Editor's note: This essay by former Pando editor Paul Bradley Carr first appeared in his newsletter How To Be Less Of An Asshole. It is republished here with his permission. You can subscribe to the newsletter, and read previous installments here.
As a Brit in America, I am keenly aware of my obligations.
For one, I have a duty to pronounce words like “zebra” and “trousers” and “pasta” in ways precisely calibrated to sound amusing to the American ear. Then I must smile warmly when those same words are parroted back to me in a Dick Van Dyke accent.
I must have an opinion on the Royal family. Sometimes that opinion must be shared on television, like the time in Vegas when the local NBC affiliate declared me an expert on the wedding of Kate and William and allowed me to make up facts for 45 mins. (“What can you tell us about the man in red standing beside the altar?” / “Well, that’s actually very interesting. According to feudal law, if William fails to show up for the wedding then that fellow is obliged to step in and marry Kate.” / “Incredible. What a wonderful tradition. We’ll be right back.”)
I am obliged to have terrible teeth, to drink tea by the gallon, and be willing – at the drop of a hat – to discuss the cultural significance of Doctor Who with someone for whom the entire franchise began with Matt Smith. I must “explain” Jimmy Saville.
And now, of course, I must have an opinion on Brexit.
I understand completely the American fascination with Brexit. For one thing, it is objectively fascinating. It’s so rare these days that you get to see a first world democracy simultaneously punching itself in the face, shooting itself in both feet, and dashing itself on the rocks, again and again, in slow motion. Also, it’s strangely comforting: Brexit is the only clusterfuck in the world that’s more clustery and more fucky than the decision to elect Donald Trump.
Well, since you ask, my opinion is much the same as everyone else’s: Brexit is a clown show. A disaster. An unprecedented humiliation even for a country which is world famous for its bumbling, and whose citizens live in a constant state of embarrassment and apology.
To end the madness, the only logical next step is for the government to declare a second referendum, for the British people to vote a decisive no, and then pretend the whole mess never happened. Another thing British people are very good at: Pretending things never happened. (It was we Brits who invented that awkward little jog you do when you trip in the street and don’t want anyone to realize.)
And yet, for all the voting and rejection and yelling and confusion and major banks relocating to Ireland, a second referendum remains the one thing which neither of the two major parties is willing to consider. A second referendum, we’re told, will lead to blood on the streets and to the Prime Minister being ousted and replaced with Nigel Farage. The far right will be frothing at the mouth, they warn us, apparently unaware that right wing mouths are already frothing, and have been for a very long time.
The same logic explains why Republican senators stubbornly refuse to halt the destruction of their own party by a crazed orange bigot, or why Evangelicals continue to abandon every single lesson Jesus ever taught about love, forgiveness, tolerance – never mind their own church’s prudish teachings on divorce, adultery, blasphemy and porn stars. It’s why Lindsay Graham sounds like he’s been possessed. Don’t anger the base! Beware the base!
As a result, in both Britain and America, the levers of power are now in the hands of men (mostly men) who, when faced with anything resembling a moral decision, appear to ask themselves only one question: What would a total fucking asshole do?
We are living in an assholistocracy.
Sometimes those men in a power have a very specific asshole in mind when asking their What would a total fucking asshole do? question. For Republican lawmakers, the asshole constantly on their mind is the 45th president of the United States. The Supreme Dalek of Assholes.
More often, though, the fictive asshole is actually a group of assholes. In Britain, as in America, much of the current idiotic, self-destructive lawmaking around immigration, economics, Supreme Court nominees, and – yes – Brexit is driven by politicians (themselves assholes to a man) wondering how best to pander to the large (but minority) mob of bigots, misanthropes and proud ignoramuses who still cling on to the notion that anything that reduces the number of foreigners will provide a commensurate increase in jobs and opportunities for the working class.
(Important note: That mob <> the working class. Sure, Trump’s base is built on what pollsters call “white men without college degrees” and Brexit is most popular amongst those low paid workers who could stand to benefit most from European jobs and subsidies. But throw a rock in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street and chances are you’ll hit a racist or misogynist who not only shares Trump’s worst impulses, but has the resources to fund them. Bigotry, like intelligence, respects no class divide.)
We can’t have a second Brexit referendum because, simply put, the assholes won’t allow it. We can’t defend the constitution because the assholes won’t allow it.
Worse, we can’t even easily vote out the assholes and replace them with non-assholes. Not when the system is stacked so heavily in favor of the assholes. I don’t just mean the electoral college system, or gerrymandering, which allowed Trump to win and maintain control of the White House while losing the popular vote. Nor do I only mean the fact that the assholes who gave us Brexit – Farage, Johnson and the rest – were willing to lie and even cheat to get the outcome they wanted, while the Remainers couldn’t cobble together a coherent counter-argument, hobbled as they were by fidelity to the truth.
I’m also talking about how the assholes control the tools of information and communication. Tools like Facebook, which we know was used by the Russian government to help turn public opinion against Hilary Clinton and the EU, towards Trump and Brexit. Mark Zuckerberg’s unwillingness to put a stop to it, despite a direct personal appeal from Barack Obama, puts him firmly in the asshole camp (never mind his tolerance of Nazis on his platform, and the fact that he’s packed his policy team with right wingers as a sop to frothing conservatives.) Meanwhile the longest serving Facebook board member, Peter Thiel, is a Trump donor who famously said that the worst thing to happen to “capitalist democracy” was women getting the vote.
It ain’t just Facebook though. Over at Twitter, Jack Dorsey refuses to enforce his company’s own rules against Trump’s tweets, and in his spare time pals around with anti-vaxxers. Google recently $135m to two executives accused of sexual harassment and assault.
Social media is a matryoshka doll of assholes, as of course is the Murdoch press, and…
…12 hours later…
I drafted the first part of this newsletter (everything you’ve just read) a few hours before news broke of Thursday’s terror attack in Christchurch. You’ve likely read the same coverage of the attack as I have: The white supremacist murderer, radicalized via adolescent Internet forums and lolzing his way through the livestreamed slaughter. The rambling manifesto using copy-and-pasted memes to frame the senseless snuffing out of human life as just another way to stick it to liberals and anyone else who supports multiculturalism, sensible gun control, and basic human decency. Mass murder as epic trolling.
The reaction to the attack, at least here in the US, has been a mix of shock and horror but not very much surprise. We’ve been watching this trend build for years: The ugly, disingenuous rhetoric of politicians, taken seriously by zealots and the mentally ill. The excuses that right wing lawmakers and commentators use when challenged on their own words: I was only kidding! It was satire! Free speech! The Christchurch attack is as horrifying as it was inevitable - the moment when online griefing mutated into real world genocide.
This is what happens to the world when assholes are in charge; when assholes allow other assholes to broadcast their bigotry with impunity, and nobody wants to stop them lest even more assholes get even more angry. This is what happens when the President of the United States dog whistles to Breitbart that his supporters in the military and police and biker gangs like to “play tough,” or when Silicon Valley libertarians start believing that bigotry is somehow a pre-requisite for innovation…
It’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics. - Sam Altman, Y Combinator
It’s not that the Trumps or Farages of the world want their supporters to engage in mass killings; it’s that they simply don’t care if it happens. Because, again, they’re assholes and this is an assholistocracy.
In the immediate aftermath of Christchurch a lot of us are wondering what we can do to reverse the tide. Judging from the headlines, the answer is very little. Hours after the attack, the President dismissed the rise of white supremacy and then went on a rant about a “Jexodus” and “invaders” pouring across the Southern Border. Facebook and Twitter executives are already bleating about how hard it is for them to detect extremism on their platforms (I’ve said this before, but note the only time you’ll hear Silicon Valley geniuses saying something is too hard is when it’s something they don’t want to do. Colonizing Mars: Easy! Paying women equal salaries to men and detecting gunshots on Facebook Live: Impossible!)
In weeks like this, it’s easy to get disheartened, to feel powerless against each new wave of assholery. And that’s OK, because it’s true: Individually none of us can do anything to fix a broken world. My vote, or yours, can’t stop Brexit or defeat white supremacism or keep automatic weapons out of the hands of deranged young men.
That’s the awful, depressing truth.
The less depressing truth is that, collectively, we can do something. If the non-assholes of the world - i.e. the vast majority of human beings - stick together, we have enormous power. We can outnumber, outmatch, and most critically outlove our enemies through the simple and powerful act of not being like them.
Kindness, optimism and sincerity will always defeat selfishness, cynicism and irony, not least because the former traits are self-nourishing while the latter ones are exhausting. Often what looks like karma (Facebook hemorrhaging senior executives, Trump allies going to jail…) is really just a case of the bad guys becoming exhausted by their own lies and looking for a way to stop the world and get off.
“They are us,” said Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, of the victims of the Christchurch mosque attack. Her words were a stark contrast to Trump’s “invaders” rhetoric. They were also a positioning statement: We are all in this together; standing shoulder-to-shoulder against those who would wish us harm. Implicit in that notion of “us” is the existence of a “them” — the murderers, the bigots, and anyone who would enable them. Together we will defeat them.
Then Ardern got down to specifics: “Our gun laws will change," she said, as a matter of simple fact. Because of course they will. Of course they must. Only an asshole would say or think otherwise, and Jacinda Ardern is not an asshole.
And that is how we start to dig out of this mess. Not with a miracle, or a rebellion, or by meeting hate with more hate. But with millions, or ideally billions, of us asking ourselves a simple question, every time we come to a crossroads: What wouldn’t an asshole do?
Republished with permission. Subscribe to Paul's newsletter here.