America: Through the Eyes of Pop Culture

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Some argue that the idea of American “culture” is nonexistent. Some say we are simply a disorganized homogenization with no true identity. I attempted to debunk this assertion through extensive online research, combing the daily minutia of the internet–specifically, entertainment news. What I discovered is that pop-culture illustrates more than just the over-glorification of celebrity. It also serves as a mind-numbing reflection of American values.

The following images represent a vignette of American culture–albeit a vignette of disappointment and embarrassment. Nevertheless, it is a reflection of culture indigenous to America. It begins on a holiday, on the night of Halloween, in the Hills of Beverly:hugh hefner miley cyrus On October 28th, 2013, Hugh Hefner tweeted this photo of himself with 27-year-old wife, Crystal Harris. Hugh Hefner is 87, by the way. He was 60 when she was born. I’ll let that sink-in…

Crystal was dressed as Miley Cyrus from her now-infamous VMA performance, while Hugh was dressed as…I don’t know. He looks like a Madam Tussauds wax sculpture of a death row inmate. No. Wait. Sorry. He’s supposed to be Robin Thicke. Now I see it.

First of all, let’s start with Hugh Hefner. Essentially, this man’s entire career justified what Miley Cyrus did on stage at the VMAs. He made promiscuity acceptable in society. He turned the Hollywood image of empowered women like Marilyn Munroe into sex objects. We’ve grown to celebrate this type of “freedom” in American culture. Some might call that “empowerment”. But I dare those same people to watch one episode of The Girls Next Door and try making an argument for feminism. I’m not saying women in this country should be wearing burqas but there has to be self-conscious limitations on freedom of expression.

While it’s true that “progressive” values have ushered much-needed social change throughout history, America’s idea of “progression” seems to be limitless in certain aspects. Because as far as we’ve progressed, we’ve also taken steps backwards in terms of cultivating intellectual culture. We have completely lost sight of our moral boundaries. We’re becoming culturally desensitized to what is right and wrong.

Even our childhood institutions are no longer sacred. Look at Disney. Look what they did to Miley.

And Vanessa Hudgens. And Selena Gomez.

And Britney Spears. And Christina Aguilera.

And Bambi’s mom! WHY?! I was just a child, Walt! You twisted, bastard!

Over the past decade, Disney went from this:

before

To this:disney gals 75

[Side note: It was Nickelodeon who discovered Emily Ratajkowski (below), who, coincidentally, was one of the topless models in Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines” video, which, subsequently, facilitated the controversial Miley Cyrus VMA performance, thus, culminating in the controversial aforementioned Halloween outfit of October 28th, 2013]

The circle of life:

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The second image comes to us from Nashville, Tennessee. It’s Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood singing a scathing duet about Obamacare during the Country Music Awards: rednecks First of all, I don’t identify as a Democrat nor as a Republican. I’m not trying to defend the president here. But I bet 90% of people in attendance/watching the CMAs, couldn’t speak intelligently about America’s healthcare system for more than 5 seconds (and that’s being generous). So, why make the joke? Why involve topical political commentary? What’s the point? There is none.

That’s my point. Ask yourself, how many in attendance at the CMAs are likely Republican? Not to generalize but considering most country music comes from the south and most southerners are Republican, logic dictates that it’s probably a correct assumption. Let’s say a majority are Republican. Also ask yourself, how many people in attendance at the CMAs likely have health insurance? I would also guess, a majority. If you have the financial means to be a country music star, you probably have the means to be insured (e.g. millionaires like Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood).  Their motive is clear. They’re pandering to rich, white Republicans who already have healthcare and who already hate Obama because he’s a Democrat. For the producers, it’s a win-win. Everyone in the audience laughs while at the same time grasping the opportunity of a national stage to criticize the president.

However, from an outside perspective, an out-of-context parody about healthcare doesn’t appear tongue-in-cheek. Instead, it appears to be cheap banter for a like-minded audience, most of whom are probably hoping Obamacare fails, if for no other reason than out of spite. It’s pathetic how desperate the producers were to politicize an issue and turn it into entertainment in the name of petty dissonance.

I don’t recall Toby Keith ever getting on stage and singing a parody about the Iraq War during the Bush administration. Of course not. Because, according to country music, supporting your president for waging war is called being “patriotic”. But criticizing your president for trying to offer healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans? That’s worthy of cheap laughs and “Yee-haws!”.

Miley Cyrus “twerking” on stage while wearing a confederate flag bikini would have been more appropriate than singing a song about a failing healthcare system in a country whose government was recently shutdown because the people running it forgot how to be civil. There’s nothing funny about that. Accordingly, country music stars have no right to criticize something for being shitty. That’s hypocritical. After all, they’re country music stars.

The “joke” offers no alternative nor solution. There’s no productive discourse. It only contributes to an increasingly polarized public sphere, solely intent on being controversial for the purpose of ratings. The producers decided pandering to their predominately Republican viewership was opportunistic given their audience demographic. And they were right. Because, for the majority of attendees at the CMAs that evening, the reality of millions of uninsured Americans was nothing more than a laughable inconvenience, whose blame can be placed entirely on the people whose viewpoints they oppose. It’s too convenient for them not to laugh. It’s this same combination of stubborn ignorance and unashamed idealism that contributes to the ineffective bureaucracy in American politics. It’s the same thing that shutdown our government. Both sides must stop.

Last but not least, Miley Cyrus (who has somehow become the focal point of this essay) (dammit):

miley joints

After Miley’s provocative twerk-filled performance at the 2013 VMAs, it was presumable we could expect similar antics from her at the more liberal EMAs (European Music Awards). Because Europeans are floozies. That’s why our ancestors left and came to America in the first place.

The 2013 EMAs were held in Amsterdam. Which, as we all know, is famous for their scones (as well as prostitution and marijuana). Accordingly, when Miley Cyrus was accepting an award on stage (dressed as a prostitute), she pulled a joint from her purse and smoked it in front of everyone.

The fact that Ms. Cyrus smoked “drugs” on stage is irrelevant. If you’ve ever seen VH1’s Behind the Music with Motley Crue, you’ll understand that everything that Miley has ever done, only scratches the surface of inappropriate things musicians have done throughout American history. But that didn’t stop broadcasters from censoring the entire EMA pot-smoking incident from American viewers.

Seriously?

For weeks after Miley Cyrus’ controversial VMA performance, media outlets across the country shamelessly replayed images of her simulating sex onstage, barely wearing clothing. Yet, the image of her smoking a joint is too offensive for our delicate sensibilities? Our priorities are in need of serious reevaluation.

It has nothing to do with whether legalizing weed is right or wrong. It’s about how American society dictates what is right and wrong–with an unreasonable disregard for common sense. A new poll suggests 60% of Americans support legalization. Nearly half the states in the U.S. have legalized weed in some form or another. What purpose does censorship accomplish? What is it fulfilling besides accordance with arbitrary FCC laws? Nothing. It only intensifies the idiocy in American culture, surrounding the debate between what we deem moral and immoral.

I don’t know what the future of America holds. If our culture is any indication, it doesn’t look promising. We constantly bear witness to the loss of innocence, the loss of decency, and the loss of common sense. At times, it seems as though we’ve lost our minds. America is one of the most perverted, opinionated, self-righteous, and greatest countries in the world.

If only we were more self-aware.

Boston Marathon Bombing: Under the Microscope

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Watch video of the Boston Marathon bombing. The uninjured can be seen continuing toward the finish line with a sense of trepidation–not yet terror. It was reminiscent of a decade ago–the moment when the first plane flew into the World Trade Center on 9/11–bystanders half confused and half in shock. A second explosion 10 seconds later would confirm their deepest fears: this was undoubtedly an attack on American soil. Following the bombings, law enforcement and citizens alike were left with more questions than answers. Specifically, who was the bomber? And, more importantly, where were they now?

On the day after the bombing, officials still had no potential suspects. In accordance, American citizens and self-prescribed ‘armchair detectives’ flocked to internet aggregators such as Reddit and 4Chan to contribute to an unorganized but thorough user-generated analysis of all available video evidence of the bombing. It became a terrorist version of “Where’s Waldo?”. Countless theories and accusations began to accumulate from the virus-like spread of information. Given the plethora of pictures and videos, coupled with the collective wisdom of an online community, it was plausible that the internet might find a suspect before the Feds. However, while online efforts proved to be tenacious, their analysis provided expectedly lackluster results: i.e. every brown-skinned man carrying a backpack suddenly became suspect.

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A user-submitted image from 4Chan identifying the wrong suspect

Gawker summed up the shoddy investigating by poking fun at the ineptitude of internet sleuths:

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In the end, the outpouring of information from the Internet transitioned from a serious investigation into a sociological study of racial profiling. Additionally, the fervent nature of the 24/7 news cycle was contributing to an uncanny amount of misinformation. At one point, CNN reported the bomber was captured and in police custody, only to later retract that statement entirely. The New York Post ran a front page photo in which they misidentified the same two suspects that the internet amateurs were outwardly suspicious of:

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New York Post fail

4chan booshit

Internet fail

The only information concerning the bomber which was available in the 24 hours following the attack was information based on assumptions. Al Qaeda and it’s affiliates hadn’t claimed responsibility for the attack (their crème de la crème), thus, we could assume it probably wasn’t a terror cell. Also, the bombs were placed at a specific location (at the finish line with the highest density of people), thus, we could assume the bomber knew the area, was familiar with the marathon, and was probably a Boston resident (at least for a short period of time). Finally, the bomb itself offered insight. It was a relatively cheap, do-it-yourself IED (improvised explosion device) (the same used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan) (the same recipe featured in Al Qaeda’s online periodical [Inspire] using a pressure cooker as a bomb), thus, we could assume that they probably had ties to Islamic fundamentalism and were provided with limited outside funding (if any).

All of these assumptions were not far from the truth. The suspects were not Al Qaeda operatives. In contrast, they were two brothers from Chechnya. The younger brother was a naturalized citizen of the United States. He had attended high school in Boston and was an undergrad at UMass. The brothers lived together in Cambridge, just outside of the city. The suspects worked alone. They were both Muslim. Born in a region of the world that breeds fundamental Islam and Al Qaeda affiliates. Overall, they fit the description of a homegrown terrorist motivated by radical ideology.

Unlike failed domestic terror plots in the past (notably, the Nigerian “underwear bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Pakistani-American “Times Square bomber”, Faisal Shahzad) the Boston Marathon bombing was executed with measurable results: mass casualties. Not to mention, the images were replayed in homes across America for an entire week–essentially the M.O. of terrorism. In terms of an attack of that nature, it was entirely successful. The bombers accounted for discretion, location, timing, and hysteria. What they didn’t account for was a witness: Jeff Bauman.

Bauman

Jeff Bauman (bottom right)

Bauman was waiting at the finish line of the marathon for his girlfriend when the first bomb detonated at 2:49 p.m. Shrapnel from the blast destroyed Bauman’s lower legs. Unable to walk, he was wheeled to the nearest ambulance with the help of a good Samaritan who has become known colloquially as “the cowboy” (Carlos Arredondo, pictured above). He applied a makeshift tourniquet and pinched Bauman’s arteries closed with his bare hands. Arredondo was simply acting as any human would during a time of crisis. What he didn’t know–nor did anyone else at the time–was that keeping Bauman alive meant finding the bombers.

Bauman regained consciousness in a drug-induced haze following his double amputation procedure. Apparently, his first request was for a pen and paper. He managed to write eight words that would kickstart the most high-profile manhunt in recent history: “bag. saw the guy. looked right at me.” The Feds already knew–thanks to forensic evidence–that the bomb was placed in a backpack near the finish line. They already had multiple suspects who fit the description and location. All it took was Bauman to identify one man in a black hat and sunglasses: Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Within hours, the FBI had video surveillance of Tamerlan and his younger brother Dzhokhar, both carrying backpacks and moving through the crowd of spectators toward the finish line (See below). The Feds also claim they have unreleased footage of Tamerlan placing his backpack down and walking away, moments before it detonated.

Boston-Marathon-bombing-suspects

And yet, we STILL don’t know who murdered Biggy and Tupac.

In 1949, a novel was published by author George Orwell, titled Nineteen Eighty Four. The setting is a dystopian future where citizens live under the rule of an omnipresent totalitarian government. In our world, the year 1984 is synonymous with Wall Street, synthesizers, and cocaine. However, in the novel, the conclusions made about the dangers of unchecked power are agreed upon by many to be an eerily accurate prophecy of contemporary society. This perception has become so ubiquitous among readers that the novel eventually spawned its own adjective to describe unjust government rule: Orwellian. The word is still commonly used today. More specifically, it is used to describe aggressive surveillance of a population by authority figures. Accordingly, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the term Orwellian effectively blurred the lines between fiction and reality.

1984

On September 11th, 2001, no one was pointing a camera at the World Trade Center waiting for something to happen. In fact, I’m pretty sure cell phones were still kinda shitty and you couldn’t take video with them anyway. The point being, the Boston bombing was different in the sense that the entirety of the event was captured on video: the marathon, the suspects, the planting of the bomb, the explosions, the aftermath, and even the bombers reactions (unreleased footage apparently shows that both suspects remained at the scene to witness the chaos, which, consequently, helped apprehend them), the entire event was captured for the world to witness. It was put under the microscope. What remains is a visual timeline of a terrorist attack: a moment frozen in time.

Nineteen Eighty Four predicted that our future would be characterized by extensive surveillance. Cell-phone cameras and social media are both testaments to Orwell’s prophecy. More so, the Orwellian influence of the information age has paved the way for hypothetical “time travel”. Consider how the suspects were caught. Digital video provided a series of ones and zeros organized by time stamps. Collectively, they represented a re-playable moment in time. Given enough vantage points, one could theoretically recreate time itself. In doing so, it allows us to utilize the past like never before. All made possible by self-imposed “surveillance”.

Live coverage of the Boston bombing was so extensive, that the iconic Sports Illustrated image (below, right) was able to be captured by a different photographer, from a different location, at the exact same moment in time (below, left), all while the second bomb detonated in the background.

Droste

A single piece of video evidence–the Zapruder film–remains the reason why the JFK assassination continues to be the most discussed and debated conspiracy theory in American history. On November 22nd, 1963, Abraham Zapruder was standing in Dealy Plaza in Dallas, Texas, filming the president’s motorcade as it drove down Elm Street. He didn’t know it at the time but Zapruder’s 486 frames spanning 26 seconds would become the only video evidence of the assassination of JFK. It was subpoenaed during the Warren Commission as the only video evidence. Since becoming available to the public, the Zapruder film continues to fuel conspiracy theories to this day.

Zapruder was only one man with one camera. Consider how exponentially different it was on Boylston Street in Boston on April 15th, 2013. There were hundreds of Zapruder films, i.e. hundreds of perspectives in Boston that day. Within 24 hours of the bombing, the Feds had identified both suspects on surveillance cameras. Within another 24 hours they had both their names and faces plastered on the evening news. Within another 24 hours, they were found. At the end of five days, Tamerlan was killed in a shootout and Dzhokhar was captured alive. From start to finish, the Boston bombing narrative illustrated the inescapable nature of an Orwellian society.

In the coming weeks and months, what happened in Boston will be placed under the microscope. America will debate a handful of related issues: gun control, immigration reform, domestic terrorism, etc. The media will point fingers at who could have done what differently and the blame game will be played until the next tragedy strikes.

Expect to hear the phrase “Orwellian” tossed around the news as the media’s latest buzz word. It will spark a debate about whether or not our privacy has been diminished and personal freedoms infringed upon.  The truth is, that’s already happening. Google managed to map every inch of the planet in a decade, imagine what the government is capable of. The one question we should be asking is: how extensive is surveillance of American citizens? Perhaps, Orwell’s prophecy is more fact than fiction.

UPDATE: NSA leaks info on top-secret PRISM program: the covert surveillance of American citizens through Facebook, Apple, Google, and more. (Guardian U.K.)

Well played, Orwell…