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Everything Bad Is Good for You

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: September 24, 2005
Latest Update: September 24, 2005

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Index of Topics on Site The Overall Message of Everything Bad Is Good for You
The theme of Steven Johnson's work is that we under-rate popular culture. Because it doesn't seem to contain the classical, privileged art and music of yesteryear, because the drama and the production don't seem to be as skilled as that of yesteryear, we make the unstated assumption that such difference indicates that the young of popular culture are not as smart, as competent, as worthy of our protecting their spiritual, intellectual, and creative growth as we were? And what are we protecting our young against? The hegemony of any ideology or belief system that arrogantly subordinates them if they deviate from its tenets in any way. That's colonialism, folks. Subordinating those who do not gain the approval of our privilege, so that they can work silently, passively, to the collective good of those who have received the approval of our privilege.

The problem is that dominant discourse has so inured us to accepting what we are told in the name of not rocking the boat and "getting ahead" that we passively accept the strictures not to do whatever dominant discourse tells us not to do. Time to rock the boat. And young people who have the least to protect by remaining silent, since most of them aren't yet far enough up in the system to care, are the ones creating the modern pop culture that so scares us.

Look at the example of Kanje West. He said what people who have been subordinated and disrespected (workers) were afraid to say. "Bush doesn't like black people." Now we don't have any evidence in adult dominant discourse (consider Condoleeza Rice's statement that this was not about race) how Bush feels about black people. But Kanje West expressed his feelings. He defied the programmed denial of answerability. He spoke what he felt. And the networks and the administration freaked. Condoleeza had to cut her shopping trip short and rush down to Alabama for some photo ops at church.

What Johnson's theory tells us is that what Kanje and other young pop artists are doing is good for us, even though some of us are having a little trouble defining that as good. We dismiss rap and hip hop and the creative production of our young as undisciplined, irresponsible, annoyance at best, criminal, at worst.We are missing the point because we are not engaging in illocutionary discourse. We aren't even trying to understand what they are feeling, what they are thinking. But our failure to listen to them in good faith doesn't stop the growth of their creativity and intelligence.

We don't like growing old. We don't want to turn the future over to those little pups who don't know diddly squat compared to us. Look at the average age of those in power. Consider that the most important discoveries of our geniuses are usually made when they are in their 20's. So we use our disciplinary authority of rule-making and the sovereign power of our money to silence their answerability. But we can't. And meanwhile, look at what we've done to their country. Debt to the growing tune of $400 billion dollars to China and Asia.

Hello. What's wrong with this picture?? Our objective in using Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You is asking both our young people and our elders to come together in illocutionary discourse to try and figure out a better way of governance, a fairer, more equal playing field, at least in our class, and then presnt that different governance pattern to those in authority, as we begin to illustrate through our actions what modern pop culture is good for all of us, and for the future.

On page 9 of his introduction, Johnson says of the story of his book:

"It's the story of how systems analysis, probability theory, pattern recognition, and---amazingly enough---old-fashioned patience ecame indispensable tools for anyone trying to make sense of modern pop culture."

I'd like to take that a little further and suggest that these are indispensable tools for anyone trying to help us all reshape a loving, caring world. They are tools we have not emphasized for a long time in education, because they are essential, not to books and numbers and banked learning, but to critical thinking and creativity in the management of social relations.

Discussion Questions

  1. By dismissing pop culture as "rubbish" what message are we sending youth?

    Consider that young people see adults making all the decisions that have resulted in so many of them dying or being wounded in war, so many of them being constrained in "career preparation" for an extensive period of their lives, so many of them not being included in the making of decisions that shape their lives. Consider insider, outsider status and how that affects the outsider group.

  2. What does Robert K. Merton say about deviance when the means to desired ends are blocked for some groups or individuals?

  3. Would blocking young people who are not following the privileged paths of traditional adult authority have anything to do with the appeal of other non-traditional paths that are anathema to the traditional adult authority, like criminal, as defined by the traditional adult authority) activity?

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