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Warm beer and bathos
Sitting on the dock of the virtual bay, random notes from the foamy frontlines
“In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.”
Apocryphal quote attributed to infamous tippler Ben Franklin that is too good not to use
Pinching pesos in Mexico City, I’m nursing a pint of warm draft beer and snacking on unsalted cacahuate at a sidewalk café while a tear jerking US country music song plays in the background, some forlorn sounding guy twanging about Jesus, LA, broken hearts and she done me wrong, enervating bathos as thick as maple syrup, a maudlin invitation to uncritical self-pity.
The lyrics by this Nashville Lothario somehow triggered a brighter remembrance of Otis Redding’s classic 1968 song “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” a rumination on the feeling of being at the end – of the San Francisco Bay, the continent, personal relationships – but absent the beery sensibility. With the help of guitarist Steve Cooper, Redding’s song became the first ever posthumous single to top US pop-rock charts, winning Grammys in 1968 for Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
So I'm just gon' sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watchin' the tide roll away, ooh
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay, wastin' time
Look like nothin's gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can't do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I'll remain the same, yes
Sadly, we can no longer sit quietly on the dock of the bay. Everyone is now pressured to have vitriolic opinions about everything, to take sides, be visible. Redding’s “ten people” telling him what to do (and think and feel) are now magnified a thousand or ten thousand fold by intrusive 24/7 social media, autocratic government diktats and divisive messaging of every imaginable variety.
Given the resultant descent of political culture into a permanent sibling food fight, it should not be a surprise that we appear to be sleepwalking into nuclear war. We’ll soon be listening to Waylon and Willie and lesser minions of St. Bathos under the toxic shade of a mushroom cloud.
Or is there hope, some possible solution on the mushroom shaped horizon?
In 2016, I wrote:
Many of today’s leading political theorists caution against an outdated Enlightenment belief in progress and extol the virtues of philosophic pessimism as a hedge against historically groundless optimism.
Okay! But what does that mean now? Seven years ago, I felt obligated to explain that philosophic pessimism is different from the tiresome gloom of environmental doomsayers. It is instead an affirmative acknowledgment of the limits of what we can and do know. It’s about clarity, not sadness.
In a time of permanent crisis, defined along intellectually lazy and predictably profitable fault lines, amplified relentlessly by social media echo chambers, who has time to think? To reflect? To feel deeply? To seek historical context? To love the “other?” To just sit?
In his ultimate masterwork “Being and Nothingness,” Erich Fromm wrote:
“It would seem that the very essence of being is having; that if one has nothing, one is nothing”
I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide what the consequences of this orientation towards life might be. Whatever a person’s individual motives for living in having mode, what's at stake collectively is not only our alienation from nature, but from one another.
The more we define ourselves by having only, the more we remove ourselves from any possible sense of community.
In his memoirs, no less an art scene icon of the go-go, candy colored psychedelic pop ‘60’s and ‘70’s than Andy Warhol inadvertently noted the leveling effects of the consumerist ethic, its superficial sense of perceived community actually functioning as an exemption from the real work of community building, an exemption defined in the current time as a lust for personal immunity.
"What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."
Coke has never sounded so good. Nor so benign, almost patriotic. It is a brilliant sleight of hand, a magical transformation of commerce into art. Warhol has been described by Tom Sokolowski, a former director of the Andy Warhol Museum, as “perhaps the most brilliant mirror of our times."
Self-interest aside, Sokolowski’s characterization highlights the fact that the popular commercial culture so beloved by Warhol, and later amplified by Tom Wolfe in works of pop sociological journalism such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, is often the best harbinger of the simple things that have gone haywire in society at large.
A teenage Avril Lavigne, for example, innocently captured the pop moment perfectly a few years ago in her hit song “Complicated.”
Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?
I see the way you're acting like you're somebody else
Gets me frustrated
Life's like this, you
And you fall, and you crawl, and you break
And you take what you get, and you turn it into
Honesty and promise me I'm never gonna find you faking…
When did things get so complicated that a teenage pop singer offers a more meaningful distillation of the zeitgeist than all the officially sanctioned talking heads on cable TV news?
In a seminal study of the cultural history of advertising nearly three decades ago titled “Fables of Abundance,” historian Jackson Lears called for a reorientation of the way we relate to the material world. Lears saw our much vaunted materialism as the opposite, an immaterialistic contempt for reality so pervasive that the great majority of people in the developed world had lost all relation to the physical, social and economic origins of the material objects of daily life. Rather than the false promise of “magical transformation” through the purchase of the right brands, Lears believed that humanity was in urgent need of “a new animism, a reenchantment of a world grown mechanical and cold.”
We can’t solve our common problems alone. We can shine a welcoming light, drink the same coke as our purported enemies, share a frosty brew or a cup of wine, but if we don’t find some kind of uniquely American common ground soon, we are going to lose it all.
Sticking with the pop culture theme, perhaps Bettye LaVette’s cover of the Bob Dylan song Don’t Fall Apart on me Tonight offers a good starting point for a potential conversation about connection and community.
You know, the streets are filled with vipers
Who've lost all ray of hope
You know, it's not even safe no more
In the palace of the Pope
Don't fall apart on me tonight
I just don't think that I could handle it
Don't fall apart on me tonight
Yesterday's just a memory
Tomorrow is never what it's supposed to be
And I need you, yeah.
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