In August of this year, Jason Pargin, aka David Wong, wrote an article about how the best advice you can give someone is that the world is competition:
In it, Jason argues that the world is a competition, that we compete for scarce resources, whether it be friends or money or status. And that regardless of who we are and what our beliefs are, we need to see the world as a competition. We need to compete.
Now there’s a lot to unpack here, but my criticisms aren’t a sign that I hate the guy. There are few people who I respect more, and few people who have written their way into my brain to greater effect.
But I have my reasons to argue. And like any Cracked fan, I have five in particular:
5.) Social Media is Not the World.
First off, Twitter should be burned to the ground.
Anytime I see someone quoting Twitter to prove a point, my Cracked-trained bullshit detector immediately goes up.
What does well on social media is being extreme; that’s how a user can stand out from the pack. Attention is success. It’s hard to get attention saying ‘Sometimes, I am frustrated with my job, but I show up everyday I can because it’s my responsibility to do so,’ but very easy to do so when a user says ‘Take this job and shove it,’ precisely because it’s not something 99% of us would do on any given day.
What makes this even worse is that the Twitter trends he’s citing are from Political Twitter. Twitter leans more educated, wealthier, and leftist, and skews towards people that are either in or trying to succeed in media. Less than 30% of all US adults use Twitter, and 80% of tweets come from only 10% of all Twitter users. Reddit is an even smaller pool of users. Only 18% of adults use Reddit. Now, that’s up from 11% in 2019, and the amount of time those users spend on the site is off the charts, but it’s nowhere near a representation of society at large.
Why does that matter, exactly?
Whenever a journalist quotes from Twitter, they’re talking about a platform dominated by the most extreme people who have incentives to be as shocking and combative as possible. It’s not to say that writers can’t use social media to cite something, or identify a trend specifically on those platforms. But pretending that the political beliefs you find on Twitter or Reddit are indicative of anything the average person, or even the average American, believes is shaky.
After all, if Twitter had its way, Bernie Sanders would be president, but we’ll come back to that in a minute.
4.) Hypotheticals Often Make Poor Evidence
There was a Twitter spiff awhile ago about Dr. Jill Biden, and whether or not she should be referred to as Dr. Jill Biden because she has a doctorate in education.
(The news day was slow, is what I’m saying.)
Ben Shapiro, Professional Opinion Guy, pitched his argument against that like this:
Now, whether or not you like reading Ben Shapiro (full disclosure: I don’t) this is a terrible way to make an argument.
It relies on the idea that a.) someone introduces themselves as Dr. Smith without ever bringing up the idea that their doctorate is in musicology b.) that person doesn’t get asked the most basic party question in the world (‘What do you do?’) c.) that you’d suffer a stroke (which is rare) at the dinner table (which would be even more rare) d.) you’d ask that person for help e.) they would explain to you that they actually have a doctorate degree in musicology.
The situation needs to play out in exactly this way to make any sort of sense to support his argument.
What if, for instance, the dinner guest does have a medical doctorate, but they specialize in pathology, infectious disease, or hell, podiatry? Even if the doctor had the kind of experience and education that would help you in case of a stroke, how would they help you aside from making them comfortable until the paramedics arrived? How would they even know it was a stroke? Why wouldn’t anyone at the dinner party just call 911? Etc.
The whole thing falls apart with the lightest poke.
Jason uses way too many hypothetical situations like this. The most egregious of these is the situation where he talks about Socialist Island and the Disaffected Poet in his sixth bullet.
I won’t even get into how scrappy poets are in real life (and they really are), but just like Benny Shaps’s tweet, things need to go exactly the way the author intends them to for it to support his argument. The Disaffected Poet would need to a.) see themselves as a poet only b.) be totally against peeling potatoes for a single afternoon c.) not respect the work of potato peeling d.) compare themselves to another poet who’s more successful than them because of the sex-stuff in their poetry e.) imagine that this more successful poet would only write full time, etc.
And even then, the end result is that the poet goes and peels potatoes for the good of the community that night and relegates their poetry to a hobby. Which, to be honest, is fine. There is a question of whether it’s good for an artist to be able to concentrate on their art. I concede that. But there are tons of poets that loom large in the modern mind that did other things aside from writing poetry. In fact, most writers make their living through multiple sources.
This might make for better art. After all, if you’re just sitting around writing poetry all day, what would you have to write about? What experiences could you bring to the table?
Further, doing multiple kinds of things is more amenable to a satisfying life. Jason himself was not just a novelist, essayist, editor, and researcher; he was all of those things at once. And I would believe that each parts of those jobs informed the other parts, made them stronger and reinforced them.
That’s what happened in my own experience as well. I’m a librarian and writer; I was an all right researcher before I started writing for Cracked, but Cracked made me a better one by orders of magnitude. It also gave me a more finely tuned bullshit detector, which has been especially helpful as a researcher, and hell, in life.
The poet Jason is citing here probably would be helped by peeling potatoes. After all, you could write a poem about that, how they’re peeling potatoes for the good of the community. Hell, maybe they’re saving the eyes so that way they could grow more potatoes in the future – death and rebirth.
Anyway, the point is that a lot of very weird things need to happen in order for this hypothetical situation to approach reality, so that we could take something from it. It’s too unreal to support his argument.
3.) Nuance is Important and Missing.
He then goes on to talk about how the Disaffected Poet will compete for friends and lovers, which, again, relies on assumptions that aren’t real. How many people do you know, in your life, that have multiple people competing for a relationship with them? This is a time, remember, where more people are living alone than ever, fewer people have close friends, and we have a loneliness epidemic that Jason’s reported on himself.
Most people don’t have multiple suitors hanging around waiting for them to be single; most people don’t have so many friends there’s a huge competition for their time.
It would seem to me that a more common experience is a person waiting around, wishing that someone would call, and being disappointed when they don’t. And again, there’s no room for nuance here. You are either competing with other suitors, or you’re not. You’re either cool enough that other friends are going to call you, or you’re not. There’s nothing in-between.
The essay divides the world into two kinds of people in work as well: the one who hustles, and the one who refuses. Again, there’s no room for middle ground. There’s no room for a person who doesn’t take what could be a promising job in a new city because they want to put roots down into their community. Or the person that doesn’t work an 80 hour week in favor of one that’s, I dunno, 50 or 60?
One of the ideas I love about Jason’s writing was the idea that, if you want to change yourself, you need to become a different kind of person. That is, you need to let parts of yourself die so others can grow. If you want to learn guitar, then you’re going to give up something else; if you’re going to lose weight, you’re going to give up the couch time you needed to keep going in a given week; if you’re going to write, you might give up hanging out with friends. Etc.
Is it bad if we were making those calculations with a sight towards building our communities and the people around us up?
2.) He Misunderstands History.
Where the argument really falls apart is its understanding of history and the labor movement.
The American labor movement did have to fight. There were literally multiple wars fought on American soil by workers against the company owners, including one with airplanes dropping bombs out of the sky.
However, labor movements depend way, way more on solidarity than they do competition. The workers will always outnumber the owners, that’s just the way ownership works (barring dystopian modern ways of classifying ‘independent contractors’ as ‘business owners’). They needed to convince their fellow workers that the cause was worth fighting, that they not compete with each other and work as a unit for change. The definition of a scab is one that will keep competing with their fellow workers at the expense of solidarity. And labor movements, generally, don’t care for scabs.
[You’re not supposed to like Scabby the Rat, for example.]
Did they have to compete with anti-worker movements? I suppose. But the successes of labor in the 20th century came, not from them out-competing management, but convincing enough people that their cause was just, and seeing their own common interests.
This misunderstanding extends to the present as well.
There’s a thread in this essay where Jason talks about Internet leftists and how they’re not willing to do the work necessary to change the world. And if you’re looking at the loudest leftists on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram, you might believe it. But that’s not where leftist organizing is happening in this country. It’s happening on the streets and at the ballot box.
The left is gaining power. In the last two presidential primaries, an old-school socialist came within striking distance of victory. He has so much power that he’s the head of the Budget Committee in the Senate. And he wasn’t the only one; Elizabeth Warren didn’t get as many votes, but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t in the running either. In Congress, the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party gained 28 seats since 2016. They’re almost half the Democrats in the House, and many with national profiles.
In 2000, there weren’t leftists with national profiles. The biggest one I can think of is Ralph Nader. While I respect the guy, he was never the freaking Senate budget committee director. And if you read what leftists say about their movement – again, not on Twitter – they’re committed to doing the grunt-work of political organizing, convincing voters, and building coalitions.
You can like it or not. You can think they’ll fail, or compromise too much. But it’s hard to argue that they’re not doing the work.
2.) Cracked Was a Site and a Community.
I’ve been trying to write this article for ages now, to be honest. Probably since the Great Purge in December of 2017, when Scripps laid off a bunch of people at Cracked, and when the forums closed down in February of 2020. I keep talking about it with my wife, saying things like ‘I know I’m saying this for the thousandth time, but I’m sad that…’
I mourned the forums, I really did. For me, they were an awesome place to work. We were a community, all working to make each other better.
My first article started as an article about badass monuments, then slowly shifted over a year to be one about the craziest diplomatic moves by modern countries. I kept pitching ideas, and was just consistent enough to keep the fire burning for a year. When I finally got the thing over the line, Mark Hill, who’d worked on the piece with me, told me nobody would believe how the thing started, and it’s true.
When I finally got the pitch hammered out, I spent a ton of time cramming as many jokes into the piece as I could. I heard Michael Swaim talk about ‘joke-density’ one time in a podcast, and by God, this would be the joke-densest piece anybody had ever put together. (Of course, it wasn’t, but I tried).
Over the old Cracked email system, Mark emailed me and told me that the article was one of the best he’d seen come across the forums in a while, and encouraged me to pitch and write more.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up just a little when I read that. It was the first time anyone who I hadn’t met in real life had given me a thumbs-up for my writing. I still think about it sometimes.
But that was how Cracked worked, the way I saw it: a bunch of talented people encouraging each other and working hard to make the best comedy website on the Internet. And for a long while, the site succeeded.
I was so sad when the forums closed because I lost my ability to take part in a collective enterprise. I can still pitch (and I do) but it’s different. I understood, without really thinking about it, that Cracked was my community. I wanted the site to succeed, and I wanted the people on it to succeed, because I was a part of that community.
It seems like the full time people were like that as well. You can see that in the Cracked diaspora that spread across the Internet after things fell apart.
Part of the reason people followed the Cracked alums across the Internet, from Behind the Bastards, 1-900-Hot-Dog, Secretly Incredibly Fascinating, Small Beans, Gamefully Unemployed, Cody’s Showdy, to Jason’s Substack is that they seem like friends. They all keep helping each other out to this day. If they had seen each other as competition, I can’t see that happening. It’s hard to be friends like that when you think you’re fighting for fixed slots.
1.) Jason’s Own Story Contradicts His Thesis.
One thing Jason’s getting at here – and something that creative people should be aware of – is that there are limited slots for full-time, paying work in creative fields. This is especially true of something like writing.
The barrier for entry in Internet writing is extremely, extremely low. Everyone with a basic education can write, and most young people get more training in that area than every other generation before it (although, it should be noted, most American adults have not been to college.) Sites like cheap (and free) labor, and people sign on because they think it will give them a chance to succeed in a competitive industry.
While it’s true that there were only limited spots to write for the Internet full time, the people I admire didn’t succeed in that space thinking of it as a competition, at least they didn’t seem to. Further, their careers prove that the slots aren’t fixed. Cracked as a website represented more than a few slots opening up; after Cracked fell apart, Cracked writers went on to making new slots elsewhere, sometimes out of thin air.
If you’d approached Cracked thinking ‘Ok, there are only five editors within this org at any given time’ you might go and burn someone for that particular job, but if you help them, they might be in a position to help you someday.
Because, really, that’s what Jason did. He helped.
“If other successful people tell you I’m full of shit, look closely at how they got to where they are. Think about how someone else could be there instead, and why they’re not.”
Am I successful? I’m pretty happy with my life. But am I a successful writer? That depends. Jason undoubtedly is.
He got where he is by being a brilliant writer, and creating a community of writers at the first site he created and ran, Pointless Waste of Time. He shared his first book with this community, who gave him feedback and an appreciative audience. He then got hired on at Cracked, because he knew another writer from his time at PWOT. He succeeded there by helping hundreds of writers, from DOB to a one-shot freelancer, be the best they could be. He got where he was by helping people and being helped.
After all, what is an editor but someone who helps writers do their best work?
That, I think, is the foundational weakness of this argument: people who are successful and happy in life are usually part of something bigger. They understand who’s on their team, and the game they’re actually playing.
And above all, they help.
I’d like to thank Jeff McLaughlin, Abraham Mireles, Blair Dodge, and John Cracked5 for giving this a read before I posted.