Since 2009 I have observed Festivus – the holiday for the rest of us, celebrated on December 23 – by publishing misspellings, grammar flubs, and punctuation errors committed in the name of commerce. It’s all been lighthearted and lightly instructive: my way of honoring The Airing of Grievances, a mock-tradition of this mock-holiday.
This year, however, my grievances are much more grievous than a misplaced apostrophe or a misspelled brass plaque.
Like many of you, I was dismayed by the 2016 presidential campaign, its outcome, and its aftermath. As I surveyed the devastation, I saw root causes in the practices of my own industry – marketing and branding – and in the ideology of technology, which now permeates the general culture.
And so my grievances this year aren’t minor infractions but rather more serious sins. Here, as I see it, is how we came to this sorry pass.
Via Pinterest. An authentic Festivus pole would be unadorned: decorations are “distracting.”
1. The ascendancy of amateurs. When Web 2.0 first appeared on the scene a decade ago, it promised to endow “the crowd” with unprecedented power. Anyone could publish a book, create a YouTube channel, make an ad, raise money, start a business. The dark side of all this empowerment, wrote Andrew Keen in his prescient 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur, is that “history has proven that the crowd is not often very wise.” Instead of meaningful information we got celebrity gossip; instead of thoughtful dialogue we got the comments section. This is an inevitable outcome, Keen wrote, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.” (Sound familiar?) Keen isn’t alone: Earlier this year, Tom Nichols wrote in The Federalist about “the death of expertise,” “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” In the political arena, this has led to the disparagement of knowledgeable people as “the elite,” and to the rise of a proudly uninformed con artist and demagogue to the presidency of the United States.
2. The normalization of profanity. This may seem like a strange criticism coming from a contributor to the Strong Language blog. But let’s be frank: the relentless use of formerly taboo language in advertising has rendered us shockproof. We don’t merely tolerate four-letter words; we expect them. So when a presidential candidate is caught on tape saying he can grab women “by the pussy,” it’s shrugged off as “locker-room banter.” His supporters – including a lot of churchgoing Middle Americans – applaud the language as “refreshing” and “authentic.” And they smile broadly as they flaunt some taboo words themselves.
F*ck Feelings (2015), a self-help book by a psychiatrist and his comedy-writer daughter. Sold at Walmart.
“Fuck your feelings.” Middle-aged couple at a Trump rally, October 2016. Source.
3. The fetishization of disruption. In Silicon Valley, to disrupt is to triumph. Uber disrupts taxi companies; Airbnb disrupts hotels; Craigslist long ago disrupted classified advertising (and undermined daily newspapers). For many years, Facebook’s mantra for software developers was “Move fast and break things,” a call to arms that resonated throughout the broader tech culture. Although Trump and his minions have been largely contemptuous of the tech industry – except for Twitter, which they bend to their will – they have nevertheless embraced the disruption of political norms and practices, of civil discourse, of conventional morality. And Trump’s choices for cabinet positions betray a zeal for disrupting the entire apparatus of government. His education secretary is dedicated to dismantling public education; his housing secretary has zero experience in housing policy or legislation. Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and chief strategist, has proudly called himself a “Leninist.” The father of the Russian Revolution, Bannon told a reporter in August, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
4. The worship of celebrity. Zsa Zsa Gabor, who died earlier this month, is said to have been the first modern celebrity who was famous for being famous. Her spiritual heirs fill our social-media feeds – from the Kardashians to news-show anchors to the latest Instagram phenoms. Talent is beside the point; the only job requirements are a polished image and relentless self-promotion. Media outlets and their audiences – that’s us – fixate on fame. If they’re dressed nicely and have “fashy” (as in “fascism”) haircuts, white supremacists are described as “dapper” and “cool.” If a candidate’s numbers are flagging, she can surround herself with glamorous entertainers. And if a candidate is famous for having presided over a “reality” TV show seen by millions – if he has a recognizable catchphrase, a private jet, and an ex-model third wife – he is guaranteed slavish, outsize media attention.
5. The glorification of gamification. Video gaming is a $630 billion industry in the U.S. alone, and “gamification” – a word that barely existed before 2010, and which signifies the use of game-play mechanics for non-game contexts – has been embraced by traditional industries such as finance and insurance. Level up, earn a badge, take a quiz, score some points: companies court “customer engagement” through constant jolts of incentive and nugatory rewards. The news media have dutifully followed suit, with clickbait headlines and gimmickry like virtual-reality reporting. The downside: when all of life’s a game – or a game show – nothing is worth taking seriously. Instead of conscience-driven citizens, we’re cheering or jeering spectators.
The presidency as game show: MSNBC ad in the New York Times Magazine, December 18, 2016.
6. The mainstreaming of lies. Politicians, like the rest of us, have always lied at least a little. The president-elect’s lies – beginning with the “birther” lie and continuing to the “landslide victory” whopper – are of a logarithmically different order. Why have so many of his supporters downplayed or disregarded the falsehoods? Possibly because decades of big-business lies have encouraged Americans to believe that up is down, sugary sodas are part of a balanced diet, and cigarettes are benign. “Trump emulated some of these disinformation techniques, gleaned from big business, during his campaign,” writes Ari Rabin-Havt, author of Lies Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics. “In the 1970s, scientists at Exxon (now ExxonMobil) knew that their products were changing the climate, but the company nonetheless funded think tanks and organizations dedicated to denying the existence of global warming, such as the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Donald Trump has appointed Exxon’s chief executive Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, while Myron Ebell, who heads Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition, directs the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s anti-‘global warming alarmism’ Center for Energy and the Environment, an outfit straight out of the tobacco lobby’s handbook.” Meanwhile, “curated” news allows us to pick and choose the stories we want to read and the sources we trust – and if those stories perpetrate lies, we can remain blissfully insulated from corrections.
7. The bleaching of meaning. When a billionaire television personality with an Ivy League degree attacks newspaper journalists who earn middling salaries as “elite,” we know that language itself has been lynched. But the audience for the attack has been well primed by decades of advertising lingo. In ads, artisan may mean “unskilled worker,” classic can mean “the previous version,” and journey might signify anything from “a series of events” to “a story.” It’s a short hop from this sort of deceptive language to the world of post-truth politics in which a Trump spokeswoman can say on television that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” And in the post-truth era, all news is fake news.
As a commenter (“maidhc”) noted recently on Language Log: “It’s the triumph of advertising. It’s like a ‘hearty man's soup’. What does ‘hearty’ mean now? It’s been overused so much that it doesn’t really have a meaning any more. Now many more words are going to be drained of meaning and just used as slogans that only represent membership in some tribe. We are witnessing the end of the Age of Enlightenment.”
8. The veneration of business – and, on the flip side, the vilification of government. (President Reagan could count on a laugh when he said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”) As a central tenet of the American project, the worship of business is hardly new. “The chief business of the American people is business,” President Calvin Coolidge told the Society of American Newspaper Editors in 1925. “Greed is good,” said the fictional Gordon Gecko in 1985. But the notion that business is the paramount source of social value is far more prevalent today than in the past. One indicator: In 1975, 13.4 percent of all advanced degrees were MBAs. By 2011-2012, the figure was 25.4 percent. And the greatest number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2012-2013 were in business – twice as many as in the next most popular field, health professions. This trend is mirrored in the popular myth, cited by Trump and many of his supporters, that government should and can be run like a business. There are myriad reasons why this belief is untrue, and you don’t have to be a liberal to endorse them. (See The Federalist and Forbes.) But the superstition persists, and it has crippled the public sector. Nothing against private enterprise, but it’s no guarantee of efficiency, and it shouldn’t be sacrosanct. Working for the enduring public good rather than for quarterly profits ought to be an honorable pursuit. Public parks, public health, public libraries, public transit, public education, and public funding of scientific research aren’t just worthy ideas but also effective means of binding us together as citizens.
Those are my grievances for 2016. Want to add to the list? Leave a comment and grieve away.
Past grievances here.