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January 04, 2007

Private Pleasure, Public Vulgarity

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A few visuals to kick this posting off:




And something I wish I had a visual for but, well, it would have been awkward: Over the holidays, I noticed two pre-adolescent girls who -- in the company of adults giving every indication of being their parents -- were wearing stretchy-glittery terry workout clothes. Victoria's Secret leisure-wear, basically. Across the butt of one girl was stitched the word "Juicy." Across the butt of the other girl was stitched the word "Pink."

(Note to oldies not in the fashion know: I'm pretty sure that "Juicy" refers to a popular girls' fashion outfit called Juicy Couture. It also, of course, suggests "ripe and appetizing." Note to youngsters who didn't live through the '70s and '80s: the word "Pink" can make oldies give a start because the word was once used to signify hardcore, or near-hardcore, pornography. An extreme sex magazine didn't show pictures of girls who were just naked. It "showed pink" -- ie., it displayed images of exposed vaginas and anuses.)

Looking at these two girls, I had -- I confess it -- a brief moment when I found myself thinking about their pre-pubescent butts in sexual terms. Which is bizarre, because I've never had the slightest sexual interest in pre-pubescent girls. But with all those hotsy signifiers a-glow -- St. Tropez fabrics, look-at-me buttpatches, provocative words -- perhaps it wasn't really that bizarre. With "Juicy" and "Pink" twinkling at me, how could the carnal part of my mind not switch on?

Repeat after me: What were their parents thinking?

Speaking of which ... The New York Times' Lawrence Downes recently attended a middle-school talent show. (Link thanks to Rod Dreher.) And what Downes found himself witnessing were 6th, 7th, and 8th grade girls doing half-clad, gyrating, booty-shaking imitations of the lascivious dancers in rock videos. Downes writes:

What surprised me, though, was how completely parents of even younger girls seem to have gotten in step with society's march toward eroticized adolescence -- either willingly or through abject surrender. And if parents give up, what can a school do?

The discussion topic I'm proposing is obvious, I hope: What do we make of how trashy, flashy, and vulgar popular culture has become these days?

My own first contribution is a qualifier. I often enjoy vulgarity and funkiness. Back in his brief heyday, for instance, I was a fan and a defender of Andrew Dice Clay. I also like more in the way of flirtatiousness and mischief than many Americans seem comfortable with. What can I say? Affable sexual banter gives the day a sparkle, and it puts me in a good mood. My general attitude: Why not enjoy whatever it is life has to offer in the way of pleasure and delight? I mean, so long as it doesn't lead to personal collapse and social decay.

So what makes me wince in the examples I provide above isn't the earthiness, the carnality, or the provocation. I'm anything but a prude. It's the hypercommercial, gung-ho, it-must-intrude-everywhere, hammering relentlessness of it all.

Public life these days sometimes seems to have turned into an X-rated electronic bazaar full of flashbulb explosions, "Jackass" / YouTube stunts, horse laughs and cat yowls, naked beavers, twitching lights, barfing and peeing. Fan though I am of sexiness, funkiness, and showbiz, what we're surrounded by today often strikes me as numbing. In the specific case of pre-teens wearing slutty South Beach fashions -- and let's hear it for slutty South Beach fashions when and where appropriate -- it seems more than a little insane. It also strikes me as inappropriate, as not-pleasurable, and finally as anti-erotic.

The question that most piques my interest where the public-vulgarity topic is concerned is a little involved. Let me give it a shot, though. Is what I've illustrated above -- a general, stress-inducing vulgarization of the public culture -- an inevitable and inescapable consequence of "the '60s"? By "the '60s," I mean a specific great big effort to cast off inhibitions. If and when a culture puts itself through this kind of casting-off-of-inhibitions process, is it doomed to cave in to the kind of pushy acting-out that dismays so many today? Can Britney's beaver-flash, in other words, be blamed on the '60s? (CORRECTION: Peter informs me that, since a beaver must have some fur, what Britney revealed would be better referred-to as a "bald eagle.")

God knows that all the tacky carrying-on can occasionally deliver a jolt of fun. I remember seeing a busty woman in the Village who was wearing a tight t-shirt that said "Yes, They're Real." That was vulgar and attention-grabbing in a way I didn't mind. It certainly made me laugh. But the relentlessness of the pumped-up transgressiveness grows a little wearying, doesn't it? After all, traditionally Carnival is held to be a special moment, not the general state of things. Dressing slutty may be more fun when it's confined to clubs and hangouts, or to set-aside neighborhoods like the Village, where it's indulged-in, treated, and enjoyed as something special, something slightly apart from normal-daily-life. When vulgarity is coming at you 24/7 -- even on envelopes ("Pee Like a Firehose!") delivered by the U.S. Mail -- you can wind up feeling like you're being punished.

It also isn't hard to find yourself concerned, or at least curious, about the kids who are growing up in our porno-carnival, click-here culture. I don't have kids, yet even I fret about them, if a little abstractly. What's becoming of our young people? They seem (and not just to me) like a different species. Do they have inner lives at all, aside from fantasy lives? How will they ever be able to develop such traditional resources as patience? And of course: Where's the poetry? Where's the charm? I like the rowdiness and physicality of young women these days, for example. But lordy, aren't they a graceless bunch?

I sometimes find myself convinced that today's young people have turned into videogame representations of young people, or collections of menu options, or computer-screen buttons clamoring to be punched.

How on earth will they ever learn to contend with the non-Carnival aspects of life: quiet moments, complex experiences, discouragement, and frustration? God knows that, when things are going well anyway, kids today can be enviably quick, clever, and inventive. And God knows they're nothing if not uninhibited. But the youthful moment passes all-too-quickly, and decades of life then stretch out ahead. Once the fizz subsides, what will be left of today's young people? I mean, other than a collection of spent tattoos? But perhaps the new breed will simply go on pumping up the cultural volume, like addicts squeezing out whatever magic they still can from their drug of choice.

Hey, a pet theory of mine is that a central neurosis of modern (or postmodern, or electronic, or whatever) life is the fear of boredom. People seem terrified of being left unstimulated, even for a few minutes. How weird: Why should boredom be experienced as terrifying? And why should so many people dread being left alone with their thoughts?

Anyway: Does going through a loosening-up-sexually period (ie., "the '60s") automatically and necessarily lead to what we're seeing today, namely a crassening of the public and shared culture?

There are those who think it does, and I respect their worries and concerns. There's a tendency to feel that we're paying now for the sins of the '60s, and in many ways I think there's a lot to this view. Then there are other people who look at where we are now and conclude that the problem is that we need even-more "liberation." The problem for these people isn't that the accelerator was pressed, it's that it wasn't pressed pedal-to-the-metal. I find this view naive, but I respect and to some extent share the underlying dreams and desires.

My own view differs a bit from both of these views, though. For one thing, there were sides to the '60s -- especially in its attitudes towards sex and the body -- that I enjoyed a lot, and got a lot out of. Many middle-class (and other, of course) kids of that era didn't grow up feeling entitled to bodily ease or to sexual pleasure. Why hold it against them -- er, us -- that they made an effort to reach out and claim it for themselves?

Another side of the '60s that I appreciated is one that isn't much-discussed. It seems to me plausible to say that part of what the general culture was trying to accomplish during that stretch was growing up. America has always been a bit of a kid: impulsive, naive, full of beans, rash, attractive, clueless, etc. If the Old World so many of us escaped from was cynical, hidebound, decadent, etc, we were a little bratty, starry-eyed, and bumptious.

But the World War II era left many Americans wanting to get on with things. Exposure to the wider world (via the war, the GI Bill, and via widespread education and travel) gave many people the desire to leave cluelessness behind. And during this period many people did in fact manage to open up to new dimensions of life: art-awareness, quality-of-life-consciousness, racial openness, food-awareness, ecological thinking, putting the quest for material goodies in a larger context ...

Which leads me to my own, no doubt idiosyncratic, reading of our current predicament. My explanation for why we're stuck in the vulgar rut we're stuck in now isn't that we tried to grow up; it's that we never quite made it there. We gave it a shot but -- for whatever reasons -- we fell short.

As those making their way into early adulthood often will, we cast off inhibitions, we slept around some ... Then, instead of attaining adulthood, we collapsed, confused and exhausted. And we reacted to our exhaustion by throwing adulthood out. We reverted to being overgrown kids again, only this time around -- thanks to all the opening-up and disinhibiting we'd done by that point -- there we stood with our hands stuffed in our pants and our mouths spewing potty language. Failing to grow up, we wound up less grownup than we'd started out as.

So here we are, without any kind of governor to regulate our urges, doing tons of moody, impulse-ridden lurching-about, and forever reaching desperately for the brass ring that's going to redeem us, or make it all worthwhile, or turn us into YouTube billionaires, or something.

Why did we fail to make it to adulthood? Sure beats me. My hunch is that our efforts depended too much on drugs and delusions. We were doomed to crack up because we wanted and expected too much. We imagined that we wouldn't just attain adulthood and maturity; we took it for granted that we'd transform into something greater, if not actually transcendent. When that didn't occur -- surprise, surprise -- we abandoned the quest entirely, giving the whole idea of grown-upness a good hard kick as we left it behind. We've nursed feelings of betrayal ever since.

Did things have to go that way? I don't think they did. The drugs, the delusions, the fantasies, the wanting-too-much ... Maybe we fell victim to our usual over-enthusiasm. And, this being America, what moved in when the drug-fueled utopian striving collapsed was money and business.

Well, it's a shot at an explanation anyway. Eager to hear others' hunches about this.

In the '50s and '60s, the Boomers had made pop culture their own. Then, when their dreams collapsed, they turned (rather cynically, it seems to me) to real life: to the serious job of sharpening pop culture, heightening it, and selling it -- selling it hard -- to younger generations. It's as though Boomers convinced themselves that the cause of their own agonies and failure hadn't been their unrealistic desires; it was the whole idea of adulthood that had done them in. Adulthood, that damn adulthood ... Wanting to do their own offspring a favor, they eradicated adulthood entirely. Which has left today's young people growing up in a culture that's completely comfortable with, indeed unfailingly encouraging of, all things "uninhibited" but that has lost all contact with what it might mean to act and live like a grownup ...

Incidentally, I'm happy to admit that I may be rationalizing instead of reasoning. After all, I like sex. I co-write dirty stories; the art that interests and delights me most is often sexual in nature; I like flirtation; I like provocation; I like erotica; I like spirit and sauciness and actresses. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a movie that I've watched in, oh, a million years that was rated softer than R. The let's-get-back-on-the-straight-and-narrow crowd might well point at me and say, That's what's wrong with America today!

So perhaps I'm just being defensive. I don't think so, of course. For one thing, I'm not putting forward my personal tastes and pleasures as political or social programs. For another, the kind of "sex" that's being pushed at us these days isn't something I cheer for anyway. Eye-grabbing though it undeniably is, it doesn't strike me as erotic. It doesn't stimulate the imagination; it overwhelms it, it replaces it.

What I root for is deeper, more poetic, more aesthetic, more religious (although playing with it raucously and irreverently can also, god knows, be part of the fun). It doesn't want to knock down barriers and force itself on unwilling passersby. It in fact depends on seduction, distinctions, conventions, understandings. It isn't a blaring billboard at the mall that you want to shield the kids from. It's a club in a hip neighborhood that you may or may not have heard about. Sexual pleasure -- pleasure in life generally -- seems to me to be well-served by preserving distinctions while being (when called for) loose and forgiving about them too.

Let me venture an analogy: alcohol. After all, alcohol, like sex, is at its best an adult pleasure. It's also, like sex, potentially dangerous and disruptive. Yet it's also one of life's pleasures; it's something that's available to us to be used and enjoyed. It's also a fascinating world: a culture and an activity (and a pleasure and a practice) that can be cultivated and explored. It clearly isn't true that a culture must either be a drunken disgrace or completely abstemious. We have plenty of evidence of cultures that allow for the enjoyment of alcohol without going to hell.

Well, why shouldn't this be the case for sex? Isn't what's wanted a more open but also a more mature relationsip with alcohol, er, sex than the one we had? America, eh? We never seem to attain a balanced view of, or relationship to, pleasure. Individuals do manage it, of course. Suave people that the 2Blowhards crowd is, we all certainly do. But as a culture, America seems condemned to lurch from one extreme to another. What's with that?

More MB small-t theorizing: We romanticize The Child. Our (apparently impossible-to-abandon) ideal is to be as free and energized as a kid, while having all the money, power, and sexual privileges of an adult. OK, so this would in fact be a fun combo to enjoy. But -- since it isn't really in the realm of possibilty, except during maybe 2 minutes in late adolescence, and then only for those not afflicted by mood swings or pimples -- wouldn't it be wiser for us to focus a little more on the realm of the actually-possible?

Another part of the puzzle may be our our tendency to proselytize. There's a leap many Americans seem prone to making: "If it works for me it ought to work for you too!" This being America, if something turns us on, we're prone to setting up shop and getting to work selling it. We're so full of ourselves that we find it hard to be ourselves and let the rest of the world go its own way. No, we have to try to make everyone else Be Like Us! Even in smaller ways: Hey, have you ever compared American and European amateur-artist magazines? The American publications are full of articles about how to sell your art. Earn money! Sell yourself, er, your work! Get rich! The articles in the Euro mags are, 90% of the time anyway, about making and enjoying art.

Another possible element: our one-or-the-other approach to things. Americans are notorious for their literal-mindedness, and for good reason. We're clunky; we can only keep one idea in our minds at a time. We're forever looking for One Truth, or for that One List of infallible how-to-succeed bullet points. Speaking as a New York City-ite who makes regular visits to the heartland, it can be really surprising how few people outside NYC get irony. Sarcasm, "attitude," and mockery seem easily processed these days -- TV has trained us all, I guess. But irony ... Well, let's just say that playfulness with multiple meanings often doesn't seem to compute. Yet isn't that what grownup eroticism demands -- the ability to maintain poise amidst different currents and dynamics?

Which leaves me musing: So perhaps the fact is that we didn't really want to grow up after all. Perhaps what we really wanted to do was become rich celebrities, if not actual gods. No wonder we didn't quite get there!

Anyway, what we have now is, even from the point of view of a sex fan, quite depressing. "Get me hot / Get me off," the culture keeps singing. "And let me broadcast myself doing myself!"

To my mind, what we see in the pix I posted above is the result of a collaboration between three forces: the leftie belief in "liberation and self-expression everywhere and always, and at all costs"; the amorality and pushiness of business, which will move into and exploit markets wherever it's given access to them; and America's in-the-genes love of proselytizing and inability to find an inner balance amidst opposing forces.

I'm led by all this to another musing too: Perhaps America's Puritanism, or at least its foursquare pre-'60s morality, served a purpose. Given America's hyper-commercial, extraverted, literal-minded nature, perhaps our "repressiveness" was, to some extent, our way of protecting from market forces aspects of life that were felt to be valuable. These days, "freed" to do so, the videocams intrude everywhere.

I yakked previously about America's kid-centricity here, here, and here.

How do you feel about the out-thereness of everything these days? Does it please you? Are pole-dancing 6th graders, and words like "pee" and "boobs" used on the covers of semi-respectable publications, what we inevitably have to put up with? Or can there be a way of enjoying flirtation, seduction, and sexual exploration -- experiencing erotic ease and pleasure -- that doesn't leave the entire society in a deranged state?



UPDATE: So it isn't entirely America: A British poll of a thousand girls between the ages of 15 and 19 found that "63 per cent aspired to be a glamour model, while 25 per cent plumped for lap dancing."

posted by Michael at January 4, 2007


Some of the women in that linked picture illustrating slutty South Beach fashions look like transvestites or transsexuals.

Posted by: Peter on January 5, 2007 1:19 PM

Oh, one more thing. That notorious picture of Britney was not a "beaver" flash, which surely would have been a pleasant sight. No, it was a disgusting "bald eagle" flash.

Adult women should look like adult women below the waist. Not like prepubescent girls.

Posted by: Peter on January 5, 2007 1:23 PM

Hear, hear! Peter

Posted by: Frisco on January 5, 2007 1:52 PM

As a teacher of English composition and literature (primarily poetry and Shakespeare)at a community college in Eugene, Oregon, where I do my best to introduce students to a slight study of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, I must say I am heartened by how hungry my young students are to deal with eternal questions, with beauty, vitality, the nature of a well-lived life, the inner life, and so on.

Yes, they participate in all the excesses your piece describes, Michael, but I find that they recognize and respond to deep beauty, poetry, music, ideas as, and in some cases more, strongly than my students did twenty-five years ago. I'm not ready to theorize why. But, it gives me great hope about our future. These young people, in my experience, are earnest, hungry, articulate, open, respectful, appreciative and, at the same time, revel in heavy drinking, drive by sex, casual fellatio, girl on girl making out, and other ribald behaviors.

I know this from being in the dressing room with college-age actors when I play in our colleges productions of Shakespeare. I act with young people who are prodigious in their appetites for Dionysian adventures, and who are visibly and deeply moved by the music of Shakespeare's language and the depth of human experience his plays invite them to explore.

I know this from reading compositions. I'm astounded, at times, what these young students will let me in on, both in the dressing room and in their essays. I also know this from having a twenty and twenty-two year old who are no living with me and my wife, but who are in and out a lot.
I hear them talk to friends and they are often pretty open with my wife and me... mostly as they look back on things they did in the past.

I count it among my chief pleasure in life to be in the company of this generation of 18-22 year olds. I find them entertaining, smart, curious, and...well, this might be where I fit in...appreciative of guys like me who enjoy youth culture and youthful ways, but who never try to be like them and, instead, put adult questions and adult perspectives before them. And I listen. These youngsters like to be listened to and taken seriously because many of my peers have decided that these kids cannot be taken seriously and so won't listen to them.

Posted by: raymond pert on January 5, 2007 2:35 PM

A few things have randomly occurred to me as I read this:

(1) I don't think America is quite so "kid-centric": all the scheduling for and around this and that (soccer games, gymnastics, etc.)seem in my opinion to stem from two things: (a) parents who are desperately trying to equip their kids for the "perfect adulthood"--the joke about not getting into the right pre-school might keep them out of Harvard someday, so they have to do all the right extra-curricular and scholastic things to get into the right crowd at college to,in turn, get them into the right life after college. So that really isn't "kid centric" as much as it worships a certain kind of adulthood; and (b) America is affluent and mechanized. Lots more homes have cleaning ladies and microwaves with pre-prepared foods and trash compactors and credit cards with big limits than middle-class Americans used to have. This leaves mothers with more time on their hands---they aren't ironing by hand at home all afternoon, or making dinner for six, or weeding the flower beds themselves. How many guys do you know who actually mow their own lawn anymore? So, they are more invested in being a "good mom" or "good dad" which too often might get confused with "popular mom" or "popular dad." They have time to nag teacher about their kids homework. They have time to fret whether Johnny should stay in violin lessons or not. They have time to cart the kids everywhere so that kids don't ever have to ride their bikes anywhere anymore. (It cracks me up when these women then want to talk about how "busy" they are. I have to pick Julie up at 3 and Jeffrey up at 4...geez, that's almost just like being a NASA engineer, isn't it? They invented the busywork and then bitch about it). And kids who know their parents can buy the latest fashions and gizmos. I think parents used to sweat being "unpopular" less because they were just plain busier with real stuff. All this activity "fills up time" that used to be spent clearing the north forty and milking the cows, y'know?

2. I think you are absolutely right about the cynical marketing of in-your-face sex, though. It is in fact like Boomers thought they invented sex, and therefore put it out there---put it out there like none before you! Everybody has to go a step further---Madonna went further than Bette, Brittany goes further than Madonna. It's like all the various anti-depressants. No one was ever depressed before the Boomers, either, apparently. There is a synonomous-ness in America between "adulthood" and "making money". Combine that with parents with more bucks and more time on their hands...

3. I think there are a lot of closet Patsy Ramseys out there. They are just wierd. They actually think its cute to see a 10-year-old made up like a hooker. Friends were winning the strict parents award by not letting their fifth grade daughter go to a movie with a boy. Other parents thought it was "cute" they were "dating." These are the true narcissists. They just love thinking their kids are "just like them." Age or appropriateness be damned. My friends simply thought their daughter was way too young.

Posted by: annette on January 5, 2007 3:22 PM

That's quite an essay, Michael, and as usual you have covered (or uncovered) the subject thoroughly. I can't possibly respond to all of it, or even most of it, without taking the afternoon off and writing a comment of unseemly length.

I agree with a lot of what you wrote. But I have to add that part of what struck me most is your ambivalence about all this very public, in-your-face sexuality and vulgarity. You clearly recognize that ambivalence too:

Incidentally, I'm happy to admit that I may be rationalizing instead of reasoning. After all, I like sex. I co-write dirty stories; the art that interests and delights me most is often sexual in nature; I like flirtation; I like provocation; I like erotica; I like spirit and sauciness and actresses. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a movie that I've watched in, oh, a million years that was rated softer than R. The let's-get-back-on-the-straight-and-narrow crowd might well point at me and say, That's what's wrong with America today!

I would certainly never accuse you of being an example of what's wrong with America today — in fact, you and your co-bloggers on 2 Blowhards seem to me to represent a lot of what's right about our contemporary culture. Still, Michael, may I suggest that you really need to decide for yourself what the boundaries of decent behavior are and stand up for them? If you feel that we, your readers, need to know that you like sex, how can you object to women wearing tarty clothing? They may not be verbal like you, so they have to deliver the message in the way they know how.

Also, Michael, my anti-New York prejudice is no doubt a factor here, but I can't help wondering if you're not overly influenced by the New York downtown vibe in which everything's got to be edgy, pushing the envelope, over the top, flashier than thou. Other than San Francisco, I don't know of any city in the United States in which so many people feel it is their mission to flout what were formerly, and in some places still are, middle class or just plain restrained standards.

But I congratulate you on at least having mixed feelings about the nonstop raunchiness of popular culture. As you have noticed, plenty of so-called adults these days seem never to have given it a second thought. Or maybe they're afraid of losing their edgy cred.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 5, 2007 4:22 PM

People seem terrified of being left unstimulated, even for a few minutes. How weird: Why should boredom be experienced as terrifying? And why should so many people dread being left alone with their thoughts?

It is odd how the increase in leisure time (on the order of 1000 hours a year over our great-grandparents), and our increased wealth and material goods, etc., haven't quieted fears of death, anxieties over the future, etc. Actually, these changes may well have made those fears and anxieties worse. Perhaps it's because we have bought into the notion that we really ought to be in control of our lives. The fact that we're not seems to derail us.

I don't mean to seem critical, here; I'm talking about my own life. Since I hit fifty I've been struck much harder by the fragility of life and the insubstantiality of all arrangements. I don't know if this is long-deferred wisdom or that I've become much wimpier. But I certainly empathize with people who find it prudent to stay busy.

I'm not sure how this ties into your larger point, but it seemed relevant.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 5, 2007 4:58 PM

Chris Rock said it best: "My job as a father is to keep my daughter off the pole."

Posted by: yahmdallah on January 5, 2007 5:08 PM

Yes, we engage in everything we want. We do what we want, say what we want and where is the fulfillment? I think it's pretty obvious. Materialism as religion. Everyone is willing to look ANYWHERE else than God. Anything else! Give me more! The 20th century was earmarked by the death of religion in the public square.

Despite what you think of Christianity, it has the answer. The universe could not self create. Self creation would require a presence before it's own creation, eliminating the need to self create, therefore a logical fallacy. There is a reason we are here, and we won't find it in earthly pleasures or intellectual persuits. We are stewing in sensuality, because everything else seems so meaningless (big hand for public edu).

Posted by: Eric on January 5, 2007 6:47 PM

Although it's very easy to bemoan the commodification of life, which is in large measure what your essay does, isn't the good life in large measure about goods? The attractive, comfortable house or apartment; the solid new car; well made clothes, casual or formal; tasty food at home and tasteful dining out; an endless array of electronic gadgets that bring you the world at the press of a button; travel, a good full of services: all of the above made possible, a large copious life made possible by money, a certain income, lacking which...down you go.

If we're unhappy with the thingness of our lives let's not blame the things. No, they can't bring happiness, but they sure as heck can set the table. And it's a pretty mean life, not spiritual at all, if you don't have some cushion financially; which opens up all kinds of options and more important, let's you relax enough to enjoy all the good(s) out there.

Posted by: ricpic on January 5, 2007 6:58 PM

Isn't there way these issues could be subsumed under "enviromental issues?" You can't pour crap in the river, but if you want to pour crap into our living rooms, hey, mom and dad, you're on your own. The cultural environment is just as important as the physical environment.

BTW, immigration is an environmental issue too.

Posted by: Steve on January 5, 2007 9:43 PM

What bakes my potato is the lack of perspective and piss-poor sense of humor that I seem to be assaulted with 90% of the time. Yeegads, what a self-serious nation of puffbudgets we are!

I can tolerate almost any opinion provided it's served up with a twinkle in the eye and a soupcon of irony. There aren't enough people of any stripe doing this, and that is the tragedy of our trajectory.

I think you're right about one thing: it boils down to fear...period. We are a nation of Babbitts, porno-ized or not, afraid of being different, afraid of being laughed at, afraid to laugh, afraid afraid afraid. How else to explain how tightly we hold on to so much crap?

Your post a while back on Sister Rosetta Tharpe speaks to the same thing: no one gets what's good anymore, because there's no percentage in it.

(Jeezus. I'm a bigger blowhard than the Blowhards, aren't I?)

And yet, there's always hope. There are rogue pockets of rococo fabulosity lurking everywhere, even in the strangest of places. Trust me on this--I've met some at freakin' Toastmasters, and a more humorless, Robert's-Rulesian universe you could not imagine.

Plus, my ex-husband have me a great exercise for dealing with the tedious we will always and forever be forced to deal with. He called it "Going to the Museum." A silly hack, but it works like a charm.

Posted by: communicatrix on January 5, 2007 10:01 PM

Out here in the prairie small towns, I have to say that Michael's generalizations certainly ring true. The last time I taught high school English, I quit in a couple of months because a boy jerked off in the front seat during class and the others thought it was pretty funny. They said, "Oh, he always does that." They thought that if he'd really raped that little Hutterite girl it was probably going too far. The administration put him on detention for a couple of nights -- he was on the winning football team. I thought he was one disturbed kid among several. There were two pages of names of kids who were taking drugs for attention-deficit disorder in that small school, but NO services for kids in real trouble.

Teachers were required to go out and stand in the halls between classes to prevent violence and also tonsil-tangling, dry humping, and other shenanigans. One woman, who made no effort to prevent one entwined couple, said to me, "Aren't they cute? I just love to watch them." Another girl -- totally invaded by her boyfriend -- was standing just six feet away from her father who pretended not to notice. She was a NICE girl, an honor student, destined for a good college.

The other common phenomenon was bemoaning the terrible fate of having to grow up, when all fun stopped and life became a steady round of work, work, work. When someone was killed in a drunk driving accident, the kids would say, "Well, at least he doesn't have to grow up." Hedonism as fast-forward.

I think the Patsey Ramsey factor is very big. If rape is really about power, premature sexiness is about money. The PARENTS' money. A child is a possession, just more bling.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 5, 2007 10:03 PM

Peter, I like the way you think. Call me old fashioned, but what's missing rhymes with "air" and its presence is heavenly there. Young ladies, please go back to nature!!!!

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 5, 2007 10:39 PM

Dear Eric:

"Despite what you think of Christianity, it has the answer. The universe could not self create. Self creation would require a presence before it's own creation, eliminating the need to self create, therefore a logical fallacy."

Who created God? And if you tell me that God is and always has been, then you are arguing that God is self-created, which you hve already concluded is a fallacy.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on January 6, 2007 4:59 AM

NO! We will spend 50 comments on this question and never get anywhere! No religion discussions, please! I don't believe in God either but I don't run around messing with people's faith.

"The other common phenomenon was bemoaning the terrible fate of having to grow up, when all fun stopped and life became a steady round of work, work, work. When someone was killed in a drunk driving accident, the kids would say, "Well, at least he doesn't have to grow up." Hedonism as fast-forward."
I'm 27, and this makes perfect sense to me. My life's been a steady decline since grade school into a pit of work. (Don't want to give too many biographical details.) Really, work is not enjoyable for most people. You blame them for enjoying what's probably the best part of life for a lot of people, when all you have to do is socialize and screw?

I guess there are more adult pleasures like art you grow into, but there are no museums near where most people live, and any show of interest in art in a man is considered homosexual.

Posted by: SFG on January 6, 2007 9:38 AM

Who created God?

It's turtles, all the way down.

Posted by: PA on January 6, 2007 9:58 AM

Sorry, SFG, you can't have a discussion about morality with most folks without engaging religion. Too many people think they're interlinked; that you need religion to have morality, and morality can only be derived from religion. Take heart, though. The world is changing too quickly for them, and they're fortunately dying out.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on January 6, 2007 11:13 AM

Prairie Mary - Jaysus, that is foul. Completely feral, aren't they? Looks like the adults have entirely abdicated.

Michael - You know, when you get on rants like this, do you realize how much you tend to sound like the stereotypical clueless 'merkin rube you're always lecturing us about? First, to follow on Rick Darby's question about why you feel the need to tell us you like sex (really? you like sex?), what's with the anxious need to present your non-prude bona fides before you criticize crude behavior? Afraid of what the neighbors will think? Tocqueville noticed this sort of thing about Americans.

Perhaps America's Puritanism, or at least its foursquare pre-'60s morality, served a purpose...

Yeah, Michael, everybody in America before the '60s was a conflicted prude who knew nothing about the art of living, and nobody in America before the '60s knew anything about flirtation, seduction, and adult pleasures. That's why pre-60s American popular culture is so leaden, witless, and devoid of sex appeal, while post-60s culture is such a font of subtlety and sophisticated eroticism. Ya know, I think you tend to project waay too much from your own (as you imply) tight-ass Midwestern upbringing, because your descriptions bear no relation to any memory I have of the attitudes of the two generations preceding my own, who gave every impression of having enjoyed the hell out of themselves, with style, right through the Jazz Age, the Depression, the war're seriously going to tell me that these people didn't know how to flirt or make love? Feh. And they didn't go to France to learn how, either.

And always with the complaints about how graceless the young women are these days. What are you, Cary Grant? (Audrey Hepburn goes with Cary Grant and Gregory Peck, not Andrew Dice Clay.) Michael, you can't have it both ways. You can't bemoan the loss of reticence and grace in women while, say, linking, with giggling approbation, to a lot of crap that's about as erotically sophisticated as Girls Gone Wild. If you like that kinda thing, fine, but don't get all pious about it, and don't act all shocked when those let-it-all-hang out skanks to whose weblogs you commend your readers show up in your office. You like a bit of vulgarity? Good for you. Lots of people like a bit of vulgarity. That adds up to a lot of vulgarity. That is what "vulgar" means, after all. And for chrissakes stop with the "in-the-genes love of proselytizing" about our "inability to find an inner balance amidst opposing forces". I don't gotta problem. You gotta problem? If you do what you like and feel the need to tell your neighbor that you like it, you're upping the crassness level. If you attend to or support crude product then the level of crudity in the market increases. The fact that "oh, but I'm a sophisticated, balanced consumer of this swill" doesn't show up in the accounts that affect marketing decisions.

Posted by: Moira Breen on January 6, 2007 11:50 AM

In our consumer driven society everywhere we turn we're presented with enticements to BUY, BUY, BUY. Our roles as citizens and members of public society have become wholly owned subsidiaries of our role as consumers. [cf. exhortations from the President following 9/11 that we need to go back to shopping to help heal the nation] And as Joni Mitchell noted, "... sex sells everything ... And sex kills ..." (Ain't corporate capitalism just grand?)

As someone statistically close to the dead center of the Boomer generation and a proud progressive, I find it interesting that the children of those of us who were "hippies" seem less prone to dress and act in the manner of Brittany Spears et al. Perhaps this is because we retained some of the ideals of the sixties that lead us away from consumerism and conformity and supported our children's individuality. The Daughter Unit (now approaching 25) suffered the slings and arrows of cruel jibes from the popular kids during her school years, in part because her fashion sense was more idiosyncratic. A theater geek she found friends and support beyond her age cohort, most tended toward retro styles drawn from the forties to the sixties. The popular girls enjoyed the Mall and American Idol with predictable results ... they wore those Victoria Secret stretch sweats that made it impossible not to notice that they were also wearing thong undies.

We can see the opposite pole by looking, say, toward Afghanistan under the Taliban or, for that matter, groups like the Hudderites; social mores strictly determined by religious belief, nearly absolute parental control over all aspects of their children's lives, the de-sexualization of women (in public), indeed, the near total segregation of women and men in the public sphere.

Or as Moss Allison observed, "...moderation, baby, and moderation, that's the first to go..."

Posted by: Chris White on January 6, 2007 11:55 AM

Peter -- The furless snatch is really known as a "bald eagle"? That's hilarious. Corrected, tks.

Raymond -- It's great to hear the kids are up for some real culture. I think those kids are lucky to have you as a teacher too.

Annette -- There's a lot of "love me, love my kids" around, isn't there. As well as parents living out through the kids, plus the "I'm not an authority figure, I'm a pal" thing -- dads who want to be best buds with sons, moms who want to go around dressed like Anna Kournikova too. I don't know: maybe it's bliss to be raised this way. Certainly you'd never question that the whole world rotates around you, with your ego and feelings at the center of everything ...

Rick -- It all raises a lot of fun/dicey questions, doesn't it? I guess my own pref (not that it matters, of course, but why not?) would be for more in the way of coexistence: a pleasantly sensible and squaresville mainstream, enhanced at the boundaries by a vervey and fun bohemia, with each of them appreciative of the other. Does it have to be that they're always at war with each other (or coveting what the other has)? How do you sort it out for yourself?

FvB -- It does seem relevant, doesn't it. Now, back to relentlessly distracting myself!

Yahmdallah -- Chris Rock said in 12 words what it took me 2500 to say. He wins.

Eric -- The Big Questions do get dodged, don't they? Just for myself, I sometimes think that there *is* a shared religion these days: celebrity, material success, global capitalism, "liberalism," etc. Florence in the Renaissance had their version of Catholicism, and we have global capitalism. They built churches to saints, we build wavy-glassy tributes to global capital. Do you buy that notion? Even if it is a religion, global capitalism seems to leave many people feeling a little empty. Still it seems to be something many people cling to and invest a lot of hope and faith in too ...

Ricpic writes "If we're unhappy with the thingness of our lives let's not blame the things. No, they can't bring happiness, but they sure as heck can set the table." Those are some great lines. Thanks for the corrective.

Steve -- I like your notion of "environmental issues." We should see if we can get the pundits and pols to embrace it as standard talking point. Might raise the level of conversation up a notch or two.

Communicatrix -- You've been seduced (or maybe tricked) into blowharding! My day is made. Eager to hear more about Toastmasters, btw.

P. Mary -- Great stories! Somebody somewhere is going to write a book bemoaning the demonization of adulthood and acquire a big serious reputation for doing so. And we'll already have been over the issue many times... And the your image of the "child as bling" sure helps explain a lot.

Charlton -- But nature is just raw material for Photoshopping, isn't it?

Peter L. W. -- Fallacies are a problem? Open your mind, dude!

SFG -- It sounds like the whole "you're interested in art, thus you must be a fag" thing is even worse today than when I was a kid. I wonder how and why it's made such a big comeback. Any hunches? Can we blame it on Maxim?

PA -- A whole pantheon of turtles!

Upstate Guy -- That "what's morality derived from (if anything)" question is a good one. If not religion, then what? Genes? The operations of evolution? I can't buy that decent morality can be derived strictly from reason myself, can you? I mean, the whole notion of something being "decent" or "not decent" precedes the switching-on of reason in the first place, no? Not that reason doesn't (or shouldn't) play a role in the conversation, of course. But what are some of the other participants?

Moira -- Heavens, what bee has made its way into your bonnet this morning? Look, the usual way conversations on topics like this one break down is you're either for sex, in which case you find yourself boxed into supporting behaviors and developments you may not actually like, or you're appalled by what's become of the culture, in which case many such people start acting all stuffy and square. I wanted to break up that logjam by introducing a fresh p-o-v into the conversation, namely that you can be a let's-view-sex-appreciatively, downtownish kinda person and still feel qualms about what's happening in the public square. That may or may not be an interesting or effective point to make, but it represents an attempt to open up some new acreage in a conversation, not to show off or act out or whatever it is you think I'm really up to. As for linking to webcam girls and such: In what way is taking note of (and maybe having a giggle over) what's happening in the world the same thing as making a moral-political endorsement? So much for reporting; so much for cultural commentary.

Chris -- Your daughter sounds like a well-centered sweetie. I've known some other kids of Boomerish/hippieish parents who have turned out very well, too. They seem much less rattled by life and less frantic about carrying on than many other kids do ... I wonder why studies of these kinds of things aren't done more often: how the kids of various sociological cohorts (hippies, doctors, country-club members, whatever) tend to do. One for instance: a Village-downtown arty-intellectual of the WWII, ab-ex/pop-art generation once told me he thought a great book could be written about the children of people like him -- artists, writers, critics, etc, of that particular generation. Many of them (the kids) had committed suicide, or really hated their parents, or had cut them off entirely. He had rotten relations with his own kids. While being caught up in various arty and political enthusiasms, he'd somehow forgotten to raise them decently, or even be much of a father at all. Anyway, I'd love to see a study of many of these kinds of things: how the children of hippies turned out, how the children of Young Republicans turned out, etc. I'm sure there'd be a lot of variation, but I wonder if some semi-fair generalizations couldn't still be made...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 6, 2007 3:57 PM

"...and they're fortunately dying out."

Maybe in Manhattan.

Better recheck those numbers. "They" are very much not dying out. People like me, the ones who make up the "they" you think are dying out, who pray every day and go to church on Sunday and do not separate morality from religion have larger than average families (I do). Historically, children of actively practicing religious families are about 80-85% likely to continue in that religion.

There are 500 million Pentecostals in the third world and growing at a rapid rate. The Morman church is expanding at historically unprecedented rates. Christianity is expanding in China at a rapid rate, though oppressive government makes it impossible to figure out the numbers.

The more conservative religions are experiencing massive growth right now.

Moreover, periods of social upheaval and modernization, where massess of people move from traditional communities to crowded, dirty, anonymous dangerous cities, are periods of religious revival. That is in fact the story of much of the third world right now.

The idea that hardcore religious belief, and the associated hardcore moral beliefs, is dying out is wishful thinking -- wishful for some people.

Look at the facts. Whether or not you like them, the reality is extremely fascinating. You need to dig a little to find out about this stuff.

Take a look at this, for example:

On the main point of this point -- I too am disgusted by the vulgarity of our popular culture. I think in the future, one of the benefits of affluence and living in insulated or gated communities will be strict codes disallowing the public display of such things. Poor people will be confronted with it at the grocery store. Rich people will not. We are already seeing signs that this kind of vulgarity is to be shunned by those who are or would like ot be perceived as successful.

Posted by: Lexington Green on January 6, 2007 4:58 PM

This is apposite.

Posted by: Jack Merrie on January 6, 2007 7:28 PM

Hey, a pet theory of mine is that a central neurosis of modern (or postmodern, or electronic, or whatever) life is the fear of boredom. People seem terrified of being left unstimulated, even for a few minutes. How weird: Why should boredom be experienced as terrifying? And why should so many people dread being left alone with their thoughts?

Are you deliberately invoking Pascal's Pensees here? He said almost exactly the same thing in number 139, which you can find quoted here, or here:

Diversion.—When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

But on further consideration, when, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.

Whatever condition we picture to ourselves, if we muster all the good things which it is possible to possess, royalty is the finest position in the world. Yet, when we imagine a king attended with every pleasure he can feel, if he be without diversion, and be left to consider and reflect on what he is, this feeble happiness will not sustain him; he will necessarily fall into forebodings of dangers, of revolutions which may happen, and, finally, of death and inevitable disease; so that if he be without what is called diversion, he is unhappy, and more unhappy than the least of his subjects who plays and diverts himself.

Hence it comes that play and the society of women, war, and high posts, are so sought after. Not that there is in fact any happiness in them, or that men imagine true bliss to consist in money won at play, or in the hare which they hunt; we would not take these as a gift. We do not seek that easy and peaceful[Pg 40] lot which permits us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the labour of office, but the bustle which averts these thoughts of ours, and amuses us.

Posted by: JAC on January 6, 2007 11:46 PM

Upstate Guy:

Morality is religion-derived. Ethics is rational system that doesn't rest on a religious foundation. Just so you know the difference.

No, it's secular liberals that are dying out. A metaphor I came across once is penguins on a shrinking ice floe.


Posted by: s.j. on January 7, 2007 10:27 AM

A brilliant post. Many many pearls expertly strung.

I think you are pretty much spot-on in observing where our mainstream culture is and how we've come to be here. I can make only a small (economic-oriented observation): one particularly relevant fact of the real-world-o-sphere is the pervasiveness of rankings and tournaments. On the business front jobs are ranked (see, educations are certainly ranked (usnews etc.), products/apartment/personal-interests too. One reason my generation (I'm a mid 20-something) is filled with so many self-satisfied careerists is that comparing non-comprables is an ever more worshiped alchemical craft. We've refined the 30s, 40s macro ordering (working class, middle class, professional, millionaire) into a tremendously ornate series of to-the-milimeter prestige gradings.

Ask a twenty-something single gal who she'd rather date, survey says Yale-Architecht over NYU-attorney. One reason we're scared of boredom is that when we're bored not only do we realize our own social standing (usually not-#1), but we also lose social standing -- "does Yoga, reads-fiction, hikes on weekends, enjoys cooking asian-fusion" over "reads fiction, hikes on weekends." Competitition is more pervasive, standing is more apparent.

That said, I don't think that my generation is stuck in some awful cultural-rut. When mainstream culture is oppressive and resources are plentiful look to counter-culture flourishing.

Posted by: ASB on January 7, 2007 5:15 PM

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