Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bland Ambition

One ridiculous idea in the field of human behavior is that everyone has something to teach us, either as an example or a cautionary tale. There are many places within a one-mile radius of wherever you happen to be at this very moment that should make you realize that most people are neither exemplary nor cautionary, unless you yourself happen to be somewhat rudderless in composition. A related idea that is more ludicrous by several orders of magnitude is that the self-inflicted tribulations of famous and semi-famous people have some instructive value for the plebes.

Did anyone really need Roman Polanski to tell them that it's a bad idea for a 42-year-old man to molest a seventh-grader? Did you need a nasty, controlling hausfrau with a Dennis-the-Menace haircut and her henpecked, doughy, would-be partyboy husband to remind you that people should actually like each other before they squeeze out a litter of children together? Did we need David Letterman to remind us that a boss who bangs his subordinates is asking for trouble, even if the affection is genuinely mutual? Seriously, what kind of moron has these stories inflicted on them, incessantly for a week or so at a time, and actually draws life lessons from them?

Mackenzie Phillips, John Edwards, Michael Jackson -- all these people, many with actual money and power, all unable to successfully manage their lives, all unable to exercise the sort of impulse control and self-discipline most of us had figured out by our early twenties. This is because money, power, and fame are things that insulate their owners from their bad decisions, and absorb the consequences a bit more easily. Drugs don't exactly help, but everything in moderation, y'know.

Not that hard to figure out, and also not that applicable or transferrable to the lives of ordinary peons, who make many of those same dumb decisions themselves without getting to write a book about it afterward to recoup some of the money they lost up their noses or to their exes or mistresses.

Only an emotionally-retarded asshole would look at famous (or formerly famous, or fleetingly famous, or reality-show-Jesus-H.-Christ-aren't-their-fifteen-minutes-up-already famous) people and draw any conclusion beyond, "What a schmuck." Or even give a shit in the first place.

But you can see that Americans (and many other nationalities, to be fair, but we are drenched in mindless pop culture) are profoundly deficient in the ability to self-actualize. Since most people don't achieve much beyond procreating and holding down a job, it used to be that we were encouraged to express ourselves through our selection of possessions, men through their vehicles, women through their clothes. Now that the credit tap has been turned off, it is a bit more difficult to get people to affirm their individuality by one-upping their neighbors and buying more shit they don't need with more money they don't have. And it's not like those folks will suddenly start going to the library or spending time with their kids.

So what do you distract them with, how do you dangle the false promise of self-actualization? By saturating the media climate with a strange, creepy, celebrity-worshipping cult, one that not only encourages people to live vicariously through repeated no-names, but one that completely redefines what it is to be "famous". It surpasses even the old bit about someone being famous for being well-known.

What, for example, is a Kardashian? How is it that three rather ordinary-looking valley girls, whose skills consist entirely of shopping and balling athletes and rappers, become so well-known even to people who have never seen any of their shows? One of the girls has a big ass and a sex tape. Their father was best known for defending a violent killer, and their stepfather looks perpetually startled. Their mother is nuts. That's about it.

What is a Gosselin, and how is their tedious Magnificent Bickersons epic any different than that couple in just about every neighborhood that has a screaming match out on their front lawn every three weeks or so? (I know, I know -- it's all about the kids. Betcha 95% of the people who watch that show can't name more than two of 'em.) Why are the most popular teevee shows -- our most common cultural touchstones, sadly -- about people, famous and not, being judged by the clinically insane over whether they can dance or not? This all sounds like something even Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Postman would have laughed off as being too farfetched.

People like their soap operas, I suppose, and chacun a son goût and all that. But let's not pretend it's anything deeper than what it is -- a subculture of preening narcissism and nihilism, borne from the sheer lack of any meaningful cultural discussion. It's a perverse dynamic where it's not only okay that nothing matters, but the less it matters or has meaning, the better. It's prurience and titillation for people who don't have the guts to just get a subscription to Penthouse already.

If we can psychoanalyze a society by its most prevalent cultural artifacts, then apparently we are very bored and sad and lonely, and possessing the mindset of a marginally-literate eleven-year-old with ADD. I'm not sure who else would be willing to spend their precious, all-too-brief time on this here wondrous planet watching Tom DeLay do the cha-cha with one of the old Facts of Life cast-members.


Tyrone Slothrop said...

What a fantastic post - like almost everything you write. I'm truly glad I found your blog.

Happy Thanksgiving weekend (Canada TG, that is).


Joe Blow said...

gah... purile pap for sucking babies...that's what we need! fast, and more of it..

I can't even watch sports anymore because of the flying flashing ads but the disgust is only hightened because all they talk about is the celebrites of the game, instead of the game itself.

Its all about this guy did that is he did this, how did he feel.. and not enough about technique or strategy. (although in the playoffs they add a bit of that in)

but the cult of celebrity is all over the place. Me? I couldn't care less about these people. They make no laws and are saving no planets and are contributing no knowledge to science or the arts.

bah! kids today!