The reason there are critics—and that there need to be critics in perpetuity—despite the general and ancient American cultural allergy to “negativism,” is that there are a hell of a lot of bad ideas out there, and more than a few of them are dangerous to the overall prospects for society. If anything, there’s more of a need for critics now than ever before, because it’s easier now than ever before for malevolent buffoons like Elon Musk or Andrew Yang to influence the direction of government. All it takes is a social media account (free) and a lot of cash—and for that, we are in a situation where too many people have too little cash, and too few people, seemingly the very worst that America has to offer, have way, way, way too much.
The latest well-funded, terrible, dangerous idea to cross my path is “longtermism.” That is a recent philosophy, such as it is, that targets a utopian long-term future (millions of years ahead) for humanity and takes a sanguine, even dismissive attitude toward contemporary life and those living it. As Phil Torres, a former acolyte of the philosophy wrote at Aeon,
The longtermist ideology inclines its adherents to take an insouciant attitude towards climate change. Why? Because even if climate change causes island nations to disappear, triggers mass migrations and kills millions of people, it probably isn’t going to compromise our longterm potential over the coming trillions of years. If one takes a cosmic view of the situation, even a climate catastrophe that cuts the human population by 75 per cent for the next two millennia will, in the grand scheme of things, be nothing more than a small blip – the equivalent of a 90-year-old man having stubbed his toe when he was two.
The center for this philosophy, if you want to call it that, is the Future of Humanity Institute, which has substantial support from the likes of Musk and Peter Thiel. It is easy to imagine—unfair perhaps, but easy, logical, and certainly fun—that Thiel sees his active pursuit of ending democracy in America as just a shortcut to this future, and that the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are eager to go along, either actively or by complicit non-action. The Gilded Age has returned, and implicit in it is the notion that those who have the money deserve it because they are superior human beings, intellectually and genetically, not just born that way but often born into riches. The best lack all resources, while the worst are larded with them.
Philosophically, I incline toward Stoicism for how I live and Pessimism for how I see the universe and humanity’s place in it (though not so deeply that I see my life as a meaningless waste, at least as long as I’m still trying to find meaning in it). It’s less a matter of logic than how those feel inside me; they feel like they fit my emotional life and the values I have. The funny thing is my Pessimism fits in with longtermism; I feel pretty sure that we’re going to wreck human civilization, but that there will be enough left to continue, some combination of Olaf Stapeldon’s Last And First Men and the alluring concept of the “jackpot” from William Gibson’s stunning The Peripheral.
There’s going to be some people left—will they still be making music? In the face of the present, why indeed are people still making music? Are there only a few like me, who see the future as doom, and not in the long-term either? Are there enough who, despite a career as a musician being economic suicide, still see the value and fulfillment in making music, in continuing a slow losing battle? Apparently so, but how the hell do they do it?
I’m grateful, because every now and then I hear something new so well-made and expressive that it wipes away the gloom. But it’s not the big budget releases from pop stars and classical labels, as admirable and well-made as they are. There’s something about maintaining the standard cultural repertoire—whether it’s the classical canon, the Great American Songbook, high-gloss dance-pop—that seems wrong for the moment. I mean this in an extended sense that covers the constant flow of cookie-cutter drill and equally indistinct new music from the university postgraduate programs and the overly complicated themes and rhythms of the supposedly cutting-edge of modern jazz, which itself has become a standard mainstream.
I get why people dig this music, and I’m not saying it’s bad, just that it’s the longtermism of contemporary music, standard styles that, in 2022, look like they’re going to endure when in the end it’s all, as Roy Batty said, “tears in rain.” Longtermism in the arts means preserving a bland consensus, and letting the smallest things die away, because they don’t produce enough economic reward. It’s not culture, but a GDP game where quantity is not only a quality, but the only quality. Quantity is really the only thing people like Musk and Thiel and Bill Gates have, and quantity is what most people, including those in the arts, see. It is the shield against disaster, in that something will make it through to the heat death of the universe. But at the end, everything will be the exact same quality.
People live now, and they are worthwhile, and unlike the rich who carelessly destroy everything around them, these people are not bland, they burn brightly and idiosyncratically. If I can do anything as a critic, it’s to turn a lens toward them, and the now.