We Are All Bill Buckner

Bill Buckner was an outstanding professional baseball player in the 1970s and 1980s, and many believe him to be worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  However, all his accomplishments on the field and in his life were eclipsed by a single incredibly horrible moment in his career, the ground ball that trickled between his legs at the end of Game 6 in the 1986 World Series.  His error allowed the Mets to complete an amazing comeback victory when the Red Sox were right on the cusp of winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, and the Red Sox lost the deciding Game 7 to the New York Mets, crushing their fans.

Mr. Buckner just recently passed away, and he tried valiantly to live down what might be the most infamous gaffe in baseball history for the remaining 33 years of his life.  To his credit, he bore the constant reminders of the shocking mistake with as much stoicism and grace as any human being likely could ever muster.  Thanks to the advent of the Internet and services such as YouTube since 1986, later generations have been able at their leisure to relive the most painful and humiliating moment of his sporting lifeagain and again and again.  How wonderful that must have been for him, his family, and his friends.

Given that so much of all of our lives is now available online for the edification and entertainment of the nosey and the nasty, questions about our personal privacy, the security of our data, and our increasingly shaky right to live away from the unblinking eye of pervasive surveillance become more pressing with each passing year.  Privacy and discretion are rapidly becoming artifacts as quaint as 19th century high-button shoes, and we now often know far more about strangers and near strangers than is perhaps either reasonable or healthful.  

Moreover, our predatory attitude toward anyone foolish enough to be a “public figure” is astoundingly cruel at times. I cannot even imagine what President Franklin Roosevelt, forced to use a wheelchair and leg braces due to polio from the 1920’s until his death, might have had to endure at the hands of his enemies in today’s mean meme world.  The media once understood human decency and consideration and so avoided photographing him in his wheelchair; this type of kindness now seems beyond all imagining.

A society that has raised both voyeurism and public humiliation to a high art is likely neither the healthiest nor most functional.  Although it could be reasonably argued that some of the obsessive self-revelation of early 21st century life has exposed injustices and abuses long hidden from viewthe #MeToomovement and instances of police misconduct spring immediately to mindthe degradation of personal boundaries and our addiction to gawking at misery and mischief is much less laudable.  

Being able to Google a celebrity sex tape or view a cell phone video of someone passed out from a drug overdose is unlikely to promote either individual dignity or social justice.  Both the ready availability of this sort of this material and our evident interest in it and other scandalous and salacious fare speaks to our lack of respect and empathy for others.  

The fortunes made on trafficking in the unhappiness and mistakes of others is both sad and shameful.  In the old days, blackmailers used to extort money from their victims by threatening to reveal an indiscreet letter or photograph; today’s modern blackmailer simply starts a website and sells subscriptions to the scandal-hungry masses.  Although making a quick buck by hawking stolen selfies and videos of some embarrassing moment might be good old-fashioned capitalist initiative at its best, the wonder is that we both allow and actively support this ugliness.

Our deeply embedded schadenfreudeour dark desire to savor the unhappiness of othersis likely to blame for much of our willingness to click on a hateful comment or watch a pratfall from respectability, but we also must recognize that the modern monetization of misery has served to extinguish boundaries of propriety and restraint that we are worse off for having lost.  A society that ruthlessly extinguishes its heroes for profit also discards any possibility for higher purpose or self-sacrifice because every human thought and action is reduced to sad farce or laughable self-delusion.  Even worse, a single misjudgment or misstep now has to power, thanks to the endlessly amplified echo chamber of infotainment and social media, to erase all memory of an otherwise respectable life and transform one into either a devil or a buffoon.

It is terrible that Bill Buckners life and professional career will be remembered for a twisting little grounder that danced past his ankles, but this is the reality that we all now face every day.  Any person, anywhere, and at any time canin but a single unguarded or unthoughtful momenthave ones life become an object of derision or delight for the multitudes who are anxious to revel in the misfortunes of others.  Is it somehow hilarious to post videos of the overstressed, overexcited, or overwhelmed?  Are accidents humorous?  Should we be shocked that humans sometimes make thoroughly human mistakes that seem oddly sinister when removed from their proper context?

To ask these questions is, of course, to question the business model of much of our modern media environment.  To answer these questions we need to, of necessity, look within ourselves, study our own hearts, and examine our consumption of our often coarse and cruel culture today.  To presume that our current reality is either permanent or desirable is wrongheaded.  We have the power to choose the type of world we want to inhabit, and we can certainly find the will to wean ourselves off the drugs of choice today: scandal, sleaze, and stupidity.

 

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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.