American Nihilist Underground Society

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You can tell the fan's about to get messy when delusion prevails, and inward strength is seen as a distant second to showy displays of public importance. The latter is how you get a room full of people who barely know you, and don't really care, to think you're doing something "good" - but because they don't care, their praise is as insincere as their condemnation, and neither lasts long in that kind of attention span. The result of this psychological chaos however: I'm surrounded by dysfunctional people.

I enjoy my friends. They come in different stripes. They are my friends because on the whole, they're genuine to the best of their ability - after all, they grew up in dysfunctional families, their friends are dysfunctional, and the people they work with - throw up your hands - are not only dysfunctional, but forced upon them by the nature of commerce. You can't refuse to work with Susie because she's a nutcase unless she makes some show display of public nutcase behavior, which for a society this "tolerant" means she has to shoot someone, or finger-paint Dada murals in her own feces on the boardroom wall.

Basic insanity thus goes unrecognized. Similar, inner strength and force of will are ignored; people turn noses away and say, knowingly, "He's so boring!" - they are speaking of a great guru, philosopher or artist, who prefers logic and passion to drama, and therefore provides little of interesting gossip except when, after a brief bout of success, he finds it just as hollow and begins self-destructing in Morrisonian ecstasy. Let's walk through an average office - perhaps one of my clients, perhaps a phantasm of the brain - and see some of the exciting dysfunctional people out there; it's not Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, but perhaps his analysis couch, or his book of diagnoses.

First, we come to superman here in his office; Stan he runs our network, or maybe he's our product director, but what makes him important around the office is his raw skill and can-do attitude. He never says no to any project, and he'll knock himself out for a job. Of course, because he never says no to any project, he's always on a project, and will have to look at yours later; because he heroically stayed up all night and slayed the dragon incarnate of the latest spreadsheet, he's out of work on Monday and Tuesday he's still bewildered. But he is superman, so he'll never say no, even if he's six months behind on everything. Luckily, he can respond to crisis, so if you run in and tell him that something is on fire, he'll put the fire out. However, he doesn't notice any of the smaller issues that keep the firm running, and therefore, there's always something on fire.

Stan likes feeling needed. Superman of all things needs an audience, much like God needs you to pray for him so he can save kittens from Satan. He likes being important, thus is always busy and always late, so there's always people coming in to talk to him. What protects him is his chest of steel, behind which he cowers; he takes a linear-rational approach to reality and so defines himself in strict logical terms. If you point out to him that the latest car your company produced does not have a steering wheel, he'll cheerfully point out that it's still a car and got completed on time. If the network goes down because no one replaced the one hard drive that contains all of its routing tables, he will tell you with a smile that the backup system failed last month and he's waiting to replace it, but he's been putting out fires, and so he has been so busy, he just hasn't had a chance to make sure the company is functional. I have come to distrust "busy" people.

There are other needy people. Down the hall is Sara; she handles our billing. Sara likes to point out exactly where you are in error regarding regulation 4261. What's that, you ask? It specifies that you must put your birthdate on every form 8714-A. But you know my birthdate! You say. "Well, I thought you'd like to know," she says. Sara, like superman, doesn't mean badly, but she is so focused on details that she often misses the point completely. She is thus a classic bureaucrat. If you come in to her office confused because your paycheck disappeared, she will explain very carefully that because you did not file form 8968 on time, they have no registered bank account in your name.

But what about the one they were using? Well, regulations say we have to get a new listing on that form, so I'm very sorry you're out of money now, and we can get you a check within two weeks, although that is probably after your rent, car payment, credit card bill and student loan repayment have bounced. Sara cannot connect the goddamn dots enough to realize that every employee needs the check to go, on time, to some place they can access it, or so she'll tell you. The truth is that she doesn't care; Sara likes being important, and because she focuses on details, she cannot grasp the larger picture, usually because it threatens her in some way ("OMG you mean civilization is collapsing? I...I... chocolate!"). For this reason she hides behind "not having seen" or "not having noticed" the fact that, while all the forms were filed correctly, the process as a whole is broken. I have come to distrust people who are so detail-oriented they cannot notice the outline of the dots on the page.

Keep on going down the hall. Now we come to the room where the people who do the "real work" are. These are programmers, or legal associates, or any number of other specialized administrative functions. In their world, they alone produce income for the company, and everyone else is just wasting paper; there's some truth to this, except for the fact that they also miss the big picture, because they're obsessed with the trivial. Programmers, for example, can be found often saying, "I know the software accidentally sold 2,000 people cars for only $40 each, but look how fast it indexes our database - this is technological triumph equalled by only another 4,000 people worldwide!" This is one form of obsession with the trivial. Legal associates can be just as bad, in that they will calmly look up everything you request of them, but then will fail to notice a case exactly similar to the one you are trying, and thus the cause will be lost when the client gets an anonymous fax from a competing firm informing him that his lawyers are, indeed, the bunglers he imagines them to be. Ask the legal associate and he'll look at you blankly: "But I did as you asked!"

These people are one form of the great defect known as modern neurosis. You can find it anywhere, however. In software firms they also employ artists; these work very hard on command, but have to be told exactly what to do, as they lack the ability to look at the big picture and realize there's a need for something. "You didn't say the program had to have an exit button," they'll respond. "But every product we have does!" you remonstrate. No matter - they only see what's on the worksheet, and only think about how it looks. This is why Robert Heinlein used to rail against specialization; "It's for insects," he would have his characters say in any number of great science fiction books. Those who get super-specialized miss the big picture, just like Sara and Stan miss the big picture. Because they habitually adopt this way of looking at the world, soon all parts of their lives follow this function.

For example, Sara rented an apartment; it's right next to a busy freeway, but since it's an apartment at the right price, she considers it a "good deal." Nevermind that no one except the deaf should have apartments next to freeways, because developers keep building them right next to freeways because, look, it's convenient to get to work this way. And since their audience is composed of Saras and Stans, no one ever calls them up and says, "Did you ever think this is a Bad Idea, since the noise will be intolerable?" They'll either retort with the utilitarian - "we haven't had any complaints so far!", which is the ultimate passive defense - or will, like Sara, look down into their carefully organized file drawers - see, I'm a good worker - and claim their job only involves looking at the details; they're detached from the big picture.

Other examples abound. The self-image junkies are the worst. Raul, down in Marketing, he loves to get laid. Loves it loves it. So he's out every night at the bar, then bringing home a different chick who also loves to get laid, and as a result his mind isn't really on his work. He slogs along through a project, spending more time in front of the mirror and on the phone than even thinking about it, and then patches it up and staples the mess together and runs it by his secretary, who has to clean up the disaster and make it presentable, and then he's off to the bar. His work process is distracted, and as a result he makes the same old mediocre crap that every other idiot makes out of a job: blockhead products, degenerate marketing, stupid ideas. Why should he care? He is a stud, and he knows it.

Josh in Support is just as bad. You see, you didn't know this - and it's really not your fault - but Josh is a secretly very profound artist. He may work in anti-capitalist poetry, or feminist film noire, or maybe even has an iconoclastic rock band of his own, but he's undiscovered. His identity is entirely based around being unrecognized, because it allows him to look in the mirror and say: "They just don't know, but I am superior to them all." In act, the I'm-better-than-you seems to occur frequently among people who live in personal realities, which are what I call these worlds that orbit our planet like distant sattellites and never seem to have to correspond to reality. Even if his poetry sucks, or his films are appreciated only by those who are alienated enough to kick around a dead genre like feminist noire, he knows he's better than you. His personal world exists. Interestingly, although Josh doesn't like "organized religion," he's exactly like Phil, across the hall. Phil's a conservative and a good Christian and believes the rest of us are going to hell, but luckily Phil found the secret and he's tight with God. Allright.

Superman in the example some paragraphs ago was a control junkie, but there are other forms of control junkies. Ron manages our audience research, and he's good at what he does, but he makes you wait in his office while he digs up your report, proofreads it and hands it along. He enjoys having people wait for him, because otherwise, what does he have in life? A television. Sergey in development is the same way, except his symptom is different: he likes to argue the technical details of language, or of computer language, in such a way that whether or not it is relevant to the project (and it's usually not) he is "proven" to be "right" and you are - wrong. Sergey grew up in a divorced home, and put himself through college, and he thinks anyone who didn't suffer as much as he did had it easy and is thus a weakling, and he likes crushing weaklings. He also likes driving home that guilt trip. As a result, his projects often completely miss the boat, like that website he produced which never mentioned the product, nor worked with any browser but Internet Explorer. Locked in his own head? Sergey's Personal Reality.

The regular office staff have this disease to varying degrees. You'll often hear people politely declining a task with, "It's not my job," if it's something they could be held accountable for, or "It didn't matter much to me at the time" if it's not. Imagine these people trying to come together on something after work - they'd never have the ability to start a business, get together a meaningful volunteer effort to protect wildlife or even start building a settlement if shipwrecked on a distant isle. They will however make sure that you know they did a "good job" on client calls, or sorting the supplier files, or organizing the lower staff to actually do their jobs (lower staff, being totally replaceable, are expected to space out and start making personal calls, playing video games or masturbating if not supervised constantly). They exist in their own worlds, where only they are important and their choices are made solely for themselves. As a result, they do nothing outside the mandatory, and even while telling you how much of a "team player" they are, are concentrating their vital energies elsewhere.

I am not saying jobs are important - to the contrary, I think they're garbage, but that's the result of this attitude. If we could each get over our emotional pretense, and function as a team, we could all go home by 2 PM and spend time on healthy things like walking outside, or being with our friends and family, or even some creative art. But really, that's not the kind of thing you can mention in one sentence at a party and have everyone nod knowingly. Better to be obsessed with sex, or superman, or -- wait, there's a type I forget: the emotional overdrive type. These exist in every office, near plump boxes of kleenex, and the charge they get out of life is knowing that they are the few who are actually emotionally in touch with life. If someone comes by your desk with a sign up sheet for donations to the poor overpopulated tsunami victims, or weeping about the plight of the homeless in Alaska, recognize why they do this: it reinforces their image of self to think of themselves as having discovered emotional "truth" while the rest of us are callous, unfeeling, distant people.

Another type that you've all experienced is The Savior-Queen. This person views his job as the essence of the business, and believes that if he doesn't make it in to work, the entire thing will collapse into dust as brimstone rains around it. He usually thinks this because it is not true; his authority and responsibilities are minimal, in part because he has so many psychological issues that he's impossible to deal with. The Savior-Queen will come up to your desk when you're in the middle of some trivial phone call, for example finding out how to get tax figures to the auditor by the close of the business day, and he will start talking as if you don't exist - except he's talking to you, and needs you to exist, it's just that you're not important. After all, you aren't the martyr of the business, and its fearless leader who is somehow unrecognized. When you peel back all of his bluster, the Savior-Queen, like everyone else mentioned in this article, suffers from low self-esteem. Consequently, he projects authority and rests all of his self-esteem in that; if you don't recognize his authority, he takes it personally - very personally. These are the people who most commonly go running to "Human Resources" (you fools, you have been domesticated) to complain about someone being "unprofessional," meaning they didn't kiss his ass. The way to deal with these people is to tell them they have beautiful eyes, or that they're "essential to the team," because, just like when you give a jelly donut to a dog, they'll then follow you around for a week.

Dysfunctional, all of them. We can debate for years the origin of this dysfunctionality, but I say go with Occam's Razor on this one and realize that the simplest rational solution is usually accurate: society has divided to the point where we have no direct contact with the means of producing actual useful things, thus we become mentally like our bureaucratic jobs. Since most people simply fulfill a small function, they don't need to notice the details, and can afford to indulge any number of personality defects. And why not? No one will notice until you shoot up the office or make fecal art on the boardroom wall. Further, what kind of person would try to resist the onslaught? Just be broken with the rest of us.

Broken, indeed. Fully functional as far as having a job, sliding that credit card through the machine in the checkout line, and mastering the details of ordering phone service, car insurance, or pizza. Yet inside - their inner strength - they are depleted, and broken in the second sense of the word, which one uses with horses: "He was wild when he came here, but we broke him over the weekend, and now he's content to carry the plough for sixteen cents of grain at the end of the day." Has humanity domesticated itself? Most likely. There is a lack of inner strength, and a dependence upon outward actions and great shows of giving a damn or pretending to care about the project or company being broken because one was too obsessed with details, nightlife, or rules to notice the drain-plug had been pulled and the water was escaping the tub.

This is how the world ends; not with a bang, but a whimper. No one noticed we were cutting down all the trees and replacing them with concrete; no one figured out that we were spewing toxins enough into the air and water to kill what lived in them, and turn them into a truly alien environment. People were too busy or too distracted to see that our society was getting so dumbed-down people were becoming dysfunctional, or that we were slowly making our cities into small hells where living next to a freeway, at the right price, is a "good thing." Others were too involved in their own personal realities to recognize that society, as a whole, was becoming less of an empowering experience and more of one of servitude. Well, at least you aren't one of those suckers earning sixteen cents a day! I get a full $500 of grain per day.

I'm surrounded by dysfunctional people. At this point, I see the world in terms of leaders and followers, and the ones who are mostly leaders are the ones I care about surviving, although I care for my friends, most of whom have a mixed character between leader and follower. Some may end up being leaders. Others will ultimately give in to their inner follower and become totally useless, at which point it's like visiting my friends out of rehab: a long list of stuff you can't mention, because it will destabilize fragile egos. I view those visits as duty more than pleasure at this point, and while every friendship involves some duty, only those that are dying like this civilization are all duty. Much as I respect the few (under 1%) people who are not dysfunctional at jobs, I love my friends who are mostly functional and will do a lot for them, because just as a forest is more beautiful than a parking lot, shopping mall or landfill, they're superior to the dysfunctional horde.

Maybe these tsunamis aren't such a bad thing. Perhaps global warming, despite its grotesque implications for many parts of our environment, which will be obliterated, is a good thing. Bring on the next ice age. It's time we pare down the people who couldn't survive a night in the woods alone because the rules didn't say explicitly that one had to run from bears, or to put the fire exactly three feet from the tent or the tent might burn. The people who are unable to think past their own genitals, or caught up in their self-image as superman or forgotten artist, would be distracted as the flames lept higher or the bear crept nearer or the ice formed overhead. Death strikes the oblivious. This might not be a bad thing. Those that survived - more leader than follower - would be functional, at least.

January 21, 2005