On the eve of the twenty-first century, Tyler Durden told a roomful of the most implacably resilient of useful idiots: “Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.” Twenty-one years later, the existential abyss of les enfants américains has been filled with, or at least covered by, an inexorable process of proselytization, though their temperament is so much worse for wear. The interminable war between Left and Right, the details of which are broadcast via the electronic medium of their choosing, claim every moment of their cognitive leisure. Nothing exists unless it can be contextualized, an eerily mechanical euphemism for “consumed by the political obsession”. We speak of the political obsession because everybody shares it, even if only involuntarily: there is not one American left who has not apprehended the hyperpolitical transfiguration of the national culture, and who has yet to develop some opinion thereof.
How should we define this phenomenon? Is it a nightmarish manifestation of the Hegelian social substance, or perhaps the demoniacal evolution of the zeitgeist? Neither of these terms is ethereal enough to convey the vapidity of American culture, a culture that selects the television as its hollow cornerstone. For the record, large sections of the mainstream Internet, including social media, are a democratized extension of television, the entirety of which has been necessarily affected by this process of hyper-politicization: if even one component had been spared the permeating influence, then one couldn’t claim accurately that the culture had been conquered completely. We will define “politicization” as a partial process and “hyper-politicization” as a comprehensive takeover—and in both cases, it is the full range of the electronic media that is, or that are, being affected.
Much of the media was apolitical, to a greater or lesser degree, until the sixteenth of June 2015. A significant shift, both in content and in tone, occurred on that day, when reporters voiced distinctly personal alarm at Trump’s comments about Mexican rapists. The initial tremor was instantaneous, but it didn’t reach its pique intensity for another seventeen months, by which point the pulse, if not the shock, was palpable at every corner of the media: even if a particular program or outlet wasn’t covering Trump and the outrage he inspired, one couldn’t browse the local listings without noticing a fair number who did. While it was not impossible to evade this story, there was no conceivable way to be ignorant of it. We could destroy our television and our smartphone, if we liked, but our odds of overhearing a passerby’s political discussion or debate would still be overwhelming. The media was no longer operating as a feature of the culture; instead, the culture was swiftly becoming a byproduct of the media, and of the politicized media particularly.
Needless to say, the problem has become so much more serious in the years-long aftermath of the election. Very few Americans make any serious effort to ignore political gossip, as it is impractical to do so in the Trumpish Age. Every person, even those who have never voted in their lives, have a strong and unlettered answer to at least one of the countless political questions. They have formed their opinion through continuous consumption of the media, which seldom produces anything that is truly apolitical. By some measures, it has begun producing people: our interests are adapting to the climate of the modern media, and the longer we are immersed within its hazy glow, the more conspicuously our behavior changes. And lest we be accused of having our cake and eating it, too, we must admit that the same is true of our preferred programs: if you were to read my writings for several hours a day, then your mentality, and your outlook, and finally your conduct would change somehow. You might change for the better, but still you would change.
We are no longer speaking exclusively of the politicization of the media, but of a process whereby the media subsumed, subjugated, and conquered the culture. The political element is undoubtedly germane, but it is not essential or required: an apolitical phenomenon, sensationalized, promoted, and possibly even created by the media, could have commanded our attention, as well. A political event, though, is inherently compelling because its consequences may affect us directly, try as we might to ignore the problem. Nevertheless, the American electorate, under the influence of rational cynicism and bourgeois indifference, historically have taken little interest in political affairs. Were it not for Trump’s brazen vulgarity and garish crudity, the colossal expansion of the political media would have been an unfathomable endeavor.
[An endeavor, you say. Are you suggesting that this marriage of media and culture, as well as the subsequent mutation of the American psyche, were arranged and orchestrated? Was this deliberate, as David Goldberg alleged? Is Project Zephyr a legitimate plan?]
I don’t believe that the puppeteers planned for Trump to win the election, but the outcome had to have been acceptable to them; otherwise, they would have prevented it. In any case, I can’t believe that they could fail to recognize the unifying effect of our collective obsession with the politicized media. How many times must we hear the dreary dirge: “Americans have never been more rigidly divided, never been more deeply polarized!” Surely these mourners aren’t wailing about the United States of America, are they? This nation has never been more homogenous, never been known as home sweet home by more people moving in unison. Every American rolls out of bed, scrolls past the morning’s dreadful headlines, and suffers a common bilious surge. Sure, not everybody reads from the same source, but such is not to say we’re not on the same page—and is diversity not our singular pride? What are these fussbudgets going on about, spreading wild rumors of discordance in the United States? Ours is a dysfunctional and dissatisfied nation, truly; but culturally, we have mastered the lockstep.
The bloodlust, contempt, and paranoia in the United States is alarming, not for its intensity, but for its universality. The media manufactures agitprop without boundary or pause, almost as if the act of production were a compulsion. It is certainly infectious enough for consumers: why else would they willingly and repeatedly partake in something so toxic and inimical? Even if it were benign, one would expect them to tire of it eventually, yet they still pursue it five years later. If anything, their appetite for this noxious substance has only grown heartier in the days of the pandemic, hence the enduring fascination with the brutal protests in Portland and Seattle. One would be challenged to find an American who doesn’t have a fierce, and fiercely uninformed, opinion about this battle for racial justice: such an uncommitted observer would be nigh as preternatural as the person who is truly neutral to Trump. The conflagration rages in everyone’s background, or so the media tells us each day, and though you might turn away from it, still you cannot help but see the shadows of the flames clinging to every one of the walls.
Only the most prescient, perceptive, and persistent will remind themselves that the crisis isn’t real, that the national meltdown is a synthetic, artificial phenomenon engendered by the media. Alas, in preserving such a perspective, these honorable people will be mistaken. On the one hand, it is true: the original crisis on which the media reported, and to which Americans have been reacting with rising incivility, was only a construction, a theatrical presentation that only appeared to be real. On the other hand, the ubiquitous animosity inspired by that stagecraft is very real, indeed—insincere, perhaps, and mindless, absolutely, but real nonetheless. That kind of maniacal passion is extremely vulnerable to exploitation, of which a subscription to CNN and a sizeable donation to a presidential campaign are typical examples. It could also inspire military enlistment if the manipulated person could be convinced that the source of all of this trouble is foreign . . . Russian, perhaps. To a similar end, a political leader who promises to purge the nation of this malevolent force could be granted, or could claim, unprecedented power, including the power to strip the peasants of their basic rights. After all, what good are rights if this intangible malice has made life—or, at least, the life to which we are accustomed—intolerably unpleasant?
Fortunately, this isn’t life. This is only a form of social interaction within the context of a culture that has surrendered itself to the direction of a corrupted electronic media. We will not solve this peculiar problem by destroying our screens, at least not an individual level, and we would be remiss to do so at the general level, for there is an abundance of worthwhile material offered through these platforms—of which I hope this essay is but one example. Recently, I discovered a great YouTube channel known as Cuck Philosophy, which featured a fine explanation of Baudrillard’s notion that the Matrix has escaped the parameters of a theoretical notion and become an inescapable feature of life—of life in general, and not just of the makeshift society we have fashioned. I will end here by voicing disagreement with his claim: we can shut down the Matrix, dispose of its infrastructure, and return to the other possibilities of life. If we continue down that road, then the Matrix will be a memory, a fable passed down to stronger generations—but through what form of media will it be told?