Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Fast and the Gratuitous

I was reading Jayski last week (doesn't everybody?), and ran across an review of a book called "Against Time and Death," by Brock Yates. (See the review at: It's about open-wheel racing in the mid-1950s, a particularly fatal period for the sport, and, frankly, it sounds like an interesting if flawed book. Except for one thing, I might have bought it, and that can't be blamed on Yates.

This is the review's last sentence: "Because of Yates’ credentials, Against Time and Death ought to be available in most good bookstores, even the ones managed by tree-hugging, granola-munching, Starbucks-sipping, pony-tailed, Birkenstock-wearing poetry majors in Yankee-Land."

Now what the heck was the point of that? As an expatriate Southerner, living up here in Yankee-land, all it did was make me decide not to buy the book. And that's the ultimate in bad reviewing! It doesn't say anything about the book, it isn't particularly funny, and all it does is annoy anybody who isn't just like the author.

Which I guess probably IS the point. (Though it's possible, I suppose, that it would be funny if I read the site regularly.) It's a classic "if you're not with me, you must be against me" statement, and it seems to me that there's waaay too much of that going around right now.

I work part time at a hair salon, and a young woman came in last week upset because of what had happened on the way in. It was a rainy day, she was wearing a Yankees cap, and some kid - college age, certainly old enough to know better - had walked across the street to step in front of her and say, "You suck! The Yankees suck, and you suck!" As she said, you kind of expect that if you wear a Yankees cap to Fenway, and you're ready for it, but not just walking down the street, even if we are in an outpost of Red Sox Nation.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, when did this level of aggression become acceptable behavior - even common discourse? I'd like to blame it on the current political climate. After all, you can argue that the Senate rules debate is about essentially the same thing: we are right, you are wrong, and there is no place for actual debate (as opposed to rhetorical posturing, like Sen. Santorem comparing his colleagues to Hitler) or nor any need for compromise. I think that talk radio probably bears a portion of the blame, since ranting and raving seems to bring better ratings than sober discussion. Being an old-school Democrat, I'd like to blame the Republicans in general, but that would be as gratuitous as anything I've complained about - and one can legitimately point to some of the '60s leftists as displaying exactly the same attitudes.

In fact, when you think about it, this aggressive hostility forms a consistent strand of American political life, from McCarthy to Prohibition to the Know-Nothings and the Klan through writers like Upton Sinclair and all the way back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where - to protect the people of God in this fearsome and hostile new world - dissent could not be tolerated, but had to be actively sought out, confronted, and the offenders chastised or expelled from the polity. That's part of the history that led to the whole concept of the tyranny of the majority, and to the American enshrinement of protections for minorities and dissenters, and the tension between the two points of view is part of what has made American politics so peculiarly dynamic over the last 200+ years.

Politics aside, though, it feels as though we've made a big shift toward aggression and away from what used to be called common civility. We seem to be losing the understanding that other people are not necessarily us, and that it's OK for them not to be.

I'm not sure where this comes from, but as an SF writer, I can't help looking at the changes in personal technology. With the advent of cellphones, iPods, personalized services of all kind, each one of us moves in an expanded bubble of self: this is MY phone, that connects ME with MY world. This is MY music. This is MY blog, MY favorites list, MY website. Characters in novels are defined by what's on their iPods; sharing music becomes as much as an expression of who we are than as it is a gift of something someone else might like. We play games in which we can't always tell which players are real and which are computer generated, and for the purpose of the game it doesn't matter, so you can treat them all the same - and do whatever you have to do to win. And when that bubble hits something that deflates it, it hurts, because we've gotten so used to moving in that world of total agreement that we no longer expect dissent. And hurt people sometimes hit back.

It's one thing to discover, say, that your best friend absolutely disagrees with your deeply-felt stance on abortion or the Iraq war. That is scary, because here's someone you know and respect who challenges your deeply held belief. You can't not listen, or if you can, it changes everything between the two of you. Even if you do listen, it still changes everything. Hurt is almost inevitable.

It's another to be so shocked by the sight of a Yankees hat that you have to come over and insult the wearer.

And it's still another to attack readers of a book review. Yes, I'm sure the reviewer assumed that no one in that category ("tree-hugging... poetry majors in Yankee-land") would read the review, but that's exactly the sort of assumption that gets you into trouble. In this case, he lost a sale for a book he admired. Not a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, but not his intention.

Remember Hitchhiker's Guide? The galaxy is really, really big. Maybe, just maybe, we all need to remember that this world is big, too.


At 2:47 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

That attitude is kind of like"The Idiot's Revenge" in reverse, for any Bottle Rockets fans out there.

I saw the weirdest thing today. A young couple, new parents (from the baby carrier), both wearing headphones, crossing the street -- right in the path of a Fed Ex truck! -- and clearly together, yet not, as mom kept ahead of dad, who was carrying the baby. Just weird.

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