Tuesday, February 7, 2006

American culture: A culture of anxiety

Meditation on American culture

By ND Batra
From The Statesman

Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living.
T S Eliot (Notes Towards a Definition of Culture)

Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal wrote sometime ago, “why no one has yet run for office by campaigning against the computer. After all, you couldn’t ask for a better sin-delivery system than a PC with a fast Web connection”.

Well, you might as well call a gun a death-delivery system, but no one dares run a political campaign against guns in the USA and get elected. If you talk against guns, some gun lover would fire back, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

If a politician runs against guns, it means that not only is he challenging the people’s right to bear arms (Second Amendment) but also getting into a crossfire with the National Rifle Association—the 500-pound gorilla who does not need a gun to kill you.

Senator John Kerry, during his campaign for the White House, eagerly flaunted his Vietnam credentials, Purple Hearts and all, as well as his love for hunting by going on a goose-hunt, which proved to be of no avail.

But Gomes had a point: “With a week or two of patient work, someone with their hands on the keyboard of such a system—no matter what his or her age — could download a Kinsey library of erotica, play videogames depicting the cruelest kind of violence, steal a studio’s worth of music and movies, and gamble away small fortune.” If politicians can’t fight against the “girlie men” and “bushwhooping women” of Hollywood, how would they fight the Internet, where no man or beast, except probably China, has much control?

Whether it was Dr Alfred Kinsey or the Playboy that liberated Americans sexually, or corrupted them, as Rev Jerry Falwell would say, nonetheless, sexual imagery, heterosexual, homosexual, omni-sexual, has been seeping into American social ecology, even into corporate brands. Is omni-sexual a new word in the American lexicon?

But consider this. A Saks Fifth Avenue ad showed two itsy-bitsy girls, one a coy blonde and the other a brash oriental with the belly-button up, pants slipping down with palms in her hip pockets, face-to-face on two opposite pages of a glossy magazine, with the tag line: “Saks loves it: both ways”. Both ways? Very naughty indeed, I thought and wondered if it were a new form of omni-sexuality.

A constant hovering anxiety in the Sex and the City used to be the question on the mind of every single woman who met a hunk: Is he gay? Of course, if he were a heterosexual, a girl could have a chance. She could steal him from his girlfriend or wife. But what can a girl do with a homo? Oh, yes! She could cry with Dame Edna in Back with Vengeance! : “Darling, this is not a shoe. This is a cry for help, my possum.” Dame Edna could get away with her conceit, “Sorry dear, I am just not feeling naughty tonight,” but what can a single girl with sex on her mind do in New York, the city of spin, spin, spin, and sin.Girls are not calendar-resistant, are they? They wrinkle. They shrivel. Boys move on.

Of course you have heard of water-resistant and wind-resistant, but what is calendar-resistant? That was Timberland’s ad for its men’s Mixed-Media Jacket, which crowed: “It is quite possible the jacket will last longer than you.” Something to leave behind to make the world a better place, when your “too, too sordid” self is gone!

You could pass on the jacket to one of your poor relatives whom you never liked or donate it to the Salvation Army. That, however, reminded me of a plumber who came to my house to replace a leaky pipe and said the new pipe had a life-long warranty. Amazed, I said: Whose life are we talking about? Yours or mine? He never felt so embarrassed. He had a triple by-pass a year before. Just like the Timberland’s jacket, the plumber’s pipe too was calendar (time)-resistant.

And that reminds me of something else that was touted as calendar-resistant. A few years ago, a 30-something brunette was shown gloating over her Seiko watch: “My husband has left me, but my Seiko is still with me.” Joy to the world! The American woman is free. Seiko is ticking and the woman is waiting for another “gentleman caller”. Would he ever come? And how long would he stay?

Talking of gentlemen and lovers, a few years ago I overheard an ambitious woman humming to herself: There are a thousand-and-one ways of getting rid of your lover. And she got rid of him, kept the sprawling house and the kids, and moved on to another city, another hunt. But that’s merciful, though she had a killer instinct and could have done more. In a red, red state in the South, where I was a professor once upon a time, the Bible Belt where there are more divorces and single moms than in the blues states, a colleague whose department work I was evaluating said to me in a loud whisper, “In my county, we don’t kill anyone unless there’s a reason.” I got the message loud and clear.

But that was no better than two men of God who one evening came to the beautiful Eagle Lake where the university had given me a living quarter and said that they wanted to deliver me from my sins. One of them said, “Do you go to church?”I said, no, but why? The other said: “Do you want to go to heaven or hell?” I said, “I would rather stay here.” They laughed and left me alone.

Just as the Internet and Hollywood deliver to us our daily pipedream of sins, men of God are always ready to deliver us from our daily sins. Some call it checks and balances. I call it a supply chain system of American values.

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