Is Technology The New Creativity?

I am of two minds about living in America today.  Setting aside any discussion of politicswhich I am glad to do for the momentI find that I cannot escape my belief that our popular and fine arts and entertainment are, by and large, horrifically bad and stupendously boring.  However, this shortcoming is more than made up for by the near-magical world of technological innovation we live in today.  Although we clearly have our problemsevery age doesI can firmly assert that I do not wish to live at any time other than now.  Our daily cultural life may be a wasteland, but our work and play are made immeasurably better by the incredible creativity in technology that has relegated most fine arts and popular entertainment to a purely secondary role in early 21st century American life.

A while back I was appalled to discover that a total of sixSharknadomovies have been made.  I cannot believe we actually needed even the first, but this odd phenomenon brings a stark fact of the universe of popular entertainment into sharp focus: New ideas are typically few and far between.

There are, of course, many reasons that endless iterations of so many idiotic ideas plague our modernity.  One is that investors and entertainment companies are desperate for a sure thing, so they reason that if Sharknado 3 made money, there is some likelihood that Sharknado 4 will as welland, for reasons that surpass understanding, they often do.  By the same token, the business executives who green light this kind of falderal presume that a flop will be more easily excused by their bosses if it can be presented as a wise decisionone derived from a sensible expectation based upon prior successesthat for reasons beyond their control simply failed this one time.  Money in the arts and entertainment tends to chase conservative investments, and gambling with the cash provided by your corporate overlords is not a prescription for a long career in this business.

Consequently, artists and entertainers who long ago lost their edge are recycled beyond the point when they have any work truly worthy of our consideration.  Even if the caviar of their early career has now degenerated into stale corn flakes, it has some intrinsic worth as a known brandthat can still make a buck off name recognition and former notoriety.  This explains why the late work of Pablo Picasso, which basically was terrible and derivative, continued to sell well and the tours of aging rockers still command premium prices despite the suspicion that their current artistry owes much to the wonders of lip syncing and hip replacement surgeries.  We know what to expect and fill in the blank spots from our own memoriesand so the illusion survives.

We are, in addition, now besieged by recycled drivel simply because there are so many more media outlets in need of contentany contentto fill in the spaces between infomercials.  Cheap and disposable entertainmentcontrived and packaged to present the best possible platform for advertisements or to encourage streaming subscriptionsrules a great deal of the entertainment world today simply because there are twenty-four hours and seven days in a week that must be programmed.  No one plays the National Anthem and turns off their transmitter at midnight anymore because dead air is anathema in a culture where constant stimulation is the norm—and necessity.

However, as much as the traditional forms of creativity—music, sculpture, poetry, theater, dance, etc.—seem to have landed in a ditch today, we do live in an age of mind boggling technological inventiveness that has transformed every facet of our livesand which provides sufficient compensation for the dreary state of our arts and entertainment.  

I sometimes shake my head when I think about growing up in a world of land line telephones, rabbit ear antennae on boxy cathode ray tube televisions, clacking typewriters, and rooms filled with library card catalogues.  Medical care was often diagnosis by stethoscope and exploratorysurgeries because there were no wondrous medical imaging technologies available beyond a simple x-ray.  Cars, which were attractive but unreliable, could not instantly tell a mechanic via a computer link what was wrong with them.  Our connection to news and events in the outside world was a daily newspaper tossed on the doorstep in the morning or the six oclock newson a black and white television.  K-12 education was all pencil and paper, and the height of workplace computing technology was punch cards and slide rules.  Carbon paper was still a common office tool, and eager young women strove to master shorthand (how many even know what this is today?) prior to entering a heavily hair sprayed career as a secretary.

It is, of course, quite natural that technology will outpace the arts when it comes to the application of creative power.  Customers demand cutting edge innovation to justify the investment of their hard-earned cash.  However, those tired souls seeking mere distraction from their daily toil are content with that which is as comfortably familiar as a pair of worn house slippers  Therefore, the artists of each age tend to move as a herd so as to not stray too far afield from the tastes of their audiences, but the technological innovators become rich precisely by bringing new and wholly unfamiliar products to market.  

There is, of course, always an audience of elite tastemakers who seek out edgy art and culture, but there is an obvious reason why The Monkees sold many, many more records than John Cage ever didthe art that is the most popular is always that which soothes rather than assaults.  Middlebrow is always where the money is to be made, so this is what will always dominate as long as artists need food and shelter to survive.

Although the pace of creativity in engineering, science, and medicine may move faster or slower at any given time, it is always moving in one directionforwardand this is precisely what humanity demands.  There is little market for nostalgia except as it pertains to the collection of key technological artifacts of the pastclassic cars being one obvious examplein order to preserve and enjoy the genius of a particular age.  

However much we may still watch the plays of Shakespeare or read the poetry of John Milton, no one wants to again live in an age when travel from city to city meant days of bouncing along rutted roads, fire was the only source of heat and light, and surgeries were performed without the benefit anesthesia or antibiotics. The worlds that people inhabited in the past may have been more elegant in some very limited ways, but the vast majority of human lives were stalked by hunger, disease, vermin, and pain.  Our knowledge and understanding of the actual daily misery of those days have their limitations, but we are willing to look past all that for a few hours of engagement with the music, paintings, or plays of centuries gone by.

Therefore, before we get too carried away complaining about the world we live in today while romanticizing some time period long ago, perhaps it is worth taking just one small moment to celebrate the many wonders of the world we have right now.  We may have to occasionally endure the existence of the Kardashians, but we can also microwave some popcorn, stream some Miles Davis music through our ear buds, and read a classic novel on our iPads.  I have to admit, it works for me.

 

 

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Disorder In The Courts

Setting aside for the moment the unbelievably dispiriting saga of the Supreme Court nominationof Brett Kavanaugh, which is clearly a political and cultural inflection point that will keep commentators scribbling for decades to come, it seems apparent that our entire federal system of jurisprudence is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy that is perhaps unprecedented in recent memory.  

Some of the problems are self-inflicted wounds that are the result of obvious miscarriages of justice that have wronged the innocent and released the guilty.  Some issues have arisen from moving far away from simply applying or interpreting laws and becoming super-legislators whose individual judgments supersede those of duly-elected representatives.  Other difficulties facing our federal courts are the inevitable outcome of our nation’s ever widening cultural and moral divisions—every ruling now produces an army of the disgruntled.

The law and our federal courts have, of course, always been imperfect tools in our eternal quest for justice on earth because the humans who write and apply our laws are themselves imperfect creatures who are subject to the same stupidity and shortsightedness as us all.  However, the hope was that rigorous training of both lawyers and judges in evidentiary proceedings conducted under rules established by both precedents and common sense would be sufficient to reduce the opportunities for either fear or favor to influence the rulings of our federal courts.  This has not always worked, but additional procedures for appeals are available, and a trip up the marble steps of the Supreme Court has always been the final leg of the journey for those seeking justice.  

It is important to remember that, even when the wheels of justice turned slowly, the general perception was that the federal courts were a reliable bulwark against destructive partisan passions.  Although we understood that justice was sometimes elusive, judges and the courts were still held in high regard.  Despite the sometimes reasonable perception that true justice often seemed reserved for rich, white males, Americans had a sense that the federal courts were capable of hearing the pleas of those who felt historically disenfranchised and responding—if belatedly—to their needs, and this served to burnish the reputation of our federal courts in spite of all their missteps on the path to modernity.  Consequently, generations of idealists worked to make improvements to both the operations and outcomes of our federal court system, which enabled a broader spectrum of American society to enjoy the benefits of living in a nation of laws.  If small town local justice sometimes seemed small-minded, the federal courts many times provided the necessary broad corrections that could later be applied nationally through the precedents set by their rulings.

How far away this all seems today….

Perhaps the most pressing problem now facing the federal judiciary is one for which they have only themselves to blame: Abandoning the role of arbiter and assuming the mantle of advocacy has turned judges into yet another subset of political hacks within a system rife with political hacks.  Outsized egos and a lack of respect for the dire consequences of judicial activism have pushed the federal courts further and further beyond their constitutional mandate, which is sadly understandable if you consider the foibles of human nature.  

As much fun as it might be to be a “rock star judge” who finds new and inventive ways to circumvent judicial limitations and seize the powers delegated to the legislative and executive branches of government under the Constitution, the price to pay is the destructive surrender of all-important perceptions of restraint and impartiality.  The unsurprising result has been that federal judges are now subjected to the same rough and tumble scrutiny as those who must regularly win re-election to their offices by presenting their partisan credentials to voters—welcome to the jungle, Your Honor.

As the federal courts have come more and more to both reflect and reinforce the partisan splits in our nation by seeking to circumscribe—or outright negate—the laws and regulations approved by the President and Congress, they have waded deeper and deeper into stormy political and moral waters they cannot possibly navigate without eventually drowning.  Moreover, by making their own partisan agendas ever more apparent through their frequent speeches and voluminous writings, judges serving at the federal level are discarding all remaining pretense of objectivity in favor of social engineering on a scale that would both astonish and alarm their more circumspect predecessors on the bench.  

The sadly predictable outcome is never ending sniping and frighteningly vicious confirmation hearings that are erasing whatever tattered prestige our highest level of courts still retain.

We may not at this late date be able to turn back the clock because our nation’s elite law schools have themselves become the training grounds for a radical judicial philosophy that—terrifyingly enough—believes judges are wiser stewards of our nation than those whom we elect to represent us.  The outright disrespect for our democratic processes that we today so often see manifested in the rulings of our federal courts is an insult to the genius of our nation’s political system, which is still the wonder of the world despite its human flaws.

Therefore, having founded a nation by rejecting the divine rights of kings, it might just be the case that we will renew our nation’s commitment to democracy—however maddening and messy as the will of the people might sometimes be—by opposing the “divine rights” that have been assumed by judges who believe it is their prerogative to strike down legislation, oppose the President, and impose whatever mandates they see fit upon a captive America with a single court order.  

The battle has been joined, and those on both sides of this issue clearly understand what is at stake.  Whatever the outcome might be, we can be certain that our perceptions of the federal court system and its role in relation to the other two branches of our national government are about to undergo a profound shift—and the outcome will either begin to heal or further divide our already troubled nation.

Of Burt And Bunnies

I am not quite certain what to make of this particular harmonic convergence of hormones, but I believe it must mean something.

Within just the past few weeks we have seen Burt Reynolds, that paragon of smirking 1970’s masculinity, pass away in Florida while the Playboy Club, that whimsical throwback to bunny ears and cottontails, has now been reborn in New York City.  Each life change is, in its own way, an opportunity to glance back at sexual and societal mores that seem somehow both distant and strangely contemporary, and our viewpoints are likely composed of equal parts of attraction and repulsion.  

The secret to Mr. Reynolds rakish and thoroughly self-deprecating charm was that he honestly seemed to enjoy being “Burt Reynolds”.  Like the grinning boy who stares you straight in the eye while he has his hand in the cookie jar, Mr. Reynolds’ utterly guileless determination to be as sweetly naughty as he could be allowed him to manage the neat trick of being the man whom women wanted to both slap in the face and drag to their boudoir.  

Looking at his movies and antics today, we are likewise divided by our attraction to his easygoing charm and our cringing reactions to his sometimes over-the-top sexism.  However, Mr. Reynolds’ willingness to make himself the butt of the joke in both his movies and real life—who will ever forget his hirsute nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1972?—largely inoculated him from the taint of overt misogyny and permitted him to later age into more demanding dramatic roles that no longer required a sly smile or whinnying laugh.

The return of the Playboy Club to New York City seems equal parts a yearning for a more naively seductive style of sexuality and a nostalgia for a bygone time when men were men, women were women, and sex was less about lawyers, regrets, and diseases.  During the Age of Aquarius, a period of time largely defined by a carefree desire to stimulate every available nerve ending, Hugh Hefner’s worldview both enabled the eternal adolescent within and disabled the guardians of traditional moral standards without.  

As a vehicle for fantasy role playing and the exchange of cash for a peek at pretty young women who exuded a wholesome innocence, the Playboy franchise was a money machine for many decades.  Ironically enough, however, what prompted its demise as a cultural icon and financial juggernaut was the ready availability of pornography that became, with the passing of the years, ever more explicit and gritty—the college co-ed next door eventually lost out to the grim hooker splayed in the alleyway.  Today the politics of sex, of gender roles, and of gender itself have grown infinitely more complex, and the penalties for misbehavior and miscommunication have gone far beyond a knee to the groin or a “bad reputation”.  

In addition, we have somehow managed to paint ourselves into a uncomfortable corner where our mass entertainment has devolved into soft-core pornography and even school children exchange sexually explicit selfies on their cell phones, yet we are told the cure to all that ails our culture and society is more sex-positivity because we are—hard it may be to believe—still far too prudish.  Apparently, having the least self-restraint or standards is today a sign of unhealthy inhibition that must be eliminated in order to avoid allowing anyone to judge another’s behavior.  What a world we live now.  Is it any wonder that we gaze with perhaps the least bit of longing back to the days when double-entendres were risqué, a tuft of exposed chest hair or a hint of cleavage was titillating, and any hint of nudity had to be wrapped in opaque plastic lest a child see something that they should not?

Although our world may somehow be better off because mothers can now work out to regain their pre-pregnancy form on a stripper pole in the den, porn stars write their own magazine columns, and everyone can learn how to give a blowjob on YouTube, it could be the case that the ultimate attraction of the movies and persona of Burt or of the Bunnies in their costumes is that each provides pleasures that rely more on what is kept hidden rather than what is revealed.  Perhaps we actually lust for just a bit more bashfulness as a counterbalance to the daily gynecology of our culture today.

 

 

 

The Consequence Of No Consequences

If there is any connective tissue between the many scandals and strife that fill our world today, it is this: People sure do hate being judged.

This is, of course, a very human reaction. Trying to bluster one’s way out of difficulty by proclaiming your actions were either innocent or misunderstood—which is, of course, sometimes true—has probably been a facet of human behavior from the dawn of civilization. However, what has now become a conspicuous characteristic of our troubled times is that both a belief in our own blamelessness and an embrace of utter shamelessness are now woven into the fabric of our modern culture.

A component of this is certainly based on our ongoing societal and political efforts to relegate shame to the dustbin of human history. Given that we now pretty much determine for ourselves what is right or wrong because the concept of social norms tends to annoy many, the only way you can really find yourself in hot water these days is to be critical of another person’s behavior. To attempt to cause anyone to feel shame is—ironically enough—considered shameful. This circular bit of ethical entrapment disables any possible discussion of right and wrong because, as is now the dominant doctrine in many quarters, right and wrong are nothing but social constructs meant to oppress us. Thankfully, we seem at least able to agree that child abuse is wrong, although even this issue collides on occasion with our desperation to celebrate non-Western or non-traditional child rearing practices.

Think about the news or commentary that we all read on a regular basis. It is incredible how often the stories today are less about actual events and more about criticisms of the reactions (or lack thereof) by others. As a result, we find ourselves trapped in an echo chamber of denunciations, which allows us to avoid any thoughtful discussion of blame, shame, or culpability. If those who disagree with us are themselves bad—because they either criticized us or failed to properly exalt us—we are able to deflect any shame our actions might bring and be held blameless. This is, unfortunately, a perpetual motion machine of insult and outrage that contributes very little to problem-solving but does much—far too much—to degrade and demean our public discourse.

The net outcome of these deflections of blame and shame is that all discussions dissolve into debates about whose interests are being helped or harmed—our lives reduced to nothing but a series of transactions devoid of values—and no effort is expended examining the basic morality of the actions or intentions of the parties involved.

An example of the confines of our cultural and political norms at the present time is the anger that erupted over the passage of a package of federal laws known as FOSTA-SESTA that now holds websites liable for advertising sexual services online. Opponents of these laws lament that sex workers will find themselves at greater personal risk and suffer professional inconvenience because they can no longer advertise their services easily and cheaply through the internet.

Lost in all the discussion of the law’s impact, which has been immediate and substantial, was perhaps a more fundamental issue few wanted to discuss because it would be considered judgmental or—to use a favorite expression of many—“slut shaming” of a subset of women who are, after all, simply trying to make a living: Does our nation have an obligation to facilitate—and therefore tacitly legitimize—the world’s oldest profession, prostitution?

Is it possible in today’s America to simply say that prostitution is immoral and damaging to all involved? Would we ever expect those in charge of our major news and media outlets in New York and California to criticize or condemn prostitutes and prostitution in an effort to improve public and private morals and behavior? Such questions are considered so old fashioned and retrograde to those who sit at the pinnacles of our elite sources of opinion and commentary as to even be unworthy of note. Imagine if the New York City Police Department and FBI were to launch a crackdown on prostitution—which seems extraordinarily unlikely. Would The New York Times, for example, endorse this effort or resort to running sympathetic profiles of all the valiant women who were being persecuted by the police and prosecutors for simply plying their trade?

Morality is, of course, a tricky business, and over the past several thousand years of civilization we have expended incredible time and energy attempting to distinguish right from wrong. Our ideas of what is moral and what is not have certainly undergone some revisions—but much of the essential framework has remained the same. Ignoring discussions of morality and immorality because they might make some feel uncomfortable or judged for their beliefs or behavior is a foundational problem that afflicts broad swathes of our nation and might explain the persistence and magnitude of at least some of the issues afflicting many communities, families, and individuals.

There are, to be sure, many difficulties we must today address, but most will likely remain unresolved if even the most basic issues of right and wrong are banned from the discussions because they might make some feel excluded—or bad about themselves. Perhaps this needs to change.

The Waste Land

Philip Roth recently died. During his long career as a novelist, he won every major award for his work except the Nobel Prize, and he is considered one of the preeminent writers of the late 20th century. However, with all due respect to Mr. Roth’ life and career, I don’t believe very many people outside of the rarified literary salons of the Boston-Washington corridor or a handful of PhD programs elsewhere actually read many of his novels—and he is an apt symbol for the wrong turn our cultural elites took in the post-WW II period.

In order to quickly illustrate my point and avoid a protracted explanation, please allow me to quote directly from Mr. Roth’s obituary in The New York Times: “His creations include Alexander Portnoy, a teenager so libidinous he has sex with both his baseball mitt and the family dinner, and David Kepesh, a professor who turns into an exquisitely sensitive 155-pound female breast.”

How could he have failed to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you might well ask….

The literary novel—which was once, a long time ago now, built around characters wrestling with weighty matters of personal or social morality—has surrendered its purpose and lost its way. Our prevailing creative norm—in not only novels but movies and television as well—is now to sanctimoniously celebrate the triumphs of individuals over those family, foes, or institutions that fail to allow them to live just as they please. For an audience apparently content to be reassured that anyone who might pass moral judgment is simply hateful, this is somehow sufficient to make a story. Hence, there are generations of readers who, for reasons surpassing all understanding, find it entertaining that Holden Caulfield, the teenaged narrator of A Catcher in the Rye, calls every adult he meets a “phony”. When I had to inflict this novel on my own high school students, I sometimes wondered why this was considered a good use of instructional time, but keener minds than mine had long before determined this was a literary classic worthy of their attention.

The dramatic tension inherent in parsing issues of right and wrong (concepts utterly alien to much of our culture today) once gave the novel its power and cultural significance. Today these are reduced to a predictable polemic pitting the pure-hearted protagonists against an oppressive society that fails to properly recognize their uniqueness and sensitivity. It is little wonder that so much of our artistic output is now snark, pastiche, meta-fiction, satire—or comic book superheroes. To simply and seriously discuss the many complexities of morals or values today is to be hopelessly old-fashioned and overly judgmental.

Imagine our literary classics rewritten for our tolerant—and tech-savvy—modern world. Prince Hamlet today would be furiously and ineffectually tweeting about what a jerk his stepfather was, Ophelia would simply sext with Hamlet behind her father’s back, and Queen Gertrude would be busily working on her next palace podcast about her wonderful remarriage and her own journey of personal self-discovery. Given that all choices are now equally valid and correct, there would be no need for dramatic resolution. Everyone could simply do what they pleased, secure in the knowledge that their individual choices were unassailable, and we could sit back and enjoy the farce inherent in blowhards like Polonius futilely attempting to rein them all in. Ha-ha-ha.

Individual wants and needs are, of course, important; I am not advocating for a world run according to a hive mind mentality that neglects the critical importance of individuals within a larger community or society. However, there comes a point when a single-minded emphasis on individual wonderfulness becomes an empty intellectual exercise because it eventually will exclude any notions of shared duty or self-sacrifice for the common good—which, inconveniently enough, are necessary for a functioning and healthy society.

Adolescent self-satisfaction is, sad to say, now our predominant cultural characteristic, and just as any teenager typically does, we get awfully surly when someone points out that our selfish self-focus might be negatively affecting others. As much as we might want to sit in our rooms and just ignore all those other pesky people in our lives who somehow seem not to understand the importance of our needs, we do sometimes have to acknowledge the needs of others. It sucks, I know, but that’s what adulthood is all about. I might be ruining someone’s day by pointing this out, but a country composed of preening and self-involved individualists can cause as much damage to its citizens and their overall well-being as the most oppressive totalitarian state.

Please allow me to offer another related radical suggestion: That which is outré is not necessarily interesting or worthwhile. Circus “freak shows”, a blessedly discarded component of our entertainment culture, at one time offered viewers a chance to gawk at the physically afflicted. Sadly, we have not progressed much beyond this. Our late 20th and early 21st century cultural and artistic life has become overly enamored with the notion that examining characters and ideas occupying the fringes of our society will reveal heretofore untold truths about ourselves, an approach that, like the circus freak show, offers titillation but no illumination.

Which brings me back to modern literature, which has managed to write itself into irrelevance by mistaking the bizarre and obscure for the profound and life affirming. There is a reason that so many still love the plays of William Shakespeare, find life lessons in the Iliad and Odyssey, revel in the novels and short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or continue to lose themselves in the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes. These works have survived the test of time because they engage with our minds and souls rather than attempting to shock and repel the average reader. Even those characters who are less than admirable are presented as fully formed—but deeply flawed—human beings rather than two dimensional caricatures of corruption and dysfunction.

If you want people to read your books and—perhaps more importantly—you want your work to be part of our daily cultural dialogue, it might be worth giving your readers a reason to continue to turn the page. Setting up straw men and knocking them down might be satisfying on some simplistic level, but it will only rarely sustain reader interest over the long term because there is no recognition of the difficulties that even the most seemingly insignificant life choices entail. Having your main character furiously masturbate into a piece of liver his family will later consume will shock us—but there is no knowledge or insight to be gained beyond this.

Spiritually and morally bankrupt cultures often privilege the sensational over the conversational. Good authors realize this. The “two minute hates” in George Orwell’s 1984 existed in a fictional culture devoid of humanity. The “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were mass entertainment that stimulated rather than engaged their emotionally empty audiences. Our own two minute hates and feelies—now brought to us by our major literary publishers as well as cable television and the internet—are signs of how spiritually and morally bankrupt our culture has become, and we need to seriously discuss just how we can move literature and entertainment back in a direction that can again engage a mass audience in a broader discussion of the values that inform our lives.