“When I read things like, ‘the foundations of capitalism are shattering,’” he said, “I’m like, ‘Maybe we need that. Maybe we need some time where we’re walking around with a donkey with pots clanging on the sides.’ Because everything’s amazing now and nobody’s happy.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]“Maybe we need some time where we’re walking around with a donkey with pots clanging on the sides. Because everything’s amazing now and nobody’s happy.”[/gn_pullquote]
“We live in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots….I was on an airplane and there was high-speed internet on the airplane—that’s the newest thing that I know exists….It’s amazing. And then it breaks down, and the guy next to me goes, ‘Pffft—this is bullshit!’ Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago….”
The clip struck a broad nerve—making fans of liberals and conservatives alike—but when CK heard what people were saying and read the comments on YouTube, he felt like everyone had missed his point. “It’s really about me, it’s not about other people,” he told Time in an interview. “There wasn’t anybody next to me on the plane; that was me….The fact is, I was really upset that the Internet shut down. I was livid. Then I caught myself—wait a minute, what are you upset about?…It was like an epiphany to me.”
In other words, what Louis CK saw that his audience seemed to miss is that the problem is not them—the idiots, the kids, the liberals, the conservatives, whatever—it’s us. We’re spoiled, and we don’t realize it. We fly across the continent in five hours—a trip that once would have taken “30 years”—and complain because the flight leaves 20 minutes late and the seat only goes back four inches. Blind to our conveniences and luxuries, we imagine ourselves deserving of ever-increasing convenience and luxury, and it’s turning us into snotty brats. “If you had a jetpack,” he says, “you’d be like, ‘I have the shittiest jetpack.”Compared to the early 21st century, the early 20th century was a brutish place, with world wars and global depressions that modern Western sensibilities can hardly imagine. But even in the relatively brief intermission between the calamities, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset observed a growing sensibility that made him uneasy. Consumer capitalism was enabling “the average man to take his place in a world of superabundance,” Ortega wrote in his 1930 book, The Revolt of the Masses. “He finds himself surrounded by marvelous instruments, healing medicines, watchful governments, comfortable privileges.” But because he has done nothing to make or earn these comforts and privileges, he takes them as a birthright, forgetting the struggles that preceded them—and, moreover, losing sight of life’s essentially difficult nature. [gn_pullquote align=”right”]This “mass man,” Ortega said, has “an inborn, root-impression that life is easy, plentiful, without any grave limitations,” and this makes him like an aristocrat or a spoiled child—an heir to a fortune he did nothing to create.[/gn_pullquote]
This “mass man,” Ortega said, has “an inborn, root-impression that life is easy, plentiful, without any grave limitations,” and this makes him like an aristocrat or a spoiled child—an heir to a fortune he did nothing to create. “This lack of balance falsifies his nature, vitiates it in its very roots, causing him to lose contact with the very substance of life, which is made up of absolute danger, is radically problematic.”
If that seems like an extreme pronouncement to you—that life is “made up of absolute danger” and “is radically problematic”—let me say that it sounds extreme to me, too, and I agree with it. The problem is that my agreement is more theoretical than visceral, because I am shielded from so many harsh facts of existence by a thick veil of comfort and distance. I know, for instance, that we all will die, but how often do I see people die? Exactly never. I also know that animals must be slaughtered for my food, but I never see that happening either. I know that people work for pennies an hour to make my clothes; I know that mountains are being leveled in West Virgina for my power, and forests are being leveled everywhere for my paper; I know that my government supports oppressive regimes for my gasoline. But these things are all invisible to me. In short, I know that all my material comforts are carried in on the backs of others—on the backs of a vast global underclass, and a sizeable local underclass, and increasingly besieged natural ecosystems—and yet I truly perceive none of it. None of that feels real to me, and so I presume that I deserve what I have. If I were not an heir to systemic imbalances, I would not labor under that illusion. I’d be too busy wrestling the world for my necessities, and the problematic nature of life in a zero-sum universe would be abundantly clear.
Right away here, we’re tiptoeing a thin line between White Man’s Guilt and an impossibly large problem, which is why the typical conservative response to the situation is to pretend it doesn’t exist, and the typical liberal response is to seek recourse in guilt-reducing palliatives that don’t really make a difference. Not that they aren’t well-intentioned and not that they aren’t better than nothing—god bless people for recycling and buying free-trade coffee and riding their bike more—but the fact is that no matter what we do we’re complicit in a system that dwarfs our best intentions with its sheer mass and reach.
But there might be one aspect of this problem that we can counter with some degree of efficacy. We are not just consumers of ready-made goods; we are also consumers of ready-made meanings, and they present to us a picture of reality that is as illusory and unreal as the picture of reality presented by the material luxuries themselves. What is the purpose of life, the reason we’re here, the locus of our satisfaction? It is, according to the meaning we’re given, to enjoy our inheritance—to belly up to this rich cornucopia of goods and pleasures, and get our share. And the reason the most successful among us then have to spend half their free time either drunk, in rehab, or in therapy is that “getting our share” really doesn’t work after all. Ultimately, the comfort of a false truth is no comfort at all.
That’s why Ortega said the first step to freedom and agency must be to reject that false truth, and recognize that you don’t know what its proper alternative is. “Life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost,” he said. “The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear.” But true clarity, Ortega said, only becomes possible when the individual “looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost.” When he feels himself shipwrecked in a world he did not create, and doesn’t know what his proper response should be to that world—that’s when he begins to discover and construct an actual response, instead of falling into mere conditioned reactions.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]“These are the only genuine ideas: the ideas of the shipwrecked….He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.”[/gn_pullquote]
“These are the only genuine ideas: the ideas of the shipwrecked,” Ortega said. “All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.”
We are not good at “coming up against our own reality,” because to do that is to wrestle that reality for meaning, and we’re as used to pre-packaged meaning as we are pre-packaged food. That’s why the exercise of philosophy has withered to practically nothing in American society, why our discourse is so cheap and shallow, why our religion is so banal, and why, as the title of a recent book put it, “we hate us.”* We hate ourselves for being consumers instead of creators, and for accepting that lot without a fight. We hate ourselves for being spoiled, for being heirs of privilege instead wrestling for true meaning and identity—which means we hate ourselves most of all, I think, for being cowards. We are afraid to stand up and question what we’re given, because then we might have to do something different.
Louis CK strikes a nerve because he’s not just funny; he’s funny in a prophetic way. He embodies that self-loathing that we all feel but can’t quite explain, and he’s able to embody it because he notices it in the first place. He sees what we are, and hates us for it—himself as well as others—because he intuits that we could be better, that we don’t have to be these insipid, stupid creatues who just suck up what they’re given and don’t bother to think about what it represents. We can be amazed by this world in which we find ourselves, and admit to ourselves that it really is beyond our comprehension, and then set about to comprehending it—if even just a little bit—instead of just consuming it, bite after bite after bite.
*Dick Meyer, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium: http://www.amazon.com/Why-We-Hate-Discontent-Millennium/dp/0307406636/
•Louis CK on Conan O’Brien: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEY58fiSK8E
•Time interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjNgNDZzH5o
•José Ortega y Gasset: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Ortega_y_Gasset
•Revolt of the Masses: http://www.amazon.com/Revolt-Masses-Jos%C3%A9-Ortega-Gasset/dp/0393310957/