The following is a transcript of my prepared remarks for Tuesday’s culture and media panel at the National Conservatism Conference hosted by the Edmund Burke Foundation.
As we’re just two days removed from the somber remembrances of 9/11, it’s worth pausing for a thought experiment. Could you explain what would happen on September 11, 2001 to someone on September 11, 1901? Offices 1,400 feet in the air? Commercial jets? That some people were alive in both years is the disorientation of modernity in a nutshell. We must recenter our politics around these challenges.
HBO’s “Euphoria” consciously begins with 9/11, setting the main character’s birth three days after the attack to frame its popular but dark depiction of Generation Z. Now could you explain “Euphoria” to someone in 2001? Not one hundred years in the past, but 20. A popular show about teens watched by teens that featured 30 male genitalia in one, single episode?
I wouldn’t have believed it, but Nietzsche might have. He famously declared God to be dead in the parable of the madman, asking in 1882, “Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?” Though oft misunderstood, Nietzsche’s declaration of this divine decomposition was also, he wrote, describing “an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth.”
He predicted destruction, yes, but also reveled in the decay. “We philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea.’”
Karl Marx may not have been surprised by contemporary America either, even by the pains of transgenderism “Euphoria” and its corporate benefactors at HBO depict as virtues. “Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex,” he wrote in the “Communist Manifesto,” adding in the same book that “modern industrial labour, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped [the proletarian] of every trace of national character.”
The 20th century was the most unusual in human history. But so too was the last millennium. This culminated in the period of industrialization to which Marx and Neitzsche were reacting, a world of photography and telegrams and mass production and an ever shrinking globe. Their solutions to these challenges were not correct, but neither was the general assumption that technological advancement was always the same as progress, that prosperity and its material benefits were always worth the costs.
Millennials think they’re old for reminiscing about landlines and dial-up internet when, in reality, photography isn’t all that old in the scope of human history. Boomers are nostalgic for vinyl, but it’s the same story there. For hundreds and hundreds of years, humans have quickly begun to develop tools that outpace their evolutionary capacity. Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying write about this phenomenon of “hypernovelty” in their book, “A Hunter Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century.” And this is where the cultural populist’s agenda must begin.
Through this broadened aperture, we can access a new moral clarity, one that can protect conservatives against the inevitable, bitter backlash of unhappy elites and their unwitting subjects, conditioned to see the material world as the source of pleasure and justice as its guarantor.
“One of the greatest paradoxes in American life is that while, on average, existence has gotten more comfortable over time, happiness has fallen,” wrote Arthur Brooks in 2020. Brooks crunched some interesting numbers. Here’s what he found:
According to the United States Census Bureau, average household income in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, was higher in 2019 than has ever been recorded for every income quintile. And although income inequality has risen, this has not been mirrored by inequality in the consumption of goods and services…Meanwhile, domestic government services have increased significantly: For example, federal spending on education, training, employment, and social services increased from 2000 to 2019 by about 30 percent in inflation-adjusted terms.
We also, according to Brooks’ data, live in bigger homes or have more living space. Life expectancy was generally on the rise until about 2014. When Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926, the average American woman lived to be just 58.
In other words, we cannot spend our way out of this malaise. We on the right are having productive discussions now about antitrust and crime and China and family formation. These are essential and helpful to the culture. I’d like to suggest we think creatively in this political context about obvious sources of daily pain for the average American.
There are several easy targets: pornography, TikTok, and every addictive social media product, food, obesity, and work. There is almost no discussion in our politics of these subjects and yet they are obviously what makes the average American’s daily life less fulfilling. They seized us so quickly we became the frogs in the boiling pot, and our entire personal and professional and political infrastructure was transferred onto a virtual infrastructure monetized to work like slot machines. It’s a public health emergency, but where is the Ralph Nader candidate running against addictive tech?
Parents know that ensuring a child’s early exposure to violent pornography involves removing them from this infrastructure, and requires great awareness and inconvenience. Even then there’s no guarantee. Try finding a job without being available on email.
Of course, pornography use must be dramatically curtailed: this could be through a federal ban, robust age limits, cultural messaging, and new standards of sex education for public and private schools. There are easy policy fixes here.
TikTok must be banned outright, full stop, with no hesitation. I won’t dwell here on the myriad reasons it’s a scourge on our culture, but I’ll say the app’s Beijing-based executives borrowed a trick from casinos and hide the clock when users scroll. All social media platforms use techniques like this, but TikTok is in the hands of a company staffed by government workers of a hostile foreign power and, curiously, the place our teens spend most of their screen time is promoting songs like “WAP.” Our tech companies, of course, are no better on this front.
Let’s direct the might of America’s private entrepreneurial community away from social media and its lucrative and efficient ad markets towards providing consumers less plugged-in alternatives. And let’s help Americans understand why they should be demanding these market solutions to the awful rewiring of our brains, before it’s too late. Special interests make a lot of money off these horrific products, which are worse than cigarettes.
Speaking of consumption, we are eating food that’s wildly new and physically moving much, much less. We wonder why we’re more anxious, depressed, suicidal, alienated, lonely, single, divided, and childless. We’re miserable! We’re not meant to live physically like we live now and it’s clearly part of what keeps people out of civil society or experiencing cheap and divisive synthetic versions of it globally online.
Local Republicans should immediately ponder how to proliferate free outdoor gyms in public parks. Companies like Coca-Cola and their lobbyists should be investigated for lying to and misleading consumers and buying off politicians. We’re talking about Juul, which has an age limit, but ignoring much worse products that are totally normalized.
Employers of sedentary workforces should be encouraged culturally at the very least to be sure their workers can physically move and unplug from the internet in ways that curb depression and anxiety. There may be labor laws that need reinterpretation for the digital age. No wide-scale metaverse integration for the Zoom class or education. Offices need space to move and meet. While we’re at it, there are plenty of public and private avenues towards restoring physical beauty to America’s suburbs, but that’s a topic for another time.
People should have enough energy and stability and sobriety to go to church, to spend time in nature, to be a part of civil society, to appreciate beauty. But stuffed with preservatives and health problems, sated with porn, and mollified by screens, our motivation is slipping.
Here’s what a 26-year-old British man told journalist Suzy Weiss this month. “Between social media and porn and podcasts and video games, you can live a low quality simulation of what a fulfilling life would be. You can get social interaction from social media, the feeling of problem solving or being productive from video games, and sexual fulfillment from porn. I’m assuming these things don’t give you as much as a normal life would,” he says, “but it stops people from hitting rock bottom. The lowest possible quality of life you can have, with the internet, is still kind of tolerable. It’s not absolutely awful. You can sort of exist in that, and there’s nothing to give you a kick up the butt because it’s not the worst thing.”
We can believe in free markets and believe in cultivating the demand to make them serve moral ends. These are not mutually exclusive goals. Coca-Cola is welcome to peddle its delicious sodas honestly and responsibly without relying on cronyism. There is plenty of room for policy solutions within the scope of a reasonably limited federal government, so long as they’re supplemented with serious efforts to change corporate culture and consumer culture.
We needn’t regulate individuals’ social media use or pump their feeds full of propaganda like China does. We don’t have to go full Bloomberg and confiscate Big Gulps. We just need to adjust our political and cultural conversation to account for these enormous changes. This is not a call for regulation, although there is room for that.
Conservatives can and must lead the way. Our technologies can be helpful. People don’t want to be attacked but they are absolutely hungry for this message.
Sure, there’s “a great deal of ruin in a nation,” as Adam Smith once wrote, and as Bret Stephens likes to quote. But there is no reason the richest, freest people ever to live must necessarily also be unhappy, and unhappy in ways that are destabilizing the country as elites prosper and profit off pain.
We know this John Adams quote well, and for good reason. “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” he contended. Adams’ quote often gets cut off right there. We should remember the next sentence as well. “Morality and virtue are the foundation of our republic and necessary for a society to be free,” he added.
One can be free to pursue happiness without finding much of it at all. The cultural populist’s agenda demands a wider lens than the political boundaries special interests have drawn and confined us to. We’ve gotten ourselves into these extraordinary times. Now our entrepreneurialism and innovation and pioneering spirit must get us out.