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Real Bad : A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Worst of American Schlock

P<i> aul Fussell, who lives in Philadelphia, is the author of "The Great War and Modern Memory," "Class" and "Thank God for the Atom Bomb." This article is adapted from his book "BAD: The Dumbing of America," to be published in October by Summit Books</i>

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BAD AND BAD?

Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever--something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright or fascinating.

Big-band leader Lawrence Welk is a low example, George Bush a high.

For a thing to be really BAD, it must exhibit elements of the pretentious, the overwrought or the fraudulent. Bathroom faucet handles that cut your fingers are bad. If gold-plated, they are BAD. Dismal food is bad. Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word gourmet is BAD. Being alert to this distinction is a large part of the fun of being alive today, in a moment teeming with raucously overvalued emptiness and trash.

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Addressing himself on his 50th birthday in a poem titled “Ode to Me,” Kingsley Amis found it somewhat comforting that more than half his life, at least, had been spent in the years before the great contemporary explosion of BAD:

. . . bloody good luck to you, mate/That you weren’t born too late/For at least a chance of happiness/Before unchangeable crappiness/Spreads all over the land . . . .

And he’s talking about England, not yet entirely enthralled to BAD because of its counterweight of antiquity. The great crappiness is essentially American, for reasons that will become clear as we go along. But there is a slight consolation. As Amis says in “Lucky Jim": “The one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding out new ways in which one could think they were bad.”

One striking thing about the United States is the omnipotence of “presentation.” A thing that is palpably bad doesn’t stay bad very long before someone praises it and thus elevates it to BAD, and soon it is celebrated everywhere as highly desirable. It’s as if Americans were so insecure, so timid about relying on their own decent tastes and instincts, that they welcome every possible guru to instruct them about what is good (that is, BAD) and to encourage them to embrace it.

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Plain bad has always been with us. It goes back as far as the history of artifacts. In Rome, there was certainly a chariot-wheel maker who made bad wheels, a wine seller who dealt in wretched wine. Introducing sawdust into breadstuffs is a time-honored practice, but it becomes BAD only when you insist that the adulterated bread is better than any other sort. BAD, that is, is strictly a phenomenon of the age of hype--and, of course, a special will to believe by the audience. To achieve real BAD, you have to have the widest possible gap between what is said about a thing and what the thing actually is, as experienced by bright, disinterested and modest people. There was a bit of BAD visible as far back as 1725 or so, when the earliest newspapers began printing ads. By the 19th Century, BAD was well developed, especially in America, as various passages in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” attest.

But for genuine, deep BAD, you have to arrive at the 20th Century, especially that part of it following World War II. The Vietnam War is as good an example as any of the way something bad could be made to seem acceptable for quite a while, until people began to see that what was bad was really BAD, with Lyndon Johnson and William Westmoreland serving as admen. As the music critic Virgil Thomson perceived about symphony and opera, so shrewd and ubiquitous is “paid publicity” that rugged criticism is “the only antidote.” But few newspapers rejoice to print scathing notices; instead, as Lewis H. Lapham has observed, they are largely engaged in ladling out indiscriminate dollops of optimism and complacency, preserving “myths that the society deems precious, reassuring their patrons . . . that all is well, that . . . the banks are safe, our generals competent, our Presidents interested in the common welfare, our artists capable of masterpieces, our weapons invincible and our democratic institutions the wonder of an admiring world.” BAD, all of it.

Thus, underneath, what we are talking about is the publicity enterprise propelling modern life, which seems to make it clear that few today are able independently to estimate the value of anything without prompting from self-interested sources. This means that nothing will thrive unless inflated by hyperbole and gilded with a fine coat of fraud. If in some ways the subject suggests the tragic--all those well-meaning people swindled by their own credulity--looked at another way, the topic proposes all the pleasures of farce. BAD projects anew and continuously the classic comic motif--the manipulation of fools by knaves.

REAL BAD CAN BE FOUND IN ARCHITECTURE, FOOD, DESIGN, CONVERSATION--in the way we behave toward one another. And BAD behavior is to be distinguished from mere harmless bad, such as saying “Have a nice day” to perfect strangers or naming girls Kimberly. When bad behavior becomes aggressive, pretentious, disingenuous or morally monstrous, it mutates into BAD, something awful that many regard as either morally neutral or quite fine. Example: attending a “networking party,” where the greedy young exchange business cards in the hope of rising in the commercial world. There, the normal social motive--the quest for friendship or the alleviation of loneliness--is travestied, emerging as simple ambition, and the insensitive “party-goers” imagine they are engaging in admirable behavior.

That sort of simulated or fraudulent, and certainly unearned, friendship or intimacy requires confirmed practitioners of BAD to call strangers by their first names unasked and to jump instantly into the midst of others’ private business. Philip Roth has caught the tone exactly, in “Zuckerman Unbound,” in the behavior of Alvin Pepler, the pest of Nathan Zuckerman, the newly successful novelist. On a New York bus, Pepler suddenly addresses him: “What the hell are you doing on a bus, with your dough?”

That is an offensive manifestation of BAD, but there are pathetic ones, too, like the practice of some retail clerks, obliged to work on commission, of sending their customers little pseudo-friendly, would-be genteel printed cards, like this:

“This is just a note to let you know that I was very pleased to be able to serve you at ---------. I hope that your recent purchase is giving you much pleasure and that I will have the opportunity to serve you again soon. Please don’t hesitate to call me.”

Clearly a cry of desperation BADly disguised as an expression of friendly concern.

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Judith Martin, author of the syndicated Miss Manners column on etiquette and an acute spotter of BAD, is one of the most trustworthy current authorities:

“Dear Miss Manners: Many wedding invitations I have received have included a card naming the store at which the bride is registered. Is this in good taste?”

“Gentle Reader: No. It is in appalling taste. We don’t require brides nowadays to pretend a lot of things they used to pretend, but the pretense that they will be surprised and delighted if people want to offer them presents is still essential.”

Weddings, indeed, offer maximum opportunities for BAD behavior, like displaying the presents at the reception, with cards soliciting awe and admiration for each identified donor. Consider the overflow of BAD in the “Wedding Package” offered by one limousine service: "$165.00 for the first three hours, $30.00 each additional hour, plus 15% gratuity.” Besides the Luxury Chauffeured Limousine, white and stretch, and the chilled bottle of champagne, you can order a ready-made “JUST MARRIED” sign for the back of the limo ($25.00 extra).

The post-Reagan atmosphere of open greed disguised as a good thing has made even high school commencements occasions of unashamed acquisitiveness and duplicity. Currently, you’re likely to receive in the spring what looks like an invitation to a social event. Upon close examination, it proves to be an invitation, all right, but an invitation from some 17-year-old virtual stranger to send a gift--of money, of course, since you don’t know the creature at all. The document is not really an invitation but rather an announcement, with a card bearing the name of the hopeful recipient of your largess and often an address to which gifts are to be sent.

The telephone has opened up numerous occasions for BAD behavior, like calls beginning, “You don’t know me, but . . . .”

Another currently stylish form of BAD is asking you to wait (“hold” is the euphemism) while terrible music is played at you. But for real offensiveness, it can’t match someone speaking (or more often, pretending to speak) into a cellular car telephone, in hope of being admired and envied by someone even more vulgar.

ALL BADS ARE SUFFICIENTLY GROSS THAT LISTING THEM IN THE ORDER OF their outrageousness would be merely busywork. Let’s try some alphabetically.

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Alcohol--Removing it from alcoholic drinks, thus seeking to have it both ways. Lite potations, the result, are very American and very BAD. One should either drink or not drink but not mess up the pleasure attached to one indulgence (drinking) by mixing it with that of the pleasure attached to another (self-righteousness).

Beepers--Wearing one to a party. Beepers, real and counterfeit, are a common way for insignificant people to impress other people with their high professional and social value. Often seen at networking parties.

Beneficence--Congratulating oneself on one’s own. For example, including in a wedding invitation a card reading: “We are aware of the plight of the less fortunate and homeless. Please bring a spare article of winter clothing.” The second sentence is acceptable; the first: BAD.

Camcorders--Using one to obtrude one’s presence at public events. This type of activity assumes that one has a special right to obstruct and disturb other people, and simply because one has bought a costly object.

Caps and gowns--Dolling up kindergarten children in white crepe-paper ones for their “graduation.” Only slightly less BAD is doing the same with high school graduates, but costuming them in light-blue rayon numbers.

Cats and dogs--Giving them pretentious names to show off your costly education. Calling cats Clytemnestra or Hester (after Prynne), dogs Ahab or Toby Belch. People who do this are the same ones likely to impose embarrassing names on helpless children, augmenting the number of girls named Eliot or Charles, the number of boys named Dunstan, McGeorge or Stringfellow.

Celebrities--Going all to pieces in the presence of them. The very idea of “celebrities” is BAD. Let’s have Madonna to dinner.

Driving--The inept variety. In the recent political furor over auto-insurance rates, no one suggested bringing the rates down by simply driving better.

Exercising--Publicly and conspicuously. This is self-congratulatory and thus BAD behavior at its worst. When this fad began some 30 years ago and spread throughout the middle class, one hoped to stamp it out by spreading the rumor that only sex perverts went in for it. That was doubtless true in part, but soon hordes of normally decent people began showing off this way, and now the practice of running and puffing and carrying showy little weights, often with earphones clapped onto one’s head, has gone too far to be stopped by anything but modesty and good sense.

Hands--Clapping them promiscuously on the set of TV shows such as “Wheel of Fortune” or “Family Feud.” This is supposed to suggest spontaneous enthusiasm and happiness, but only the naive will be deceived. What it conveys is a positive delight in obeying the commands of a cynical TV producer.

Lifestyle--Using the word at all and being always conscious of one’s own. Especially BAD is changing it frequently, as ordered by slick magazines.

Lines--Crashing them. Bold line-crashers are usually people of the lower social orders, accustomed to fighting for what they get. Their behavior, if understandable, is bad. But BAD is line-crashing by the more cowardly but no less pushy and greedy middle- and upper-middle classes, who go at it more subtly. Instead of just intruding themselves into the middle of the line and daring you to do something about it, they insinuate themselves not in front of you but at your side, counting on your tolerance of ambiguity. They are best dealt with by a sudden, violent, loud, and if possible profane tirade, which they have assumed you are too much the gentleman or lady to unleash. The suddenness is what makes it work.

Movies--Colorizing black-and-white ones. This is an affront to the past, against the convention of black-and-white. As movie critic Leslie Halliwell has said, color in movies is BAD and irrelevant because it “apes reality. . . . Black-and-white conjure(s) up its own mood and its own comment.” Do you want likeness or art?

Music--Talking about it instead of playing it, BAD behavior here being the sense that a “cultural” experience must be improving and educational, a curse of ill-educated and insecure but pretentious societies like ours.

Speaking in public--Running over one’s allotted time. Incompetent and selfish, as well as boring; a bit of BAD behavior that gains adherents daily.

Titles--Awarding oneself an impressive one, such as prophet, reverend or maharishi, or designating oneself a therapist.

Traveler’s checks--Scaring people into buying your brand by implying that if they don’t, their vacation will be utterly ruined.


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