People of Color

2013 February 16
by Carl Watson

I danced for them all night long.

Recently I happened upon a review of Michael Apted’s new film 56 Up. It was in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago and it was written by David Denby. 56 Up is the seventh installment on the original 7 Up documentary that sought to compare to a varied group of British citizens from different classes. Apted’s main goal was to examine the British class system and how it affects the lives of citizens over time. Denby’s main goal is to analyze how Apted’s concept has held up over time.

Denby notes that as the British citizens grow older they do, in fact, end up being in some sense prisoners of their class. The subtext here is that Americans do not have this problem— for one thing America is a “classless” society. For another, we have the freedom to cross those class boundaries (the ones that don’t exist) and that is an American freedom. We do, however, pay for that freedom with risk. Risk and freedom go together in capitalism.

While the reality of that free social mobility is highly questionable, one has to admit that it is in fact possible. As mentioned this is the seventh installment of the 7 Up franchise and the people studied have grown from childhood to late middle age. We get to see what they have become and how they feel about themselves. Denby seems to hint that the British citizens tend to be somewhat happier with their lot than Americans in general. Which is to say: unburdened by the pressure to constantly be improving one’s lot in life, the pressure to constantly be striving, the pressure to constantly feel bad for not having broken the barriers of class, these British people can relax into their position and enjoy the life they actually have.

Americans are not happy in this way because the possibility of doing better is constantly thrown in front of them not just as a possibly, but as an accusation. The American is constantly questioning his/herself. Why didn’t I succeed? What’s wrong with me?  My lack of success is a lack of character and any lack of character is a failure on my part. This string of associations and accusations can go on and on.

I’m not going to get into this argument in any detail because it is complicated and loaded with thought-mines, political and otherwise. What I do want to address is Denby’s comment that the British, though “saner” are “less colorful” than Americans.

The British class system has its protections at every level but also (at least to American eyes) a kind of built-in inertia. None of the participants have become alcoholic or drug-addicted, but none have attempted to remake themselves in their forties or fifties, either. None have become entrepreneurs; none have married up or savagely down in class. In all, they don’t have the seething ambitions and restlessness of so many Americans. They’re saner and perhaps happier than we are, but also less colorful. Of course, by “63 Up,” all this may have changed. — David Denby

What he must mean by this statement is that Americans of our various (non-existent) classes are somehow more “interesting”; they are more colorful characters, and thus have greater “entertainment value” for the observer, observers such as you or I or Denby himself, who, as a film reviewer no doubt appreciates outsized characters. But we are all in this together, hyped up as we are on a constant sugar diet of exaggerated characters on TV and in the movies, when we are “free to be you and me,” that “you and me” is somehow assumed to be, by definition, “colorful” and exciting.

It worked for me.

I’m not even going to argue as to whether Denby’s observation is true. What I want to highlight is the assumption that: 1) this is a good thing, i.e. that we should all be “colorful characters” and, 2) and that being “colorful” is a product of the American system: i.e. one needs to be subject to all kind of economic and (non-existent) class injustice, plus the perpetual risk of absolute and catastrophic life failure, in order to have this treasured “entertainment value.”

This is not available to the sad sack British, apparently. Are the British really less colorful than Americans? For that matter, are the Vietnamese, the Russians, the Peruvians, less colorful? Who cares? Isn’t this elevation of “colorfulness” really just a form of class prejudice in and of itself, in which people of the “monied” or “creative classes” feel they have a right to be entertained by the lower classes?

We see this in the attitude of New Yorkers all the time, who seem to feel that the value of other peoples, (whom they mostly look down upon) lies primarily in their entertianment value. People from the south for instance are accepted in new York if they can play a guitar or have some gothic tales to entertain us. People from the Midwest or other hinterlands must live up to certain stereotypes that allow us to be amused.

Denby may simply and innocently think entertainment value is somehow integral to the American personality. Or maybe, being American, he is just not able to appreciate the entertainment value of other cultures that do not align with his own. But the more important question is, how does your own entertainment value, affect your personal life and development?

Is your entertainment value, a quality of your life (does it enhance your living experience), or is it a quality of other people’s lives, i.e. those who observe you. And what do we owe those who observe us. What is surprising is that we have come to the point in American society that we can assume, even demand, that we should be entertained by our fellow citizens (if not by our entire environment). In fact it’s almost a silent amendment to our Bill of Rights: “I have a right to expect you to be entertaining.”
One way of looking at it is that the need to be “colorful” is a product of our market economy in which each individual has value according to the market. In the post-industrial world, entertainment value is high on the list, especially for those with little capital. Note the vast number of entertainers on YouTube. Thus being “colorful” being “fascinating,” is really a quantification of your use value to others, especially those who can exploit it.

It’s a cliché now that we are all artists. But since the 19th century it has not been enough to be an artist one must be a colorful character as well. Walter Benjamin wrote that the artist ventures into the masses looking to sell himself, which is why we’re all putting on the clown make-up and speaking in exaggerated cadences and saying whatever we think will bring us some attention. The craven need for attention that drives most people these days is a poison. It propagates consumerism, waste of all kinds, lack of sympathy and lack of community.

Modern chimney sweep. Where's Julie Andrews when you need her?

Perhaps the truly radical statement today is to reject that demand. Refuse to be a performing dog for the masses. The entertainment industrial complex can’t make you do it. But then sadly most of us do it anyway. In this hyper mediated age, there just isn’t any other way to be.

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