Culture

America’s Psychic Tuberculosis

A rainbow flag waves at the Stonewall National Monument in New York, June 4, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Elites’ endless quest for social status is fueling our present moral panic.

There is some mystery about the generation of names. “Gay” becomes “gay and lesbian” becomes “lesbian and gay” becomes LGB becomes LGBTQ becomes LGBTQIAPK becomes LGBTTQQIAAP+. We go from “black” to “Afro-American” to “African American” back to “black” to “Black,” and then to BIPOC, and then to whatever that will be five minutes from now.

Political correctness — and I remind you that this is a term the scolds invented for themselves, not something that conservative critics hung on them — is a joint neurosis, which, in moments of particular intensity, can turn into the kind of moral panic we are seeing right now. On the matter of nomenclature, there is a very long magical tradition holding that to have access to the true (and necessarily secret) name of something gives one power over it. (Think of Adam, his dominion over the animals indicated by his having the authority to name them.) A great deal of psychology and sociology is built on that superstition: Take a group of behaviors, give them a name, and treat the synthetic concept as though it were an organic phenomenon. There is no such literal thing as narcissistic personality disorder or white supremacy or capitalism, which do not exist in the sense that Mycobacterium tuberculosis exists, but to give things scientific-sounding names — “political science” spoke to the aspirations of a particularly delusional moment in our history — and to treat them as discrete unitary phenomena gives us a sense of control and power over them.

Another way of understanding this magical thinking of the great American bourgeoisie is that it is the result of market innovation offering jaded consumers new forms of psychic consumption.

At a certain level of material abundance, some consumption shifts away from ordinary goods and services into more experiential forms of consumption. The lines between these are not distinct: For example, people who order a $1,000 bottle of wine in a restaurant are not necessarily paying for old grape juice; often, what they are paying for is the act of ritual consumption and a passage into the state not of having but of having had the 1996 Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet. (The fellow who has a taste for very expensive wines but could not with a gun to his head tell a Bordeaux from a Brunello is a familiar type, and not necessarily insincere.) Luxury goods may combine both physical and psychic consumption — an expensive watch is not about telling the time, and you don’t go to Per Se or the French Laundry because you are hungry — and at the most rarefied level of consumption dissolve into almost purely experiential consumption that does not look like conventional luxury at all: a picture with the president, or a personal audience with the pope or the Dalai Lama. The great marker of social status is the line between that which is expensive and that which money alone cannot buy: A Ferrari is one kind of status symbol, having children enrolled at Princeton is a different kind.

(John Maynard Keynes’s theory of consumption was, by his own account, a psychological theory.)

That kind of rarefied consumption is not reserved exclusively for wealthy people. It is one of the benefits that subsidizes volunteer work in churches and civic organizations, in which people often associate and form relationships with socially prominent members of their local communities. Other people are attracted to celebrity-adjacent jobs or accept relatively low-paying work in elite or elite-adjacent institutions for similar reasons.

The pseudo-activism of social media and membership in the self-deputized sheriff’s posse of political correctness provide some of the same benefits as genuine civic engagement — without the need to attend all those tedious meetings. The displacement of “Latino” by “Latinx” does not achieve anything of genuine value for anybody with Spanish-speaking ancestry, but it does create new opportunities for rarefied psychic consumption, giving a new generation of consumers (overwhelmingly college-educated white people) an opportunity to enjoy the taste of being in a vanguard, an exquisitely refined psychic product that is necessarily rivalrous in consumption.

The pattern repeats. Loosely organized coalitions such as Black Lives Matter, Antifa, or the Tea Party are rooted not in radicalism but in Tracy Flick-ism and Max Fischer-ism: Community organizers are people who start clubs to give themselves something to be in charge of for the purpose of achieving social status. Civic organizations and political parties have long operated on a kind of informal seniority system: You volunteer, you do grunt work, you work your way up, and you wait your turn. The turn against party “elites” is much more the result of frustrated party activists’ looking for a way to avoid waiting their turn than representative of a genuine shift toward populism in either of the two major parties. A car dealer or a jeweler will arrange lending for customers because those customers want their consumption now, not in two years, when they can afford it — and we want our psychic consumption now, too.

Hence the churn.

The generation of new LGBTTQQIAAP+ designations or new racial nomenclature does not stop, for the same reason that fashion does not stop — the point of the consumption is to distinguish the fashionable from the unfashionable, to display one’s good taste or (since that is rare) at least one’s knowledge of what currently is in style. New markers must be generated to do the status-conferring work that the old markers cannot do anymore.

It is typical of the great genius of our business community that even radical changes in fashion end up commodified and made shopping-mall friendly in a remarkably short period of time: Think of how quickly the styles associated with punk rock or hip-hop were incorporated into mainstream fashion. With that in mind, can it be any surprise that the voguish pseudo-radicalism of our own time not only is embraced by Corporate America but is generously sponsored by it, with the new Red Brigades outfitted and funded by Google, PepsiCo, AT&T, NBCUniversal, Facebook, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, and Deloitte?

Another way of saying “psychic consumption” is “psychic tuberculosis.” All the symptoms of the wasting disease are there to be seen, for those with the curiosity and the stomach to take a good hard look.

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