Still Ugly After All These Years, and Proud of It

July 30, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

When did it start, this arrogance towards other countries and cultures? Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and the rest – these were men of the world. The stated motivation for the Declaration of Independence was a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”

Compare that with the reaction to Barack Obama’s remark a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what Obama said. “You know, it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is ‘merci beaucoup!’”

The conservatives jumped all over Obama’s decent respect. The Weekly Standard put it on their “Obama Snobbery Watch.” Mitt Romney, probably still angling to be McCain’s running mate, said, “I do think that, frankly, Barack Obama looks towards Europe for a lot of his inspiration. I think John McCain is going to make sure that America stays America.”

In other words, knowledge of other countries or languages, any attention to them at all, is un-American, anti-American.

Here’s Sen. McCain in a weekly radio address
Good morning. I’m John McCain, and this week the presidential contest was a long-distance affair, with my opponent touring various continents and arriving yesterday in Paris. With all the breathless coverage from abroad, and with Senator Obama now addressing his speeches to 'the people of the world,' I’m starting to feel a little left out. Maybe you are too...
Paris. There it is. Obama went to Paris. What more evidence do we need of his disloyalty?

It’s been nearly a century since “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” But apparently the City of Light is still a too-tempting drug, luring Americans away from the heartland. If you do go there, you have to wear your strongest American armor to ward off the temptation. . . like this American couple:

(The back of that Texas t-shirt says “Bush ’08.”) They come to a cafe in a nice section of Paris.

They’re loud. They order “Freedom Fries.” They order steak tartare and send it back to be cooked. They bring their own bottle of American ketchup. They snap their fingers for the waiter and complain about the service. They offer $100 to a couple to give up their table. (The couple declines, probably since $100 is worth only about 4 euros these days.)

OK. It’s not real. It’s an updated version of “Candid Camera” called “What Would You Do?” on ABC. (Those black Mercedes vans have “hidden” cameras.) As it turned out, the French were remarkably tolerant. Nobody told them to get lost.

Still, it’s interesting that ABC thinks we’ll enjoy watching ourselves barging through another culture tromping on everyone’s toes. Surely, not all Americans think ignorance is something to be proud of. Political campaigns seem to call out extremes, and appealing to the Xenophobe sector of your base probably doesn’t lose you too many votes elsewhere. But even though the Ugly American may be a caricature, it’s still something we recognize. Obama’s mistake was to refer to that ignorance as a matter of embarrassment rather than affectionate amusement and pride.

Big hat tip to Heather at Secrets of Paris.

What's In a Name . . .er, I mean, Style Sheet?

July 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“In the 1950s, as a founder of rock ’n’ roll, Mr. Diddley . . .helped to reshape the sound of popular music worldwide,” (from the New York Times’s obit).

Mr. Diddley???

The Times style sheet requires that all names be preceded by a title (except in the sports section), even when the rule makes a mockery of the dead. Did anybody ever before call him Mr. Diddley?

I came across something similar in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, where the endnotes conform to some standard academic style.
R. Dass, Be Here Now (New York: Crown, 1971)
as though friends on a first-name basis would greet the spiritual teacher with a hearty, “Hello, Ram.”

It would be like Chief Sitting Bull’s friends calling out, “Hi, Sitting.” And if the chief ever published anything, he’d appear in the notes as “S. Bull.”

If the name doesn’t fit the style sheet, too bad for the name.

Mad Men - Submitted for Your Approval

July 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mad Men begins its second season tomorrow, and I’m not ready. I came to the show only very recently – friend’s house at the shore with AMC On Demand and not much to do at night. But here’s my take, based on the first three episodes.

At first, I thought Mad Men reminded me of Far From Heaven – the 1950s suburban dream undermined by illicit desires (homosexual, interracial) or its present-tense counterpart American Beauty. Then I thought it reminded me of Good Night and Good Luck – guys in business suits with narrow lapels smoking lots of cigarettes.

Now it reminds me of The Twilight Zone and The Sociological Imagination.

KRAMER: All right, so what you’re saying – that we’re wrong? Oh, everybody’s wrong but you!

JERRY: You know, this is like that Twilight Zone where the guy wakes up, and he’s the same - but everyone else is different!

KRAMER: Which one?

JERRY: They were all like that
For those who haven’t seen or heard about the show: it’s set in 1960 and centers on a large Madison Avenue advertising agency. But Don Draper, the main Mad Man, seems more like one of those Twilight Zone protagonists who finds himself in a setting where everything is familiar and yet strange. He seems to sense that something is wrong but can’t quite realize what it is.

But we, the viewers, know. It’s the society and culture of the time. Society and culture are a straitjacket, but one that is so comfortable we are rarely conscious of wearing it. Or else we think that it’s a really good-looking part of our wardrobe. The Mad Men of 1960 are in the vanguard – hip and cynical. Everything’s up to date on Madison Avenue.

It’s only from the perspective of a few decades that these guys appear so old-fashioned, so unaware and limited. The 2008 choices that we take for granted did not exist in 1960. More tellingly, the historical period also limits how people can think about their own lives. We long for the characters to see things differently, with the thoughts that we have. But for the people of 1960, those ideas are just not available.

Those historical forces don’t bother the characters at all, certainly not the men (for viewers today, the arbitrariness of 1950s sex roles leaps off the screen). America is the best of all possible worlds, and the Mad Men are doing quite well in it, thank you. Yes, there are problems – secretaries weep in the powder room, an unfulfilled housewife talks to an unresponsive psychiatrist, unsatisfied men have affairs and drink too much. They all lack the sociological imagination to see their personal troubles in the frame of the social and cultural forces of this particular historical period.

Even Don Draper doesn’t bring our 2008 consciousness to his 1960 existence. Still, we feel that he is our vicarious link to that period because he cannot fully commit himself to the reality of his time – not to his good job, which he does well, not to his pretty wife and his lovely suburban home, not to his artistic mistress, and certainly not to his frat-boyish co-workers. He is the Twilight Zone character in this alien world. Or rather, he himself is the alien, the outsider searching for others of his race.

And we here in 2008? We’re aware, aren’t we? We’re not wearing any cultural straitjackets, right? But when the people of 2040 look back at us, what will they see? What will be so obvious to them that is so invisible to us?

As I said, I’m basing my impressions on only the first few episodes. It’s possible that as the show continues week after week, we will get drawn into the characters’ struggles and lose our sociological distance.

Disney v. Satire

July 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” So said George S. Kaufman. The updated version is “Satire is what Disney closes on Saturday morning.”

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the satirical website that Pixar set up to accompany Wall-E. In the movie, Buy N Large has come to dominate the universe by feeding our desire for consumer products and entertainment. The only thing that people do is shop and lie around watching television. The website continued this satirical idea in a delightfully pointed way.

The final sentence of my post about the website was, “I wonder what kind of reception it’s getting among the Disney brass.”

Now we know.

When you click on now, instead of getting the tongue-in-cheek fictional website, you get an utterly conventional Disney-style movie auxilliary complete with games, video clips, stuff to buy, and even links to real corporate tie-in sponsors.

The only trace of I could find on the Internet (aside from the two images I posted) was the Disclaimer page, which begins
In order to access services through our site, you must provide us with certain personal information such as your name, your Vari-Credit number and expiration date, your Vari-Credit billing address, your telephone number, your e-mail address and the name or names of the person(s) in your immediate family. We may also ask you for other personal information, such as your medical history.

All acquired customer information becomes the property of the Buy n Large corporation and can be used (but is not limited to) any venture the Buy n Large Corporation deems beneficial to it. By visiting Buy n Large (or a Buy n Large partner) the user agrees to relinquish (if requested) any personal assets that may be deemed "usable” by the Buy n Large Corporation; this includes (but is not limited to) real estate, stock holdings, user transportation, employment income and the users “soul” (either real or imagined, regardless of spiritual or religious affiliation).
This gives you some idea of what the rest of was like. If anyone knows where can be found, please spread the word.