Thursday, 17 October 2013

Antiques, Capitalism, Irony, and Fitting In

I was watching the Antiques Roadshow program the other day, and was struck by how monetized it was.  Everyone was wondering how much their knick-knack was worth – by which they didn’t mean how pretty it was or historically significant or how much pleasure it might give you to contemplate it in the quiet of your own home.  Why ask anyone else about that, after all?

No, they wanted to know its money value – and there were some astonishing values.  A paperweight worth $5,000, a sculpture worth 20 …  I couldn’t believe it.  My girl-friend said it just reflected the nature of our society.  Capitalism, yes, I get it – though it seems to me there was a time when we cared less about what hockey players made and more about how many goals they scored.  And Shakespeare – do we care whether he died rich or poor?  Does it matter?  To whom?  He wrote some wonderful plays.

And I wonder about going to others for validation.  Oh, please, Mr. Expert, tell me that this old artifact of mine is precious.  And the experts were very impressive, I admit that; they knew their Louis Quatorze from their Early American.  But why do we need such external validation?

Human nature, I suppose.  We’re social animals.  We want to fit in.  Or perhaps stand out.  Stand out while fitting in, if at all possible.  If I like pictures of dogs playing poker, though, I better keep it to myself, at least in the circles I move in …

Fashions change, of course.  I was noticing some self-consciously clever ad in the washroom yesterday – the very fact that there are ads in washrooms, let alone self-consciously clever ones, tells you something about the world we live in, a capitalist society gone postmodern perhaps.  But at the height of capitalism who would have advertised in washrooms?  Has our decorum vanished?  Is nothing sacred?   The answer to that is probably no; hence the self-conscious cleverness.  It is the style of the time.  Irony.  As if we have all become Oscar Wilde.

Except we haven’t.  That self-consciously clever washroom ad didn’t actually work; it wasn’t funny (at least not to me); it didn’t even convey a clear message.  Once upon a time if you sounded like Oscar Wilde, you were Oscar Wilde – a lone genius.  But there aren’t very many geniuses – and if irony is simply the fashion, you’ll get a lot of people trying to be clever and witty who just aren’t.

In essence this is no different from the 1950’s.  Back then the fashion was for earnestness.  Ties and suits.  Presumably, there were geniuses at that too, but the vast majority were just conforming, getting along, trying to fit in.  Now to fit in you’re supposed to be witty and clever, but it doesn’t really mean anything; it’s no sign of genius.

The other day when I discovered something new (and what a joy that is), discovered that in the Muslim tradition it was Ishmael not Isaac whom Abraham almost sacrificed, someone commented, Who cares about these fairy tales?  But I care.  I’m not sure why.  I care about the stories people tell, about what they value.  Is it the look of a paperweight or the price it commands?  Of course, I suppose it could be both; people can care about money and art.  I suppose.

So today we care about making money, or having it, and being cleverly ironic.  Post-modern post-capitalism.  Or something.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Snapping Back

I’ve been watching the McLaughlin Group for many years, at least as far back as 1989, that year of tremendous upheaval, with the end of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and the student uprising in Tiananmen Square.  Politics was interesting then, or I was more interested in politics, and McLaughlin’s Group was a lively bunch, interrupting each other, shouting out their views.  It was both educational and entertaining.

Sometimes the interrupting would get a bit much, though; sometimes you couldn’t even hear what people were saying; and sometimes, especially in recent years, the panelists themselves would get frustrated.  The most frustrated of them all in recent years is Eleanor Clift.  Or I shouldn’t really say frustrated, perhaps rather faux frustrated.  It’s the others who are truly frustrated, for Eleanor keeps saying, “Let me finish, let me finish,” as if the others are bullying her, when of course the truth is the other way around.

Maybe it’s because for a long while she was the only woman on the panel and had to fight against the dominant males, but in fact the men tend to be rather gentlemanly.  They almost always back down when Eleanor complains, and when she herself does what she complains of, they usually say nothing – at least until this week.

For Eleanor perpetually interrupts others and normally they say nothing.  But let someone interrupt her, and, Wow, she has at them.  Until this week.  Mort Zuckerman, one of the courtly gentlemen on the panel, who actually tends to be on Eleanor’s side, on the Democrats’ side, against the neo- and paleo- conservatives – Mort was criticizing the Democrats for not reaching out to the Republicans in this time of deadlock.  This raised Eleanor’s ire, for she is nothing if not pro-Democrat, pro-Obama, pro-party line.  She interrupted him, rudely, as she often does, but this time Mort did not give way.  He said, “Wait a minute!”  Loudly.  Angrily.  And finished his thought while Eleanor laughed nervously.

The camera pulled away as if embarrassed.  It was as if some unwritten rule had been broken: don’t shout at the lady.  Later when Eleanor interrupted him again, Mort much more mildly said, “Excuse me a second.”  First a minute, then just a second.  First a blast from the bellows, like a bear, then the polite gentleman again.

But that’s what happens when you give way to bullies over and over.  Eventually one day you snap and become a bear and people are astonished.  It will be interesting to see if the dynamics of the show change as a result.  Will Eleanor interrupt as much?  Will she still complain if others interrupt her?  Will Mort or others complain about Eleanor?  Will everything just go back to the way it was?  Will the moderator finally step in and moderate, as he did a little more than usual after Mort’s outburst?

Tune in next week and see.