This New American Life
I write this in a booth waiting for my current delivery order to be prepared in an empty restaurant that ten years ago would have been crowded. The music is a soft bossa nova and the kitchen while busy is careful to avoid clangs. The decor is standard a medium brown stain colors the wood and the carpet is green and clean. A mother and her retired son are the only other customers. She is dancing while waiting for the spring rolls to arrive. The owner hands me a thai tea on the house while I wait. I can’t help but worry for the fate of America. I can’t help but wonder where do we go from here.
The internet has redefined what and why we eat. It’s less about what we like and having haunts we return to but posting from the current trends to be considered a cool kid. Even those who do not post on social media still Google and Yelp their choices based on the impression that the best rated by those apps have more value experience wise for their dollars. The hive mind that is social media causes attention inequality and narrows culture especially food culture.
Speaking of the Hive Mind. What do we talk about when we say we shouldn’t give someone a platform. As in the current uproar over Megyn Kelly interviewing Alex Jones, a man who has been paid to spew filth since my childhood. He long ago built his alternative media platform and give a place for wayward views. He helped Trump win without a doubt and his org Infowars will have white house press credentials. He doesn’t need an interview on NBC but NBC and those who oppose his views do need these kinds of interviews. Darkness cannot be allowed to fester. Pre-internet denying mainstream outlets was a good way to slow repulsive thought but now mainstream media is one if the last shared spaces in American life and is more effective as a means of exposing.
The tendency of the internet to drive conformity from food and fashion trends to preventing public discourse is disconcerting to say the least. Humanity’s story is one driven by innovation through diversity not just the kind on a college application check box. How much have we lost? What will it take next?
We’ve been getting emails from loyal audience members asking why Radical Centrists has been so quiet over the past week. Surely the waterfall of Trump related news and fiascos of historic proportions is decent fodder for articles, no? Well intelligent reader, you’re right, but we here at Radical Centrists like to offer something of a unique perspective from the partisan back and forth. And frankly, there have been many fine think pieces about The Comey Affair, the Russia disclosure, the WannaCry pandemic, and Jeff Sessions single handedly refusing bi-partisan support for sentencing reform in the criminal justice system.
At long last though, I think there is an argument that should be much more out in the open among democrats- mostly, how to react during and after the fallout of The Comey Affair. The idea of impeachment isn’t over the horizon, but in plain view as Trump continues to stumble through interview and conflicting statements over his apparent obstruction of justice. So what now?
One camp believes that Democrats should be as obstructionist as possible, throwing sand in the gears of legislature until, for example, a special prosecutor is appointed- basically give Republicans a taste of what they did for the past 7 years with Obama. Hey, two can play at that game, and the stakes are a lot higher now. Obamacare didn’t lead to death panels, the great depression was averted, we got out of Iraq… it’s almost hard to remember now why Republicans hated Obama so much.
The other camp feels that we should rise above, and that impeachment is impossible without the cooperation of Republicans in the House and Senate. Remember- impeachment is a political decision, not a legal one (which is exactly what Nixon meant when he said “when the president does it, it’s not illegal”).
If you had asked me two weeks ago when we were talking about Republican legislative policy, I was firmly in the former camp. Healthcare and their insane “tax reforms” would throw millions even further into feudal serfdom, hoping our corporate castles will provide protection when the storm comes. Resistance means more than just bearing witness.
Now though, more and more republicans are starting to feel that Trump’s very existence is anathema to their agenda (which, of course, he is). What has changed is that business as usual in government now could very well lead to Trump’s removal. Before, business as usual hurts our countrymen. Now, it could bring down the American Caligula. We Centrists shouldn’t make the mistake of hindering that.
There is a very American fear I used to have. It’s embarrassingly selfish and naive to admit, but I always had the creeping suspicion that I would miss my generational moment. Decade by decade, there seem to be cultural hubs in America, where the groundswell of the next cultural wave begins, to roll out across the country, until another starts to build somewhere else.
I never really knew how famous authors, directors, and public intellectuals seemed to be present in these moments. What happened to those who spent the late fifties in Portland instead of New York? Or the sixties in St. Louis instead of San Francisco?
Perhaps it’s a symptom of getting older, but I don’t really have that fear anymore. I was re-reading “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy last night (written off by a lot of fans as “movie fodder”, which I think is a shame because it is actually very experimental compared to his work both before and after).
In it the protagonist, Sheriff Bell, has small first person passages scattered throughout the book, reflecting on the state of the world he lives in. One quote in particular has stuck with me, and I’ve started to believe it’s connected to that old fear:
“Young people anymore they seem to have a hard time growin up. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just that you don’t grow up any faster than you have to.” (pg. 159)
I think this is especially applicable with my generation, “the millennials.” It’s hard to interact with any of them and not feel like we live in a nation of Peter Pans. As if a stubborn refusal to grow up will somehow keep looming, ice-age sized economic problems at bay. Part of the difficulty in any kind of massive movement based on these problems is that the young of the falling middle class are still able to leech off of those who have profited from it in the past. Young men and women can still lean on ever weakening family bonds for financial support.
And it’s okay right now. It seems like there is a lot of individual freedom- people can make money streaming video games, or blogging from vans, or go to grad school. But a decade from now, the national anxiety will really reach a fever pitch.
There will be a large movement, and I think it will spring from the millennial generation, when it finally sets in that things will not get better. When opportunities for job security turn out not to exist. When healthcare becomes an issue as we age. When the generation after us comes into the workforce, and we realize that there is no upward mobility anymore. The little projects and Netflix shows and cultural wars we busy ourselves will, with harsh suddenty, not matter.
I’ve started to believe that our reaction to that fact will be our lasting legacy- our cultural movement. It isn’t that we don’t have a place at the table: it’s that we are lead into a room where others are wildly hacking at the table so they can get a piece, and even as we get our hands on an axe or hammer, the top is gone, the legs are long pulled away, and all thats left are screws and dust and the echoes of labored breathing, cursing us for fools for being late to the party.
E.C. Fiori made a good point today about the value of criticism in the modern media saturated society. In light of this, I’ll attempt to demonstrate what that might look like.
*Art above by peterstrainshop
Since the turn of the century, there has been something of a trend in films that spans genre: the use of internal worlds as the physical setting for the film.
We’ve seen it be the setting for horror movies for years (confirming a theory of mine that horror almost always leads the way in terms of film trends, but it has at last made the jump to action, sci-fi, comedies, and dramas. Beyond the mere setting or plot device however, I’d like to focus on the Romantic Dramedy category, since they must trade in emotion and memory as is inherent to the genre.
I’ll begin with a declaration: Charlie Kaufman is a genius. Hyperbole? Maybe, but let me make my case.
Over the past ten years there have been two films, both celebrated, that attempt to show the entire course of a relationship through non-linear storytelling the way we remember our own. The first is 500 Days of Summer. The second, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
500 Days of Summer is, I believe, a great movie. It thrills in using every tool in the genre box to tell it’s story, switching from comedy, to drama, to musical, to documentary, to music video as it fits that moment in the relationship. When seeing it in the theater I was hooked right at the credits, and would be very proud if I was the writer of it.
But for me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind excels beyond others. Today I’m going to focus on one aspect of it. And it springs, from the confidence of genius.
There is a scene, right in the beginning of the film, where Joel is giving Clementine a ride, and she is asking him if he is a stalker. He replies that she spoke to him first, and she comes back with this:
Clementine: “That’s the oldest trick in the stalker book”. Let’s pause.
As a writer, how would you have the conversation continue from here? Joel is extremely introverted and closed off. He is starting to like this girl, and the ball is in his court.
I can tell you what I would do: I would have a call back. I would have Joel say “Do they stock that at Barnes & Nobel?” which she mentioned she works at just a few minutes before. She would reply that it’s a bestseller, or she saw him buy it, and the snappy banter would continue.
Instead, Charlie Kaufman has Joel say this:
Joel: “I gotta read that one.”
For anyone who has written anything with dialogue, the temptation to skew towards the memorable or (potentially) quotable is almost irresistible. If you’re writing dialogue, chances are you love dialogue- why wouldn’t you have Joel say something that people are going to remember and want to say in their own lives?
He doesn’t have to be suave either, you can give Joel something in character to say that is much more dialogue driven: instead though, Charlie Kaufman gives him a punishingly boring line. It achingly boring, and almost a wasted opportunity.
Until you realize just how brilliant it really is.
The film is filled with moments like these, with people not knowing what to say, and fumbling with expressing how they feel. Your co-worker just admitted he stole a client’s underwear and is now dating her? Share an uncomfortable laugh. Protagonist is skeptically wondering about side effects of wiping the memories of failed relationships away? You could answer his question about brain damage with a scientific explanation about how all memories degrade in time and the process just focuses and accelerates it.
Instead, almost tenderly, Charlie Kaufman writes this line from the doctor: “Well, technically the process IS brain damage.” It isn’t some big corporation bent on destroying love, it’s a mom and pop private practice.
Why is this brilliant? For one, it makes the acceptance of the idea of memory wipes much more palatable. Any screenwriter can make up a sci-fi premise, but selling that premise as part of a real world and not a sci-fi one is nearly impossible. Kaufman makes it look natural.
And more importantly because at the end, at the cathartic moment where we see if love conquers all, we don’t get snappy one liners, or a voiceover, a neat resolution, or a call back. You get this:
Clementine: “You’ll find things wrong with me and I’ll get bored of you because that is what we do.”
The script has been so well structured and woven together that this simple acceptance is like a grenade going off in our chests.
And if I was a genius, I wouldn’t have to resort to a simile. I could just tightly weave together a story about people, have every single one be familiar and raw, and end it all replaying a faded memory we’re suddenly so glad to have.
Louis Hyman wrote an op-ed against saving America’s Main Street. Walmart is more efficient. Their low prices just by virtue of bulk buying power. He not only ignores their lower wages and reliance on part time to avoid benefits. His future is either as a remote receptionist probably part time working at minimum wage for a metropolitan office or hustling crafts online. A job is a job but neither is a secure future. The advantage of a remote receptionist is the business can avoid the salary requirements of a city resident while maintainig an office in the right address. The second is the digital hustle. I think more people digital hustle the digital hustle than any other good. Either way, they still serve the same urban elite masters.
The notion of replacing modern manufacturing with the virtual bazaar has become a new Horatio Algers myth. That everyone’s merit will shine a beacon of success if they spend enough time on the internet. Society has long assumed talent is cream but skill or even being skilled at promoting one’s skill is no guarantee. A lottery at best, putting all your eggs into the whims of the internet is dangerous. Hyman’s woods craftsmen would better talking to the shop owners of main street Echo Park and Bushwick who could showcase his wares to the well off audience, he would be stalking online. We’ve all been hawked snake oil from those on the other side of the rainbow. Does that mean that one shouldn’t try or internet infrastructure expanded? No, it means there are no small fixes for the end of an economic age.
Hyman’s solution flaw like most progressive solutions is based on people other than the author making changes as the author has achieved cultural nirvana. I don’t think he understands main street as the average citizen does only has it is seen in liberal straw man scenarios. “It’s locally owned shops selling products to hardworking townspeople. It’s neighbors with dependable blue-collar jobs in auto plants and coal mines. It’s a feeling of community and of having control over your life.” The last sentence is true but the rest is disconnected. Would you rather enrich a spoiled heir or help your underwater neighbor? That’s the real choice between chain and local. Would you rather wealth stay in the region or go to tax breaks for out of state and increasingly country movie stars? How many years can you be told it will trickle down before you don’t believe?
Main street isn’t just about shops. It is about having safe public spaces to congregate. A place a child can meet with friends without fear of being offered drugs or harmed into silence over witnessing crime. It is a place children want to return to after college and a way to stem brain drain. It isn’t trying to make Celebration, USA in every town or bringing back the 50’s.
My great grandmother had to drown her cat as a child because of the depression. Her son had a dog that died of old age and his daughter paid 10k to save her dog from cancer. I’m pet free to avoid the fate of door #1. The contract of the New Deal is broken and Americans want to re-negotiate. 80 years ago, we were given economic freedom. Defending the system that stole it will only further our slide back to serfdom. We need futures not dependent on the fads of the wealthy. Coal might be dead but America isn’t.