Art Economics Low Politics Decline Political Theology Power Geopolitics

The Road to "De-Flanderization"

The Road to "De-Flanderization"
Weaver's Banquet Talk, April 2024

Here, I am supposed to give a talk on a subject. And I always speculate that, at one of these get-togethers, maybe I should do a deep dive on a particular topic like Bluegrass or my favorite Italian films or the new Dune movie. But I always find myself in the position of the M.C., so inevitably, I have to give the big talk on "community building".

I always really hated the word "community". Growing up I felt that anyone who used this word too much was almost certainly an insufferable bore and probably a moral scold to boot. The word “community” probably deserves to be tossed in the waste bin. It forms the base of terms like “community organizing”, “community college”, or “community service”. It's generic from its inception, indicating the lowest tier, zero standard, approach to human interaction. The word is usually a scam to raise a new tax or force you to sit through a useless blathering lecture (although Elon Musk's “Community Notes” have slightly warmed me to the term). And whenever someone is about to lecture you on "community", you will probably not hear about anything interesting.

But, we do need to say something about community, or its relative collapse in our lives during the early 21st century. We are feeling a certain sense of absence, a certain sense that there is a quality of life that our parents had, and which needs to be restored as the first step to making any lasting change for the better.  We say “community building” or “de-atomization”, but what is really in play is some desire for restoration, properly understood.

But “restoration” is a very tall order, since if you follow any popular online dissident ideology, you probably think things are a very long way away from being “good”. In my talk for the Fall banquet, I recollected something of the old pre-1968 world that my grandparents occupied where regular social engagements were just the natural cornerstone of any lower-middle-class life. Indeed, the solidity of the old world’s social bonds would shock a millennial like me, let alone the much more isolated members of the “Zoomer” generation.

But rather than speculating over the distant past, it might be more productive to consider the decline we have witnessed in our own lifetimes. Certainly, the world that we occupy now looks nothing like the California of the 1990s where I grew up.

It's strange when you look back on past eras because many times the things that people complained about then are, in turn, the things that we look back on most fondly. Take for instance the infamous social cliques of the late 20th century, something that is pointed out in almost every teen drama or television show about young professional life like Friends or Fraiser. This cliquish quality of life is almost always called out as a negative when it appears in media. After all, why did people need subcultures and interests to define them? Couldn’t they all just be confident and self-defining individuals?

Perhaps, but as a 90s child looking at the adult world, the distinct flavors of adult social existence were what made them interesting. Grown-ups had common places where they were expected to fulfill a role outside of work and the passive entertainment they consumed. And it was in those places, the “third places” (as they are sometimes called) where people became interesting.

There was the standard suburban social life my parents occupied filled with children, farmers’ markets, and educational trips. But, visiting a family friend who lived in Berkeley, I could glimpse an entirely different adult world; a place built around art galleries, strange coffee shops, organic grocery CoOps, and various sundry collective housing projects. Certainly, this place was a “hippy scene”, but still very much a collective of people who knew each other, and who were in some sense united in a common project, planning for the future

Alternatively, via a trip deeper into the city with my father to visit an old business friend, I caught a glimpse of an entirely different adult scene, a place of sophisticated restaurants, jazz, high art, and politics. Perhaps a little colder than its lower-class alternatives, but people knew each other, and they were defined as something of a community by their colleagues even if they ran in cliques rather than something more familial.

It seemed to me as a child that, to be properly adult, a person had to live their lives with a certain kind of collective style and spirituality. Adults were individuals, certainly, but part of a greater world that contained within it some element of  the communal.

The Millennial generation is defined by adult disappointment. And certainly, my own great disappointment can be found in this expectation.

I remember returning to life in an urban area after leaving college and looking for such a community in Portland Oregon in the early 2010s. Certainly, based on what everyone was saying, this was the place to be! There was even a hit T.V. Show Portlandia that described the city as the place where “The dream of the 1990s was still alive”. That was what Hipster culture was all about, right? Isn’t that what everyone was celebrating in movies like "Scott Pilgrim Versus the World" and the Judd Apatow films?

Well, as virtually every person realized very quickly in the 2010s, Millennial culture was about as wholesome as that syringe I almost stepped on at Coachella and about as clean as its latrines. Millennial adult life was lonely, and not like that cool jazz age type of artistic loneliness, it was just a social wasteland with impermanent friends, acquaintances that you could never count on, and unserious misdirected people. Millennial adult life was filthy, and not in that kind of lovable hippy way, but just generally misshapen, unhealthy, and oblong. But more than all that, there was a general social absence. Even though group life was all Millennials seemed to talk about, none of them were able to create the collective spirit that they desired.

To start, adults of my generation didn’t occupy cliques or subcultures to speak of. There was only one subculture in the Portland of 2011: the hipster subculture. Hipster culture was not defined by any ethos, just a set of popular consumption habits, poses, and of course, the attitudes we all learned from the internet.

As an indulgent aside, I will remark here that I always found it amusing how opposite  “hippies” and “hipsters” were in style, despite their similar names. Hippies are organic. Hipsters are industrial. A Hippie is focused on the simple life, while everything that the Hipster does is organized around consumer choices. And while every hippy seemed to be cut in a completely different way even while professing to be part of a “whole”, all hipsters were insistent individuals but always seemed interchangeable duplicates of each other.

I googled for the lyrics to the song “Dream of the 90’s” from the 1st episode of Portlandia, and all I really found were people who were also looking for the lyrics. So, what the heck, I transcribed them myself. I wrote out the song lyrics alone, and...
Maybe the dream of the 1990s ISN’T alive in Portland

Nevertheless, it’s worth it to speculate what caused the great decline in adult social interaction during the Hipster era. The internet is the obvious culprit. You know the story, people spend more time on their computers and less time interacting with actual people. We have all heard the refrain from our parents’ generation, at least before they locked us all in our houses during COVID.

Yet, I always felt that something more distinct was going on, at the higher cultural levels of society.

A big piece of the puzzle fell into place when I read a recent article by the leftist author Freddie DeBoer. For those interested, DeBoer is one of the last progressive writers of my generation that I can read unironically, not least because of his unique insight into the elite Blue-state culture, and his article, entitled “Planet of Person Guys” was very much in form.

According to the piece, since the early 2010s with the mass entry of Millennial women into journalism, there has been a sea change in the way elite opinion makers talk about themselves and relate to other distinct urban subcultures. Forget more introspective think-pieces about various interesting alternative communities. For the last ten years, the elite media has been on a mission to discover, reveal and identify every single type of contemporary archetype, or "person guy", largely as a means to belittle them, usually through a catchy joke name.

You know the stereotypes: the “LitBros”, the “Rock Dads”, the “Art Hoes”, the “Cool Girls”, the “Urban Foodies” and the “Christian gentrifiers”. Of course, human anthropology of urban subcultures has been an essential part of mainstream journalism, what people used to call “human interest”. But this new crop of articles was different. Whereas the old columns described something neat and interesting (as if documenting an exotic fauna), its Millennial equivalent was designed to categorize, reduce, satirize, and trivialize. Transforming a group of people from what might be considered a “scene” into a joke that might be easily dismissed sarcastically with an eye roll, and an expression like “Oh no, not one of THOSE types again”.

Maybe this is just part of the process of journalism being slowly conquered by the culture of catty mean girls. But it’s a seductive mode of thought.

These articles invite a reader to play the role of a tired onlooker. The cool kid who has seen this all before, and who is really ready for something different. Nothing an individual who resembles one of these “Person Guys” does can be original or touch on a deeper truth. They can’t be part of a deeper scene or culture. Instead these “Person Guys” are just one more box of things, another piece of urban optionality, another restaurant, another fascination to be paraded on social media, debunked, mocked, and then dismissed. And as you might imagine, these articles while entertaining to read, were corrosive to the existence of specialized interest groups or cliques, since the moment a stereotype was identified (and became common parlance), everyone would flee in its wake, seeking to avoid being the butt of a collective joke.

When you stand back and think of it, these types of articles are the Ne Plus Ultra of my generation’s pathology.

The perspective was not just a product of Millennial wordcraft, it was Millennial soulcraft. It was the “main character syndrome” incarnate. Except for this time, the main character’s job was to transform all others into late-stage sitcom parodies, to “Flanderize” real-life people. Just as we see television characters like the eponymous Ned Flanders, transform into self-parodies defined by their defects over time, so too did the narrativization transform all group commitments, all special qualities, all somewhat weird fascinations not  consumption-based into caricatures that could be mocked.

“A specter is haunting the Millennial Generation”

And what was left after all this?

The Hipster, the eternal cipher, always aloof and sarcastic, yet, somehow, always complaining about the lack of sincerity in everyone else. The isolated man and woman bemoaning the loss of a collective sense of organization, right after having debunked whatever cultural basis could have supported it.

As a friend once told me: “Millennials spent half their time trying to get into an identity group, then the other half trying to break it apart, they are social Oroubourous.”

It seems like the only things Millennials feel comfortable believing in are things that they don’t think are real. People organize their lives around not believing in God, changing their identities and bodies to conform to a “gender” they claim is socially constructed, and a thousand different Millennial religious fanaticisms are organized around sacred nerd-culture stories that are understood from the outset to be fictional.

There is a deep fear in our generation to become categorized, processed, or fit into a collective. We fear being seen or otherwise figured out. I suppose this comes from the modern impression that what can be completely understood, or worse convincingly replicated, has no value. What follows is an attempt to flee from any regularity. We don't want to be that person or that character who can be reliably predicted and imitated. Because to be imitatible, is to be reducible, and to be reducible in a world that holds nothing sacred, is to be mockable. We don't want to be, for a better word Flanderized.

The great irony, in the mode of Greek Tragedy, is that, via our generation’s attempt to escape normalcy, we have become intensely predictable just with an extra layer of sarcasm. We have become cartoon characters, a silly type of people who never have found themselves. And despite our best efforts, we are still Flanderized.

What's so odd, is that this is the opposite of what pre-modern people believed in and strived for across human history. Constancy and relatability were classically considered virtues, which, in turn, implied readability and predictability. Really how could it be otherwise? You can't be a part of a collective if you are an effervescent indefinable individual who is the main character of reality, the judge of all, and yet, somehow judged by none.

After all, collectivity is a two-way street, and being part of a society is electing in some way to be seen and to be ruled. There can be no bond without submission to moral confines, which means being perceived and judged with the expectation of a certain amount of constancy in behavior.

A core part of what is ordinarily called right-wing thought lies in that fundamental ancient observation. Rulership is inevitable. Men will be governed if not by an ordered moral principle, then by a community leader, if not by a community leader, then a slave master, if not by a slave master then by demonic chaos.

That’s the heart of “the iron law of oligarchy”. And something that leftists almost always misunderstand when I explain right-wing concepts to them. They always think the prospect is self-defeating.

Really? You are an elitist who is against our current elite? A moralist who believes politics functions in an immoral way? An anti-politics political theorist? Why do you care about who rules you anyway, if, by your admission, you are going to be ruled by somebody?

Yeah, I guess. We will be ruled by someone. But put differently WE COULD be ruled by somebody, by people, by humans. By an aristocracy who wants to enhance the humanity of the people they govern. Wouldn't that be refreshing? We certainly aren't ruled by anything like that now.

Instead, we have a series of geriatric and demented rule-based systems ruled over by a somehow even more geriatric and demented elite. And waiting in the wings to replace them is a new completely detached cohort of Millennial theater kids, ready to be unleashed on the world, A.I. copilots in hand. I don't want to be ruled by algorithms, or cartoon characters, or, worse-yet, cartoon characters trained-up by algorithms.

Could we be governed by people, people who acted like real people? Like adults used to act? Could we trace our government’s decisions back to real leaders? And could we, in turn, be allowed to live as people ourselves and not just as some collection of undifferentiated preferences

That’s what I want. I want real rulers and real morality. I want an aristocracy.

But we don't have an aristocracy of any kind. We never trained one. Maybe we don’t even know how anymore.

For my own generation, the core of the problem was that we were never trained to be people in the first place. Because the qualities of the Aristocrat are fundamentally those of being a real person, not a television show main character, or, worse, a detached and ironic view from nowhere. Becoming a worthy person starts with being invested in things, having skin in the game, caring about things deeply and in a non-ironic way, and being fundamentally perceivable by others, and fundamentally perceived as mortal.

There is a process that I talk about sometimes online called "De-Flanderization". Just as Flanderization is the process through which an originally complex character becomes subsumed into their own stereotype, the process of de-Flanderization is where an initially unserious parody over time reveals something essential and essentially human in a character.

For a generation that transformed their real-world existence into a set of dismissible stereotypes and foils, I think a similar process of de-Flanderization is an essential step. Not simply for personal growth, not simply to be better humans and live in the world with more dignity, but also because it allows us to grow into the kind of leaders everyone else is waiting for, to provide hope for the future and something better to look forward towards.

Fundamentally. De-Flanderization is a process of building trust by being honest about our vulnerabilities and hopes. It's about being seen and exposing oneself to the possibility of scrutiny; basically, everything that the internet teaches you not to do.

I hate to say it, but the deep romanticism of actual aristocracy is gated by all of the supremely unsexy activities that we all know and dislike: listening to people even if what they are saying is not immediately interesting to your purposes, learning to take their fears and insecurities seriously, and then, perhaps, committing to their interests, and, in some sense, appreciating who they are.

This is the first step to responsible leadership.

I have believed for the longest time now, that the steps we are taking here, with the “Basket-weaving” project, are quite important. Not that I think our regular banquets are imminently going to produce some tight-knit coterie of political actors (although I have seen some people working on projects like that and I want to say “Godspeed” to their efforts). And, while I do enjoy meeting you all here and seeing old friends, it's not because I am so concerned about having yet another social engagement. Rather, I think we are setting the example for something greater.

We are establishing a pattern of life, to build the initial stages of the path back away from the disasters of the Millennial generation and the poisonous fruit of the internet. We are attempting to find, at least in part, the great promise of what the information age was supposed to provide: real connection, real interaction, real experience, and real communion.

And if you want, I suppose we can call that something approaching "community".

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