|Monday, March 22, 2004
22:10 - The Price of Likeability
Whenever some friend acquires his first Mac, and comes up to me with a wary and guarded sort of half-smirking, half-hunted sneer on his face (which is quite a trick), asking me to show him the ropes and get him started off right, I feel as though I've been put in a certain unusual kind of position. No longer am I the Macolyte zealot frothing at the mouth and waving my signs trying to convert the heathen. Now I'm the guy who has to put his money where his mouth is. The friend wants me now to prove to him that his multi-thousand-dollar purchase, made in part on my recommendation, was not in fact a foolish move. It's put up or shut up time, and I'd better deliver.
So what do I do? I'll tell you what I don't do: I don't start out down a long and sanctimonious tourist trail of reasons why the Mac is so great. I don't point out all the stupidities of Windows and where the Mac excels them. I don't. Why not? It would seem this is the optimum time to do so: a captive audience, and better yet, a receptive one, just aching to hear that he's made the right decision.
But that's not what I do. Instead, I feel an odd compulsion: a desire to steer attention away from the finer points of Mac OS X, and instead direct every eye front and center to the flaws, the omissions, the things the friend will have difficulty doing on this new, minority platform. I'd best get them out of the way, you see. Best point them all out, so he discovers them now, while I'm watching. Better that than have him stumble across them two weeks from now, after he's left for a semester at the University of Hawaii, and there's no calling me in for a quick lunch appointment to figure out why the machine won't shut down or how you get all those windows back that suddenly scooted off the screen when you brushed your finger accidentally across the top of the keyboard.
I do this because I want the Mac-- and me, by extension-- to be liked.
Perverse, isn't it? It doesn't make much sense in this context. But that's what goes through my mind. Prove to him how much I and my convictions suck, my brain says, and he'll thank me for it. Just like being able to say "I was wrong", the ability to be self-effacing-- to deride one's own circumstances and very being-- has become a central part of how a lot of us view polite social interaction. We're not supposed to be proud of ourselves, self-esteem-building child psychiatrists notwithstanding. We're supposed to mock ourselves and everything we stand for. That way everyone will like us, and we'll have got their guard down, and they'll feel sympathy for our causes and stand with us after all.
Because winning hearts and minds through positive memes, you see, is gauche, jingoistic, simplistic, fascistic.
I found myself wondering, on the way home, as I was thinking about the previous post about the Canadian Muslims agitating for the North American Caliphate, what kinds of social trends might lead to this sort of thing happening, and I arrived at the notion that it's happening in places where being self-effacing has taken on such a cachet that it paralyzes the whole nation into indifference.
"Maybe even shari'a would be better than what we have now," goes the grumble on the street from those citizens helplessly watching the phenomenon unfold before them.
There's a song by the Canadian group Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie, called The Toronto Song:
I hate the SkyDome and the CN Tower too;
I hate Nathan Philips Square and the Ontario Zoo!
The rent's too high,
The air's unclean,
The beaches are dirty,
And the people are mean!
And the women are big and the men are dumb
And the children are loopy 'cause they live in a slum!
The water is polluted and the mayor's a dork!
They dress real bad and they think they're New York...
In Toronto . . . !
Ontario . . . oh-oh!
"You know . . . now that I think about it, I pretty much hate all of Ontario!"
"Yeah! Me too!"
And it goes on. It's a ditty tossed off with such glib, cheery sincerity that you can't help but feel that it flows from a deep, deep wellspring of despair that underlies Canadian pop culture: a sense of futility, indifference, helplessness, grim commitment to a grand (well, not really) vision (well, not really) of future being that, all things considered, really isn't all that exciting. It's to the point where the only raw, honest expressions of Canadian national pride come from beer commercials, and most of what's left is founded in bitter disillusionment at being in America's shadow.
I have a friend in Toronto who tells me that he used to just hate Conservatives. Now he hates Liberals and Conservatives alike. Personally I don't find that all that much of an improvement.
Looking at the photo down there, of the guy carrying the WE WANT THE KILAFAH sign, my immediate reaction is something along the lines of Look, man, you're in CANADA-- one of the great bastions of modern Western Civilization. Instead of adhering to your insular tribal interests and seeking to change the society into which you've implanted yourself from outside, why not try to discover what it is that the traditional values of your host nation might have to offer you? Why not identify as a CANADIAN, instead of as a Muslim? ...But a lot of what I've seen in Toronto tells me that there aren't many on the sidewalks who would be willing to tell him that to his face. They're not that thrilled with their own set of achievements; they're not flush with pride at what they themselves bring to the table. They feel guilty over sharing the American culture of McDonald's and Wal-Mart and Nike, and their pop art reflects a desire to reject it if only they could. They're not about to get behind trying to foist it upon others, upon people who have seen fit to immigrate and bring fresh blood into the populace. Much better to just let 'em have whatever they desire to keep them comfortable, keep them in-house. This is no time to be alienating anybody.
Even if they do have al Qaeda sympathizers in their midst.
I'm not just picking on Canada, either. This is just an example. I'm looking at all the nations where this kind of pessimism seems to have taken root, this idea that Western Civilization maybe ain't all it's cracked up to be, this unwillingness to plant a foot and speak out for what's good and what's worth fighting for. The poll that shows that more Iraqis are optimistic about their country's future than Germans are about theirs really plucked a few dissonant chords-- it throws into stark relief something we've known for some time, but that only rarely gets attention: that there's a divide in this world now not between capitalist and communist countries, but between optimistic and pessimistic ones. There are the countries newly emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, like Poland and Romania and the Baltic states, their people increasingly happy, believing in their societies and their nations, willing to project their own views of what life should be elsewhere and beyond their borders; and then there are the Old Europe countries, the ones whose days of Empire are long past, and whose post-monarchic dreams of democracy have faded into a hazy senescence of socialism: France, Germany, Britain, Canada. It's small wonder, really, why the countries that didn't send troops to Iraq made that choice: they think Iraq's better off without the West's meddling fingers. What good has the West done, anyway?
On Dean Esmay's blog a few days ago, there was a discussion of "The Nineties"-- what defined the decade? Commenter Mark Hasty contributed the following sentence:
The 90s were the time when rock & roll ceased being primarily about love and sex, and began being primarily about alienation and pain.
Exactly. And rock probably isn't the only place where this has happened: the Nineties may well have been the volta in history where the West, collectively and fundamentally, shifted to a negative attitude from a positive one. Optimism gave way to pessimism. Idealism gave way to cynical practicality. The Berlin Wall fell, and left in its place were malaise and ennui and nihilism and boredom and angst.
A shameful legacy for the children of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the inheritors of Payne and Lincoln and Churchill, to bear, it seems to me.
Is negativity to be the defining hallmark of the 21st century? Is Kurt Cobain going to turn out after all to be the desultory messenger of our culture's demise, just like the reactionaries all said at the time? Are we supposed to join the formerly great nations of the world in pessimism and nostalgia for a glory long past, and docilely quit the world stage in favor of someone who can show some backbone and some fire in the belly? If the Islamists have one thing we don't, it's the courage of their convictions; nobody's telling them their Golden Age isn't in the future. Yeah, they're yearning for the fourteenth century, but they want it back-- they're not preaching understanding and multicultural tolerance, they're loaded for bear and they're on the hunt. Just like we were once upon a time.
So I have to say to Canada: have some frickin' pride in your country and your heritage! Tell the old stories without lampooning them. Cheer for Western culture without adding a rueful postscript about how awful the Golden Arches are. And France-- you too, buddy. Come on-- you used to be cool. Germany-- c'mon, I thought we were past this Goth-teenager phase of yours. Yeah, you screwed up in the past, but it's not the end of the world. We've moved on; can't you? And England... jolly old England, home of Shakespeare and John Donne and Newton, of towns called "Okeford Fitzpaine" and people called "Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfulry Plunkett-Ernel-Erle-Drax", where the name "Finsbury Park" didn't always mean something sinister to LGFers and whence so very much of what Americans identify as their own folk culture fundamentally springs, stand up! Not everything about the days of the redcoats and the tall shakos deserves to be banished to the dustbin of history just because we all hate the idea of Empire so very very much now.
And I don't excuse America either. Have we become so jaded that we're at risk of falling into the same inward spiral as the rest of the West? Is even the American perpetual-motion machine of innovation and industry and wealth unprecedented in human history not immune to the sickly seductive gravitation of self-doubt, self-loathing, and collective guilt? Have even we lost the will to fight? Has the spark left us, too?
What we need, very simply, is a resurgence of positivity. There's no need to wallow in engineered angst, to be unable to look ourselves in the eye in the mirror except as tragic anti-heroes in a black comedy. The longer we insist upon seeing only the evil that the West does, even if it means shoveling off whole mountains of good in order to find it, the weaker we make ourselves and the less stomach we actually have for the fight in which we find ourselves. Now, if that positivity means our pop culture has to simplify itself, to revert to the shallow primary colors of the 50s-- well, does it really? I think we can stand to lose a few onion-layers of self-parody and self-referential mockery that makes up so much of our consumer lifestyles today, and the underlying vibrancy won't suffer. And if it means adding more layers of irony and indirection until it all collapses upon itself under its own weight-- if, for example, we have to go through the logical evolution of Space Ghost Coast to Coast before we can have Superman again-- well, so be it. We can do it. We're not out of ideas yet.
Being liked isn't the only thing there is in the world. Being passive and submissive, teaching our children to play with shields but not with swords, is no way to preserve our heritage of whose merits we only occasionally now mouth bland nothings. We can stand to be a little arrogant. We can take being a little disliked. Because that's what drives us. It's what's always driven us. The Renaissance didn't happen because the Ottomans and the European crowns ruled jointly in a pan-global socialist paradise, after all. And you know-- being disliked but privately envied is better than being loved but privately scorned.
The West isn't exhausted. We've been taking a breather for the past ten years, but now it's time to get up.
Back into the ring.