It’s a nasty paradox: in order to write a lot, you need to read a lot. For the even vaguely competent author, reading serves to recharge the creative batteries, said batteries then being discharged in the course of writing new material. But the more you write, the less time you have to read. Which, in turn, makes it harder to write quickly and well. Which eats up your time. Which prevents you from reading. You get the idea.
For the last two years or so, I’ve chosen to deal with this by increasing the intensity of my reading and post-reading consideration. In practical terms, that means that I’ve entirely stopped reading the auto media. I read my fellow contributors in R&T because I want to see where the magazine is going, and I’ll very occasionally re-read a magazine from twenty or thirty years ago for nostalgia purposes, but other than that — nada zip zero. Don’t ask me if I’ve read the latest whatever from Jonny “Caviar” Lieberman or Dutch Mandel or Brett Berk. I haven’t. I don’t have that kind of time, and if I had that kind of time it would be more productively spent hanging out with my son, fighting with my Pro-Spot P100, or staring at a blank wall.
This is what I do: I read the New York Review Of Books, the Atlantic, Lapham’s Quarterly, and (sssssh) Vintage Guitar. About once a month I’ll read something from the 18th or 19th C. just for the purposes of keeping that slight patina on my grammar and sentence construction. That’s about all I can manage, pathetic as it is.
I mention all of this to explain why it took a Tweet from a reader today for me to notice Pete Dushenski taking a reasonably solid crack at me almost a month ago.
In Pete’s article, he notes that I have been seriously delinquent in further engaging him about a conversation we had over email regarding the ability of technology to affect behavior. This interaction started when Pete asserted that Tinder hadn’t made any difference in the frequency and diversity of female sex partners. He then further asserted that technology rarely changes human behavior. The reason I’ve yet to write the column I promised him on the subject was because I’ve been short on time to give it serious thought. My first impulse was to pull the ol’ Samuel Johnson “I refute it THUS!”. In a world without the Internet, Pete Dushenski and I would have never “met”, nor would we be having these conversations. Nor it is in any way certain that, in the absence of said Internet, I would find a Dushenski “equivalent” in Columbus, Ohio, any more than it is certain that he would find a “Baruth” in Canada.
Human beings evolved to use tools. We are shaped and changed by those tools even as we use them to shape and change our environment. I am proof of that, having suffered seventy-some broken bones while operating a bicycle or motorcycle. In a world where my mom doesn’t buy me a Redline 600c back in 1985:
* I never race bikes, so I never get hurt this badly
* Since I never get hurt badly, there’s nothing to stop me from enlisting in the Marine Corps, which was my post-high-school life plan.
* And I certainly don’t end up writing for a bicycle magazine
* Which means I don’t end up writing about cars
* Which means I don’t exist as far as all you know.
* In fact, I’m probably in an unmarked grave somewhere, having never had a constructive outlet for my temper and bitterness.
Returning to the ur-discussion I had with Pete… I know a few people who have managed to leverage Tinder into between twenty and fifty sexual encounters a year. They’d have had a hell of a time maintaining that pace at singles bars or at speed-dating seminars. You can contrast that to the behavior of the most promiscuous woman I knew in the pre-Tinder era. Every weekend she’d go to the bars and if she liked the cut of a fellow’s jib she’d one-night him. After a decade of that behavior, she had under a hundred notches on her bedpost. About ten dudes a year. Now, let’s take a look at this young lady:
You think she’s restricting herself to ten dudes a year?
Pete’s assertion, therefore, is so obviously false, so easily refutable, that I thought it would make more sense to take a meta-look at his assertion to see if it is underpinned by anything stouter and then to consider that as a means for discussion. If Peter is saying that human nature is fundamentally the same whether we’re in the first century or the twenty-first, well then that’s something we can debate because there’s plenty of evidence on both sides. If you had a time machine that could kidnap infants from the time of Marcus Aurelius and bring them up in the modern day, I think you would end up with a person who isn’t that different from the people around him. Let’s give that point to Pete.
If, on the other hand, you want to tell me that humans aren’t changed by their tools and environment from the moment of their birth, making the “sluts” of the Elizabethan era hugely and thoroughly different from today’s Tinderellas, then I’m going to have to disagree and I think I have enough evidence on my side to vaporize Hiroshima and Nagasaki all over again. That’s not a random example. Americans wouldn’t have the collective willpower to use the atomic bomb in 2016. We had it in 1945, but we don’t have it now. If we were invaded by a foreign country, we’d surrender before we’d use the bomb. Know how I know? Because we’ve been de facto invaded by Mexico and nobody’s done shit about it except suck up to the invaders in the hope that, like Cthulhu’s most ardent worshipers, they’ll be eaten last.
That’s a nice segue, I think, to the point made in Pete’s new article:
the mental impoverishment of The West in general and the USA in particular is soaring like that elevator strapped to the rocket in Einstein’s famous Gedankenexperiment. They think it’s just plain old gravity! To equalitarianism… and beyond!!1 Alas, The West is sinking like a rock and imagining that the mounting leagues of water overhead give two shits about whether “the people” live or die. All the while, the [paper] money is actively redirecting itself towards Chinese tastes faster than you can say “yi yi zhi yi.”…
No one gives a shit about the American middle class, nor should they, nor could they even if they wanted to for some bleeding-heart reason. The US is no longer an industrial power ; those days are over. So even if you can find the odd dishwasher or pair of shoes assembled there, the working heuristic for those intent on surviving in industries other than those dominated by USG-dole-sucking-catamites is that the US citizens are too stupid to deal with and its regulations too onerous to comply with to the point where it’s simply uneconomical to even try.vii If the USMegaGovCorps have them, let ‘em have ‘em. Let ‘em pump the cows full of corn and let the rest of us wash our hands of the sorry lot.
Either which way, it’s a big world out there, and very little of it has to do with ObamaTrumpClitler’s fucktoy. Nota bene.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the feeling that Pete doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. He’s thoroughly convinced that the United States is yesterday’s news, filled with “obeasts” who are too busy looking for “gibmedat” to make any difference in the future direction of the world community. The future belongs to the BRIC, filled to the brim with billions of intelligent, hard-working, height-weight-proportionate individuals who are going to eat our lunch just as soon as the Mexicans in the restaurant down the street finish making it for us.
I could refute his assertion Sam Johnson style by reminding him that
Whatever happens, we have got
The undetectable-before-launch submarine-launched ballistic missile
And they have not
Or at least not as many of them. The United States has the power to reduce the world to a smoking cinder any time the man with his finger on the button feels like it. This is why the “world community” is so terrified of Trump, by the way. He might just decide to “negotiate” with this country’s enemies without tying the large-scale-force hand behind his back. The fact of the matter is that the United States would benefit hugely from a quick and overwhelmingly one-sided war against ISIS or, as they say in the rental aisle, similar. It would kick-start the economy a bit and it would produce another generation of combat-bloodied leaders for the military. But there’s also this:
Whatever happens, we have got
The world’s reserve currency
And they have not
The yen had a shot at the dollar and it lost. The Euro had a shot at the dollar and it lost. Now it’s China’s turn to attempt to prove that their centrally-managed currency can do it. They’re going to fail because nobody trusts China and nobody ever will. The business community knows that the Wall Street game is rigged but it’s rigged in a way that they trust. Nor will Bitcoin ever be more than a plaything for people on the fringes of the financial world. Pete’s very knowledgeable about Bitcoin but just like the goldbugs and the silver hoarders he rarely looks very hard at the way that real people use money in the real world. The average sub-130 IQ person looks at Bitcoin as a technology indistinguishable from magic, assuming that it’s that kind of magic where people periodically compromise the blockchain and steal money. Believe me when I tell you that we will all go back to biting coins and cutting silver dollars into “bits” before we have any significant public adoption of any cryptography-based currency.
Neither Pete nor I will live to see a world in which the United States is not a major player in international affairs, if not the major player. Go ahead and bet on that. But the Roman middle class could have said the same thing under the reign of Diocletian, so maybe I should consider if Pete isn’t right in the long run even if he’s wrong in the short run.
The only answer I can summon with any certainty is this: In the long run, empires rise and fall based on the validity of their systems and the degree to which those systems are respected. The Roman system was superior to the barbarian system as long as everybody subscribed to the ideas and did their part. Once the Romans slacked off, the barbarians were able to take over. The next system that had any lasting power was the combination of Christianity with feudalism. That system was overtaken by the combination of Christianity with representative democracy, which conquered the world to a degree beyond Caesar’s or Alexander’s wildest fantasies. The final form of that system is embodied by the United States of America, aided and abetted by our geographical advantages.
During the Eighties, many people thought the Japanese system of ancestor worship and rigid societal discipline would overtake the American system. They were wrong. We’ve heard a lot lately about how the BRIC systems, which can be roughly described as “kleptocracies where a select group of very wealthy and powerful people make the decisions and a billion proles do what they’re told,” are going to overtake the American system.
I doubt it.
But that doesn’t mean that the United States is unassailable. As Pete points out, we are rotten from the inside, obsessed with Feelsville navel-gazing and electronic Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy and casual sex. We might just collapse under our own weight. But if that happens, and the BRICs do indeed end up determining the shape of the world, we will all be the worse off for it. I wouldn’t give up on the United States just yet. Yeah, yeah, I know: the last guy who said “If there is hope, it lies in the proles” wound up crying into his Victory Gin. But American proles are different. I know; I’m one of them. And so is Pete, although we’re separated by a border. As Corinne says, “Don’t you recognize a fellow astronaut?”