It’s Never Been A Better Time to Be Interested or Interesting; Why Patton Oswalt’s Elitism Is Wrong

Patton Oswalt recently wrote a nostalgic and nerdy call-to-arms. Titled “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time To Die“, his thesis is that geek culture is at once decadent and mainstream; that the compulsive impulse that drives D&D and comic nerds was eviscerated by the egalitarian internet; that nerdy is easy today. Easy is bad. I disagree with his animosity.

When our coworkers nodded along to Springsteen and Madonna songs at the local Bennigan’s, my select friends and I would quietly trade out-of-context lines from Monty Python sketches—a thieves’ cant, a code language used for identification. We needed it, too, because the essence of our culture—our “escape hatch” culture—would begin to change in 1987.

That was the year the final issue of Watchmen came out, in October. After that, it seemed like everything that was part of my otaku world was out in the open and up for grabs, if only out of context. . . . Ironically, surface dwellers began repurposing the symbols and phrases and tokens of the erstwhile outcast underground.

Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun. The Lord of the Rings used to be ours and only ours simply because of the sheer goddamn thickness of the books. Twenty years later, the entire cast and crew would be trooping onstage at the Oscars to collect their statuettes, and replicas of the One Ring would be sold as bling.

Slate columnist Matt Malady wrote about the same impulse, decrying how the internet made shopping for Christmas presents less satisfying:

I kicked things off by purchasing a Disneyland jigsaw puzzle, circa 1965, for $15 on eBay. I thought it would make a nice gift for my Disney-obsessed younger cousin. . . .

The gifts, when presented, had the intended effect. “Where on earth did you find this?” my relatives asked, one by one, excitedly. My response was consistent and coy: “Don’t worry about it.”

For a few minutes, I felt exultant—a champion at the sport of e-commerce. But when our gift exchange ended, something unexpected happened: I started to feel sad. I also felt like I had cheated.

Matt and Patton both whine that the world is too easy; they both place value on the process of acquisition, rather than the results. Matt even acknowledges that his gifts were big hits. They’re both internally focused; the joy of the search is something known only to the seeker, the pain of isolation is felt only by the outsider. They both disapprove what they see as some success unearned. Matt says “[t]he Internet eureka is a lesser emotion, something akin to the feeling one gets after prevailing thanks to a hidden, unfair advantage—the steroid abuser’s mammoth home run, or a wind-aided 100-meter record.” Patton whines that “the old inner longing for more or better that made our present pop culture so amazing is dwindling.”

It’s telling that he talks about an inner drive, and not the world around us. If you expand his claim to say that broader culture is more boring than in the ’80’s, well, that’s insane. The Walking Dead is a hit show based on a zombie comic, and the prime-time sitcom Community paid unironic tribute to D&D recently. Like Micheal Cera? You can read Youth In Revolt while watching Arrested Development, while googling the latest about the upcoming (?) film. Batman was the biggest movie in the world. Would you trade that for Reagan-era vanilla uniformity? Dallas and Don Johnson and Tiffany for everyone? It’s never been a better time to be interested, or interesting.

The love of process, rather than result, is indicative of an elitist, privileged disdain for results. Think of the bureaucratic urge to organize, despite the organization plunging down the toilet. I’m reminded of Nozick: “Unsuccessful businessmen and workers do not have the same animus against the capitalist system as do the wordsmith intellectuals. Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus.”

For me, the internet has always stood for opportunity, as opposed to boring equality. I couldn’t have indulged my weird obsessions without it, I wouldn’t have found favorite authors, bands, or movies. It taught me about Liam Neeson’s Batman Begins character, and C.S. Lewis’ Christian apologetics. It’s given me The Go! Teamcorgisapartments and the answers to thousands of questions which would otherwise go unanswered, from the inane to the profound.

Long live the mini-epiphany, because we, and the world, get better piece by piece. I say the faster, the better.

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