Today, I watched a lecture by Malcolm Mclaren, the crazy man who once ‘managed’ the Sex Pistols. I will resist putting the video up here, as it runs about three quarters of an hour and I feel I can safely presume you will have neither the time, nor the interest to tear yourself away from the more pressing matters that you undoubtedly have to attend to. The word lecture hasn’t helped your curiosity either. I will thus freely plagiarize from it and attempt to offer insightful thoughts to gratify your suffering intellect.
The one idea that captures the gist of his talk was this: we’re living in a culture where it’s cool to be stupid.
I can see you agreeing. Yes, the thought seems nothing of a revelation. It’s something we have all probably thought of, and encountered ourselves, especially if we happen to work with some MBAs. Stupidity is not only cool, it’s immensely rewarding.
It seems to me that until a few decades ago, educated people were looked up to. The effort and time they dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, or skill, or art, was deeply admired. Now, the general reaction to a PhD is one of incredulity and confusion. Why would anyone choose to study all their lives? Why wouldn’t they want to be a millionaire at age 25, just like normal people?
Learning for the sake of learning, is an idea greeted with amused frowns.
But even the process of learning itself has become something of an old-fashioned burden. Something you have no choice but to suffer. If only you had a shortcut to bypass this whole cumbersome process and get straight to your true goals: money and fame. Kaun Banega Crorepati mein aapka swagat hai, deviyon aur sajjanon.
How can a child be expected to value something like an education, when he grows up watching people becoming rich and famous by making complete cocks of themselves on reality shows. How can people be expected to try different things, accept failures, and start over, when they’re made to believe that age 30 is ‘over the hill’. What fucking hill?
A few days ago, I feverishly reread The Agony and the Ecstasy, the excellent fictional biography of Michelangelo. It carves an interesting portrait of Florence as the ground zero of the Renaissance, showing how the Medici – a banker family – brought together and created the greatest thinkers and artists of Europe, and how the men and women of Florence knelt and cried in front of Michelangelo’s David. It makes one wonder how unimaginable it is to think of such a thing happening today. Today, people stand with their backs to ‘that famous naked statue’ and giggle for profile pictures.
We have analyzed it and jargonized it, calling it ‘The Medici Effect – cross-fertilization of ideas by breaking down the traditional boundaries of disciplines and cultures’. But we have forgotten what it means: the respect given to writers and poets and artists and philosophers. A 15th century pope, perhaps the most powerful man of his time, sent his army chasing after Michelangelo when he left Rome, with orders not to touch him, to only deliver a ‘request’ from the Holy Father to consider painting the ceiling of a little chapel. Respect of that sort. Today, we remember Galileo and laugh at the ignorance of the same institution, and yet fall over ourselves to ban works of art (or artists) that dare to provoke in the slightest bit.
Despite Woody Allen’s recent warnings about ‘Golden Age thinking’ – the flawed notion of a previous age being better than the present – it is impossible to look at the values of our society today and not wonder just how much we have ‘civilized’ in half a millennium.
The pursuit of money and material pleasures is nothing new. And maybe there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. What is bothersome is the feeling of entitlement; the belief that the process of learning, of working hard to achieve something, is for fools. The idea that success is defined by the cars you drive, the holidays albums you shove in everyone’s faces, the money you spend on your wedding. And anyone who doesn’t achieve it, now, is a loser.
The absolute fear of failure on counts like these guides all our choices, from the moment we are capable of making them. Anything that does not get you closer to those ‘goals’, or doesn’t get you likes on Facebook, is a complete waste of time.
Do you read books? “Yes, if they can help me make more money“. What kind of books do you read? “Bestsellers”.
Take a look at any Indian bestseller list and you’ll want to burn all the bookstores down. After ordering dozens of books from Flipkart, it still can’t stop recommending me Chetan Bhagat or The fucking Secret or some such pile of bullshit. Rohinton Mistry is banned and nobody cares, while Shiv Khera can’t stop printing Gandhis. For fuck’s sake.
As Mclaren put it (remember him?), we’re living in a “karaoke culture”, rather than one based on authenticity. It is the culture of shutting down your mind, joining the mob to do the cool thing, and getting instant gratification and universal praise for doing fuck all.
When asked how we can move away from this culture, he replies, characteristically, “Why screw a rubber doll when you can screw the real thing?”
My answer? Rage. Rage against the dying of the light. Especially on the eve of a new year, when you have exhausted your stock of cheap wine, exceeded your bandwidth limit, and can no longer watch illegal videos to waste away the hours that still remain.