Confessions of a Cultural Drop-out
Well, There’s Always Sports
Next confession: I have not watched a single NFL game--including the Super bowl--for more than 10 minutes during the last decade. In the 1980s I was a big fan. I could not be pried loose from the 49ers and Bill Walsh or Jim Plunkett’s numerous Raider come-backs. Out here Deacon Jones, Dick Bass, and John Brodie were sorta football greats. Not now such heroes. Somewhere around 1990-5 everything went wrong with the big money, big hype, and big egos.
Maybe it is the airs of the sportscasters, and the pseudo-intellectual exegesis of the “analysts.” (I’ll take a Russ Hodges or Dizzy Dean any day, or, god help me, a young Howard Cosell before his decline in the Clay/Ali days). The constant criminality of the players and the egocentric outbursts didn’t help. Then there’s the pretensions of the buccaneer owners, and the extravaganza of the spectacle of the Roman arena, all that turned me off it—despite the courage and drama involved in football, and the science and tension of baseball. But one can find that watching high school or college sports.
Ditto the NBA. I have not watched a complete game in 15 years. Here too I could not name 5 current NBA players. I quit with the old Lakers/Celtics rivalries of the late 1970s and 1980s. (But then I have never played a video game either, and the two now seem to the distant ignorant bystander as about the same thing).
I watched 2 baseball games on television the last 3 years. Again, the melodrama of the sportscasters and writers (a slick Bob Costas as would-be Aristotle in his analyses and Sophocles in the supposed serious tragedy of his modulating voice) assumes the players are Olympians when of course they more or less resemble ego-centric multimillionaires.
Just a dozen selfless players, who keep quiet when they score, give credit to others when they pitch a shut-out, or pass rather than shoot could help things. I don’t mind the constant therapy of the coverage—the personal interest story of the athlete who lost his mother during training, who conquered polio as a child, or who saved a little boy from a surging stream—but it does not make up for the absence of manners and sportsmanship.
Like most of America I do not read the New York Times--maybe once at an airport this year, but not more. (The only Times headlines I see are in history books, and pre-1970 they were quite good). It's not that just I get most of my news on the Internet, but rather there is no there at the Times. A void. The front-page stories are thinly disguised op-eds and poorly written and sourced, and the op-eds are not disguised first-person rants by Dowd, Krugman, Herbert, Rich, etc. largely embarrassing confessions from a group of well-off, well-connected, status-obsessed elites lecturing the nation outside New York and Los Angeles on its various sorts of illiberality. Life is too short for ground-hog day reads, the same angst over and over.
Nobel Prizes I stopped noticing a while back. Literature and Peace Prizes are awarded mostly on either race/class/gender considerations or utopian pacifism; that a Toni Morison won and a John Updike or Philip Roth (neither of whom I was all that fond of) never did, says all you need to know.
Petraeus is a true peace-maker and saved thousands of lives; Carter was not, and his timidity gave the green light to the Soviets who killed over a million in Afghanistan. If Al Gore had found a way to allow the world’s poor to survive malaria epidemics through DDT spraying, or invented a miracle strain of rice, or a new long-life battery, then one could justify the peace prize for world ecological achievement, but not for screaming about global warming climate change while making $100 million in medieval offset penances as the climate cools down the last decade.
So what's left of the life of American culture? I try to read novels, the older the better—Knut Hamsun, Conrad, James Jones. Historians like a Gibbon, Prescott, or Churchill, they could write. I read everything John Keegan writes. Martin Gilbert is excellent. Andrew Roberts is as well. I’ve reread Weinberg’s A World at Arms twice this year. The memoirists like E.B. Sledge are riveting. I review a lot of books on classics—the best are not written by academic classists. One does what one can.
The Thin Veneer
A final, odd observation. As I have dropped out of contemporary American culture and retreated inside some sort of 1950s time-warp, in a strange fashion of compensation for non-participation , I have tried to remain more engaged than ever in the country’s political and military crises, which are acute and growing. One’s distancing from the popular culture of movies, TV, newspapers, and establishment culture makes one perhaps wish to overcompensate in other directions, from the trivial to the important.
Lately more than ever I try to obey the speed limit, overpay my taxes, pay more estimates and withholding than I need, pay all the property taxes at once, pick up trash I see on the sidewalk, try to be overly polite to strangers in line, always stop on the freeway when I see an elderly person or single woman with a flat, leave 20% tips, let cars cut me off in the parking lot (not in my youth, not for a second), and patronize as many of Selma’s small businesses as I can (from the hardware store to insurance to cars). I don’t necessarily do that out of any sense of personal ethics, but rather because in these increasingly crass and lawless times, we all have to try something, even symbolically, to restore some common thread to the frayed veneer of American civilization, to balance the rips from a Letterman attack on Palin’s 14-year-old daughter or a Serena Williams’s threat to a line judge, or the President’s communication director’s praise of Mao, civilization’s most lethal mass murderer, or all of what I described above.
I don’t fathom the attraction of a Kanye West (I know that name after his outburst), a David Letterman, Van Jones, Michael Moore (all parasitic on the very culture they mock), or the New York Review of Books or People Magazine (they seem about the same in their world view). So goodbye to all that.
Horace called this reactionary nostalgia the delusion of a laudator temporis acti, the grouchy praiser of times past for the sake of being past. Perhaps. But I see the trend of many ignoring the old touchstones of popular entertainment and life as a rejection of establishment culture—a disbelief in, or utter unconcern with, what elites now offer as valuable on criteria that have nothing to do with merit or value. I was supposed to listen to Dan Rather because Murrow once worked for CBS? I am to go to the Cinema 16 because Hollywood once made Gone With the Wind or On the Waterfront?
I don’t particularly like the idea that I want little to do with contemporary culture. But I feel it nonetheless—and sense many of you do as well.