Category Archives: Media

Youth Is Not Truth

Sculpture, Potsdam

Scuplture, Friendship Island, Potsdam, Germany. © 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

The September 2017 Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”—written by Dr. Jean Twenge, who has been studying generational differences for twenty-five years—has been making the rounds on social media ever since.  Rightly so.

Dr. Twenge’s findings shocked many but confirmed what plenty of us have been observing ground-level for years:  The smartphone kids are in trouble.  Big time.

The teenage-behavior and mental-health charts began aligning in remarkable ways post-2007, when the first smartphone came on the market.  Specifically, Dr. Twenge is examining what she calls iGen:  kids born beteween 1995 and 2012 who have never been without mobile access to the Internet.  The years 2011–2012 marked a seismic shift for the very young in which:

• in-person hanging out with friends took a nosedive
• dating plummeted
• feelings of loneliness shot upwards
• insomnia and sleep disruption went through the roof

“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011,” writes Dr. Twenge, calling it “the worst mental-health crisis in decades.  Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

The facts are distressing enough by themselves, but maybe the worst part is the extent to which her book and warnings will probably not change a thing.  Because parents and adults who could turn the tide, especially here in the U.S., are instead throwing their hands in the air and doing one big cave.  We don’t know how to tell young people they’re wrong.  About anything.

This isn’t just an uptight, family-values rap anymore.  True, the loudest, most consistent critics of this strange reality have sounded from the Right, blaming the usual suspects and tracing it all to the Sixties.

But in fact concerns about the vacuum of credible elder authority—or the feeling that it’s useless to try to assert or create one—have been coming from all over the political map for a long time.

Ten years ago NPR Executive News Editor Dick Meyer, to name just one, lamented the American Child King in his book Why We Hate Us—and that book in turn quoted a passage from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) that poetically implied all moral authority and permanent values were going straight to hell.  Author Robert Stone, whose books focused on the Vietnam War experience, said much the same thing in a 1980s Paris Review interview.

But perhaps the saltiest, most usable insight comes from Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes (1938–2012) describing between-the-wars Surrealism for a public-television audience in 1980.  The series was called The Shock of the New, and the episode was titled “The Threshold of Liberty.”

“If there was one link between Surrealism and the Sixties,” said Hughes as Summer of Love documentary footage rolled, “it was the illusion that youth is truth.  By being born, one surpassed history.  By finding reality intolerable, one became a prophet.”

Let’s look at one illustrative “prophet” of American youth-worship, who happened to be ascending by the time Hughes’ series aired.  Jerry Rubin, attributed with the “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty” nugget festooning t-shirts and badges through the late 1960s, was one of the Chicago Seven radicals put on trial for disrupting the 1968 Democratic Convention in protest of the Vietnam War.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rubin went into freefall after thirty.  He even wrote a book called Growing Up (at 37).

But he wasn’t so grown up that he didn’t still need, apparently, the approval and attention of young people.  By the early 1980s, he was hosting Yuppie “networking” parties (he is even credited with coining that term) at the Palladium nightclub in New York.  No doubt our current commander-in-chief put in an appearance at some point.

Why this particular transformation into this particular perception of adulthood?  (It’s worth noting Rubin was hardly the only one exchanging leather fringe for pinstripes around the same time.  Strangely, he asserted that he “still had a lot of the same values” as in his youth, including his opposition to the war, which ten years after its end was not exactly a game-changer.)

If you’re a young person living in a city in 2017, be aware that you now inhabit the landscape paved by the likes of Jerry Rubin’s Palladium urchins—a winner-take-all rat race whose front-running vermin are the size of garbage trucks.  The rental of a one-bedroom apartment (not just in New York now, but most major U.S. metropolitan areas) will run you more than a month’s income, that’s if you manage to actually get into one.  Not easy when student debt is already engulfing your lifespan.

Despite this and myriad historical examples, the culture continues to deny that youth can be as reactionary and anti-humanist as anyone else.

To be sure, Rubin and his fountain of networking youth were not, by themselves, responsible for the wholesale gutting of that city’s life and soul, as documented in Sarah Schulman’s excellent book Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (which should be required reading in every school).  But the former Chicago Seven member was indicative of a cultural sea change after which it was more important to be young than to be right.

There is analysis galore of how we got here, taking into account everything from the Age of Enlightenment to our foreign policy.

But the ground situation is that ours is a nontraditional culture.  We’re expected to reinvent every last wheel as we go along.  Imagining valuable life stages beyond, say, age twenty-six is unfathomable.  If we want lovable, non-neurotic archetypes past the mid-twenties of a lifetime, we have to go looking for them, and then only find them in foreign films:  the sexily competent career woman of thirty; the contented, paunchy dad in his forties; the nattily dressed tastemaker, in his fifties and enjoying the height of mental and seductive powers; the inward-looking elderwoman who comes out with salient truths at the moments least expected.

In our country, you are simply supposed to freeze at twenty-six.  To age is to fail.

We still don’t question this much—or if we do, it comes in the form of lamenting that over-thirty actresses can’t get decent roles, rather than plotting the pass-down of values and ideas (which is off-limits, of course; that would involve actually admitting you got older).

What if, some time during the Carter administration, someone had simply given Jerry Rubin a tattered wool sweater in a dark earth tone?  “Here Jerry, this is what radicals wear when they turn thirty and realize they did some pretty stupid shit in the Sixties.  Maybe you want to get a farm and raise some chickens.  Now, here’s what’s really going down in New York … ”  Sometimes just a token of continuity or precedent can keep someone from going off the edge.

But how right they all seemed in the 1980s, those Armani-wearing beauties in GQ and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous pushing steadily into urban residential property.  How could they possibly be wrong, with their slick 1950s haircuts, cocaine-and-hookers amorality, and Bret Easton Ellis paperbacks poking out the pockets of their Calvin Klein trench coats?

Oh, of course we thought we hated the Yuppies, but if you put one on the cover of your magazine, it flew off the shelves.  Even the characters in John Hughes’ beloved teen films had major Yup aspects; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was basically an aspirational set-piece.  Look at all the cool stuff in their rooms!  You had to have that stuff, too!

Yuppies were cruel, clean, and chic.  Most importantly, they were young, and by the 1980s youth itself was a value, an inherent form of progress that would blossom as long as you didn’t examine it too closely.

And here we are.  Maybe it’s little wonder that Millenials and iGen prefer the artificial teat-drip of social media to the charnal-house real world that previous generations have laid out for them.

But my sympathy doesn’t quite bleed over into Jerry Rubin–style deference.

I was tuned in to National Public Radio the morning of October 25 when I heard this actual blurb for the program Marketplace:  “The Millenials are finding that national parks are not relevant to their lives.”

For Christ’s sake! I nearly stood up on the commuter bus and screamed.  Down with the tyranny of “relevance,” always decided for us by any idiot under twenty-five!  What is objectively necessary for everyone to be healthy and happy, and why are we so unwilling to stand up for it?

(Full disclosure:  I could not bring myself to listen to the actual radio program, which no doubt instructed how national parks could be “saved” by turning them into phone apps or augmented-reality games.)

But this institutionalized Nature Deficit Disorder actually brings us to one of the most compelling and hopeful points of Dr. Twenge’s research:  the spiraling patterns of teen depression and suicide correct themselves the more that young people are involved in sports, the outdoors, or other offline activities that pull them away from their phones.

“There’s not a single exception,” she writes.  “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”

So what are we going to do about that?

Millenials and iGen worship technology.

So what?  So did Mussolini.  So did the Italian Futurists, Mussolini’s cultural lapdogs, described succinctly by Robert Hughes:  “[Mussolini’s] watchword, as it was [Futurist kingpin Filippo Tommaso] Marinetti’s, was Modernity … speed, dynamism, mechanical force … contempt for women, the cult of masculinity, the cult of youth.”

All of which will sound eerily familiar if you’ve been living in Silicon Valley–occupied San Francisco for the past several years.  Good luck taking a pleasure stroll in the park these days without being flattened by some robo-jerk on a “ridable” with a GoPro helmet.

Ours is a technocentric society.  The gadgets and coding and apps are new, so of course they’re “progressive”; nevermind that they embody an approach to life, relationships, and the natural world that is conservative in the extreme.

And to all this, people my age and older say yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  You go, little geniuses!  Go on capturing a moment, even if that moment happens to be an unacceptable clown show that will irrevocably damage generations to come!

We will look at all the evidence before us—academic and anecdotal—and shrug, asserting that the nascent catastrophe described by Dr. Twenge is just another iteration of permanent change upon which we must not pass judgment.  Kids, we’re telling ourselves still, are the ultimate noble savages; wise in ways we cannot guess.

And sometimes they are.  But that is no excuse.  If we don’t immediately start asserting our prerogative as pre-smartphone elders and pry phones from young hands for at least part of their day each day (best to set an example ourselves), not only will we have hatched a generation utterly incapable of dealing with an unstable and deadly twenty-first century, but we will have blood on our hands.  The suicide numbers, especially among girls, could not send a clearer message.

Let’s stop apologizing for the courage of our convictions.  All together now:

No, you cannot come to my party and stand around watching viral videos the whole time.

No, you cannot spend this camping trip Skyping with your boyfriend.

No, you cannot Periscope grandpa’s funeral.

No, you cannot film the movie.

No, you cannot watch Vimeo clips on the hiking trail.

No, you cannot spend six hours alone in your room on Instagram.

No you can’t.

No.  You can’t.

NO.

YOU.

CAN’T.

Because what will be harder:  saying these things now, or explaining to the young in twenty years or forty years why we allowed what happened to the environment in the twentieth century to happen to the human mind and soul in the twenty-first?

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

The Nine Types of Facebook Friends

Someone on Facebook recently asked, in a sweet and open-ended manner, what we had learned from using Facebook.

I was the only one who gave a dark, sarcastic answer; the other respondents reported scores of glowing side-benefits that I found a bit hard to swallow.

Really?  You’ve “never learned so much about yourself”?  Get thee to a tennis camp!

But then I started wondering how I really “knew” the people on my Facebook roster.  My conceptions of these complex human beings had been reduced to scrolling thumbnails.

I don’t want to think of people this way.  And certainly I don’t want them to think of me this way.

Maybe if I wiped the folders and categories and stereotypes from my mind by getting them out on the page, I could start to question this third-party arrangement of my brain (with which—yes!—I am complicit!).

Either that, or feel relieved when people admitted they have pretty much these exact same friends and mental friend-folders.

The Nine Types of Facebook Friends

The Rage-Addicted Radical.  For whom every microscopic twitch of reality is further evidence of another goddamned outrage sending us all straight to flame-puking hell.  Jesus do these people love social media.

I’d like to say they’ve got their hearts in the right place, but lately I’m not so sure about the heart part.  Enough righteous vitriol, and they start seeming like one more usherette in the Grand Theatre of Fist-Shaking Freakery that now stands in for a proper political culture.

The Pit Viper.  This person is just fucking angry as a sort of identity.  People are worthless assholes, life is a meaningless hell, it’s all just going down the toilet so what’s the point?

Thing is, when you meet these folks in person, they can be total sweethearts.  It’s just something about being able to instantly post and be seen by hundreds of people that pulls their worst triggers.

The Guy Who Never Quite Came Down from That Ecstasy Binge in the Nineties.  His keyboard seems to have about twelve different exclamation-points, all of which stick like the dickens.  I truly believe!!!  That if we just keep believing!!!  Then we’ll keep believing!!!  In what we believe!!!  OMG we must move forward into our vision!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Pet Owner.  ’nuff said.  Kitty pics make the world go round, but veer off into lapdog territory and you risk becoming my Hide-bait.

The Arts Angel.  Endlessly supportive and positive arts-scene cheerleader, tirelessly cheering others on in their seemingly doomed creative endeavors.  The Arts Angel makes me feel like Satan, a hypercritical troll sneering on the margins, knowing others are basking in the glory that would be mine if I could just get my ass in gear once and for all.  Darn you all to heck, Arts Angels.

The Newly Minted Lover.  Nothing personal, but if you announce a new relationship, I’m hiding you for at least a year.  Especially if you’re a dude who fancies himself a bit of an artiste behind the lens.  You’ll understand if I have better things to do than look at 254,234 photos of your girlfriend with that same sunlight-halo effect you learned in the high school darkroom.

The “I Can’t Even Remember Who the Hell You Are” Friends.  What if there were some sort of amnesty day where you could just purge your roster of people you met once at a thing you didn’t even enjoy five years ago, and who probably don’t remember who the hell you are, either?  They could call it No Hard Feelings Day.  And brand it with kitty pics.

The “Living, Breathing Smiths Poster” Friend.  Guilty as charged.  Admit it, you’ve wanted to Hide that friend who’s always soaking deep in the bummer-tub—and you’ve been that friend, too.

Yet a free-therapy concept is at the heart of Facebook’s addictive design.  Others’ easy confessions beg you to spill the emotional beans—but go there one too many times yourself and suddenly you’ve tipped yourself off the boat.  You can be authentic, but not too authentic.

Don’t fret—eventually, between carrot and stick, you will get badgered into Facebook authenticity, which will eventually get grafted onto and overtake your entire personality.  Epic, bro!

The Modern Sages.  These are folks who seem incapable of posting anything stupid or thoughtless; who present their pop-culture obsessions with a bit of endearing self-effacement; whose cutting humor is tempered with sympathy and good sense; and who can present a strong social or political point without stridency.  They are broadly informed, honest, and eager to meet others where they are.

They are Canadians.

No, I’m just kidding.

Or am I?

Seriously, the Modern Sages on my Facebook roster are, precisely, a Midwesterner and a gay man.  I’m not sure why we give these two groups such a bad time.  Would that we had more gay man and Midwesterner within!

What seems to define the Modern Sages is a questioning attitude toward the social-media platform itself, a healthy distance allowing them to see its charms and limitations objectively.

Conversely, those who live on Facebook, posting seven or more times a day, are the ones most likely to degrade both the platform and themselves.

If I could spend more time in person with the Modern Sages, then I could probably handle a barbecue with the Pit Vipers and the Ecstasy Guys.

And if everyone spent less time on Facebook, I think I could handle just about anybody.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

“Talk” Ain’t Cheap

Cover of Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz. NYRB, 2015. Photo: James Dugdale.

H’m, which books to take on your summer writing retreat out in the woods?

You feel obliged to take some heavy, Teutonic hunk o’ pumpernickel like Thomas Mann—something you couldn’t possibly sink into in the City.  You need to flex all those atrophying neural muscles going to fat from too many YouTube lunch breaks and Facebook memes.

But even the most brow-knitting wordsmith needs some intellectual cotton candy to sweeten those long hours of solitary toil.  Something fun that isn’t dumb.

Which is surprisingly difficult to find.

Enter Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk, a New York Review Books reprint of a 1968 “novel” whose technological gimmick of simply transcribing tape recordings of real-life beach chat in the Hamptons would seem to predate reality TV by several decades.

The characters of Talk, two straight women and a gay man knocking about in the lower echelons of the New York art world, could be lifted straight from a current-day HBO dramedy.  Vinnie is a sculptor, Emily is an actress, and Marsha works for Sotheby’s.

But it’s summer 1965.  What sets Talk apart as a cultural artifact is the wide-ranging content and quality of the actual chat.  It’s almost poignant to ride on the roller coaster of their literate, bitchy, hilarious, sometimes contemptible banter in an age when entire books are devoted to the fact that the joys of conversation are quickly disappearing from our midst.

But that’s half the pleasure of the read.  Delving into chapters with titles like “Emily, Marsha and Vincent Discuss Orgies,” you feel as though you, too, are lying on Long Island in blinding heat, slaked with Coppertone and whining about how there was “nobody” at Sebastien’s party last night.  Topics can switch gears instantly from the impossibility of love, to why ice floats, to food, to money, to meeting God on an LSD trip.  A monologue on the nature of reality can provoke the retort, “Hey, is there any more lemonade?”

These three erstwhile children of the night are endlessly entertaining but whether or not they’re sympathetic is a tougher call.  True, they’re self-described “pioneers” of social and sexual freedom, but they’re also unhappy, self-obsessed basket cases, each in therapy and unable to find love or success.  Others in their peer group around this time were fighting against the Vietnam War or for civil rights; the biggest struggle for this lot is securing the primo spot on the beach and trying not to pop too many pills before Veruschka’s party.

Perversely, that’s just what makes Talk such wonderful dinner-break company when you’re slogging away on a manuscript in a lonely cabin.  Of all the historical miseries, perhaps theirs were the most enviable.  Who doesn’t want to be Emily quipping:  Look, Marshie, we’re two beautiful women and we have to start making inroads?

This voyeuristic literary experiment ranks my discerning shortlist of summer-reading gold.  With Talk lying around the cabin like an eyeliner-splashing divorcée on downers, let’s face it:  that Thomas Mann is never going to see the outside of your knapsack.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

All These Weird Creatures Who Lock Up Their Spirits

Budapest shop cat.  © 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

The more I see of this president, the more intelligent I’m starting to think animals are.

This is not, by association, to insult animals in any way.  Nor to romanticize them.  The animal kingdom is as cruel as it is beautiful.  It’s just that there is something to be said for a silent intelligence that can never be fully apprehended.

As this administration drags on, minute by minute, hour by hour, my ascendant urge is to sit down and talk with a housecat for a couple of hours.

There is a reason that malicious neighborhood idiots the world over poison cats.  They correctly intuit that cats, on some plane of existence, are their intellectual superiors.  Such people gleefully and repeatedly point out the fact of the cat’s peanut-sized brain, which of course misses the point entirely.  Any animal’s intelligence lives in its entire body, in its movement, attuned response, and self-inhabitation.  Cats are nature’s insult to stupidity.  Therefore idiots must destroy them.

Hunting as a moral issue makes a fascinating debate, but setting that aside, there’s something singularly revolting about the image of soon-to-be presidential sons posing with their big-cat kill on safari hunt in Africa in 2012.  The image appeared on the site Hunting Legends, was leaked to social media, and has been making the rounds ever since.

The creature draped over Eric Trump’s arm, even in death, is noble and magnificent.  He and his brother, in contrast, wear expressions that are brightly self-satisfied, yet babyish and uncomprehending.

Animal-rights advocates are often dismissed as precious, overheated eccentrics.  Yet images like this, along with our own encounters with the animals in our lives, can make even the stoic among us wonder who on this earth is truly dominant.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

This Is Japan 1965

This Is Japan 1965Every now and again, the Book Gods don’t just smile but grin upon you. This buried treasure found me at a La Selva Community Library book sale, and I snagged it for the price of an upscale chocolate bar.

If ever an oversized bookstand was made to hold something, it was made to hold This Is Japan 1965. The cover alone is a showpiece of go-go outrageousness.

Even though it weighed somewhere between 15 to 20 pounds and I had to get it home on the train, I had to have it. It was like going to the circus and suddenly realizing you need the camel as a pet.

It fits into a spectacular, blue-and-white batik slipbox constructed from what seems to be balsa wood. The producer was the Japan Chamber of Commerce; the publisher was Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s major publishing houses and still the owner of one of its major morning papers.

Clearly the objective was attractive boosterism, but what sort of heavyweight champions strolled away from conventions with these behemoths tucked under their arms? Business cards they were not!

Because the name This Is Japan is so generic, it’s hard to find any deep information on this series—there are editions aplenty on eBay, but for various years. They seem to start in the 1950s and go up to 1969.

Even the ads in this thing are incredible, exemplifying the Golden Age of Modernism, 1965—that sweet spot between elegance and attitude. Bold, simple graphics cavort on the page with minimal text and exciting colors.

More’s the charm as it all sandwiches demure listings for traditional Japanese guest- and bath-houses, thankfully lagging behind the jet-setting moment.

It was a fascinating moment for Japan. Traditional life may still have prevailed outside urban centers, but Stateside we were intimidated by their technological rise and rise.

The quality and durability of the print, binding, and casing are remarkable. Similar projects now would cost upwards of $100.

I rigged a system for strapping it to the front of my suitcase and got it safely home on the train that way.

Now I’m faced with the enviable problem of owning something so beautiful it scares the hell out of me.

A Book Like No Other

Every now and again, entirely by accident—amidst the blizzard of iDevices, glowing rectangles, and craning necks that define This Digital Life—you come across a real paper book that justifies the continuing existence of real paper books themselves.

If, as I did, you unearth this real paper book from the dusty, bottom-shelf stacks of a semi-private library in a redwood-shaded coastal retreat center with patchy wireless reception and no television, the experience is so much like going back in time that it feels like a grim and primitive distant future.

“should we stand for this?” reads the cool, minimal lower-case print running across the top of still-glossy white pages, oddly shaped like a tall square.  “can we tolerate this?  is anyone taking any notice?”

These words are from someone you’ve probably never heard of.  I’d certainly never heard of Donald McCullin, though since the printing of Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? by MIT press in 1971, a thing or two has happened to the onetime anonymous evacuee of the Second World War, the East Ender street kid who described his young adulthood thus: “Where I was, no one was encouraged to do well for themselves. You were much more acclaimed for getting your collar felt by the police or battering someone. It was full of bigotry and it was like quicksand pulling me down to oblivion.”

In 1977 he’d been made a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society; in 1993 he was granted the CBE (Commander of the British Empire), the first photojournalist to receive the honor; and throughout all these years he continued to rack up an impressive array of honorary degrees from colleges and universities throughout Britain.  He would continue to cover conflict in Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

But all this had yet to happen when Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? rolled off the presses to a public that needed no further evidence supporting their disillusionment with governments, ideas of progress, or the human race in general.

Open the cover of this book, if you are lucky enough to find a print (the San Francisco Public Library has one copy, and it is kept under lock and key), and view the darkest possible side of life through eyes that are now horrified, now compassionate, now grasping for beauty in the rubble.

McCullin’s unflinching black-and-white photos speak for themselves, but the book’s real psychological impact starts with its disorienting architecture: there are no informative captions for the photos—no locations, no dates, no chronological listing of photos anywhere in the book.

The introduction explains that the book is divided into “eleven segments which are geographical but not chronological.”  So we turn pages through Biafra, Vietnam, the Congo, Bangladesh, the coal fields of Britain, the streets of Londonderry in the thick of the Troubles, never exactly sure where we are, never quite able to quench our knee-jerk need to contextualize the human faces we see into nationalities, events, or known situations.

The wall between photojournalist and reader is broken down; these people cannot be framed into sets of exact information, so we have no choice but to see them simply as people, to look into their eyes as we would someone across from us on the bus or in the café.  Is Anyone delivers a harrowing, grim, and deeply affecting gutpunch after which you may never be the same.

Images:

Somewhere in Northern Ireland, a suited man carrying a neatly wrapped package steps over a soldier coiled on the pavement with a machine gun.

Children pelt tanks with rubble amidst burned-out buildings.

A girl with tragic eyes caked in wild makeup stands in the middle of a wet cobblestone street.

A teenage boy with long, unruly hair is caught in mid-jump—to avoid gunfire or just for the hell of it? We’re not told.

Tanks navigate down narrow streets.  Swarthy elders in traditional hats sit under naked light bulbs in near-destroyed houses.  On hills of rubble near the shells of incinerated cars, headscarfed women in peasant clothing embrace each other in grief.

There are pictures of corpses in this book, and some of them belong to children.  They lie along African roads in unidentified countries.

It takes not just talent but the courage of empathy to deliver these images without layering on a passive sheen of sensationalism and exploitation.  McCullin is clearly honed in on some frequency of pain most of us don’t wish to access; his hardscrabble childhood seems never to have abandoned him.  Some of his most apocalyptic images are not of conflict at all—just lousy life continuing in its lousy way, close to home.

Elderly men with grim, determined faces tow their burdens amid a flat, puddled, denuded hell every bit as cold and featureless as a nuclear winter.  For this shot, McCullin treats us to a rare explanatory caption: “These guys are carrying sacks of coal which they’ve spent hours sorting from a slag heap.”

Then a few pages later, a huge squashed rat with its entrails splayed across some East End street.

Probably even in countercultural 1971 this book was pushing the envelope; its gritty aesthetics either hearken back to the air-raid-siren decades of McCullin’s youth, or presage the punk movement with its naked abandonment of idealism.

Is Anyone is almost the bastard twin of an earlier classic of photography that aimed to show us the world as it was: Family of Man.  In 1955, American photographer and curator Edward Steichen culled human-interest photojournalism from all over the world and arranged it under broad themes: birth, death, childhood, work, play, old age, love, grief, joy.  Locations were freely given, and white space was decorated with words from philosophers, literature, and the great wisdom traditions.  Dark subject matters were frankly addressed, yet the book’s editorial hand steered with gentle optimism, and envisioned a resilient brotherhood of man defying the threats of the atomic age.

The moral urgency of Is Anyone, on the other hand, seems to explode forth from a near-total forsaking of hope.  This is it, the images seem to say.  If this species doesn’t get it together now, it’s curtains for all of us.

So where are we now, some 40 years later?  Would a book like this even be produced now?  What has changed in the years since is not just a swing towards apathy and disengagement but a commercialization of the news itself (which then feeds into that apathy and disengagement).  In the 1980s, a new editor at the Observer sacked McCullin because his photos were “too depressing.”

Fellow war photographer James Nachtwey has also had problems getting his photos into news magazines because of the increasing sway that advertisers have over editorial content.  Nobody wants their candy bar ad across from a photo of body bags, and advertisers have no problem letting editorial staff know their wishes.  (View the documentary War Photographer for more on this.)

Over decades this palliative approach weakens the tolerance of the news-consuming public for images that might teach us things we need to know:  War is hell.  People in other countries hurt just like we do.  Civil society and sensible options are dependent on intricate, fragile systems that take decades and centuries to build; they can disappear nearly overnight with one detonation or stroke of the pen.

Couple this consumer distaste for bitter medicine with the Internet’s undermining of newspaper and journalism infrastructure altogether, and you have what would seem to be a dead end for photojournalism’s power to provoke, engage, and connect with a mass audience.

But in spite of this, and in spite of being 77, McCullin continues to work.  After a stint photographing the ruins of antiquity in the Middle East (which, after a career dodging bullets, could be interpreted as semi-retirement), he is back in the thick of it—this time in Syria.

“What we really need,” he told the BBC, “is the human interest side of this story.”

And that he delivers.  While the evening news paints Syria for us with shouting reporters and blurry footage of gunfire, explosions, and street chaos, McCullin gives us a silent quest for survival: children hunting for drinkable water, shiftless crowds in front of bombed-out stores, entire neighborhoods gutted and abandoned, families with young children sitting in buildings without utilities.

Can a life itself stand as a symbol of hope?  Nobody told this elderly photographer to go work under fire in Aleppo but, as he told The Times in London, “I got curious about this war.”

Is it honest curiosity that blocks us from pity, from objectifying those suffering in ways we can’t understand, and leads us to connection?

Is anyone taking any notice?  The Syria shoot is billed as McCullin’s “final trip,” but who knows.  Like the photographs he takes, he can’t stop asking all the right questions.

The Drift

Picked up the latest copy of GRANTA (Vol. 117) this week; the theme is “Horror.” There’s a short story by the lavishly praised young British writer Sarah Hall called “She Murdered Mortal He,” which, about two pages into it, had me wondering: what’s wrong with this story? Why don’t I love this? Why isn’t this great?

Technically it’s magnificent. A young, troubled couple from London vacation at an idyllic coastal village in Africa to re-spark their relationship; there’s a fight; she walks out in anger and confusion at twilight and finds herself pursued by a mysterious creature. Hall’s got everything: descriptive powers, the right dispensation of conflict to carry us along, believable dialogue, ambiguous and pregnant details.

What was wrong with it? The answer’s a bit metaphysical. What’s wrong with it is the whole culture that produced it. Like most fiction now, this story doesn’t give a damn, to the point where you wondered why the author bothered. The characters don’t really care about anything; they’re ambivalent about their jobs, their relationships, their friends, each other, the villagers whose world they’re in.

This isn’t an intentional exploration of modern alienation (which it could have been if Hall had taken that head-on); it’s just the metallic product of an alienated mind that probably doesn’t notice that it’s any different from the alienated minds surrounding it, and in fact wins awards and accolades for continuing to crank out its alienated product. (Hall’s new story collection is called The Beautiful Indifference – hot damn, sign me up!)

You don’t get the feeling anything is really at stake in this story. Yes, the relationship, strictly speaking; but you glean eventually that the female character doesn’t really care about that, either.

As I read “She Murdered Mortal He,” I felt (against my will) this ghost response I was supposed to be having: “Oh yes, this is it, I don’t really give a damn this way either, she’s really nailed it.” Though I didn’t want to keep reading, I’m the type who has to finish what she starts, and I got to the bloody, creepy, wrap-up that left me as cold as I knew it would.

Am I stupid to want some sort of warmth from my art? I was trying to characterize this weird quality that weaves the fabric of so much creative output now and the phrase The Drift popped to mind. People in financially declining Western societies are drifting. Nobody owes anything to anyone else. You’re supposed to kind of hate everyone, and everyone is duly hate-able. Rules are stupid, commitments and sacrifices are stupid. If you clearly state a value or belief, it’s because you’re naïve or a crazy fundamentalist.

Maybe I got the phrase from composer/singer Scott Walker, who named his mournful 2006 album “The Drift,” containing the lyric, “A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind.” I’ll listen to him before Hall.

Because so much music, too, seems devoid of human presence or passion these days, even if it’s performed with what would appear to be great feeling. Again, I think the problem is that we’re hearing it all within a culture where “content” is everywhere; everyone produces it so it’s no longer even a crass commodity. It’s just one more thing that overwhelms you. Your nerve endings are already so shot from all the other input you get all day – texts, instant messages, Twitter, Facebook, email, phone calls, news feeds – you don’t have the bandwidth to connect to music the way you used to.

Even if the music itself is heartfelt and genuine, the world you’re hearing it in now, and the person you have to be just to survive in it, somehow sucks all of the meaning and human context away so that the best thing music can possibly be to you is cute or likeable or pretty good. It bounces off you like one more ping. Hit “skip,” move on to the next song – doing so is now more important than songs themselves. The shuffle trumps the cards, and we all get dealt a losing hand.

KUSF: Radio Whose Door You Could Knock On

“No family or family traditions, no religion, no community, no vocational calling, no passions, and no ‘being comfortable in your own skin’ or ‘knowing who you are.’ They lack the nourishment they need to gain existential weight. How can people like this view the external world as anything but inhospitable, not worthy of trust, and phony? There is no way they can’t hate it much of the time.”
–Dick Meyer, “Why We Hate Us” (Three Rivers Press, 2008)

This quote is from a book I started reading a year ago, and which I’ve been alternatively enlightened by, pissed off by, and obsessed by ever since. Meyer, an old-school journalist who advanced through the ranks of CBS and NPR in Washington, is talking about unhappy Americans. Though we have numerous reasons to be happy – affluence, mobility, political freedom – we’re existentially exhausted, says Meyer, by too many choices and a general culture of phoniness we just can’t trust.

By now, all of my friends in San Francisco are fighting the hostile takeover and castration of KUSF 90.3fm, once the independent college radio bedrock of our town. My friend Jennifer Waits of KFJC 89.7fm has been doing some excellent reporting on the story. The terrestrial signal has been taken over by Classical Public Radio Network, 90% of which is owned by the University of Southern California. KUSF as we knew and loved it literally had its plug pulled mid-song on the morning of January 18. Some DJs tried to get answers, to no avail.

Yet the “student radio” format, we’re told, will continue broadcasting in an online-only format with the call letters KUSF.

So the question becomes: what’s the big deal then? If everything’s online nowadays anyway, can’t we just be happy with the same content delivered via a different and perhaps more current medium?

Myer’s “Why We Hate Us,” with its emphasis on commitment to one’s community, keeps coming to mind. I cannot, and will not, have the same emotional and cultural relationship to a digital stream that I have to a broadcast signal licensed and by definition rooted in an educational institution founded in 1855 and located 20 blocks up the road from me.

And I enjoy Internet-only radio. I ransack every iTunes radio folder like a tourist. Yet there’s only so much it can really do for me.

Why?

About a month ago I was listening to some silly music stream from Italy, just to check it out. Most of it was crap, then suddenly there’s this incredible song I need to know the name of.

Good luck, sister. The stream was “powered” by some faceless entity whose website told you nothing. Googling the stream name just gave you an Italian supermarket chain that uses the stream for their happy shopper music.

In my experience this is fairly typical of net “radio.” We chose to take the human connection out of presenting music a long time ago. Nobody back-announces, if you get the song’s metadata it’s often inaccurate, and anyway who the hell ARE you playing me this? Sure, you may be just an algorithm but did someone set you in motion? Where are you geographically located? Do you have a heartbeat or a name? If you don’t care that much about me, don’t expect me to care that much about you.

And that, says Meyer, is so much of Why We Hate Us. The Internet makes many things possible, but more often than not it enables a sort of “screw you, find it yourself” attitude on the part of culture-makers, like music programmers, who assume you’ve got the time, inclination, and technology to go poking around for something. What if I’m too poor to have a computer, and I’m hearing this song in a cafe? What if looking it up for myself feels lonely, boring, and alienating? Having that information provided to me, even electronically, feels as though someone somewhere has been polite.

And an actual back-announce – even an annoying one? Too much to ask for. The next generation will not know how to process that degree of human intimacy.

The technology itself may be morally neutral. But combine it with the malaise of rootlessness that defines our culture, and it’s like pouring gasoline on fire.

I don’t want an Internet-only KUSF. I don’t need one more meaningless piece of culture that could come from anywhere, be created by anyone, whose door I cannot knock on and whose eyes I cannot look into. I, and my community members and fellow music freaks, are after connection that’s accountable, human, and real.

Another friend, Irwin Swirnoff, known and loved as KUSF’s DJ Irwin, has been a key figure in protesting the station’s sale. Swirnoff’s Sleeves on Hearts show was a jewel in San Francisco’s broadcast crown, an edgily romantic tsunami wave of singer-songwriters, melodic pop, and local sounds, all presented with a uniquely sweet, made-for-radio enthusiasm that fairly hugged you through the microphone.

Swirnoff has his own beef with Internet-only broadcasting: “The internet is NOT free. Not everyone has access to it. We are mindful of the wide range of the community we were serving.”

Jennifer Waits also cites free access as a chief gift of real radio: “…it’s much more democratic than online. It’s magical and it’s FREE. When the power goes out and the earthquakes, riots and hurricanes come, we’ll still be able to tune in to terrestrial radio (take a look at Haiti – radio was a savior after their devastating earthquake) on our hand-crank radios.”

Then there’s the wee matter of broadening your musical horizons: “I think the difference between [terrestrial radio] and algorithms/search engines/iPods/etc. is that when exploring music online most people are looking for something in particular….By narrowing the search, they are missing out on difficult to categorize, unexpected gems that might not even exist in digital form. These are the types of sounds that a live DJ might offer up on a college or community radio show featuring hand-picked music. Think: vinyl thrift store finds, hand-made cassettes, and obscure international sounds.”

When I named this blog Civilization Party, I was serious. I’m for civilization. I’m for people committing to one other and creating good, enjoyable things that make us better people. I’m not an arms-folded hipster. I believe in strong public institutions and I’ll gladly shout “Rah! Rah!” with the crowd if there is something genuinely worth cheering. The old KUSF, though it was not perfect and like everyone else I aired my grievances among friends the way I would about a cranky but beloved relative, was something genuinely worth cheering.

Visit http://www.savekusf.org/. Read up, join them on Facebook, make a donation. WFMU’s “KUSF in Exile” simulcast, live from Amoeba Records on Haight Street, was shared by college radio stations all over this country in solidarity. It’s starting to feel like a revolution out there.

Who knows? If we get our station back we may even stop hating us.

Not So Fast, Sonny Boy

Is there anything sadder, more infuriating, more apocalyptic than a 13-year-old with absolutely nothing in his eyes? No mischief, no sadness, no desire, no energy, no love, no anger, not even a deliberate pose of apathy?

There he was standing in front of the stairwell of the bus, earbuds in ears, 24-oz soda in hand, face ravaged with acne, staring into space. I sat directly across.

He threw his half-full soda into the stairwell—well, dropped it really, and not accidentally. He just didn’t care.

Count one against him. This is the point at which my righteous, good-citizen face started burning with blunted rage. Lousy kid. Should I say something? Should I not say something? He was a honky, I was a honky, so I could wag my bony 41-year-old finger at him without feeling like an imperialist pig.

Then out from his pocket came the stickers. You’ve seen these. They’re about the size of the “Hello, My Name Is” stickers but they’re blank and kids put their graffiti tags on them, then stick them here and there. It’s like Tagging Lite, I guess, because it’s easier to slap those stickers around than to do a full-on tagging, which I’ve also witnessed on the bus and been pissed off by.

Boom. Up goes sticker number one on the plexiglass partition. I’ve seen “good” tags (dramatic, clever, containing visual puns, photogenic, inventive) and I’ve seen lousy ones, and boy was this one lousy. Just your bog-standard ugly jumble of black letters.

He scanned around behind him – not alertly, not foxily, just roundly and dumbly, the way a drunk looks at the ground before taking his next step. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe it hadn’t just been soda in his dropped-in-the-stairwell soda.

I looked around, too. Was anyone noticing this? Was anyone seeing this? Did anyone give a damn? It was the warm Saturday of Pride Weekend, and the bus was stuffed with earbudded hipsters behind grasshopper-eye sunglasses, their maws full of slopping bubble gum and lip studs. If they did notice this kid demeaning their public services, either they’d tell themselves it was all harmless fun, or wouldn’t want to risk being perceived as uptight by speaking up.

Or, certain Facebook exchanges have led me to believe, in fact they cared a lot but lacked the sort of script for what to say to a wayward younger peer.

Boom. Up went sticker number two. Same pointless tag, same braindead expression on the kid’s face.

Ah shit, Jen, you’re going to say something, aren’t you? You’re not going to be able to stop yourself, are you? It’s probably going to fuck up your whole weekend too, as you quarterback the incident again and again in your mind and ask yourself what you could have done differently, or tell yourself you just should’ve kept your big mouth shut. Dammit, why is this stuff always up to me? Why can’t anyone else be the Culture Cop for a change? Sometimes I think someone needs to slip me a random mickey every now and again, it’d give me a much-needed mental vacation from caring too much.

I reached over and poked him in the XXL t-shirted ribs. It took a few pokes to even get his attention. He removed his earbuds in slow motion.

Messed up.

“Hey,” I said, “don’t do that. Stop doing that. It’s ugly.”

Sneer, roll of the eyes. My first from a teenager, as a non-teenager! Yay! Now I’m a grown-up!

“Come on,” he drawled.

But he stopped. For a while. Then sticker number three went up on some relatively low-visibility piece of railing. Was that a compromise? Now that I’d done my snickety thing he had to do one more to prove I had no power over him.

The bus, almost at my destination, waited for what seemed like ten minutes at the junction of Upper Market and 18th Street, right before the 33’s treacherous hairpin turn into the Castro. I was still burning all over from fright and rage. Is that why I do this crazy shit? For the adrenaline rush?

But don’t-give-a-shit kids are probably so rarely and randomly scolded by the public, people like me seem to them like oddities, earnest psychotics amusing themselves in mysterious ways, or time travelers groping for a keyhole back into some hoary mist of Avalon.

I stared hard at him. He never looked at me, but plainly knew I was looking.

At long last the bus opened its doors to my stop, and as I stepped down and out, I couldn’t resist picking his discarded soda back up off the ground and brandishing it in his face before the bus doors snapped shut.

“And pick up your damn trash, too!” I snarled. But, with his earbuds back in, he must have seen me as some mouthing female sea monster below him, nipping at the shore of his lysergic little island. His eyes were dead, flat, unabsorbing.

So did I do any good? Did my anger vent make him think? Did any hipsters dig my direct action and get a script for future Lousy Kid interventions?

Let’s be clear: my feelings about graffiti and vandalism are complex.

In March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, I got laid off from my umpteenth media job and decided to take a road trip to LA. On Venice Beach, I spied a colorful graffiti wall that was constantly being worked on, constantly in flux, and obviously an accepted part of the landscape there. An artist worked on either side as I snapped photos of the images and words evolving. With the freedom to take their time, the artists could apply a level of detail and creativity they couldn’t if they were just tagging on the fly. With the impending war in the background, freedom of speech issues were very much on my mind, and this wall gave me a revelation: graffiti is media for poor people.

Even if you’re just tagging, there is a kind of message there, which is, “Hello! I’m here! I’m me! I matter!” And who hasn’t wanted to say that?

Still and all, it upsets me to see kids so young engaging in tagging when it’s clear they’re not just being obnoxious but starting to make really poor decisions with their lives. When a gang of taggers leaps up and starts hitting an already-nearly-destroyed bus, I pick up heavily on their rite-of-passage adrenaline. As they shout and egg each other on, their brotherly bonding saddens and repulses me. I want to smack them or shake them: Don’t you care about anything?!

Then when I deduce why they don’t care about anything…I don’t know. I just wish someone at home had really shown them the way.

Taggers could fend off a lot of hostility if they just chose their targets a little more logically. There’s an old folks’ home down the street from me, and they’re constantly getting tagged. Come on, guys, you don’t have grandparents? Nobody in your family does home care for a living? All those people need a break, big time.

A friend of mine works at a nonprofit providing vital services to a poor community in Oakland. Her office is always getting tagged, too. To paraphrase her response, “Like I don’t have anything better to do with my time than get out the can of cover-up paint in the morning again?”

Which brings us to our beleaguered public transit system. Sure, I’m mad at MUNI. You’re mad at MUNI. It needs fixing. Is that any reason to degrade and filthy the buses we all rely on? When you fuck up the buses, it’s demoralizing to those who use the system.

That means YOU, Sticker Boy. MUNI is not The Man. MUNI subsidizes your transportation, especially if you jumped your fare, which you probably did for maximum mucho-macho street cred. You’d be well advised to direct your anger elsewhere, such as City Hall. With the spill in the Gulf, we need to fight harder than ever for a transit system that saves oil, and citizen-to-citizen, we need to keep the buses nice for all of us.

Better (as in more morally acceptable) places for graffiti: the backs of street signs (definitely not the fronts. I once got a $250 parking ticket because someone put a sticker over a bus stop sign so I didn’t know not to park there – I appealed but the court showed no mercy), abandoned buildings and other derelict eyesores, or intelligence-insulting ad billboards.

Have you ever randomly intervened when you saw a young person doing something wrong? Does part of you not want to risk their disapproval? Have you wanted to intervene, but were afraid? Send me your stories.

Jaron Lanier on June 17!

“Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.” —Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget,” Knopf, 2010

The New York Times’ “Your Brain on Computers” series last week gave me a sense of relief. So I wasn’t the only one who’s noticed that, well, everyone and everything in the last five-odd years has gone completely and utterly cuckoo.

Example: people spend wads of cash on concerts, only to spend the entire event ignoring the action onstage while they text, Twitter, phone, and email. They only time they pay attention to what they’ve paid good money to see is when they take photos of it, so they can immediately turn their experience into an uploadable commodity, with which they brand themselves online. “Hey everybody, here I am! My life is more exciting than yours!”

Nobody seems to notice that this dilutes the energy of live performance in the first place and makes the whole affair banal and rather depressing.

But just standing there and enjoying the music without gadgetizing it somehow? Nowadays? Unthinkable! The gadgets are what make live events “real,” because this is how people understand reality. Instead of “Be Here Now” we have “Be Nowhere All the Time.” At this point I’m nostalgic for two years ago.

Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget” addresses and affirms my discontent on so many different levels, I feel like grabbing a highlighter pen and dousing every word with it. One of the original architects of virtual reality, Lanier is not only deep in the pudding of Silicon Valley ideology (and yes, Virginia, you’d better believe there is a Silicon Valley ideology), he’s a hell of a writer.

You Are Not a Gadget unpacks what I’ve suspected for years: that the nerds who have made the world over in their image are driven by vast, sweeping theories of what people are, what reality is, and why we’re here on earth.

But unlike the ideologies that politicians espouse, nerd dogma reprograms the very architecture of how we think. We’re far more susceptible to it because we’re not even aware it’s in us.

Jaron Lanier will be speaking this week, June 17, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum here in San Francisco. It’s going to be an important and fascinating talk, and it’s free. Please join me!