Bruce Springsteen once said “blind faith in anything... will get you killed.” Ultra Hedonist discovers, as most of us do, that belief just gets you poor.
I’ve noticed lately that seem to be out of sync with the world. It’s like, I’ll be sitting here just trying to tend to my ‘Shoes & Accessories’ board on Pinterest, and you’re all up in my face tweeting about misogyny and education funding and that Obama guy from America. You’re effusing everywhere about ‘catastrophic impacts of anthropogenic climate change’ this and ‘erosion of social bonds’ that, meantime I’m wondering how I’ll cope if Maggie Beer ever stops manufacturing quince and bitter almond ice-cream. You’re all about exercising your democratic rights for a brighter future; I’m all about exercising my pelvic floor for a better orgasm. You get the idea.
There’s no denying that I’m a selfish and despicable human, but I do want you to know that it’s a fairly recent development. Casting my mind back scarcely a decade, I can recall a different time, a different me…
We’re in Brisbane, the Sunshine State. It’s the early 2000s, so i-pods have just come in but saturation point re: skinny jeans is still a good few years off. I’m 18, in my second year of an arts degree, and suffering from severe cases of both facial dermatitis and youthful idealism.
I’m studying hard. None of the practical stuff: it’s the perfect visions of political theory that have me captivated. My bedroom walls are decorated with quotes from moral philosophers, printed out on coloured paper and blu-tacked next to posters about global wealth distribution that came free with my New Internationalist subscription. I’m writing fan-mail to my favourite academics and as an entirely voluntary activity, I’ve started filing human rights reports and journal articles in a bunch of plastic display folders, sorted alphabetically by country. I’m learning Spanish so that I can better follow South American politics, as yet unaware of just how handy this will be when I later develop a semi-racist Latino fetish.
When I’m not poring over books in a Frankfurt School-induced rapture, I’m volunteering. Saturdays it’s the Oxfam shop where I peddle fair trade coffee and gift-wrap trinkets in tissue paper and raffia. Wednesdays I take the train down to the refugee support centre to do the accounts, sort the food donations for cultural appropriateness and make chit-chat with Iranians on bridging visas. I write plaintive letters to dictators for Amnesty International, and when I help to coordinate their network of high school clubs, it’s only 10 per cent because I’m still attracted to schoolboys.
I’m riding my bicycle to the shops were I’ll buy clothes made only in countries that aren’t enormous sweatshops. I’m protesting wars and full-fee university places and organizing screenings of documentaries about detention centres. I’m a member of the Greens on Campus, the Greens for grown-ups and my local Greenpeace activist group- and I’m doing all of this on only the meagre energy I’m able to derive from an entirely plant-based diet. Despite the fact that the chafing of my plastic shoes and my suppressed longing for cheese are placing me under enormous emotional strain, I keep all this up for a good few years.
I guess the problems started when I hit the labour market. My first couple of jobs were with welfare organizations, where I’d naively expected that doing good would be easy. Instead, I found something less than uplifting about competing for inadequate funding to deliver some halfway fucked-up government program. My colleagues disappointed me too: caseworkers who hated the people they were helping; an absurdly egomaniacal boss who was always picking at his teeth and emitting strange whistling noises; CEOs who were paid too much and seemed entirely too comfortable with their status and power. Come to think of it, I could use a little more respect and a pay-rise too. But if we’re all this busy being petty and selfish, who is going to save the world?
Around that same time I started to notice the way that believing in things means alienating yourself from other people.
It’s fine to dress in rags and drink wine from a box when you’re a student, but once your friends start acquiring good jobs and expensive tastes you’re going to want to fit in.
The simple fact is that the faster you cleave to your moral and political principles, the more of a drag you are to have around. Nobody wants to hang with a goody two-shoes. Nobody wants you bringing up drone warfare at their housewarming. And nobody – but nobody – likes a vegan. Even if you’re the non-proselytising variety, your mere lentil-eating presence will often be taken as an unspoken accusation. That’s fair enough — I was silently judging you. But I didn’t want to be. All I really wanted, deep down, was to press myself up against a bunch of other warm bodies and never let go.
Then there was the crippling doubt. The more I learned about history, about policy, about human psychology, the more obvious it became that no-one, myself included, had a damn clue. With a world so complex, values so groundless, and our feeble human minds so riddled with delusions and biases, I couldn’t even work out what phone plan I should be on, let alone bring about a just and emancipatory social order.
For a while, I adopted a stance of ironic semi-detachment. I would read about politics, but only if it was satirical – a laugh-or-you’ll-cry type of thing. I could nurture tiny, secret hopes, but they had to be cloaked in mockery. I cared, for example, about whether Obama would win the 2008 election, but only while referring to him as “Hopey,” a stupid joke meant to acknowledge that disappointment was bound to follow. By the time it did, I’d moved on to fully-fledged don’t-give-a-fuck hedonism, shifting my focus to manageable tasks with immediate and predictable payoffs: food, sex, floral arrangements, substance abuse. That kind of thing.
Whenever I used to talk politics to the middle-class and middle-aged – my parent’s generation – they’d get that indulgent, knowing glint in their eyes. “But you know what they say: If you’re not a communist at twenty, you’ve got no heart. If you’re still a communist at forty, you’ve got no brain,” went the joke. I laughed along, but inwardly I was full of disdain. You might be content to complain about Howard over a glass of red, buy an energy-efficient fridge and call it a day. Hell, if you’re willing to settle for such a pale imitation of old ideals, you probably never truly believed in them anyhow. But, I thought, I’m not like you.
Fast forward to 2012 and, inevitably, I find that I am like them. Worse, even. At least they’ve installed solar panels and signed some Alan Jones petition. Me, I’ve thrown off the hairshirt and given myself over to the single-minded pursuit of pleasure. You won’t see me sipping fair trade coffee from a brightly-coloured reusable plastic cup anytime soon. Have you tried that stuff? If I’m going down with this ship, if I can’t have my communitarian anarchist utopia, I’m sure as hell not going to dick around with coffee that tastes like ditchwater.