Friday, October 17, 2008
Digging for the Roots - American Nightmare part 2
So in this post, I railed about our culture being cutthroat and materialistic. And I touched on its underpinnings, which I am starting to believe are the root of the problem.
Let me take a minor step backwards at this point, and clarify something - I don't believe in the idea of a single cause for any given circumstance. In my own blog, I call it multiplex causality, a phrase I stole from a science fiction novel I've been rereading sporadically. Go ahead and call me a nerd.
I don't mind it. In fact, it's a decent entry point for this next part of the discussion. Why does the term 'nerd' have any other meaning than someone who reads a lot or knows a lot about some esoteric subject? Instead, the mental image that it draws up is what? Some guy with chunky glasses and few social graces. You can credit the eighties movie series 'Revenge of the Nerds' in part for this. The word itself is considered a bit of an insult, but why? Because it sets us apart - it sets someone apart from the person invoking the term. It's a way, frankly, of saying "I am better than you."
That's the fundamental nature of competition - superiority in one form or another. Competition. Winners on one hand and losers on the other. But you see, I don' subscribe to the idea that being a nerd is a bad thing, and it's hilariously deflating to those who would seek to use this term as a means of elevating themselves. At some point in life, you will want a nerd on your side - if you have a need for deeper understanding of their particular brand of knowledge, for example. Like if you have a computer virus, or your company's website isn't working right, or you've got to file your taxes - in these instances, you actually WANT someone with deep, specific knowledge.
So why do we have pejorative terms for them at all? To make ourselves feel better - better about ourselves and better than someone else. To compete, not for dollars, like the last rant, but for social status. We want to be cooler, more hip, more mainstream, perhaps. We want to be the model of the American Dream - fit, attractive, successful, well-groomed - to define some quality by which we can measure ourselves and someone else and come out on top. Once again, it's all about competition.
And again, competition is fine. We do need it on some level. If we had no urge to compete, then the most aggressive people would be the only ones procreating, and in my narrow view, we'd be diminishing as a species as a result. Competition is part of the natural order of things, but it's not the only part.
The American culture is, in my present view, competitive to a level that has become toxic. Entertainers and sports figures are prime examples - look at any music video and see for yourself - is the good life anything but perfect skies, beautiful homes, outrageous wealth and personal delights? Is it ever portrayed as anything else? Really, how many entertainers do you really think got into show business for love of the art? How many lawyers really practice primarily for the cause of justice? How many athletes play for love of the game? How many doctors are motivated by public health? Why, in fact, does elective plastic surgery exist at all?
Media. Advertising. Marketing. These are out of control in this country. But I've pointed the finger at them already - they are already on the hook. And like I said, it isn't ever distilled to a single root cause. But our competitive nature will rarely allow us to see the other side of the problem. It's sharing your chair with you right now. It's us, each and every one of us. myself included. No one is completely exempt or immune to it - you can't be and continue to exist in our culture. But I see a TV show with a guy driving a silver Porsche Cayman S, and I want one. I go to the website for Adidas and I see a guy who's got beautiful women hanging on his arms, and he's wearing an $80 sweatshirt, and I want one. We're all infected with this virus, each and every one of us, in one way or another.
Because the media is cheating us in other ways as well. It's not just convincing us that this product or that service is the missing link between ourselves and ultimate fulfillment - they're also convincing us that success in this country can be achieved easily and equally. That we're good enough and smart enough as we are.
Maybe that used to be true. I'm not sure it is anymore, but that's for part three.