Beadel Debevoise spells it out for ya’ll: While these are not, in fact, the end days of ridiculous prophecy, few who love freedom in all its messy possibility would deny it’s been a rough couple decades for American idealism. Bad politics played its part, much as it always has, & shadow armies of the politically correct picked off most of the resistance. For those who knew other eras, it seems rather like a tragedy, & no more so than here in erstwhile Fun City—no peep shows, no smoking & for god’s sake, please no offensive language. Welcome to Sissy Nation: How America Became a Culture of Wimps & Stoopits.
Flung into the maw of election season, Sissy couldn’t be more timely, yet it’s hardly the first occasion John has added gumption to public discourse, nor encouraged the gumption of others. This is key. Sometimes adduced a cynic, the Baltimore-native is really a mischievous anarchist, with a passion for individualism & little tolerance for establishment cant. These qualities were writ large during John’s years as editor of New York Press, where amid the riot of opinion, memoir & criticism, street smart, history minded columns such as William Bryk’s “Old Smoke” & C.J. Sullivan’s “Bronx Stroll” examined the city in ways few others could be bothered with.
Since the Press was sold & John fired in December 2002, the man has not been idle. Among his achievements: blurb writer for Meredith Brosnan’s Mr. Dynamite, one of the greatest NYC comic novels; author of Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, a uniquely lucid survey of this nation’s– & Brooklyn’s– defining racial dynamic; contributor to the Times, for whom he did a swell Harry Mathews piece & regularly hits the streets as that paper’s “Weekend Explorer.”
Lest John appear shiftless, he also rocked “From Wise Guys to Woo Girls,” the lead essay of New York Calling, & did a couple gigs with his editor, WWIB’s own Brian Berger. Rumor has it that before their Gotham History Center show last November, Berger told John “Hey, I gave you the James Brown slot—nobody can follow.” As Sewell Chan of the Times reported, John didn’t disappoint. Likewise, Sissy Nation has all the fresh flavor of just brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now… wow! Safe when taken as directed.
FUNNY HOW TIME SLIPS AWAY
Brian Berger: I just rewatched The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) for the first time in a while. Sure, it’s about mob violence, but moreso, it’s about acquiescene. A few years later, Philip Wylie blasts out Generation of Vipers. Whatever else it might be, it’s very disaffected with the post-war American landscape. Enter Sissy. Has America’s embrace of Sissydom gotten worse, do you think, or has changing context & technology made yours the necessary Sissy of today?
John Strausbaugh: Funny you should mention Generation of Vipers. Not a widely-read book anymore – with good reason. I used it as a model of how not to write Sissy Nation. I mean, it’s one of the all-time great book titles, but it’s written so poorly that most of the time you can tell Wylie’s pissed but you can’t make out just what he’s pissed about. Using that as a negative model helped me keep Sissy simple, straightforward and on-track.
At the start of the book I cop a quote from George Orwell, a more obvious role model: “We have now sunk to a depth in which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” It’s a way for me to acknowledge at the start that there’s nothing new about Sissitude. Some aspects of Sissy behavior, like craven conformism and the herd mentality, go as far back as our pre-human primate conditioning. But yes, I do believe we’ve seen the descent into Sissitude accelerating since the end of World War II, and in recent years Sissy behavior has become the norm, rather than an aberration. It’s only now that we have the will and the technology to completely surround and inundate ourselves in Sissiness. We grow fatter and lazier and stoopiter and more coddled and more self-indulgent and more infantilized every day. Pretty soon we’ll be puddles of protoplasm sloshing around in climate-controlled virtual reality pods shielded from all unmediated contact with reality.
GOWANUS TIME SLIP
Brian: Does Sissy recognize any ethnic bounds? When I had an old beater Volkwagen dying in pieces, I took it to Holy Land Auto Repair—Palestinians. I could do some work on that car myself but there was a limit: distributor cap, yes; water pump, no. Likewise, I don’t know that I’d feel comfortable calling any Haitian in Brooklyn a sissy. Am I part of the problem too or is Sissy also the story of Americanization?
John: Well, it is very Sissy and infantilizing that we can’t work on our own cars anymore. And that you need a Ph.D. from DeVry to program your remote. And that we would much rather plug in the leaf blower than rake a pile of leaves. And television commercials that tout pretty much anything as the quick-n-easy way to grow a tomato or open a can of beans are just slapping us in the face with our lazy, inept Sissiness. I believe the Segway (note the stoopit, post-literate spelling) wasn’t such a flop because it was ridiculous and too expensive, but because you have to stand up on them. If they slap a seat on the Segway we’ll all be putzing around on them within a year.
But to answer your question: Sissiness knows no ethnic boundaries. Sissies come in all flavors. I divide the world into Sissy Nations (us, the French, the Brits, the Swedes and others) and Not Yet Sissy Nations— cultures that would probably love to be in the luxurious position to become fat, lazy, stoopit Sissies like us. The question is whether the Sissy Nations will help the Not Yet Sissy Nations achieve full Sissitude. If not, the Not Yet Sissy Nations will probably just take it away from us Sissies.
HER HEART WAS FILLED WITH LAUGHTER
Brian: You grew up in Baltimore but have lived in New York—first Manhattan, today Brooklyn— for 20 years now & of course you’d been visiting the city since the late ‘60s. Unlike many white New Yorkers, you’re notably empathetic to Southern culture. Does Sissy have any regional bounds or characteristics? Are certain places worse—by which I mean more susceptible—to Sissitude than others?
John: I do happen to like the South, but no, I don’t think it’s any less Sissy than New York City. Granted, New York City is very Sissy, and becoming more Sissy every day. But folks in the South have a lot of Sissy in them, it’s just expressed differently than here. For example, they tend to be just as kneejerk and close-minded in their un-PC way as the most PC New Yorker. And they’re fat. Obese. YOOGE. I do strongly believe that the obesity trend in this country is a very clear sign of our self-indulgent, self-absorbed, lazy Sissitude.
Brian: The streets are a pretty good insulator against Sissy, it seems, if you embrace them. (“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature”— Henry Miller, from Black Spring.) For going on a year now, you’ve been doing these “Weekend Explorer” pieces for the Times, where you dig into various New York City neighborhoods quite intensely—even some in Manhattan that I’d written off for anything but commerce ten years ago. Although I know you got around before, has this type of block-by-block immersion given you any hope, or at least further insight into the nature of Sissy-dom in the New York?
John: Um, yes and no. For instance, I am one of those people who are very distressed about the changes Manhattan in particular has been going through in the hyperactive building spree of this decade. The Manhattan that was for a very long time a bustling hive of cultures and commerce and crazies and chaotic human interactions has been disappearing before our eyes over the past decade or so as it has been transformed into just another Potemkin City, just another node in the Sissy virtual reality landscape, safe and clean and nice and friendly and, to quote The Donnas, B-O-R-I-N-G. It has gone from being an amazing center of creativity to just another place for recreation. One of the points of these “Weekend Explorer” things, for me anyway, is to remind people of New York City’s extraordinarily rich and colorful and creative and, yes, chaotic past, at a time when fewer and fewer signs of that past are visible on its streets. So I walk around today’s Clinton and talk about yesteryear’s Hell’s Kitchen, or note that long before there was a Lincoln Center that area – Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill – was already rich with cultural activity. I explore the Manhattan that P. T. Barnum or Weegee knew, or remind folks of what the East Village was like before it all got razed for luxury condo towers and hotels.
As you get farther out in the boroughs, this transformation gets less and less apparent, and you can still find lots of places that are more old-school New York, more culturally diverse, with lots more local color and character left. But it really upsets me to see Manhattan give up so much of its soul so quickly. Manhattan used to be like no place else in the known universe. Now it’s looking and feeling like every other McCity in Sissy Nation. That’s a big shame.
DOUGH ROLLER BLUES
Brian: A paradox: as New York has become ever more diverse and fractious demographically, it seems groupthink—in the dominant media & politics—is more entrenched than ever before. I trace this back to both the histrionic anti-Cruising (1980) protests & Ed Koch, who really showed Rudy the authoritian way. From anti-porn to anti-Thunderbolt to anti-mosquitos, a majority of the city— including the press—just rolled over for this creep. Same with Bloomberg anti-smoking or the sham crusades of Elliot Spitzer. What’s the problem here, in the city of Emma Goldman, Tuli Kupferberg, Malcom X? (OK, well, Emma was deported & Malcolm assassinated but Tuli lives!)
John: If you ask that question of urban historians, what they’ll tell you is that the big old cities like New York were both hubs of commerce and finance and magnets of cultural creativity and diversity. That’s obviously what New York City was for most of its existence. But the bottom dropped out of the commercial and financial uses of big cities in the decades after World War II, as money and business and manufacturing et al. dispersed out to the suburbs or to newer, smaller urban centers. By the 1970s, lots of the old cities had been written off as obsolete, dysfunctional, dystopian, etc. That they were also great for painters and punk rockers and graffiti taggers and drug dealers and ass-pains was not considered a profitable trade-off. So cities had to reinvent and repurpose themselves to attract the Sissies back in from the suburbs, and they did that by clearing away all the dirt and grit and chaos and confusion and punks and graffiti taggers and drug dealers and ass-pains. They became safe, clean, anodyne, anonymous suburban environments retrofitted into the old city grids and filled up with anonymous look-alike think-alike Sissies. Ed and Rudy and Mike were enablers and envisioners of that transformation, but there were lots of other players and investors in it. And, to be honest, an awful lot of people – apparently the majority of today’s Sissy residents in and Sissy visitors to Manhattan – seem very happy and comfortable with this new, cleaner, safer version of the place.
THE TICKET THAT EXPLODED
Brian: Taking this a little further, what about this whole Reverend Jeremiah Wright thing? As a happy Beckettian Atheist, I don’t subscribe to his theology but he seems less Sissy than his critics. Speaking of whom, how the has Hillary Clinton made it this far—after Waco, after Marc Rich, after the Patriot Act, after the Iraq War? I know Obama isn’t saintly but he’s at least somewhat less sullied than this venal monster, & yes, it would still mean a lot to elect even half a black man President.
John: Hillary has gotten this far the way most all successful politicians in Sissy Nation do, on pure lust for power and monstrous ego and a sense of entitlement and a facility for pandering to Sissy voters’ self-absorption and fears. Politics is, after all, self-interest masquerading as civics. To paraphrase William S. Burroughs, by the time a politician gets to run for president he/she is already so corrupt, so compromised, so crazed with power that they’re barely human beings anymore. I’m an anarcho-syndicalist myself. My bumper sticker, if I had a car, would be NOBODY IN ’08: CUZ NOBODY COULDN’T DO NO WORSE THAN THESE SISSIES.
Obama, to his credit, can’t quite bring himself to lie and pander as smoothly and despicably as most successful Sissy politicians, which is one reason I’m doubting he’ll make it to the White House.
And the Reverend Wright thing is another reason. I think the whole Reverend Wright fiasco has been fascinating. I know the policy wonks keep whining that “the media” are “distracting” us by “focusing” on “trivia” like Reverend Wright instead of “the real issues” like tax cuts and carbon emissions and Iraq, but that’s why they’re policy wonks. The Reverend Wright spectacle, like the Jena 6 thing and the OJ trial, is a glaring, bonk-on-the-head reminder that race DOES still matter, that religion DOES matter, and that there are still some YOOGE differences in the ways black Americans and other Americans see the world and think about things. Remember the startling difference in the way white and black Americans responded to O.J.’s acquital? In a smaller, more vaudevillian way, I think there have been big differences in the way white (and probably other) Americans and (many, though certainly not all) black Americans responded to Reverend Wright’s doing the boogaloo behind the lectern at the National Press Club. My (white man) jaw was on the floor. Can you IMAGINE a white preacher boogalooing like that on national tv? I think that little dance said more than all the old-school black nationalist conspiracy theory ranting.
There’s also a lot one could say about Rev. Wright vis-à-vis the role of the patriarchal preacher in the black community. My friend Norman Kelley’s book The Head Negro In Charge Syndrome says a lot about that.
YOU & YOUR FOLKS, ME & MY FOLKS
Brian: Did the experience of writing your last book, Black Like You, prepare you for Sissy in some ways? By that I mean the misguided sense of propriety many people have about race in this country— in this borough, built on nearly two hundred years of slavery, one dark fact among many that the Brooklyn nostalgia creeps conveniently forget— is right in step with all other forms of supression. Whether it’s Carl Van Vechten (a gay white man) publishing Nigger Heaven back in 1928 or Nas (a black hip-hop artist) releasing an album called simply Nigger in 2008, there’s controversy as much over mere language as the conditions that impelled such creation in the first place. (How Richard Pryor escaped the Bicentennial year relatively unscathed remains a small mystery: delayed national guilt?)
John: It’s certainly one aspect of our increasing Sissification that we’ve come to believe that correct speech leads to correct attitudes, and that if you simply use the approved words and don’t use disapproved words you’re somehow a good, moral, upstanding citizen. What crap. I’m not saying that polite public discourse is inherently Sissy; I’m saying that manners do not necessarily equal morals. You can be an excruciatingly polite dick. Race matters a lot in this culture. You can’t wish that fact away, or make it go away of its own accord simply by not talking about it candidly and directly. Just because you’ve learned to say “the N-word” instead of “nigger” or “First Peoples” instead of “Indian” doesn’t make you a good person or mean you really give a damn about those people to whom you’re so politely referring. Back in the 70s, the great Swamp Dogg wrote and recorded an amazing song called “Call Me Nigger.” It was an upful, funny, gentle, musically innovative anti-racist ode. If he’d titled it “Call Me N-Word,” oy.
[Since this interview, Nas leaked the all-embracing “Be A Nigger Too.” If ya’ll are in an office & need to avoid grief... maybe put on headphones.—The Music Director.]
HEAVY TRAFFIC AHEAD
Brian: One of the crucial later texts in BLY is actually a film: Coonskin (1975), written & directed by Ralph Bakshi, of Brownsville, Brooklyn. Did you see it at the time of its release & what do you make of its veneration among hip-hop artists? I asked one rabid Coonskin fan, a black dude from Queens who’s in his 30s, how he got turned on to it. He said he was a cartoon freak as a kid so a cool family member bought him Streetfight (the title under which Coonskin was rereleased on video) as a teenager. Not to say Darius James wasn’t influential but it’s interesting that there was a Coonskin cult before That’s Blaxpoitation! too.
John: For me, one of the most interesting things about Coonskin was that the negative reaction to it showed that politically-correct kneejerk from the self-apointed guardians of popular culture can get things totally wrong no matter the color or affiliation of said guardians. Coonskin is as anti-racist, anti-stereotype as a movie could possibly be in 1975, yet the nimrod culture guardians saw a white guy using Brer Rabbit as a point of departure and stoopitly decided it must be a racist, stereotyping film. He was satirizing Brer Rabbit et al, and younger black audiences recognized that right away, while their guardians missed it. I think it’s great that it eventually reached wider and wider audiences who recognized it for what it is.
DIE MORITAT VON SISSY MESSER
Brian Oddly, your most controversial book seems to be Rock ‘Til You Drop, perhaps because so many people like to front Authority on pop music no matter how superficial their knowledge of its history. In any case, it appears the Sissy virus has infected what remains of the rock, especially with the popularity of “classic album concerts”– like it’s a fucking opera or something. Tommy sucked the first time & even a genuine song cycle like Lou Reed’s Berlin seems a debasement of anything—especially irreverence—rock could have once been when you present it like Die Dreigroschenoper.
John: Okay, I still like Berlin, even though it inspired legions of awful mope-rockers, and I most certainly would not go to a concert to hear Lou croak those songs today. But never mind. My point in that book was simply to say two things.
(a) Rock is youth music. It’s about youthful energies, anxieties, sex, fronting, idiocy, hopes and dreams. It simply cannot be credibly played by people middle-aged and older, with a very few very glaring exceptions (Iggy into his early 40s is the classic example). It’s not the blues, it’s not jazz, it’s not symphonic music, where you can go on performing, and in many cases actually get better and better at it, until the day you die of old age. It’s more like a professional sport or the ballet, where you get to a point where you can’t do it credibly anymore. Not just because your body has aged, but because you’ve lost the magic, it becomes rote and repetition and a hollow, embarrassing sham. You can go on liking it all your life – why not? – but get the fuck off the stage with your bony, wrinkly old self recreating the magic of 50 years ago. Jesus. Rock, true rock, is the enemy and antithesis of nostalgia.
(b) 60s rock, the rock of my own youth, had, wily-nily, a revolutionary function. Maybe it was just a cultural, as opposed to a political, revolution, but it was some kind of revolution, and it got sold out in the 70s, and sold out further and further over the years since.
I think those are two rather obvious and unassailable statements, but Jesus the wailing and howling and denunciations I heard from old rockers, old rock fans, old rock crickets like Robert Christgau, et al.
TAKE THE TCB TRAIN
Brian: Despite Chuck D’s protest, as a white American cipher, the King remains non-pareil– cue Public Enemy “Fight The Power” here. Peter Guralnick, in his laudable Elvis biography, doesn’t really seem to embrace this. Does the life– & life after death—of Elvis tell us anything about Sissy Nation? Is it a contradiction to love the self-invention of Elvis and Chuck D, or is this effort to smooth over such irreducible conflicts the type of Sissy move that got us into this mess?
John: I love Elvis. They don’t call him the King for nothing. I love his music. I love the fact that he became a secular god around the world. I think you need to let the King into your heart, son.
Guralnick’s massive, two-volume biography blows, by the way, precisely to the extent that he wrinkles his nose at Elvis’ myth and legends and godhood. He’s the music-cricket equivalent of a policy wonk: He just wants us to concentrate on what he thinks is important, like the track listings for this or that recording session. That’s not anything like the real, full Elvis. You have to take the movies with the music, the Gospel albums with the ‘68 Comeback, the Vegas E in his full bloated Kingship with the hip-shaky young Elvis Presley. If you can’t at least process it all as one big phenomenon, you’re missing something crucial in your understanding of American popular culture.
Regarding Public Enemy, I consider it a totally bogus and bonehead idea, that Elvis (representing all white performers) “stole his music from the black man.” What Sissy bullshit. As I went to some pains to assert in BLY, I firmly believe that American popular culture is a mongrel, mutt culture, not a fucking Rainbow of distinct colors but a muddy mix of all the colors and cultures and sounds and ideas and dance moves and words and everything else everyone has brought to America. Because they’re both Americans, Elvis has as much right to play with that mutt as Chuck Fucking D, and vice versa. It’s that messy, chaotic cultural mix that makes – or made – American pop culture great, and that the more we work to bland and blenderize and smooth and separate out all the contradictions and chaos and character, the less American and the more Sissy Nation we become. Go back and read Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans of 1970. He was closer to getting it right back then than most of us are today. What he said, briefly, was not that there aren’t differences in all these cultures that have come together here, but that what’s most important is that they have all come together here, like nowhere else in the world. I think you can see and hear that most clearly not in our politics, not in our polite public discourse, but in our popular culture.
MUSE SICK-N-HOUR MESS AGE
Brian: Can we get a soundtrack for an anti-Sissy machine?
John: Not that going to the gym makes me un-Sissy – hey, I’m an American, so I’m as Sissy as any other American – but here’s the top of the mix I’ve been listening to lately on the Nano (yes, goddamn it, I take a Nano to the gym, sue me) when I work out. It’s all pretty upbeat, though I can’t swear it’s all un-Sissy. You’ll note there are a lot of covers. I like covers. Recycling – it’s the green thing to do.
“Cinammon Girl,” Type O Negative
“Living in America,” James Brown
“Wreck My Flow,” The Dirtbombs
“Afro Samurai Theme,” RZA
“Sunshine of Your Love,” Funkadelic
“Desperado,” Me First & the Gimme Gimmes
“Geez Louise,” The Unband
“Smooth Criminal,” Alien Ant Farm
“Du Hast,” Rammstein
“From Then Till Now,” Killah Priest
“Tuff Baby,” Iggy
“Lazy White Boy,” Nashville Pussy
“The Ecstasy of Gold,” Metallica
Selected John Strausbaugh Bibliography
Sissy Nation: How America Became a Culture of Wimps & Stoopits (Virgin Books, 2008)
“From Wise Guys To Woo Girls” in New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg, Brian Berger & Marshall Berman, eds. (Reaktion Books, 2007)
Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Intimidation in American Popular Culture (Tarcher/Penguin Books, 2006)
Rock ‘Til You Drop: The Decline From Rebellion to Nostalgia (Verso Books, 2002)
E: Reflections on the Elvis Faith (Blast Books, 1995)
Alone With The President (Blast Books, 1993)
The Drug User: Documents 1840-1960, John Straushbaugh & Donald Blaise, eds. (Blast Books, 1993)