Observing US:
A column by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#20, November 11, 1998


by Marylaine Block

One thing you've gotta notice about Americans is attitude. It comes with democracy, this belief that our opinions are as good as any other and a damn site better than most. You can read it in the letters to the editor, hear it in the callers on C-SPAN, watch it in the late night comedy routines. Nobody's safe from it, not the President, not Bill Gates, not Alan Greenspan, not even Charlton Heston (and his guys have guns).

Our attitude toward authority is disrespectful at best, which perhaps explains why when John Mellencamp sings "I fight authority, authority always wins," we are all stomping and singing along with him, whether we are kids or middle-aged librarians. For us, the fact of power has never made it legitimate. In World War II, when American forces were surrounded by Germans and ordered to surrender, the American commander's response was, "Nuts!"

This is partly the result of the democratic spirit -- I may be serving you cocktails, but I'm as good as you are; you may be the President but you're no better than I am. We react badly to pretention in our leaders; when Nixon wanted to dress his White House guards up in filigreed uniforms straight out of an operetta, he was greeted with laughter and loud boos, and had to back off.

It also has to do with a kind of cocky self-assurance we have always admired: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead;" "Be sure you're right then go ahead." In the great game of "I'm OK, You're OK," we have played "I'm OK, you're not." We have always joked about the cluelessness of our leaders and our bosses -- there is nothing new under the sun, not even Dilbert.

But it also stems from a distrust of authority that is built into our system. Our Bill of Rights, a list of things the federal government is not allowed to do, is predicated on the assumption that governments can't be trusted with too much power.

The level of popular distrust of authority has fluctuated over time, but VietNam and Watergate restored our natural suspicion of government. So too did its failure to solve our big problems. It gave us Civil Rights, but not racial harmony, crime bills, but not safety. It failed to offer us security in an international economy in which we are all just replaceable cogs in the industrial machine.

Not surprisingly, attitude is at an all-time high these days. A lot of current catch phrases reflect a sort of grim realism about the fact that we're not in control, an acceptance that "life's a bitch and then you die," so, "well, DUH!," "get over it," "get a life," and quit bitching. Since the system stinks, use it, get everything you can out of it, and subvert it.

Popular culture offers us splendid opportunities for subversion. Never before have so many class clowns grown up to have such power to shape our culture with their portrayals of teacher caught with his pants down. Cartoonists, late night comics, and radio talk show hosts all rejoice in the silliness of the powerful, and of course their own superiority to them.

The net offers 'zines like Suck, and personal pages for legions of rebels and Riot Grrls ("all women who are too pissed off, unhappy, tough, geeky, or brainy to do and think what they're told"). It's a great place for sticking your tongue out at authority -- my son's music review site is called "33 Rebellions a Minute."

Middle-aged critics called Seinfeld a show about nothing, because they didn't understand it was a show about attitude, Generation X style. Seinfeld and Riot Grrls and nose rings and purple hair may annoy us older folks. But they're all just a sign that the kids are carrying on the rich American tradition of attitude.

Sez who? Sez me.

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