I’ve always been obsessed with the cultural sphere, which the internet and television taps into on a second-by-second basis. I often wonder: Why are so many D-list celebrities reincarnated on reality shows or the web? Who are those people that seem to be online every waking hour? Why would a dying child’s last wish be to trend on Twitter? These are just a few of the questions that the internet inspires.
Being online allows us all a microscopic view into the habits, thoughts, and oddities of human nature. How we view what we see and read depends a lot on who we are and what we value. With that disclaimer, here are some of my recent observations.
_ _ _
1. Food Machismo
Sick and deformed chickens smashed together in a cage? Dangerous chemicals in popular diet drinks? Pink slime and ammonia in beef? Genetically altered rice, fruits and vegetables? There are people who will vigorously defend even the worst food and take any criticism of it as an attack on some sacred American tradition, launched by alarmist hippies and navel-gazing vegetarians. The view seems to be that what doesn’t kill an eater on the spot makes them stronger and, besides, little Johnny would be so unhappy without his chicken McNuggets, mom can’t live without her diet Coke, and nothing says I Love You quite like toasted Pop-Tarts or a pound of nitrate-filled bacon in the morning. I’ve seen the defensive cry of “everything in moderation” used to cover everything from known carcinogens to 1200 calorie fast-food lunches. Oddly, the same people who’d rail over Coke in a baby’s bottle seem to have no problem when that same baby is given a cupcake loaded with sugar, fat and artificial dyes. One is presumably disgusting while the other is seen as some cute rite of passage.
2. Big Egos and Small Arguments
A couple of months ago, a woman posted a picture of an old woman with a small dog on her lap at the doctor’s office. She was incensed that anyone would bring a pet to a medical appointment. After an initial spate of support for her view, there were a couple of responses that weren’t all that agreeable, meaning that some people didn’t see the need for such outrage over an odd but relatively benign event. The dog, after all, didn’t seem to be hurting anyone and maybe the elderly woman was lonely or scared. That’s when the story started to grow. The small pup, who seemed so innocent in the beginning became a snarling, growling beast. And the woman who posted the picture now had a son who was so allergic to dogs that he could possibly die, or at least be thrown into an emergency medical crisis, by being in the proximity of one. (Sure, his own family had a dog at home, but that one was hypoallergenic, even though there’s really no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog.) Then there were the compromised immune systems of people who visit doctors and all the diseases dogs carry: Never mind that most aren’t transferable to humans without direct contact, especially of a dog’s bodily fluids, and never mind that contagions are far more likely to be spread by sneezing, coughing, breathing, doorknob and surface touching humans . . . the elderly lady that started off as merely eccentric or inconsiderate is now a potential accomplice to murder or medical mayhem.
The story grows when the argument must be won. Like sports competitors who fear they’ll lose without doping, those who can’t stand the thought of being disagreed with will accelerate their argument until they’ve exhausted all reason, as well as their readers.
3. The Vulture Culture is Alive, Well & Creepily Hypocritical
If asked to name their ideals, most people would probably mention things like love, equality, creativity, peace, justice, the American Dream and other universally beloved concepts. In contrast, here are just a few of the shows the viewing public is supporting on TV:
Lizard Lick Towing. Repo Games. Operation Repo. Storage Wars. Hardcore Pawn. Cajun Pawn Stars. For some reason, seeing people who are down on their luck have their vehicles towed, or watching them pawn their valuables for pennies on the dollar, or peering into storage lockers that have been foreclosed upon, has become entertainment. New celebrities are being born of sleazy pawn kings, redneck tow truck drivers, and others who scavenge through the remains of someone else’s misfortune in order to make a profit.
Swamp People. My Big Redneck Vacation. My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. Teen Mom. 16 and Pregnant. Hillbilly Handfishin’. Jersey Shore. Toddlers and Tiaras. 19 Kids & Counting. Sister Wives. Elements of Americana which used to be the subject of parody are now upfront and center and becoming more popular. When it’s not about double negatives, fist fights and irresponsibility, it’s about fundamentalist religious beliefs, prideful ignorance, and making money from being delusional, a train wreck, or a drama queen.
Real Housewives. Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Mob Wives. Hollywood Exes. Reality television continues the trend of making people famous (and rich or richer) for being famous . . . defying every single standard of the American Dream. Talent, hard work, and climbing the ladder one difficult rung at a time is no longer necessary to attain celebrity status. In fact, once reality TV makes a person famous there’s hardly any money-making avenue that’s closed to them. Armed with agents and marketing gurus, and salivated over by corporations, the dubiously famous can, with little or no effort, become fashion and jewelry designers, perfumers, authors, chefs, singers and more. Platform is everything and everything is a platform. The new currency of “equal opportunity” is fame. A television audience or a million Twitter followers buys many nearly effortless opportunities, requiring little more than a “yes” and a signature. As Ellen DeGeneres once said, she knew she was a celebrity when she started receiving a ton of free things.
4. Popularity is the Antidote to Skepticism
A few months ago, I read a blog post that struck me as doubtful, written by a blogger who is seemingly working very hard on becoming famous. (Dan Pearce recently felt compelled to send out his own press release when he had a hiking mishap to avoid “rumors that were starting to build” . The press release refers to Pearce as “renowned” and “famed”). But back to the blog post that was full of red flags for me. In that piece, Dan tells the story of a high school English teacher in Florida (a highly conservative state) handing out one of Dan’s blog essays, “I’m Christian Unless You’re Gay”, to his class of 15 year-olds as an assignment. (I know a few teachers. None have ever used blog posts as class material, and they tell me that one that mixes religion and sexuality would, in most high school systems, have to be pre-approved). Anyway, in short order, the story continues with a teen boy who takes the essay home to show his outraged Christian fundamentalist mother. The boy then comes out of the closet with an essay of his own, which instantly changes the heart and mind of his mom—who just hours before was ranting about the evil of gays— and within a mere month, both mother and son are changing the anti-gay culture of their small town.
To date, this story of Dan’s was tweeted 3208 times and shared on Facebook by 349,000 people. Is the story true? I don’t know, and all the thousands of people who shared it don’t know. Does it even matter, as long the story was widely believed? There were no names in the article, and no way to verify the truth of any part the story, but the same could be said for much of what’s posted on the internet. Not every personal story can, or should have to be, annotated with sources. The difference, for me, is in the numbers. In this case, were hundreds of thousands of unquestioning people misled, or were the few doubters, like me, simply too cynical? (I queried Dan Pearce in May to ask the name of the teacher. He did not respond personally or post my comment to his blog).
Each of us are left to decide the veracity of internet stories our own, but after so many hoaxes through the years, involving everything from fake cancer to make-believe identities — from dying children to imaginary tragedies — shouldn’t we all be just a little more questioning, especially when stories start going viral? Or do you believe, as many seem to, that the meaning of a story is more important than its truth? If something is emotionally evocative and relays a message of hope or idealism, does that make up for any holes in logic?
5. For All the Strangeness, There’s A Lot That’s Good . . . And That Makes Me Want to Do Better
Every time I begin to feel like an alien stuck on some twisted planet, where bad is good and good is boring, something or someone comes along to remind me that I’m not nearly as curmudgeonly or cynical as I feel. There’s Mark Horvath and his mission, Invisible People. Diane Nilan and her tireless mission to give voices to homeless children. An important indie film called Blood Brother that is coming together with the help of the internet. The Hope Mob, “where generous strangers unite” to support worthy causes.
It’s strange to think that not that long ago, whenever I got a little extra money my first, second and third thoughts were about what I needed. My financial situation hasn’t changed all that much, but my second and third thoughts have shifted. I give more to causes I care about these days than I ever have before and it makes me happy. Even though my contributions are small, they make me feel less apart from the world I often find incomprehensible and more a part of something uplifting and beautiful.
_ _ _
The Outside is now In. Celebrities are being made of gold-chained pawn shop owners, spray-tanned children, polygamists, pregnant teens, single-minded narcissists, and those who are rich or famous by birth or marriage. It’s a strange phenomena and one that I suspect is connected, in some loose, sideways fashion, to the ever-expanding and often bizarre divisiveness of politics, which seems to have forsaken intelligence for the potential to be controversial. Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Donald Trump . . . candidates running on a”Quiverfull” or other extremist platform. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a substantial, daily amount of W.T.F. – How did this happen? Has the world gone mad? Why aren’t we stopping it?
As cogs in the wheel, we can only do what we can, like expressing our ideals by supporting those people and companies that share them. It feels almost futile sometimes — like trying to block an avalanche with a pebble — but on a more personal, one-on-one level, there are still so many ways to make a difference. We just have to make a conscious decision to peel our eyes away from the train wrecks which, admittedly, isn’t always an easy thing to do.