Sissy Nation: How America Became a Culture of Wimps & Stoopits
by John Strausbaugh
(Virgin Books, 176 pages, $16.95)
Now that it's over we can agree that The Sopranos was the great testosterone soap opera of the decade. We had, even if we did not realize it, a need to watch beefy Italians cursing, slamming each other against bathroom walls, and splattering their rivals' brains across their tablecloths. HBO's epic filled that need.
The one buzz-killer -- one that killed more and more toward the end of the series -- was Tony Soprano's shiftless son A.J. Over seven years we saw him blossom from a chubby wimp into a skinny-but-stupid lay-about. In a late series episode the elder Soprano walks past his son and sees him "giggling on the computer, typing away in some little chit-chat room." Tony recounts the scene to his therapist and shakes his head: "I just wanted to slam his face in."
Again and again, Tony saw chances to toughen up his son but passed. He coddled the kid and eased his way to wimpery. When A.J. finally ties a cement block to his leg and jumps into the family pool, Tony yanks him out of the water and holds him close, stroking his hair, weeping. Back in Dr. Melfi's office, Tony frowns and blames himself for the lump that his son's become. But even then, Tony doesn't take responsibility. A.J.'s problems began, Tony scowls, when he inherited his father's "putrid genes."
David Chase's series was always as much about a dying way of life as it was about Tony Soprano's fractious families. How did mob boss Tony grow up so much softer and more depressed than his father? Why was Tony's son such a useless, confused lump? How did a country and a culture that produced Michael Corleone produce... this?
THAT, IN A WAY, is the question John Strausbaugh wrote Sissy Nation to answer. He did not write the book to explore the reasons: He wrote it to grab readers by the lapels and shake them until they saw his way. "I've been around long enough to have watched us retreat from self-exploration to self-indulgence," he writes. "I've witnessed our descent into Sissihood, and it really worries me."
If Strausbaugh wasn't constantly worried or constantly spotting signs of cultural decline, he might not write at all. A former editor of the acrid New York Press and a current contributor to the New York Times Magazine, Strausbaugh writes because he hates.
He walks down Chicago's Navy Pier and sneers at the "Holsteins" gorging themselves to death. He watches "blogger boys" infiltrate his beloved New York, listening to iPods, blocking out the world, pulling on ironic T-shirts that, no matter what slogan or brand they advertise, make them look exactly the same. Every day and in every way, he sees things getting worse and worse.
As David Chase and his Sopranos players could tell you, this isn't the most daring of arguments. Practically every boomer who's survived into the age of TIVO feels this way. All of them, like Strausbaugh, assume that their parents' generation got it right and that some crucial DNA strand got snapped around 40 years ago.
"Americans were once infamous around the world as the precise opposite of conformist sisses," Strausbaugh writes. "We were Yankees, pioneers, frontiersmen, cowboys and Indians." Things were already slowing down by 1951, when Strausbaugh was busy getting born, and he witnessed the last gasps of good music, sex, and, especially, good cars: "In the '50s, the '60s, into the '70s, your car was an individual statement. Your car had style, panache."
Strausbaugh, contrarian though he is, is a late convert to this philosophical school. The prophet Archie Bunker ranted about this decades ago. Redneck intellectuals like Jim Goad and Joe Bob Briggs have been warning from their red state bunkers about American sissification since the bad old 1980s and 1990s.
Strausbaugh adds to their critiques with a heavy dose of technophobia, vinyl-junkie Luddite grumbling about consumerism. It sounds ripped from the pages of Adbusters, and it doesn't add a lot to this case.
SISSY NATION DOESN'T blame corporations for the limpening of American wrists. Quite the opposite: Strausbaugh scoffs at sissies who blame Burger King for making them fat or Marlboro for turning their lungs into soot collection facilities.
But to embrace the full meaning of that and let the poor saps make their own choices would be too much. "We eat to grotesque obesity, or buy the biggest, loudest plasma TV on the block, or the newest zillion-function cell phone, or the most godzilloid SUV, or wear tons of bling, or live in gigantic McMansions," Strausbaugh writes with a heavy sigh. "Somehow none of it makes us happy, because none of it changes who we are."
Strausbaugh is working with blinders. Americans eat more, true, and some of them get sick doing so, but by and large we're living longer than when men were men. We buy big TVs and blackberrys, but the argument for that expressing individuality less than the vast rims of a vintage Caddy is... what, exactly?
It sounds a little detached from reality because it is. The book's subtitle, "How America Became a Culture of Wimps & Stoopits," is a reference to a Star Trek episode wherein dopey aliens steal what they need from other cultures to survive. (What a manly man like Strausbaugh was doing watching Star Trek is a mystery. Did he accidentally swing a wrench and knock the TV onto the Sci-Fi Channel while he was putting together a bear cage?)
After pages and pages of bellyaching about technology, Strausbaugh admits the world that's coming reminds him of the automated dystopia in E.M. Forster's novella The Machine Stops. And he admits that New York magazine nailed his lifestyle when it defined tight T-shirted, long-haired, wittier-than-thou oldsters as "grups," a term inspired by, yes, another Star Trek episode. Strausbaugh's Luddite senses are locked in: All of these advances were predicted in sci-fi, damn it, and anyone who thinks they're living happier lives because of them are dupes for the Borg.
That dedication to the past leads Strausbaugh to a few worthy targets, even if they've been shot through by plenty of other authors. He sees creeping sissification in the coddling university culture, in the pill-for-everything pharmaceutical culture, in the welfare state, that "hideously undemocratic, un-American effect of trapping poor Americans in a state of permanent infantilized dependency on the public teat."
But he is at his most frenzied and funny when he's wrong, and his most labored when he is right, hitting these notes that the uncool likes of David Horowitz and Newt Gingrich and Thomas Szasz have been hitting for years. Here, he sounds too much like Tony Soprano: Crushed, despairing, hallucinating the better world of 40-odd years ago where people didn't have these sorts of problems.
STRAUSBAUGH'S PUBLISHER has had a devil of a time marketing the book. The copy I got came with a press release promising an expose of the "sissy vote" in this marathon-through-quicksand of a presidential campaign.
This narrow rant (Strausbaugh himself has called it that) barely touches on the subject, but like that grand sissy Bill Clinton I can feel the pain of that Virgin Books flack. You've got a sinecure at a publishing house when the "information economy" is employing more people than the manufacturing economy. On your way to work, on your way home, you have more diversions, more cheaply accessed, than any generation has ever had. And yet here you are, promoting an epistle on how all of this stuff is symptomatic of the American empire in its senescence, a gateway to a wimpier world.
Strausbaugh ends the book on a Swiftian note, suggesting that America weaken its enemies by giving them the same soft lifestyle we sissies are inflicting on ourselves. Imagine if you informed some schlub in Lagos or Sao Paolo or Tashkent that from now on he'd have to live like an American: that you were going to give him a cornucopia whether he liked it or not.
The problem is, when you imagine that, Strausbaugh's satire sounds like a long rant about nothing.
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