Day 245: Yeah, we haven't got this

These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here? They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual. We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group. Our psyches are programmed by millions of years of hunter-gatherer evolution. We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free individuals.

… It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom.

— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Populist demagogues like the petulant adolescent now ensconced in the White House rise to power by casting themselves as the only ones who can preserve the rights and freedom and security of the true people, the people of the blood and the soil. Societies and cultures are ever in flux as they respond to economic change and environmental change and new knowledge and human imagination and migrating populations. This flux forces on us those uneasy questions of identity and purpose. Artists and social critics and professional thinkers see burgeoning opportunity to produce new creative and social capital. But most people are not artists, social critics, or professional thinkers. Their response to change is vague disquiet that becomes apprehension that becomes anxiety that becomes fear.

Cynical and ruthless and unencumbered by any sort of moral grounding, preening punks like Trump, Orbán, Bolsonaro, Le Pen, and Farage prey on this fear and promise a return to greatness that never existed but has to be conjured so the demagogues can invent a narrative of the fall. Who is the one destined to lead the true people out of their fallen state? Three guesses.

Populism does nothing to preserve freedom and liberty because it’s a calculated reversion to tribalism. It’s a play on our worst instincts when we’re rattled by the profound questions that true freedom and individual liberty put right before our eyes, confronting us with how little in life is ever stable or certain. Being free is not free. It levies a stiff tax. It requires us to be ever attentive, to face constant hard questions with never enough information, to always confront how little we really know about anything that matters. All we can do is make our best guesses with the only lives we’ve got, but we’d really rather not deal with that. Millions of us prefer to pull on the armbands or put on the red hats or form up for the parade with our torches and our matching polo shirts. It’s way fucking easier than thinking.

A few days ago I decided that the next time I’m asked to designate my religion, I’m going to write “Stoic Pessimist.” Day by day, I mean to keep going, but I have less faith that we can handle freedom or democracy or a republic governed by law and bending toward justice. As a species we may have a fatal flaw, and a fatal propensity for breeding people happy to exploit that flaw. I hope I’m wrong.

Day 209: Flat White

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This was the essay in issue no. 15.

Flat White

What you are about to read is amazing. It is incredibly well written and totally awesome.

The bit you’ve read so far is BWAP: bullshit with a purpose. What follows will not be amazing, but it will be good because I’ve been a working professional for 40+ years and I know what I’m doing. I’ve no hope—or desire—that it be incredible or awesome. Just a newsletter essay done well.

The pandemic misuse of adjectives and adverbs like those above produces what historical linguists call “semantic bleaching.” The term dates from at least 1891, when the bleaching metaphor was used by German linguist Georg von der Gabelentz. It refers to the diminished intensity—the bleaching out—of modifiers like “terribly” or “horribly” or “amazing” through constant use buffing and puffing up the mundane and mediocre. At one time, “awesome” meant so intense, large, or overwhelming as to inspire the real, overpowering sensation of awe. Now it mostly means “good” or “well done.” “Yes, you’re right” or “you’re correct” has been replaced by “absolutely!” I’m absolutely sure you’ll agree that my examples are incredibly awesome. (That’s double bleaching plus italics—a triple-bleach! Told you I know what I’m doing!)

Linguists will point out that semantic bleaching has gone on as long as there’s been language, or at least adverbs and adjectives. (Though nouns can be bleached, too. “Shit” used to refer to…well you know what it referred to; now it can stand in for just about anything, and shit.) But I think the pace of bleaching has picked up in the last few years. I’ve lost track of how often I hear smart, literate people toss out “incredibly” like salt on a t-bone. I don’t know what they say to describe an encounter with something that really does go beyond the credible. Probably totally incredible!

Semantic bleaching can be placed in a much deeper context of the flattening of experience through technology. What I’m talking about extends way past the information tech that so many of us love to blame for everything from election tampering to attenuated attention spans to the alt-Reich to the Kardashians. As soon as we invented audio recording machines we applied them to flattening the experience of music. Successive developments in recording media have progressively flattened the incredibly amazing sound of an orchestra in full roar—vinyl LPs to CDs to mp3s, each one a shallower, colder simulacrum of what can be experienced in a concert hall.

Flattening can be nested. Albums flatten live music, and streaming has flattened the experience of a well-crafted album. Musicians used to make records that, when done right, were deep in texture and storytelling and interplay, a layered, complex musical experience. Now only the song matters, streaming through our sonically flattening earbuds.

Four-color printing enabled the flattening of painting and sculpture. (You’ve never experienced “The Starry Night” until you’ve seen it on an umbrella in the museum shop.) Compared to painting, photography further flattened images, and now digital technology has flattened photographs to the point that photographers use digital processing software to put grain back into images, so they more resemble the pictures we used to make with film.

You will be stunned to hear that technology has flattened politics and journalism. I could exhaust you by itemizing all the ways, but that’s okay, I don't have to because I can substitute an awesome flattened list: soundbites, top five takeaways, internet memes, listicles. Fucking Twitter and Facebook.

Seems to me we can’t help ourselves. First we invent ways to create rich new human experience. Then we invent technology to create wan but glossy mediated substitutes that don’t inconvenience us by requiring attention, thought, or the willingness to be challenged and made uncomfortable. We human beings are natural abbreviators.

So am I. Australians invented the flat white, a coffee beverage that uses microfoamed milk to smooth the bracing edge off a shot of espresso. It’s my favorite drink at Starbucks when I don’t have the time to sit down for a single-origin pourover served in a proper ceramic mug. What I really like is a flat white made with soy milk, which further overrides any espresso bitterness with soy’s natural sweetness. It takes strong black coffee and makes it flat and white. And it’s incredibly awesome. Really, just amazing.