Culture postsTuesday January 28, 2014
The State of the Union ... Contains 'A Deep Seated Dislike for Most Things America Stands For'
Three days ago The New York Times offered us this headline: “Obama Pursuing Modest Agenda in State of the Union,” which, since the address is tonight, shows us once again that the news isn't what's happened but what's about to happen. Shame. The news should be so five minutes ago.
Today, the Times is offering us ... well, us: user-generated content. How Would You Describe the State of the Union?: “Please share your opinion with us on Twitter by adding the hashtag #TellNYT to your tweet.” Friends on Facebook are doing the same. “The state of the union is ___________” one asks. Since he lives in Georgia, he's getting all kinds of answers.
Here's my answer. I came across it last night reading on the planeride home from New York:
Seems to be a deep seated dislike for most things America is and stands for.
That's not the current state of the union; that's FBI analysis of the movie “State of the Union,” as reported in John Sbardellati's book, “J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War.” The movie stars Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and was directed by Frank Capra.
Of course, to the FBI, Capra, a Norman Rockwellseque figure today, who made movies steeped in Americana and schmaltz, was suspect. Among other FBI reviews of Capra movies:
- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: “Gary Cooper sides with the underprivileged.”
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “First Hollywood movie to show tie-up between Congressmen and Big Business.”
- It's a Wonderful Life: “The picture represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers.”
Plus ca change. You can still be suspect by siding with the underprivileged, showing the tie-up between Congress and Business, and attempting to discredit bankers. And now more people are taking notes.
SLIDESHOW: Tea Shirts
I first noticed them in Rehoboth Beach, Del., during the summer of 2010. There are several T-shirt shops along the boadwalk there, and while in the late 1970s they tended to focus on the pop cultural (DARTH VADER LIVES, etc.), by 2010 they seemed angrier, loutish, sexist and right-wing. Call them Tea-shirts. Last month in Minneapolis for Christmas, I saw the same at City Shirts at the Mall of America. The above one isn't bad, although using a Wayans Bros. catchphrase for a backwoods reality-show star who has commented on how happy black people were before civil rights is, at the least, incongruous.
But it's the political ones that get to me. A diminishing number of producers? Having their wealth confiscated? In what world? 1950s America when the top tax rate was 91%? Or today when it was a battle to make it 39%? And that's for wages not capital gains. The above tee is a bigger fantasyland than any of my “Star Wars” T-shirts ever were.
Dude: 1) Those aren't guns; 2) Pres. Obama isn't going after guns. Sadly. Apparently to enact any kind of sane gun laws in this country, we'll need a Nixon/China thing: a politician less likely to be besmirched for doing the thing because he's usually the one doing the besmirching. We need this because armed men coming into our schools and killing our children isn't enough.
I've said it before, I'll keep saying it: America is a man eating filet mignon on a yacht telling a man eating a baloney sandwich in his car to resent the man eating his crumbs on the street.
Then you get to the sexist ones. Here's a T-shirt worn by a dude who will never get laid.
Ditto. This is a sad, sad shirt for anyone who stops to think about it for two seconds.
People on the right do know that John Wayne avoided serving in World War II, right? He fought the safer battle in Hollywood for bigger bucks. And speaking of World War II ...
Is there anything more stupidly American than reducing the worst conflagrations in human history to Sunday afternoon bragging rights? Thirty-seven million died in World War I and 60 million died in World War II and all I know about it is this lousy T-shirt.
Stay classy ...
Saddest T-Shirt Ever
This was for sale at a T-shirt shop at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. What kind of idiot would buy this? Wear this? How puny do you have to feel to want to brag about this—something that most likely had nothing to do with you and ignores not only the other countries involved but history. Since when do wars that led to the death of tens of millions of people become something like Super Bowl championships?
Ninety percent of the shop was this way: sad and stupid. I complained as we stood outside waiting for a friend to finish shopping, and Patricia and I had the following conversation:
Patricia: I don't know. T-shirt shops have always been bad.
Me: They weren't this loutish back then.
Patricia: America wasn't this loutish back then.
How the Miss America Controversy is like the Movie 'Crash,' and Other Observations
My friend Tim alerted me to this quote from Aasif Mandvi on “The Daily Show” the other night, reacting to the Miss America/Twitter controversy:
Look, John, it's Twitter. It's like that movie “Crash”: You've got 140 characters and 120 are racist for no apparent reason.
You know about the controversy, right? Nina Davuluri, an American of Indian descent, as in India the country, as in Gandhi and “Slumdog Millionaire,” won the Miss America crown over the weekend and a few racist people on Twitter had a shit fit. They called her Miss 7-11, Miss al-Qaeda. They said, “She's a TERRORIST,” and “This is AMERICA!” It's just stupid shit. The world is full of stupid people and now they're online. The Pakleds have spoken.
The early reaction on social media and Salon was one of umbrage, which is a little boring. A better reaction came from “The Daily Show” and “Stephen Colbert.”
That's brilliant. Or: that's truly how sad and stupid those people are. So sad and stupid they probably don't even get the joke.
Then we got Aasif, my brother of the double-a from another continent, with his critique via “Crash,” which longtime readers know I didn't exactly think was best picture material. Brilliant again.
BTW: In the various footage about the controversy (or kerfuffle, or blip), we'd often get shots of Ms. Davuluri in the talent competition doing a Bollywood-type dance. I kept thinking, “It looks like she's doing that 'Dhoom Tana' dance from 'Om Shanti Om,” which is one of about three Bollywood movies I know. Turns out? She is.
In the end? Racists with a foot in the 19th century objected that a competition that had its heyday in the middle of the 20th century was won with something reflecting 21st century values. No surprises here.
What’s Wrong with Jonathan Franzen’s ‘What’s Wrong with the Modern World’?
First there’s the title. It reminds me of “The Secret of Life,” the awful title of the awful article Andrew McCarthy’s awful character finally gets published in the awful “St. Elmo’s Fire.” It’s a title that’s too stupidly general. What’s wrong with the modern world? That’s a wide target, boyo. At the same time you think, “Well, how can Franzen not hit that one?”
He manages. A lot of his targets are my targets, too: modern technology, the Internet, “cool,” the pauperization of freelance writers, the marginalization of almost everything I once considered central to the culture. So he should be speaking for me. Yet for most of the essay he doesn’t speak for me.
Franzen is attacking the early 21st century through the writings of Karl Kraus, an Austrian satirist, who attacked the early 20th century. Franzen’s first target? Those Mac vs. PC ads. Seriously. It’s a form and content argument, a “cool” vs. “uncool” argument, and Franzen places himself squarely among the uncool Microsoft/PC people. He backs the content of the PC, its utilitarianism, over the meaningless form of the Mac. He writes:
Simply using a Mac Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris. Whereas, when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned.
Until it crashes.
That's a joke but it's a true joke. Mac is not only better in form but in content; in code. The Mac is both more beautiful and more utilitarian. But then Franzen isn’t really talking about the product but our interaction with the product. He’s apparently saying it’s harder to see ourselves against the beautiful; it’s easier to see ourselves against the plain or ugly. Meaning Franzen should be happy with the way our modern cityscapes have developed. We should be able to see each other well now. Hey, you. I know you.
Franzen keeps taking these cheap shots. His complaints are monumentally small and of the straw-man variety. He criticizes Salman Rushdie for “succumbing” to Twitter, which apparently means being on it. He’s disappointed in those who hold up the Internet as somehow positively “female” and “revolutionary,” when other people’s misinterpretations of the Internet are not the problem with the Internet. He writes:
You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it 2 billion now?) “individualised” Facebook pages may make you want to say them.
Facebook pages? He’s not even using the right words. He’s attacking our way of seeing a thing even though it’s not how we see the thing.
Here’s another unworthy straw man:
To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress. A succeeding century of the former, involving scientific advances that would have seemed miraculous not long ago, has resulted in high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting “Whoa!”
Louis C.K. has done a better job, a more human job, parsing this divide.
OK, so Franzen gets better the further he gets into the essay. Here, for example, is something he writes that I can get behind:
... we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability – and who wouldn’t want them? – we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.
That’s getting at it. I like this quote from Kraus:
This velocity doesn’t realize that its achievement is important only in escaping itself.
That’s getting at it even more.
I like the tail-end discussion about the privileged anger of both Kraus and Franzen. Kraus is to Franzen as George W.S. Trow is to me. We all need our previous-generation curmudgeons.
Then Franzen does a back-and-forth thing with Amazon.com, and Jeff Bezos, and the destruction of the thing Franzen holds dear: the physical book, and book culture, and book stores. He delivers the line that’s the most-quoted from this piece: “In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” He writes this:
Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.
Except that world is the world, and it’s almost always been the world, and we’ve always been to the side of it. Franzen doesn’t seem to get that. The world of America is a world of selling, of business, of getting ahead. It’s a world of competition. It’s a ruthless world of by any means necessary. If literature is marginalized now it just means it’s more marginalized now. It’s not just marginalized by movies, and radio, and television, as it was in Franzen’s youth, but by everything on the Internet, which is almost everything in the world. It’s almost embarrassing to be here, really, and doing what I’m doing, writing this blog, writing these words, because what’s the point? The other day at a party, a friend said to me, “I’ve been reading your blog lately” and my immediate reaction was one of embarrassment. It was almost as if he’d said, “I saw you standing on the street corner lately, shouting.”
He ends well. Franzen begins horribly and ends well.
Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows.
Well shouted, Jonathan. And from a better street corner, too.
Franzen, B.B. (Before Bezos)