Looking into America’s Magic Mirror


The magic mirror where the ugly becomes beautiful and the beautiful ugly. Source: ACME archives

“’The sex instinct,’ repeated Mr. Talliafero in his careful cockney, with that smug complacence with which you plead guilty to a characteristic which you privately consider a virtue, ‘is quite strong in me.’”

 -William Faulkner, “Mosquitoes” [emphasis mine]

And so begins the closest thing to a comedy Faulkner ever wrote, and the farthest thing from the epic profundity of his later novels. Yet in that brief aside between the words of Mr. Talliafero there is that discernible knack for the particulars of a most often distasteful human nature.

The first time I picked up Mosquitoes, that first sentence (along with a rather strange epigraph about football squads, majesty, and of course, Fate) was all I read. Though I didn’t return to finish the novel for at least two years that first sentence often ran through my mind reminding me of the all too prolific tendency to insult the worst of one’s own behavior as a secret method of exaltation.

Like a new vocabulary word, once I learned to recognize this tendency, I began seeing it everywhere.

It is particularly common among the youth, who in sorting out their identities often chose to peacock “controversial” behaviors as positive personality traits. For instance, on countless occasions I have heard around the watering holes of my alma mater such declarations as “I’m such a bitch” or “Oh mah god, I’m such an alcoholic” (the website Texts from Last Night is a treasure trove of such low brow Talliaferian confessions).

Perhaps the youthfulness of this affliction is the reason I notice it so often here in America. As an immature nation constantly re-working its identity, often in a rather reactionary manner, Americans will embrace the worst of their cultural tendencies just to have something “unique” to hold up as a passable personality. Unfortunately, this insecurity is manipulated by politicians and media who try to shape the American citizen into the mold of a complacent consumer.

I was angrily aware of this during that darkest of days after Thanksgiving. To my naive disbelief every big news outlet, and even several smaller ones, covered Black Friday like it was a major election or the Kentucky Derby. There were photo montages, gory reports, as well as, in more liberal mediums, obligatory anti-consumerism political commentary. Yet even though Black Friday was sometimes condemned and ridiculed, it was still promoted via an onslaught of coverage, making one wonder if the spectacle of it all is an orchestrated move between big retailers and news outlets that rely increasingly on advertising profits.

In these news pieces, Black Friday was depicted as a ritual of American consumerism (replete with nighttime vigils, coordinated mass movements, sanctioned outbursts of violence, etc). It was something all Americans could take part in (whether black, white,  or brown– the consumer is always a worthy citizen). Even acknowledging its debase, grotesque nature was a sort of free pass to indulge. I heard comments from those who intended to partake in the ritual acknowledging how wild and crazy it was going to be “out there”. Like those who strap themselves to trees to experience the awesome power of hurricanes, many Americans seem to hit the mall on Black Friday simply for the thrill of a new space and time defined only by how much you can buy and how quickly.

And if your liberal heart has a hangover the next day, you can console yourself with the saving grace of “Small Business Saturday” (sponsored by American Express). The idea is that after you spend Friday giving money to the big retailers (Best Buy, Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Target, etc), you can make up for your complicity with horrible labor practices by giving whatever you have left to locally owned businesses. Companies such as Tom’s and Starbucks operate on a similar redemptive logic, as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, wherein the consumer becomes convinced that their acts of buying are actually helping the world and making them a better person. Like Talliaferro’s statement allows him to claim a potentially negative behavior as a virtue, so too does the coverage around Black Friday and Small Business Saturday allows consumers to take pride in a soulless, manic, go-into-debt holiday.

More often than such obvious examples of the Talliafero complex (to give it an unnecessarily weighty name), there is the subconscious tendency to promote and revel in what might otherwise be perceived as unfortunate ailment. What immediately comes to my mind is the strong current of anti-intellectualism in America. Interest in the world of ideas is seen as something inherently bourgeois and suspicius. As an Ivy league alum, I am aware of the commodification of knowledge and the adverse effect many academic institutions wreck on the outside world. However, despite this, I am not an enemy of academia or of the pursuit of mental growth for its own sake. I reject the belief that scholarship is an weapon against the common man. Unfortunately, many people do seem to believe this because of their identification with the principles of egalitarianism. Americans in particular are very mistrusting of anyone wielding power over them, including the power that comes from intellectual superiority.

Unfortunately this mistrust becomes just another soft spot for manipulation by Fox News and other conservative forces to keep people blissfully ignorant. I remember sitting in the Greyhound station watching as a Fox News anchor presented a chart detailing some aspect of the economic recession. In response the other anchor shook his head and said, “Well, gee that all sounds like pretty confusing stuff…” Anchor A then said, “You’re right, B, it is very complicated, but the bottom line is we’re hurting.” Instead of trying to make more clear a complex economic situation, the anchors simply assured the viewers that the situation was itself beyond explication. Such attempts to normalize ignorance, even in a news organization whose goal is supposed to be the illumination of information, actually reinforces hierarchies by making people believe they cannot access knowledge because they are not smart enough, not because there are big interests making sure people don’t understand how the system works. This is probably why people who watch Fox News actually know less about current events than people who watch no news at all.

I wonder what Orwell would have to say about this. His namesake adjective, Orwellian, has come to denote insidiously paradoxical names, usually given by and pertaining to the government, that operate on the level of propaganda. For instance, in his novel 1984, the Department of Peace is actually the department responsible for waging wars. Rather than acknowledging and embracing one’s own decadent immorality, the government of 1984 always tries to make themselves sound like the opposite, better side of their true nature. It seems to me then that America operates on a fusion of the Orwellian and Talliaferian approaches by embracing the worst side of their culture and insisting it is the best. It is a sick side of American exceptionalism: America creates a model of itself that is debase and simply stupid, and then insists that this is the model against which all others must measure themselves. I only hope the rest of the world has the good sense, and I think they do, to reject this atrocity and see it for the monster it is.

If you have any other examples of the Talliaferian Complex, please do tell.

In other news: All the books I put on hold at the library are finally ready for me! Get ready for a flurry of book reviews about Top Secret America, Juan Gonzalez’s News for All the People and my winter reading pick, Prague Cemetery.

Somewhat relevant postscript: Today I witnessed first hand a crazed holiday shoppers’ quarrel. What started out as a rude push spiraled into back and forth punches. Blood was drawn. As I was leaving the elderly husband of one of the women involved was trying to trap the other women in the revolving door and yelling for the police. The security guards made a circle and barked into their walkie talkies while a large crowd of fellow shoppers gathered to gawk. I left quietly out the side door. Then, just a few minutes ago, I decided to put on the long underwear I had bought earlier  The shopping bag says at the bottom, and I kid you not, “FASHION WORTH FIGHTING FOR.” Unbelievable. The store explicitly encourages force and aggression as acceptable modes of purchasing clothes, but also employs a small militia of security guards to quell any disruption…and to bring in the cops to send one if not both of the parties to bookings. Now that’s some mixed messages.

I mean I’m not gonna lie I might go to great lengths to have these long underwear in my life. They are really soft and snuggly. But fight an old woman for them? Probably not.

                                                                       -December 18, 2011  10:06 pm

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