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Diagnosing the Culture

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There’s a book that’s been much on my thoughts lately. Apparently a big hit in England, it’s an incisive and penetrating examination of contemporary reality which, in my considered opinion, captures the essence of what’s happening and the way things are.

I haven’t literally “read” the book, in the sense of cracking the thing open. But the title sings out to me, telling me that the authors are fellow spirits, sending my own spirit soaring: Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit?

No! No it’s not just you!

Some books, I obviously realize, require a more assiduous expenditure of time and energy. With Dostoyevsky, say, you’d be an idiot to stop at The Idiot‘s title and consider the job done.

But Dostoyevsky and his ilk, I think, are a bit out of fashion. Nobody has the damn time. Weighty books can still be given as gifts, but that implies either tactlessness or malice (unless the source of the largesse is some oldster from a bygone era, in which case it’s probably an expression of reproof).

The friendly gesture is to give a book that can be fully appreciated at the moment the gift wrapping is cast aside, at the banquet table, as everyone is laughing and drinking and enjoying the great things life has to offer.

That’s what Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, belatedly cottoned onto some time ago. After spending most of his career quietly churning out traditional uninspiring philosophy, he made a splash with the title On Bullshit. He was even conscientious enough to offer a few stylishly crafted opening sentences for Chapter 1 —

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.

— before subsiding into the conventional kind of philosophical turgidity —

I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit…. [etc. etc. etc.]

— which he no doubt keeps up with all the way to the end of the book.

A book with a title like On Bullshit is one you can confidently use to express warmth and affection to someone close (assuming they’re open to books at all).

Another recent title that’s powerfully evocative for me personally is The Pedant’s Revolt: Why Most Things You Think Are Right Are Wrong.

Wonderful! Sublime! My feelings exactly!

Of Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit?, one reviewer writes that the authors, Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur,

…are maddened, not just annoyed but literally maddened, by the effluvia of consumer society. The sardonic tone of the entries reflects a sense that this stuff is not just irritating but degrading to our humanity. We’re talking bad shit here, dredged from a place beyond the reach of satire. The book is an appraisal of the culture by people who are no longer susceptible to the myths that stop us from seeing things as they really are. They know that cool is a chimera, and disbelieve the scale of value on which success is currently judged. So much of this craziest period in the development of consumer capitalism looks so obviously mad, you expect others to see it. From the looks on their faces, you can tell they think you’re the mad one. The ebbing away of political consciousness has left writers such as Lowe and McArthur looking like olde worlde eccentrics for disapproving of the pursuit of wealth and people’s willing submission to the insane work patterns that are now the norm.

[Edited excerpt, Review by Charlotte Raven, New Statesman, January 9, 2006.]

And people are embracing a lot more than just the pursuit of wealth and insane work patterns.

I wrote in Deceit Culture #5 that “the liars’ accomplishments are wondrous…. People are making themselves sick, without coercion.”

And just a week later, the New York Times launches a brilliant series on the little-appreciated and fast-growing epidemic of diabetes. More than one in eight adult New Yorkers now have the disease, and “one in three children born in the U.S. five years ago are expected to become diabetic in their lifetimes.”

You’d never guess some of the causes cited in the article: “a food supply spiked with sugars and fats, and a culture that promotes overeating and discourages exercise.”

Everything is shit. It’s the precise diagnosis for our culture.

And in the diabetes epidemic, we have our perfect metaphor.

Oh, here in today’s Times is a fresh form of abhorrent evil I hadn’t heard of before, being perpetrated by our society’s powers that be:

One way to cut down on the number of inmates who end up right back in prison shortly after being released is to make sure that they preserve their ties with their families, especially with spouses and children, while they are serving time. But keeping in touch is often impossible for inmates and their families because of state prison systems that earn huge profits from inmates’ phone calls by forcing the family members who receive those collect calls to pay usurious rates. As a result, a family must often choose between talking to a loved one in prison and putting food on the table.

A bill introduced in Congress by Representative Bobby Rush, Democrat of Illinois, would help end this shameful practice by requiring the Federal Communications Commission to set fair rates for interstate phone calls made from prison. The bill will surely face fierce opposition from the telecommunications lobby and from state prison systems that have grown accustomed to gouging the poorest families in the country to subsidize some prison-related activities.

State prison systems typically use telephone setups that permit only collect calls, made through providers that keep a monopoly on prison telephone service by paying the states a “commission” – essentially a legal kickback. The kickback does not materialize out of thin air. The people who receive the phone calls often pay as much as six times the going rate. Not surprisingly, the costs discourage inmates from keeping in touch with spouses and children who may live hundreds of miles away and find it difficult or impossible to visit.

[Edited excerpt, “Keeping in Touch With a Parent in Prison” (Editorial), New York Times, January 14, 2006.]

Returning to the diabetes epidemic, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, says:

Twenty years from now people will look back and say: “What were they thinking? They’re in the middle of an epidemic and kids are watching 20,000 hours of commercials for junk food.”

Disaster is nigh, warns the article:

Within a generation or so, doctors fear, a huge wave of new cases could overwhelm the public health system and engulf growing numbers of the young, creating a city where hospitals are swamped by the disease’s handiwork, schools scramble for resources as they accommodate diabetic children, and the work force abounds with the blind and the halt.

“Either we fall apart or we stop this,” said Frieden.

Yet he and other public health officials acknowledge that their ability to slow the disease is limited. Getting millions of people to change their behavior, he said, will require some kind of national crusade.

A “national crusade.” Why’s that needed? Because radical change is imperative.

At the same time, radical change is not democratically feasible. So there is no serious discussion of radical change going on in our society.

Do you happen to have a moment to reflect on infeasible (but imperative) reforms? Here are two:

  • Ferocious controls on media entertainment and advertising to save the culture and curb the pollution of young minds, together with programs to aggressively promote wholesome activities.

  • A system of independent but government-funded public policy research institutes employing 10% of the workforce in research positions, focussing on current policy issues.

This would merely acknowledge the reality that: 1) an assumed precondition for successful democracy is citizen scrutiny of government; 2) that precondition is not being satisfied under our status quo.

The Times reports:

Type 2 diabetes grows hand in glove with obesity, and America is becoming fatter. To fix Type 2 diabetes, experts agree, you have to fix people. Change lifestyles. Adjust thinking.

But when office visits typically last as little as eight minutes, doctors say there is no time to retool patients so they can adopt an entirely new approach to food and life.

“Think of it this way,” said Dr. Berger. “An average person spends less than .03 percent of their entire life meeting with a clinician. The rest of the time they’re being bombarded with all the societal influences that make this disease so common.”

As a result, primary care doctors often have a fatalistic attitude about controlling the disease.

Free speech, the First Amendment — they’re great. But insufficient in the modern world.

Times columnist David Brooks takes a look at how today’s twenty-somethings are socializing:

“Dude, we totally need to hang out. … Erin, you’re a [great] waitress and friend. We definitely need to hang out sometime. … You rock my world. It was awesome seeing you. … Where did you go!!! I haven’t seen you in a long time and I NEED to see you!!! Cause I love you!!! … Happy New Year my sexy friend. I love you sooo much!”

Go to MySpace.com (20 million visitors a month) or Facebook or Xanga or any of the other online sites where people leave messages on the home pages of their friends and you’ll see these great waves of praise and encouragement. People visit their friends’ pages and drop lovebombs. There’s scarcely a critical word about anyone or anything in the whole social network. It’s just fervent declarations of friendship, vows to get together soon and memories of great times gone by.

These sites are commonly used by people in their early to mid-20’s. They bond online with an almost desperate enthusiasm.

[…]

On most Web pages, there’s a chance to list your favorite TV shows and books. And while the TV lists are long (“The OC,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Nip/Tuck,” etc.) many of the book lists will make publishers suicidal: “Books! Ha! Me! What a joke! … I think reading’s ridiculous. … I don’t finish books very often but I’m attempting ‘Smart Women Finish Rich.’… This is what I have to say about books (next to an icon of Bart Simpson’s rear end).”

[Edited excerpt, “Bondage and Bonding Online,” New York Times, January 8, 2006.]

I sampled a few pages on MySpace. One 29-year-old girl here in Canada, whose page indicated she’d last logged in the same day, offers as her main blurb: “YoU hAvE nO cLuE WhAt Ur MiSSiNg!!!!!!”

It doesn’t seem unfair to interpret that in sexual terms, since it’s next to a photo showing a frontal view of just her midsection, with her hand inside her underwear.

Clearly, this is an emphatic declaration that she’s quite, quite hot. Additionally, she’s informing all of us men that we’re highly deprived. Not only don’t we have her; we can’t even imagine her.

As a man, my choice is clear: I can remain “clueless”; or I can make a bid for extreme, undreamt of sexual ecstasy by petitioning her — a process one would probably initiate by clicking the link on her page that would add her to my list of “friends.” (Or add me to her list of friends? Is asymmetry recognized? I haven’t thoroughly figured out MySpace.)

She currently has 115 “friends.” (The sample shown suggests they’re mostly strapping males. You’ll understand if I don’t offer identifying links here. I’m proceeding on the assumption they’re not urielw.com regulars.) Friends post notes, and a frequently recurring phrase on this and other pages is “Thanks for the add.” An “add,” apparently, is a declaration of friendship made via a mouse-click on the “Add to Friends” link.

One pouting, aggrieved-looking lad with a heavy gold chain has:

12/20/2005 10:15:00 AM

sup mami just leaving you with a not to see how your holidays are going so far. Get at me A.S.A.P.

“Get at me.” He ain’t gonna humble himself. No way.

Some female friends appear too:

12/19/2005 11:46:00 AM

I MISS YOU TOO MAMA! man we need to link up asap i might taake my ass to canada! anyway my holidays are ggoin pretty good.

im a lil sad i been tryin to get back with my x but that nigga is playin hes talkin about he loves me and only wants to be with me but then he dont wanna get back together. hes about to FUCK UP! lol

anyway aww im happy ya’ll are doin good. and damn i aint doin shit for new years :(

The nigga is “playin” — being insincere, apparently. But our featured lady, in a longer self-profile elsewhere on the page which is more in-depth than “YoU hAvE nO cLuE WhAt Ur MiSSiNg!!!!!!”, announces that “Just playin” is what she does too. Does that disappoint the friend? Or is consistency not a big deal?

A suspicious cast of mind might sniff a hint of dejection in the friend’s note. She openly confesses she’s “a lil sad.” But she quickly perks up on recollecting that her errant boyfriend will be the bigger victim — “hes about to FUCK UP!” — and the thought of his misery stimulates rich mirth: “lol” (i.e., “laughing out loud,” while sitting in solitude at the computer).

Getting back to our feature attraction, her page’s “About me” section trumpets these thoughts on herself:

About me??? Hell yeah!It’s all bout me!!! Just playin. There is only one me in this world,nothin like me or even remotely close. I’ve always been different in every way and that’s why people love me and never ever forget me. I like to have fun. I’m a free spirit and have no fear so i will try or do almost anything (don’t get it twisted though,I said almost anything)I love to sky dive(in my dreams)No really though,I’d love to try it.I love playin pool cause I’m pretty damn good at it! I like to travel and do so quite often,to the states mostly.I love takin bubble baths with candles and music the whole 9 yards.I LOVE to cook and bake,always have since I was a little girl. I love fashion design,I love sewing.I love music,R&B,Hip Hop,OLD SKOOL, and my first love Dancehall Reggae. I like to party, drink and dance,smoke herb for medicinal purposes(yeah right)and love people in general,and I’m extremely loyal to my family and friends.My friends call me spill,lol!I’m a clutz!! I have a Ball Python snake named Pricilla 3ft long,and I used to have 2 turantulas,you see I just like to be different.I’m one of those people that never change,you see me 10 years from now and you’ll say WOW that girl never changes,she still a crazy nut!!! I’m just real silly and like to have fun (or make fun) I come from a family of real silly people.I laugh alot and smile and love to make others laugh and smile. I like to play practical jokes on people,i shoulda been on the show ‘girls behaving badly'(that was originally my idea) Anyway,I’m a talker not a writer.Anything else you wanna know,just hit me up.

“Only one me in this world,nothin like me or even remotely close”? What’s most remarkable about MySpace’s self-descriptions is how little individuality is discernible. The poses seem part desperate conformity, part striving imitation of some media celebrity’s public persona.

And what’s with the pets? She LOVES cooking, fashion design, sewing, music, partying, people in general … but her pets of choice are python snakes and tarantula spiders?!

But this kind of thing too seems to be entirely ordinary these days. The teen daughter of a friend of mine shows a fondness for knives. (I’ve expressed curiosity, but she can’t explain why.) Plus of course it’s fashionable to staple metal into your face.

Tarantula Lady is 29 years old. Does she vote? Imagine having her on the jury if you’re charged with a crime.

You have to fix people. Change lifestyles. Adjust thinking. And stop the bombardment by baleful influences.

The question that will be asked of diabetes applies to our entire culture: “What were they thinking? They’re in the middle of an epidemic and kids are watching 20,000 hours of commercials for junk food.”

New York Times quotations above regarding diabetes are edited excerpts from two articles in the Times’ series on diabetes: “Diabetes and Its Awful Toll Quietly Emerge as a Crisis,” January 9, 2006; and “In the Treatment of Diabetes, Success Often Does Not Pay,” January 11, 2006.

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About urielw

  • nugget

    ok…..and? Don’t get me wrong. I have my curmudgeon moments. I guess I’m not worried about the world as much as you are. I’m too worried about my job, my relationship with my wife, and making sure my dogs don’t shit on the carpet or chew the sofa. I’ve felt and thought most of what you wrote, but…eh, whatever. There’s nothing you can do besides save yourself and your family (just don’t kill anyone like vito corleone).

    And, what do you mean by the Dostoyevsky ilk? Old school pedants or what? I’m 24 and a huge fan.

    “You have to fix people. Change lifestyles. Adjust thinking. And stop the bombardment by baleful influences.”

    Guess so?. How? Any bombastic demagogue preaches that kinda stuff in fewer words. (more high-flown of course)

    You’re silver-tongued enough, got any suggestions?

  • Catana

    Gad, I am sooo out of it. I just read all 1100 pages of Cryptonomicon and have the next volume of Stephenson’s trilogy on order. And I only have one friend. I really need to get serious about Myspace.

  • http://urielw.com Uriel

    “ok…..and?” Well, step 1 is to recognize the prob, isn’t it?

    “got any suggestions?” Didn’t you see them?

  • Baronius

    Uriel, you identify lack of reading as one of the symptoms (or at least passed along the quote from Brooks), but you’ve based this piece on the title of a book you haven’t read. Odd.

    I think that things are better than they appear. At least I do on my better days. Many people go out of their way to appear shallow, but when you dig a little, you find that they have variety and depth. I don’t know why we pose as morons, but we do. It probably dates back to high school.

    People coast where they can. Why else would anyone have seen a Ben Affleck movie? It’s a legitimate concern that our culture accomodates such behaviour. But there’s plenty of charity work, night school, and even jury duty going on.

  • http://urielw.com Uriel

    “you’ve based this piece on the title of a book you haven’t read. Odd.”

    You’ve gotta be a bit odd to stand out in the info-hurricane. Just trying to be noticed. Thanks.

    “I think that things are better than they appear.”

    Really? I don’t.

    Bob Herbert in today’s N.Y. Times, commenting on a new poll showing Americans indifferent to presidential lawbreaking, says: “I find it peculiar that an awful lot of Americans who would be outraged by the burning of the American flag are positively sanguine about the trampling of the Constitution.”

    His column raises the spectre of America becoming an authoritarian society while most pay no attention, like commenter #1 upstairs.

    “charity work, night school, and even jury duty”

    It’s not a matter of finding examples. Of course they exist. It’s a matter of looking at the social/cultural TRENDS … and looking ahead to the termination of freedom their continuance guarantees. Then starting to think about radical social reforms, which practically NO ONE currently is seriously discussing. My piece above proposes two.

  • Baronius

    Uriel, I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression. I agree that there’s plenty to be afraid of in the current trends. There’s another topic on these boards, about Bill Cosby, that talks about a similar/underlying problem: our culture doesn’t seek to elevate. That author focuses on the problem among blacks, but I don’t see much in white culture that’s aspirational.

    I think it speaks to the perversity of our society that self-improvement and societal improvement has to be hidden. I mentioned those things because they may otherwise go unnoticed.

    Now, the disagreement. The ideas you float strike me as equally dangerous, and more authoritarian. Tramps on Myspace.com can only harm themselves and their partners, but government thinktanks could enforce anything. A president listening in on conversations is dangerous, but less so than one who can silence them.

  • http://urielw.com Uriel

    “The ideas you float strike me as equally dangerous, and more authoritarian…. A president listening in on conversations is dangerous, but less so than one who can silence them.”

    I’m sorry, but this illustrates terribly conventional thinking.

    I mentioned “there is no serious discussion of radical change going on in our society.” One reason is that public debate seems to be locked into this mode of rigid orthodoxy.

    You didn’t properly register the reform I proposed. You did exactly what the propagandists have programmed you to do: Based on a totally superficial reading, you swept it into your mental “Speech Controls” category; and then you gave the prescribed response, just like you’re supposed to.

    “listening in on conversations is dangerous, but less so than one who can silence them” — Haven’t we all heard or read this mantra a hundred million times?

    What’s also wondrous, besides how the puppetmasters have made people make themselves sick without coercion, is how our masters have turned “free speech” into a recitation of ideological slogans that support mind control.

    I did NOT propose silencing “people.” I proposed some degree of silencing of *business* — media entertainment and advertising.

    There’s nothing sacrosanct about corporate speech. And this does not interfere with democratic (political) debate. I’m calling on grownup citizens to begin a dialogue about setting controls, based on ordinary, common, widely recognized (so far) values, on the out-of-control polluters who are poisoning the children.

    It’s astonishing that controlling pollution emissions would be “radical” at all. But that just shows the propagandists’ wild success.

    Pollution control is the only means of preventing the culture from going down the toilet (plus maybe *reviving* political debate to some extent by reducing the citizenry’s artificially induced mania for the stuff advertisers are pushing). If you any other feasible way to do it, I’d be interested to hear it.

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