No Meaning: TikTok Nurses and the Triviality of the American Culture Machine

Edit: This post was recently published in The American Sun. Check it out there.

When coronachan was first unfolding in China, their western propaganda outlets, such as the SCMP, would frequently post short videos on social media of doctors doing dances upon the announcement of patient recoveries. Fair enough, but what has been unfolding in America is a different story. Because in America we have what George Trow describes as the Aesthetic of the Hit. Media culture (originally the television, now internet as well) revolves around propaganda, and propaganda is about power. And if everything can be made trivial, it becomes functionally meaningless. In turn, everything becomes easy, and easy things are comforting. This is why we’re quickly reaching the edges of absurdity.

Media culture mimics. It is driven by profit and status, not sincerity. Power. When talking about celebrities, Trow remarks “of all Americans, only they are complete.” Power. More on that later. During times of peace and of crisis, most cultures are united by some ethnic or religious identity, often both. America is united by neither of these. Instead, we are united by the Hit. Nearly 100 years ago in his book Crystallizing Public Opinion, Edward Bernays described Americans as a “newspaper reading-public.” Had the television and internet been around in 1923, he would have essentially called it a media culture. In this way, it would be easier to understand American culture not as something involving many individuals participating in some kind of great sociopolitical project, but rather a living organism which needs to survive. But since American culture is not alive in a biological sense, perhaps a better analogy would be that of a machine. A tired yet useful analogy in this situation would be the machines in The Matrix – that is – a self-replicating mechanical hivemind which feeds off of the subjects under its control. It would promptly collapse if everyone were unplugged. This is why it is sustainable, but not stable. Volatile. Something cannot be inherently sustained off of the trivial and meaningless, but it can be if its subjects allow it.

This creates a fascinating scenario. Like I said – propaganda is fundamentally about power. Power of one idea over another, power of one product over another, power of one group of people over another. When examining propaganda it is usually quite obvious what the propagandists are after. And we have the origins of the dancing nurses, it was Chinese plague propaganda. Okay, but we are now being given propaganda without context, because it has evolved into a media spectacle without one.

There’s an old computer psychoanalysis program called ELIZA. It takes in key words regarding people’s problems, and spits out a reflection of what was said. Obviously it has no actual meaning to the computer itself. This is how the American culture machine works, and explains the phenomenon of the TikTok nurses. They take in something meaningful (recovery of a deadly virus), and regurgitate something meaningless (dancing without any context of recovery). This makes the dancing nurses meaningful, but without meaning. It’s the inversion of machine learning – AI is now programming us. You may have clicked on this because you want me to say how they also crank the dial up to 11 by choreographing elaborate dances and skits, and then create a spectacle out of the whole thing, but you already know this. You don’t need me to provide some kind of indictment.

Let me briefly return to George Trow. He explains in his essay “Within the Context of No Context” that two grids now remain. The grid of two-hundred-million (now three hundred-thirty) and the grid of intimacy. Celebrities are allowed a life in both – that is – adoration of the grid of two-hundred-million, and an intimate life. Most of us will never possess the adoration of the grid of two-hundred-million. In terms of media culture, we will never be complete, because we will never be beloved products as celebrities are. (Bernays, coincidentally, is the reason celebrities are understood as products.) As Trow remarks “Consider the real role in American life of Coca Cola. Is any man as well loved as this soft drink is?” Yet there’s a way out for both of us. If you’re within the grid of two-hundred-million, you have the freedom to reject the culture entirely. For a celebrity, it is a much more complicated process: Transcendence.

John Cena. He has granted over 650 make-a-wishes. Do celebrities grant these for PR purposes? Of course they do. But the case of John Cena is different. He dives into the underworld of despair. He dismantled the wrestling industry and rebuilt it in his image. In this reconstruction he had a vision.

Suffering. The death of a terminally ill child is an agonizing experience for everyone involved. However, hundreds of terminally ill children have chosen one man to fulfill their short lives – John Cena. He found a way in to subvert the Hit and transmute it into meaning. He created meaning out of the meaningless. This is something which could only be accomplished by a demigod. What are celebrities who fail to do this? Are they even obligated?

The grieving couple may ask: “What was he thinking when he passed? How does a 7 year old come to terms with what happened to him?” “I don’t know, but at least he got to meet John Cena.”

Does this make John Cena the second coming of Christ? Perhaps not, but within the context of the American culture machine, his actions are meaningful, thus transcending the Hit. He took an entire craft – professional wrestling – and instead of attempting to succeed in the business (he be defined by it) he changed the entire relationship (it be defined by him). This is like if LeBron James decided the main purpose of the NBA would be to reforest the Amazon instead of play basketball.

Boredom. I’ve never met a Nazi. Nazi Germany has never been a threat to me. From what I see on the news, I should be concerned about Russia and China, and perhaps dying in a nuclear war (or a biological one). The PLA occupying my neighborhood is a real possibility. The Nazis are not. Why, then, does the propaganda still revolve around Nazis? It’s as though it’s frozen in time.

The Hit trivializes everything. Everything. The American culture machine is an all-encompassing force. Yet it quickly grows tired of itself. I remember Razib Khan mentioned in a tweet that most of twitter seems to have moved on from coronachan. And here’s why – the Hit. Not even the plague could remain a “top story” or “major development” inside of the American culture machine. Let me reiterate that: Not even the plague can remain relevant for more than six months. This means we should begin asking the question: how will it be trivialized?

Several years from now when this is all over, a TV show will be made about a hospital in Manhattan. The main characters will be intelligent minorities, such as a bisexual Muslim woman, a sassy gay black guy (Tariq Nasheed is always right when it comes to these things), a career driven asian woman, and a level headed hispanic guy. Their supervisor will be a hilariously obnoxious white guy who says coronachan is just the flu and dismisses all of the hard facts, science, and experts based on what he heard on Fox News. He is particularly tough on the asian woman because she’s Chinese and he really hates Chinese people now. In fact, he always has, but the epidemic gives him a false validation of his beliefs. There’s also a brave Public Servant fighting the good fight in Washington as a side plot, along with a spunky soccer mom who tries to manage a community social distancing effort in which she delivers groceries to the elderly, but gun toting morons without masks are always interfering in her efforts. If they need more content there will also be something about a Christian doomsday superspreader cult that invades mosques and synagogues. The show tackles hard-hitting social issues such as racism, homophobia, xenophobia, islamophobia, guns, religion, and so on.

The script is already being written, and they’re going all out with this one.

There will be dancing.

See what happens? Coronachan becomes a backdrop for the propaganda. It plays no real function in the show, it’s merely the packaging. The actual degree to how close to collapse we actually were (or are, who knows) won’t even be an afterthought. Just like that, one of the most significant historical events of our lifetime is trivialized. Salon article, 2025: “The Lingering Racism Behind COVID-19,” the article mainly links to knowyourmeme citing the problematic elements of humanizing the virus in the form of an anime girl, while simultaneously mentioning how dehumanizing it was for Chinese people. It’s what they’re doing with Lovecraft now. The real eldritch horror is racism.

Media culture loves “lessons.” This is why the isms are so popular within it – they’re easy to write and produce because they’re didactic, and then easy to consume, again, because they’re didactic. This is also why grievance studies are able to pump out so many degrees – they’re easy. It’s just all so easy.

The TikTok nurses are merely a preview of what is still to come. They are harbingers. Within the next decade, the American culture machine will absorb coronachan, and transmogrify it into a distant, nonthreatening (comforting) event. There will be no significant action taken regarding borders, jobs, trade, government competency, or anything involving globalization in general. Instead, there will be a “lesson” in the isms. The American culture machine makes everything trivial, and thus, everything inevitably loses all meaning. This won’t end until it does, because it’s easier that way.

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