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Pits & palaces
On social media and real life
It is a common enough sentiment: “Twitter isn’t real life”. The species of satisfied, post-ironic self-parody pioneered by Achtung Baby is passed back and forth as specie with a wink and a nod, circulating among those cybernetic cognoscenti who—with all the piety of a Richelieu and self-restraint of a Chateaubriand—tut-tut at their lessers, the pedestrian posters fool enough to to be mad online. With tens of thousands of followers and sealed with the royal blue of legitimacy, ᴛʜᴇʏ tap out the undulations of their brows, rubbernecking the poor saps caught unprepared in the maw of The Discourse.
Yet their hypocritical moralism is itself uninteresting, rather it serves as an obscure portal to the windowless corridors of the social networks’ inner workings; Twitter is in fact not real life—surprising none—but is the substitute, the artificial additive, the two splendas to match a half-caf: Twitter is a digital palais, and whether it be Hammersmith or Versailles is merely a question of perspective.
A decade ago the funhouse inquisition of American academic radicals was the subject of idle opprobrium and well-perched dispassion. Now that the screw has dug in a few turns the comfortable columnists knows to watch his mouth. More than a humble cottage, a whole shire of hamlet industries has sprung up to support the institutional demand for what was one laughed-off by the well-respected. Impenetrable theories of sundry faults: from Turchin’s just-so story to Lasch’s lament are strewn before the impregnable; as splintered and charred as the ashen outcasts who wave after wave cannot breach the wall. Whatever ᴛʜᴇʏ call her—cathedral or bazaar—the brute truth is that ᴛʜᴇʏ have failed to enter in. ᴛʜᴇʏ have forgotten the wiliness of the Prophet and the King.
It is by weakness that ᴡᴇ overcome the strong. Burrowing like an old mole down in Hezekiah’s tunnel, ᴡᴇ emerge in a common pool. Here ᴡᴇ can see—albeit soaked from the sewer—the infrastructure of the simulated citadel; the dullest Raphaelite apprentice could not have constructed a more evident pyramid. At the base are the followers and at the peak the followed. Squint from afar and you can make out the takes ascending and descending with crass cruelty, lewd drama, and vendetta besides. All hearts are set on owning, all faces cringe at being owned. The bestial reflection is not due—as some would have it—to funhouse distortion, but refined and smooth silver. Stand in awe before the glory of the world: red in tooth and claw.
And so it is that every sin of liberal democracy is represented through our dark and glowing glasses. Yet as we have already mentioned, the beneficiaries of nepotistic favor lay their smooth hands upon the truth when ᴛʜᴇʏ intone that “Twitter is not real life”: from Barro to Yglesias, ᴛʜᴇʏ know that ᴛʜᴇʏ are not really alive. ᴛʜᴇʏ aren’t normal people, but elites—or at least parasites clenched firmly onto that noble body. Following the fabled illogic of democracy, to be followed is to lead. America’s declining culture counts such sinecured mediocrities first among the intelligentsia.
Despair not, friend! The same maniacal mutiny that made them Grooms of the Privy Toilet today will flush them down it tomorrow. The social network not only mediates imperial propaganda but sanculottist terror: police squads and vigilante bands alike. Tossed in this tumult stars rise and fall; anyone can be shamed in an instant. But those who are wise will never be cast down, because they know the lie and cherish the truth.
Yea, it is a curse and a hell this marvel of semi-conducted packets that flash under the seas and up into our neurons. Look, take the exit! Go out, by all means, and find yourself embraced by the light. But remember betimes those toiling below, dim from the smoke and bewitched by the shadows. If you can, hazard your life and go down to them. Carry them off as if they were not craven mutants but bleating lambs. And know that this unreal life is where the best and brightest contend for momentary thrill and cold comfort in an age that is passing away.
The task of those who would go down is threefold: first, remain sane and aloof; second, triage for those who are, if not whole, at least bent rather than broken; and third, recall always the truth that thou struggle not with Flesh and Blood but Powers and Principalities. Wᴇ who seek to upend this order of things must know that ᴡᴇ take on the role of intelligentsia not for the untrue adulation of the crowd but for the quiet purification of our lashed conscience. If by some twist of fate ᴡᴇ wear the blue it is for us a spur and humiliation. If ᴡᴇ are published ᴡᴇ hide in another’s name. If ᴡᴇ are followed ᴡᴇ exceeded judgment to lead up and out of the woeful gallery. If ᴡᴇ follow it is to perceive where to bore a new route. When ᴡᴇ are assailed ᴡᴇ stand up to the last and never will ᴡᴇ leave a friend in the breach. Wᴇ have souls to win and nothing to lose but our pride.
Let us then use the algorithm against itself, squeezing where it is short and opening ourselves as an abyss to its flow. Let us be under and beneath it, mining it by subterfuge and by silver words buying traitors aid behind the gates. ᴛʜᴇʏ dug deep pits to trap the sons of men: in the net ᴛʜᴇʏ hid privly is their foot taken.