Baron Cohen’s targets in his Showtime series, “Who Is America?,” are the élites, in the broadest sense of the word: nice upper-middle-class Southern conservatives, a contemporary-art curator, Senator Bernie Sanders. He has filmed N.R.A. hacks voicing support for giving guns to kindergarteners, Republican politicians reading utter gibberish off a teleprompter and making asses of themselves in ways imaginable and not, and the art curator earnestly discussing fake art made of apparently real excrement by a fake ex-convict.
Every segment of every episode is designed to leave the viewer feeling not so much appalled—something a sentient being in today’s America experiences many times a day—as finally enlightened: the ultimate explanation for what’s happened to us is that everyone is a moron.
.. Most recently, a hypothesis has emerged, laid out by Ryan Broderick at BuzzFeed, that Q is, in fact, an elaborate lefty prank intent on duping conservatives into following cockamamie theories. If this is true, Q is a cousin, rather than a mirror, of Baron Cohen.
.. September 11th gave rise to truthers, the election of Barack Obama brought forth the birthers, and school shootings enabled Alex Jones.
.. The QAnon message to its followers is that someone is in charge, that reality is knowable even if it is convoluted—and that someone, reassuringly, knows much more than you do. The Q theories acknowledge that the state of the country is awful, but they promise that the insanity is temporary because the great leader is conjuring order from chaos.
.. Baron Cohen’s message is equally clarifying. He demystifies power to an unprecedented extent. He shows that idiocy and incompetence are all there is. Here, the person who knows everything is Baron Cohen himself—and because we viewers are in on the secret, it makes us feel competent. The state of the country is, as in Q’s theories, horrifying, but also temporary, because these buffoons can’t possibly stay in power. We, the more intelligent people, will somehow prevail.
.. “Who Is America?” may appear as if it exposes evil, when really Baron Cohen is exposing the extreme flexibility of social norms. What the art curator, the nice Republican couple, and most of Baron Cohen’s politician targets have in common is their willingness to humor a visitor.
A privileged escape that’s hurting communities at home and abroad
.. The privilege of digital nomads
The World Domination Summit (WDS) takes place annually in Portland, Oregon and serves as a gathering place for the lifestyle-entrepreneurship, do-what-you-love (DWYL) community that has grown around the writings of Chris Guillebeau, Tim Ferriss, and the other gurus that dominate the niche.
In its early years, Amanda Palleschi wrote about the event for the New Republic, calling WDS out for being attended primarily by white people who “have advantages or significant successes that enable them to see the world through DWYL-colored lenses (and to pay for the $500 entry fee to WDS).” Guillebeau himself even acknowledged that he was “mostly attracting other Westerners” and told Palleschi, “[j]ust because we have privilege doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our lives.” The summit has advertised a more diverse set of speakers in recent years, but that doesn’t mean its audience is significantly more diverse. As the community has grown, there were bound to be minorities who did well within it, just as in regular society, but that doesn’t mean they make up a sizeable chunk of its followers.
The reality is that the promise of digital nomadism is built on a quasi-libertarian worldview that’s closely related to the ideologies of Silicon Valley titans. In short, certain measures to promote social progress might be acceptable, but many believe that the government needs to take a hands-off approach on economic matters and not interfere significantly in the market.
DWYL is a privileged orientation focused on individual success, which ignores programs in developed societies the were designed to promote collective wealth and well-being. Miya Tokumitsu, a Jacobin contributing editor, called it “the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.” The movement’s gurus make a gesture toward charitable causes to not seem too selfish, but their initiatives often forward their worldview: helping others to escape the tyranny of traditional work and life structures by building their own lifestyle businesses.
The fierce individualism of digital nomads is damaging to communities, both at home and abroad, because people who feel “liberated” from space have no stake in improving their local area. They’re far less likely to work toward positive local change, fight for the rights of disadvantaged peoples, or be interested in halting the gentrification that displaces long-term residents — to which they usually contribute — because those issues don’t affect them.
.. Into this situation come the digital nomads, looking for locales that are inexpensive by Western standards, but where they can easily outspend residents to maintain a quality-of-life that would be difficult to achieve on local salaries. Chiang Mai, Thailand and Bali, Indonesia are some of the leading destinations for those seeking the location-independent life, causing a predictable development: developers chasing Western money.
.. The gurus talk of finding destinations where one’s money will go further, ignoring the consequences for local people because the only thing that matters is the achievement of their personal success.
.. Even though digital nomads come from developed countries and benefited from taxpayer-funded education, health, and social programs throughout their lives (and expect to in the future when they return to their home countries), they rarely feel any obligation to give back. Similar to tech libertarians, they do all they can to minimize their tax burden by finding the jurisdiction or country with the lowest tax rate to establish their business and, depending on the tax rules of their country of citizenship or residence, move often enough that they aren’t obliged to pay income tax.
.. Rhetorically, digital-nomad gurus say that everyone should follow their hearts and pursue their passion, but it’s clear that their message is only meant for a particular group of privileged Westerners, as their lifestyles are made possible by people rooted to place and not necessarily enjoying their work.
.. They may achieve an additional degree of freedom and enjoyment from structuring their lives in an unconventional way, but that’s only possible because they ignore the consequences of their actions by surrounding themselves with people who have similar levels of privilege and an unquestioning adherence to an ignorant, individualistic worldview strongly influenced by Silicon Valley’s brand of libertarianism.
.. Low-cost destinations exist because rich countries looted and plundered the rest of the world for centuries through colonialism and unequal trade relationships. The privilege to even consider becoming a digital nomad is a result of legal structures and high-quality public services that are funded through the wealth generated from those centuries of global dominance.
.. Privilege allows digital nomads to ignore all these things and live in a fantasy world where they need only worry about themselves. They take full advantage of their positions to live more fulfilling lives, while trying to avoid the responsibility to contribute to the society that granted them their privilege in the first place and actively augmenting the forces displacing locals in the places they treat simply as destinations, rather than communities. Digital nomads do not care about the societies they live in, and for that reason they have no place in the future.
Millennials needn’t worry about retirement, Alicia Munnell, 75, writes, as long as they “are willing and able to work longer than their parents and grandparents did.”
It may not be surprising that younger Americans, who will largely be responsible for cleaning up the financial wreckage the boomers are leaving behind, are not particularly enthusiastic at the prospectof working longer and harder for the same quality of life enjoyed by previous generations.
.. the proximate causes of millennials’ financial difficulties, such as the Great Recession and the dot-com bubble: “Millennials entered the labor market during tough times.
.. The “good news,” as she calls it, is that retirement is a long way off and that simply by working into their 70s, millennials will be able to make up a lot of lost ground.
.. Between 1989 and 2016, the real median income of houses headed by people younger than 35 increased by just 4 percent. That’s just about enough to keep pace with overall inflation.
.. The problem is, however, that many prices have been rising much more rapidly than the pace of inflation. Prices are rising fastest for the things that are absolute necessities: Health care. Food. Housing. Education. Things you literally need to survive. As a result, households have to take on more debt to make ends meet.
.. By asking millennials to work to age 70 you’re treating the symptom, not the underlying disease.
.. Selling American elites, who tend to be older and wealthier, on the notion that the young just need to work harder is easy. But the idea that workers urgently deserve an across-the-board pay raise — a raise that would come, often, from higher payments from those same older and wealthier people — is a much tougher sell.
The chief accomplishment of the current educated elite is that it has produced a bipartisan revolt against itself.
.. A narrative is emerging. It is that the new meritocratic aristocracy has come to look like every other aristocracy. The members of the educated class use their intellectual, financial and social advantages to pass down privilege to their children, creating a hereditary elite that is ever more insulated from the rest of society. We need to build a meritocracy that is true to its values, truly open to all.
.. The real problem with the modern meritocracy can be found in the ideology of meritocracy itself. Meritocracy is a system built on the maximization of individual talent, and that system unwittingly encourages several ruinous beliefs:
.. Exaggerated faith in intelligence. Today’s educated establishment is still basically selected on the basis of I.Q. High I.Q. correlates with career success but is not the crucial quality required for civic leadership. Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions.
.. If you build a society upon this metaphor you will wind up with a society high in narcissism and low in social connection. Life is not really an individual journey. Life is more like settling a sequence of villages.
.. Misplaced notion of the self. Instead of seeing the self as the seat of the soul, the meritocracy sees the self as a vessel of human capital, a series of talents to be cultivated and accomplishments to be celebrated. If you base a society on a conception of self that is about achievement, not character, you will wind up with a society that is demoralized; that puts little emphasis on the sorts of moral systems that create harmony within people, harmony between people and harmony between people and their ultimate purpose.
.. Inability to think institutionally. Previous elites poured themselves into institutions and were pretty good at maintaining existing institutions, like the U.S. Congress, and building new ones, like the postwar global order. The current generation sees institutions as things they pass through on the way to individual success.
.. Some institutions, like Congress and the political parties, have decayed to the point of uselessness, while others, like corporations, lose their generational consciousness and become obsessed with the short term.
.. Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation.
.. The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.