This weekend, I watched two documentaries on the Fyre Festival, a luxury music festival promoted by social media “influencers” that went spectacularly wrong, to the delight of many remote spectators. There’s something satisfying about seeing people who built a fortune (or at least a visible presence) on air and puffery brought to the ground with concrete disaster. For anyone who’s exposed to very self-assured influencers, it’s a little disorienting how much confidence they have in defiance of reality, and our own sense of reality gets flimsier the longer we watch them. We know that a lot of their performance is a fraud, a scam, a con game, but the longer the chickens wander before coming home to roost, the longer the emperor struts as if he’s wearing clothes, the more we doubt if it matters. When something fails so incontrovertibly that even the spin artists stop spinning in the face of visceral reality, it can help us get our bearings for at least a moment.
I’ve seen a lot of clawing back against the disintegration of reality in recent years–the Fyre Festival, the exposure of Facebook’s inner workings, the Theranos fraud case, Ashley Feinberg’s interview of Jack Dorsey, the resistance to Donald Trump–though I can’t tell if it’s really happening more, if my sensitivity is just heightened, or if the stories just move better in the current environment. But the scary thing is that most of the time, it works. The pitch may be bullshit, the product may not exist, but that money really buys food, land, buildings, loyalty of laborers. That political position really commands offices, really shapes the law of the land.
That’s not a new problem. The grifters who thrive in the social media age may use different tools and have different aesthetics than the grifters of the past, but power has always tried to define and evade truth, lies have always had high velocity and wide reach. And we’ve always needed people not invested in these things to ground us. The Hulu documentary, loaded with a lot of true believers, would have been hard to watch without the presence of a bartender named Delroy, hired as a local “fixer” by the Fyre team, who then tried to live in denial of just how much fixing was needed. Delroy’s matter-of-fact recounting of events helps create a tangible baseline (and even comic relief) as some of the principals try to spin their way through the retelling. At one point, he recalls a big speech he made at a party to confront the team with how much work they needed to do, quickly, immediately, to avoid complete disaster. Like Cassandra before the Fall of Troy, he was ignored. Same shit, different day.
Sometimes the fuckers get away with it. But truth’s always fought back. Down in D.C., we stand a chance of listening to the savvy bartender with an outsider perspective this time. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been grounded, direct, and honest from the moment she started running for office (she also wasn’t an “influencer” - she had fewer than 300 Twitter followers at the start of her campaign). People who see the Fyre Festival and its surrounding culture as quintessentially millennial, who see the problem as rooted in aesthetic and cultural markers, might mistake her “extremely online” presence for part of the problem. But damn, her fundamentals are solid. Every major statement she makes traces itself back to a hard reality: the climate is fucked. Rents are unaffordable. Moneyed interests dominate the agenda at Congressional events. Misogyny and racism are rife in how we talk about members of the public. The language may be extremely online, but the points are extremely grounded, connected to specifics and hard facts about the world.
So I was a little wary of the way the Fyre documentaries played on the apparent silliness of millennial culture. The overnight creation of online celebrities can be nonsensical, but stable hierarchies and performative seriousness are no friend of truth, either. It was in George W. Bush’s administration that (someone who may have been) Karl Rove was quoted as criticizing the “reality-based community,” people who based their decisions on present reality, rather than on creating the reality through force and confidence. Meanwhile, millennials who came into prominence through seemingly superficial paths are speaking a lot of truth to power. LeBron James, who never went to college and was introduced to the world with a vague super-positivity narrative by Nike, has been speaking up frankly and accurately about racism and politics and doing real community work – something Michael Jordan, nostalgized by the more serious generations, never did. Cardi B, who got here via hip-hop reality TV, the least respected field in the world to stuffy old white guys, spoke more frankly about the shutdown than a lot of cable news organizations, who were a little too concerned with their “brand” (being cautiously in the middle of public consensus) to describe the issue clearly. Hashtag movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter blew the lid off of lies that high-status people had been telling, and getting away with, for decades.
The Fyre Festival’s setting was Instagramland, but the core behavior was something boring and simple - people not caring about the truth behind their words and actions, whether they can follow it through on it. The Fyre Festival wasn’t, like, the Iraq War, but it did steal people’s time and money, and, like most disasters, the brunt of it was borne by people lower in the hierarchy - many local Bahamian workers weren’t paid, and Maryann Rolle, a restaurant owner on the island who did the right thing by her staff, ended up emptying her life savings paying them back. (She was later made whole by GoFundMe, but that’s never a real solution for things - for everyone with a successful crowdfunding campaign, there are many suffering without the same online reach, and nobody got the money out of the pockets of the people responsible for the debacle).
We’re not in a post-truth world. We’re in a world where bullshitters can get away with it until we assemble the truth and hold them to account. The tech-business world may have elevated the “influencer,” a vaguely charismatic, highly visible character surfing the seams of algorithms that grab our attention when we’re least conscious of it, but the old influencers are still around: teachers, social workers, therapists, librarians, investigative reporters, community elders, relatives, religious leaders (the good ones), trusted friends, people we can go to when the shit hits the fan.
When I’m thinking about these kind of things, one story that often haunts and helps me is A Serious Man, a weird, quiet, disturbing Coen Brothers movie that spoke to my soul as a Jewish guy (side note: one thing I’ve been thinking about is how male-dominated most of my Jewish cultural influences so far have been – we’re no better than the Christians in terms of letting our work soak in sexism and gender traditionalism into our work) navigating a confusing world where we’re so used to dealing with things that don’t matter that we’re unprepared and overwhelmed for when they do. The movie starts out with a young boy listening to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” and the rabbi later paraphrases the song’s opening question:
When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies… then what?
Jefferson Airplane’s answer is to find somebody to love. The rabbi in the movie doesn’t really answer his own question, though he tells the kid “be a good boy,” which reminds me of the Mayor’s advice to “do the right thing” in the movie with the same name. The way I’d unify all this advice is that it’s in the direction of giving a shit. Open your heart, care about good, and do what needs doing. These things are not simple to achieve, but the simple directives are pretty good guiding principles as you do pieces and pieces of difficult and specific work, because you’re bullshit without them and you’ll get hurt anyway.
I guess my only advice is to find “influencers” who remind you of these things and help you find your way through the difficult specifics of your own attempt to do this shit. Fuck a Fyre Festival.
A lot “influencer” culture seems like a symptom of what some people are calling “late capitalism,” a term I don’t fully understand, but which seems like a generally useful label for all the stage of capitalism where the acquisition of money is absurdly disconnected from the production of any actual goods or labor, but the myth of it as a measure of worth persists and is still made real because we don’t have another way of doing things.
Am I right that this is what “late capitalism” is? Is there a really good thing to read that will help me understand it? What do we really need to know? What caused it? Tech, scale, connectivity, Reaganism/Thatcherism, just late-stage running the program? Larn me.
Okay, I gotta go finish other work.