Where’s Tom Wolfe when you need him? I probably ask myself that question at least a half dozen times a week. The late journalist and novelist, who put American mores under the microscope to unerringly diagnose emerging pathologies, would be overwhelmed with suspect specimens today. Any day’s Twitter stream could be the rough draft of a posthumous Wolfe novel.
Wolfe’s specialty was the long-form vivisection of subcultures. Whether it was the hippy-trippy Merry Pranksters or the mothballed gentility of William Shawn’s New Yorker magazine, the “radical chic” (a Wolfe coinage) politics of Upper East Side socialites or the daredevil antics of test pilots and astronauts, the corruption of Great Society welfare offices or the sexual politics of elite American co-eds, Wolfe drew his razor eye across the soft underbelly of American culture and the warm-reeking entrails slopped out onto the page.
His early journalism was dazzling, kaleidoscopic. Adjectives, clauses, and exclamatory interjections crashed together in kinetic run-on sentences. Everything was happening at once in a runaway, out-of-control America and Wolfe’s writing rushed to overtake it before it peeled away again down the open asphalt of the future. It was the Sixties, man. Zowie! But re-read those articles now, fifty years after the manic moment, and you can see that Wolfe selected his examples like a connoisseur and picked his words like duelling pistols. He got history right the first time, in focus and in motion as it was happening.
One of my favourite pieces, the one I shared online when he died, is also one of his shortest. It’s called “The Great Relearning” and it tells the story of San Francisco’s hippie communes during the tragically misnamed ‘Summer of Love.’ Wolfe jumps in with both feet:
In 1968, in San Francisco, I came across a curious footnote to the psychedelic movement. At the Haight-Asbury Free clinic there were doctors who were treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.
The hippies, Wolfe saw, were engaged in a perverse social experiment. They “sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero.” This meant unlearning all the social rules and habits, rules like “you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes” and habits like not sleeping “on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets.” Now, they were relearning a child’s common sense by trial and error.
The degeneracy was jarring because it was deliberate. A spoiled generation had looked at its inheritance—peace, political stability, organised religion, a strong social and moral order—and said not just “no thanks” but “screw you.” Of all the drugs that the Boomers imbibed, the most potent was youthful self-righteousness. As Wolfe recorded them, the consequences of their ingratitude were swift and painful. Or at least itchy. Nemesis followed hubris, sure as the crash followed the high.
Rudyard Kipling called this neglected wisdom “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”—the proverbs that used to be printed at the top of the page for students practicing their penmanship to copy out on the lines below. They are the truths that we cannot escape, though as a species we seem compelled constantly to try. “Stick to the Devil you know.” “The Wages of Sin is Death.” “If you don’t work you die.” We think we can outrun them but, like the Greek Furies, they fly always above us. Kipling would have understood the hippies. He wrote of the men who “were promised the Fuller Life / (Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)”; he could have told them their unsanitary rebellion would end at the free clinic.
Fifty years later, San Francisco’s communes are now sparkling condominiums. The squatters burned out or sold out. But our culture has never healed from the experiment of which they were the vanguard, and we have not recovered what they cast away or re-learned what they forgot. Like the spaced-out Aquarians, we still think we can remake society in defiance of nature and reshape nature without consequences. And each time we fail, instead of learning our lesson, we double down on the failed methods. We look around and see that the ruins of the old surpass the beauty of the new, but instead of pondering how to update the old we continue to chase after the new. It is a special kind of stubbornness.
We know, for example, that despite superficially being in constant contact with globally-connected networks, we are lonelier than any people in history. Yet we do nothing to make it easier for young people to marry, buy a home, have more children, and build communities—or at least not nearly enough to counter the cultural and economic deterrents to such healthy habits. Romance has been commodified and depersonalized, shrunk down to the size of an app. We celebrate autonomy and transient self-definition, without considering that deep relationships require consistency. And we sanitize sex publicly while putting a red light district in every child’s hands. It’s little wonder young libidos are wasting away. And if somehow two people manage to navigate the apps and hang-ups to marry and start a family, they have to work harder and longer just so they can afford to warehouse their children and their parents in separate facilities.
Go to a café and see how many people are on their phones or laptops. Look in the street at how many people have headphones on, walking around in an aural bubble cut, off from the sounds of their community. We maintain the illusion of sociability, but we are raising a generation on “social media” that is anti-social to the point that a significant number of adolescents get anxious about meeting another person face to face. Depression is endemic, and our solution is not more human contact but less: mental health chatbots. Feeling isolated and alone? Tell it to the robot in your phone. It’s like we confused dystopian fiction with a blueprint for the future.
We have never read more, or of less importance. Our eyes are constantly flitting across text, but what do we remember? The identical impersonal pages run together, drained of the human voice or familiar handwriting. Do they even teach penmanship anymore in schools? Does the title of Kipling’s poem even have any meaning today? The revolution of moveable type ushered in a radical graphic leveling; henceforth the word would no longer reflect the individual. The uniform ciphers of Times New Roman replaced the idiosyncratic conduction of ink by flesh.
The word no longer flows from the hand or mouth. Letters are not formed but appear in ephemeral, staccato blinks, as quickly erased as written. The word has been alienated from the human; it exists entirely beyond our senses. When I touch a message on my computer screen, I do not touch anything that physically belonged to my correspondent. There is no paper to be weighed or studied for watermarks or thumbprints, no ink to smudge, no variation in pressure or tone. Only the precise decontextualized content is transmitted. The computer conceals haste, nerves, hesitation, reconsideration, fear, and care. Or conversations are conducted by disembodied minds, without variation in pitch, timbre, or body language. You can’t send a tear-stained text.
For more than a century, our currency has been convenience. Why stop by when you can call, and why call when you can text, why text when you can send an emoji? Why go to the store when you can order online from overseas, even if it means our choices are determined in foreign headquarters and we are now economically reliant on a genocidal state? Why farm according to time-honoured practices when yields can be increased in the short term by literally salting the earth for future generations? Why preserve ancient trees when there are profits to be had today? Why learn to cook when dinner is just a button away? Why mend your clothes when they are cheap enough to throw away? Our disposable culture has polluted the seas and the air and our solution is … more cheap consumer goods and more amoral trade relationships.
Like those hard new strawberries with pale hearts, the best we can do is preserve the form of the old at the expense of its nature. Our fruit and vegetables don’t taste like fruit and vegetables anymore. They have been bred for looks, engineered to grow out of season, and then picked too soon to survive shipping thousands of miles. Our supermarkets overflow with glistening produce with shelves that look like a de Heem still-life, but none of it is real. We can get guavas in Grande Prairie and coconuts in Corner Brook, but they aren’t really guavas or coconuts. We have increasing quantities of abundance, but less and less quality.
Nothing is really what it seems anymore, but instead of seeking solidity we are pushed further into ephemeral experience as editable avatars in a virtual world. An ad for “Horizon,” Facebook’s new animated world, tells us that “it’s about getting out there, trying new things, making your mark!” … as a woman stands in her living room with an electronic blindfold blocking out the world, including her patiently resigned husband, so she can pretend fly around a cartoon landscape.
Did anyone ask for this New Coke version of reality? Does anyone think that swapping real life for a gamified simulacrum designed and monitored by corporate drones will make us happier? Or better custodians of this world of dust and sin? And the metaverse looks like fun and games compared to the improbable rebirth of the eugenics movement. Gene editing plus trait-selective abortions will make children, already an optional accessory, a designer choice. Just keep trying until you get one you can tweak genetically to suit your fashion. What better evidence of willful unlearning could there be than our eagerness to revisit so soon one of the darkest moments in human history.
Our renewed desire to play God is a reaction to the alleged death of God, but Nietzsche’s proclamation was premature. God didn’t die, we just replaced him with false idols. We have outsourced our morality to secular judges and made seers and sibyls of celebrities. Our new ersatz religions ape the forms of theology but offer no transcendence, and so, as Eric Voegelin observed, we look to worldly politics for salvation. It is impossible not to have a religion, so the only important question is whether our religion reveals the truth of God to us, or reflects back to us a fun-house mirror image of ourselves. Increasingly it is the latter. Our new secular religions condemn us with the stain of original sin, but withhold the promise of salvation, trapping us in an endless cycle of unredeemable confession and apology.
The most remarkable thing is that virtually no one in a position of power even thinks to push back. The worse our circumstances get, the more eager our elites seem to be to justify and extrapolate them into the future. In a recent Covid-inspired update to his globalist manifesto “The Great Reset,” Klaus Schwab predicts a world in which “relying more on digital platforms to communicate, or work, or seek advice, or order something will, little by little, gain ground on formerly ingrained habits.” Although he doesn’t quite come out and endorse these changes, neither does he suggest we might want to resist them. To our leaders, it’s just inevitable that we will become less humanly connected and, eventually, less human.
At every turn the measure of that inevitability is convenience and cost. “[We] may decide, for example, that a cycling class in front of a screen at home doesn’t match the conviviality and fun of doing it with a group in a live class but is in fact safer (and cheaper!)” Schwab writes. Or we may apply the same reasoning to the antiquated idea of “driving to a distant family gathering for the weekend (the WhatsApp family group is not as fun but, again, safer, cheaper and greener)” or to “attending an academic course (not as fulfilling, but cheaper and more convenient)” (emphasis added in each case). Why actually visit Nana and Papa, sit around the table where your parents ate as children, taste food from old family recipes, and hold your grandmother’s hand as she while tells stories, when you can huddle around a screen as she struggles to work the video and mute buttons? And yet we are expected to surrender to this bleak future with a shrug.
Like the Haight-Ashbury hippies, we continue to turn our back on our past, to adopt a libertine present ethic, and foolishly to assume the future will take care of itself. In Rabelais’ satire Gargantua and Pantagruel, the only rule of the debauched Abbaye de Thélème was “Do what you will.” Four hundred years later, the Satanist Aleister Crowley appropriated the rule for his Sicilian commune, a sun-bleached precursor to the ‘60s flop-houses. Now “Do what you will” but with consent is about the closest we come to an idea of moral constraint as we blithely teach the mores of the Haight-Ashbury drop-outs to children in government schools. How is that working out?
What the hippies unlearned and relearned in the course of just a few years, our society seems determined to lose and forget permanently. Meanwhile the crises pile up like garbage in the streets, with no plans for its collection. Crises—the health care crisis, the climate crisis, the addictions crisis, the extinction crisis, the loneliness crisis, the obesity crisis, the education crisis, the attention crisis, the soil crisis—are coming so fast from every direction that crisis has become our baseline. Living in crisis is now so normal that it takes a real five-alarm crisis, something like a global pandemic, to break through.
Even Covid hasn’t really rattled us, not deeply. Literally every century before ours would have recognized the plague as a judgement, or, if you prefer your karma without divine direction, a warning and a wake-up call. The global impact of Covid, and the prospect of more pandemics to come, are themselves consequences of our modern way of living—the sort of thing Kipling had in mind when he admonished that, no matter how much we ignore them and deny their power, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.” Instead, the best that we can imagine is a return to normal, to those familiar and run-of-the-mill emergencies we were handling so badly before Covid struck. To the same habits that brought Covid to a Wuhan lab and from there to our front doors in the first place. “… the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”
It may be, as Schwab believes, that we are too far down this path to turn around, that our footsteps and those of our ancestors are now too covered over to retrace if even we wanted to. But I draw a different lesson than his tepid techno-humanist predictions. I think the idea that we can continue to deny reality and ward off the Gods of the Copybook Headings is increasingly delusional. Like spoiled children living off a dwindling inheritance, we will eventually have to learn how to make our own fortunes.
Perhaps once the civilizational equivalents of “the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot” have ravaged the body politic and pock-marked society will we, someday, be motivated to relearn what we used to know. It will be a hard lesson, hard learned, but what our generation has buried might still be excavated; what we have lost may be recovered in another time, another place, and perhaps another language. And, like Wolfe looking with bemusement at the clueless hippies, they will wonder at our stupidity.