27 07 2008

The Uses of Snobbery

I plead guilty to being an intellectual snob. It comes from having been a poor outcast fat kid in the backwards backwoods of Texas long ago. I had to cling to SOMETHING to have value in my own eyes, and I chose the contents of books. The ability to read “hard” books and to become lost in them was the only thing I had going for me.

Compared to those contents, as illuminated by my imagination, the squalid surroundings and dimwit country culture of my small-town Texas childhood became dismissible. It was like being thrown into prison and coping with the noise and danger and ugliness and cruelty and excess macho nonsense of the other prisoners by dreaming about your life when finally released. Seen through the mist of those dreams, it was all dismissible, hence bearable.

There is lots in American culture now, 40 years later, that remains unchanged (after a brief abortive flirtation of the USA with being civilized that occurred in the 1960s). If you actually live within the soup of media-business-religion-sports that constitutes all the “culture” that the USA has, then you will slowly be de-brained. I understand that this lowest-common-denominator culture is the natural product of a country made up of persons of so many ethnic and national backgrounds that, other than a burning desire to make as much money as humanly possible, they have historically had very little in common. But I don’t have to join the de-brained brigade just because I was born here.

After a lifetime of being regularly fed drivel, I now watch no TV, read no magazines (celebrity, so-called “news”, or otherwise), consume only carefully-selected contemporary movies, go to no theme parks, read no best sellers, and listen to no radio but NPR.

But I still actually live in the American South. People here are friendly and polite in their personal lives and daily contacts. And this state I now live in is unique among Southern states in having a strong minority population (the Cajuns) with a distinctive culture that influences many aspects of life here. But the public reality that reigns in this place and time is still highly driven by the larger mass of US media ideas and images that flood in upon us daily, and by a good deal of local self-deluding nonsense about the glorious Old South. The result needs continually to be dismissed if one is not simply to despair for one’s country. I can’t turn on the main local AM radio station without hearing a local Homer or Jethro imitating Rush in order to book his own transient local fame. (The usual chorus of drawling dittoheads always obligingly call in to agree.) This city, Baton Rouge, has a paroxysm every time the LSU Tigers play a football game and doesn’t notice much else that happens publicly. In politics it is cruel, in art is is limited to country and rap and phony Cajun music, in public thought it is limited to a slavish love of business and business persons, and a widespread desire to try to guess what they might want before they want it, so they won’t get in a huff and take their many dollars to some even more accommodating Southern state.

Oh yes, the folks did stir from their torpor recently to get incensed when the state legislators voted themselves big raises—raising themselves from tiny salaries originally based on the fact that theirs was once a part time job to middle-class level salaries. Smart people I knew joined the brigade of the incensed. I didn’t point out to them that if you pay people with power peanuts you give them tremendous incentives to take bribes.

It would have been pointless, and gotten a lot of folks mad at me.

The USA has a history of driving its artists and intellectuals into exile. In the 1920s through the 1940s it seemed as if most such folks were to be found in Paris. Now they have found a precarious home in academe. For those of us who are unacademicized, there is only the internal exile of dismissiveness. One gets ones information through the Internet, and lets the drivel go.




4 responses

9 08 2008

You really summed up a lot here.
I seem to be a fellow-exile. No TV, no radio, no motorcar, not a single luxury.
I got so fed up with not even being able to check my e-mail without having aol’s obsession with celebrity gossip shoved in my face that I now go to my.aol.com to check for e-mail to avoid the news & entertainment on the main aol page. The drivel is of course finding its way, and taking over, the internet. But at least our filter options are available.
It’s pretty much the same here in Boston, home of the Teaparty and Paul Revere. All that most people care about is the Red Sox. And they go around with as much pointless hate toward the N.Y. Yankees as toward Iraqis, in their military camouflage colored Red Sox caps. How many of them would gladly drop a bomb on New York just to take revenge on the Yankees. And these are the same people who pretend outrage at the 2001 airplane attacks.

9 08 2008

Dear MagiMysteryTour,

I thought about this subject a lot and concluded that there is probably in every society a culture for ordinary persons and another culture for smart and/or well-educated and/or creative persons. (I mean “culture” in the sense of the collection of ideas, activities, and arts that make up everyday life and that fill up most persons’ internal mental environment.)

In a place like Britain, where television and radio (the BBC) have a very large non-profit presence and tradition, the latter kind of culture gets disseminated broadly. In a place like the US, where profit governs almost every media decision, a strange kind of culture is made BY smart (and half-smart) people TO BE SOLD TO ordinary people, and then is disseminated to them as a commercial product. Because it is crafted to appeal to the most people possible, it is highly simplified, and thick with prejudices, nonsense, vulgarity, triviality, and unexamined assumptions.

The victims…er, audience… of the marketed popular culture literally never have a chance to see the more sophisticated culture unless they take affirmative steps to seek it out. They are thereby denied the opportunity to grow. And If you happen to be one who would naturally be more comfortable living in the more complex culture, continuing to live only in the commercial one indefinitely can make you almost desperate to escape its inanities, inauthenticities, and outright lies.

When and where I grew up there was no escape from the drivel except to move to a big city. Now we have the Internet, thank God. However, we may not have it as a free conduit of ideas for very long.

Nice to meet a fellow exile.

9 08 2008

“Desperate to escape inanities, inauthenticities, and outright lies” I suspect describes the feelings of a certain girl on YouTube and explains her desire to move to Japan. Some of the “ordinary people” suspect it too, and despise her for it.

9 08 2008

Yes. I sent her a message once saying I thought some of what she was hoping to get away from was the cloddishness she gets from US folks on YouTube and she said I understood her.

I have no idea what life is like in Japan, but I suspect its ancient culture kind of puts a break on how dumb and/or vicious stuff can be, unlike here, where anything that sells is happily pushed out the door and into the arms of the uncritical public (e.g., gangsta rap, right-wing talk radio).

That said, the excerpts from Japanese TV shows that I’ve seen do not inspire confidence about their high level of refinement.

Maybe it just comes down to the fact that there they have something venerable to be proud of (Forryga has said he is.), and we don’t.

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