Friday, December 14, 2012

Random Thoughts On This Bonfire Around Us

Normally here at the blog I try to avoid focusing on breaking news, unless it is related to science or art in some way. Politics and pop culture are so disconnected from reality that, to my eyes, it is always hard to know what is really happening and how to reasonably react.

But this morning there was a horrible school shooting out east. Dozens of people—most of them children—were killed and the shooter, apparently, was a twenty year old young man, hardly more than a child himself.

This violence and chaos touches on many topics that I’ve followed for many years. I can’t really think of working today, of writing anything today.

So instead of creating anything, I’m going to just review part of what I regard as “background” to the terrible killings out east. Because I feel a couple of things that I’ve mentioned in passing here at the blog are elements of this kind of madness and chaos.


I’m going to talk about two people. I’m going to mention one just quickly, and then dwell a little longer on the second person.

Both people I’m going to talk about today could be described as critics of pop culture.

Now most people we see in pop culture criticizing pop culture are clearly participants. People like, for instance, just to name one, Camille Paglia. She criticizes pop culture, but she’s not really criticizing culture itself, just various aspects of it that she doesn’t like.

And other people we see in pop culture criticizing pop culture are simply lunatic fringe types. Pop culture doesn’t mind showing critics who proclaim themselves, for instance, just to name two, Marxists or survivalists, or other such things because everyone knows these people in the modern West will never persuade large numbers of people to take them seriously. These people are, in a way, participants too, because they are like village idiots who make their viewpoints look ridiculous and they more or less accept that role and play along.

But every now and then a very qualified, knowledgeable and experienced person will make a very carefully reasoned outright attack on some very core element of pop culture.

And then what is pop culture to do?

The various people and power blocs which are decision-makers in the pop culture world cannot engage such people—after all, experienced and smart people who put forward carefully reasoned attacks usually think through what they say. Their attacks are usually substantiated and substantial. The only reasonable way to engage such attacks is by saying something like, “Yes, you are right, but—” And then offer some kind of context or elaboration which provides some acceptable justification for the substance behind the attack.

But when life-or-death issues are in play, and when central beliefs of pop culture are called into question, it is impossible to “justify” death and misery for the sake of some academic dogma or corporate practice.

So if pop culture cannot engage qualified, knowledgeable and experienced critics, how can it respond to them?

In my life I believe I’ve seen this situation occur twice. What happens is the “qualified, knowledgeable and experienced” person will be 1) Wildly misrepresented; and then 2) trivialized, marginalized and even demonized.

For instance, I will quickly mention Jerry Mander.

Jerry Mander was a very experienced and successful advertising executive who began to question modern media and pop culture which is so immersed in and dependent on modern media. Jerry Mander wrote an extraordinary book called, “Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television.” Pop culture responded by focusing on one or two aspects of part of Mander’s technical issues with television as if they represented the whole of his critique, and by misrepresenting his arguments that way—as not fully documented and so-called “new age” thinking—his entire, very lengthy book could be dismissed. And now, apparently, Mander seems to have accepted something like social exile and simply writes about anti-capitalism. And who cares? Nobody.

Meanwhile all his arguments about television are not only still valid, but since computers have become little more than desktop television sets and telephones have become little more than portable television sets with near-microwave transmitters built-in, Mander’s arguments have become all the more terrifying.

That’s all I want to say at this point about Jerry Mander.

But I want to dwell a little longer on Frederic Wertham. I’m not going to dwell on many specifics here—this is a blog post, not an essay for a journal—so this is just going to be a conversational kind of personal summary. But I certainly recommend reading Wertham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent” directly.

Frederick Wertham was a psychiatrist, from the pioneering generation directly after Freud. In fact, young Wertham corresponded with Freud before coming to America. He spent time at Johns Hopkins, conducted independent research, and eventually became director of the psychiatric clinic at Bellevue. And much of his private and public work was spent helping children, especially the kids in the 40s and 50s who were typically labeled ‘delinquents’ and tossed away in reform schools or, later, penitentiaries.

He was as qualified, knowledgeable and experienced as a person could get.

In the course of his work, Wertham began to see trends in the way children were being treated—in culture in general by the entertainment media, in schools, by the police and by the courts.

Wertham eventually wrote a book called, “Seduction of the Innocent.”

This book, now, like Wertham himself, has been marginalized, trivialized and demonized.

The book and Wertham have been wildly misrepresented. Primarily the misrepresentation is along the lines of, “He said comic books make kids criminals.” Of course, Wertham never said anything of the kind. And, in fact, he explicitly said something quite different. His contention was that many aspects of pop culture attack a young person’s understanding of right and wrong, a young person’s understanding of good behavior and bad, and the grotesque images and stories in graphic magazines were first and foremost a symptom—not a cause!—of the troubled world being presented to young people, and, then, also, a contributing factor to the troubles.

Wertham’s beliefs grew out of his direct experience with young people. He didn’t form his beliefs academically around some dogma and then look for substantiation. Rather he talked to kids, persuaded them to show him their world, and then tried to understand their understanding of culture and real life based on the world adults put around them.

The attacks on Wertham were—and continue to be!—simply unbelievable. I wonder, now, if a person who hasn’t lived through this stuff and with this stuff can possibly get any kind of trustworthy emotional feel for the actual reality of Frederick Wertham because the hyperbole and attacks have been so continuous and so pervasive in the media.

My copy of “Seduction of the Innocent” was published in 1954.

The attacks continue to this day!

It leaves a person speechless. Books such as “Supergods” and “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” to my eyes are little more than corporate communication department propaganda pamphlets and, meanwhile, everyone can look around the real world and see that the issues that troubled Wertham fifty years ago have continued and in fact have grown like, so to speak, monsters.

Obviously this is something I feel strongly about, I get emotional about and I’ve touched on these issues in many posts. For instance, Let’s Go To The Library And Scare Ourselves.

I don’t want to go on and on here because it is just sad. But I want to make one last point about how comprehensive the attacks on Wertham were and continue to be.

After Wertham wrote “Seduction of the Innocent” and the issues of graphic media violence became a national political issue, Wertham became, briefly, what we would now call something like an infamous media figure or something. And Wertham wrote a follow-up book to “Seduction of the Innocent.” So there he was, a national figure, bright in the media spotlight with a sequel to the book which had caused the media spotlight.

And no publisher would publish the book.

Wertham was as qualified as a professional could be. His writing was calm, well-reasoned, compassionate, and profoundly influential with the public at large.

And no publisher would publish his follow-up to “Seduction of the Innocent.”

I just want to end by pointing out that if we—anyone—looks at what has gone on in the world over the last few decades, isn’t it amazing that no publisher would publish a manuscript from a profoundly qualified psychiatrist concerned with violence and chaos that was engulfing young people in the modern world?

The title of Wertham’s manuscript, which still exists but is still unpublished, was to be, “The War On Children.”

I’m sorry to end the week with such a downbeat post. But to my eyes it seems like monsters are very, very real. And they are eating all of us, including our children.

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