September 30, 2009

There’s no tomorrow

In the great film “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, a robot, suggests that humanity’s chances of survival aren’t very good. Specifically, he says, “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves.”

That’s right, kids, it’s time to consider one of my favorite topics of party conversation: self-destruction. Leaping past the merely unhealthy, let’s consider those behaviors that actually hasten our demise, individually and collectively. Yes, I know that my compulsion to discuss dark topics is one of the reasons I am not invited to many parties, but I think many aspects of our culture are unhealthy, and letting them pass without comment isn’t healthy either.

The most obvious and ubiquitous of the cultural avenues of self-destruction involves binge drinking. While we are regularly told to drink responsibly (a concept that is vaguely limited to assigning a designated driver, a person who — what? — drinks a little less than the rest of us?), the concept of binge drinking is endorsed by every beer commercial and major league sports broadcast. From the colorful local news coverage of the intoxicated celebrants in the infield at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day, to the enthusiastic endorsement of “tailgating” before any ballgame in commercials for beer, trucks and barbecue equipment, the acceptance of inebriation is a cultural norm, and as we train our citizens to equate intoxication with joy, we find that some of our friends and fellows move on to even more destructive drugs.

I don’t think alcohol should be illegal. The only thing Prohibition accomplished was the creation of a successful model for criminal organization, and while the commodities have changed since the 1920s, the model continues to exist.

Worse, the businesses that succeed in selling self-destruction legally are obviously profitable. These are not limited to beer bottlers. Consider the self-destructive effects of our national diet: soda pop and fast food. And as business will look for any avenue to profit, the creation of unhealthy, overweight citizens has led to the profitability of health care. But when business starts consuming its customers, capitalism becomes self-destructive as well.

One of my favorite expressions of the concept of self-destruction was presented in a cartoon by Tony Millionaire, an episode of his “Maakies” series. Once broadcast on “Saturday Night Live,” it opens with Drinky Crow sitting on a little hill near a tree stump. The squirrel offers to give Drinky Crow $2 if he fills the hollow tree stump with acorns. Drinky Crow complies and collects his money. He then goes to the General Store. It looks like the only merchandise available at the General Store is a revolver and a collection of little brown bottles. Drinky Crow asks, “How much is that gun?”

The proprietor says, “That gun is $4.”

Drinky Crow says, “How much is that whiskey?”

The proprietor says, “That whiskey is $1.”

Drinky Crow says, “Give me the whiskey.” Then he goes and drinks it down, glug, glug, glug.

Thereafter, the entire scene is repeated, exactly, ending with Drinky Crow buying and drinking a second bottle of whiskey. On the third day, after collecting his money from the squirrel, Drinky Crow buys the pistol and blows his brains out. The whole episode runs 41 seconds.

I’m not sure this qualifies as humor, but as a sly commentary upon hopelessness, it packs quite a punch. It is clear, in Drinky Crow’s willingness to perform work, he should be able to better himself, but when he collects his pay, he simply chooses the most available means to hasten his demise, and once he’s able to acquire an instrument capable of instantaneously nullifying his life, that is the choice he makes.

As the rift widens between the ultra-rich and the other 99 percent of us who are doomed to struggle financially (and some more than others), this model of hopelessness is likely to become more and more common. And without an alternative model prominently presented, with or without a profit motive, our population will continue to rot. Our prisons will continue to fill. Our homeless population will continue to grow. And our suicide rates, intentional or unintentional, will rise.

For T.B.

For next time: Lars Von Trier has a new movie coming out called “Antichrist.” You should be able to find a preview on YouTube. Meanwhile, see if you can find one of his other movies, “Dancer in the Dark” with Bjork or “Boss of It All.”