February 7, 2014

Decline II

Recently, I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant waiting for a carryout order. Since I was waiting near the counter, I passed the time idly watching the other customers come and go. In the middle of a family-like group of three adults and four children, I witnessed a noteworthy exchange. An average looking kid about twenty or so said something to an average looking boy of about twelve. What he said was:

“I could slice your face off if I wanted to.”

Such a charming claim couldn’t fail to pique my interest. The kid proceeded to show the child a knife blade that he had sewn into his coat, the point protruding slightly at the elbow. The kid then made a kind of gesture with his arm, showing how he might perform his clever face-slicing on an unsuspecting victim. The child reached up and felt the hard edge of the blade underneath the dirty fabric. The child seemed unimpressed and unafraid. The two women in the group, one of whom appeared to be the mother of the children and the girlfriend of the would-be American ninja, took no notice. The mother looked about forty. Her expectations of her slightly acne-speckled boyfriend apparently did not include adult behavior in anything but the most animal sense of the term. Disgusted as I might have been, I admit I saw no actual harm done. No doubt I am out of step for being so judgmental.

In the end, the alternative to being judgmental is simply not to have standards. I remember the late George Carlin saying that the world is a freak show and if you are born in America you have a front row seat. George made a career of being angry about what he saw happening around him. Rebel though he was, he was raised with standards. What he may not have fully realized is that you can only recognize a freak show if you’ve grown up in something other than a freak show. I don’t think the kid with the knife stitched into his coat saw himself as an antisocial deviant. His girlfriend’s child wasn’t scared of him. Likewise, for the girlfriend’s child, the fact that his mother was sleeping with someone who was only a few years older than himself and scarcely any more emotionally mature was probably as normal as the sun coming up in the morning. How could it have been otherwise? Thank God (if you will forgive a quaintly obsolescent phrase) that we have cast off the stultifying moral rigidity of our grandparents and emerged into such an open, free, and non-judgemental new world. Breathe deep. The freedom is so thick that you can almost cut it with a knife.

The popular media reeks with the consequences of several decades of moral nihilism. In the space of a few days Justin Bieber was in trouble twice – first for taking drugs and then for punching a lowly driver in the back of the head. How can this surprise anyone? Could we really expect anything better? What more could we hope for from a creature whose every waking minute has been directed toward the production of whining, vapid songs and to staring at cameras with a certain pouty, helplessly defiant expression – an expression guaranteed to melt the hearts of thirteen-year-old girls and forty-eight-year-old pedophiles everywhere? People who watch meat being shoved into a sausage grinder shouldn’t be surprised when sausages come out. Publicists, agents and media executives are not good molders of the human soul. They just make sausages – at both ends of the machinery. And therein lies the magic. The worthless, valueless, antisocial deviant in front of the television can watch the worthless, valueless, antisocial deviant on the television and see both a reflection and a guide. If you live in a freak show, your role models will probably be freaks.

American teenagers of my day wanted to be rock stars or teachers. Now, as likely as not, they want to be werewolves. Even the werewolves of today have that pouty, helplessly defiant expression though – at least while they are not in wolf form. Peter Pan is now a pitiable victim, even if he has grown an impressive set of teeth. The kid who murdered twelve people and shot up seventy others at the Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, wanted to be “The Joker” from Batman. Life, you know, imitates art. I suppose George Carlin never said the front row seat we get by default would be either comfortable or bullet proof.

The young have always, and will always, look to their culture for answers about how to be and how to live. It isn’t good to tear those answers up in front of them, park them in front of a movie, and imagine that by ignoring them you are doing them a favor. The kid I saw with the knife sewn into his coat sleeve clearly wanted to be somebody. The problem was that he just couldn’t find any heroes among real human beings.

(see: Decline )

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