Culture and the teeny-cons

Normally I do not read the Corner that much, but I got into the habit of doing so in the last few weeks because for once the NRO-cons and I were on the same side of an issue. This morning I went there and saw that Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz were discussing with great interest the last episode of “The Sopranos.” I saw a few episodes of that program a couple of years ago and it was beyond dreadful—not only evil and nihilistic in its content, but dramatically flat and uninteresting. It was thoroughly unpleasant and without any entertainment value whatsoever. I couldn’t figure out what drew people to it. I think the answer is that standards are so low today that if you put moving lights in front of people and told them that this was a great hit and that everyone was watching it, they would think it was great. It’s that way in all fields. You hear people raving about a movie, or a tv show, or a book, and you check it out, and it turns out to be basically junk. In today’s culture of self-esteem, the worse the actual quality of an entertainment, the more excited people become about it and the more they convince themselves that they are having a wonderful experience watching it. Look at the way “Sex and the City” was made into a culture icon and Sarah Jessica Parker treated as some kind of hero for having produced and starred in it. While all that is bad enough, for a self-described conservative magazine to be an uncritical participant in this cult of degrading pop entertainment is much worse.

I am repelled, though not surprised, when teeny-cons (or should we call them puer eterni-cons?) like John Podhoretz and Jonah Goldberg, whose entire cultural and artistic horizon has been formed by television, talk at length at a supposed conservative website about whether the last episode of a trashy, deeply nihilistic tv program “worked” or not. But then I saw that William Buckley has posted an article today expounding on the same subject. So it’s not just a teeny-con problem, is it? Goldberg is now the trailblazer, and Buckley the deferential follower.

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Update: John Savage at Brave New World Watch feels I am deriding genuinely conservative teenagers with my mocking expression “teeny-cons.” Obviously the phrase is not intended as a criticism of teenagers per se. It is an attack on chronologically adult “conservatives” who bring an unregenerately adolescent—or, given Jonah Goldberg’s fixation on bathroom humor and excretory functions, pre-adolesecent—perspective into their “conservative” writings. I further clarified my meaning when I called Goldberg and Podhoretz puer eterni-cons. Puer eternis means eternal adolescent or eternal boy. It is a description of a character type, not of actual adolescents.

However, to call Goldberg and Podhoretz eternal adolescents is to give them too much. The expression puer eternis denotes a kind of Peter Pan, idealistic quality. But the chief feature of Goldberg and Podhoretz is their vulgarity.

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Paul K. writes:

Your link directed me to one of Buckley’s non-article articles, as you have aptly described them. He concludes it with, “Instead, you were reminded by that blank screen that that kind of thing goes on and on, and reminded, also, of its bewitching power to entertain a spellbound, onanistic audience.” Yet Buckley identifies himself as a faithful member of that audience. Can it be true what they say about what onanism does to the mind?

Laura W. writes:

I hope you will not dispense with your term “teeny-con.” It is so hilarious. (Real teenagers are neither conservative nor liberal, but reflections of their surroundings.)

I know it’s depressing, but I am fascinated by intelligent people who enjoy the dreck that represents supposed high culture today. Just the other day, I was talking to a successful lawyer/doctor couple who were bragging about their collection of Sopranos episodes and their addiction to the show. I was deeply intrigued. I couldn’t help think there was some decisive moment in their lives when they embraced superficiality and I began to speculate on when that point might have come. I suspect you would be simply repelled and not intrigued at all. Perhaps I will get to that point.

In many cases, I’ve found such low standards come from a life of exhausting careerism. When some people sit down at the end of the day to watch a show or read a book, there is nothing left inside. It’s not just that they are tired, it’s not just that they have worked hard, it’s that they have given the core of themselves away. It doesn’t offend them that the characters in these shows are so removed from real life. What reason could there be for the immense popularity of this stuff other than that its audience is semi-conscious and quasi-engaged in life itself?

LA replies:

I agree with Laura’s explanation, and it reminds me of something I heard once. Some time in the 1980s I was taking a journalism course at the New School with Marcia Kramer, who at that time was a reporter with the New York Daily News, and is now (I think) with CBS. She’s a nice person, she was a good teacher and it was a good course. She also was (and is) a good-looker. But I was struck by something she said once. One of the students asked her what kinds of books she liked to read, and she flatly answered: “Mindless trash.” It didn’t feel right that a person would say such a thing, without embarrassment. And I felt that what she was really saying was that she was so burned out from her job (or from life) that she had no energy or interest left over for reading even half-decent books. It felt like a quasi-nihilistic statement.

I also agree with Laura’s intuition that there is a specific moment in people’s lives when they consciously embrace such superficiality, just as there is often a specific moment in people’s lives when they embrace relativism, like in the late 1990s when many many Americans had an “anti-epiphany” and said, “The economy’s going great, so who cares about morality?”

Tim W. writes:

Your post on The Sopranos reminded me of why I rarely watch any TV series today. Most are pure trash.

The best entertainment on TV today is on the channels that air old movies, such as Turner Classic Movies, American Movie Classics, and Fox Movie Channel. Building a DVD collection of classic films is another way of by-passing the nonsense that dominates much of our culture today. Modern films aren’t all bad, as the Lord of the Rings trilogy demonstrates, but overall the great films of the Golden Age seem far superior. Comedies such as Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire, and My Man Godfrey blow away anything that comes out today. Knocked Up? I don’t have to see that one to know it’s a waste of time.

I encourage people to buy a good DVD player. Go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble and order Pride of the Yankees, Gunga Din, Frankenstein, or Song of Bernadette. Or take a chance on some great classic foreign films. I love Japanese cinema, such as Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, Yojimbo, Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, and many more.

Watching just a few of these films (and there are many amazing films from before the nihilistic sixties kicked in) will expose how shallow most of today’s movies are.

Randall Parker writes:

Before I figured out you were talking about people with teenage attitudes I figured you by teeny-cons meant teeny-weeny as in tiny. They stand small, not tall.

(and I flash on Steve Martin doing his “Get small” skit from the 1970s)

LA replies:

It came to mind as a further extension names like midi-cons, mini-cons, etc., and also as a pun on teeny-bopper. So it connotes both teenage-like, and tiny.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 13, 2007 07:01 PM | Send

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