Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Price of Admission


"You have your way. I have my way.
As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist."

-- Friedrich Nietzsche
______________________

I was visiting with a good friend of mine, Nick, the other day when, inevitably--as is prone to happen when Nick and I get together and talk for any length of time--the conversation turned to serious matters.

"You know DeRogatis and Kot have a new book about this very topic, don't you?" I asked him.

He looked at me as if I'd just spoken some strange, new language. "What? They do?"

"Yeah. I think it just came out last month," I said. "Or maybe it was a couple of months ago. I don't remember. But it's literally titled, The Beatles vs. The Stones."

"You're kidding," he laughed. "How awesome is that?"

"Isn't it?" I laughed too. "One guess what it's about."

"Yeah, no kidding...."

"Yeah."

We both laughed a little longer, and then we stopped laughing. Primarily because--after all--it wasn't really all that funny, but more importantly because that age-old question asked by music-afficianados (a.k.a. "music snobs") the world over burned to be put out there once again.

"So anyway," I finally said. "What do you think? In your vaulted opinion...who is it? The Beatles or the Stones?"

*[Aside: Now, I realize that in the current global context we live in--with the world's economy on the brink of collapse, wars ravaging every continent, oceans clouded with spilled oil, temperatures climbing beneath the dissolving ozone layer, and polar bears doing their best to break world records of distance-swimming as they splash vaingloriously in search of one last shred of ice-floe melting in the sea's warming waters--the question of Who is better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? might come across to many as...well...maybe just a little bit insensitive, and maybe even borderline mindless and crass. And maybe, in the final analysis, not even all that "borderline." But anyway...]

"So which is it?" I asked again. "Lennon/McCartney or Richards/Jagger?"

This idea of taking sides on such a seemingly trivial, irrelevant issue is an interesting one, I think. It's not as if Nick's answer was going to affect the tides in any way. It's not as if his answer to such an inexplicably unaswerable question would ever (or could ever) serve as the final say on the matter. It's not even as if his answer held much weight or even really mattered all that much to me, I guess.

And yet I wanted to know. His answer to the question did matter to me, in its own way. Which is why I asked it in the first place. Which is why we ask most of the things we ask, I suppose. It's at the heart of why we want to know whatever it is that we want to know--at any given moment--no matter how mundane the information. It's why we google-search, and tune in to talk radio (news, current events, sports), and why we log on to chat rooms, and start arguments online, and turn to supposed "experts" in the field to gather opinion and insight into every esoteric topic available.

We love to have an opinion. This may be due to the old, traditional simile comparing opinions to common body parts, but it's mainly due, I think, to the simple fact that we love to feel--in some small way, at least--that we are right, and that our way of thinking about a given topic is not only the best way of thinking but should also be the only way of thinking about it. We love to share our opinions with others, of course (which, again, is the unarguable reason that the media platform of talk radio exists in the first place and has remained as popular as it has over the years.) At times, we even love to hear the opinions of others (if for no other reason, I suppose, than to see if their opinions validate our own). We love the give-and-take, the back-and-forth, and the animated discussion which allows us--if we so choose--to disagree with the difference of opinions which invevitably arises.

Because opinions will differ. Disagreement will happen. Someone will choose to say that the Beatles were the greatest and most influential pop/rock band of all time. Others will choose to say that, no, in fact it is the Roling Stones who hold that honor.

Who's right? Who's "in the know?" And who isn't? And who cares, really?

Well, as it turns out, I think in many ways (though we may not always even be fully aware of it) we all care about those questions of "Who's right?" and "Whose opinion can best be trusted?" Because we all ask those questions of ourselves and of others, in one way or another, all the time. And we all like to think, finally, that it is our opinion that rises among the ranks of all the other voices struggling to be heard, and that it is our opinion, at the end, that is the one true voice of reason.

But the sticking point for many is that having an opinion (like the cliched simile alluded to above) is easy. It comes naturally to us. It's part of our genetic makeup, in a way. It's biology at its most basic, it would seem. The difficult part comes, however, when push comes to shove (as another cliche goes) and we are forced to defend our opinions. The difficult part comes when we are asked to climb down from our proverbial fence and to answer the simple question put to us of "Well, why do you think that way?" The difficult and often uncomfortable part of having an opinion and of enjoying the freedom we all enjoy of being able to freely share that opinion is that moment when we are backed into a corner, so to speak, and forced to step out of our area of comfort--out of the "grey area" and into the polarizing territory of "black and white" end zones--and to demonstrate that we've actually done our homework and are not simply parroting someone else's opinion that we've heard somewhere along the way, and to show--as if with crude chalk drawings--some sort of logical train of thought that supports our way of thinking, some sort of homemade Aristotelian syllogism proving, without question, that If A is true, and if B is also true, then it stands to follow that C must therefore be true.

Most of us would rather not do that. Because it's tough. And because we are basically, at heart, (most of us, anyway) nice and decent people. And we're really not in this to hurt other people's feelings or to cause argument and distancing and separation. All of which invariably arises--or can, anyway--when we speak out and admit how we feel. Because inevitably someone is bound to disagree. And someone is bound to take offense and to get hurt feelings and to possibly speak out in defense.

And so it begins--again--this neverending cycle of point/counterpoint that seems to characterize our culture these days. We are caught in a media-induced "cult of opinion," almost, in which every little thing that happens is propagandized into ridiculously outsized proportions. The stereotypical talking heads gather around the sterotypical round tables. Discussion begins. Disagreement ensues. Argument erupts. Hysteria. Frenzy. Opinion.

"It is not best that we should all think alike," wrote Mark Twain. "After all, it is difference of opinion that makes horse races."

And though Twain's insight is typically incisive in his 19th-century razor-sharp satirical take, on the other hand he never had to deal with the immediate audience-response backlash of such 21st century meccas of cultural insight as Facebook, Twitter, and Formspring...to name just a few.

*[Aside: My God, what the fuck hath we wrought? I often wonder just what someone along Twain's caliber would think of the mess we've made for ourselves these days.]

I find it interesting and more than a little revealing about the times we live in that someone as strongly opinionated as Twain has never really quite gone away. Recently--in accordance with his wishes and to mark the centennial of his death--the University of California Press has published the first volume in a proposed three-volume set of the posthumous, self-penned Autobiography of Mark Twain. I'm sure within its weighty bulk readers will discover more than ever about the man. And I'm equally sure that within the pages of his Autobiography Twain will succeed in doing what he always managed to do almost better than anyone else--make you laugh at the same time that he's pissing you off with his opinions.

It's a delicate balancing act, a nuanced art, which he seemed to understand perfectly. But not everyone does. In fact, most people don't, I would say. And even Twain--with all of his artistic attempts to mask his strongly held opinions and his moral outrage as humor and as satire--can not seem to shake the inevitable effects that follow both forming and admitting one's opinion: Some people are going to be upset. Some poeple are going to take offense. And some people will disagree with you. And there will be outright consternation, vitriol, and even attack.

That's just the way it seems to go. Always. And as if I needed a case in point, I could look no further, again, than Twain himself, who ironically--while in the news for the publication of his life's letters--is in the news yet again for his most infamous piece of writing, his 1885 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I'm not going to go into the details of why Twain's most well-known book is never far from the headlines, because I'm assuming that those who pay attention to such headlines (and even those who don't) are probably aware--even if just in passing--of the book's cyclical controversy. The reason for this latest round of back-and-forth debating, however, is centered on the proposed publication--again, almost ironically in keeping with the 100th year of the man's passing--of an "alternative" version of Huckleberry Finn, with the nearly 220 uses of the word "nigger" cleaned up and replaced by the word "slave" throughout the text.

The opinion of many of the book's strongest opponents throughout the years has been largely two-fold: 1.) The repetitive use of the word "nigger"--so obviously a degrading and damning word, meant not only to dehumanize the African slaves who were brought unwittingly to America's shores but to more importantly unhumanize them, as well--is offensive and should be kept from the eyes and ears of schoolchildren around the country for fear they will read and hear the word "nigger" in a book that is quite often--deservedly or not--termed the "greatest American novel," and 2.) Mark Twain was a product of his 19th-century white southern upbringing and in his adult years sought to skillfully hide his racist tendencies beneath the carefully modulated guise of "art."

Of course, an opposite opinion of many of the book's most ardent supporters throughout the years has been largely two-fold as well: 1.) While the word "nigger" is, admittedly, hateful and offensive and demoralizing, the word is also a fact of our nation's tortured and troublesome history. Sanitizing Twain's use of the offending word may sound nicer to our 21st century politically-correct sensibilities, but it is a lie, and 2.) As a product of the 19th-century south in America, Twain could have very easily been a bigot. But anyone who has spent any time in his writings--and particularly deep inside the novel in question--would be hard pressed to honestly call the man a racist. Given his time and place, Twain was oddly and uniquely above it all, and his repeated use of the word "nigger" in his most famous novel was not done without much forethought and interior debate, and it was not done simply out of convenience, and it was not done without the knowledge that the offending word would set off a firestorm of controversy, despite his best efforts to playfully mask his work as "satire."

Now, which one of those opinions is the right one? And how can we tell? And what does it matter, finally? And what does it say about those who are willing to take a stand in an argument such as the one above? What does it say about us if we willingly, for once, slide off the fence we've been sitting on for so long and allow our feet to touch solid ground, either on one side of the fence or the other? Depending on whichever side we find ourselves landing, what does our opinion on such a debate say about us? In the end, what do any of our opinions really say about us?

Are we good people? Do we want to be good people? What is it that motivates us? What moves us? What inspires us to take action, and to take a stand, and to take a side? And what are we willing to gain by taking a stand--one way or the other--on a divisive issue? And what are we willing to lose? What are willing to speak out on? And to stand up for? And to say--if only to ourselves--"This is the truth, as I see it from where I stand. Agree or disagree, or simply agree to disagree with me."

That's a nice mantra, but it's very often easier said than done. Admitting our opinions takes courage. It's hard work, if your heart is into it. There is a toll taken, a price to be paid for admitting what you think and what you feel. Here there be tigers, after all. And usually there's no turning back. And sometimes those tigers bite.

*[Aside: But the thing about opinion and about searching for the truth is that sometimes, when we find it, the truth isn't really what we thought it would be all along. Sometimes the truth can be pretty disappointing. Our perception of the truth is deceiving. Our opinions--acting as signposts, if you will, that guide us along the way in our search for the truth--can sometimes lead us in the right direction and sometimes lead us to a dead end. Admitting those opinions, and defending those opinions in the name of Truth (whatever shape and form that may take at the moment) is a tricky art. For after all, what we deem to be true--as expressed by our opinion--may in fact turn out to be an untruth, may in fact turn out to be an outright lie. Did we mean to do this? Is this a fair representation of how we really feel? Did we mean to hurt anyone? Usually no. But still the fact remains--like Col. Jessep bellowing from the witness stand in Nicholson's menacing, inimitable growl: "You can't handle the truth!"-- simply admitting what we think and feel may earn us more enemies than friends. And sometimes that's not fair. Sometimes we wish it were the other way around. But once you say something or write something, your thoughts and feelings are out there, free to be embraced by others, and free, as well, to be rejected. And there are no "takebacks." Not really. Not in the adult world, anyway. No matter how much we may wish it could be different, very often what we say--in the name of "Our Opinion"--goes.]

"Who do I think is better between the Beatles and the Stones?" Nick said back to me. And then he laughed again, obviously stalling for time. "Wow! Are you serious? What kind of question is that?"

"It's just a question," I said. "DeRogatis and Kot wrote a whole book about that very debate. And about what it means, I suppose--what it says about you--if you fall in either camp as claiming either band to be better than the other."

"So Beatles fans are all about this and that, and fans of the Rolling Stones are about such and such?"

"Yes, I guess," I said. "Something like that, anyway. A simple delineation. Division and classification, and all of that exciting rhetorical nonsense..."

"What's good and what's bad?" Nick said.

"Yes, something like that."

"Real psychoanalytical type of stuff?"

I laughed. "It sure sounds like it to me. I'm sure if you claim to be a Stones fan, somewhere in the analysis it surely must mean you're a misogynistic asshole or something."

"'Under My Thumb,'" he offered.

"And don't forget 'Brown Sugar,'" I said.

"Racist tendencies," he said.

I laughed. "Of course."

"Simple division among people," Nick said. "Beatles fans over here. Rolling Stones fans over there."

"Segregation in its purest sense."

"Black and white."

I nodded. "There's what's right, and there's what's right," I said, quoting Raising Arizona.

"And never the two shall meet," he said.

"Yeah," I said. "It's something like that."

He laughed again and sighed, still obviously stalling for time. "Damn...that is admittedly a tough question."

"There's no tougher question in all the world," I joked. "Your whole life has come down to this very moment. The fate of the world hinges on your opinion. Now speak your mind! The Beatles or the Stones? What are you afraid of?"

He looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. And maybe I had. I don't know. He sighed. "I really don't know. I need to think about it a little more."

"No! Thinking about it kills it. Life in the moment. Inspiration of the now."

He was still looking at me as if I'd lost my mind. "'Inspiration of the now?'" he said back to me.

I laughed. "Or something like that..."

"Something like that?"

"Yeah..."

"Well, I don't know. I don't have an opinion on your question right at this moment."

I laughed. "What are you afraid of, hurting my feelings?"

"What?"

"Are you afraid I might disagree with you?" I said. "That I might point out the error of your ways? That I might have an opinion that differs from your own and that you might piss me off?"

"Personally I don't care whether you agree with me or not," he said.

And then I started to sing. I actually started singing, doing the best impersonation of Paul McCartney that I could muster, given the time of day. "'You say yes, I say no. You say stop, but I say go, go, go....'"

Nick only looked at me and shook his head sadly. Obviously he wasn't buying it.

"'You say goodbye, and I say hello....'"

"Good Lord," he finally said, laughing all the more. "What is the matter with you? Are you trying to piss me off or something? Of course the Rolling Stones were the better of the two. There's no question..."

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