2/52 books of 2019: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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I’m really glad that I didn’t stipulate needing to have necessarily started the novel in order for it to count when I committed to the 52 books challenge. I’m going to get this out of the way early: Devil in the White City is taxing on the brain, and I don’t mean this in a negative way. Like most historical accounts, this is a very content heavy book. Where I usually fly through fiction, I was reading at a much slower pace to comprehend all the information that was being thrown at me. If not for this challenge, I probably would’ve taken another leisurely two years to finish the book.

I’ve never really been drawn in by the H.H. Holmes mythos – like most people, he isn’t the first person I think about when I think about true crime. In some ways I think his crimes were too horrific to be sensationalised by the media. They go past the point of being just the right level of horrifying and err more on the side of making me feel sick in my tum tum. I probably wouldn’t have picked this book if not for both Last Podcast on the Leftand My Favourite Murder raving about it. Ironically, despite my love of true crime, it was actually learning about the development of the Chicago World Fair that really sucked me into this story. I didn’t know I needed to know that much about Chicago soil, but I enjoyed learning about it none the less.

Ultimately, to me this isn’t really a book about either of the main male figures – H.H. Holmes and Daniel Hudson Burnham – in isolation. I don’t really think it’s even a book about what they achieved. Rather, I think this is a book about how consumerism and greed came to grip a nation in the American century (if you subscribe to the British century being the 1800s and the American century being the 1900s). It’s an ode to the great American past time of dreams and greed, and violence.

No facet of the American dream cannot exist in isolation. In order to have achieved the American dream, you must have fallen victim to its less desirable qualities.  Devil in the White City is an account of the different faces of the American psycho – the incessant need to destroy and rebuild, and the draw of greed, fame, and infamy alike. Holmes and Burnham are pitted against each other as representative of the American dream. Where Holmes represents the greed, violence, and mania that has plagued American identity, in turn Burnham represents the reach for glory, fame, and accomplishment.

Continuing on with my, “everything comes back to Gatsby” theory of American literature, it is easy to see the circumstances in which characters like Jay Gatsby were created. Devil in the White City is an account of the lengths a man will go to in order to achieve their dreams – whether that is to run the most successful world fair, or to create a murder hotel to kill young women in. Maybe, after all is said and done, this is what makes it so engaging. It is in our nature to need to succeed, and maybe we’re always doomed to be drawn in and revolted by the lengths people will go to achieve their dreams.

Would I recommend you read this book? Well, it really depends. Do you have a lot of time on your hands? Are you a patient person? Do you think you could sit through hundreds of pages explaining how the heating system was used in the world fair, not to mention the pages all about the soil types of Chicago, and still find it exhilarating? If you answered yes to these questions, I’d recommend reading it. If not, then I’d probably just wait for the movie or listen to a podcast series about it. I recommend the Last Podcast treatment.

On a final note, here are a few of the fun things I learned from this book: Pabst got the blue ribbon from the Chicago World Fair, there was one case of “extreme flatulence” recorded as an ailment resulting from the fair, and the fair was host to the largest Ferris wheel built to date at the time. Most people assumed it was going to result in tragedy.

Gillette: A Close Shave with Genuine Sentiment

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In the unlikely event that you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve just escaped some sort of religious cult and this website was your first stop, or this is your only source of news for pop culture (if so, may I ask, why?), 2019 has come out swinging with Gillette releasing a short film entitled,We Believe: The Best Men Can Be. Before reading this article, you may wish to peruse their wares below:

 

 

As is to be expected in the current climate, an all-out internet civil war has been sparked as a result of the advert being released. I’m at the point where whenever anything to do with gender comes up in a mainstream internet setting, I try to make myself as small as possible and pray for it to be over soon. Not because I don’t care about gender politics, but because I know exactly what it eventually devolves to over the internet. If you are not sure what it might look or sound like, please refer to the video of two foxes screaming at each other previously featured in my article about outrage culture.

We’ve got all the sides coming in to say their two to five cents on the topic of Gillette’s video. I think it’s their god given right to do so, just as it is my god given right to lurk and continue to gain intel on my endless quest to understand human emotions and behaviour. I find you all fascinating.

In one corner, we’ve got men who feel their masculinity is being threatened by an advert for a $10 razor. In another, we have misandrists who continue to call for the blanket punishment of men everywhere, despite the fact that they don’t realise it’s counterproductive for their cause. They’re pro $10 razor, from what I can understand. We’ve got other people saying, “hey maybe we need to just be more committed to all being better people.” Then we have that one corner of people saying, “You’re not my real dad and you never will be.”

I’m not here to talk about gender politics for once in my entire life, nor am I here to defend either side of an argument about a shaving implement when everyone knows that this isn’t Communist Era Russia and you are free to simply buy a different brand. Seriously, Gillette does not have the monopoly on razors and you have plenty of independent companies you can choose from if you don’t believe in corporations. I know Proctor & Gamble is massive, but there are so many other alternatives if you are bothered by it – which you have the right to be. I’m for it. Do what you need to do to maintain your integrity.

The corner that I’m coming from today is the corner with a bit more of a complicated title. This corner is titled: corporations do not care for us and we need to stop allowing them to make us upset and impact upon our wellbeing, though we can still enjoy their products should we choose to without feeling like we’re siding with Darth Vader.

Whenever I have romantic thoughts about corporations, and I do often, I’m reminded of a time before my own, where cigarettes were marketed to men, women, and children alike as healthy. I think about all those scenes from Mad Men, which I use for fodder in imagining my life as a film but set in the 1960s, where the everyone smoked like chimneys, even in the doctors office. It was in the best interest of corporations to keep selling the message that cigarettes were healthy for you. And do you know why?

The answer has four words, features in a famous song from the 90s, and it makes the world of businesses go round. That’s right: dollar dollar bills ya’ll.

Call me jaded or incendiary, but from the first frame of this short film I knew that Proctor & Gamble were trying to get my hard earned money at the expense of my values and beliefs. They were trying to nickel and dime me using the well-known advertising technique of pathos. They made me feel emotions at the expense of my integrity. How dare they! How dare I buy a Gillette Mach 3 Turbo four months ago because it’s a closer shave and my European heritage refuses to let me have soft feminine leg hair and now it’s my feminine shame! I’m going to burn my tube of Oral B while I write this!

This is not the first time we’ve seen this happen, with a recent example of this being the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial. Pepsi Co had, unfortunately for them, far more transparency in their advert. The ham-fisted representations of fired up youth who can’t get their protest on without that sugary sweetness flowing through their veins was an exercise in hitting me over the head with, “buy my soda you damn millennial!” and then dragging my corpse back through it.

Clearly Proctor & Gamble learned from this, because here we are, getting angry over a $10 razor. For what it’s worth, I think this is actually a really well put together advertisement. One of my guilty pleasures is that I actually love analysing adverts and derive a lot of joy from figuring out what they’re trying to sell to me, besides the product itself. Sometimes KFC tries to sell me happiness, sometimes it’s just fried chicken. Either way, I’m enjoying the show.

I think the key to P&Gs success also stems from the fact they haven’t made the face of their campaign someone who earns more than most of their customer base will earn in a life time. Sure, they used the footage of the incredible Terry Crews speaking on issues of abuse and toxic masculinity, but it was used tastefully in my opinion. That’s right: I like the way they made this advert. Sue me.

And it’s obviously working, because all anyone seems to want to talk about on the internet is either Gillette or the returning queens for Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4.

I want to impress this upon you: whether you want to boycott Gillette because you think they’re misandrists, or you’re standing with Gillette because you feel like they’re putting women first, or you’re having any sort of reaction at all that will impact upon whether or not you buy this product, I want you to keep in mind what I’ve talked about in this article. It is a corporation’s sole duty to make money. If someone is trying to sell you a product, they will do anything they can to get you to spend your hard-earned cash. No matter what, they want to close the deal. They only care that you buy, and they don’t care how they get you to do it.

My favourite example of how far someone will go to sell you something comes from the Tyra Banks Show. When I first heard about this clip, I assumed that it was a parody, or it was fake, or it was some Mad TV shenanigans, because it sounded so ridiculous to me. But anyway, here’s a video of Tyra Banks giving her viewers Vaseline tubs and everyone freaking out like they’ve been given the elixir of eternal life.

 

 

Yep.

And you know what? That’s the reaction that is desired by marketing campaigns. They want you to buy their products. They want you to be invested in their product and to ensure brand loyalty. They want you to buy into the idea that your quality of life will be better for buying this product. To afford a corporation any sort of moral direction is somewhat laughable. Whatever will sell, they will use.

Believe it or not, this article isn’t put together so that I can tell you whether you should or should not buy Proctor & Gamble’s products. It’s not my job to tell you anything you should buy, unless I think it’s worth endorsing. I think people should have the right to choose what they want to buy and to make informed decisions. That’s the benefit of living in our capitalist society. I don’t have time in this article to consider whether I’m pro, anti, or post consumerist culture and capitalist: I just want a razor that works, and I just want milk that tastes like real milk.

What I’m trying to impress upon you more than anything is to continue to be an informed consumer, and to not allow the efforts of a multi-million dollar corporation to sell a $10 razor to cloud your judgement on issues or products. So often we get caught up in what’s going on in the internet world and don’t really pay attention to what’s going on in the real world. For every caricature in advertising of a dangerous man or a vapid woman, I can guarantee that there are tenfold more wonderful people who in every day  life are a testimony to how good people can be.

That’s right, I believe people are good and have the capacity for great things under this jaded façade. You want to come for me for that?

 

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Anyway, thanks always for reading. Love your work. Remi.

Bleeding Hearts of the World Unite: Outrage Culture in the 21st Century

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We live in the age where everyone is a public figure, no matter how small their reach. Everyone gets to say their two cents on any topic they can think of. I think Banksy said it best:

In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.

One of the topics I’m most fascinated by is that of “outrage culture”. Much like Nick Carraway looking over Manhattan, I am simultaneously entranced and revolted by outrage culture. I can’t look away, and yet I continue to have a foul taste in my mouth.

I’m defining “outrage culture” as being specific to the internet, characterised by a readiness to “cancel” people, engage in witch hunts, and dogged character assassination. A cursory Wikipedia search returns this as a definition of outrage culture: “Call-out culture (also known as outrage culture) is a term for the social phenomenon of publicly denouncing perceived racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry.”

Typically what results from outrage culture is the following:

 

Anyway, you get the point.

Right off the top I need to stipulate that I’m all for addressing problematic behaviours people exhibit. It’s important to set boundaries, and to re-educate people who might have outdated ideas about things such as race, gender, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. This will always be important to me. I would hazard a guess that it’s important to most people.

I also need to stipulate that this is not an article intended to defend anyone’s actions. It is especially not an article intended to defend people who have been pulled up on damaging behaviours and statements, who continue to demonstrate bigotry because they think it makes them funny or edgy, or because they prefer to be ignorant because it makes them feel safe.

The issue from outrage culture doesn’t arise from the correction of behaviour, or from defending the rights of minority groups to live safely and with the respect experienced by the majority. The issue arises from a culture that determines someone is “cancelled” and lambasted long after they have attempted to rectify their actions.

I see a lot of outrage culture being directed at young content creators, especially young men. One of the most controversial figures subject to this is Felix Kjellberg (better known as Pewdiepie). I know, when will the straight, white man catch a break?

Again, I feel the need to reiterate that I’m not defending anyone. It isn’t my role or responsibility to decide whether or not we should be outraged by Kjellberg’s past mistakes – and boy howdy, they were extensive and career damaging. I don’t hold the key to “forgiving” Kjellberg on a larger level, but for what it’s worth, I do think his experience with the media provides us with an interesting case study.

I also want to acknowledge that at the time of writing this article, Kjellberg has apologised for the unacceptable behaviours he has engaged in, acknowledged the issues with them, and has worked to correct his behaviour while remaining aware of the impact of his actions. In my opinion, this is all someone can do when it comes to saying or doing the wrong thing.

As a recent example of the outrage culture directed at Kjellberg, a Twitch streamer implied that the lyrics of Kjellberg’s parody diss track, “Bitch Lasagna” (what a name), have racist undertones. The lyric is as follows:

I’m a blue eyes white dragon, while you’re just dark magician.”

Now, for those of you who aren’t as well versed in Yu-Gi-Oh as I am, blue eyes white dragon is a very desirable card to have, while dark magician is a relatively common card that isn’t as powerful. It was essentially the deus ex machina of the series. And yes, I was a very cool person in primary school.

While I understand that “blue eyes white dragon” may be misconstrued to be linked to Aryan features, I think you have to perform some pretty extensive mental gymnastics to interpret this as Kjellberg intentionally using a children’s card game to put forward some sort of racist message. When I look at the title of the track itself, I’m not really given to taking this song to be one with particularly deep messages.

To me, the streamer’s interpretation is a clear example of how no matter what Kjellberg does from this point on, his past mistakes will always be dragged back up from the mire and held against him. Where he used to be known for frankly cringy gaming videos with relatively unfunny jokes, people will now seemingly forever associate Kjellberg with “edgy” alt-right ideology as a result of the character assassination occurring after his remarks. Regardless of if there is any concrete evidence to prove that Kjellberg subscribes to alt-right beliefs, that is now who he is to the larger general public. Furthermore, it is easy to assume that if not for the controversies, this rap would have been taken for what it is: a pretty idiotic lark making fun of the 2018-present subscriber war on YouTube.

It isn’t my job to decide whether or not Kjellberg is deserving of the continuous public criticism he faces and the microscope he is under, especially given the severity of some of his more “edgy” internet stunts. But it does work to demonstrate my point about the extent to which outrage culture can affect a person’s career and character.

In outrage culture, no matter how much you correct your behaviour or attempt to make reparations for your ignorance, you are always going to be twisted and misconstrued to reinforce that you are still the person you were when you made the mistake in the first place. There are no second chances on the internet. They think, therefore you are.

On a long enough timeline, we are all bound to say something stupid or ignorant. We’re human, and sometimes we simply don’t know better until someone teaches us. In real life, outside of the internet, most often when the behaviours of people around us are corrected the issue is dropped. We tend to look down on people who call out others for things that are no longer relevant. So why is it that on the internet, everything is fair game?

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What I would argue is that part of it is a desire for people to appear to be on the bandwagon – to be “woke” and “progressive” –  as opposed to a genuine outrage or taking of offense. Sometimes I see a tendency to wait to be told whether or not to be offended by something. What really gets my goat about this is the fact that the very same people who engage in constant public humiliation of people who are trying to fix their mistakes are the same people who preach “only good vibes”; you cannot have both.

For as long  as we keep internet outrage culture alive, we’re going to foster a society where people won’t speak their minds authentically because of fear of being lynched by public majority opinion, and when you do that you eradicate intelligent discussion. We’re going to homogenise culture until we all think, feel, and act the same way out of fear of being completely annihilated.

What it really comes down to is this: yes, address problematic behaviours and opinions. Yes, challenge people’s beliefs and identify gaps in knowledge. But you have to allow people the chance to demonstrate that they’ve changed and that they’ve learned. If you ask me, the cost of someone’s character isn’t really worth the internet points you might gain.