A Meritocracy of Fools

The last 24 hours have not been good for me.

I admit I’m probably overreacting. There is a high level of background radiation in the picture, and it’s making me hypersensitive.

Marta is having gall bladder problems. All the doctors agree that her gall bladder needs to come out, but they won’t do anything further until they do “tests,” and they couldn’t seem to find time to schedule any “tests.” Her normal doctors couldn’t get her scheduled until November, so they said, “Go to the emergency room.” The emergency room said, “Yep, you need ‘tests’ and we’ll get those expedited — oops, the schedulers all went home at five. Call first thing tomorrow morning. Make sure you call early.” The schedulers did work in Marta for the necessary “tests” on Friday afternoon, and they assured us that the radiologist would look at them that very evening — fat lot of good that does, of course, since it’s Friday evening, and all of the “reporters of test results” and “people who can do anything about it” have gone home for the weekend. So we’ve been expecting to hear back today, and it turns out that no one has talked to anyone else — we’ve had to spend the morning getting the “people who can talk to us about the test results” together with the “people who have the test results but have already forgotten about them.” Apparently the whole medical system is backed up as badly as Marta’s gall bladder.

Which happens to be the state the Internet is in this morning, so I can’t really work, and I’ve got deadlines to meet. Someone, somewhere apparently cut a fibre cable and took out Washington and Minnesota. I would imagine that they took out the Dakotas, Montana, and Idaho as well, but they don’t have enough Internet users up there to have noticed. They’ve rerouted traffic, but the telecommute is pointless — I got better speeds than this back in the old modem-over-phone-lines days. We’ve been asked to not make large file transfers and to be patient.

Then there’s this Romney thing. It ain’t over ’til the fat guy on the Supreme Court sings, but I’ll stand by my “told-you-so.” I think we’ll have President Romney, and I think the US deserves that particular disaster: people in this country are so damned stupid.

But what took me right over the edge was buying a television yesterday afternoon.

It wasn’t for me. I went out with an 82-year-old lady-friend of ours to do the helpful guy-thing: to wrestle it into the car and pull it out of the box and set it up in her living room.

This dear old soul is on her way out: her mind is slowly slipping away. I watched it with my father over the course of a decade, so I recognize pretty clearly what I’m seeing. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

But the real pain started when I tried to teach her to use the remote control for the new television set.

I have a suggestion for the companies that manufacture television remote controls and components. When they release a new product, the CEO and all the other three-letter executives of the company should be locked in a room with no food, no water, and no bathroom. They will be let out the instant they manage to talk an 82-year-old woman through the process of switching from Law and Order to her old VHS tape of The Sound of Music and back again, over the telephone.

After that group of executives dies of thirst, starvation, and bladder explosion, the next group of executives can kick the living shit out of the “engineers” who are designing these crap-filled monstrosities. I put “engineers” in quotes, because I suspect they all have degrees in computer science, with a minor in drinking. I’ve interviewed a lot of those guys.

I was ready to bitch-slap someone after my own forty-year sojourn through the Remote-Control-Hell wilderness. By the time I reached the Promised Land and tried to explain the route to the proud new owner of the television set, I was ready to maim someone. I could eat a battery and puke a better design.

Then the phone rang this morning.

“Hi! This new television set doesn’t work.”
“Okay, is the television set turned on?”
“Yes, it’s turned on.”
“So what do you see on the screen?”
“It says 30.”
“Yes, I was watching channel 30, but I want to change the channel.”
“Is the show playing now?”
“No, it doesn’t work. I can’t change the channel.”
“Are you using the Comcast remote or the television remote?”
(long pause) “I only have one remote.”
“You have three remotes. One is for the television, one is for the channel changer, and one is for your DVD.”
(long pause) “I only have two remotes.”
“You had three remotes yesterday. I showed you how to use them…”
“This television doesn’t work. I think I may have to return it.”

I needn’t go on with this extremely painful conversation.

Now I grant that this sweet old woman is slipping inexorably into dementia, and eventually even changing the batteries in the remote will be too much for her. Dad got to that point. I understand that the simplest tasks will become too difficult in time. But I find myself screaming the question to the heavens: how fucking complicated does it have to be to watch television?

As usual, my rage has leaked out sideways into strange byways.

It isn’t just television sets. We’re embedded in an entire meritocracy of nonsense.

What makes for a successful modern life? Well, you start by “adjusting” to social conditions in day care, then studying hard so that you test well on memorized trivia in school. Then you choose the right college and the right degree, so you can choose the right first employer. You quit your first job at the right time so you can “leverage” the experience in your second job. You choose the right investment portfolio, navigate the tax law and take the right deductions, weave through the maze of medical procedures and insurance coverage and make “healthy life choices” (which may involve butter, or margarine, or neither, or both.) You choose the right deodorant, toothpaste, and hair replacement therapy. You carry the right amount of life insurance, not overinsured, but certainly not underinsured.

Success means you master how to use the latest fucking television remote control. Which is more complicated than the control panel for the Gemini space capsule. Which went into outer space.

There’s a subtext that underlies all this “choice” we’re presented with: if you choose wrong, you deserve the unpleasant consequences. All of them. Up to and including death.

It was one thing when “choosing wrong” meant choosing to poke a sleeping bear with a sharp stick just for fun. Or choosing to run the Iditarod dressed in silk pajamas. Most people can get through life without making choices quite that stupid: those who can’t get the posthumous Darwin Award, and we don’t really miss them.

But we’ve moved a long way beyond common-sense choosing.

Imagine a world of death panels where you must stand before the panel on one leg and count backward from one hundred by sevens. If you lose your balance or miss a number, off with your head. This is unarguably a true meritocracy: if you master the task, you live; otherwise you die.

It is, however, a meritocracy of foolishness. There is no practical value to standing on one leg and counting backward from one hundred by sevens. It’s an arbitrary test that serves only to reduce the population, while shifting blame from the executioners (who made all the real choices) to the victims (who are told only they can choose to take responsibility for their own lives and work hard to pass the test.)

It’s bad enough when there’s a cynical overclass that runs the death panels. At least you can try to convince yourselves that maybe the overclass has a lick of sense and a streak of self-preservation: maybe the population really needs to be reduced, and this is one way to do it without enraging all the people being killed off.

But we’ve moved into a world where the members of the death panel have themselves swallowed their own propaganda. They really, truly think they “deserve” to live because they passed the test. Because they can use the fucking television remote.

More accurately, they deserve to live because they have learned to manipulate credit default swap futures (even though they have no idea what they really are) or can work the mechanics of leveraged buyouts. They deserve to live because they have learned the art of the sell, and have stumbled into an opportunity to use it effectively. They deserve to live because they have learned to lie, and lie convincingly. They deserve to live because God has Blessed them with riches.

Listen to the one percenters. Listen to Mitt Romney. Listen to the salesmen for higher education. Listen to the Tea Party. It’s all the same message: if you can’t work the fucking television remote, you don’t deserve the benefits of modern civilization. You don’t deserve health insurance. You don’t deserve retirement income. You don’t deserve to live.

Piss on them.

This entry was posted in General.

2 comments on “A Meritocracy of Fools

  1. Ivy says:

    Dear Joe,
    We don’t have a television. But for some reason we do have a remote. It’s an interesting world out there. I used to have a little sign on my desk that said “you deserve a chocolate cake today.” It is my deeply considered opinion, and I feel the most mature opinion I can attain at my current age: non sequiturs and nonsense are the only substance of the universe, held together by pure irony. The trick is enjoying it while we’re in it. We love you and we love Marta!


    • Life is much better this week. Marta had her surgery, it went well, and she’s out of pain for the first time in months. The Internet is back up, and I’m happily productive again. And the 82-year-old lady returned her new television set (and the remote) and got a smaller (and simpler) one that “works just like the old one did” — and I didn’t have to be involved.

      There’s still the Romney thing, but we got our mail-in ballots yesterday, so I can send that in, slap a sign on the door that says “We voted, now go away!” and I can get back to the much healthier lifestyle of ignoring national politics.

      And thanks! We miss you guys.


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