Each day a requiem for zeal arrives in my gmail inbox: The Harvard Crimson’s Flyby-blog newsletter.
One recent piece reduced earnest service work in “Exploring the lives of Harvard’s homeless business vendors” to sycophantic go-getter-ness with the lead: “Reminding us a little bit of our (formerly) overachieving selves, two high school students…” Another post deemed what are arguably the most prestigious humanities orations in the United States, given, this year, by America’s most prestigious writer, mere fabricated pseudo-intellectualism: Toni Morrison’s final Norton Lecture was called: “the type of intellectual curiosity experience you claimed to be interested in when you applied to Harvard.”
No doubt Flyby has its reasons, in a Harvard lambasted for over-achieving, egoism, and self-import, to adopt a deprecating tone. But I am haunted by the scope of that rhetoric, not because it bears on Flyby, but because it articulates and reiterates an alarming self-impression: that Harvard students are banal, disinterested, selfish, and anti-intellectual. It is a mindset given excellent expression by Friedrich Nietzsche’s “slave morality”: a self-fulfilling, self-flagellating prophecy that humans are fundamentally weak. I’d like to call its 2016 incarnation “Netflix morality.” Because, according to this mindset, binge-watching television comatose in bed is a Harvard student’s preferred activity.
So what constitutes “Netflix morality”? Sleep is one fixation: “We’re honestly shocked that we could be this sleep-deprived already, given that it’s only week two of classes,” writes one post, “At least we have the upside-down smiley face emoji to perfectly personify our woes.” Exhaustion pervades the content, yet the hope of shifting insomniac tendencies is forgotten in an emoji—that paragon of bland, ironic indifference. Food is another, highlighted in an entire “Free Food Watch” column that succeeds brilliantly in effacing the academic, artistic, or cultural significance of every event in light of its (frankly disappointing) gustatory offerings. No discipline is safe: The other day “If you’re willing to trek to Pierce and sit through some engineering final project presentations” combined with “Farkas will be hosting the reading of one senior’s thesis play at 7:30 p.m. Food will be provided!” to deny the value of SEAS and the performing arts in a single catered-crunch. Meetings sponsored by affinity groups are reduced to the presence of potstickers and pad thai.
An alimentary or soporific allure, however, is not, in Netflix morality, strictly necessary to negate intellectual meaning. A recent “Reflections on Rejections” panel (fodder for another day of Nietzsche) was summed up with “if Dean Dingman didn’t have to hand in his thesis neither do you.” This same tone pervades any description of “work”: midterms, readings, but especially theses. School is never permitted to be genuinely enjoyable or meaningful; it is always a chore, a chore holding the vain hope that some excuse could vanish Toni Morrison or a scholarly study of her novels—to make a bit more time for Netflix.
In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche gives one narrative for how this mindset develops. He delineates broadly between self-affirming moralities and self-negating moralities; the first externalizes emotions while the second internalizes them. More specifically, the negating type posits a “a neutral agent, free to manifest its strength or contain it”—a division between sentiment and action Nietzsche finds absurd. Theorizing this break is essential in self-negating moralities because it allows the formulation “I could have but I didn’t” as in “I could have performed an interest in Toni Morrison or the homeless advocacy but I did not need to.” In a self-affirming morality, such logic would not hold: Validation could not be accrued for something that did not manifest, for “the sublime slight of hand which gives weakness the appearance of free choice and one’s natural disposition the distinction of merit.”
To read the opening graphs of Flyby is to confront daily such a sublime slight of hand. My contention lies not with actual Netflix watching but rather with the way campus culture projects a message that it must be happening, that apathy is laudable, desirable, and fundamentally unchangeable. In a sense, this is a national issue—traceable to millennial self-justifying indifference; or perhaps to material changes in newly addictive technologies like Facebook and Netflix that have someone bypassed our social restrictions for substances like alcohol and weed.
Yet its presence is far more perturbing at an institution professed to be the paragon of intellectual, creative, and professional passion. Harvard adherents to “Netflix morality” deny all previous accomplishments and earnest work ethics as simply the false projections of overachieving high school selves, offering those daily epitaphs on the tombstone of zeal. But why are we so quick to posit a split of intention and action, to identify interest homeless advocacy and Nobel lectures as inauthentic? Are we truly so intellectually deadened and narrow-minded that earnest engagement becomes impossible once we step into Harvard Yard? How do we ignore the glaring observation that millions would love to nourish their minds on the engineering projects and thesis theater Flyby deep-fries into food each day? Perhaps, Netflix morality has arisen as a defense mechanism to this very construct, a fear of what a self-affirming morality would look like in the Harvard student: narcissism, egoism, pretentiousness.
Or perhaps it is the result of the normalizing discourse we see on Flyby, a discourse that creates what it presumes to name. Nietzsche noted that “the ascetic priest, seemingly life’s enemy and great negator, is in truth one of the major conserving and affirmative forces,” for he shepherds “the vast flock of defeated disgruntled sufferers and self-tormentors.” Is this not the precise role of the Flyby author, the high priest of Netflix morality? In constantly appealing to the anti-intellectual, anti-motivational sensibility in its readers, the writer becomes the most wondrous validator: the figure who justifies every self-negating action, who normalizes acedia with a shepherd’s gentle hand. We imitate what we read; we forget affirmation and speak lines of negation without knowing it; we say no to our friends’ invitations—and begin to watch Netflix.
“Is there really enough pride, courage, self-assurance, intellectual energy, responsibility, freedom of the will, to make philosophy possible in our world today?” asked Nietzsche a hundred years ago. I must ask the same question of Harvard today. Luckily, a genealogy of morals never implies fatalism, but rather charts the arrival of a certain mindset to gesture at other options. Could we imagine an alternative? A self-affirming campus morality of unabashed pride in homeless advocacy; courage to earnestly love a thesis; self-assurance to be intellectually energized by events and by peers; a demand that the gratification of sedative, self-abnegating pleasures not be a requiem for our minds and our bodies; in short, a freedom of the will, a will to be free of Netflix.
 One enormous qualification: Though I find aspects of Nietzsche’s theory remarkably poignant for contemporary binge-watching culture, vast sections of his work are downright despicable, particularly in the way they have been appropriated to justify an assortment of twentieth-century narcissistic, ignorant, and xenophobic terrors. There is no doubt a piece ethically justifying Donald Trump on Nietzsche’s morality waiting to be written. Still, I hold strongly to the tenet that poignant ideas can be culled from a sundry intellectual history, that we must not reject all materials from a brilliant mind due to the fates of its more protean products.