12.28.2014

The Kiss Behind the Organ. (Part 1)

These Reputationally Pure teenagers are singing on the platform several feet from the purported site of the kiss.

So first this happened: 

Minnie VanderLaan told her friend Beth Spire that her husband Bob had seen Amy Morehouse kiss the preacher's son in the front of the auditorium behind the organ while Irene Fleagle was playing the prelude for the Sunday Evening service. Beth told her daughter who was also named Amy.   There were seven Amy's in the Lumbercity Baptist Youth Group so the story becomes a little confusing at this point.  Amy Spire told Amy Norton, but she also told Amy Norton that it probably wasn't true. Probably.  She hoped.  What did Amy Norton think?  Should she believe it?  After all, Bob VanderLaan has very thick glasses and Minnie loves to talk. 

I don't know what Amy Norton told Amy Spire, but I do know that Amy Norton also told me.  I should know, she said, because this was a rumor about me.  I was the preacher's son.  

I'll tell you the same thing I told her: I didn't kiss Amy Morehouse.

I didn't kiss her in the church or out of the church. I didn't kiss her that night or any night ever.  

But in order to understand the dramatic stakes in this story, you need to know that "kissing" in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church in the 1980s is not what you understand to be kissing. Physiologically it's the same, but culturally it's much much more taboo.  It's more like saying:  Amy Morehouse and the preacher's son were buck naked and aroused when they cavorted last Sunday Evening, behind the organ, played, as always, by dear sweet Mrs. Fleagle.

Of course I denied it and partly because it wasn't true.  But much much more?  My denial was focused on the most important virtue that a young fundamentalist has: 

Purity. 

(And when I say "Purity" I actually just mean reputational purity, since most fundamentalist teenagers are just like every other teenager that has ever lived -- delightfully, rambunctiously impure.)

I protested to Amy Norton, I protested to Amy Spire.  I insisted that Amy Spire protest to her mother, Beth Spire.  I really liked her mom, Beth Spire and I knew she liked me and I supposed that her opinion of me had fallen significantly in light of this apocryphal story.

And finally? I protested to my father the preacher.  

And then this happened: 

After three days of prayer, consultation and careful strategy, my father decided to take me to the VanderLaan's house and allow me to confront Bob and Minnie with my protest. 










And that's the cliffhanger, folks.  You'll have to rejoin this tale in progress later to find out what happens when the preacher's son, temporarily-reputationally-impure, comes face to face with his accusers: The VanderLaans.

*

Any names, facts, memories or incidents in this story have been so distorted by time, perspective and even intentional authorial liberties?  That I can say with assurance: 


This story is NOT true.  None of the stories on this blog are true. 













Unless they ring true to you in a way that makes you recognize the Universe you live in and are a part of.  In that case? These stories are completely 100% true.

12.17.2014

Celebrating the Corrupted Company Man

Drivetime radio this morning -- the first question the journalist posed was: Is it appropriate for these celebrity players to wear these shirts on the court?

I cursed.  My son was startled and asked why.

I said: "People are dying and the first question is: "Is it appropriate?"

Suddenly going to an NBA game is like the kind of bland Sunday Dinner with Family where we pretend that the politically troubling realities of our worlds must  be quietly ignored?  In the interests of a good dinner?

The sports industry pundit being interviewed laid out the conflict in this way:  These teams are owned by someone.  All of us, when we work for someone have to realize that we are getting paid by that someone.  When we're getting paid by them -- we must say what they want us to say.  That's why we're getting paid.

His logic resonates with most of what we know.  We are bound by good taste, the expectations of being a "company man," a culture of advertising, and all the substantive rewards of a good salary.

In his recent Frontline documentary, Generation Like, Douglas Rushkoff argues that contemporary young people are unaware of the negative connotations of the term "sellout" ("to prostitute one's ideals or talents") presuming that it simply has the laudatory meaning of filling a venue with paying customers.  The focus of the film is on the ways that social media and big media collaborate to draw these young people into their whirlwind of publicity-inflected-optimism.

 The film doesn't ask how or why or where that meaning drifted away.  It's happened quite recently, though.  The grandparents of these teenagers supported the civil rights movement, fought for gender equality in the second wave of feminism, protested the government's mishandling of Vietnam and then bought really big  houses in the suburbs and focused on delicious Sunday Dinners where we Indulge in Some Delicious Pretending.

Just because selling-out has become normal, pervasive and expected -- doesn't mean that its okay.

With the concentration of capital, disparity of wealth, corrupt systems of politics and endless instruments of surveillance defining contemporary life?  It seems to me that what's needed is a new moral discourse focused on the ways that we the people can put our best efforts toward corruption.

Maybe corruption will mean endorsing the "sellouts" who have the courage to ultimately bite the hands that feed them.   Maybe when systems so steeped in actual corruption label their dissenters as "inappropriate" - maybe this is the corruption into which we should all lean?

When celebrity basketball players are willing to coordinate their efforts to give voice to those who have none in the choking, dying silence?  Our journalists, our churches, our schools -- and everyone else who is posing as moral authority these days -- should embrace, laud and celebrate their courage.


11.22.2014

The Pleasures of a Victimless Crime

When I was 10 years old I went on a Men's Fishing Trip "Up North" with a group of 30 men and their sons for a weekend of fishing, bonfires, laughter and getting socialized into manhood.

I wasn't really that into fishing at the time, but I caught a big pike and the trip was awesome.  Beginning to end: I loved it.

One night near the end of the long weekend the men announced that there would be a snipe hunt after dinner.  I'm not going to spoil how a snipe hunt works, but it is a well-rehearsed prank that plays out amongst outdoorsmen everywhere.

The adults prank the kids in an elaborate quest that includes mystery, elaborate hunting rituals and a big reveal at the end.

Kids who go on their first snipe hunt?  Know nothing.  And afterwards?  They know everything.

Before the hunt actually started  I suspected deception from the faces, eyes and smirks of the thirteen and fourteen year old boys on the trip.  They were excited about the snipe hunt and while they were trying to hide it -- I could see that they knew something I didn't.  This fact made me edgy and suspicious as the late night hour approached, but by the time that I was walking through the pitch black woods with my friend Tom?  Otherwise alone?  In the woods? Carrying pots and spoons?  At night trying to flush the snipe out of the bushes and into the trap with noise?  I forgot about my suspicions of those adolescent smirks because I was SCARED TO DEATH.

My childhood included plenty of scary games in the dark (Bloody Murder, Ghost in the Graveyard) but there was something uniquely terrifying about being two kids deep in the woods alone, hearing other (also frightened kids) walking nearby and knowing that teenagers with possibly misanthropic motives could also be near.

And it was awesome.  Later, after the snipe hunt, I understood the slight smile, the slight scorn, the slight feeling of superiority that those thirteen and fourteen year olds must have had.  I understood what it meant to be an insider.  I understood the perverse pleasure they took in our initiation.  And a little bit?  In retrospect?  I see in this gentle hazing -- a rite of passage -- an invitation to join the ranks of manhood.

I hadn't thought about this experience -- The Big Snipe Hunt -- for many years until I started to think about this video that my son showed me last week.

My son is thirteen on the verge of fourteen and I'm grateful that even though he's now playing first shooter games (which I don't like and prohibited for many years), he still wants to share them with me and have me understand what he thinks is cool about them.  He also has been parented  by youtube as much as me -- not because of any abdication on my part -- but because youtube's omniscience overwhelms any parenting skill I have.  Youtube has taught him to master yo-yo-ing, to successfully hack every computer and computerized device in the house, to solve Rubik's Cube in close to a minute and to replicate every soccer move Messi ever made famous.  So "Dad, lookatthis!" live-sharing of youtube punctuates every unexpected mundane task at our house.  Rarely do the fails(!), tricks(!) or pranks(!) rise above the quotidian level of my engagement.  This one was a different.

In a  contemporary subdivision rendered in a bland iconic animation, heavily weaponized mercenary contractors engage in one on one killing duels.  Nothing new there -- this first person shooter ritual is repeated in houses all over America every day.

But instead of just hearing the sounds of warfare, in this youtube vid, we hear the sound of a whining, crying 6 year old.  This kid probably plays Modern Warfare in a cluttered ordinary dull living room untouched by any kind of war.  And we get the sense from his protests that he's getting pwned by an older, silent, merciless player.

My son held the iPad in my direction: Dad, Listen to this it's hilarious.  He's crying.  It's so funny. 

The six year old cried, he complained, he begged, he threatened to tell his dad.  And I understood right away that the video was "funny" because of the juxtaposition of these "manly" violent actions with such childish whiny vocal tones.  Begging and pleading by an over-indulged, over-entitled, under-skilled random kid both felt ridiculous (the juxtaposition!) and a comic come-upance (bratty kid! deserves it!).

The title of this video was "Call of Duty Kid Cries [So Hilarious]."  The 2000+  thumbs-ups below agreed.

Hilarious.

I'm a big fan of rites of passage, rituals in general, the history and performance of gender, but the longer I thought about this video, the less I liked it.  Youtube provides an endless plentitude of this genre -- I don't know if there's a name for it yet -- so in the absence of knowing, I'm naming it:

the Little Kid Cries: LOL Genre.

Later in the video, as the kid's rank is downgraded and he watches as we hear him lament at length.

"Why did you do that?"

Dramatic music swells, the ranking texts are displayed over honorable looking military monuments and the kid continues his whine:

"I worked so hard!  And now I can't even play!  Why did you do that!?  Answer me! Why!"

And then he starts to weep.

I admit it: the weeping feels overwraught and overplayed.  A part of me suspects that this kid throws fits at every department store where his parents won't buy him a new toy machine gun or plastic machete.

But on the other hand, it doesn't matter to me: this is a kid crying.  He's been wronged and he's crying.  His humiliation has been repurposed for comedic affect.  And two-thousand + viewers agree:

It's hilarious.

In general I love texts that emerge from the work of fans -- remixed, mashed-up, sweded revisions that inflect mass culture with more personal and less official meanings.   So why do I feel so different about this dark corner of the machinima universe?

The straightforward answer is that this game, this video, this post and this genre thrive on a kind of dissociation that hurts people.  The title of my blog post is a lie: there are no victimless crimes and none of the crimes of this story are as innocent as they pretend to be.  This argument is more conservative than I want to be and not nuanced enough to account for any of the particular viewers or commenters or thumbs-uppers.

Possibly it's not even accurate enough to account for this particular youtuber who enjoyed trolling this kid enough that he decided to upload this episode to his youtube fans and followers and indicate with the title that a COMIC reading space was the point.

Our transcendence through his pain.   

I don't know this guy and I don't know what he was thinking, but it's pretty clear that this rhetorical move has become a common one, and I believe that dissociation is the shadow of all the laughter that these videos generate.

The pleasure of Modern Warfare does pose as a victimless crime.  All the thrill of heroism, murder and glory without any morticians, funerals, widows or orphans.

And the pleasure of trolling a whiny brat seems well-informed by thousands of videos of spoiled rotten children filmed and uploaded to the internets by their parents.   We don't even see this six year old.  We don't even know his name!  Victimless crime!  And so LOL Hilarious OMG!  Uploading this video FEELS like a victimless crime.

The most subtle pleasure though is that of the viewers, the commenters, the thumbs-uppers.  Our laughter feels as immaterial as it is instinctive.  Our contributions to big data pervade so much of our lives that this laugh, this click, this Ha!, this THUMBS-UP! hardly feels like a contribution to the rhetorical sphere.

But my argument is that these are not victimless pleasures and that these crimes victimize not only the users, but (more poignantly?) our life together.

I like Ian Bogost's arguments about the procedural rhetoric that video games articulate: modes that help players deliberate about particular questions relevant to particular spheres.  But the rhetorical moment that I'm focusing on here is an epideictic one.  Aristotle classified the epideictic genre as speeches to praise or blame (funeral orations, a comedy roast, an awards ceremony and, arguably, the entire field of public relations).  He argued that these kinds of appeals were particularly useful in helping a community share a particular value or recognize a common enemy.

The gamers who repurpose these trolling vids invite their audience to laugh at the childish response to violence and humiliation.  The viewers perform the value of hardened masculinity by laughing at a common enemy: the vulnerable weak girlish cries of a child.

This laughter offers them transcendence against the threats that still oppose them, threatening imminent loss and possible humiliation.  The laughter also offers transcendence internally over the memories they have of the times they cried, in public, as a child.  And then, surprised to find out that they were "too old to cry" (was it a taunt?  a sneer?), they soldier forward into manhood.  Repressing and ignoring emotions.  Embracing rationality and aggression.

It's not that I find rites of passage or even particular cultural articulations of manhood to be problematic.  Remember the snipe hunt?  There is a satisfaction and a beauty to knowing and understanding what is required of you and how you can accomplish it.  There is therapeutic salve in the laughter and the taunts directed toward one's own innocent past.

The difference between the snipe hunt and the crying kid LOL genre?  In the snipe hunt, the sneer and the taunt are just a part of enfolding the novitiate into a community of acceptance and maturity, accepting the forgotten naivete and innocence of childhood as a part of a never ending cycle of maturity and communal development.  Next year at the snipe hunt you will sneer with the 14 year olds.  You'll be one of us.  A man.

The experience of new media feels precariously disintegrative, though.  Games are played in latch-key living rooms, quiet bedrooms. Youtube vids are watched on small screens under the covers and the stinging humiliation and scorn we sling at the whiny brats we do not know cannot be accompanied by the same sort of re-integration or even self-recognition that multi-generational, geographically-contextualized communities provide.

I fear that the scorn and the taunts are insufficiently linked to our own development.  I fear the compassionate commitment that accompanies gentle hazing by friends or family dissipates in a world defined by such transient relationshipsand the anonymous feeling that the age of big data bequeaths on all of us.

11.03.2014

Ex-Gay Rapper Shakes It Off.

I was struck by two discursive moves that were being made in this story that I encountered through Facebook fans last week. It's a story that grows mostly out of the the interview that the reporter did with "ex-gay" & "Christian" rapper, Jackie Hill-Perry.  She tells the story of her salvation and her record's imminent release.

The stories I was most aware of though, were not the ones that Ms. Hill-Perry was telling.  The stories I was keenly aware of were the stories of how and why THIS story belonged in a national newspaper.

The fact that the Washington Times paid a reporter to write this story which gives a not-so-journalistically-balanced platform to Ms. Hill-Perry means that the paper KNOWS that there is an audience that wants to read this story.   What's more?  There are advertisers who want to reach an audience full of people who want to read The Ex-Gay-Ness Story.

The story of "ex-gay" has largely played-out and gone silent even in mainstream Evangelical discourse.   With the leaders of "Exodus" and other ex-gay treatments denouncing their techniques and presumption as being dangerous, wrong and problematic, the story in evangelicalism has largely shifted to an acceptance that being gay is not a choice.

Jackie Hill-Perry tells a different story. It's a straight up -- God saved me from the gayness.

I'm not interested in evaluating the veracity of her story because it's probably not a story that's over yet.  Given that she's still alive -- maybe we should reserve the happily ever after (or not) until later.  I am very interested in noting the resonance of her story, though.

To me this story is about the idea that despite the wide shift in public opinion regarding whether or not you can pray the gay away -- or if maybe being gay is something that can be shaken-off -- both a national newspaper and a indie hipster ("Christian") record label is leveraging Hill-Perry's ex-gay-ness to sell their brand.

Almost invisible in this story?  Are the self-loathing and other-loathing that the Ex-Gay-Ness Story demands.  But that's no surprise because that story won't sell records or papers to the crowd that these media makers are catering too.  But that doesn't make those stories go away.  There is a dark underbelly to every story, and it's worth mentioning what this dark underbelly looks like:

self-loathing and other-loathing

There's always a cost involved in telling stories too. Sometimes that cost is invisible though or at least really hard to see.  The cost always correlates to the payout, too.  So pay attention to how much traction this story gets, and you'll have a rough estimate of how much (mostly invisible) self-loathing and other-loathing is going on somewhere less public and more personal.

While Hill-Perry's artistic gifts are not limited to the story of her ex-gayness nor to the promotion of a politically conservative brand, in many ways the promotional stories that ride like viruses throughout much today's popular art (in product placements, celebrity endorsements and advertisements-shaped-like-art) will outlast the art that was their host.

The story of gay "lifestyles", the gay "choice" and Ex-Gay-Ness has been around for awhile and thanks to the collaboration of The Washington Times and the Humble Beest record label?  It'll stay around for a while longer.