In Defense of Liking Things

The fidget spinner probably doesn’t tell us much about civilization’s decline, and it’s okay to enjoy it….

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Nobody can reasonably accuse me of liking too many things. I am a veteran practitioner of the “Actually, This Thing You Thought Was Good Is Not Very Good At All” school of writing. I am promiscuous in my hatreds, grievances, and peeves, and I know well the pleasures of announcing that whatever my least favorite recent cultural development is spells ruin for the civilized order.

But it’s possible to take one’s disagreeableness to excess. There is always the risk of becoming that most unwelcome of characters, the curmudgeon. At its best, written criticism can usefully point out social problems in ways that help clarify people’s thinking. At its worst, it can be stuffy and joyless, a philosophy of “miserablism.” If you’re not careful, you can turn into P.J. O’Rourke, Joe Queenan, or even, *shudder*, Andy Rooney. The infamous “Whig View Of History” is the idea that things follow an inevitable trajectory towards progress, enlightenment, and decency. The curmudgeon’s view of history is that everything is just getting worse all the time, that all of the things people like suck, and that they suck harder than anything has ever sucked in the history of things sucking.

The “fidget spinner” is a little plastic toy that has become popular recently among large numbers of children and modest numbers of adults. You twiddle it in your fingers and it goes round and round. You can do nifty tricks with it. It seems like fun. It’s even alleged to be good for kids with ADHD, because it gives them something to do with their hands.

Critics from The Atlantic and The New Yorker, however, have declared that the fidget spinner captures everything that is wrong with our century. Far from being an innocuous and amusing cheap little rotating thingamajig, the fidget spinner is, according to The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead, an embodiment of Trump-era values. It is a sign of a narcissistic and distracted culture, captivated by trifles, ignorant of its own decline, and oblivious to all that is sacred, intelligent, and morally serious. We are fidgeting while Rome burns.

Mead’s indictment of the fidget spinner is worth quoting at some length, in order that we may appreciate it in its full fustiness:

Fidget spinners… are masquerading as a helpful contribution to the common weal, while actually they are leading to whole new levels of stupid. Will it be dismissed as an overreaction—as “pearl-clutching,” as the kids on the Internet like to say—to discern, in the contemporary popularity of the fidget spinner, evidence of cultural decline? …. Perhaps, and yet the rise of the fidget spinner at this political moment cries out for interpretation. The fidget spinner, it could be argued, is the perfect toy for the age of Trump. Unlike the Tamagotchi, it does not encourage its owner to take anyone else’s feelings or needs into account. Rather, it enables and even encourages the setting of one’s own interests above everyone else’s. It induces solipsism, selfishness, and outright rudeness. It does not, as the Rubik’s Cube does, reward higher-level intellection. Rather, it encourages the abdication of thought, and promotes a proliferation of mindlessness, and it does so at a historical moment when the President has proved himself to be pathologically prone to distraction and incapable of formulating a coherent idea… Is it any surprise that, given the topsy-turvy world in which we now live, spinning one’s wheels… has been recast as a diverting recreation, and embraced by a mass audience? Last week, as the House voted to overturn the Affordable Care Act, millions of parents of children with special needs… began to worry, once again, about their children becoming uninsured, or uninsurable, an outcome the President had promised on the campaign trail would not occur. This week, after summarily firing James Comey…. [Donald Trump] issued a baffling series of contradictory explanations for what looks increasingly like the unapologetic gesture of a would-be despot. Each day, it becomes more apparent that Trump is toying with our democracy, shamelessly betting that the public will be too distracted and too stupefied to register that what he is spinning are lies.

There are at least eight things that I love about this passage. First, it adopts the full New Yorker hierarchy of values: from elevating that thing called the “common weal” as the highest good, to “outright rudeness” being the basest of transgressions. Second, the idea that the fidget spinner is somehow “masquerading” as contributing to the common weal, as if fidget spinners come in packaging that promises a morally edifying and intellectually nourishing experience. Third, the idea that the fidget spinner’s rise “cries out for interpretation.” (Does it really?) Fourth, I love rhetorical questions where the obvious answer is the opposite to the one the author wishes us to offer. (“Will it be dismissed as an overreaction…?” Yes.) Fifth, the idea that unlike the selfish fidget-spinner, the noble and pro-social Tamagotchi encourages us to care about the feelings of others. Sixth, the hilariously overstated and totally unsubstantiated claims (spinning a fidget spinner is an act of “solipsism” that causes us to “abdicate thought” and put our interests above everybody else’s). Seventh, the tribute to the great and deep “intellection” of the Rubik’s Cube. Eighth, the tortuous and contrived Trump parallel, in which the fidget spinner now tells us something about James Comey and the Affordable Care Act.

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But Mead is not alone in denouncing the spinner’s effect on human values. Ian Bogost of The Atlantic analyzes the economic dimensions of the toy, seeing it as the logical conclusion of a capitalistic logic that wishes to pacify us with doodads and trinkets to keep us blind to our own exploitation and ennui:

[Fidgets spinners] are a perfect material metaphor for everyday life in early 2017… [They are] a rich, dense fossil of the immediate present… In an uncertain global environment biting its nails over new threats of economic precarity, global autocracy, nuclear war, planetary death, and all the rest, the fidget spinner offers the relief of a non-serious, content-free topic… At a time when so many feel so threatened, aren’t handheld, low-friction tops the very thing we fight for?… Then commerce validates the spinner’s cultural status. For no cultural or social trend is valid without someone becoming wealthy, and someone else losing out. And soon enough, the fidget spinner will stand aside, its moment having been strip-mined for all its spoils at once. The only dream dreamed more often than the dream of individual knowledge and power is the dream of easy, immediate wealth, which now amounts to the same thing.

Now, I haven’t played with a fidget spinner. I’ve never even seen one. My understanding is that their prime audience is the 12-and-under set, and I am friends with very few middle schoolers these days. But I will admit that from my limited experience watching videos of the things on YouTube, I did not begin to suspect that the fidget spinners displayed “the dream of individual knowledge and power.” Nor did I notice the parallels between the twirling of the spinner and the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency. Perhaps this shows the limits of my analytical capacities, or perhaps I am blinded by the pervasiveness of the American ideology of individualism. I’ll confess, though, my basic reaction so far is that the toys look nifty and the tricks you can do with them are pretty cool.

And I’d like to think that it’s okay to feel this way. Not everything that exists in the time of Donald Trump has to be a metaphor for Donald Trump, and not every silly trinket produced by capitalism is evidence of our decline in intellectual vigor. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. (Although in Freud’s case, the cigar was a penis.) Cultural critics often display an unfortunate tendency toward “Zeitgeistism,” the borderline-paranoid belief that there are Zeitgeists everywhere, massive social and historical essences to be found in all kinds of everyday practices and objects.

One problem is that the kind of theorizing done by Bogost and Mead amounts to the telling of “just so stories,” unfalsifiable narratives that merely confirm the theorist’s already-existing worldview. That means that anyone can tell whatever story they like about the fidget spinner. You could call it evidence of solipsism, because it causes humans to interact with the spinners rather than one another. But then I could offer a different story: the fidget spinner is evidence of social dynamism and of an increasingly tactile, physical, and body-conscious world. Which one of us is right? Neither. It’s all B.S.

Any critic who wishes to offer the fidget spinner as evidence of some wider destructive social tendency faces another problem: it’s not really any more pointless or individualistic than the yo-yo, and we’ve gotten along with those for about 2500 years. If you want to see fidget spinner as uniquely representative of Trumpism and so-called “late capitalism,” you have to find a way to argue that it is fundamentally different from a yo-yo in some philosophically significant way. And since it isn’t, and since if the fidget spinner shows civilizational decline then every dumb toy in history would necessarily have to prove the same thing, every cultural critic who tries to posit a Fidget Spinner Theory of Everything ends up somewhat stuck.

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You can see this amusing dead-end whenever Bogost and Mead attempt to explain why the spinner is nothing like the generations of faddish knicknacks that came before it. (I’d imagine there were similar pieces in 2009 about how Silly Bandz explained the Obama era, or 1990’s thinkpieces on what Beanie Babies could tell us about the Clinton economy.) Mead is at pains to come up with reasons why Rubik’s Cubes and Tamagotchis are serious and worthwhile, while fidget spinners are decadent and stupid. Bogost, meanwhile, makes a hilariously convoluted attempt to meaningfully distinguish the fidget spinner from an ordinary spinning top:

A top is a toy requiring collaboration with the material world. It requires a substrate on which to spin, be it the hard earth of ancient Iraq or the molded-plastic IKEA table in a modern flat. As a toy, the top grounds physics, like a lightning rod grounds electricity. And in this collaboration, the material world always wins. Eventually, the top falls, succumbing to gravity, laying prone on the dirt… Not so, the fidget spinner. It is a toy for the hand alone—for the individual. Ours is not an era characterized by collaboration between humans and earth—or Earth, for that matter. Whether through libertarian self-reliance or autarchic writ, human effort is first seen as individual effort—especially in the West. Bootstraps-thinking pervades the upper echelons of contemporary American life, from Silicon Valley to the White House. … The fidget spinner quietly attests that the solitary, individual body who spins it is sufficient to hold a universe. That’s not a counterpoint to the ideology of the smartphone, but an affirmation of that device’s worldview. What is real, and good, and interesting is what can be contained and manipulated in the hand, directly.

Since they had spinning tops in the 35th century B.C., for Bogost to confirm his belief that fidget spinners must embody “bootstraps thinking” and “the ideology of the smartphone,” he knows he has to find some important difference. “Ah, well, you see, the top touches the ground but the fidget spinner goes in the hand, and individuals have hands, therefore the fidget spinner is individualistic and libertarian while the spinning top is humble, worldly, and environmentalist.” (Of course, Bogost is still powerless to deal with the yo-yo question. These both go in the hand and don’t touch the ground. What about the yo-yo, eh, Bogost?)

I’m particularly irritated by this kind of cultural criticism because it embodies one of the most unfortunate tendencies in left-ish political thinking: the need to spoil everybody’s fun by finding some kind of problem with everything. There is enough serious human misery in the world for the left to point out; there’s no need to problematize the fidget spinner as well. Whenever I see something like, say, Jacobin’s critique of Pokemon Go as being the “bourgeois” embodiment of an obedience-worshiping “technology of biopolitics,” I can’t help but think: “Do we really have to be these people? Because this isn’t the side I want to be on.” We’re allowed to like things. Even stupid things. And you don’t have to rain on every single parade that passes by. Rule #1 for creating a left that people will want to join: don’t be a humorless joykill who tells people that their stress toy makes them Donald Trump. 

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I might feel more sympathetic if criticisms like Bogost and Mead’s were intellectually rigorous or substantially true. But they aren’t. They don’t hold up to the most minimal logical scrutiny, because they fail to carefully answer the question of why we should consider the fidget spinner unique next to every other dumb little thing in history. They make ridiculous overstatements, and then don’t explain why we should accept their just-so stories rather than another, equally contrived but opposing, set of just-so stories.

The reason that the fidget spinner is popular is not that it embodies our society’s most depraved and fatuous tendencies, or that it signifies the erosion of our attention spans in the era of Trump. It’s popular because it’s a legitimately impressive little novelty device. Like all novelties, it will wear off. And there will be as much political significance to its disappearance as there was to its appearance: hardly any.

Fun is important, and sometimes people have fun by playing tiddlywinks or spinning a top or finding one of the myriad of other trivial diversions that keep us from having to face the full horror of our mortal existence. And people on the left shouldn’t spend their time coming up with implausible theories for why everyone is delusional and stupid for enjoying playing with spinny-things. They should be trying to understand the roots of human suffering, and proposing ways to alleviate it.

Anything else is just a distraction.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.