“The left can’t meme.” This statement is itself a meme, (a meme is vast, its superficial expression may indicate a host of secondary discourse: see for example the 4chan classic “Milhouse is not a meme”, is not only a meme, but a meme that precipitates a call-and-response discussion of what constitutes a meme, and of the boundaries of memehood, (and this discussion is also a meme; either the same one, or at least a sibling, a piece of a set))
And as per “The left cannot meme,” we are obligated to point out that this statement defines “meme” too narrowly, as merely a funny image with a caption. The joke is that when “the left” tries to meme, they create wordy facsimiles of “authentic” “right wing” memes, and for this reason they fail to spread or connect emotionally with their audience. But in the broader sense, a meme is a unit of behavior, perhaps a unit of thought, which spreads as people imitate each other. The domain where the left fails is only a tiny subspace of the domain under contention.
Behavior is mimetic; we learn by copying others, and this extends far beyond words or ideas. It touches our mannerisms, our intonations, our attitudes towards each other, and towards the past and the future. The logic of the meme is to be infectious; once you are exposed to a new behavior you may find it difficult not to manifest it yourself. A single argument will recur a thousand times across a thousand people, each time substantially the same. Presently, the kind of meme at which the right excels is the meme of the underdog; the cynical quip that exposes a contradiction in the ascendant ideology.
In (rapidly fading) recent memory, irony and speaking truth to power were the established purview of the left, and their total cultural ascension in the past decade has been a disaster for the John Stewarts and Steven Colberts of this world, whose entire comedic script consists of mocking the inevitable contradictions in the actions of their social superiors.
If your side is “good at memes,” it means that you hold minimal social power. A political formula will always contain—and elide—internal contradictions. The special dispensation of the culturally effete is to exploit these contradictions in order to crack a lewd joke at the expense of their rulers.
In fact, the left is exceptional at producing memes, so good that their memes don’t even scan as memes, but as “culture” — and this is the end game for any memesmith: to transcend labels and pass into the realm of the nameless. What is nameless is default, implicit, unchallenged and indispensable. Those on the left who are capable of meme-ing are not confined to anonymous social media ghettos: they get jobs at production companies and make the media that shapes the social and mental lives of millions.
This is not an exaggeration. We have all had the experience of friends and coworkers quoting out dialog from popular television shows, adorning themselves in their slogans, and deriving personal meaning and identity from the themes and narratives there explored. To critically read culture at this level of saturation is to descend into a paranoia of signifiers; the default status of implicit culture gives all participants a plausible deniability. As ever, true sovereignty is the power to choose the null hypothesis, which is to say, the default.
The Good Place
In light of all that, I watched all fifty-three episodes of NBC’s critically acclaimed prime-time television show The Good Place, created by left wing memer par execellence Michael Schur, producer and writer for that fixture of pop culture, The Office, as well as Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine Nine.
The Good Place (shall I give you the bugman prayer to ward away evil: spoiler alert?) is replete with all of Michael Schur’s signature jokes and tropes, in which he marries an extremely online sensibility to zany SNL-style topical absurdities. Characters namedrop other shows, actors, and musicians and the common joke is, “haha, pop culture with lateral awareness”. But despite this, the show achieves many truly funny moments while exploring philosophical themes in a way that is accessible to an audience that hasn’t opened a book since high school.
The show is as worthy of your attention as any prime time television (i.e., not in the slightest), but it does bear more consideration than others, if only because it tries to treat of religion and philosophy explicitly in a time when those things are delivered mainly through the unspoken assumptions that permeate mass media. Yet even here, there is more latent philosophy in the casting of the show than it its exposition and dialog.
Mystics speak of exo- and eso-teric traditions, which Sufi muslims call zahir and bāṭin, the world of forms and appearances, and the world of inner or hidden meaning, respectively. The Zahir of the Good Place is a bland universalist meditation on morality and existence, but the specific moral payload of the show—the Bāṭin—is distinct, a perfect synecdoche of the wider moral topology of progressive society.
In the opening scene of The Good Place, Michael played by an aged Ted Danson dressed like a TED talk welcomes Eleanor (Kristen Bell, her face bloated and shoggothic with dermal fillers) into a comfortable office, and tells her that she has died, and that in the after life, there is a Good Place and a Bad Place. “Don’t worry, Eleanor,” he says, “You’re in the Good Place.” This childish descriptor is funny because everyone knows that the idea of heaven and hell is uncomfortable.
Schur is a modern, progressive man, and he has stated in interviews that although he had originally tried to research comparative religions to build the world of the Good Place, he ultimately decided to strip it of any religious iconography or symbolism, and to maintain a focus on ethics. We have no reason to doubt that Schur is speaking from the heart in his presentation of the metaphysics of good and evil as he understands them.
The afterlife of The Good Place is a “non-denominational, interfaith” paradise, wherein humans have their every material whim satisfied instantly for them. Mortal life is a test, in which every action has a numerical moral weight. Helping a stranger with no expectation of reciprocation is worth positive points. Lying and cheating are worth negative points, and so on. At the moment of your death, if the point total is positive, you go to the good place, and if it is negative, you go to the bad place, where you are tortured by demons forever.
There is something of the Christian or post-Christian in this, as well Judaic influences from Schur’s own life, no doubt, though what is conspicuously absent is any sense of a possibility of atonement or forgiveness. In Judaism, the adherent makes sacrifices to God in order to atone for sins, and in Christianity, Jesus’ sacrifice atones for all humanity for all time, but in Schur’s afterlife, salvation is sola operibus, by good works alone, as it must be in any atheological conception of the universe.
There are occasional Buddhist-flavored sentiments that sum up to a corny orientalism roughly as authentic as this Major Lazer video.
But new-age-isms aside, the Heaven and Hell of Schur are totalitarian and legalistic, and constitute a crass caricature of Christianity, one that well reflects the average progressive’s conception of the same.
Some actual cleverness and wit undergird the narrative arcs of the show, which are, broadly:
Season 1: The principal cast of four humans are all revealed to be ethically deficient, and each of them in their own way doubts if they qualify for the Good Place, or if there has been some kind of administrative error. Meanwhile, the supposedly paradisiacal scenarios they live out seem to be psychologically torturous. In the last episode, the humans realize they are in the Bad Place, and that the after life they have experienced is deliberately perverse.
Season 2: The humans, now faced with their hellish existence, live out untold aeons in their torturous faux heaven, and Michael resets their memories every time they realize it’s a scam. They live out thousands of lifetimes, but it turns out this is an experimental new version of hell where the damned are tortured mentally instead of physically. Michael was not supposed to reset the experiment over and over, and he has lied to his boss about his status.
Season 3: Michael is in jeopardy because of his deceptions, and he and the humans must work together to try to escape their deserved punishments. Michael has grown fond of the humans and now sees them as friends. They traipse around hell proper and ultimately make it to a neutral place where they meet the ultimate ruler of the afterlife, who is not a God but merely a judge played by Maya Rudolph as a horny, petty, and petulant tyrant whose only desires are eating Mexican food and thirsting after Netflix protagonists.
After some drawn out nonsense, the humans successfully make their case to the judge that the afterlife’s point system is broken, and they are given a chance to experiment further to fix it.
Season 4: The humans recreate the original premise of the show from the first season but with new humans, and eventually prove that humans can make moral progress after they are dead, and everyone should be allowed to continue trying to test into the good place. All of the demons of hell are rehabilitated into redemption engineers.
But there is a new problem: in Heaven, everyone is a wirehead, because endless pleasure with no struggle degenerates the mind. The humans are now tasked with reinventing heaven, which they fix by adding a suicide door where you can, purely of your own volition, choose to permanently cease to be. This makes heaven meaningful again and one by one, the characters commit suicide after experiencing a nirvana-like sense of pervading peace.
The Bāṭin in the Zahir
As a long-form story designed for mass consumption, this show perfectly exposits the progressive view of morality. Schur’s comprehension of the subject is flawless, self-aware, and it goes down smooth. In our civilization where all temples have been shuttered and repurposed as tourist attractions, where do people turn for spiritual guidance, the ideological drum beat that aligns them to their society and its rulers? The only and obvious answer is the TV, and it’s common for slightly older people these days to lament the fragmentation of the internet age, remembering fondly the decades past when everyone watched the same three channels.
Of course, not everyone wants spiritual guidance, and television-as-church is a strictly opt-in sort of platform. But millions of people did tune in to The Good Place season finale, and as a progressive devotional, it does an admirable job of providing a schematic for moral edification.
At the risk of running long, I will present, in no particular order, an assortment of critical readings of various moments in the show, which I hope will help to reveal the bāṭin inherent in the zahir.
• From the very beginning, it is clear that everyone, the demons, the humans, and other supernatural beings all know right from wrong. They may agonize about the specific choices they make to maximize right, but they are never in doubt about would constitute good or bad actions. I don’t know much about morality, but after watching every episode of the Good Place, I suspect this constitutes hubris.
• The exceptions to this are a few characters who are myopically stupid or selfish. In Schur’s universe, the original sin is not malice but selfishness born of ignorance.
• The show namedrops many philosophers but fails to present more than a ten word summary of any of them. One of the main characters is supposedly a “Kantian” and also a professor of moral philosophy. He delivers most of the philosophical discourse, and while he does invoke the categorical imperative, he fails to even contemplate the possibility of completing the system of German idealism.
• Nietzsche is dismissed with an insouciant quip; “I have never felt so good about myself”. This is disappointing but typical—Nietzsche has nothing to offer the last man mindset of Schur and his audience.
• The show devotes more than a whole episode to the Trolley problem, that abortion of pop philosophy which, charitably, is a reductio absurdum for utilitarianism, but which in practice is an argument for pathological altruism. I have never felt so good about myself, indeed.
• The humans’s ultimate, voluntary demise is rationalized using a Buddhist platitude: where does the human go when she dissolves into oblivion? Where does a wave go when it breaks on the surface of the ocean?
• Perhaps most telling of all, none of the characters have children. The main protagonist, played by Kristen Bell, falls in love with the moral philosophy professor, and they spend unquantifiable millennia enjoying each other’s company before attaining enlightenment and deciding to die. The characters seem to have no awareness that sex could even, in theory, lead to reproduction.
• While I understand the budgetary constraints of the show, the vision of “what heaven is like” consists of nothing more than tepid, limitless consumerism: the characters drink and eat whatever they want and never gain weight, they read books or watch television, they teleport to Paris or Athens and eat street food, and they have constant secret effortless orgasms (really!) but they never undertake anything more challenging or interesting than woodworking.
• The total paucity of imagination regarding the ways a person might exploit the supposedly limitless possibilities of Heaven is punctuated by the fact that the ultimate purpose of everyone is presented as sterile suicide, alone in the woods.
All of this constitutes the zahir. It is the outermost visible layer of the show and its plot; Christianity without redemption, Buddhism without discipline. But in a show with aspirations to be intellectually and spiritually uplifting, and which has pretensions towards explicating morality, we would be remiss to neglect the bāṭin, the hidden, innermost meanings: in the eternal current year, the most powerful moral imperatives are delivered, not through spoken words, but through archetypes and attitudes.
If “representation in media” matters as much a ls we are told, and if negative portrayals of certain groups can hurt them, then we do well to ask who is portrayed in this meditation on heaven and hell, and what does it say about them. In a show that goes out of its way to present positive depictions of a diverse cast, one group of people gets a conspicuously negative portrayal.
Of the four core characters who play humans:
• The lead is a blond white woman who is conspicuously bisexual. She is white trash with a heart of gold.
• Her love interest is a black man from a middle class family. He is a university professor and so are both of his parents.
• The other female lead is played by Jamilla Jameel, a posh English Indian woman from a wealthy family.
•The final human is Pilipino, and his character an abject moron. It is, presumably, ok or even salutary to portray East Asians as stupid, since they are stereotypically smart.
• This checks all of the diversity boxes, and is by now par for the course. The other two main characters are supernatural beings: a white woman who plays the role of a Star Trek computer / replicator, and Ted Danson as a literal arch demon, the only white male.
• The racial and sexual narratives of the show reveal the hatred that progressives feel towards white men, a message they hammer home again and again in the various intrigues of the show.
• Ted Danson/Michael has a redemption arch in which he passes through several roles: architect of hell, bumbling ally to the humans, architect of heaven, and finally, a mere human himself. In the penultimate episode he steps down from his role as a leader in order to make room for an Indian woman (also a demon, to be fair).
• To put it plainly, the only significant white male in the show is a literal demon who finds redemption by stepping down and giving his job to an Indian woman.
• Another white male character is the demon to whom Michael reports. He is consistently vitriolic and cruel, and has no redemption whatsoever.
• The other, more minor white male characters are two humans, one of whom is gay and whose only sin is being catty and gossipy. He is redeemed of his sinfulness when Jameela Jamil befriends him. Nothing about his behavior or his personality changes; redemption is literally just a gift he receives in the form of the charity of a non-white woman gracing him with her friendship.
• The fourth and final white male is the most problematic of all: he is a racist, sexist, incompetent asshole who is utterly lacking in self-awareness. He inherits a business from his father and barely manages to keep it afloat.
Everything he says is a blatant violation of an intersectional feminist shibboleth. In the final episode, it is revealed that he is fully beyond redemption, incapable of understanding woke orthodoxy.
• Schur plays the character for laughs, and this is the progressive equivalent to minstrelsy except with more malice.
• In contrast to the portrayal of white men as literal demons, the principal black characters are a philosopher and a neuroscientist. The black philosopher was consigned to hell for the sin of—are you ready?—being too indecisive and caring too much about other people, inadvertently causing them harm.
• There is nothing wrong with positive portrayals of black characters of course, but the depiction of black people in The Good Place crosses over from positivity to hagiography, and ironically denies them the humanity that it gives to characters of other races—they may be consigned to hell, but even then they are not permitted to sin.
• In the final episode, the black moral philosophy professor is elevated to the role of messiah: he redesigns the mechanics of the afterlife and makes it possible for humans to get into heaven. Prior to this achievement, the logistics of sin and salvation had become so weighed down in the moral implications of supporting capitalism through complicity that no one had got into heaven in hundreds of years.
• Maybe the most ridiculous things about this progressive catechism are the little details. In a a casual quip the end, they note that Aristotle and Socrates did not get into heaven “because they defended slavery” and the only noteworthy Greek who did make it in was Hypatia of Alexandria, ostensibly for having a vagina. The problem with this is not the condemnation of slavery per se; it is the progressive hubris that is willing to consign every person who ever lived before 1965 to eternal damnation.
Progressive Stage Morality
In a way this is all merely typical. Is it surprising that progressives stage morality plays where angelic and ingenious blacks save the world from demonic and conniving whites? No.
But this is, if anything, more alarming than the alternative. We expect this narrative because it is implicit in every single tv show and movie produced in the last decade, and the more we watch it the more we internalize these pernicious and destructive stereotypes that—whatever their intention—humiliate, demoralize, and demonize white males. How will any white boy, growing up his whole life inundated by these messages, relate to himself and the world?
This is the bāṭin behind the zahir, and once you learn to see it, you realize how ubiquitous it has become. Michael Schur echoes his character Michael when he says, effectively, “there is a Good Race, and a Bad Race, and you, white man? You’re in the Bad Race.”