On Fatal Shores: American Excess and Recess

American Excess
Not having a television set, much of what passes for popular culture escapes me but when the chatter reaches a crescendo and begins to grace the pages of respectable broadsheets such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, one can't help but take notice of social phenomenons. MTV, who invented the genre of reality TV, has scored again with a social anthropological study of a subset of American youth - that of East-Coast Italian-Americans - in a new program called Jersey Shore.

The reality TV show set on this fatal shore of our Atlantic coast began airing earlier this month follows seven deeply tanned oversexed twenty-something Italian-Americans who self-described as guidos and guidettes plus one cast member who is not ethnically Italian but just appreciates the finer points of guidoism. These eight, and trust me eight is more than enough with this group, whose ages range from 21 to 28 shared a house for the month of August in Seaside Heights, New Jersey with MTV recording their exploits where no alcoholic beverage is safe in their seemingly endless pursuit of casual sex. These are individuals for whom life seems to be an eternal collegiate Spring Break vacation. Theirs is a hedonism matched by few; theirs is a brazen debauchery that simply would exhaust most of us. It has to be seen to be believed.

Whatever guidoism happens to be, it apparently includes copious use of hair products (one buys gel by the case), frequent visits to tanning salons (good thing the healthcare reform bill is levying a tax on their use though the aforementioned cast member has a tanning bed at home), fist pumping bravado, sheenly glossed lips that accentuate them for pouting, cologne galore, minimalist clothing (shirts seem optional for men), gyrating hips, tight six-pack abs (one cast member calls his "The Situation" which now doubles as his nickname) and a penchant for clubbing as a lifestyle. It is certainly an attitude and one not necessarily limited to Italian-Americans but perhaps more reflective of a sub-culture that is not uncommon in parts of the Northeast. The self-descriptive moniker of guido is new to me but having lived in Rhode Island and New York, the type is recognizable even if it seems a parody on steroids. Though set in Joisey, the six of the eight cast members hail from New York (three from Staten Island alone) with Rhode Island and New Jersey contributing one cast member apiece.

Not surprisingly, the show has raised a ruckus. The show has angered the more mainstream and venerable Italian-American organizations, upset New Jersey tourism officials, and has caused a few advertisers to skip away. André DiMino, the president of UNICO, the national Italian-American service organization, was upset by the use of the word guido. "It’s a derogatory comment,” DiMino told The New Jersey Star-Ledger before the show first aired. “It’s a pejorative word to depict an uncool Italian who tries to act cool.”

Then again the moniker is embraced by our egotistical eight with relish and pride: “I am a good-looking, well-groomed Italian who’s very, very good with the ladies,” boasts one. And not really different from other communities who have converted epithets into boasts. There are certainly plenty of gay men who self-describe as faggots and queens, for instance. One of the cast members, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi - a 22-year-old from upstate New York - put it like this: “I don’t take offense to it. I feel we are representing Italian-Americans. We look good. We have a good time. We’re nice people. We get along with everybody. I don’t understand why it would be offensive.” And as I noted not everyone in the cast is an Italian-American. Jenni “J-WOW” Farley, 23, a nightclub promoter from Franklin Square, Long Island, finds that “guido” is a cultural phenomenon that transcends race or ethnicity (according to the NJ Star-Ledger, she didn’t phrase it quite so precisely). I suspect that she is right in that it is a 'cultural phenomenon' but what does it say about American culture?

Again not surprisingly, the show has spawned volumes of commentary. To Simon Maxwell Apter of the tabloid blog Huffington Post, the show represents "the triumph of the American Dream, pure and simple" adding that the Jersey Shore is a "positively American creation, a celebration of tawdriness and uninhibited egotism that would be unheard of anywhere else." I'm not quite sure when vapidness and narcissism began to be celebrated so overtly as American virtues. More on the mark is Joshua David Stein of the New York Times who finds the show "nothing more than American Kabuki theater, a refreshingly solipsistic aesthetic world, a temporary coastal community that's a bulwark against normative American youth style." Mr. Stein goes on to opine that the Jersey Shore is American "regionalism at its best." I would add that is also American provincialism at its worst.

But if America is about the pursuit of happiness, then what can one really say? Are they not entitled to the choices they are making in life even if many of us find them lacking in morals and substance? Moreover, these individuals seem genuinely happy. Still I cannot help but wonder if it is we who have failed them. What does this say about our country?

We are all not meant to be rocket scientists but seriously how does anyone not know in which year the country declared independence? And is it any wonder that if the American educational system is producing such less than stellar results that we find ourselves out-competed in the global economy?

Among adults age 25 to 34, the US is ninth among industrialized nations in the share of its population that has at least a high school degree. In the same age group, the United States ranks seventh, with Belgium, in the share of people who hold a college degree. Yet 20 years ago we ranked first in the world in both these socio-economic metrics. Where we once ranked first in the world in the percentage of high school graduation rates, we now rank 18th. Over one third of American teenagers that start ninth grade do not finish high school. We are falling into relative backwardness.

This year the United States will invest $543 billion in education K-12. At all levels of education, the United States spends $11,152 per student. That's the second highest amount worldwide, behind the $11,334 spent by Switzerland. But our results speak for themselves. Given what the United States spends on education, our relatively low student achievement through high school shows that our elementary and secondary school system is clearly inefficient. And it is about to get worse as the second part of this essay will show.

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