What Even Matters Anymore?
Saturday Night Live and Our Faustian Bargains
By Edwardo Pérez
The Last Jedi gave us a nihilistic view to ruminate on as we finished out 2017, not just of Star Wars, but of the state of our (dis)union – it was the perfect ending to a year that saw new levels of disillusionment creep into every sector of our society (a year where child molesters, on principle, were declared better than any democrat). This pessimism was echoed by Jessica Chastain when, while hosting Saturday Night Live on Jan 20th, she broke character during a skit to ask “What even matters anymore?” It’s a nice postmodern (meta) moment, with Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon also breaking character, calling Jessica by her real name (though, on a second viewing it seems as if the breaking character thing was part of the skit). Still, as is common with SNL, it’s timely and it is prescient, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist haunting our nation.
The skit has Chastain hosting a game show called “What Even Matters Anymore?” where she asks contestants hypothetical questions about Trump. When contestants suggest that some things do matter (like Trump’s “shithole” comment or his alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels) Chastain proclaims these things “do not matter, because zero consequences and everyone just moves on.” Throughout the skit, Chastain (almost prophetically, given what would occur in the following days) calls out Republicans, Evangelicals, Fox News, and Trump supporters, until she ends the skit by chugging a bottle of wine while the contestants write down what they think would matter. Chastain laughs at their responses and eventually, McKinnon chimes in saying, “Jessica, you don’t have to do this,” to which Cecily Strong adds, “Jessica, we know you’re upset about the way our country’s going, but you can’t just, like, build a whole game show and make us pretend to be contestants.” Jessica responds by saying, “I’m sorry guys, it just seems like nothing matters anymore.”
What’s significant is that Chastain’s episode aired on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration – the same day thousands of women across the country protested. The very next day, Screen Actors Guild awards show host Kristen Bell threw shade at Melania Trump. The jab had to do with cyber bullying, but the larger point wasn’t lost: Melania is lacking a little moral courage (though, as we would later see, she didn’t accompany Trump to Switzerland – it’s a start?).
Of course, all of this was taking place amidst our three-day government shutdown, setting the tone for a week that would see whatever was left of our nation’s morality nearly evaporate (really, Chastain’s refrain still resonates).
On Jan. 22nd, Senator Chuck Schumer and the senate democrats sold out nearly a million children (DACA recipients) on the calculation that it would ultimately help vulnerable Democratic senators in red states win re-election in November. On Jan. 23rd, Tony Perkins (president of the conservative Family Research Council) gave Trump a “mulligan” for the past seventy years of his life (effectively admitting to everything Trump’s been accused of) so long as Trump continues to support policies favorable to Evangelicals (and Franklin Graham, son of the legendary Billy Graham, proclaimed that Trump was “a changed man” 🤔 – Chastain called it perfectly).
We also learned two things from former Vice-President Joe Biden (who spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations) on Jan. 23rd. First, that Mitch McConnell effectively blocked any bipartisan effort to explain (about three weeks before we voted) Russia’s involvement in 2016’s election to the American people. Second, that the Obama Administration decided not to tell anyone because they didn’t want it to appear that they were attempting to sway the election in favor of Hillary Clinton.
So, McConnell is okay if a foreign government steals our democracy as long as it benefits Republicans, and Biden and Obama (and everyone else who knew) lacked the moral courage to tell us anyway (and then blamed McConnell for blocking them). Biden admitted, “Had we known what we knew three weeks later, we may have done something more.” Really? Morality is nothing more than a political calculus? We love you Joe, but even the article you co-authored on foreignaffairs.com (“How to stand up to the Kremlin”) rings hollow in hindsight – it’s one thing to have morals, it’s another thing to use them (but hey, What even matters anymore?).
Note to all political and religious leaders: Moral courage occurs when you do the right thing when it’s hard, not when it’s easy (watch the videos of all the victims confronting Nassar – that’s how it’s done). And now, thanks in part to a lack of our collective moral courage (which, arguably contributed to the rise of Trump and the enabling of Kim Jong-Un and led to Chastain’s breakdown), atomic scientists have moved the Doomsday Clock to two minutes until midnight – because when you lack morals you allow the rhetoric (what the scientists describe as “policy-based evidence making”) of madmen to increase “the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation,” as the scientists warn.
Let’s be clear, every politician is guilty of cutting whatever deal they can to ensure that their ideology prevails (there’s certainly an interesting Game of Thrones/Darwinian aura to it all). The Obama administration rolled the dice in 2016 and lost. Evangelicals, famous for touting family values, willingly choose to support a man devoid of values in exchange for policies – not policies that help the poor, not policies that help children, not policies that show compassion for others, just policies that make it easier to discriminate under the guise of religious freedom. While liberals, the supposed champions of the oppressed and downtrodden, don’t have the guts to actually fight for the oppressed and downtrodden. Biden asked, “Can you imagine what would’ve happened if Obama had held a press conference?” Yes, Joe, we can. We can even imagine what would’ve happened if Obama had stood up to McConnell and pushed for Merrick Garland (or, going back to McConnell’s last re-election in 2014, we can imagine what would’ve happened if the DNC and Obama had pushed back against American Crossroads and helped Ashley Judd run to defeat McConnell) – perhaps, somewhere in Marvel’s Multiverse, all these alternate realities are playing out (if any can figure out how to send me and my family to the one where Luke is Rey’s father, Michelle Obama is president, and Global Warming actually is a hoax, please tweet me: @edwardoperez513).
But, politicians aren’t the only ones guilty of lacking moral courage. It’s easy to say someone like Larry Nassar (or Trump) has no morals. It’s also easy to say Michigan State’s administration lacks morals – they traded all these girl’s dignity and personhood for the sake of money and prestige (and they gave outgoing president Lou Anna Simon a nice golden parachute for all her great fundraising work). Of course, Penn State traded the bodies of countless little boys (offering them to Jerry Sandusky as if he were an Ephor from the film 300) for the sake of football.
Yet, the reason parents take their children to men like Nassar (or wanted them to play for Paterno and Sandusky), the reason coaches and trainers recommended men like Nassar, and the reason universities and Olympic training centers have men like Nassar on their payroll (the reason nothing matters) is because they all want to win and they’ll do whatever they have to do to win. As Destiny Teachnor-Hauk (a current trainer at Michigan State – yes, she’s still employed) reportedly told victim Tiffany Thomas Lopez, “He does this to all the other athletes. You either suck it up or you don’t play.” As the Lansing State Journal reports, Teachnor-Hauk not only knew Nassar for eighteen years, she took over his job after he was fired in 2016, and, when questioned by MSU police and the FBI, “She told investigators that if athletes said Nassar was in their private area, she’d use a model of the pelvis to explain to athletes what Nassar was doing.” 😠
And, let’s be honest, some of Nassar’s victims wanted to win, too. To be clear, the girls Nassar abused are survivors of horrific abuse (and enablers like Simon and Teachnor-Hauk will hopefully suffer a similar fate as Nassar – at least the US Olympic Committee is starting to clean house by demanding the resignation of every member of the USA Gymnastics board of directors). But, it is difficult to fathom how one girl admitted she’d been abused by Nassar six hundred times and another girl babysat for Nassar’s children (while he was abusing her and while she was in therapy for being abused). Were there really no other options for these girls? Similarly, was there really no other way to get cast in Hollywood during the past thirty years without going through Harvey Weinstein’s couch? (And why the hell are directors like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen still allowed to make movies? Oh, right, What even matters anymore?)
So, how are we supposed to decide what to do? Where does moral courage come from? How can we make things matter and make Jessica Chastain happy? (She did get a group hug at the end of her skit, but that’s not enough to quell the nihilistic nosedive we’re all taking these days). Let’s start with Immanuel Kant.
Kant suggests that we should act in such a way that our actions could become universal law and that we should never treat people as a means to an end. This is his categorial imperative, a deontological approach that views morality as a duty to act a certain way (like not having affairs with porn stars). Right now, it seems that the duty of politicians is to party and themselves, not country and certainly not humanity – likewise for religious leaders (religious freedom is okay so long as it’s your religion and so long as it’s your beliefs that are allowed to be free). They certainly want universal law, but it’s a perverted universal law that’s actually immoral because it’s born out of hate for others. This brings us to Jeremy Bentham.
Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, suggests that we should act in a way that maximizes happiness, but not just our own – we should think of others, too. Or, as it is often phrased, we ought to bring about the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Our political and religious leaders might be pursuing happiness, but they’re not maximizing happiness. They’re minimizing it – because when your focus is on party (and constituencies and your ethnic groups only) you’re not thinking about the greater good. Again, it’s a distortion of the philosophy.
We could examine Carol Gilligan’s ethics of care next – which holds that morality comes from empathy and compassion – but this would be futile, considering the lack of empathy and compassion displayed by those who lead us (there’s no twisting of philosophy here, there’s only absence). And, we haven’t even covered virtue ethics, applied ethics, metaethics, social contract theory, or Eastern philosophy (which might take a while). Instead, let’s see how consequentialism might help us understand the void of moral courage we see today.
Consequentialism (which has many philosophers associated with it because there are many ways to carve it up) generally holds that the consequence of our conduct is the best way to judge the morality of our behavior. This is what Jessica’s SNL skit was so worked up about – the lack of consequences for Trump and those who support him (and what, as we’ll later see, Cecily Strong’s Weekend Update interview called us on). Consequentialism is trying to get us to think ahead, but (again) we’ve corrupted that philosophical consideration into an ends-justify-the-means strategy for living a selfish life: we desire a certain outcome and then we set about to make it happen (Who cares if it’s actually ethical or moral? What even matters anymore?). We tell ourselves that we’re right in what we believe, we’re right in what we advocate, we’re right in our actions – and, as long as the outcomes produced are good for us (as long as America is “great again” for us and we get the consequences we want) we feel justified and validated (and Jessica reaches for the bottle). This certainly relates to various types of hedonistic utilitarian and consequentialist philosophies focused on pleasure as a guiding principle. Yet, we don’t seem to be guided by pleasure so much as hate, selfishness, and callousness. And, moral courage isn’t pleasurable, it’s painful (no one in the courtroom with Nassar, not even the Judge, was experiencing any pleasure – everyone was in pain).
Maybe this is the real Faustian Bargain: we don’t make a deal with the devil, we make it with ourselves. We’ll give up our morality in exchange for anything so long as we’re able to convince ourselves that we’re right and that everyone else is wrong – which leads to fake news, alternative facts, denial of science, conspiracy theories of a deep state/secret FBI society, and a return to the belief that the Earth is flat (or, for some, a belief that the Earth is hollow and populated with alien Vikings and Nazis who have their own mini-sun as a source of energy – seriously, they’re called Hollow-Earthers).
Of course, it helps us reinforce this corruption if we surround ourselves with others who think like us, if we only watch news that thinks like us, if we only join political parties and churches who think like us, if we only live in cities that think like us, if we only read books and watch movies and eat at restaurants and listen to music that think like us and so on. We’ve become our own devil, our own Big Brother, and our own Shylock demanding a pound of flesh in exchange for every selfish desire. And this brings us back to SNL.
What’s significant about SNL is that it offers us the benefit of absurd satire as social commentary, allowing us to laugh at the mirror it holds up to society. Indeed, during Jan. 20th’s Weekend Update segment, cast member Cecily Strong impersonated Stormy Daniels in a mock interview with cast member Colin Jost, driving home the point that Stormy Daniels is “the hero” we deserve right now. As she explains, “When I was hanging out late at night with Donald Trump and Ben Roethlisberger, and the one I trusted to get me home safe was Ben Roethlisberger, and then you guys went and made the other guy president, you get a Stormy. And ladies, when it’s the one-year anniversary of the women’s march and y’all are arguing about who gets to say me too and who doesn’t, you get a Stormy […] and America you need to accept your reality, too. You all wish you were living in 1920s Paris with Barack Obama, but guess what, Honey, you’re in 1990’s Orlando with Trumpy and Stormy and that’s what you get, you get a Stormy.”
Maybe Strong’s sketch is right, maybe Stormy Daniels (and everything she represents) is the consequence we deserve right now. Indeed, Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush cold open on Jan 27th reiterated this conclusion, reminding us that we began the twenty-first century by selling out (which resulted in two endless wars, torture memos, too big to fail bailouts, severe job loss, a recession, and so on). As Ferrell’s Dubya asserts: “Back in my day, we didn’t let Russians rig our election. We used the Supreme Court like Americans.”
So, how do we change this? How do we get our moral courage back? How do we make things matter again?
Perhaps we just need to follow the example set by Rachael Denhollander, the first girl to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse – which ultimately led to Nassar’s trial and sentencing (because once Rachael spoke, one hundred and fifty-five others followed – and if there is any justice, we’ll have about as many arrests and lawsuits in the coming months). As Judge Rosemarie Aquilla said to Rachel, “You made all of this happen. You made all of these voices matter. Your sister survivors and I thank you. You are the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom.” Imagine if we had more people like Rachael (or even more Judges like Aquilla) instead of people like our current political and religious leaders. What kind of world would that be?
What Rachael and Judge Aquilla teach us is that we need to find our duty again, we need to think of the greater good again, we need to find our empathy and compassion again, and we need to consider the consequences again. Or, as Jessica Chastain might say, we need to make things matter again (so that we don’t get a Stormy).
Edwardo Pérez is an Associate Professor of English at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas.
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