It appears that each generation of vaguely literate upper-middle-class Americans must find a particular genre of writing and clutch that tightly to its collective breast. The Lost Generation had their dissipated tales of ennui from Hemingway and Mr. Zelda Fitzgerald, the Greatest loved their massive trash novels (think Thorn Birds). The Boomers read Updike and Jong with (mastur)bated breath, and their younger siblings luxuriated in the privileged sense of wokeness conferred by suffering through an entire rambling Novel Of Blackness by the likes of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker.
Generation X has something unique — the upscale-parenting screed. This is something genuinely new, and like “trap music” it was nowhere until the moment it was everywhere. It litters the pages of the Atlantic and New Yorker the same way Tom Wolfe used to bully his way through the fiction section of every respectable East Coast magazine. The alpha example of this is “When The Culture War Comes For Your Kids,” a recent Atlantic piece skewered by Steve Sailer at Unz Review. Written by a National Book Award winner, the article bemoans the misery of finding out that your child can’t make the cut for a private preschool because at the age of two, his sense of visual ideation was already far behind the curve of other, more promising, two-year-olds. Later on, the author realizes that it will cost $1.5M to send his child through a NYC private primary and secondary education, leading him to whine preciously about schools filled with the progeny of “finance people” rather than the children of “orchestra conductors”.
The alternative to playing this brutal, and brutally expensive, game? Why, it’s horrifying:
When parents on the fortunate ledge of this chasm gaze down, vertigo stuns them. Far below they see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates—and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling.
This single sentence should obliterate any vestigial feel-good beliefs you might have that the elites give any kind of shit about heartland or heritage America. They know how bad it is down here on the ground: the opioids, the joblessness, the PTSD from our endless foreign adventures, the hollowing-out of everything beyond the city limits of twenty white-hot real-estate markets. They know how bad it is — and their primary concern is to ensure that their children never see or touch it.
Despite Packer’s undoubted competence as a writer, he is too close to this particular forest to see anything besides the privileged and individual trees. He accurately describes the hellscape of American meritocracy while failing, tactfully or otherwise, to mention the glaringly obvious reason for its creation, to wit: we now have an unlimited supply of rich people, successful people… scratch that. There is now an unlimited supply of people, period. And it will only get worse. Much worse.
Start with this: What is the number of potential immigrants to the United States? I’m not talking about how many we actually get, or how many KIDS are CAGED in NAZI HOLOCAUST DEATH CAMPS at the southern border. I’m asking: If becoming a fully-privileged American citizen were as simple as getting on a one-way steamship, the way it was in 1850, how many people would do it?
Here’s my candidate for that number: 6.7 billion. There are 7.7 billion people in the world. 0.32 billion are already Americans of some sort, de facto or de jure. Figure that there are 700 million folks who are doing just fine where they are: the one-percenters across the globe, much of Western Europe, all of Japan. Everyone else, and I mean everyone, would be individually better off by coming to the USA. Everyone in South America, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia. This list shows that the USA is tenth of 185-plus countries in global per capita income. If you’re from any of those 175 other countries, and you’re not individually wealthy, you should get on that boat.
We cannot comfortably accommodate an additional 6.7 billion people, so we have policies in place to prevent a global migration to the USA. In previous generations, those policies were meant to ensure that the best possible potential Americans came here. That was nasty, but it was also usefully pragmatic. Our current media-industrial complex mostly operates on emotion, so we now have emotionally-based rules. If you look pathetic and miserable enough, and if you’ve suffered enough to get here, we will let you in and pay your bills. Simple as that. Don’t be fooled by the talk about Trump and his Nazi camps; we are importing immigrants at a historically unprecedented rate. For every Irish person who came to America during the potato famine, we have one South-American-American and nine Mexican-Americans. There are probably five million Indians (not Native Americans, mind you) in this country, keeping a fierce headlock on the three million upper-middle-class tech jobs that American’s won’t
get an interview to do.
The only humane way for the United States to handle this would be to:
0. Determine the maximum number of possible immigrants the country can absorb every year without becoming post-Cold-War Yugoslavia in terms of ethnic and religious division;
1. Hold a global lottery for those spots, giving the winners free travel to start their new lives here;
2. Enforce immigration laws with Swiss ferocity otherwise.
The system we have now, by contrast, is hugely unfair. It creates dozens of secondary industries which prey on immigrants — everything from rapist “coyotes” at the border crossings to the 200%-markup visa-hostage-holder body shops like Accenture and IBM Global Services. Our emotions-based rules, which privilege “families with children”, have created a situation in which children are repeatedly used, and abused, as human passports. There are only two groups of people entering America with any regularity nowadays, and they can be split into two groups:
0. People with more money than God;
1. People with nothing to lose.
In other words, the whole country is a macrocosm of New York City’s school system. There are too many kids and not enough decent schools, so prospective entrants must be either rich or willing to suffer. The number of prospective students is effectively limitless. It is a pressure cooker with no safety valve. The prize for making it through the process is massive: in the case of our immigration boondoggle, it’s a chance to live in a place where the water is generally drinkable and the police are unlikely to rape you when you call them, while in the case of NYC schools it’s a chance to retain your parents’ precarious position on that ledge far above processed food and country music.
Is it any wonder that everyone involved is gaming the system as hard as they can at all times? That people are willing to mis-classify their children as handicapped in order to gain entry to a particular NYC kindergarten, or rent a previously-abused child just to make it out of Juarez? To do otherwise is to fall back into the bucket of crabs, from which you will never escape.
There’s no small irony in the fact that most New Yorkers are ultra-liberal types who can simultaneously champion open borders and bemoan the skyrocketing cost of living anywhere near Manhattan. You asked everyone to come be your neighbor, and now you’re surprised that there’s a bidding war? What did you think would happen? Oh, that’s right, you thought the same thing that George Packer thinks. You thought that your own privilege and position would be immutable, that it would protect your children the same way you saw the Baby Boomers protected by their parents’ privilege. Perhaps you thought that we would have yet another insane explosion of middle-class attributes in this country, like we did after World War II, and there would be room for everyone somehow — but how could that be, when everybody is already going to college and everybody plans to work at Goldman Sachs when they get out? Your father got a great job because he had a college degree, period, which was rare at the time. You got a great job because you had an Ivy degree, which was rare at the time — but now there are a billion people in line for that Ivy degree, and the line starts outside the preschool, and there are people in sleeping bags who arrived the night before!
America, we are told, now belongs to everyone. So your position in this country is no longer guaranteed, whether that position is Managing Director at Goldman or head cashier at the Dollar General outside Wichita Falls. It’s gonna be meritocracies all the way down for your children, no matter what the consequences, and — I cannot emphasize this enough — it’s happening this way because you wanted it this way. We had 300 years of people, mostly European, who did unspeakably unpleasant things in order to create this country as Paradise on earth. Things which kept them awake at night for the rest of their lives, things which dammed them to a Hell in which they firmly believed. They butchered children and burned villages and marched the natives down the Trail of Tears. They ate human flesh on the pioneer trails and died of grisly diseases and they sweated puny crops from rocky soil. They jumped on grenades and stepped on shit-smeared punji stakes, died in trenches from Ypres to Chosin. They did this in the belief that they were securing a future for their families and their descendants.
Well, the joke is on them. Many of their descendants now are just “fur parents”, not real parents — and there is a headlong rush for the spoils left behind as a consequence. Those spoils will be divided by the most powerful among us, by the polyglot and multicultural meritocracy which will endure without end, forever, Amen, and there’s just one little catch: it’s always going to be the wealthiest and most powerful who somehow become the most meritorious.
This calcification of American society might be the reason for the twin entertainment passions of the Millennials: KidLit and Capeshit. KidLit, of course, refers to the bizarre trend of reading children’s, excuse me, “Young Adult” books well into adulthood. It is disgraceful, but I understand it. Not only is there a genuine shortage of worthwhile adult fiction in 2019, one most also come to grips with the fact that our Millennials had their development deliberately stunted — by helicopter parents, by emotions-based education, by the sweet heroin rush of “free” college loan money that made everyone’s formative years a nonstop blur of Starbucks and bottle-service partying through gender-studies degrees with no thought as to when the bill would come due. How can we blame them for reading kids’ books? They’re still kids. One out of five still live with Mom and Dad. We gave their job opportunities to the meritocracy; we invited the world to come in and compete with them, even as we crippled their intellectual and moral growth to the point that they couldn’t be expected to compete.
In other words, we created a world where the Millennials would always be powerless. You can’t create a world like that and expect its inhabitants to consume the same literature consumed by their parents and grandparents. The Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers thrilled to the story of Audie Murphy, the five-foot-five sharecroppers’ kid who became a war hero through sheer guts and determination. That won’t play to Millennials, who know that war is a never-ending meat grinder and that regular people never get the chance to be extraordinary. So instead they get Capeshit, aka “superhero stories”, as exemplified by the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its imitators. I’ll say this: if you watch that garbage, you should be ashamed of yourself. Superhero shows are despicable. Not because they’re boring, not because they’re childish, and not even because the MCU has become a self-parody where identity politics matter more than the Silver Surfer’s difficulties with Galactus. Rather, it’s the underlying message that you start life with all your “powers” that makes Capeshit so morally stultifying. Superheroes are born super. They don’t earn it. Their parents rigged the game for them. This is even true of Batman; his superpower is being rich, and he inherited it from his parents.
The recent Amazon series “The Boys” deconstructs this idiocy wonderfully, not least because it admits what any sane person knows: if superheroes really existed, the only reasonable thing to do would be to kill them as often, and frequently, as possible. The main character of “The Boys” is first seen having an argument with his girlfriend where he says, “I can’t just ask for a raise! I’m not… some kind of superhero!” By the end of the season, he’s killed two “Supes”. That is the message we should be giving young people: that anybody can eventually compete on even terms with the most powerful people or institutions out there. We shouldn’t be addicting them to moronic fairy tales where people inherit “wizard power” or “superpowers”. Capeshit and KidLit are like the easy availability of marijuana: they stunt ambition and they make people comfortable with their existing lot in life. Capeshit tells you that Bree Larson is magically able to beat up six-foot-six weightlifters, because she has special powers. It is a never-ending paean to genetic aristocracy, which is odd in The Current Year — but you can’t rely on the commissars to think all their actions through to a logical conclusion.
This corrosive influence of undemocratic fiction is nothing new: David Brin made some similarly serious points about Star Wars a long time ago:
Just what bill of goods are we being sold, between the frames? Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn’t be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow.
“Good” elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability.
Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough.
True leaders are born. It’s genetic.
The right to rule is inherited. Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.
I never cared for the whole Nietzschian bermensch thing: the notion — pervading a great many myths and legends — that a good yarn has to be about demigods who are bigger, badder and better than normal folk by several orders of magnitude. It’s an ancient storytelling tradition based on abiding contempt for the masses
What can I say — he might have foisted The Postman on us, but he’s not wrong. (Incidentally, The Postman, as a book at least, is a brilliant riposte to this. The hero is a thief and coward who eventually comes around to serving greater ideals. He has no special powers. Any of us could have been The Postman.) When adults spend their time consuming wizard books and superhero stories, it just makes them feel even more powerless. And it saps ambition. You learn to not care how good you are. There’s always someone “super” out there somewhere — someone with a Harvard degree, someone who was doing real physics when they were twelve years old, someone whose internship made them the natural choice for the next opening at Skadden, Arps.
My son and I are currently working through a variant of this problem. Last weekend, we flew to New Mexico to ride the Angelfire Bike Park. It was the first time either of us had been on a ski lift, and the first time we’d tried real downhill mountain biking. I survived and even thrived a bit, mostly thanks to the astounding Trek Session 9.9, which allowed me to regularly hit speeds of 30mph or more in midair before landing on multiple fist-sized rocks without incident.
(Made in Taiwan, to my sorrow. There are several decent “all-mountain” bikes made in the USA, from Alchemy and Guerilla Gravity, but the true downhill rigs are rare enough to not be worth producing locally.)
John did a lot better than thrive. On his second run down the “Boulder Dash” jump trail, he posted a better Strava time than the majority of adults who had ever recorded a personal best there. He cleared two of the three massive jumps at “Candyland”. Several times he ran down fully-kitted college-aged riders and passed them — sometimes while simultaneously “styling on them” or at least yelling “YOU GOT YEETED ON!”
Alas, but not all was well in Mudville. His efforts to catch and pass a very clued-in and fast local kid, who was two or three inches shorter than John was, didn’t pan out — he was making ground on the kid, but he missed a turnoff for the next trail and was unable to make up the lost thirty seconds that resulted. On the ski lift, he was furious. “If I can’t even beat that kid, what’s the point?” And, after some discussion, “I’m not the absolute best BMX racer, not the best fencer… What if I’m never the absolute best at anything?”
“Well, what if you’re not?” I replied. “What if you’re only among the very best, as a rider and perhaps at some other things as well? What if you can combine being good at a few different things and succeed that way?” I had in mind the Scott Adams idea of a talent stack.
“That,” he snapped, after a moment’s worth of consideration, “is a trash idea. You should be the best at something.” We spent the next two days talking about the difference between being very good at something, which is absolutely within our control, and being the very best, which is not. I worry that his outlook has been poisoned by the effortless mastery demonstrated in so much of today’s media, whether it’s The Last Jedi or the Red Bull Hardline mountain bike race, which shows you the dazzling double backflips but doesn’t show the two broken spines suffered during practice.
What I didn’t tell him at any point in our conversation was this: He’s not ever going to be the best at anything, because I’m not going to permit it. If I think he is on track to be the world’s best downhill mountain biker, I’ll send him to chess camp for a summer, and vice versa. Being the best at anything is a miserable affair with only occasional satisfactions. Being very good at several things, by contrast, is a path to happiness. This is even true of mere competence across a wide range; I do a lot of things in unexceptional fashion, from riding bikes to playing music, and I enjoy all of it. This, I fear, is what our meritocratic Illuminati have forgotten. They are building a master race of highly specialized individuals who are unlikely to thrive outside their hothouses.
Perhaps a better analogy for those best-of-NYC-schoolkids would be… bonsai. Beautiful, yes. Fascinating, of course. Valuable — well, certainly. But utterly perfect, completely manicured, absolutely dependent on their support structure to excel. My philosophy is different. I keep uprooting my son and planting him in difficult conditions, to see if he will thrive. If I am successful, then you could be dismissive and say that I’ve merely cultivated a weed, an ugly hybrid that can grow without beauty anywhere. Or you could say that I’ve created a wildflower. It doesn’t matter how you describe it. The windows of our greenhouse have been broken, at every level from national to local. The seeds are blowing in from everywhere. Too many for this soil, too many for any soil. The boy will have to take root regardless, against any storm, and particularly for the day he looks up to see that his gardener is long gone.