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.

Humans and Nature: Our Place in the World

In 1870, an expedition entered the area we now know as Yellowstone National Park. There had been unsubstantiated rumors of remarkable natural features there, and so a team was put together to go explore and report. Early on, a man by the name of Truman C. Everts was separated from the group and went missing. None of the rest of the group knew if he survived. Initially, they rode around on their horses trying to find him. They were unsuccessful. As they continued to travel through the area, they left clues and supplies in the hope that Everts was still alive.

He was, in fact, but just barely. Over the next several days after going missing, Everts would find himself clinging to life through a whirlwind of what the wilderness could throw at him. His horse ran away with nearly all of his gear. He spent a night in a tree with a lion waiting underneath. He suffered severe frostbite on his feet. He took refuge next to some of the hot geothermal features, only to accidentally break through the surface of one of them and scald himself. 150 miles from the nearest settlement, Everts began hallucinating, promising himself that he wouldn’t die in the wild.

37 days after being separated, he was found on a hillside. With little to eat, he weighed just 50 pounds. Burned, frostbit, emaciated, delirious, he had barely survived. He slowly recovered, later writing a popularly consumed account of his lonely struggle in the elements. He prophesied that one day soon that area would be made comfortably “accessible to all,” and that when that day comes, “…I hope, in happier mood and under more auspicious circumstances, to revisit scenes fraught for me with such mingled glories and terrors.”

How should we think about nature? How do we think about nature?

The complex, decades-long march of technology has allowed us to comfortably settle into robust homes and cities, and most of the world seems easily “accessible” and safe. If we were to drive through Yellowstone National Park today, we would barely give it a second thought that at one time it would take all of the human ingenuity and willpower possible to survive through the often uncompromising harshness of the environment.

Is the natural world a kind of frontier? Most of the early European settlers of America thought so. Inspired by a Garden of Eden, providential vision for a “New World,” the continent seemed to be precisely what the book of Genesis describes–wilderness and waste–ready for them to cultivate and make flourish. They, of course, were either oblivious to or disregarded the indigenous communities–countless, diverse Native American tribes–that had been living on and with the land for centuries. If America was ordained by God to subdue, it was given to someone other than the Europeans long before.

Perhaps nature is primarily a romantic thing–a more John Muir kind of spirituality rather than a biblical one. There are mundane places and then there are transcendent places. Places like Yosemite, for example, that are a sort of secular cathedral where aesthetics, vastness, and remoteness are praised. In this view, true nature entails remarkable places that we choose to go into and out of to elevate the soul.

Or, maybe nature is only just a vast storehouse of resources–something to think of in utilitarian terms. Everything that is there–water, trees, animals, and the rest–are for our excavation and exploitation. A biological warehouse of sorts, for whatever endeavors we have in mind.

Notice that all three of these conceptions put human beings above everything else. There is us, and then there’s nature, whether it’s to be tilled like Adam and Eve, for spiritual transcendence, or for utilitarian use. Us and nature is another binary–a variant of us and themapplied to the world in which we live. We see ourselves as something more than nature: something higher, something else–a type of being that can use nature (whatever it’s best used for) as we please.

Missing, of course, is the simple realization that human beings are themselves one among many kinds of animals. A rational, self-conscious, complex animal, to be sure. But ultimately a creature that is a part of nature–not something separate from it. This kind of understanding might be called the ecological view of nature. Nature is to be viewed as a dense structure of relationships, of “complex, interpenetrating systems,” to use Jedediah Purdy’s description. His book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, outlines these four common conceptions of our relationship to nature: providential, romantic, utilitarian, and ecological.

Though it’s a relatively recent way of understanding nature, we need to take the ecological view because we live in a time when human activity impacts the natural world more completely and more dramatically than ever before. We are inseparable from the environment in which we live. It’s not us and nature, it’s just this. We need to realize that our attempts to master the natural world have not brought pure progress, and that because everything is related to everything else in complex ways, we need to be thoughtful about how any of our activity may harm or destroy in ways that may not be immediately apparent. Something here can significantly alter another thing over there.

Our supposed mastery has veiled us from the intense Truman C. Everts kinds of experiences of nature that now occur mostly only for hardcore outdoors people and survivalists, humans who’ve wandered off the beaten path and gotten lost, or people who’ve been tossed into a wild place in some kind of a disaster. But we are in nature all of the time. It’s not just awe-inducing vistas like Yellowstone or Yosemite. And it’s not just endless trees in a forest somewhere out there seemingly there to be cut down and transformed into “things that are actually useful.”

Nature always surrounds us. And we are, at all times, nature ourselves–embodying and impacting the whole interconnected thing in profound ways. How we think about ecosystems and animals and natural resources and the climate and ourselves as a relatively new species trying to survive on this planet is important. A proper understanding of nature and our place in the world is vital. There’s just this. Let’s think about how we fit in with the rest of it all.

 

This Week in Upgrades: April 18

Hello, good people. How was your Monday? Still grinding it out? Maybe I can help.

These links may be going up late, but there’s some great stuff in here to get your week on the right track. Stuff like…

100 years of film in 100 shots. Fantastic.

Or, every Disney song ranked worst to best. Do you agree?

I 100% agree that top sheets are a scam.

Hopefully we all can agree there should be more women on American currency, and it seems like it’s finally going to happen on the $20. Long-forgotten Hamilton stays on the $10, a woman gets the bill everyone has in their wallet. Win-win?

Speaking of Hamilton, as the musical’s popularity booms, more critics have weighed in and not everyone’s a fan. Is the musical actually racist, though?

In fascinating science things, the tree of life just got a whole lot more interesting.

Homo sapiens is pretty interesting on its own (hence this whole blog). Maybe we’re not as civilized as we think?

One thing’s for sure: the automobile is a sham.

Here’s another good reason to take it easy on the fast food. Eat well and cook!

Have an awesome week! You got this.

Kimmy Schmidt
via GIPHY

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.

 

The Common Good: What’s Good for People?

A couple months ago, I wrote a Part I for a series of posts about the common good. It’s here if you want to check it out.

The basic idea in Part I is that our barometer for whether or not society is working for its people is too simple. That barometer is a nebulous thing we refer to as the economy. Apparently, if the economy is doing well then all of us are doing well. If the economy isn’t great, politicians and journalists start to peek at more refined measurements like new jobs created, interest rates, unemployment, or wages.

Do any of those things really get to the heart of the common good? Do they get to the heart of your life and what’s good for you?

I don’t think so. There’s an underlying problem that we aren’t sure what’s good when we say common good. And whatever good is, we don’t seem to have it in common. The economy is a kind of lowest common denominator to be able to say something about whether life is going well or not. But it doesn’t tell us much about the complex lives of actual people.

Zoom in a bit closer, and what you’ll find is:

Some do put money, career, and purchasing power at the center. For them, the economy doing well probably does indicate life going well.

Others put most of the weight on adherence to a particular religion. Perhaps for them, if we were all devotees of their worldview then society would be doing well.

Still others are strong believers in maximizing individual freedoms and liberties. The fewer limitations that exist, the more we’ll find happiness in being ourselves–however we please to do so.

And some find their greatest sense of well-being in relationships–in strong bonds with family, friends, and romantic partners.

When we talk about the common good, there are many different ideas of what’s good–none of them held in common–so we have a gauge like the economy slide in. We should talk about that.

Despite our great differences as people, we actually are quite similar. Academics refer to a whole set of shared qualities called human universals. These are the things that are true of human beings because they’re human beings, no matter the place they’re born, the time they’re alive on the earth, their political party, what their favorite sports team is, how much money they make, who they want to have sex with, and everything else that makes us distinct from one another.

Behind the pursuit of money, career, religious perfection, civil liberties, and specific relationships, there are fundamental desires we all long to fulfill.

What are they?

Surprisingly, six basic needs make up the roots of all our other longings and pursuits. The list of six comes from a sociologist, Christian Smith, who’s studied human nature and society extensively. He compiled the work of several other academics into one universal grouping.

First, the endurance of our bodies: survival, security, and pleasure. What does that entail? Avoiding injury and illness. Feeling and being healthy and energetic. Enjoying the pleasures of our senses–music, sex, food, art, and the rest.

Second, knowledge of reality. It’s hard to function if the world doesn’t make some kind of sense to you. So we all have a map in our minds how what we believe and experience fit together. The mental map we establish allows us to navigate life better, even though none of us know or understand everything.

Third, identity coherence and affirmation. That’s a bit of academic-speak for what’s actually a straightforward concept. Each of us seeks to develop a sense of self-identity and self-confidence, and have it endure and strengthen through the course of our lives. Knowing who you are, and feeling comfortable with who you are.

Number four: exercising purposive agency. OK, clearly our friendly sociologist could have given us some more accessible terms. Exercising purposive agency just means you’re able to have at least some influence or power in the world when there are results or goals you want to achieve.

Fifth, moral affirmation. Each of us, on the whole, seeks to do what we think is right, admirable, or justifiable, based on a set of ethics that makes sense to us. We do what we can to avoid fault, blame, and guilt.

Finally, social belonging and love. None of us functions very well alone. We crave and require relationships of varying depth–to know others, and be known. To be welcomed, included, and cared for. In some relationships, to a depth and intimacy best referred to as love.

Together, these six needs form a kaleidoscope of basic humanity. To fulfill these needs is to live well, a state some have called flourishing.

Which allows us to say succinctly: A society that is successfully achieving the common good is a society in which every person, individually and as a community, is able to flourish.

If a society is set up in such a way that it systematically threatens someone’s safety, it’s not yet achieving the common good.

If it systematically marginalizes, discriminates, or oppresses certain people, it has not realized the common good to its fullest potential.

If a society denies or obscures aspects of reality–things like man-made climate change or racial injustice–it is not functioning for the common good.

There are a bajillion examples.

Point the lens of the six basic needs at anything in society, and the common good comes into focus.

Is survival, security, and pleasure preserved?

Does it enhance our knowledge of reality?

Does it promote self-identity and self-confidence?

Does it allow all people to have the influence or power they need?

Does it cultivate a sense of morality, justice, and admiration for what’s right?

Does it encourage strong relationships with family and friends, and the pursuit of love?

Make sense? Is that a way of understanding the common good we can all get behind? I hope so. There’s so much more depth, beauty, and potential than what the economy can fathom.

If you don’t think so, say why in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading. More to come in Part 3.