Monday, November 10, 2014

Unsuspected Truths in Pop Culture

One of the worst atrocities in recent memory was the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3000 unsuspecting noncombatants during peacetime, a cowardly suicide attack perpetrated by radical militants.  A lesson stands to be learned from it, however - a lesson that has virtually nothing to do with militants, sneak attacks or even body counts.

It has to do with fatigue and hope.

Consider: in the Harry Potter series of stories, the Weasley twins Fred and George have quit school in their seventh year to take up life as entrepreneurs, opening "Weasley's Wizard Wheezes," a joke shop of magic pranks, clothes, aids to skipping classes and even a few more serious lines of products.  Never having taken life too seriously, the lads seem to be custom-crafted for the purpose of providing a laugh even in hard times.

Enter Voldemort.

Hard times are never harder than when there's a despot who hates everyone, mostly because the ones he hates most are his own parents and, by extension, himself.  We won't dig into the psychology of Voldemort, it's kind of low-hanging fruit and doubtless been done already by others much brighter than I.  Let's just establish that Voldemort and his hangers-on are at the center of an awful lot of really bad things, generally ruining everybody's day.  They cause a pervasive atmosphere of dread and distrust, and it continues for a long period of time.

It is into this atmosphere that the Weasley lads launch their business.  It takes off like a rocket.

When the planes hit the towers, the coverage was pervasive.  How could it not be?  It was easily the biggest news item since V-J Day, predicating the first and so far only extra edition of a newspaper I have ever seen.  I don't doubt that other papers also produced extras.  They need hardly have bothered; TV news coverage was sufficient to show every awful angle, minute by minute, and to have one talking head after another endlessly hash over what was, really, not that complex a story.

In the months and years that have followed, it has become a rather more sophisticated story, but still it isn't as nuanced as you could hope.  A group of committed suicide attackers, over an extended period, learn how to fly planes.  Then they all board planes on the same day, at nearly  the same time, and fly them into selected targets.  Thousands die.  More thousands aboard flights already airborne are diverted.  Clouds of smoke and dust.  Innumerable stories of heroism, sacrifice and loss.

Just like any other terrorist attack.  The main differences are the scale, the weapons used and the locale.

Being excitable Americans, we had to watch, and watch, and watch.  Listen and discuss, argue and accuse.  But - and it pains me to admit this - the American attention span isn't that great.  After a while we want to see something else, to talk and think about something else.

CBS' newest reality show at the time was The Amazing Race, having debuted just the week before.  NBC had just launched a show with a sort-of similar theme called Lost (not related to the subsequent ABC scripted drama Lost).  The Amazing Race missed a week, but NBC pushed Lost airings back another week while CBS rolled the dice and started airing TAR again on September 19.  Betting that the public had had about enough of endless news coverage of the disaster, the Race went back on the air and hungry for almost anything besides yet another angle of billowing clouds of dust and smoke, American viewers tuned in.  The Race gained a lead on Lost and never lost it.  NBC dropped Lost without renewing it and without even having aired all of the episodes it had shot.

Amidst all the disaster, you still want to be diverted.  There's only so much tragedy you can handle, and then you want to be something besides a victim, even if you're still inside the tragedy, even if the awfulness is still happening to you.

Remember the story about the band aboard the Titanic, playing even as the ship was sinking?  It isn't apocryphal, it's true.  Witnessed by dozens of survivors and attested to in countless recollections, the band played specifically to help calm the passengers and crew even as the waters were rising.  They knew the score.  And witnesses generally agree that the band did not play "Nearer, My God, to Thee."  That would have been a downer.

It doesn't matter how awful things are.  They'll get better.  It is one of the strongest points of human nature, to be able to look to the future.  It is what makes us the dominant species, our ability to imagine not just tomorrow or the day after, but next year and the year after that.  We fight enemies not because they threaten us right now, but because we desire a future of peace.  We set aside supplies and money against possible lean times down the road.  Sometimes we are caught flat footed, and sometimes we are not.  Sometimes both circumstances occur simultaneously in the form of different people, survivors and casualties.

I know it sounds trite to refer to something as banal as Harry Potter to illustrate basic truths, but there it is.  "You take it, and get inventing.  It's for the joke shop."  Harry was giving up a bundle of cash he had won in a large competition, money to which he didn't feel fully entitled.  "I have a feeling we're all going to need a few laughs." Even as the most feared wizard in the world was rising to power, he was backing a venture whose sole purpose was to entertain, to distract.  And in the real world we have the USO, singing and dancing for warfighters only a few miles away from active hostilities.

ISIS, Ukraine, North Korea...these are all temporary.  Things may get worse, but then they must eventually get better.  And until they do and while I am feeling especially downtrodden by yet more bad news, I will read the comics, listen to Car Talk (RIP Tommy Magliozzi), and marvel in wide wonder how, in spite of how dreadful so many things can be, so many other things are not.

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