The Dude Abides

Left to right: The Dude (Jeff Bridges), Donny ...
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The Dude Abides

 

Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me, Lebowski?  David Huddlestone, The Big Lebowski

 

On its ten year anniversary, Andy Greene of Rolling Stone magazine attempted to explain why an offbeat comedy, The Big Lebowski, became “the most worshipped comedy of its generation”.  I count myself among the denizens who regularly quote, watch and discuss the 1998 Coen Brothers movie about an LA slacker named Jeffery “the Dude” Lebowski, a peacenik anti-hero who becomes mistaken for another Jeffery Lebowski, an LA millionaire with financial and personal problems. As a Dude connoisseur, I savored Greene’s entrée along with Walter Kirn’s side dish analysis of Dude, the ultimate underachiever.  Greene makes a persuasive argument as to why a decade of Generation X’s and Y’s related so clearly to a man who was and is, the antithesis of our hard charging society.

At its most basic level, any motion picture is created to entertain. However, film is art and an important lens through which we interpret, depict and assess society and ultimately, ourselves.  The Big Lebowski follows an unemployed forty something pot head who refers to himself simply as “ the Dude”, as he is haplessly drawn into a bizarre plot of kidnapping, extortion, pornography and deception. As Greene describes, “ the narrator ( a man simply known as the Stranger )…intones, ‘sometimes there’s a man who well, he’s the man for his time and place’. The odd truth is this man may have been a decade ahead of his time.  Today, as technology increasingly handcuffs us to schedules and appointments – in the time it takes you to read this you have missed three emails – there’s something comforting about a fortyish character who will blow an evening lying in the bath tub, getting high and listening to an audiotape of whale songs.  He is not the 21st century man.  Nor is he Iron man – and he’s certainly not Batman.  The Dude doesn’t even care about a job, a salary, a 401k and definitely not an iPhone.  The Dude just is, and he’s happy.”

The Dude still appeals to a multi-generational audience.  He has fans like myself – – the salt and pepper, latter stage Baby Boomers, known as the Generation Joneses, who were programmed by their Silent Generation parents to become economic grunions, genetically returning each day, month and year to beaches of hard labor in hopes of exceeding our parents’ standard of living and in doing so, writing the next great chapter for America.  The Jones generation exists as a fragile bridge and no man’s land between the rules and conventions of the Silent and Boomer crowd and the self obsessed cynicism of the Gen X’s and Y’s.  Generation Joneses were raised by the firm hands of self-reliant sergeants who believed in a strong military, free market, and the possibility that anything could be overcome with hard work. This ethos could vanquish any threat – a need, a want, a rival or even a foreign power with dark intentions.

The Silent and Boomer generations react viscerally to characters like the Dude.  He is a ne’er-do-well and a slacker.  Slackers are societal ticks and chronic underachievers who rationalize their inability to compete in our meritocracy by criticizing, pontificating, using mind altering substances and garnering unemployment checks from the very establishment they target with so much languid contempt.  To the older generation, the Dude is like Europe – – impractically egalitarian, unmotivated and content to constantly regress to the mean. Socialism is Dudeism .  Dude would rather see America lay medicated in a warm mineral bath listening to NPR than enforce its individual and collective imminent domain.  The Dude’s indolent lifestyle is a threat and virus that must be halted.  The fact that the emasculated Dude is content just to be and accepts life as it comes – “ strikes and gutters, ups and downs…you know, the Dude abides” – is lost on those whose lives are a frenetic merry go round of materialism and indentured obligation.

The Big Lebowski: Are you employed, sir?

The Dude: Employed?

The Big Lebowski: You don’t go out looking for a job dressed like that? On a weekday?

The Dude: Is this a… what day is this?

The Big Lebowski: Well, I do work sir, so if you don’t mind…

The Dude: I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

Dude is an anti-hero.  He is a pacifist. Jeff Dowd writes, “He’s a character who’s very loyal to his friends, but in some ways, he’s a real intellectual drifter, a person who doesn’t really care what people think about him. I mean obviously, if it’s the middle of night, and you’re in Ralph’s in your robe and jellies, then obviously you don’t care all that much about what people think of you. He’s a character that sees the truth.” He is, by society’s definition a bum.  However, through the eyes of generations who have come to the depressing realization that they may not exceed their parent’s standard of living but instead inherit record deficits, a global environmental crisis, foreign wars and back breaking energy dependence, none of which was their doing,  Dude’s minimalistic lifestyle in a Venice Beach apartment looks downright noble. To many, Dude was and is, a metaphor for all who have been dragged against their will into conflicts and circumstances beyond their control – Vietnam, Iraq and a world that no longer seems full of possibilities but fraught with sharp edges.  He is the ultimate conscientious objector to a subtle social war.  It is a battle being waged against the weeds in our society – – the bums, ne’er do wells, bleeding hearts and those who cannot or will not help themselves.  The Big Lebowski and his ilk want to clear the fields of these useless dandelions who refuse to get with the program.  His “program” is a life of unilateralism whose offspring are fear and consumption.  Millionaire Jeffery Lebowski, The Big Lebowski, is the embodiment of this ideology – crippled, manipulative, angry and rich. He is a living picture of Dorian Gray, a canvas that reveals every twisted wrinkle of a man who has everything but has lost his soul.

 

The Dude: You thought that Bunny had been kidnapped and you were @$^*ing glad, man. You could use it as an excuse to make some money disappear. You’d just met me… You human paraquat! You figured ‘Oh, here’s a loser. A deadbeat, someone the square community won’t give a @$#% about.

The Big Lebowski: Well, aren’t you?

The Dude: Well… yeah.

Dude is surrounded by a supporting cast of misfits – – life’s tragic figures and confederates including a gang of malevolent German nihilists who nip and tear at his mellow cocoon.  He is ill equipped to deal with the bizarre circumstances that engulf him or the arrogant elitists who continuously put him in harm’s way.  While most of us cannot condone how Dude chooses to express his “rejection of absoluteism”, we have a soft spot for him.  We see him as a green branch bending in a strong wind but not yet breaking.  He is inept but loyal.  He is an ash from an old cigarette lit in the 60’s that never quite extinguished.  He is a relic and a reminder that it is ok to march to the beat of a different drum and not be persecuted or labeled for choosing the path of less resistance.

In the end, Walter Kirn describes “His Dudeness” in simple terms: “ The Dude is one of those saintly underachievers, those holy screw ups who make it ( life ) somewhat bearable. His greatest powers are not to use his power and to acknowledge, serenely, without resentment – that in the end, he doesn’t have much power.  Forever may he stagger.  Long may he weave.”

 

 

Hard Times

(The Depression) The Single Men's Unemployed A...
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Hard Times

“Gore Vidal uses the phrase, the United States of amnesia. Well, I say United States of the big A — Alzheimer’s, because what happened yesterday is forgotten today.” Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel will forever be remembered as an apostle to our past. The actor, radio host and biographer dedicated his life to chronicling diverse aspects of our American experience so that we might not lose sight of ourselves.  Terkel lived the images that he projected – – a child of Russian immigrants, a student of journalism and theatre, a blacklisted artist who would not inform on friends and a present day Tom Joad, advocating for the disenfranchised, bullied and under represented.  In an interview just before his death, Terkel lamented our sound bite society’s inability to reflect and learn from even our most recent current events.

In his award winning oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Terkel conducted a symphony of history – trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the 1920’s, the melancholy deep bass of the Black Tuesday stock market crash and the chaotic syncopation of economic and social hardships of the 1930’s.

Terkel left us more than narratives, he guided us through heartache, human endurance and history and through this experience, we learned to sing a richer anthem about American living and learning.  His recording of American’s personal Depression stories revealed not only our failings but our triumphs and the human instinct to persevere in the face of great crisis.    Immigrants, minorities, investment bankers, union activists, musicians and working class families all related the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances that carved deep psychological lines into the rouged, youthful cheeks of a nation emerging from the prosperity of the early 20th century.

The Blues of our current economic uncertainty are not unique sounds to our generation.  Every society faces periods of uncertainty that threaten prosperity.  These challenges in hindsight often become the defining moments for a generation.  Those that choose to dismiss the factors that precipitated the Great Depression as singular and unique ignore the past.  CS Lewis referred to this indifference as a “snobbery of chronology”, a syndrome where descendents armed with hindsight often view themselves as impervious to replicating the missteps of their predecessors.  The arrogance that develops as a culture achieves advances in medicine, technology and science often impedes our spiritual and social progress.  The lack of heavy lifting tends to atrophy the muscles of character that people need in times of challenge.

In 1929, the stock market crashed.  Entire fortunes were lost.  People committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of total material ruin.  In the late 20’s, the Dow was soaring. Everyone became a stock speculator and could indulge their irrational exuberance with easy credit and margin purchasing of equities.  Gains were kept of the table to double down on even bigger bets. Consider the echoes of Martin Devries, a prominent Chicago and NY broker as he reflected on Wall Street in 1928.

“There were a great many warnings.  The country was crazy.  Everybody was in the stock market, whether they could afford to be or not.  You had no governmental control of margins, so people could buy on a shoestring.  And when they began to pull the plug..you had a deluge of weakness.  You also had short selling and a lack of rules.   It wasn’t just the brokers involved in margin accounts.  It was the banks.  They had a lot of stinking loans.  The banks worked in as casual a way as the brokers did.”

Herbert Hoover and the Republican party held the White House and governed with laissez faire fiscal policy and a populist view that periodic downturns were the natural fires that needed to be allowed to burn themselves out within the forests of our endlessly promising economy.

By raising taxes at a time of tight unemployment, the US government took more money out of the hands of consumers thereby reducing consumer consumption – which is critical to economic growth.  The Fed’s reaction to the crisis was to tighten policy and drive a kind of Darwinian cleansing of weaker financial institutions.  Confronted with the embarrassment of a sudden financial tailspin, the government under reacted and then overreacted.  When banks failed, the Fed did not lend the failing bank money or afford additional money to other banks to compensate for the shrinkage in money supply.  The Fed instead squeezed monetary policy and tore at the deep fissure in the economy. Lack of credit led to banks failing at an astounding rate. Frenzied queues of depositors attempting to withdraw their savings from uninsured banks “ran” to withdraw savings that were either illiquid or nonexistent.  The lack of liquidity caused mortgage defaults, bankruptcies and financial ruin.

To add insult to injury, in 1932, a Democratic Congress and a worried, willing Republican Hoover administration passed the largest peacetime tax increase in history.  According to web based financial writers Gold Ocean, “Marginal income tax rates were raised from 1.5% to 4% at the low end and from 25% to 63% at the top of the scale. A huge tax increase by any measure.”  As US consumption shrank and unemployment rose, Smoot Hawley was passed to stimulate jobs at home by reducing imports, This lead to a global trade war that debilitated the world economy.  Most historians agree that it was only WWII that got us back on the economic track.

The level of financial hardship was unprecedented. There was no place to hide as our parents and grandparents were pulled down into an economic sink-hole that stretched from China to Chile, and New York to Melbourne.  Families were fractured as fathers left to try to find employment in far off cities.  Some families were never reunited.  Mothers went back to work doing odd jobs while older siblings raised younger brothers and sisters.  Aunts, uncles, and grand parents moved in to offset expenses.  People became infinitely more dependent on one another resulting in stronger, more tightly knit communities of common interest.There was a gracious humility in many towns that hung like the sweet smell of lilacs in spring as people accepted life on life’s terms and understood that gifts were to be shared with those closer to the abyss of poverty.

Life was about making ends meet.  Basic necessities were rationed and would remain precious indulgences for over a decade.  A new sense of social justice emerged in America as dust bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie and social activist/writer John Steinbeck chronicled the inequities and humanity that blossomed in the miasma of depression. The anvil of hardship pounded an entire generation and out of it, there emerged an alloy of American values – – resilience, dedication, community, empathy and equity.  These attributes would be put to good use in 1941 as a generation rose up to defeat global fascism, stand up to communism and to form the foundation for a benevolent world power.  The lessons of the depression taught those who endured it to live within their means, and not take on massive amounts of personal debt.  They understood it meant relying on your own initiative to solve personal problems, not abdicating this responsibility to large government.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another financial crisis.  We are worried.  Oil is at an all time high.  People are losing jobs.  The Dow teeters each day like a four foot Jenga stack.  Most do not remember that it took the Dow until 1954 to match its high of 312 that it had held in 1929.  Credit is tight. Those who watched the missteps of the Fed in the 1930s know that the supply of credit is the issue, not money supply.  We have learned that there can be abundant money in the system, but if a conservative paranoia swings the pendulum too far to where banks hesitate to lend, business can’t expand. With over massive and ever expanding public debt and an economic recovery shored up by rotten timbers of cheap creidt , we know there is more pain to come and that scares us.  Anxiety and lack of faith opens up the Pandora’s box of society’s self interest.  Self-centered fear triggers many character defects – the penchant to hoard, to be selfish, to be ignorant of others in need and to prioritize oneself above all others.  The exact opposite of how history has taught us to survive catastrophe.

If Studs were sitting with us by a summer camp fire, he would surely tell us of hard times and hobos, migrant workers, dust bowl farmers and soup lines.  He would also reassure us with personal stories of compassion and love, attributes that he believes are the ties that lash the broken boats of any society and help protect against the ravages of indifferent dark passages.  He may even suggest as Dickens once mused, that we are in for “the best of times and the worst of times”.  The question is whether we can find critical perspective, strength and wisdom from the words and actions of others who survived the Great Depression or whether we dismiss these personal memorials as trite, gilded nostalgia.  Terkel would urge us to faithfully learn from the past, carefully nurture the present and actively participate in making the future.  Sometimes, he would argue, the things we fear most, are the things we most desperately need.

Character, after all, is found in the hard times.

I’ll Have The Scheudenfreud, Please…..

Logo of the Global Reality Channel
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I’ll Have The Scheudenfreud, Please…..

Over the years, I developed a taste for the German language. My admiration is not from its palate cleansing syntax but its highly logical nouns.   An example of simple words combining to make a more complex word might be Hundehütte (eng. doghouse) or Baumhaus (eng. tree house). German allows for highly complex compound nouns such as Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaenskajuetenschluesselloch, which means “the lock in the cabin door of the captain of the company running steamers up and down the Danube”.  My favorite German word is scheudenfreud.  Translated, it means the fascination with another person’s misfortune.  The word describes an all too common unhealthy appetite in our human nature and captures the bubblegum essence of American media programming – – reality television.

We all, it seems, have a flawed predisposition to become consumed with other people’s failings and to live other’s lives vicariously.  Reality TV feeds this inate longing baking it into a range of menus from personal competitions to law enforcement.  Last week, 31.2m people devoured American Idol while 16m slowly savoured Survivor: Fiji.  While my family was gathered in the family room drinking in the acerbic sarcasm of Simon Cowell,  I was secretly taking in  the TV show, “Cops”.  I always feel guilty when landing on channel 58 – – just in time to watch a methamphetamine addict trying to outrace the entire Miami police force in his mother’s 1972 AMC Gremlin or a woman who has been on a binge for three straight weeks trying to convince the authorities she is Tsarist Princess Anastasia.  If I hear anyone coming towards my den, I quickly flip to ESPN.  How ‘bout those Yankees ?

And then there is “Jackass”, a show where faux stuntmen Johnny Knoxville, Weeman, Steve-O and Chris Pontius perform outrageously dangerous and insipid stunts.  I close the door to my office and laugh that deep, from the groin, painful laugh that only comes when you witness someone being injured doing something incredibly dumb.  “Jackass” gave rise to a follow on show called “ Wild Boys”.  The first episode of “Wild Boys” featured a sequence where Steve-O and Chris ate a variety of bizarre Asian foods culimnating in snorting wasabi mustard where they promptly, threw up.  Steve-O and Chris were then off to Africa where, donning only athletic supporters, they ran through a pride of lions dragging hams behind them on long hemp ropes.  This is about the point where being an arm chair historian, I wonder if the majority of Rome was watching a show called “ When Praetorian Guards Go Bad “ when the Barbarians  charged into the city limits and brought the great empire to its knees.  Or perhaps, everyone was wearing ipods and just did not hear them coming.

America is hooked on the empty carbohydrates of reality TV.  However, we cannot take credit for creating these cultural moon pies.   While it is true, like fast food and greenhouse gases, we are producing a disproportionate amount of reality TV,  Asia and Europe actually got the whole thing started.  It was Japanese and the Dutch who built on the theme and created game shows based on humiliation, survival and co-habitation. ( For those with stupid sense of humors like me, watch the YouTube episode of the Japanese reality show, Gaki No Tsukai – Silent Library, entitled: The Old Man Who Bites Tenderly, to illustrate just how “evolved” reality programming has become.)

TV pundits estimate literally thousands of new reality shows will be released in the next year.  I worry.  What does my fascination with other people’s misfortunes say about me ?  Why can I not skip to a channel that does not seek to demean, exploit, marginalize or ridicule ?  These shows are lugubriously seductive speakeasys.  Is one genetically predisposed to scheudenfreud ?  Was the Roman Colleseum a massive reality TV for the masses of the Empire so they might for a moment, be liberated from bad news of foreign wars, threat of plague, the increasing Roman deficit and the rising cost of chariots ?  Why can I not seem to resist this nightly dose of toxic cinema verite ?

The experts have divined that as many as half of American TV programs are now some variation of Reality TV.  I figure the other half must be some variation of ER or CSI and infomercials.  I was distraught to learn that as many as 82% of these shows are, in some way, shape or form, “scripted”.  What ?  You mean “Dog, The Bountyhunter” is really a security guard at a Chucky Cheese ?  Don’t tell me those uber babes of  “The Hills” are really Universal Studios tour guides.  Those long green spongey things on “ Fear factor” are not actually baboon adnoids?  The “Ghost Hunters” are not making contact with a thumping spirit but really just filming in a room over a night club in Soho with a big woofer? Flava Flav does not really don viking horns and a massive alarm clock around his neck when he goes out on dates ?  I feel like we need a new word for our salacious interest in other people’s false misfortunes, scheudenfreudfalshe.

I have a few ideas for shows.  There could be “Dancing With the Infidels” where Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton compete for a chance to run for an empty Senate seat.  No contestant is allowed to actually touch their partners or they will be eliminated.  “Rap and Cheese” could appeal to Francophiles by teaming up defrocked French politicians with hip hop artists in a race from Newark to Avignon.  There is so much potential material.

Another crack addict is being wrestled to the ground on “Cops”.  I realize that I am living in a time where the media is all too willing to enter my home to fuel my paranoia that the world is not full of possibilities, but instead choked with meth heads, terrorists and hookers.  I have become a nightly regular at the Fear and Consumption café where I get a healthy plate of “ Reality” TV, news and talk shows that fuels my concerns that my country is on the downward slope of its moral, spiritual, and economic preeminence.  It’s crowded in the F&C café and sometimes I have to wait for a seat.   While I realize that scheudenfreud is a natural human frailty, it is also a warning sign.  It’s a subtle hardening of the arteries in the chest of a pampered soul.  It can be mitigated by simply remembering that the real world is going on outside while reality TV flickers inside our homes.