Something strange happened to the news over the past four years. The dominant stories all resembled the scripts of bad movies—sequels and reboots. The Kavanaugh hearings were a sequel to the Clarence Thomas hearings, and Russian collusion was rebooted as Ukrainian impeachment. Journalists are supposed to hunt for good scoops, but in January, as the coronavirus spread, they focused on the impeachment reality show instead of a real story.
It’s not just journalists. The so-called second golden era of television was a decade ago, and many of those shows relied on cliff-hangers and gratuitous nudity to hold audience attention. Across TV, movies, and novels it is increasingly difficult to find a compelling story that doesn’t rely on gimmicks. Even foundational stories like liberalism, equality, and meritocracy are failing; the resulting woke phenomenon is the greatest shark jump in history.
Storytelling is central to any civilization, so its sudden failure across society should set off alarm bells. Culture inevitably reflects the selection process that sorts people into the upper class, and today’s insipid stories suggest a profound failure of this sorting mechanism.
Our leaders go through a selection process that has benefits, drawbacks, and larger cultural implications, all of which shape the character of our nation. Imagine if tomorrow a law passed declaring that henceforth all leaders will be selected through hand-to-hand combat: college admissions, job interviews, even Senate seats will be determined in the Thunderdome. CEOs would start applying war paint, and suburban mothers would teach children battle cries. Our leaders would be fundamentally different types of people than they are today, and culture would transform based upon the selection criteria, just as America’s present culture has been shaped by the sorting mechanisms in place over the past century.
Culture is larger than pop culture, or even just art. It encompasses class, architecture, cuisine, education, manners, philosophy, politics, religion, and more. T. S. Eliot charted the vastness of this word in his Notes towards the Definition of Culture, and he warned that technocratic rule narrowed our view of culture. Eliot insisted that it’s impossible to easily define such a broad concept, yet smack in the middle of the book he slips in a succinct explanation: “Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living.” This highlights why the increase in “deaths of despair” is such a strong condemnation of our dysfunction. In a fundamental way, our culture only exists to serve a certain class. Eliot predicted this when he critiqued elites selected through education: “Any educational system aiming at a complete adjustment between education and society will tend to restrict education to what will lead to success in the world, and to restrict success in the world to those persons who have been good pupils of the system.”
This professional managerial class has a distinct culture that often sets the tone for all of American culture. It may be possible to separate the professional managerial class from the ruling elite, or plutocracy, but there is no cultural distinction. Any commentary on an entire class will stumble in the way all generalizations stumble, yet this culture is most distinct at the highest tiers, and the fuzzy edges often emulate those on the top. At its broadest, these are college-educated, white-collar workers whose income comes from labor, who are huddled in America’s cities, and who rise to power through existing bureaucracies. Bureaucracies, whether corporate or government, are systems that reward specific traits, and so the culture of this class coalesces towards an archetype: the striving bureaucrat, whose values are defined by the skills needed to maneuver through a bureaucracy. And from the very beginning, the striving bureaucrat succeeds precisely by disregarding good storytelling.
The Rise and Fall of the Organization Man
In America, the first cultural product of modern bureaucratic (and specifically “meritocratic”) sorting mechanisms was the managerial class of the postwar period. Although a subject of derision now, the rise of the “organization man” in the 1950s was accompanied by a huge demand for high culture. In 1955, more Americans paid to attend classical music concerts than baseball games. In 1956, fifty million tuned in to Richard III on NBC. And at the height of the ’50s great books boom, fifty thousand Americans a year bought collections that included Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel. High culture was always the domain of the upper class, but suddenly the GI Bill and mass media opened it to large swaths of the population.
Not coincidentally, high culture lost value as a signifier of status, and the upper class began to complain about the stifling conformity of the organization man. This was a form of status anxiety; someone ridiculed as a soulless cog is not a status competitor. Not too long after, Susan Sontag helped create a new cultural status hierarchy. The new “aristocrats of taste” were those who embraced camp, the love of artifice, in order to dethrone the serious. The upper class no longer had to try to elevate their taste. They simply had to have the right attitude. These trends have been institutionalized. Today’s upper class is raised on a steady diet of pop culture that valorizes nonconformism; elites learn to signal their status through attitude.
Professionals today would never self-identify as bureaucrats. Product managers at Google might have sleeve tattoos or purple hair. They might describe themselves as “creators” or “creatives.” They might characterize their hobbies as entrepreneurial “side hustles.” But their actual day-in, day-out work involves the coordination of various teams and resources across a large organization based on established administrative procedures. That’s a bureaucrat. The entire professional culture is almost an attempt to invert the connotations and expectations of the word—which is what underlies this class’s tension with storytelling. Conformity is draped in the dead symbols of a prior generation’s counterculture.
Education as a LinkedIn Endorsement
In an influential essay on how traditions solve questions of truth, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that instrumentalism appears when a tradition can no longer explain its older practices. The way we teach literature signals that our society no longer has a coherent story about the purpose of education. Everyone agrees with practical concerns about reading, writing, and the need for future doctors, but there is no justification for the vestiges of our older tradition. Why teach Shakespeare instead of compilations of top-notch corporate memos? At the high school level there is no answer, and so the way English is taught circumscribes how society views storytelling.
When high school students read novels, they are asked to identify the theme, or moral, of a story. This teaches them to view texts through an instrumental lens. Novelist Robert Olen Butler wrote that we treat artists like idiot savants who “really want to say abstract, theoretical, philosophical things, but somehow they can’t quite make themselves do it.” The purpose of a story becomes the process of translating it into ideas or analysis. This is instrumental reading. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent years meticulously outlining and structuring numerous rewrites of The Great Gatsby, but every year high school students reduce the book to a bumper sticker on the American dream. A story is an experience in and of itself. When you abstract a message, you lose part of that experience. Analysis is not inherently bad; it’s just an ancillary mode that should not define the reader’s disposition.
Propaganda is ubiquitous because we’ve been taught to view it as the final purpose of art. Instrumental reading also causes people to assume overly abstract or obscure works are inherently profound. When the reader’s job is to decode meaning, then the storyteller is judged by the difficulty of that process. It’s a novel about a corn beef sandwich who sings the Book of Malachi. Ah yes, a profound critique of late capitalism. An artist! Overall, instrumental reading teaches striving students to disregard stories. Cut to the chase, and give us the message. Diversity is our strength? Got it. Throw the book out. This reductionist view perhaps makes it difficult for people to see how incoherent the higher education experience has become.
College is characterized in two contradictory ways: it is the only firm path to the upper-middle class, and it is a time of Animal House antics. This is so familiar that we often forget it doesn’t make sense. Want to be a respectable member of the upper class? Quick, bong this beer. Campus decadence is a sorting mechanism that elevates people who pay lip service to permissiveness, but don’t fully participate—a preparatory performance of the fake counterculture.
“Decadence” sounds incorrect since the word elicits extravagant and glamorous vices, while we have Lizzo—an obese antifertility priestess for affluent women. All our decadence becomes boring, cringe-inducing, and filled with HR-approved jargon. “For my Fulbright, I studied conflict resolution in nonmonogamous throuples.” Campus dynamics may partially explain this phenomenon. Camille Paglia has argued that many of the brightest left-wing thinkers in the 1960s fried their brains with too much LSD, and this created an opportunity for the rise of corporate academics who never participated in the ’60s but used its values to signal status. What if this dropout process repeats every generation?
A key benefit of any prestige university is the social network. In order to take full advantage of this, students must participate in party culture without losing control of their appetites. Fiction often confronts open secrets, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt follows a group of eccentric college students who destroy their lives after taking their professors’ Dionysian stories too seriously. This might point to obvious truths about moderation: self-control accompanies success. Yet vices and virtues are not doled out equally, and when leadership training is done in a hyper-permissive atmosphere, we narrow the type of character who emerges.
A Harvard Business Review study of common traits among CEOs found that the leaders who rose to that position fastest were those who had a “catapult experience”—a bold and potentially risky career move. Perhaps the same traits that lead to this type of bold action might also lead to very poor outcomes on a college campus. Perhaps hyper-permissiveness actually ends up promoting a form of timidity. We’re left with Silicon Valley dorks who microdose LSD in order to create hookup apps where users exchange sex puns on the toilet.
It seems misguided to criticize college antics when woke scolds and corporate ascetics are draining the life out of everything. College is fun, and mostly harmless. As a society, however, it’s worth asking how the story of college as a time of extended adolescence can coexist with the story of college as the path to success. Solo cup culture flourishes because college is simply a pay-to-play credentialing service.
The university has been in crisis for almost a century, and in 1948 Richard Weaver was already warning that universities had “turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism.” Today, most don’t understand why that’s an insult, and admissions directors are likely to steal “center of professionalism” for brochures. Few receive a real education anymore. Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen wrote that students at leading universities had never heard of the Federalist Papers, and an English professor at Duke said the biggest change in his fifty-year career was that “students no longer have a common core of literary knowledge.” In 1940, 14.9 percent of college students earned an A, while 35 percent earned a C. By 2013, 45 percent of students earned an A, while only 14 percent earned a C. Rampant grade inflation is the result of a system that cannot articulate a purpose for education other than to get good grades. It’s just a rebrand of what it means to be average for people who need college’s credentialing power.
Meanwhile new class connotations have been imported into the word “educated.” College has become a reputational Ponzi scheme, and the effects of this can be seen across culture. Upper-class fashion once tied back to luxury activities: sailing, tennis, polo. Now, it’s $300 cotton T-shirts and $400 sweatpants. Status is being a willing patsy.
The paradox of good fiction is that it requires absolute fidelity to the truth—or as Ernest Hemingway said, “the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” The professional class operates in a world where they are rewarded for ignoring their detector, and thus when they enter bureaucratic life, their credentialism forces them into a particular type of story.
Corporate America as Genre Fiction
Genre fiction is any story created to explicitly appeal to fans of existing stories. It often refers to sci-fi, fantasy, noir, and westerns, but also includes novels about novelists struggling to write novels. Literature designates quality, while genre describes technique, and the two do not have to be contrasted, as proven by works of literary genre such as John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Genre is defined by its reliance on tropes or themes that lie outside the story, and so it must obey rules, and expects the audience to be familiar with other stories from the genre. A superhero story must contain a superhero, and a space epic assumes space travel makes sense. This is why genre has difficulty becoming literature, and terrible genre always feels like a pedant checking off boxes: looming prophecy, evil empire, lovable rogue. Genre is the storytelling technique of the managerial class because its rule-abiding nature resembles a bureaucracy, and part of the reason members of this professional class seem increasingly out of touch is because they tell genre stories which expect the audience to accept recycled tropes.
The professional class tells a variety of genre stories about their jobs: TED Talker, “entrepreneur,” “innovator,” “doing well by doing good.” One of the most popular today is corporate feminism. This familiar story is about a young woman who lands a prestigious job in Manhattan, where she guns for the corner office while also fulfilling her trendy Sex and the City dreams. Her day-in, day-out life is blessed by the mothers and grandmothers who fought for equality—with the ghost of Susan B. Anthony lingering Mufasa-like over America’s cubicles. Yet, like other corporate genre stories, girl-boss feminism is a celebration of bureaucratic life, including its hierarchy. Isn’t that weird?
There are few positive literary representations of life in corporate America. The common story holds that bureaucratic life is soul-crushing. At its worst, this indulges in a pedestrian Romanticism where reality is measured against a daydream, and, as Irving Babbitt warned, “in comparison . . . actual life seems a hard and cramping routine.” Drudgery is constitutive of the human condition. Yet even while admitting that toil is inescapable, it is still obvious that most white-collar work today is particularly bleak and meaningless. Office life increasingly resembles a mental factory line. The podcast is just talk radio for white-collar workers, and its popularity is evidence of how mind-numbing work has become for most.
Forty years ago, Christopher Lasch wrote that “modern industry condemns people to jobs that insult their intelligence,” and today employers rub this insult in workers’ faces with a hideously infantilizing work culture that turns the office into a permanent kindergarten classroom. Blue-chip companies reward their employees with balloons, stuffed animals, and gold stars, and an exposé detailing the stringent communication rules of the luxury brand Away Luggage revealed how many start-ups are just “live, laugh, love” sweatshops. This humiliating culture dominates America’s companies because few engage in truly productive or necessary work. Professional genre fiction, such as corporate feminism, is thus often told as a way to cope with the underwhelming reality of working a job that doesn’t contribute anything to the world.
There is another way to tell the story of the young career woman, however. Her commute includes inspiring podcasts about Ugandan entrepreneurs, but also a subway stranger breathing an egg sandwich into her face. Her job title is “Senior Analyst—Global Trends,” but her job is just copying and pasting between spreadsheets for ten hours. Despite all the “doing well by doing good” seminars, the closest thing she knows to a community is spin class, where a hundred similar women, and one intense man in sports goggles, listen to a spaz scream Hallmark card affirmations.
This is, of course, a little dramatic, yet it’s interesting to note how genre is constructed primarily from prior stories, and so is always plodding away from realism. In entertainment, this creates clichés. But in the bureaucratic world, this creates stories that everyone repeats, yet no one truly believes. The stories serve a purpose, and so to criticize them as being phony, or not accurate, is always to miss why they are told. The professional class is susceptible to these stories because this is how communication functions within a bureaucracy.
Bureaucracies have established paths to power, and genre fiction is used to signal status along those routes. The key format is the résumé: a document designed to get as close to a lie as possible, while maintaining enough plausibility for the applicant to avoid laughing during job interviews. “I was a customer-relationship manager who facilitated logistics from warehouse to consumer-facing placements.” Oh, so you stocked shelves? Framing is a type of storytelling that dictates even day-to-day office interactions through the use of bizarre business idioms. The bureaucrat serially commits atrocities against the English language with inanities like “align,” “level-set,” “deep-dive,” or—God forbid—“iterate and circle back.” Bureaucrats who get riled up into a corporate mania, spouting strange prophecies about opening kimonos, will stop once the higher ranks leave the room. Then they also mock business-speak. Outlandish business jargon persists precisely because everyone recognizes it as outlandish business jargon. It provides a common framework to signal status. Those with something at stake are willing to suspend disbelief. In the language of entertainment, it’s fan service. This leads to a striking, but predictable, outcome.
Professional genre alienates the managerial class from larger society and distorts its perception of this alienation: It would be a misunderstanding of genre’s rules to criticize Game of Thrones as unrealistic because it features dragons. Similarly, when the professional class hears someone complain that our leaders tell stories divorced from reality, and speak in a ceaseless stream of clichés, they respond, “So what.” These are the rules of the genre.
The bureaucrat even describes the process of rising through fraudulence as “playing the game.” The book The Organization Man criticized professionals in the 1950s for confusing their own interests with those of their employers, imagining, for example, that moving across the country was good for them simply because they were transferred. “Playing the game” is almost like an overlay on top of this attitude. The idea is that personal ambition puts the bureaucrat in charge. Bureaucrats always feel that they are “in on the game,” and so develop a false sense of certainty about the world, which sorts them into two groups: the cynics and the neurotics. Cynics recognize the nonsense, but think it’s necessary for power. The neurotics, by contrast, are earnest go-getters who confuse the nonsense with actual work. They begin to feel like they’re the only ones faking it and become so insecure they have to binge-watch TED Talks on “imposter syndrome.”
These two dispositions help explain why journalists focus on things like impeachment rather than medical supply chains. One group cynically condescends to American intelligence, while neurotics shriek about the “norms of our democracy.” Both are undergirded by a false certainty about what’s possible. Professional elites vastly overestimate their own intelligence in comparison with the average American, and today there is nothing so common as being an elitist. Meanwhile, public discourse gets dumber and dumber as elitists spend all their time explaining hastily memorized Wikipedia entries to those they deem rubes.
The rule-abiding nature of genre means that there is an internal logic to its artistic progression. It inevitably ends with subversion. When a genre’s possibilities have been depleted, the last trick left is to invert the tropes. This is a sign that the genre is out of new things to say. Since the professional class is rewarded for telling genre fiction, those who rise to the political class can only communicate in tropes. Increasingly, all political stories are told as inverted genre.
Politicians and Weirdos
Author one tells a story about a good knight who slays an evil dragon. A trope is born. Author two is influenced by this story, but can’t write the same one, so writes about a knight struggling to be good who slays a sympathetic dragon. The genre is made complex, and the trope is expanded. Author three has to contend with both of his antecedents, and so he has less space to write a dragon story. The obvious remaining choice is to write about an evil knight who slays a good dragon. Perhaps this is done with a wink that pokes fun at the fantasy genre as a whole. Inverting a trope may seem like “subversion,” yet this process strengthens the genre and allows it to continue after it has exhausted itself. Author three’s story only works if the audience is familiar with stories one and two.
This process explains many of the popular political narratives of our time. “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.” Political stories have to change with changing circumstances, but our leaders only know how to tell genre. In order to tell a new story, they would have to abandon false certainty and set off into the unknown. Instead, old genre stories get inverted, and forms of authority which no longer hold value are kept alive through faux subversion.
The entire phenomenon of the nonconformist bureaucrat can be seen as genre inversion. Everyone today grew up with pop culture stories about evil corporations and corporate America’s soul-sucking culture, and so the “creatives” have fashioned a self-image defined against this genre. These stories have been internalized and inverted by corporate America itself, so now corporate America has mandatory fun events and mandatory displays of creativity.
In other words, past countercultures have been absorbed into corporate America’s conception of itself. David Solomon isn’t your father’s stuffy investment banker. He’s a DJ! And Goldman Sachs isn’t like the stuffy corporations you heard about growing up. They fly a transgender flag outside their headquarters, list sex-change transitions as a benefit on their career site, and refuse to underwrite an IPO if the company is run by white men. This isn’t just posturing. Wokeness is a cult of power that maintains its authority by pretending it’s perpetually marching against authority. As long it does so, its sectaries can avoid acknowledging how they strengthen managerial America’s stranglehold on life by empowering administrators to enforce ever-expanding bureaucratic technicalities.
Inverted tropes also define the relationship between the Left and the Right. Rather than tell a new story, the Left and Right tell genre fiction that depends upon their mutual opposition for meaning. Pope Benedict XVI once argued that modernity brought the believer and the atheist closer together because the believer is tempted by doubt while the nonbeliever is tempted by “perhaps it’s true,” and both stories are linked by fundamental uncertainty. A similar dynamic explains why our politics is simultaneously divisive and homogeneous. The Bass Pro shopper tells a story in which patriotism is expressed through the consumer choice to wear an American flag T-shirt. The Bushwick woman tells a story in which getting an ugly haircut makes her “nonbinary.” These stories don’t make sense unless they are told in opposition to the story of the libtard, or the patriarchy, respectively. Polarization makes political actors dependent on their political opponents, which increases divisions because any area of agreement threatens to erode entire political identities. These lazy stories find their apotheosis in our politicians.
Our politicians, their staff, and their political consultant remoras are the worst storytellers in society. Mass democracy has become a selection process that rewards politicians for being as shameless as possible. Indeed there is nothing more embarrassing and pathetic than the way politicians try to be cool or relatable. From wearing flannel to the Iowa State Fair to live streams in which they make a big deal out of drinking beer, politicians are constantly relying on the dumbest tropes.
Moreover, it is shocking that no one in the 2020 campaign seems to have reacted to the dramatic change that happened in 2016. Good storytellers are attuned to audience sophistication, and must understand when audiences have grown past their techniques. Everyone has seen hundreds of movies, and read hundreds of books, and so we intuitively understand the shape of a good story. Once audiences can recognize a storytelling technique as a technique, it ceases to function because it draws attention to the artifice. This creates distance between the intended emotion and the audience reaction. For instance, a romantic comedy follows a couple as they fall in love and come together, and so the act two low point will often see the couple breaking up over miscommunication. Audiences recognize this as a technique, and so, even though miscommunication often causes fights, it seems fake.
Similarly, today’s voters are sophisticated enough to recognize the standard political techniques, and so their reactions are no longer easily predictable. Voters intuitively recognize that candidate “debates” are just media events, and prewritten zingers do not help politicians when everyone recognizes them as prewritten. The literary critic Wayne Booth wrote that “the hack is, by definition, the man who asks for responses he cannot himself respect,” and our politicians are always asking us to buy into nonsense that they couldn’t possibly believe. Inane political tropes operate just like inane business jargon and continue because everyone thinks they’re on the inside, and this blinds them to obvious developments in how audiences of voters relate to political tropes. Trump often plays in this neglected space.
The artistic development of the sitcom can be seen as the process of incorporating its own artifice into the story. There is a direct creative lineage from The Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom about television comedy writers, to The Office, a show about office workers being filmed for television. Similarly, Trump often succeeds because he incorporates the artifice of political tropes. When Trump points out that the debate audiences are all donors, or that Nancy Pelosi doesn’t actually pray for him, he’s just pointing out what everyone already knows. This makes it difficult for other politicians to “play the game,” because their standard tropes reinforce Trump’s message. If the debates are just media spectacle events for donors, then applause lines work against you. It’s similar to breaking the fourth wall, while the rest of the cast nervously tries to continue with their lines. Trump’s success is evidence that the television era of political theater is ending, because its storytelling formats are dead.
In fact, the (often legitimate) criticism that Trump does not act “presidential” is the same as saying that he’s not acting professional—that he is ignoring the rules of bureaucratic advancement. Could you imagine Trump’s year-end review? “In 2020, we invite Donald to stop sending Outlook reminders that just say ‘get schlonged.’” Trump’s antics are indicative of his different route to power. Forget everything else about him: how would you act if you never had a job outside a company with your name on the building? The world of the professional managerial class doesn’t contain many characters, and so they associate eccentricity with bohemianism or ineptitude. But it’s also reliably found somewhere else.
Small business owners are often loons, wackos, and general nutjobs. Unlike the professional class, their personalities vary because their job isn’t dependent on how others view them. Even when they’re wealthy or successful, they often don’t act “professional.” It requires tremendous grit and courage to own a business. They are perhaps the only people today who embody what Pericles meant when he said that the “secret to freedom is courage.” In the wake of coronavirus, small businesses owners stoically shuttered their stores and faced financial ruin, while politicians with camera-ready personas and ratlike souls tried to increase seasonal worker visas.
The pandemic has brought into sharp relief a strange aspect of our culture. Why have so many spent four years trying to pretend that 2016 never happened? Surprisingly few have been willing to confront the moment. Behind the buzzing horde of 24/7 Trump coverage, our culture has been mired in languid torpor. On the whole, there has been no great release of cultural energy that you would expect under turbulent times. This too may be traced back to storytelling.
Ever since Star Wars, screenwriters have used Joseph Campbell’s monomyth to measure a successful story, and an essential act one feature is the refusal of adventure. For a moment, the universe opens up and shows the hero an unknown world of possibility, but the hero backs away. For four years, our nation has refused adventure, yet fate cannot be ignored. The coronavirus forces our nation to confront adventure. With eerie precision, this global plague tore down the false stories that veiled our true situation. The experts are incompetent. The institutions told us we were racist for caring about the virus, and then called for arresting paddleboarders in the middle of the ocean. Our business regulations make it difficult to create face masks in a crisis, while rewarding those who outsource the manufacturing of lifesaving drugs to our rival. The new civic religion of wokeness is a dangerous antihuman cult that distorts priorities. Even our Hollywood stars turn out to be ugly without makeup.
Absolute pessimism is almost always a sign of a lazy narcissist, and narratives of inevitable decline are used by those who want to absolve themselves of the obligation to act. Possibility has opened up before us in a manner that is rare in history. We need stories which encourage action. Our leaders must rise to defeat a global plague and in the process test whether or not there still exists, in this underused husk of a nation, the capacity for vigorous action—the capacity to produce the types of heroes who will inspire future generations. Now, more than ever, we need a story.