Tuesday, February 18, 2014

you're better than somebody

So I'm at Walmart the other day, and I...

Okay. First of all, you need to back the truck up about Walmart. Yeah, sure, they're a corporation, which makes them dirty in all the ways corporations are dirty. But so is that store where you shop, and just because Walmart's maybe a bit more dirty doesn't mean you get to act all high and mighty about it. You're complicit in the dirtiness too, you know. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so... 

I'm at Walmart the other day picking up some of the organic food-items they carry (feeling all superior about it) when I see this meshie-cap guy coming my way. He's got an undersized polo shirt stretched over his enormous gut, but what's even more impressive is the head of hair on his wife: white and fluffy, like somebody microwaved a French poodle and glued it to her head. It's gargantuan. Like a hairy watermelon on a toothpick, if a toothpick could be round and lumpy and wear a denim dress.

I'm getting a chuckle out of this until I look past them to a redneck teenage boy who's openly laughing at the massive, silvery fluffball of hair. I know the boy's a redneck because he's dressed in head-to-toe camouflage, as is his father beside him. His father's getting in on it, too, and as I watch these chubby Bambi-stompers have a laugh at this lady's fantastical chapeau, I have this sudden epiphany:

Everybody's better than somebody. 

And then suddenly the whole thing starts to ripple outward, and I start to see it everywhere. I mean, like, everywhere, like every single spiteful conversation and bit of dirty, anonymous internet gossip. Like, people laughing at the photographically-frozen faces of Olympic athletes, and at overprivileged pop stars' public implosions, and at anyone who does anything that anyone else might wanna laugh at. 

Then the second season of the show HOUSE OF CARDS comes out and I start to think about why it's such a talked-about thing right now. Sure, it's a well-constructed and superbly-executed drama, but there have been lots of well-constructed dramas that haven't gotten this kind of popular attention, and even though you could point to the perfect storm of creative talents behind it, and the new Netflix model, and cetera, I think you have to ask what, exactly, is the zeitgeisty chord that's being struck, here. 

House of Cards, for the un-initiated, follows a Machiavellian politician named Frank Underwood ("F.U." for short) as he worms his way deeper and deeper into the hallway-maze of American power. In the process he takes lives and ruins them, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake as he gets closer and closer to the Oval Office. 

There's an obvious correlation there to the way the average American views the gridlocked, seemingly power-obsessed political nonsense in Washington right now, but you would think that correlation would lead people to turn off a show like that in disgust. 

So, why are they watching it in droves?

One possible answer is that we are wired to enjoy the application of power, regardless of the evil toward which it is bent. That we latch onto protagonists who seem to have the control over their surroundings that we lack in our own lives, thereby vicariously feeling a little less vulnerable and afraid. Sure, yeah, the dude's a sociopathic monster... but isn't he good at it? Isn't he amazing?!

I remember at college hearing some of my fellow-students rave about the character of Hannibal in the movie Silence of the Lambs and its sequels, explicitly stating their enthusiasm over the way Hannibal was able to manipulate people into doing what he wanted. 

So maybe that's it. Maybe we're fond of evil, as long as it isn't hurting us personally, and as long as it's winning. Maybe we're all a bunch of vicarious sociopaths. Or maybe just plain sociopaths.

This seems likely, given the growing popularity of television shows with despicable protagonists, and the popularity of movies like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Because as loudly as we may protest that they are an indictment... the truth is that a story's protagonist serves as a stand-in for us, and that the evidence would therefore indicate that we actually like the thought of being someone so endlessly, unscrupulously self-serving in their evil, destructive behavior.

That would be the darker, more cynical take.

But what if the makers of these shows and films are right? What if it's all about calling out evil when we see it? What if it's not so much a mirror on our own hearts of darkness as it is a fresh-cleaned window into the evil we are then supposed to stand against? If that was the case, then you'd think these shows and films would be powerful calls to action - rallying points for real, significant cultural change.

As much as I would love to see evidence to the contrary, I propose that they are not.

I propose that they are instead yet another opportunity for us to laugh at the big-haired lady at Walmart... or at the redneck guys who find her funny. Look at those dumb rednecks laughing at the even dumber rednecks, I think, as I pull a box of organic granola off the shelf. How amusing.

And two buildings over, at the organic store selling the uppity, hand-picked produce to the guy in the three hundred dollar shoes who can afford it, the patrons laugh at me in my beat-up, twenty year old car and the clothes I bought at Goodwill, musing to themselves on what sort of bad life choices I must have made to have gotten myself here. Enjoying the superiority their money has bought for them.

I ask you, then...

Who do you laugh at? 
Who makes you feel better about yourself, because they're worse? 
And how's that workin' out for ya?

So today, I'm in the middle of episode three of season two of House of Cards and suddenly I think, I don't want to know how this turns out. I don't want to watch evil crush good, again and again and again. I don't feel good about it, I feel hopeless. I feel nihilism creeping up on me in a dark, gray cloud and I want to run, screaming, the other way. Toward hope. Toward action, and change. 

I reach out with my mouse and I turn off House of Cards. 

I feel good about myself. Better, in fact, than all those people who continue watching.

Those idiots.

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