The most Simpsons of Simpsons moments in my reckoning occurs not in the television series but in the 2007 feature film. When the biohazardous Springfield is threatened to be destroyed under its giant glass dome, the family and fellow residents gather in church, where Homer grabs and frantically thumbs through a Bible, exclaiming, “This book doesn’t have any answers!”
By 2007, the series was more than a decade past its prime, but the movie was peak Simpsons—first because this was the last time religion was important enough to warrant a joke, and also because it identified what Americans at the dawn of social media’s chokehold could not find in church: answers.
Luckily for Americans in 2020, you can find all the answers you want in New York Times articles bearing the tagline “Smarter Living.” These are not the answers to questions people used to look for in reading the Bible or Tolstoy or Stendhal. They are the answers to the challenges of self-optimization, self-care, and “living your best life”—topics like what to do on a day off from work and how to use public bathrooms.
It used to be that self-improvement writing happened at the start of January, when glossy magazines and newspaper style sections weighed in on resolutions. But now our entire culture is like this 24/7. Not long ago, the Newspaper of Record reconciled itself to the perversions and moral ironies that cultural touchstones like The Simpsons have only endeared to the American people—like the fact that people won’t waste precious consumer time reading something without personal cash value. When every commitment of time is transactional, you have to provide a means to “shop the look.” Media consumers have to be led to something tangible, even if they can’t actually PayPal it, rather than be counseled to look within themselves for answers.
You would think that, given our need to be told what to do with a day off, we are now at peak Smarter Living. But I fear we have miles to go. This struck me with the recent chain of controversies generated by Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel Little Women—male critics dismissing the film’s relevance with their neglect, the feminist backlash against this write-off, criticism of both the film and the book by women of color, the debate over who is the “victim,” criticism of the literary canon now and throughout history, arguments about relevant role models for women and girls in 2020. Online aggregators fanned the rhetorical flames, quoting the most inflammatory taunts and digs, until the issue was taken up by Instagram moms promoting their boldness in taking their daughters to see the movie.
How could a holiday-release, family-centric movie morph into something that cultural consumers needed to shop for even if they didn’t plan to see the movie? What consumers needed to place in their baskets was a right way to think about these cascading controversies, one they could seamlessly integrate into their digital profiles. Call it the Little Women Response Industry for those too busy to formulate a critical let alone moral opinion. When opinion-forming is a task you hire out, the subjects carry the same weight as decisions on whether you should unpack your suitcase when you travel.
What I miss about the bad old days when it was religion that had a chokehold on our culture is books with no answers—the infinity of faith and the accepted spiritual responsibility to have moral courage. Today, it is fairly well acknowledged that the cultivation of courage is not a practical investment of personal resources. “Be brave” it used to be said. Now the First Lady says “Be Best.”
We have developed a gaping need for other people to tell us how to Be Best. I don’t know when we turned into a nation waitlisted for overbooked adult-ed classes, but it’s not idiosyncratic actions we long for—say, learning Portuguese to be able to sing Caetano Veloso. We want to Be Best on ways prescribed in lists by these amorphous other people so that we can pee safely in public bathrooms and organize our refrigerators in ways that tell the world “I am a smart, optimized person who has more inherent value than you.”
It is bizarre enough that the “nanny state” that Republicans and white men generally rail against is alive and well in the snake-oil marketing of products by the likes of Alex Jones and Joe Rogan. But in a sense, the Times is setting up its own nanny-state pushcart by promoting successful ways to conduct basic life functions, presenting those with a day off from work with something new to fail at.
And because of the idea that our every life choice is laden with the winner-loser dichotomy at the heart of free-market capitalism, these choices become leverageable social capital. The goal of Smarter Living endeavors is less self-satisfaction than a new option to share your mastery and expertise with an audience of potential enviers, commodifying the fruits of your self-optimization.
The reasons for our Smarter Living world are many. In their unconscious decoupling from religious beliefs, Americans have sacrificed the considered morality that have long kept civic institutions healthy and productive. I believe a major driver of this divestiture is willed ignorance (a classic American flaw) but also willed adolescence. At the heart of all social media is a deadly virus that injects the emotional hierarchy of a tenth-grader into all aspects of public life. Pace this influence, Smarter Living says that there’s always someone out there who’s doing everything better than you.
In these people wanting to be told by the Times how to think about Little Women and how to shop for coasters and how to deal with being born second and how to acquire the social skills you were not taught by your non-Upper West Side parents, I recognize these perennial tenth graders—people who need other people to want to be. A bedrock of digital thinking is that your best life already exists, is happening in another digital sphere, but can be accessed by a sanctioned series of behaviors.
The situation reminds me of an old Cure song, “Why Can’t I Be You?,” suggesting that the apogee of erotic attraction is wanting to be the object of your obsession:
I’ll run around in circles ’til I run out of breath
I’ll eat you all up
Or I’ll just hug you to death
You’re so wonderful
Too good to be true
That song came out back in 1987, when physical vicissitudes required most people to be executors of their own lives. Sometimes I think that our existential longing to be someone else has become the substitute frustration for the frustration of going to a church or a synagogue or a mosque while knowing that there is no God. It could be that this new longing is our new religion—Why Can’t I B U?—something we simply cannot do, no matter how much money or access or influence or Smarter Living we are able to attain. §