Fame and the New Society

We are beginning to live in a world where fame is starting to become more important than money. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. Several factors, I assume, made this possible – not least of which is food security. The world creates 1.5 times as much food is needed for the human population, although many people are malnourished due to distribution problems (see here.) Still, for many people in the West, the needs of *survival* have been met, so different needs begin to take priority.

There are a lot of irritating side effects of fame becoming the new source of currency, in particular, an increasing amount of noise as people cry out for attention. However I think it is also the beginning of the next phase of human existence (not to get too sci fi on you.)


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – food supply is “Physiological” aka the red block.

We have solved problems that have been defining humanity for millennia, so now nearly all of American society is operating within the top 4 needs. “Safety” is still an unmet need for many Americans, particularly the homeless, but an ever increasing percentage of the population is primarily concerned with the “Social” and “Esteem” levels of need, which is exactly where fame lies. I expect, and hope, this obsession with fame will spread as increasing numbers of the world population have their physiological and safety needs met.

If fame becomes a big enough, money may become a thing of the past. Eventually. We’re a long way off, but people already work for free – on wikipedia, in open source, and contributing articles for journals. I write this blog for free, for the benefit of both my readers. Working for money has ceased to be a way to generate respect in the community. The richest people in the US are beginning to be resented by the population, and historically, high levels of resentment have not been sustainable. In the past, they led to revolution and revolt – but there is no need for things to get so violent in this technological age.

We have non-violent means of shaming people at our disposal, which are used regularly. With the rise of fame comes the rise of image, and maintenance of that image. If it becomes shameful to be rich, it will be a complete game changer for American society. I doubt, however, our consumer mindset will disappear. At its heart, American consumerism is really about purchasing social status. The marketing of objects is usually the marketing of identity -“buy this, and you can be that.”

We seem to be drifting toward an online identity, where the actual objects we possess are less important than the image we broadcast via the web. One the one hand, it seems more artificial, but on the other hand, it frees us of many of our material ties. If you could be a rich nobody, or a poor yet well respected celebrity, which one would you pick? (You can’t pick both.)

Back in the day, wealth and fame went together, but that link is being broken. The internet is essentially the exultation of the every-person so no longer will you have to be rich to get famous, and fame is no promise of wealth. This is one short step from money being de coupled from power, which would be astounding.

Sure, rich corporations can buy congress – but at the end of the day, congress relies on elections, and fame has the ability to trump cash. Right now, money is often used to *buy* fame, but someone who already had fame wouldn’t need it necessarily.

We may actually be at the start of a culture transcending money in many ways, yet it is unlikely to produce a utopian paradise. Resource scarcity will be replaced by attention scarcity, where we battle each other for the spotlight. Our physical manifestations will become less important as we build up these hollow online personas, and yet it is still a step forward – but toward what? What is our ultimate self-actualization as a society? I can’t answer that, but I do have faith in it.

I Talk About Myself A Lot

An old friend of mine, let’s call him “Sam” was visiting town and one of my local friends, let’s call him “Butthead,” was letting him stay at his place. Butthead told Sam, “I’ll bet the first thing Emma does when she sees you is talk about herself, before she asks how you are doing.”

I then proceeded to do just that. Butthead later repeated the story to me, saying that he believed part of the reason I was so unhappy was that I talked about myself too much, I was not able to focus on other people. (For the record, I am not unhappy.)

I did this same thing on my first date with my girlfriend. We met on OKCupid, and as soon as we had our first real world encounter, I went off on a long monologue about whatever various things were in my head. Months later, my girlfriend told me that the first thought she had was “oh good, she talks.” You see, my girlfriend is a little bit shy. Sometimes, when she goes on dates with other people who are a little bit shy, they sit there with a lot of silence going on and it’s uncomfortable.

I never have this problem. In fact, out of about 20+ OK Cupid dates I’ve had, I’ve only ever once encountered a person who didn’t want to go on a second date with me. Sure, these budding relationships frequently fall apart after my terrible personality becomes more apparent, but I am *killer* at first dates. I never get nervous about talking to people one on one. Often, I get nervous at parties where I’ll have to break into a group conversation, but once I get into a one on one conversation, I’m golden. I’m good at job interviews, and I am *great* with shy people. The reason is, I talk about myself.

I used to be very shy, painfully shy, when I was in grade school. Once, on the schoolbus, I was watching this girl who was more popular than me who was able to talk to everyone and I thought to myself “how does she always have something to talk about?” Then, I noticed – she talked about herself, and no one seemed to mind. If anything, they seemed to enjoy it.

Thing is, many people are shy, and for many shy people the #1 concern they have is in conversation is “is the other person judging me?” In fact, I’d guess most people – shy or not – secretly wonder this. And sure, I may be self centered, and this popular girl may have been self centered, but we’re always having fun in our conversations and we’re generally not judging the other person. By taking the focus off the other person, at least initially, this gives someone – especially a shy someone – space to be comfortable, space to be themselves.

Of course, my friend Butthead is not shy and he no longer worries about if I’m judging him, so he finds my self centered talk annoying (because, I’m talking about *me* and not *him*.) Yet, the fact that I like to talk about myself doesn’t mean I can’t listen to other people. In fact, it’s relevant to point out that he made this complaint over a dinner where we’d gotten together *specifically* to talk about his relationship issues. Despite my self centered ways, I have historically been the #1 person he has come to with all of his problems. Many of my friends come to me with their problems, actually, and every single person I’ve had a long term relationship with since I’ve turned 20 has told me they’ve found me to be very easy to open up to.

I am genuinely interested in people, and love to hear them talk about themselves too. I find talking about myself easy, and I find listening to other people easy. I asked my girlfriend if she’d felt comfortable talking about herself on our first date, and she said yes – more so than she’d felt on most of her other dates. She also made the comment “you remember things about me I don’t even remember telling you.”

I remember a lot about my first date with my girlfriend. I remember the clothes she was wearing, the expression on her face the first time I saw her (I thought it was bored, but later realized it was nervous,) how we sat down on a bench but we were both shivering, how she stiffened when I asked her if she was American, how emotionless she was when I told her I was bisexual (although, I realized she must know it because we met on OKC), how she laughed so openly at dinner and I could tell she liked me, how we had both bet on the super bowl (which was going on at the time) but just because of work,  how she wanted to take me to the Lex afterward with her friends but I declined, how she walked me home with a cocky implication that I may be more threatened by the people on the street because I was femme, how she insisted on having me use her gloves, and how happy she looked after we kissed goodnight. She just couldn’t stop smiling.

Thing is, these things go together. I’m interested in people! I’m interested in me! I’m interested in others! These things are not mutually exclusive. It reminds me, actually, of how selfish lovers are better in bed. Because, here’s the thing – most people are selfish on some level. When you’re with me, you don’t have to hide your selfish side. I’m certainly not hiding mine. We can just get real about who we are, and if you’re my friend, I’m probably genuinely interested in *who you are*, not this idealized person you pretend to be.

But, don’t complain to me that I talk about myself. If you’re not also interested in who I am, go get yourself a new friend.

White People, Stop Making Fun of White People!

Did you ever read the blog stuff white people like? Or, have you seen this article recently 36 white people who need to be stopped? Or, possibly this video, 10 things I hate about white people? What is interesting about all this interweb stuff is that it was all created by white people.

So, if people of color want to hate on white people – if this is part of their healing process for being in a society that marginalizes them – I can tolerate that. I don’t like it, and nothing anyone ever says will ever make me *enjoy* hearing my race ridiculed, but it’s fine. I’ll work under the assumption that the healing generated from such comments outstrips my own irritation, and I’ll suck it up.

But, I cannot *stand* hearing this shit from white people.

News flash: making fun of white people doesn’t make you any less white. It doesn’t make you any more literate in issues that people of color have (in fact, I’d argue just the opposite – time spent making fun of white people is time focused *on* white people, not on other races. ) It doesn’t make you any cooler, or more interesting, or more relatable. Instead, it strikes me as a narcissistic way to appear politically correct. “Look at me, I’m not racist, I’m not like *those* white people.”

But, you know, most white people – are – sort of like “those” white people. White people who are focusing their energy on how “fucked up” white people are without any real suggestion for improvement are part of the problem. Mocking your own race in an effort to distance yourself from the atrocities committed by people who are the same color as you is cowardly. It doesn’t stop you from perpetuating the injustice, it doesn’t heal any of the past crimes, it doesn’t provide any sort of improvement in any way – it’s just attempt to reinforce your own ego as “not racist.”

Admitting your own racism is a lot harder, a lot braver, and a lot more useful than mocking other white people.

So, stop mocking white people white people! You’re not fooling anyone.

Why Did White People Have Black Slaves?

I was reading James Baldwin’s Everybody’s Protest Novel, in which Baldwin roasts Uncle Tom’s Cabin (an anti-slavery novel written by a white woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe) and, he raises what – for me – is *the* problem with pop discussion on privilege today.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle tom’s Cabin like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants — is a catalogue of violence. This is explained by the nature of Mrs. Stowe’s subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete; and what constriction of failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality — unmotivated, senseless — and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that motivated her people to such deeds.

When I read that paragraph for the first time, I felt like Baldwin had shined a light into a part of me that was screaming. In fact, that paragraph is so good, I’m going to quote from it again.

Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.

Sentimentality is the mark of dishonesty. How true that reads, and how relevant. That thought extends outward beyond race, beyond oppression even, to hit at something deeply out of line in our culture. Why is it that 28% of “young adult” novels are purchased by people between 30 and 44? Why do so many of the videos that pop up in my facebook feed contain the message “try to watch this about crying?” Why do we want to watch deaf women hearing music for the first time, or cats reunited with their owners, why do straight people get group-think obsessed with gay marriage?

the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart

Where, along the way, did we lose our ability to fully feel our ordinary lives? Why do we seek out extreme stories of emotion, to compensate for the deadness that has entered our hearts?

it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.

What is acting as a signal of secret and violent inhumanity? James Baldwin saw this inhumanity in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and now I see it everywhere. In particular, I see it in the discussion of privilege. So, if the “underprivileged” want to call out other people’s “privilege” – like, that’s fine and possibly even healthy. What pisses me off, however, is the way privileged people tend to “own” their privilege, how they attempt to construct a more flattering self identity by being “allies” of less privileged classes. Ultimately, however, it’s not *really* in their best interest to improve the state of these less privileged classes, because these “allies” need less fortunate people to perpetuate their own identity as an “ally.”

Or, another way to put it, is if there was no injustice in the world, there would be no liberals. Liberals feed off injustice, their identity, their purpose in the world is to fight injustice. And, I say this as a liberal white woman – a liberal white woman who wonders, “who will I be when we achieve equality?”

It is notable that Harriet Beecher Stowe campaigned for the expansion of women’s rights after the civil war, not to improve the lives of the recently emancipated slaves who she had so passionately argued for before abolition. What she seemed more interested in, and what James Baldwin called our out on, was *injustice* rather than *people*, or *slavery* rather than *slaves*. Discussions on privilege usually focus on the institution, and seem rooted in identity and narcissism rather than a desire for connection. Louis CK “checks his privilege” in a recent video about fat women, but the video isn’t about fat women, it’s about men. The fat woman’s rant starts with “it really sucks to be a fat girl,” but then launches into the issues *men* have that makes them not want to date fat women. “You think your dick is going to fall off if you hold hands with a fat girl?” the fat woman asks. Good question – but, we can’t ignore the fact that this is Louis CK’s show, that the space he made to discuss what fat girls feel was dominated by what *men* feel to be *with* a fat girl – coming from the mouth of a fat girl. He used her to ask questions he didn’t dare about himself, but he didn’t really shed much more light on what it was like to *be* her.

So, still – with all this discussion – the biggest questions are left untouched. As Baldwin pointed out, Stowe left unanswered the most important question of all – “what it was, after all, that motivated her people to such deeds”?

How could white slave owners get up every day and brutalize other people? How could this happen? How were they not driven to despair, or depression, or in any other way motivated to stop? How could they have desired their own prosperity at such a sharp cost?

I can’t answer that question right now, but it’s a question that needs answering and requires attention. Instead, I’ll ask another question which is more relevant to today.

How is it that we accept the mass incarceration of black and latino men? How are we ok with having nearly 60% of the prison system being filled with racial demographics that only make up 1/4 of the US population? How are we ok with the fact that one in six black men has been incarcerated at some point in their lives? (See source.)

Do you believe that one in six black men deserves to have been in prison at some point? To put someone in prison is to rob them of their life in the most straightforward way. As a country, we are committing a mass theft of life from men of color. How do we accept this?

If you’re like me, you may not have even thought about it for a long time. I’m nearly 30, and I didn’t really think of these issues until very recently, but I have known since middle school that black people went to prison more than white people. What was that knowledge accompanied by?

Honestly, fear. I am afraid of black men. Not the ones I know, but strangers – and, definitely the ones in prison. If you conjure up the image of a black inmate, you have conjured up someone I am afraid of, and this fear blocks my empathy. I’ve never heard another white person admit they are afraid of black men, and I’m ashamed to admit it on my blog, but it’s true. It’s true, and I know many other white people must also be afraid of black men, and this fear is keeping black men in prison. Liberal, “privilege owning” white people won’t say this out loud, and will probably condemn me as a racist for admitting it myself, but by not admitting it I would only be protecting my image at the cost of ever figuring out what is actually happening.

So, should I just get over this? Well, I’ve tried, actually, and there’s one problem. The men who shout sexual slurs at me in the street are overwhelmingly black and latino men, and my lizard brain can’t help but notice this fact. When I walk by a black man in the street, I tense up, because part of me thinks he’s more likely to shout at me than a white man is. Now, there are some exceptions here – a black man in glasses? A black man in a suit? I don’t fear these men. But, a black man in torn clothes who is clearly unbathed? I am afraid of him.

We can’t address white racial bias without addressing the long term affects of discrimination. If black men are more likely to go to prison, they’re probably also more likely not to really give a shit about violating the social norms that sent them there. White men don’t say bullshit to me in the street because they’re afraid of what other people around them will think, and because they benefit from playing by conventional rules (when it’s anonymous on the internet though, all bets are off.) My own fears and biasses interact with reality, interact with how people who have absorbed a lifetime of oppression actually behave in the real world.

So, why do we accept the number of black men in prison? Because we have made too many of them criminals, and by making them criminals once, we have given them an incentive to *keep* being criminals. Now, our biases that “black men are dangerous” seem justified, and polite society won’t openly admit this bias which only makes it even harder to fix.

To go back to slavery, I still can’t answer this question as to what made white people do it – but, I’ll take a stab at why they accepted it. Slaves lacked education, they had absorbed more physical and mental trauma than most people today can even conceive of, they were mourning from a loss of their own culture, and so they acted differently from white people, and differently from free people. Instead of seeing this behavioral difference as being directly caused by their actions, white people read this behavior to be an indicator of innate differences between the races that justified slavery.

Yet, white people must have seen that only because the *wanted* to see that. Why did white people want to see black people as slaves? Why did they want to see other cultures as inferior? I believe the answer to that question goes deeper than the material benefit they gained, that maybe it ties back to Baldwin’s point about excessive sentimentality and a fear of really living, but I’m not quite sure how.