May 21st, 2004


Offer me solutions offer me alternatives and I decline

According to Penn & Teller's Bullshit, a good TV show that I had to turn off in disgust after hearing this statistic, last year over 175,000 people under the age of 18 in America had botox or collagen injections.

There's a reason for fundamentalists and others to hate America, not for our religious or sexual freedoms but for our unceasing conspicuous consumption.

Botox and Collagen for kids who aren't even done growing yet. What's next? Fetal face-lifts? Now maybe I'm taking things too far. Perhaps the majority of these youngsters who recieved collagen and botox were accident or disease victims disfigured at a young age who could be helped in leading a normal life by plastic surgery. I don't begrudge them whatever it takes to make them feel better. On the other hand, I don't really think that there are 175,000 people who fit that description in America. Unless there are a bunch of rogue dermatologists going around infecting children with skin diseases or inflicting grisly wounds upon them I'd say that the majority of these cases are probably purely cosmetic.

Consumption and youth fetishism are two of the major problems in our society right now. Consumption is something that permeates every aspect of life, and in some cases is held up as a replacement for aspects of life. In a previous post I talked about a car commercial with the message "No need to seek enlightenment or a career to match your temperment. Such pursuits are dead ends. What you need is a really nice car, with a maple interior." Aquisiton for aquisition's sake is an idea that pervades American society, and one that some people have begun to accept as a legitimate life's philosophy. I'm not going to claim that this is purely a modern phenomenon, after all it is an offshoot of the Calvinism that migrated over to the original 13 colonies from Merry old England. It has, however, taken on a new, and much more dangerous, form as of recently.

The old Calvinist philosophy was that of ethical prosperity. Discarding Jesus claim that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Rich Man to enter heaven (along with a few other old musty Jesus bullshit like the stuff about universal brotherhood and peace that is rarely trotted out at all these days) the Calvinists took to believing in predestination. Predestination isn't a crazy philosophy given the omnipotence of the Christian god, but the behavior they derived from it was. Basically the theory was that earthly success was a sign of spiritual favor, so they worked their cute little pilgrim tushies off to accumulate shit that would help assuage their worries that they hadn't been chosen by God. On the other hand, they had to be ethical about their accumlatory behaviors, because no matter how hard you try to pervert the bible it's pretty difficult to find justification for murder or thievery in the New testament. Some of it is there in the old testament, but you really ought to get God to sign off on it first, as the Jews learned to their dismay several times. These old Calvinists weren't saints or anything, and many of them did engage in unethical behavior such as cheating Indians or beating their wives (if you consider that sort of thing unethical.) On the other hand they at least had the good sense to be ashamed of the bad crap that they did and for the most part they stuck to the conventional codes of morality bandied about in their communities, restricted and perverted as those codes may have been.

Today Christianity is in deep decline (many people still claim to be Christians, but for many it's like calling yourself a Yankee fan, it doesn't call for any sort of behaviorial modification except occasional attendance or TV viewing of a game/sermon.) and ethics have been pretty well purged from the public sphere of our society. Ethics classes in business and law schools are pretty much a joke, a vestigial organ of the commercial education apparatus no more relevant to the lives of graduates than the swim test is to Columbia College alum. The true ethical test for millions of people is "what can I get away with." That's not okay but it's a fact of modern life.

Now devoid of any sense of communal responsibility the upper class, and corporations as their representatives, have set out to destroy the psychological well-being of the average American in order to make a buck. Whereas once there was some truth to the theory that a rising tide lifts all ships, in the U.S., it is now patently false. The bottom 20% of ships have been sinking for decades while the tide has risen considerably by all accounts.

The immorality of our leadership is obvious. It's obvious in the scandals and the headlines. It's obvious in the dumbening of America, and the lies from our government. Fortunately it's been shown that you can spackle over the corruption if you just appeal to patrotism and America. The mass-opiate addicted church goers will just bob their heads in unison, unthinking, unconcerned, and as long as you pledge your faith to Jesus and the flag you can get away with most anything. Say you love freedom and you can take it from them easier than candy from a baby. They won't even cry about the loss. They won't even bother to check to see how much of a liar you really are.

And so we arrive, finally, at youth obsession. See in order to rob Americans of every last cent they have, the corporations and their rich powerful overlords have to convince us that we're defficient in a number of ways. If you're told that a natural female face is beautiful you're not going to buy a hell of a lot of make-up are you? For awhile it was the fitness craze used to push crappy equipment that was difficult to use, thus assuring that you'd have to buy MORE crappy equipment to try to get rid of your love handles, but eventually the corporations figured out that some people were escaping that by getting fit through nature, or publicly available parks (God damned government, shouldn't be providing services that somebody could make a profit on!) That's where the new youth craze comes in. Sure some people can stay fit their whole lives, but nobody can stay young their whole lives. It's impossible by definition. So if you make people feel bad about the aging process you have a market that has NO CHOICE but to buy your products in a vain attempt to cling to the last remnants of their youth.

And the lower you can make the age of perfection the better off you are. Why stop at 35 (my personal choice for the peak of female beauty) when you can get it down to 25? Why 25 when you can get it to 15? (See the interest in girls like the Olsen's, Natalie Portman when she was young, and Lindsay Lohan.) Then you end up with 17 year olds getting Botox because their faces are...normal human faces. It's disgusting, not just because most 15 year olds don't have fully developed secondary sex characteristics, but because it also permeates the idea of worshipping the superficial above all else. Let's face it, most 25 year olds, let alone 15 year olds, don't know shit about anything (did I just diss myself? I think you think I might have.) They don't have accomplishments and they are just starting to really build their skill sets. So we get popular music that sounds like shit but has young faces attached to it. So we get shitty movies staring Freddie Prinz Jr. because he's not as old as most talented actors. So we get the spurning of great philosophers and writers as role models to be replaced with athletes, because Kobe Bryant is 24 while Don Delillo is...well...not. Who cares if one is an accused rapist? She probably wanted it anyway.

I should take a moment to try and rebuke the inevitable claims that there is nothing new under the sun, that girls used to be prime marriage material at 13 and youth obsession is as old as the bible. I don't believe that's true. Sure women were prized at young ages, but that's because like it or not they ARE more fertile when young and it makes sense for a society that prizes fertility to prize youth. That was compartmentalized though. Who were the female leaders of the tribe? Not that 15 year old who was busy popping out babies. It was the elders, the mothers, older wives, and widows. They were fonts of wisdom, keepers of ritual, storytellers. They may not have been considered sexy, but they were prized in many ways. This was certainly true of men as well. Presidents, philosophers, older leaders, these used to be our role models. Sure athletes had their place, but once again it was compartmentalized.

There are other theories for why the youth obsession has taken hold. The rise of visual media has a hand to play in it for sure. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's voice was strong and his words were excellently crafted. That made him very attractive on the main media of the time, radio. These days a president has to be seen MORE than heard, and no cripple would ever hold the main national office. Likewise it's more entertaining to watch a pretty young girl give us news than an old fogey with a wrinkly face and a bad hairpiece, even if the fogey might know a hell of a lot more what he's talking about. I don't deny that that has a part to play in the matter.

It's still obscene that our country is becoming more and more youth focused even as the population ages. It's perverse. And it's symptomatic of the deep rot that's taken hold in American culture. The rot that has wealth flowing uphill rather than down. The rot that has us torturing Iraqis in their homeland while our borders remain woefully unguarded.

It's hard to pay attention to the world when your eyes are swelled shut from laser surgery and your face wrapped in chemical peel. It's difficult for Suzy B. Anchorwoman to keep her hair and nails perfect AND try to learn all the names of those far away places where the bad men are, and then to try and explain that stuff? That's complicated. Let's talk about movies! Whee!

The claims of American superiority and uniqueness ring false now. We're just another country, no better than many and perceptably worse than some.

That's why the plastic surgery bullshit makes me sick. I can't stand it. I think it's a betrayal of American values and your humanity when you pay someone a large chunk of your check to straighten out some wrinkles on your face. Wear your wrinkles proudly, they are evidence of time served on this earth, wisdom gained, things accomplished. They are evidence of humanity and vulnerability. What it means to be a person.

That's also why I don't dislike body modification as much as I hate plastic surgery. Don't get me wrong, I think piercing and scarification are stupid and ugly practices. But they're stupid and ugly in the same way that bad fashion sense is, that is to say a superficial way. They're not signs of moral rot, just poor aesthetic taste. And ultimately that IS an arbitrary thing, no matter how much I may prefer classic and conservative styles.

Plastic surgery though, ESPECIALLY among the young. That's a pox, a plague, and a sign of the apocalypse, all rolled into one outpatient procedure that can be had at 15% off for the first two weeks of June. Make your appointment now.
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The world's your oyster shell so what's that funny smell?

Is it possible to be nuanced and entertaining at the same time? Maybe. I do think, however, that there's a powerful tension between the two when it comes to writing.

Looking around livejournal, and the world at large, it's hard to miss that simplicity and popularity often go hand in hand. Part of this comes from looking at my own journal entries and which ones resonated with people. Part of it comes from jealousy, because I've been working hard to write things worth reading and not a lot of people are reading them. I look at the people who are read by thousands and try to figure out the differences. There's polish and experience and subject matter. I whine a lot, I am pretty savage in my attacks on certain institutions and people which is why kesmun will get fed up within the week. I'm longwinded and I don't proof read. There are numerous problems. But I also write things that are complicated. I make an attempt to at least give a nod to all sides of a given issue, and I pick accuracy over humor.

So the question I'm asking myself is whether I pick accuracy and complexity over humor because I'm a poor writer who is incapable of including both, or because it's a forced choice scenario. Thinking back on the best writing in terms of entertainment and the best writing in terms of depth and profundity I have come to the conclusion that it often is a forced choice. People say that there is truth in comedy, and they aren't wrong. Comics are some of the boldest social critics out there. They're also some of the shallowest. They don't dissect policy or talk about the complicated nature of most important issues. Of course not. Saying, "White people think black people likes them some fried chicken" is much funnier than launching into a discussion of racial myths about blacks and mulattos since colonial times.

Aristotle, Hawking, Pynchon, all are thick and difficult to get through. Pynchon can be funny, but it's usually in "Oh he was making a joke 3 pages ago" smile way rather than a guffaw inducing Dave Barry way.

The problem arises when people mistake accessibility and entertainment value for profundity. Throughout my experience, and now I'm extending my sample to almost everyone I've ever met, the majority of people will take a piece that mixes entertainment value and profundity and say "That really speaks to me, I think that's exactly right" much more often than they will do so with a piece of work that is truly profound. Rush Limbaugh gives out a one-sided warped vision of the world, but damned if it isn't easy to digest and enjoyable. So he gets people saying "you're exactly right, Rush" when he's hit upon PERHAPS a grain of truth but buried it in lies like a kernel of corn in a pile of shit. This doesn't apply to just Rush, either. Newspaper columnists, livejournalists, television commentators. Each has fanatical followings that agree with most everything they say, and most everything they say is a vast oversimplification of the truth.

But it's entertaining, and it's easy to invest in. It's hard to invest in Camus' vision of the world because you have to figure out exactly what Camus' vision of the world is first, and even doesn't really know. He's opening Pandora's box of ambiguity. He (and now I'm no longer talking about Camus but rather the generic writer who seeks to pour his works so full of complexity and nuance that sentences run into paragraphs and paragraphs into pages and nothing changes because EVERYTHING is being explained) risking obscuring the shape of his argument beneath its details. It's like ivy growing on a statue. There's only so many strands, so many leaves, that a statue can support before you start to lose the shape of it. Eventually it just becomes a generic looking blob covered in greenery, and while you might be able to figure out whether it was originally a person or a lion or whatever, you don't know a damned thing about what it really looks like. So too can an argument be obscured by nuance, as an author bounces back and forth between ten different ways of viewing the issue, endorsing aspects of each and the whole of none until the reader feels like he's on a tilt-a-whirl gone mad and his mind, metaphorical stomach that it is in this case, pukes the whole thing out. All that lovely nuance and complexity left on the psychic sidewalk, so much half-digested corn dog and cotton candy.

So what is the essence of good art, good writing, good expression? Is it the compromise between accessibility and nuance? I'm hesitant to endorse that vision. It's like saying that the pursuit of art is the pursuit of limited truth. That facts and insights can be like extra branches on a sycamore tree, some need to be trimmed so that the tree as a whole can live long and prosper (maybe it's a Klingon sycamore tree?) That seems intuitively wrong to me. Thoughts are not trees, sycamore or otherwise. They are not competing for sunlight and soil, only time and attention. They are children, really. You don't prune your children, not unless you're a sicko.

So there's the problem. Do you prune and simplify and drape in finery until you have something tall and straight and pretty, something where the eye and mind can travel from point A to point B without a problem and have a fine time at it? Or do you let the thoughts grow crooked and crisscrossy and complicated. Do you let the trunks split and the arguments drift away from one another, to be tied together by interlocking branches further up? Then you are left with something that is perhaps more beautiful but also much more difficult to deal with. It lacks the pretty lights to make it stand out. It must be approached on its own terms and it is daunting indeed.

I don't know the answer to that. I know that my thoughts and sentences have a tendency to lie thick and coiled on the page, like forsythia. The roots go underground in one paragraph and emerge further away and you can't quite tell how one got from here to there, even if there is a connection underneath the rich deep soil. Maybe my hesitation to trim away the excess is just laziness. It's easy not to prune because you don't want to bother and then shrug your shoulders and say you prefer it to look natural. It's not even that hard to make yourself believe it.

I also know that sometimes my thoughts are indigestible to others. I take the "dehorn it, slap its butt, and send it on out here" request literally and deliver a bloody slab of unidentifiable unprepared flesh. It's unforgivable, really. But something is lost in the preparation, even if much is gained. When you drain the blood and alter the proteins through heat you take away a part of what the meat is. Maybe it's a good thing, maybe even purely good, but it's a controversial thing at least. Beef is cow meat, but is a cooked steak fundamentally different than one that's still on the cow? One that still pulses with blood and life, where the cells are still respirating and dividing and multiplying.

Sometimes it feels like preparing writing is like cooking that steak. Butchering and killing something that was once alive and beautiful. Maybe the meat on the plate is digestible and enjoyable and valuable. It's dead though. Dead and Grey.

I want to be funny. I want to be entertaining. I want to be clever and breezy and, dare I say it? Popular. I want people to agree with me, from time to time, and to say things that have an effect. But I don't want to give up nuance. I don't want to give up nodding to the other side of the issue. It's tempting to write things like

"Christians don't see nuance. They get stuck on 'Jesus is good, people who think Jesus is good is good.' Therefore they won't bother to read the bible and interpret the message. They just look for the candidate who is willing to pay lip service to the guy on the cross, and they vote for him. I imagine their conversations go something like this:

Cletus: That George Bush sure does love him some Jesus. I loves me some Jesus too. We gots a lot in common. We both think that Jesus is the greatest thing ever.

Joe Bob: Better than incest?

C: Hell no, not better than incest. I meant among them philosophical things. Incest is still number one with everyone in Acres county. We loves us some incest!

JB: Incest, moonshine, Jesus. Them's the stuffs of life.

C: Sure is! Nothing says loving like cross-eyed babies with single digit IQs. Gots them some tight vaginers too, if you know what I mean, and I know you do, cuz. We takes the order to love our neighbor literally around these parts, especially if you live next to family."

I find that amusing, many probably don't. It's blatantly unfair though. There are definitely a lot of Christians who are like that, and they frustrate the hell out of me. Two faced liars who will read you versus from the bible while they stab you in the back or drag you in a noose behind their car because your skin's the wrong color.

The nuanced observation is that religion is a volatile fucking thing. It can be good, and inspire good attitudes and works, but it has also been used to justify many if not most of the atrocities that humankind has committed and most people just can't understand that if religion was used to justify horrible things in the past then it might just be being used for the same reasons today. So they call for a tearing down of the wall between church and state, not understanding that nothing gets you to Babylon or Gomorrah faster than preachers in the houses of government.

The nuanced position is even more complicated than that, but by now you're all just scrolling down merrily on your way to find out what Harry Potter character that delightful drunkard on your friends list is, so I'll spare my fingers the trouble of a 30,000 word discussion of the true role religion plays in American society. Even that would just scratch the surface.

There are other issues at play here. Like the arrogance of thinking that one can jump right into the literary deep-end. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk, and you need to write simply and directly before you can diverge and satisfy your desire for verbal loop-de-loops and literary cul-de-sacs. It's called paying dues and it starts with writing crap. I've never been good at paying dues, of any sort.

Then there's the fact that I resent the 'easy-seekers' and how common they are in today's America. The guru followers, the people who think they have it all figured out because someone who knows how to string words together confirms the simplistic world-view that they naturally tend towards. I know I don't have the world all figured out, not even old refrigerator head Aristotle did, not even Jesus did. String theory won't explain love or sunrises.

So as I sit down to a summer where I intend to increase my writing despite and in spite of whatever class work I have to do, I wonder what direction I should tend in. Should I lay down thick thatches of complicated prose that please only me, indulging my love of metaphor and run on sentences? Should I try to trim and scrape away at the bone of the thing, and write for a potential audience with clever turns of phrase and simple bite-sized meanings? Should I say things well or say them right?

It's a tension. It's not a total dichotomy; there are compromises to be made on both sides and improvements to be gained by following either path. It's a sad fact though, that even in the limitless world of language there are trade-offs and compromises to be made. That there's no such thing as the perfect book or essay.

Just as there is no perfect form of government, no perfect body, no perfect athlete. The closest thing there is to perfection is 27 up 27 down, but even that involves many strokes of luck, and nobody's ever done it on 27 pitches.

In other news I went for a 4-mile walk today and it was nice, but there were no Cicadas in the park. I WUZ ROBBED.
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    Barenaked Ladies