Earlier this week, I stumbled upon r/HermanCainAwards on Reddit and have found myself looking at story after story with sympathy, yet at the same time this odd, frustrated anger.
r/HermanCainAwards is named after the infamous Herman Cain who died from COVID-19 last year after catching it at a Trump Rally. It consists of screenshots of post after post of people denying the various risks of the current pandemic, share ignorant memes and misinformation only to have a follow up post that they eventually died from it. The tone of some posters and commenters range from sympathetic to mocking, but the overall tone of everything just feels so cold, as if this is its own niche ideological 2 minutes of hate. I find that mocking or cheering their deaths, even if there are some self apparent ironies in their situation, I feel as though I would be cheering for that same destructive system only pointed in a different direction.
There’s this morbid variation with the posts, some shared memes up until the end. Some change their position and tell people to get vaccinated, some go down sharing Joe Biden memes, some go down calling upon the power of the lord that never comes. There’s this smoke of insensitivity in the air, but it feels like it’s a result of societal compassion fatigue. The way these posts are imgur albums that are essentially frames of a persons life that ends up being the punchline. We see the enormous, naturally existing ironies that is the culmination of someones choices in life and it’s turned it into a trading card collection of imgur links. This is the result of the orientation of how society approaches social media with a glaze of entertainment that naturally desensitizes us. There’s something that looking into another persons eyes gets you that staring at leds just wont.
These are real stories though, these were real people with jobs, families, opinions, dreams. Some of the posts show the reaction of some of the family members and some you see a hole that they left and all the other connections and people affected. In a way, it feels like if someone dies playing in traffic after dozens of attempts to warn them, all the sympathy goes to everyone else they left. In the future, we’re going to look back and eventually understand how much misinformation and radicalization through social media engagement algorithms contributed to so many of these people’s deaths.
Some of them are really took it serious to rebel from and ignore the risk. And like playing in traffic just threw themselves at the end of their lives. You have countless number of people posting valiantly about their freedom and refusal to take even basic precautions. Ranging from denial of the disease to claims the vaccine has microchips. When the tide turns, when their health declines, you would think that everyone would suddenly wake up from that worldview, and some do, but most lean deeper into that belief until far after its too late. Why is there spite and rebellion and polarization the current default mode of operation for so many?
Having Church in a House of Cards
When I was a youth pastor, I remember when I was having a friendly discussion with another, far more conservative pastor named Andy. He was someone who believed that the earth was only 6000 years old while I had a different view, I didn’t care. I was aware of the poetic nature of genesis and how it’s original intent was never meant to be an exact description of the time on an empirical level of measurement. In my opinion, The young earth creationist view and plain reading approach to ancient scripture is flawed because we read into scripture with a material ontology rather than a functional ontology that the way the ancients viewed the world. Material ontology is the belief that something exists by virtue of its physical properties and its ability to be experienced by the senses. If I talk about my couch in conversation, you think of it existing as a physical couch you can walk over and sit down on.
Functional ontology is the belief that something existed by virtue of its function within an ordered system. If I tell you I’m going to the grocery store for some groceries, what do you think of? You probably think of a building that you can also physically walk up and touch too, but what If I meant farmers market where there isn’t a building? Well grocery stores have cashiers. What about the new stores that don’t have cashiers and some newer ones that don’t even have checkouts? The term grocery store isn’t actually defined by a number of exact attributes or physical properties, its an generally accepted concept in our society with a specific function, the essence of the object and its function is necessary here. You can see an example of this in Genesis 1:16.
And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. - Genesis 1:16-18 ESV
According to a modern, material ontology, this is wrong. God actually made a single light that is the sun and the moon is actually a reflector. But according the ancient functional ontology, it doesn’t matter because the scripture isn’t talking about how light or the sun works, its talking about the day cycle. Of course when people view the bible through a material ontology lens, it’s interesting how the 7 days in Genesis is viewed as 7, 24 hour literal days through a modern, material ontology but this specific scripture on two, separate lights is often glossed over because it doesn’t. It’s because of this lack of understanding that many also view parts of the book of Revelation with the same exact level of material ontology and scratch their head when a giant sword shoots out of Jesus’ mouth.
Andy handwaved my explanation of material and functional ontology away, but when I asked him why does he have to believe in a literal 7 days his response was very simple.
“Where does it stop?”
What Andy meant was deep down he thought that my exegesis of scripture was just me picking and choosing what was convenient, or “Cherry Picking” as many within those circles call it. It was considered bad theology to pick and choose, as if you were letting your limited human wisdom supersede holy scripture. This is because there were some predefined beliefs about scripture. Scripture is inerrant, authoritative, and infallible, which are a number of assumed classifications that put the bible in this space ideologically that is hard to challenge.
The problem with assuming that the plain reading of scripture is the default correct view is that a plain reading is often just resigning to reading our own biases into scripture that suddenly we find have been given a divine mandate. Some try to keep it simple and just say “I believe the bible”, but more often then not, they a reading the bible without the proper cultural or historical knowledge. They’re reading the bible through western civilization, capitalist, individualist eyes. They assume the Holy Spirit wont lead them astray as some ponder if maybe Deuteronomy 7 means that black and white people shouldn’t get married.
As a result of accepting this plain reading of scripture, any alternative readings, translations, or narrative lenses come off as attempts to make scripture fluid. It’s just a fancier cherry pick to some. Sometimes even the most legitimate attempt to explain the historical context of a specific scripture might fall on disinterested ears, because at the end of the day, its undermining the Word of the Lord if it goes against their “plain reading” of it.
According to Andy, if I questioned Genesis 1, then naturally i will start questioning everything in the bible. Sooner or later I might not even believe in Jesus at all if I keep asking questions. That’s when I realized that Andy had what I call A House of Cards Theology.
A House of Cards Theology is when all of the theological beliefs are so tightly, closely packed and connected that they become hedged and dependent on each other. The result is you have people defending a seemingly inconsequential positions with the importance that it is a central, core belief, because it literally is dependent on it now. The slippery slope in Andy’s case, because of his House of Cards Theology is a cliff. You pull one card out, the whole thing will fall, his belief is either all of nothing, but even that all is still dependent on Andy’s definition of all. Clearly by all he also doesn’t mean all of christian scripture that would include apocryphal books, dead sea scrolls, or early church fathers of the first few centuries right? Or maybe his all is just what King James meant.
So many people wrestle with unnecessary doubt and torment in their faith because its hard for their beliefs to align with what they believe is orthodoxy. Because some uneducated man read a bible enough and told him what he thinks is true. Many just notch it up to cognitive dissonance and resolve any contradictions and gaps downstream.
This is why you have some people defending absurd things in scripture, to the point of death. For example, did you know that the ending of Mark in all of the earliest manuscripts we have stop at verse 8? Which means that it’s possible for someone else to have come in later and write what amounts to fan fiction in scripture and it is considered the equivalent authority.
And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. - Mark 9-20 ESV
George Went Hensley was an American Pentecostal minister best known for popularizing the practice of snake handling. Hensley experienced a religious conversion around 1910: on the basis of his interpretation of scripture, he came to believe that the New Testament commanded all Christians to handle venomous snakes. In 1955, while conducting a service in Florida, he was bitten by a snake and became violently ill. He refused to seek medical attention and died the following day. It’s still a belief today, Pastor Jamie Coots was a snake handler in Middlesboro, Kentucky that died in 2014 from a snake bite that he refused treatment on.
Imagine if you, your father, and your grandfather all followed this little frivolous belief, but that it was actually foundational in your faith, only to find out it might be incorrect later after someone died. The result of that is rarely a reevaluation of snake handling, it’s often ends up manifesting as a defense of snake handling using mental gymnastics. Because of the house of cards belief, they have to defend every little belief as if it carries the same weight as the crucifixion. Their thinking is normally, If snake handling is wrong, maybe Christianity is wrong? I’ll carry two snakes to prove to God I really believe today.
The main problem with House of Cards Theologies is that when there is doubt, when the house starts shaking, the person in question either lets it fall and formulates another system of belief, or they reinforce those house of cards with mental glue. Subconsciously, I think our brains are very aware of the risk a completely loss of worldview does to a person and deep down we are desperate to hold onto what makes sense for us. People confronted by shakey theology have to then deal with the cognitive dissonance and the reaction is always one of desperation. If speaking in tongues is the only way to get saved and I cant speak in tongues, am I damned to hell? If I can’t speak in tongues, maybe its the music I’m listening to? Maybe I should throw out all my music. Maybe its the friends I have, I should stop talking to them. Mental glue is often these desperate explanations or actions that someone takes when they’re in the midst of doubt.
Mental glue manifests itself as doubling down in a belief system, sacrificing something in your life to try and keep that House of Card Theology standing. A passion, a relationship, combine that with a little sunk cost fallacy and you get “if snake handling is wrong, then did they die for nothing?” Nobody one wants to confront that morbid reality, so it shouldn’t be surprising that House of Card Theologies are also regularly inherited and that children of pastors who die of a snake bite often follow in their parents steps and rarely adjust those belief.
“For me to step down on those things that he (my dad) taught me, I don’t know if he would come back out of his grave and slap me clean across the face. That’s how much he believed in it. I mean he was that strong in it. He believed in it enough he died for it, so I won’t step down for anyone,” - Cody Coots, son of Pastor Jamie Coots who died after snake bite.
These House of Cards Theologies can easily morph into House of Cards Ideologies or they can exist exist spontaneously in completely non religious people as well as well as incorporating more and more mythological elements into a more cohesive system. The cards can often contradict one another if there’s enough mental glue. You see this most present in the Flat Earth belief system.
The funny thing about flat Earth theory is that if the Earth was actually flat, that would be the least intriguing part of the flat earth belief system, because if the Earth is actually flat, it’s definitive proof that ‘They’ are lying to you. By ‘They’ I mean Illuminati, deep state, Jewish cabal, Hollywood, pick your boogieman. Whoever ‘They’ are, ‘They’ are the ones who have been influencing everything, all the maps, all the science all over the world. Flat Earth theory isn’t really about the Earth, it’s actually about ‘Them‘. At that point the earth HAS to be flat to them, that’s their card that’s holding everything else up, and all these shitty science experiments can be the mental glue.
Where snake handling and young earth creationism are examples of these paper thin front end beliefs that are holding up an entire belief system on the back end, Flat Earth theory is the same front end belief for more fascist back end beliefs such as the QAnon cult. The back end beliefs in Qanon is that that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles operate a global child sex trafficking ring and conspired against former President Donald Trump during his term in office. This creates a moral urgency that cannot be matched as well as facilitates around the cult of personality of trump that is nothing more than the traditional Strongman Mussolini archetype that Trump is the only one who can drain the swamp if he’s given enough power. Its an attractive black hole of power. Dan Olsen at Folding Ideas has created the most definitive breakdown of it below.
“The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Iluminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening, Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless." - Alan Moore
All Work and No Meaning Makes Jack a Last Man
According to Friedrich Nietzsche in his book, The Last Man is the goal that modern society and Western civilization have apparently set for themselves. I’m using it in a unisex way. It’s a level of affluence and satisfaction where pain is minimized and all of our needs and desires are taken care of while we have limitless access to entertainment and stimulation. The Last Man doesn’t have to worry about going anywhere, they have everything. Yet, they are tired of life, takes no risks, and seeks only comfort and security. Therefore, The Last Man is unable to build and act upon a self-actualized ethos.
Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man. ‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and blinks. The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea; the last man lives longest. ‘We have invented happiness,’say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth… One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion. No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse. ‘Formerly, all the world was mad,’ say the most refined, and they blink… One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health. ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.” - Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (1883)
There are two type of nihilism, active and passive nihilism. Active nihilism is this desire of wanting nothing, post breakup, active self destruction, fuck the world, etc. Passive nihilism is this idea of just living a stupid, self-satisfied life without any passion. Letting yourself be a cog in the machine, buy what you are told, work where you are told, etc. Allowing the winds of life to blow you wherever you let it. Work 30 years, pay bills, retire and die.
This is a hard confrontation that many have had to deal with in the last couple of years, but passive and active nihilism are extremely similar in their result, albeit taking different paths. I personally have experienced both, but specifically over the last couple of years passive nihilism is everywhere. It is the main direction that our society takes you, like gravity pulling you down, our society pulls people into that state of being and wanting to even be The Last Man.
I was fortunate to have an entirely remote job throughout 2020 and 2021. I worked from home, I made a well salary, saved money with no commute, but I couldn’t go anywhere so I felt this hole burning in my pocket to just buy. Upgrade to a standing desk, new PC upgrades, new record player, Oh snap, doge spiked and I bought some new cookware. They’re selling Amazon Fire TVs for only $249, lets get one for the bedroom. After a couple months, I quickly got over that and now its all about saving, yeah that’s noble. What am I saving for? The next comfort? The next craft beer, the next edible, the next delivery from Goldbelly?
I was quickly reminded of the narrator in Fight Club as he stocked his apartment with IKEA furniture. Passively following the societal driven impulses to become his own Last Man. But that was the 90s, today, I have surveillance capitalism telling me what to buy. This month, it’s this cool new type of knife sharpener, last month it was led strips. Did you see this $200 pepper cannon! What about these amazon knick knacks on TikTok?
Am I supposed to just carry this load and be happy with my time and retire and die? Am I supposed to somehow find gratification that my car or home is bigger than the other guy’s? Is my life just a 20th century version of Sisyphus and I just have to be happy and deal with it as the ocean acidifies and the planet burns up?
People call it burnout, but I don’t think that is the term. Because you can go on vacation for a bit and your 2nd or 3rd day back you feel the same slog. The proper term is Alienation and I mean Marx’s definition of Alienation which I would TL:DR as the “cog-in-the-machine” state that we feel we are helpless to get out of. Whether by the conditions of their workplace or society, or Marx would call “The Bourgeoisie”, or what we might call the super rich. You see this In Mike Judge’s film, Office Space, which I thought was hilarious until I worked a 9-5 in a cubicle myself, then it quickly became a horror movie. There’s something about disconnecting a person from the ownership and autonomy of their work that just eats away at them. Condensing life into an ATM machine that converts hours and minutes into dollars and cents.
I wanna open a taco truck! Or, I wanna run a bar in Costa Rica! I wanna start a clothing brand. I’ve talked to a so many people who’ve felt this same feeling alienation and combined with COVID-19 finally said that enough is enough. It was time for them to finally make the hop to something they finally wanted to do. No wonder why so many people at fast food and service jobs are quitting in droves, people feel that same alienation for $12 an hour and scoff at a $2 more an hour raise to deal with assholes and COVID-19? It’s amazing how our society has found the equilibrium point of wages and cost of housing. Isn’t it interesting that every job pays just enough for you to stay where you are economically, and you cross your fingers that when you retire, Social Security is still running. Just enough to barely get by, meanwhile you hear about all the new millionaires making money on dog coins. Or the 11 year old on Youtube who has 100 million views. Maybe I should throw myself out to TikTok, maybe I should do some embarrassing shit and get followers and become and influencer or something?When some employees see employers post job descriptions for positions where the predecessor died of COVID-19 only hours before, people start to realize that we’ve all been swimming in passive nihilism this whole time and this pandemic has woken them up to their mortality and understand that we all in some way, The Last Man.
Victory has defeated us as Bane would say. Western civilization has made us so comfortable that we have this deep down dissatisfaction with all the meaningless pleasures and entertainment we have. We don’t have a fight that we can all unite behind like the good ol days. You see some of the almost content satisfaction that Cody Coots has wanting to continue snake handling. Despite having what I would call a house of cards theology, its pretty solid, it’s slathered in mental glue, but at the core of that is indeed a purpose and meaning. How on earth are those snake handlers so content and actually look happy?
This is why soldiers miss war, this is the dances with wolves story, why young dissatisfied men in America are so easy to radicalize. I think seeing the Wizard of OZ curtain drop on Afghanistan and we see what War results in after 20 years makes us looking around confused, “What the fuck was that all for?” If we cant in good conscience throw ourselves into the machine of military industrial complex and freedom comes out, then what can we devote our lives to? We are yearning for something else, something to throw our lives at that’s a little more meaningful than buying and dying. This cant be everything can it? Really? Oh if I cross my fingers I might be able to buy an electric car that can drive me around?
What happens if one of the Last Men have also adapted a House of Card Theology or Ideology? What if one of the Last Men’s pastors gave them bad vaccine advice? Well if their pastor is wrong about the vaccine, could they be wrong about God? And here is our house of cards. Sometimes just a touch of that doubt brings the mental glue, the doubling down. The way that social media has disarmed our praxis often means that mental glue can sometimes be just another meme that brings them a laugh, its equivalent to reading a scripture that reinforces their belief. At that point they are indistinguishable in how they operate or the strength of it.
The pressure cant build anymore, enough is enough. These Last Men are finally breaking out and running away to pursuing their passions and find their meanings. Finally off to find something they’re willing to die for. They’re just begging for a confrontation. Everyone is looking for their meaning, big and small, I can’t, because I was born in the wrong generation. If only it was 1770s again.
Some have found that new meaning in a change in careers, others have found it in threatening school boards. Some have found it becoming active in immigration rights within their community, others have found it protesting and shutting down vaccine drives and harassing hospital workers. Like Bush sniffing around Iraq, in our boredom, we’ve sniffed at and conflated ideological differences in our culture and thought, maybe we can make a war here? Symbols of enemies get made, groups align all forgetting where a lot of the ideological torque is coming from.
Many search for something in their desperation, anything, a way out and they finally find this nugget of secret knowledge on the internet. A secret fact that no one else knows about, knowing this is the first step at finally freeing themselves so they become infatuated with it. They learn as much as they can about it, this is the thing that will help them get out of their shitty, alienated lives. They find that secret knowledge is that everything is a conspiracy ran by pedophiles who are taking over the world.
It sounds absurd, but it’s surprisingly persuasive. Think about a person so desperate, 15 years into a dead end job, no other prospects, completely missed their shot when they were young, and they have nothing else to do but be a cog in this machine until they die. Debt keeps rising, slowly they aren’t sure what to do. Desperate people used to seek out religion, now they’re seeking out conspiracy theories on social media. Like moths to a neon light, they chase after in as an existential hail mary. A majority of social media now is a constant funneling of spiteful, polarizing memes through sharing, adding nothing, just a conveyor belt into Facebook algorithm. It becomes a convection oven of circulating desperation, state driven misinformation, collective lament, and astroturfed movements. It’s why flight attendants are being punched almost regularly on flights, it’s why fights are breaking out over something as small as a mask in Walmart. It’s why fascism is becoming normalized again, everyone is becoming a sucker again.
Which means that the ugly truth is that to change someone’s mind about something like the safety of the vaccine, it might be as difficult as convincing them that God doesn’t exist. Which for almost everyone who believes in God, wont happen over a conversation. So right now we have about 633,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic started and is projected to see 50,000 to 100,000 more deaths over the next three months. We are locked in, and have an impending Delta-variant Passover approaching and suddenly everyone is pretending to be a prophet and no one can be convinced otherwise. Speak your peace and love who you can, this is indeed the Age of the Last Man.