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December 29, 2019
From BAD to worse….
One of my favorite books is BAD. It’s pretty much a book-length polemic.
BAD was written by Paul Fussell, described by the Washington Post as a ‘world-class curmudgeon,’ and–as a professor of history and literature at both Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania–he had some academic chops to back up the acidity of his prose. Because, make no mistake, BAD is some caustic stuff.
You see, the subtitle of BAD is “The Dumbing of America,” and that is very much the book’s focus. It’s one essay divided into 25 or so odd parts, each criticizing something different and terrible, from Advertising and Architecture to Restaurants, Signs, and Television. But BAD doesn’t take aim at the merely “bad.” As Fussell himself put it: “Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever–something no one ever said was good. BAD is different.” Fussell goes on to explain that BAD is something “phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant or boring” that many Americans can be persuaded or have actually been persuaded is “genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating.” (And I’d add “worthy of attention” to that list in our current over-hyped, over-saturated marketplace of media, which is really what being BAD is all about–garnering attention that wouldn’t otherwise be warranted.) Simply put, BAD is “bad,” plus hype. It’s Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner. It’s Dogecoin. It’s the “gluten-free” aisle at Whole Foods (and for that matter, it’s Whole Foods). It’s anyone who has ever claimed to be an “influencer” for a living or invited total strangers to follow them on TikTok. It’s people who post “unboxing” videos on YouTube where their kids unwrap the latest toys for views, not for fun. And, of course, BAD is Donald Trump. (Yes, I know I’ve said over the years that I don’t get political on my website, but it’s my site, so I make the rules, and I can change them. So, nyah.)
Fussell died in 2012, so he never saw the last few years. (I’m a bit envious in a way.) I think the thing that would have to disappoint him the most is how little his message took hold. Granted, it’s not as if BAD was a runaway bestseller, but the continued slide that we’ve seen since the book came out in 1991 is alarming. If anything, Fussell’s complaint about American actors–noting it would be hard to imagine Tom Cruise playing Iago–is blunted when one has actually seen Keanu Reeves play Don John. His dissection of USA Today feels quaint when seen in the vaguely glowing light of the histrionic blogs and Facebook pages where so many get their “news.” And New Ageism, Creation “science,” and Bigfoot are just as much bullshit as ever, but now their believers have blown straight through The Celestine Prophecy and been joined by Q-Anon, anti-vaxxers, and a bunch of Karens who’ve “done their research.” In short, things aren’t just BAD. They’re much, much, MUCH worse.
And it makes me wonder where we go from here. Because things aren’t improving. We’re not getting smarter as a society, as a people, or as a species. We’re not thinking critically, if we’re thinking, at all. And, in true “BAD” fashion, so many of those who have the least understanding are convinced they have all the answers.