trigger warnings: white supremacy, brief description of slavery, brief evocation of slavery by a white person in the course of explaining something else, genocide mention
Is there a greater betrayal of the artist than for a stand-up comedian to become a peddler of a de-politicized, non-ironic vision of the American Dream? Assuming one comes to the question with an honest understanding of artists and poets as the keepers of memory, of heritage, of suffering, and of real human potential amidst the smokescreens of modern life, a more dire treason seems scarcely possible. Yet this is exactly what happened to one Kyle Cease, who, though never much of a Barry Crimmins as a stand-up, has moved quite dramatically from at least a liminal zone of relatable and empathetic human entertainment into a de-personalized neon billboard of corporate and federal status quo.
It’s interesting because, on the surface, nothing could be farther from the truth. If you ask Kyle, he’s trying to change the world and wake people up to a new reality where they have more control than they thought– or, as he’d phrase it, letting go of control itself to allow a greater “you” to come through. He uses phrases like “all your lives are falling apart, and that’s a good thing,” playing on a notion that when things go wrong it’s a chance to restructure your own values and figure out what’s important in life. He talks about how being trapped in a comfortable routine that isn’t fulfilling is worse than being unsure while following your passion. An easy thing for someone to say from the other side of total personal and financial destabilization, to say the least.
Kyle claims that his paradigm can be used by anyone, even people who have nothing. But he’s really just joining an incredibly long line of successful people telling those who are struggling that it’s possible for them to bridge the gap, if they would only do the work. Exactly what this work has meant over the years was never entirely consistent, but the fundamental individual-centricism of its message is what has kept it perhaps the most potent tool in the arsenal of hegemony, while remaining flexible enough to appear to reflect large changes in our daily realities. Using totally cheesy sentimentalist YouTube videos (I’ll reluctantly provide one example), videos of little speeches, and setting up weekend-long group workshops, Kyle has molded this old tradition into a form that takes capitalism’s rat-race mentality and media over-stimulation and uses them as evidence that not all is quite right. But it is precisely here where he stops, in his implication of the world in mass-producing conditions of suffering, and pivots instead to the victim of these conditions.
The transformation of a little-known silly comic into a motivational ideologue is not much to write home about on its own, but viewed in the context of a growing faux-leftist panel of public go-getters and ~Prophets of “You”~, it presented itself to me as a movement across a genuinely important boundary. (And, for the record, so did he- in his initial transition from comedian to “transformational speaker,” as they’re sometimes called, Cease did a lot to hype up the crossover between the two worlds and rather shamelessly turned it into a “brand,” even to such an extent as to call it “transformedy” (which… cringe). )
I felt pulled to really pause on this development, which was, to any outsider, a bizarre, random, and insignificant moment, because I got a sense that for this pull-yourself-up-by-your-psychic-bootstraps rhetoric to leak out of a standup comedian marks a dramatic turning point in the prevalence and dominance of this dangerous and violent ideology we are coming to know as contemporary neoliberalism.
To understand the neoliberal mentality and what makes it so frightening, we must start with our own economics, recognizing that contemporary American capitalism is not a neutral system, but is to the contrary, inherently oppositional, exploitative, and competitive, not just in the sense of businesses against businesses but businesses and people against other people in the face of their own survival. Marx made the case as a philosophical argument which followed naturally from basic observations of the economic framework (remember that surplus labor is an inherent feature of technological progress & that capitalism offers no solution for this other than “be the one innovating the tech not the one whose job gets replaced by it” which obviously is impossible for everyone to do), but it is even more simply embodied in the most very basic facts of the country’s history, which are far too often glossed over and minimized in this kind of analysis. I’m talking about the basic facts of slavery, the unquestionable backbone of fledgling America’s economy.
Slavery was to this new nation an absolute miracle, the country’s only saving grace which enabled it to quickly accumulate the wealth necessary to take over and colonize half of the entire continent practically upon arrival, gave credence to the new notions of a totally free market and whose extreme material successes laid the foundations for a “defense” of an eventually radically capitalist state. Writer and journalist Ta Nehisi-Coates, in his new memoir Between the World and Me, articulates the true scale of the role of white supremacy in building this nation. In the book, he, too, uses the imago of the American Dream and those who dream it as a necessary backdrop to everything that happens here, a critical key to interpreting the country:
“The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers; today, when 8 percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white.”
The blood and bones of black people who were stolen from their own land set the groundwork of the most massive concentration of wealth in the history of the world, which we see today. These were not accidents but the absolute pinnacle, the ideal form of capitalism, endless “free” labor giving way to what was perceived as a limitless future.
Managing and maintaining the inequality between slave owners and slaves was in this era the most critical concern of the owners, who knew they could not risk any slippage of their complete authority nor any loss of their insurmountable “investment.” Coates once more:
“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body– it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor– it is not so easy…enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape…The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden….It had to be blood.”
Inequalities between whites and blacks are just as staunchly maintained as they were then, as anyone paying attention to the news can sadly attest. But this fervent control over those who labor for the bourgeoisie, or those who control the means of production, did not stop at the border of skin. This exercise of slavery ended, but exploitation was always the model of American capitalism. Today, inequalities between the working class and [the billionaires who own the companies that own] the companies they work for have perhaps never been so pronounced either.
I can’t stress enough that no one, including myself, would suggest that this inequality is maintained by the same visceral passion, violence, and total evil as slavery itself, or even the vitriolic white supremacy on which it was founded. Slavery was a horror that has no parallel in poverty, even when that poverty is intentionally maintained, and anti-blackness still lives on in a form more terrible than a simple lack of resources. But the corporate disregard for the economic consequences of their richness, consequences which are rendered in human terms, is not completely dissimilar, and this is attested to by the droves of homeless in this country, and countless more people who are struggling every day not to be, here in the richest country in the world. The fact is the people with all the money likely use up more money fighting others’ efforts to provide people with what they need to live than it would cost for them to just provide those resources themselves. One has to pause on that and wonder how this could be the case, what could possibly motivate this kind of behavior. Even further, not only are the material economic facts insurmountable (it’s commonly understood that 1% of the population owns over 99% of the wealth, a disparity that really has no parallel in history) but they are reinforced by toxic ideologies which, by some twist of sinister tongue and repeated ad infinitum via television, find some way to actually blame everyone else for not being on solid ground financially, or “standing on their own two feet.” It goes without saying that this is an institutionalized form of blaming the victim, as we are all victims of an abusive economic system rigged by someone with unilateral and unchecked power over us. This will be important later.
The conditions into which one is born, therefore, are of paramount significance. If we recognize that the poor and struggling are systematically confronted with obstacles that constrain their economic mobility as well as basic livelihood, then it is obvious that those who start out in a bad spot are up against the most resistance to attaining a reasonable standard of living. But this doesn’t mean that just because one person is able to accomplish this, that anyone can, or that the resistance to working peoples’ financial independence is equal across all of those people. For example, various aspects of identity play a critically large role in either multiplying or softening the opposing forces to their stability and well-being. (The analysis of multiple of these aspects is called intersectionality).
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In any case, for those of us normal people who aren’t sons of oil tycoons, “you cant love yourself out of oppression” is an adage that is becoming common among radical queer circles, which has striking relevance to Kyle Cease and his foray into the “transformation world,” as it’s called internally. The phrase is deployed to resist the ways in which neoliberal rhetoric is deceptively centered around individual responsibility for problems which are in fact manufactured by a collective ruling class. “Strategies” such as self-love (one needn’t think further than Oprah for illustrations) are mere offshoots of the more traditional, harsher mandates of capitalism to work hard and contribute to society, which i alluded to previously. Both of these sentiments imply that only those who do so are deserving of life and basic resources, and both are equally as rooted in performance and enforced adherence to sanctioned behavior, despite the fact that self-love is not so used to being analyzed in such terms. This view is expertly dissected in this piece,which greatly inspired my own. It’s easy to see how both of these mandates for compulsory behavior modification in order to solve a problem that was made by someone else equates clearly to a form of victim-blaming, as the victim is first blamed for their circumstance and subsequently made responsible for it. It is maybe worth noting, in passing, that the modern self-love version might be viewed as a superficially feminized articulation of a traditionally masculine enterprise– such, perhaps, is the culmination of white feminism, which incidentally has taken up New Age Spirituality as a particularly infectious reincarnation of 20th century housewifery.
* * *
Kyle Cease’s version of The Love Yourself is the “Big Infinity Inside of You” which focuses on an inner well of capitalist genius and brilliance which you can use to launch yourself out of oppression because you are really a genius and you just don’t realize it, but once you do then it’s really easy to make the world realize it, and once the world realizes it you will be abundantly rewarded for being such a genius and finding such Good Thoughts. This new twist is exceptionally disturbing to me and seems to be itself some new morphology or innovation of this monster of unregulated capitalism in whose bowels we live as American citizens.
To begin with, Cease’s reliance on the premise of market capitalism and appeal to entrepreneurship make the whole thing pretty incompatible with the majority of society, who have been packed into the ever-expanding, ever-exploited “working class” and can no longer afford to even dream the American dream of owning a white picket fence business and buying a president, much less actively strive towards it. But the further notion that all it takes to make it in this society is an abundance of great ideas shows just how disconnected people like Cease are from the real world (taking a cue from 8,000 year old money monster Alan Greenspan, even), which in reality pays attention to people and their ideas and talents according only to a brutal and totally outdated hierarchy, at the top of which, it goes without saying, comfortably sits the white man. As if having some monetizable thought was the hardest part of this whole money show.
It’s interesting to think about the implied politics of ideologies which claim a separation from or appear to stay out of the realm of politics itself. If we understand in this oppressive world that to be complicit and silent is to take a stance, that there is no de-politicized sector of reality, then everything that appears to opt out of the question actually shows up, when measured against the relevant representational doctrines or figures (e.g. Greenspan), to be deeply, even irrevocably ingrained in them. In this case, Kyle Cease’s basic premise is one that ratifies the idea of the creator, the inventor, the singular genius of history, individual exceptionalism, and the virtues of earning your share, virtues which are valued above and beyond the well-being and in fact entire lives of individuals who are unable or uninterested in making such technological, aesthetic, or any other sort of innovations. Well, it’s downright Ayn Randian! Of course, Cease doesn’t preface his talks with passages from The Fountainhead, but the implied politics is every bit as important as the stated politics– especially as stated politics become more and more rooted in “accepting different kinds of people” (or bombing people because they themselves aren’t accepting, which looks even better), therefore acquiring a veneer of liberation without actually having to invest in it or risk anything for it.
This whole thought system that Cease is selling refuses to acknowledge contemporary capitalism as an intentionally violent and destructive force, which is predicated on the division between people who “contribute to society” and those who supposedly leech off the hard work of others. It thus fails to establish any relevance to regular struggling people, and instead becomes an antagonistic force against them, going so far as to blame them for not having a great capitalist invention to jump right out of poverty with. Similarly, it goes without saying as well, this ideology fails to take any accountability for the continued pattern of erasure and oppression (racial or otherwise) that would inevitably be upheld in the case of someone actually following any of Kyle’s ideas, and this perhaps scares me most. Kyle’s devotees are leaving with no sense that they owe anything to anyone and if they just focus on themselves and nourishing their own thoughts, they will be successful, and that’s all that matters. And while it’s bad enough that it’s mostly not true, it’s frightening to imagine the scenarios in which this actually does happen. As if we need more rags-to-richens tokens to invalidate the masses who can’t all have that same story, not to mention don’t necessarily wish for it.
The fact is that, to borrow one of James Baldwin’s preferred idioms, it is late in the day for this continued tolerance and indulgence of content, particularly content that claims investment in any kind of liberation, that is exclusively relevant, meaningful, and applicable to white people, either in theory or in actual practice. An insufferably common rebuttal against any kind of attempt to hold white people accountable for their complicity in the genocidal re-writing of reality by white supremacist international superpowers such as the United States, or any of its innumerable symptoms such as Cease’s paradigm-product which we are discussing, is to say that “well that might be true but this thing in particular isn’t about race,” and to try to compartmentalize racial discussion and concerns in other, very limited and isolated ways. These new spirituality scams are especially guilty of this, often jumping off of Buddhist notions of no-self into a total denial of responsibility for their own life and its impact on the world. Slavoj Zizek even wrote about this connection and its manifestation as corporate spirituality or Western Buddhism, but he annoys me too much to actually bother drudging it up and it’s an entirely commonsense argument anyway. No point in getting the continental philosophers involved…
The not-so-invisible obsessively capitalist bias of Kyle Cease’s message is even exacerbated in his own behavior and professional interests, which even from his early days involved playing corporate meetings and other business-class events as a comedian and then later as a consultant. In the transformation world, while Cease constantly makes populist appeals and claims that his messages are for really everyone, one can’t help but notice an attention to managers, bosses, or company owners, in the way he addresses his audience and the examples he uses when he talks. It is downright bizarre, honestly– his “fruits of the mind” approach seems to be frequently geared towards mining oneself for “new ideas for your company,” a thought that I can’t imagine most of us can even relate to on the most basic level. He seems to believe that businesses are run by a series of breakthroughs and innovations, and a CEO is someone who wakes up in the middle of the night to write down, like, a great new way to design toaster ovens, like, 5 out of 7 nights of the week, or something.
Cease’s latest model of Awareness 2.0 is what he calls an experiment in meditation– the “experiment” part is for someone so esteemed and productive as him to engage such a process as meditating, and for a white man to once again reclaim and re-define the terms of the practice, colonizing it in the image of the free market. This is the “invisible hand” of the market reimagined as a spiritual entity. Kyle said he was going to meditate for two hours every morning, and then make a video right after, for 100 days in a row, and invited his audience to join him at their leisure.
When I first saw Kyle’s first videos leading into this series, I tried to see it as an opportunity to connect some dots for myself and to take a shot at putting my concerns into words and out into the world. Part of this was likely basic naiveté on my part, but there was also something in Kyle’s own rhetoric, where he says he wants to be “co-collaborators” with everyone and thinks everyone should see each other as potential business partners (which, lol). In this I felt I had an out– he is aligned with some notion of interaction and openness to dialogue, so maybe he would play by his rules and listen to me. I dropped him a comment on the video, basically outlining the general omission of the idea of privilege, ability, and access to resources in his new video as well as his overall paradigm of the last few years. I would include my comment here but Kyle, uh, deleted it, after a brief public back-and-forth between the two of us which ended with him offering to “talk about this more with me on his podcast” so we didn’t have to do all this typing. To be fair, his last comment did end with an invitation to drop him a message if I was interested, but his motivations for deleting this exchange, for not wanting even a resolved instance of dissent to be present and visible to anyone else, can be, in my mind, nothing short of sinister, manipulative and draconian.
But hey, I wanted to play this one out. I sent him a nice message, pretty long one. Sent him another one 4 days later. Not a word. Meanwhile his video series continued, consisting of basically a successful wealthy white guy raving about how great he feels when he takes some time off from counting all his money and sits with himself and just basks in the glory of his life and Oh To Be Alive and watching all the Negative Thoughts dissolving. The dissonance between on the one hand his blatant evasion of me and my concerns, and his unchanging attitude in these videos on the other, began to build into a tension for me. Here’s one of the most comfortable, safe, financially secure guys in the world talking about how great and connected he feels, and he still isn’t, apparently, up for the task of being accountable, or even having a conversation about what that might mean? It’s a shame, too, because I was really gonna lay it all out for him, piece by piece, and I really thought he had a shot at getting it and making some changes, using his platform in a way that might actually be significant to those of us out here doing the daily labor of trying to produce change on a meaningful scale.
But he just kept going, riding his own wave of bliss into a totally disconnected world, sharing revelations about “not having to prove himself to anyone” and knowing that just being okay inside is enough.
It’s enough to make you sick, really. But at the same time it’s nothing new. Eventually I had to divest from the notion that just because this guy gave me a few minutes and sent me some words of affirmation and did some superficial posturing about wanting to dialogue further that he had anything in him other than what he’d already shown himself to have. I had to stop worrying about him as a potential and powerful connection, a possible accomplice in the crime of attempting liberation, and stop playing the respectability game where the powers that be string you along with no real plan or intention of actually turning around but pay lip service to the possibility. I realized I was waiting for him like we’re all waiting on something else, like how that always becomes our excuse for not doing it ourselves. I got tired of waiting like we all got tired of waiting all the other times revolutionary interests briefly and superficially intersected with concentrated sources of power. I gathered up what rage I had left (don’t worry, there’s never a shortage) and pushed in all my chips without much in the way of expectation for what would follow. (the ice cube thing was a riff off one of his latest metaphors but it doesn’t really matter)
Funny how this got his attention after my extremely patient and empathetic first two attempts fell on totally deaf ears, isn’t it?
And his reply? I believe it can be sincerely summarized by, in all this statement’s full adolescent glee, “I was going to, but now I’m not going to lol”
Then he blocked me (which, lol).
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It’s interesting how quickly these types (white boys lol) jump to play the victim and use that as their out. I really don’t know why this guy would have said what he said to me, and then totally ignored my follow ups, unless it was totally a farce to begin with (which, even now, I still find hard to totally believe for myself). But there’s no question that what he ultimately did reply to, in effect, was the way in which I chose to express my own feelings about what he was doing. He avoided and totally stonewalled my content, and replied solely, exclusively, and, it is worth noting, immediately, to my TONE.
There is a range of responses that privileged people tend to gravitate towards when called out for their own irresponsible behavior. These are emergency-exits that have been built into our (or, I should say, their) dialect, big red buttons that people press to reset equilibrium and recover their position as dominant, in control, and above all comfortable. They involve an array of derailing tactics, often underpinned by a politics of respectability. Perhaps one of the most pervasive and insidious derailing tactics is tone policing, and other forms of opting out of a conversation based on the way people are addressing them. The underlying message here is one of blatant supremacy, an assertion that the privileged person deserves not only respect but authority, the authority to dictate the terms and conditions of conversation as a sine qua non of their engagement and attention.
The pettiness latent in this kind of response, I believe, speaks for itself. Not to mention the extraordinary unlikihood of Cease’s genuine intention to get back to me in the first place, at least by the time I had waited two weeks without response, making the whole thing a red herring for him to avoid following through on his own promises.
As an active and unapologetic participant in civic society, this is a mindset I work against constantly and I honestly can’t even indulge it anymore, no matter the promise that might wait for me on the other side of reluctant cordiality. I can’t let the thought that “maybe something will come of this if I play by the rules” overshadow the victory that is in that process pre-emptively handed over when I agree to these rules. This is because their rules are an absolute, to-the-core existential hierarchy of who belongs, whose voice and thoughts are worth consideration, and in the bigger picture whose bodies matter. Role-playing as a subordinate in order to potentially gain something greater, even if it’s for a good cause, is not the same as neutral diplomacy. It is surrendering what limited agency you start with, right back to the oppressor who limited that agency to begin with, and this sort of exchange will never get us to real freedom.
Kyle Cease became a lost cause probably at the moment he destroyed the evidence that he had communicated an intention to listen to and recognize me as an equal, but I hope his story can be illuminating for others, who might be now or in the future involved in some other new version of this old conflict, whether they find themselves representing his role or one similar to my own.