I'm Telling You, Save Yourself from the Irony Cult, Save Yourself
David Leonhardt has a great writeup of Elites for the NYT today.
I was very sad to hear the news that Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House had suffered a serious medical emergency, days before the scheduled delivery of his first child. I don’t know him or the rest of the Chapo people personally, but I am terribly sorry that this happened and I wish the best for Christman, his friends and family, and especially his wife and child.
When I went looking for news on Twitter, I was not expecting but also not surprised to see a number of accounts expressing glee over Christman’s condition. There’s nothing to be done about that; it’s the internet, it’s Twitter. Some were engaging in the whole tired conversation about civility politics and speaking ill of the sick or the dead, which I could not have less patience for at this point. I refuse to participate in that discourse, other than to say that the fact that some think the correct emotional orientation towards the severe illness of a podcaster they don’t know personally is a matter of meaningful left debate shows only what a pale farce left debate has become in those environs. I am content to let others engage in that bitter contest and to wish Christman well. I used to be involved in those pantomimes of left intellectual struggle; I don’t miss it.
Looking at that section of Twitter - the part, I guess, that’s the left-over lovechild of “Weird Twitter” and the 2016 digital troops of Bernie Sanders - was depressing and strange. I spent a good deal of time in those environs, or their precursor, back in the mid-2010s. They were plenty toxic then, filled with invective and bad-faith cancellation and “irony,” to further abuse a much-abused term. This has all metastasized since then, in perfectly predictable ways, as people have slunk deeper and deeper into holes of blank sarcasm and incomprehensible meme politics that are strung with the symbolism of Marxism-Leninism but which demonstrate no earthly connection to any actually-existing historical communist tradition. And yet despite this obvious continued descent, the place mostly seems stuck in amber; it features the same kinds of tired people doing the same tired jokes in the same tired meme formats. I saw someone complain that Christman is an “Assadist”; this isn’t true, but more to my point here, it’s strange to see people acting like Syria is a matter of deep intra-left contention in 2023. The civil war is more or less over, and Assad has won, which is sad because Assad is a monster, but then so were most of the people who might have replaced Assad. Either way - it really feels like a lot of people don’t want to let the mid-2010s go, and so they have built a tidy little Twitter renaissance faire, trying to keep that period alive.
As I suggested, I was unsurprised and largely undisturbed by the fact that there were some wishing ill of Christman. What did strike me was the number of people whose reactions would be just totally inscrutable to anyone outside of that bizarre coterie, reactions that were expressed (as ~100% of missives in that space are) with artificial confidence and unconvincing glee but which had actual communicative content that would be impossible for 99.99% of the human race to divine. These spaces are filled with people who have climbed so far up the ass of performative irony that the basic operations of language break down. And it’s not just that I, as a mostly-disinterested observer, couldn’t parse what they were saying. I doubt that they understand it themselves, at this point. There’s nothing to understand, really, beyond the continuing manic dedication to appearing to be the most unconcerned, the one for which the most things are Funny, Actually. For some people, the social dictate to demonstrate a universal and ceaseless and unchanging attitude of amused superiority has simply overwhelmed their ability to have a human personality. John Updike said that celebrity is a mask that eats the face, and I think there’s something like that happening here.
And they’re getting older. I’m sure there’s some precocious Generation Alpha kids really getting into Doing Irony on Elon Musk’s social network for geriatrics, but these are mostly the same exact people who were doing this a decade ago. Some of their tweet counts are up above 100K, which defies belief. Greying Gen X movie bloggers, slouching into their 50s, keep coming up with little bon mots, trying to inspire the strained amusement of a few dozen people who would not know them if they passed each other on the street. I find it deeply sad. Buzzfeed’s classic oral history of Weird Twitter is now more than a decade old, and the overall impression within that piece is that the moment it describes had passed already. And yet there are a lot of people out there still jamming on the same tired tropes, trying to keep an anarchic dialogue alive many years after every last ounce of actual subversion had been wrung out of the form, for no clear motive other than trifling entertainment that must seem pointless even to them, at this stage. Bitterness rings the whole project. And as I have before I will again ask of them, how old are you going to get, exactly, before you stop sending off preeningly sarcastic zingers into the ether? Are you going to be in your 60s, “dunking” on people on X.com, looking for all the world like the guy who’s too old to be trying to grind on girls at a dance club? What is the exit strategy here?
I’ve mentioned before that people sometimes assume that I would reject the Chapo Trap House project, but I’m not entirely sure why. I have a hard time listening to podcasts, personally, because of my medications, so I can’t judge the show. Besides, I see my project as orthogonal to theirs, not in conflict. Even if that weren’t the case, though, I would argue that the people who create that podcast have done good in emerging from the Twitter space and developing this project that goes beyond finding stupid shit to say in 140 characters that we all pretend is hung with political meaning. That kind of affirmative act of creation is antithetical to the directionless nihilism that drives Twitter irony. Christman has become well-known not just for his performances on the podcast but for his video monologues, engaging with movies and politics and current events. And during them he demonstrates an alternative to the cancerous bitterness that the people on Twitter think they’re inflicting on others but are really inflicting on themselves - he is negative, often despondent, and yet there’s never a sense of the self-pity that quietly hides behind all of those endlessly derisive tweets, the palpable feeling you get from the people who live in anonymity and anger and left jargon, the feeling that they do it out of a throbbing resentment over everything that they felt they were meant to accomplish and never did. Christman is frequently sardonic and habitually downbeat; he is not irony poisoned.
Some commenters will surely complain that I’m fixating on too small of a slice of humanity, that this is all irrelevant because hardly anybody acts this way. And that’s not wrong. But I have been part of or adjacent to several online social cultures that curdled into constant, empty, blank, raging, fundamentally sad irony cults, and I’ve seen others get stuck in them and fester for years and years. I always thought most people would age out of it, but it appears many of them never will. So I am taking this brief opportunity to say to those who are still stuck in all of that, who get up every morning and check the app and find just the right way to seem derisive and superior and unaffected, all of which stem from insecurity and pain - flee. Get out now. Get out while you can. Those spaces are never going to get better; they were bad when I was in them, and they appear to have gotten far worse in the intervening years. No matter how many layers of pro forma irony you place between yourself and your life, and in particular between your heart and everything you thought you were meant for and never achieved, this performance will not help you, let alone save you. Most of the people still working that corner have deadened their own hearts, at this point, and couldn’t escape if they wanted to. And I am telling you to run. Get out while you can.
If you have the choice to save yourself from poisonous irony and destructive online cultures, choose to do so. And beyond that I’m left only to say that I hope, with my sincerest hopes, that Matt Christman and his family can emerge from this recent challenge healthy and unscathed.