Dallas Buyers Club and the market forces of death

On day zero of Ron Woodruff’s thirty-days-to-live death sentence, he is in two prostitutes in a muddy bullpen at a bullfighting arena. He is a gambling drunkard running from the trouble he makes for himself. He, aside from the zings and whistles granted by cocaine, whiskey, and ejaculation, is as good as dead. Intellectually, spiritually, emotionally dead.

On day one, an on-the-job electrical accident puts Woodruff in the hospital, where he finds, much to his homophobic, 1985 stereotype-informed disbelief, that he has HIV. He’s a straight man, after all. It’s not possible for him to catch HIV. So he storms out. No way, he thinks, I ain’t gay, and I’m living forever.

But Woodruff is dying. It’s impossible for him to ignore the bloody coughs whirring noises splitting open his head. He goes to the library, reads up on the studies and statistics: the disease spreads through unprotected sex between any carrier and noncarrier, gay or not; it also circulates through shared intravenous needles. Woodruff suddenly remembers a girl he once hired who had pinpricks up and down her arm, and accepts he has HIV.

He does not, however, accept the thirty day sentence. Woodruff is a stubborn, sharp cowboy: he researches the drugs that clinics worldwide are trying on the disease; he discovers a Dallas hospital is hosting a 90-day double-blind placebic trial of the newest, latest and greatest drug, AZT; and he bypasses authority in order to obtain it. But his inside man at the hospital quits, and a fainting fit puts him back in the sick house, at the mercy of doctors contractually bound to test AZT on behalf of big pharma.

It is there, alone and inches from death on a hospital gurney, that Woodruff breaks the cliché of the terminally ill bucket lister. He has neither the cash for some tour of Europe, nor the embrace of his own end such a before-I-die trip implies. The immediacy of death instead alights in him anger and determination.

It also purges his prejudices. This is epitomized in an exchange with his hospital roommate, a trans woman named Rayon who is also HIV-positive. Woodruff initially rebuffs her friendliness, but when she offers to play cards—for cash—he agrees to chat. And when his calf cramps, paralyzing him in pain, he allows her to knead it out. Woodruff’s acceptance of Rayon’s physical help—help given by a person from whom he would never, because of his prejudices, ordinarily accept it—represents a larger theme of Dallas Buyers Club: with life on the line, allies are allies regardless of their identities.

After a trip to Mexico to receive un-FDA-approved treatment, Woodruff returns and teams up with Rayon. The medicine given to him there has shored up his immune system in ways AZT could not, and Woodruff, cash-hungry, has struck a deal with his doctor to sell the cocktail of drugs that put him back on his feet. He gets the goods across the border to Dallas, but cannot breach the mostly-gay market: Woodruff neither knows anything of their community nor can leapfrog the friction of his ingrained prejudices. Without anywhere else to turn, he recruits Rayon to be his sales rep.

Their partnership proves successful, and the combination of moneymaking and self-sustaining that ensues places Woodruff in daily proximity with Dallas’s gay community. It composes the majority of the Dallas Buyers Club, i.e. the HIV-positive population willing to flout FDA law and official medical advice to procure what they believe will help them survive. Woodruff, through the vehicle of his new Buyers Club business, learns these people are much like him: desperate in the face of death, inclined to kindness, and prey to their own weaknesses. His prejudice erodes daily under the mounting evidence that Scout Finch’s timeless observation is true: “there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

When the FDA cracks down on the Dallas Buyers Club’s under-the-table operation and its members are barred from obtaining their immunological boosters, Woodruff’s façade—that moneymaking is still his primary motivation—shatters. Rayon, now Woodruff’s valued friend, dies, and his anger with the government’s nonsensical regulation and apparent apathy towards the mostly gay HIV-AIDS community transforms the Buyers Club from a business to a crusade. Woodruff, on the implicit behalf of his HIV-AIDS customers, sues the government for the right to medicate himself and fight against his impending death however he likes.

The heart of Woodruff’s story closes with the result of his lawsuit. He loses to the FDA, but upon returning to his home in Dallas receives an ovation from friends in the Buyers Club, who have gathered to congratulate his efforts. Woodruff, homophobe-turned-profiteer-turned-ally, here asks of us an uncomfortable question: What prevents our acceptance of the Other? Why does it take death to illuminate the ignorance of our prejudices?

Why we love Jim Halpert

It’s more than smirking at the camera

The Big Tuna. Paper salesman at Dunder Mifflin, twenty-something college grad. He’s a prankster, old-school romantic, and the everyman in the nine season sitcom, The Office. Jim, played by the handsome-but-just-ordinary-enough John Krasinski, receives as much screen time as several colleagues, but stands out for his relatability. It is through Jim that we see we’re not alone in enduring the small absurdities of the nine-to-five; we are not alone in feeling confused at our choices and where we’ve ended up. Jim is a portrait of the college grad as a twenty-something and a sympathetic shoulder for the viewers entrenched in the daily war of work.

The other protagonists on The Office—for our consideration, Michael, Dwight, and Pam—play roles we can sort into familiar workplace archetypes: Michael is the unqualified and embarrassing boss; Dwight, the alien, annoying colleague; Pam, the one person around whom we can be ourselves. If you know the show, ask yourself: have you labeled one of your colleagues the Dwight of the office? The Pam? Is your boss the Michael Scott type?

If so, notice through which lens you bestow the label—Jim’s. He is the mirror off of which we interpret the other characters, major and minor. Michael’s hatred for Toby, for example, is comic because it is hyperbolic. But it reflects on Michael and not on Toby, who, compared to his boss’s antics, often seems like a voice of reason. Jim’s distaste for him, however, we understand and believe (e.g. it would be frustrating for the legitimacy of your legal and disclosed office relationship to be questioned by HR). Jim is the touchstone; he connects and relates us to the personalities in his world.

A key reason we feel this way is because of how Jim treats the fourth wall. Though The Office is a mockumentary, which means most characters acknowledge or speak to the camera, Jim looks at us more than anyone. He is the thermometer of The Office; his glances, a snapshot of the temperature. It is John Krasinski’s signature talent that with a mere expression he communicates if a situation is serious or surprising, delighting or disgusting or painfully dull. His glances spark a type of catharsis perfected by The Office: confirmation of the banality and absurdity of the everyday. When we are at work and someone says or does something we find ridiculous, we want a friend to share that moment, someone to whom we can say, “Can you believe she said that?” or “Am I crazy for thinking he’s crazy?” Jim’s glances give that to us; they are comfort that we are neither alone nor out of our minds—they bridge our offices to The Office.

Another link is Jim’s disposition towards Dunder Mifflin. In season one he says,

“Right now, this is a job. If I advance any higher in this company, this would be my career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.”

We might be fortunate enough not to have one of those jobs, or perhaps we haven’t yet realized ours is indeed one of them; but the feeling is familiar, and so is Jim’s response: he stays put. He might not like selling reams (on reams on reams) of paper, but he’s unsure what else he would do.

His uncertainty reflects a paradox of career-building: we need experience to discover or create our careers (i.e. what we like to do, credentials), yet to choose a first or second job with a future that appeals to us, we need to already have an outline of the career we’d like. (Not to mention we usually just need a job, period.) Jim’s career confusion and his ambivalence toward Dunder Mifflin reflect the dilemma that unsatisfied twenty-somethings everywhere carry in the back of their minds.

Perhaps these bridges of empathy earn Jim his popularity. Six years after its series finale, The Office remains Netflix’s most-streamed show, accounting for 7% of its 139 million subscribers’ views. For Millennials and Gen Z, The Office may have been a first peek into any workplace, real or fiction. It may have set expectations for the working world, and it might continue to be a coping mechanism for it. Yes, in the course of the show, Michael finds love; Dwight, compassion; Pam, courage; and a host of other characters win our sympathies. We can learn from all of them. But Jim, from pilot till finale, is the rock.

He reminds us we are not alone in our frustration or confusion; he shows us that although we may be faced with boredom and absurdity, little victories can buoy us through the day. While we probably should avoid placing anyone’s office supplies in a vending machine, we can take some helpful cues from Jim: make an effort to find (not necessarily marry) someone with whom we can shoot the breeze, understand when a job is just a job, realize it’s okay to not know yet what we want to do, and try to respond to the weirdness of the working world with humor—maybe with a smirk at an imaginary camera.

Replace the pursuit of Happiness

Thomas Jefferson’s bedrock American right has harmfully merged with the pursuit of material wealth

 On Route 15, northbound, a billboard welcomes travelers to Pennsylvania. “Pursue Your Happiness,” it reads. Several miles later, another sign calls attention. Beside golden arches, a Big Mac, and a sweating cola it offers a related sentiment: “Pursue Your Thirstiness.” The Declaration of Independence, ratified in nearby Philadelphia, is implicit in both boards. Jefferson’s words continue to resonate in the American consciousness so strongly, it seems, that they endow McDonalds with the ability to compel drivers off the highway. To Americans, such corporate usurpation of the words and ideas that years ago delivered and then organized freedom in a tyrannized land feels natural. It is trite, even.

But before the Declaration’s contents were commercialized, it accomplished two rather large tasks for the Thirteen Colonies. First, it unanimously declared war against Britain; and second, it explained the Colonies’ grounds for freedom and stated key principles for their eventual government.

Jefferson owes much of the Declaration’s thinking to his philosophical ancestor, the Englishman John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government is the basis for both the grounds and the principles. Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths of human equality and unalienable rights match Locke’s natural rights, which are self-evident in that they are deducible with God-given reason. Jefferson’s assertion that government exists to protect such rights is also Locke’s that government exists to mitigate the inconveniences of the state of nature, not infringe upon its freedoms. That government derives its powers from the “consent of the governed” echoes Locke’s argument that, for it to be legitimate, individuals must consent to participation in a political body.

The thrust of the Declaration is also borrowed. Jefferson writes than when government “becomes destructive of these [previously stated] ends” it becomes the right and duty of the people to “alter or abolish it.” Analogously in the Second Treatise, Locke writes: “by this breach of trust [government] forfeits the power the people had put into [its] hands…and the power devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty.” The bulk of the Declaration thereafter lists evidence of King George III’s tyranny, justifying and compelling the Colonies’ revolution and actualizing the theory laid out in Locke’s Second Treatise.

It is plain that Locke informed Jefferson. The Declaration hinges on his ideas, and at times the former President is a word or two away from plagiarism. This conformity between their writings highlights, in the few spots they occur, their differences. Most glaring and significant among them is Jefferson’s replacement of Locke’s third-listed natural right, “estate,” with the “pursuit of Happiness.” Along with “all men are created equal,” Jefferson’s trio of unalienable rights—especially the last—has become the preeminent extract from the Declaration. This begs the question: why the switch?

Even if one could solidify an answer, at this point it would be more trivia than triumph: what Jefferson intended with his diction pales to what his diction has inspired. The “pursuit of Happiness” is so dense and fertile an idea that it became the bedrock of the American Dream, but, as McDonalds exemplifies, it also evolved into something unhealthy. By replacing Locke’s “estate” with the “pursuit of Happiness,” Jefferson planted in the soul of the United States a seed of consumerist materialism. At our present consumption-created precipice of climate catastrophe, it is necessary to address the formidable Cherry into which Jefferson’s seed has grown and hew it to its mythological and ideological roots. The American Dream and American individualism must be founded on a more environmentally and existentially sustainable base than the pursuit of material well-being: the “pursuit of Happiness” must be re-replaced.

The coalescence between happiness and material well-being is expounded in Alexis de Tocqueville’s proto-sociological text, Democracy in America. Tocqueville claims the fiercest attachment of the American heart to be “the imperfectly satisfied desire to possess [a precious object] and the incessant fear of losing it,” and observes that in the U.S. the “love of [material] well-being has become the national and dominant taste” which “carries everything along in its course.” In other words, Americans believe acquiring property equals pursuing happiness. The conflation makes consumption the nation’s primary occupation.

Tocqueville’s commentary on American materialism was prescient in 1840 and remains pressing today. Evidence for it accumulates yearly: in 2017, consumers in the U.S. spent $240 billion on luxury items—twice as much as in 2002, despite only a 13% population increase. Higher spending signifies a healthy economy, but it also corresponds to the on-average 81 pounds of textiles dumped annually by each American (five times more than in 1980) and the doubled number of personal storage facilities. If the attitude in de Tocqueville’s time was more, it now seems to be more, more, more.

Even if unintended or invisible, the physical consequences of rising consumption are dangerous. Of the 26 million tones of plastic used by Americans in 2015, only 9% were recycled. What goes unrecycled winds up in landfills, where it generates methane gas; or in the ocean, where it is ingested by marine life. Both are harmful: methane accelerates climate change, and ocean plastics kill crustaceans, fish, and amphibians. Ocean littering also introduces plastic—and a host of health risks—into the human food chain. These are examples, not exceptions. The environmental damages caused by a culture of consumption abound, and, since the global population is on track to double material resource usage by 2060, the buying habit must be broken.

In addition to the pursuit of property’s physical costs, its conflation with happiness is psychologically injurious. Tocqueville diagnosed this: “in the very midst of their abundance,” Americans were “[singularly] agitated.”. The “pursuit of Happiness led to restiveness—an endless hustle for the next thing and an inability to appreciate the recently earned or already possessed.

We are not wholly responsible for this: because of the evolutionary advantages that abundance provided to past iterations of the homo genus, for-pleasure purchases trigger the brain to release dopamine, a good-vibes neurotransmitter. However, dopamine cravings are causal to addictive disorders like Compulsive Buying Disorder (i.e. shopping addiction), and although such illnesses are rarely developed, everyone is biologically compelled to chase the dopamine releases which can lead to them. This is why advertising works: it endlessly dangles dopamine in front of our ever-hungry brains. Shopping does not assuage the desire; instead, it feeds the loop.

Tocqueville’s observations hold on a larger scale, too. A Princeton University study that found that one’s perception of their own life improves steadily with income concurrently discovered that the curve for “emotional well-being” flattens around $75k. From there up, individuals are as prone to negative emotions as they were with lower incomes. This suggests that while Americans perceive additional wealth to be life-enhancing, it is not. Past a certain point—security, perhaps—the “pursuit of Happiness” in the form of material well-being is, as de Tocqueville puts it, a “useless pursuit of…complete felicity.”

To recap: The conflation of the “pursuit of Happiness” with the pursuit of material wealth damages the environment; at best, briefly excites the individual; and in the long run does not secure a positive state of emotional well-being. Because, then, it is folly to believe in its deliverance and also because consumer culture is unsustainable, the “pursuit of Happiness” as it has become—a corrupted slogan for a material American Dream—must go.

The better choice for the Declaration’s third-listed natural right is Locke’s “estate.” For him, estate means material property (including money), and he arrives at it through his labor theory of value, which states that labor is the act by which man rightfully appropriates property from nature (or our modern equivalent, the workplace). “Estate” is not a right to have; it is a right to do: nobody has the right to be given any property, only the right to earn and then keep it without unjust interference.

Crucially as well, “estate” is nowhere near happiness’s associative neighborhood. It instead focuses on the procurement and possession of goods necessary for the right to life (e.g. shelter and nutrition). As the Princeton study showed, wealth corresponds with happiness up to a ceiling of security, but disengages after that point. “Estate”’s distance maintains that distinction.

It is also superior because it affords specific protections to the individual: from theft and unjust taxation, for example. The right to pursue happiness does not; and even if it was possible to disentangle the “pursuit of Happiness” from material wealth, what would its protection entail? It is too individualistic and amorphous an idea to concretize. Happiness has as many conceptions as it has conceivers; and because Jefferson declined to define it in the Declaration, it has no national definition, either. Competing notions of happiness clash constantly—how could one be favored over another without any reference point?

Yet it may be objected that the loftiness and indefinability of Jefferson’s turn of phrase are its greatest strengths. The “pursuit of Happiness” is considerably more motivating than “estate.” Including it in a list of fundamental rights implies there is an immaterial element to life toward which we intuitively work. A sympathetic reading brings Jefferson’s words near to Tocqueville’s prescription for American society: cultivate “a taste for the infinite, a sentiment of greatness, and a love of immaterial pleasures.” Both these tastes and the idea of happiness are unique for everyone and, as long as an individual strives for them, a definition is unnecessary. In this way Jefferson’s phrase deflects from the want of material wealth; instead, the “pursuit of Happiness” serves as an immaterial North Star, guiding each citizen along their lifelong path to enlightenment.

And even if the happiness and property have coalesced, is the result as harmful as has been posited? If not partially causal, the conflation is at least correlated to the United States’ economic ascent; and, as found by the Princeton study, up to a point such growth improves emotional well-being. Through their passion for acquisition, Americans have helped lift the floor of poverty again and again. Without the coalescence, the U.S. might not have developed its entrepreneurial, industrial, competitive culture; and without that culture, would we be as well-off as we are now?

Without the “pursuit of Happiness,” what is America? Pennsylvania’s welcome billboard says with Jefferson’s words what the Statue of Liberty says with its raised torch, what the biographies of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Jobs all say: come here, work hard, and you can make a prosperous life for yourself—nobody will stop you. The phrase’s entanglement with material wealth pales to the motivation and hope it engenders. It might be a vague foundation for government, but it is the Atlas of American mythology. It is our romantic idealism that forever asks what is impossible if we pursue hard enough? This was true for the Founders, and remains as true and as inspirational today.

It feels good to rest the consciousness of a nation on such hopeful words. Yet that feeling is the flaw. The “pursuit of Happiness” and its connotations of bootstrap-acrobatics are fluttery and ideal, but the phrase and its pseudonyms—“Manifest Destiny,” for example—portray an American history much rosier than reality. It is romantic to commend the Oregon Trail as a pursuit of happiness and forget the Native Americans eliminated en route. It inspires pride to attribute the United States’ meteoric rise in the 19th and early 20th centuries to industriousness and neglect the advantages afforded by slavery and exploited immigrant labor. The “pursuit of Happiness” has never truly been the right of every American, much the same way “all men are created equal” was written by a slave-owner. It has been a right of the privileged to pursue their happiness at the expense of the disenfranchised and less-advantaged. Even today, inexpensive marketplace commodities are made possible by corporations wielding low-wage workers with less-fortunate geographic inheritances, and the consequences of climate change are predicted to most severely affect regions already afflicted by poverty, hunger, and war. It feels good to lean into the “pursuit of Happiness” because its ideology acquits or ignores many of the misdeeds underlying its ongoing history.

Perhaps this ideology was necessary to raise the standard of living. The mix-up of material and emotional well-being may have been the psychological carrot that compelled Americans to haul themselves into the first world. But into what does our prosperity translate? According to 2018’s World Happiness Report (WHR), less and less: “[though] America has doubled its income per person in the past 40 years…[it] has slipped to 18th place, five rungs down from 2016.” The WHR also found that Latin America, a comparatively poorer region, has happiness levels “significantly higher than their country’s wealth, corruption, or high levels of violence suggest, since their happiness is connected to strong family bonds.” Because Latin American culture tends to ground its emotional well-being in relationships—not in riches—that ground is much firmer; whereas Americans, who have falsely combined happiness and wealth, cannot consume their way into a good life. The WHR demonstrates that the “pursuit of Happiness” ideology has run its course: it is past time to divorce material from the American Dream and replant the culture on a more sustainable, attainable idea.

Suppose we were able to trim the ideology from the “pursuit of Happiness.” Suppose it devolved to the meaning it held the very minute Jefferson’s quill departed his parchment. Its ambiguity remains an irreconcilable flaw. Happiness and its infinite conceptions would still confound its pursuers—a frustration not without consequences. History illustrates it is in human nature to accept truths from elsewhere rather than figure them out for oneself, and that makes the blight of happiness-as-property inevitable: once it is realized that customers can be lured with promises of happiness, advertising invents itself and, aided by our neurophysiology, propagates. Addictive amelioration for humanity’s intrinsic existential angst has a wide market, and plenty of people (who are likely also motivated by happiness-as-property) are eager to sell. McDonalds’ “Pursue Your Thirstiness” sign symbolizes this and, frankly, so does Pennsylvania’s: both advertise because they want paying customers. The “pursuit of Happiness” is inextricable from such emotional charlatanism. It must go.

It is true that the Declaration of Independence is legally impotent. Revising it would not engage war with Britain nor alter any institutions. But this is irrelevant—the purpose of the revision is neither structural nor legal—and it makes the replacement of the “pursuit of Happiness” all the more provocative. Countries add and change laws constantly, but rarely does one attempt to so profoundly reconstruct its identity. Amending the Declaration would cause outrage, but also introspection and, hopefully, a paradigm shift.

As it would divorce property-ownership from happiness, “estate” alone is a passable technical replacement, but insufficiently idealistic. If Jefferson’s American scripture is to be revised, the new words must have combine the potency of the “pursuit of Happiness” with an understanding of its flaws. They must acknowledge Tocqueville’s critique that “passion for material enjoyments…[cannot] be enough for a whole people [because] the human heart is vaster than one supposes, ” and then sing into the heart’s vastness with Motown soul, Southern twang, and California cool.

So append a fourth right. Replace “pursuit of Happiness” with “estate” and then one-up the Founders. How do we choose the addition? Look to history, art, philosophy. The fourth right could hark back to the Greeks and prioritize virtue; or self-expression, akin to the Renaissance. It could be a healthy planet and pivot us toward the inexorable challenges of the climate change, or an aphorism that captures Rawls’ thorough and just primary goods. But whatever it is, it must steer the nation to the immaterial. Our lesson is learned: material wealth affords security, not happiness—whatever one conceives happiness to be—and its perpetual pursuit is too deleterious. The new right must instead be founded not in having, but in being; or even better, in becoming. Let it lead us to something aspirational, something newly American.

Unraveling the real world

Playtime is over

“’Welcome to the real world,’ she said to me / condescendingly,” begins John Mayer’s “No Such Thing.” The song attacks an idea that has been expressed to me all my life, one offered ever more often to my friends and I as we approached high school and then university graduations – the clichéd closes of the supposed best years of our lives.

Mayer’s characterization captures the tone with which people usually speak of the real world. Relatives and neighbors warn kids about it with a sad irony and couple their cautions with advice to savor childhood, high school, or college; or, they lament their own inability to escape. But the common thread uniting those who bemoan the real world is less adulthood or responsibility than it is suppressed yearning. Mayer wonders if parents have “wished for anything better / while in their memories, tiny tragedies.” He hits at the regrets and buried dreams which are the cost of rent in the real world.

Conspicuously absent from this particular strand of unhappy people are artists, entrepreneurs, and those otherwise meaningfully occupied. This is not to say that the pursuit of a passion or meaning or some altruistic end ensures eternal or even sustained happiness, but that doing as Mayer and many others have, deciding that there is “no such thing as the real world,” is a liberation from a false, harmful, and constricting belief – but one that is systemically difficult to beat.

What do real worlders mean when they use the phrase? There are as many definitions as there are users, but the similarities previously mentioned, subdued aspiration and bitterness, and the words themselves, “real” and “world,” make a few key implications.

First, real worlders consciously or unconsciously believe themselves to be confined by some objectively true set of circumstances or rules that are not only real but natural and universal. (Ask yourself if those you hear complain about the real world also overuse the phrase “it is what it is.”) Chief among these circumstances is typically the need to obtain or keep a job which might range in quality from mundane to mind-numbing but is fundamentally characterized by the person wanting, almost always, to be somewhere else instead of at work. Real worlders feel that this need is inherent to their existence: it is a natural circumstance that binds everyone.

The second implication is paradoxical. Real worlders who complain implicitly make the claim that there is at least one other world; however, to them these worlds are somehow invalid. For example, a real worlder may tell a child or student (perhaps with Mayer’s mentioned condescension) that their sorrows are false or meaningless because they do not live in the real world and, therefore, lack real problems.  In this dismissal is the admission that the real world is not all-encompassing: child- and student-hood can lay outside its bounds, along with other, more fulfilling modes of life.

This suggests a boundary between the real and other worlds. Mayer addresses this third implication when he sings “something’s better on the other side.” Graduation might be an instance of such a border, but Mayer is alluding to his own decision to pursue a career in music instead of taking the “so-called right track.” His example demonstrates that the boundary exists and is permeable, even after childhood – Mayer crossed it with a decision.

These implications are made by anyone who refers to the real world as the natural and universal mode of existence that demands they adhere to a set of rules which restricts them from doing what they capital W “Want,” as in “I’ve always Wanted to be a teacher,” or “I Want more than anything to make music.” This restrictive conceptualization of the real world seems to act as a central impediment to self-actualization.

It is also crucially different from the real world’s more literal interpretation as a foil to a fictional or imagined world. This version has utility: in books, television, and movies, happy endings are commonplace, whereas in life they are incredibly rare; and using the real world as a conceptual tool to combat unrealistic expectations about finding a soulmate or saving the world is, if not laudable, at least understandable. But I think the phrase has shifted from this usage to its present, popular, and more pernicious definition, one that serves less as a counterweight to fictional narratives of improbable adventure or love than as a cultural enforcer of the notion that economic security is the primary and natural mandate of existence.

That this is harmful or incorrect might seem laughable. Economic security affords healthcare, shelter, and nutrition, which all are vital and can be painstaking to obtain; but the connotation people now associate with the real world proves something is wrong. If people conceive of the real world as I have described it – and do so contemptuously or dejectedly – they make a fourth implication: the real world is bad, and they would rather live some other way. This is the problem.

How real is it?

Let’s make the assumption that people tell a story to themselves about themselves. Real worlders may or may not believe they do this, but when they lament the rules of the game, they are indeed telling a story, one where they either are a victim or play a victim. I think our situation is more complicated than this – we are somewhere in between.

In Mayer’s “No Such Thing” he tells the story of his victimization by the real world, which, for him, is a contrived narrative of life imposed by cultural expectations and embodied by his parents, teachers, and classmates, who all comply with its demands. But the song is about everyone’s ability to escape such victimization by rising above the real world’s lie. In his idealized story, we are able to break the bounds of the real world by doing what we love instead of what we are expected to do.

We could then assume that there is a process of de-victimization that Mayer and kindred otherworlders followed: they were victims, played victims, then fought their way out of the real world. In the first stage they believed they were victims of the real world, the natural, universal set of circumstances restricting them from doing what they Wanted. Then, via some form of epiphany, they realized that there is no such thing as the real world. In this stage they understand life is not constrained by the real world’s circumstances yet continue to adhere to them. A crucial distinction here is whether they continue to criticize their lives. If they accept the rules and are fulfilled, or do not inwardly or outwardly despair, then this stage is unproblematically satisfactory; but, if they do despair and choose not to change things, they lose victimhood and start playing it. Here is where otherworlders quit playing, summon the courage to accept the risks posed by breaking real world rules (e.g. economic security), and start working towards what they Want.

Because of our predisposition for self-storytelling, I think many of us make it to the second stage and then return to the first. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a hypocrite or a coward, but victimhood requires a kind of heroic endurance. That story, in tandem with consumerism, can sufficiently numb the gnawing thought that there ought to be more to life than economic security.

However, this process is a drastically shortened and simplified side of the story. The risks posed by leaving the real world are not insignificant, and the middle stage – knowing the real world is a lie but not knowing what to do or lacking the courage to change – is messy, arduous, and anxiety-provoking. This is why those stuck in this limbo are not so easily criticized, and why the notion of the real world as fact is problematic.

Yet even if we accept Mayer’s process of de-victimization, why must it and its trials exist at all? Why does it so often feel like we must choose between security or the pursuit of fulfillment? And why, although there are plenty of individuals who achieve both security and fulfillment, do we choose to resent them instead of imitate them?

Partially, it is because what real worlders are feeling is not entirely a fiction. David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, believes their perception is accurate, and comes in part from the modern prevalence of what he calls “bullshit jobs.” In an essay that went viral a few years ago, he examines a claim made in 1930 by the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes that developed countries, enabled by technological advancements, would have cut the average person’s work week to fifteen hours by 2030. Graeber argues that Keynes was not incorrect – we are capable of meeting his prediction – but that “instead, technology has been marshaled…to make us all work more” at jobs that are, “effectively, pointless.” He cites a study of the U.S. that found between 1910 and 2000 “’professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service [work]…grew from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment,’” while “productive jobs…[were] largely automated away.”

This leads Graeber to describe the “moral dynamics of our own economy” as a kind of “Hell” comprised of “individuals who [spend] the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.” In a later interview with The Economist, he elaborates: “[there] is an almost perfect inverse relation between how much your work directly benefits others, and remuneration. The result is a toxic political culture of resentment.”

Although the accuracy of Graeber’s arguments are questionable (The New Yorker described his book on the subject, Bullshit Jobs, as informed by “ad-hoc empiricism”), he thinks their validity is proved by their popularity and the way in which people have resonated with them. Like the real world, bullshit jobs are defined more by feeling than objective fact; and it is not the certainty of their existence that makes them problematic, but the prevalence of their perception.

At least in the developed world, it is unclear where on the spectrum between real victim and play victim any worker or most workers reside. There are the John Mayers, those for whom rejecting the lie of the real world turned out to be a lucrative and celebritizing decision; and even though we enjoy what they offer, it is easy to resent them. We wonder what makes them so special, why they have some talent that we lack, how they escaped the real world’s drudgery. It is a cultural habit to think famous and talented people are the superhuman exceptions that prove the real world’s rules, but they are not. “No Such Thing” was recorded when Mayer was 22 and preceded his fame or fortune – his insight about the real world came when the only thing he shared with his present self was his dream and his drive. And beyond Mayer, there are the fulfilled people whose name almost nobody knows: the writers you’ve never read, the teachers you never had, the YouTubers and the podcasters and the many, many other crowdfunded creators. These people liberated their Wants, left the real world, and found or scrounged a way to support themselves and their families.

Yet for all the success stories, those who cannot or will not cross the boundary have justified complaints. Graeber’s bullshit job-holders and real worlders in general face an economy that too often presents the unfair choice between fulfillment and security; and any number of self-help books or inspirational quotes ultimately cannot alleviate the pressures and miseries posed by a decision either way.

This is the sinister brilliance of the “real world.” There are just enough fulfilled people speaking from the TED stage or elsewhere to make it feel distantly possible to become one of them if we work hard enough, even though hard work seems to be frequently misdirected into a black hole of BS euphemized as ladder-climbing or “just the way things are.” To prevent despair we tell ourselves and children that this mode of existence is natural and “it is what it is,” despite it being a relatively recent phenomenon and not at all the way things have to be on the individual or societal scales. Calling this state of affairs the real world is an insidious linguistic trick which stops any thoughts of reform (personal or otherwise) before or soon after they start.

The “real world” loves to go unquestioned: it’s crucial to business-as-usual. So ask yourself what you are doing when you complain about life in the real world. Ask if your job really needs to exist – does it help anyone beyond the shareholders? Do you feel like you are contributing something positive? Something meaningful? What is it that you Want to do instead? And when someone else deplores the real world, ask them what they are really trying to say, what story they are telling. To everything, to yourself, ask why.

Horcrux hunting

Not just for wizards and witches

In the third act of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince J.K. Rowling delivers a critical flashback to Voldemort’s past, in which he learns about horcruxes, a dark magic used to prevent death by storing a piece of soul in something outside the body. But the catch is twofold: to fragment their soul a wizard or witch has to commit murder, and life with a split spirit becomes painfully worse than it would be with a whole one.

Voldemort’s experience with horcruxes earns zero stars: he spends time living in a turban, a diary, and as a shriveled infant; his lone confidant is a snake; and he suffers from intense paranoia. But still he treasures his treasures – they keep him alive, even if the result, as he says, is feeling “ripped from his body” and “less than [a] spirit”. Readers shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s misery as fiction: wizards, witches, and muggles share the ability to make horcruxes and suffer their consequences. Rowling’s tale contains a powerful lesson for consumers in today’s modern, material world.

Nonfictional horcruxes abound. Shoes, cars, and television are only a few examples of possessions to which excessive time, money, and care are allotted and with which identity is confused. This overvaluation of belongings siphon the self into something external. Marketing campaigns exacerbate the conflation: by advertising to narrow demographics they mix up what they’re selling with who their customers are. In swearing fealty to Nike or Adidas, iPhones or Androids, or Netflix series, consumers dangerously entangle themselves with what they buy, wear, or watch.

Social media is a type of horcrux, too. Part of their raison d’être is to let users carefully filter themselves online, but it is perilous to confuse what gets displayed with what is real. Tweets and Instagram photos may attract popularity or influence, but they are far too shallow of a medium to convey intimate personal truths like memory or virtue. Limiting expression to overly simplistic online profiles precludes the complexity inherent to human nature. Users who exist primarily inside the internet risk losing the growth afforded by offline introspection, the personality developed by in-person interaction, and the sympathy and understanding gained in conversation. A digital existence makes users miss out on the richer, more complicated parts of life.

Unfortunately, the nuance lost on social media is recovered by click-collecting algorithms. With user data, sale-hungry advertisers predict preferences from news to music, limiting autonomous searching, watching, and reading. An invisible information cage replaces the thoughtful wandering done in a neighborhood bookstore or park and, as a result, prevents eye-opening exploration. Willing and unwilling online sharing confines users, splitting them from the complexity and serendipity crucial to self-knowledge and growth.

Culture should examine itself in Rowling’s stories. Harry has prized possessions – his wand, cloak, and broomstick – but over them he ultimately values his relationships. He relies on virtues to solve problems, finds fulfillment in his actions and friends, and, spoiler alert, defeats Voldemort’s soul-splitting materialism. Rowling’s heroes have identities built from educations, experiences, and mistakes. Their adventures force them to question who they are without their stuff or reputations, and their hunt for the answers – for hidden horcruxes – is the same as any muggle’s.

Dostoevsky, loneliness, and the internet: a connectivity error

Below are two excerpts from Book VI of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, published in Russia in 1880.

“Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age—it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For every one strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age have split up into units, they all keep apart, each in his own groove; each one holds aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest, and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure,’ and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light. And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens…. But, until then, we must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men’s souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die.”

The world says: “You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air…

…And it’s no wonder that instead of gaining freedom they have sunk into slavery, and instead of serving the cause of brotherly love and the union of humanity have fallen, on the contrary, into dissension and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher said to me in my youth. And therefore the idea of the service of humanity, of brotherly love and the solidarity of mankind, is more and more dying out in the world, and indeed this idea is sometimes treated with derision. For how can a man shake off his habits? What can become of him if he is in such bondage to the habit of satisfying the innumerable desires he has created for himself? He is isolated, and what concern has he with the rest of humanity? They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.

In the story these two passages are separated by a chapter and spoken by different characters, but they explore the same idea and are better examined as a pair. They are also valuable because they do not require context about the plot: they (ironically) can stand alone.

The ideas Dostoevsky presents in these passages are strikingly relevant. We live in an age of rampant and ramped-up loneliness. A recent survey in America categorized half of its citizens as feeling lonely. This year Britain appointed its first minister for loneliness. The Gods of the internet know it, too: they presented me with an advertisement for Facebook as I was reading a New York Times article about loneliness.

The social changes that Dostoevsky observed were partially due to the growth of capitalism in Europe in the 19th century. Competition divided people; wealth was equated with success, security and happiness; and the result was that “mankind… split up into units”. Yet even as he watched his world separate itself for money, Dostoevsky claimed that “the isolation that prevails everywhere… has not fully developed”; and while he never saw the birth of the internet or Facebook, he foresaw and pre-paraphrased the Zuckerbergish claims that “the world is getting more and more united… as it overcomes distance and sends thoughts flying through the air.”

In our era of firmly entrenched economic capitalism, physical and monetary separation seems natural: picket fences divide our homes, cars divide the roads and, for the rich, gates and guards protect modern palaces. Some of Dostoevsky’s observations have even become cliché via the tragedy of the sad or lonely celebrity or billionaire. Many of capitalism’s social effects have sunk into “it is what it is” territory. But the internet – social media in particular – has created a new brand of capitalism and competition: social capitalism. In addition to caring about the number of zeroes appended to our bank account, our count of followers, likes, views, and friends now contributes to our image of self-worth. In 2018 this is a trite observation, but our changing ideas of solidarity and independence may have something to learn from The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky says that “they have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.” He is speaking in material terms, but for us this could translate to a myriad of social-capital goods. Thanks to Instagram there has never been a greater mass of beautiful pictures; thanks to Twitter there have never been so many comic observations; thanks to Facebook we have never had so many friends. Having a post go viral is equated with winning the lottery. What is the result of this accumulation? Online words and images shower us with stimulation, but not with connection; the internet provides an excellent medium for communication, but how often is that communication meaningful? Like a refrigerator our phones are checked before bed and after waking, hardly ever containing anything but a reminder that we are hungry. Even while physically together the desire for social capital can separate us.

The issue of internet usage is complicated and cannot be proclaimed the singular cause of contemporary isolation, but it deserves more attention at the individual level. Artists, scientists, and journalists are all exploring its effects on society; the common person needs to join them. Evaluate how much time and energy is spent daily on social media, and ask yourself why you count the number of likes on a picture or tweet. What do you gain from it? Would the time filtering a photo be better spent talking on the phone with a friend or relative? How could you instead use your social media to really connect?

“Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men’s souls out of their solitude.” The next time you are with friends and all are silent because all are on their phones, don’t succumb – even if it makes you feel like a pariah. Keep the internet in your pocket and try to pull the others back to reality and each other with a question or observation. (Find some good ones here).

The internet is and will remain an implacable part of our lives, but finding ways to circumvent or employ it to foster friendship and solidarity is crucial. We need to learn to navigate it for the purpose of making and maintaining connections in the same way Dostoevsky’s world had to adapt to the splintering effects of capitalism. Learning from his experience is a fine place to start.

Names and numbers in Schindler’s List

“You shouldn’t get stuck on names…It creates a lot of paperwork.”

Schindler's List

The Nazi Soldier Hoss says this as he is being bribed into sending Schindler’s Jews to Czechoslovakia. The scene cuts, and then we are on Auschwitz grounds, watching a Nazi read aloud the names of the Jews who will board the train bound for Schindler’s factory. The camera shows his list: the lens focuses on the Jews’ assigned numbers, but they are left unsaid.

Throughout the film Jews are dehumanized by the Nazis: the most cruel instance perhaps being when the Nazi Captain Goeth, as he is contemplating raping her, refers to his Jewish housemaid as “not a person in the strictest sense of the word” to her face. She is something less than a person, and it justifies his crimes. In a way, Schindler’s list – the significance given to the names, rather than the numbers – is the counterattack to dehumanization; it symbolizes rehumanization. The list, when read aloud at Auschwitz, links their names with their survival.

To have meaning and worth is to have a name. That is why the Nazis dispose of names on their quest to extinguish the Jews while Schindler, as his love for his workers increases, records them. For a Nazi soldier committing crimes against humanity, victims’ namelessness was an asset. Schindler’s List is a poignant and harrowing reminder that discarding individuals’ names is equivalent to removing their humanity, and a precursor to stripping them of their lives.