Y Marks the Spot: The Token Revolutions

This is what freedom looks like.

Allow me to provide a cynical attitude towards the so-called civilized world’s supportive responses to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.  These revolts, portrayed as grass roots movements of the people in response to repressive leaders, have been hailed by governmental PR folks as noble exercises in liberty.  In sanctimonious tones, America’s spokesmen pledge our lip service support to these embattled people as they struggle against armed and licensed to kill oppositions.

Not being intimately acquainted with the motivations or politics behind either movement, the only response I feel appropriate for me to have is that I’m guardedly glad that these people are standing up for themselves.  However, it strikes me as fairly ridiculous that America seems to be hitching its moral wagons to Tunisia and Egypt without actually doing anything to help.  Just as sports fans use the Royal We in describing their favorite teams, quite a few spectators of democracy seem to have the attitude that a victory for the people of Tunisia and Egypt is a victory for lovers of democracy everywhere.

I’m sorry to burst the bubble of those whose biggest worry in life is who wins the Super Bowl, but unless you’re on the field, you will never win a game.  Likewise, it’s easy to cheer on the cause of democracy and the advancement of civilization in impoverished countries when you’re not actually there doing the work.  And as great as many things are about America, one of its greatest faults is that its people have become a nation largely comprised of spectators.

I’m no different.  I remember watching the madness that followed Iran’s presidential elections in 2009, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a pretty sketchy re-election.  People lost their goddamn minds and took to the street, risking injury and death against government forces and deputized goon squads – and sometimes getting it.  I followed all the chaos, awe-struck, wondering why this explosion of democracy never happens in America.  You know, like in 2000, when our own divinely ordained doofus won the presidency under dubious means.

But that’s not our style anymore.  Activism has been outsourced.  Much of the reason for that is because we’re very safe (and we have all of that delicious safety to lose).  Most citizens of the world’s most advanced countries don’t live in fear of cops bursting through their doors and gunning them down.  Oh, they’re repressed, but they’re not violently repressed.  The groupthink required to spark these massive demonstrations is pretty much incapable of getting fired up over vague concepts like wage slavery, economic warfare, bailout heiresses, censorship, and corporate mismanagement – and it’s even more difficult to get people to stand up if they first have to put down their computers.  It’s hard to get people into the streets without a visible atrocity – and even then, how many of us watched Columbine, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill as though they were fictional news channel sitcoms?  I know I did.

Another reason why Americans don’t take to the streets and howl for liberty might be because the cops would call it a riot and club, tear gas, and tazer all the protesters until it was squashed (see: WTO Protests, Seattle, 1999).  Just like what’s happening to those citizens of those fine countries the free world is currently rallying behind.  Democracy is a fine idea, but a government’s a government, power is power, and job security often masquerades as national security.  I’ll say this until I die: the main difference between good and evil as they’re commonly defined is opportunity.

American culture proclaims that one revolt was good enough.  On the subject of national misbehavior, America is the equivalent of that old hippie who talks your ear off about how he fought The Man back in the 60s, though these days he spends his days crusading online for the legalization of pot.  We all think we’re rebels, with our countless ways of self-customization that tell that big, uncaring world that we are different, we are special.  But (fully anticipating the English majors) democracy and freedom – two quite opposite concepts, actually – are meant to be verbs, not adjectives, not static possessions.  They aren’t found in the spoiled and often psychotic posturing of wannabe Founding Fathers like those you find in the Tea Party.  They’re not found on the computer screens of those sanctimonious lefties who feel that all it takes to bring reason and light to the world is a well-placed Tweet blasting said Tea Party or some other conservative sacred cow.  Yes, speech is a vital part of exerting one’s freedom, but pointless, entitled, and actionless speech is often worse than silence.

If there is any aspect in our sanitized world that holds the exciting danger of real revolt, I’ve found it in the recent phenomenon of internet whistleblowing personified by Wikileaks.  I love that for quite a few of us who live in a country where free speech is such an unquestioned right that corporations were allowed to enact a hostile takeover of it, websites that dare to call bullshit on the objectionable excesses of those in power are somehow beyond the pale.  Love them or hate them, the people running these sites are the new poster children of First World revolt, putting themselves in real danger for a cause they believe in.  And if this phenomenon becomes a subculture of leaderless, permanent vigilance, so much the better.

Problem is, it’s easier and more encouraged in America’s modern culture not to be this brave.  Instead, it’s easier to jettison our convictions when they become inconvenient, when we clock in for work, when we’re put out in public, when there’s a chance someone – anyone – will disapprove.  As much as we bitch, there’s such an air of resigned depression in our culture that not only recognizes but tolerates the banality of evil.  That’s a sure sign of a civilization’s decline.

The Designer’s Drugs: Scarlett Thomas – Our Tragic Universe

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Scarlett Thomas – Our Tragic Universe

Anno: 2010


There’s a point toward the end of Our Tragic Universe where the protagonist, a disappointed author of genre fiction, advises a peer to cloak his nonfiction research in a fictional clothes.  The reason behind this proposed deception is that while most people approach nonfiction with a critical eye and aims to disprove its theories, people tend to approach fiction in the opposite direction, ready to put all the pieces together in the way that most makes sense.  It’s clear that this attitude colored the entirety of Our Tragic Universe, which is ostensibly fiction but also brings to bear many philosophical asides.  It’s in many ways a mixture of Scarlett Thomas’ previous works, mixing the crippled and frustrated storytelling of Going Out with the metaphysical and sexual End of Mr. Y. Sometimes the mixing gets a bit jarring, the narrative and human lives suddenly getting usurped by discussions on the nature of reality.

To be honest, it took me the better part of the first hundred pages of Our Tragic Universe to get behind the story.  In this opening, the author in question, a late thirties DIY chick named Meg, tromps around her small town, poking her head in and out of the local dramas of her friends and fellow esoterics.  Most of these people are a combination of frustration and insanity, usually attempting to screw, scream, or bullshit their way to a state of distraction.  It’s kind of a depressing slog at first, but as I was trying to work my way through I came to a realization.  It’s about failure. After my change in perspective, Our Tragic Universe became rather wonderful.

I should have picked up on this point earlier, when Meg recalls a vacation in which she as a child met a pair of magical – possibly mythical – people out in the middle of nowhere.  At the end of her vacation, the man of the duo tells her that she would come to nothing.  And really, this sets the tone for the remainder of the book, in that Meg’s purpose here is to discover what nothing really is and how that doesn’t have to be a negative concept.  Slowly and with the assistance of some events that may be either simple fortune or supernatural intervention – an ambiguity which is purposely unanswered – Meg begins to dispel her life’s inertia.  It’s likely that in my accepting that this book was about failure, I set myself up to be satisfied when the main character outgrows her nothingness and gives evidence that it’s never too late.

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Dumb and Dumberer

Film: Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003)

Director: Troy Miller

Starring: Derek Richardson, Eric Christian Olsen, Eugene Levy

Written by: Troy Miller, Robert Brener

I don’t intend to use this time to glorify what is a pretty terrible prequel.  On the whole, Dumb and Dumberer is a substandard ripoff of a film that I don’t think has aged that well in the first place.  Here, the dimwits Harry and Lloyd are teenagers bumbling around hormones and high school, handled with all the subtlety and restraint as any teen flick in the past decade.

It should be a sign that Eugene Levy, a guy who has unfortunately become a code word for a franchise’s worn out welcome (see: American Pie 8: Stifler Takes Manhattan), pulls out his stock flustered old man character for this gem.  This time around the typecast, Levy is the villain, a corrupt principal who attempts to exploit Harry and Lloyd for some nefarious financial scheme.  Throw in a bros before hos subplot and Harry’s MILF, and, wait a minute, this is an American Pie movie!

There is one aspect of Dumb and Dumberer, however, that I could appreciate.  For all of their other sins, the creators of this movie did a good job casting the lead idiots.  Though it would be impossible to replace Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey, Derek Richardson and Eric Christian Olsen fill the shoes of Harry and Lloyd as well as anyone could have.  Both actors seem to actually care about keeping the characters true to the first film, in both presentation and behavior, and as such they hit moments where the teen and adult versions are barely distinguishable.  In what is essentially a series of slapstick situations thrown at the pair, Richardson and Olsen weather the figurative and literal crap as best they could.

If the people around them weren’t a pack of shit and retard-obsessed opportunists, Dumb and Dumberer actually could have been a decent film.