Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Real Deal versus PoserWorld

(Sara steps up to the pulpit, looking around with a nervous smile as she lays out her notes and takes a dainty sip of water...

tap tap tap....

Is this thing on? Can y'all hear me? Good.)

In LM's post below -- and especially the responses to it -- there's that niggling question that's making us all wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night, can't-quite-figure-it-out crazy. It's in the back of our heads all the time these days, like a song we heard once and now only remember a few lines of, or a face we saw in a old picture once and never quite forgot.

It's this. Why do Americans keep falling for phony posers, cardboard cutouts, and holographic people made entirely of surface images? Why do we fall for obviously shady pickup lines with the trusting innocence of a 15-year-old girl at a frat party? Why do we keep putting our future and our fortunes in the hands of the world's slick, glad-handing Elmer Gantrys, instead of looking for those sturdy, solid people who've proven, over and over, that they can actually deliver the goods? I mean, OJ? Nancy Grace? Dick Cheney??? How does this shit happen? What on earth is wrong with us???

There's a sucker born every minute, friends. And don't look now, but we've gotten to where there's about 300 million of us just hanging around these days, waiting for the next hungry fox to pick us off like ripe, shiny, fat fruit. 9/11! Terrorists! Oh, look -- Brittany!

Well, here's one possible explanation to try on for size.

Last spring, Benjamin Barber put out a book that said, basically, America jumped the shark some time back in the 1960s and 70s. And no (weirdly enough), it wasn't because of the dirty fucking hippies. It was because that's when we stopped producing citizens and workers, and started producing "consumers" instead. That, he says, is where it all went sideways.

Back in the old days, being a good producer -- worker, farmer, shopkeeper, tradesman, whatever -- meant learning delayed gratification, timeliness, the ability to take responsibility for yourself and others, pride in your work, trustworthiness, and the ability to see clear through the bullshit. People judged other people -- including movie stars and politicians -- on their ability to step up, talk straight, do what had to be done, and deliver the goods. It took a fair amount of maturity and self-discipline to be a Real Man (or Real Woman); but as a society, Americans used to demanded a certain standard of each other -- and most of them usually rose to the occasion.

Now, Barber tells us -- here in the darkening twilight of the late capitalist day -- that's all changed. That put-up-or-shut-up stuff doesn't matter now, because producers aren't the society's most valued class any more. Consumers are. And the stuff that makes great consumers is pretty much the exact opposite of what makes great producers.

What's wanted now is impulsiveness, instant gratification, emotional neediness, self-centeredness, poor long-term planning, an unquestioning willingness to suspend disbelief when advertisers tell you to, and pride in what you own instead of what you contribute to the world. That's what a good consumer does; ad that's what makes America great. Instead of people who got famous for doing real and important stuff that made the world better, we've got Paris and Lindsey -- sad, beautiful children who are famous because they have it all (or, at least, everything that matters now). One look at our public figures says it all. Rush. Tom Cruise. W. In our proud new Consumer Nation, the measure of success is how convincingly we can emulate the emotional maturity and self-discipline of five-year-olds.

I've written before on how this kind of arrested development plays out in the Manhood Sweepstakes (it's not pretty); but it's an idea with huge political and social implications, too. We get the government we deserve, so it's small wonder America's put a party in power that's bent over backwards catering to these revolutionary "values." When we shop for leaders these days, we're looking for someone who we believe will address our emotional neediness (for a strong daddy, for a beer-drinking buddy, for someone who can live out our Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous fanatasies for us, whatever). Who can promise to instantly gratify (if only vicariously -- the real deal is too dangerous) our yen to kick someone's ass to ease our own existential pain. Who will hide ugly truths behind pretty lies. Who will reassure us that not only do we not have to share with others; but that it would actually be evil of us to do so. Who will flatter our egos and promise to make us great, and beautiful, and envied by everyone -- even if they have to secretly drain the family bank accounts and run up the grandkids' credit cards and spend the college money and betray the troops and keep kids from seeing doctors in order to do it.

Don't ask questions, darling. Daddy's got it all covered. We'll go do a little shopping tomorrow, and it'll be all right.

The earnest authenticity of our grandparents' era is now just a commodity -- a synthetic image carefully designed to be sold back to us. We buy it because we hope that by consuming it, we can recapture that sense of real adulthood that's been lost.

But we are not going to buy our way back home again -- not even out of the pages of the J. Peterman catalog. The thing about those old virtues is that you couldn't buy them -- not anywhere, not for any price. You had to make them at home, out of the stuff you brought into the world with you -- your mind and body, your heart and soul. It took a lot of work. It took time, and education, and careful parenting, and years of discipline and self-denial and practice. It wasn't cheap grace. But, unlike today's shoddy goods, it was the kind of grace that endures. It endured so well, in fact, that we're still remembering that good savory flavor it had, and the comforting smell of it, and wondering where it all went.

We've reached a very sad place when the only people we recognize as "keeping it real" any more are gangsters and thugs. Yeah, blood and death are real. Undeniably, seriously real. There are no do-overs, no bailouts, and no second chances once these guys are done with you. You can't buy another life. You're done. And that finality is the only reality we seem to take seriously. From birth until then, life's just a mall, and the credit card runs forever. Like teens on a bender, the only people we respect any more are the ones who have proven themselves quite capable of ending the party for good.

We can choose something else. We can choose to keep our word, honor our commitments, save our money, plan for the future. We can choose to feed our souls with the good things we do and the good company we do it with, instead of what we buy. We can reckon the measure of people, and dole out respect, on the basis of what they've actually contributed to the world, rather than what they've been able to buy or who they've been able to cap. We can find and elevate heroes who've earned that enduring grace, and can show us the way back by their example.

We can do this. It won't be easy -- but then, the real deal never is.

End of sermon. Go thou, and grow up. And let's try to encourage others to do the same.