World Weary

As a freelance video producer I get to do all kinds of random jobs. This summer I spent a few days as a videographer for the Gay Softball World Series. There is a Gay Softball World series, which happens every year in a different city in the US, and is attended by hundreds of players from different teams around the country.

I was hired by a PR firm which was contracted by the Coors Brewing company, which is a major sponsor of the event – probably because of public image issues created by prominent members of the Coors family, who have been vocally conservative on gay marriage issues, and I’m guessing that a softball tournament is one of the only contexts in which gay men can be persuaded to drink Coors Light.

My contact at the firm was Kyle, a good-natured young gay man from Houston, whose primary job at the event was to give away swag – Coors Light branded baseball caps, sweatbands, cheap pom-poms. His refrain over the course of the weekend was, “I just need to give away the rest of this crap.” My job was to shoot video of gay softball players drinking Coors Light and wearing the Coors swag, so that evidence of the successful implementation of their PR dollars could be reported back to Coors executives.

I was well-compensated, and appropriately diligent as I worked, but I was continually aware that none of our efforts really meant anything to anyone. The softball players would drink some Coors, maybe even a lot of it, and would take home their cap or sweatband and probably put it in a drawer or closet and not think of wearing it ever again. The executives would be reasonably satisfied and continue to contract with the PR firm. And, somewhere in Indonesia or China, an order would be placed for some additional thousands of branded sweatbands and pom-poms, to likewise eventually be discarded or forgotten.

We were all showing up and getting paid, and more or less cheerfully going through the motions, on behalf of Coors, but it could as easily have been another beer, or a soft drink, or water, or the Sierra Club. The gay softball players wouldn’t really have noticed one way or another, the PR firm would have been just as happy, I would have been fine with it. The product or brand or corporation working to create some positive identification or customer loyalty or whatever was basically interchangeable.

The classic line about communism in the 1980s was, “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.”

Along the same lines, I was recently reading commentary about the 2012 election which incisively noted that the only people actually following it closely were the people who were getting paid to pretend to care.

This has a deep resonance for me, and the more I think about it, the more I see it all around me in the world today – people going through the motions, pretending to care either deeply or shallowly about what they do to earn a living. Certainly in advertising and entertainment, but also in the service industries and corporate america. Even in academia – the professors and the students may care deeply about teaching and learning, but when it comes to assignments and grading it’s back to pretending that everyone did the reading, pretending that the grade is carefully considered, pretending that the paper was worked on for more than one weekend. There are certainly people left who care deeply about their work, what they make, who they help – but it seems that an ever-shrinking share of our global resources are allocated to these pursuits. Coors has a lot more money to spend than the Center for Victims of Torture.

The term for this in Marxism is, I believe, “alienation of labor,”and there’s a long and deep tradition of academic thought on the subject – but it seems to me to be reaching a point of utter pervasiveness, some kind of peak alienation, wherein we all forget why we were supposed to care about the undertaking to which we’re giving our time and energy, besides that it keeps a roof over our heads and food in the fridge.

This is where my mind goes when I hear employment numbers on the news, statistics for housing starts, changes in the stock market and GDP. Everyone just sounds exhausted to me, worn out from too many years of pretending to care deeply about things that don’t actually deserve that level of emotional investment. It makes me wonder what would happen if we all agreed to honestly admit, like on the count of three, that we don’t care very much about a lot of what we’re supposed to care about, that a lot of this effort and toil and trouble is really just going through the motions.

Because besides the empirical, macroeconomic measures of peak oil and global warming and national debt and personal debt, mortgages and school loans, there is ample evidence on a number of levels that we’re just worn out, and we need a real break. We need to stop trying so hard all the time.

If we could really slow things down, profoundly, for even a year, we might discover a renewed interest in making things, achieving things, inventing things… but it seems to me that at the moment most of our collective energy is just adding to the noise and to the hustle and hurry. It’s cool that we all have computers in our phones, I guess, but the last thing we need is new technology that makes us more productive. We’re way too productive already.

I feel like on some level this message is already out there: all of these peak things are communicating to us clearly, if we’re willing to listen, that it’s time to rest. The planet is warming up like an overheating engine. It’ll shut itself down if things get too far out of balance – it doesn’t need our permission for that.

I once heard a controversial opinion about the phenomenon of nervous breakdown… that instead of psychologists and psychiatrists and therapists working to avert this eventuality in their patients, that it should simply be allowed to happen. Nervous breakdown is the mind and the body choosing to stop participating in whatever’s going on, to collapse rather than rushing forward in an unhealthy direction. Averting collapse only leads to a bigger collapse later on, whereas an embrace of collapse, and what can be learned from the effort to rebuild, is exactly what the body, mind and soul actually need. Something similar happens with addiction, in the Alcoholics Annonymous culture’s embrace of “hitting bottom.”

Mental, physical, societal, eco-collapse – none of these are appealing, or fun or romantic or sexy. They may even be far less dramatic and interesting than any kind of showy apocalypse that we’ve been promised by the movies, without any mushroom clouds or asteroids or aliens or zombies. But I think we can only pretend to care about things we don’t actually care about for so long, and whatever comes afterwards will be far more strange, and messy, and real than anyone can fully contemplate right now. And perhaps that’s exactly what needs to happen. Because we can’t just keep giving away this crap forever.

It’s an appealing fantasy, that at the meeting of uninterested executives looking at the video of all the Coors crap at the Gay Softball World Series, that ten minutes into the presentation, some well-groomed,  expensively-attired executive might interrupt the proceedings, stand up, and ask “hey wait, what the fuck is the point of all this, anyway?” And that by way of response, rather than a roomful of people who pretend to care carefully giving their rehearsed, corporate-approved rationale for the pretend importance of this effort and expense to everybody in the room, that they would all simply go outside together. Maybe it’s a beautiful, sunny day. Maybe someone has a softball and a bat in the trunk of their car, and they can put together a leisurely pickup game with the rest of their Thursday afternoon.

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