Archive for April, 2010
It’s Friday, and I actually have something to say, but before I start, I have to admit that I was stuck by the question in the comments yesterday: do I own a toaster?
Well, yes, I do–but interestingly enough, I’ve never bought one. They’re the kind of thing people give for wedding and housewarming presents, so they wander through my life, but I couldn’t even guess what they cost.
And I didn’t say I was unaffected by advertising, only that I don’t actually pay attention to most of it. And the one case in which I actually went out and deliberately bought a brand because I thought it had a good reputation was a disaster–a Black and Decker electric can opener that didn’t open cans, and that got me (when I complained) a snippy little e-mail about how I had complained to the wrong department.
Which has resulted in the fact that I now actively avoid anything by Black and Decker. Which is a way of being affected by advertising, but not the way Barber was talking about.
But I really wanted to get to the idea that running a nonprofit enterprise “more like a business” can make it possible for it to better “fulfill its mission.”
And I’d say–that depends on what you think the mission is.
First, I’ll reiterated, because I think it should be self evident in today’s environment: a number of nonprofit institutions now protect the institution first, even if it means violating their mission. I have in mind here a large teaching hospital–the only one that gave me any trouble when Bill was sick–which was founded over a century ago as a charitable hospital and that now has billing practices so notorious they were the subject of an investigation by the state legislature.
I suppose that such practices–threatening lawsuits for bills that haven’t even been incurred yet, for one; aggressively going after people’s homes and attaching their wages–might help this place stay open as a hospital, but the “charitable” is gone. There’s a fair amount of sentiment for pulling this place’s nonprofit status–what exactly are we relieving them of taxes for if they’re going to operate like a for-profit corporation anyway?
But even smaller cases illustrate my problem well enough. A number of the towns in my area have libraries that have started to charge for things like story hours–you buy a subscription for your child and he gets a ticket to turn in, or you pay a dollar or two when he walks in.
I’m sure this helps to make the library more viable financially, but it does abrograte its mission to provide books and book services for the town, unless you’re going to assume that the poorest residents of that town aren’t really part of the town. You’d be amazed at how difficult it is to come up with an extra dollar or two when you’re a single mother with two kids making minimum wage.
Of course, you can always start programs that give a break to such people, but they usually require some verification of income, which means they tend to be humiliating to apply for.
I could do a similar number of a lot of colleges and universities these days. They charge absolutely ridiculous amounts of money to students they think of as “customers,” and then find themselves in the trap of having to satisfy those customers, which high standards (leading to lower average grades) do not. They further get pushed out of regular college teaching into vocational stuff.
Is a Jesuit institution founded to give a liberal education to young Catholic men still “fulfilling its mission” when it managed to triple its enrollment and quadruple its income by “giving the customers what they want” and ditching theology majors for business majors?
The other problem I have with the businessification (I made that up) of everything is the tendency it has to reduce everything to a single standard of “success”–money is the point, and the only point, no matter what it is you do.
Maybe that is partially the explanation for something that bothers me over and over again.
In the Great Depression, the towns around here managed to keep their schools running with full athletic programs, keep their libraries running seven days a week (a half day on Sunday, so that everybody could get to church), their public parks open and their public works up to date.
Now a nearby small city is thinking of closing its municipal swimming pools this summer–there just isn’t enough money. Schools don’t have enough textbooks for their kids, so they take contracts with soft drink companies that provide cash in exchange for exclusive rights to put vending machines in lobbies and a once a year “Coke day” or “Pepsi day” where every student is required to come in wearing the right logo.
Why is it that we’re light years better off, financially, than our grandparents, but we don’t ever seem to have the money to do anything anymore?
And how is the school’s mission being affected, when it’s teaching “good nutrition” in health class at the same time it’s sponsoring Pepsi Day? Or renting its cafeteria out to fast food chains instead of providing that old-fashioned nutritionally balanced, bland as hell “hot lunch?”
Well, it’s Friday.
I warned you.
In 1959, a British writer named Alan Sillitoe published a short story called “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” in which the narrator and, I think, his brother, turn to a life of juvenile delinquent crime soon after their first exposure to television, whose images of middle class life and middle class “stuff” expose them, for the first time, to what is really to be had in the world–if they only had money.
To be fair, the story isn’t really about advertising–it’s just that the role of advertising is what I remember about it after all these years.
Part of me can see the point. If you live in an area where nobody has Reeboks or plasma TVs or shiny German cars that can do 140 if you can ever get them to the Autobahn, finding out that the world does contain these things is likely to be a shock.
And no matter how sensible it is to say that such knowledge should spur you on to work hard for the money to buy what you want, that particular idea doesn’t always occur to fifteen year olds even from wealthy neighborhoods. In poorer neighborhoods, where people either don’t work at all or work very hard at jobs that pay too little even to handle the rent, the connection between work and stuff may be even harder to make.
I wasn’t brought up in a poor neighborhood, but when I was young the fact that some people made lots of money and other people made very little confused the hell out of me. And I think that may have been the good news. I grew up with a lot of people who seemed to assume that the fact that their parents made a lot more than the parents of other people just proved that they and their parents were far superior in every way to those other people.
And they were largely wrong, too.
But I got started on this as part of the kvetch, and specifically as a comment on the end of Barber’s book.
Because Barber’s book ends with advertising, and I think that people have been uncomfortable with advertising at least since the start of the 20th century and the advent of what I thnk of as “modern” forms.
That is, if you go back to the 19th century, what you find is mostly the kind of handbills that announce, “Great product! Does laundry! Pays for itself!”
It’s the 20th century that birthed the advertisement as lifestyle statement, or whatever you want to call the things that Benneton does. And not just Benneton. Back in the 1920s, you had advertisements meant to associate products with flappers and debutantes.
Barber’s contention is familiar–that advertisements not only show us what’s available, but make us want what we wouldn’t want otherwise and don’t need.
I don’t usually give much credit to this idea. I’m not a very unusual person, and advertising almost never has any effect on me at all–I don’t notice it, half the time, and when the commercials come on when I’m watching TV I tend to get the remote and surf for something interesting.
It may have been very different at the start of the advertising blitz we’ve all recently come to assume is normal, but I think most people these days, once they’ve passed childhood, tend to be more annoyed by advertising than seduced by it.
And a lot of the things that annoy Barber annoy me too, to the point where they’re probably counterproductive. When some city renames its historic baseball stadium “Capital One Park” or “Fedex Stadium”–and I’m not making those up–it doesn’t make me want to get a Capital One card or to ship my stuff Fedex. It makes me not want to.
I even think I’ve got a certain amount of science to back me up here. The marketing textbooks my kids carry around say things like: about fifty percent of advertising “works,” but we don’t know which fifty percent, and 96% of all new product launches fail.
It’s like the old story of the “manufactured” best seller. If we could really do that, we’d do it all the time. Instead, we keep falling on our faces and having to swallow the loss.
But even if I don’t think advertisers are able to brainwash us into wanting things we wouldn’t ever want otherwise, the extent to which this society has become almost monotonally oriented towards “business” is making me close to crazy.
The other day a student of mine gave a presentation on career strategies, in which she presented a series of a dozen “personality types” and the kinds of jobs they would be best suited for. When she got to “artistic/creative,” she calmly announced that there were almost no jobs that were good for that type, so they have to settle for something they don’t like and express their artistic side in hobbies.
Now, I live in a world in which most people are the “artistic creative” personality type, most of them are making a living (and lots of them are making good ones), and there is no lack of demand for the kind of people they are and what they do. Even the strictly artistic fields actually suffer from a dearth–not an oversupply–of talented people. There are lots of people out there who want to do these things–writing, animating, computer graphics, publishing, television programming, designing, you name it–but not really a lot of people who can do them.
At least, not a lot who can do them well enough to give Disney, or NBC, what it wants and needs.
The idea that such jobs don’t exist and that if your personality draws you to them you have no choice but to settle for doing something you hate is a result of envisioning the entire world as if corporate organization is not just normal, but the default mode.
The result of thinking that corporate organization is the default mode is that more and more areas of society begin to adopt corporate organization for themselves, even though historically they were resistant to the very idea.
The principle examples I can think of at the moment are colleges and universities and nonprofit charitable foundations like hospitals. Both of these are nonprofits, and they were given tax breaks for being nonprofits BECAUSE it was assumed that they did not operate on the same assumptions as did for-profit entities. They were organized differently, and brought different processes of operation to their endeavors, because their purpose was not to make money (never mind maximize profit) but to do something specific that was assumed to be probably not profitable: care for the sick, for instance, or educated even the impecunios young.
When the standard of success for Hallowed University or Prestigious Research Hospital becomes making sure the organization expands its wealth and reach, instead of how many students receive a first-class education or how many sick people are cared for and how much knowledge about their sicknesses produced to help others–at that point, the nature of the world we live in has changed.
It’s not just “artistic creative” types who don’t necessarily want to spend their lives maximizing the health of an institution, whether labeled for-profit or non-profit.
There are other ways of being in the world, and at most times these other ways predominate. Some of us will go into business and maximize profit and help our corporations grow in wealth and power. Some of us will teach because what we want is the sight of a child’s face glowing and happy when she learns something new. Some of us will go into research because we just want to know how things work. Some of us will give up money and “stuff” to stay home with our children when they’re young. Some of us will climb mountains or go trekking through the rainforst because, well, we just want to see it.
The issue, in first world countries, at any rate, is not making enough money to survive. Most of us can do that in a variety of ways, and without the making of more and more money and the accumulation of more and more stuff be the focus of what we do.
But what has happened, lately, is that we seem to have come down to a single life model that is supposed to apply to everybody and everything, and our institutions–hospitals, universities, musems, governments as well as corporations–are all hell bent on following it and only it.
I feel like I’m tying myself up in knots here again.
Maybe I should just say that it seems to me that, on one level, the founding principle of the Harvard Business School–that management is a skill, and if you learn it you can manage anything–has become the operating principle of most of American society.
It’s all business now, and if somebody gets well the only significance is that it will make our brand stronger, if somebody graduates knowing the meaning of Greek philosophy it doesn’t matter at all.
Hell, with the Greek philosophy, what we seem to have with a lot of people is not a desire to learn that sort of thing, but to adopt a shallow erudition in it as a kind of fashion.
But that’s another discussion, and I’ve stopped making sense.
So, this is the last Wednesday any time soon when I’m going to be quite this messed up–my Tuesday late nights came to an end yesterday. So now I’m sitting in the computer lab listening to students to everything except their work, and I’m too tired to think about Benjamin Barber, or Bruce Thornton, either, and he’s next on the list.
But I have been thinking about writers. And that sort of goes back to Barber anyway, because at one point he complains about the “homogenization of taste.” Then, a few sentences later, he notes that there’s a great deal of diversity in music available, it’s just that the vast majority of people end up in pop, and all the other varieties have only a few (more or less) devotees.
But I think it’s the inevitable result of difficulty.
Here’s the thing–people who don’t read well but do read tend to read stuff that’s easy, both in terms of form and content. They never read stuff that’s difficult, because they can’t understand it.
But people who read well do sometimes read things that are easy. Why not? Some of it is interesting, and some of it is relaxing. Then they read the more difficult stuff.
But that means the easy stuff has two sets of readers–the people who read only this, and at least some of the people who read the next level up, and the next, and the next.
And at each level of difficulty, you have the same situation–readers at that level, plus at least some readers from each of the more difficult levels.
I suppose that the way to get lots of readers and turn yourself into that Public Personality I was talking about would be to write at the absolute base level of whatever it is you’re doing–except that not every writer can do that even if he wants to, and not every subject actually works on that level.
So we’re left with the fact that the people who read Dan Brown include both people who couldn’t understand Umberto Eco if they went after one of his books with a guide, and people who love Eco but want to relax a little and be mindless this Thursday.
Also, to clarify the personality thing, from yesterday–I wasn’t talking about things like author photos or bios on books. I was talking about the fact that somebody like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Bill O’Reilly sells books because he is a public personality.
Whether the people who buy the books read them is another question. I’m fairly sure that at least some of the people who buy Dawkins either don’t read the books or don’t understand them.
But the fact is that a publci personality, even a rankly idiotic one, sells more books that an author without a public face.
If that makes sense.
In the end, though, I’ll come down to the thing I usual do: the problem with bookselling is that the media corporations who have taken it over want it to behave like movies or pop music albums, and therefore expect things (17% returns, for instance) that have never been true of publishing and can’t be true even under ideal conditions, which the present circumstances are not.
The mistake was in not understanding that publishing is not just “entertainment” in the same sense television shows are–it doesn’t appeal to the same people, or appeal to anybody for the same reasons, and the extent to which the audience can be enlarged is limited by the fact that reading requires acquired skill, decent concentration, and cannot be down while multitasking.
It’s not that New York publishers don’t know what readers want–movie studios don’t know what movie audiences want, either; that’s why we’re drowningin sequels.
The problem is that New York publishers don’t understand that a book that sells, say, 10,000 copies in hardcover hasn’t failed, but succeeded.
And I’m being very distracted and wandery today.
Off to tackle the hordes.
I suppose it was inevitable, but yesterday I got to the point in Barber’s book where he talks about writers and writing and selling books, and it said exactly what I should have expected it to say.
I suppose that is not exactly fair to Barber. He said what almost everybody says these days no matter where they are politically, or even if they are politically. It’s not that books have become a commodity–they always were that, in spite of the Romantic notions of tortured genius creating from the depths of his soul–but that the writer has become a commodity.
And it’s with the writer as a commodity that I always find I have my problem.
Let’s be clear here. I do not have anything at all, in prinicple of otherwise, against turning writers into public personalities, much like politicians or rock stars. I’ve always wished there was a television program for writers that would be something like Inside the Actor’s Studio, which would have ITAS’s broadness of definition for what constitutes a “writer.”
For those of you who haven’t seen it, ITAS is a filmed interview with an actor or director, at least supposedly in front of an audience of students at the Actor’s Studio in New York. When the show first started, it featured mostly older actors with big reputations but no longer big careers–like, for instance, Paul Newman. It has since because a Very Big Deal, and everybody wants to be on it.
But by everybody, ITAS means everybody, so you get “serious” actors and directors and you get the case of The Simpsons, as the cast of the Simpsons.
I’ve always wished there was a television program like that for writers, something that would interview Stephen King and Norman Mailer, Dan Brown and Danielle Steele. I’ve been told by people who should know about these things that nobody would watch it.
Well, whatever. I just wanted to state up front that I’ve got nothing against publicity for writers (as well as for books), and nothing against writers as celebrities. My problem is that I’m me, and that me doesn’t seem to exactly function well as that kind of thing.
No, that’s wrong. Function is not the word. I’ve never tried to function as that kind of thing, so I don’t know if I’d do it well or badly if I got there.
I do know that I do not naturally do the kinds of things that would get me there. I am probably the least self-promoting writer I know. I haven’t been to a Bouchercon or an Edgars dinner in over fifteen years, and when I did go I went mostly because Bill did and wanted me to come.
Bill was good at this kind of thing. He was larger than life in almost every way, and he was definitely what I think of as one of those people who glow in the dark–one of those people who are just who you look at if they’re in a room.
I, on the other hand, aside from not having gone to conferences or Edgar dinners or meetings of the Mystery Writers of America, haven’t had a picture taken in over a decade, either, so that when the people from the Tunxis writers festival came asking for something they could use for publicity, I didn’t have anything. I didn’t even have a cell phone picture.
I did have cell phone pictures of my cats.
I’ve got the Facebook page, now, but I haven’t a clue what to do with it, and every year when I’m asked to write the St. Martin’s blog for a week, I end up talking about serial killers or murder methods or anything but myself.
And I’m not, like I said, saying that any of this is a good thing. It’s just what I do naturally. If people kick me in the butt–ask me to speak, for instance, as they have been lately, or ask me to write an article about myself (see Ladies Home Journal about fourteen years back), I’m more than happy to do it.
It’s just not the kind of thing that occurs to me.
And it’s not just me. P.D. James was like this at the beginning of her career, and that may have had something to do with the fact that she very nearly lost her contract and went into career eclipse after Death of an Expert Witness. It was only the success of Innocent Blood that changed that picture.
Had there been no Innocent Blood, most of my favorite James novels might never have been published in the United States.
On the other hand, even being good at self promotion doesn’t seem to help some writers who write very good books. There’s Fidelis Morgan, for instance, who did a series set in Samuel Johnson’s London, and who is also one of those people who glow in the dark and an actress with a serious resume in the UK. I don’t know if she’s still writing in England, but she hasn’t been published here in a while, and that’s too bad. She does really nice work.
The idea seems to be that the writer should present herself, or himself, as the focus of a lifestyle identification–people don’t love the books so much as they want to be just like the writer.
That’s why getting a book on Oprah’s Book Club doesn’t have “legs.” OBC always promoted the book, not the writer, so people would read the book and then go off and look for other books, not other books by that same writer.
People are supposedly as interested in what J.K. Rowling wears and where Dan Brown vacations–and especially what Stephen King’s house is like–as they are in what goes on in the books themselves.
I don’t know. I’ve never been like this with anybody, even as a child or an adolescent, except for the characters in books. Even my fascination with Hemingway in Paris was more a fascination with characters in novels and short stories in Paris.
And although I have nothing against the general public adopting me as their role model, somehow I can’t see it–middle aged lady, lives in the country, has grown children and recalcitrant cats.
Doesn’t seem quite like the right sort of thing.
I would have dismissed all this as just Barber blithering, except that it’s the kind of talk I’ve heard in the business, and it seems to be largely conventional wisdom at major publishing houses.
But maybe it’s just another one of those things, another desperate attempt to explain what it is that makes people buy books.
Because it’s sure as hell the case that nobody knows–and no, it isn’t “give them a good story,” because lots of good stories are not selling squat.
I’m going to go finish this tea.
If I really wanted to kvetch, I could go on and on about the tech situation where I teach–we’ve lost two classes to downed computers, and no matter how many times they tell us they’re going to fix them, they don’t.
But let me get to Benjamin Barber, because he finally got to the point I knew was coming–the point where he declares that there are “false choices” (anything the market throws up) and “real choices” (democratically decided policies for the entire community).
Part of my problem with arguments like these (and like I said, I knew this one was coming) is that they honestly do not seem to understand what the issues are.
For instance, Barber complains that “privatization” in education means that we can choose a lot of commercially-oriented short term things, but are unable to choose well funded public schools, because funding public schools well requires a democratically derived public choice.
But in education, at least, he’s got it backwards. Parents don’t reject public schools because they’re badly funded, but public schools are badly funded because so many parents reject what they have to offer. If your local school is not offering what you consider to be a decent education for your children, you’re not going to think it’s a good idea to give it more and more money to pursue policies you think are wrong, inadequate or downright destructive.
Barber also seems to be completely oblivious to exactly how not “democratically decided” a lot of the decisions of modern governments are. We establish departments and give them the power to regulate, but we are not allowed to vote (or to have our representatives vote) on the content of those regulations, and those regulations may make it completely impossible for citizens to get what they think is best for their towns, their schools and their families.
Every state in the union mandates a public school certification process that requires teachers to be graduates of schools of education or of programs designed to inculcate the values and “expertise” of those schools. I don’t care how much money my local school gets, it cannot decide to opt out of that certification process and to require a different one.
But teacher certification is at the top of my list of what is wrong with public schools–it tends to rely heavily on poppscyh versions of often outdated “expertise” about the development of children, and to produce graduates who are at the very bottom of the intellectual ability totem pole at their universities. That’s not surprising, since anybody who has looked at the content of teacher training courses can figure out in about a second that really smart people aren’t going to put up with them.
In rich towns with great public schools, there’s almost always a combination of three things: parents with enough money to support heavy taxation to pay people really well to teach; parents with enough education to know exactly what they want; and parents with enough clout to get waivers and find loopholes to dig themselves out of the bureaucratic mess.
The present system that allows me private schools as an alternative doesn’t present me with a “false choice,” but with a real one–I can find a school that does not hire “certified” teachers, one that teaches the Great Books instead of the publum offered in textbooks, one that has high standard of academic achievement that it requires of all students (and not just those in “honors” courses).
I’ve got a feeling that what’s coming in the next few pages is the declaration that I should stop insisting on all that and accept, instead, what would be “good for the whole community.”
But I think tha what I’m insisting on is good for the whole community, and what is on offer in most public schools is bad.
Other times, Barber seems to harbor the illusion that, if just given the choice, people would pick the “noncommercial” things he favors, although he also seems more than happy to have a ‘democratically elected” government coerce people into those choices, if they won’t make them themselves.
We have the choice of any car we want, he says, but that’s a false choice–we can’t choose to use public transportation instead, or to drive a car that’s really fuel efficient (like a hybrid).
And even if that’s not what we want to choose, those are the choices that would be “best for the community,” so a democratically elected government should legitimately be able to impose them on us.
But the reason I don’t buy a hybrid–and the reason very few people will unless you make them–has nothing to do with narcissistic consumerism and everything to do with the fact that those cars are difficult and expensive to repair. My car can be put back into shape in an hour or two by a couple of teen-aged boys with wrenches. My friend with the hybrid whose battery needed repair was out $3000.
As for public transportation–well, I really hate to drive, and I look for an alternative whenever I can, but the problem with public transportation is the same as the problem with carpooling. So you get to work, and there you are, and then there’s a call that your child is sick at school and needs to be picked up, and…in other words, most people find public transport to be clumsy and slow and inconvenient in emergencies and even in day to day scheduling.
The funniest of these forays into “the real choice would be public” is Barber’s defense of public broadcasting as trying to produce programming for everybody. The fact is that public broadcasting in the US produces broadcasting for virtually nobody–even many of the people who would most logically be in its audience find it boring–and public broadcasting abroad largely produces an Official Opinion Monopoly that gives far less than all the news–never mind all the opinion–that’s actually out there. Witness the reaction of a French station manager when one of his news show hosts suggested interviewing Alan Dershowitz on the publication of The Case for Israel. “But there is no case for Israel!” he said.
I always end up here with people like Barber, and I think it’s the affinity fallacy. Okay, I just made that up. But I know what I mean.
Here’s the thing–a government that mandates behavior X will feel unfree and tyrannical to anybody who wants to engage in behavior Y, but it will not feel that way to people who prefer behavior X anyway.
The affinity fallacy explains why people who agitate for free speech when their speech is banned suddenly find it perfectly all right to ban other people’s speech once their speech is approved. The same with religious practices.
I also think Barber truly does not realize how much “democratic government” is no longer democratic. When the teacher’s colleges and teacher certification boards mandate ‘teaching for social justice” or some other fad I don’t favor–and that couldn’t get past a democratically elected anything–I have absolutely no input in the decision and no recourse once the policy has been made. The barriers to change are literally enormous. The require not just getting my elected representatives to do something, but reversing the whole moving-decisions-to-unaccountable-bureaucracies policy that makes up a lot of regulation these days.
Consider the situation at the beginning of the 90s in Connecticut, where schools pushed hard to get “ADHD” sstudents onto Ritalin. Parents refused because they weren’t really happy with the idea of putting their kids on speed starting in grammar school? Call DCF and charge them with medical neglect.
Nobody voted for that policy. The policy could not survive a vote. But parents lost children, and others were forced to endure monitoring by the state to be sure they were being medicated–and oops, fifteen years later, it turns out that the use of Ritalin in a lot of these cases was probably wrong, and probably harmful for the child.
But fight the departments that forced it? How? In most states, parents were not even allowed to sue to stop any acts of DCF at all.
Barber has just gone through this whole thing about how once, when there were monarchies and tyrannies, thinking of government as always potentially tyrannical and freedom as residing in protection from government coercion made sense, but these days–with democracy and elected government–such an attitude really restricts freedom rather than enhances it.
I think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and I’m going to be holding on to my negative rights with both hands.
None of the choices I want to be left alone to make has anything to do with buying stuff in the free market or elsewhere.
And the choice between Ritalin for a ten year old or not, or of teachers educated in the liberal arts instead of “education courses,” is not trivial.
It’s some ridiculous hour on Sunday morning, and I have Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier playing behind my head and tea right here next to me, but I’ve had so little sleep that I’m annoyed, and the chocolate–did I mention that the chocolate came?–well, I’m old enough so that I can’t eat that for breakfast.
Although it’s an idea.
Last time I checked in, I was complaining–I think–about the infantilization of American adults, and using as an example the number of cultural productions (there’s a term for you), like books at movies, that are actually for children but sold to adults. This certainly includes the Harry Potter series, which was written specifically for children, but also lots of other things–The Princess and the Frog, Shrek, and dozen of other children’s movies that are marketed aggressively to adults.
I was then met by the, yes-but-it’s-all-taste thing, and who’s to say what’s for children and infantilist, etc. And I don’t accept that sort of reasoning about art for a second, but yesterday, something occurred to me.
I’ve got a much better example of what I think of as the infantilization of adults than kid’s movies and books marketed to, and bought by, adults.
I’ve got poop.
I was going to use the s word, but it occurred to me that poop got the problem across much better.
To be specific here–I can’t count anymore the number of light comedies that have relied for at least some of their laughs on jokes about people taking a dump, as they used to say in the Fifties.
The worst offender in this category was a Jennifer Anniston movie of a couple of years ago called Along Came Polly, but it was by no means the only offender. There’s Big Momma’s House, for instance, and the new Death at a Funeral, and Goldmember, and I could go on and on and on forever.
This is the sort of humor that used to be restricted almost exclusively to junior-high-school-age boys, the very essence of what girls of my generation turned up their noses at as “immature.”
I don’t go to actual theaters to see actual movies much these days, but I have a positive policy against going to see comedies until I can find out from somebody that I’m not going to be subjected to supposedly risible shit.
References to, jokes about, and graphic depictions of people in bathrooms committing number two have become practically standard in a certain kind of movie and a wider range of television shows.
And yes, that’s not just “taste.” That’s immaturity or worse, the kind of thing one does when one hasn’t developed enough to exhibit actual humor.
That so many people find this funny these days–when they wouldn’t have fifty years ago–that this sort of thing is a selling point for at least some movies, says a lot about who we are and hat we’re like at the start of the 21st century.
But I don’t think consumer capitalism is causing it.
And yes, I’ll get to the enabling eventually.
I really am incredibly tired.
It’s Friday, and there’s something I need to admit up front.
This close to the end of the term, I’m a sucker for arguments about how the population of the United States is becoming infantilized.
For what it’s worth, I also happen to think it’s largely true.
And that means that I’m a good target audience for Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.
Well, okay. I’m a good, but not perfect, audience for this book. And I’ve read at least one other thing by Barber, called Jihad vs McWorld, which was largely about his contention that a great deal of Islamic anti-Western violence is driven by a desperate desire to opt out of the cultural effects of globalization.
Consumed starts with a couple of chapters of cultural overview, and they can hardly be refuted. It is the case that many adults in First World countries–in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan as well as in the US–seem to be trying desperately never to pass the age of seventeen. It is equally the case that the most popular books and films, if not television shows, seem to be made for children. The Harry Potter phenomenon, for instance, or movies like Shrek and Finding Nemo.
It’s also equally true that something equally weird is happening to children, who seem to be positioned almost as the new adults. We talk a lot on this blog about pedophilia and things like sexual orientation and free speech, but the simple fact is that the biggest factor in the sexualization of children is not NAMBLA, it’s everything from Gap commercial to Vogue.
Children’s “fashions” are almost uniformly sexualized–you can get thongs for second graders, and all kinds of peek-a-boo and fake-breast-implant stuff for girls not much older than that.
What’s more, the models in fashion magazines for adults are often no more than fifteen themselves. We have, over the last few decades, redefined feminine beauty so that it fits a woman at exactly one point in her life: puberty.
Grown women suffer and struggle to achieve the ideal of large breasts and small hips–but it’s an ideal they once achieved effortlessly, when they were fourteen, which is about the age at which a girl looks like that naturally.
And since success as an actress or a model comes only if you can achieve “the look,” maybe it shouldn’t surprise us as much as it does when grown men start lusting after actual fourteen and fifteen year olds. After all, everything, from magazines to television to movies to billboards and back again, tells them that’s what they’re supposed to be hot for.
Barber’s thesis is that this strange set of circumstances is deliberate, part of a strategy on the part of large corporations to keep their consumer base expanding. Since most first world people have what they actually need, corporations have to get them to buy what they merely want. Since adults tend to be less impulsive than children and adolescents, and more concerned with things like family and long term goals, children and adolescents make better consumers. They buy lots of stuff they don’t need and don’t understand the value of a dollar.
I’ve seen enough marketing textbooks–including most of the ones Barber has mentioned so far–to be able to say that this analysis has a grain of truth in it. Large corporations selling wants and not needs, as Barber put it–I mean, okay, nobody needs an iPod or Grand Theft Auto–do indeed target children and adolescents and do indeed attempt to “groom” them into adults who will be just as impulsive and obsessive about things as they were to begin with.
But I can see where this book is going, and I’m pretty sure that in a chapter or two, I’m going to run into the assertion that corporations are capable of causing people to want things.
If I’m wrong about that, I’ll apologize to Barber.
The causing thing, though, has a few problems for me.
One of them is in the fact that something like 96% of all new products introduced to the market fail. If corporations could really cause people to want things, this would not be the case. It would make no sense for them to spend all the money it takes to devise, manufacture and sell a new product they then didn’t bother to cause people to want.
Another of them is the fact that I just don’t see most people as that easily manipulated–sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to manipulate people at all, except in one on one situations, because most people seem to operate according to a tape playing in the back of their heads.
There’s a metaphor for you.
I suppose I mean that, by the time they reach adulthood, most of the people I know seem to have settled into a set of attitudes and ideas that it’s virtually impossible to talk them out of. If they believe that the moon is made of green cheese, they will refuse to change their minds even if you launch them into space and land them in the Sea of Tranquility.
Which is to say, I guess, that I think Barber has half a point–I think that we do indeed have an increasingly infantilized population, but I don’t think consumer capitalizing is causing it.
I do think it’s enabling it.
But more on that later.
I meant to go on to Benjamin Barber’s Consumed today, but I overslept, and I’m still wandering around with tea at ten o’clock in the morning.
Okay, I didn’t quite oversleep. Rather, I got up at one, couldn’t get back to sleep, finally did get back to sleep around four, got woken by the alarm at four thirty five, went back to sleep again and finally woke up for good around nine.
So I’m addled, and I’ve got chocolates from Boxhill coming today, and a new series of Perry Mason videos to watch while correcting papers, and I’m not on track to say what I wanted to say about that book.
But it occured to me, in the middle of all of this, that I’m always struck by how incredibly frightening, and threatening, the whole concept of rights is.
I think that’s at least partially to blame for why so many peoplw want to install positive “rights.” Positive “rights” aren’t real rights, and because they are not they come in conflict all the time, and as soon as you can say that “rights” are in conflict, you can limit and regulate rights.
But a right is, by definition, an area of space your government–democratic or otherwise, with the will of the majority or otherwise–cannot legislate. It means that even in a democratic country and even if you are a minority of one, nobody can intrude on that space. It means that no matter how repugnant your ideas or how dangerous your government or your fellow citizens find them to be, you cannot be stopped from expresing them.
In a way, this does in fact have something to do with Benjamin Barber’s book, because Barber is nearly obsessed with the “anarchic” nature of capitalism–and the problem with capitalism for him is largely in the fact that it is anarchic, that it is not under somebody’s control somewhere.
Real anarchy, though, is not the present system of capitalistism (to the extent that it exists at all), and it isn’t our Constitutional idea of unalienable, individual rights to be free of government power in some areas.
The problem is not that there is anarchy in these things, but that they inevitable lead to people making choices, having ideas, promoting opinions that we both fear and loathe.
I’m coming to believe that the hardest thing for human beings to do–much harder than losing weight or eliminating war or any of the rest of it–is to accept the fact that the law cannot, and SHOULD NOT, legislate morality.
The law is meant to keep the peace. That’s it. It isn’t supposed to do anything else.
Moralities–or even Morality with a capital M, the One True Morality applicable to everybody everywhere under all circumstances–must be entered into voluntarily by each individual.
And every attempt of the law to force citizens to adhere to that morality, no matter how benign it sounds–be nice to people! don’t hurt their feelings! don’t promote things we think are harmful!–always ends in the same place, and it isn’t with a better society.
I’m going to go drink this tea now, and see if the chocolates are on the porch.
If you don’t know Box Hill, you should go to
That’s my friend Janet, fellow refugee from the Connecticut Gold Coast, and she makes absolutely wonderful stuff.
In the Gregor novels, she also did the favors for Gregor and Bennis’s wedding.
So, here’s the thing, I should be clearer about what I mean by “stupid,” and what I mean by “genius.”
I’m not, in either case, talking about actual IQ.
To get back to the books I noted yesterday, the “stupid” involved in sometimes the craziness of runaway conspiracy theories, or “alternative” medicine, or that kind of thing, and sometimes it’s things like Cribs and My Super Sweet 16.
It is, in all these books, a matter of how far the ordinary choices of ordinary people are from making anything like sense in the real world.
And I think that planting the blame–or at least partial blame–on consumer capitalism makes a certain amount of sense.
I don’t mean that consumer capitalism causes the kind of stupid I’m talking about. That kind of stupid is inherent in human nature. Consumer capitalism simply enables it in two ways that outdo any other system ever yet found on this planet.
The first of these is the opportunistic. Consumer capitalism is, as far as we know, the greatest engine for widespread prosperity every invented. People who are scraping along barely getting enough to eat do not have the resources of the time to devote themselves 24/7 to figuring out how Clinton hit men killed Vince Foster or to devising multimedia punch fountains so that Daddy’s Little Girl can make a big show about who isn’t get asked to her birthday party.
Yes, as the man said, the poor are always with us, but even the poor in the US have more resources than they would have had two hundred years ago, and they have a lot more resources than they would have if they lived in, say, Ghana. So consumer capitalism has created an economic situation in which many more of us–in fact, the majority of us–have the luxury of having obsessions, conpiratorial or material or otherwise.
The other sense in which consumer capitalism is responsible for this, however, is that it, by definition, feeds the beast.
I think that it’s always been the underlying assumption of all of us who sincerely believe we want freedom to think that, if left to themselves, people would make admirable choices. Surely the desperate need to believe that the Freemason are controlling the Fed, or that your life will be worthless if you don’t own an “I’m With Stupid” t-shirt–well, surely those things are manufactured by The System, fake wants and needs and beliefs that would not exist if people were free to choose.
And don’t imagine that it’s only one political wing or the other that feels like this. It really isn’t. Both sides are convinced that the people who want and believe things that they themselves don’t want and believe to be silly are victims of “false consiciousness.” It’s just that the right calls that “brainwashing.”
So here’s my first point–I think that it’s simply true that, if you give people the freedom to make choices, large honking numbers of them will make really bad choices. They’ll convince themselves that The Da Vinci Code is nonfiction. They’ll buy pet rocks. They’ll spend their week-ends drinking Thunderbird and watching videos of Paris Hilton doing badly the one thing you’d think she’d be able to learn to do well.
And that’s where you hit the problem. There are ways to minimize the extent to which people make stupid choices. And every society must minimize them to one extent or another. That’s why we have police departments, health inspectors, and an educational system.
And it’s certainly the case that if we tighten up the controls, the average person on the street will be less likely to be a full-blown lifestyle loon than if you do not.
I’m beginning to wonder if that isn’t a Pyrrhic victory–that when you minimize the stupid (instead of just regulating the outer fringes of it that become physically dangerous to the rest of us) you also minimize the chances that your society will produce a Bill Gates, or a Steven Spielberg, or even a Henry Ford.
Ford being one of the most remarkable combinations of genius and stupidity in the history of the United States.
In other words, I think I’ve been wrong to be yelling at the extent to which Americans are anti-intellectual in the sense of being anti-intelligent, or anti-knowledge.
I think I’ve missed something.
More tomorrow, with complaints about Benjamin Barber.
Okay, now to the books I’m reading, which are a little confusing here, because there are three of them. I’ve noted before that I tend to get sent things, and one of the things I always get sent are the latest volumes on how bone-headedly stupid the average American really is. This has given me a few very good volumes and some decent ideas. I really do have to thank whoever sent me my first book by E.D. Hirsch, for instance.
This month, what this has resulted in are these: Bruce Thornton’s Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge; Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citzens Whole; and Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.
Before I really get going here, let me point out that, as far as I can tell at the moment, all three of these books seem to be making largely the same argument from largely the same premises, in spite of the fact that Thornton is definitely a conservative and Barber is definitely a liberal. My guess is that Pierce is also a liberal, although his approach, at least up to the point I’ve managed to read, is wide-ranging enough to make you wonder.
Okay, not quite. Pierce is fully capable of spotting liberal lunacy as well as conservative lunacy, but he seems to spot all the conservative lunacy and makes glancing remarks towards some of the liberal lunacy as if he’s happy to drink the Kool-Aid.
That said, I’m more than a little sympathetic to books like these, because anybody who’s paying attention must notice that there’s an oversupply of stupid out there, and especially stupid of the conspiracy theory variety. Conservatives and Liberals both respond to losing Presidential election by declaring that the other side is plotting to suspend the Constitution. The loony left believes that Bush engineered 9/11 in order to declare martial law. The loony right thinks the U.S. Census is designed to put all conservative Christians into concentration camps so that they can be either “reeducated” or offed.
There are people who argue that none of this bodes well for the American polity, and I think they’re right, but the fact is that stupidity and conspiracy theories are not confined to the political. There are plenty of people out there who insist that high tension wires cause brain tumors, vaccines cause autism, and silicone breast implants cause breast cancer, in spite of a wealth of proof that all those things are false.
Then there are the kind of things I think of as quasi-political–political only because our politics has reached the stage where any question of our national identity is now a matter of court cases and town meetings. There is, for instance, the Creation Museum in Kentucky, build by Ken Ham, an Australian Creationist who founded the organization Answers in Genesis.
The Creation Museum is one of those things I’m going to have to get into the car and go look at one of these days, because by now I’ve heard so much about it I’ve got to see it. Reports are that there are not only exhibits showing people and dinosaurs living together, but dinosaurs saddled up for people to ride and use as pack animals.
Pierce’s book has the largest number of these oddly sort of political sort of not weirdnesses–the people who believe they’ve found Atlantis or that they know when the world is going to end or that they’ve figured out that eating nothing bu chokeberries and arrowroot will give you eternal life.
But it is, in my opinion, the weakest of the three.
Part of that is because Pierce write good humor–in fact, absolutely hysterical humor–and he sometimes goes for the joke instead of the point. Part of it may be an artefact of my particular prejudices. He mentions, favorably, Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason, which I personally found completely awful, lightweight, badly argued and in need of a good dose of serious research, nevermind a rereading of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which she misread so badly that you can’t figure out what it’s actually about from her descriptions of it.
But most of all, the book is weak because it skirts around the central premise–which is that this book is a symptom of the infantilization of the American public, and it’s the infantilism, not some inherent dearth of IQ points, that really is the problem.
In the end, all three of these books are about the endless adolesence of Americans, and first world people generally. And all three of these books–yes, including Bruce Thornton’s–blame it in the end on “consumer capitalism.”
And the three of them have made me rethink everything I’ve said on this blog about education, and culture, and all the rest of it.
So let me leave you with Charles P. Pierce for the moment, and I’ll get on to the other two in the next few days.
But it all comes down to a paradox that goes like this–you pay for genius with stupidity.