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.

Charles Bukowski Hates Mickey Mouse

It was a shock for me to hear that some assume Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert are gay. When I first heard that, I thought the statement, true or not, was provocative, insurgent, and hilarious. I don’t remember who first made the claim, but I do recall thinking the individual was on the cusp of something new, something insidious, and transcendent. This person must be part of an insurgent generation that revolts against civil authority, through pop culture, in a manner that is not belligerent, I thought. I wanted to be at the forefront of that insurgence that didn’t just break down societal barriers but left a wasteland in its wake, and I was not concerned with collateral damage. Children be damned, I thought. I wanted to be one of those that shook the cultural two-liter bottle up, and I considered that characterization of Ernie and Bert a good start.

I wanted to convince the world, through repetition, that the reason Aloysius Snuffleupagus (affectionately known as Mister Snuffleupagus) talked and moved so slow on the set of Sesame Street was that he was stoned. I wanted to inform anyone who would listen that the Bradys were all stoned, gay, and involved in incest, along with anything else we could dream up to poke holes in the traditional wholesomeness that led my fellow brethren from broken homes to feel estranged. On the reality side of the tube, we were suffering, and many of us found it disgusting that sixties and seventies television would have the audacity to portray an idyllic image of a family that left the rest of feeling ostracized. I was ready, willing and able to join the fights, until Hollywood vindicated us by producing The Brady Bunch Movie that had its characters deal with pot smoking, lesbians, and the realities we purported to be more in line with our experiences.

“I’m serious. I can’t stand Big Bird. He’s an *******!” someone said.

I’m still not sure how much sincerity drove such comments, but that was precisely what made the insidious provocation so delicious. If it wasn’t serious, it was funny in a serious, seditious manner. If it was serious, on the other hand, it was funny in an unserious manner. Whatever the case, the artful joke teller left it as a standalone. A comment like that one stated that there was no need to preface such comments with the qualifiers most insurgents felt compelled to offer in the gestation period of the movement, when characterizing a child’s beloved creature in such a manner. Refraining from such typical hospitalities and considerations signaled to the rest of us that the age of qualifiers was over, and a full-on insurgency was under way.

Charles Bukowski was not the first to speak out against the authority figures of the sociopolitical world, nor will he be the last. The mindset might date back to the Romans, the ancient Greeks, and beyond, but to my knowledge, no one attacked the soft underbelly of civil authority through the pop culture staples of children’s entertainment as successfully as Bukowski. If he didn’t start the movement, he at least exerted tremendous influence on me and my insurgent brethren. We raised our fists high with a scream, when we learned that the writer had the temerity to come out against a cultural icon many believed to be the standard-bearer of cutesy America, and spawn of Walt Disney.

“Mickey Mouse is a three-fingered son-of-a-bitch with no soul,” Charles Bukowski said.   

“For us to get back to real America,” a friend of mine said, paraphrasing Bukowski, “we have to destroy Mickey Mouse, because Mickey Mouse destroyed the soul of America.”

It was such a provocative statement, a plane of thought crashing into what I considered the foundation of America. Those I associated with at the time claimed that by making such a declaration, my friend gained panache, and the women around us dug panache. Someone else accused him of being an angry young man, and experience taught us that women loved angry young men. His statement was so provocative, and so Rage Against the Machine that we dug his anger too. Knowing nothing of Bukowski or any other insurgent thoughts at the time, we thought this guy had anger without causation, and we considered that the essence of cool.

“What are you rebelling against?” a female actor asked actor Marlon Brando in the 1953 movie The Wild One

“Whaddya got?” Brando replied. 

That’s the stuff! Suck it Mickey!

Those who have read Charles Bukowski already know that cute America began with an institution called Disney, which started with the institution created by the cartoon character called Mickey Mouse. “It all started with institutions for those who need to be institutionalized,” was a refrain of retro-hip haters. “Those who seek Mickey Mouse, as their form of entertainment live in a soulless, philosophy-free form of hell,” they said. “A life of Mickey will lead to an uncomplicated life of laughter, frivolity, fun, and soullessness. It will lead a generation of Mickey fans, children and otherwise, who will live without knowledge of the stark realities of poverty, drugs, disease, prostitution, and porn.” They apparently thought it would lead to a generation of children who wouldn’t understand the harsh realities of life.

“Mickey Mouse?” the aghast asked. “What could you possibly have against Mickey Mouse?”

“Nothing,” the cool, hip cats answered, “except that he is a three-fingered son-of-a-bitch with no soul.”

We fellas watched such cool, retro-hip cats walk away from such conversations, with laughter, open-mouthed awe, and elongated stares trailing behind them. We didn’t know if the women believed them, but we saw that some women loved such comments, and we knew we had to get some of that.

These provocative soothsayers appeared to have a formula for intriguing otherwise unattainable women, when they delivered such lines in a subtle and suave manner. The formula also appeared to be something we uncool fellas thought we could put to good use. I don’t know if others ever managed to use this technique successfully, but any flirtations I had with using the tool met a quick end when the retro-funny-nerd types stepped in with their “Elmo rocks!” and “Grover is a dude!” T-shirts. Those apparel choices were not intentionally insurgent, and their motivation confused me. Their shirts made kind, funny statements like, “Big Bird is my homeboy!” and, “I was raised on The Street” (with an accompanying picture of Sesame Street on the shirt), and they garnered laughter from women. Women asked them about their T-shirt, and the T-shirt wearers got a ticket to ride. This left the rest of us confused. “We had a formula,” we wanted to say to the retro-funny-nerd types. “You’re messing up the dynamic of what we just started to understand.”

Even if we had been able to use those insurgent statements, we would’ve said them with some humorous underpinnings. We wanted to be funny in a way that some strong, intellectual themes of that era were. I don’t know how many contra rebels sought the higher plane of funny in the manner I did, but I did run across a few who took the insurgent movement a bit too seriously and presented their arguments without any humorous underpinnings.

I don’t know if Bukowski was one of them, or if he used the insurgent formula to rise to the throne of the insurgent rebels in a capitalistic venture, but standup comedians took Bukowski’s fundamentals into the stratosphere. Bukowski might have found this a little unsettling. Then again, he might have intended these statements to serve as a launching point. Whatever the case, I’m sure that if Bukowski lived long enough to witness the insurgency permeating culture to the degree where even little old ladies began declaring, “Barney sucks!” at Applebee’s, he would’ve been proud. Whatever the case, Bukowski’s acolytes took this message more seriously than the rest of us.

Few can pinpoint where movements such as these begin. Likewise, few can pinpoint their demise. In our limited perspective, we are only aware of what happens in our inner circles. In my inner circle, the insurgent institution began to wane, but the Bukowski acolytes held true. “Barney still sucks!” they said. They blasted the otherwise innocuous, purple dinosaur so often that some in their audience began to believe it was something more than comedic shtick. They were true believers. The retro-funny-nerd types and little old ladies at Applebee’s inadvertently exposed the true believers as ludicrous, and a little too serious and self-righteous, to a point where we laymen began to back away from our attempts to achieve orthodoxy.

“You do realize that Barney the Dinosaur wasn’t written for middle-aged men, right?” we asked the ultra-serious strain, waiting for their dry tones and deadpan expressions to break into a smile.

“I don’t care,” they answered. “He’s created a soulless America that seeks the cute mindset with those horrible ‘I love you’ and ‘you love me’ songs he sings. He has no soul.” Then, to further this insurgent agenda, they might turn to their children, and inquire, “Ms. Mary, What do we think of Barney the Dinosaur, Miss Mary?” 

“He sucks!” Ms. Mary says. “He should have a hypodermic needle hanging from his arm, and a mohawk on his head, and the world would be a much better place if his father learned the proper use of a condom.” Ms. Mary’s learned version of cute sophistication often elicits laughter and a chorus of “Aw,” from everyone at the table.

At this point or some points in between, the observer begins to realize that the true believer has a bona-fide opinion on the matter, one they consider so consequential that they teach their children to mimic it. They are angry that any individual of any age would seek the soft entertainment that Mickey or Barney provides.

They cannot abide their children’s occasional giggles at the humorous actions of a grown man in a Barney outfit. When the show does garner a giggle, we can imagine them peering around their electronic device at Ms. Mary and admonishing, “What do we say about Barney again?”

“He sucks,” Ms. Mary repeats.

“That’s right,” they say before going back to their device.

At this point or some points in between, the casual observer can’t help but further question the parent’s motives. “I think this is all funny, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t actually believe it do you?”

For some parents, the dinosaur, the mouse, and some of the other, more popular characters of youth programming are annoying. Most parents of this era talked about the mind-numbing repetitiveness of some songs, and how the cutesy, nice interactions between the characters drove them crazy, but there are others who take these annoyances a step further. I’ve met them. I met parents who wanted more for their children, and their various definitions of more were largely left to the imagination. If a parent doesn’t want mind-numbing educational songs for their children, or cutesy interactions that might teach children how to interact with their peers, how does a parent counter such programming to prepare their children for the stark reality of the world? Do they introduce them to violent, obscene movies to give their children a more vivid picture of themes that contain violence and sexual identity? Do they do this under the guise that they believe this will lead to their children being less inclined to ostracize and hate the differences in people? What if, after watching such material, their child tickles Elmo in a department store, and they giggled along with the furry toy? We can only guess that this might manifest into some form of hopeless frustration. How does a parent counteract that? Would they sit their child down and remind them of the misery in the world? How far would they go to achieve some form of hopeless tears in their child? If they did achieve it, would they feel an odd sense of satisfaction by preparing the little one for the misery that awaits them on the other side of childhood? One has to wonder if these children are more miserable based on the efforts of their parents, and if there is anything, anyone could do to prepare them for a life of that.

Bukowski’s goal was to create an anti-Disney America that was awash in stark reality. By implication, we can suggest that if Bukowski were in charge, the children of America would be awash in alcohol, sex, and violence. He would want America’s children to know the country he knew and wrote about in his poems and books. He would want them to know the stark reality of abusive fathers and to be aware that alcohol is the only form of escapist entertainment that has any soul. “And the track,” Bukowski acolytes might remind us, “Don’t forget about Bukowski’s routine trips to the track.” We can be sure that the gospel according to Bukowski would include the belief that horses, not Mickey Mouse, can make all our dreams come true, and any child who doubts that can tune in to the cast of characters at their local track.

“Screw childhood,” Bukowski appeared to say. “Screw wholesome Americans, born and bred on Disney, who believe that naïve childhood should last as long as possible. It’s not realistic. Childhood is the very essence of cutesy America. It’s farcical, and it has no soul.”

To support the counter-argument, we must cede to the idea that Disney has damaged some susceptible children-turned-adults. We must recognize that some adults have an unusual and unhealthy propensity for fantasy, but what Bukowski and his acolytes don’t account for in the provocative, insurgent statements against Disney is that if Walt Disney’s creation never existed, there would be a need to create it. If Barney or Sesame Street never existed, something would fill that vacuous hole. Some of us may not enjoy the manner in which that hole was filled, but as my fifth grade teacher once said in various ways on far too many days, “The country in which you live has a Bill of Rights that allows you to complain about whatever you want, but if you’re going to complain in my class, you do have to offer an alternative solution. If all you do is complain, you’re useless to me.”  

If those who complain about these institutions are able to see past their subjective frustrations and view the market in an objective manner, they will recognize that there was a need that Walt Disney and all of these other institutions filled. Rather than complain, in what my fifth grade teacher would’ve characterized as useless, Bukowski and his acolytes should’ve complained in a constructive manner by offering a viable alternative. If that need is institutional in America –be it is financial, capitalistic, emotional, or fundamental– these family-oriented entertainment vehicles tapped into something that made a generation of children a little happier. AY! There’s the rub, the nut-core of it all, happy. Bukowski types hate happy. If they were in control, America would be a happy-free zone.

Bukowski had a dream, a dream in which all children could one day live in a world where they were judged not by the shallow, clueless smiles on their faces, but by the spiritual –or spirited– lights of their soul. He had a dream in which all Americans, black and white and everything in between, could one day join hands in a happy-free, cute-free, Disney-free America.

Most would say America is a better, happier place for children, with Disney, Sesame Street, and most of the child-like, simple-minded, cute programming in it. Even the most jaded adult would admit that the tedious songs and simple-minded exercises make an imprint on young minds. Children learn through repetition, and the simple-minded, tedious repetitions also provide children a refuge from the various stresses that childhood might provide. The counterarguments seem incomprehensible to some of us, but perhaps that’s what makes them funny, quasi funny, and provocative. There are others, we’ve all met them, who believe these fantastical presentations do more harm than good, and they’re not trying to be provocative. The inevitable question arises, if these programming choices for children border on evil in their simplistic pursuits, how would we go about replacing them? The idea that they want children drinking alcohol, or attending the track is a strawman argument, they say, but when we advance the argument beyond the fallacious and beyond their provocative statements, we find that they’re stance is steeped in bitter contrarianism.

If Disney represents happy, cute America, as Bukowski suggested, should we nominate Bukowski an unofficial honorarium as miserable America’s ambassador? If Disney brought uncomplicated happiness to America’s shores, coupled with laughter, and joy, what did Bukowski bring? Anyone who knows anything about Bukowski knows that he had an abusive, alcoholic father. He also suffered from a clinical case of acne in his youth. These, among other issues, led him to a degree of misery that he mined to carve out a niche in the market that brought him fame and fortune. We know that while Bukowski may not have been the first to tap into the misery market, he might have done it better than those that preceded him, for few in history have relayed the unhappy mindset in such a comprehensive manner, and even fewer could express their hatred for happy people with such vigor.

Some believe Bukowski created the current manifestation of anti-happy that led to a hierarchical web of minions that display near-visceral hatred for The Brady Bunch, Leave It to Beaver, Disney, and all that is wholesome. These wholesome ideals, portrayed on screens, represented something that irritated these types. Perhaps it had something to do with the idea that these images served as a mirror to reveal something about them that they didn’t want others to see. Their anger hung out from beneath their skirt for all the world to see, but it did nothing for them to learn that in many quarters of America, it is now popular and chic to hate happy and wholesome America, simply because it’s too cutesy. It does nothing for them to know they’ve won in certain sectors, because their goal has never been about winning or achieving some form of satisfaction that could lead to happiness for another. No, the insurgent movement that I once considered so attractive was about spreading the misery, so they wouldn’t feel so much of it percolating under their skin while they sat on the other side of the tube, seething in the juices of their reality.