Friday, April 20, 2007

Culture Vultures

Matt Lewis ponders the eternal question:

Had they happened months apart, the Imus incident -- and the VA Tech massacre -- both would have had the potential to reignite the debate over video games, music and lyrics. Combined, the debate is inevitable.

No, it's highly, uh, "evitable" actually. It's not coincidental that Lewis purports to be musing about success in the mainstream pop culture, while pairing that last word up with -- what else? -- "war". And the reason "liberals" appear to keep "winning" this "culture war" is actually because you guys are the only ones fighting it, and it's paradoxically hard to win a war on straw.

Let's start by unpacking that first paragraph, because its basic premise is suffocatingly inept. The Imus "debate" seemed to me at its very core to serve as a lame attempt to inoculate several types of people -- the spectator/viewer/listener type, who suddenly had to actually think about their entertainment choices, if only to affirm them; the pundit class, who, whether or not they knew Imus or ever appeared on his show, reflexively have to act like they know or care what's happening; and the inner party weasels who had to make whatever shuck-and-jive excuses for glad-handing Imus after one of his third-rate Archie Bunkerisms. And everyone's in on the same game, except, for once, Imus himself, who seemed genuinely blindsided by the wave of opportunistic rhetoric, again designed to inoculate the commentators from Imus' loose-cannon brand of putative race-baiting and minstrelsy.

The minstrelsy part is especially disingenuous for people to retreat from, since many, many people (including yours truly) engage in winking meta-wigga-isms all the time, without having it mean anything more than its face value, which people either find momentarily funny or they don't. I don't really care to either defend or attack Imus, and for the purpose of this argument, it's essentially irrelevant.

The point is that I think people on all sides of this can agree that most, if not all, of the pearl-clutching of this "debate" was shamelessly contrived, and as such, renders it largely moot to any genuinely meaningful discussion of issues of race. Probably the most eventful part of that whole incident is that Jon Corzine nearly got killed racing to a feel-good reconciliation meeting between Imus and the players he insulted. Rule #1 of photo-ops: don't get in a wreck on the way to the photo-op. It's never worth it.

The second issue Lewis addresses in terms of "culture" -- naturally, the Virginia Tech massacre -- is going to be a real headache for some time to come, in terms of sheer intellectual dishonesty. The incident has already provided the usual suspects with seemingly ideal fodder to trot out their usual tired-ass theories about why we're Going To Hell In A Handbasket. I actually agree that there's something unsettling about a culture that flocks to thinly-disguised snuff films for entertainment. I agree that the scope and scale of conditioned desensitization to very realistically portrayed violence is substantial.

But they are drawing the wrong conclusions from this; they seem to think that we would have fewer spree-killings if only people didn't watch so many Saw knockoffs. It doesn't occur to them that perhaps they have the wrong end of the stick here -- that the entertainment industry, first and foremost, is about making a buck, and what makes a buck is spectacle, upping the ante. And since our true cultural hang-ups are with sex and nudity first, then language, and then finally violence, it's only natural for the spectacle-minded film-maker to head for the path of least resistance. They can get away with showing someone losing an eye or getting a finger lopped off; getting a blowjob, not so much. I'm thinking this may be a more disturbing cultural indicator than the warriors are willing to cop to.

The real drawback to the cultural-nihilism argument over Cho Seung Hui, or the supposedly cow-like placidity with which his fellow students tolerantly accepted his seething psychoses (which is a completely false assumption, not that they'll cop to that either), is that it's useless. The argument has no practical utility, no idea for a solution, even if you accept it on its own terms. It's just a plaint, a whinge against an empty shell of an exploitative, celebrity-besotted culture.

The worst part about American culture is not its propensity for violence so much as its love of stupidity, of no longer even bothering with the pretense of real effort before just slapping any old piece of crap in front of millions of pairs of eyes conditioned to simply accept things as they are. If a network started a reality show tomorrow that showed nothing but random idiots sorting their sock drawers, what would happen? Somebody would watch it, sure as shit, and so you would then have to have the requisite promo campaigns, the entertainment show and magazine profiles of breakout sock-drawer "stars", etc., etc.

There's a whole industry built around this shit, and it's engineered to promote and distribute the most trivial nonsense imaginable. The only limit is not one of taste or quality, but merely what can be gotten away with, and if that means you watching Paris Hilton watching paint dry, well, there are literally thousands of people whose careers revolve around talking you into doing that very thing, just for the opportunity to sell you hemorrhoid cremes and allergy pills and oversized fuck-you-mobiles in between content segments.

This goes hand-in-hand with the political conditioning of reflexive suspicion of intelligence. John Kerry speaks French; he must be up to something. It goes on and on, obviously.

And that, to come full circle, is what Lewis and his fellow would-be culture warriors really don't seem to get. It should be a huge clue that the leading "culture warrior" is a notoriously thin-skinned blowhard who is perhaps most famous for sexually harassing employees with a loofah. There is no culture war, fellas; you guys are simply the media version of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, dressing up in your Civil War replica uniforms every couple weeks to go on down to the park and stab each other with plastic bayonets. It's not real; people are in the entertainment industry to pick your pocket, not turn your children into psychos, or (God forbid) queer.

And the reason they fail at figuring even that much out is that they are stubbornly political first, last, and always, instead of just finding something truly original and insightful and crafting something out of it. But since they're less worried about creating good art than effective propaganda, they're always going to be left stuck wondering what the deal is.


john lenin said...

they seem to think that we would have fewer spree-killings if only people didn't watch so many Saw knockoffs.

I think what they resent is the DIY ethic that has sprung up in the last several decades wrt mass murder. I mean, to point out the obvious, Auschwitz and Little Boy/Fat Man preceded television by years. Anyone who fails to recognize that when discussing our wonderful propensity for inventing new ways to end fellow humans' lives is too stupid to be wandering the streets without a leash.

So I have to conclude that they're essentially elitists who feel that violence is too sacred to let any old Joe try his hand at it; that the herd should just go along with heads bowed chewing their cud until someone decides to kill them and a few million others like them. And even if it is a little harsh or counterproductive, that's still a matter for the aristocracy to decide amongst themselves.

Heywood J. said...

Yeah, I think it's the same vein of apprehension old media has these days about the internets in general, and YouTube in particular. The narrative -- and more importantly, the control over it -- is rapidly decentralizing.

It was no surprise that a narcissistic thug like Cho had a media package all prepared as he set to go about his despicable deed. But it is strange that he sent it to NBC, thus igniting a whole 'nother controversy about their responsibility in airing his self-indulgent idiocy. Why didn't he just put it up on YouTube, where the odds were actually greater that it would have been seen? There was no guarantee that NBC would show Cho's incoherent ramblings, and I'm actually surprised they did.

Anyway, I think the larger ramifications of all this are starting to take hold, gradually. Decentralization of narrative could be an interesting dynamic in a lot of ways, so long as it doesn't just devolve into a million slivers of sensationalized stupidity.

And even that aspect of it is beyond what the aforementioned culture vultures can reckon. I was mainly just galled at their transparent opportunism, that they could look at a senseless tragedy and find nothing more than another excuse to work something they've already been on about since they showed anal sex on the Love Boat or whatever.

Still, it's fun to watch them dance gingerly around these issues, to loudly decry the vicarious sadism that passes for entertainment in this country, yet not a fucking word about how maybe we shouldn't sell guns to crazy people. That would be a more constructive start, I should think, but when it comes to slippery-slope activism, pro-choicers have nothing on gun nuts.