February 17, 2014

The Bizarro World

Dear Wafers (and Waferettes):

You all know how much I like the Seinfeld show (“Call Marla Penny to the stand; Marla Penny!”), and some of you may have read the essay in A Question of Values entitled “A Show About Nothing,” which argues that the scripts are actually an indictment of the American Way of Life as being antisocial, perhaps even anti-human. This climaxes in the final episode, in which the Gang of Four is arrested for violating a (nonexistent) “Good Samaritan” Law in Massachusetts, which purportedly requires citizens to help people in distress. Nothing, of course, could be further from their minds, and so they wind up getting sentenced to a year in jail. They are shown to be callous, indifferent to the plight of their fellow human beings, and always mocking other people—which, it turns out, is how they relate to each other as the norm. Yes, the jokes are hilarious, but they are also nonstop. Practically every remark Jerry et al. make to one another is a dig, a put-down, a bit of witty repartee at the other person’s expense—thrust and parry, all the time. If these were one’s friends, I’m thinking, it would be exhausting to be in their company for more than an hour. One is either defending oneself or attacking someone else, and this is the essence of the “dialogue.”

The fact that the dialogue is, in fact, quite funny manages to hide the fact that the relationships are aggressive, competitive, and even bellicose in nature; which is how Americans of every stripe tend to relate to one another, though typically without the humor (let’s face it: we’re a grim lot). This is daily fare in the U.S., which is probably why the rates of loneliness, depression, mental illness, homicide, screen addiction, and drug use are off the charts. (In terms of dollar-volume sales, 67% of antidepressants sold worldwide are purchased by Americans—who constitute roughly 4.5% of the world’s population. And this is leaving illegal drugs aside, in which the nation is literally drowning. Then if you add in alcohol….) I’m amazed, over and over again, how folks who disagree with something on this blog, or something I said, are literally unable to simply state: “I disagree, and here is the evidence for my views.” Oh no; that practically never happens. It would be un-American; it could lead to genuine dialogue. Instead, they almost invariably show up in War Mode, enraged, sarcastic, parading themselves like peacocks—the whole nine yards—and then get even more enraged when I refuse to post their fulminations (clearly, I’m not willing to engage in “dialogue”!). The entire nation seems to be a collection of children, and certainly, of flawed human beings. And it’s not likely to change anytime soon, here on this blog or in “normal” conversations out in the larger society. It’s as though it were part of our DNA.

Besides the Seinfeld “Finale,” one other episode stands out in my mind as reflexive, i.e. as commenting on the nature of the interactions itself. It’s called “The Bizarro Jerry,” in which Elaine meets three friends whose mode of relating to one another is 180 degrees from what she is used to. She can’t get over it: Kevin, Feldman, and Gene are loving and supportive of one another. They fight to see who will pay for the check in a restaurant, each one wanting to treat the others. They buy each other groceries, or tickets to cultural events. They read, they think, their lives have actual meaning. They put cash (bills!) into the cups of homeless people. And so on. She can’t help it: she defects. In one memorable scene, when the two groups of three confront each other in the street, she looks first at her old companions, then at her companions-to-be, and the difference is so great that it’s obviously a no-brainer. Why hang out with people who are completely self-serving, who care about nothing but themselves, as opposed to those who are genuinely kind, genuinely selfless? So she switches teams.

But the transition proves to be more complicated than she anticipated. As the writer of this particular episode, David Mandel, explains, Elaine is too flawed for her new group; “normal” behavior with these folks, such as goes on with Jerry et al., is something they find offensive. Instead of trying to fit in, she is rude and domineering. She raids Kevin’s fridge without asking, kicks the door shut with her boot, throws her purse any old place, and when given a ticket to see the Bolshoi with them, yells “Get out!” and shoves Kevin in the chest so violently that he falls backward onto the floor. They aren’t interested in having a barbarian (read: typical American) in their midst, and so they reject her. Her stay in the Bizarro World proves to be fairly brief.

Of course, Mandel felt the need to make the alternative group a bit extreme in a goody two-shoes kind of way, for the sake of comic effect. Which works: their love for each other is finally so sugar-coated that it is cloying, claustrophobic—nuts in a different way. The show would have been much less funny without this contrast—or perhaps, not funny at all. And that’s the point. Had the alternative group been just your (truly) normal, non-American bunch of folks, such as I have experienced all over Latin America, for example, then the indictment of American society would have been out in the open: depressing rather than comical. Roll back the exaggeration, tone down the sweetness, and you would have healthy, non-American interactions, in which people do care for one another, are supportive in conversation, and are not living in competitive little narcissistic bubbles that they erroneously take to be the world norm. In which case, we would see the American psyche for what it really is: warlike, severely disturbed. The jokers who show up on this blog in War Mode literally can’t help themselves; it’s what they were raised to do from birth. Elementary courtesy is not really part of the American repertoire. We are degraded and debased;trolfoons.

A year or two ago, I think it was, one of you Wafers posted a link to a YouTube video in which some guy walks around the streets of an American city with a clipboard, stopping people and asking them whom they thought we should go to war with next. Every single person interviewed, including a university professor, named the country of their choice: Iran, Syria, China, etc. Not one of them said, “We shouldn’t go to war with anyone.” Not one. Now that is the Bizarro World.

©Morris Berman, 2014