Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dislike for the mainstream

What is common to the following: McDonalds, Coca Cola, Amheuser Busch, Hollywood blockbusters, MTV music, Windows, Walmart? Compare and contrast this with with their corresponding opposites : craft breweries , independent films, underground music, local farmers produce, Linux. There is a certain general statement that can be made about the former category and the adjectives used to describe them would include poor taste, culture of the masses, dumb, lowest common denominator, shallow, absence of complexity and sophistication. And the latter would be characterized as catering to niche audience, high quality and artistic merit, high culture, greater freedom and independence to experiment. Yes products and culture today fall into distinct classes and two broad ones that can be defined in this respect would be mainstream and well (for lack of a better word) non-mainstream. Ignoring whatever postmodernists have to say about recognizing such a division, we can all confidently say that such a distinction exists, rightly or wrongly, and it has been in our consciousness independent of how much we accept it.
The reason I started this article is because, while searching for the perfect beer to savor, I came across this interesting product from Stone Breweries that immediately drew my attention. It comes in a dark 22-ounce bottle, and has a monster picture in front and goes by the name of "Arrogant Bastard Ale" . Well, with such an aggressive, upfront title, it is naturally bound to make anyone curious. On looking at the details on the bottle closely, you see this warning :

"This is an aggressive beer. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory — maybe something with a multi-million dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it’s made in a little brewery, or one that implies that their tasteless fizzy yellow beer will give you more sex appeal. Perhaps you think multi-million dollar ad campaigns make a beer taste better. Perhaps you’re mouthing your words as you read this."

I couldn't care too much for my taste to be vindicated, but nonetheless I did add this one to my haul that evening.

Anyway, it has got me thinking ever since. And it is not the first time I have come across such elitism for the rare, the strange, the under-appreciated and even the unpopular. Heavy Metal Music is one department where you are likely to encounter some of the most haughty, smug bastards. An ardent fan of the art form, I know the feeling when people say that most music distributed widely has no intensity , no soul and no honest artistic expression. And it is equally true that we are being perpetually bombarded with silly, bloated, Hollywood excesses that we crave for something real and gritty. This particular case becomes an overkill if I introduce those awesomely innovative film industries in India.
A similar statement can be made on any of the other issues I mentioned at the beginning. What all this does to the 'superior',' better-informed, sophisticated' individual is to create a sense of contempt for everything commonplace and enjoyed by the majority in society. This is part reality, part cynicism, part a simple need to nourish the ego but whatever the cause may be it is sort of impossible not to feel that way when you turn on the TV and watch some mind-numbing sitcom that has millions of fans and has raked in profits several times that figure.

Here, I wish to argue that such a generalization about the worthiness of masses is totally wrong. In fact, the more I have broadened my horizons and learned about society, people, politics, history, culture and revolution , the more I have come to the conclusion that the masses are powerful, capable, perceptive and productive. I fact, I wish to completely abolish describing people with derogatory expressions like "masses". Yes, I say this after 47% of people in the most dominant nation-state on earth voted for an imbecile who understood foreign policy to mean geographical proximity.
It is a question of what aspect of civilization we are looking at and and its overall significance on people and society. What I have expressed my dislike for are things of a particular nature, ones whose impact is limited and those whose quality is really not a real life-and-death concern for people. On the other hand, consider the following: science, academia, literature, sports, jurisprudence. On any of these fields, what is regarded as mainstream and popular, and individuals held in high-esteem by the public is nearly coincident with opinions of better-informed people. For instance, Olympics are the biggest and grandest sporting extravaganza in the world but no one will argue that the best of talent is not represented there. In science the areas of research that follow mainstream scientific practices and procedures are always more likely to be accurate and be accepted in the future. In fact, there is a high probability that people not publishing in peer-reviewed journals are likely to be crackpots who make outlandish claims. Isn't it amazing that the mainstream scientific community that gets funded by taxpayer money is so structured that it weeds out fools and idiots and advances only those who observe the scientific method. I know there are several specific counter-examples to this but we need to take a broader look at the history of science and evolution to appreciate how the mainstream is always either (a) correct (b) eventually concedes to holding the wrong idea and corrects itself. In other words, it is far from obvious that the entire discipline was not sabotaged at some stage by crackpots (or creationists) to the point that the public understanding of science and budgetary allocations by government was based on their work. To a lesser degree the same applies to people who are working at NASA or inventing new weapons technology. These are multi-billion dollar projects but they involve the best and the brightest minds.
What about literature? Isn't Shakespeare considered the greatest playwright of all time? And who else but him occupies popular imagination of a literary genius. Majority of literature well-regarded by the critical establishment is also quite well-know to the public. In fact, even when it comes to something like music, no one is going to regard Britney Spears as a precocious wonder. Nor is a Rajnikath film going to win the Palm D'Or anytime soon. Or dethrone Satyajit Ray as a pioneer of creating a real movement in creative film-making in India.
Jurisprudence is another area where the best in the field come together to reach a consensus on contentious issues, resolving ambiguities, establishing precedents and protecting the highest ideals of the system. World history, anthropology, evolutionary biology, linguistics or any other academic research is an attempt to discover the facts of the world and it is usually free of any "mainstream biases" or influenced by political leanings.
But beyond all this, the most important example of the strength and importance of mainstream views and ideas is in the world of politics. Yes, the world inhabited by Bush and Palin.To understand why, stop for a moment and think of all the extremist political ideologies of radical organizations that exist everywhere on the planet. Political groups disguising their Fascist intents in more benign and acceptable expressions of nationalism that always receive support from certain circles that regard mainstream society as a bunch of misguided idiots. National Alliance, a White supremest organization in the United States, was headed by a theoretical physicist. Its members are usually people from of upper-levels of American society -scientists, lawyers, doctors, businessmen. And closer to home, aren't there Hindu intellectuals who have sympathy for RSS assertions of India being a Hindu nation? And this feeling is no less strong amongst plenty of Indian diaspora living in United States. (Why the fuck are they here?). What about the sober Bengali and Keralite communist intellectuals who, if given power, would not just put India out of the international stage but unleash vast destruction and carnage eventually adding another name to the doctrine's stellar gallery of exponents from Stalin to Kim-Jong-il. Imagine what would happen if the larger society had no voice in a system where "intellectuals" and privileged members had more political leverage. Dictatorship, totalitarianism, communism and all such ruthless regimes will take root. However brilliant and level-headed the individuals may be,inordinate power will ultimately result in authoritarian rule that clings on to this power by whatever means it can.Despite its many flaws and contradictions, democracy and equality are the greatest ideals in modern politics and for that to function mainstream opinions has to be given the maximum importance.

Apart from all this rationalizing, I must all also mention that from a standpoint of pure humanity, it is quite dogmatic to regard intelligence,appreciation of art, philosophy or any other attribute as being something so prized that it endows those people with special rights and privileges. Does being a decent human being not count as something admirable if it not accompanied by erudition or cultural sophistication? Besides, I am sure a run-of-the-mill Shah-Rukh-Khan film buff is more likely to be useful in practical situations than stiff, pretentious art-collectors. Or beer connoisseurs!

That brings me back full circle to the Arrogant Bastard Ale. Did I appreciate its depth? Was I worth it? Unfortunately, no. I thought I enjoyed bitter ales but this was so overwhelmingly hopped that it pretty much destroyed every other flavor in the beer. It got a little better towards the end but I had some difficulty in finishing it. Verdict: I am not sophisticated enough.

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