Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Vice, Growing Up, and Death

I would name these (the first two in no particular order, though surely Death must come last) to be the three main general topics of today's life in America, replacing the "Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll" of some recent, but bygone, decades.  Sex is too ubiquitous and easy to be controversial these days, drugs are certainly still present but too embarrassing for most to discuss, while rock & roll, so I am told, is "Dad music".*

What is it, exactly?  Merriam-Webster online has the summarized definition as:
 bad or immoral behavior or habits
: a moral flaw or weakness: a minor bad habit
which I think hits all the main points I want to discuss.+

The point to start with is that, as misbehavior goes, these describe relatively minor crimes, not at the level of the mega-drug dealer/killer criminals of the '80's "Miami Vice".  Crime, and punishment, is still as big a topic as ever in American life, it's just not as interesting (it's played to death). As a class, perhaps unfortunately, vice makes up the interesting parts of many people's lives, the stuff that folks just can't stop texting, Facebook-ing, gossiping, blogging, putting on "reality" shows and CNN, and tweeting their little bird brains off about.

Vice is basically the hot thing in news media, if anything is:  there is Vice News,, Vice the TV show on HBO (connected with, Vice the youtube channel, and about two-thirds of everything else on TV that isn't crime-scene forensics and sports is about vice. Let's take for example the two biggest stories of the last two weeks.  No, not Ukraine and ISIS, but the leaked nude photo story and the Ray Rice story.   There is vice in each;  "sexting" is what I would call "a minor bad habit", while the practice of bullying, in general, is certainly reflective of "a moral flaw or weakness", and you could add a couple other associated behaviors from the incident, such as being drunk in public, arguing and spitting on your spouse in a hotel elevator.

Both cases have in common what I would call a new kind of vice:  the absence of awareness that things we do on the Internet (in its various forms) or in public places are no longer private behaviors. This "vice of naivete" is a sin of a new kind, one that will be relentlessly attacked by the World As We Are Coming To Know It.  There is only one definitive way to eliminate this vice:  go completely off-grid and live outside the closed-circuit TV zone.  Any other behavior in this electronically hyperconnected society will be more akin to the way that we nowadays pursue "health" in a futile effort to prevent eventual aging and death, beacuse all the security hygiene, pretty-good-privacy, and cookie deletion in the world won't protect us from determined hackers.   We must either live publicly without vice (or even wardrobe malfunction), or be prepared for the world to see it (if it is interesting enough to somebody with the means and inclination to uncover and disclose it, that being the random, unfair part of the law of the Internet jungle).

Hacking, though, I would argue is something different, and not merely one of these vices of minor gravity (such as voyeurism, or lust, both of which certainly enter into this discussion)--regardless of the law in force, it is something heavier, and not a game, though most hackers themselves seem to view it as such.  It is basically the illegitimate pursuit of unauthorized access to information, regardless of motivation or the use that is made. In this case, it was gross violation of privacy, which should be a criminal offense in itself, but at least there are other significant legal violations pending for the unknown hacker.  As for Rice, I always thought that the spousal assault cases didn't proceed without the spouse pressing charges, but apparently the video evidence is enough to make a case without his wife's cooperation.  "Stupid bully in public"--guilty as charged, but we will let you off easy because you're a football player--if the video doesn't surface, in which case will take away your livelihood.

Changing the subject but not the reference, Vice News is trying to stand out with its coverage of ISIS (which, I would submit based on the argument here, is not about vice but something else--a medieval form of Nazism, maybe, but anyway...)  It had a long video report from inside ISIS-controlled areas (the search of which cost the lives of Stephen Sotloff and James Foley, so you better believe they were careful, and careful not to offend), and, speaking of ISIS,  here is a praiseworthy article I suggest reading, a subject which I will take up in the near future (after I think about it some more).

Finally, I should put in another plug for "Inherent Vice", the movie based on the Pynchon book, which is coming out later this year.  The meaning of the words is important to the story, as I remember, and the meaning of the phrase (in both its original sense and in Pynchon's subversive use of it) may be a little surprising--it's not just referring to "a bad guy" (though maybe partially so).

Growing Up
They will see us waving from such great heights
Come down now, they'll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
Come down now but we'll stay

--"Such Great Heights", The Postal Service (and then by Iron and Wine), written by Benjamin Gibbard and, Jimmy Tamborello (of The Postal Service). 

I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd, but when they said, "Come down", I threw up.  Oooh...growing up. 
--Bruce Springsteen (of course)

There is some diversity of opinion as to whether it's the "wrath" or the "warmth" of the clouded crowd (wha?), and it's not the most artistic of songs, but the theme of both quotes is the same:  "they" want us to grow up, we reject it. Growing up= Coming down. (There is a nice play on words in the Springsteen song that suggests something about drinking too much and throwing up.)

There's no doubt that maturation in our society is both long and that children are increasingly exposed to more, and sooner, than they once were.  The result, I would submit, is a lot of ambiguity about when this process is supposed to be complete.  A lot of societies have their official "coming out" events; we have a whole lot of them, none definitive.

A point of reference for this section is an entertaining, but serious piece by A.O. Scott, the Times' senior film critic, who announced "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture" in the Sunday Times Magazine edition of September 14. He's become convinced that there's an epidemic of people of adult age in our society who cling to the ways of childhood, that there's no stopping it, and that we may as well accept it.  

I found his argument a bit confusing, and much stronger on the argument of the end of patriarchy than of any and all "adult" behavior.  With respect to men, in particular, much of what he describes fits into the category that has for decades been identified as "mid-life crisis".  Further, he goes into detail to explain how this refusal to grow up has been part of American culture (by which he means particularly popular novels, music, TV, and film), basically forever (he brought Benjamin Franklin into the argument).  So, what is so new?  Mostly the end of the exclusivity of this kind of entitlement behavior ("I behave in this childish way because I can") to men.

I could go on, but I think it's best that you come back to me after you've read Scott's arguments and comment here (anonymous or not, I don't care).  As for myself, I hold tenaciously to my right to pursue entertainments I enjoyed when I was younger and beliefs that I held when I was younger; becoming older doesn't mean I have to give up everything that was fun or that was liberating in my own philosophy (though I have chosen to give up a few things, particularly my naivete and, somewhat related, my tendency toward sarcasm).

One thing that I will insist upon, though, is that there is room for, and a necessity for, giving more serious considerations their place in life.  As long as we live in a world with war, a world in which it is difficult for a person of normal intelligence and training without special privilege to make a living suitable for his/her family by working an appropriate portion of his/her life, we can not afford to be at play at all times.  And I don't quite buy the concept that "work should be the thing we do for fun"--not for most of the people, most of the time.

Obit Dept. 
It has been awhile, and the recently departed have piled up--not literally so, but the list has become long.  The predominance of names from the entertainment world suggests that I might have put this at the end of the Film preview, but that was already too long (not that this post isn't).  I will mention some names with brief commentary.

Richard Attenborough - (Aug. 24) -  I lead with the longtime character actor and leading Chelsea football backer.  He is most known, justifiably, for being the director of Gandhi, one of the all-time great English-language movies.

Robin Williams - (Aug.  11 ) - A man of immense talent, which was always on display, and a darker side which was not evident, but was perhaps predictable, based on his manic on-stage behavior as a comic.  Certainly he demonstrated the capability of being serious, as he did in his Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting.  His depression may have been partly from the diagnosis of early-stage Parkinson's, something disclosed only after his death, or partly from the persistent pain felt by a recovered user of addictive substances, something about which he was somewhat open.  His career was certainly fulfilled, but the loss is ours, as we will not have his incisive commentary on many more years of events and social change which we might otherwise have gained.#

James Garner - (July 19) - One of the most popular movie/TV personalities of the past 50 years.  I don't know that much about him beyond his performances (the original Maverick and Rockford Files being the most memorable), but he seemed to bring his great, wisecracking personality to every role. So maybe his range wasn't that great; he delivered good value.

James Brady - (Aug. 4) - A public servant who performed his greatest service to the public after he couldn't work in government anymore.  The most seriously injured of those attacked by Hinckley in 1981 (Ronald Reagan was the most seriously lucky, in a way, though I read now that the bullet that reached his heart was actually off a ricochet, so maybe his luck was mixed.),  Brady had brain damage which affected his motor functions for the rest of his life.  He was retained as honorary press secretary for years after, then became the most prominent spokesman willing to challenge the gun lobby for sensible gun reform (at least until Gabby Giffords).  His organization had considerable success and lives on--it is very active in this year's campaign, as it tries to fend off the accusation that advocating gun control equals political death.

Lauren Bacall - ( Aug. 12) - Her best years were mostly before my time, but the charisma of the Bogie-Bacall relationship has an eternal glow.  An early role model for what is now sometimes called a "new feminist"--confident, powerful, sexy.

Don Pardo - ( Aug. 18) - One of the true kings of the small circle of professional voice-over artists.  I remember him from Art Fleming's Jeopardy and the original "Price is Right" even before he began his 30+ year run doing the intro for Saturday Night Live.  With today's voice communication, he literally was able to phone it in, the past few years.  And I mean that in the best way, that he was still able to do it, even age 96.  I am surprised to read that that was his real name.

Joan Rivers - ( Sept. 4) - Her humor was not my favorite kind:  too much dishing on others, though she had self-deprecating humor as well, and showed love at times.  I actually think she was well appreciated in Hollywood, and certainly had more longevity than most.  Except for:

Betty White - (not dead yet!) - Wow, think of all the stuff she has done.  My earliest memory of her was on Password (the black and white version)--she was married to the host, Alan Luden, as I recall. I mention her only because there was a somewhat justified rumor that circulated a week or so ago that she had died; actually she had only "dyed", and a press release--probably intentionally misleading--had been misunderstood.

Marvin Barnes - ( Sept. 7) - A great basketball player and one of the truly unusual characters in NBA history (there are many, but he was one of the more unusual ones).  Also known as "Bad News Barnes", which gives a suggestion of the reputation that he had (and earned).  Read more fully about Barnes in this obituary in the local paper of Providence, R.I., where he first earned fame as one of the stars on the basketball team of Providence College.  Pretty much earned the college's fame then, too, he and guard Ernie Di Gregorio.

Wolfgang Leonhard - (Aug. 17) - This man had a significant effect on several different historical eras, though few ever heard of him.  He was born into Communism in Vienna in 1921, then lived in Germany and Sweden with his mother as long as it was safe to be a Communist there.  When it wasn't they went to the Soviet Union.  He became, through first-hand experience, an expert on the Comintern (Stalin's group to advance his brand of Communism internationally), then he was dropped into East Germany after the war as a political organizer to drive the country into the Soviet camp. Obviously, he and his colleagues were successful, and the leader of his group, Walter Ulbricht, became dictator there. Still, he was dissatisfied with the outcome (perhaps philosophically, perhaps personally disappointed) and escaped, through Yugoslavia, into the West.  He became a lecturer and writer specializing in chronicling the misdeeds of the Soviets, particularly in other countries' affairs.  I saw him teaching a lecture course on Eurocommunism, when it was a hot topic (mid'70's); his point of view was (simplifying excessively):  "these may be nice guys (the Communists in Italy, Spain, and France), but a Communist is a Communist.  I know their tricks, and the Soviets are backing them, both openly and secretly."  Yes, but we were doing the same on the other side, weren't we?  Anyway, Eurocommunism never quite got its day in the sun in any Western European government, and the movement died--with Aldo Moro, some would say, or possibly with Enrico Berlinguer.   It's certainly pretty much a dead issue now.

*I am a dad, and therefore accordingly interested, but I have to acknowledge that there are many who do not have that privilege, and my bias may have prevented me from recognizing just how much musical times have changed.  This is part of my effort to do that.

+ It says there that the etymology of the other meaning of vice, as in Joe Biden, V--- President, is completely separate from that of the bad behavior one;  both come from Latin, but naughty is from "vitium", while the VP one comes from the ablative of  "vicis", change or alternation. 

#I notice that Robin was one of eight Williams dying in August who made the Wikipedia list for that month.  One was Tim Williams, age 30, of a band called Suicidal Tendencies.  Not funny. 

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