Follow-Up to Reality TV, Celebrity, and the American Culture: Part Two

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I wanted to follow up my previous post with an article written by Kelly Nassour, called “Wasted: The American Dream Blacked Out.” The Abstract is as follows:

This project argues against the so-called American Dream- a myth perpetuated by various media forms of the 20th century. Combining the examination of various texts where alcohol and drug use move past a recreational activity to a detrimental lifestyle, chiefly Thompsons Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as 21st century televisual media such as Breaking Bad, Nassour speculates on a blackout culture that is prevalent in contemporary times. First, the author emphasizes that this blackout culture is formed by participants who, seeking the American Dream myth, engage in alcohol and drug abuse to an extent that their life choices revolve around excessive use. Second, the author argues that these participants are so prevalent as a population that they affect contemporary American society by their actions. By analyzing these discourses, Nassour argues for a rejection of myths perpetuated by blackout culture and a solution to this self-destructive lifestyle.

This is something I am keen on not joining. This sort of culture isn’t my cup of tea. Nor will behaviors that are self-destructive will lead to a healthy, or productive lifestyle, I am so interested in attaining, and holding tightly to my chest.

As it turned out, last night this very same culture met me last night, and I did what I always do – I declined elements I had already deemed unhealthy for my consumption. Sometimes, those choices are incredibly hard to make, but that case wasn’t last night. Peer pressure is a force to be reckoned with, and I resist peer pressure for my health, and wellness, as a person, every step of the way. I want others to be healthy, to make thoughtful decisions, and to not be afraid to approach me respectfully and kindly, in disagreement. I cannot make those decisions for them, but I will remain speaking about them because it’s something that I truly, truly believe in.

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Remembering Occupy Relative to the American Dream

I remember hearing how the “American Dream is dead” throughout the Occupy movement when I was involved, and with careful consideration, I couldn’t understand why it was even relevant, or worthy of my attention, in the first place. I suppose my ideas on religion actually include a similar logic, I seldom think God is dead, I never thought he was alive or even existed, and I think of the American Dream in exactly the same way. It, too, has never existed. The Senior Senator of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, intelligently and eloquently expresses my sentiments:

The American Dream was never a simply, ‘Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps’ method of wealth attainment. It never happened that way. That was, an illusion and a myth, and following that myth is the surest way to a ghost hunt. And I don’t hunt ghosts, because ghosts too are not real. You would have a better chance chasing yourself through a forest following your own footsteps, because at least, you exist. Chasing the American Dream is worse than this, because it has never existed. It’s a giant, mythic lie.

‘Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps’

This phrase is not only mythic, but entirely misleading:

Meaning

Improve your situation by your own efforts.

Origin

The origin of this descriptive phrase isn’t known. It refers of course to boots and their straps (laces) and to the imagined feat of a lifting oneself off the ground by pulling on one’s bootstraps. This impossible task is supposed to exemplify the achievement in getting out of a difficult situation by one’s own efforts.

It was known by the early 20th century. James Joyce alluded to it in Ulysses, 1922:

“There were others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps.”

A more explicit use of the phrase comes a little later, from Kunitz & Haycraft’s British Authors of the 19th Century:

A poet who lifted himself by his own boot-straps from an obscure versifier to the ranks of real poetry.”

Some early computers used a process called bootstrapping which alludes to this phrase. This involved loading a small amount of code which was then used to progressively load more complex code until the machine was ready for use. This led to the use of the term ‘booting’ to mean starting up a computer. An early citation of this in print comes from the Proceedings of the institute of radio engineers (IRE), 1953:

A technique sometimes called the ‘bootstrap technique’…Pushing the load button… causes one full word to be loaded into a memory address previously set up… on the operator’s panel, after which the program control is directed to that memory address and the computer starts automatically.

An electrical engineer correspondent of mine says that bootstrap was used with the same meaning as above to early radio circuits, before the computer era, but I have no documentary evidence to support that assertion.

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Horatio Alger, Jr. and Rags to Riches

Horatio Alger was a 19th-century American author known for many rags-to-riches stories that he wrote, and was even awarded for. His stories included many archetypes and themes, like any other author:

Hero: the protagonist of the Alger novel has several important characteristics, many of which can be tied to the Cinderella/ Male Cinderella types of fairy tales. Firstly, he has typically lost either his father or mother, if not both. If he has not lost either parent, then he typically leaves home and is forced to support himself. He is always self-reliant. Secondly, although the hero may not have had the same educational opportunities as most children his age, he is quick and eager to learn, and has a natural wit that carries him through complicated situations. He is most often shorter than his peers, but strongly built with an aristocratic mien. He looks honest. He often is a powerful swimmer. The Alger hero is noble and honest, and will often involve himself in situations in which the weak are oppressed by the strong. He has a very powerful internal sense of justice. Although he does not attend church regularly, the Alger hero has a nebulous Christian faith: he believes in providence and moral behavior. He does not drink or smoke, even when encouraged. He is sympathetic to all men, even those who have wronged him.

Patron: the patron is the Fairy Godmother of the Alger novel. The patron is usually a very wealthy man (though there are some instances of female patronage), and is always older than the hero. He takes a strong interest in the education (through school or business) of the hero, and will contribute either his time or resources to helping him. In his sponsorship, he takes care to encourage the hero’s self-reliance: any serious investments that the patron gives are given as loans, and he often tests the hero’s honor and loyalty. The patron is himself always the final evolution of a hero; the patron was once poor too, but ambitious, like the hero, and he always serves as a successful example.

Miser: the miser is the foil to the patron. He is the obstacle in the hero’s path to financial security. However, the miser is often the impetus for the hero’s ambition. When the hero has a family, the miser holds the mortgage on their house. When the hero has both his parents, the miser resents the father for marrying the only woman he ever loved; he resents the mother for rejecting a marriage proposal. He holds the mortgage over the family as a threat. Typically, the miser takes a just action of the hero’s as a deliberate wrong to him, and uses it as his justification to threaten eviction. It is this need for money that drives the hero. The miser is typically from poor roots himself, but actively works to forget it. He feels that he possesses a natural aristocracy and often regrets that he does not live in Europe, where his nobility would be legally recognized. Frequently, the miser’s first name is Jewish; although his religion is never mentioned directly, this reveals a slightly anti-Semitic sentiment in many of Alger’s works.

Gentleman: the gentleman is a patron-in-training. Typically close to the hero in age, the gentleman is a rich young man who recognizes the hero as a fellow noble being despite the class barrier. The gentleman functions with a strong democratic ideal; he believes absolutely that only a man’s actions make him any better or worse than any other. He views his wealth as the result of luck and hard work. The gentleman will use his resources to help the hero move into sophisticated circles; he will use his educational benefits to help the hero learn. Many times, he will give the hero a set of his clothes. The gentleman serves as a foil to the fop.

Fop: The fop is the opposite of the gentleman. Although the fop is rich, he feels that his wealth raises him above other men, particularly the hero, who he views as a lower-class social climber. The fop is never as rich as the gentleman, nor as rich as he would like to be, and desires the gentleman’s friendship greatly as a result. He resents the hero for his friendship with the gentleman. Often, the fop is the son of the miser. At some point in the novel, the fop typically falls into poverty, either through his own doing or through his father’s. The hero then displays his nobility by forgiving the fop, and becoming either a patron or gentleman to him.

Spendthrift: The spendthrift is similar to the fop in many ways, and in several novels, one character serves as both. When they are separate, the spendthrift often begins as an acquaintance to the hero; but where the hero is ambitious, the spendthrift is not. When the hero saves his money, the spendthrift wastes it on cigars, alcohol, lottery tickets, fine clothing, and billiards. The spendthrift is lazy and unmotivated. In some cases, the spendthrift will resent the hero for his miserliness, and will even, occasionally, turn to crime and steal from the hero.

Villain: The villain is a criminal. He functions through lies and deceit. He is dangerously single-minded, and at times, he is deadly. He preys on the weak and unsuspecting. He will steal from others through outright theft, confidence games, or kidnapping and ransom. He typically has dark facial hair, and an untrustworthy face. When he attempts to steal from the hero, the hero gets the best of him with quick wits, a strong will, or by trusting the authorities.

Bully: The bully is a young villain; however, unlike the villain, the bully has the potential to still become good, even to become a hero. He is never as smart as the hero, and relies on strength and strong-arm tactics to cow others, mistaking fear for respect. When the hero begins his rise, the bully resents him for rising above his station; he accuses the hero of “putting on airs.” Should the fop or miser conspire to ruin the hero’s reputation, the bully will sometimes do the dirty work to develop a plot of false accusation. Whatever the bully does, the hero will forgive him and will often cite intemperance or abuse by a parent as the reason for the bully’s behavior. If given the opportunity, the hero will become a patron to the bully, offering money and employment assistance in return for the bully’s promise to give up his old ways.

Pawnbroker: A minor character who does not appear in every tale, the pawnbroker is comparable in many ways to the miser. He typically has a first name of Jewish origin, and he works against the hero, who is attempting to pawn a special item to make a business investment. Unlike the miser, the pawnbroker is purely avaricious. Although he dislikes the hero for his business sense (which prevents the pawnbroker from fashioning a purely unfair bargain, the item that the hero wants to pawn is desired so much by the pawnbroker that the hero is able to name his own terms.

Themes:

Business and investments: Economic theory predominates in all of Alger’s juvenile novels. Many heroes are involved in business and have to be adept at understanding interest, profits, debt, and financial risk and security. Even when not involved in business, a system of cosmic (karmic) investments figures strongly: the previous good deeds of the hero are typically repaid when he is in danger of failing utterly.

Chance: The theme of luck, fortune, and chance figures strongly in Alger’s work. A combination of luck and ambition raise the hero to his new life. Alger may want to protect his young readers from dejection at their inability to perform as well; he may also want to address issues of divine justice, providence, and the magical luck of fairy tale heroes. Even bad luck, although it may initially place the hero in very difficult situations, proves useful. Chance serves as a test of the hero’s ingenuity and optimism; it also places the hero on the path to particularly advantageous situations.

Coach Ride: In Alger novels with a rural setting the hero undertakes at least one suspenseful coach ride across a deserted landscape, usually on the errand of transporting money. This coach ride provides the hero an opportunity to be held up by a highwayman and use his quick wits to escape from the situation.

Drop Game: In Alger novels with a rural setting, a minor villain usually attempts to trick the hero with a con game. In this con, the villain will drop a wallet with fake bills on the ground and remove himself to a nearby location. When he sees a naive person walking towards the wallet, he will walk over and call attention to it. He will ask the mark if the wallet belongs to him. When the mark replies that it doesn’t, the villain will say that he would find the owner, but is on his way to an important appointment, and cannot spare the time. He will mention that a large reward is certainly likely, and will ask the mark if he can find the owner for him. In return for this work, the villain will say, they can split the reward money. However, he will add, since he must leave immediately, the mark should simply pay him a small amount for the wallet, and then collect the reward himself, which will almost certainly be more than twice what he is asking for the wallet. However, this game usually does not work on the hero. Either the hero himself is wise to such a ploy and will frighten the villain away, or a nearby police officer will see the interchange and apprehend the villain. Regardless, the scene usually ends with the hero getting a wallet full of fake money; though valueless, this wallet will usually help the hero in a tight situation later.

Education: The desire to educate himself is of prime importance to the Alger hero; in particular, gaining fluency in foreign languages. French and German indicate a character’s desire to fit into genteel circles; Latin and Greek indicate his desire to become a scholar.

False accusation: In almost every Alger novel, the hero is wrongfully accused of a crime, either through a case of mistaken identity or conspiracy of adversaries. Although he is always absolved of any guilt, the accusation serves as a suspenseful plot device. A circumstantial connection between this theme and Alger’s own life, charged with accusations of pederasty before his juvenile writing career, can be drawn and should be considered.

Foresight: Of the many advantages that the Alger hero possesses, none is more important than foresight. It is tied to his success in business, since he always recognizes the potential return on investments. It keeps him safe, since it helps him to recognize dangerous situations and plan accordingly.

Gift: The patron often gives monetary gifts or loans to the hero; the gentleman, education or books. However, in almost every novel, at some point a wealthy associate of the hero gives him a gift that is symbolic in nature: the patron will often give a silver watch and chain, which serves as the first sign of the hero’s rise into higher circles. The gentleman will give the hero a suit that he no longer wears, which serves much the same purpose.

Invitation: In a theme comparable to Cinderella’s ball, the hero is often invited to the home of a patron or gentleman for dinner or a birthday party. It is always noted that the hero, though nervous that he will show himself to be unmannerly, performs admirably by observing the actions of others, be they eating or dancing. It is often at this meeting of high society that the hero has the opportunity to show off new clothing, or a newly learned foreign language.

Orphaned: The protagonist has typically lost one or both of his parents; occasionally, he has gained a stepparent. This family structure serves two very important themes: firstly, the lack of a strong parental figure forces the hero to rely on himself. Alger wants to foster this ingenuity and independence in his readers; it is the American ideal. Secondly, the loss of the parent alludes to the Cinderella tale.

Physiognomy: Either alluded to directly or suggested in passing description, the concept of physiognomy is pervasive in Alger’s works. The heroes are almost always described as possessing “frank, open faces,” and the villains being “black whiskered individuals.” This concept combines with the themes of luck and providence by suggesting that the heroes are predestined from birth to succeed in their adventures. The idea of the frank and open face is also referenced in cases of false accusation and karmic investments: in both cases, the heroes face leads others to trust and reward them.

Rhetoric: Many Alger heroes share the ability of rhetoric. Either in their salesmanship, debating, or school recitations, the heroes are born public speakers, who impress and inspire those around them.

Second Payments: A common action taken by the miser is to demand a second interest payment of the hero’s family. He will wait until he is certain that the family has lost the receipt or any other direct evidence of prior payment, and then involve a lawyer and threaten eviction unless he receives another payment. In each case, the receipt or other direct evidence is found before the miser’s plan succeeds, and he is humiliated. This humiliation usually drives the miser into even more open confrontation with the hero.

Temperance: Usually, the hero has the opportunity to indulge in alcohol or cigars; to both, he refuses. Although the path of the hero is certainly a wise one for young children to take, it is also likely an indication of Alger’s own attitudes: during the period in which he wrote, the Temperance Movement was gaining force and rapidly becoming a nationally organized issue.

This article details some of Alger’s life:

Horatio Alger Jr. is the author most closely associated with the American rags-to-riches story. His name has become synonymous with the experience of rising from relative poverty to substantial fortune without an inheritance; such a trajectory is often termed a “real Horatio Alger story.” The son of a Unitarian minister living in Revere and Marlborough, Massachusetts, Alger graduated from Harvard University in 1852 and from the Harvard Divinity School in 1860. The Harvard Unitarians were heirs to the Calvinists, the Puritans, and the Congregationalist tradition. The Unitarians were steeped in a belief in the importance of character and the role of both the individual and the community in maintaining the character and ethical sensibility in the young. At Harvard, Alger studied Greek and Latin and read Scottish common-sense philosophers such as Francis Bacon and Thomas Reid. The Harvard Unitarian moralists of the antebellum era sought to render Plato’s teachings compatible with Christianity, and as Alger saw it, Socrates believed in divine retribution for earthly sinners. Alger also studied with the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) and later sought his favor when he published his own volume of adult poetry in 1875. One of Alger’s mentors was Harvard president Edward Everett (1794-1865).

Alger served briefly as a minister in Brewster, Massachusetts, but left the ministry in 1866 and moved to New York City to earn his living by his pen. An author of modest literary talent, Alger wrote fiction aimed at pleasing large audiences, but amassed no riches in doing so. In addition to writing, Alger also tutored the sons of wealthy New Yorkers, including those of the Seligman and Cardozo families. Alger published 123 works as novels, serializations in newspapers and magazines, and books of poetry. Most of his formulaic fiction was aimed at juvenile readers. Alger created nineteenth-century characters who are “risen from the ranks,” who “strive and succeed” and are “bound to rise”; they manage to transform themselves with “luck and pluck” and with the help of benevolent mentors from bootblacks, newsboys, or street peddlers to respectable adults with comfortable middle-class incomes. Some late heroes attain more remarkable fortunes, particularly in the era of the robber barons. Several novels feature heroines, such as Jenny Lindsay, the title character in Tattered Tom, who is saved from street life before she attains adolescence. Quite a few heroes leave New England farms and villages where their families cannot support them and go to the big city, but some heroes depart for Western adventures and one is sent, with the help of the Children’s Aid Society, from the city to the countryside to be brought up in a healthier environment.

Why did he leave the ministry in 1866? For unpleasant reasons:

Early in 1866, a church committee was formed to investigate sexual misconduct reports about Alger. He denied nothing, admitted he had been imprudent, considered his association with the church dissolved, and left town. Church officials reported to the hierarchy in Boston that Alger had been charged with “the crime of…unnatural familiarity with boys“. Alger sent Unitarian officials in Boston a letter of remorse, and his father assured them his son would never seek another post in the church. Officials were satisfied and decided no further action would be taken.

That’s just not good, at all. Rather gross, actually. Stomach turning.

Also did another notice the Male Cinderella aspect to the characters of the story? Isn’t that a bit misogynist? Applying ignorant and generalized inferior characteristics on someone purely because of property ownership, and feminizing them, for exploitative purposes, which is precisely what Alger was accused of during his life?

Harry Potter and Male Cinderella

From “Harry Potter Is Male Cinderella,” Swathmore College, 2001:

The title character of the novel and new movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone represents a male Cinderella who conveys timeless lessons that also reflect contemporary values, says a Swarthmore College English professor.

“Like Cinderella, Harry is abused, dressed in rags, and treated like a servant in his home,” says Raima Evan, who devotes a week to Harry Potter in her popular class titled “Fairy Tales and Magic Fictions.” “To claim his rightful place in the world, he has to get out of the home to discover someone to appreciate him for who he is. It isn’t about falling in love, but acquiring friends and parental figures, which is part of the coming of age story. And that’s the structure we find in less familiar Cinderella stories, like the one by the brothers Grimm.”

According to Evan, Harry’s coming of age, as in all good fairy tales, reveals the cultural pressures and values of our time. First, author J.K. Rowling reinforces the importance of friendship and cooperation. “Harry can’t get to the sorcerer’s stone alone,” she says. “He and his friends take turns solving problems to do it.”

In addition, Evan says Rowling, through her treatment of the Dursleys, makes fun of materialism and the desire for extravagant personal possessions. “In the book, what you have and how you’re dressed say nothing about your value as a person,” she says.

On a deeper level, Evan says the book shows the importance of the invisible things in people’s lives that sustain them. “Harry’s strength is not in the spells he learns,” she says. “He’s protected at the very end by this invisible mark he carries, which is his mother’s love for him. It’s not a new idea, but it’s a very beautiful moment when he realizes his most powerful magic is something he didn’t know he had.”

According to Evan, Harry feels family-less, like Cinderella, and he learns that his family and his family’s love for him are what he truly desires. “So the book also shows that what you really desire is not necessarily what you can see,” she says. “What’s most valuable is what’s in your heart. This emotional and even spiritual component is very meaningful.”

However, Evan says the book has serious shortcomings, most notably concerning issues of race and gender. “Rowling tries to address racial tensions, but she doesn’t really rise to the occasion,” Evan says. “Instead, with devices like the ‘sorting hat,’ the book reinforces the idea that some people are innately better than others. And for all its attempts to be inclusive, all the major characters, and the only people not made fun of, are white boys and men. The novel really fails in its handling of racial and gender differences.”

Still, Evan says the Harry Potter books reinforce basic questions of good and evil in their own contemporary way — like any good fairy tale. “In fairy tales, there’s always a place to insert ourselves,” she says. “They are products of a particular writer’s point of view, and the transformations undergone by the main characters reveal the cultural pressures and values of their time.”

According to Evan, Harry Potter is not great literature. “But it is charming and fun,” she says. “And it’s a great read. But as I tell my students, it’s important to look critically at what is popular.”

Although trained in modern drama and contemporary women playwrights, Dr. Evan became interested in fairy tales and their history when she began reading them to her children. She first began teaching at Swarthmore in 1993.

Located near Philadelphia, Swarthmore is a highly selective liberal arts college with an enrollment of 1,450. Swarthmore is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country.

Is Doctor Who Also Male Cinderella?

From this 2012 article:

When Steven Moffat took over as head writer of Doctor Who in 2010, he said that he wanted to make the show a “dark fairy tale.” Hence the Girl Who Waited, and the Last Centurion, and all that. But I have to say, I haven’t ever felt the fairy-tale vibe from Moffat’s Doctor Who quite as strongly as I did with last night’s Christmas special, “The Snowmen.” I finally get what Moffat was getting at when he talked about turning the most sciencey of shows into a kind of fable.

Another article from 2012:

“The Angels Take Manhattan” begins with not one, but two noir detective novels, and ends with the Doctor telling a little girl a fairytale about her own future. It’s very much a story about storytelling, which makes it especially too bad that the actual story at the center of it is so dependent on hand-waving and jargon. But I’m getting ahead of myself — something that happens a lot in “Angels Take Manhattan.”

So the first noir detective novel in “Angels” is written by a gumshoe (who starts off saying that half the stories in New York are true, and half “haven’t happened yet.”) He’s hired by a man named Grayle to go to Winter Quay, an apartment block in Battery Park, where “the statues” live. The gumshoe winds up meeting himself as an old man, and realizes he’s trapped in Winter Quay.

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And then River tells the Doctor that she’ll send the “Melody Malone” detective novel to Amy to publish, and she’ll get Amy to write an afterword for the Doctor to read. Leading the Doctor to run and find the last page of the book, which he previously discarded in Central Park because he hates endings. Amy, too, tells the Doctor that he shouldn’t be alone. And that she and Rory will love him for all time — which is another sweet moment, as the Doctor reads the last page, using Amy’s reading glasses.

And Amy asks the Doctor one last favor, which he grants: He goes back to the garden where Amy, as a child, is waiting for the Doctor to come back. And he tells her a fairy-tale story of her adventures (thus bringing us back to the “fairy tale” them the Amy era started with) in which, notably, Amy is the hero who fights pirates and falls in love with an epic hero, and gives “hope to the greatest painter who ever lived.” Thus, instead of being obsessed with making up stories over the Raggedy Doctor, young Amelia can grow up thinking of stories about herself being an adventurer. She can be the hero of her own story, thanks to her future self.

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Actually, speaking of “The Big Bang,” that’s the one where the Doctor tells Young Amelia that “we’re all stories in the end.” And in a sense, “Angels Take Manhattan” is about what it means to be a story — and how too much awareness that you’re in a story can seal your own ending. Amy’s fate is sealed the moment the Doctor glimpses the last chapter title. (Which is why he chides himself, “Never do that again” in the graveyard.) Moffat writes a lot of adventures about things that change when you’re not looking at them — but your own life story, like the Angels, is something that becomes fixed in stone when you gaze upon it.

From Doctor Who, “Flesh And Stone”:

River: You. Me. Handcuffs. Must it always end this way?
The Doctor: What now?
River: The prison ship’s in orbit. They’ll beam me up any second. I might have done enough to earn a pardon this time. We’ll see.
The Doctor: Octavian said you killed a man.
River: Yes, I did.
The Doctor: A good man.
River: A very good man. The best man I’ve ever known.
The Doctor: Who?
River: Hm. It’s a long story, Doctor. Can’t be told. Has to be lived. No sneak previews. Well. Except for this one. You’ll see me again quite soon. When the Pandorica opens.
The Doctor: The Pandorica. Ha! That’s a fairy tale.
River (laughing). Ah, Doctor. Aren’t we all? I’ll see you there.

Conclusions

Yes, this explains everything. My adversity to myths, legends and fairy tales is why I find the idea of the American Dream, Rags to Riches, Horatio Alger Jr. books, the first novels of the Harry Potter series (which would begin to change during the third film, thankfully), and Steve Moffat’s Doctor Who writing (unrealistic depictions of female characters and minorities) all equally repulsing and displeasing for reliance on things without capability of ever truly attaining. These characters often never express hurt for their treatment (except maybe that one time, that gets trivialized later on), and sends profoundly wrong messages to others about what is, and isn’t, OK.

Myths, legends, fairy tales, and stories are all fictionalized and not real. One is not able to survive of off whispers in the dark, and illusions never to become more than PhotoShop. Why would someone want to survive off of that? It’s remarkably unhealthy to live in that way. It’s an ineffective way to promote healthy living and a healthy lifestyle, and more importantly, an effective attitude with realistic expectations.

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One thought on “Follow-Up to Reality TV, Celebrity, and the American Culture: Part Two

  1. Pingback: On Daria | The Progressive Democrat

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