Negative Polarization Is a Heckuva Drug
Plus: A timed assignment!
Writing in The Atlantic, David Brooks this week highlighted the pervasive pessimism that is coming to define so much of modern discourse. After shifting from a variety of communalism (where people defined themselves by their professions as much as anything else), to a variety of individualism (where everyone pursued their own personal and professional ends, each of us the CEO of “Me, Inc.”), we are sliding back toward a variety of communalism.
But this new communalism is marked by a distinct sense of negativity, of pessimism, of the idea that the game is rigged and everything is terrible. From Donald Trump’s “American Carnage” inaugural (some “weird shit,” as one wise man noted) on the right to the unfounded belief that racism and sexism is worse than ever on the left, there’s a real belief that things are apocalyptically bad.
“Today’s communal culture is based on a shared belief that society is broken, systems are rotten, the game is rigged, injustice prevails, the venal elites are out to get us; we find solidarity and meaning in resisting their oppression together,” Brooks writes. “Again, there is a right-wing version (Donald Trump’s ‘I am your retribution’) and a left-wing version (the intersectional community of oppressed groups), but what they share is an us-versus-them Manichaeism. The culture war gives life shape and meaning.”
I think I’ve written about this before, but one of my favorite moments in the long-running (and brilliant) sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is when the gang asks “Who versus?” The setup is hilarious but unimportant; all you need to know is ask that one of the members of the tight-knit quartet of ne’er-do-wells ask, when apprised of a scheme, “who versus, who are we doing it versus?” “Who’s the mark?” another asks. “What’s the angle?” “Whose face are we shoving this in?”
I think about this clip at least once a week because it is, in many ways, the defining ethos of our political age. This is the us-versus-them Manicheaeism in a 30-second clip. It’s one reason why I shy away from writing about politics; I don’t blame Charlie for feeling burnt out by “the hamster wheel of crazy.” But it occasionally crosses over into the world of cultural commentary; you can see it now in the freakout in the fever swamps right over Taylor Swift and the NFL.
A.B. covered the silliness well here. What’s interesting about the story is the cancerous way the story metastasized: it’s not enough to be annoyed that CBS constantly cuts to Taylor Swift in a luxury suite—which is a silly thing to get annoyed about but is at least a real thing to get annoyed about—the “who versus” here spun into a wild conspiracy involving George Soros, Pfizer, and Joe Biden. Supposedly the NFL has rigged the Super Bowl to ensure that, when the Chiefs win, Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift will announce their endorsement of Joe Biden, ushering in a millennial-backed wave of votes that will sweep him into office, at which point Joe Biden will unleash the Pfizer bots and shoot vaccines into everyone’s arms.
Or something along those lines, it’s hard to say; one has difficulty imagining any but the most internet-poisoned people being able to parse any of this. (As Ross Douthat noted this week, the Republican Party’s adamant refusal to just be normal for five minutes is the greatest weapon against Donald Trump in the Democratic Party’s arsenal.) The point is, Donald Trump’s loyal foot soldiers think that creating an enemy of the NFL (the most popular sports league in America) and Taylor Swift (the most popular artist in America) is a winning play. Sure, it might not actually help them win elections—I remain skeptical that attacking the two vestiges of the monoculture is a good way to amass an electoral majority—but it will certainly help win money from this portion of the us-vs-them death struggle. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that anti-Swift sentiment correlates strongly with pro-Trump sentiment:
And this feeds perfectly into the sentiment that Brooks identifies, this “Zeitgeist of Doom.” “In this culture, people feel bonded not because they are cooperating with one another but because they are indignant about the same things,” Brooks writes. The consequences for such indignation doom spirals are severe: “[E]scalating indignation led to what [theologian Reinhold] Niebuhr called ‘apoplectic rigidity,’ an inability to see the world as it is, but rather only those nightmarish elements that justify the hatred and rage that is the source of your self-worth.”
In politics and culture alike, we should strive to see the world as it is, rather than how we fear it might be. Because we risk turning the world into what we fear if that’s all we see.
Speaking of seeing the world as it is, you should read JVL’s tribute to Charlie Sykes and his reminder of how it all got started: Charlie looking at the insanity of the MAGA moment way back in 2016 and saying “hold on, maybe let’s not do this?”
This week, I reviewed Argylle. It is, unfortunately, not very good, and it’s not very good in ways that have kind of come to symbolize this whole era of big-budget, action-oriented filmmaking destined for streaming services.
Semi-related to the essay above: on Across the Movie Aisle, we talked about whether or not Barbie was snubbed in the Oscar nominations this year, specifically about Margot Robbie not getting a best actress nomination (though she did get a nomination as a producer in the best picture category) and Greta Gerwig not getting a best director nomination (though she did get a nomination in the adapted screenplay category). It’s not identical to the Swift/Kelce thing, of course, but I do think fixating on two supposed snubs rather than the eight nominations (including one for Best Picture!) the two-hour toy/Chevy commercial did receive and insisting that this shows sexism remains the most powerful force in the world, things can never improve, etc, is a lesser manifestation of the doom zeitgeist Brooks highlights.
This piece on the state of film criticism is kind of interesting but also kind of wrong, at least insofar as it presumes that critics are “afraid” of criticizing certain films or directors. There’s undoubtedly a critical hivemind of sorts, but I think it can be chalked up to the fact that 98 percent or so of Rotten Tomatoes critics are left of center. It’s not really nefarious, it’s just a function of ideological uniformity. For all the talk about race and sex ratios on Rotten Tomatoes, no one really wants to discuss the impact of every critic more or less being on the same page, ideologically.
Assigned Viewing: Sixty Minutes (Netflix)
Sixty Minutes is not a great movie. It has a solid high concept (a German MMA fighter needs to get from one side of Berlin to the other to be with his daughter on her birthday all while fighting off gangsters who are furious he didn’t take part in a fixed fight) and a decent run time (89 minutes). The action is competent and entertaining without being groundbreaking. The performances are solid—I have a feeling stars Emilio Sakraya and Marie Mouroum will start showing up as villains in American John Wick knockoffs in the months and years to come—and the plotting makes just enough sense that you never really question anything.
Again: It's not great, but it’s good enough to kill an evening. In other words: this is the natural heir to the straight-to-video action flick. And this is precisely the sort of movie Netflix should be making rather than the nine-figure action epics they’ve been pouring cash into.