Friday, May 10, 2013

The Nerds, Posters, and Hipsters Trilogy, Part Three: O, the Irony!

Besides posers, "hipsters" are another much-condemned group. My particular observations on the subject were spurred by an article called "How to Live Without Irony," which I felt completely missed the point of just about everything.


The author asks: "Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?" This statement is in itself aburd. It's not either/or. It's possible for something to be absurd, but also for people to really like it, and even to sincerely like something only because it's absurd. She mocks the giving of a plastic Mexican wrestler figurine as a gift, but I would love to get one! To be perfectly honest, much of my affection for the human race is based primarily on its penchant for absurdity.

"What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves." Umm ... everything people can possibly wear is a costume. Have you ever been to a clothing store? Do you have a job? Are you aware that there's such a thing as gender roles, which are both nonsensical and torturous to a good proportion of the population?

This is personal for me, because I've been accused many times of liking things only because they were obscure.

In fact, I learned irony from people who lived during World War II. I learned it far away from any city, in a small town where there was, for much of my childhood, only one television channel. Or is it actually irony at all? My parents, conservative and outwardly "normal" members of society, had a large collection of bizarre and obscure novelty records, which I still listen to with delight. My dad has been laughing at bad B-movies since at least the 1950s. White elephant gift-giving has a long and distinguished history in my family: we still speak with fondness about the heady Christmases when we were attempting to outdo each other with Princess Diana memorabilia. When my young nephews presented me proudly with a Paris Hilton Princess Diary a few years back, I felt very proud that our work was continuing.

My parents, with almost none of the advantages we take for granted today, in a time of binding social constraints and extremely limited access, were nonetheless huge readers, with a great curiosity about the world and a willingness to question and make up their own minds about thing. They had their own individual tastes, and bought the records they liked, because they liked them. That is what they taught me.

People can sincerely enjoy things which are considered by other people to be unusual or obscure. If that happens to be your situation, what do the judgments of other people have to do with your innocent amusements, that are none of their business?

Some basics:

1. Things are trendy. So what? Hobbies, music, pop culture of all kinds: new things come along, and are often inexplicably popular. I don't get why mustaches and fixie bikes are big among "hipsters," but nor did I understand the mainstream Atkins diet craze, or why people are obsessed with talking about their cell phones. It's fun to theorize, but I don't think hipster trends are fundamentally different from any other trends. People need things to occupy their minds, they think things are interesting, and they get carried away. That's perfectly normal.

2. Some trends you'll like, others you'll hate, others will baffle you. Again, this is self-evident. In the '70s I hated Laverne and Shirley; in the '80s I loathed John Hughes. (Well, I still do). These were not hipster trends, but things that were hugely popular in the mainstream of America. But I still wanted to watch TV and go to movies, like every other human being in the country. So I discovered PBS and, later, oddball cult films. Who's that hurting? The current example is that one person watches Dancing With the Stars, and another watches Portlandia. Is one of them right (or normal), and the other wrong (or an annoying hipster)? Maybe they just like different things, and that's okay.

One of the benefits of being a nerd is that it makes you not expect that everyone will have the same taste that you do.

There's also a difference between honest criticism and taste-bashing. I dislike the Twilight phenomenon as an adult for the same reasons I despised the John Hughes movies of my youth: I think they're emotionally dishonest, and send terrible messages to young people. There are, of course, fans of these things who enjoy other aspects of them; people have gotten messages that are actually empowering or helpful to them in some extremely unlikely places. I have nothing against those fans.

A critic has the perfect right to review a band, or a movie, and explain why they don't like it. But that's not the same thing as saying that, because you don't like it, and you don't understand why other people like it, then those people don't really like it either, and are only being cool or ironic.

3. Part of the problem is that irony, and sincerity, are judged by others, who aren't all-seeing and all-knowing. As with the definition of kitsch -- gee, Milan Kundera, it must be nice to read the minds of everyone you meet and know who has honest sentiment and who doesn't. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being has also been annoying me for many years).

4. This point is made in the article, but not strong enough for me: our whole world actively militates against emotional sincerity. It's not as if the kids will stop drinking their craft beers and suddenly our lives will be filled with honest communication. In a world that discourages emotional sincerity, people need outlets to express their individuality.

5. Articles like this are actually are self-defeating. The more you just like what you like, and go with it, the more likely it is that other people are going to judge you. In my case, I actually do sincerely like the things I like. Because of that, I often like things which are novel or unusual to others. Which makes me more likely to be called a hipster, or accused of "only liking things because they're obscure." Because that's worse than liking things that are popular? Anyway, to me, that's completely irrelevant. If I stopped doing things I liked because other people question my motives, wouldn't that make me more insincere?

Similarly, if you're surrounded with things you don't like in the mainstream culture, what are you supposed to do? Insincerely go along with the crowd, lest anyone think you're an insincere hipster?

Conversely, if you like something just because, and it suddenly becomes popular, then what?

Example #1: I've been a Doctor Who fan since 1982, and now that it's enormously crazy big, if I were to not want to be a fan because it's so popular, then that would be the exact stereotype of a hipster: not liking something just because it's popular, because of being invested in its obscurity. However, I liked Doctor Who because I like Doctor Who. Other people are free to assume that I'm being all "I was into this thing before it was popular, so I have more cool points" about it; I can't stop them. It's just the truth, and I have the hand-knitted scarf to prove it. If different people assume that I'm watching Doctor Who because it's so popular (how mainstream!), I can't stop them either. It's all irrelevant.

Example #2: I've been collecting "mental hygiene" and exploitation films for decades. Suddenly, locally at least, this is kind of trendy in the college radio/local art crowd (the sort of people identified as hipsters; there are some goatees on display). If something I already like is identified with hipsters, what do I do then? If I stop liking it because it's popular, that proves I'm a hipster ("I liked it before it was cool!"). If I don't, then people feel free to write newspaper articles about how all of us like this stuff insincerely.

So I say: if people enjoy something and they're not hurting anyone, then mind your own business.

The Nerds, Posers, and Hipsters Trilogy, Part Two: A New Kind of Kick

A lot of people say a lot of negative things about posers, and, well, they always have. But where do posers come from? Why do people find them so annoying? Why don't I spell it properly?

Because I've always said that spelling or pronouncing it "poseur" is, in fact, the sign of a poser.

With any kind of pop culture genre, and within any kind of activity that could become a trend under the right circumstances, there are basically three groupings of people, all of which are, of course, wildly simplified.

1. The True Enthusiasts. These are the nerds. They are interested in subjects and activities without any external or trend-driven pressure for them to be interested in them. They think, what kind of music do I want to listen to? And they find it. They listen to the kind of music they like, and wear what they want to wear. When they come across something that's new to them, True Enthusiasts will decide if it seems interesting to them or not, and then proceed from there. The popularity of that new thing is mostly, if not totally, irrelevant.

2. The True Normals. They are normal people who are, by and large, satisfied with the pop culture materials and social events of the status quo. There's current music on the radio, and they listen to it. There are current TV shows, and they watch them. They wear whatever it's the style to wear. They don't question this very much, and why should they? Although individuals vary in their likes and dislikes, by and large they're not all that Enthused about the specifics. When faced with some weird new style they're never seen before, a True Normal will say, "Weird. I don't get it." And they won't start adopting it.

3. The Ambiguous Normals. Ambiguity is by nature not black or white, so it's no surprise that this includes a whole spectrum. They may start out with an Enthusiastic temperament that's been squelched, so they try to repress it. Or they may be mostly Normal, but have had little exposure to things out of the most main of the mainstream. In general, though an Ambiguous Normal, when faced with a weird new style, may say, "Weird." But still think it's kind of cool, or interesting, or worth trying out. In time, they may become Ambiguous Enthusiasts, or even morph into True Enthusiasts. But this is also the pool from whence the posers come.

The Ambiguous often seem particularly reactive to the status quo. For example, some people seem to be Enthusiasts, but deep down, they're driven by reactiveness: they're too angry with some aspect of society to be True Normals. They have begun to question True Normalcy. But they aren't self-directed. The classic case is people who are rebelling against their parents versus really doing something because it's what they want to do.

Among the True Enthusiasts, some of them may delve deeply into single areas of interest (ham radio, vintage Bollywood films, music from the British Invasion, underground comics), and some may have a perpetual desire for novelty, within a favorite given framework (new music, new studio arts, new experimental poetry). In other words, some are early adopters of new styles and areas of interest, while others have a narrower focus on a single area that will become an overriding obsession. Some may have started out as Ambiguous Normals who expanded their horizons and crossed over to become True Enthusiasts.

So, True Normals will watch a TV show because it's on and other people they know are watching it. Because of their personal tastes, they will still watch things based on what they like -- they're not mindless automatons! But those things will all be things the majority of people have heard of.

True Enthusiasts will watch a TV show for reasons unrelated to its popularity. They are intrinsically interested in the subject matter, or it sounds interesting for whatever reason. Or they tune in by accident. If they like it, they'll keep watching. If they don't, they won't. They will shows that the majority of people have heard of, and they will watch shows that are painfully obscure. What other people watch is neither here nor there.

Ambiguous Normals, however, may go through life watching TV shows like True Normals. But one day they may come across something unfamiliar, and react to it the way a True Enthusiast would. That is, they just like something, or are interested in it, regardless of what other people think. For a person who's used to being Normal, this state of affairs can be unsettling. They may become self-conscious. Once that happens, if they don't automatically reject the new thing as "weird," and feel they are outside the realm of True Normals, Ambiguous Normals are often confused about the nature of Enthusiasm.

By this I mean: if the subject matter of their interest is outside of Normal, something that would normally be the playing ground of the Enthusiasts, they tend to continue reacting like Normals, instead of as Enthusiasts. They continue to use the cognitive tools they learned among Normal people. Their attraction to the subject matter might really BE self-directed, coming from within. But once it's there -- especially if this is a new or  unusual state of affairs -- they react the same way they would if their attraction to it were based on the desire to do what's Normal. The normal thing to do is to conform.

Only now, they are attempting to conform to a world of people whose interests aren't based on the interests of other people. Many Normals have a hard time adjusting to this. And that's where Punk Rock Conformists are born.

Some of these Ambiguous Normals may be trying out different things, to see if anything sticks and becomes a True Enthusiasm of their own. Some of them may be unconsciously driven by a desire for transgression or rebellion, and will happily turn their back on their one-time Enthusiasms, and even the idea of Enthusiasm, once it's out of their systems. Some of them may become the short-term fanatics who annoy everybody.

Only time will tell. 

The Nerds, Posers, and Hipsters Trilogy, Part One: In Praise of Nerds

I've spent much of my life watching bizarre trends and mysterious obsessions sweep over the populace and then disappear back into obscurity -- things and people and topics that only seem popular because they're popular. And most of the time, I have pondered the question of why I so often seem immune to the object under discussion, whatever it is. Yesterday, as the town was gripped by a sports-related mania, right on the heels of a furor over Conan O'Brien, it occurred to me: being a nerd is like taking a vaccination against obsession!

There's a certain amount of group psychology at work here. We know obsessions can be contagious: if everyone around you is interested in something, it can seem natural to pick up the interest. This can be as innocuous as hanging out with friends; they expose you to potential common interests, which they encourage through conversation, which focuses your attention. Or it can be a factor of the desire to fit in socially: once a TV show reaches a certain point of popularity, the popularity itself will draw more viewers in.

Another important aspect is that people often seem to be looking outside themselves for something to care about, to believe in, to get riled up about. They're not doing it consciously, but once something comes along, they'll grab it. Of course, everybody's different, and individuals react in different ways, to different degrees. But for many people, if they don't already have something external to care about that'll occupy their mind enough, then they're more susceptible to influence, and they become temporarily obsessed with whatever the people around them are obsessed with, or whatever the media is encouraging them with.

Nerds are known for their obsessiveness, but the truth is, they're no more obsessed than the general public. The general public just doesn't admit it, and they wander from one obsession to the next -- which is one of the ways the mass media makes its money. Whereas nerds tend to embrace their obsessions -- ones of their own choice -- which makes them less susceptible to transient obsessions. They already have something external to occupy their minds with, and to get riled up when the need arises. It can be science fiction, Bollywood films, obscure punk rock bands, any kind of technology.

Which leads to the question: are sports fans nerds? Many sports fans have chosen their obsession the same way a nerd has chosen theirs, and in that case, they are in fact nerds, whether they know it are not, and may well, like nerds, have more immunity to random emotional manipulation than the general public. However, many people jump in and out of an interest in sports when a local team is winning, thus more desirable as an object to identify with and get riled up about, or because of marketing/advertising factors. When people without personal obsessions see the team getting a lot of attention, that gives them something to focus their attention on.

Obviously, I'm not talking about unhealthy obsessions. Just channels for the human desire to be interested in things. People want something to care about, even if that makes them flash-in-the-pan fans. The people who are either making money, or successfully swaying people to an agenda, are the ones who offer them something to care about. Something outside themselves and what's perceived as mundane daily realities, to have an opinion about, to get angry about, even. People who pick their own obsessions are less profitable, except for those who are in niche businesses. Mass profits are made off mass interests.

A billion years ago, when I was in journalism school, there was a big advertising Coke Vs. Pepsi thing stirred up. They were talking about it as marketing in some intro class I was taking, and I mentioned that they were putting in all these billions of dollars for their ads, but it didn't make any difference to me, because I didn't drink or buy any sodas. That's when I learned that the term for me is "Statistically Insignificant." They know freaks like me are out there, but they don't care. I am profitable to the people who sell Bollywood and cult horror DVDs, out-of-print books, and obscure religious bric-a-brac; I am not profitable to the mainstream.

Most of us are unlikely to cultivate true objectivity and detachment, which would render us immune to obsession in general. That being true, often the best case scenario is that you can channel your obsession into something productive. Otherwise, you can either waste your energy caring passionately about something that you'll forget all about in a month. Or worse, you can focus that energy on some kind of ideology in which you're being manipulated for someone else's agenda.

If you're in the habit of following your own interests, and occupying your mind with what you like, regardless of what other people think, it's good training in thinking for yourself on all subjects, which makes you less susceptible to manipulation. That's why I know sci-fi nerds on all ends of the political spectrum, but (more often than in the general populace) they have reasonable reasons, which they can articulate, for what they think. They're not just knee-jerk reactors.

So it's probably for the best if you don't get any encouragement for your interests until AFTER you've already developed them.

Solving the World's Problems: Common Sense About Bullying

Do we want to get rid of bullying in the world, or just in school? If the former, then we need to look at a lot of adult behavior that generally gets ignored. If the latter, and the former is unaddressed, then nothing is going to work. That's the reality of the situation, and we should try to minimize the carnage.

1. The larger adult world that's mirrored to children is made up of hierarchical power structures. Levels of privilege depending on circumstances: age, money, position of authority. In fact, that may be intrinsic to human nature. As long as that's what children see, they will mimic it. And many will take the lesson that it's better to be in the position of power than of powerlessness, or even potential powerlessness, just like adults do.

2. The larger world is full of inside/outside, us/them thinking and behavior, so of course, children will learn that this is appropriate, and apply it to their own situations.

3. Children feel the weight of various oppressions that they are mostly completely unable to articulate. Parents, teachers, anyone in the world has legal and physical authority over them, even in many instances where there is no logical reason to prevent them from doing things they'd like to do. This is in fact worse than ever, as children are often slaves to schedules and to medical treatments. Thus, like all human beings, they suffer from angers, frustrations, and general angst, which they are unable to direct at the sources of these frustrations. It's not surprising that they will take the examples of #1 and #2, and take things out on weaker targets that present themselves.

4. The people who avoided becoming bullies, or bullied, through the elementary school years, may still fall into those categories during adolescence. (These are the famous Drowning Ophelia years). Differences that were ignored in childhood loom larger when people are trying to define their "adult" identities, their relationships with the opposite sex, etc. Suddenly there is more pressure to conform to standards (especially gender roles) sometimes more rigid than those of the culture at large. (Converts are the worst fanatics). As people "give up childish things," they resent others who don't; as they define their gender roles and standards of attractiveness, they become more intolerant of people outside their parameters.

If discourse among adults were respectful, if society at large was tolerant of differences and accepting of perceived outsiders, then we could realistically identify the motivations of bullying in children and teens. If what young bullies are doing is actually conforming to what they see as the values and the communication styles of the adult world, then they may just be learning how to succeed in that world.

And whose fault is that?

Solving the World's Problems: Cognitive Dissonance

To elaborate on the example of the media:

Starting in the '80s, fueled by Republican rhetoric, it seemed that the worldview in the United States began to be dominated by two equal and completely opposite positions:

1. There is absolutely no value higher than the profit motive. Making money is the only thing that matters.

And 2. The biggest problem in our country is the erosion of traditional values (loosely defined as family, religion, a work ethic, etc.)

So just to pick one example that isn't any kind of life-or-death situation: sex and violence in the media.

This shouldn't be news to anyone, but the American mass media is a corporate, profit-making entity. It is officially not their job to do anything but get viewers in front of sets, for the purpose of selling airtime to advertisers. The reason there is no American equivalent of Masterpiece Theatre is because it wouldn't be profitable enough. End of story. Any argument about perceived "value" to individuals or societies of anything is a completely moot point.

When radio and television broadcasting began, there was a strong idea in this country that the technologies should in fact be used primarily for educational and cultural purposes. We know who won that argument. And from the start of my adult life (Ronald Reagan was elected President when I was 15 years old), up to the present day, conservative pundits have consistently claimed that business interests should be free from government interference. Thus, if you think a public utility, like the airwaves, should be used for anything but naked, greedy money-making, the response is: What are you, a Socialist? (In the '80s, that would have been Communist, but it's the same idea).

Okay, fair enough.

However, the second a tv show adds a sympathetic gay character, then suddenly the same conservatives who want business to be unfettered by government regulation start making a fuss about community standards and traditional family values, and the need for them to be policed. If a breast is partially exposed by accident for a few seconds, then suddenly we need all the regulation in the world.

At the same time, during the last 20-some years, I have seen much of what used to be viewed as common goods eroded or openly bulldozed. Just think: how often have you heard about a free public service "losing money"? Schools, parks, libraries: these are all institutions which explicitly exist to serve higher purposes, which are important for the continuity of our society and, sometimes, our existence on the planet. (My latest sidenote musing has been that, if people want to fund K-12 education as little as possible, and think it makes sense that only the rich and/or lucky can go to college, regardless of ability, merit, or inclination: who do we think is going to maintain all those nuclear power plants 40 years from now? The sons of the wealthiest of the wealthy? Do people think temps will be able to do those jobs for minimum wage? We need to fund education, and we need to do it now).

Before the last few decades, nobody ever expected a public school to be profitable. The National Park System wasn't created as a cash cow. What do people think?

At a time like the Depression, when many people literally had nothing, and even a middle-class family would have very little in the way of the luxuries or material possessions we all take for granted, libraries, schools, and parks were funded because they were recognized as valuable public services. It's not that, in our time, these things have become unneeded, or that they're losing more money. It's just that it was once understood that some things served a function for society that wasn't based on clear-cut profitability.

Another problem of perception arises from that general wealth of material possession. We live in a time when people have much higher expectations, and those cost money to fulfill. What I mean is, the average school I see today is unfathomably more lavish than any school I ever saw when I was growing up in the '70s. At this point, the cognitive dissonance has become a disconnect so striking as to seem pathological. Nothing is more important than our children! They must have every possible advantage, the best of everything that ... money can buy. But we don't think we should have to pay for any this. We certainly don't want to pay much to the people we entrust their futures to, that is, the teachers, even while we want children to have the best of everything material to help their futures.

Anyway: the reason is that the general orientation of our society has changed, so anything that isn't a money-making proposition is intrinsically devalued. Because of that, even if libraries and parks see more use by the public than they ever did, that's not relevant, and any funding is grudged, even in an economy where billions continue to be spent on videogames.

Read a few books on everyday life during the Depression and then think about the disposable income children in our country have available for videogames. I'm not, by the way, saying people shouldn't buy videogames. Not at all! This example just makes it obvious that the average American is far wealthier in terms of material possessions and the ability to spend for leisure activities than in the majority of this country's history, even despite the recent economic turmoil.

One of the root problems here is that there are many ways to judge the value of something: like its contribution to a safe, sane, stable society. It is a lot faster and easier to judge it on dollars, though, even when that's completely irrelevant.

Which brings me to "traditional family values." I could -- and actually will! Am! -- arguing that nothing will erode traditional family values faster than a belief system that the only thing in life that means anything is making money at any cost. How do you teach your children honor, integrity, courage, all that Greatest Generation stuff, if really it's all down to the bottom line: you got yours and you don't care about anyone else?

So, in almost every aspect of life, the only thing that matters is making money. But sometimes, arbitrarily, a mention of sexuality, lifestyles that some people consider "non-traditional," or exposure to different religions or philosophies throw the same people, ones who align as conservatives, into a frenzy of arguing that the government should, in fact, be doing more to protect children from "secular humanism" or "anti-Christian propaganda" or whatever the buzzword of the moment is.

There's a lot of room for improvement everywhere. Much government spending is indeed wasteful: almost any bureaucracy is rife with inefficiencies and possibility for corruption. Corruption, though, is based on profit-value; only people who put making money first are really in danger of being corrupted. But as long as the cognitive dissonance within our world is so strong, we'll never be able to deal rationally with the real things that we're concerned about.

Solving the Workld's Problems: W. Edwards Deming in Everyday Life

Intro: I have various blog posts in various forms of disarray, all of them, in one way or the other, on the subject of solving the world's problems. I've decided they're unlikely to get much more "finished," so what the heck, let's infuse it with a good dose of wabi-sabi!

(Based on a reading of W. Edwards Deming, a really smart guy whose ideas helped make Japan an economic powerhouse, but who is almost completely ignored in the U.S. business world, for obvious reasons. His books are page-turners. Read 'em!)

One of the questions that Deming's management books continually bring up is: What is your job, what is your purpose, what do you want? 

Sometimes you have to face the basic logic that you are trying to do mutually exclusive things, and you need to decide. It may be that they aren't completely, unresolvably mutually exclusive. But in solving them, you have to look at how important the different elements/outcomes are, decide what you can and can't compromise on. If you had to pick one or the other, which is really more important? And how important is the other? Then you can start to wind your way to a possible solution.

Which I will illustrate with a few of the most controversial examples possible: for example, the sad story of the Catholic church's stand on abortion. Do they want to maintain the idea of human sexuality as shameful and wrong, or do they want to stop the killing of innocent babies? I'm using their terminology here, because if they really believe this is all about the need to stop killing babies, and they could do that by accepting the reality that people have always had sex outside of marriage, and will continue to do so -- wouldn't that be a no-brainer? Wouldn't they encourage sex ed and contraceptives? Condoms aren't even against their beliefs, so why not make them more accessible? If I could stop cats from being killed at shelters, and all I had to do was stop being an asshole to strangers in the world doing something I disapprove of that's none of my  business, of course I'd do it! And believe me, you have NO IDEA how many things I disapprove of.

A lot of people and groups who are opposed to abortion, though, keep carrying on as if they can have it both ways, without contradiction. But the truth is, like it or not, they need to pick, and if they don't, things are going to go on the way they have forever. If the shame were removed from sexuality, that would remove many of the stigmas, and people with unexpected pregnancies could deal with them in other ways ... as is in fact happening among more liberal neighborhoods of society. A girl doesn't need an abortion if she can have a baby in a supportive environment. Shame is never supportive.

Another example is the idea of the liberal media, which has been driving me crazy since the '80s. It isn't a conspiracy -- it's a business. I grew up in a time when the religion of business and commerce was developing, and I've heard decades of rhetoric about capitalism, free trade, free enterprise, supply and demand, giving the customer what they want, and keeping government out of business. (As if). Now, I'm a complete failure as a capitalist. I don't get it, and despite what self-help books sometimes say, it's not because I secretly long to be rich and lord it over lesser beings. This is where it becomes obvious that I am in fact a Christian, whatever I believe.

But that religion of capitalism is completely incompatible with the idea of society promoting higher values and ideals, be they the conservative Christian bring-back-family-values or anybody else's ... although those "Christian," "conservative" ones highlight the contradiction most strongly. The government is what's stopping your 12-year-old son from going to the dirty bookstore, and your 15-year-old daughter from going on the pill, and going to bars, and your 80-year-old mother from buying useless, potentially dangerous medicine that's supposed to cure whatever ails her. It's what protects people from being exploited by predators, physical or financial.

You want a free market economy or you don't. You want a society driven by traditional values or you don't. When the two are not compatible, people look at those of us pointing it out as if we're the problem. But what we see, clear as day, is that the refusal to face the contradiction is actually causing more problems than the problems!