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The scale of Schadenfreude

bieber

It’s a difficult thing to admit your mistakes.  Even more so when admitting them is an acknowledgement that you are not in all ways the evolved, progressive, compassionate thinker you fancy yourself to be.  Truthfully, it’s never a state you should consider final; it’s a level to which you should continue to aspire in each moment.  The instant you get complacent about it is the instant you begin to backslide.  But I find myself wrestling with this in light of having read Amanda Palmer’s post about Justin Bieber.  If you haven’t looked at it yet, you should, and you should also note my friend Ksenia Anske’s top-rated comment.  Without question there has been an Internet-wide pile-on given the Biebs’ spate of recent misdeeds – if there were such a thing as schadenfreude overload, we’d be teetering precipitously on the brink.  As Amanda says, we don’t have to sympathize with or condone how he’s behaving – far from it – but at the same time, we don’t have to erupt with mirth and glee at his failures as if they provide justification for our existing dislike of him.  If we want to pretend we’re better than he is, sharing photoshopped memes of Bieber subjected to prison rape is hardly the way to do it.

Social media has propelled water cooler conversations into the public sphere.  Where we once just chatted about the news with our family, friends and colleagues in casual encounters over coffees, now our opinions are projected via digital loudspeaker for the entire world’s indulgence, whether wanted or not.  With this ability has come a new compulsion to weigh in on everything (I’m not unaware of the irony here).  Politics, sports, literature, entertainment, global warming, theories of parenting and what we really think of the guy at the post office counter are all fodder for discussion, reflection and ultimately, massive amplification.  Spurred by the appetite we perceive out there for our opinion, we try to top ourselves with outrageousness, to grab our share of the increasingly limited human attention span.  Whose hilarious “Bieber Sucks” comment will be retweeted and favorited the most?  It’s a game for the insecure, a race to the bottom of a well of validation for the basest instincts we possess.  And it is a depressingly seductive game at that – quick to sweep one up in the fervor of the fleeting moment.

In The West Wing episode “Bartlet for America,” we find a troubling discussion of the limits to empathy.  John Spencer’s Leo McGarry is an alcoholic and drug addict who has been sober for about a decade and finds himself having to confront an occasion when he relapsed.  You can only be forgiven so many times for the same thing, McGarry suggests.  There comes a moment, it seems, when the Rubicon is crossed and we no longer see the human being, but only the sin, with the possibility of redemption lost.  Look at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford – a man with ongoing substance abuse problems, who, enabled by his brother and a sense of entitlement, refuses to seek treatment or even acknowledge that there is anything wrong with him, instead turning his enmity outward at what comes off as the cast of a paranoid’s conspiracy:  chattering intellectuals who can’t abide the idea of him wearing Toronto’s chain of office.  The week the infamous “crack video” was confirmed, Ford became the subject of a biting takedown on Saturday Night Live and ongoing fodder for comedians and talk show hosts.  Where does he compare with Justin Bieber?  Is Ford a more or a less tragic case?  Is he held to a different standard because he is a politician?  Are they both considered, in a way, to be role models who have let their admirers down?  Is that the magic trigger, the idea that there was an implicit contract, that they owed us a certain standard and now they’ve reneged on it?  At what point is it deemed “okay” to ignore the soul and engage the satire?  Where is the line, and how do we know when we’ve passed it?

It’s not difficult, if you try, to empathize with Justin Bieber, with the soul behind the façade.  Ksenia points out in her comment that we do stupid things in our adolescence; it’s part of the deal.  The vast majority enjoy the privilege of not having a worldwide lens pointed at us while we do it.  Bieber was fed into the fame machine when he was still struggling to figure himself out, I’d argue not entirely of his own free will, but chiefly through the questionable machinations of parents too eager to live failed dreams through their offspring.  He’s suddenly gifted with millions of admirers and dollars, and surrounded day and night by sycophants eager to praise even his bowel movements as the Second Coming.  He cannot move, cannot make a simple comment without it being dissected by countless professional op-eds and layperson critics.  (On Twitter, Bieber’s most innocuous statements – “good morning” even – get shared over a hundred thousand times, and replied to with an equal number of requests for marriage.)  Faux pas in a moment of weakness that you or I could laugh off with our significant other instead foretell the end of civilization.  How does living in that scrutiny day to day not go to your head?  How do you not wake up one morning realizing that despite having everything you could ever imagine you’re still desperately unhappy, and wanting to tell the world to piss off, to prove to it through a series of immature and even illegal antics that you’re not as wonderful as these legions of obsessive fangirls think you are?  That someone as terrible as you think – nay, you know you are – doesn’t deserve admiration or even attention.  How do you like me now, bitches, you can imagine his thoughts screaming at him as he tore drunkenly down the streets of Miami in the middle of the night.  How did he feel then?  As much as the world might revel in hating Justin Bieber right now, we can assume it doesn’t come close to equaling the hatred he feels, deep down, for himself.

The argument back is always, he doesn’t have to stay in the public eye, he could walk away.  Maybe that’s true.  I don’t believe Justin Bieber thinks he has that option.  There are too many other vested interests, depending on his album and merchandise sales to fund the purchase of their own Ferraris and country club memberships, to ever let him go.  He is a mere cog now, mandated to grind out one drywall-deep pop song after another until his star fades away and he ends up on a “Whatever Happened To…” special, or dead of an overdose, whichever comes first.  He is the puppet dancing for the amusement of millions, and because he’s flubbed the steps we’ve turned on him with a vengeance.  One or two slipups might have been okay, but he’s obviously passed that point with society where continued empathy is possible.  He has transitioned from person to punchline.  And I guess that last point is what interests me the most in this conversation.  When do we get the societal OK to commence the attack?  What defines what makes one person an incorrigible miscreant worthy of our collective hatred and another a poor kid who just messed up?

It is as if there is a scale of schadenfreude, from the most unimpeachably virtuous saints ensconced at the top, forever undeserving of slight, to I don’t know, Hitler, one supposes, at the very bottom, where it’s always acceptable to dump endless reserves of scorn and mockery, and to find suffering and fault laughable.  Everyone else falls somewhere in between, and there’s a line below which you’re a legitimate target and above which you can still garner your fellow human beings’ empathy.  The location of that line remains a matter of personal opinion and choice, for forgiveness is for the most part, as “Bartlet for America” posits, not a renewable resource.

I made Justin Bieber jokes in private and in public, I bemoaned the notion that his celebrity status and wealth made it likely he would not receive much in the way of punishment for his illegal behavior, I belittled the judgment of those who set this irresponsible kid on a pedestal and yes, in the moment, I was glad to see him knocked off it.  What does that make me, though?  I’ve reflected on it since reading Amanda’s thoughts and Ksenia’s response, and I’ve realized that what it doesn’t make me is better.  My life and my standing are not ameliorated by crapping over the misfortunes of a famous stranger.

Schadenfreude means “shameful joy,” emphasis on the first word.  And even the religious notion of hell is predicated on the idea that it’s comforting to the living to know that evildoers are being punished without end in a horrible place – schadenfreude taken to a supernatural degree.  But believing that doesn’t change our lives, nor does it provide us any true comfort.  We can agree that what Justin Bieber did in Miami was illegal, dangerous and endangered lives.  We can agree that we don’t like his music or how he comports himself or having to see his face on every product under the sun.  We can agree that he is no role model or someone to be emulated in any way.  What we don’t have to do is cast stones at him with reckless abandon in the expectation that “that’ll learn him.”

When we become a person who is quick to mock and slow to try to comprehend, what we’re really doing is presenting ourselves to the world as fundamentally not a very pleasant sort, and pushing ourselves down that dreaded scale.  Before you know it, one day we’ll tumble below the critical line and find ourselves on the receiving end of the world’s outrage.  The problem with being so down on that scale is that it’s too far to pull yourself back up, and moreover, no one’s going to want to throw you a rope – unless it’s to hang yourself with.

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The future ain’t what it used to be

It’s 2012 – wondering where the flying cars are?  The way some people drive, maybe it’s not a bad thing Ford hasn’t rolled them off the production line yet.  But as a fan of science fiction from a young age, a passionate supporter of space exploration from around the same time and a gazer at the stars from long before that, I kind of expected the future to be, well, a little more futuristic.  I’d hate to think that all those classic movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey lied to me, and yet, as 2001 came and went we weren’t boldly voyaging to Jupiter and beyond, we were mired in terrestrial disputes, our feet welded to the ground by political infighting, war, terrorism and relentless media-induced fear.  The words of Robert F. Kennedy come to mind:  “Some men look at things the way they are and say why; I dream of things that never were and say why not?”  Somewhere along the line we, collectively, stopped dreaming of things that never were and became coddled by advances in technology that heighten only the convenience of life, not its quality.  Probably the greatest step forward in the last ten years has been anything produced by Apple, and yet, really, a portable Justin Bieber catalogue isn’t exactly the sort of thing Jules Verne would have envisioned as a quantum leap.  We still get from place to place, basically, on 19th Century engines – they are faster and sleeker but the principle is the same one that propelled your great-grandfather’s old jalopy down Main Street when it was a dirt road with horse hitching posts along the sidewalks.  As Leo McGarry opined on The West Wing, “where’s my jetpack?”  Forget that – I want my damn Back to the Future Part II Mattel hoverboard.

I laud the advances we’ve achieved in communication, this forum being one of them.  What concerns me is that we are moving towards a point in our existence where we may have very little of substance to communicate about.  Human beings are needy creatures – we are forever craving stimulation to make us productive.  From adversity comes advancement.  But what happens when life is so easy, so crammed with distraction, that challenge is all but forgotten?  Look at the difference in a little over half a century – after Pearl Harbor, Americans banded together to enlist, volunteer, ration, buy bonds, collect scrap metal, anything that could be done to assist in the war effort.  Contrast that to the post-9/11 era where the President told his people that the best thing they could do to help their country was to go shopping.  Rosie the Riveter?  Nope, Penny the Power Purchaser.  And why?  Because it’s easier.  It’s yet another distraction, an erosion of altruism for self-interest über alles.  Surrounded by distractions, we do not think.  We forget about the whole and focus on the pleasure of the one.  These mass-produced trinkets are fun, but they fill the one empty space that should be uniquely our own – our imagination.  They saturate it so completely that we don’t think we are lacking for anything anymore, and thus, we are no longer compelled to create.

I am a victim of this myself.  When I was first living on my own, I had only an old computer with no Internet capability, let alone access.  I wrote constantly, generating screenplay after screenplay, thousands of pages of would-be novels.  Without distraction, I could focus on creation.  Then one day I decided to buy a Nintendo 64.  And who wanted to stare at a blank screen and flashing cursor anymore when there were so many goombas for Mario to jump on and so many princesses to save from castle dungeons?  My imagination took a huge hit and I don’t think it has ever completely recovered.  To this day I prefer surfing through a few favourite sites and catching up on the latest show business news over writing something of my own nine times out of ten.  I’ve been prolific here lately because I’m really forcing myself.  But it’s not easy.  The lethargic soul is a persistent enemy forever at the gates.  And he seems tragically immortal.

Primitive computers with barely the memory of today’s pocket calculator helped land men on the moon and return them safely to Earth.  That was in 1969.  2001: A Space Odyssey came out a year earlier, and given the pace at which things were happening then, it seemed a reasonable prediction – barring the unforeseen bankruptcy of Pan Am – of what our lives could be like as the 21st Century dawned.  Instead, HAL 9000 is the iPhone 4S, and the moon seems further away than ever.  But goshdarnit all, I’ve got 100,000 songs in a little gizmo a third the size of my wallet.  Is this what RFK had in mind when he was dreaming of things that never were?  Is this what Stanley Kubrick expected?  Is this what Aristotle, Copernicus, Leonardo or Galileo would have wanted?  Full seasons of Fear Factor streaming to my HDTV on Netflix?  Snooki with a million Twitter followers?

The capacity of what humanity can do with imagination and hard work is limitless.  But we have to force ourselves to look up from the screen and back at the stars again.  Because although they’ll be there forever, we won’t be, and I’d rather not see the ability to download Jackass 3-D at lightspeed as our civilization’s greatest lasting legacy.

The Winter of Discontent – West Wing Season 5

As I’ve mentioned before, we spent the summer rewatching The West Wing from start to finish.  That marathon ended a few weeks ago and I’ve been neglectful about sharing further thoughts on this epic journey of television drama.  It seems appropriate then to return to the subject on the 45th anniversary of the debut of another classic NBC program some of you may be familiar with – Star Trek.  There is even a touch of synergy to the two in that the only appearance on TWW by a regular member of a Star Trek series cast in fact took place in Season 5.  Think about that for a moment (no running to Wikipedia to check) and I’ll reveal it at the end.

John Wells is no slouch, but even he had to be scratching his head as to how to resolve the conundrum Aaron Sorkin left him in the fourth-season finale, Twenty-Five.  Zoey Bartlet was a hostage to terrorists, President Bartlet had stepped aside and conservative Republican Speaker Glen Allen Walken was now Acting President.  I can picture Wells nursing a scotch, staring at a blank screen with a cursor blinking and hurling a stream of profanity at it.  Equally disorienting is the experience of watching the fifth-season premiere, 7A WF 83429.  The teaser begins with whip-pans, quick cuts, distorted sounds and images (such visual trickery becoming the trademark of director Alex Graves) and the audience desperate for a glimpse of the friends they’ve missed since the end of season 4.  When you do see them finally, they are disheveled, in darkness, as lost as we are without the familiarity of Aaron Sorkin’s keyboard behind the scenes.  Wells did the best he could, and the episode does have some beautiful moments – the ending montage set to Lisa Gerrard’s “Sanvean” in particular – but things just aren’t right.  I said earlier today that watching the post-Sorkin West Wing is like going back to your favorite restaurant, saying hello to your favorite waitress, settling into your usual table, reaching for the menu and finding out they’ve changed chefs.

It’s tough to say for certain, but Sorkin seemed to take great care in ensuring that characters behaved consistently from one episode to the next.  You get the sense in many of the season 5 stories that characters who would habitually go left were being wrenched right (no political pun intended) to serve the demands of the plot.  Would the Leo McGarry who saved Josh Lyman from being fired in the pilot and told him “as long as I’ve got a job, you’ve got a job” in Season 2’s Noel really strip Josh of his legislative portfolio and cut him out of the loop as he did in the three-episode arc that followed Constituency of One?  Would Leo really be willing to walk from Jed’s side to defend some other guy – supposedly his real best friend, whom we’ve never seen or heard about before – in An Khe?  Would the Bartlet administration, who had shown such hope and confidence in NASA in Galileo really become utterly disdainful of them in The Warfare of Genghis Khan?  And how in the name of all that is holy did Congressman Robert Royce of Pennsylvania from Season 3 suddenly become Senate Majority Leader in Jefferson Lives?  (I blame a casting mishap on that one – I’m guessing that the “Majority Leader” character was written with no one in mind, H. Richard Greene was cast before anyone remembered he’d already played this other role, and the character was then named Royce in a bit of retroactive continuity.)  Still, this lack of internal consistency in Season 5, an unfortunate side effect of a dozen writers working on it instead of only one, only adds to the discomfort we feel in watching it.  These people don’t feel like our friends anymore.  They’ve changed, man.

Ultimately, Season 5 was when The West Wing went from masterpiece to just a pretty good show.  And yet there was one standout gem of an episode that just for its 43 minutes made one hope that the magic could be recaptured.  I’m referring of course, to the fake documentary episode Access.  JUST KIDDING!  Heavens no.  That well-meaning misfire is best left forgotten.  I’m referring to Debora Cahn’s award-winning The Supremes.  The elderly liberal Chief Justice is ailing, a young conservative judge on the Supreme Court has died, and the White House is besieged on all sides as they attempt to choose a replacement who can survive the Senate confirmation process.  In what had to have been one of the most expensive guest casts for a single episode of television in history, Glenn Close, William Fichtner, Mitchell Ryan, Milo O’Shea and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Doctor, Robert Picardo, all lend their dramatic talents to what turns out to be a funny, erudite, wholly implausible but inspiring and thoroughly entertaining romp – ending with a scene of standing ovation that we want to join in with.  While the nitpicker in me bemoans the absence of even a mention of Season 1’s Justice Mendoza (with all those other guest stars they surely couldn’t afford Edward James Olmos as well), the episode is a little helping of vindication for those of us who stayed with The West Wing, lending some hope that all was indeed not lost.  Those beloved characters felt like our friends again.

Ironically, Season 5 would be the last time The West Wing would operate as originally intended.  Season 6, which I’ll get into at another time, saw old friends change jobs, new characters enter the picture and the thrust of the show become not the administration of President Bartlet but the race to replace him – with several episodes in the latter half of the season taking place not anywhere near the White House.  For me, the final word on Season 5 – and there could be more, but I’m trying to keep it under 1000 words – is best paraphrased from Toby’s pronouncement on Bartlet’s new Vice-President, Bob Russell.  It wasn’t the best, it wasn’t the worst, it was just what we were stuck with.