8:54 AM – Wife’s out of town. Dishes stacked in the kitchen. The records she request I not blast when she’s home – In This Moment’s Blood, Megadeth’s Peace Sells, Neil Young’s Harvest – blast in repeat on the home stereo. Today I will drink two pots of coffee and later I will complain to my wife on the phone that I don’t know why my stomach hurts. I have 72 hours to become fully primate and then return to full Gator. Let the de-evolution begin.
I once was privy to a blind date in an Austin Chinese restaurant that made me feel ashamed for another human being. The gentleman of the pair looked like an aged metal guitarist with waist length grey hair and a pleasant tubular middle. The woman was a smoking failed actress type wearing a rose-patterned shawl. From looks alone, the man was drastically out of his league, but within a few bars of the conversation I began conspiring a solid out for my brother. He was kind, artistically minded, and the woman poo-pooed every question concerning art he posed. Books, it would appear, were no longer smart enough for her. Music was not soulful enough. Theater not classic enough. Radio – even NPR – not publicly radioed enough. Painting was too impersonal, sculpture too un-phallic, and fashion too drab. At one point I actually heard the lady scoff and say, “I only watch foreign films, particularly the Indian Bollywood cinema. It’s the only cinema saying anything anymore.” I empathetically looked to the man’s face, recognizing the great struggle of his eyes not to check his watch.
This encounter came to mind while reading Maureen Dowd’s June 22 column in the New York Times, titled “A Zombie Scare With a Zombie Chaser.” Dowd, thankfully, is not a culture poo-pooer. This may be one of the reasons I like reading her columns more than most other Times columnists. In this column, Dowd makes it fairly clear that she prefers vampires over zombies (Dowd won me over with her July 2010 piece about her first blushing girl crush on Dracula), then she explores her viewing of Brad Pitt’s new zombie epic World War Z. And Dowd makes interesting points about WWZ’s most pressing metaphor being one of a “broken Hollywood system” rather than a “broken global system.” Her article is light-hearted and authentic to her previous writings concerning our strange attempts to map and understand our shifting cultural landscape.
So how did Dowd’s article, written with humility and humor, bring to mind the hoity-toity rose in-shawled cinephile from Austin? Easily, as it was not Dowd’s article that conjured the cinephile to mind. Rather, it was the slew of pompous comments following Dowd’s article, deflating the fun from Dowd’s piece, that rivaled the pride of our previous poo-pooing prima donna. My favorite comment to Dowd’s piece, posted by Miss Thang, boasted, “I fell asleep during this movie. Nuff said.” What follows are loads of similar comments, all trying to sound smarter than the last by degrading and denying and debunking zombies, Brad Pitt, and American cinema in general. I laughed reading the comments thinking, Dowd’s the think-tank here, and she’s the only one of these stiffs willing to have fun with her brain. In their need to boast brilliance, they reveal little to double-tap in an undead rising.
Few cultural trends irk me like the need to poo-poo what everyone else poo-poos, especially in order to sound smart or hyper-cultured. Perhaps such sensitivity stems from my pop music fandom. I’ve stopped counting the number of people who, upon learning my pop music love, have confessed to secretly rocking Britney Spears in the car or wanting to watch the Katy Perry film but fearing what people would think. I’ve heard the same in pseudo-academic circles when certain writers – Stephen King, John Grisham, Steig Larsson, to name a few – are referred to as “guilty pleasures”. And I shirk from conversations making distinctions between low-brow and high-brow humor, especially confessions of minimally enjoying the former while strongly preferring the latter. I’m always tempted to fart right then and there and then watch their face, just to test how low-brow their humor truly could be.
What I mostly want to scream is to just come off it. No one cares. You are not that important. We’re not a culture of Santa Claus trainees keeping records of who’s cool and who’s not. But, then again, maybe we are. If social media has taught us anything, it’s to second guess our preferences and ideas, to publicize some, to hide others, and to wage massive cultural, religious or political debates in soundbites with as little evidence or strategy as possible. We’re reduced to (and fear) the immediacy of face value, because what if face value is not comprehensive enough to comprise a complimentary portrait of ourselves? God forbid the cool kids see me wearing my Kelly Clarkson t-shirt today and miss the Misfits skull I might sport tomorrow.
Chuck Klosterman – who I can never decide is friend or foe in these discussions – proposed a fine theory about our need to align our preferences with the populace, particularly our cultural hatred. To research his article “A Night With The World’s Most Hated Bands”, Klosterman attended a double-billing of Creed and Nickleback in a single night. He watched part of each performance. He talked to fans. He studied their studio work beforehand. And he found that the music is simple, poppy, and formulaic. It’s easy to listen to and possibly to enjoy, which makes it an easy target for music critics. In the end, Klosterman theorized that most people hate Creed and Nickleback because people need something to hate, and it’s always easiest to hate what other people hate. He suggested there may be other musicians we equally dislike, but there are few other bands we are so willing to hate as vehemently and publicly as Creed or Nickleback. In sharing our hatred for these bands communally, we gain a shared sense of superiority – a finely tuned cold shoulder decreeing a concretely formed “us” versus “them” dichotomy.
While this social and critical superiority – the same superiority that pays homage to the notion of “guilty pleasures” – is possibly my greatest cultural pet peeve, I realize it doesn’t matter a hill of beans how people position themselves in the face of zombies or Stephen King or Creed. Sure, you’ll drop several notches in my estimation, but my estimation is of little evolutionary concern on our forward trudging American path. Where this discussion matters most, I feel, is in conversations concerning our nation’s heart. For instance, in how we discuss Paula Deen.
As most of us now know, Paula Deen is simmering in a frying pan of her own doing. She made statements that could be considered grossly racist, and she has lost her Food Network television program and several corporate sponsorships as a result. What Paula Deen said, on multiple occasions, was beyond tacky. Asking for a team of Black men to dress in tuxedoes and serve at a Southern plantation style wedding represents an antiquated mindset most Americans, even in the South, no longer share, except in private parlor humor. And using the “n” word to describe her servers reveals a mistaken overlap between Deen’s domestic and public vocabulary.
In being an unthoughtful loudmouth, Paula Deen has given us a wonderful gift: she has given us a face we can all hate together. She has given us a behavior that, like Creed’s music, is easy to dismiss and, thereby, swell against with great superiority. We will do this for a week, until something more tantalizing comes along, and then we will hate that thing together and feel superior again until, once more, the flavor wears thin and someone else becomes the next buffoon.
However, in demonizing Paula Deen so quickly, only to move on just as quickly, we miss the opportunity to engage a vital and larger conversation: the very conversation juxtaposed a few headlines over from Deen concerning the Supreme Court’s rulings on Affirmative Action and Gay Marriage. The conversation hidden in all these headlines suggests that we have not yet resolved our issues of race and gender and sexuality and what to do with people different than us. The message glaring through these stories claims that our social and cultural vocabulary, perhaps as unthoughtfully loudmouthed as Paula Deen’s at times, is not complete. We’re still learning how to see one another, how to count and parcel and invite one another into our communities. And we’re still learning how to discuss such matters beyond their moment in print.
Paula Deen is not the face of blatant, mean-spirited racism; rather, she is the mouthpiece of an unchecked cultural superiority shared within her community. If only more of us could be so blessed – whether we’re discussing other races or the gays or the immigrants or the zombies next door – to have someone privately humble our poo-pooing, dismissive superiority.