Avoiding misery in the midst of the culture war


A chapter in Chuck Klosterman’s book IV asks why some people insist on making themselves miserable when the culture disagrees with their values?

“(Most of these people) don’t merely want to hold their values; they want their values to win, and this is the reason why so many people feel “betrayed” by art, consumerism, and by the way the world works.” 

The point Klosterman is making is your values are your values, but if you expect the culture to pivot to your way of thinking you’re probably going to end up making yourself miserable in your pursuit.

All of us have our own set of morals, values, and principles.  They can be instilled in us by region, parents, school, or religion, but Klosterman states that these can vary quite a bit from one group of people to another.  He states that the code you live by is not wrong, but the code that the culture has is not wrong either.  It’s just different.  Even if you disagree with him, Klosterman does have something of a point when he says that documenting points, in a sports-related mindset, is inevitably going to end in a losing proposition.  The culture is the culture, and you have to accept the fact that your code is not going to win all of the time, and if you don’t you’re probably going to end up drive yourself crazy.

Klosterman essays is largely focused on cultural tastes, regarding the manner in which some people get so upset by the fact that some people like the group Limp Bizkit over Nirvana; or that so many dumbed down novels occupy the New York Times Best Seller List; or that shows like Everybody Loves Raymond remains so popular.  He rarely mentions politics, except loosely with his “the way the world works” phrase, and a brief mention of voting patterns.  So, as one that gets upset by voting patterns,  I find it intriguing to contemplate the idea that I might one day take this so far that accidentally become a miserable person.

Is Klosterman saying that we shouldn’t defend our values?  He isn’t.  He’s saying that if you have integrity, you should be able to defeat any attempts at cultural attacks on what you think.  Can we get angry in the privacy of our own homes, without fear of being called ridiculous by Klosterman and those that can’t believe that some of us get indignant by these values obliterated on our TV?  I think so, but it is a decent point that we shouldn’t take our righteous indignation so far that we accidentally become miserable to all of those around us.

When the author suggests that we’re all going to run across “certain instances” where the culture is diametrically opposed to our values, and those oppositions are so confusing to us that we’re going to become unhappy by it, I would say he’s wrong by a matter of degrees.  I would say that I’ve encountered so many “certain instances” over the decades I’ve been watching TV that I should, by Klosterman’s definition, be a miserable person by this point.  Anyone that knows me, however, knows that while I may have a stick up my ear some of times, I’m generally a pretty happy person.

One such “certain instance” happened to me the other day, when I watched an episode of Netflix’s Orange is The New Black.  I disagree with just about everything that happens on the show, just about every character on the show, and just about everything but the credits.  (I skip the credits, so I’m sure if I watched them, I might be able to find something I disagree with in them.)  I disagree with the show, but I watch it, and I don’t become angry watching it.  I get a little ticked during some scenes, as you’ll see, but I don’t end up becoming miserable.

My problem with the show, and all shows like it, is that there is no significant debate on some of the topics I consider important and worthy of more discussion.

In one particular scene of this show, an insanely duplicitous, evil religious wacko attempts to convert the poor, “just wants-to-be-left-alone” main character to Christianity.  The main character is somewhat agreeable with going through the motions of this conversion, if it means pacifying the evil, proselytizing Christian that the main character “disrespected” in another episode.  (Sorry about all the adverbs and adjectives, but liberals love using them to describe evil, in-your-face religious people.)  So the harmless, sensible, and “truly kind” main character agrees to be baptized by the meth head, out-of-her-mind with-this-religious-stuff, and monstrous (ROAR!) Christian, until the main character sees that the water she is to be baptized in is a little dirty.

“I can’t do this,” the main character begins.  She then goes on a liberal, Bull Durham-style rant regarding things she believes in and concludes it with: “On some level we all know that this (religion) is BS don’t we?”  She then proceeds, in that condescending meme of all snearing non-religious types talking to religious people: “I wish I could get on that ride, I’m sure I would be much happier.”  (Translation, I am just too intelligent for religion.) Feelings aren’t enough,” she says, “I need it to be real.”

This clichéd response is the ultimate form of hypocrisy in a world where most non-religious, demand that religious types be respectful of all opposing viewpoints and lifestyles.  When a religious person fails to be open-minded to lesbianism, for example, they’re called narrow minded.  When a TV show ridicules and sneers at religious people, saying, ‘I wish I could be more open-minded to your set of beliefs, but I’m not as dumb as you,’ it’s called a yuppie, coming-of-age narrative.

I honestly don’t care if anyone is religious, but this piece of dialogue simply calls for some sort of response.  I’m not saying the main character’s worldview had to be defeated, but for the sake of quality writing, for the sake of some sort of conflict in the scene, it would’ve been nice if some character had said something to provide for an interesting exchange.  Notice I didn’t say debate.  I’m not saying that the creators of the show needed a Scopes Trial style debate.  I’m saying something would’ve been nice, something along the lines of: “Well, isn’t science wrong too … some of the times?”

If you watched this show, you saw all the scenes that led up to this point in which the hysterical, religious character was a mouthy, confrontational sort that couldn’t keep her mouth shut.  Was she rational, of course not.  She was barely lucid in most scenes —to fit the worldview of the show’s creators and writers of religious people— but until this scene, this obnoxious tart always had something to say when her beliefs system were challenged, and this scene contained more condemnation of her beliefs system than any of the prior ones.

I realize that all of the religious women in this show, save the transsexual nun, are depicted as slovenly creatures that probably would’ve felt more comfortable in the Palaeolithic Age, but they could’ve said something like, “I believe in science too.  Can’t science and religion stand hand in hand on some matters?”  At that point, another religious woman in the scene could’ve said, “Didn’t Einstein suggest that such a relationship could exist?  Didn’t he say something along the lines of: “Science without religion is lame.  Religion without science is blind.”  The combative females could’ve said, “You do believe in Einstein don’t you?” with an equal amount of snarkiness and condescension.  I realize such a line would’ve been inconsistent with the ‘barely above grunting’ characterization of the religious people on this show, but that would’ve been excellent writing as far as I’m concerned.  That would’ve provided some excellent conflict, and it could’ve ended with the main character still winning.  Instead of any of these exchanges, one of the religious women made a snarky comment about religious people believing in angels.  Boring!

Instead of some small semblance of a debate, what we get in shows like Orange is the New Black is open-mouthed awe and silence from the “Cletus the slack jawed yokel” Christian side that has obviously (you’re supposed to laugh knowingly here) never-been-in-no-science-class before.

The exaggeration of the casting  in this show has to be seen to be believed.  The main character is depicted as an urban, well groomed, beautiful woman, with beautiful teeth, while the Christians are all female meth heads with stained, and missing, teeth and unwashed, stringy hair that suggest that they, along with their beliefs, may be more comfortable in the Cro-Magnon era.  (I realize that I’m mixing eras here, but it’s hard to know where these violations of modernity would be most comfortable.)  What we get in this “secular humanist” oration scene is a main character that gets to deliver her sermon on the mount without the any form of debate on the topic.  We get slacked jawed yokels that can’t hope to compete with big words, like science.  We get a form of unchecked proselytizing that many claim the other side was guilty of in another era.

In the closing paragraphs of the “Cultural Betrayal” chapter in Chuck Klosterman’s book, IV, he basically writes that it will be your own fault if you get irrationally angry about the fact that the culture doesn’t agree with you, and you will be happy if you learn to care and not care at the same time.  You can care, in other words, but if you have integrity —“if you truly live by your ideals, and those ideals dictate how you engage with the world at large— you will never be betrayed by the culture.  You are not wrong,” he writes to close the chapter, “and neither is the rest of the world.  But you need to accept that those two things aren’t really connected.”{1}

On the point that the culture and I should be able to co-exist on separate planes, and that for my mental health it’s probably not a good idea that I reach over and try to convert the other side, I say that I’ve waved the white flag long ago.  I still attempt to competitively defeat those “certain instances” of manipulation that all writing attempts to exert on its audience, but this is not done with the hope that the culture will pivot back to me.  I just need to point out their subtle forms of manipulation and defeat them internally.  I think it’s a healthy practice that I’ve developed to challenge myself with all attacks and attempt, be it in my living room or in a blog like this, to defeat all of their theoretical arguments.  When I’m done, I’d be more than happy to shake the creator’s hand, say, “Nice try!” and go back to my respective corner to inform Mickey (Rocky reference) that I should probably be cut to prevent the kind of extensive damage that might prohibit me from coming out for the next round.

The point is that I don’t get miserable.  I don’t care that my sensibilities aren’t shared by those that write movies or shows, and I don’t expect them to pivot back in my lifetime.  I don’t care if people are religious or not, and I secretly don’t care that they’re not respectful.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s on them that they’re hypocritical in their quest for universal respect of all people in all walks of life.  It actually fuels me to write material like this when they aren’t.  If I did care, and it was eventually going to make me miserable, you would have to call me a sadomasochist for paying PAYING for HBO and Showtime over the last decade and a half.

I do know people that get miserable though, they’re out there, and I thought of them while reading this chapter, but I enjoy internally defeating those cultural attempts to change my ways of thinking.  “I don’t get miserable when I see my sensibilities getting slaughtered in the culture,” I say with an action hero’s menacing whisper, “I get competitive.”

{1}Klosterman, Chuck.  IV.  New York: Scribner, 2006. Pages 265-269.  Print.

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