Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Down To The Last Man

Today’s paper carried the news (news to me) that Billy Bob Thornton’s band, the Boxmasters, canceled the remainder of its Canadian tour, no doubt the result of the damaged relations with audiences that occurred as a consequence of the actor saying during a contentious radio interview on CBC radio’s “Q” program that Canadian fans were “mashed potatoes but no gravy.” The movie star apparently didn’t like the fact that the “Q” program’s interlocutor, Jian Ghomeshi, began the interview with references to his film career, a subject the actor had proscribed as off limits. The actor also took strong offense to Ghomeshi’s question as to whether he was passionate about music, a question which the actor felt, so it would seem, was motivated by the underlying perception that he was nothing but a musical dilettante.

Despite his protestations, though, perhaps he is a dilettante. Movie stars wanting to be pop stars are nothing new, but Thornton’s situation reveals something else about life in Western societies today, true for many, many people as well as the actor, that it is difficult to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one can be deeply passionate. Apparently, in Thornton’s case, he is not deeply passionate about movie acting. Hence he faces a choice many confront today: the choice between leading a comfortable, satisfying life of material wealth and pleasure, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause – the choice, in other words, between what Friedrich Nietzsche called “passive” and “active” nihilism.

The modern malaise was diagnosed over a century ago by Nietzsche, who observed that Western civilization is moving in the direction of what he called, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “the last man” – an effete, apathetic human being with no great passion or commitment to anything. Weak-willed, filled with ennui, unable to dream, the last man eschews risks and seeks only security and comfort: “One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink” (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 130). The last men of today are those who reject all “higher” Causes and choose instead to dedicate their life to the pursuit of narrow, artificially aroused pleasures – like pursuing the life of a pop star, for instance.

As Thornton’s situation reveals – not at all that unusual – the last man does not wish his private fantasies to be disturbed, which is why during the interview he felt he was being “harassed.” His putative “difficulty” during the interview was merely a form of lashing out, a way of condemning the cloying proximity of another human being, with his own interests and desires, his own “agenda” as is sometimes, pejoratively, said. For two issues determine today’s liberal tolerant attitude toward others: an openness toward Otherness (as long as that presence is not intrusive), and an obsessive fear of harassment. In other words, one displays an openness to the Other as long as his or her presence does not spill over into “harassment,” which is not really tolerance of the Other at all: Do not harass others as you would have them not harass you. What his radio interview painfully reveals is that the central “human right” in our society these days is the fundamental right not to be harassed – to be allowed to have safe distance from all others. Today’s form of liberalism, therefore, maintains that the experience of the Other must be deprived of its Otherness. Hence Thornton’s “mashed potatoes” comment is, in fact, disingenuous. He said, “We tend to play places where people throw things at each other. Here [in Canada], they just sort of sit there. And it doesn’t matter what you say to ‘em . . . . It’s mashed potatoes but no gravy.” But the painful reality is, his metaphorical elaboration reveals the way he really wants things to be – for the Other to be devoid of the substance that actually defines it as distinctly Other.

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