Thursday, November 17, 2016

How We Got Here: A Cultural History of the 21st Century - Episode I Don't f***ing know

Greetings, salutations, welcome, and all due appropriate sentiments to this episode #0 of "How We Got Here: A Cultural History of the 21st Century." 

We have just emerged from the Television era. I believe that in the past generation, it is not movies or music that has represented us most accurately, however well some in each field of the Arts do, and it's certainly not fiction or art. Far more than any other medium, TV gives its creators the freedom and diversity to show our lives accurately.  This podcaster was born at the cusp between Generation X and Millennials, we were not only born in the television era, but even our parents can't remember a time before television. But our parents grew up with three basic networks, we grew up with thirty, and by the time we became adults, we had 300. 

I would imagine that we are now in the Podcast Era - hence why I'm here. But there is a great difference between TV and Television. TV is entertainment, Television is art. TV is escapist, Television is cathartic. TV exists to comfort us, Television exists to drive us mad. 

I would date the emergence of Television rather than TV to somewhere between the final episode of Seinfeld in May 1998 and the pilot episode of The Sopranos in January of 1999. Something in the American air changed during those months much as they seemed to in the Fall of 2014. 

The thirties were the decade of fascism, the eighties were the decade when Communism fell. The nineties were the decade of the blowjob. The 'quote-unquote Great Event', the most famous of 1998, and indeed, of the whole decade, was the Lewinsky investigation and the Clinton impeachment, which everyone both Right and Left agreed, represented an absolute low in American discourse - during a period so seemingly prosperous and indolent that the country had nothing better to do but to talk about for an entire year than the President getting head underneath the desk of the Oval Office. Nevertheless, this roughly nine-month period between Seinfeld and The Sopranos set the stage for everything that would come - sincerely no pun intended. The great political development of that period was the Drudge Report - traditional news, even 24 hour news, even FOX News, could not possibly keep up with the proliferation of trivial but distracting political stories, or entirely made up stories, that cater to the prejudices of people who believe that traditional journalism has an inherent bias - and if not that many millions of people believed that traditional news had no bias before the Drudge Report, the Drudge Report alone convinced millions. No newspaper, no television network, could ever keep up with an aggregating website that could send its audience down a rabbithole of information, often false but certainly not always, that was available to them at the click of a button. But if one needs a substantive great event for this period that contributed to American life and history - one should remember was that this was the period when the bulk of debate was conducted over whether to repeal the Glass-Steagal act, a financial act passed barely more than three months months into the Roosevelt administration. Glass-Steagal was the most important substance of the Banking Act of 1933 which established a wall between commercial banks and securities firms. What Glass-Steagall meant in laymen terms is that a commercial bank at which middle class people could store their money with expectations that the money could stay put, could not itself be invested in stocks and funds so that banks could potentially make more money for both the bank and for its customers. In theory, eliminating the separation can reap incredible financial benefits to both bankers and their customers, and in practice, that's exactly what happened until The Great Recession of 2008, when it was shown pretty much definitively that commercial banks trying to increase their holdings through the stock market was spectacularly irresponsible - I suppose I'm giving away my political bias right at the beginning of this series - are there really that many conservative podcasters anyway? Compared to most progressive podcasters I'm downright moderate. But regardless of whether one is liberal or conservative, moderate or progressive, alt-right or intersectional warrior for social justice, everyone seems to agree that something extremely dangerous happened in American life during this period - even if we all disagree about what the particular dangers were that we passed. Whatever the center of American life was, whatever America's basic expectations and routines were, it seemed to be hollowed out sometime around that infamous year of 1998. Around the corner was the twenty-first century, and while America is still unquestionably the world's #1 world power, we are all the more vulnerable because of our indispensability, and every American would seem to agree that the 21st century beset our country with an endless parade of hopelessness. Not hopelessness by the standards of history, but hopelessness by the standards of the most prosperous and wealthiest nation in the history of the Earth. 

It is impossible to look at Art and not see it in some way tell the story of the era in which it was made, and it is further impossible, much as aesthetes like Vladimir Nabokov would disagree, to look at Art without reading parallels into it from the real world - or from our own lives, or from the lives of people we know and love or hate, or parallels from the metaphysical cosmos at large and those basic but still deep truths of what life and existence is.

One of Art's great secrets is its societal tremors, Art is a societal seizmograph. With obvious exceptions of course, a secure era always seems to be dominated by secure Art in which the rules are clearly defined. The vast majority of the 18th century, with its intricate and unbreakable monarchical hierarchies, was the archetype of a society in which art was created with extremely distinct rules so as to not upset the precarious balance of an incredibly intricate societal structure. All official European and American buildings seemed to be designed with the kind of columns one finds in Ancient Greece or Rome, with heights determined by mathematical ratios found in nature so as to provide the most harmonious possible surroundings. Nearly all pictorial art was designed by schematic before the schematic was painted over. All music ends in the same key in which it begins, and the phrase-lengths are inevitably kept in multiples of four. The poetry was almost inevitably kept in strictest possible couplet form. The expectations of what art was supposed to be were ironclad. But as anyone who grew up in the suburbs can tell you, predictability can at times feel like a kind of prison, and when the prison walls come down, the chaos is that much more explosive because nobody remembers what chaos feels like.

By 1789, France, the kingdom well-known for having the most intricate of all Europe's monarchical hierarchies, was beset by a revolution. First came a financial crisis, then collapse, then the rise of the Jacobins and the guillotine, then the execution of a few hundred noblemen, then the rise of Robespierre who executed most of the other Jacobins and eventually was himself executed for having been responsible for the execution of 20,000 Frenchmen, then came the ten year French Revolutionary War which killed somewhere between 300,000 and 1.1 million French, and then came Napoleon to unite France under his dictatorship and who decided he needed to put the rest of Europe under an Empire united under his rule, and somewhere between 3.5 and 6 million died for the cause of his ambition to conquer the world. When there is too much order, the ensuing chaos become all the worse. It was an avalanche of death that claimed ever more lives for twenty-six years before it finally stopped.

War did not rage throughout the supposedly civilized part of the world for another hundred years, when it broke out again in 1914, it took thirty-one years to stop, and in the meantime, if we go by the estimates of R. J. Rummel, probably the best known scholar of state murder who has an easily accessible website if you can stomach such a thing, we lost somewhere between 17 and 18 million to World War One, somewhere between 20 to 50 million in the Spanish Influenza which broke out because of the unsanitariness of the battlefields, an estimated seven million who starved to death in various countries during the Great Depression, another estimated 5 to 9 million deaths due to the Russian Civil War of the early 1920s which broke out after the collapse of the Czar, and the four million deaths for which Lenin was directly responsible after he consolidated power, and the 5 million killed by Imperial Japan, the 20 million dead in the Chinese Civil War of the 30s and 40s, for which the Communist party led by Mao in the few years before he assumed power was responsible for 4 million deaths alone, the four million Chinese Deaths for which Chiang-Kai Shek's right-wing nationalist government was responsible, the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Turkish generals which killed roughly 1.8 million if one counts a few hundred thousand non-Armenians also murdered, and the nearly million people killed by the allegedly great Ataturk who is still revered by American neoconservatives as the model of an incorruptible secularizing dictator, the well over a million killed in quote-unquote minor European dictatorships, another roughly 20 million killed in various ways by Hitler's Nazis for which we needn't elaborate, and the probable upward of 50 million people killed by Stalin's various orders and policies alone. It is macabre at best to list these totals and then add all of them up, but let's just say that the wars of the early twentieth century killed so far over a hundred million people that it's probably closer to two-hundred million. One then adds up the stupefying death tolls of the Cold War and the quote unquote Third World upon whom it was mostly perpetrated, the roughly twelve million Soviets for which dictators after Stalin were responsible, the 2 million dead in the killing fields of Pol-Pot's Cambodia, the roughly 1.7 million killed by North Korea, another 1.7 million killed in the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the 1.5 million dead in the Polish Civil War which killed my great-aunt after surviving the Holocaust, the 1.5 million killed by the various Pakistani military dictatorships, the 1.1 million killed in Yugoslavia, yes, the 6 million dead from United States actions in the Cold War. And worst of all, the roughly seventy-seven million killed in Mao's China, for which no truly reliable total is possible, and some estimates go up to a hundred twenty million people. While estimates are obviously unreliable, evidence would seem to point to that five hundred years of traditional Western mercantile Imperialism with all its attendant mass murders and starvations and diseases and slaveries cannot come even remotely close to equalling the total number of deaths engendered by thirty-one years of advanced warfare, let alone an entire global century of it. In fact, for five hundred years of Western Imperialism to reach anything even resembling the equivalent death tolls of the twentieth century one would have to not only accept the very highest estimates - such as putting the total Native Americans killed at 120 million people higher than than the 15 million that is generally supposed, but also include the casualties of Islamic Imperialism. It makes me sick to my stomach that I've said anything that sounds like a justification for allowing for the practices of imperalism, be it in historic mercantile form or in contemporary unregulated capitalist form, to continue. I'm even slightly doubtful about the statistics and continually worry that I've misread them, every time I've read them they've surprised the hell out me, I know that any comparison I make will sound like a defense of imperialism and yet...

While a few people of direct descent from Survivors of Hitler or Stalin or Mao, or veterans of the world's bloodiest wars, become extraordinarily committed social justice warriors, perhaps the most committed of them all for the knowledge they see so close at hand, I find that the blood-curdling stories of the Twentieth Century at its worst makes it difficult to work oneself into sufficient commitment to fighting for every person suffering under injustice. In my experience, most Jewish-Americans I've met, most Chinese-Americans, most Soviet-Americans, all of for whom privilege is still a relatively unfamiliar concept that we're viscerally terrified to lose because many members who experienced the very worst of the twentieth century still live, have similar difficulties. We know just how much more unjust and cursed the world can become than it currently is, and are extremely mistrustful of militants, of the right and left, who would send us hurtling closer toward its potential. And if the neoimperial injustices of unregulated vulture capitalism add up and the financial system completely collapses sometime around 2040 and sends the world spinning into a Third World War, and perhaps then an even worse Fourth World War thereafter, would it be unreasonable to assume that the next world war would claim yet another multiple of ten - more a billion lives as its eternal property? Would it be unreasonable to assume that the aftereffects of dictatorship and illness and proxy war and yes, imperial wage slavery, from the conditions it leaves could claim another two billion? Or is that underestimating the number of possible casualties?

All this talk of mass death and murder is to give you the proper context to talk about Seinfeld.

An insecure era will be dominated by insecure art. Let's just speak about painting for a moment. Over what we generally call the long 19th century, starting with the French Revolution hopeful enactment and stretching until World War I's senseless beginning in 1914, the art of the continent became more and more insecure, less and less dominated by rules. The visual art went from David and Canelleto's almost geometric naturalism to washes of color from Delacroix and Turner and the grotesque caricatures of Goya and Blake. The washes of color eventually became the impressionism of Monet and Cezanne. The grotesqueries eventually became the expressionism of Munch and Georg Grosz. It was no longer agreed as it was since Classical Greece that the purpose of art is to render life and nature as it is. For many artists, the purpose of art became art itself, its various colors and shapes. For others, the purpose of art was to disturb life and distort nature, not to conjure scientific images in the mind of shapes and colors, but to conjure poetic images with distortions that one can only see on one's own in dreams. Fairly soon thereafter, the two poles merged back into each other, and impressionist and expressionist art and its attendent movements seemed roughly interchangeable. There was, and remains, much great art in the 20th and 21st centuries, but without an agreed upon basis, there are fewer artists in whose work people seem to trace the spirit of an era, a place, a condition - and if there is, then all too few people know about it. Traditional art as Europeans defined it since the dawn of history had broken apart, and will most likely never be put back together.

One could trace the development of classical music, of poetry, of fiction, through similar permutations. But what was clear in each was that by 1914, the foundations and structures in which each artform was traditionally thought to be built upon were completely shattered, few people care about it anymore, and very few artists have found a way to make other people care about what we do. Most of us who operate in the traditional arts in our day are, for better or worse, radical in ways that are entirely conventional, and generally reject the wider world with its capitalist compromises because capitalism allows us the luxury of radical worldviews - in spite of our supposed subversion, we artists are still educated enough make a lower-middle-class income - through the arts or otherwise, which is just barely low enough to convince some people that we're truly impoverished, and therefore have justification to speak for the plights of marginalized peoples whom we understand not at all. Traditional religion has been thrown out, a development probably for the better, but metaphysics has been thrown out with it. The goal of many, perhaps even the majority of artists today, is to improve the world through one's art - wouldn't it be better then to pick up a tool box and build houses for the homeless? There is no such thing as art that improves the world - there is only art that makes the world a more pleasing place to live - and while there is no little consolation in that, art often makes the world a more pleasing place for risible people who do not deserve to be pleased. The most powerful thing art can do is precisely the opposite, art allows for the possibility that there may be other worlds, alternate realities, transcendent dimensions, which are more meaningful than this rather banal one where our hard work and suffering goes so unrewarded.

But in America, a new art, a popular art for a less aristocratic consumer, took flight. A nascent art, still in 2016 just barely out of its infancy. Neither an aristocratic art made by servants to an aristocratic class, nor a folk art made by anonymous artisans and developed anonymously in an oral tradition over thousands of years. A popular art, an art of the people, by the people, and for the people, with few more truly distinguished creators than there are in today's traditional arts. And yet, the possibilities it holds for the next few thousand years are at least as infinite as the possibilities were at the dawn of Western Civilization. If a three-minute, four-chord, pop song, with a verse, a chorus, and a bridge, can yield material as good as Let It Be and The Times They Are a-Changin', let alone Fight the Power or The Message; or a hundred minute studio movie yield Citizen Kane or Rear Window, let alone The Godfather or Nashville, or a fifty page comic book yield Batman and X-Men, let alone Watchmen or Maus; or a commercialized TV schedule yield Seinfeld and The Simpsons, let alone The Sopranos pr Mad Men, how much more is yet possible to extract from these rather flimsy and constricted cultural forms created from material that are a literal reset button from the arts as they've been practiced for three thousand years?

America was able to yield such a secure art in the 20th century, housing a surprising number of bright lights within its extraordinarily severe contours, because it was inexperienced in the ways of the world. Until the inception of the American republic, the idea of a successful republic was an ahistorical phenomenon, a concept the world abandoned two-thousand years previously because it was thought so unfeasible. It was, as Piero Scaruffi put it on his indispensible website: a Copernican Revolution in political thinking.

America is as sinful as any nation can conceivably be, perhaps more sinful considering the overwhelming hypocrisy of the country's actions in relation to its ideals. With the election of this new President, it may stand to reason that the fibre which gradually improves this hypocritical republic from generation to generation has vanished completely, and will not reappear again in our lifetimes. Other nations have since taken the American model and improved greatly upon it. Perhaps the greatest compliment to the America is that the greatest, most sustainable improvement yet made upon the American first draft of a freer world is modern Germany, a nation America once subdued with overwhelming and truly murderous force - and yet Germany, just seventy-five years ago the most totalitarian nation on Earth, is currently the world's most thriving multicultural democracy.


We never know if or when a main character in The Sopranos or The Wire will survive or die - let alone Game of Thrones. We never know what taboo South Park or Family Guy will break next. We never know what incomprehensible twisting of form Arrested Development or Lost will embrace and we're not sure we understand it when they do it.

Before the Television Era came the TV era. The TV era began in the early 80's and continued until the late 90's. TV had been around for 30 years, perhaps generation and a half, and TV writers finally understood how to write for it. In the 50's, often referred to until recently as the Golden Age of Television, the greatest shows were in many ways high culture mass produced for a larger audience. There were three big networks, all of whom established themselves as empires in the days of radio - American Broadcasting Corporation, National Broadcasting Corporation, Columbia Broadcasting System; ABC, NBC, CBS. Though challenged as never before, they are still the 'big three', and because they are challenged so frequently, the quality of their programming has declined precipitously from what it once was to appeal to the most escapist common denominator. There were a variety of networks that tried to challenge the Big Three's supremacy in many ways, and until FOX in the 80's, all of them failed to establish a secure place as even the #4 network. Today, the Networks are perhaps creaking antiques, but in the 50's, they were as unquestioned an empire as the country which let them dominate, and as every empire does that wants to remain an empire, the Big Three embarked upon projects designed for good public relations. They seemed determined to bring a kind of enoblement to the masses. Leonard Bernstein broadcasted lectures on classical music after football games, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals were telecasted after sitcoms. Plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller appeared before detective shows. All three genres had famous composers and writers working on projects directly for television. Playwrights and composers who never quite made it were enlisted to write for lowerbrow shows that raised the quality of production to heights that were not seen again for thirty years. Great vaudevillians and great young comedians wrote for sitcoms - and for a young comedian, writing a sitcom was considered a stepping stone for a great career in standup. The reason for all this quality was probably nothing but good public relations, but contrary to what so many believe today, good public relations is not an inherent vice, and often is an indicator of sincere virtue. Regardless of whether the means were justified, what is undeniable is that high culture proliferated in the early days of Television, which was as diverse in its highbrow to lowbrow content as vaudeville once was and European television is today. 

By the 1960's, TV earned an audience of hundreds of millions, and became far lazier. was not known as a wasteland until the 60's and 70's, when television generally became formulaic and lazy. Fictional shows were usually mass-produced, sometimes at forty episodes per year, and some would stay on the air for twenty years at a time. The audience for these shows was as absolutely huge as the most read internet sites are in our day, but the reason for television's popularity was for escapism, not challenge or catharsis. However extraordinary some internet content is, hundreds of millions of people in our day do not look to Youtube or Funny or Die for anything but escapism. If they look at the astonishing proliferation of political websites, they look mostly to confirm their own biases. In the same way, people watched Gunsmoke, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza, Andy Griffith, and Happy Days to unwind in the same way we look at youtube today and previous generations of Americans went to the movies. There were exceptions, some of them like MASH and All In The Family were of exceptional quality, but from the very late 50's to early 80's, it was to movies that people went for edification, for catharsis, for emotional food and intellectual challenge. As amazing as it seems today, in the early-to-mid sixties, it was to foreign films that many, many Americans went for such things until the late sixties, when a few dozen American directors began making movies of perhaps unprecedented quality in the already long and illustrious history of film. We are still so close to the Age of Movies that we don't remember them, but there are literally hundreds of great films from this era of comparable quality to The Godfather. The mass audience had deserted movies for TV, which was more convenient. All that remained was the people who were up for adventure, and did they ever get it in director-driven movies that were mostly as unpredictably dark as most of the producer-driven movies of yesteryear were reliably sunny. 

But by the 80's, writers had so much experience writing for TV that they accumulated decades of wisdom for what works and what doesn't. TV was still mass produced, but the quality of it was much, much higher. Sitcoms with their canned laughter and schtick in place of jokes, were once considered the dumping ground for mediocrity - but with Newhart, Night Court, (gulp) The Cosby Show, The Wonder Years, Family Ties, Thirtysomething, Moonlighting, and especially Cheers, possessing virtuoso casts and writers who'd become seasoned pros, TV comedy became something more than it once was - a form of entertainment was beginning to be raised to an art as the great studio movies of yesteryear were. Even the laughtrack was omitted from some of them. A stable art that no matter how weird or occasionally fraught with conflict, upheld the importance of traditional values like family, friendship, romance, and the workplace nevertheless. 

But there was, of course, another side to the 80's. What about all those people cut out of Reaganite prosperity? How were they represented? Representing scientists who saw their funding cut to nubs, there was Quantum Leap, which seemed to at least a few to represent the frustration of an era that first declared war on science.  For the gay experience during their darkest decade, there was Pee-Wee's Playhouse, which was, unbelievably, a kids show because the only place where the camp that dare not speak its name could find a regular place for itself in mainstream entertainment.  You had Hill Street Blues, a serialized police drama depicting the streets of an unnamed American cities with a handheld camera - the camera itself was literally as unstable as the material it covered. There was St. Elsewhere, a teaching hospital in a poor South Boston neighborhood seeing times harder than ever before in which the final episode is universally considered the most unpredictable moment in the history of television - I won't spoil it for those who don't know. But ultimately, the tremors mostly remained off-camera - swept under the rug.  Quantum Leap exposed millions to the wonders of science's possibilities, but did nothing to explain how those wonders were being gutted. Even to those who understood Pee-Wee's true identity, it was a show which put the happiest possible face on a community that was dying by the thousands. And while both Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere were about urban blight, neither was told from the point of view of the blighted. In a few cases, it was told from the point of view of the blighter.

In the 90's TV got ten times still better. There is no question that The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Rosanne, Everybody Loves Raymond, Newsradio, Beavis and Butthead, Married with Children (yes, even Married with Children), The X-Files, Star Trek TNG and Deep Space Nine, My So Called Life, NYPD Blue, Picket Fences, were entertainment raised fully to the quality of art, some of it to the quality of timeless art. But virtually all of them were created as entertainment first, and any art put into them was mostly snuck in under the noses of the networks which broadcasted them. 

For an ever so slightly more liberal era, many of them espoused values that were clearly more liberal than the great TV shows of the 80's. The new Star Trek franchise was not primarily about science, it was about politics - it was about the challenges of upholding a liberal order in the chaos of the wider universe - the galaxy itself became a parable for our world, and a beacon of inspiration that it was still possible to stay true to principles of improvement and justice when all about you is bellicosity. Frasier, for all it makes fun of its main character's pomp, took the intellectuality always on display in Cheers, amped it to the n'th degree, and displayed it on television as a true badge of honor. Everybody Loves Raymond, still one of the most misunderstood shows of all time, had the bravery to show that family values are worth upholding in part because families can be nightmarish prisons in which people who care about one another can tear one another to shreds - but that family is still a valuable institution because no matter how much a family hates each other at any given moment, they will still come through for one another as no one else will. NYPD Blue was utterly unashamed to portray its characters as something other than upholders of law and order, as sometime bigots who take out their hostility on the very people they're supposed to protect and defend. In the wake of the new Presidency, Rosanne may still prove the most relevant show of all - it displayed the frustrations and heartbreak of the forgotten working class and suggested that the prosperity of the American overclass, experiencing more prosperity than ever beore, forgot that some people were getting much poorer. Homicide, Life On the Street, the laboratory out of which David Simon grew The Wire, was ostensibly a police drama, but dared to tell nearly as many stories of the people protected and prosecuted in equal measure by the detectives. Beavis and Butthead was an unequivocal condemnation of its main character's idiocy. 

But everybody knows that there were two shows that there were two shows that dominated the era like colossi, and set the stage for everything to come. They are, in all probability, the American literature of the age - the semi-sacred texts we always return to for wisdom and memory and ritual and comfort and it's so stupid to speak about them so pompously because Art was the last thing they were ever meant to be. 

For my parents' generation, that show was Seinfeld. Seinfeld is the ultimate Baby Boomer show, and the show with which they came of age as the Masters of their Domain. It is an almost literally perfect show - as perfect in its way as Mozart piano concerto or a Raphael fresco. There may not be any particularly profound idea within it, but the perfection itself is a kind of profundity. In every twenty-two minute episode, four of the best performers on Earth immersed themselves in four separate story lines that would intersect at the end of the episode in a completely unexpected, but completely satisfying way. Forty-five years of the accumulated TV wisdom of writers, actors, cameramen, and production designers, built to this one show.  

In the half-hour sitcom, where compression is the key to it all, any emotional bond with the characters is dead weight, a place where the show wastes time being serious when there could be a joke in its place. There are many shows, good ones, where sitcom characters can be quite serious, but very few people would watch them if these characters did not also make them laugh. Far funnier, therefore, is to have an unlikeable character you can humiliate with their comeuppance, and since they're so unlikeable, they never learn their lesson, and they can be humiliated week after week. Comic characters cede a huge amount of their comedy if they grow, therefore, Larry David proposed the most inspired two rules of Seinfeld: No Learning, No Hugging. I occasionally think to myself that the truest progenitor of Seinfeld might be John Cleese's Fawlty Towers, in which Cleese plays a hotel operator of such pure bile that his continual humiliation is always completely deserved and completely satisfying. 

Seinfeld was billed, still notoriously, as a show about nothing. Seinfeld was very much not a show about nothing. The Nothing, however, was how Seinfeld got away with the Somethings it was truly about. Seinfeld is about taboo - mentioning all those things one does not mention on TV because one does not mention them in polite company. Some of these taboos were a bit shocking in what they discussed in detail: masturbation, faking orgasms, bullemia, breast augmentation, blackface, stalking, stereotyping of immigrants, ogling teenagers, fetishizing Asian women, the possibility of turning gay men straight, even an allegory of date rape.

Seinfeld began its airing during the tail end of the first Culture War, when figures in the conservative public intellectual industry like Alan Bloom, Roger Kimball, William Bennett, Norman Podhoretz, James Davison Hunter, Robert Bork, and of course Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich fought back against what they saw as the encroachment of liberal permissiveness against the bedrock conservative values that preserve a country from its decline - secular liberal values like abortion, contraception, recreational drug use, limitations on gun use, separation of Church from State, the right to be openly homosexual or transgender, lack of censorship. On the other side of this culture war were the figures of what began to be termed - political correctness. What was, until the late eighties, a Soviet term - usually conveyed in hushed tones - for an unobjectionably proper appointment of a functionary to a position of bureaucratic power - meaning that the potential appointee says nothing objectionable, does nothing objectionable, thinks nothing objectionable, will never challenge the official party line.

Conservatives began to use it against as a pejorative, but it was taken up by certain more extreme figures of the academic left as a badge of honor. Most of the Baby Boomers moderated significantly in their politics, and became as militantly of the radical Left as their grandparents' professors had been militantly of the radical Right - academia, it would seem, forever gravitates to extremes. Even academic Marxism became somewhat passe, and after what might be termed the final generation of true American Marxists: Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and Christopher Lasch and Fredric Jameson, considered by later thinkers to be hopelessly trapped in their white male privilege, the most important American theorists of the radical left - while no less savage toward capitalism - seemed to believe that the rather abstract idea of social class itself was a means by which one racial group or gender or sexuality continued to oppress another for not allowing for oppression within the oppression. Social class was considered utterly outmoded and monolithic and insufficient to explain the vagueries of oppressions' mechanisms. Ever new critical theorists emerged from academic journals with ever new theories of oppression with entirely new hierarchies and taboos: what the literary critic Harold Bloom referred to as the School of Resentment - at the front of the line was Edward Said with his theory of Orientalism which states that the very concept of the East in Western writers and all their attendant cultural observations were a means of oppressing ghettoizing those peoples not from the West, Judith Butler had theories about the oppression of binary gender, Andrea Dworkin about the oppression of pornography, Paul Goodman about the oppression of modern technology, Robert McChesney about the oppressiveness of media. The reading of critical theory text surpassed the reading of primary documents as the prime object of a humanities education on the university level - classic texts, be it fiction or poetry or history or philosophy, was implicated as former tools of oppression, and therefore, by and large outmoded at best, dangerous at worst.

Are their theories correct or incorrect? Are their theories beneficial or dangerous? While the opinion of this caster is obvious by now, this is nevertheless not the place to ride these theories and their adherents too hard. What is undeniable though is the shockwaves sent by them through the life of America, and possibly through the life of the world. What has become clear over this quarter-century is that around 1990 second American religion was being born. A secular religion. A religion not unlike the Marxists and Communists of European yesteryear. A religion with as many orthodoxies and heresies to fight over as occurred when various forms of Christianity competed with one another for adherents and converts, and in the process created the traditional values which we now know as the dying 'Small Town America' values which culture warriors like William Bennett and Pat Buchanan still lead fights for along with whole new generations of culture warriors at their back. In this ascendent Age of the Internet, what once was an intellectual war fought on the pages of late-century intellectual journals is now a fight that takes place among millions, perhaps tens of millions, of laypeople of the internet - and threatens to turn into a kind of Civil War, a Holy War, and very much a violent war, over whether God or Social Justice is the most important element in American life. It is, most certainly, a one-sided war, in which the apparatus of power is entirely on the side of the traditional culture warriors, but because justice can never imposed on unjust people through peaceful action, social justice in the future will no longer be synonymous with peace activism - I am certain of it. The coming decades will harden them just as the democratic revolutionaries of 1848 were hardened into Marxist agitators for whom democracy was a horrifyingly messy process full of compromises and triage that had to be done away with. So if the world of 2016 is one for which the radical left agitates for peace, the inexorably coming tide against them will in all likelihood turn them by 2116 into something unrecognizably bellicose and authoritarian. Even standing toward the beginning of the historical process as we now are, we can perceive that what once was a rarefied academic war, incomprehensible to most, that had little if anything to do with the thriving, nihlistic, militantly undemanding, and exploitatively sensualist, popular culture that dominated American life of that late century American idyll which all of us over 30 remember so well - has become the prime motivator of contemporary American life in which taking a stand is virtually impossible to avoid. If the world's sole superpower has balkanized this much in twenty-five years, if the balkanization could not have been stopped by President Obama who talked so movingly in his first candidacy about how there is far more which unites us than divides us, how much more balkanized and hateful toward each other have we potential to become in the next 25 years?

It goes without saying that figures of both sides in the culture war were and remain scandalized by Seinfeld - albeit conservatives were far more vocal at the time. And yet, by being so reflective of an era that overturned taboos which existed for hundreds of years into trivialities, Seinfeld did as much as any cultural force in the world to create these new taboos of social justice about what cannot be mentioned in polite company - taboos which may last still more hundreds of years. Freedom is the most difficult and ephemeral concept in which people exist, and the vast majority of people will do what they can to place limitations on their freedom because individuality can be an inhuman burden to bear. Once an old heirarchy with its nittygritties and certain unmentionables are torn down, a new one will rise, inevitably and inexorably, almost as soon as the old one crumbles. 

Seinfeld will not date well for the next few generations - I'm sure of that. More and more writers on the internet are professing offense at Seinfeld in a social justice manner that is entirely different from the manner in which the most vocal objectors, generally conservative, took offense at the time - some magazine journalists already are, and it is nothing less than a tribute to the show's subversive power. To the plurality of us in the midst of this culture war, liberal or conservative to varying extents but skeptical both about traditional sacred values and their radical upending, Seinfeld still seems like a revolutionary bomb launched into the propriety of people who want life to mean more it seems to mean. It is nothing less than a force of liberation. Certain things about it may date: the coded way which characters speak about the issues they discuss - 'master of your domain' in place of refraining to pleasure yourself, "refunding" in place of bullemia, 'shrinkage' to describe what penises do in cold water; do not seem shocking anymore, just an eccentric and perhaps pointless display of code. But Seinfeld's form is so ironclad that it works anyway in the context of the show's design, and will work just as easily in two-hundred years. What is liberating about Seinfeld in the age of Game of Thrones is that a show can shock so often and still be so light and joyful.

It is difficult to recreate the shockwaves which so many Seinfeld episodes sent through American culture in the 90's. Seinfeld was merciless about addressing the taboos of the time, because they seemed to be asking us 'why are these taboos actually taboos?' And in the context of their era, it was entirely appropriate to ask. What the hell mattered to middle class white adults in the 90's? Their lives were so cut off from reality as most people live it - the suffering underclass of every race, the suffering of nearly every non-Western country, even the suffering which their American parents underwent to bring them to such privilege. To most people, life has consequence and matters because its continuance is not a given, but in 1990's America, it was very much a given, and there was nothing left to do but strip away those taboos which were once so significant in everyday life, but had long since turned into senseless trivialities. But what gave Seinfeld a far darker undertone is that even if life forces us to suffer more than four baby-boom-vaguely-Jewish-lower-upper-middle-class New Yorkers in the 1990's, does suffering make our lives mean more than they ever seemed to on Seinfeld? We have no proof that they do, and we have no proof that anything more verifiable is truly learned or felt in our lives than the very little that is learned or felt by the four lead characters of Seinfeld - all four of whom may very well have professed to liberalism then voted Trump.

What makes Seinfeld brutal in retrospect is that we've learned all sorts of things since the 1990's, things that we cannot unlearn. But we, at least we the privileged, cannot ever be as joyful again as we were in the innocence of that era. We cannot turn back time to an era before all we learned from the Contract with America, the government shutdowns, Monicagate, Glass-Steagall's repeal, Bush v. Gore, 9/11, the Iraq Invasion, Abu Ghraib, Halliburton Contracts, Hurricaine Katrina, The 2008 crisis, The Great Recession, the difficulty of passing Obamacare, the realization that Pakistan was hiding Bin Laden for the better part of ten years, the police murders of countless African Americans, the urban riots of Ferguson and Baltimore, the difficulty of negotiating an international environmental emissions treaty or a peace treaty with Iran, or the nomination and election of this next occupier of the White House and all the horrors to come that may arise out of it. Surely so many bad things happened around the world in the more innocent era of the Reagans and the Clintons, but for whatever reason, we were not as aware of them - secure and innocent in our trivial bubbles of privilege. 

We must remember, the Nineties was the Era of the End of History - which is the title of Francis Fukuyama's hugely influential neoconservative political science volume released in the wake of the Cold War's end which could have doubled as a thesis for why so many in the Bush Administration thought an Iraq invasion such a fantastic idea. The thesis of the book was that History has an end in both senses, that global conflict will now be a thing of the past, and that history has a purpose and a destiny, something resembling a live organism or a divinely mandated story that builds toward the realization that liberal democracy is the best of all possible governments. To Fukuyama, the arc of history is long, but it not only bends toward justice, but arrives there. Even if one agrees with the sentiment about liberal democracy, and I don't know how too many people can disagree, how idiotic those sentiments now seem and should have seemed at the time! And yet Fukuyama was not laughed at. Like all successful ideas, his thesis rose to the top of discourse because the thesis represented the national mood better than any other. To posterity, he is the great intellectual representative of his particular era, and like many intellectuals, he will in all likelihood be taken seriously by historians and philosophers and political scientists precisely because he was so wrong. 

Seinfeld remains on in syndication seemingly eight times every day. People of a certain age still watch it religiously, endlessly reliving episodes that speak to them of their lives' zenith, when life seemed so endlessly prosperous and trivial and almost unbearably light. I wonder if, today, Baby Boomers do not look upon Seinfeld with a certain sadness and regret. Remembering their lives, remembering their country, remembering the Era of the End of History, when life was so relatively easy, and wondering how they could have not seen the warning signs of darker times to come. I think Milan Kundera put this problem best in a still reasonably famous quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being if you can bare a gratuitous sexual intrusion of the type for which Kundera is truly notorious and which women may find offensive, my apologies in advance for his metaphor which is inappropriate for the matter at hand to the rest of the quote:

He says: "But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest image is therefore simultaneously the image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, to take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements are free as they are insignificant. What shall we then choose? Weight or lightness?"

I would add one sentence of my own to Kundera's somewhat famous quote: Our parents' generation chose lightness, therefore we are forced to choose weight.

Seinfeld is a deceptively light show that stands in that long American tradition, the American Countersublime, in which lies all that great art whose truths are sufficiently horrifying that we wish we could run away from: in their various ways, they portray all that is dark, ignoble, shameful, contemptible, vile, and degenerate in human nature, in the American character, without offering us any redemptive humanity from its darkness, and once we encounter them, it's very difficult to escape the voyeuristic fascination they hold: Sleepy Hollow, The Tell Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, William Wilson, Dr. Heidegger's Experiment, Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Bartleby the Scrivener, The Turn of the Screw, The Devil's Dictionary, Birth of a Nation, The Tomb, The Tree, The Outsider, The Call of Cthulu, The Jungle, As I Lay Dying, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Catcher in the Rye, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Rear Window, Invisible Man, The Searchers, Flowers for Algernon, Gypsy, Touch of Evil, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Where The Red Fern Grows, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Catch-22, The Bell Jar, Dr, Strangelove, In Cold Blood, Portnoy's Complaint, Patton, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, Deliverance, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Network, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Sweeney Todd, Sophie's Choice, Little Shop of Horrors, Blood Meridian, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Psycho, Bonfire of the Vanities, GoodFellas, Assassins, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven. And so many works, both TV and otherwise, of the 21st century, which we will talk about here in this series, clearly at great length. And yet, because the facets of nature they portray are so horrifying, they are necessary reminders of those dark crevasses of human nature which we wish we could avoid, but reminders that we need to find the strength at times to stoically bear life's dark side - and experiencing these works, which happen at the other side of a page or a screen, can be of enormous help. We are attracted back to these works like flies to a deadly hot light, like marble rye to a window. These are works about loathesome brutes, and yet we can't look away. So here's the miracle of Seinfeld, here's the miracle of Seinfeld - of all these works that offer no redemption, except for The Producers (and imagine if George Costanza is possible without either Max Bialystok or Leo Bloom), Seinfeld is perhaps the only one to offer the viewer any sort of respite from darkness, because it's told with such lightness and joy that the dark side of human nature can seem nothing but appealing.

But if Seinfeld seems to take everything that's light about the American Experience and twist it into darkness, The Simpsons seems to take everything that's dark about the American Experience and transfigure it into light.

The Simpsons are at least as crucial to our generation as Seinfeld is to our parents'...

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