The title of this essay had been in my head for some time before I started writing it, and in an attempt to justify my procrastination, I decided to Google the phrase to see if anyone had already written out my thoughts. The results were surprising. Of the top ten, five were from Google Books, which is far from common even when searching for something far more academic or literary sounding than “why isn’t self-destruction immoral?” Two other results were from pop-psychology outlets, another was a confessional essay for Cracked.com, and a New York Times article from 1999 slipped in, as well. The tenth result was an Objectivist website, as in the philosophy of Ayn Rand. I cannot recall the last time a Google search came up with results so far from the mark. Unfortunately, this is very telling.
As a society, we do not see self-destruction as immoral. On the whole, self-destruction is viewed as a very neutral thing, just one status of many. But if it had to be categorized as positive or negative, we tend to categorize it as positive. Self-destruction is romantic when it’s alcoholic writers and drug-addicted artists. Other times it is novel, as with shopaholic housewives or hoarders. It can also be noble and compelling: a single mother who works three jobs and abuses amphetamines to get through her double shifts, or a cubicle rat who pops Xanax to try and forget the abuse he suffered as a child. All of these social types are viewed with a mix of pity (single mother and cubicle rat), awe (artist), and interest (housewife). But there are few among us who would call any of them “immoral,” or declare their actions “immoral.” Misguided, ill advised, foolish—but not immoral.
I think, too, of the dozens of friends and peers I grew up with who are now doing nothing with themselves. Like most groups of adolescents, we all thought we were going to make it big: directors, designers, drummers, etc. Obviously, it didn’t happen. But what happened instead blew my mind when I first realized it, and still blows my mind when I think on it. Nothing happened. Nothing at all. In late adolescence, I started to think most of us would die young from overdoses or drunk driving. But not even that happened. Instead, the hedonistic staticism became infinite. In a dozen years, not much has changed at all. Then, just as now, most of them work in the service industry or in jobs that pay you to be big and tough (e.g. construction, security, bouncing). Everyone still drinks way too much, though now that they’re all legal, many now do it in bars. Plenty still smoke marijuana every day. Everyone still indulges in cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, and psychedelic mushrooms periodically. When they are not at work, they are generally on drugs—much like how back in the day, when we were not at school, we were generally on drugs. In both cases, every so often the border between work and play gets violated. Perhaps the most noticeable change in habits is just that many of them “vape” now—and no one even knew what that was in 2008. But that’s just because of the astronomical rise in cigarettes prices since then.
As with most teenagers, we all defined ourselves largely by what music we listened to and what movies we liked. Now, they all define themselves more by what media they consume, a subtle difference. It’s a shift from solidarity to taste. When we were 17, we listened to the punk band Against Me! because we were like the punk band Against Me!. The band was composed of introspective, pissed off rebels, as was our group of friends. Now, they watch Game of Thrones because it’s a good show, and they’re the type to watch good shows.
Teendom comes with plenty of drama: who’s dating who, who’s fucking who, etc. That has not changed in the slightest. Well past their mid-twenties, no one is in a committed long-term relationship. There are still questions abuzz about who would still get invited to whatever party if whoever dumped them. This kind of drama was exciting in mid-adolescence. Today, I find it more boring than Agatha Christie novels.
And that’s all folks. Shitty jobs, lots of drugs, and enough drama to fill a high school yearbook. No one has died; everyone is just wasting away. A decade and a half of heavy drinking has started to wear on the youthful good looks everyone once had. The idle talk of making it big as a musician or a novelist has given way to eager chatter about this year’s tax returns or an upcoming visit to a state where cigarettes are cheaper. Most everyone in the group has had two or three big breakups by now, so even talk of love has lost its luster.
Some of this is just so much growing up. Very few people make it big in most anything, no matter how much they drink. No one retains their youthful glow into their late twenties. But things could have gone better for everyone, much better.
There’s no particular reason why all of these people work such shitty jobs, or live in filthy apartments, or get high day after day after day. Yes, the economy is not what it used to be, and the housing situation is a nightmare. But neither of those two things is keeping anyone from cleaning up after themselves or climbing one rung above waitressing or tearing movie tickets. The fact is, none of these people really want anything more. They might say so from time to time, but actions speak louder than words.
It is a strange realization. But even as legal adults, a lot of them have been at this for a decade now. When you’re a teenager, drugs and alcohol are one of the only ways you can express your discontent. You can’t legally move out or get an apartment. In most states, you can’t even drop out of school until you’re 18. And when you’re a teenager, the only jobs you can get are bad ones. Those are just the cards you’re dealt. Inertia pushes all of this along into your early twenties. Why anyone would keep along this path past that point is beyond me. Many of these people were my closest friends for years, and I still can’t make any sense of it. They don’t want to get married or have kids. They all either did not finish school, or got a degree in a useless field. They don’t want any kind of desk job. They just don’t want much. They want to get high and watch their favorite shows and listen to their favorite music, and that’s what they are doing. Plus, if you don’t care for marriage or children, what’s the consequence of a collection of broken hearts?
How unhappy they all really are is, of course, debatable. But I doubt that if an impartial outsider watched them all for a week, he’d describe them as a “chipper” or “optimistic” bunch. One of them, Paul, is one of the least happy people I have ever known. It comes out when he gets incredibly drunk. He talks about how life has no meaning and how he can find no meaning in life. I’ve seen him put out lit cigarettes on his bare skin to prove to everyone around him that he doesn’t care about anything. One time we were walking along a busy street together, drunk, and he talked at length about how badly he wanted to jump in front of one of the cars and die, but was too scared to do so. Everyone knows that Paul gets this way from time to time, he’s been this way for years. I remember when I met him. He was 15 and I was 14. How disgusted he was to learn that I didn’t really read books. He gave me his copy of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday to encourage me to change my ways. I wish this were all made up.
And none of this matters much. Both inside this group and outside of it, very few people see any of this as a problem. At least, no one of any consequence sees it as a problem. Sure, Christian evangelists would find plenty to criticize—but who cares? What cultural power do they have? The same goes for many generic pre-1960s American archetypes: small business owners, military men, hard-working family men, humble farmers, etc. Each and every one would be disgusted and outraged by the lifestyles of all these people—but none of their opinions matter. Who cares what any of those people think? Meanwhile, everyone who does count, who does hold cultural or intellectual influence, is totally ambivalent about it.
From Matt Yglesias to Bhaskar Sunkara, from Rachel Maddow to the crew at Chapo Trap House, from Kanye West to Mac DeMarco, from the producers at HBO to the editors at Paris Review. To everyone in power, wasting away is just another lifestyle choice. The Left, and our culture at large, is often mischaracterized as being relativist. This is not true, as the Left has a great many shibboleths (racism, sexism, etc.), but what is the case is that outside those shibboleths, everything is fairly relativistic. My old friends hold no discriminatory or dissident views. They are certainly not religious or lovers of foreign military interventions. And with that, they get a free pass for most anything else. Yes, they have decided to slowly kill themselves and work jobs suited for people with half their talent, and yes, they are unhappy. Yes, you could make the argument that many of them have been depressed their whole lives. Yes, they live lives strangely absent of goals, with no real telos. But hey, they believe in equality, hate the GOP, and know they’re too good for organized religion—so whatever.
In today’s intellectual and cultural climate, choosing nothing is okay. In Japan, it is okay to choose a virtual girlfriend, so you can feel less lonely being alone. Here in America, you can choose to smoke weed every day, work a job meant for teenagers, and wait to die, and that’s okay, too. On the whole, the “system,” or perhaps better put: the moral atmosphere we all breathe in, does not care if you live your life like a zombie. No pressure will be put on you to be better. Since none of these people made it as artists, nor are they single mothers, or housewives, their self-destruction is not seen as pitiable, awe-inspiring, or even interesting. It just is. Different strokes for different folks.
What does make you immoral, make you a pariah, is to see difference. To value yourself and those like you more than outsiders is wrong. Wishing for your nation to prosper above all others–that is an unethical desire. Knowing that your neighborhood will change for the worse if it’s impacted by certain demographic changes is a thought reserved for only the lowest of the low.
I have always known this on some level, but the point has been driven home lately. Word has spread about what I was up to when I was away in Washington, D.C. There are even whispers about me “writing racist things on the internet.” I hide what I think less these days, so confrontations with these ghosts from my old life have not gone as the ghosts had thought. The result being that, by and large, I have been told to keep away. My invitation to eat lotus with them has been rescinded. They have decided that I am bad. They know that I am bad, as many, many people online and on TV have told them that people like me are bad. Paul, the self-harming drunken nihilist, is especially disgusted by my immoral perspectives. He was all fire and brimstone when he confronted me about it.
It is strange because of how undramatic it ended up being. It doesn’t really matter because I’d already left. Drinking for hours while watching Rob Zombie movies isn’t something I do anymore, and it hasn’t been for years. Granted, I wish my exit from the crew had been slower and on my terms. It does hurt on some level. Most of these people meant a lot to me not so long ago, but we have been worlds apart for years now, and we were clearly never going to circle back around to each other again. The tragedy is not the end of the relationship. The tragedy is still just their lives, irrespective of me. One day, I wonder, will all the energy now put into condemning “people like me,” be put into trying to save people like them? Gregory Hood has joked before that we will know we’ve won when people like him and I are executed as leftists by the very movement we helped launch. I think I’ll know we’ve won not only when self-preservation starts being viewed as moral, but when self-destruction becomes immoral.