Things I Just Don’t Get

Posted: August 4, 2009 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

Many aspects of the dominant culture confound me. Why do people still chase money as an end unto itself? What makes watching sports (as opposed to doing sports) so compelling? Why are so many people so lazy and incurious that they settle for lifelong intellectual feebleness (probably without realizing it). Why are people so desperately afraid of boredom and/or being alone? The list goes on and on. Still, there are a few questions that for me rise above these mundane examples.

Identity Politics

The very natural tendency to identify with some group(s) on the basis of ethnicity, sexual orientation, lifestyle, religion, nationality, political orientation, etc. is sensible in the respect that we all feel most comfortable amongst other like us. Preserving the unique culture of a group, especially folk cultures developed over many generations, is also worthwhile. Yet the lines of division between rival groups have become so hardened over time, each staking competing claims to victimhood and right to protection under the law, that the whole notion of belonging to a group has morphed into a liability. Many groups also have by now rigid dogma that makes membership forbidding rather than inviting.

The Cult of Celebrity

Why should anyone care who is sleeping with whom, who gained or lost weight, or what someone wore to a show? Why is there a whole industry (blogs, magazines, tabloids, paparazzi, etc.) devoted to tormenting celebrities just to keeping us informed of the latest jiggle of some starlet or utterance of some dude whose strongest claim on our attention is typically having won the genetics lottery? And considering that each newsbit is replaced by the next at a rate that makes it difficult to keep pace even for those with the attention span of a gnat, is there some point to this endless idol fascination?

Reality TV

There is very little reality reflected on TV in general, and perhaps even less in so-called reality TV. Most are showcases of human trainwrecks, parades of people in pointless cycles of competition, or at their most compelling, a combination of the two. The manufactured storylines and excessively long, pregnant pauses and locked stares make daytime soaps look like Shakepearean drama by comparison. Sure, reality TV is cheaper to produce than most other programming, but why are people tuning in?


The underlying structure of consciousness as narrative is increasingly clear, but the ancient and enduring fascination with heros, or more recently, superheros with superpowers, gives me considerable pause. According to Joseph Campbell, the short form of the hero story goes like this:

The hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he receives the call to adventure. He is reluctant at first but is encouraged by the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and transformed by his experience. He returns to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit his world.

The bastardized version we typically see today, stripped of most of its formerly robust formal elements, is an antihero winning the day through superior force of arms rather than skill or persuasion — totally ignoring that victory can’t be justified through deployment of superior power alone. An argument can be made that skill and persuasion are simply more subtle versions of power than brute force, but it’s that very subtlety that truly informs narrative, not the bullying of a thoughtless barbarian.

Support of the Military

This is the one certain to piss off more people than any other. Why does the U.S. military (or any foreign military when not handily redefined and dismissed as enemies) deserve our automatic, genuflecting respect? Is their service more valuable than that of firemen, police, and teachers simply because the military responds to threats to the state, whether real, perceived, imagined, or created out of thin air by venal government officials? Further, the military draws its personnel from the same general population as other labor groups, except that many who join the military do so because it’s a refuge of last resort for those unable to do anything but offer themselves up as cannon fodder. And because normal, civil behavior is frequently suspended in theaters of conflict, the conduct of rank-and-file service personnel (no longer just servicemen) often descends into a moral abyss, as evidenced by the steady stream of stories of rape, pillage, profiteering, and torture. It’s certainly not my contention that the military does no good on balance. Rather, it’s more nearly a dirty job that someone has to do.

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