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The Ferality Show


Left, Barack Obama in the Oval Office, June 24, 2009; right, George W. Bush, December 18, 2005.  

In place of the culture wars of the nineties, the aughts saw a series of skirmishes between fact- and faith-based understandings of reality. The wave of schools discarding Darwinism for “intelligent design” reached a high-water mark mid-decade, before a federal judge ruled in late 2005 that a school system in Dover, Pennsylvania, which had adopted a curriculum taking “a more balanced approach to teaching evolution,” was acting unconstitutionally. Pennsylvania’s Republican senator Rick Santorum, who had previously supported the Dover school district’s decision to teach the “controversy of evolution,” quickly adjusting his stance Bill Clinton style before being handily bundled off the stage by Bob Casey (59 to 41 percent) the next year. Even so, then-candidate Barack Obama felt the need during the 2008 campaign to address intelligent design, and the need to trust “worldly knowledge and science.” It seemed brave, somehow, but the Obama ascendancy, at least for a moment, had appeared to mark a return to reality-based discourse.

But the center here as elsewhere could not hold. As the Obama administration sagged from dreamy possibility to dreary reality, and unemployment ticked past 10 percent, the ostensibly spontaneous “tea parties” and the borderline-menacing attacks on politicians who advocated the “public option” for health care began seeming less like wingnuttery and more like standard operating procedure in a media age that lacks a central authority to referee reality. The “birther” movement, with its obvious parallels to the truthers, continued through 2009 to insist that Obama was not a natural-born American citizen, undeterred by abundant evidence to the contrary. The birthers clearly weren’t operating in a vacuum. A July poll showing only 42 percent of Republicans believed the president was born in the United States would have been suspect, being that it was commissioned by the Daily Kos, except that other polls showed the same.

In place of the culture wars of the nineties, the aughts saw a series of skirmishes between fact- and faith-based understandings of reality.

The hopped-up controversy dovetailed nicely for the anti-immigration Lou Dobbs. He stoked the flames nightly, adopting his own brand of “fair and balanced” reverse constructions to continue to simply “ask questions” about Obama’s status. Now, freed from the nominal constraints of his CNN bosses, Dobbs is likely to become even more alarming, inching ever closer to Father Coughlin territory. So is the ever loopier and more popular Glenn Beck, a bipolar Howard Beale who is making vague and threatening noises about unleashing his foot soldiers on … whom exactly? Clearly, Palin wasn’t the only one going rogue.

Certainly, establishment players in New York, Los Angeles, and D.C. were providing the populists plenty of fodder. Formerly old-reliable Wall Street firms, stretched to keep up with upstart hedge funds that bet the deregulated casino economy, overpaid key players so much that the institutions ultimately seemed subservient to their star employees. Even as Citigroup flirted with bankruptcy earlier this year, star energy trader Andrew Hall, whose secretive unit was run from his farm in Connecticut, insisted he receive the $100 million in income he was contractually owed. And when Lehman Brothers went under in 2008 and giant firms like AIG were bailed out by the federal government, individual investors made billions shorting the financial meltdown. Contrarian hedge-funder John Paulson famously netted $15 billion betting against the British banking system and the U.S. real-estate market. When brands of one were outmaneuvering bigger, slower institutions, who needed institutions?

“We are all corner hustlers in a new economic environment,” Robert Greene writes in his new best-selling book with 50 Cent, The 50th Law, which extols an ethic of hyper-self-reliance and an abhorrence of all authority. Greene, a bookish 50-year-old onetime freelance writer, emerged on the scene at the start of the decade when his book, The 48 Laws of Power, became an Ur-text for aughts hip-hop and for hustlers everywhere. The 48 Laws, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies virtually, without mainstream notice, anticipated not only the coming economic chaos but also the opportunities that would be thrown up by the digital revolution. Self-reliance and free-form opportunism were in, credentialism and old-fashioned ladder-climbing out.

The major spoils of the new digital economy went largely to self-starting individuals, even if they were often funded by the well-established venture funds lining Sand Hill Road. Mark Zuckerberg, the 25-year-old founder of Facebook, may have gone to Harvard, but Harvard certainly didn’t teach him the hustle needed to outsmart his classmates, some of whom later accused him of stealing their idea for a business now said to be worth $10 billion. That neither Facebook nor Twitter may be real businesses is beside the point. The hustlers keep coming from places you least expect, upsetting and disintermediating whatever came before: MySpace trumped Friendster, Facebook trumped MySpace, Twitter may trump Facebook, something will trump Twitter, which after all is just a fresh way of distributing IMs. The apps revolutions unleashed first by Facebook and then by Apple’s decision to open-source much of their iPhone code, created millions of new entrepreneurs and entire new industries. As has the boom in virtual currency. They are cause and symptom of an ever-widening and faster-spinning gyre.

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