The Political e-Celeb Menace

It’s no surprise that popularity breeds contempt, often from complete nobodies.  Envy is commonly assumed to be the primary driver of this contempt, and all too often, that seems to check out.  But that isn’t always the case.  All forms of popularity are not created equal—a Hollywood actor’s popularity is almost entirely arbitrary, and contempt for his face appearing on billboards across the nation could stem from the enviousness of countless other men failing to be in the right place at the right time and loaded up with the right connections like he was, or it could stem from countless tabloid-published moral failings as Hollywood pretends to operate according to the same moral compass that drives the sane segment of humanity.

But take a more recent form of popularity that’s come to rise: the public intellectual.  Public intellectuals as a class are hardly recent, but the contemporary phenomenon of internet e-celebrities—some of whom still go primarily by the screenname or user handle that got them famous—differs in a number of ways from the sort of public intellectual that could have been encountered in, say, nineteenth century Copenhagen or the public forum of ancient Athens.  For one thing, there are a lot more of them.  And for another, they are, for the most part, a lot younger.  Maybe a more apt name would be the public pseud.

It’s extremely easy to begin churning out content as a public pseud.  You just need access to the internet, a webcam (which even cheap laptops come packaged with today), and the most basic of audio and video editing software.  Contrary to common sense, you don’t really need to have anything to say.  Instead, it seems to work out fine if you follow enough of these other commentators to regurgitate the most popular talking points of whatever side of any given debate you’re willing to platform with.   It’s simply a matter of faking it until you make it—like a lot in life.  From there, of course, you almost naturally find an audience merely by staying consistent with your schedule and active on social media.

But the ease of startup doesn’t explain why it’s taken off as a viable cottage industry.  With mainstream entertainment having been almost entirely coopted by this neo-“left wing” platform dominated by SJWs, it could be reasonably argued that the newest group of content consumers is looking for alternative means of entertainment.  And this explains, to some degree, the prevalence of Lets Plays, e-sports, and comedy streamers.  But the public pseud phenomenon points at something deeper: a play at intellectualism that lacks all the traditional merits that used to legitimize it.

The popular side of the New Atheist movement, later rebranded as the skeptic community, displays this sort of pseud mentality in spades.  While most have moved on from their far more cringe days of literal fedora-wearing Dawkins- and Harris-regurgitators, their overall approach remains stranded in this no-man’s land of pop-science, ideology, and liberal political centrism.  The idea seems to be that since anyone can read a book, and since anyone can start a channel, anyone can do the sort of research that pits amateurs against the likes of tenured professors.  Given the state of contemporary academic discourse and research, they might not be all that wrong—but remember, you’re still getting what you pay for, and all of these sorts of channels are free.

That said, of course, there are still means of research available basically only to students and professors working inside the academy; the majority of accepted research exists behind exorbitantly-priced paywalls that academics tend to have access to simply by virtue of being academics.  The actual state of that contemporary academic research, on the other hand, is a topic for another time.

The years after GamerGate saw a spike in the presence of the internet pseud, likely due to the fact that GamerGate had awoken in tech-savvy millennials the recognition that SJWs weren’t simply going to go away and leave them alone.  Your average pseud quickly hopped from either the world of game reviews or the world of skeptic-like internet pop science into the world of political commentary—either explicitly, in the form of reading off news headlines and filming their reactions to it, or implicitly, by railing against communism, capitalism, the Frankfurt School, or whatever.  After a few years of this, it isn’t a surprise that some began to see a clear line of progression from creating seemingly informative videos on political philosophy to real-life activism and direct political involvement, oblivious, apparently, to the somewhat embarrassing idea that their IRL platform would include their background as an internet YouTuber.

What’s happened to this sector of entertainment is the same thing that happened to late-night television about ten years ago.  Politics, which has always had a very high large element of entertainment and circus to it in the liberal-democratic system imposed by the Founding Fathers, became entirely subsumed by the media industrial complex.  This spread under the pretenses of intelligent content—see the line of progression, for instance, from the early Colbert Report, an obviously farcical show poking fun at the newsroom, to Late Night with Steven Colbert, a show so far up its host’s ass that it can’t seem to figure out left from right.  Political commentary is something allegedly smart people allegedly do, and the smarminess of the mainstream media figures illustrates this in spades.

Contrary to forming an internet counter-culture, the internet pseud community unwittingly plays along.  Politics remains a form of entertainment that they use as a stepping stone to mild popularity, but they’re operating with the same principles of entertainment in mind—i.e. maintaining ignorance as to the fact that politics is a form of entertainment in the first place.  One could try to argue that greater political activism creates better citizens, even if it’s only in the form of amateur attempts to educate viewers on political theory, but that ignores the reality: more informed citizens in the contemporary political field have near-zero impact on the government or its actions.  The best that citizen activism can lead to is some petition heckling to get a few line items removed or added to the local budget.  It isn’t going to prevent a war or solve the welfare crisis, and no number of YouTube videos can change that.

The pseud phenomenon misses all of this because everyone that falls into pseud-dom lacks all self-awareness.  It uses the same platform occupied by speed-running Lets Plays, make-up tutorials, and the dreaded hundred-million view cat videos.  The sort of person that expects meaningful impact from this sort of starting point is almost as self-important and delusional as the sort of person who consumes the content hoping to make a difference.  And this isn’t nihilism, either; it’s calling out egoism, pure and simple.  The same egoism that goes into being a self-professed skeptic finds its fulfilment in the post-GamerGate internet political scene.  It’s the only place for it to go.

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