In Joe Biden’s speech last week, there was a moment that seems to have gone entirely unnoticed when the president of the United States came close to “quiet quitting,” the latest trend obsessed over, as if it were the onset of a second Industrial Revolution, by a desperately trend-hopping liberal media. At one point, Biden declared, “I made a bet on you, the American people, and that bet is paying off.”
Now wait a minute. An American president “made a bet” on the American people—not the other way around? The implication was that Biden became president because he had decided, after grave doubts, to take a big chance and trust the American people; it implied that he was going to do his job as president for only so long as the American people did not disappoint him and his “bet” kept “paying off.” I thought of Brecht’s cynical poem, “The Solution,” written after the failed East German uprising in 1953, in which East German construction workers went on strike to protest an increase in what they were expected to produce. Brecht’s poem imagines an official East German response after the rebellion was quickly suppressed by Soviet troops:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled effort. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
In a similar spirit, one could imagine a disappointed Biden feeling that the American people had forfeited his confidence and locking himself away in the White House, where he would merely go through the motions of his job—quiet quitting, in other words, which has been defined by Zaid Khan, a 24-year-old musician and software engineer living in New York, in a TikTok video that he posted: “You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.”
In saner times, Khan’s video would have gone unnoticed by the media in a roiling, turbulent world on the edge of startling transformation. But in our present moment, when media companies instruct editors to keep their eyes on Twitter and TikTok so that they can catch the latest thing or recruit the latest Twitter star, Khan’s viral video quickly made its way into the most prestigious venues. It fell into the conga line of media coverage, where editors and writers hungry for content don’t just seize on whatever fad is popular but ring infinite changes on it to keep the coverage going.
Editors declared in bold headlines that quiet quitting was revolutionizing the workplace. Connections between last cycle’s big idea, the “Great Resignation,” and the new paradigm followed. Journalists eager to show that they learned something in college declared that quiet quitting was nothing new and made impressive references to Studs Terkel and Melville’s Bartleby. (But what about Gandhi’s passive resistance, the New Testament, The Good Soldier Schweik, Buddha’s renunciation of desire, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?) Then came the inevitable inversion, in which various writers proclaimed in bold headlines the silliness of turning an old concept into a new idea. Then followed the variations on a dying meme: essays deploring “hot takes” proposed other hot takes: “quiet hiring,” “quiet firing.” And then it was back to the drawing board to search for another viral concept, no matter if it’s a social, cultural or political pathology. Driving in reverse down the highway? Worth considering—they’re raving about it on Snapchat. Defecating in restaurants as a protest against gas ranges? A TikTok sensation—run it in tomorrow’s edition, but let’s also do an editorial wondering about the tradeoff between raising public consciousness and endangering public health.
William James once said that if, for one instant, we could be aware of everything happening around us, our minds would explode. The media now make us aware of everything that is going on around us—no matter how minor, marginal, or aberrant—and our culture and society are exploding. It’s not just that making a phenomenon out of a boring old impulse not to go above and beyond for a boss who treats you unfairly turns a reasonable human impulse into a social pathology, one that people feel they have to practice so as not to be shortchanged in an environment where everyone else is practicing it. It’s that, in an atmosphere where the media has made poisonous the most intimate relations between people along the lines of race, sex, sexual identity, politics, and religion, the last remedial frameworks of existential support are being kicked away. Even a bad job, after all, is not just a deadening routine: it might also involve friendship, camaraderie, reassuring routine, and a foot in the outside world. And taking this job and shoving it is a type of vital, rambunctious American grace. By contrast, quiet quitting is the passive-aggressive style of a patrician. It is a new type of conformity.
So now, to the anxiety of whites and blacks that each wants to do in the other; of men and women that each is out to disempower the other; of gay, straight, and fluid that each wishes to impose an identity on the other—add the apprehension that the doctor, the nurse, the teacher, the cop, the firefighter, the crossing guard, and who knows else may choose to do only so much, and no more, on behalf of the people they are pledged to help. The image of Uvalde police officers standing around idle, while children were being slaughtered just steps away, should be sent to every nervous editor and writer ruminating over “quiet quitting.” As for Biden’s insinuation, made before Marines standing grimly in front of that blood-red background, that he will keep working only as far as his bet on the American people keeps paying off: Could martial law—a quiet quitting on a country’s people to end all quiet quitting—be the next exciting trend?
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