Category Archives: Culture

Selling Out, the Fragonard Years

For the fall premiere of Saturday Night Live, Weekend Update offered its own solemn tribute to the late Norm Macdonald after a substantial outpouring from the standup universe, with Pete Davidson even donning the former Weekend Update anchor’s face on a kitschy T-shirt. The nerve that Macdonald’s death struck among white men in comedy was an unexpected example of what Joe Biden likes to call an “inflection point.” I think this is because Macdonald—a member of the last generation to make the refusal to “sell out” any kind of value—was an exemplar of this now archaic concept.

What the faces of Colin Jost and Michael Che show is the understanding that they could never do what Macdonald did in anchoring Weekend Update—relentlessly go after a celebrity accused of murder to the point where you got fired. I also think they were chagrined by the irony that in just seven days, the show’s host would be Kim Kardashian, whose family celebrity was launched with her father’s defense of O.J. Simpson.

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Billionaire Season

For the super-rich, 2021 has been casting lots of shade—from the Sackler family’s weaseling out of any accountability for opioid deaths to the Pandora Papers’ exposure of billionaires’ offshore and domestic tax havens. We had reminders of how America’s richest families keep that “super” before the “rich”—like with tax loopholes allowing them to pass vast sums of wealth down to their heirs by avoiding capital gains taxes. We also learned from the New York Times that in the homes of the very wealthy, many recognizable postwar kitchen appliances are now being hidden within bespoke cabinets—that is, a regular person couldn’t find the fridge chez Cher.

And yet after Democrats failed to get the votes for a corporate income tax hike to pay for President Biden’s infrastructure and social spending bill, they are also unlikely to pass a proposed billionaires’ tax that would make the super-rich pay annual capital gains taxes on the value appreciation of their humungous assets. Sadly, I think the populist talking point that Americans are finally over billionaires is a myth. First, because many on the center-left are pro-billionaire; but more importantly, because of the endurance of a more formidable myth about money and power in Anglo-American culture.

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Unicorns

Here’s something the world needs like a hole in the head: an Instagram platform for children under age 13. Considering that the world already has a hole in the head called Instagram, I suppose you’d have to call this a matching hole (like those Lilly Pulitzer mother-daughter dresses).

Luckily, after a wave of outrage from anyone with a stake in childhood, Facebook has temporarily put the project on hold, supposedly to listen to “parents, experts, policymakers and regulators.”

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Calling It Queets

There is already an established genre of internet writing you can call Twitter Quitter—admitting your addiction to the platform and making the case for why you (and everyone) should quit. Even though this disquisition is not being done on Twitter, I think of these professions as “Queets,” since they serve to strengthen the writer’s brand by articulately describing the feelings of people who loathe but can’t quit Twitter.

Probably the most entertaining Queet I have read is Caitlin Flanagan’s in the Atlantic. The tone is vintage Jennifer Weiner novel addressing fellow Weight Watchers alums: We joke about how we always cave, but we are so funny and witty that it doesn’t even matter in the end. Flanagan tells us the tweets she wished she could have posted during her self-imposed 28-day detox, thereby managing to deliver them in an alternate format. The saga of her temporary separation from Twitter reads like one Gilmore Girl sequestered from the other.

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You Are Here

I love seeing the red dot on those stationary public maps in an unfamiliar place: “You Are Here.” I love that the place where the map stands was there before I arrived and will remain after I’ve moved on. It’s not like your phone’s GPS showing you as the center of the universe—or the Uber map where that coveted role temporarily goes to your approaching driver. No, it’s the real world that Copernicus grabbed hold of to shatter Christian illusions that the sun and planets revolve around the Earth.

The red dot is humbling—a minor footnote to Carl Sagan’s pale blue one. The red dot says that you are the variable, whereas this place (museum, town square, whatever) is the constant with longitude and latitude. Many among the more privileged of us have spent a year and a half being paid for our non-physical presence. We didn’t have to get dressed for things, didn’t have to put money on our Metro Cards or gas in the tank. We had only to trudge as far as our phones and laptops. Our lives became impressionistic, the question of when we’d return to the workplace as fog-shrouded as Monet’s Houses of Parliament.

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Flocks

A few months before the 2016 election, the New Yorker ran a cartoon by Paul Noth that has become iconic. It shows a wolf in a suit on a campaign billboard over the words “I am going to eat you,” while nearby one grazing sheep says approvingly to another, “He tells it like it is.”

What’s interesting about that cartoon beyond its prophecy is that it came from the left. For more than a generation, charging Democrats with being “sheeple” to the lockstep of political correctness has been a core tactic of conservatives and their libertarian apologists. The first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell was, after all, a fluffy thing named Dolly, prone to being herded and led, not a vicious lone carnivore howling in front of a full moon. The cultural implantation of the sheep/wolf metaphor gained traction with The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 and hoofed along to the Wolf of Wall Street, the 2013 blockbuster for which Donald Trump supposedly requested a role that wasn’t just a walk-on.

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In the Shallows

Once in a while you read articles in the same sitting that seem to be parts of larger narrative, or maybe it’s that the second one is a clap-back to the first.

This happened recently when I read an archived article by A.J. Liebling that the New Yorker online reprinted after the death of Prince Philip. Liebling’s post from November 29, 1947, looked at how the press was covering the royal wedding of the future queen, honing in specifically on reportage by one correspondent billed as “Noted American Society Woman and Authoress.”

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The Best Someone

Sometime during the COVID spring, I was walking behind a young couple and overheard the guy ask the girl, “Did you hear the Luke Combs cover of ‘Fast Car’?” I wasn’t familiar with Luke Combs, but I was surprised to realize that the Tracy Chapman song had remained in the pop vernacular for more than three decades.

As a Black lesbian folk singer appealing to white audiences, Chapman was a pop anomaly. But her song is a perfect slice of Americana. I heard her busking “Fast Car” in the Harvard Square subway station a few times in the 1980s. I remember hearing it once from another part of the station, and the reiteration of “be someone, be someone” in that large space seemed portentous to my young self.

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Masks

Back when airline emergency instructions came tucked inside the seatback pockets in front of you, I’d sometimes get unnerved by the illustrated mother putting on her mask as a child sits next to her. Yes, it’s logical to secure your own breathing device first. But I couldn’t help envisioning the masked mother turning to find the kid already dead.

As the life-giving conduit of oxygen, masks have (save for a few scenes in Blue Velvet) long represented protection amid catastrophe. Infantrymen in World War I lived in mortal dread of the shout for “Gas!” Gas masks became the symbolic escape hatch of battlefield carnage well beyond the next World War.

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The Big Reveal

Americans generally care little about history, but they do like a good “if only.”

If only JFK wasn’t shot there’d have been no Vietnam mess and no Tricky Dick taping in the Oval Office. If only his brother had dodged a bullet, Ronald Reagan would never have got his mitts on a government to gut. The concept hinges on the belief that events involving a single life can change world history, à la the wing-flapping butterfly creating a tsunami. But the contemporary origin story is the 1914 assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, that was said to have triggered World War I.

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