DAILY BRIEFINGPhilosofluffy: We Are All Individuals!
May 26 - Since I've changed to a semi-blogular format, I'd like to start the week doing something other than apologizing for not yet having posted The Moron Game. I'd like to express my individuality.
(This isn't going to be the usual moronic fare. I don't want to alienate my audience, so feel free to tune in tomorrow when I resume my regularly scheduled insipidity.)
You're probably asking yourself why—why, after nearly five years engaged in a relentless pursuit of frivolity, stupidity, and trivia, has This Moron suddenly decided to express his individuality?
Because of three-and-a-half things: The Matrix Reloaded, which I saw Sunday afternoon; a feature article (registration required) in Sunday's New York Times Magazine; and a Pacifica News Service article entitled The Matrix's Neo is the Hero of My Generation. Also, but only tangentially, the Eurovision Melody Grand Prix held in Riga, Latvia, and broadcast throughout Europe on Saturday Night.
The cumulative effect of these articles, this movie, and this annual tournament of pop pap has been to push my irony switch to overload. And for reasons which will eventually become clear, the only intellectual defense I can muster is a barbaric moronic yawp of individuality. And so, to paraphrase Monty Python's Life of Brian:
I am an individual—just like everyone else!
My troubles began with the Matrix article, which I think I read Saturday afternoon. The author, 22-year-old Samuel Rodriguez, is described as "an artist for Silicon Valley De-Bug, a Pacific News Service publication by young workers, writers, and artists in Silicon Valley."
Rodriguez explains that Neo is his hero because "everything we sense around us, from sight to taste, is virtual reality, and... this is a prison for our minds. Liberation is being able to see through it. Neo has this powerful ability."
Fair enough. Let's face it: neither Jimmy Dean in Rebel Without a Cause nor Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, or Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, could operate in "bullet-time" or fly through the ochre skies of greater Los Angeles (not literally, anyway).
But why do I say it's ironic of Rodriguez to say this? Because he also says, "For many of my peers, it's not cool anymore to listen to Jay-Z, wear Gap clothes, or watch MTV all day. Those things are seen as being a part of our Matrix. My generation uses terms like 'keep it real' and 'don't front'—the worst thing you can be is phony. Everyone wants to be original; nobody wants to be a copycat."
(Unless, apparently, they're copying Holden Caulfield or one another.)
He goes on: "Folks choose what they wear, what music they listen to or what they eat based on the need to step away from 'the program.'" He notes that "people are designing their own clothes instead of buying from the mall. I've seen folks make T-shirts with spray paint and homemade stencils. Up-and-coming artists all want to think we have a bit of Neo in us when we give city property a makeover through spray paint." (I don't remember Neo endorsing vandalism, but I guess one man's vandal is another man's makeover artist.)
In other words, the hallmark of originality is to react against the dictates of mass culture—and everyone's doing it. That should set your irony antennae quivering, but we're not done yet. Rodriguez teases us with a hint that perhaps he's been setting us up all along: "That may be the big joke behind the Matrix [franchise]. Even those who are trying to step out of the system step back into it when they buy the ticket. The movie has become another a product for sale."
But to Rodriguez, alas, "Neo can't be co-opted."
He concludes: "My generation has been through this in the past. We've seen culture and ideas we identify with sold back to us, like graffiti, hip-hop or skateboarding. Big-time industries only see the surface, and not the deeper reasons why they resonate with us. Corporations see the Matrix as cool martial arts, leather trench coats and shades—but we see an idea that finally defines that feeling that this society is fake. Even if the movie comes from Hollywood."
(Actually, that idea can be found in most popular religious texts and is also famously set forth in Plato's cave allegory, but bully for Hollywood for putting such an old wine into such a shiny new bottle.)
Now, Samuel Rodriguez is 22, and, bright as he may be, he thinks like a 22-year-old. It requires a characteristically youthful muddiness of reasoning to speak of the "individuality" of one's entire generation, or to support that claim by observing that one knows people who, instead of buying mass-produced, pre-printed tees, choose to purchase mass-produced white tee-shirts and customize them with mass-produced spray paint. It's like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul—or borrowing from the Gap to pay DuPont.
After all, the reason Rogriguez's generation, like my own, has the luxury of trying to "see through the Matrix" is the very existence of our culture of mass-production, which itself requires the existence of a consumer culture to sustain it.
Going back to old wine in new bottles for a moment, I think Rodriguez's perception of commerce bears a little more attention. Corporations aren't supposed to be schools of philosophy. They exist to make money by selling us stuff we want. They determine what we want by looking at the "surface" of things, rather than the "deeper reasons why they resonate" with us, because that's where our wallets are—on the surface, in our mass-produced pockets and purses. Philosophers are the ones who are supposed to give us deeper meaning, but they tend not to have very good marketing departments.
And is it not abysmally shallow—an appropriate oxymoron—to extol appearance as the essence of individuality? I'm not sufficiently unique if I merely think "like an individual"—I've got to look like one, too? Man, bummer of a dress code...
But the article didn't single-handedly overload my irony breakers. What the hell—individuality is always the next big thing. Fair enough.
Let's leave Rodriguez alone for a moment.
On Sunday morning I was flipping through the Internet version of the Sunday Times, when a teaser blurb for a feature article in the magazine caught my eyes.
"No taxes, no gun control—but these days, blue blazers and gay bashing are not required. College conservatives have learned that by acting like everybody else, they can sway their peers and become the most influential political act on campus."
Gay bashing not required by conservatives? Impossible! Conservatives acting like everybody else? Inconceivable! I had to follow the link and see what sort of other madness this John Colapinto article contained.
With a giddy and sometimes even breathless astonishment, the invincibly incredulous Colapinto takes us on a journey of roughly ten single-spaced, letter-sized printer pages in which he reveals, among other things, that some college conservatives have actually taken to wearing blue jeans, having senses of humor, and organizing themselves. Who knew? Furthermore, some of them tolerate abortion. And not only have they put gay-bashing, that perennial staple of conservatism, behind them, many of them actually approve same-sex unions.
Colapinto is bewildered. Clearly, these kids are being brainwashed: "Because they are too young to recall any of Reagan's live TV appearances," he writes, "today's college students tend to see the former president purely as his image makers [the Matrix!] tried to present him when he occupied the Oval Office: as a Norman Rockwellian, mist-shrouded icon of Better Times—an idealized figure of myth." Then he adds, somewhat sinisterly, "The Washington based [conservative] groups know this, and they play on it. When the Leadership Institute, a group formed by a right-wing activist, Morton Blackwell, recruits on campuses each fall, it prominently displays at its sign-up table a huge poster that includes a photograph of Reagan."
How rich is that? (How Frank Rich is that?) Those manipulative "right-wing" activists are trying to lure unsuspecting and impressionable conservatives into their ranks by displaying—so nakedly! so brazenly!—photographs of a conservative icon! But I haven't been on a college campus in a couple of years. Maybe the liberal recruitment folk have held their hand and refrained from slathering their booths with photos of Clinton, or Carter, or Kennedy. Probably they've just got engravings of Rousseau.
Colapinto observes that "It can be disorienting to hear conservatism advanced as the ideology that frees women, but such is the skill with which the right has reframed the issues for the campus crowd, and such is the degree to which the left has allowed its own message to drift into rigidity and irrelevance for many college-age women." Colapinto seems to be saying that college-aged women aren't thinking and making choices for themselves—they're victims of political manipulation. And yet he's clearly shocked—shocked!—that many college-age women seem to think liberal feminism infantalizes them. He can't allow that such young women "believe" or "think" any such thing. Instead, he observes, "One Bucknell conservatives club member, Allison Kasic, buys it." (My emphasis.) Buys it retail from the Matrix, no doubt.
The disappointment is palpable.
Colapinto also mentions "a mind-set common to virtually every college conservative you meet. They describe themselves as defenders of 'individuality' and 'freedom' against a campus, and world, overrun by groupthink liberalism and pious political correctness."
I never met a young conservative interested in 'individuality' or 'freedom.' It's hard, after all, to get worked up about something smothered in scare quotes. They have all, however, been fiercely interested in individuality and freedom without the scare quotes.
They sort of have to be, because—shocking as it may be to Colapinto—that's pretty much the foundation of conservatism.
Colapinto goes running back to his scare quotes later, talking about "the cries for 'individual responsibility' and 'freedom of speech' that are the leading slogans of today's campus conservative movement."
But why are these kids defenders of "individuality" and "freedom," rather than "defenders" of individuality and freedom? Why are they cries for "individual responsibility" and not "cries" for individual responsibility? Or just plain cries for individual responsibility?
I could go on and on, but enough. It's just more of the same intellectual laziness exhibited by Rodriguez, but (presumably) without the mitigating factor of youth.
And what is that intellectual laziness? For want of a better term, call it philosofluffy, the pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-philosophical worldview afforded by an undergraduate philosophy course coupled with a life of relative ease. In the flaccid intellectual world of philosofluff, all you need to establish your credentials is to quote Nietzsche or Sartre, make ambiguous allusions to Gulliver's Travels or The Pelopponesian Wars, or use a lot of really long words. All of your arguments and opinions will require no further foundation or defense than this: that you have established your credentials. Persons inquiring too closely into your reasoning, or questioning your sources, or doubting the veracity of your claims, are ill-mannered philistines, and just don't get it. (But it's good to know that Bill Clinton will be going online with his own blog soon, to make sure we all get the real truth about everything! He'll reveal the Matrix, for sure!)
How philosophically lucid is it to claim that your whole generation—or at least lots of people you know—are fervent individualists, just like you? How can an educated journalist (even at the beleaguered Times) toss scare quotes around like croutons onto a salad, or impose his own political belief system onto his subjects' opinions, when writing an ostensibly objective article about the rise of a particular political perspective among a particular subset of the population?
Could the Times not have commissioned a different writer to handle the piece—say, one to whom it wasn't news that conservative college students were just like liberal college students except, you know, more politically conservative? Or, if it was just a freelance job, is it too much to expect an editor to have said, "Gee, it's a swell piece, buddy, but since about half the goddam country is conservative, maybe it's a little condescending to write about them like you were Jane freaking Goodall writing about a bunch of hairy, red-assed apes?"
What bothers me about Rodriguez and Colapinto is the former's obliviousness to the intellectual honesty required to maintain individuality, and the latter's inability to recognize the innate celebration of liberty and individualism that have his conservative subjects so turned-on. The brain-twisting irony is that both men are contradicting themselves with every word they write. And this is the central irony that's got me all wound up. All this philosofluffy is the Matrix, because it's all about the appearance of independent thinking without the hassle of actually having to think. Shallowly they lament—and reflect—our shallowness.
Painting a tee-shirt may be a lot of fun, and it might look really cool. But in terms of freeing your mind, it's no more effective than rolling your own cigarettes. I mean, wouldn't a truly liberated mind want to know why we were wearing shirts in the first place? I know why I shop at the Gap (yeah, I shop at the Gap—at least, I did when I lived in the states): because it's got affordable stuff that I like. But I've also bought stuff at thrift stores, which was more affordable but not always so nice, and at Macy's, which was less affordable but really nice. I don't make my own clothes not because I'm a mindless automaton, but because it's an economic waste of time to make my own fricking clothes. I mean, do I have to distill my own bourbon, raise my own cows, build my own home?
That's not what liberty of the spirit's about, I don't think, yet it seems to be what's passing for free-mindedness on the American left. It reminds me of Cher's old health club commercial: "if a free spirit came in a bottle, everybody would have one."
And that brings me to The Matrix Reloaded. I'll tell you what I think: it was a fun little bit of summer fluff.
And here's what I thought of the Eurovision Melody Grand Prix: it was a fun little bit of summer fluff.
The one dolled itself up in philosofluffy—as evidenced by Rodriguez's article—whereas the other was an in-your-face extravaganza of pop culture schmaltz.
Both are commercial enterprises. Both will be (or have been) seen by hundreds of millions of people. One says, "Hi, I'm all about sexy young European performers singing shallow little pop tunes." The other says, "We are all being manipulated except Neo, and you're just like Neo, so fork over the twelve bucks like a good little individual so you can go home and write about how unmanipulated you are."
Philosofluffy. It's the next big thing!
* * *
It's Memorial Day in the United States today. Our armed forces are worthy of our remembrance and gratitude, today and every day.
It's Independence Day in Georgia (the country) and also in Guyana. And it's the birthday of Sally Ride (1951), Stevie Nicks (1948), Brent Musburger (1939), John Wayne (1907), and Al Jolson (1886).
© 2002, The Moron's Almanac