A View From The Handbasket

Monday, March 06, 2006
AOL vs. Nietzsche
Posted by neros_fiddle at 6:00 PM

I was hoping they'd end with the Olympics, but no such luck. I'm still being told, over and over, that AOL "wants everybody to be fast." To illustrate their egalitarian impulses, they show me commercials in which everyday schmoes successfully compete with highly trained athletes. You get someone who looks like the world's happiest dental office receptionist strapping on skis and blasting through the slalom. You get some old guy on an ancient bike showing up the Lycra-clad poseurs on their multi-thousand dollar racing cycles. You get the nuclear family straight from Central Casting (including dog) piloting their canoe to victory against the world's best rowing teams. Etc., and so on.

Cute, and it gets the point across. It's a freaking broadband ad, and nothing more. So why does it give me indigestion? I mean, I have no problem with people getting broadband. Broadband is a wonderful thing. The more people have broadband, the happier the world is, as far as I'm concerned. Perhaps it's a residual dislike of AOL from years of trying to explain to various management types that when the AOL mail system screws up, there's nothing I can do to fix it (and that AOL tech support isn't impressed when I call and say my boss is upset).

I guess it's the implication of the ads that bugs me -- the basic message of entitlement that has nothing at all to do with broadband. It's consistent with the streak of anti-intellectualism, of anti-elitism, if you will, that seems to have settled comfortably into the zeitgeist. (It seems like just yesterday the Oscars were getting criticized for being too "commercial," for favoring big moneymakers at the expense of independent films. Now, of course, they're getting slammed for nominating "arthouse movies" instead of "common-man" blockbusters. Our President is well-liked for his semi-grammatical "straight talk.")

Because, after all, what is it these commercials are really saying? There's no reason you should have to train for years to be the best at something. Being the best is a waste of time. It's wrong to celebrate excellence. Average is just as good. Everyone should be fast.

A lot of these questions cropped up in the wake of (of all things) Pixar's The Incredibles, which sparked a lot of discussion of its barely disguised Nietzschean ethos. In many ways, that movie was the opposite of the AOL ads. It asked us to feel empathy for the superior among us, who have to contain their vibrant excellence to avoid making the rest of us feel like the sad slobs we are.

Which feels wrong as well (in much the same way as Ayn Rand's adolescent philosophy, as immortalized in the execrable Rush song "The Trees"). Both the AOL ads and The Incredibles reject the notion that greatness is (or at least can be) the result of hard work. In the ads, greatness is a matter of those who aren't great being artificially held back, waiting for a global media conglomerate to unlock their potential. In the movie, the great are born great, and the rest have no hope of greatness. (In fact, the villian in the movie is someone who tries to emulate the superheroes with technology -- he tried to rise above the station to which he was born.)

You could say I'm reading too far into mere commercials and kiddie movies. And you wouldn't be far wrong. But the next time you read about a bunch of parents demanding equal time for some faith-based cosmology in science class, consider for a moment if they might see themselves as the ordinary family in the canoe, who really know just as much as the guys on the rowing team who've devoted their whole lives to the sport.

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