‘Stiff’ Competition

Bob Harris looks at Death Race 2000 through the eyes of a feminist who’s looking through the eyes of a man. Confused yet?

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Susan Faludi’s new book, Stiffed: The Betrayal Of The American Man, says (if it’s possible to paraphrase a 600-page book, which it isn’t, but what the heck) that many American men are suffering from an identity crisis caused largely by the breakdown of an implied social contract, one that is probably inevitable in a consumer culture.

Traditionally, if an average Joe plays by the rules — if he works hard, provides for his family, remains loyal, etc. — he’s supposed to be rewarded with a career, a house, and respect. Instead, as our society comes to devalue the social merit of work and actions of its members (of both genders), emphasizing wealth as an end instead of a means, modern manhood has (like everything else) become commodified. This is based not on social worth, but on looks, riches, fame, and so on — to the point that many American men from all walks for life find themselves not only unsure of their position, but (since one’s own culture is as pervasive as the air, and therefore as hard to scrutinize objectively) often unable even to understand precisely why.

Cool thesis. Doesn’t apply to everybody, but I bet everybody reading this knows guys she’s talking about.

Especially if you look at the presidential race.

What do American candidates call themselves in order to demonstrate their leadership abilities?

Hard on drugs, Hard on crime, and Hard on defense.

While opponents are: Soft on social programs. (By this measure, the GOP convention resembles nothing so much as a primitive fertility cult. Why bother with George W. Bush? Just roll out a 12-foot phallus, light the tiki torches, and let the carnival begin!)

And who, again, are the candidates of reform, the individuals Americans are looking to in hopes of restoring a sense of individual power? Warren Beatty, Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan, and Jesse Ventura, none of whose positions on most actual issues are particularly important to their perceived leadership ability.

Instead, all four are eligible merely because of existing fame and wealth, the precise commodities Faludi notes are deficient in America’s self-image of its manhood.

As to physical looks, all four are obsessive about their appearance, three of them successfully. And all four perpetuate their fame by consciously choosing to behave as walking caricatures of various (and sometimes conflicting) traditional images of manhood: sexual prowess, religious faith, fame, wealth, strength, militarism, etc.

Stiffed suggests that understanding the commodification of genders in a consumer culture is an important step on the road to a more equitable society.

It’s also a pretty damned amusing way to watch the elections.

Is Harry Potter a secret minion of Satan?

By now you’ve heard of J.K. Rowlings’ best-selling series of books about a nerdy boy with glasses who discovers that he’s actually the heir to a world of power. Sort of like a children’s book about Steve Forbes.

These exercises in wish fulfillment are wildly successful, which is no big surprise. The story line is basically Total Geek Makes Good, which you find in everything from Star Wars to Cinderella. (Total Geek Makes Good might also be a good name for this column, come to think of it.)

Except some folks are worried that since Harry Potter uses magic, the books are a satanic influence.

Oh, sure. Just like Jack And The Beanstalk, Hansel & Gretel, and The Wizard Of Oz can destroy a child’s mind. Most people don’t know this, but Judy Garland and Ray Bolger were secretly working for Anton LaVey.

Or consider The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Bell, Book, and Candle; and Manny, Moe, and Jack (the C.S. Lewis guide to car repair). These could drive a kid straight to Satan. I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales when I was in first grade, and I was in junior high before the Cult Awareness Network straightened me out.

Right this minute as I write this I’ve got the TV on a rerun of Bewitched. And I’m sacrificing a goat to my horned master.

The only thing people who fear Harry Potter have to worry about is a whole generation of kids who know how to read.

That could seriously mess up their recruiting efforts.

Cool science news: white or black, segregation might just drive you to an early grave, even if you ride there in a limo.

It doesn’t take much to see how lousy racial segregation is for the folks on the receiving end. But a new study conducted at Berkeley and the University of Michigan says that living in a highly segregated city is linked to increased death rates among people of all races.

The study found that the most segregated cities are Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago — apparently there’s a link between segregation and bad football — and the least segregated are Sacramento, Long Beach, Virginia Beach, and Tacoma.

Turns out there’s a direct relationship between segregation and death rates among everybody — not just poor people, not just minorities, but everybody, all races and classes — and that’s for deaths from all causes.

They’re not exactly sure what the reason is. They have some theories and they’ll keep studying.

But for now, when a minority family moves in, it’s not “there goes the neighborhood.” It’s “here comes an extra year of life expectancy.”

Bob Harris is a radio commentator, political writer, and humorist who has spoken at almost 300 colleges nationwide. His new book, Steal This Book And Get Life Without Parole, is now available at Common Courage Press.


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