I really wanted to link to this Jacobite article (via Left Conservative which I’m pretty sure is @bambamramfan?) with the description “This article explains why IKEA is awesome, as a metaphor for why liberalism is great.”
Rather, they have no concept of foreignness at all, because they have no native traditions against which to compare. Indeed, the very idea of a life shaped by inherited custom is alien to our young couple. When Jennifer and Jason try to choose a restaurant for dinner, one of them invariably complains, “I don’t want Italian, because I had Italian last night.” It does not occur to them that in Italy, most people have Italian every night. For Jennifer and Jason, cuisines, musical styles, meditative practices, and other long-developed customs are not threads in a comprehensive or enduring way of life, but accessories like cheap sunglasses, to be casually picked up and discarded from day to day. Unmoored, undefined, and unaware of any other way of being…
Like, isn’t that obviously the goal and the good life?
But he said too many things I substantively disagree with for that joke to land comfortably, especially in the second half. Including the next part of that quote! “Unmoored, undefined, and unaware of any other way of being, Jennifer and Jason are no one.” But the great thing about unmooring is that it allows you to recreate yourself, as you wish yourself. It makes you someone much more thoroughly than slotting into a pre-existing community would.
Basically, this bit is utterly baffling to me:
If one is not attached to a way of life structured by inherited values and customs, then one is unlikely to be attached to anything at all. Jennifer and Jason illustrate this: life choices follow arbitrary taste, friends come and go, ties with family are thin, and superficial interactions (largely online) with peers fill the gap.
The fact that my values and relationships aren’t inherited doesn’t have to make them shallow.
…it is not especially difficult to square this circle.
Short-short-short version: it’s much better to be a real self-created person with a real unique identity than to be a prefab generic traditional-model person, but it’s also much better to be a prefab generic traditional-model person than to be Jennifer/Jason. And, at this stage in our cultural development, it’s not wrong to recognize that the world contains a lot more Jennifers and Jasons than real self-created persons.
Which is to say –
Constructing yourself takes work. It takes work to go out and comb through a whole bunch of possible self-bits (interests styles philosophies mannerisms books movies etc.), so that when you’re trying to figure out what you want to take up into yourself, you have a reasonably-sized array of things from which to choose. It takes work to reject the conformist identity pressures, both great and subtle, being imposed by everyone around you – and to keep on rejecting them, over and over and over. It takes work to keep on investing in things even when they’re not immediately rewarding. It takes work to say I AM FOO AND NOT BAR to a world that is almost certainly indifferent, and quite probably hostile, to such choices.
Certain people do that work instinctively, usually because they started doing it at a very young age, which is usually because they kind of had to. When you’re more interested in things than in social acceptance / social status, of course you’re going spend your time and effort checking out a whole bunch of things. When it’s forcibly made clear to you that you’re Not Like Everyone Else, it’s an obvious next step to go and think about what you are like. If you’re reading this, the odds are pretty good that you are such a person, and you can take comfort in knowing that this silly IKEA article is not about you. Yay, weirdo pride, rah rah sis-boom-bah.
But it doesn’t actually work that way for most people, most of the time.
Most people aren’t pushed into forging identities for themselves, either by circumstance (which does it only for a few oddballs) or by culture (which at this point doesn’t do it for anyone). They adopt whatever’s lying around. They follow the lead of the people they see surrounding them; they walk the path of least resistance, which is usually some kind of general-purpose life behavior script; they adopt the prevailing values, and try to live up to the prevailing standards (because acceptance! and status!).
The nice thing about traditional communities with well-defined norms is that they allow this strategy to work, mostly. There’s actually a script for you to follow, and if you follow it, you get rewarded and you fit in. You won’t blaze like a star or anything, and maybe there’ll be some strange inchoate yearnings deep in your soul that never get answered, but…if you can keep on the straight and narrow (whatever the local version of that may be), you’ll be more or less fine. People will look upon you with respect and approval. You will be given the satisfaction of knowing that you did a Good Job. Even stupid things like “we eat This Dish all the fucking time because it is Our Dish, goddammit” can be sources of identity and pride. After all – you’re one of Us, right?
Anomic liberal bourgeois society got rid of the scripts, but didn’t actually teach people how to replace them with properly-crafted individual identities. So instead you get…Jennifer and Jason.
They haven’t been trained to do the self-construction thing that weirdos have been doing since early childhood. (Sometimes they try it out, in desperation or just on a lark, but usually they find that it feels ridiculous and affected. Why am I going through this phase like a teenager, trying to care about this arbitrary thing? So it doesn’t stick.) They’re expecting to take their cues from everyone else. So they watch everyone else, but because there’s no widely-accepted vision of the Good Life in which to ground themselves, all they see is –
– fads. Fashions. Petty status competitions and virtue-signaling. Punishment for doing the wrong thing, for being uncool or unaware, but never any real reward for doing the right thing because there is no right thing.
So they try their hardest to be cool and aware, and they watch the TV shows that everyone they know is watching and they parrot the political opinions that everyone they know is parroting, and surprise! they are wretched, empty, unhappy people.
You had me until the last line. How is parroting other people’s political opinions and cultural consumption in our society any worse than parroting people’s political opinions and cultural consumption in a traditional society? When a medieval Christian believes that Jesus Is Lord, reads Pilgrim’s Progress, and has a traditional Byzantine icon in his house - how is that interestingly different from or better than all the people who believe that Black Lives Matter, watch John Oliver, and have Ikea furniture?