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As uselessly contrarian as I tend to be, the holiday season tends to bring out my cynicism, leaving me feeling that I believe in nothing, like The Big Lebowski‘s nihilists. It’s not merely a matter of my not being religious; I find myself not wanting to buy into the holiday spirit at all. I grouse about the music, and the gifting and the parties and the traveling and the stress and the continual efforts of coordination that must be made for no one’s particular satisfaction, just so that one can feel as though one participated in an inescapable social ritual. Part of my uneasiness comes from a misplaced expectation of authenticity, a notion that that the contrived aspect of the holiday season destroys spontaneity and replaces the opportunity for it with ersatz obligations. I tend not to see the season’s contrivances as opportunities themselves, as moments when society tolerates our going slightly beyond the way we ordinarily treat acquaintances, when we can, generally speaking, safely venture a little bit more of ourselves. So it may be that I, with my customary suspicion that I have little to offer, try to absent myself from the proceedings altogether.

This year, I tried to soalce myself after the seasonal onset of my lack of belief by reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which I got from the bargain shelf in a Seattle used book store. Hoffer (a “longshoreman philosopher” who wrote as an unaffiliated autodidact) was interested in investigating the nature of mass movements, and what permitted the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the 1930s, and he set out his conclusions in the this near-aphoristic work. Hoffer’s main insight is that one’s eagerness to belong to a mass movement derives from a sense of personal frustration, an overwhelming sense of failure in the face of the opportunities afforded in a free society. “When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need of something apart from us to live for. All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives.” Talk about cynical. Hoffer regards the rise of mass movements as the almost inevitable consequence of widespread mediocrity coupled with the unreasonable expectations that democracy generates for the common person. “Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of one ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’ ” Democratic ideology leaves the impression that all men are equal, whereas it has the effect of making one’s place in the irrepressible hierarchies in society seem entirely the individual’s fault. Thus the frustrated people in a capitalist democracy “want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.”

So if frustration produces a longing for a mass movement that resolves all personal inadequacies in a dedication to a cause, then what should we make of consumerism, which seems to work in precisely the opposite way, generating frustration while imbuing consumers with the imperative to be an individual and construct a unique, predominantly external identity on the basis of which one can be judged. Is it a recipe for fomenting fascism, instilling the frustration with oneself that makes one susceptible to being led and having society leveled? Or is consumerism just the ideological by-product of a commitment to individualism? Is it a way of embodying that ethic in a set of economic practices, as ideologues like Milton Friedman have always insisted—i.e. that the freedom of choice offered by market societies derives from a culture prioritizing and prizing personal freedom? Or does it help flatter people into believing they are profoundly and uniquely creative, setting them up for permanent frustration with themselves and what they are brought to believe is a personal failure. Consumerism invites dilettantism, because it promises that everything is easy and that you can do anything if you buy the right accoutrements. So consumers are prone to becoming what Hoffer calls permanent misfits: “Whatever they undertake becomes a passionate pursuit; but they never arrive, never pause. They demonstrate the fact that we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and that we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves.”

Hoffer exempts from the centripetal pull into the abyss of mass movements those people who have genuine creative outlets: “Nothing so bolsters our self-confidence and reconciles us with ourselves as the continuous ability to create; to see things grow and develop under our hand, day in, day out. The decline of handicrafts in modern times is perhaps one of the causes for the rise of frustration and the increased susceptibility of the individual to mass movements.” How can that be, with Michael’s Crafts opening in every suburban strip mall?

Consumerism, with its emphasis on passive acquisition, tends to undermine crafts and hobbies, subordinating them to the master hobby of collecting things. And capitalism eviscerates most jobs and empties them of their social meaning. But the counterargument can be made that consumerism makes the necessary materials for hobbies cheap and plentiful, and the division of labor gives people the time to pursue them. It’s just their personal weakness and indecision that leaves them bored and unfulfilled.

So it’s hard to determine whether consumerism is a stepping stone to fascism or its antidote. Also, then, is the holiday season zeitgeist a proto-fascist expression of mass-movement psychology in the face of capitalist culture’s ideology of individualism, or is it actually a perfect encapsulation of that ideology, dressed up in the pseudo-religious garb of a mass movement? By trying to reject holiday cheer and the exposure that comes with the giving spirit it demands, I’m in part trying to keep myself cloaked in the anonymity that Hoffer singles out as a sign of the frustrated weakling: “The passion for equality is partly a passion of anonymity: to be one thread of the many which make up a tunic; one thread not distinguishable from the others. No one can then point us out, measure us against others and expose our inferiority.” I feel like one of those permanent misfits, too, out of step, feeling frustrated by the phoniness that seems to surround me but may in fact be coming from within.

But then, I can’t decide if my resistance to the holidays isn’t really an expression of weakness and frustration, but rather a defiant attempt to assert my individuality in the face of Santa’s marching orders. Maybe my attitude is all wrong. I should go into that white elephant exchange at my work with the proper competitive spirit, with the certainty that my gift is going to kick the ass of all those other ones.

The only thing possibly more fascinating than each and every gorgeous, vivid, mind-bogling episode of this award-winning BBC series is the “making of” short that followings each episode. Even the most casual viewer will lose herself in the beauty, violence, and fragility of this planet as conveyed in these stories of life on Earth in places where few humans can or should go. At some point she’ll realize that a few brave and talented humans did go to such places, and went to considerable effort to bring these stories to her TV set. An obvious choice for nature lovers, this exceptional series will also appeal to visual artists, armchair adventurists, and anybody who likes well-told stories of epic scale. (Available for $59.95 at Discovery Channel store)


Selection from cave episode

The dizzying maze of Ike and Tina Turner compilations is long and winding. Countless budget packages have flooded the market over the years, reducing the rich Ike and Tina catalog to an impulse purchase at the checkout line. The few quality releases out there often only skim the surface. Except for the single-disc Proud Mary: The Best of Ike and Tina Turner (1991), there really hasn’t been an exhaustive anthology of their entire 15-year career, partly due to licensing music from the numerous record companies that own different parts of the catalog. (Ike was always on the hunt for a more lucrative record deal.) Time-Life has mustered the financial might to compile the definitive collection of Ike and Tina Turner: The Ike and Tina Turner Story 1960-1975 is, essentially, all you’ll ever need to know. Definitive in nearly every possible way, this set is the exclamation point on an act that bridged together rock and soul and black and white audiences. Often overlooked, but not easily forgotten, Ike and Tina Turner represent a time when the spectacle of a stage show and the talent of the performers were of equal magnitude. Colin Escott ends his liner notes with the following analysis: “These are some of the records they made. The ones that matter.” I couldn’t agree more.

I’ll admit it, I was skeptical. I thought our own L.B. Jeffries might have sucked down one too many helium balloons as a small child when he took on the assignment of reviewing the American Idol Talent Challenge and actually decided he liked it. Of course, this meant I had to try it.  And you know what? He’s right. The quality of the little contraption you get in the box with the fairly disposable DVD with the judge snark and the Idol-specific karaoke tracks is actually quite high for such an inexpensive karaoke machine. It will work just fine with a typical karaoke DVD, it will work fine with your DVD-Audio copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (as long as you don’t mind singing along with Wayne Coyne), and L.B.‘s right, it works especially well when you want to insert your own Mystery Science Theater-style commentary into the latest DVD release of, say, Gigli. It’s a fun party contraption for adults, and I don’t think I have to explain why kids love the thing. Fifty bucks might seem a bit much for an American Idol-branded hunk of plastic, but the possibilities it opens up are surprising, not to mention lasting.

Sam Pulsipher has many problems. Not only did he burn down Emily Dickinson’s home, but he also killed two people. And while he’s married and started to raise a family, the son of the victims begins to make life difficult for him. And then other writers’ homes start to go up in flames. Sam’s fictional memoir, which slavishly obeys the clichés of the genre, is one of the funniest books of this fall. Brock Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England unsparingly anatomizes our penchant for narrating our lives—our bizarre insistence that our life doesn’t count until it fits a prepackaged set of cultural conventions. The book is a literary funhouse, and its best trick is how readily Clarke makes us believe in the gag. Sam is such an engaging bumbler that one’s heart goes out to him, one wants to believe in his story, even at those moments when it’s absolutely clear that we’re being had.

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