[Editor’s Note: Some people have quibbled with me about the definition of “nihilism” implied by this post, and I will admit that there were times when writing this that I thought “fatalism” might be more appropriate. Nonetheless, the tone and tenor that is set up by the following Vonnegut quote describes exactly the attitude that I think is going around the nation right now. To me, that matters more than whatever we decide to call it.]
This is one of my favorite passages from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle:
I found my apartment wrecked by a nihilistic debauch. Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars’ worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet.
He wrote this poem, in what proved to be excrement, on the yellow linoleum floor of my kitchen:I have a kitchen. But it is not a complete kitchen. I will not be truly gay Until I have a Dispose-all.
There was another message, written in lipstick in a feminine hand on the wallpaper over my bed. It said: “No, no, no, said Chicken-licken.”
There was a sign hung around my dead cat’s neck. It said, “Meow.”
I have not seen Krebbs since… But after I saw what Krebbs had done, in particular what he had done to my sweet cat, nihilism was not for me.
It’s funny and poignant at the same time, but also made me realize something about nihilism: people often don’t find any fault with it until someone takes it so far that it hurts them personally.
The most recent United States socio-political freakout is Trump’s “Piss-Gate” scandal, which is either (depending on who you ask)
A) An epic scandal exposing not only Trump’s kinky urine-based hooker fetishes but also the depth of his ties to Russia and vulnerability to blackmail,
B) A fraudulent document trail concocted by the Kremlin in order to further spread disarray in American culture and undermine both the perception of and the actual functioning of the American political system, or
C) A fake news story created as a prank on 4chan for lulz to expose exactly how gullible and broken American political media has become.
We don’t know which of these is correct. The truth is probably some combination of all three. (Isn’t it always?) But for the moment, I’d like to focus on the third option. I’m interested in the proportion of American citizens, no matter how small, who are so dedicated to undermining our existing media and politics that they willfully and gleefully spread lies just to see how far it will go.
I was drawn into that head space a while back during the election, although in a more small-scale way. I was sick of the obvious fabrications and hysteria that certain elements on the right were whipping up over “Hillary’s health”. I was sick of patiently confronting people who were making exaggerated claims about he being “on her death bed,” only to have them reply: “Oh, I know it’s not true, but it’s fun to say and get people mad.” And I truly feared that some moderate, less-informed, middle-of-the-road people would take the claims at face value and be swayed by obvious fabrications.
In the midst of all of that frustration, I came across the “Trump has rabies” hashtag movement, initiated by a man whom I later interviewed for my Youtube series, Unscripted Chit-Chat. I was delighted! It was obviously false, and obviously a reaction against the stupidity of the “Hillary’s Health” conspiracy theories. So I played along, retweeting and sending out tweets of my own about the evidence that Trump has rabies.
A part of me was thinking: Maybe if we can shine enough light on these super-absurd claims, we can get through to at least some of the people online who take “Hillary’s Health” conspiracy posts at face value, and get them to think: “Hey… maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t take everything I read online at face value!”
Alas, I don’t really have the temperament to be a troll. I’ve tried trolling as an experiment in the past, and it just wore me out. This time, my flirtation with “Trump has rabies” lasted only a few days before I gave it up.
But I still remember the feeling I had that got me interested in it: a feeling of helplessness, a feeling that nothing I tried worked. Would trolling people with “Trump has rabies” have succeeded, if it had caught on more or been kept up longer?
We will never know.
When people take glee in tricking the media and pundit class of America into falling for lies, I think it comes from nihilism: I want to expose the flaws in the system no matter who gets hurt. A hot quick death by institutional collapse is better than the slow cancer of creeping corruption and dysfunction.
Nihilism almost always exists at the interaction of boredom and disempowerment. Many Trump voters didn’t know or care what his policies were. They just want to burn the system to the ground. They feel unmotivated and unchallenged, even if they are unemployed and don’t know how they will put food on the table. They feel helpless, because they don’t even know how to get themselves out of their boredom.
I see people’s reactions to Trump’s plans to ignore laws and standards and do shady dealings, saying: “Well, both sides have been doing all this for decades, the only difference is trump is telling us.” They see that as a good thing.
So when people deliberately and repeatedly lie to the press and to the public, I can’t help but see it as the same kind of nihilist act. It’s a dare: “what do I have to do to get to you people to stop believing what you read?” And fuck it if people get hurt.
As I’ve already said, I’ve flirted with this mindset myself. I just wish more of these people owned cats… or at least had someone they cared about whom they could look at and think: “No, tearing the system down may actually hurt someone or something I love. Maybe sewing chaos and distrust, and collapsing the system to dust, really isn’t the best way forward.”
No, no, no, said Chicken-licken.