A third of the way through Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge — And Why We Must (a book only slightly longer than its title) I was ready to write it off. Which came as a surprise, since the author, Kalle Lasn , also founded Adbusters, which I quite like. But the first 100 pages of Culture Jam suffered from something I used to call Everyone Outside Of This Room Is Stupid Syndrome.
Later I discovered that this ugly bit of sociological hoohaw has an official name: Groupthink. But when I was in college, “Everyone Outside Of This Room Is Stupid Syndrome” seemed the perfect moniker for the phenomenon. It would start with someone wondering aloud about the cause of a social ill, and end with the entire class denouncing “Them” for their boneheadedness. “The reason television programming is so bad is because the American public just swallows whatever crap they dish out!” would be announced, to a chorus of head-nodding. Or “We can build all the bicycle lanes we want, but the masses are too dependant on their cars to ever use them!” Or “We understand the value of the old growth forests, but society at large is more interested in cheap burger and unlimited napkins!” The Public, Society, Americans, They — everyone not sitting here and participating in this very discussion is responsible for whatever problem we currently face. If only the People Outside Of This Room weren’t so darned Stupid, everything would get better.
That’s an apt summary of the first half of Culture Jam. Worse, Lasn writes most of it in second-person, so it’s really more like: “Everyone Outside Of This Room Is As Stupid As You”.
A Day In Your Life:
8:00 AM: You are biting into a hash brown patty at McDonalds. The grease shines on your chin like baby oil. You are reminded of your childhood …
9:30 AM: You are pushing a cart down the aisle of your neighborhood supermarket, past pyramids of shiny apples and peppers .. what you don’t know: these vegetables were pumped full of chemicals to enable them to grow in poor soil and survive the voyage to market …
6:00 PM: The frozen dinner you’re about to heat up in the microwave looks virtually the same as the meal you had on the airplane last nightIt goes on and on like this. You, the reader, are a mindless drone. God alone knows how you wound up reading this book — presumable a bookcase fell on you, and, as you lay trapped beneath its weight, you are skimming the pages of a volume that lies open before you.
This whole section is filled with so many contradictions that it’s almost self-negating. People will always be hopelessly enslaved to advertising, and yet we should work to help them think for themselves. People who eat whatever they want are rampant consumers and should be condemned, but those who watch their weight have been suckered by the Ideal Body-Size Myth. People who spend their days in front of a computer are losing touch with reality, and if you want to learn more about the problem you can visit us online at www dot adbusters dot — you see the problem?
The truth is that Lasn has about 100 pages worth of stuff to say in this book, and the first half ain’t it. In fact, the first ten chapters (each of which clocks in at about 6 pages) are essentially the same essay, each with a different wording but all driving home a point (unchecked consumerism = bad) that anyone who is voluntarily reading the book already knows. Worse, he offers no remedies for the problems he lists, content to just sadly shake his head at the state of America. It’s like listening to your grandpappy go on and on about how much better things were in his day.
Fortunately, Lasn does offer some hope in the latter half of the book, where he outlines some concrete steps that the reader can take to wean themselves off the corporate culture. But even here he has a lot less to say than he has pages to say it in. Don’t be so concerned about being “cool”. That’s good advice, if so-broad-to-the-point-of-being-useless. Ride a bicycle to work. Okay, yeah, that’s fine. Circulate an online petition. Uhhh, hmm. Liberate some billboards. What the – Liberate some billboards?! What about credit cards? Don’t you think one of the first steps in counteracting a consumer culture is to teach people the true costs of a life lived on debt? Lasn apparently doesn’t – credit cards are never once mentioned. What about donating to public television and public radio, or using public transportation? Where’s the practical advice about how to stop junk mail and end phone solicitation? Sadly, Culture Jam mentions none of this. But it does give you the ad rates for CNN in case you want to produce an anti-consumer commercial and put it on the air. All the tips tell you how you can go directly from being part of the problem to being one of those intolerable people who self-righteously boast about knowing the solution.
I can’t believe I’m panning Culture Jam, actually, because I honestly agree with 93% of what Lasn says. And I think he’s a great guy – Adbusters has done more good that I ever will. But this book is not the anti-consumer guide that it purports to be. It’s more as if, instead of really wanting to solve the problem, Lasn just wants to invite you into the room to join the others for grousing and self-congratulation.
Stoned Guys … On the Bus!SGotB#1: I heard that when we attack, uh, Iraq, you know, we’re gonna drop so many bombs in three days that no, no one is, is never, nobody is never, none, no one is never [inhales] so many bombs that no, no, no one is never going, never, no one is never going to fuck with the US again.SGotB#2: Shit!
There was no post on Friday. You may have noticed. Instead you get a rare Sunday post and a bevy of excuses.
First off, I was suffering from Post Dentist Stress Disorder. My visit with Sgt. Scrape went exceptionally well, actually — I don’t think he ever had more than 14 metal objects in my mouth at any given time — but I was profoundly unnerved by how much he knew about me. When you graduate from high school your permanent record is apparently transferred into your dentist’s custody. And he, my dentist, made a point of mentioning every fact he knew, perhaps trying to create a sense of intimacy (similar to the supermarket checker who, after looking at my credit card receipt, says “Have a great day, Mr. Baldwin!” — something which invariable makes me want to punch him intimately in the nametag). “So, Matthew Scott Baldwin” the dentist said, tipping the tray so that all of his tools fell into my open maw, “how’s your programming job going? You programmer. And the house search? Did you find a house? A house on 1765 46th Ave. NW, perhaps? You know, I’ve been looking over your Internet Explorer’s history file, and I can’t say I approve of all these sites you’ve been visiting…” etc, etc.
So I was already a bit on edge when I got up Friday and discovered that I was on the wrong end of a write-in campaign orchestrated by my arch-nemesisesses, the Wiccans. There had never been any bad blood betwixt the Wiccans and I before, (perhaps because I alone, of all Earth-based bloggers, refrained from mocking the Harry Potter Nimbus 2000 Amazon reviews), but it seems that one of them stumbled upon a review of a game called “Witch Trial” I had written several years ago. Details of the game were then posted to pagen.ws, along with my email address and exhortations to “drop me a line”. I’m so totally not making any of this up.
That’s how I came to be besieged by almost four angry emails. For example:
Are you insane? Can you be anymore insensitive?..do you think this dark moment in America’s history is funny? Apparently you do because, although I can see the dark humor in this (in terms of what YOU think is humorous), I can’t begin to understand what kind of sick mind you must haveSooooo, yeah! I dare say that’s enough said on that subject. (Goddess knows I’m already going to get another three angry emails, what with my careless conflation of Wiccans and Pagans, here). Suffice to say that finding a coven in your Inbox before morning coffee does not a pleasant Friday make.
Then it was off to visit the in-laws, who inconveniently live over in Spokane. If you’re not familiar with Washington State, the whole “Seattle ~ Spokane” thing this may require a bit of explanation. You remember that Batman villain, Two-Face? Washington is exactly like that. You have the Cascades mountain range right down the middle of the state, and the two sides are (1) complete opposites and (2) always at war at each other and (3) played by Tommy Lee Jones in the motion picture. Western Washington is liberal and urban; Eastern is rural and conservative. Western Washington is constantly socked in by rain; Eastern Washington is plagued by perpetual drought. Everyone in Western Washington is hooked on heroin; everyone in Eastern Washington is addicted to methamphetamine. And driving from one side to the other is like going through the looking glass. It’s fun to set your radio to some random frequency and listen to the metamorphosis as well as watch it: you start off listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you traverse Central Washington to “Todo mi Amor (Es Tuyo)” and, by the time you arrive near the Idahoian border, you are yee-hawing to “Be My Baby Tonight”.
That’s where I spent the weekend: hanging out in an area where they have more cattle than Starbucks. My In-laws live in an honest-to-god log cabin, accompanied by the World’s best dog, the World’s toughest cats, and a guinea pig named “Slim Shady”. (Slim Shady and I have an odd relationship, owing to the fact that I ate scores of guinea pigs while living in Bolivia. It’s hard to view a critter as both an adorable pet and a potential entree.) As always, I found hanging out in the middle of nowhere to be a profoundly mind-clearing experience. Plus, Pa-In-Law, as usual, got off a couple of excellent wisecracks:
Ma-In-Law: You see that Chinese restaurant? It looks so run down that we never even considered going there until last month. But we finally tried it, and it turns out to be quite nice inside. They even had a pianist who played while we ate.
Pa-In-Law: Unfortunately, the only song he would play was “chopsticks”.
How obvious is it that I don’t really have a point, here? Anyway: I’ve returned to Seattle and the yeti is back on track. I haven’t done many reviews for the past few weeks, but expect that to change as of tomorrow.
Today I saw a man walking across the street while trying to simultaneously scrape some foreign substance off the bottom of his shoe. He would take a step with his right foot, sharply strike the bottom of his shoe on the pavement twice, take a quick step with his left foot, and then repeat the process.
I was pretty bummed when I realized what he was really doing, because at first I though he was doing a merry, impromptu jig. You just don’t see enough of them merry, impromptu jigs these days.
Update: My email to Jennifer Dunn, Washington State Representative:
“If peaceful efforts to destroy Iraq’s weapons or to bring about a regime change fail, then I have decided to authorize any means necessary to accomplish these goals. Military force should always be a last resort.” So you have written on your webpage, and I commend you for this position. But I fear that the Congress is poised to cede its decision-making capabilities to the Executive branch, by approving a war resolution that hands the Bush Administration a foreign policy carte blanch.I do not believe that the White House shares your philosophy of only utilizing military force as a last resort. Waiving your responsibility as a Congresswomen to serve as a check and balance to the Bush Administration’s warmongering is therefore tantamount to reneging on these principles that you hold dear. I hope you’ll have the courage and the integrity to stand up for your convictions, and ensure that Congress continues to have a voice in the planning process of this momentous decision.Respectfully Yours,Matthew Baldwin“Warmongering” and “renege” were probably a little over the top, but, whatever. Steal, rewrite, use.Update: Senator Patty Murray Responds!
Dear Friend:Thank you for contacting me by email. This is just a short note to let you know that my office has received your message. If you are from Washington state and …Yeah, that’s about where I stopped reading …
Politicians in Washington D.C. today denounced other politicians for using political issues for political gain. "The politicalization of politics has got to stop," railed one such politician. "The manner in which my opponents are turning political issues into politics smacks of partisanship." The criticized politicians, meanwhile, pointed out that the accusing politicians were politically motivated politicians, whose charges of political politicalization were made in a conspicuously political way. "The American people will see through this blatant attempt to play politics with the politics of politics-playing," predicted one. While no one knows which party will come out ahead in this public relations skirmish, it is clear that both groups are profoundly stupid.
I have a dentist’s appointment tomorrow. I hate the dentist. The thing I dislike the most about going to the dentist, aside from the dentistry, is that I learn unpleasant things about myself. Like the fact that, apparently, I never floss. And that if I were to be captured by The Enemy and tortured, I’d confess everything inside of 60 seconds.
The Enemy: Where are your loved ones hiding?Me: I’ll never tell!The Enemy: Okay. Before we begin I’m going to put this tube in the corner of your mouth; it will gently vacuum up any excess saliva that —Me: Basement of Pizza Hut, 65th and Harrison Ave.At least in the old days I would get prize for making it through my visits without shrieking. Did you? The “Children’s Dentist” I was dragged to as a child had two big things going for it: (1) the dentist would wear a surgical mask which made the lower half of his face look like a big cartoony basset hound (this was a lot less nightmare-inducing than it sounds), and (2) after all the unpleasantry you would get to root around in a big cardboard treasure chest and pick out a toy — a small plastic sword or a fake hook-hand — from amongst the hundreds of previously passed-over packages of sugarless gum. (I’m not sure what the deal was with the pirate theme; perhaps because, at this point, all you could say was “Arrrgh arrr arrrghr.”) Sure the toy was inevitably some cheap piece of crap that would break the first time you hit your sister with it, but even that would be better than the “Remember to Brush!” emblazoned $0.65 toothbrush they give me now.The first person who starts an “Adult’s Dentist” practice is going to make a killing: knowing there’s a treasure chest full of Nirvana mix tapes, Warcraft III demo disks and girlie magazines (or IKEA catalogs, for the ladies) waiting for you at the end would make any dentist visit more bearable for we Gen X’ers, where X > 29. Million dollar idea, right there. I’d do it myself, but becoming a dentist would leave me with no excuse not to floss.
Ninety year-old neighbor: “When I was little girl I was out walking with Brownie, the big, hairy dog that I had grown up with. We walked by a lake, which I think was the first time I’d ever taken Brownie by the water. Well, Brownie saw someone swimming and went crazy! He ran to the edge of a dock and leapt into the water and charged right at the swimmer. I didn’t know what to do, and everyone on the beach thought that Brownie was going to kill this person, so I panicked and jumped into the water after him.
“Just before Brownie got to the swimmer he looked back, saw me, and turned right around. He grabbed my dress in his teeth and towed me to shore. I was soaked and mortified so I took Brownie straight home.
“When I told my father what had happened, he laughed and said ‘Didn’t you know? Before we got Brownie he was a lifeguard. He was trained to sit by the lake and rescue people who were drowning.’ I had no idea! I was very proud of him. But I never took him to the lake again.”
Friend who, along with his two-year daughter Juniper, spent an entire afternoon visiting: “When we left your house and began to drive away Juniper said ‘I’m hungry.’ I said, ‘but we just spent two hours eating at Matthew’s house!’ And she said ‘Who’s Matthew?'”
Recently wed acquaintance: “We told my new inlaws that I was hoping to get pregnant soon, and my new father-in-law looks at me and says ‘Remember: grass won’t grow on a well-worn path.’ What the hell does that mean?!”
I love how the commercials on tv are, like, twice as loud as the programs they interrupt. “Stayed tuned and find out who Melissa chooses, next on Fifth Wheel. THINKING OF REFINANCING!? NOW’S THE TIME!!!”
What a great idea! I’m going to do this from now on, double my volume whenever I am engaged in self-promotion.
Me: Hey, how are you doing?Girl at Party: Fine, thanks. And you?Me: Doin’ alright. I’m Matthew, by the way.Girl: Nice to meet you, Matthew. I’m Cheryl.Me: Pretty good party, huh? I noticed you were over here looking over Paul’s CD collection. Are you a big music fan?Girl: Uh-huh, totally.Me: I’m a huge music aficionado myself. I mean, I DON’T LIKE THAT POPULAR CRAP THEY PLAY ON THE RADIOS, I’M INTO INDEPENDENT MUSIC!!Girl: I, uh, whoa. Yeah, uh, Indie stuff rules. So do you like, ah, The Strokes?Me: Not any more, but I USED TO LIKE THEM BEFORE THEY SOLD OUT!!Girl: Oh, right. But the video is cool.Me: I wouldn’t know, since I DON’T HAVE A TV!! Hey, that’s a nice jacket you’re wearing.Girl: Oh yeah, you like it? I got it at a thrift store, believe it or not.Me: I buy a lot of my stuff from thrift stores too, SINCE I REFUSE TO PATRONIZE McCORPORATIONS LIKE THE GAP!!! I AM AGAINST GLOBALIZATION!!! AND SUVS!!!!Girl: Do you realize you are shouting?Me: You may have SEEN ME ON THE NEWS during the Seattle WTO uprising. I was THE GUY WITH THE BIG PUPPETS!! Or maybe you saw
MY ARTICLE DENOUNCING THE WTO that was PUBLISHED IN THE SEATTLE ANARCHISTS QUARTERLY ZINE!! As a matter of fact, I’m using that essay as a starting point for THE SCREENPLAY THAT I AM WRITING!!Girl: People are starting to stare.Me: It must be my STARTLINGLY GOOD LOOKS!!!! HERE’S MY PHONE NUMBER!!!Hey, that reminds me: this post was MENTIONED IN THE GUARDIAN, ENGLAND’S SECOND LARGEST NEWSPAPER!!!!!!!!!!*. Thanks to Rory for the scan.* Several readers have informed me that the “England’s second-largest newspaper” bit is a lie. I have informed several readers that I don’t care.