Culture postsTuesday November 08, 2011
Fifty Years Later, The Hamster Wheel Answers Philip Roth
“The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is an embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is constantly outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Philip Roth wrote that in his essay “Writing American Fiction” back in the early 1960s, and only the most blinkered among us would think that things haven't gotten worse. Our current national talents haven't outdone the writers of that period (Roth, Mailer, Baldwin, Capote), while the figures our culture tosses up have only gotten more ridiculous. Roth's examples include Charles Van Doren, Roy Cohn, David Schine and Dwight David Eisenhower, while our current culture tosses up (but not out, never out) Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, Michael Jackson, Michele Bachmann, “The Situation,” Herman Cain, Rick Perry or just, fuck, really anyone running for the 2012 presidential nomination on the GOP ticket. Dwight David Eisenhower is a mountain of sanity in comparison. Put it this way: What Roth rejected as ridiculous? That's what we yearn for.
No one I know has figured out how to properly deal with this gap between reality and the unimaginably idiotic and surreal characters who dominate our culture.
A brilliant solution. Roth suggested such a solution back in the early 1960s but we were too blind to see it:
“Whatever else the television debates produced in me, I should point out, as a literary curiosity, they also produced professional envy. All the machinations over make-up and rebuttal time, all the business over whether Mr. Nixon should look at Mr. Kennedy when he replied, or should look away—all of it was so beside the point, so fantastic, so weird and astonishing, that I found myself beginning to wish I had invented it. But then, of course, one need not have been a fiction writer to wish that someone had invented it, and that it was not real and with us.”
Question: What current American figure do you wish was merely a brilliant satiric character from Sasha Baron Cohen?
Question II: When our current crazies talk their crazy talk, shouldn't we treat them as “The Hamster Wheel,” an Australian comedy show dealing with the media, treated Lord Monckton? As a proper joke? As a Sasha Baron Cohen character?
Again: brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Quote of the Day
“This Shariah law business is crap. It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background.”
--Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, responding to questions about the campaign to villify his judicial appointee to the Superior Court in Passaic County, Sohail Mohammed.
I've been on this story for awhile. Six years ago, the publication I work for featured Mohammed in the profile “First Call for Freedom.”
Mohammed, despite the crazies, wound up being confirmed. He's now the second Muslim judge in New Jersey. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for Bloomberg News, applauds Christie here.
And here's the full Christie. Enjoy:
What's Been Posted on Roger Ebert's Facebook Page to Show Him How Insensitive He Is
Here's what Roger Ebert tweeted about “Jackass” star Ryan Dunn, who died in a car accident Sunday night following several drinks (6? More?) at a local bar:
- Friends don't let Jackasses drink and drive.
Here's a small portion of what those who objected to Ebert's insenstive remarks posted on his Facebook page today:
- Show some respect... you know he has a family... you pinochio looking jerk wad
- Enjoy ur cancer. I hope someone makes fun of you when you die.
- Roger I hope you read all these posts on your wall so u can realize how much o an insensitive jerk you are. U are a terrible critic and u should go to hell.
- How can you have a soul when you side with death over somebody's life. He put joy and laughter in the hearts of millions and millions of people since Jackass began.
- All you insensitive pricks getting off on bashing somebody that tragically died will burn in hell. There is a special place in hell for you people.
- I figured it out, Roger Ebert has no emotions because he is a robot. Robots have no emotions. Fear the robot dickwad revolution.
- who is this roger guy? i read bams tweet about him! if bam catches him his gonna knock him out i say. ryan dunn was epic :D toy car & a condom need i say more.
- it took such courage to shit all over the recently deceased. anyone could have said what you did. they just chose not to. you are not insightful but ignorant you smug prick
- Roger Ebert is a dried up old has been. Siskel is not here to pack him anymore. The most pathetic thing, is that he is using Ryan Dunn's death like a defibrillator. He is using the death of someone popular to try and jumpstart his dead career.
- I agree with Mr.Ebert. In addition, I believe Ebert should speak at Mr.Dunn's funeral to highlight the dangers of drunk driving....oh wait EBERT CAN'T SPEAK. Have fun with that cancer, fatty.
- Dude u need to fuckin grow up u got fuckin probs making fun a ryan dying fuck u! u need to fucking grow up and stop making fun a peoples death! your fucking sick SO GROW UP AND GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF UR FUCKING ASS! U STUPID FUCK! POINT BLANK ENUFF SAID!
A small portion, as I said. Five minutes worth.
The Meaning of Charlie Sheen
I've ignored the whole debacle up to now. An overpaid TV star says insane, egomaniacal shit and everyone tunes in to cluck their tongues and confirm how awful celebrities are; then we make online mashup jokes: Charlie Sheen and Muammar Gaddafi; Charlie Sheen and New Yorker cartoons. Etc.
It didn't have any meaning for me. The opposite. It showed how meaningless our culture is.
Then I read an article in the New York Times yesterday, “The Disposable Woman,” on Charlie Sheen's long history of domestic abuse. I posted it to Facebook under the title, “Time to stop laughing...” I expected others would chime in on the awfulness of it all.
I didn't expect a friend to suddenly defend Charlie Sheen.
This column is completely and utterly missing the point about Charlie Sheen. He is mentally ill. He has bipolar disorder. It is a disease. Blaming him for his disease is like blaming someone for having a kidney stone.
Anyone who has ever been close to someone with bipolar disorder — especially someone in the midst of an unmitigated, unmedicated manic attack — can watch about 10 seconds of these Sheen interviews and make the diagnosis.
All these journalists are making fools of themselves by failing to recognize what's going on.
There should probably be some kind of law against holding up someone's mental illness for public inspection, condemnation and ridicule, even if it does make for riveting television.
Initially I resisted this line of thought. “Yeah, blame it on 'bipolar disorder.' Like a husband blaming his infidelity on 'sex addiction.' Next.”
But I Googled it anyway. I'd certainly heard of the disorder but I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know, for example, that bipolar disorder type I is what we used to call manic depression. Its symptoms:
- Inflated self-esteem (delusions of grandeur, false beliefs in special abilities)
- Little need for sleep
- Noticeably elevated mood
- Increased energy
- Lack of self-control
- Racing thoughts
- Over-involvement in activities
- Poor temper control
- Reckless behavior
- Binge eating, drinking, and/or drug use
- Impaired judgment
- Sexual promiscuity
So I asked: Has he been diagnosed with it? If so, why is he off his meds?
People with bipolar disorder are notorious for not taking their meds. When they are manic, they feel as high as a kite. They feel invincible.
The exchange made me rethink the little I'd thought about Charlie Sheen up to then. It actually restored meaning to the entire, week-long episode for me. Instead of an ass surrounded by cameras and guffaws, a scenario in which no one comes out clean, we have a mentally ill person surrounded by cameras and guffaws, a scenario in which at least one person comes out clean.
When news of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) arrived late yesterday morning, via a Facebook post from a friend, I alternated between The New York Times and other sites to find out what was happening. The other sites tended to update more quickly, the Times more accurately. The Times never declared, for example, as Huffington Post did in a banner headline, that Rep. Giffords was dead. I should've just stuck with the Times but there's always that urge to find out now, now, now. We refresh pages like Mark Zuckerberg at the end of “The Social Network.” With about the same results.
At the same time, for something that's a little more than 24 hours old, a lot of smart, thoughtful stuff has already been written.
Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic liveblogged the news. It includes some initially incorrect reporting as well as a particularly vile e-mail he received.
James Fallows, also of The Atlantic, warns us all how the politics of an assassin and the politics of the intended target are rarely at odds. He sums up:
1) anything that can be called an “assassination” is inherently political;
2) very often the “politics” are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than “normal” political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow “responsible” for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)
There are clips from an MSNBC interview with Rep. Giffords last year in which she sounds off about that political tone.
But the best thing I've read thus far is George Packer's “It Doesn't Matter Why He Did It” on The New Yorker's site, which also delves into the larger point:
This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.) And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders. Partisan media encourages it, while the mainstream media finds it titillating and airs it, often without comment, so that the gradual effect is to desensitize even people to whom the rhetoric is repellent. We’ve all grown so used to it over the past couple of years that it took the shock of an assassination attempt to show us the ugliness to which our politics has sunk.
The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America's political frequencies are full of violent static.