The Confederate flag is an American symbol like no other. The reasons for this aren’t complicated: the Rebel flag is both distinctly American and functionally anti-American at the same time. It’s American in the sense that it once stood for a rebellion started by Americans, but anti-American in the sense that those American rebels waged a treasonous war against, you know, the United States. Yes-sir-ee-Bob, the stars and bars represents the most chaotic moment in U.S. history, when the land of the free went to war over the fact that millions of its residents were decidedly unfree, and plenty of (white) Americans wanted to maintain that status quo.
Americans love to shop. More than a mere mundane exercise in the exchange of script for goods and services, shopping in the U.S. has long been a kind of secular ritual. During this ongoing rite, the trembling, plastic and paper contents of Americans’ collective purses and wallets are gleefully drawn and quartered through millions of soulless, retail card-swipe machines or fed into the ravenous, gaping maws of insatiable cash registers in an orgiastic display of consumerist debauchery that would make Caligula blush. Indeed, so intense is the American consumer’s desire to please the market and retail gods that we even have a term, “citizen-consumer,” to describe how Americans want to define and project their personal identities via the buying of goods and services.
On February 2, 2014 — Groundhog Day — America lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom many critics considered to be “the best actor of his generation.” The forty-six-year-old actor was found dead in his New York City apartment building of an apparent drug overdose; a reasonable conclusion given the needle that still pierced his arm. Thus, in a turn of events that has long since become tragically clichéd, Seymour Hoffman joined many a brilliant artist from all mediums and from all parts of the world whose genius was too large a burden, driving them to self-medicate and self-destruct.
Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death spurred an outpouring of grief and well-wishes both from the film industry and from the general public as well; a testament to the profound influence his screen-presence rendered on American culture. Indeed, the tragedy of Seymour Hoffman’s death speaks volumes about the unique role the film industry has played in shaping American culture since the early 20th century, for better and for worse.
If you think that the idea of Christmas commercialism is something new, then you haven’t checked out the 19th century recently. Follow this link to Salon where I discuss why the “War on Christmas” is utterly bogus.
Halloween. It’s a holiday anticipated and embraced with equal fervor by kids craving an unmitigated sugar rush, by adults looking for an excuse to dress up like creepily-eroticized pop-culture characters, and by dentists craving sugar-induced high insurance deductibles.
Halloween is a big deal in America today. For a hyper-materialistic society that long ago replaced agricultural rhythms with consumer totems as markers of the seasonal cycles, the first appearance of Halloween paraphernalia in shopping centers signals the transition from summer to fall. Moreover, American society is rife with contradictions created by major disconnects between ideals and reality on issues ranging from marriage, to sex education, to economic mobility. Halloween’s emphasis on duality and the inversion of traditional social customs appeals to Americans caught up in these webs of contradictions because it effectively sanctions misbehavior and the inversion of “traditional” norms. In this respect, Halloween — at least temporarily — validates Milton’s famous line that “it’s better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”