Thursday, March 18, 2010

Was This What Romans Felt Like, But With More Funny Cat Videos?

I read two articles today that gave me a very good sense of the national depression in the United States today. I don’t mean just the economic crisis, which is still just in recession territory. I mean the psychological and moral depression in the United States.

One explained a particularly strange investment: an insurance that will pay off if a country defaults on its national debt. Particularly, the article explained how counter-productive such an investment is when it’s held against the national debt of the United States. Because that country is so intimately integrated with the economies of so many other countries (particularly in terms of those countries which themselves have purchased large amounts of US debt), this actually would cause the entire global financial system to collapse.

Of course, under these conditions, no one could collect on this insurance, because there wouldn’t be any money left. And these insurance packages constitute a very small percentage of the total investment market. But the fact that they exist at all speaks to the amazing pessimism of contemporary Americans. What kind of people would even consider the possibilities of betting against their own country? Perhaps people who have become resigned to collapse.

The other article talked about a curious phenomenon in popular culture: the prominence of the Omega Male. We all know what an alpha male is: the muscular, dominating, soldier, jock, thunder lizard. And we can get an idea of what a beta male is: a nice guy who gets by, maybe a little on the bland side, the baxter, Jim Halpert. The omega male is the self-sabotager who whines about having been sabotaged, the loser, the stoner, the jerk. Referring specifically to Ben Stiller’s new movie Greenberg, he seems a holy fool, a pathetic figure played for laughs, but for whom a strange sympathy develops.

The omega male comes in many forms. The “Liberal Arts Layabout” is a failed artist or professional, becoming either bitter at the consciousness of their failure of retreating into a fantasy world. The “Mimbo” (thank you for this word, Elaine Benes) is a prettyboy without the intelligence even to direct his confidence towards some goal, or even to formulate some goal. The “Beer Guy” is a moron who has let himself relax into a pool of filth and Bud Lite. The “Game Boy” is the nerd who lacks the brains to make good use of his antisocial habits, the perpetual adolescent.

They are the figures of a society who has dropped out, archetypes of dominance who no longer have the capacity to control. Americans still have some measure of hope for the future, but this is a culture who has long equated success with domination, and that just isn’t possible anymore. Obama is probably a public figure who breaks most of these stereotypes of Greek-lettered men: intelligence, power, and charisma coupled with humility and respect.

But I still find something romantically strange about some of these failure figures. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been readind Don Quixote. Jason Schwartzman’s character in Bored to Death is described as a Liberal Arts Layabout Omega Male: a failed writer who enters a fantasy world to become a bumbling private detective after reading too many mystery novels. The parallel with Quixote is clear: our Don was a landed gentry of no note whatsoever until he read too many chivalric romance novels and took up a career as a knight errant, resurrecting through his own examples a golden age of justice that never before existed. I’m not saying Bored to Death is in the same league as one of the seminal works of Western literature. But there could be worse things to imitate, and far worse sources of material to steal.

The funny thing is that Don Quixote meets with a kind of success: he’s condescended towards throughout the first part of the two-part novel (I’m just under halfway through). But he demonstrates a kind of ethical striving that inspires a lot of the characters he encounters to improve their lives. He passes among quite a few people whose lives he plays a part in making better. He has an equal number of screw-ups, but the perfection he seeks is impossible. Perhaps this is the path of some of these noble loser figures, and dreams of better days gone by can resurrect that which never was.

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