TK Newsletter: Yuletide Edition

Near the end of a miserable year, we reflect on the immoral things that make us happy

I bought a tree, and on the way home, found myself pondering environmental impact. I hate fake trees, but was it time to invest in one? Surely it’s better for the earth to keep a single re-usable implement in the garage, as opposed to yearly slaughtering a living, oxygen-producing, CO2-consuming being?

At home, like all good Americans, I asked Google for moral advice. It turns out real trees are righteous. We should think of them “more like cucumbers or corn than towering pines,” I read. Their carbon impact routs that of fake trees (which require “intense carbon emissions to produce and ship”), and tree farmers use sustainable methods and plant 1-3 seedlings in place of every tree cut down. Real trees are also fully biodegradable and have all sorts of uses even after being discarded, including, get this, helping forestall beach erosion. In other words, you actually help the environment by killing a tree.

On the other hand, at least some of the 10 million or so fake trees America buys every year end up getting thrown out, adding to the jaw-dropping 25% increase in trash discarded every year in this country between Thanksgiving and the New Year. That’s 1 million tons of extra trash per annum, which CNN says includes “everything from food to wrapping paper, holiday decorations, packaging, and old cellphones and laptops that are unceremoniously dumped as soon as the latest models emerge from under the Christmas tree.” Buy a real tree, sure, but you’ll probably still suck for what you put under it.

After placing my tree in a stand, I watched another video, about how a single Christmas tree can be filled with up to 25,000 pests, including mites, aphids, mice, frogs, and even “small snakes.” A new-ish arrival called the “brown marmorated stink bug” has apparently already eaten much of the state of Maryland. It turns out there’s a whole genre of bug-in-Christmas-tree horror stories on YouTube, many from local affiliates using classic ledes like, “This year, there may be more than ornaments hanging from your tree…” If you want to second-guess away every seemingly innocent moment of your life, just let your mind wander on the Internet for thirty seconds or so. That’ll fix you.

2020 has been a rough year, in the area of taking second looks at things long taken for granted. This was a year in which things we knew were problematic, like Thomas Jefferson’s slave-owning past or the name of Dan Snyder’s multi-dimensionally embarrassing football team, became unacceptable, while other things not previously identified as big problems, like blind auditions at the New York Philharmonic, Abraham Lincoln, and air, became so.

It may be simple maturation, or a mass effort at constructing a new order as traditional religious traditions fade, or even a by-product of being forced by a pandemic to spend (a lot) more time online, but the defining characteristic of 2020 America was its manic reevaluation of everything, from history to gender to language to nationality to government, law, love, art, humor, sex, family, and countless other things. We’ve become a society awash in data and options, while fewer and fewer old guiding principles pass smell tests, leaving us in an accelerating cycle of increased choice and dwindling conviction.

From elections to money (how long can the Fed keep this up?), no one in the Covid-19 age seems to know what the definition of anything is anymore, and the appearance of UFOs as an apparently legit news story this year not only made weird sense, but underscored the new upside-down nature of everything.

Hell, why not aliens? Maybe that’s who can tell us whether or not to blow up Mount Rushmore, or explain why our political comedy suddenly sucks so much, if advanced beings even have comedy. After this year, I’m a little concerned visitors from the futuristic civilizations might have bad news on that front.

America for all its political and moral depravity was once fairly advanced in its sense of fun. We gave the world rock n’ roll, free love, monster dunks, rap, twerking, cartoons, standup, the Marx Brothers, doughnuts, and Die Hard. It was part of our basically Protestant tradition: we believed that if you worked to earn the money yourself, you should be free to spend it on pet rocks or booze or an obscene motorcycle with flame decals that spews fumes and noise in all directions.

The modern American lacks such a spiritual permission mechanism and is paralyzed by floods of data about the impact of recreational decisions. Eat bacon, and you’re helping build disgusting, pathogen-filled manure lagoons. Buy a burger, you’re deforesting Brazil. Your awesome sneakers were stitched by Indonesian 12-year-olds. That soda bottle you just tossed will end up in an expanding Pacific Ocean garbage patch already three times the size of France. Part of that will be your fault. Beyond that, social scientists are claiming to learn more all the time about how your words and even your involuntary thoughts and actions are constantly harming those all around you, in thousands of “micro” sins you never imagined possible.

The more you learn, the harder it is to avoid the conclusion that any human community including you is a destructive force, ironically like a virus, making it the responsibility of all educated people to work toward lessening its destructive footprint before any of us can even think about enjoying ourselves again. If only we could un-know it all! The Unabomber was right: not only has technology enslaved us, making us permanent handmaidens to machines supposedly designed to save us time, it has vastly expanded the scope of perceivable responsibility, saddling each of us with the task of fixing a whole world that, in years like this one, seems beyond repair.

Maybe the only solution really is to blow it all up. Maybe I should have bought a real tree, and a truck full of fertilizer. Why do things by halves? Strike a blow all at once…

Or just stay off Google, hang some stockings, and just enjoy the holidays, a beautiful thing even this year. It’s one or the other, probably.

In all seriousness, if you don’t celebrate Christmas, have fun and relax in the best way you can, for as long as you can, with the people you love the most. We all deserve a break, from this crazy time and from our own worries.

Thanks again to TK subscribers for all your support. It’s been a wonderful experience working for you so far. We have some things we’re going to try after the New Year, but that’s a for-later discussion. For now, best wishes again, and here’s what you’ll find on TK this month:

The Legacy of President Donald Trump. A look back at what was both an epically long trip in a circle, and a quintessentially American story.

Meet the Censored: Olivia Katbi-Smith. An activist for the Democratic Socialists of America talks about how arguments in favor of “banning hate speech” will end up being used against grassroots activists.

What Public Defenders See: Authorized for Release, But Still Jailed. A loophole allows judges to punt detention decisions to jail employees.

Amazing” Hypocrisy: Democrats Make Wreck of Covid-19 Relief Negotiations. How the coronavirus relief bill keeps getting negotiated downward.

Pandemic Villains: Robinhood. The Joe Camel campaign of online trading propels a company built by Stanford algorithmic traders to the top, thanks to something called “payment for deal flow.”

They Were Young Once: Neera Tanden. It turns out Joe Biden’s controversial OMB pick didn’t quote the Grateful Dead in her high school yearbook.

The YouTube Ban is Un-American, Wrong, and Will Backfire. Clamping down on post-electoral complaining might come at a high price.

Student Loan Horror Stories: Borrowed: $79,000. Paid: $190,000. Now Owes? $236,000. Make enough mistakes in borrowing for education, and you may end up paying five times your original balance, if you don’t die first.