As a child, I watched a lot of Seinfeld.
I am sure I would occasionally watch it in prime-time with my parents, but since my mom had a propensity to label the show as "the one with all the penis jokes," it is safe to assume the majority of my exposure to the show came via the highly prized and dedicatedly recorded VHS tapes that my brother would bring home with him to share with my parents during his breaks from college. And since my family only possessed one TV, I watched almost exclusively those shows which my parents watched (which gave me the faulty world view that all of my elementary school peers were also watching "Thirty Something", "Meet the Press", and reruns of "Eight is Enough.")
Of course, my brother recorded all the episodes in LP mode, in order to efficiently maximize the full 6 hours of available space on the VHS tape. Undoubtedly, as a result of this, something must have been lost in the cinematic quality of the viewing experience. However, lucky for us, poor quality video had no impact on the comedic appeal of the story line, and this was 1992, when we didn't know better, so we muddled through.
Warning to my brother: In the unlikely event that you read this, I recognize that my introduction may have piqued your enthusiasm, and perhaps given you the false impression that this article is on the Tao of Seinfeld. Sadly, I must disappoint. Rather, this tale is about the emotional dissonance I experienced as an 8 year old child from watching these Seinfeld episodes (and how that relates to the current situation with Syria ...yeah, I'm going there.. just wait for it).
Don't get me wrong, as I got older, the complexity,uniqueness, and 'intertwined-ness' of the story lines won me over, and the visceral sense of frustration I previously had experienced was packed to the back of my mind, refurbished in the style of outdated childish naivete. But before my artistic appreciation matured, I 'suffered' through quite a bit of emotional incongruity, the result of which was one recurrently unsettling thought, that I now can only imagine was worded in my head as something along the lines of "No... wait.. Jerry! Bah! If you just had only paid attention... now you have to wear a puffy shirt. [giggle giggle] OK. That is funny. But stupid. Why are they all so stupid?"
Or as I'd word it today: "How the egocentric self-aggrandizing amorality of otherwise intelligent post-modern adults leads to a cycle of miscommunication, deception and an inevitable string of misfortune and non-redemptive tumult (which includes, but is not limited to wearing a puffy shirt)"
Now, clearly this "failure to properly communicate" thematic element is almost too simplistic and omnipresent of a thing to even bother discussing. In order for there to be a story worth telling, there must be some tension between the characters. Each genre of media creates this tension in its own way, but regardless of style or medium, at least a part of this tension is inevitably created by a failure of the characters to sufficiently and honestly talk to one another.
- If only Anita hadn't told the Jets that Chino had killed Maria in West Side Story... or better yet, if only one of the Jets had actually read Romeo and Juliet beforehand ("oh yeah, wait, Tony, she's not ACTUALLY dead, this same thing happened that Rom-ee-o dadd-ee-o.")
- If only Derborah Kerr had just texted Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember:
FYI. In the hospital. Bad cat acid trip.
I meant "Bad car accident."
LOL. Be there in 10.
- If only Newman hadn't shut down the electrical system in Jurassic Park. Sure, that isn't an actual failure to communicate, but it is treachery and deceit, and more importantly, it is my attempt to reintroduce the Seinfeld 'motif' to make this article seem like it has more cohesion than it actually does.
Point being, the inability for characters to communicate effectively is the fuel that drives any good story. Lies, deceit, and unstated proclamations of love make for good dramas. Ineptness, confusion, and just plain questionable social skills make for good comedies.
Sitcoms, particularly those of 1990s variety, were very well-versed in perfecting the art of the 'poor communication leads to whimsical tension' scenario. Seinfeld did this best, as the failure to communicate was not just some happenstance of the moment, but rather a result of the main characters' chronic indifference and self righteous indignation. The tragedies that befell them were not a result of an unjust world veiled in a fog of confusion and bad luck, but the inescapable result of their own inability to look past their self-centered immediate needs long enough to actually comprehend what was going on in the world around them. I believe this is called 'apathy,' which I sometimes manage to confuse with 'antipathy,' but here they seem to actually go hand-in-hand. Side note, I generally avoid the use of "antipathy" because I never know how to correctly pronounce it (anti-pathy? an-tip-apthy?), so in the completely unfounded fear that I may be required to do a reading of this article in front of an audience, I choose to avoid its usage. Irony noted.
The discomfort inflicted upon my little soul as a result of watching these characters devolve as a result of these AVOIDABLE conflicts was repeatedly felt and noted, to the point where I had to make a conscious decision to rectify the situation by comforting myself with the following axiom: "Real people do not actually behave this way." In real life, though people may never fully agree, they can at least UNDERSTAND each other, and if there is any confusion, the confused party will act to resolve this. "Totes Obvi!" so thought my 8 year old self.
And this confidence in human nature made me a rather happy little child.
I managed to maintain this false sense of security through high school, where I was too focused on my practical reality to care about life truths. And then in college, I was too focused on life truths to care about practical reality. And then in law school, I was just too focused on mastering the art of the well-timed sake bomb to care about much of anything else.
And then I entered the real world. And I soon realized that only about 15% of anything stated is actually comprehended by the listener, and for that matter, only about 15% of anything stated is actually true.
It was then that I realized that my comforting truism that I had told myself for years, the "people in real life were more sensible and logical than how art portrays them" concept, was, well, wrong. Or perhaps even worse. The people in real life were less sensible and logical than how artistically portrayed, not to mention slightly less likely to randomly break out in well-choreographed musical numbers. And paler. Bummer all around.
If it was only the failure to communicate information that was the issue, it would be manageable. 'Not knowing' something is a problem, but a much less critical problem than 'knowing the wrong thing.' Communal knowledge, whether of your family,your work, or your all-you-can-drink-mimosas sunday-brunch crowd, is like a black box. If the box were but an empty void which it was your duty to fill, though the process might be exhausting, you could at least make some gains in filling it. However, there is no void. We don't allow for a void. That box is actually busting open. And when you reach into that black box for an answer to a question, you will pull something out. Something ALWAYS comes out. But your ability to distinguish the truth of the something coming out, to validate its veracity, well, that is nigh impossible. Over time, you just learn to avoid the black boxes about you, live in uncertainty, and play lots of candy crush.
However, just as I had lived in my happy place as a child, despite my adult awareness that no one I know has any idea what they are doing, I still continued to hold onto that lingering hope that someone, somewhere, had a state-sanctioned, legitimate, peer-reviewed Black Box. I mean, our society has done some pretty freakin' impressive things. We hurl thousands of people through the air in large metal boxes everyday in complete safety. We shoot atoms through spiraling underground tunnels and smash them together to expose their insides. We have practically the entire history of human knowledge accessible to us in a tiny fashionable plastic box, available at all times, even whilst we simultaneously hurl ourselves in metal boxes towards other metal boxes over intricately designed roads and bridges and through more spiraling underground tunnels. And when we smash our metal boxes together (because we were too busy playing with our tiny fashionable plastic boxes), and our insides get exposed, our society has the knowledge and technology to put us back together. And that's all mightily impressive to me.
At the risk of losing the logical flow of my reasoning (which is to assume it existed in the first place), I must pause to temporarily jump course. It would be dishonest of me not to start this paragraph without the following disclaimer: I have a serious crush on MSNBC's Chris Hayes. Honestly, I can say that I have had a serious crush on no more than 3 people in my life, maybe 4 if we count my ongoing girl-crush of Jennifer Lawrence. They include 1. Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike "You're in Good Hands With Alstott" Alstott. 2. NSync'er JC Chasez (in retrospect, I clearly should have gone with J. Lake. oh hindsight!) and, as already stated, 3. Mr. Chrisropher Hayes. Regardless of this fact, I feel like I can step away from my bias, and objectively state that Mr. Hayes is a pretty swell writer, and he managed to intellectually prod me in all the right ways in his book entitled"The Twilight of the Elites." I shall save all of you the pain of listening to my attempt at summarizing the book, and simply assert the obligatory recommendation to read it, and move on to my actual point.
There is one repeated and unanswerable inquiry Mr. Hayes poses throughout the course of "Twilight", which even now, leaves me ever-so unsettled ... almost to the level of 1992- Seinfeld-watching-small-child unsettled:
What happens when we lose all faith in the Black Boxes of the world?
Or as C.H. actually described it, what happens when we no longer have any trust in our institutional pillars. Those institutions that fill our lives with a sense of security, sound judgement, and structure. Governmental, religious, academic, or otherwise. The systems and ideologies in whose Black Boxes we trust. Or at least trust more than we doubt.
If 9/11 shattered our sense of security as Americans, the Iraq war shattered our sense of sound judgment. It is one thing to know you are vulnerable to an outside attack, but it is an entirely different thing to learn that your most trusted institutions are capable of failing so resoundingly in their obligation to act upon honest information.
For the longest time, I thought we could compartmentalize the egregious error of an unjust war by blaming those who forged it. New leadership means a fresh slate. Obama = Change! Time to re-calibrate the moral compass!
So my hope, though beaten, still remained .....until this week and Syria.
Until now I had yet to realize that just because we were conscious of our failure in Iraq, and that we had gone ahead and attempted to 'fix' that failure, that did not mean that we had yet been confronted with the real consequences of it. Awareness of your mistakes gives you absolutely zero reprieve from the repercussions. It is not until you are faced with a moral choice that forces you to revisit those past mistakes, and question how effectively they have been fixed, that you really "feel" your failure. Until that moment, it is all just a case of bad publicity and image rehabilitation. Until that moment, it is about how you are perceived. And then, in one quick blow, your focus strays from the shame of your past wrong to the nagging fear that you will be unable to know if you are about to commit a future wrong.
Which, finally, leads me the intended result of this entire piece: the conflict in Syria as depicted in a plot summary to an episode of Seinfeld.
Episode Title: The Sarin Gas
Guest Stars: Basheer Al-Asaad (as himself)
Everyone blames Basheer, Kramer's landlord, for the 'chemical weapon incident'
which resulted in Kramer being hospitalized. Newman tells Jerry that he saw
Basheer do it, but Elaine thinks that Newman actually may be have conspired
with Kramer to make it look like Basheer attacked him as leverage against the
landlord, who has been trying to get Kramer kicked out of the building. George
tries to convince Jerry that they need to get back at Basheer, but has ulterior
motives, as he is trying to impress a girl in Jerry's building who is also being
threatened with eviction. Jerry ends up looking like an idiot wearing a puffy
So, other than diluting an ongoing civil war which has lead to over a million Syrian refugees and over 100,000 dead into a bad parody of an IMDB episode synopsis, I need to confirm that there is an actual point to my pop-cultural drivel.
Like the characters in Seinfeld, America's well-informed populace are without a moral imperative. I think it unfair to equate all of us to the aimless, nihilistic natures of an Elaine or a George, or to the pure ridiculousness of a Kramer, but I think it is safe to say we are all a little bit Jerry. We have the social acumen to know something about all of this is off. We even are reflective enough to be able to get on stage and self-depricate for a good laugh:
"And what's the deal with Syria? Chemical weapons, Assad, really? Who does that? Honestly, you should have just asked the U.S. for advice on how to undermine your fledgling middle class and get them to flee their homes. It's called dergulation of the banking industry and the invention of the mortgage backed security. " Ba-dum-cha
But before our moment on stage, just like Jerry, we actually have to live the story, as a real thing, not just a critique of a thing. And very early on, we get side tracked by introspective, self-reflective posturing. Just how Seinfeld ended up becoming 'show about show...about a show', we turn a conflict into a conflict.. about a conflict. We find ourselves paralyzed in a meta induced international relations stupor. This isn't just about the use of chemical weapons, but about how we are perceived in our reaction to the use chemical weapons. And how we will be perceived in the future. This isn't just about the president's decision to respond, but about congress' power and duty to be the correct branch to make the decision to respond. And about how much public opinion should sway that decision. This isn't about the news coverage documenting the inhumanity of what is occurring in Syria, but about how our news coverage diverts to the inhumanity of Miley Cyrus. Or about how our news coverage diverts to the discussion on how it diverts to the inhumanity of Miley Cyrus. But this isn't about Miley Cyrus, it's about racism. Or sexual exploitation. Or is it just about twerking?
And in all of that, do we, the "Jerrys" of the world, ever get around to actually finding out what truly happened? Do we, or even can we, answer the Who and the Why of the conflict itself? And even if we do somehow fall upon the truth, has not all that self-reflective analysis only bread unavoidable self-doubt? Are we not just continually worried we are going to look like idiots, having to listen to my 8 year old self is in a daze, saying "Come on, not the puffy shirt... again."
In Seinfeld, failed communication is what initially propels the conflict of the story. But it isn't what escalates it. What I failed to notice as a kid was the fact that, occasionally, the characters would attempt to find answers. They would go over the facts, and try to clarify the situation, in almost obsessively meticulous detail. And then, in every move they subsequently made to resolve any confusion, the situation, unavoidably, got worse. They were pulling answers from a black box which they themselves had filled, which offered them no assurances at all.
Despite what I personally find to be an illuminating metaphor, just maybe international affairs are not like an episode of Seinfeld. Maybe it's more Mad About You, or Everybody Loves Raymond (though I am almost positive it is nothing like Cheers). Maybe we'll come up with an answer, and rally behind it. Maybe a categorical response by our government one way or another will be enough to re-instill at least a little bit of faith in our democracy and our ability to make legitimate decisions with rational outcomes.
Or maybe we will just blame Newman.