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American Graffiti and the Tyranny of Choice


In 1973, having survived the national tragedies of Vietnam, race riots, drug-crazed counterculture and other affronts to the decent silent majority, there was nothing that America wanted to see more than an ode to the simpler times of the early 1960s: American graffiti.

When people praise the “simplicity” and “innocence” of that era, they subconsciously long for a time when there was the luxury of no choices. There was only one of everything. One social code to explain all teenage culture. One axis ranging from greaser on the left (Milner/the Farrows) to square on the right (Toad) with the good kids (Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss) in the middle. There was one radio station (with one DJ, Wolfman Jack), one race (white [don’t tell anyone that Dreyfuss is Jewish…]), one burger joint where everyone meets, one hobby (cars), one drug (alcohol), and one chord progression (I-vi-IV-V).

This was great and easy, and while there was a whole host of problems bubbling under the veneer, there is no era more lionized and glorified in the American collective unconscious than 1955-1964. We must remember that Marty McFly could have gone anywhere in the past in “Back to the Future” but he turns up in late ’50s California.

Because suddenly in the mid-1960s, there were black people (oh jeepers, that’s one more race to deal with!) and surfers (the Beach Boys ruined rock’n’roll claims the hotroddin’ Milner), and then soon after that, long-haired hippies, a brutal war in Vietnam with greater involvement each passing year, a multitude of choices for substance abuse that grew darker and darker, and a whole host of things to “dig” (like flower power, Leftist politics, Jesus freaks, and gnarly motorcycle gangs). Even the music started braking out of the pre-fab mold of fast-dance Blues-structure or slow-dance “Blue Moon” chords — it started blowing minds.

I can understand why those not on the battle lines would have pined for a return to the good ole’ days — when no one had to choose sides. But the development of media technology — without even any human guidance — automatically creates more choices and thus, more divisions between people. With the Internet, the burden of choices is at its worst and the system is collapsing upon itself.

Can’t we stop blogging and start drag racing again?

August 31, 2004

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