Archive for October, 2006

Drunken Tirades

Posted: October 24, 2006 in Blogroll, Culture, Politics

I discovered a very interesting blog written by Joe Bageant called Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, which appears to be a series of diatribes about America following a similar collection of essays published in book form having the same title. The author’s take on our current cultural situation makes a great deal of sense to me. Although he refers to class war (he identifies himself as a liberal redneck — an obvious oxymoron), I find he reads more like cultural criticism. His references to gin-influenced tirades and the angry, screaming man inside him that can’t be let out in public sound way too much like my own deep frustrations that dare not be voiced too fully (though I’m only rarely drunkenly out of control). His seat-of-the-pants, “juss folks” style is very colorful and descriptive, though by no means does he skimp on content or insight. Frankly, his approach is probably far more palatable to most readers than my own. I’ve added his blog to my blogroll.

A couple things in his latest post, Madmen and Sedatives: Inside the Iron Theater, bear some comment on my part:

A hell of a lot of wrong choices built the 200-year long road to where we now find ourselves, and I must admit that my generation did its share of the paving, laying down much of the roadbed during the Sixties. Despite much talk since then about the Sixties fight for moral justice, talk still easily launched by the pop of a chardonnay cork or the appearance of The Grateful Dead at the local arena, nearly to a man or woman, my generation, regardless of affluence, has traded principles for simple materialism. Assuming of course, they had any identifiable principles, which most didn’t.

The appearance of principled action back in the 60s that turned out not to be so much about principles, at least if you take the current preoccupations (Bageant’s “simple materialism”) of that generation as evidence, is a worthwhile trap for any generation to be wary of. It’s difficult to assess any generation since then acting out of principle, either high-minded or pedestrian. Indeed, the overwhelmingly typical story arc of any lifetime in modern America is one of youthful struggle to attain the comforts of middle class contentment or better.

So we now we find principles treated as mere opinion by most young people and their parents, call it diversity tolerance overshoot, and any answers posed to the great questions of our age neatly written off. Global warming? Just some scientists’ opinion. The unjustness of our wars? More opinion. Inequity in society? In whose opinion? Wastefulness of our lifestyle? A matter of opinion.

Bageant never writes postmodernism (pomo), deconstructionism, or radical relativism. That would be my own stiff, academic approach (I’ve at least relaxed enough to end a few sentences with prepositions). But of course, that’s what he’s referring to. He probably makes the point better than I would, so I’ll have to try to remember to use his phrase: diversity tolerance overshoot.

So I recommend Bageant for your reading and consideration. Tell him Brutus sent ya.

Are there are certain thresholds necessary for the operation of democratic institutions? The founding fathers certainly thought so. Our participation in the electoral process, public debate, and other community action is predicated on being informed and educated to at least, say, a high school level. One acid test performed periodically is polling Americans to see how many believe that the sun revolves around the earth. The number changes a bit depending on how and when the question is asked, but the usual finding is that 1 in 5 believe that the sun revolves around us.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the scientific community muddies the waters by periodically redefinining planets and stars or introducing evidence that the earth has a second moon. But still, a fifth of Americans have a basic concept of our place in the universe discredited centuries ago by the Copernican Revolution?

One of my favorite authors, Morris Berman, has a new book called Dark Ages America. I’ve not yet read it, but the blurbs and reviews say that Berman paints a picture of America’s entry into a new dark age and its imminent collapse, at least in part because of its inability to maintain the very democratic institutions that brought it to prominence. It isn’t just the dominance of the Right Wing in politics or fundamentalism in culture, though; it’s that we’ve returned to a sort of shuttered mind characterized by magical thinking and outright denial of scientific knowledge.

There is good evidence that logic, reason, and other Enlightenment values may not be all they’re cracked up to be, that for all their utility they don’t provide substantive human meaning and lead only to a soulless, technocratic society. However, American-style democracy cannot survive without them. If there is a new paradigm forming around us — and many believe there is — it cannot plunge us into a mindset that foresakes what we have learned and achieved in the last 400 years. Rather, we need a synthesis that reincorporates human value, not one that irrationally places man again at the center of the universe.

New High (Low?) in SUV Wars

Posted: October 18, 2006 in Tacky, Taste

Since you just can’t have too much bling, some Germans pimped a Hummer GT with 30-inch wheels, a Gulf-branded painted job, and gull-wing doors to get that extra bit of attention (since the Hummer is so inconspicuous to begin with).

So for those of you who tire of the jewel-encrusted cell phones and undergarments, place your orders now for the best (worst) SUV yet. They’re selling like hotcakes.

Vanishing Act

Posted: October 16, 2006 in Idealism, Philosophy

This is a little bit shocking. What if humans just … disappeared? What then?

Recent developments in N. Korea have sparked reminders of apolcalyptic scenarios. I admit that I’ve been feeling more than a little destabalized recently in light of the potential for all manner of nuclear nastiness, not to mention the inevitability of ecological and social collapse within the next 100 years. I’ve not blogged about it because it’s just too sad to contemplate, really. This graphic demonstrates just how miniscule and meaningless our short time strutting upon the stage may well be.

Update: I’ve learned that this graphic comes from an article in NewScientist called “Imagine Earth Without People.” The article has apparently provoked quite a controversy in the so-called “green blogosphere.” There are doomsayers and stewards and apologists and the generally clueless all chiming in with opinions on the topic, all of which is very good. The overall impression the article gives me is that humans are having a huge and mostly devastating impact on the ecosphere right now, which is the the most important consideration for us but not the only one. If we humans hope to survive (in terms of thousands of years, which is the timescale of ecological, evolutionary, and geological processes), then what we do within the next 10 to 100 years will likely determine our outcomes for the long haul. Very interesting ideas to work on.

Feeding Frenzy

Posted: October 14, 2006 in Culture, Tacky, Taste

I stopped in the local mall today to look for something I wanted (not needed, beverage coasters if you must know), and felt dispirited to see — already — Christmas decorations and displays. It’s only October 14. We used to regard Thanksgiving weekend as the start of the season. Over time, that’s crept further back in the calendar to Halloween. It’s now half a month before Halloween and one of the anchor department stores at the mall I was in was trumpeting “It’s Gift Time!”

We have been told again and again that the Christmas season accounts for some large percentage of annual sales. Some retailers have adopted a nonsensical strategy: that by enlarging the Christmas season and offering the sometimes large discounts necessary to draw in the customer they can increase sales. Which begs the question: do consumers have a flexible gift budget that expands to fit the expansion of the season? The answer to that question should be obvious, but such is the apparent thinking of retailers.

This article by the Wharton School describes the phenomenon, which it calls Christmas Creep, as a sort of mini-arms race. Read for yourself why it’s a self-defeating practice.

Shopping at the mall usually makes me a bit nauseous. Since I don’t watch TV (really, none) or attend to most mainstream media, I’ve managed to retreat somewhat from the onslaught of advertising and the constant selling of the “good life,” which I frankly can’t afford. (I’ve long since determined that I mostly don’t want it anyway, even if I could afford it.) Wandering through the mall and seeing what’s on display — including wandering among the shoppers — I was struck that much of our consumption is so far beyond anything we need as to resemble the practice of potlatch. Wikipedia defines potlatch as a ceremonial practice of gift giving or gift exchange whereby wealthy families gain status and prestige. A lesser known perversion, which strips potlatch of any pretense of charity, occurs when potlatch centers around amassing wealth and elaborate craft items only to cast them into fire, destroying them for all to see.

Our modern perversion of potlatch is centered around conspicuous consumption, known in hip lingo as “bling.” We display our supposed prestige through our purchasing power. So, for instance, we have the wristwatch costing thousands of dollars (merely to tell time), engagement rings and wedding ceremonies that basically hemorrhage money (merely to designate marital status), or the ever-popular sports car (some insist they be called “penis cars”) of the just-divorced middle-aged man reentering the dating scene (’cause the bimbos whiff the scent of money?). Philanthropy isn’t dead, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the excessive amounts we spend on ourselves to feel vital.

American Vernacular

Posted: October 7, 2006 in Culture, Manners, Tacky

Read no further if you are offended by ripe language.