American Unoriginal, 501 Blues

The United States of America has always embraced its individuality.  Our land, after all, represents an award for having proven our independence from the European imperialists, and for having developed our own voice, our own style, our own civilization.

After that, we developed blue jeans.  We had been rebels, and having won our independence, we no longer had a cause.  Now we celebrate our independence on Independence Day, then spend the rest of the year discouraging various dependencies exhibited by our children and the so-called co-dependent relationships engaged in by our friends.  We like our independence so much that we invented baseball, basketball, and football to avoid playing soccer with the other countries.  ‘Cause, you know; like, fuck those guys.

We do work together in our 501 blues as a begrudgingly unified American people, too, but this is not the side of ourselves we wish to emphasize.  We want to stand triumphantly alone on mountaintops, shaking our fists in defiance of the global status quo — and why not?  Seems more fun than following others on a well-traveled rail all our lives.  Our rails have naturally (or unnaturally) converged in some ways, however, and some leaders have admonished us to retain our differences and revolt against pressures to homogenize.

Those leaders who champion our individuality become cultural heroes, such as Henry David Thoreau (Mr. March-to-the-Beat-of-a-Different-Drummer, himself) and Thomas Jefferson (“The pillars of our prosperity are most thriving when most free to individual enterprise”).  The punk rock movement, led by iconoclasts like Jello Biafra and Iggy Pop, embodied the Western youth’s violent rejection of the mainstream.  Mr. Paul, who wrote that we ought not conform, happens to represent America’s favorite enthusiast of America’s favorite religion (Romans 12:2).

Mr. Paul, Henry David Thoreau, Jello Biafra

For awhile it seemed we might make these leaders of ours proud, proud of our ambitious creativity, proud of our cultural accomplishments, and proud of our devil-may-care disregard for the world’s opinion of us, but look at us now: our disregard for global opinion has alienated us, our cultural accomplishments have been largely surpassed, and our red-blooded creativity, once symbolized by riveted, indigo, serge de Nimes overalls, has become a sad, poorly-manufactured-in-Indonesia parody of itself.

American Individualism, look upon the blue face of your stillborn spirit, and despair.

There was a time not so long ago when a fella could dress as colorfully as he liked.  Plenty of guys wore blue jeans, sure, but could also step into bell-bottoms, plaid pants, coveralls, or any manner of matched slacks.  Trousers were high-waisted, waist-high, hip-hugging or standard, and could be held up with a belt or suspenders.  Even during times of extremely prevalent trends (trends, plural, mind you) we managed to assert our own personalities through the clever juxtaposition of numerous possible garments.  Look at the variety expressed in this typical ad from thirty years ago:

Bells and whistles. The former garnered the latter, I imagine.

It may be surmised that these clothes came from the same season of the same line, and that the fashion designer had intended the outfits to somewhat coordinate with one another.  These similarities notwithstanding, the variety of colors and fabrics and styles makes modern America look as uniquely fashionable as dental-office wallpaper.

I mean, look at that bad-ass motherfucker on the right.  Have you seen anything like that pilgrim-style collar in your life?  More pertinent to our conversation about American creativity, though, are their pants: endlessly more more fun and imaginative than those merely acceptable blue jeans.  The bell-bottoms apparently came checkered, plaid, or plain with cuffs, and you can bet there were more colors than those offered here.  I’m guessing these fabrics were wool, polyester, cotton, and corduroy respectively, far beyond today’s usual variety of cotton, nylon, or cotton-nylon.  The fedoras are a nice touch, too, but I’m focusing on trousers, here.  And why, you ask?

Because — if modern American creativity could be measured in trousers, my friends, it would look like this:

What color were the socialist overalls in Orwell's 1984, again?

This was merely one of a score of images I could have chosen from (I selected this for the flag waving, which I consider a bonus).

Hypothesis: the American public does not exhibit the level of independent thought of which it seems so proud.

Conclusion: for all our independence and rebellion, we can’t even choose our pants uniquely, anymore.

One respondent to BothEyesShut’s American Trousers Study reported, “Hell yes, we’re independent.  We think fer ourselves, sure do, and if a pair of blue jeans just happens to be the most American piece of clothing we own, don’t y’all blame us for looking uniform.  Just because we wear the same style pants as everyone else, don’t you go thinkin’ you’ve got some sorta creative edge on us, or nuthin’.  Blue jeans were good ’nuff fer my pappy, and they were good ’nuff fer his pappy, and by God (big G) they’ll be good ’nuff for me, my son, his son, and the dog, too, if’n we decide to haul off ‘n buy him a pair!”

Cletus has a point.  As a nation, our creativity does capture the globe’s attention with our radical, unpredictable, freedom-waving manner of dress.  We’re just as edgy and innovative as any of those other countries, like Japan. . .

Gomen nasai.

or France. . .

Frenim-Clad

Or the United England Kingdom. . .

The United England Kingdom

So, OK, I admit it — I admit that we denizens of the United States are not the only ones who forgot how to sew fabrics other than denim, but as anyone can see, we aren’t becoming more interesting by learning from the innovations of other countries.  We aren’t trying to decide whether we’ll wear our awesome Scottish kilts to the party or our dashing Spanish sailor’s slacks.  Rather, we’re destroying whatever cool fashions may have existed in these places before the stonewashed blue plague set in.  We’re not doing it on purpose, though.  Like carriers of a cultural disease, we became victims ourselves before spreading it around.

Levi Strauss, pragmatic inventor of what he insisted on calling, “Levi’s overalls,” did not advertise his way to the top of the fashion charts, however; his product had undeniable merit.  The machine-spun fabric withstood months of laborious mining, and the copper-riveted pockets did not tear out at the corners when laden with rocks, bolts, and other detritus toted by the miners.  In 1890, Strauss added a watch pocket for pocket watches (that little rectangular one at the right hip) because men generally carried their watches on chains in vest pockets, and vests, of course, could not be worn in the mines without becoming torn and soiled.

So we non-miners bought them, too.  Our wives were tired of patching and darning our trousers just as much as Mrs. Strauss had been, and what do you know?  By the time James Dean wore them in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the United States Navy had been issuing them to sailors for over fifty years.  Then theatres, schools, and churches banned them in a last-ditch effort to contain adolescent interest in rebellion, an effort which backfired, of course, and by the sixties they had become commonplace.  Then stonewashed.  Then cut-off.  Then ripped.  By 2004, the average American owned seven pairs of blue jeans.

Seven pairs.  Seven.

Forty years ago, guys could go ladykilling on Main St. on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and expect prospective marks to decorate themselves from the waist down, rather than default to the best-fitting of their seven pairs of blue jeans.

Liberated elegance, from a time when people had to know how to match their clothes.

Yeah, so old Levi isn’t at fault.  Jeans are ubiquitous because indolence is human.  We’re too damned lazy to exercise our character, and fuck, jeans “go with” everything.  They really do look nice, too; I like mine boot-cut with a dark, royal bleu de Gênes color, and always wear ankle boots with them to look less casual.  There’s nothing wrong with them — they aren’t the problem.  If it were up to our jeans, I bet they’d rather not be worn as a matter of course, either.

We don’t have complete control over our fashion proclivities.  Marketing and thought control are synonymous, and even more commonplace than the clothes sold thereby.  In spite of this assault on the American freedom of choice, few high schools in the United States still teach media, leaving teens (and their hard-won pocket cashola) defenseless, unaware that they are always someone’s target audience, victims of omnipresent psychographic advertising.

These mind vipers love us all dressing alike, eating the same foods, listening to the same bands (who all sound alike now, anyway) because it’s child’s play to advertise in generalities when the general public is generally going to like anything that fits the general description of what they generally want to buy.  How can a budding fashion designer build a name for himself?  Why, advertise a logo on magazines and bumper stickers, then slap it on a pair of blue jeans and charge enough money to ensure only affluent people can afford to flaunt them.  Sold.

Do people purchase things they might regret as a result of mass marketing? Oh -- sometimes, I suppose.

Many entities benefit from transmogrifying a free-thinking, unpredictable people into a cowed and colorless one.  Politicians, far from pandering to liberals or conservatives, have aimed at median voters for decades.  We owe this trend to the tendency of most Americans to contradict themselves on the ballot.  Most Americans, for example, call the torture of terrorists justifiable, yet insist on federal investigations into the torturing of terrorists.  Most Americans back abortion rights, so long as women do not abort their pregnancies for certain reasons — gender selection, for instance.  This tendency lets interested parties market to the broadest, largest group of people with a single advertisement, and for this reason interested parties work to make us as similar to one another as possible.

It is, of course, human nature to prefer what does not surprise us, as well, so we shirk the shocking and reject the revolutionizing.  Hippies dressed differently, so they were terrorized.  Punk rockers dressed differently, so they were terrorized.  Women who wear burkas in the U.S. dress differently, so they are terrorized.  The most dangerous thing to a way of life is a new, fresh idea, and many people can’t help but hate the guy with the wacky hat.

The wacky hat is distracting.  It isn’t simply fear that causes us to attack everything creative and unique in our midst.  High school administrations that adopt a “No distracting hairstyles” clause for their dress code know well what independent thought can do to a “sit down, shut up” curriculum (more on this in Part I of “How to Refrain From Being a Dick”).  When we stop worrying about our hair, we also free time from our mind’s busy schedule to think about something else — like how we’re going to afford a three-hundred-dollar pair of Sevens brand blue jeans.  We’ll need the trousers if we want to attract that blonde who makes us hard by packaging her ass in a three-hundred-dollar pair of Sevens brand blue jeans.

Creativity: securing seats in the gene pool since the dawn of time.

Originality is powerful.  Unique traits fuel evolution, command attention, and map uncharted territories in any given scenario.  Best of all, exercising one’s individuality today is easier than ever.  One could, for instance, boycott blue jeans.  The last American Levi’s factory closed in 2003, anyhow.

Levi’s blue jeans: Not Made in U.S.A.

So, go ahead!  Have waffles for dinner and ride a pogo stick to work.  Go apeshit, America!  Take the plunge.  Spend an hour looking for trousers at the mall; look for pants that are neither denim, beige, nor black.  Good fucking luck!  It’s far harder than you think, and if you’re anything like me, it’s going to piss you off to see how few possibilities the market allows you.

There’s nothing wrong with national trends.  Trends become traditions and traditions become culture, and culture’s one of few things differentiating us from dust mites.  When trends control our thoughts and curb our options, though, it’s time to trim them back.  When everyone loves Twilight, it’s time to take a second look at Dracula.  When everyone has a pair of those retro Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, it’s time to switch up to neon blade-style Oakleys.  Do it.  Let’s see your face behind a K-rad pair of those fuckers.

I’m not kidding myself, bytheway.  I know there’s no escape.  But there’s an important difference between the guy who goes gently into that good night and the guy who spits and cusses and brawls all the way down.

Or — I’m imagining that, and we’re all just as boring as everyone else.

No way.  I saw a forty year old man in a swell black tuxedo and pink bow tie slam dancing at a Vandals show, once.

And there was nothing boring about that.

With Great Reprobation, Condemnation and Fulmination,

-BothEyesShut

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Rookie Religious, Selfish Spiritualist

In talking about various lifestyles, it’s hard not to see commonalities between fashion and thought.  The twentieth century may be easily divided into its prevailing Western philosophies, each decade pigeonholed for its own flavor-of-the-month philosophical fad, such as Bertrand Russell in the Roaring Twenties, Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteen-fifties, or Jean-Paul Sartre in the nineteen-sixties, though others could suffice as well.  People tend to take their philosophical fads about life, the universe, and everything very seriously, and I can’t abide “seriously.”  I regard seriousness as an intellectual plague of the modern day.

The hardest people to prove wrong are usually laughing — and they’re usually laughing at themselves.  Even Shakespeare’s wise men were all court jesters, and I for one don’t blame them.  The funniest thing about humanity is its nearsighted self-importance, and laughing at people when they’re passionately convinced of themselves amuses hell out of me, like turning a vicious, snapping turtle on its back.

What follows amused me thoroughly to write, an indictment of three sorts whom I no longer naively expect to present consistent logic in casual conversation.  Each of them easily deserves their own post, but I like to examine a variety of topics, so this will have to do.  It should be noted (and I say this with an uncharacteristic twinge of tenderness in my voice) that I consider the following social groups fragile in one or more crucial ways, and I wouldn’t say these things to them unless they asked for it — or had the ability to stop reading.

New converts: more faith in their tee-shirts than you've got in gravity.

I. Socially Ambitious Spiritual Leaders

If there’s anything atheists and agnostics seem exceptionally good at, it’s automatic distrust.  The secular paradigm does not depend on faith as immediately as most religious perspectives do.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that when spiritual leaders run for office or hold massive conventions in sports arenas, atheists and agnostics refuse them “the benefit of a doubt.”  Since typical spiritualism and religion are against fame, large-scale material gain and power over one’s fellow man, it is often difficult for the secular world to trust spiritual leaders who appear on television, magazine covers, or the jumbotron digital screen at Anaheim Stadium.  Non-believers have no patience for spiritual leaders who ignore their own religious tenets.  Go figure.

Believers, though, they have no problem practicing George Orwell’s concept, doublethink.  Pat Robertson’s a great big jackass because he said horribly racist things to the media recently, but Jerry Falwell’s memory will remain untainted by his own shortcomings because they’ve been conveniently forgotten by people who desperately want to believe in their representatives.  Jimmy Swaggart’s biography, “Thrice-Born: the Rhetorical Comeback of Jimmy Swaggart,” says his public applauded the reasons he gave for his moral failings.  How’s that for accountability?  Spiritual leaders, it would appear, can abuse the public trust as much as they like without serious, lasting repercussions.  The only people who remember when they lie or steal or otherwise transgress their own moral standards are the same people who thought these leaders were crooks to begin with.

The historic Jimmy Swaggart apology. It's OK, big guy, we never really believed in hell, either.

There’s much paradox in large-scale spiritual leaders, anyhow.  Throughout history, hardly any of their burgeoning number have been founders of their particular brand of faith.  The majority have been little more than charismatic persons with evocative ideas and perspectives regarding preordained doctrine, which would be fine if that were all these leaders had to offer.  Once they’ve garnered sufficient attention, though, they tend to inflate their office like a wartime American president and commence making changes of all sorts and sizes, great and small, changes to the traditions of their faith, their practices, their creed, even their holy texts or ultimate doctrines themselves.  If the reader fails to see paradox in this, he or she will be kind to note that it is only upon these traditions, creeds, texts, and doctrines that the leaders attained their positions.  Fine joke, that.

If this argument seems dubious, one has only to consider the lists and lists, branches on branches of religious schisms and sects, denominations and cults.  Each of these represents an example of the above paragraph in action.  For instance, Martin Luther was not Christ, and yet. . .  Sai Baba was not Swami Vivekananda (let alone Ghandi, let alone Ramakrisna) and yet. . .  All that remains to be said is: don’t read Josh McDowell to understand the philosophy of Jesus Christ, read Jesus — and don’t read Alan Watts to grok Taoism, read the Tao-Te-Ching.  Socially ambitious religious leaders all either attain to power or have it heaped upon them, and anyone can tell you what affect power has on people.

II. Golden Years Relapse and AA Christians

Anyone can tell you that many elderly humans return to God (big G).  Alcoholics and druggies do, too, and in fact are ushered to it by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.  It isn’t bad math or inconsistent logic, if one looks at it.  Many religions offer amnesty in the form of baptisms, confessionals, or amoralism, and promise eternal life and love for virtually nothing in return; when faced with oblivion — well, one almost has to err on the side of a possible paradise rather than risk eternal suffering.  Of course, many non-believers see no risks or possibilities whatever, so they go about their business and simply snuff it at some point or other, tilled and ready to fertilize the daffodils.  Golden-years converts and addict converts, they revert to what took some of them decades of soul-searching and introspect to escape, namely, the same damned worldview they had when they were still being punished by their parents.  What a fucking way to go.

Rev. Oh Beng Khee, a friendly pastor who converts 25-40 seniors over lunch every weekend. Would you like fries with that?

The main frustration comes from their immediate desire to proselytize and witness to non-believers or believers of other faiths.  There’s nothing for one’s confidence in a doubtful matter like convincing someone else that it’s true.  Try it!  You’ll like it.  It’s a sad shame that so many of the world’s most beautiful systems of thought have no standard at all governing the earnestness of their converts, because there’s narry a congregation in the world without a solid percentage of confused persons, people having no business at all swearing oaths, speaking prayers, and outwardly worshiping symbols and icons with serious doubt in their minds all the while.  That sort of thing is definitely not good for everyone else in the congregation who stakes his or her own faith on the support of so many other steadfast believers.  If a fella learns to operate Windows XP on Monday, ought he to be given a job in information technology on Friday?  Do your beliefs a favor, you golden-years and A.A. converts: keep your gods to yourself until your faith outlives your reputation.

III. Spiritualists and Neo-Hippies

So-called spiritual people do not call themselves religious, and do not abide anyone else calling them religious, kindof like a Frenchman insisting that he be called a Parisian.  Religions control people, they say; spiritualism, though, frees minds like in a Bob Marley song.  Self-proclaimed spiritual people say that religions siphon money from believers, and that offerings and donations do not reach the poor and disadvantaged when they come from churches.  Of course, if the money were given to Hari Krisna dancers, “Save Tibet,” or the aforementioned Sai Baba, it’s global change in pocket change.  This is one example of dualistic spiritualist thought, but a mere one of hundreds, and the differences betwixt spiritualism and mainstream religion have more to do with the size of the congregation than with anything else.  But you knew that, already.

Sai Baba. You have no idea how globally popular this motherfucker is -- but if you've ever purchased a box of incense sticks, it was probably Sai Baba brand. Not kidding.

One annoying difference (or similarity) is the spiritual persons’ habit of maintaining a salad-bowl paradigm.  Today’s new-age and spiritual believers do not have a consistent set of beliefs, but rather pick and choose as though the fundamental principles of the universe were a produce section in the local supermarket.  While this may well be true of the universe and its principles, little effort is taken on the part of many spiritualists to reconcile one belief with another, so that while tarot cards might predict a fine day, Y Ching sticks may proclaim tumult while astrology declared perfect balance throughout the cosmos, and the modern spiritualist will find a way to accept the resulting conclusion — an admittedly shallow example, but a suitable one for our purposes.

Perhaps worst of all, few spiritualists really give a fuck about the authenticity of their beliefs.  The easiest American instance of this is the widespread abuse of the Hindu concept of karma.  Since spiritualism’s rise to flower-child popularity, the word karma has been used to describe a sort of cosmic vengeance which, were one to drop a brick on someone else’s head, would bring ten bricks down on one’s own.  This is a gross misinterpretation likely born from the Western need for a holy fist of heavenly justice.  Karma in the Hindu traditions is the effect of this life on the next life.  It is inextricable from the concept of reincarnation.  The effects of this life on this life are called dharma, and are much closer to the scientific concept of cause-and-effect than anything else, which pretty much takes all the magic and mysticism out of it — much like a large portion of other twisted metaphysical and hermetic philosophies.  The closest spiritualists in America typically get to understanding (or caring to understand) this crucial distinction, however, is a giggly aha! moment when the title of the mediocre sitcom, “Dharma and Greg,” comes to mind.

"When we go green, we go all the way," because, you know, you have to sit in full-lotus position to recycle a fucking can. Makes me want to burn a mound of styrofoam in the nearest Whole Foods supermarket, right next to the flax seed and patchouli oil.

That’s a fantastic image of modern spiritualists, in fact: imagine a group of people dressed like fashionable, anachronistic hippies, smiling at their recognition of a word they don’t have any compunction to really comprehend.  Oh, also?  Also make them shake their head ‘no’ while smiling.  That’s the spiritualist version of disagreement.  They’re as peaceful as Ghandi and as passive as apple pie, so they have to wait until their detractors have left the conversation to agree with one another about how much they disagreed with what that last guy said.  They could have to enjoin real conflict otherwise, and that just wouldn’t be natural.

*     *     *

What leads people to spontaneously become acolytes of a new system of beliefs?  Is it an immediate and crucial yearning for not just one dire answer, but a network of interlacing answers?  Is it a need to belong, a desire for a ready-made society of comrades united toward a common cause?  Nobody can say without being equally presumptuous, but there is a thread of similarity that connects these tenderfoot believers which is hard to ignore, one which their members would likely not bother to refute, and that is the vulnerability present in the spirit of each, the meek, affrighted lamb attempting to appear a lion by proudly waving its humble timidity like a glorious banner of courage.  Terror must abate — it must — and everyone hides under the covers under certain circumstances.

I’m afraid, too, afraid of men with guns, afraid of car accidents, afraid of both heights and spiders. . .  But I try to remind myself that these fears are usually irrational and childish.  I try not to massage my oft-bruised ego with salves of irrational, childish behavior like bandwagon belief systems, not that there’s anything wrong with being childish — so long as one doesn’t take oneself seriously, of course.  So what’s my problem?  What the fuck is it I want from people?

Consistency, sucka.  I want some goddamn consistency.

I want loudmouthed Christians to study their fucking books — all of them, apocryphal or not.  I want neo-hippies to study a little Hinduism if they’re going to start talking pop-culture reincarnation, want them to show genuine interest in all the yogas, karma, raja, jnana, and bhakti, too,  rather than presuming they learned all there is to know from a hatha yoga session at 24-Hr Fitness.  The cults of Kali, for instance.  There’s a side of Hinduism I doubt the Beatles would have endorsed.  I want grandparents who find God again (big G) to keep their dignity and pass on the altar call for the first few visits on Sunday.

But most of all, I just want people to re-evaluate their silly confidence in their best guesses at the secret of life.  We don’t know.  We don’t know.

Hey.  We don’t know.

With All My Cheerful Tidings,

-BothEyes

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