In and of itself, the idea of looking for meaning and a reflection of one’s own life in pop culture is perfectly fine. I would even argue that it’s the first step toward digging deeper into a work of art, because it leads us down a path of critical thought and invigorating discussion with friends — and maybe even a little bit of self-examination.
But here’s where things have flipped on their ear in the 2010s: Many fans of a work aren’t just looking for meaning in the work itself, but for the work to impart meaning upon them. Too often, they ask pop culture to fill the role that religion, philosophy, or psychology once did.
I’ve chewed around the edges of this before in trying to understand the relationship between writing and ego, and again while reading Infinite Jest. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the decline of community and religious organizations has preceded the rise of fandamentalism and politics-as-pro-wrestling.
I’m not suggesting that the solution is “go to church”, of course. But we’ve created a vacuum of cultural and emotional need, and we’ve started the new holy war to try to fill that void.
Stories are often escape, and that sounds charmingly harmless as long as you don’t think about it too long. As long as you don’t start analyzing the structure of the most popular stories. As long as you don’t reflect that one of the biggest non-Nazi criticisms of “The Last Jedi” was its rejection of moralism and lack of a clear villain.
We love to quote Marx’s “opium of the people” observation, but my friend Dan recently reminded me that the full quote, in context, reads rather differently than most people think:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
At the core of fundamentalism of any stripe is a scrabbling desperation to change my environment to make me feel safe and reinforced. To change what is outside of me in the hopes that it will fix what is fearful and suffering inside. Whether with online fights about sci-fi or our current political climate, what we’re hearing now is the suffering cry of a diseased and possibly dying culture.
Remarkably perceptive of the Russians and modern American Nazis to see that the best way to attack our political system is to come at the new religion first. But they’re going to hurt more than just the shot at a more just and inclusive society. And they don’t care.