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Monday, August 26, 2013
American Culture: How to Reconcile the Brutal and the Effete?
By Barry Rubin
I’m deeply confused about American culture. Let me cite two incidents as examples and then talk about some attitudes I hear about from my son's reports on visits with friends. Perhaps readers can explain this contradiction between the effete and the brutal.
Arriving in the United States, I go to the nearby Trader Joe’s food store. It is of course very PC. At the checkout counter, the clerk asks, “Have you returned anything?” I did a double-take. Is this a bid for higher taxes? A taunt to the 1 percent who shop there?
No, he explains that they have some kind of program about bringing back bags. “The people in Bethesda,” he smugly asserts, “are the smartest!”
By coincidence, I had just heard some article saying that using returned bags is potentially dangerous since there can be some food remnants that rot and may breed bacteria. (I certainly don’t know what is true scientifically.) Unable to resist, and out of curiosity, I said, “Maybe they are not the smartest,” and explained my concern.
Instantly, he changed his attitude, snarled and said, “They’re the smartest!” No contradiction would be tolerated. Anyway, he started it. But given all the waste involved in a supermarket business--let’s start with the packaging--the small but highly right-thinking-people gesture of reused bags strikes me as a laughable symbol. Not to mention the fact that Trader Joe’s isn’t giving out food to the poor or opening stores to take big losses in what Michelle Obama calls, “food deserts.”
Is this salvation on the cheap, like those in wealthy California coastal cities that take away the farmers’ water to save some obscure fish and then congratulate themselves on their enlightenment?
About the same time, I sit in a sandwich place and a song comes on the radio. My jaw drops. A female singer repeats the lyric, “I said drive, bitch,” apparently it’s a car-jacking? She just keeps going over and over again in a very aggressive tone. At the end, the sound effect indicates that the female driver has been shot and fell down dead.
I sat there speechless. I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing. If there is a “war on women” isn’t it actually waged most vigorously in certain sectors of popular music? The same could be said of the music of the much honored Jay-Z or many others.
Now perhaps this is a silly taking of two extreme phenomena, and I’ll accept that verdict if that’s what you think. But it symbolizes perhaps a bigger thing. On one hand, American culture today (should I say popular culture?) is one of watch your language, goody-goody, we are just so virtuous. There is rap music and the message given to children in Politically Correct lessons.
On the other hand, though, on film, television, literature, music, and public discourse it is intolerant and at times proudly brutal. Is that a valid observation? And if so how is this tension reconciled?
During a visit to the United States, conversations among young teenage boys, who in school were subjected to intense indoctrination, run like this:
--They make fun of alleged gays among them, flinging the charge as insulting but then quickly adding, not that there's anything wrong with that.
--They show very vile disrespect toward girls of their age. It doesn't seem that there is any change over the decades, but there certainly isn't a reduction of "sexist" attitudes. They discuss them far more openly. The concept of gentleman or even restrained behavior is gone, perhaps in conjunction with the musical examples. Attitudes that would once have been derided as "low-class" by the elite have now become common place. So how is there then an elite setting a good example?
--They use far more racial epithets and negative stereotypes of others than my generation, though it is covered by frequent accusations that this or that is racist. Dubbing of something as racism is used as a weapon, a description of something one doesn't like.
--They see themselves as part of some downtrodden class even though they are financially well-off. For example, they talk about rich white people but when pointed out that they live in big houses, they say the houses are bigger in some other neighborhoods.
--They assume that nobody could possibly consider not voting for Obama.
--They said that "rednecks" and "racists" should be sent to fight in Iraq, not recognizing any merit in the military or in the people who serve in it, whom they look down on. A baby is punishment, as Obama (punished with a baby) memorably explained and so is serving one's country, as Kerry did (drop out of school, end up in Iraq). What does that serve but producing deep cynicism; 50 million abortions and no service?
--Since I don't want to reveal who they are, two left-wing Democrats in private shocked me by saying bigoted statements against ethnic groups. I have never heard this before. One told someone else that a certain child should not speak audibly in criticism of Obama in public.
Whether this is typical, I have no idea, but it repeats the contradiction of giving lip service to all sorts of PC ideas but really not truly accepting them at all. I think it is possible that this high school generation may actually be more homophobic, racist, and sexist than predecessors because they are so cynical about these things.
As I said, I don't say these are typical, and I'd like to hear more views. And of course the country is quite big and things differ in various places. Still, I wonder if there is such a thing as vast amounts of unseen indoctrination when I hear of a 14-year old who explaining that his parents sold their house and moved, explained "with a sneer that "a rich white couple" bought it.
He may see himself as an oppressed Hispanic, but his ancestors come from Italy and both of his parents are senior officials at a large bank.
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.