What might be called the fundamental theorem of modernity is the usually implicit belief that all people are equal, that all people are of equal worth, or that all people are equal in the eyes of God. This theorem underlies the modern interpretation of democracy, the modern interpretation of art, the modern interpretation of sociology, the modern interpretation of politics, and it is the core belief beneath the modern psychology of nearly all self-help books and therapies. Because this fundamental theorem is false, it undermines the entire structure of modern life, from voting to relationships to business to art.
Variations on this fundamental theorem are true, which is why it is so seductive, so widespread, and so hard to tease out of its category. The category this theorem inhabits is the category of equalities. Similar theorems include the theorem of equal opportunity, the theorem of equality under the law, the theorem of equal rights, the theorem of equal pay for equal work, and so on. All these theorems are all true, I believe, in that they are useful to society as well as to individuals. Some will quibble about my use of the word “true” here, as well as my use of the word “theorem.” but I think my intent and meaning are clear. All these ideas or beliefs or theorems have a possible logic to them, and a possible use, used rightly. They do not necessarily conflict with human nature or with the obvious facts.
To start with, none of these equalities assumes or demands that all people are equal. Equal opportunity, for instance, actually has nothing to do with the equality of people. Equal opportunity maximizes potential. In fact, equal opportunity assumes that people are not equal: equal opportunity is a way for people to prove themselves. Everyone is given a fair chance to succeed, and those with more talent must succeed more. If all people were equal, they would not be required to prove themselves, and opportunity would be meaningless. If people are guaranteed success, they do not need opportunity. Guaranteed success is not opportunity, it is social engineering of the most unnatural and fascist sort.
Equality under the law is another idea that has progressed as civilization has progressed. It gained ground with the Magna Carta and flowered during the Enlightenment. After the French and American revolutions, it became legal bedrock, although it is still preached more than it is practiced. Many seem to think that it goes hand in hand with the equality of people, but once again it has nothing to do with the equality of people. It is the great inequality of people that necessitates equality under the law. Without the law, weak and ignorant people would not be able to prevail in court against the strong and clever. Even with the law, weak and ignorant people find it difficult to prevail, in court and out. But equality under the law attempts to insert a degree of fairness into proceedings that were always more a matter of power. In this sense, equality under the law is not really “natural,” in that nature tends to prefer the stronger and more clever in all situations, but the law is logical nonetheless, since law, by definition, is not about power but about rectitude or rightness. As a legal matter, weak and ignorant people are just as likely to be in the right as strong or clever people. One might say they are more likely to be in the right. They are certainly more in need of the strength of the law in fighting stronger or more clever people, assuming they are in the right.
But the idea that people are equal, in worth or the eyes of God, has no possible proof or logic to it. We can immediately throw out the second variation of this idea, since only God can see through his eyes. No one has any idea what God thinks of us or our theorems. I do not need to even broach the question of the existence of God, since even if I took it as given that he exists, we have no way of knowing how he ranks us, or whether he ranks us at all. I will be told that the various religious texts inform us of this, but even if I take it as given that they are true, it turns out that they tell us the opposite. The religious texts tell us that God does rank us, if not by beauty or cleverness or acts, then at least by moral rectitude or by obedience or by predestination or by baptism or by some other method. All the religions are a ranking, if not from angels to devils, then in some other fashion. Not one major historical religion teaches that all people are special, that all people are equal, or that all people deserve equal recognition. Buddhism, which many modern people believe is more advanced than Christianity, on just this topic, does not teach equality. As a prime example, consider His Holiness the Dalai Lama. What theorem of equality could include the idea of holiness? You must have more holy people and less holy people. The Dalai Lama is not considered to be just like everyone else. He is considered to be very special and rare.
Equality in the eyes of God is not an ancient idea at all: it is a modern bastardization of one of the other equalities. It is an outgrowth and offshoot, not of any religion, but of modern politics and law. It does not come from the Bible or any other ancient text. It comes from a slipshod reading of recent political history, namely of the French and American and Russian Revolutions. Because these revolutions overthrew the old hierarchies, modern people believe that all hierarchies are gone. But it is even shallower than that. Most modern people don’t know enough about recent history to misread it: they have gotten their misconceptions directly from self-help books and therapies and Oprah.
The first thing to understand about self-help books and therapies and TV programs is that they were all produced to sell. To sell most efficiently they must appeal to the largest audience. The largest audience is an audience of average people. Exceptional people don’t read self-help books because they don’t need to. They can solve problems on their own and so they don’t have high levels of dissatisfaction with themselves. Complete losers don’t read self-help books because they can’t even achieve that level of living. Either they can’t read or can’t afford the book or can’t find the library or can’t get out of the institution. Self-help books are read by people who can read fairly well and who have enough intelligence and insight to realize (perhaps subconsciously) that they aren’t exceptional in any way. But they don’t have enough intelligence and insight to read real books or to study life in any rigorous fashion.
In the past, average people weren’t commonly insecure, at least not psychologically. They might have been financially insecure, but they didn’t spend much time worrying about the sort of issues modern people worry about. Partly this is because society was highly stratified. Social inequality was the rule. But it is also because these average people, when they read, read texts like the Bible, which were full of other inequalities. If these people were envious of upper classes, they did not long for equality. No, they substituted the promised hierarchies in heaven for the current hierarchies on earth. These aristocrats might be rich now, but they, the meek, would win after death or the judgment. This attitude is certainly delusional, but it doesn’t lead to the sort of catastrophic and pandemic insecurity we see now.
Only in modern Western societies do average people read and recite and believe that people are equal. And it is this belief that feeds their insecurity. They read that they are supposed to be as good as the next guy, but they can see with their own eyes that the next guy is prettier or more clever or taller or thinner or richer or plays the banjo better or makes funnier jokes or beats them at badminton. If they weren’t force fed a constant line of equality, they could pass these things off as the way of nature. But because they were weaned on equality, raised on equality, and daily drowned in equality, they must think something is very wrong with them. According to equality, they should be able to learn the piano with ease, achieve a scratch handicap in a matter of weeks, and earn six figures with little effort: by putting post-it notes on the refrigerator and chanting the correct twelve-step mantras each night before bed. When these things inevitably fail, they feel very pathetic indeed. Not unequal, but truly cursed and clueless. Someone with average ability might be expected to fail at difficult endeavors, but since everyone is believed to have an infinite capability, only the misguided and misplaced could fail.
The self-help book—and its onscreen equivalents—is actually one of the most mischievous and malicious inventions in recent history. It uses the fundamental theorem to exploit another grave error of modernity. The self-help book is used to address insecurity, and insecurity is caused by lack of achievement. The only real way to achieve more is to learn more skills or attain more knowledge, but the self-help book does not and cannot admit this. It cannot admit it because the reader cannot admit it. The reader desires a quick answer to a big question, and so the writer tries to give it to him. The reader either cannot or will not devote the time and energy to studying serious questions or skills in a serious manner, and so all real achievement is out of the question. The self-help book solves this problem by denying it is a problem. According to the self-help book, self-regard is not a product of achievement or work or talent or natural gifts: it is a frame of mind and nothing more. You don’t have to do anything, you only need to change the way you think.
Learning to love yourself is a cliché of modern thought. Do you achieve this by becoming more lovable in any way? No, you achieve it by telling yourself that you are just as good as other people. That is, you achieve it by fiat. You make up a rule or law, based on no logic, with no possible proof and lots of obvious disproof, against all the evidence of your own eyes, and you grip it as your last possible life raft.
This method must fail, of course, and the writers of the self-help book count on it failing. The publishers count on it failing. The psychologists count on it failing. Oprah counts on it failing. Because when it fails, what do you do? You go buy another self-help book!
And when all the self-help books and therapies and programs fail, you feel ten times as miserable as when you started on this process. Other people, to whom you are equal, are being helped by these books and programs. It says so in block print on the back cover of the book. They are reaching all levels of self-realization and self-satisfaction, simply by posting clichés on the refrigerator and chanting mantras, so what is wrong with you?
This is the modern method in a thousand fields: psychology, dieting, dating, auto repair, you name it. The method consists of creating a circular track that is guaranteed by nature to fail, but guaranteed by the publisher to work. All the publisher or writer or spokesman has to do is make the circular track of a certain complexity, beyond the ability of the average person to unwind, and he has a money machine. This is not difficult to do. Your average person cannot spot a flaw in a George Bush speech; how are they going to read a book and critique it? They are reading the book based on a recommendation; unless they get a second better recommendation from a smarter person, they are not going to know what to think. They are trapped by cabal of con-artists and by their own inability to analyze anything.
And here we reach another problem, created and confirmed by the self-help book and the fundamental theorem. Since all people are said to be equal, there is no possibility of a smarter person, as I put it in that last paragraph. Average people can’t tell the difference between good advice and bad advice, good judgment and bad, an average friend and a brilliant friend. That is why they are reading the book in the first place, and taking the advice of someone who would recommend a self-help book. If a smarter person comes along and tells them that the whole genre is a scam, that the fundamental theorem is a hoax, and that their trusted advisor is a muddlehead, are they likely to listen? No, since this goes against everything they have been taught. To believe it would require they reorder their lives from top to bottom. It would require them to admit they were average, to admit that all people are not equal, and to admit that they hadn’t a clue how to proceed on their own. Concerning this last thing, they can admit this in a very abstract and impersonal way, since they can be seen needing the help of a self-help book. But they cannot admit it in the presence of a real person. To admit it to this person would be to admit that this person was smarter than them. Since that is an impossibility, it is not possible to imagine that good advice will ever be accepted.
That is one of the main contradictions of the fundamental theorem. According to the current platitudes, it is permitted to take advice from an equal, since we are all muddling through together. If someone recommends a self-help book to you, it means that other person is also lost, which is reassuring. You don’t need to feel inferior to someone like that. You don’t even need to feel very grateful, since the book is already on the best-seller list. If that other person hadn’t recommended it, someone else would have very soon.
But this way of thinking is bootless, since advice from an equal can have no great worth. If that person is equal to you, they know no more than you do. What can you learn from them? Learning is only possible when you have a teacher and a student, and the teacher must know more than the student.
In the modern world it is not allowed to take advice from someone who is in a better position than you are, in any way. That would be very deflating to the ego. It would be confirming the insecurity you are fleeing from so doggedly. So, in the end, it is possible only to take bad advice. Under the fundamental theorem, it is impossible to take good advice. Of course this plays right into the hands of the marketers. Good advice would solve your problems once and for all, in which case you are lost to the market.
In this way, all teaching is undermined by equality. A mentor of any real stature is not to be thought of: he or she would make a student feel really stupid. Only a mentor who is an equal can be consulted, a mentor like Oprah. An everyman or everywoman who is different only in that he or she has, purely by accident, tripped across a book on Amazon first.
Now let us look at how the fundamental theorem affects relationships. Although it might appear that equality would make relationships easier, the reverse is true. No two people are equal, but the idea of equality pollutes every relationship, even a relationship between two people that are nearly equal. Modern people expect all people to be strictly equal at all times, so they are constantly in a false position with everyone. They are wrong all the time. Every inequality, even a small inequality like that at a board game or sport, is a source of friction. And not just a natural amount of friction, as a function of normal competitiveness. No, the idea of equality multiplies every natural difference, by making it seem unnatural. If someone smarter than me beats me at chess, it is not so hard to take. But if someone who is supposed to be my equal beats me at chess over and over, I must be fantastically unlucky or fantastically cursed. There is no other explanation. Or maybe my equal is cheating. Something unfair is going on regardless. Either the fates or the cards are stacked against me. This makes me very unhappy. Unhappy once because I am being cheated. Unhappy twice because there is no redress for it. We are equal: what can I do? I already have all the laws on my side. The fundamental theorem is my guarantor of statistical victory. I should win 50% of the time at all things. But that isn’t happening and I can’t make it happen.
The only way to make it happen is to socialize with inferior people, and this is what modern people tend to do. Everyone is now downwardly mobile. The movement is to the more and more vulgar, in art, in sex, in all socialization and business. And I have just told you the hidden reason: equality. There is no equality, so the next best thing is inferiority. If you want to feel pretty, socialize with people who are less attractive. It is that easy. If you want to feel clever, socialize with people who are less clever. Problem solved. Instant happiness and self-regard, without the need for any real achievement, any real introspection, or any real personal progress. You can even feel happy and satisfied while backsliding into idiocy, since you will naturally seek the level of your companions. Soon you may become too stupid to hang with this crowd, and you will have to seek an even less clever bunch to stroke your ego.
People are taught that happiness and equality are the most important things, but since equality is a myth, they seek happiness. Believing in equality and seeking happiness means that you cannot socialize with people better than you are. People better than you are can only make you unhappy, since they destroy your myth and beat you at everything. Your unhappiness is magnified tenfold, since if you don’t beat them 50% of the time at 50% of things, you must believe it is because you are cursed. It is not because they have skills you don’t have, it is because the fates or gods have cursed you. You deserve equality, you are equal, and you still can’t win.
Modern mensen can countenance people more interesting or talented than them only on the TV or movie screen. Onscreen, these people seem like fictional characters, made of cardboard. They are no real threat, so their talents can be enjoyed. If anyone considers it at all, they conclude that these people onscreen are just the beneficiaries of make-up and lighting and screenwriters. They think, “If I had a crew I could be just as interesting as they are.”
This explains the famous depressions of onscreen people. No one has ever explained why someone like Matthew Perry or Jennifer Aniston should get depressed, much less why they should end up at Betty Ford. How could a great looking guy like Heath Ledger, with money and fame and talent and girls by the dozen end up taking every pill in the book? What need had he of anti-depressants and sleeping pills and so on? We never get as much as a theory. Heath was a victim of the fundamental theorem. We will let people be unequal onscreen, but not off. Unfortunately, Heath and Matt and Jennifer have to live most of their lives offscreen. Offscreen, talents just make people feel small. In real-life situations, no one really wants you to be funny or clever or smart or pretty. What they love you for onscreen, they hate you for offscreen. It is one thing to watch a talented person onscreen and another to live with a talented person offscreen. Listening to Frank Sinatra sing a song on the radio once a week may have been a treat. Listening to him sing those songs everyday was a pain. “Quit showing off, Frank, and come to dinner, you bastard!”
In the modern world, no one really wants to be inconvenienced with the existence of talented people, except as televised freak shows. As long as they are actors, pretending to be someone else, we can stomach them. But as themselves, they can only be monsters, throwbacks to another era. These monsters can socialize with and marry one another, but no one else wants anything to do with them.
That is also why we cannot let our visual artists exhibit any real talents. We prefer fakes and phonies who exhibit piles of nothings as art. This is because these people are not actors. They are not being someone else, some cardboard fictional character; they are offered to us as themselves. As such, we expect them to be equals. They must display very average talents, if any. Only in this way can we allow them to enter the gallery; only in this way can we allow their constructions into our homes and museums.
Only dead artists break this rule. A dead artist is like a Hollywood actor: he is like a fictional character, someone we know from a book. Leonardo is interesting at a great distance, like a storybook hero. But what modern person would want to live a day with Leonardo? He would make a modern person feel like a mouse. Who would really want to watch him paint or sculpt or play the lute? A modern person could not enjoy it: he would spend the whole time asking, “Why can’t I play like that, why can’t I paint like that, it isn’t fair!” After five minutes he must rush out to grab a Campbell’s soup can, to sooth his soul.
This must seem like an unsolvable dilemma, since most modern people will think it is a necessary evil of life. They can’t see the way out of this vicious circle. But it is solvable in a minute. It is solved by jettisoning the false postulates. It is solved by discovering reason.
People are not equal and the point of life is not happiness. The problem is being told that these are fundamentals when they are not. The problem is being told they are true when they are not. I have already exploded equality, but happiness is just as airy. Happiness is not an end, it is an by-product. You cannot seek it for itself, since it is not an action or a course of action. To be happy, you must do something tangible, something important. Doing that thing full well may make you happy. Therefore you should seek to do some important thing.
The self-help book and the modern person will not put it these terms, since an important action takes long effort. You cannot achieve an important action by desiring it or willing it or telling yourself you deserve it. You actually have to work hard over an extended period. During this period you may suffer. In fact, it may be that suffering is required for all important action. Happiness may come only at the end, and it may not come even then. Those who really achieve things understand this, but it does not stop them. Exceptional people, when they achieve exceptional things, do so because they ignore suffering, or perhaps even embrace it. Regardless, they do not flee it.
People who seek happiness seek to avoid suffering, and they think this is no more than common sense. But in avoiding suffering, they avoid reality, real work, complexity, and depth. What most readers of self-help books need is self-regard, not happiness. Self-regard is a satisfaction beyond happiness, since you can have self-regard even when you are miserable. But the average readers cannot comprehend this. It is beyond their comprehension. They do not want to comprehend it, and would not buy a book that told it them.
You will find a few books in history that mention suffering, but even these often lead off into a bog. Readers cannot take sense even from a sensible sentence, and if they come to recognize suffering, they tend to embrace it by seeking it out for its own sake. An entire subcategory of Christianity does this, as does an important stream of philosophy. These average (and not-so-average) readers interpret suffering as conferring an automatic depth, when it does nothing of the sort. Suffering, like happiness, is a by-product. I did not advise that it be sought out above, since it is not an end. I advised that it not be avoided. The wise do what is necessary in their work and on their path, with no concern for suffering or happiness. Both suffering and happiness are incidental and often accidental. They are not predictable; may be unavoidable. You cannot seek them and should not seek them. Seeking suffering is morbid; seeking happiness is feckless. You should seek to do good work, no matter the immediate outcome. You should do it with praise or with no praise, with money or no money, with happiness or suffering. If you do you will have self-regard. In misery and ecstasy both, you will be secure in your work. You will not suffer from insecurity, from inferiority or superiority, and so you will not need a self-help book.
To show you how new the idea of equality is, let us look at a few examples. I start with the well-known prose poem or song called Desiderata. This song was written in 1927, by a Christian. It has some earmarks of the modern self-help era, with lines like “Strive to be happy.” I will return to that in a moment. But one conspicuous line advises, “Do not compare yourself to others, or you will become vain and bitter. Always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” It is this advice I want to analyze for a moment.
Equality is now thought to be a cohort of Christianity, since Christianity has been seen, in part, as a rise of the lower classes, a rise of the meek. Christianity was aimed at and preached to the lower classes from the beginning. But, as I have already shown, the actual Christian doctrine is heavy with hierarchies and judgments based on difference in worth. This Christian writer in Baltimore in the 1920’s understood that implicitly, as did all the hippies and Christians and new-agers who made Desiderata so popular in the 60’s and 70’s. They did not throw the poem in the bin after reading that line. They accepted it as a matter of course. Desiderata has been purged of any idea of damnation for people who are lesser in the eyes of a judging God, sifting the wheat from the chaff; but it retains, as a sort of commonsense warning, this idea of greater and lesser persons. It is as if to say, “Greater and lesser persons than you exist—get used to the idea—it is a thing like darkness and light, and cannot be argued away or wished away.”
This advice is well-stated, but its is nonetheless couched in an illogical sentence. The illogic of Desiderata is that it accepts greatness and inequality as a fact of nature, but then advises you to do something impossible. “Do not compare yourself to others.” Who can achieve that? Similar advice would be, “Do not notice that other people are beautiful. This will cause longing. Do not notice that the sun is warm. This will cause you to feel colder at night. Do not notice that sex feels good. This will cause you to want more of it.” We can’t help but compare ourselves to others, just as we can’t help but judge each other and the various events of our lives. It is ridiculous to forbid or advise against such things. What the writer should have said is that comparing yourself to others, without a firm sense of self, may make you vain and bitter. So stick to your road. In time you may be like those greater people, and be passing the points they are now passing. And those lesser people may also advance at their own rate. You will only become vain and bitter if you demand immediate satisfaction and immediate gratification. That is, if you demand equality of achievement. It is not greater and lesser persons that threaten your stability, it is your own misconception of equality that does that. Vanity and bitterness are not caused by judging but by misjudging. Vanity and bitterness are caused by thinking you have a right to position and esteem and respect without earning them.
Now let us return to the advice about happiness. “Strive to be happy.” Good advice? No. It isn’t logical, much less moral. How would one go about striving to be happy? Happiness is not an action you can complete or a thought you can think or a thing you can buy or hold. Similar advice would be, “Strive for blueness!” How do I do that?—with my arms or legs? Do I will it with my left brain or my right brain, with my eyes open or shut? The only possible way you could strive for happiness is by remembering those things that made you happy in the past, and doing more of them. Is that good advice? Maybe for a saint. But what about for the guy who likes beer and porn more than anything else? Should he strive to do nothing but drink beer and look at porn? You can’t strive for happiness, because happiness is not an achievement. It is an outcome of various actions, some of which can be called achievements and others which can’t. Is drinking beer an achievement? If greater achievements make you happy, then yes, strive for greater achievements. If getting drunk and fat and molesting small animals makes you happy, then don’t strive to be happy. Strive for self-control and new pursuits.
Which brings us to the final major hurdle to leap in destroying the fundamental theorem of modernity. I have shown that there can be no equality in the eyes of God, since it would be blasphemous to claim to look through the eyes of God, among many other reasons. But aren’t all people of value? Aren’t all people glorious? Aren’t all people created equal? Aren’t all people of some worth? Shouldn’t we try to see the best in people? All different questions, and I will get to them all.
Let us start with the least absolute formulations and work our way up. Shouldn’t we try to see the best in people? Yes. Pollyanna makes her point well, and we should certainly assume that there is the potential for goodness in people. But we should not be blind to facts in front of us. Just because there are no bad people in an old Disney movie does not mean there are no bad people in the world. We never get to see Pollyanna meet Dick Cheney, so we only see one side of the argument. And seeing the best in people has nothing to do with people being equal. You would not have to try so hard to find the good in people if some people did not hide it so well.
Aren’t all people of value? Yes. Of the same value? No. Are all people of some worth? Yes. Are all people of great worth? No. Some people are worth a lot to history, to themselves, and to those around them. Some are worth less. Some are worth very very little. And some could be said to have a negative value. Some people make everything and everyone around them worse. By the meaning of value and worth, they must have a negative value or worth. Once again I give you Dick Cheney. The man destroys, pollutes or murders everything he comes near. By any reckoning, he is far in the red.
In the same line, a famous song by Ray Stevens—still played at many devotional and spiritual events—tells us that, “Everything is beautiful, in its own way.” Another fantastic falsehood posing as inspiration. Is a tumor beautiful in its own way, Ray? How about a lake of radioactive waste? How about a forest destroyed by acid rain? How about a leg blown off by a landmine? How about a pelican floating a pool of crude oil? How about a field of dead soldiers, mowed down by friendly fire? Is that beautiful in its own way?
Aren’t all people glorious, at least as spiritual beings? I answer this with another question: “How can we imagine all people are equal when some people are stupid enough to ask this question?” Is Ted Bundy glorious, as a spiritual being? I don’t think I want to spend much time with anyone who says he is. They are likely to tell me all food is delicious, as spiritual food, and serve me rotten potatoes and cockroach pie. They are likely to tell me that necrophilia is glorious sex, as spiritual sex, and suggest we partake.
George Carlin commented on this in one of his last monologues. “Are all people special?” No, he said with some heat and much humor. The sentence is a contradiction. The person who says it simply doesn’t understand what special means. Special means different, in a good way. Basically it is a synonym of “better.” So the sentence becomes, “All people are better than all other people.” It is like Garrison Keillor’s joke about Minnesota, where all children are above average. The difference is, you don’t have many people saying, in all seriousness, that everyone’s child is above average. The contradiction has raised its head above ground. But you do have many normal people saying that all people are special. Apparently that sentence contains ideas that are just difficult enough to elude the full understanding of the modern person.
Aren’t all people created equal? No. Anyone who asks this hasn’t seen a lot of babies, or spent any time with toddlers. People are created as unequal as can be. Babies are born all sizes, with different levels of health. Some are beautiful, some are homely, some are sickly, some cry all the time, some laugh most of the time. But more important than all these differences is the difference in intelligence. Human beings have a greater range of intelligence than any other animal. We know that our IQ’s are higher than other animals, but it is rarely noticed that our IQ’s are also broader. Take another animal with very great physical variation: the dog. The difference in breeds is astonishing, from Chihuahuas to Wolfhounds. But the range in intelligence is comparatively small. Golden Retrievers are much smarter than Irish Setters, but the IQ difference is small. It is difficult to assign an IQ to a dog, but if we do it, the range is something like 40-50. A 10-point range, possibly a bit more, who knows? But with humans you have a normal range of around 80 to over 200, and that is not including the mentally retarded. That is to say, there is more difference between a person with an IQ of 200 and a person with an IQ of 80 than between the person with an IQ of 80 and a dog.
The IQ scale isn’t arithmetical, so we (probably) can’t say that there is more difference between the smart person and the dumb one than between the dumb one and a rock. And the IQ scale isn’t solidly understood or applied, so we can’t say anything for certain. But we can say that the mental difference between people is vast, and that it is astonishing. All laws and rules and customs are necessary precisely because of this astonishing difference. People are not equal in any way. They are not even nearly equal. They are so unequal it defies comprehension. It is like nothing else in the animal kingdom. No other species shows anything like the mental variation that humans do. You can take all species of primates together and not find the variation we have. Not including us, you would have to take almost the entire class of Mammals to find the variation in intelligence we have within our species.
A critic will say, “That is all fine and good, and may even be true, but we don’t judge worth by health or intelligence. Many intelligent people are worthless or harmful. What about your example of Dick Cheney? His IQ may not be 200, but it is fairly high. It is therefore possible to believe that people are very different intellectually, but nonetheless equal in a spiritual sense.”
Well, critic, you had me until the last sentence. Yes, it is true that we do not judge worth by intelligence or beauty or health, so strictly as a matter of logic we could believe in the inequality of brains and bodies and the equality of spirits. We could, except all evidence is against it. We do not know what God thinks of the matter, but we do know what people have always thought, and when people attempt to value one another in a spiritual sense, they never find equality. The Dalai Lama is not considered special because of his IQ or beauty, he is considered special because he is a representative of some higher plane. But he is special; he is not equal. He was reincarnated as himself due to certain actions in past lives: this is what the Buddhists believe. Therefore his “holiness” consists of some mixture of his achievements, in past lives as well as this one.
Jesus is also unequal, as are all his saints. Christians used to believe that the holiness of Jesus was predestined, and therefore mainly unearned. He was not special because he did special works here on earth, he was special from the get-go. Many Christians still believe this. But some believe Jesus is special and unequal because he lived a better life than anyone else. They therefore judge people “spiritually” by the life they lead. It does not have to be an intellectual life, but it must be a good one.
People who don’t believe in the holiness of Jesus or the Dalai Lama are not more likely to believe in spiritual equality, but less, since they don’t believe in a spirit. If they are materialists of some sort, they must believe in qualities that can be seen and measured. No one who has ever seen or measured anything can believe in equality, since no two snowflakes are the same, much less two people. Variation is the rule of life, not equality.
Modern people tend to hold many beliefs at the same time. Putting the materialists aside for the moment, since they are a small minority, we can say that the bulk of modern people believe that all people are equal spiritually and they believe that people who live better lives, in a moral sense, are better. These two beliefs are impossible to reconcile, obviously, but many or most people seem to hold them both. The second belief is trotted out in church or other moral situations, where they are trying to convince someone, or themselves, to do the right thing. The first belief takes the fore whenever they are in the presence of someone who is they feel is superior to them, and they are feeling inferior. They use the first belief as a fallback position, a security blanket and thumb to suck until the “holier” person leaves and quits oppressing them.
Now, I think it is clear that the difference in people’s lives is greater even than the difference in their intellects. This can be seen by materialists and spiritualists alike. One need not be religious to see that there are greater and lesser people. One need not use the words good and evil, or even good and bad. One need only notice the size, number, and quality of their accomplishments. Intellect often accompanies this difference, and causes it or magnifies it, but worth is not a matter of intelligence alone. It is not even a function of intelligence. One good Amish farmer is worth all the Senators in Washington, although he may not have the IQ of the least of them. The difference being that his work is necessary and well-done, while theirs is destructive, and done poorly. One good chef is worth ten phony New Haven academics, in that her job is useful and achieved with care, whereas theirs are useless or harmful, and achieved with malice or impudence.
No one really believes in an equality of souls, anymore than they believe in the equality of apples or the equality of pop music. What they assert when they claim to believe in equality is the hope that ignorant but well-intentioned people will not be punished too severely, in this life or in any afterlife, and in that at least they are probably right. They do not mean to exempt Ted Bundy or Dick Cheney from any justice or judgment, least of all their own. They only mean to exempt the vast middle section of the world, which is neither good nor bad, neither of great worth nor of no worth. This belief in equality is just to say that they will not look too closely at you if you do not look too closely at them.
That policy may avoid conflict, but it is otherwise useless. It is certainly no form of self-help, since those who have agreed not to look closely can hardly find any truth. Progress was never achieved, by person or society, by an avoidance of scrutiny. I might add to my list above the question, “Aren’t all people potentially good?” Possibly. All people certainly have the potential for growth, but only on the condition they work to achieve it. Avoidance of scrutiny and judgment, and claiming equality of achievement by right, is not the path to any sort of success, spiritual or otherwise.
In this way, the self-help book, propelled by the fundamental theorem, is actually a grand contradiction. The modern person is told he or she will become enlightened by recognizing the specialness of all people. If you unwind this and put it into a vocabulary that hasn't been muddled, it means that if you agree to say that all other people are wonderful, they will say you are wonderful. Once everyone says this, conflict will end and you will be happy. Enlightenment consists of 1) the recognition of equal "wonder" status, which confers on you instant transcendence, and 2) happiness, which is a sort of cosmic prize for your new transcendence. Unfortunately, all this is no more than bollocks. First of all, this transcendence is just a word. Saying that people are all wonderful doesn't allow you to transcend anything, except sense or logic. Second, happiness will not be conferred by saying something that is untrue. And even if it were, happiness was never the same as enlightenment. No real leader or guru was ever shallow enough to claim that it was. Those who have read beyond the Oprah Book Club know that none of the sages of history were stupid enough to confuse happiness with enlightenment. Seeking this sort of vulgarized path to transcendence and happiness can only prevent enlightenment, since the refusal to make judgments can only lead to stasis or rot. If you are already wonderful, what need have you to study or practice? If you can achieve transcendence from the Oprah Book Club, what need have you to read the real books of history, or to study the knowledge of the past?
In closing, let me look at one last formulation of the problem. One of my exes, upon discovering my disbelief in equality (and my lack of universal esteem), said, “Most people just don’t count for you, do they?” In order to add it to the list, we might rewrite it more generally as, “Do all people count, or count equally?” No, they don’t count equally. If they counted equally, I would have to send Son of Sam and George Bush and Michelle Malkin an invitation to every gathering I have. I would have to include Joey Buttafuoco every time I eat out. But do they count? Of course they count, in some way. They count as a big check, a little check, or a fat red X. Do they count as an equal second in my prayers, as an equal hug in my dreams, as an equal high-five on the street? No, of course not. Do I want to have sex with them all, equally? Do I hope to see them at the pub, equally? Would I vote for them all, equally? Dive in the water to save them, equally fast? Recommend them to Zeus or the alien overlords, equally? Hope to crash on an island with them, equally? No. Am I unusual in this, or unusually cruel? No.
But let us admit that my exe meant more than that. She meant that a large percentage of people, not just a few Ted Bundys and Dick Cheneys, did not hold much interest for me, socially. There were few that didn’t annoy me, even fewer that I respected. That is what she meant, and she was right. But it is less clear that this is a valid condemnation of me. Given that the vast majority of people now watch Oprah, read self-help books, or dabble in pastimes equally vapid and annoying, I can hardly be blamed for finding them annoying. If people will talk about canine shakras and Lindsay Lohan and Richard Gere and self-image workshops and nail sculptures and sharks in tanks and talking vaginas, they can hardly expect to be found fascinating. More than that, it is impossible to interest such people in real conversation. Any serious topic must fall flat; any real talent must be envied and frowned upon as insubordinate and impolite. Isaac Newton couldn’t get a word in edgewise at the modern gathering. Marco Polo would be sitting in the corner with a book or a map, waiting for the clock to strike twelve. Titian would retreat to the bedroom to play on the computer. I doubt that Van Cliburn is even asked for a song at the modern party. The revelers are too busy with the Tarot cards and the wet bar and the life of the Sims to bother with Debussy. Who needs Claude when they have Guitar Hero?
As a specific example of the new party, let me take you home with me. One of the biggest social events of the year here in Taos is called the Glam Trash Fashion Show. This show—now in its 8th year—is linked to an art show, but the fashion show is much more popular. Both shows showcase trash. The artworks must be made of garbage and the costumes must be made of garbage. Originally this had something to do with recycling and ecology, but for most viewers and participants that fact has long since been upstaged by the “avant garde” aspects of the thing. The makeshift catwalk (just a dirt path) is accompanied by a cohort of Bowery musicians, blatting and splatting on various old trombones, trumpets, and sousaphones, each blower doing his best to look and sound like Tom Waits on a bad day. To add to the spectacle, the models take the show very seriously, each one sidling by with a haughty look, as if she thought herself the real cat’s meow. It is clear by looking in the eyes of all involved that they think themselves part of some magnificent Duchampian parade. They have the air of Picasso or Cocteau backstage at the Ballet Russes or of Dali at a Montparnasse cafe. There is an announcer, very sure of his hipness, dressed as either Beavis or Butthead, we aren’t sure, with the precise up-to-the minute lazy lilt to his voice, trying to frenzify the motley crowd. “Isn’t this the coolest thing ever?!!” [actual quote]. Wild cheers. Amazingly, everyone in town is here, from child to grandma, and even more amazingly, they all seem genuinely entertained. So little happens in the modern town, in any given year, that people will now show up and cheer at a grass mowing or a beetle infestation.
But to be fair, it would require knowing a bit of history to take any offense at this show. The happy children can’t be blamed for smiling at all the colorful people, and most of the adults know no more than the children. The young people and beautiful people have turned out for the event, and even through the tattoos there is an energy and a beauty that exceeds an average day in the county. The problem I have with the event is that this is it, as far as Taos goes. This isn’t a one-day slumming-it. This is a true yardstick of the creative potential of the modern city, large or small. It isn’t a joke. It isn’t a farce, either. It might be funny and might be a farce, except that this truly is both the center and the high end of culture, here and everywhere else. Sure, they sell a few high-dollar realist paintings in Taos, and have a few nose-in-the-air shows with wine and cheese, but that is just commerce. This is art, in the eyes of the young and cool.
Many of these Taos artists will not know what I am talking about; they will be fairly innocent participants; but that doesn’t change anything. It is no accident that Glam Trash shows take place all over the Western World right now, and that they didn’t take place 100 years ago. The young people of Taos may or may not know what they are doing, but the action had its planning and the action has its consequences. History is no accident, and Modernism is not just a local party.
Equality is the poison at the bottom of this cup, too. Modern art is not about equal rights or equal opportunity or egalite. It is about equality of achievement. It is the denial of talent, the denial of exceptional work, and the denial of beauty. It is the cooption of the gallery and the museum by those with average ability, or less-than-average ability. Since average work appeals to average people, popularity becomes the measure, not quality. But with the avant garde it is even worse than that. Modern art, at the highest levels, is not even of average quality: it is purposely sub-par, purposely ill-conceived, ill-constructed, and ill-intended. It is a pile of bricks or a empty white canvas or a stenciled word or a jar of snot. It must therefore bastardize its audience even further. Equality as the fundamental theorem allows it to do this, since people are pre-set to a downward mobility. They cannot achieve equality, so they slide toward inferiority. It is not hard to look like an artist in a gallery of mucus and broken blenders and squashed highway cones. Likewise, it is not hard to look good in a sea of tattooed people, a confused modern people trying valiantly to look their prepackaged worst. It is difficult to tell who is the cleverest or the most attractive in that crowd, the veils are so heavy. Veils of tattoos and grunge and alcohol and pot smoke and baggy pants and black make-up and hair dye. And that of course is the point. The fundamental theorem forbids winners, and the dress codes and social mores now prevent losers. If everyone looks and acts like a complete loser, then there is no bottom of the pile. The pile is a mile wide and an inch deep, like everything else these days.
But aren’t people who believe in equality—or profess to—kinder people? Isn’t it mean to believe in greater and lesser people, especially in this day and age? Bah! Stuff and nonsense. In my experience, when you strip off the varnish, people who talk equality are not kinder in any way. In fact, they are often far less kind. The fundamental theorem may be a hidden virus for a lot of normal people; but, especially in the arts, it is used as a powerful tool of usurpation, purposefully and with full knowledge of its unfairness and unkindness. In the arts, equality is the shibboleth or catch-phrase that clears the path. It removes truly talented people from the field by categorizing them as aristocrats or elitists, freeing up the market for the non-talented. It would be like removing all the tall and fast people from basketball, so that short slow people could co-opt the salaries and advertising dollars. This won’t work in basketball, since people won’t pay to see such a thing, but it has worked quite well in art, where no mass audience is required. In art, all that is required is that the critics and advertisers fool a few hundred well-placed rich people. These rich people cow and bribe another few thousand hangers-on, and the market is complete and self-propelled. But there is no kindness in it. Would it be a kindness or a fairness to steal basketball from LeBron James and Tim Duncan and give it to Danny Devito and Ricky Gervais, in the name of equality? Would it be a kindness to steal pole vaulting from Yelena Isinbayeva and Steven Hooker and give it to Kelly Osborne and Gary Coleman, in the name of equality?
Even outside art, equality is no sign of kindness. “Everyday people” use equality everyday just like those in the arts use it: to avoid competition with greater people. First they use it as a psychological tool, upon themselves and upon the unsuspecting “people-of-talent” around them. They say, “Well, so-and-so may be better than me at everything, but I have more compassion. I am a nicer person, since I don’t beat people at things and make them feel small.” This policy actually works a great deal of the time. Many people-of-talent (P-o-T) have been smothered with this manufactured guilt, and they soon learn to succeed only in the closet. But equality is even more powerful as a tool of business than it is as a tool of psychology. What happened first in art has since migrated into a thousand fields of enterprise.
Even science has been polluted with equality. It is now considered immodest to question established science; to be “unequal” to the established opinion is verboten. Equality has killed freedom of thought. Science is more tightly controlled, from the middle out, than it has ever been, and the scientific method, which requires an open question, is all but dead. Peer review is usually seen as a logical way to jury, but it isn’t. To be juried by your peers is to be juried by your equals. But there are no equals, in science or anywhere else. Someone with a good idea has no peers, at least for the moment. He or she has the good idea and no one else has it. It is topsy-turvy to imagine that inferior thinkers can judge a superior thinker. The only jury that could hope to recognize good new ideas is a jury of the five greatest geniuses in the field. Every other jury is just going to be a wall, and even the five greatest geniuses may act as a wall. This is not just my opinion. Einstein also hated peer review. He simply stopped submitting to peer-reviewed journals. He couldn’t say, “Look, you fools aren’t my peers, so get out of my way.” Instead he was required to go around them, by publishing in books instead of journals.
The fundamental theorem is not a form of kindness or compassion, it is a form of what Nietzsche called ressentiment. Resentment. Envy. The veiled hatred of the second tier for the first. But it is no longer veiled. The attack upon talent in the arts could not be more clear or explicit. Exhibiting a can of excrement as art is not a subtle cue, is not a great puzzle. It should be clear by now that Modernism was never primarily a thumbing of the nose at rich people, though it may have been that, too. Modern art has been, fundamentally and categorically, a grand piss on talent and the talented, a century-long revenge of the non-talented upon Leonardo and Michelangelo and all the masters of history, as well as a current revenge on those alive now that can draw and paint and sculpt. Clement Greenberg, the greatest spokesman of Modernism, said it outright, mentioning Leonardo and Michelangelo by name. Duchamp said it, too, in print as well as with his mustache drawn on the Mona Lisa and other equally poignant pranks.
Is this a kindness? Is this a form of compassion? No, it is but another form of very bald propaganda. Hiding behind words like kindness and compassion and equality, the second tier, lusting after greater money and fame, co-opts field after field, beginning with art and ending who knows where. Don’t talk to me about kindness and compassion. The modern person has none of it. The Vandals and Visigoths likely had more true compassion than the Modern person. They certainly had less hypocrisy.
What a kindness it is indeed to see someone like Tracey Emin, looking like Marilyn Manson’s own bride, puking and puling to the camera, barely sober enough to speak, rich and famous from raping a field she stole from Titian and Rodin and Frida, talking about fairness and equality and democracy and progress. Yes, how truly blessed in our modernity we must feel, how grateful to the vagaries of history that we should live to be witness to Tracey Emin as artist. We could have been so unlucky and regressive and backwards as to have been alive for the unveiling of the David or the Rokeby Venus or the Raft of the Meduse, but no, we have been fortunate witness to the ultimate flowering of feminism and Plebeianism both, in the fantastic form of a bed littered with syringes and used condoms! How could we fail to feel the kindness and compassion of Modernism oozing from every soiled pillow and sheet, the egalitarian warmth enwrapping us, the wholesome coddling of the eternal female sating us like mother’s milk?
We hear a lot about kindness and fairness and compassion and progress, but I ask, “Has justice been done?” Have we passed a fair sentence, done a great good? In replacing Michelangelo with Tracey Emin, have we pleased any possible god? Can anyone but Tracey benefit? Yes, other equally disgusting people have benefited, but can feminism have benefited? Can the lower classes in the United Kingdom or anywhere else have benefited from her representing them and championing them? I don’t see how. From a greater height, how can art history have benefited in any way from this “pluralism”? How was art in need of egalitarianism or equality or equal time? How has it benefited? We needed more women in the arts, yes, but we were going to get that anyway, without debasing art. Frida and Georgia did not require that we turn art into a cesspool to include them. Civilization has benefited greatly from equal opportunity, equal rights, equal pay, and so on, and by replacing Feudalism or tyranny with Republicanism, but how exactly has art benefited from exponential vulgarity, from its own destruction? That is the question that is never answered. Cui bono? Who benefits?
Modernism likes to link itself to equal opportunity and equal rights, but according to the logic of Modernism, the first tier has had no rights. It is not necessary to have any compassion for the first tier or to show them any kindness or regard or fairness. People-of-talent, like the proverbial white males, are the darlings of nature, were the darlings of the past. Therefore they may be slandered and ignored and squeezed out of existence, with no qualms. The program of Modern Art says these things outright, with no apologies. People-of-talent do not have to be treated fairly. They can be excised from all MFA programs, and their exclusion can be written into the syllabus, with no hedging. If they sneak in, they can be told to leave, right to their faces. Equal opportunity is a myth within art. P-o-T have no equal opportunity. Likewise with major galleries and exhibitions. MOMA and the Whitney and the Guggenheim and Saatchi Gallery and le Beaubourg could not have a clearer policy if they shot all people-of-talent on sight, from fortified turrets on the facades of their buildings.
In defense of this policy, these institutions simply sing “equality, progress, fairness, kindness” like a silly parrot. Pluralism is supposed to be all-inclusive, by the definition of the word “plural”. That includes everyone but people-of-talent. P-o-T are not welcome. They must drink at a different fountain and sit at the back of the bus. Literally. P-o-T have been forced to open their own art schools, since they cannot get into “normal” MFA programs. They cannot school with the rest or exhibit with the rest or sell with the rest or advertise with the rest.
And what has this century-long exclusion of the first tier achieved, politically and artistically? It has achieved the ascendance of Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread and the Chapman Brothers and Bruce Nauman and so on. It has provided us with cans of excrement and lotto tickets as art. It has turned our museums and galleries into junkyards and dumps and toilets. It has replaced the barn dance and the ball with the Glam Trash fashion show and the rave. The taffeta gown has been replaced by the studded brassiere and fishnets, the white collar and greatcoat replaced by the wife-beater and ripped jeans. The Louvre has given way to the Pompidou, Dickens and Austen have given way to the X-men and the Vagina Monologues, Milton and Dante have given way to Eckhart Tolle and Dr. Phil, Walden has given way to Who Moved my Cheese?, Beethoven and Carolan have given way to Britney and Snoop Dogg. These are the fruits of equality, the outcome of the search for happiness, the results of self-help and an all-embracing compassion. What progress we have made indeed with our new ideas.
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