What Life Was Like

Maudlin showman Glenn Beck has the blogosphere yapping over a new schlocky spiel that features saccharine eulogizing for a mythical lost era of innocence and sweetness. In a popular YouTube clip from last Thursday’s show, Beck is seen tearing up repeatedly while fondly remembering “what life was like” during “simpler times.”

The insidious nature of nostalgia is on full display here, since Beck’s rose-colored glasses help him forget what life was really like back then. Like most sappy trips down memory lane, Beck’s “life back then” is an ache for his childhood days — ie, late ’60s and through the 70s. Which is what makes his sentimental jibberish confusing, amusing, and sad. When we hear Baby Boomers pine for “the good ol’ days,” they usually have the supposedly-desirable days of the ’50s in mind. I think the clip has gained notoriety for portraying as idyllic two of the most controversial decades in US history. This is the era of Vietnam and the My Lai massacre; of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation; CIA-backed dictatorships and assassinations; peak oil in the US and massive inflation; race riots and the slayings of R.F.K. & M.L.K. Jr. We had Watergate, the introduction of AIDS, passage of Roe v. Wade, and the start of the culture wars, etc ad nauseam… For anyone, especially a Republican, to claim (albeit with a hollow recognition that everything “wasn’t perfect’) that this was a “simpler time” is just laughably ignorant.


The New Opiate

Lately I’ve been thinking about an old friend of mine, Jean Baudrillard. He was kind of a smart dude so I only understand a little of his rock and some of his roll. What I do know though is that his deal was “hyper-reality,” or the idea that reality is being superceded by a procession of copies, of perfectly simulated spectacles mimicing the original from which it is now virtually indistinguishable.

I often think about hyper-reality when I read the internet and find out what those wacky kids are up to these days. Turns out some young Chinese girl decided her childhood would best be spent playing an online role-playing game for three days straight, only to end up dying. Like, in reality. The funny thing is that she was probably missed more online than in “real life” – hundreds and hundreds of other gamers gathered at a virtual cathedral to mourn the passing of their virtual clansman, their wizard or sage or goblin or whatever the hell she was in this RPG. This is hyper-reality.

It’s a reality in which thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent via eBay to acquire virtual weapons and talismans. This means transferring actual funds from an actual bank to someone else in order to acquire the bits and bytes that form a pixellated image that has no value whatsoever outside of the context of the game. It’s a reality in which humans – Asian women and kids usually – become wage slaves to harvest gold (or whatever currency) so their masters can in turn sell it for real currency and/or buy in-game items which are then sold. These people sit at their computer 12+ hours every day repeatedly clicking the same thing, running the same scenario, in order to free up more time for their boss to…well, go slay more dragons to get – you guessed it – more virtual money.

Baudrillard isn’t exclusively, or even hardly, concerned with online gaming. It just comes to mind for me. Boggles my mind really. Just think what it says about our culture when there’s an extremely lucrative business in buying and selling virtual real estate, where capitalistic consumerism has reached such a high that acquiring fake property takes precedence over groceries, rent, or charitable giving.

Online communities, especially gaming ones, are too easy of target. I’m also reminded of hyper-reality when I look closer at my “real” life, at my school, with my friends. Anybody born within the last 25-30 years has had their entire existence lived out in the context of pop culture and media. It’s been a life mediated by constructed images. TV and movies have very literally lived our lives for us. In any setting, at any moment, it’s often hard to tell if I’m “being myself” or simply playing a role. But it’s not hypocrisy, or drama. It’s that we’ve lost what it means to be human and how to live authentically and instead live life as we’ve been told it’s supposed to happen. Here, you play the role of tough-thug-with-a-heart, you be the spoiled-brat-with-intimacy-problems, and I’ll be our introspective-skeptic-with-authority-issues. It’s not just – as conservatives charge – that kids are learning about sex from pop culture, they’re learning about everything from pop culture. We quote movies because they better define our own lives than we can. We furiously scribble down favorite song lyrics, storing them in heart and mind while completely unsure whether we identify because we feel or we feel because we want to identify. Media blurs the line so well that we’ve forgotten it’s there. We buy products to buy images and we buy into these images in order to better portray the role we’ve chosen and/or been given. In any situation the doubts and perpetual self-awareness can be paralyzing: am I saying this because I think it’s funny, because I think I want to think it’s funny, because I think this is supposed to be funny, or because I know others will think it’s funny?

And is the asking of these questions, the writing of this essay, the jumbled thoughts in my head – are these even genuine or simply one more aspect of the game I’m playing?

This is hyper-reality. This is the new opiate of the masses. It’s the loss of meaning, the trivialization of life, the elevation of the banal. And it’s eating our souls, stealing our lives.