The Politics of Inevitability and a Generation Without History

“By embracing the politics of inevitability, we raised a generation without history,” writes Timothy Snyder. The politics of inevitably is a confidence trap — a lulling sense of a security in fixed trajectory laid before us. It’s society on autopilot. To the extent that ‘progress’ becomes the assumed course, the necessity of teaching history diminishes, and in the decline of a historical consciousness comes the decline of progress itself.

In this complacency, history is forgotten. It is made to seem useless, irrelevant to ‘modern’ concerns. Indicators of Snyder’s “generation without history” are rampant. In a recent talk, The Swindle of the New, Terry Eagleton proposes: “The fact is surely that any society which only has its contemporary experience to live by is poor indeed. And that surely is becoming increasingly the case in our own time, where the past has been reduced to spectacle, packaged heritage, consumable commodity, or recyclable style.”

A critical mark of a “generation without history” is the prevalence and commercialization of authenticity. Adherents to the cult of authenticity, in Eagleton’s words, “hold the unconscious conviction that [they] are self-authoring, self-generated, sprung from [their] own head, and thus entirely entirely autonomous and self-determining.” Only in “generation without history” can one imagine themselves as capable of total self-definition, which is the cornerstone assumption of the authenticity value system and identity matrix. “The modern age is the only one I am aware of that regards authenticity as involving a clean break with the past.”

I’m definitely on a side, but its not ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’

Driving over the holidays, we listened to Conservative with age: Why your political stripes change over time and an IQ2 US debate on whether not Liberals Hold the Moral High Ground. Both are excellent investments of your time and come highly recommended.

While listening, I was repeatedly struck (once again) by the poverty of the ‘left vs. right’ dichotomy. It is such a limiting concept. But as humans, I fear that we are mostly incapable of creating sides without creating tribes. I wonder how — and if — we can transcend the politics of left versus right, blue versus red, and tribe versus tribe. Is it even reasonable to hope that our species can go beyond its lineage of in-group/out-group positioning?

The discussions mentioned above reminded me of a statement by Wael Haddara in a recent conversation:

I’ve come to a conclusion recently that there’s really only two types of people in the world: those that want to live with each other and those who don’t. And I think it falls to the people that privilege this idea of a shared existence despite differences to figure out a way of accommodating each other in order to actually have a reasonably functional, happy existence. If the group of people that actually privilege the experience of knowing other people that are different — if those people can’t get their act together and if we can’t create a polity that respects diversity, that is built on commonalities, and that works for enough people — then the people that don’t want to live with other people are going to govern or shape that polity.

Haddara’s conclusion is, once again, a dichotomy. But perhaps it is a necessary dichotomy? What if instead of aligning myself with a camp I pitch my tent alongside anyone and everyone who stands for the cause of peacefully and equitably living together as equals? After all, political poles shift. Parties morph. Corruption can happen anywhere. Nothing in partyland is permanent: allegiances and doctrines are penned only to be reneged later. Yes, Politics™ is unstable territory.

Therefore, I honestly don’t care one iota about your political branding. Are you advocating for peaceful and equitable coexistence? If so, as far as I’m concerned, we’re already fundamentally on the same side. In fact, I think it might be the only definition of a ‘side’ that counts for anything.

My in-group is the group that believes that everyone belongs here, and I don’t care what labels the people in my group use to describe themselves beyond that.

Lanier’s Social Media Ultimatum

Jaron Lanier argues that you have two choices: delete all your social media accounts or fully educate yourself on how your brain being getting hijacked.

People have to take responsibility to become literate in a new way if they are going to use the technology at all. So if you just can’t find it in yourselves to delete all your social media accounts, then you must take it upon yourself to really learn how it works. Learn how the addiction cycle works. Learn how the manipulation works. Become aware of it. If you can’t make one of those two choices you’re becoming a drone and you’re not really functioning as a citizen in the new world. I have to be very blunt about that. Those are the choices available to you. There are no others. (Listen at 21:16)

Digital illiteracy leaves people increasingly vulnerable to corporations like Facebook that have systematically fine-tuned their algorithms for stealing, trading, and selling attention. As in many cases of exploitation, the least educated are the first subsumed. Lanier’s stark ultimatum is good advice: learn everything you can about how these systems are taking advantage of you or get the hell out. (The third ‘default option’ isn’t a viable option at all: become a mindless, scrolling automaton, endlessly seeking the next ping, like a pigeon in a B.F. Skinner experiment.)

Living in the crossfire of an ‘attention war’

Daniel Nesbit proposes a metaphor shift from ‘attention economy‘ to ‘attention war,’ in part because “viewing the landscape as one of war instills the right mindset for those caught in the crossfire.”

Invading forces want to not just have our share of attention, they want to own it. The war of attention is a battle over resources: who gets to dominate, where and when… We have to defend our territory (our attention) appropriately.

The wartime conflict metaphor conjures notice of the collateral damage, particularly the innocent civilian ‘causalities’ — all the co-opted time, all the defrayed mental resources, and all the cognitive and psychological externalities absorbing the actual cost of this rampage.

The ‘Hollow Patriarchy’ Hypothesis

The idea of the ‘hollow patriarchy’ comes from The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century by Stephen Marche and Sarah Fulford.

The hollow patriarchy is the idea that if you look at the economic data and the sociological data, women are rising in the middle class very rapidly. They are 40 per cent of breadwinners in America. They have more university degrees than men. More female lawyers graduate than male lawyers. Men are losing this position of breadwinner in the middle-American society. But women are still being denied these positions of power. Women are 16 per cent of equity partners in law firms, which is really absurd. Only about three per cent of Hollywood directors in the major seven studios are women. This actually translates into virtually every industry. So the hollow patriarchy is that you have this masculinity as an icon of power, but it’s rotten at the centre. In the middle of it, men are becoming less and less the providers they once were and this tension creates all this kind of cultural and domestic turbulence. (Stephen Marche and Sarah Fulford dissect 21st-century gender politics, CBC Radio, April 24, 2017)

If the ‘hollow patriarchy’ hypothesis holds true, we have a cultural conundrum indeed. It is as if we still line up the causal gender dominoes in the same way: manhood equates to masculinity, masculinity equates to power, and power equates to sustaining the patriarchal order. To be a ‘man’ continues to mean to ‘being in charge,’ even in a world where the normativity of this assumption is obvious nonsense.