Contrarian's Notebook

Disquieting Thoughts on Matters Cultural and Personal

Category: Society

That Time I Hung Out With Vanessa Hudgens

Hudgens for Blog

You might not think of me as the kind of guy who hangs out with movie stars. If so, you’d be right.

Most of the time.

Recently though, my regular habit of spending zero time with celebrities was interrupted when I found myself standing around in the same room as actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens.

Let me explain how such an event came about. My wife enters contests online. Sometimes in the evening, we’ll sit down to watch television and she’ll enter lots of them all at once. She’s won a bunch of stuff: trips, a car, a grill.

Her most recent big win was a trip for us to Vegas to attend the Billboard Music Awards. We are not the kind of people who ardently follow the pop music scene, to put it mildly. But, we are also not the kind of people who turn down a free trip because we don’t know anything about Top 40 music.

So, we went. Part of the prize package was the chance to attend a backstage event on the Saturday before the show. When we arrived, we were ushered into a long hallway full of booths containing radio personalities from around the country. They were all sitting, waiting for some celebrity who would be attending or performing at the awards show to drop by to be interviewed.

It was pretty quiet until Vanessa Hudgens, who was co-hosting the show, walked in. Her presence generated a flurry of energy. She stalked from booth to booth in impractical heels and a flowery little dress. Once in awhile, she’d pause to have her picture taken, doing that hand on the hip, head-tilted with a coy smile that someone, somewhere has declared all models, actresses and college girls with an Instagram account must do.

The moment was surreal. People fawned over her, as if there was something in her, in her very nature that set her apart from regular people and allowed her to enter the rarefied strata of the celebrity world.

I felt exactly the lack of excitement I had anticipated. I had the opportunity to walk across the room to meet her and just felt like the effort couldn’t be justified. My apathy had been hardened when I saw the way Hudgens responded to the radio people whose job it was to joke around with her and to act as if hosting the Billboard Music Awards was a serious accomplishment.

When she was being recorded, she laughed and giggled. When the recording stopped, she put down the microphone and walked out without granting the people around her the dignity of so much as a good-bye. She carried with her the aura of a synthetic and shallow culture and it shone through everything she did.

The spirit she embodied was thrown into stark contrast a couple of minutes after I walked away from her. As I was cruising down the hallway, I noticed a face I recognized. It was Tiffany Alvord’s. Alvord is a prominent YouTuber some of whose videos I’d seen.

I introduced myself to her.  She was genuine and pleasant. The energy that came from her was the opposite of what I’d seen a few minutes earlier in Vanessa Hudgens.

In short, my brief encounter with Hudgens confirmed the worst stereotypes of empty and narcissistic celebrities. Perhaps, because she built her career outside the Hollywood establishment, Alvord’s attitude was surprisingly approachable and open. The point, I suppose, is that the personalities and agendas of our cultural influencers vary widely and are not monolithic as it is easy to suppose.

Two things stood out from the experience. First, it’s easy for those of us who dissent from the messages of mainstream pop culture to think the decadence we see is the result of a gaggle of evil masterminds manipulating the levers of cultural power. There may indeed be some of that, but the fact on the ground is that our culture is made by flesh and blood people with all sorts of flaws just trying to make it in the world.

Vanessa Hudgens, whatever her faults, is not self-consciously radical in her approach to the world. She is just a girl who stumbled into an early opportunity to be marketed to other young girls by a corporation whose ultimate interest is neither cultural nor philosophical, but commercial.

Second, since pop culture is, in fact, made by normal people perhaps there is more in it that can be redeemed than I have tended to think.  By no means am I suggesting a wholesale embrace of the image-driven, materialistic ethos of pop culture. But, the mechanisms of pop culture are more accessible than they sometimes seem, whether that means holding influential conversations with members of the entertainment industry or launching a YouTube channel.

My tendency has been to think we ought to simply abandon all that, walk away from the engines of cultural power and let the thing run its destructive course. One thing I got from my time hanging out with Vanessa Hudgens is the idea that perhaps I should reconsider, that maybe turning our backs on such things is merely to abandon our duties, to give up more easily than we ought.

What We Don’t Know Will Kill Us

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Photo via J. Sutt

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people react poorly to my saying America is doomed. Their anger and consternation, however, do nothing to change the bleak outlook for our nation. All their outraged responses do is confirm their lack of imagination.  They cannot imagine a world in which the great American experiment has failed to such an extent that our union dissolves.

They see only the facade of success: our shopping malls, our massive Interstate highway system, an entertainment industry that never pauses in pushing out all manner of material some good, some degenerate, most mediocre wastes of time. People cannot imagine that such institutions could ever fail. I mean, pretty soon Amazon is going to be delivering packages to you door with drones. Freakin’ drones, man!

Every material and technological advance reinforces their confusion, and leads them further to believe that spectacular impressiveness somehow denotes permanence. It does not.

All one has to do is to look deeper to see that our foundation is rotten. The scope of our fundamental problems is so enormous that no effort, however, herculean could contain, let alone reverse them.

These problems are numerous and most are well-known: our collapsing public morality, our overthrow of the traditional family, our distressed economy and natural environment. What gets talked about much less is the corrosive effect of our collective ignorance on our social and political order.

And ignorant we are.

In recent years, it has been reported that 1 in 4 Americans can’t name more than one of the freedoms protected by the first amendment.  This is compared to the fact that more than half of us can name at least two members of The Simpsons. Almost a quarter of us can name all five members of the famous cartoon clan.

As of 2006, most Americans between 18 and 24 could not find Ohio on the map. Two-thirds could not find Iraq. At that time, only 30 percent of college graduates could read and interpret the label on a food package.  One study found  that half of college graduates are incapable of completing everyday tasks. These numbers are certainly more grim now.

The statistics go on and on. Last year, NPR reported that the vast majority of high school seniors are ready neither for college nor career.

YouTuber Mark Dice makes a point of documenting the ignorance of the general public.  In this video, he asks people some basic questions about the meaning of July 4.

 

In this one, he documents the scope of our national ignorance.

All of this is toxic for a political system built on the idea of the well-informed voter capable of rationality and self-governance.  Together, these facts demonstrate that whatever is happening in America even now, it is not the cooperation of knowledgeable citizens hashing out a way forward through engaging the marketplace of ideas.

Instead, we are a nation of mostly ignorant consumers unfamiliar with even the basics of American history and political philosophy. Most of the slightly more than half of Americans who actually vote choose their candidates simply by consulting a mix of tribal and class loyalties, the popular media, and a vague sense of what kind of person they want their friends to think they are.

The results of this widespread ignorance are many. First, it allows those who control the national conversation, mostly through mainstream media, to achieve their agenda with almost no resistance. Those who dissent from that agenda are thrust aside where their resentment builds.

Second, the populace becomes more and more polarized as the great ignorant majority drops out of political life, mesmerized by the trinkets of consumer indulgence. Those who remain involved are the most passionate, most informed and most partisan. National life is reduced to a tug of war with a rope whose middle is quickly fraying.

Eventually, the rope will snap.  No other outcome is possible. We already have a vast,expensive institution, the public schools, whose job, ostensibly anyway, is to teach citizens the fundamentals of our system. They have obviously failed. There is now no means to undo the damage.

We must accept that in the future America, if it exists at all, will not be the America of the past. We must accept that though the walls still stand and the party inside seems like it will never end, the collapse of the foundation is certain. We must abandon the idea of reform, surrender the notion of making things better, and do what we can to prepare for what comes next.

You Are Only A Unit of Production

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Sometimes, the evening just calls for pizza. We recently had an evening just like this. I can’t remember exactly what was happening, probably some combination of children’s activities and parental fatigue, but for whatever reason, we decided to forgo our regular dinner rituals and pop over to the local franchise of my wife’s favorite national chain.

Because we buy there several times a year, we always carry a take-out card. Basically, it’s a business card someone at the store marks on whenever you pick up a pizza. After ten pizzas, you get a free one.

A while ago, we redeemed our last take-out card. My wife had been in once since then. On her trip, she had asked for a new take-out card. They had none, but someone said he’d just  write the date on a piece of paper and count that toward our next free pizza.

When I went in recently, I asked for a new take-out card. The kid behind the counter looked dumbstruck. He had to check with a woman I assumed was his superior.  They didn’t have any carry-out cards. I asked if she could just write the date and our order on a piece of paper. No, she said, she was not authorized to write things on pieces of paper.

I explained that someone had just done this very thing for my wife when she was in two weeks before. “Well,” the woman said, squinting her eyes and rubbing the flour aggressively from her hands, “that must have been the general manager. I can’t write anything down.”

By this point in life, I have learned not to argue with low-level employees. All it produces is tension. Most front-line retail workers are not people gifted  with high-levels of common sense or conflict resolution skills. If they were, they wouldn’t be front-line retail workers.

I acquiesced and left with my pizza and a plan to call the corporate headquarters.

Such incidents seem trivial, but behind them is a larger, indeed global, problem. As I have written before, little incidents like these in which the consumerist system that engulfs our culture breaks down, leave people feeling powerless. I felt powerless to get my take-out card and, ultimately, my promised free pizza. I don’t doubt that the woman behind the counter felt powerless to solve my problem.

I thought of all this again this week when reading James Kalb’s “ The Tyranny of Liberalism”. One point he makes again and again, is that under the global, liberal, consumerist system, we all transform ourselves into units of production and consumption in a way that serves the system. Indeed, this process of transformation now has more influence on how we understand our identities than the traditional, organic markers of identity: family, place, and religion.

This phenomenon expresses itself in peculiar ways in the retail sector. Take the experience I have just described as an example. The woman who refused to write down that I had purchased a pizza, no doubt, could see that my request was logical. But, because she is only a unit of production in the global system, she cannot act on her own. Her desire was not to cheat me out of a free pizza or to send me out of the restaurant disgruntled.

Her goal was to follow the rules. Because what I was asking for was a slight deviation from normal, she did not know how to apply the rules to this situation and decided to err on the side of not getting in trouble with her boss. This is what it means to be a unit of production in the global system.

Work has become divested of both personal significance and power. The woman I was dealing with had no investment in me, in her customers’ feelings about the establishment where she works, or in the success of the overall business. All those things are outside her role as a unit of production.

Her role is to follow procedure.

This would not be the case if she were actually the owner of the establishment. When people’s livelihood is directly dependent on the goodwill of customers, service improves. Workers have more flexibility. The current system, though it seems mammoth and unstoppable is, in fact, vulnerable because of the rigidity and apathy it engenders.

An economy of more locally owned businesses is both less abstract and more situated in local cultures. In such a situation, businesses become agents of preservation of the kinds of communities that allow traditional markers of identity: place, family, local custom etc. to flourish.

The global economy is inherently liberal in that it prefers abstraction to organic realities and seeks to make work as abstract an activity as possible. The reason the woman I encountered would not write down what I requested is that I was making a reasonable, historically-situated request and her only means of response was through the abstract, global policies of the corporation for whom she is an abstract unit of production.

Such weaknesses are causing growing ambivalence about the global marketplace. In the end, people desire to be more than merely units of production and consumption. We desire to be people  living in a personal and humane economy.  Such an arrangement satisfies the heart in non-material and intangible ways, and the service, almost always, is better.

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