Optimization, Nostalgia, Fascism, And The Root Of All Bad Faith

Optimization, Nostalgia, Fascism, And The Root Of All Bad Faith

We all have a little fascist in us, begging to get out.

Since we were children we've been told – sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly – that the most successful among us understand the situation. What situation is that? Any situation. The short term, the long term, the immediate, the hypothetical – the Great Ones understand it all. And when one understands the world, one controls the world. That's what goes unsaid: First comes understanding of how things work – not some things, but everything – then comes control over those circumstances.

Once one has control, one has everything.

The world is but putty to be manipulated by the Great Ones. If you think I'm overstating the Great Ones' desire for control, check out the unending, mind-numbing, life-shortening Twitter threads tricking people into believing they too can have control – control over their emotions, over their finances, over their family and friends and colleagues, over technology, over the fate of their everlasting soul. You don't have to read these threads in depth to know the goal of the thread maker is not just succeed in life's many ventures, but to dominate life, to make life submit to them.

It's when you fuck with the Great Ones' understanding of the world that they lose their minds and threaten to end life on earth as we know it. Not knowing – not understanding – is intolerable for them. They would rather be dead than to not understand their world. They would purge the earth of people threatening their (imagined) control of life before they chilled the fuck out and listened to them and considered life is largely uncontrollable.

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That's why anti-trans politics has become the tip of the spear of the ascendant global fascist movement. While the hard right in the US and Britain and Russia and everywhere else in our rapidly post-democratic planet may not agree on every political goal, they can agree on this: The mere existence of transgender people undercuts foundational understandings of civilization, society, and humanity itself. The global right wing is conducting nothing short of a coordinated effort to intimidate and discriminate against LGBTQ folks, with a particularly violent focus on trans people. To boot: Republican attorneys general across the US are suing the federal government because they want states to be able to deny free school lunches to transgender children. The cruelty and hatred know no bounds.

Telling people that gender is not in fact binary is the best way to transform them into fuming, jackbooted reactionaries. The emergence of trans folks in public life has turned both moderate conservatives and mainline liberals into fascists foaming at the mouth for gender order to be restored at any cost. The existence of humans who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth has driven millions of people in the US and abroad out of their minds with fear and loathing. Their understanding of the world – and hence their control of the world – has seemingly disintegrated with the (relative) mainstreaming of trans people in popular culture. These people – their figment of control gone – will give the reins to any party or politician promising to restore order, to make an easier-to-understand world. What that means for the transgender community is as dark as any political development you've ever imagined.

The reactionary, mean spirited, often violent pushback against the existence of transgender folks has sounded a lot like otherwise politically normal people saying in one voice: You have forced us to join the fascist cause. What they don't say: I'm joining said cause because transgender people upend my basic understanding of life, of what it means to be a man or a woman, and I will do anything to regain that control, to create order where there is chaos. For those who hate trans people, their identity is at stake. Trans people's existence is an attack on them – as personal an attack as one can endure. If a woman can be a man and a man a woman, then who am I? What am I?

You would have better luck telling them they come from alien DNA.

The Cult of Optimization

The burning desire to seize control of life – to grab it by the horns or the balls or some other part of its anatomy – isn't a product of the internet, or social media, or the addiction social media intentionally breeds.

The need to perfect the self is ancient. Doing anything and everything to reach one's potential as a human being has been portrayed both as the reason for being and a mandate from god almighty, who wants us to be like him, flowing white beard and all. It's when we've reached our peak potential that we can finally, at long last, control our lives. We are no longer at the whims of fate or the randomness of the universe or whatever you want to call it. In trying to be more like god, we're trying to become gods ourselves: Entities who can no longer be surprised at what life brings because they have achieved total control. Disorder is a thing of the past, of imperfect beings. The goal, I suppose, is to no longer need a god. We can all be gods if we optimize hard enough.

This all sounds familiar to me, a David Bowie obsessive. I've long been fascinated by Bowie's dalliances with fascist thought, which occurred mostly (but not entirely) in the grips of cocaine psychosis that nearly killed him in his late 20s. Before Bowie transformed into the Thin White Duke, an unfeeling fascist who mocked the notion of love and had given up on humanity's potential, Bowie wrote "Oh, You Pretty Things," for his legendary Hunky Dory album. It was in Pretty Things – between the catchy melody of "driving your mamas and papas insane" – that Bowie's obsession with nihilism and its inevitable links to fascist concepts made itself known.

Look out at your children/See their faces in golden rays/Don't kid yourself they belong to you/They're the start of a coming race/The earth is a bitch/We've finished our news/Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use/All the strangers came today/And it looks as though they're here to stay

In Pretty Things, Bowie calls for the end of the weak and fallible homo sapien and for the rise of what he calls the homo-superior. The concept of a more perfect human being had grabbed Bowie's attention after years of floundering in London's hippie art scene alongside leftists who talked incessantly of revolution but did nothing to implement their radical visions of positive change (listen to Bowie's "Cygnet Committee" for more on that). Bowie was done with the flower power scene and all its empty promises of a better life for all people. Bowie wanted a better world and he wanted it now. This, according to the thinking promoted by quasi-fascist writers like Aleister Crowley (a Bowie favorite), required an evolution of humankind, a weeding out of people's many weaknesses that had doomed the species to war without end, widespread economic misery, and general discontentment that has proven intolerable to many blessed (cursed?) with consciousness.

In the new postmodern age, it was time to perfect the miserable human being.

The idea of a so-called homo superior builds a road leading straight to the concept of a master race, some sort of human improvement through the horrific practice of eugenics. This is the natural endpoint of the desire for a perfect human living in the perfect world purged of all chaos and ruled by eternal order. Hitler pitched his master race as the only way to save human society in all its disorder and resulting discontent.

“Everything we admire on this earth today—science and art, technology and inventions—is only the creative product of a few peoples and originally perhaps one race [the “Aryans”]," Hitler wrote in Mein Kempf. "On them depends the existence of this whole culture. If they perish, the beauty of this earth will sink into the grave with them.”

This deranged and dangerous thinking has lived on throughout the western world, most recently seen with American conservatives decrying what they see (in bad faith) as white genocide – the systematic destruction of the white race at the hands of an internationalist cabal of Jewish people and folks of color and socialists and anyone else they don't like. Inventing a genocidal campaign against your people is the best way to excuse any condemnable behavior – including violence – that follows. Today's shrieking about white genocide is no less dangerous than it was when Hitler did the same.

Emerging from the occult writings and practices that preceded – and were later adopted by – the Third Reich, the aryan master race was going to be developed and deployed across the earth. It would be a cleansing of humanity's foibles and shortcomings – the ultimate grab for control of all human events.

Hitler's regime paid "healthy" German families handsomely to breed in the early and mid 1930s in hopes of filling the nation with the progeny of what were deemed strong aryan men and women. Sterilization of women with health issues or mental illness became state policy. The drive for the perfect human naturally led to the extermination of anyone considered imperfect: Jews, Roma, black and brown people, those with disabilities both mental and physical. They did not meet the standards of a perfectly controlled society. For 20th century reactionaries, these people made the world too difficult to understand. Therefore, they had to go.

The path from optimization to genocide is a short one.

Jump to the 2020s, where every major tech company strives to perfect modern life. We wear technology that tells us when to drink water, when to sleep, when to eat, when to breathe, where to go, how to get there, and what to do when you get there. Silicon Valley billionaires are dedicated of cleansing our lives of all the sticky little issues of consciousness and finding our way through the messiness of existence. While I refuse to wear a watch that tells me when I should take a breath, I'm guilty of using the technology produced by the world's optimization obsessives. I haven't navigated my way anywhere for years; my sense of direction is now that of a toddler (no offense to toddlers). The machine has told me where to go and how to get there, and I've happily listened.

Everywhere you look, every commercial you see, every auto-ad that blares in your face as you search the god-awful internet – it all offers you a way to optimize every second of your life. And the goal of optimization is to seize control. This phone, this watch, this car, this household device that allows the government to listen to your every word. Buy these things now and rid your life of chaos. Cleanse your head of any notion that the universe is random with our latest and greatest invention. Optimize and control. Control and dominate. Our shiny new thing will help you bring life to its knees. This is the underlying messaging behind every single modern advertisement.

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I would guess very few people who pay good money to get control of their lives have anything close to fascist politics. I'm sure many are apolitical or folks who think they sound smart by saying they are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Some probably hold left-wing views on a range of issues. So the Cult of Optimization is not turning everyday people into frothing fascist scum. The idea – drilled into our heads every waking moment of every day – that control is achievable with enough effort is poisonous, however, and normalizes the same strain of thought that leads to cultural and political collapse in the form of parties and lawmakers promising to perfect the imperfect human. Normalization of this concept, however banal, can produce a populace vulnerable to a slick sales pitch from a monster determined to bring on the era of the homo-superior.

Let me tell you something about the homo-superior: You ain't it. And if you are, somehow, you have friends and family you won't qualify. You don't want to know what happens to them in the age of the homo-superior.

Our Prison of Nostalgia

I'm a nostalgic sap.

I have a carefully curated seven-hour playlist of every 80s song I love. I have the complete DVD collection of every 80s slasher franchise. I once threw an 80s-themed Halloween party in which I dressed as a Camp Crystal Lake counselor. I'll confess to watching YouTube cutups of 80s commercials after a few drinks on a Friday night (the diet pills ads targeting the Modern Working Woman are really something).

Reflecting and remembering can be fun. I won't begrudge anyone who plays a video game from their youth every once in a while just to remember what it was like to be young and dumb and innocent, a time when you were blissfully unaware of your lack of control over life. Millennials aren't the first generation to become intoxicated with nostalgia, and we won't be the last.

Nostalgia, like optimization, can turn very ugly very quickly.

It's baby boomers' nostalgia for an imagined past that has driven their generation ever more toward fascism over the past twenty years. That drive to reestablish a made-up past in which men were men and women were women and black folks knew their place has accelerated over the past decade. It will continue accelerating – fueled by nostalgia – until the United States and other western democracies are unrecognizable. Nostalgia is a potent force that has and will continue to be harnessed by the worst among us, right-wing politicians who know standing before nostalgic freaks and saying stupid shit like, "We're bringing Christmas back, folks," will create an unstoppable political force capable of breaking a democracy.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 by asking Americans to remember the 1950s, before the upheaval and discord of the 60s and 70s. Hollywood took Ronnie's cue and cranked out a decade of movies and music that harkened back to the 50s as if the revolutionary spirit of the 60s and 70s had never happened. The 80s were largely about expunging the radical ideas of the 60s and 70s from the national consciousness – the late-60s being humanity's final (failed) push to remain human.

Mohsin Hamid, a writer for the Guardian, wrote in 2017 that our modern obsession with nostalgia is driven by our terror of what's next, of what lies ahead of us in this dystopian era.

Why are we so strongly attracted to nostalgia today? In part, I think, because the pace of change is accelerating. Despite our close relationship with technology, at this point in our evolution human beings are still animals, and animals struggle to adapt to change that occurs too rapidly. Given enough time, polar bears might migrate off the Arctic ice, evolve darker coats, find a different diet and thrive in a new, warmer climate. But if the ice on which they depend disappears in a few decades, they are likely to die. Our adaptive capacity is far greater, but we too experience change as stress. ... We are growing terrified of the future.

Hiding in nostalgia will resonate with anyone who, during the darkest days of COVID, plunged headfirst into the media of their youths in a desperate attempt to reclaim some imagined happiness in the days before the 21st century's nonstop crises brought on by late-stage capitalism. Many of us watched movies from the 80s and 90s as we isolated from everyone we love because we could not consider what the future held. Given the choices of living in the present moment, projecting ourselves into the future, or diving deep into the past, we chose the past. And it wasn't a difficult choice.

Here's the thing: Watching those movies we remember so fondly exposed the past as deeply imperfect, and in many cases, fucking terrible. The media of our childhood through a 21st century lens showed how problematic these films were, how insulting and degrading they were to women, to people of color, to LGBTQ folks, to people with disabilities. I tried to watch an 80s comedy with my kid; we turned it off after ten minutes and half a dozen slurs.

It helped me understand we were brought up on fascist media that ingrained horrific ideas deep within us. Back To The Future? Fascist. Sixteen Candles? Fascist. Indiana Jones? You guessed it: Fascist. That's what COVID-era nostalgia delivered for millions of 80s and 90s kids: The realization that the past was actually bad.

This is, in fact, a positive development. Amid a flurry of nostalgia-based media – 500 new super hero movies a year and billion-dollar shows based in the 80s among them – we need to remember how horrific that era was for so many people. At the very least, we need to keep our nostalgia firmly in check. At best, we need to expunge it from our minds completely.

It's when nostalgia is combined with the absurd notion of optimizing one's life that we get the most potent kind of bad faith. For bad faith, as you readers surely know by now, is not based on what a person actually believes, but on the invented reality that requires a certain solution. This is most clearly seen in the politics of abortion, where well-funded program created an unreal reality in which a right to abortion had to be taken away. A widespread longing for a made-up past was the driver of so many efforts to strip people of their bodily autonomy, and with enough of those true believers in power, that glorious past was restored. It was all in bad faith.

The bad faith deployed by those to exploit nationalistic nostalgia must not be countered with good faith, since the success of good faith depends on the shameless suddenly feeling shame. Bad faith should be beaten back with no faith. Bad-faith actors should not be engaged on their terms. It's when their invented reality becomes the playing field that they win.

Those brave enough to look toward the future and not bury their heads in the warm comfort of the imagined past must reject nostalgia and the toxic idea that people can be perfected. If we're ever going to break free from the never-ending horrors of politicians who wield bad faith as a sledgehammer against the very notion of society, we have to come to terms with two facts: The past was fucking terrible and people are inherently fucked up. And that' OK.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.