Remember like 14 years ago? We were all so innocent then. A new President Bush had just discovered secret proof that we were about to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A new housing market was revitalizing American cities by adding value to what people owned already. A new kind of publication, the blog, invigorated public discourse with its jaunty tone and periodic slander. Everything seemed fresh and exciting, which is weird, because 2003 is actually old. There’s just no way to argue that it’s still happening now. Yet one cannot ignore the feeling that we remain mired in the last decade: fighting the same wars, smugly denouncing a president who could only appeal to idiots, and putting skulls on everything. Today is Friday, and everything old is not so much new again as stubbornly still here. Won’t you survey the leftovers with me?
The big historical misconception of the Gilded Age is that it was an age of great wealth, when really it was an age of widespread poverty. Between 1870 and 1900, growing industrialization and the sudden interconnection of markets by rail made a small number of American industrialists insanely rich. The Gilded Age produced the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie fortunes. It also impoverished millions of ordinary Americans, who went from self-employment as small farmers and independent craftsmen to working in mills and on railroads—often for sprawling trusts, usually with little control over hours or conditions, and invariably for low wages in an economy driven by industrial-strength inflation. The Gilded Age made a few people rich at the expense of everyone else. It is named for the 1873 novel by Mark Twain, and the whole point of “gilded” is that the gold only covered the surface. Beneath it lay something base that the wealthy wanted to cover up. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m thinking about this in the 21st century, during our second industrial revolution. I guess I’m just savoring the fact that nothing like that could happen now. Today is Friday, and our age remains totally un-gilded. Won’t you insist that everything is fine with me?
In 1882, Mark Twain published “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” an essay lamenting the disappearance of quality falsehoods from the world. Twain’s complaint wasn’t that people had stopped lying. It was that they were lying poorly—”injudiciously,” as he puts it, which neatly captures the elements of both technical sloppiness and tactical unwisdom. “I sometimes think it were even better and safer not to lie at all than to lie
injudiciously,” he writes. “An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.” I’m sure he didn’t mean that and only let his emotions get the better of him. But his words have become true in the 21st century: ill-conceived, injudicious lies—lies without even internal coherence—threaten to reduce all statements, true and untrue, to the same ineffectual broth. Today is Friday, and we’re all Just Sayin’ Stuff now. Won’t you stop even trying to make your lies sound true with me?
We all know that the most effective form of government is a powerful chief executive who inherited his position and never got a chance to fail. When times are tough, you want a rich kid with a long resume in the family business. That’s how my grandparents’ generation won World War II: their parents won World War I. But what happens when two Little Lord Fauntleroy types square off? If you were to pit, say, Fred Trump’s kid against the cleverest public-school graduates in New York, you know who would win. Same goes for Kim Jong Il’s kid against the savviest apparatchiks in North Korea. When two such people square off, though, the resourcefulness that comes from being sucked up to your whole life cancels out on both sides. They are left with only their positions to defend them, plus their unimaginable wealth. Today is Friday, and two of the biggest assholes in the world are ready to win a nuclear war. Won’t you pit hack against hack with me?
One of the most useful skills a modern person can possess is knowing how to properly assign blame. In my experience, the modern person makes a lot of mistakes. Whether putting diesel in our gasoline cars or electing a sub-literate game show host to the presidency, we are not always not fucking up. Improved competence is impossible, though, so the only solution is to get better at casting blame. The Russians made Donald Trump president. The diesel pump is too close to the regular. See how great that is? This way, we can keep treating other people’s mistakes as unconscionable while continuing to make our own. Today is Friday, and that is absolutely not my fault. Won’t you spread the blame around with me?