By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

The people must fight for the law as for city walls – Heraclitus

This is the fiftieth bar article that I've written for Stay Thirsty Magazine. Like most milestones, it came up a lot sooner than I thought it would, and it still seems as though I've only scratched the surface of what it's like to spend your nights drinking your way through New York City. Looking back at a career my liver certainly most certainly laments, I realize that I've at least drawn a fairly good sketch of what the city's bars are like and perhaps even how this city has changed in the past eight years. For the amount of poison I've rented from these places, it's a good start.

However, one thing I noticed is that I have spent far too much time focusing on gentrification and how it's changing the city. It's difficult not to talk about it. Some of my favorite neighborhoods have been so radically changed in the seventeen years I've been here that I barely recognize them and many of the establishments that I've written about have been lost because of rent hikes or buyouts. Spanky and Darla's (which was Cheap Shots before that) is now the Hard Swallow, Mary's is now a veterinarian's office, Barrel & Fare has gone dark, Matchless has been gutted, Hank's Saloon will be bulldozed sometime next year (though it will be reincarnated in a food hall at the western end of the Fulton Mall), and the building where the Mars Bar stood is now a luxury condo with a TD Bank on the ground floor. It's a subject that gets a lot of press for a reason.

I've also spent a lot of time meeting people, getting drunk with them, and just listening to what they have to say. And I don't talk about that all that often. So, as a change of pace, I'm going to do that, though I'm going to also go on a long tangent that takes the words of Heraclitus above as it's starting off point once I've made my initial remarks on one of the archetypal characters you're likely to meet at any New York City dive bar.

Jay Fox

Here we go.

I've started to call him the gullible skeptic. He's typically at the end of the bar. He knows the bartender. He knows the regulars. He might give you a cautious eye if you get too close, and he may even say something out of the side of their mouth in your direction if you end up waiting for bartender for more than a minute or two.

He's typically a white man who could be described as an older millennial—i.e. in his thirties. He typically seems like he's fairly bright and college educated. He typically is a little shaggy but isn't so poorly groomed that you think he's drinking away his savings because he just lost his job or got divorced. Sure, he's not wealthy, but he's not totally broke either. He seems like he probably has a mildly creative gig that pays enough so that he can get shitfaced at the bar without stressing about rent come the first of the month. Perhaps when he sees me, he recognizes something of a kindred spirit—though a far less curmudgeonly one.

Going back to what I called him originally, the gullible skeptic, one may think that this is something of an oxymoron. Gullible people typically aren't skeptical (one who “suspends judgment,” in the words of the Roman philosopher Sextus Empiricus) and skeptical people aren't gullible. Either you’re one or the other, but not both—or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work when you live in normal times.

We, of course, do not live in normal times.

We are living in the midst of a bizarre and increasingly tribal civil war wherein two political parties that inhabit fiefdoms within the political landscape of America use misinformation and whataboutism as their weapons of choice. They use them, not to advance an agenda, but rather to score cheap political points at the expense of the other. On the one hand, it’s profoundly unproductive. On the other, the constant undermining of the two leaves those who don’t identify with either party feeling like our political system is morally and intellectually bankrupt, and that the institutions the two parties represent are built upon sand.

And I've found that this atmosphere has an impact on a lot of people, particularly the gullible skeptic I started to describe above. In the past, when I started writing these articles, he seemed tethered to something. He was cynical, but there was a sense of disappointment when a politician proved to be corrupt or a public figure sacrificed an ideal. He was coarse, but there was no malice in his words. His jokes were tasteless, but they were just that: jokes. There was a compass that I wouldn't identify as moral, but it held him together and kept him from ethical vertigo.

Fast-forward to today and that compass is gone. These men have drifted into the arms of a kind of nihilism where everyone and everything is corrupt and, consequently, it's stupid to put your faith in anyone or anything. Their words are tinged by acid, and that acid grows more apparent and corrosive the drunker they get. Eventually, their wisecracks cease to be even mildly amusing. It becomes boldfaced racism or misogyny. The more ostracized they become, the more they lash out.

They feel persecuted because no one wants to be around them. They feel as though their freedom of speech has been infringed upon because people don't want to hear their rape joke. They feel as though P.C. culture has gone too far because they've been asked to leave the bar for being belligerent and one drink away from either passing out or vomiting into one of the urinals.

How the hell did we get here? Why are there so many angry and nihilistic young(ish) men?

No, it's not just Donald Trump. He's a symptom of the disease. For years, whether it was Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or whoever was the most provocative douche du jour on Fox News, there have been more vulgar and horrible people who become increasingly popular for saying increasingly horrible and vulgar things. Unfortunately, this is one of the sad truths about America: We love provocateurs. The more vulgar (whether because it’s overly simplified or because it’s extremely tasteless) an idea is, the more likely it is to be noticed. The more likely it is to be noticed, the more likely it is to be repeated. The more likely it is to be repeated, the more likely it is to be believed.

Initially politics suffered from just the inane kind of vulgarity, exemplified by such luminaries as Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, and Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. The more barbarous kind of vulgarity, meanwhile, remained on television in the form of the Jersey Shore or the Kardashians vapid show or The Apprentice. However, if there's one thing America loves more than provocateurs and vulgarity it's synergy, which, of course, gave us the apotheosis of the vulgar provocateur, Donald Trump—who early today called a porn star with whom he had an affair, “Horseface.” (The porn star, meanwhile, accused the President of the United States—from whom she collected $130,000 after she signed a non-disclosure agreement (that he then managed to screw up because he forgot to sign it)—of being into bestiality.) No one really thought it was that weird. It was just, you know, typical news or, for the former party of pearl-clutching Bible thumpers and members of the Moral or Silent Majority, Donald being Donald.

So this is part of it: The normalization of vulgarity, which doesn’t just make our culture coarser. It does more than that. It undermines the idea that anything really matters beyond the bottom line. Dignity becomes the type of decorum that only supercilious people give a shit about. Integrity becomes a liability because it means there are lines that you won’t cross to get your way, which, in our current political climate of winner-take-all warfare, is considered abject weakness. Eventually, this kind of amoralistic outlook leads people to nihilism.

As more institutions abandon any pretense of belonging to some kind of noble tradition, these nihilists increase in number and they become bolder, cockier and more hellbent on not being taken. Nothing matters and only idiots or liars believe otherwise. Their kneejerk reactions to the scent any kind of faith in a social construction is fierce. Politics: bullshit. The media: bullshit. The government: bullshit. Anything that is “mainstream” or “establishment”: bullshit.

To be skeptical of and to captiously look down upon these institutions becomes a mark of intelligence to this group. Furthermore, when these institutions fail to live up to the values that they espouse, these nihilists feel vindicated. They feel as though they have won.

So what does this person believe in?

This is what's interesting. Though they are wont to question anything they read in the Washington Post or the New York Times and call you a fool for not questioning what these papers print too, and though they might call themselves free thinkers or libertarians or whatever, they are extremely susceptible to conspiracy theories and other things that “they” (the mainstream media, the government, whatever nebulous THEY! they've invented) don’t want you know. It's really quite remarkable. Some of these people are willing to believe any piece of evidence that suggests that Obama is secretly Kenyan, that the Clintons were involved in a pedophilia ring based out of a pizzeria's basement, that humans are some kind of hybrid race designed by aliens, that vaccines cause autism or that the United Kingdom will be better off without Europe. By them a beer and they'll tell you all about the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, Bohemian Grove, how 9/11 was an inside job and that the science behind climate change is all fake and just part of a plot to nationalize America's golf courses due to an innocuous-sounding (and non-binding) United Nations action plan known as Agenda 21. Ask them about history and they'll inform you that the Civil War was not at all about slavery and that the Muslims somehow managed to be the reason behind the fall of Rome even if Muhammad was born about a century after the last emperor was deposed. They can go on for hours.

What you come to find is that these people who pride themselves on their skepticism, end up becoming total and complete rubes.

So long as you couch whatever message you have in language that makes its sound subversive or against the mainstream, they'll buy it. It could be a product (“the secret the pharmaceutical industry doesn't want you know!”), it could be a politician, it could be a diet, it could be a worldview based on pseudoscience and a philosophy no serious person has ascribed to in a century. It doesn't matter. So long as it's against “them,” they are willing to buy it. (As a case in point, watch Ancient Aliens on the History Channel, and take note of how the narrator uses the term “mainstream” to describe the beliefs of historians and archaeologists who remain incredulous about “ancient astronaut theory.”)

So from where does this spite come?

There are a lot of reasons and I would be a fool to think that I could sum it up with one overarching source, but I think a lot of it stems from the rage that came in the wake of the recession. For a lot of Americans, particularly people in my age group and socioeconomic situation (from a middle class family and in possession of an undergraduate degree from a relatively good school), the recession disrupted what was supposed to be our life's trajectory. Perhaps more importantly, it left us feeling like we were on our own and with a bad taste in our mouths for the grand institutions of our democracy that gladly handed over hundreds of billions of dollars (some say the final cost was in the trillions) to Wall Street in the form of a bailout, but wouldn't lift a finger to provide for to the majority of people in communities leveled by the foreclosure crisis. It shattered a lot of illusions.

Even in the best case scenarios, millions of peoples' careers stagnated and the stable middle class life that we assumed we would have access to became illusory. We didn't have the money to get married or to buy a home. For many, the industry we assumed we'd work in changed radically and ceased to be an avenue to gainful employment. We were forced to take on two or three part-time jobs to supplement a salary that either stayed the same or decreased even as rent started to skyrocket.  

After a few years, the economic indexes began to show that the recession was easing and that a recovery was underway. However, many of us didn't see it that way. That stable life remained (and continues to remain) just out of reach as we're working more, earning less and continuing to feel squeezed by student debt, credit card debt and diminishing job opportunities in fields that actually pay a living wage. The resultant instability makes all other issues—immigration, civil rights, gun control—far more volatile.

To put it in somewhat hyperbolic terms (one appropriate for an era in which walking clickbait can go from a failed casino tycoon and Page Six staple to President of the United States), the recession caused a legitimacy crisis. To put it in a more measured way, a healthy skepticism for the most important institutions of the economic, political and social system that was established by the West during and in the direct aftermath of the Cold War became warped into a deranged and blind contrarianism because we were told that everything was getting better by mainstream politicians and the media when, in fact, it wasn't and isn't.

It is this lie, I believe, that is fueling the rage and the nihilism that one finds when you begin speaking to the asshole at the end of the bar. This is what dispelled their faith. And it has led them to see the world in an almost Hobbesian state of chaos wherein trust in any large institution is impossible and that anything that undermines or questions large institutions (or those who believe in large institutions) is worthy of their consideration. 

From this perspective, it becomes clear that these men are the barbarians at the gate.

Jay Fox   


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.