Pink Lips & Bubbles
21 May 2017
Africa, African History, Apartheid, biography, Biography as Craft, Book Review, Born a Crime, Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Feminism, history, Hitch-22, Humor, Jim Henson: A Life, Jon Stewart, library card, Masculinity Studies, memoir, mothers, Politics, race, racism, Racism is not logical, Satire, sex, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, South Africa, The Daily Show, Tolstoy, Trevor Noah, Tyler Public Library, violence, What Mothers Give Their Children
I’m pretty sure my mother is using me for my library card.
Ever since I started working for the Tyler Public Library my eyes have opened to the pettiness of local government, and the pain that can sometimes be public service. The Tyler Library is a significant one: we have one of the few full time Genealogy/Local History rooms that is open full time in East Texas. Along with that we serve a wide variety of people who come in looking for books, DVDs, access to computers and the internet, and a regular series of public speaking events in which people come to listen and watch professionals talk on topics ranging from Rose growing to the future of Nuclear Arsenal Diplomacy on the international stage. The problem with the library, like almost every library I’m sure, is funding. Because only the city of Tyler’s taxes go to fund us, people who live within the county but not the city have to pay a membership fee. My reader may be wondering what this has to do with my mother or Trevor Noah’s wonderful autobiography Born a Crime. I’m sorry, I like to talk, but I’m getting to it.
My mother lives in Smith county but she lives in a small town called Noonday which barely caps 400 people. She then, like many people in Smith county, complain about the fact that their tax dollars are being taken but they still have to pay to use the library. In her defense, she understands the money situation since I’ve explained it to her, but often I have to smile and carefully explain to patrons that the county refuses to pay us and therefore we have to charge a fee to stay in the black. Few people really understand this because of the unspoken maxim that I agree with in principle: Libraries should be free.*
But my mother likes to read and I like my mother, she’s got good taste in music and pays my cell phone bill, so I decided to arrange a system in which I would check out books that she wants to read and loan them to her. The system has worked so far, but as I noted from the start I think she’s enjoying this arrangement because every time I see her she’s asking for another book.
This little anecdote though does serve a purpose because as I noted before this essay is my response to Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I didn’t know about Trevor Noah at all until he got in trouble for an offensive tweet, and to be fair that was really only because he was taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and people were looking to disrupt the institution at this supposed moment of weakness. Stewart left, Noah began, I stopped watching for a while. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny, it just that he was new and I’m one of those obnoxious people who has to settle into things slowly. Still I enjoy The Daily Show and Noah himself has begun to really demonstrate that he’s made The Daily Show into his own and so I’ve become a regular watcher again, and in fact, in the last few months I’ve come to adore Trevor Noah as a comedian, and even more as a writer and Born a Crime is largely responsible.
I checked the book out from the library (my desk is literally right next to the New Books area) and read the first two chapters knowing instantly that my mother would love this book. I know it sounds ridiculous or absurd to suggest that I have anything in common with a celebrity (especially one who’s seemed to have a far more interesting and eventful life than I have), but reading these first two chapters I realized that Trevor Noah and his mother had a relationship that mirrored the relationship my mother and I have. A strange closeness that fortunately isn’t Oedipal.
I told her to read just the first two chapters.
I didn’t get the book back for a week.
Noah’s biography took me completely by surprise because I’ve read the autobiographies of comedians before, and most of them, if I’m being charitable, aren’t worth reading. It’s not that they aren’t funny, it’s just that most of them are just opportunities to track their individual development and show where they’ve come from. I know there’s merit and real humanity in such works, but the problem is too often these books are also just a chance to rap and ramble about everything and anything that comes into their heads. Noah’s book is different however, because his story chronicles not just his awkward puberty and childhood, it also tackles the issues of race, political corruption, domestic violence, crime, and poverty while still managing to be entertaining and well written. Trevor Noah’s very existence was a crime because, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, being the child of a black woman and a white man, he was a crime against the state.
Noah’s book often explores the sheer absurdity of apartheid in small segments between the chapters of the book. One passage which is one of my mother’s favorites, discusses the labeling of Chinese South Africans as black. He explains:
Apartheid, for all it’s power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean that they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same tie, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given the honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. (75).
I still can’t read this passage without cracking up. The stupidity is just mind-boggling. Then again the United States Constitution originally labeled black people as three fifths of a human being so I suppose it’s important to remember that racism is a worldly stupidity rather than just a regional one.
One of the joys of reading Noah’s biography is the fact that, as a comedian, his retelling of one of the most truly despicable institutionalized race segregationist policies never becomes dramatic, hyperbolic, or soul-crushingly depressing. Instead of levelling on and on about the atrocities of apartheid, Noah tries constantly to present the small absurdities in his life while observing how they would relate to the wider national community. And in this right, I would argue, Noah succeeds far better in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of apartheid, because while concerted political efforts were what ultimately brought down such an odious system, it’s the power of subverting the institution through laughter that a real victory is achieved.
If you can laugh at something, it’s difficult to take it too seriously.
There so many levels to Noah’s biography in terms of race. One of the most prominent is also one of the hilarious and tragic scenes in the book. Noah describes his early infancy when his mother and biological father tried to take Noah outside for activity.
Where most children are proof of their parent’s love I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d half to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens a zoo, a giant chess-board with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him. (27).
This passage is funny upon first reading, but by the second or third time I’m reading it I wonder (while still laughing) the pain of not being able to even be seen in public with your child.
Before I start the maudlin crap though I really do want to acknowledge how well written this biography is. I’ve observed before that it can be difficult to find truly great biographies. A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy is always the first that comes to mind, Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jo Lee Anderson comes next, Jim Henson: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Also look up his George Lucas), Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and recently I’ve begun Life by Keith Richards. This list may seem to contradict my statement before about the scarcity of truly great biographies but in fact it only reinforces it. These books are products of a careful craft (pardon the alliteration) that tries to leave the reader with a real sense of the person under discussion, and rather than try to chronicle every detail of a person’s existence, it instead tries to offer the heart and personality in all its beauty and flaws.
Reading Born a Crime I feel like I know Trevor Noah’s personality, rather than just his facts.
And if I can offer one last sentiment, what is beautiful about the book for me is how much I come to recognize that the pair of us do have one thing in common: we grew up under strong women. The impression of Born a Crime that lingers for me is how Patricia Noah helped shape Trevor into the man he became. One quote is enough to see this because I return to it over and over again:
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict upon others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped Abel had started. (262).
This passage is beautiful to me because it perfectly summarizes the home I was raised in, or at least the philosophy that governed it. Both of my parents grew up in homes where physical abuse was not controversial, it was just a common means of discipline. I was raised by parents who disagreed with that idea, who instead wanted their children to see that violence doesn’t check anything, all it does is inspire more of itself. Violence becomes a kind of cancer eating at the people who perform it and suffer from it until there’s nothing left. If anything, this passage seems like the most important in the entire book because ultimately this biography centers on Noah and his mother.
The relationships between mothers and sons can be complicated, because if men profess too much admiration or devotion to them the accusation of Oedipus complex becomes a loud prison sentence. Anyone who needs much evidence of this simply look to the “Martha” controversy of Batman Vs Superman. But mothers are important for a young man’s development because she becomes the first relationship. Mothers, the good ones anyway, teach their sons emotional strength and then eventually how to interact with the world. They teach them the proper ways to speak and act towards women. They teach them about the importance of family. They teach their sons love, and what that word really means against the supposed images and representations of it that crowd the media. This last lesson is important, the most important, because as Noah’s biography demonstrates that love is what helps develop people into the individuals they are and instills in them their ideals and moral constructions.
I had a wonderful mother who encouraged me to create and love rather than destroy. That guidance has led me to where I am today. Likewise, Noah had a loving mother who suffered and endured a pain that would break most people, but through it all endured and taught her son that essential quality.
Born a Crime isn’t just a story about racism, it’s a testament to a mother’s love for her son. And his success is only further proof that she probably deserves some kind of official “Mom of the Year” award, because you don’t get shot in the head and live through that and not receive any kind of accommodation. Spoilers.
Since writing this essay one of the library staff explained, rather effectively, that nothing in life is “free,” and in fact if you look at the way libraries work since their founding, they are most certainly not free. Books, internet access, and DVDs don’t magically appear from thin air and so libraries have to receive fuding of some kind, usually from taxes and grant funding. I’m writing this out because this attitude of “Libraries should be free” is bullshit and it needs to stop being perpetuated.
All quotes from Born a Crime were taken from the Spiegel & Grau First edition hardback copy.
For the record I don’t mind if my mother uses my library card. Shegave birth me and continues to support me financially, philosophically, emotionally, intellectually, etc., and reads whatever I write here. She also, from time to time, recommends great books. So thanks Mom, you rock. Love you.
Book Review, Circles, Edith Hamilton, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, Freya's Unusual Wedding, gods, Heimdall, Humor, Literature, Loki, MJolnir, myth, mythology, Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology, Odin, Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, Ragnarock, Reimagined Narratives, Sexy Norse Gods, story, The Sandman, The World Tree, Thor, Writing
I believe there is a quote that says, “A fool and his money are soon parted,” but that sumbitch never read Neil Gaiman.
I was annoyed and frustrated with myself a few weeks back because Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris were both giving public readings in Dallas this year, and by the time I discovered the where and when of the venue the performance halls were already sold out. This was painful because not only were two of my favorite authors coming close enough to me to actually hear them read and speak in public, but every person attending these events were going to receive a free signed copy of their most recent books with a purchase of a ticket. So probably not actually free, but it feels free. I have no one but myself to blame for this missed chance, and since I already suffer from undiagnosed depression and give myself a pretty hard time I needed something to lift my spirits.
To Amazon I went.
Now I was aware of the fact that Neil Gaiman had started a new book, and once some of the early advertisements started appearing I knew I had to read Norse Mythology. I was originally just going to pre-order it, but then life happened I forgot, but once I started working at the Tyler Public Library and saw that we had ordered a copy I placed the first hold. Ever since I’ve begun working at the library my compulsive book shopping has, no stopped exactly, but at least dwindled to manageable levels. Why purchase a book when I can simply check it out and know that it’s there just a ten minute drive away? The book came in and I just devoured it, but halfway through reading it I realized that I needed my own copy. And so one night while searching through amazon I spotted, not just a hardback first edition, but an autographed copy. I’m a poor man, but also a fool, and so I proved the philosopher correct and divorced myself from 60 of my hard earned dollars. I don’t regret a thing.
Norse Mythology as a book has been a revelation because, like many people who went through the educational system in the United States I assume, I never learned much, or anything really, about the Norse Gods. Going to the school I did I was steeped in the classical tradition. We read The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Aeneid, Medea, Julius Caesar, and in the seventh grade I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s standard Mythology. This book, which still sits in my shelf today, was a great resource and a wonderful opening to the complicated world of Greek Myth, but I noted at the time that there was a small portion in the back of the book that my teacher never got around to assigning to us. In the back of Hamilton’s book is 24 pages (I counted) dedicated to the Norse Gods and their mythos. I forgie Edith Hamilton for the sparseness of this section since hard written records of Norse myth aren’t as prevalent as Greek or Roman records, but something has always irked me about the way this section of myth feels simply tacked on, when an in-depth reading and study of these myths reveals a great bounty of lore and stories.
As soon as my copy of Norse Mythology came in I showed it to my friend TJ, the founder of the graphic novel book club I’m a part of, and we both briefly compared the book, and it’s ambition, to Edith Hamilton’s work speculating that there now exists the possibility that within a few years it could be assigned in schools for a similar purpose. I honestly believe this, and after completing the book my assessment remains. Neil Gaiman has achieved through his efforts a beautiful book which has made me slap my head repeatedly wondering why it took me so long to read, and enjoy, Norse Myths.
To begin with I have to briefly mention “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” which is the story of how the god Thor lost his now iconic hammer Mjolnir. Though Gaiman opens the book with individual descriptions of each god and their affinities and powers, each story on occasion provides some background material. The chapter that covers the “wedding” begins with such a description of Thor’s Hammer.
Thor’s hammer was called Mjollnir. It has been made by the dwarf’s Brokk and Eitri. It was one of the treasures of the gods. If Thor hit anything with it, that thing would be destroyed. If he threw the hammer at something, the hammer would never miss its target, and would always flay back through the air and return to his hand. He could shrink the hammer down and hide it inside his shirt, and he could make it grow again. It was a perfect hammer in all things except one: it was slightly too short in the handle, which meant that Thor had to swing it one handed.
The hammer kept the gods of Asgaurd safe from all the dangers that menaced them and the world. Frost giants and ogres, trolls and monsters of every kind, all were frightened of Thor’s hammer. (109-110).
As it turns out the giants stole Thor’s hammer one night while he was asleep, and Heimdall, the guardian of Asgaurd who sees all, comes up with a plan on how to infiltrate the giant’s keep and steal the hammer back. The gods are discussing how to retreave Mjollnir when the most hilarious passage in the book is related:
“Well?” said Loki. “What about you Heimdall? Doyou have any suggestions?”
“I do,” said Heimdall. “But you won’t like it.”
Thor banged his fist down upon the table. “It does not matter whether or not we like it,” he said. “We are gods! There is nothing that any of us gathered here would not do to get back Mjollnir, the hammer of the gods. Tell us your idea, and it is a good idea, we will like it.”
“You won’t like it,” said Heimdall.”
“We will like it!”
“Well,” said Heimdall, “I think we should dress Thor as a bride. Have him put on the necklace of Brisings. Have him wear a bridal crown. Stuff his dress so he looks like a woman. Veil his face. We’ll have him wears keys that jingle, as women do, drape him in jewels—”
“I don’t like it!” said Thor. “People will think…well, for a start they’ll think I dress up in women’s clothes.” (115-6).
I noted that this passage was one of the most hilarious passages, rightfully so I would argue, and that distinction is important for too often in myth there seems to be an absence of humor. Perhaps it’s just the education I received growing up, but myth seems to be steeped in relentless tragedy, violence, rape, depravity, or anguish. I cannot recall any real humor in the Greek Pantheon, and seeing as how that was the only real pantheon apart from the Egyptians I was exposed to, the fact that a moment of humor could exist in mythology was a breath of fresh air. Thor eventually gets his hammer back after a long series of jokes and gags that rely on the uber masculine worldview of the ancient Nords, and promptly slaughters the giants. Still no word though on whether the catering was good or not.
Gaimans Norse Mythology relates the world and the gods and creatures that inhabit the world of the Nordic mythos, however unlike Edith Hamilton, who seemed to retain a kind of academic distance from her topic, Neil Gaiman allows his retelling of myth to be imbued with a little more character. Gaiman has explored these characters before and so this gives him a great edge. Any and all readers who have ever taken the time to read his graphic novel The Sandman Season of Mist is sure to remember the blustering oaf that is Thor and the sly demonic figure of Loki who would aid the Dream King in a way that would not be made entirely clear until the later Sandman volumes. I’d relate more but I’m preparing myself mentally to review those books one by one by one so the reader will have to be patient.
Now I can hear the contester. By the sounds of it Gaiman is taking a self-indulgent exercise by simply retelling the stories of the Norse Myth, why should I bother with that? If I want the stories of the Norse gods I should just read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda if I hate myself and life in general?
I should first remind my contester that if you hate yourself, you should really be reading the collected works of James Patterson. There’s a great difference between crap and art, and then there is work which tries to be neither because it is really nothing at all.
But as to the real complaint Neil Gaiman himself provides some response in his introduction to the work as he notes the fate of the original written materials and oral tales:
We have lost so much. (14)
He goes on to say:
I’ve tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can.
Sometimes details in the stories contradict each other. But I hope that they paint a picture of a world and a time. As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside the small hours, awake in the unending lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight or midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from. (14-15).
Gaiman’s book is not an academic reproduction of the Norse Myths, and if the reader is truly interested in such a work translations exist and are constantly being produced. Gaiman is honest in the fact that he just wants to retell these stories, and that’s all the creative justification he needs. Because he is working with myth, and not a more contemporary story, he can rewrite these stories and incorporate more personality and dialogue into them, and while some might argue that that is “corrupting” the original myths they fail to see that this is a fallacy. Myths by their very nature are fluid beings that have shifted and altered over time. They adapt and change depending on the teller, and while written documents are considered sacred, it’s important to remember that when readers encounter such written documents, particularly ancient ones, the conflict of authorial intent becomes tricky and messy. I’m trying to say, sloppily, is that because these are myths Gaiman doesn’t have to make these a new Prose Edda. Instead he can, like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, simply tell the stories that have been told over and over again, but bring a new life or light to them that feels relevant to the age he’s writing in.
That’s what’s marvelous about myth is that it can change.
I was taught in school, briefly, that Norse Myths were dark, gloomy, depressing stories in which every god was ultimately doomed to die. This eventual end, referred often to as Ragnarock, is inevitable and Edith Hamilton briefly describes this reality in her Mythology:
The World of Norse mythology is a strange world. Asgard, the home of the gods, is unlike any other heaven men have dreamed of. No radiancy of joy is in it, no assurance of bliss. It is a gave and solemn place, over which hangs the threat of an inevitable doom. The gods know a day will come when they will be destroyed. (443)
She continues this gloomy description a few days later:
All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women wh go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism. (446).
This being my only real exposure to these myths at first I honestly thought that Norse Mythology was going to be a dark read of nothing but hopelessness. Obviously, I forgot every Neil Gaiman story I had ever read. Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse Myths can be dark, but each story is told in such a way that the reader is able to see Gaiman’s passion and dedication to these stories and that energy translates into a beautiful story that, even at it’s most grotesque or horrifying, still manages to sound lovely.
But what’s important ultimately is the way in which Neil Gaiman completes his book. Rather than end on Ragnarok, and end with death and destruction, Gaiman demonstrates his lasting importance as a story teller for he leaves these characters not with death, but a circle.
After the final battle in which Odin, Thor, Loki, Heimdall, and all the gods of Asgard are destroyed there is left a small party including the gods Balder and Magni who are looking over the battlefield. Balder spots something:
They go down on their knees in the long grass, the gods like children.
Magni, Thor’s son, is the first to find one of the things in the long grassm and once he finds it, he knows what it is. It is a golden chess piece, the kind the gods played with when the gods still lived. It is a tiny golden caring of Odin, the all father, on his high thrones: the king.
They find more of them. Here is Thor, holding his hammer. There is Heimdall, his horn at his lips. Frigg, Odin’s wife, is the queen.
Balder holds up a little golden statue. “That one looks like you,” Modi tells him.
“It is me,” says Balder. “It is me long ago, before I died, when I was of the Aesir.”
They will find other pieces in the grass, some beautiful, some less so. Here. Half buried in the black soil, are Loki and the monstrous children. There is a frost giant. There is Sutr, his face all aflame.
Soon they will find they have all the pieces they could ever need to make a full chess set. They arrange the pieces into a chess game: on the tabletop chessboard the gods of Asgard face their eternal enemies. The new-minted sunlight glints from the golden chessmen on this perfect afternoon.
Balder will smile, like the sun coming out, and reach down, and he will move his first piece.
And the game begins anew. (280-283).
At the end of this review I think back to the conversation I had with my friend about the future readers who find Gaiman’s book. I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but I’ve never gotten rid of my copy of the book, because no matter how many times I’ve tried I’ve yet to find someone who made the Greek myths so accessible. Having a book like Mythology allowed me the chance to actually understand and process the myths that have inspired thousands of years of writers, poets, playwrights, and artists who have shaped our culture. The Norse Myths have often, it seems, fallen upon deaf ears, but in the last few decades I have observed new legions of people discover and invest themselves in the characters and stories of Thor, Loki, Balder, Freya, and the old clever Odin. Gaiman’s book then is a boon to a new generation, and humanity period because it, like Mythology, will expose a generation to these myths which have too often been ignored or written off as hopelessly bleak.
Yes the gods die, and yes their stories are filled with bloody mahem, but the final image reveals, to me at least, a far more final conclusion than the Greek pantheon. Rather than simply live on a mountain and occasionally step down to rape the local girls, the Norse gods are aware of their ultimate end, but as Gaiman reveals it there is no real end. The gods die but are then ultimately remade. Their stories end and then start anew meaning that there is no true end or true beginning.
The stories continue ever afterwards, and there is no better testament to the quality of myth.
All quotes taken from Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman were taken from the W.W. Norton & Company hardback first edition. All quotes from Mythology by Edith Wharton were taken from the Little, Brown & Company Paperback.
For the record Red of Overly Sarcastic Reviews still probably has the best rendition of Norse Mythology after Gaiman and most of what I knew before reading his book came from this video.
While looking up images to include in this article I stumbled upon, what appears to be a sexy pin-up calendar using the Norse Gods, all of them men. I couldn’t find a good place for them in the article, so I included them here. Enjoy…how could you not?
Appalachia, Book Review, Deliverance, farting, folklore, fuck, fucking, He did it with a bucket, Hillbillies, Humor, Literature, mythology, Orgasm, Pissing in the Snow, procreational, pyramus and thisbe, sex, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Short Story, The Baby Lost Weight, Vance Randolph
I distrust someone who admits to not enjoying sex or fart jokes. Part of this is because the individuals who profess such opinions typically reveal themselves as elitists. There’s an attitude that only uneducated people enjoy hearing stories about people fucking or farting or farting while fucking, and of course nothing like that would ever happen in real life. Anyone who has actually had sex before however knows that that’s simply not the case. Beer exists and seeks to make fools of us all.
Speaking of beer, it’s partly because of that that I stumbled across the book Pissing in the Snow & Other Ozark Folktales. Two years ago I attended an academic conference for members of Alpha Chi, an academic fraternity that spans the entire United States. Students from chapters all across the country came to give lectures and presentations from virtually every field. Lecture topics could range from Pre-Med students discussing the nature of telomeres in DNA to discussing the Indian Boy in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For my own special I brought in a lecture about Mark Twain’s No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger which was rather eventful given the fact that one of my slides dealt with blackface and one of the moderators in the room was black. It was a fun couple of days when I wandered through the streets of Chicago (feeling the mean bite of “The Hawk”) with a few friends and a man name Jim Koukl.
Somewhere between the Jazz Bar (where I wrote the start of poem that would eventually get published) and on the ride home, Dr. Koukl mentioned a book. I admit freely that part of the impulse to look the book up was some kind of fan-boy on my end. Most of my friends new Koukl and had dozens of fun stories about him and so I think I just wanted him to like me. In the car, tucked between the driver and a fellow SI leader I pulled up a story called “He did it with a Bucket.” Describing the story wouldn’t do it justice, so instead here’s the whole story:
One time there was a boy got arrested for screwing a girl, and they claimed he done it standing up, behind the door at the schoolhouse. But the girl stood pretty neat six-foot-tall, and the boy was a little bit of runt. The Justice of the Peace says he don’t see how the boy could reach high enough. The people said he done it with a milk bucket. The constable fetched the biggest bucket in the town and made the boy stand on it, but he still lacked a foot. So the Justice of the Peace says the whole case looks fishy to him, and they turned the boy loose for lack of evidence
After the whole thing blowed over, the girl told some of her friends what really happened. “We was both standing up,” she says, “and it was the damndest fucking I ever had in my life!” The ladies all wanted to know how little Johnney could reach that high. The girl just laughed. “The little booger put the bucket on my head,” she says, “and then he hung onto the handle like a woodpecker!” (14)
There wasn’t anyone in the car who wasn’t laughing and I scrambled to Amazon to immediately buy a copy.
Pissing in the Snow is the work of Vance Randolph, an American folklorist who published around five books over the course of his life. All of his books dealt with the Ozark region, an area of hilly forest region found in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri (pronounced Mizz-ur-ee or Mizz-ur-uh depending on what part of the state you’re from). This region is probably familiar to the reader who has ever watched the film Deliverance and believed that that is a good representation of entire South of the United States. For the record Deliverance took place in Georgia, however it has unfortunately come to embody the imagery of the “hillbilly” who is in fact not a gap-toothed lunatic who enjoys raping people in the woods. Well, okay, there’s probably one of those out there, but I promise you that ass-clown is in the minority. Also ass-clown was probably the wrong word to use there and now I’m going to have nightmares.
Randolph’s work is important because it collects the sentiments, moods, feelings, and general humor of a people who lived and made a life in the woods of Ozarks. The reader may wonder what value such stories have to the general culture given the fact that most of them are nothing but stories about people fucking, talking about fucking, or horny priests, prostitutes, or men measuring their dicks. I suppose this concern is a fair criticism and the first story from the collection doesn’t necessarily help that much:
One time there was two farmers that lived out on the road to Carrico. They was always good friends, and Bill’s oldest boy had been a-sparking one of Sam’s daughters. Everything was going fine till the morning they met down by the creek, and was pretty goddam mad. “Bill,” says he, “from now on I don’t want that boy of yours to set foot on my place.”
“Why what’s he done?”
“He pissed in the snow, that’s what he done, right in front of my house!”
“But surely, there ain’t great harm in that,” Bill says.
“No Harm!” hollered Sam. “Hell’s fire, he pissed so it spelled Lucy’s name, right there in the snow!”
“The boy shouldn’t have done that,” says Bill. “But I don’t see nothing so terrible bad about it.”
“Well, by God, I do!” yelled Sam. “There was two sets of tracks. And besides, don’t you think I know my own daughter’s handwriting!” (5).
It took me three readings of this one before I realized Lucy used Bill’s son’s penis to spell her own name. This story at first appears to be a simple joke, just a random story about two teenagers engaging in a little debauchery for the sake of it, but upon reflection I’m struck by the fact that my first thought is the myth of Piramus and Thisbe. Growing up in a private school I was exposed to mythology early. Despite the fact it was a Christian school it was also a college prep institution and so they wanted you to excel. Once we hit eighth grade we were assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. That dense tome that can always be found in your local college book-store or else the book section of Goodwill, and of course always bent back with a broken spine and riddled with doodles or highlighting. Before my teacher assigned us A Midsummer Night’s Dream to read in class she covered the myth of Piramus and Thisbe, and I was already familiar with the book because I had read Romeo & Juliet the year before and we had gone over the myth. To those who don’t know there are two warring families with a son and a daughter named Pyramus and Thisbe respectively. The pair fall in love but can only communicate by sending messages through a crack in the wall that separates both families. Eventually overcome with lust Piramus arranges to meet Thisbe and tun away with her. She says yes, but of course because this is myth everything goes wrong. Thisbe spots a lion and runs away dropping her sash, Pyramus comes upon it later and spots lion tracks. Believing his lover is dead he drives his sword into his side, and when Thisbe discovers him slain by his own hand she removes the sword and kills herself with it.
My reader may read this and wonder immediately: how the fuck do you get Piramus and Thisbe from a story about Pissing in the Snow? That’s absurd.
My response: Is it though. Folk-lore and myth and divided by time and repetitive story-telling. Looking at Hamilton’s Mythology in hindsight I was also taught at the time the legends or folk-lore of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Johnny Appleseed. Unfortunately, these heroes have not lasted the way Zeus, Aphrodite, and Hera have, nevertheless both pantheons linger on in their own way. The stories of Pecos Bill, like the stories of Zeus, and also the stories contained in Pissing in the Snow are perpetuated by story-tellers who were inspired by some original action. Was there ever a god named Zeus? Of course not, but there was a storm where a man was struck by lightning. Was there ever a Pecos Bill, of course not, but there was most likely a man who was a sure-fire shot and who was great at breaking horses. Were there ever two kids who spelled their names in the snow using piss?
Yes there was, that one probably happened, but over time the names and situation changed.
Stories develop over time to fit the world views of the audience that preserves them and enjoys hearing them. Jokes then follow myth, however the fundamental difference being they are often designed to reaffirm or subvert reality. Pissing in the Snow isn’t interested in that however, for even if the stories are imbued with humor their aim is to present human beings at their most fallible.
The stories almost all center around sex in some form or fashion, and while some border on the crude there are others which are fascinating from a feminist perspective. Take for instance the story Have You Ever Been Diddled:
One time there was a town girl and a country girl got to talking about the boys they had went with. The town girl told what kind of car her boyfriends used to drive, and how much money their folks has got. But the country girl didn’t take no interest in things like that, and she says the fellows are always trying to get into her pants.
So finally the town girls says, “Have you ever been diddled?” The country girl giggled, and she says yes, a little bit. “How much says the town girl.” “Oh, about like that,” says the country girl, and she held up her finger to show an inch, or maybe an inch and a half.
The town girl just laughed, and pretty soon the country girl says, “Have you ever been diddled?” The town girl says of course she has, lots of times. “How much?” says the country girl. “Oh, about like that,” says the town girl, and she marked off about eight inches, or maybe nine.
The country girl just set there goggle-eyed, and she drawed a deep breath. “My God,” says the country girl, “that ain’t diddling! Why, you’ve been fucked!” (110-11)
A story like this is an excellent opportunity for folklorists to dig into the rhetoric of everything. The use of the words “town-girl” verses “country girl” as a way of expressing familiarity with the world. Then there’s also the class element as the “town girl” seems to enjoy high priced objects. And of course there’s the linguistic opportunity to observe how the scene culminates in the “fuck” to deliver the powerful finale to this brief exchange, but that gets into far more academic territory than I’m willing to explore here, and besides why should I put rhetoricians and folklorists out of a job? They’re good people with great unions but lousy tippers.
This story seems to present the total essence of Pissing in the Snow, partly because it’s the least fantastic. There are stories ranging from the dick measuring contests of locals, the horny priests being wooed by windows, prostitutes enacting vengeance, and endless stories of young lovers winding up embarrassed or mocked by the community they live in but the final component is everything. Pissing in the Snow feels communal while the reader actually reads it, and in fact the only real way to read it is out loud. These are recorded stories by average everyday people who had these stories memorized, who lived with these stories that had most likely been passed down by generations. Their earthiness and near-constant crudeness reveals a people who lived and interacted with sexuality without any kind of real shame, and while some would suggest that this is wrong, Pissing in the Snow shows a people who wouldn’t really care about this response.
And to be honest I don’t care much about it either.
These stories show a people who were able to find a beautiful absurdity in the body. Penises, vaginas, breasts, and butts are what drives these narratives, and while this at first doesn’t seem to reveal much intellectual potential, I would argue otherwise. Reading Pissing in the Snow is a chance to see how another culture has framed sexuality in its own paradigm. The people of the Ozarks are not prudes about it, they recognize that people fuck, and, clearly, they enjoy doing it. While some members of the community sometimes suffer from it, what is constant is that the people of the Ozarks recognize sex as something natural and more important, a source of amusement.
Take for instance the story The Baby Lost Weight:
One time there was a young woman fetched a baby into Doc Henderson’s office, and she says it is losing weight. Doc examined the baby awhile, and asked the woman about her victuals, but she says, “What I eat ain’t got nothing to do with the baby being skinny.” Doc figured she must be kind of stupid, so he didn’t ask no more questions.
Doc examined her mighty careful, anyhow. And he pulled her dress open, to see if something is the matter with her tits, first one and then the other. There wasn’t no milk at all. Finally, she says, “That’s my sister’s baby, you know.”
Old Doc Henderson was considerable set back when he heard that, because he never thought but what it was her baby. “Hell’s fire,” he says, “you shouldn’t have come!” The young woman just kind of giggled. “I didn’t,” she says, “till you started a-sucking on the second one.” (130).
I honestly found myself laughing while I read this book, and too often it becomes undervalued that reaction. Books are an intellectual exercise, and if I wanted to I could sit down and find real intellectual merit beneath the endless penis and fart jokes in this book, and in fact I already have. Human beings have progressed in their evolution and that is partly because of the way sex has become something recreational rather than simply procreational.*
That’s a fancy-pants way of saying people enjoy having sex not just because they want to make a baby.
Because our species has developed an imagination, and because that imagination is often employed constructing sexual fantasies, it makes sense that a rural people, people who lived off the land and would know the proper way of breeding livestock, would eventually come to see sex as something funny and absurd, but ultimately uniting because in the end these stories helped shape a community’s, as well as a region’s, attitudes about sexuality.
Laughing at sex is the sanest way to begin talking about it and teaching it. And if you can start by telling a story about an old man masturbating while across the way a young man is porking a rabbit, it’s gonna be a whole lot easier telling people about condoms later.
For the record “procreational is NOT a word, but I liked the way it sounded. If you are repulsed by this invention of mine petition Websters and Oxford to add the word to the dictionary so that your disgust is unmerited. Prude.
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I owe John Stewart everything.
Like many people of my generation I looked to Jon Stewart to provide an insight or analysis of a problem that nobody else could offer. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the news, it’s just that many of the voices on the news were either relentlessly pedantic, or else the people reporting were trying too hard to be television personalities rather than actually trying to be journalists. PBS Evening News and BBC News seemed like the only reliable sources, but they only came on once a day and usually at the same time and usually during the evening when I needed to be doing homework. Being a night owl that usually afforded me the chance to watch some television in the evenings before bed, but of course, rather than watch Anderson Cooper 360, I switched it over to Comedy Central hoping for a few reruns of South Park or Ugly Americans. I remember watching the show sporadically at first. Sometimes every night week after week, and then I’d stop for a month or two and try to focus on learning how to play the guitar. I was going to be a rock star you see, which, for the record, never panned out. I could never learn how to do the jump kicks that David Lee Roth did which was important for rock you see. Eventually I settled back in to watching Jon Stewart and one night he hosted an interview with a man I had never met but who I instantly wanted to learn more about. He spoke with a British accent and was promoting his memoir Hitch-22. A new world opened to me as I devoured Christopher Hitchens’s writings, and when I finally sat down and read god is not Great, I was never the same.
So like I said, I owe Jon Stewart everything.
That’s why after I had one of my “Coffee with Jammer” sessions with a friend and was walking around Barnes & Noble looking at books (that great temptation) I saw The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests and I snatched it up ignoring the paltry sums of money in my pocket.
The Daily Show (The Book) doesn’t follow the pattern of previous Daily Show books such as America or Earth, where there isn’t a central narrative and the larger aesthetic goal is just to provide a series of laughs and visual comedy gags. The book is exactly what the subtitle suggests, an oral history of how The Daily Show became the institution that it is, how it changed over time, how Jon Stewart helped shape and mold the program into something relevant in the public discourse, and how it jump started the careers of dozens of individuals acting in show business today. Rather than just have Jon Stewart reciting lists and events however the book is narrated in snippets by everyone who was ever involved with the show or played some crucial role. This includes the correspondents such as Al Madrigal, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, Olivia Munn, and Kristin Schaal just to name a few, while also including guests of the program such as Senator John McCain, Anderson Cooper, Ta Nahesi Coates, and Paul Rudd.
Before I even begin this though I can already hear some objections from my reader. The Daily Show was nothing but Liberal claptrap and Jon Stewart was just a snowflake stooge trying to push an agenda. How does this book possess any kind of real cultural merit? It sounds more like a chance for Stewart to squeeze a little more juice out of the fact that he’s a celebrity. Why should I waste my time or money on this book?
My contester is a little more political today than they usually are, and I should address the last point first. You could try checking the book out from your local library, if they don’t have it try an Inter Library Loan. That way it’s free and if you don’t like it you can simply return it. Libraries exist for a reason you know.
As for the first points I’m afraid that my contester are themselves plagued by the bias they’re suggesting of Stewart. The man himself doesn’t try to hide that his political positions tend to push towards the left, but any seasoned fan of Stewart has seen and recognized that he can be just as critical of Democrats. It’s easy to look at Stewart’s dialogues and criticisms and observe a liberal bias, but digging a little deeper the ultimate goal of the program really seemed to be about discourse.
At one point Dag Vega, a liaison of the Obama Administration, talks about the President’s interview with Stewart:
The President sat down for interviews with Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams, and Scott Pelley, and afterward I remember we compared those three interviews with Jon’s interview, and Jon’s was the most policy driven of the four. The other three were much more focused on the political news of the day. His interview was tougher than the three network news anchors’. (331).
This may not be enough for some to understand what I believe is Stewart’s gift of discourse and so an earlier passage, when he’s discussing his second interview with former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf not long after Osama Bin Laden was killed. Stewart received some criticism for hosting the man, but Stewart’s argument speaks volumes about what he wanted the Daily Show to be:
I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, “Why would you have that guy on the show?” Whether it was Musharraf or O’Reilly. My feeling is always, “Why would you not take an opportunity to find, within someone’s humanity, some understandings of why they’ve done what they’ve done, or why you want to two-dimensionalize people that have odious opinions, but maybe it’ a little more complicated than that. (285).
This quote to me stands as the ultimate reason why my reader should bother with this book. It’s become rather easy to “other” another human being, though perhaps I’m being charitable. Perhaps it’s always been easy and it only “feels” like things have changed over the course of the last decade. But that impulse to transform another person into an “other” is dangerously simple because of the world we live in. Economics and social interaction are dramatically different and now we live in a world where we can create bubbles around ourselves, and when individuals appear who seem to contradict our statements or personal philosophies we can simply cut them out. Being the kind of person I am I struggle with this system because, unless you’re a Nazi or part of the KKK, I generally try to give everybody the opportunity to explain themselves and I actually really enjoy hard conversations. Thus, stands the appeal of Stewart for me.
Jon Stewart transformed The Daily Show into something new and important because as time progressed I was always far more interested in what he was going to say about an issue, or what joke he would say about a political figure. And part of the reason for that was 9/11 and the war on terror.
The book essentially begins with the rise of the Bush Administration and Stewart gives a keen insight into that:
When we were first doing jokes about the war, the country was scared and wanted to believe what had happened on September 11 had sobered our politics and our media. And what it did was it lent a weight and consequence to criticism and dissent. Dissent was now seen as not just snarky but unpatriotic . We had never gotten death threats before. (116).
Trump being in the White House it’s hard to imagine that such hostility could have actually existed before the election season of 2016. Thinking back to this I vaguely recall the attitude toward critics of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, largely because I was around 12 years old and thought that President Bush was a wise and intelligent man. That changed. Growing up in East Texas though there was this solid rhetoric that was spun around me that if you were critical of the Bush administration that you weren’t just a terrible person, you hated America. That attitude was taken by many of my friends, fellow students, teachers, and casual acquaintances and I won’t try to assume like I held a different opinion from the masses. September 11th was scary, and the thought that this could happen again was terrifying. But as I grew, and puberty really started to kick in there was a rebellion against such a system, not just because authority said I needed to trust the government, but because I began to distrust the rhetoric.
I don’t mind someone loving their country, or being patriotic. For god’s sake I write these essays in front of a damn American Flag and I won’t shut the fuck up about “Republic! Republic!” Obviously I have no problem with patriotism, but blind devotion always leads to tragedy and problems and so in hindsight the atmosphere of the Bush administration is something I have never forgotten (though I would most certainly take it over the current administration).
This reflection though is another reminder of the lasting value of this book. While reading I suddenly remembered the names and faces of that Presidency, and reading about the staff’s mocking of the government, and the media that reported on it, it was a way of connecting to that previous atmosphere, because The Daily Show always managed to capture some of that Zeitgeist.
Stephen Colbert sums it up perfectly in a passage just beneath the previous quote:
There was a demanded uniformity of opinion in what you could write or what you could say about the war. There was a reasonable and expected honoring and elevation of the sacrifice of the troops, that turned into a shillelagh to hit anybody who dissented. We were a dumb little show and could still get under the radar at that time.
Steve Badow said it to me best, which is, “I don’t think we’re anti-Bush, I think we’re anti-Bullshit.” (116).
I recognize that there is nothing so pretentious as someone claiming their work is satire, largely because nobody ever really seems to have a good explanation for what satire actually is. To be fair I have a master’s degree in English and I still don’t have a great definition. But I pulled this quote, not just to remind the reader of Jon Stewart’s last speech Bullshit is Everywhere, but to lay out plainly what was so important to me growing up and watching The Daily Show.
Jon Stewart was funny, but watching him I became engaged with the political processes of my country. The Daily Show parodied the bullshit that was always present in the discourse in a way that no other television broadcast, or written journalism piece, ever could have. Jon managed to simplify whatever material was going on in the world, which the powers-that-be were always trying to complicate, and because he delivered a show about the torture taking place in Abu Gahraib, or efforts to slash funding to Planned Parenthood, and managed to deliver the explanation with a few well-placed cock jokes I discovered something terribly important: I played as much of a role in democracy as the President.
This was an important discovery because it meant so much more for individual civics. I suspect the reason many people fail to at least follow politics is because so much of it is delivered either in combative tones or else in language so dry and dull many would prefer to set their genitals on a power sander rather than be forced to listen to it. I realize that I’ve repeated myself several times and I’ll probably repeat myself again, but Jon Stewart and The Daily Show allowed me to stay somewhat informed as to what was happening in my world, and what the powerful were trying to do, and how the media was reporting on it. The show was silly (there was an episode using a wheel of fortune capped with a dildo for god’s sake) but that silliness and irreverence allowed the audience, allowed me, the chance to laugh at the powerful and there is nothing so great as the ability to shake off power.
Senator John McCain, who was a regular guest before he and Stewart had a fight and near falling-out, provides in my mind the ultimate summation:
Jon and I had our disagreements. But look, when we focus on that one bad interview I had with Jon—I was so grateful later when he supported me on the issue of torture. That’s far more important, frankly, than any real or imagined slight that I might’ve had from him. I was very grateful for that, because that’s a seminal issue about what America’s all about. It meant a lot to me, and he wasn’t just talking about me. Jon was explaining to these young Americans why torture was such an important issue. That’s what I really appreciated.
He is like Mark Twain or Will Rogers. He is a modern-day humorist of that genre, of that level.
Absolutely, I took the gift bag every time I was on the show. Absolutely. It was one of the nicest bribes I ever got. (293-94).
The Daily Show (The Book) is not solely about Jon Stewart, and I’ve done a rather shit job of explaining the merits of the book, but I’d like to think that my reflections here have provided enough impetus to explain why a book like this matters. People like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers owe their popularity either directly because of John Stewart or else because of the model he helped to develop. News and public discourse has been forever altered because whenever Jon Stewart would discuss a topic he would reconstruct the topic, and those who were responsible for discussing it in public were eventually forced to acknowledge Stewart in some form or fashion. There are few comedians who ever exert that kind of power and influence, and apart from medieval court jesters, there aren’t any humorists that can demonstrate such an influence upon the public consciousness.
If it hadn’t been for Jon Stewart I never would have read anything by Christopher Hitchens or Fareed Zakaria. I would have no idea who Malala Youzafzai was. I would never know or care who Travor Noah was. And of course, I probably wouldn’t have been so much of a fan of Neil Degrasse Tyson if he had never come on the show.
The Daily Show(The Book) is most assuredly the first in several books to come that explores the cultural impact of the comedy journalist. A new generation is entering the discourse with the advantage of having had someone like Jon Stewart lay the foundation for future comedy journalists who will, in their own way, inform the public about what is taking place in their world. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the same impact as Stewart did, but The Daily Show (The Book) at least offers a glimpse into the time before people had The Daily Show.
Such a book is precious, and also a great opportunity to find some wonderful cock jokes.
All passages from The Daily Show(The Book) came from the hardback, first edition Grand Central Publishing copy.
I’ve included a link to a review by the New York Times about The Daily Show (The Book). If the reader is at all interested simply follow the link below:
I didn’t get a chance to put this in, but one of my favorite passages from the book was a brief quote by Neil Degrasse Tyson:
When I came on to talk about Space Chronicles, I needed a tennis serve to send back Jon’s way if he got the better if me in an exchange. But the interview was a lovefest, and I thought, “I’ve got to bring this up anyway.” I waited until the very end, and I said, “Oh by the way, the earth in your opening credits is spinning backward” He picked up the book with both hands, slammed it on the desk, and said, “Son of a bitch!” and then it fades to black.
Oh, yeah, we laughed about it when we went to commercial. But he never did change the rotation. I’m told by the Daily Show staff that when Jon takes questions from the audience, every single time someone asks, “When are you going to switch the earth?” So it haunted him, surely, for the rest of the show. (288).
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I believe in newspapers and the power of a free working press.
That sentence sounds like it should be immediately followed by “Journalists of the World UNITE” which itself is then followed by a fanfair of trumpets and people dancing in revelry while waving the banners of revolution, but in fact the only response I should, and would hope for, is for the reader to nod their head and agree. Such is the dream, yet not always the reality, and in fact, it seems the last real refuge for real reporting seems to be in cinema or “parody” news programs like The Daily Show, Full Frontal, or Last Week Tonight. On one side note The Nightly Show is no longer running which is unfortunate because it seems every time Comedy Central puts up a show that tries to present news and information from a black perspective it only ever lasts a few episodes before it gets canceled. That’s an entire article or online lecture by itself, but I’ll have to get to that later.
A few weeks back Last Week Tonight did a piece about the state of Journalism, specifically the Newspaper industry in the United States and the sentiment expressed by John Oliver mirrored Gerald Ford’s now classic statement during his first State of the Union Address. The State of Newspapers in the United States is “not good.” That’s a simple way of saying print news in America is either dying or plagued by bias. The complex way is saying that newspapers in America are on the decline due to the rise of digital news, low sales of printed newspapers, lack of trust by the readers, and the general apathy of readers due to the fact that most people get their “news” via Facebook or Google. There isn’t much, if any money, going into newspapers and this a conflict because a free media is responsible for monitoring for corruption and ensuring that the public of a democracy are informed to what is actually going on in their government.
I recognize immediately that my position can immediately become one of obnoxious preaching or else a nauseating mourning of an industry that possesses an “inherent nobility” and so I’m going to try and maintain a professional distance from emotion. My point in bringing this topic up is not to wail and bemoan the tragedies that are taking place in the journalism industry, but instead to allow these tragedies to illuminate the importance of the media and two articles which shed an revealing light on this subject.
In September of this year, The Atlantic put out an article by Derek Thompson titled Why Do Americans Distrust the Media, and while it’s a short essay it manages to point out several of the reasons why Journalism in general is becoming so suspect to citizens of the United States. Early on in the essay Thompson explains what is happening to that trust:
With these enormous caveats out of the way, the fact remains that Americans’ “trust” in “the media” is falling steadily, according to Gallup. Even if the precise definitions of these terms is debatable, the overall decline is clear and noteworthy.
This collapse in trust is not evenly spread across all demographics. The drop has been most dramatic among young and middle-aged respondents and, most recently, within the GOP. Together, it seems reasonable to conclude that the recent decline in media trust has been concentrated among middle-aged Republicans, a key part of the Trump constituency.
It should be made clear that the article is not Anti-Trump, it simply relies regularly on Trump and Trump supporters denying the legitimacy of newspapers when scandals appear which tends to happen a lot. Still the facts remain that more and more citizens are beginning to recognize or perceive flaws in reporting, and when you take into account that perception tends to create reality far more often than facts it begins to become clearer why so many Americans distrust news. Thompson’s article goes on to list out five reasons why this distrust exists, and the fourth reason, that it’s easier to find news that confirms bias rather than challenging it, he manages to make an important point about how this distrust forms:
Today’s journalists are more comfortable taking strong positions on partisan issues than they used to be. This is often a good thing. But the increased partisanship of large news outlets might feed a public perception that neutral objectivity doesn’t exist, and therefore, people are entitled to scream “partisanship!” about any viewpoint that they disagree with. The Pittsburgh-Tribune Review recently asked Donald Trump Jr., how he felt that the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at PolitiFact found that 70 percent of his father’s claims were false, more than twice the ratio of Hillary Clinton. Trump’s response: “I would argue that PolitiFact is a very liberal organization.” The shocking thing about this claim is that it’s not shocking, at all. It has become acceptably normal for a politician to call a Pulitzer-Prize winning organization “very biased” if it disagrees with him. There is also no risk in saying so.
Several weeks back I wrote about the speech Walter Cronkite gave on CBS news entitled We Are Mired in Stalemate. Part of the ongoing appeal and interest of this speech is that it was one of the first times a newsman like Cronkite allowed his personal opinions or assessments to come through in his reporting. This is not so uncommon today, in fact it’s so common it borders on obnoxious. Watching programs like Hannity, The O’Reily Factor, Legal View with B & B, or even anything involving Keith Olberman that isn’t about sports, one becomes buried beneath the weight of personal opinions of newscasters that it becomes so nauseating one has to change the channel or turn off the T.V. and meditate to Stomp to reclaim one’s sense of composure. Watching these shows in bulk is about the equivalent of a years’ worth of self-inflicted papercuts to the webs between the fingers, yet despite this I still find myself watching the news and reading the newspaper.
At the core of this is always my romantic patriotism.
I worry sometimes that I wrap myself up in the American flag, and that despite my supposed dedication to pure, unfettered reason I am actually an emotional gerrymanderer. In my own defense I tend to read a lot of Walt Whitman a man who also had a rather large hard-on for liberty and the inherent nobility of the American populace, identity, and territory. But if I can strip everything down though, and find the purest kernel of honesty to explain the reason why I believe so much in the importance and dedication to a free press is because I really do believe democracy is the best we, as a human species, have got philosophically.
The ages of man have been a constant effort and experiment to co-exist as peacefully as humanly possible and in our time we have constructed governmental-philosophies which have ranged in form from totalitarianism to a level of republic bordering on hippie communes. At the end of this democracy is the one system that, while it doesn’t make everyone happy, leaves at least a modicum of equilibrium. Before I start to sound like fucking NPR, which I appreciate as a news media source, my point is that by studying history it becomes clear that if human beings want a society in which people are equally protected by the law and from the government which is supposed to execute the law, the republic and democracy have been the most successful in accommodating that environment.
But in order for that to exists there has to be a system which monitors government because, to use an old platitude, power corrupts absolutely, or to put it another way, politicians are butt-fucking cowards and thieves and they need to be monitored and transparent because corruption is easily acquired and can quickly become a comfortable vice.
While I was considering this idea, and watching the Journalism episode of Last Week Tonight, I remembered a consistent impression, one moment in the video which kept gnawing at me because it seemed as best as I could describe as “right.” In the video John Oliver introduces a clip from CSPAN which appeared to be some panel or news coverage over the state and future of newspapers and in the clip a man by the name of David Simon explained that the next decade will be a “Halcyon Error” for local and state political corruption due to the pronounced lack of journalism covering simple governmental activities likes zoning board meetings. It wasn’t the diction that sold me on Simon as an important figure in this particular argument however, it was his level of confidence. Interested in the man I did a little digging, starting on Wikipedia. I know I’m supposed to hate that website because it’s the scourge of academic integrity but in reality it has helped me discover sources I never would have. Including the article David Simon wrote for The Washington Post entitled Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?
I read the article in one sitting, it’s not that difficult to finish in one session due largely to the fact that Simon is a fantastic writer for his ability to weave gorgeous prose without going up his own ass. Simon begins his article with a personal and effective opening:
Is there a separate elegy to be written for that generation of newspapermen and women who came of age after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? For us starry-eyed acolytes of a glorious new church, all of us secular and cynical and dedicated to the notion that though we would still be stained with ink, we were no longer quite wretches? Where is our special requiem?
Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of “All the President’s Men” and “The Powers That Be” atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree — we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.
What the hell happened?
It’s an honest question and after reading Thompson’s article I’m tempted to answer it quickly. The simple answer is the American public became disenfranchised with newspapers and news organizations. While on some level this is largely attributed to people simply believing the news is boring or else just really depressing (for the record I’m almost quoting verbatim a friend of mine here) perhaps the largest reason is because journalism has become subject to the pitfalls of capitalism, or really hyper-capitalism. John Oliver expresses and analyzes this far better than I ever could, and so I would recommend my reader actually take the time to find the video on YouTube, but the simplest explanation is that because newspapers are looked on more and more as, and Simon even calls them such in his articles, an anachronism people are looking more to digital content for information and that’s a problem because anyone can contribute to digital media. And I mean Anyone.
I’m an example of this. The reason I began White Tower Musings was because nobody would publish my creative work and so I began writing “essays,” really a charitable word for my early diatribes about power and freedom and Orwell, and publishing them here on WordPress for free. I pay nothing to host my site apart from internet provider, and my wife pays that bill so in fact I really do pay nothing. I can write whatever I want, when I want, and publish it, and while I personally try to make sure each article is well thought out and well researched and written to the best of my ability the real unbiased truth is I’m just some jackass with a blog. And with that knowledge in hand I remember that there are dozens of jackasses with blogs who can write and say whatever they want about current events without having to worry about any kind of oversight or editorial board to make sure their writings are supported by solid sources and facts.
This isn’t meant to be morbid self-loathing, which is my usual same old song and dance, but instead just an honest reflection upon the institution of the news as a force in this country and how a writer like Simon makes it seem not just important but necessary even as it’s dying. Simon offers a glimpse at the contemporary position:
In Baltimore, the newspaper now has 300 newsroom staffers, and it is run by some fellows in Chicago who think that number sufficient to the task. And the locally run company that was once willing to pay for a 500-reporter newsroom, to moderate its own profits in some basic regard and put money back into the product? Turns out it wasn’t willing to do so to build a great newspaper, but merely to clear the field of rivals, to make Baltimore safe for Gremlins and Pacers. And at no point in the transition from one to the other did anyone seriously consider the true cost of building something comprehensive, essential and great.
And now, no profits. No advertising. No new readers. Now, the great gray ladies are reduced to throwing what’s left of their best stuff out there on the Web, unable to charge enough for online advertising, or anything at all for the journalism itself.
Simon wrote Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? in 2008, and I can already sense the reader’s objection. This seems like a moaning diatribe of whining about American Newspapers that doesn’t reflect reality. Plenty of newspapers are writing material old-school journalists would be proud of. And this is a fair objection which Simon actually acknowledges in his article before pointing out the flaw:
Is there still high-end journalism? Of course. A lot of fine journalists are still laboring in the vineyard, some of them in Baltimore. But at even the more serious newspapers in most markets, high-end journalism doesn’t take the form of consistent and sophisticated coverage of issues, but of special projects and five-part series on selected topics — a distraction designed not to convince readers that a newspaper aggressively brings the world to them each day, but to convince a prize committee that someone, somewhere, deserves a plaque.
Newspapers are not just about heroism and I recognize how I sound writing that out after preaching about their inherent necessity and nobility. Newspapers are first and foremost about community. Simon points out that often newspapers are in the market for young, hungry, and most importantly cheap employees to produce media content and the conflict with this position is the divorce from their reality. If you don’t have any history with a town, it’s going to be difficult to understand the dynamic and history of the city when you have to report on it. There is a local paper in my own home city but I never read preferring instead to read articles on NPR or else the Washington Post and this in itself reveals the larger bad habit of certain readers. I should not say that I represent a microcosm, but I do believe it’s fair to admit that a portion of news readers in this country take a rather abstract view of news because the news that we do receive tends to concern the larger national or international events, and while these most certainly possess real relevance the problem is that the real impact of such occurrences is always felt at the local level and manifests in different ways.
A question emerges and Simon writes it out plainly and perfectly:
What I don’t understand is this:
Isn’t the news itself still valuable to anyone? In any format, through any medium — isn’t an understanding of the events of the day still a salable commodity? Or were we kidding ourselves? Was a newspaper a viable entity only so long as it had classifieds, comics and the latest sports scores?
It’s hard to say that, even harder to think it. By that premise, what all of us pretended to regard as a viable commodity — indeed, as the source of all that was purposeful and heroic — was, in fact, an intellectual vanity.
Newsprint itself is an anachronism. But was there a moment before the deluge of the Internet when news organizations might have better protected themselves and their product? When they might have — as one, industry-wide — declared that their online advertising would be profitable, that their Web sites would, in fact, charge for providing a rare and worthy service?
This final point is reiterated by John Oliver in the Last Week Tonight Special, and echoes in my own summation of the “service” I provide my readers for this site (the difference being that what journalist provide possesses a more immediate utilitarian purpose than my intellectual musings). Freedom of the press is not just a given by the first amendment because the individuals who provide the information citizens need to be informed do not work for free. Reporters are working people who need food, living space, and entertainment commodities the same as every and any citizen of the United States and the problem is their line of work is increasingly being dwindled by the hyper-capitalist system in which media too often given away for free.
The reason people enjoy free internet pornography is because people have grown accustomed to having it at their fingertips, but beneath that is a deeper understanding that the media they’re consuming isn’t worth their money. The conflict with the internet is that too often the content being generated is rarely designed to be a valuable physical commodity from which the consumer can acquire some kind of emotional or personal investment. It’s something to be consumed and then abandoned. My reader may argue that newspapers, even when they weren’t purely digital, existed in the same way for after all a newspaper is produced for one day and then would often be thrown away and in fairness that is a fair criticism.
However even before newspapers moved to a digital market, consumers and readers were willing to pay for the paper. Some of them, and I include myself in this crowd, simply read the paper for the comics or the sports pages, but there are consistent readers who are genuinely concerned and should be genuinely concerned about what is taking place in their local government: whether public money is being used for nefarious purposes, whether or not public projects have actually benefitted their community, and simply to figure out whether their elected officials are crooks.
Simon, Oliver, and Thompson have all offered me a chance to decide whether or not my local newspaper matters or not. In all honesty my local paper probably doesn’t because anyone willing to actually write anything negative about local politics or history would either be silenced or exiled, but that shouldn’t be the norm. It may be my clinging to the romanticism of the Watergate-era, but I do believe the news, whether it’s digital or paper-bound, does matter, and should be trusted, and does play a crucial role in our democracy.
I am just some asshole with a blog, but like Simon I know a great newspaper from a good one. And those few gems are worth reading, and more importantly worth paying for.
Below the reader can find links to the sources for this article. The first is Thompson’s article published in the Atlantic:
The second is the Last Week Tonight special over journalism:
And finally here is the article Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? Published originally in The Washington Post on January 20, 2008. I hope you enjoy:
Batman Pajama Pants, belles lettres, Creative Writing, Destiny, Esquire, Harpers, Joshua Jammer Smith, Ms., New York Times, Playboy, Poetry, Prufrock, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, Tweed, Writing
The other day a friend wrote to me, actually wrote me a letter, and being the kind of person who actually bothers to read the letters from friends I read the following lines, which I believe to be poetry, and wondered at my friend. At the end I could not tell if he was being indulgent, whiney, or else incredibly profound. Whatever the case I transcribed the letter and have published it here for all the world to see.
I do hope you enjoy.
–Joshua Jammer Smith
I would really love to write for the New York Times,
I would love to write for Harpers,
I would love to write for the Times Literary Supplement,
I would love to write for The New Yorker,
I would love to write for Esquire,
I would love to write for Ms.,
I would love to write for The Atlantic,
I would love to write for Playboy,
And I would love to write for The Washington Post.
It would seem that I would love the write for those literary halls where I might secure the bubble reputation of those who craft the belles lettres and all that fashionable thinking prose that seals the legacies of gods.
But such is that and none of that for me. I will linger in obscurity, and, like Prufrock, wonder at the mermaids who sung songs for other men. But for my youth,…
Ah, but there is none of that.
I am destiny’s forgotten son. And I would love to write for you, for you is me, and that’s all that I can ever be.
While I wrote this two lamps were on. I was wearing my blue tweed blazer with the elbow patches. I was wearing Batman pajama pants, and a scarf around my neck.
Banalization of Corporate Aesthetic, beer, body humor, comedy, Cornetto Trilogy, Corporations, Eddie Marsan, Edgar Wright, Film, film review, Fuck-ups, Gary King, Hot Fuzz, Human Developement, humanity, Humor, Individual Initiative, Individual Will, Martin Freeman, McDonalds, Mid-Life Crisis, Network, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Paul, Pierce Brosnan, Robots, Rosamund Pike, science fiction, Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg, The Golden Mile, The Kids Aren't Allright, The Network, The Offspring, The World's End, Totalitarianism, WTF
When we were young the future was so bright
The old neighborhood was so alive
And every kid on the whole damn street
Was gonna make it big and not be beat
–The Kids Aren’t Allright, The Offspring
Watching The World’s End makes me unbearably thirsty. This was my first conclusion after watching the film in theatres with my little sister and my wife, then fiancé, and my second conclusion was that it had the most disappointing ending of the Cornetto trilogy. This last opinion has changed with my fourth viewing of the movie and I promise that having three beers had nothing to do with it. It made me taste the colors of the lights that the Network robot/aliens made during the fight in the Bee Hive, but I promise it didn’t influence any other judgements.
I discovered the Cornetto Trilogy about halfway in when I rented the movie Hot Fuzz from Hastings (obviously this a while ago because the company recently declared bankruptcy and foreclosure sending me into an emotional tailspin as I watched the end of a retail outlet I’d visited literally as long as I could remember). Watching Hot Fuzz though was unlike watching any film I had ever watched and that’s not maudlin on my part it’s just fact. The scenes would cut and shift so dramatically, and while the film was obviously meant to be a comedy the level of the violence seemed at first a kind of contradiction. Watching a man have his head imploded by a chunk of concrete pushed from a Church roof, and watching his body wobble from left to right before falling to the dirt wasn’t funny it was disgusting and shocking…and then it was funny. Hot Fuzz led to Shaun of the Dead which, like the previous film, balanced a smart comedy alongside a grotesque zombie movie. Seriously when David gets ripped apart by zombies for the first time I literally almost vomited, now I can’t watch it without laughing and groaning.
While we’re being fair I do consider Paul a part of the Trilogy. Even if Edgar Wright didn’t direct it like the other three, I do feel the humor and narrative structure satisfies the Wright/Pegg/Frost model but I’m getting off topic.
The World’s End came to theatres and so I was ecstatic to watch, but as I began, I was originally disappointed by the film because, until the final ten minutes of the movie, I had loved every minute of the film. This impression changed when I watched it again when it came out on DVD, and when I watched it last Saturday with my family and my little sister I recognized that I had come to actually love the ending because of the character Gary King.
Simon Pegg plays a man who, 20 years after having the night of his life decides he wants to reconnect with his group of high school friends and try again to finish the “Golden Mile.” The opening monologue of the film, and the subsequent bit of dialogue set everything up:
Gary King: [opening monologue] Ever have one of those nights that starts out like any other but ends up being the best night of your life? It was June the 22nd, 1990. Our final day of school. There was Oliver Chamberlin, Peter Page, Steven Prince, Andy Knightley, and me. They called me “The King”. Because that’s my name – Gary King. Ollie fancied himself as a bit of a player but really he was all mouth. We called him “O Man” because he had a birth mark on his face that was shaped like a six. He loved it. Pete was the baby of the group. He wasn’t the kind of kid we would usually hang out with, but he was good for a laugh. And he was absolutely minted. Steve was a pretty cool guy, we jammed together. Chased the girls. I think he saw us as rivals. Sweet really. And Andy. Andy was my wingman. The one guy I could rely on to back me up. He loved me, and I’m not being funny, but I loved him too. There was nothing we were going to miss about school. Maybe Mr. Shepherd, he was one of the good guys. He used to ask me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I just wanted to have a good time. He thought that was funny. It wasn’t meant to be, not that night. Newton Haven was our home town, our playground. Our universe. And that night was the site of a heroic quest. Our aim? To conquer the Golden Mile – 12 pubs along the legendary path of alcoholic indulgence. There was the First Post, the Old Familiar, the Famous Cock, the Cross Hands, the Good Companions, the Trusty Servant, the Two Headed Dog, the Mermaid, the Beehive, the King’s Head, the Hole In The Wall, all before reaching our destiny – The World’s End. We took my car into town that night. We called her “The Beast” because she was pretty hairy. And so our journey into manhood began. We were off. We didn’t waste any time, we hit pub one and we hit it hard. There was drinking, there was laughs, there was controversy, there were ladies, there were shots, there was drama, and of course there was drinking. By pub 5 we were feeling invincible, and decide to purchase some herbal refreshment from a man we called “The Reverend Green”. Pint 6 put O Man out of commission, so we carried on without him. Good thing, I bumped into his sister at the next pub and we went into the disabled’s, and then I bumped into her again. Sam tagged along for a while, but then I had to let her go, I had another date that night. And her name was Amber. Nine pints in and it was us against the world. Things got mental in the Beehive so we tailed it to the Bowls Club, or as we called it “The Smoke House”, which is where it all went fuck up. Everyone got paranoid and Pete chucked so we had to bench him. In the end we blew off the last three pubs and headed for the hills. As I sat up there, blood on my knuckles, beer down my shirt, sick on my shoes, knowing in my heart life would never feel this good again.
[shows Gary in a group therapy setting]
Gary King: And you know what? It never did.
Group Leader: Interesting, Gary. Does anyone have any insight? Or maybe they want to challenge Gary?
Pale Young Man: Were you disappointed?
Gary King: About what?
Pale Young Man: You didn’t make it to the World’s End?
[shows Gary with a smug grin on his face]
This was a rather long quote, but it’s necessary to really understand Gary King. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are always the center pieces of the films of the Cornetto trilogy, and The World’s End follows this pattern as they play Gary King and Andrew Knightly, two friends who have become estranged after Gary seemingly faked a drug overdose and left Andy following a car accident that left Andy in intensive care. Gary gathers his old group together, lying to Andy that his mother has died, and they eventually return to their home town Newton Haven. They begin the Golden Mile, but about halfway through they get into a fight with a group of teenagers who turn out to be “robots filled with blue stuff.” From that point on the remainder of the night becomes just about surviving while Gary pushes through to the end of the Golden Mile seemingly oblivious to the reality around him.
There are a lot of elements holding the film together, and part of the major theme of the movie is the threat to individuality by corporate sterilization. The first three bars the group enter are almost identical and a brief conversation handles the issue of, as Steven calls it “Starbuckin.” Starbucks is the most reliable example of this in contemporary society, through the McDonalds effect is a previous model that works just as well. The general idea is that as corporate assets grow, their influence grows too. Part of this is just their ability to buy up multiple pieces of real estate to expand their presence within communities and cities across the globe, but the idea explored in The World’s End is the notion that, along with these territorial expansion, comes a unification of aesthetic. That’s a fancy-pants way of saying corporations make everything look, feel, and taste the same. It’s no mistake that just about every pub the group goes into the same beer is Crown & Glory, and so like the Big Mac, the Whopper, or Venti Mocha Frappuccino, the commodities companies sell tend to unify the experience of people entering their establishments. This sentiment is best expressed by a friend of mine during a casual conversation, “People like McDonalds because they know, wherever they are in the world, they can walk into one and the burger will taste the same way that it does in Dallas, Budapest, Constantinople, London, The Hague, or even Moscow. A Big Mac is a Big Mac.” There’s an essay in the bland banalization of sensation and the purposeful avoidance of interacting with foreign cultures but that’s for a later date.
The group eventually comes into contact with The Network, the head of the “robots” that is in fact a multi-global force attempting to prepare human beings for interactions with the rest of the galaxy, but while The Network is talking Wright carefully suggests that it’s this force that has created the technological innovations humans have enjoyed over the last few decades. The general idea is that once all human beings are complacent and abandon their rebellious behavior, then they’ll be fit to interact with the real world.
It’s not unfair to suggest that corporate realities make this moment in the film, not so much a narrative trope but in fact a beautiful moment of mimesis between reality and the rest of the film. This essay isn’t necessarily about the corruption of corporations on individual human beings, but it most certainly is about fuck-ups.
By the end of the film the men encounter the head of the Alien organization which has taken over Newton Haven, and by extension the world. The exchange is the climax of the film, but also allows for brief examination of what’s sometimes excessively referred to as “the human spirit.” The Network notes that:
The Network: At this point your planet is the least civilized in the entire galaxy.
Gary King: What did he say?
Andrew Knightley: He said we are a bunch of fuck ups.
Gary King: Hey it is our basic human right to be fuck ups. This civilization was founded on fuck ups and you know what? That makes me proud!
From there the issue of human’s tendency to rebel against authority is addressed:
The Network: You are children and you require guidance. There is no room for imperfection.
Gary King: Hey earth isn’t perfect alright? And humans aren’t perfect and guess what? I ain’t perfect!
The Network: And there in lies the necessity for this intervention. Must the galaxy be subjected to an entire planet of people like you?
Andrew Knightley: Hey who put you in charge? Who are you to criticize anyone? Now, you might think Gary is a bit of a cock and he is a bit of a cock, but he is my cock!
Gary King: Oh thanks mate.
And finally when it becomes clear that The Network is losing Gary notes that:
Gary King: I think you bit off more than you can chew with earth mate
Andrew Knightley: Yeah, because we’re more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could ever imagine.
It’s an odd feeling watching this exchange and wanting to say “Yeah I’m a fuck up, and damn it makes me proud!” It’s akin to that moment in The Network when you want to chant “I’M MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GONNA TAKE IT ANYMORE!” The only problem is Howard Beale died at the end of that movie so I think I’ll stick to the fuck-up line. Far more accurate. Less foreboding.
The exchange is easy to miss as just the drunken ramblings of a few men who are too pissed (drunk, there are some idioms that I wish would cross the Atlantic) to even know what they’re saying let alone trying to defend the freedom of humanity against a nonhuman totalitarian system which seeks to rule the world, but the idea of power, specifically individual power is what defines the movie The World’s End, because from the start Gary King is trying to find some kind of personal power to make up for the fact that his life went nowhere and he is, in all estimation, a loser in life.
Watching the film again I really felt and observed Gary as a figure of sympathy and pity and that reaction is in no small part because of the way Simon Pegg plays him. Constantly in the film the old gang talk to each other about where they are in life. They’ve all moved away from Newton Haven, each finding their own life and career: Steven works in construction management, Peter is a partner in his father’s car dealership, Oliver is a successful real estate salesman, and Andy works corporate law. That leaves Gary who, as he admitted in the opening of the film, never went anywhere, and by the time they’ve hit the sixth pub it’s become even more clear that his life and his personality haven’t changed a bit since he graduated high school, assuming he graduated at all. At this point the film would become just a sad movie about some fuck-up who never grew up, but because it’s an Edgar Wright film Gary and the gang eventually have to fight robots which, while it’s not objectively brilliant in a cinematic sense, is still fun as fucking fuck to watch.
That and its impressive when you recognize that Peirce Brosnan was the second James Bond to appear in the Conetto Trilogy. Just putting that out there.
Gary is a man fighting his reality and trying to reclaim something and near the end of the film he finally arrives at The World’s End, the final pub in the Golden Mile, but Andy won’t let him drink. I won’t lie I was actually in tears watching the scene as Gary desperately tries to drink his beer while Andy fights him every time until the men finally offer this exchange:
Gary King: It never got better than that night! That was supposed to be the beginning of my life! All that promise and fucking optimism! That feeling that we could take on the whole universe! It was a big lie! Nothing happened!
Andrew Knightley: What is so important about the Golden Mile?
Gary King: It’s all I’ve got!
It’s a hard fact, but life can be unfailingly cruel, and to some people High School is a time where they can flourish, but while some graduate and enter the real world finding some sense of purpose or ambition, for a select few it’s not enough. Memories are truly powerful, and not just because they make up the reality of our lives and help us find perspective and wisdom, memories also create narratives about our lives. Gary’s final flaw is not just that he’s a fuck-up, it’s the fact that he believed he had so much promise and discovered that life didn’t care. The metaphor of the big fish in a small pond is a good adage for Gary, but perhaps a more fitting assessment is that he felt disillusioned about the fact that he felt he had so much promise and discovered that life didn’t care who he was, or what he had done, or even what his reputation was.
In life you have to build yourself into the person that you want to be and want to become, and that involves developing an independent will power that you can use to push yourself into the goals and aspirations you desire, and it’s clear that Gary did none of that. Gary embodies the man who has to fall back upon his memories for emotional comfort and satisfaction because he’s done nothing in life that anybody would consider worthwhile.
My contester argues now that it sounds like there’s no point. The movie in fact is just an odd science fiction movie that’s about how corporate greed has enslaved humanity while also dealing with some guy’s mid-life crisis. Why should I bother with the movie at all?
My response is that The World’s End may be about how corporate culture has negatively affected society, while also taking time to show a man who has gone nowhere in life, but I would argue that the endearing quality of The World’s End is that, like all three of the Cornetto Trilogy, the film is ultimately about achieving some kind of reinvigoration and redemption.
Whether it’s Shawn, Nicholas Angel, or Gary King, Simon Pegg consistently plays a man who is caught in a life that leaves him unsatisfied and static before a kind of supernatural event profoundly affects his life and he is given the chance to create a new life for himself. Likewise, Nick Frost plays the role of Simon Pegg’s friend, offering in different ways in each film, a friendship that will ultimately lead Shawn, Nicholas Angel, or Gary King to this reinvigoration and recreation of his life. In my own life I have had such friends and acquaintances, people who appeared and offered me their time and help when I needed it and it was because of them I am the person I am today.
The World’s End is about trying to achieve something, just one victory in a life of errors in spite of a world that seems bent on trying to stop you. Gary King is a fuck-up, but as he and Andy and Steven so eloquently put it at the end, it’s the basic nature and right of human beings to be fuck-ups. Mistakes are what make us human beings in the first place, and it’s learning from them that we become the people we are today.
Though to be fair, by the time you get to the third garden wall you should realize it’s not going to end well.
Art, Art Culture, artistic integrity, BANKSY, Benjamin Netanyahu, Book Review, CCTV, Corporate Influence, Discipline and Punish, elitism, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Gaza Wall, graffiti, Humor, Individual Will, Israel, Michel Foucault, monkeys, Palestine, panopticon, Politics, rats, Satire, surveillance, Tate Gallery, Totalitarianism, urban landscape, Wall and Piece
It doesn’t take much to piss off Benjamin Netanyahu, except apparently, spray paint. While looking for photos for a possible essay idea I stumbled upon an image cited on World News Daily Report, a Zionist online newspaper, and after BANKSY has defaced the Gaza wall that separates Palestinians from Jews, along with a few stones from an ancient jewish temple, the Prime Minister is billowing his usual boisterous ballyhoo. Sorry. Couldn’t resist. This isn’t the first time the notorious graffiti artist has actually tagged said wall before. I know this because at one point my little sister was obsessed by the artist BANKSY, particularly one book that I would skim through over and over again.
I’ll admit I’m beginning this essay with great trepidation. That makes me sound like a fucking Victorian novelist, but I am expressing honest concern. I’m not used to writing about art, or artists for that matter, but I know books and so when I finally bought myself a copy of Wall and Piece I placed it on my shelf and immediately forgot about it focusing instead on Jim Henson: The Biography. Muppets trump all you know.
For that last statement I shall be drawn and quartered by rats.
Before my punishment comes though I did want to convey my impression of the importance of such a book, and before the reader assumes that I’ll wax philosophic about the importance of individual expression and the rotting corruption of capitalism, I really just want to look at a few of BANKSY’s paintings and the writings that accompany them in the book.
On the first page BANKSY provides a kind of artistic statement over a picture of himself spray painting the “cut-out” lines that is part of his signature style:
I’m going to speak my mind, so this won’t take very long.
Despite what they say graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission.
A wall has always been the best place to publish your work.
The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit, which makes their opinion worthless.
They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic off the decline of society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the minds of three kinds of people; politicians, advertising executives, and graffiti writers.
The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl slogans across the buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message un your face from every available surface but you’ve never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.
Some people became cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.
I really don’t want to kiss BANKSY’s ass because the internet is loaded with hipsters, wannabe’s, and “graffiti scholars” who prattle endlessly about the man’s daring, insight, and ability and what gets lost is the real sense of bedlam. BANKSY’s art, the first time a viewer sees it, really shakes you up because it’s unashamedly reminding the viewer that they live in the Panopticon and they’re happy to do so. If the reader has no idea what that is I’ll explain.
In his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault the French historian describes the modern man as existing in a prison known as the Panopticon. This is based on a real prison design created by Jeremy Bentham during the 1700s. It’s a circular space and on every side are single cells in which prisoners are occupied. Each prisoner cannot look into the other cells and is afforded only the entrance of their cell, which looks out onto the ground floor where a single guard tower is occupied. Within the tower, which has one-way windows, there is a prison guard able to see into every cell. The guard cannot watch every cell at once, but the key idea in the design is that the prisoner can never tell when the guard is watching him. Foucault explains that part of the Postmodern condition is the state in which man is always aware that he is under scrutiny, and as security and traffic cameras have become more and more prolific it becomes difficult for human beings to live without the awareness that somebody, somewhere, is watching them and monitoring their behavior.
BANKSY’s art remains unique then, because he screws the Panopticon, “tagging” the tower with a monkey holding a sign that says “I wish I could get paid to watch people all day,” and reminds people that they’re free. Whether it’s his monkeys reminding people to “Keep it Real,” or his Rats wreaking havoc and reminding people that they’ll rule once again, or else his police officers making out or arresting little girls, BANKSY’s art is subversive for the fact that he doesn’t seem to be pointing a finger at the “oppressor’s” because ultimately the only power they have is within the minds of the governed and consumers.
At this point the reader may roll their eyes and wonder how thick is the foil hat I wear, which is unfortunate because I only wear one layer, that’s all you need to keep the space aliens and CIA away. In all seriousness though this idea isn’t unfounded and Wall and Piece reminds its reader of that as every photo BANKSY provides the reader comes with the location of the piece shown, the date, and usually how long it lasts before it is painted over, taken down, or destroyed.
As he pointed out in the opening section, by openly mocking the institution of public property one can become a criminal, or else vermin rather quickly. I like to think of BANKSY’s art more along the lines of opening the window of the Panopticon. Rather than inviting the chaos of a jailbreak, BANKSY’s book shows through images and brief impressions of life that human beings seem lethargic in the capitalist and government systems, and by having somebody who is willing to deliberately shake that system and not apologize for it, but in fact to claim artistic credibility for it is not only a shock to the system, it offers people the chance to wake up and remember that they can express opinions about how public space is controlled and manipulated and used. Graffitti artists are often sold as either criminals or geniuses, but apart from BANKSY I have yet to really find another artist that fits that description.
That isn’t because of the “mystery” factor, because that’s ultimately fleeting. Every man, every artist, every king, every CEO is ultimately forgotten, their works like the stone legs of Ozymandias standing in an empty sea of desert for miles. The fact that most of BANKSY’s art has already been destroyed by public officials and public servants only further demonstrates that.
What then is the value of a book by BANKSY?
The only answer I have is two small passages. The first involves the Tate Gallery, the second returns the reader to Gaza.
Before BANKSY places his copy of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and provides a small little clip about his sister destroying most of his art, there’s a two-page spread of him posting a picture up in the Tate Gallery in London and he provides two paragraphs:
Art is not like other culture because its success is not made its audience. The public fill concert halls and cinemas every day, we read novels by the millions and buy records by the billions. We, the people, affect the making and quality of most of our culture, but not our art.
The art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit, and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.
It’s difficult to really assess honest recognition, or really it’s difficult to describe it and then explain it out. BANKSY’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop did a marvelous job of demonstrating the way that art is held firmly in the grip of a super class that enjoy the privilege of possessing art for themselves, often simply for the sake of owning it or appearing to derive some pleasure from it. As a writer you’re afforded some freedom in that regard. True a few collectors may own the first editions of a book you have written, but depending on the success of your book there’s always reprints and so there is solace there. The artist, whether they paint or sculpt, can find their work appropriated by the rich if said social club decides that their work is “in” this season.
The best example is a self-portrait by BANKSY which recently sold £198,000. A rat painted onto the side of a cell-phone shack would have been cleaned off within a weak, and now the avant-garde are devouring the works of graffiti artists desperate to get in on the hype oblivious to the creative intent.
I look back to Gaza however, for in 2005 BANKSY went to Palestine and “tagged” the walls dividing the Palestinians from the Jewish communities, and while he painted he was approached by an old man who spoke to him:
Old Man: You make the wall look beautiful
Old Man: We don’t want it to be beautiful. We hate this wall, go home.
Rats bother human beings because they bite people, they spread disease, they destroy the infrastructure of homes, and they tend to live off of refuse. But what I believe bothers human beings about rats the most is not that they’re ugly or nasty, it’s the fact that they tend to survive in the same environments as humans and they don’t mind being nasty or dirty to do so. Rats in many ways offer up a mirror image to those that live in the cold concrete of urban environments and BANKSY offers up a summation himself:
They exist without permission. They are hated, hunted and persecuted. They live in quiet desperation amongst the filth. And yet they are capable of bringing entire civilizations to their knees.
If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model.
As I said before I’m unused to writing about art, but fortunately for me BANKSY offers up writing alongside his work and so in that I am able to gain an impression of the creative goal of Wall and Piece. Mankind in the 21st century is surrounded by space and places that do not belong to them. They live in a space that is constantly filled with corporate advertisement that are entirely impersonal and ruthlessly mercenary. They rely on infrastructure paid for with their tax dollars but owned by their government. These realities divorce people from the fact that they exist and have free will or even choice. The choices usually offered in the hyper-capitalist society tend to devolve down to whether or not you should buy Burger King or McDonalds. BANKSY’s book takes pot-shots at corporations, government, and mundane realities not to judge society or place himself above it, but just to remind people that the power these institutions derive is not from divinity or supreme power, but truly from the individual consumer. It’s the person who buys the Dr. Pepper thinking the pirate, or rocket ship, or monster truck logo on the wrapper in some way defines their personality oblivious to the fact that every bottle contains the same substance.
The Panopticon of CCTV, McDonalds, Disneyland, and Traffic cameras may always be watching, but there’s a kind of victory by scribbling a rat holding a sign that says “We will Rule” on the walls, if only so that someone will see you and be offended by your very existence.
Here’s the article below that started up my inspiration for this essay, or at least the gumption to attempt it. I have no idea if this website is legit or not, and honestly I really don’t care because even if it wasn’t true it did give me the kick in the ass to try and write about a book about art.
I do NOT condone the defacing of public or private property for amusement or “artistic purposes,” unless it is for entirely selfish or badass reasons, then by all means go ahead.
Just in case, if BANKSY is reading this I love your work I promise I am not an art whore who will kiss your ass.