I can almost guarantee that whether you are liberal or conservative, male or female, old or young, you will disagree with the next sentence I write. Here it is: 95% of us got through 95% of the 20th century without saying the word “delete.” Doesn’t seem possible, does it, when we now rarely get through the day without using it? Up until the 1990s, most of us didn’t have home computers. And for the few that did, there was rarely a “delete” key; it said “backspace,” like a typewriter. If you were lucky enough to be working on a computer in, say, 1990, you were more likely to suggest that someone “eliminate” or “backspace” or “cut out” a given mistake; and even after the advent of “delete” on keyboards in roughly 1993, most people didn’t actually speak aloud such an oddly technical word until 1995-ish. Kurt Cobain likely never spoke the word.
Culture pings and swings and changes and retreats and saturates. But it somehow makes sense that twenty years after the full advent of “delete” in our lives, we’re now comfortable with the idea that anyone or anything can be deleted. And replaced. And that level of comfort was probably a necessary pre-condition for the #metoo movement, which is what I really want to talk about.
Delete your account, Hillary Clinton tweeted to a noxious troll during her 2016 campaign. It’s a millennial phrase that was probably brought to her by a staffer, but that doesn’t make it any less salient: go away, get out of the public sphere, begone! (Of course her tweet only served the troll as a badge of honor.)
Capitalists have long hailed America as a place that rewards “creative destruction,” the fire that burns the landscape only to foster the next season’s growth. And Silicon Valley has been spreading this mantra for at least as long as it has been putting “delete” keys on keyboards. All jobs are now what Douglas Copeland once called “McJobs.” The 40-year career in one location is a cute relic of the 20th century. Democrats turned their back on unions. There’s been a general “flattening” of expertise, as catalogued extensively by Thomas Friedman. If anyone still thought that experts were experts, the 2008 financial meltdown melted away that naivete. Movement and insecurity have been the only constants of this inconstant century.
But there was something about the Trump election that went past the usual standards of job insecurity and creative destruction. It was as though Carol Channing was flying your plane; it was as though Don Rickles had been announced as head of surgery at Cedar-Senai. More, it was as though America had truly elected The Joker from The Dark Knight, a man who, Michael Caine warned us, “just wants to watch the world burn.”
Nowhere has Trump proved himself more nihilist than in his staffing. It’s not just the nihilists he hires; it’s the career servants he chases away. Trump never wanted to, and a year later has no plans to, nominate people to all of the positions that Presidents are supposed to nominate people to. Important jobs, like say ambassador to South Korea, simply go unfilled. Professionals who have staffed the State Department for decades are leaving in droves.
The overall takeaway, which isn’t partisan, is that no one actually merits any particular position. No amount of sacrifice means you have earned a job. We’re all just spitting in the wind, and some of us are getting lucky. Anyone following the news well understood this over the summer. Then we found out about Harvey Weinstein.
I have serious problems with Maureen Dowd, who has yet to apologize for how she slut-shamed Monica Lewinsky and helped create a culture of harassment tolerance before #metoo came along. That said, she was correct on Sunday when she wrote:
It’s a shattering moment for the country, when many of the institutions that gave America its identity as a smart, brave, generous, fair country — the presidency, Congress, sports, faith, Hollywood, big business — seem corroded and immoral.
When we look in the mirror and try to figure out who we are now, elevating a corporate tax cut over our fundamental values is not going to cut it.
Dowd is right, but these may have been the necessary pre-conditions for #metoo. Clearly it wasn’t enough for Anita Hill to testify before Congress. We may have needed 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, the financial meltdown, Guantanamo, warrantless surveillance, and a lot of bad movies and TV shows. I mean, when you look at America’s record in the 21st century, is it supposed to prove that America’s journalists, politicians, tech workers, and entertainers have somehow earned untouchable perches? Are we meant to think no one could have done this any better?
All this led to populism, which was validated by Sanders and Trump in 2016. Despite what the elitist media wants you to think, populism isn’t simply resentment of the rich. It’s also active sympathy with a majority of Americans, starting at the bottom of the income bracket. Movies like Boyhood or The Florida Project are better for being populist. Social media can be very populist, especially when it holds the powerful accountable. When Hollywood decided to formally respond to #metoo with #timesup, it made a big deal about fundraising for low-income harassed women. That’s a populist move and a smart one.
#metoo is still so important, so fresh, and so powerful, and despite the stern warnings of some elitists, it isn’t going anywhere. It’s a populist movement because it turns the logic of institutional harassment back on the institutions themselves. Harassed and even assaulted women could always be bought off or replaced, right? Yes, before. Now, those cranky victims who were so easily and summarily replaced by powerful men have a new message for those men:
You. Can. Also. Be. Replaced.
Your. Legacy. Can. Be. DELETED.
Still, some elitists want to defend some men, like Aziz Ansari, James Franco, Woody Allen, Louis C.K., or Al Franken, by saying that what they did wasn’t as bad as Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore.
I think they’re missing the point of this century. Should I repeat it? NO ONE DESERVES A JOB. Certainly not in entertainment or politics or journalism or tech companies. I mean, who’s going to do worse than what we’ve seen? If you want to deserve a job, go back to medical school. Study quantum physics. Splice DNA.
But if you want someone to have a job that relies in any way on the general approval of a majority of Americans, or even a plurality of voters, you have to do better than “well, John Lasseter worked hard to get where he is.” A lot of people worked hard! “But he’s uniquely talented.” A lot of people are uniquely talented! Social media kinda proves it.
The new normal, or at least the new role model, is the pop careerist that does something different every year, you know, like Lady Gaga or Beyonce.
I actually believe that Ansari and Louis C.K. and Franco and Lasseter and a lot of these other grey-listed people will come back, and sooner than many think. But I’m not going to cry for them while they’re on probation.
Because Trump is President. Which points to two overwhelming things. One, we all have much bigger things to worry about than if Woody Allen’s next movie gets a distributor.
And two, no one in the public eye deserves a job.
“Deserve” was a 20th-century word. The 21st-century one is “delete.”