Wednesday, November 30, 2016

On the Elementary

One of the nice things about academia, if you do it right, is that you can connect with people in different disciplines who nonetheless share common interests. I had a lovely email exchange the other day with a built environments scholar. He's from Vojvodina, the northern region of Serbia, and now lives in Florida. He agreed to answer some questions by email as I sorted out some questions about the portrayal of the city of Zagreb in 1950s animation. He introduced me to a school of urban planning common in socialist countries in which the entire city was imagined as a kind of park. More traditional, nineteenth-century ideas of parkland returned to Yugoslavia in the 1970s. I'm now reading through material he recommended which I picked up at the Built Environments Library at UW yesterday. I haven't entered the Built Environments library once in five years. I'm sure this concept would be obvious to a lot of people, and probably comes up in introductory courses on urban planning and the built environment. But the idea was new to me and it makes me rethink a lot of what I've been looking at these past few months.

Someone close to me, someone who has seen almost as many "difficult" films as I have seen but hasn't taken a single film class in his life, told me about what he considered to be an interesting phenomenon in many movies, namely the tension between sound that characters can't hear and sound that they can. Of course, he was working through the concept of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, terms that we introduce to students within three weeks of any introductory film course.

If I were to define the most significant problem among academics, the problem that may encompass most scholarship, a problem, I might add, which affects many people outside academia, it is the fear of not-knowing, the fear of not being an expert, the fear of getting things wrong. That fear is tied directly to the fundamentalist mindset which can't accept the unknowable.

New suggestion: At least once every two years, every professor, no matter how advanced, should be required to take an introductory undergraduate course in any subject outside his discipline.

(I live in a fantasy world.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On Our Toys

On my trip to Serbia in 2005, I picked up a Serbo-Croatian translation of a 1980s He-Man comic at a flea market outside a church. It barely holds together, but it spoke to me. I watched He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985) when I was a kid. I had a huge collection of He-Man toys which I'm pretty sure my mom gave away to Goodwill.

Two years ago, I travelled to Rijeka, Croatia, which had a few museums, among them one dedicated to computers and calculators in Yugoslavia and abroad, and the other a museum of toys. The one for computers had a full display case of all the personal computers that were produced in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, all of them the product of someone the curator described as the Steve Jobs of Yugoslavia. The computers weren't very good. The curator himself had owned a Commodore 64 that his father had bought with a two-months salary on a trip to Vienna. The toy museum had several toys, most of them taken from homes in Yugoslavia. There were Mickey Mouse dolls and, yes, He-Man toys. There were two set pieces in the toy museum, one a large LEGO sculpture of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, the other a decayed train model of an East German town that had won a major award in the 1970s. Most of the rest was not region-specific, which is to say, that the cultural fruits of globalization had existed long before the end of the Cold War and -- this would not be surprising to anyone who has read the history -- had creeped into Yugoslavia.

In the late '90s, Thomas Friedman peddled a theory that no two countries with McDonald's had ever gone to war since they had both gotten a McDonald's. His argument was that economic ties trump violent, nationalist urges. Free trade saves lives. Not long after he peddled this claim, NATO began its bombings in Serbia, a country that had a McDonald's.

Patrick Hyder Patterson argues in Bought and Sold that the hyper-consumerism of the former Yugoslavia brought on the economic catastrophes of the 1980s which led in turn to the civil wars. His argument is more nuanced and his book is quite dense with information, but you get a moral: A country that gets drunk on nice shoes, good cars, He-Man toys, and Commodore 64s while never fully accepting the fundamentals of capitalism can't survive forever.

We've been trying to process what we've been seeing this past week. I guess I was taken aback to discover that the children of the people who entered into a savage genocide in the 1990s were playing with the same toys I played with. I'm looking around at all our toys. I'm not ready to argue that our addiction to these toys caused this crisis. I just know that our toys can't protect us from ourselves. I must be an idiot to think of this as a revelation.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

On Revolution and Violence

Milovan Đilas was born in Montenegro in 1911. He died in Belgrade in 1995. He lived through World War I, World War II, and the first wave of the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. He was a true dissident in Yugoslavia. He went to prison for his beliefs, for calling the Yugoslav state totalitarian. He was a "democratic socialist," and as much as he condemned totalitarian communism, he also condemned the capitalist system in the U.S. His story is far more interesting than what I've described here. I mean this only as an introduction to this passage from Wartime, his memoir of his time as a partisan leader in World War II. At the time, Đilas was a true communist believer. But in a battle between the Chetniks -- a group of Serbian nationalists or royalists, depending on the historian you want to read -- and partisans, he saw something he didn't want to see.

"Although no blood was shed in this battle, the effect was inconceivably horrifying and majestic. For hours both armies clambered up rocky ravines to escape annihilation or to destroy a little group of their countrymen, often neighbors, on some jutting peak six thousand feet high, in a starving, bleeding, captive land. It came to mind that this is what had become of all our theories and visions of the workers' and peasants' struggle against the bourgeoisie."

There are far more brutal passages in Wartime, but this one speaks to a disillusionment that seems to hit every dogmatic Marxist once he tries to put his theory into practice. Here are the peasants of Montenegro, all of them poor. Their primary allegiances are more often to their clans, often defined by their surnames, than to any nation-state. There are any number of reasons why certain Montenegrins would fight with the partisans or with the Chetniks, reasons why they would fight with certain groups of Chetniks and not with other groups of Chetniks, reasons why they would ignore Muslims in another village and reasons why they would slaughter them all if they could. The reasons for their choices have very little to do with the Marxist theory Đilas reads and that many of them literally cannot read because they are illiterate.

I'm seeing a lot of talk of revolution and of the efficacy of violence. My country may soon enter a period of civil unrest that we haven't seen in 150 years. If that were to happen, the faultlines will be unclear. Latinos may end up shooting other Latinos in the name of Trump. Black and latino leaders may plea for compromise, knowing that blacks and latinos will be the most affected by any violence. White men in rural Kansas may take up arms. Others may do anything to avoid conflict. Once we hit a certain level of violence, causes cease to matter and theory tends to die.



Friday, November 11, 2016

On Who the Bigots Are

It's important to be clear why we're upset. There are many reasons, but there are mainly two categories for our grievances.

First, we are upset at the prospects of a Donald Trump presidency and of the death, destruction, and misery he might bring. When we say that he won't be our worst president but our last president, we're not really joking.

Second, we are upset that we live in a country surrounded by people who voted for a vicious hate-monger, a buffoon, and a fascist. We don't want to be around such people and we are afraid of what those people might do to us. 

This post is about the second category, not the first. 

At last count, approximately 60 million people voted for Trump, as opposed to the 60.4 million who voted for Hillary Clinton. Would it be that much more comforting if somehow we went with the popular vote and not the electoral college? It would mean that Hillary Clinton would win, but we would still be surrounded by 60 million Trump voters.

Let's say that it wasn't 60 million. Let's say it was 55 million. No. How about 50 million, 40 million, 30 million? Well 30 million means that about 25 percent of the electorate was willing to vote fascist, which I had always assumed. I could still live with the prospect of living in the world in which one out of every four people was a fascist. It wouldn't make me feel good, but I figure the decent people could keep that 25 percent in line. And I've met these fascists, so I'm used to their existence. And I've met the children of these fascists. Hang out in gay bars in any city in the U.S. and you will meet refugees from communities dotted all through the South ruled by fundamentalist Christianity and violence.

But 50 percent is terrifying. Sixty million is terrifying. 

Is every one of these 60 million people, as Hillary Clinton calls them, "deplorable"? There are a lot of high-minded people out there who want to say that some of these 60 million people are deplorable, but that most are nursing legitimate economic grievances that the federal government has been ignoring for many years. Many of these people would not themselves utter the terrible things Trump says. They voted for him in spite of "grab them by the pussy" and "they're rapists." 

Then there's the claim put out by the equally high-minded Daily Show, that these 60 million people are just as bad as the KKK-level racists. Even if they really voted for Trump in spite of the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, they still bought the whole package. (Side note: I think this would be a good time to replace these terms with the phrases: Black hatred, Immigrant hatred, gay hatred, Muslim hatred, and Jew hatred. Those terms have a harder sound. Let's make these ideas sound like what they are.)  

And then the details of the demographics mess up the narrative. Do the 30 percent of latinos who voted for Trump hate themselves? Did the 53 percent of white women who voted for him do so because they are truly indifferent to sexism in their own lives? Maybe, like me, they understood that even vicious bigots can sometimes make the right policy decisions. I hate to tell you this, but Harry Truman said in private some damn terrible things about Jews and black people and Lyndon Johnson's passionate support for civil rights can be summed up in his infamous line, "Let the niggers vote." George W. Bush, famously, had no personal problems with gay people, but Hillary Clinton, according to an interview with her husband during the final year of his presidency, didn't much care for them. Policy-wise, Trump is firmly on the wrong side of the bread-and-butter issues that we think are unique to latinos, women, and Muslims. But, believe it or not, the xenophobia, misogyny, and racism latinos, women and Muslims suffer may not be the most important issue for them.

Homophobia, at one point in my life, was the most important political issue for me. When I came out in college, I was filled with righteous fury for the many homophobes who had made me hate myself through my adolescence. I felt I had been robbed of happiness. And I hated any politician who disagreed with me even an inch on issues like gay marriage. That changed after a few years. Believe it or not, a woman might not care that much about rape culture. Many white women hate abortion. A latino may care more about national security than about Trump's evil attack on the Mexican judge assigned to a case in which he stands as the defendent. Oh, and don't idealize any of these voters because they are members of an oppressed demographic. Don't assume they are endowed with some special wisdom on the nature of oppression. There are plenty of black people who hate gay people, and plenty of gay people who hate Muslims, and plenty of Muslims who hate Jews, and plenty of Jews who hate black people, and plenty of black people who hate Mexicans, and plenty of Mexicans who hate Muslims, and plenty of Muslims who hate gay people, and plenty of gay people who hate Jews, and plenty of all of them who have obtained some kind of financial security who hate the poor, including the poor who share their religion, sexuality, ethnicity, or national origin. 

Do you think Clinton voters are immune from feeling some of the evil Trump spits out of his mouth? I've been no angel in my life. Others haven't either. Of the homophobia from future Clinton voters whom I knew in high school, I can sum up as why do you have your hands on your hips like a girl oh my god do you think he's gay like the way he gossips you know are you thinking about a boy you perv. One of my fellow students on a language program in Arizona came up to me on the first day and told me I looked Asian when I smiled. Then he went off on the Jew jokes. Are you telling me you've never made fun of the Jews or the blacks or the gays or the Mexicans or the Muslims or the poor? Never told a rape joke? Hey, I can find some of those jokes funny, and I'll probably still find myself giggling at some garbage again. Family Guy is terrible for the soul, but I can dig some of the jokes. Those jokes can destroy a person's psyche. They destroyed part of mine. What am I saying? At least some of those 60.4 million Clinton voters have done terribly bigoted things that have hurt others.

And some of those 60.4 million Clinton voters also have a little sympathy for some of the Trumpies' ideas. Ask them if they're ok with putting an "M" for Muslim in every Muslim's passport. Ask them if they're comfortable with a transgender kindergarten teacher. I would like to see the results of such a survey. It probably wouldn't be pretty. 

This is a vicious country filled with savages. The world is vicious as well, and it is also filled with savages. The results of this election may have awakened a few of us to that tragic fact. But that tragic fact would be obvious to anyone who bothered to listen to other people, and more importantly, themselves.

But here's the crazy thing: Some of those savages would take you into their homes and feed you, clothe you, and give you shelter if they saw you on the street, starving, cold, and alone.




Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On the Morning After

I don't know any Trump supporters beyond the couple who have mysteriously shown up on my Facebook friends list. I live in a bubble. When I drive out to the countryside in Washington state, just a half hour beyond Seattle's city limits, I see the Trump signs and I wonder: "What noise do they listen to?" "Do they hate me as much as I fear and often hate them?"

I know the campus radicals, because I am surrounded by them. I was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. I think the New York Times is a legitimate news source. That makes me a centrist in my world. The right-wingers went for Clinton in the primary. The lefty freaks didn't vote at all, because neoliberal world order or something, and by the way, microaggressions are really important and you white liberals better get with the program or something else. So some of my anger this morning was directed towards the wrong target. "I wonder how many Jews in 1933 were complaining about microaggressions? I guess we can look back with some sense of comfort that Primo Levi eventually found a safe space at Auschwitz. Give it up for Leni Riefenstahl. She stood up to mansplaining. A true feminist icon."

I roll my eyes at the concept of a "safe space," but I know that "microaggressions" are real, and I'll plead guilty to mansplaining one too many times in my life. But right now, I'm overwhelmed, like everyone else, by a sense of doom, in which all the problems and complaints in my little world seem so small. The last chance we had at minimizing the catastrophe of climate change is gone. Our chance to reform the carceral state is gone. That dimwit Thomas Friedman declared France our enemy in the run-up to the Iraq War. Well, a Le Pen-led France may not become an enemy of a Trump-led U.S., but it's not crazy to imagine a world in which once stable democracies in Western Europe are turned into hostile forces. A war with China. Although Joe Arpaio may have been defeated, we may actually see an expansion of Arpaio-camps for our latino population and probably our Muslim population as well.  The life for black people, particularly the black poor, will become increasingly unbearable. When I was in college I wrote a letter to Colbert King, a black columnist at the Washington Post. He had written a column about an anti-Semitic hate letter he had gotten. I told him anti-Semitism had now been relegated to the margins of American life, and was most often espoused only by the insane. I told him that racism was the real problem. He didn't think it was an either/or question. He was right and I was wrong. We'll learn to hate gay people again, and to subordinate women all the more. Roe v. Wade may well be overturned. A monster with the emotional intelligence and psychopathic sensibility of the sixth-grade bullies who tormented my autistic classmates is now the most powerful man in the world.

It so happens that I reconnected with one of my first and still one of my very best students last night, right before I was about to go to an election party. He now works as a bank teller in Iowa, while working furiously on his music at home. He has many coworkers who are Trumpies. He says they aren't racists, or sexists, or bigots, just people who are nervous about losing their small little piece of security within this changing world. Who knows? How do you explain what leads so many decent people to make such a terrible decision?

No 800-word column will explain this, nor any 1000-page book. I don't need to hear any sanctimonious crap about how elite liberals like me have ignored the pain of so many people suffering in this economy, or about how a middle-class in the U.S. or Western Europe lives in fear of what they're losing, because, frankly, I'm not ignorant of any of those issues. And it doesn't explain how people who carry such fear run to someone who is such an obnoxious, obvious buffoon.

I guess I will attempt some kind of explanation based on my own life, because, hey, why not. A friend once described the social class structure of elementary and middle school not as a pyramid, in which the popular kids hung out at the very top, and the lower rungs grew steadily wider until you got to a very wide bottom. She said it was a rhombus. The top quarter of the rhombus was quite popular, the middle half was filled with the people who were more or less getting by, and then there was the bottom fifth to a quarter. At the very tip of the rhombus were the hopeless, the autistic, the irredemiably strange, who lacked so many social skills they couldn't even imagine having something approximating a friend. She was not at that tip, but a few rungs up, because she was awkward, and at the time, ugly, but also quiet. So she would get picked on from time to time, but she knew to stay out of everyone's way, to not fight back, to do her own thing, and let those in the middle section, and some of those at the top pick on the few people below her.

Looking back, I did much the same. But there was one exception, one glorious moment of Peter Parker-level heroism. When I was on a camping trip in summer camp at age 10, I found myself in a tent with three other kids, one of whom had cognitive disabilities, what we called in the early 1990s mental retardation. One of the kids in the tent picked on him mercillessly through the night, to the point the kid was bawling. I stood up and said, "Please stop. That's fucked up." And so all the wrath of the little fascist came down on me. This went on for days, until a counselor intervened. She was a fucking idiot. She thought that everyone in the tent was equally at fault, and only humiliated me more in front of the rest of the camp for not toughening up. Lesson learned.

Most of us live in fear of our fellow humans for very good reason. We separate into groups. And when those of us in any given group are mistreated we stay quiet, and avoid trouble, because we have too much to lose.

Don't believe me? If you live in Manhattan, you are just a few miles away from a prison run by thugs who regularly torture inmates to the point of suicide. You rely on the systems of government to hopefully reform that prison, while knowing full well that that reform will be too slow and in the end, woefully inadequate. So why don't you get together with a thousand people, find the thugs who run the prison -- they shouldn't be too hard to find -- at their homes, take them hostage peacefully, and take a stand. What's stopping you? Don't tell me that it's your belief in the system of government. Don't tell me it's your fundamental belief in reform. You know this is evil. You know this is wrong. You know, I repeat, that any reform will be inadequate and will take too long. And you know what's stopping you. You have way too much to lose.

There's another part of you, of course, which understands that your actions are not a matter of cowardice. They are based on religious devotion to decency, to compromise, to civility, which is another way of saying civilization. And you cling to this idea of civilization, because you feel someone has to in the face of so many people behind those signs in those houses, listening to that noise, who have no regard for that idea whatsoever. You will be better than them, you believe. And you know what. Now that I think about it: You may be right.


Monday, November 7, 2016

On Writing about the Balkans, Getting it...Sorta

I picked up Richard West's biography of Tito from the university library a few weeks ago. West was a prominent journalist who died a year ago. He's best known for his reporting on Vietnam. His biography of Tito was published in 1994 at the height of the first wave of the Balkan wars. In the opening chapter, West lays the groundwork for the regional history. This paragraph appears on page 4:

"In spite of later division, both political and religious, the language spoken by most of the South Slav people has stayed the same to the present day. A foreigner learning Serbo-Croat may notice peculiar dialects spoken in country districts such as eastern Serbia and the Dalmatian coast, but unless one is a linguistic expert one will notice little difference between the languages spoken in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo. The word for "what" may vary; the vowel "e" is shorter in Serb than it is in Croat; "bread" is hleb in Belgrade and kruha in Zagreb. In the obscene and often blasphemous oaths that punctuate all South Slav conversation, the word for vagina is pička in Serb and pizda in Croat. The Serbs retained a few Turkish words such as varoš (town) and para (money), besides borrowing others from English and French. The Serbs listen to muzika, the Croats to glazba; the Serbs play futbol, the Croats nogomet. Many Serbs disapprove of the Western names for the months, such as Oktobar, regretting the old Slav words such as Listopad, literally "leaf fall," still used by the Croats. The Greek monks Saints Cyril and Methodius brought the Cyrillic script to the Serbs as well as the Russians and Bulgarians, but the Croats adapted the Latin script, so that for instance the ts became c, ch became č, and tch became ć."

West doesn't quite recognize the differences between nominative, genitive, accusative, instrumental, locative, and dative cases, all elements that would be familiar to anyone trying to learn any slavic language. I don't need to explain the differences here, but I will say that any linguist would use the nominative case when giving literal translations of any word. Hleb is correct. But kruha should be kruh. (Kruha is the genitive case). He refers to the various dialects based on the word "what." Those three dialects are štokavian, which is spoken in most of the former Yugoslavia, and kakavian and čakavian. And he's mostly right when he suggests that the latter two, which he doesn't name, are minority dialects. When he refers to the vowel "e" being shorter in Serb than in Croat, he is hitting on the primary difference between the two most significant dialects. That difference is not insignificant. That would be the ekavian dialect and the ijekavian dialect. I will explain by example. The term "beautiful child" in ekavian, which is mostly spoken in Serbia, would be lep dete. In the ijekavian, it would be lijep dijete. It's not just that the "e" in ekavian is shorter. The ije in ijekavian adds a different sound entirely. One of my early teachers was frustrated by my habit of writing lep dijete. Also, in Serbo-Croatian, the names of the months are not capitalized, so listopad, not Listopad.

It is true that the two dialects have almost total mutual intelligibility. Many Croats know Cyrillic and many Serbs know the Latin alphabet. You can get Cyrillic and Latin alphabet books in any bookstore in Novi Sad and Belgrade.

The language politics in Yugoslavia are complicated. The first attempt to codify the language came in the nineteenth century, some decades after German was codified by the Brothers Grimm. In the socialist era, the country declared four major official languages: Croato-Serbian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian, all of which appeared on its currency. Later reforms would allow more open instruction and uses of Albanian and other languages on the local level. The language politics remain troubled. There are still reports of traditional ekavian plays being performed in Croatian towns with ijekavian subtitles.

There's more, but there's no need to go into further detail. My point is not that West is wrong. He got most of this right, some of it dead on. I know a few Serbs who miss listopad. The paragraph is correct enough that it would past muster with a New Yorker fact-checker, the same people who publish Malcolm Gladwell. It's just that he's a little off. And like most essays in The New Yorker, West's prose has a lovely lilt that suggests authority, whether or not it has been fairly earned.

We like to make fun of the Serbs and Croats for engaging in the narcissism of the small differences. Are they really going to go to war with each other because someone says lep dete and not lijep dijete? Mark Mazower has a more subtle reading of how this narcissism developed in his book The Balkans, a wonderful attempt to demystify and de-exoticize the region. Unfortunately, people who want to learn about the Balkans are more likely to encounter Robert Kaplan's excrescent Balkan Ghosts and Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is lovely, but falls short; neither of them are read by literate elite, or any serious scholars from the former Yugoslavia. Or they will read this paragraph from Richard West.

Milovan Đilas, a true dissident and a fascinating historical figure, was the most widely read Yugoslav writer in the U.S. during the Cold War.  The English translations of his many books are all now out of print, which is a shame. They still read him in the former Yugoslavia. But they also read Miloš Crnjaski and Danilo Kiš, neither of whom could be called dissidents. Mention the latter two names to the average educated fellow in America and the first question you will get: "So was he against the regime?" I tell people I write about Yugoslav cartoons, and they ask me about censorship. I explain that censorship existed, but it was not the primary concern of the artists in the studio. As one animator, Bordo, told me when I asked him if he had to contend with censorship: "Good question! You just couldn't say anything mean about Tito. But why would we? We loved Tito." His oeuvre is filled with satires of the imperfections of Yugoslav life, the misery of being a socialist factory worker, the weirdness of bureaucracy. What am I saying? I'm saying that these things are complicated. That we have a lot of assumptions when we walk into these countries. That we should try to listen first before we say anything.

It's hard to write about another culture. It takes patience and humility, and a willingness to make up for a lifetime of not having lived in a different world. I guess we all fall short.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

On Don't Think Twice

I saw Don't Think Twice (2016), Mike Birbiglia's sad study of mid-30-something improv comics coming to terms with the fact that they probably won't achieve their dreams. The movie has an authentic vibe. The steadicam captures the intimacy of this little group. Birbiglia's troupe is connected by a shared angst, a fear of disappointing themselves and their parents, of the possibility that they may not be very good at something they love to do, of fading youth, of money troubles. When the most talented member of the troupe, Jack, played by Keegan-Michael Key who is also the most famous actor in the movie besides Birbiglia, makes it big, the troupe can only respond with kind wishes that mask simmering resentment.

The improv scenes in Don't Think Twice aren't that great on their own terms. Even Key's Jack doesn't shine through for the audience in the movie theater as well as he does for the audience in the world of his own movie. The improvs aren't terrible either. Birbiglia captures the depressing mediocrity of these hard-working craftspeople, and the misery of never being able to judge yourself or others all that well.

When Key's Jack makes his debut on a Saturday Night Live (1975-)-like show, his old friends watch mystified. His performance sounds funny, but it isn't, kind of like the actual Saturday Night Live. Is this what it really means to make it? Do you have to give up the most precious part of your talent in order to please the market?

I know a few people who attempted to make it in theater. Many of them have entered professions adjacent to their initial dreams, content with the fact that they might not have "it," or, even if they do, they don't have the hunger or the neediness for the world to realize that they have "it." Some of them became yoga teachers or theater instructors. One went back to get his B.A. in musicology, and hopefully later his M.A., so he can teach choir. Another became a successful restaranteur. A few years ago, I went drinking with one of the funniest people I've ever met. He's been doing pretty well of late. He has a role in a Hulu series that's successful enough to keep getting renewed. He has a significant following online and he plays sold-out shows. There was an online petition to get him on SNL, and the fact that he's not on it says more about the show than it does about him. Still, he was never quite as funny in his Hulu show as he is on YouTube, and never as funny on YouTube as when he performed live. His Facebook posts, however, are the funniest I've ever seen.

Don't Think Twice captures the existential terror of every artist. The point of being an artist is not to "be good," but to express something of your own, something unique to yourself as well as you can for others. Hopefully your work of art will make other people feel a little less alone. In Don't Think Twice, artists, in order to be what they want to be, to be respected and appreciated, and to be able to live a semi-comfortable lifestyle, have to give up the entire point of their profession, and instead push themselves to "be good."

SNL, The Daily Show and the many shows that followed The Daily Show, and the later seasons of South Park, and Jerry Seinfeld have the same problem. They're all good. They're never terrible. No one in the writers' room seems to be taking risks.  They go for jokes for people who afraid they won't get the joke. No one is willing to fall flat on their face. Everyone needs a job.

They always say that the best years of SNL for everyone are the years when you happen to be 10-years-old. And so for me, Chris Farley will always be the greatest SNL player. I think his clips still hold up. My favorite Farley moment is from the sketch about a sing-off between The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Susan Dey, who played the oldest daughter in the original Partridge Family, here plays the mother. Farley stands in the back throughout the sketch, playing Ruben Kincaid, nodding his head and smiling for the length of the sketch. A few minutes in, the Brady Bunch taunts the Partridge Family for not having a dad. Farley speaks. "Daddy? I'll show you daddy." He steps forward, lumping like an animal, and grabs Dey, and opens his mouth wide to kiss her. Every player on the stage watches, stifling their laughter and their horror.

In real life, Farley was committing slow-motion suicide. He was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and a spendthrift who ran around with prostitutes. Jim Breuer has told stories about late-night phone calls from Farley, in which he confessed his fears that he wasn't funny, that he was a fraud. Who knows. In his best moments, you had the sense that he was too drunk, too messed-up to even try to be good, to even think about having a job, to even think about living another day. And maybe in Lorne Michaels's head, he doesn't want to be responsible for another Jim Belushi or Farley. And dear god, Charlie Sheen be damned, there may actually be something to the romance of the artist fuelled by the death drive, and fuck, that's terrifying.

After so many movies about artists with the "death drive," Don't Think Twice captures the existential dread of having the problems most people have, but also being more or less emotionally stable. In Don't Think Twice, the heroes are in desperate need of an emotional breakdown they know they can't afford.








Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On the New Victorians

A friend sent me this article, and it's shown up a few times in my FB newsfeed. The argument synthesizes what have been a series of observations several have made these past few years: The new bourgeoisie has developed its own moral codes in order to defend a class structure that protects their interests. These moral codes include an adherence to healthy eating and healthy exercising, as well as the constant appearance of healthy eating and healthy exercising. The bourgeoisie doesn't just attend yoga classes. It wears yoga pants when it goes shopping even if it doesn't plan to go to yoga that day. The bourgeoisie believes in the college ranking system, and pushes its kids through college prep courses and summer internships, and when its kids are accepted to Tufts, it congratulates its kids on their achievement. It believes in a pure meritocracy that led to its childrens' acceptance. Just as the old Victorians considered attendence of music concerts a moral duty that separated the from the masses, so too do these new Victorians practice their own moral codes to signal their virtue to one another, to establish that they are all part of a specific class.

There is a hole in this article, which the book it is reviewing may fill in. It's the hole that ignores how this new bourgeoisie regards class, race, and gender all as part of their moral code. Twenty-five years ago, a woman in her early 40s with a small child could say, without any fear of condemnation whatsoever, that she hopes her son would not grew up gay. "And if he is gay, I hope he isn't too effeminate." Today, that woman would have to qualify her statement very quickly -- "No, I'm just afraid of how society will treat him" -- before her peers rush to condemn her. You think Mexicans are taking your jobs? Go to hell. You're not part of our club. Do you hate Trump? You can join our crowd.  

Now, I am on the side of all these moral codes. I think we should be at a point where non-dominant forms of sexual orientation should be celebrated, and that any mother should consider gayness a gift to her son. I believe immigrants should be welcomed. And I hate Trump. And I am disturbed when I meet people who feel differently.

Moving on:

"I hope my baby doesn't have Down's Syndrome. I don't want a dumb kid. My kid is autistic. Not extremely. But he's on the spectrum. I just wish he wasn't. Yes, he has all this intelligence too, but I wish he wasn't autistic. Anyone who doesn't believe all our soldiers are heroes is a horrible person." 

Whether I agree or don't agree with any of the previous -- or rather, whether I feel or don't feel these things to be true -- I think all these statements are wrong on some level. They should all be questioned, and probably condemned. The first two privilege a certain type of mental ability that we have been taught to honor, the one that gets your kid into Tufts. The third accepts a destructive worldview that kills a lot of people, although probably not your own kid who won't be going to war anytime soon, because he is going to Tufts.

The New Victorians' bigotries are not limited to class.