Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Not Guilty Pleasures
Tell me honestly: Do you know this piece of music?
PSAYINGS.5Y.1-56 -- THE BARE BACKBONE. Since I've determined not to withdraw from the site I've had a change in perspective, prompted in large part by a couple of recent posts and exchanges with our younger hotshots. I realized I may have been making a mistake I was making when I began The Boomer Bible and had to learn not to make in completing it. I'm not trying to be pompous and superior here, just reportorial. My first outline and drafts were allusive and brief, depending on a base of shared cultural and historical knowledge I thought was our common heritage. Rather than the book of Ziggie, I had a book of Minoans, designed to lampoon Freudian concepts without ever mentioning Freud, for example. I thought everyone knew a little something about Freud. Then life intervened, as it does, and I had to put away the manuscript for a number of years, during which I learned that what I thought people knew they didn't know. Why The Boomer Bible turned out to be the monster it ultimately became and why I was afraid to resume the writing of it for so long. The more I learned about what people didn't know, the bigger the unwritten book got.
Now I realize I'm possibly repeating an error no man should make twice. I'm dazzled by the brilliance of multiple youngsters who have contributed to InstaPunk in recent years. They know plenty about plenty of things. But they also have a habit of wrenching themselves into absurd postures that make absolutely no sense to me. They display a kind of cynicism, and naivete, I can't comprehend. And, yes, I frequently use a cynical voice because that is an integral part of my role as a satirist -- to be scathing, denunciatory, and dismissive . But the very purpose of satire is to hold the world up to a moral standard the satirist really does believe in. By definition, he cannot be a cynic. Or he would not write. He does write because he desires to provoke thought, not to be God himself sitting in judgment.
I'm sympathetic to the spirit of youthful rebellion, because I was a rebel too. But I'm beginning to suspect that something is missing in even our brightest youngsters that I never doubted for a moment of my youth -- a ferocious admiration of the incredible beauty of life and the ineffable courage, creativity, and genius of the human race.
It's not my intent to point fingers. Examine recent posts and comment threads here, and you will find what I'm talking about. The education system in our country has failed them utterly. They're having to do it all for themselves, and maybe I've been remiss in repeatedly returning to the easiest of cultural touchstones -- popular music, TV, the movies, and the politics of the moment. My failure. Why I've been losing my temper so often. Failure will do that. Politics isn't about ideology, as written by this or that recent seer. Politics is about life, about preserving and promoting what is best in life, what makes life worth living, which can never be reduced to "jobs" or cold theories or individual chunks of legislation or monolithic villains of various stripes. To think intelligently about politics, we must all have a very deep context of the whole that includes not only what we most revere but also what we do not revere and yet need to know about.
What is context for a human being living in America in the early 21st century? It begins with a timeline of important historical events beginning all the way back in ancient Sumeria when writing first made history possible. But it doesn't end there. Dates aren't history and they aren't life. They're just the alphabet we need to learn before we can learn how to read. There is also geography, which is the landscape of history that begins to make sense of how people, ideas, conflicts, and illumination spread from one culture and one time to the next.
Permit me to take time out for a simple test. Can you fill in all the names of the states on this map without looking anything up in a book or on the Internet?
And don't just tell yourself you can. Do it. There's a link today I won't give you to the Obama campaign luminaries who distributed a map to their activists highlighting the three states where the next campaign events would occur: California, Washington state, and Colorado. But the map highlighted not Colorado but Wyoming. You know. One of the flyover states.
I submit you can't understand U.S. history, really, without knowing this map. When I was a kid, my dad made us learn the capitals of every state at the dinner table. I still know them. Silly? No. It's part of the backbone. You remember by remembering the shape of the state and knowing that capitals are almost always located in the center. It helps you learn the map.
Thing is, I was never especially good at geography. My teachers weren't teaching it 50 years ago. Why I've been trying to make up for that the rest of my life. So I watch shows like "How the States Got Their Shapes," and innumerable documentaries about the rest of the world from Europe to South America to the Middle East to the Far East to Africa to wherever. Because it's a gap that undermines my confidence in my worldview.
Then comes the history that puts flesh on the dates. What the dates mean and how those events resonated past their time to ours and beyond.
What do you have if you have all of this? A corpse.
What breathes life into the corpse and thence into your own mind and soul? The cultures that underlay the historical peoples and events. The art, the music, the literature, the religions, the philosophies, the sciences, the architecture, the archaeological remains of the peoples themselves. It's impossible ever to know enough. The older you get, the more you despair of knowing enough to claim absolute certainty about anything. But you can still have conviction. You can still have context for the hypotheses suggested by your own life experience. Which argues for knowing the most about the place and the people you come from personally. Knowing one thing well at least helps you know what knowing is. If you can't fill in the map of states of your own country, then maybe you don't know shit about anything.
And if your knowledge of the America you live in is confined largely to the time you have been a conscious (?) person watching movies and sitcoms, listening to pop music, fiddling with high-tech gadgets that make you feel sophisticated because you can copy and paste the answers to questions that might otherwise embarrass you, and expressing yourself via Facebook and tweet as if you had something to say anyone should listen to, then it doesn't matter if you read a book once that impressed you or even two or ten. You don't know anything.
I'm not done with this topic. I've just begun. But I'll close with a question for all those who think maybe I'm not talking about them. The YouTube up top. Do you know this piece of music? Have you ever listened to it all the way through? Do you know its historic importance? It's incredibly famous. When you type the letters "rhap" at YouTube, it pops up immediately. Maybe you think you have an awareness of it because it's so famous and you've heard the opening strains. But this is an icon from your own country. It matters. It's one of the ABCs of American culture. If you don't know that or if you don't believe that, or all the complexities of why, you're an ignoramus.
How much flesh and blood and nerve and brain is attached to whatever fragmented backbone of history you rely on to preach your certainties to the world?