My mother and I put our heads together tonight and began bemoaning the absence of charm in our modern world. The subject came up when, a propos something in our conversation, I quoted a line from “Singing in the Rain.” We fell silent a moment as we thought of that most wonderful movie, and then I asked (as one always does), “Why don’t they make movies like that anymore? It was so charming.” My mother’s response, naturally enough, was that our world doesn’t value charm or wit. We live in more of a sledge hammer culture. The charm I find so, well, charming, is now seen as artificial and cloying. It sometimes seem that, if you’re not vulgar and somewhat mean spirited (especially in the entertainment industry), you’re simply on the wrong side of the pop culture divide.
After we’d mourned the loss of a sweeter past, I came home and, coincidentally, read two things that seemed to highlight both the impediments to charm in our modern world and the wit and delicacy we’ve lost. The first thing I read was Leonard Pitts’ article about a failed MTV satire. Since I’m woefully separated from pop culture (I no longer recognize the people in People), I hadn’t heard about MTV’s little PR disaster. Here’s how Pitts describes what happened:
The cartoon, an episode of MTV2’s recent animated series, “Where My Dogs At?” is not airing presently and the network, under fire from critics incensed by the program, has not decided whether it will ever be repeated. So I’m forced to rely on press reports. But they paint a vivid picture.
“Where My Dogs At?” chronicles the misadventures of two stray canines who offer, or so it says on the Web site, a “hilariously uncensored dog’s-eye view of celebrity and pop culture insanity.”
The episode that created the uproar had a look-a-like of the rapper Snoop Dogg, who strolls into a pet store leading two black women. The women are wearing leashes. They walk on all fours. And from there, it gets worse. The women squat on their haunches scratching themselves and, upon departure, one leaves an odoriferous souvenir — that is to say, excrement — on the floor. This, it seems necessary to remind you, is meant to be funny.
Aside from the ugly racism, the vulgarity is staggering. But about that racism — the black, female MTV executive in charge of the cartoon defended it on the ground that it was satire. The cartoon was meant to take to the extreme the fact that the real Snoop did in fact show up at an awards show with two women on leashes. Pitts acknowledges that there may be validity to MTV’s motive here — satirizing its own culture — put gets to the central point, which is that our culture may have become too extreme to satirize:
I love a good satire — did I mention that already? — but for me, this episode stands as stark evidence that our world is becoming ever more satire proof. Or, perhaps more accurately, ever more self-satirizing. I mean, if satire is defined as exaggerating the real in order to show its absurdities, what do you do when the real is a man who leads women around on a leash? Where do you go with that? How do you make it more ridiculous than it already is?
Satire draws in broad strokes. It argues by caricature. But increasingly the social and political life of this country is nothing but broad strokes, nothing but caricature. From the semen stained dress of a few years back, to the malaprop-ridden man in the White House; to the senator who says the Internet is a series of tubes, to the game show that requires you to eat worms; to Paris Hilton to Nicole Richie to no bottled water on airplanes, real life has become ridiculous and outrageous to a degree that often makes parody superfluous. At the very least it makes parody more difficult while simultaneously giving moral cover to hacks who use parody as little more than an excuse to be mean and crude.
I think Pitts is exactly right. When your dominant culture has itself become a parody, where do you go from there?
In any event, as I was contemplating what I think is a sad state of affairs, I got an email entitled “When Insults Had Class.” I’m copying the email here in its entirety because it does reflect a time when wit, not vulgarity, earned applause and recognition:
“He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” — Winston Churchill
“A modest little person, with much to be modest about.” — Winston Churchill
“I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” — Clarence Darrow
“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” — William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” — Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)
“Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time reading it.” — Moses Hadas
“He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.” — Abraham Lincoln
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” — Groucho Marx
“I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” — Mark Twain
“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” — Oscar Wilde
“I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play, bring a friend… if you have one.” — George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill
“Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second… if there is one.” — Winston Churchill, in reply
Can you think of any modern personality who has produced even one bon mot comparable to the above?