By Calvin Lane
Don’t miss out, a Super Bowl commercial featuring Larry David told us, because you don’t want to stand in the way of progress. Everyone sees the truth now: “crypto” is a scam; it is not the future; it is not the next step along some unfolding path. The Securities and Exchange Commission is charging Samuel Bankman-Fried of FTX with orchestrating long-term programs to defraud investors. The whole crypto market has been condemned by others as a massive Ponzi scheme. Some of the many celebrities who gave their endorsements — among them Tom Brady, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and Jimmy Fallon — are facing lawsuits.
Though this story is intriguing and even comical at points, there is something much bigger, culturally speaking, underneath it. While SEC officials described a “veneer of legitimacy” covering up a “foundation of deception,” the situation reveals not merely a con job, but a predominating, pervasive, and fundamentally modernist (as opposed to postmodernist) narrative that has made our society vulnerable not only to fraudsters but to other false bills of goods. This predominating narrative is a neat, universal teleology of progress.
Since the Enlightenment, Western culture has been absorbed with the notion — a mythos of religious proportions, a meta-narrative — that human culture and society “advance” along steps and stages toward our telos, our target, a brave new world (with apologies to Aldous Huxley). We simply take this paradigm for granted; it is the air we breathe. Despite all the work of postmodern philosophers (often judged too dreary, one supposes), it often seems that we’re locked in a modernist cultural trap.
The mythos is extremely fluid in its doctrinal articulations: sometimes it’s about the individual, sometimes the community; sometimes there is fierce scientific empiricism, sometimes there is “heart” talk, gut instincts, or other metaphysics. One of the few constants is the need for a foil, an element of resistance that makes the “truth” (whatever it may be) really true. If something is true or part of the next step, then some “Neanderthal” will oppose it. “Neanderthal,” used here in a cultural sense, reflects 19th-century scientific philosophy. While anthropologists certainly discovered the biological evolution of our ancestors and began charting the varied changes in the history of technology into “ages,” e. the mythos became much bigger than observable science. What really matters, despite the fluid articulations, is this notion that we’re heading somewhere, even if some people just don’t get it.
This paradigm — this meta-narrative — operated underneath not only the Enlightenment, but also the era of imperialism and colonialism in the language of social Darwinism: the advanced white man who, according to the mythos, was a stage or two ahead of everyone else, was doing a favor for the benighted peoples of Africa. The mythos operated within pro-slavery philosophies: these people need masters. In the 20th century, it functioned stupendously for both the right and the left. While fascists blathered about eugenics and murdered Jews, among others, because they were judged to be hindrances to evolution and progress, Marx’s Communist Manifesto rests on — hinges on — a vision of stages of human social and economic progress.
Let’s bring this home. During the 2022 Super Bowl, FTX ran a commercial featuring Larry David. It was a string of funny historical vignettes running from the invention of the wheel, the fork, the toilet, and now crypto. David plays the foil who comically rejects “progress.” It closes with David rejecting crypto, saying sardonically, “I’m never wrong about this stuff.” David’s foil was right. The commercial hasn’t aged well, and has been hailed as even funnier in retrospect. What is most important about the commercial, as an artifact of the phenomenon, is that there is absolutely no argument made in the commercial for crypto other than it is novel, the implication that this is the “next thing” along the path of human development. Nothing more than that. This commercial is a priceless demonstration of the power of this predominating narrative. Celebrity culture is only an accelerant, like pouring gasoline on a fire. This is why one should never accept an argument based solely on the blithe claim of “Hey, it’s [enter year].” The response to that sort of reasoning should always be, “I can read a calendar also.”
One wonders what other false bills of goods we regularly accept, many of which cannot be verified by plummeting stocks and whose consequences may only be realized when it’s all too late.
While erring on the side of the “old fashioned,” eschewing the novel in some reactionary romanticism or hidebound conservatism, is hardly my point, it seems more important than ever that when a claim is made — whether about crypto or anything else (politics, education, economics, stewardship of resources and creation care, gender/sexuality/marriage, raising children, the nature of the “good life,” our conceptions of and language about God) — one asks for an actual argument. Pointing to a calendar and saying blithely and condescendingly, “Hey, it’s [enter year]” with a smug self-assurance that whatever is being advocated is simply the next step along some imagined path of progress, is not a real case. It may just be another FTX.
As a theological coda for those who may want it, let me add that if one buys into a low anthropology and a high doctrine of revelation, postmodernism (despite its antagonism to objective truth) can be very helpful, as a first step, in pulling down the Enlightenment project that still obviously dominates our culture (both left and right). Granted, one may veer off into pragmatism and the wild west of pluriform truth, but James K.A. Smith, among others, has demonstrated that Derrida and even Foucault may be more helpful than we imagine.