Mesmerized at the Surface

I’ve spent more time than I should have thinking about Justin Timberlake’s attempted rebrand with his latest album. The title track video, “Man of the Woods,” deserves its own attention for its bougie, bland white masculinity. I’m most interested in the supposed social commentary in the video for “Supplies.” It reveals a lot about our current state of entertainment as activism.

“Supplies” is clearly grasping at something about feminism and the possibilities of a better future. But the actual moral implications and supplies metaphors are sadly the same old regressive bullshit. Showing a clip of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey or an “End Racism Now” poster doesn’t really mean anything simply presented without comment. It says little to nothing about where Timberlake stands on all of it. Wow, you saw this stuff on TV and felt sad? Damn, I guess the patriarchy is over now.

When you watch and listen carefully, “Supplies” is mostly just a lot of Timberlake’s usual entendre and objectification—wrapped up in some Blade Runner and Matrix production design to borrow that hope-in-dystopia vibe. The only real agency the heroine has is punching someone and setting fire to a mysterious shrine. The rest of the time she’s Timberlake’s post-apocalypse booty call.

Because those emotionally charged clips are thrown in—and a small child at the end tells someone (who?) to just die already—it certainly feels like the video is portraying something meaningful. It’s sort of edgy or progressive or a laudable artistic entry for feminism or racial equality (or something). Many sites and fans said as much without specifying how it is, exactly. It really isn’t once you go deeper.

Is “Supplies” the most sexist thing of all time? No. Is the beat good? Sure. Can lazily injecting current events into a piece of pop culture start conversations? Possibly. But we’ve got to stop being deluded into thinking that vague emotional appeals are anywhere close to the actual, material engagement that’s needed to transform the ways people’s lives are being destroyed. I guess Timberlake felt like he needed to say something. What came out is ambiguous attention-seeking. Perhaps he should have taken his own advice and said nothing at all.

In the excellent book Infinite Distractions, Dominic Pettman writes that we are no longer distracted away from social turmoil. Instead,

The decoy itself—the thing designed to distract—has merged with the distraction imperative, so that, for instance, news coverage of race riots now distracts from the potential reality and repercussions of race riots. This is a more sophisticated form of propaganda than those engineered in the twentieth century, when the conscious decision would be made to distract from civil rights protests by screening the Miss America Pageant. This new form of distraction—which acknowledges as much as it disavows—is harder to mobilize against, for the simple reason that no one can accuse “the media” of trying to cover up “the truth.” Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.

Acknowledges as much as it disavows. Whether on purpose or accidental, you can purport to be shining a light in the dark while actually obscuring and distracting. Uncomfortable truths are uncomfortable, so it’s a lot easier to point to them in art or news or social media without getting too deep into the details. Hard truths and real moral progress give way to surface-level commotion that only generates likes, views, and emotional gratification.

If we’re actually going to speak truth to power and make inroads for the common good, we have to move away from shallow, Instagram-ready resistance that merely distracts. Art, news segments, protests, tweets, and conversations need to bring the uncomfortable specifics of what’s going on and what needs to be different into focus. This pay discrimination. That thing everyone says or wears that’s actually super racist. This healthcare policy that will give everyone some existential peace. That trope in art and advertisements that just reinforces misogyny. This march that actually excluded and suppressed people who should have had a prominent voice in it. That person in power who’s actually a terrible human being with zero repercussions.

Some sacred cows need to be smashed. Some people who are off to a good start need to be encouraged to go deeper and wider. Others need to realize things are not magically going to be better and we can all relax at brunch just by electing a certain person. Some hot new songs and celebrated movies and heartfelt speeches need to be called out for regurgitating regressive ethics or sounding nice without sticking their neck out.

Even with great intentions, too often we’re getting caught up in news and entertainment and social media content that acknowledge as much as they disavow. We have to dig into the uncomfortable realities around us and stop being mesmerized at the surface.

A Healthy Scrutiny of Authority

I’ve been on a bit of a Noam Chomsky kick lately. (I’m a nerd). First, I came across the recent documentary Requiem for the American Dream, which is essentially an extended Chomsky interview with infographics and historical film clips. It’s quite insightful about the current state of the American economy and the struggles of the middle class. I’ve also been reading through Chomsky’s most recent book, Who Rules the World?an unflinching examination of the notion of American exceptionalism. The thing that sticks with me the most about his overarching perspective and recurring critiques is the need to scrutinize people and institutions with power and authority.

Now, to be clear, I’m not an anarchist or pessimist. If you’ve read through some of the pieces I’ve written for Upgraded Humans thus far, I hope you have the sense I believe that for whatever problems we face there are interesting and plausible solutions worth trying, and that human nature can evolve toward the good and the just. We need many of the structures and habits that exist in society. They just need to be constantly examined and reshaped around what’s good for people.

And one of the things that’s quite good for people is a broadly egalitarian society. We’ve seen over the last few decades–especially in terms of income, wealth, and opportunity–a dramatic and devastating rise in inequality. It’s the root of many of our present ills. The average American has been hurt by the current socio-economic arrangement, while a minority elite has benefitted immensely. They’ve been able to build reputation, power, and wealth. From a self-interested and self-centered standpoint, it probably makes sense to them to maintain the status quo. But immense authority and influence in the hands of a few is not a natural social relationship and not one that usually benefits the rest of humanity.

Which is why it makes sense that no matter what socio-economic arrangement we find ourselves in, or how well or terribly it’s working out for the average person, it’s crucial that the general public constantly examines and critiques people and institutions of authority. To quote Spider-Man (which was quoting earlier and less cool sources): with great power comes great responsibility. Some people and institutions of authority truly have an elevated social consciousness and use their influence and resources for good. A philanthropic billionaire can do some great things to help large numbers of people. News media can bring difficult, hidden truths into the light. A coach can change the life trajectory of a child with a rocky upbringing. Fantastic.

But often, people and institutions of authority shouldn’t have the power they have, or abuse legitimate power and use it for manipulative or destructive ends. With any person or organization in power, we must ask: why do they deserve our attention, faith, or allegiance?

Do they have a lot of experience in the field they have authority in? If so, is it experience worth praising and embracing? Or are there serious questions about motive, expertise, judgment, and ethics?

Have they been consistent, or are they easily swayed and play favorites? Do they seem to be working from a thoughtful, moral center? Are they aware of the profound consequences of their actions?

Too often, we allow people and institutions of authority to carry on without critique. We look up to them with godlike reverence, taking their words and actions as infallible. We fail to consider that as human beings, authority figures–presidents, coaches, corporations, academics, scientists, news networks, judges, CEOs, bankers, and the rest–are always at the whim of our limited, sometimes misguided, sometimes egotistical human nature.

This week, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima and gave a heartfelt speech about the bombing in 1945, the power of military technology, and the need for moral progress. There was moving rhetoric and symbolic gestures. At the same time, most media barely mentioned–if at all–that the Obama administration has actually moved to upgrade America’s nuclear arms rather than reduce them, and continues to carry out a dubious drone warfare program that has killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent people. The Hiroshima visit is literally historic in the sense that President Obama is the first sitting president to visit since it happened. And some real healing and reflection may have taken place. But actions are always more important than words. Americans need to hold the administration accountable if it truly believes in a “moral revolution” of military technology and diplomacy that will lead to greater peace in the world.

Or take another example. Through the course of this election, Donald Trump has received virtually wall-to-wall free coverage on almost every major media source. Instead of focusing on real policy conversations about what the United States needs right now, more often than not CNN, NBC, The New York Times, and other go-to media sources are filled up with the latest absurdity involving Trump on the campaign trail. Many have remarked about the reality-show nature the rise of Donald Trump has contributed to this election. Those major media outlets are just as responsible as anyone else for that happening. On many occasions throughout the presidential campaign, CNN may as well have been Access Hollywood–unhelpfully distracting the public with segments closer to entertainment gossip than substantive truth-telling. If these go-to sources are failing in their basic journalistic responsibilities, how can the average person be in tune with what’s actually going on in the world and what we need to talk about most?

Or this: without a doubt, coaches can have a profoundly positive influence on others’ lives. But at the same time, coaches are often fanatically turned into revered demigods with little or no accountability. Baylor University is now in recovery precisely because of this complex. While football players raped and beat other students for years, the coach and school president (and apparently the local police, on occasion) looked the other way. With great power comes great responsibility, and coaches have a responsibility to humanity, dignity, and justice–not just to winning.

Does power always corrupt? That’s a big question for another time. Because of our human nature, we all need the balancing effect of thoughtful observation and critique from others–whether we possess real authority ourselves or not.

For now, it seems clear that for every person or institution of authority, every other person needs to ask why they have that power and whether they’re using it responsibly. They should be working toward advancing equality, justice, and the common good. And we should maintain a healthy skepticism about whether they’re actually doing that.