook people.  What’s the point of being so obsessed with privacy?  It’s fringe-y and offputting, and besides, you haven’t considered the flaw in your plan:  If the U.S. adopts a national ID card, you won’t even be able to vote.

Maybe ID cards aren’t the biggest threat to freedom.  What about authoritarianism?  Blind obedience to an authority figure — whether demanded by a government or freely granted by citizens — is surely one of the most chilling assaults on human liberty.  Unless the authority in question is someone truly worthy, like the President of the USA.  No, not Barack Obama.  A real president, like Jefferson or Lincoln.  In “The Follower Problem,” David Brooks writes that “if you go to the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials in Washington, you are invited to look up in admiration. Lincoln and Jefferson are presented as the embodiments of just authority. They are strong and powerful but also humanized. Jefferson is a graceful aristocratic democrat. Lincoln is sober and enduring.”  James K. Polk is stern and powerful, but with a hint of sensuality in his delicate, long-fingered hands.  William Henry Harrison is massive and rugged — like a comforting father figure who won’t punish you unless you really need to learn a lesson.  Grover Cleveland is boyish, but with the taut,  muscular pecs of a man.

But you won’t find any mouthwatering hunks of man in today’s memorials.  “The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial transforms a jaunty cavalier into a ‘differently abled and rather prim nonsmoker.’”  Yeah! Why should the p.c. police make a statue of FDR in a wheelchair, just because he spent his entire adult life in a wheelchair?  Although, he’s not President Barbie; he doesn’t need to be posed with all his favorite props and accessories.  If every president were memorialized doing the most politically incorrect thing they ever did, the Thomas Jefferson memorial would be very controversial indeed.

On a more general note, “the monuments that get built these days are mostly duds. That’s because they say nothing about just authority. The World War II memorial is a nullity. It tells you nothing about the war or why American power was mobilized to fight it.”  That information isn’t exactly obscure, though.  Is it really the monument’s job to be giving remedial Social Studies lessons?  Its website says it was intended to “commemorate the sacrifice and celebrate the victory,” so perhaps that’s why it failed to do the completely different think Brooks wanted it to do.  Maybe they should get rid of that dumb fountain and have a statue of a nude, muscular FDR bench-pressing Hitler and stomping Emperor Hirohito into the ground.

Artist’s conception: Revised and edited WWII Memorial

But Brooks’s real question is, “why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?”  And he has an answer:  It’s because “we live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.”  Goddamn fuckin’ stories about victims of oppression!  Why must we be subjected to this hegemonic discursive regime that’s constantly constructing narratives in which oppression and racism exist?  As noted deconstructionist David “Derrida” Brooks is all too well aware, we create the reality around us through our linguistic tropes.  So, if we dismantle our narratives about victimization, and construct new narratives about rugged cowboys who ride in on a horse and solve everything, all our troubles will be over!  It’s like Discipline and Punish, crossed with The Secret.  (Or, as Brooks should title the inevitable New York Times bestseller, Bobos in the Panopticon).

Anyway, power is a paradox, because great men have to strive for individual greatness but use it in the service of the little people.  “These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those ‘Question Authority’ bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.”  Or maybe they symbolize an attitude of… questioning authority?  Psychoanalyzing people’s bumper stickers strikes me a a lazy way to figure out what’s going on in their minds.  I hope David Brooks never fills in for Thomas Friedman, or his column will start out “When I was in Cairo during the insurrection, I found myself stuck in traffic on the way to the airport.  Impatient, I happened to notice the bumper sticker of the cab in front of me: ‘If You Can Read This, You Are Too Close.’  This illustrates something I’ve noticed more and more lately.  For the technologically savvy youth of the Arab democracy revolutions, being ‘close’ to one’s fellow citizens is a mixed blessing, at best.  Houston, we have a problem.  Egypt’s young people are turning the lemonade of global communication into the lemons of alienation and social atomization.”  Et cetera.

Because of these rebellious bumper stickers, “you end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.”  Stupid Wall Street Occupiers, standing around in a park, meeting people face to face and having heartfelt conversations about the issues that matter to them!  Can’t they see that that’s just like the Internet?

“To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.”  The idea that one should stop questioning one’s leaders and cultivate the “skill” of being grateful to them is an intriguing one.  But I think Brooks might have plagiarized it from that one part in Jane Eyre where a saintly little girl befriends Jane at boarding school, then dies of Scarlet Fever.

“When I’m gone, Jane… never forget… offshore hiring is essential to a robust American dynamism.”

But the problem isn’t just with followers being bad at following.  In “Why Our Elites Stink,” Brooks suggests there’s a problem with leaders, too.  It’s not that they abandon their ideals.  Instead, “I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.”  Poor people don’t work very much, which is why they don’t make much money.  If someone makes minimum wage, it’s because they work the minimum amount (one nanosecond per week).  Poor people’s kids have to take the bus to a piano instruction facility so crappy, it doesn’t even have a waiting room.

“The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.”  I’ve never noticed before how much I hate the conjunction “but.”  It’s like you can take two ideas that are opposed in some way, stick them together with a “but,” and whichever one comes last somehow sounds more important.  It gets results, too.  Do a Twitter search for David Brooks, and you’ll find a million dingbats like these who seem genuinely enthused by the wit and wisdom of his latest opus.

 Readers like these credit Brooks with provoking “thought,” but his recipe for doing so can be described as follows:
1. Write down a reasonable idea that any civilized person should agree with.
2. Write down a totally insane, ultra-reactionary idea that only Strom Thurmond could love.
3. Hogtie them together with a “but.”
4. Wait for the $30,000 speaking gigs to roll in!
The resulting columns do provoke thought, but only because they articulate conservative talking points in a confusing way.  I haven’t seen this many buts used in the service of regressive ideology since Ebony Anal Sluts Vol. XVIII.  As an example of how deceptive Brooks’s wording can be, look what happens if we reverse that sentence:  “The WASP elites believed in restraint, reticence and service, but they did cruelly ostracize people, refer to rock and roll as ‘jungle music,’ commit marital rape, and avoid whole wheat bread on the grounds that it was “too spicy.”
Thomas Friedman similarly argues (“The Rise of Popularism”) that elites and proles don’t have the same trouble-free relationship they once did.   “Anyone with a cellphone today is paparazzi; anyone with a Twitter account is a reporter; anyone with YouTube access is a filmmaker. When everyone is a paparazzi, reporter and filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure.”  According to Friedman, power is becoming so decentralized that pretty soon we won’t have anyone to lead us, a slippery-slope concern that is similar to wringing one’s hands about who’s going to make the food once everyone in the world goes Freegan.
And it’s not just the young people and sassy Arabs who are doing it:  The populist threat can come from anywhere.  Matthew Bishop, a Bureau Chief for The Economist, makes this clear in a review of Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now!  Bishop likes some of Krugman’s ideas, but he had some issues with the book.  “Longtime readers of Krugman will know there are at least two of him. One is the gifted winner of the Nobel in economic science, respected throughout the academy for his mastery of the dismal science; the other, the populist polemicist and baiter of the right who writes columns in The New York Times. ‘End This Depression Now!’ is a collaborative effort by the two Krugmen.” This makes him a sort of sinister Jekyll and Hyde, a highfalutin’ scientist who condescends to share his ideas directly with the unwashed masses and try to persuade people of things using words.  That guy is even more conflicted than Thomas Jefferson!”Professor Krugman usefully contributes plenty of mainstream economics in support of his stimulus plan and in order to debunk the idea that austerity policies in today’s circumstances can boost an economy by increasing confidence….Yet no opportunity to preach to the choir is missed by the populist Mr. Krugman, nor any chance to mock those he calls the ‘Very Serious People’ who disagree with him…. The book’s preachiness gives those politicians and economists who most need to read this book an easy excuse to ignore it.  Krugman seems to have given up on directly influencing policy makers and mainstream economists, opting instead to appeal over their heads to ‘an informed public.’”  If this so-called “public” is so “informed,” how come they’re reading an economics book that just tells them more about stuff they were already interested in?  They claim to be interested in the issues, but then it turns out they already have opinions about the issues!  Now it just seems like everyone’sconflicted.  This whole enterprise is fraught with conflicts of interest.  Has anyone asked the Ethicist whether it’s ethical to write books?As you can see, a number of problems have arisen since we decided to give people all these rights.  They use them to promote their own agendas.  They use them to question their leaders and write know-it-all tweets.  They use them to read books and decide some beliefs are better than others.  Their natural-born leaders, elite intellectuals, even take advantage of this state of affairs by communicating directly with them!  But there’s one thing even more horrifying than all the rest:  If we’re all equal, we won’t be different enough.  Or maybe we will be, but we won’t be able to tell.That’s the theme of a humorous humorous “Room for Debate” on whether today’s men are manly enough.  You might inquire whether there is, indeed, “room for debate” about whether humans are expressing their gender in a crowd-pleasing enough manner, but that’s because you forgot the beginning of this post.  Conducting your personal life however you want isn’t an innocent choice; it determines the economic policy of the entire nation.  Furthermore, some choices are intensely displeasing to Joel Stein, columnist for Time and author of “Men Need to Rediscover the Don Draper Within.”

“Your dad was manlier than you. His dad was manlier than him. And so on, for all of history back to the Stone Age.”   If that’s the case, the 1800s were a huge fluke.  Condragulations to mankind for getting back on track after that one!

Although come to think of it, most of history is a chronicle of men getting away with wearing dresses by inventing creative names.  It’s like, right, that’s a “toga.”  And you’re not carrying a  purse, it’s a satchel for your wax tablets.  Let me guess, you live in a democracy.  I kind of wish Klein could actually travel back to the Stone Age, so he could witness cavemen eating raw organ meat, dancing, wearing fur, using locally sourced artisanal housewares, and painting the insides of their caves.  He’d be like “these guys are fags,” and they’d be like “Grok hate!  This guy no can hang.  Least fun ever.”

“I’m thrilled with technology, the Enlightenment and feminism.”  I’m glad Stein approves, although he’s so deadpan, he sounds like he’s talking about some gentrification on his block that increased property values.  Indeed, as when a pilates studio and a new cheese shop open in the neighborhood and suddenly it’s hard to find parking, these thrilling developments came with their own downside.  “With all those improvements we lost a little self-reliance, some ability to protect – some manliness. And no matter how many hoodied nerds become masters of the virtual universe, without manliness we’re going to die as a species. Because being a nerd will never get you any action.”  Playing video games is just a fantasy of masculinity and power.  If we want to get anywhere, we need to make people want to be manly be presenting them with idealized images of masculinity and power!

“Sure, you could be progressive and buy your son a doll.  But he’ll thank you if you’re more old school and teach him to hunt.”  I get the feeling that if I do both, Joel Stein’s head will explode.  Well, guess what:  I’m going to teach him to render his own leaf lard and collect vintage brocades.  He’s going watch Les Miserables while ice fishing in Alaska and wear lamé jumpsuits to NASCAR races.  He’ll do cross-stitches of himself wrestling a grizzly bear.  Sure, maybe he’ll be an unwilling poster boy for a contrived point I want to make about gender relations, but at least he’ll be a hit a parties.

“I got messed up by my feminist mom in the 1970s, who taught me that gender was a social construct. I can’t believe that social experiment went on as long as it did, since it’s clear by month six of having a child that William does not want a doll. Ladies do go first. We are not free to be you and me.”  Now that you mention it, I’m tired of hearing that timely catchphrase “free to be you and me” everywhere I go.  It’s worse than “#YOLO.”   Everyone knows it’s just propaganda for enforcing a radically gender-neutral state in which masculinity is forbidden.  And don’t even get me started on the anti-white bias in Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Why does it have to be a white seagull?

“We are born different.”  Yeah!  But only between genders.  Within genders, everybody’s pretty much interchangeable.  “As soon as my son was old enough to crawl, he pulled a jar of mustard from the pantry and pushed it around the floor making car noises. We bought him a closetful of stuffed animals, but he sleeps with a Matchbox car clutched to his face.”  Boys and girls have inborn tendencies to have more or less of certain traits.  It just makes sense to increase these differences as much as possible, by yelling at men to be more manly.  (Girls who aren’t very girly can become sexy bartenders or mechanics.)  If we remind people that they’re born different often enough, maybe they’ll acquire some self-respect.  Our natural human inborn innate characteristics aren’t just gonna manifest themselves, you know.

“We can’t solve this man-crisis by sitting on a couch watching ‘Ice Road Truckers.’  We’ve got to start fixing our own toilets, exercising outside at 6 a.m. and hunting the meat that we cowardly eat from far crueler factory farms. ”  Yeah, fix your own stuff and hunt your own food!  Fuck the division of labor!  Joel Stein condescended to approve of the Enlightenment, but he didn’t say anything about agriculture, mercantilism or the Industrial Revolution.

And there you have it.  What began as an innocent question about the granoly-y legacy of the sixties is revealed as something much vaster:  A critique of the very notions of civilization and human progress themselves.  With every social change, things are different, which is risky, because it means they’re not identical to how they were before.  It’s alarming to contemplate future change, but change that’s already happened is even worse in a way, because you can’t go back and experience what it was like when things were normal, before the hippies and non-hunter-gatherers ruined things.  In the process of giving “freedom” to the women, gays and black presidents, we’ve robbed ourselves of perhaps the most precious freedom of all:  The freedom to not know what it’s like to experience freedom.  Now that’s a paradox worthy of the Opinion page.

4 thoughts on “Bobos in the Panopticon; or, Why Does the New York Times Hate Freedom?

    1. It’s interesting that Andersen doesn’t explicitly mention the civil rights movement. Perhaps he thinks it would be tacky to denounce African-Americans’ centuries-long struggle to be treated as full human beings as “selfish”?

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