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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

“Oh-My-God … Quack, Quack … Oh-My-God”: My Barber’s Wisdom, the American Penchant for Blasphemy, and a Nation Without Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 29, 2010

Much of whatever wisdom I have, like much of  the world”s, comes from the observations of taxi drivers and barbers.  Just like the disfigured First World War veteran barfly in the opening and closing scenes of Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film masterpiece “Grand Hotel,”  taxi drivers and barbers see streams of people come and go and  little if anything surprises them.

My Barber’s Wisdom

The barber I visit  when in Istanbul speaks even less English than I speak Turkish, but he is a keen observer and knows how to score political points across linguistic lines.  His shop is in one of the commercial galleries that line the one-time carriage-ways of  late-Ottoman-era mansions and the grand inner passageways of turn-of-the-twentieth-century commercial structures along Istanbul’s most popular  promenade, Istiklal Caddesi.  The shop itself has been in business for decades, but my barber and his brother took it over only five years ago, thus bringing them to the pinnacle of popular Istiklal from their tightly-packed, religiously-conservative, working-class  neighborhood only a mile northward and downhill towards the Golden Horn — the very part of the city  from which Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s present Prime Minister and driving force behind Turkey’s Islamic AK Party,  hails and the  type of constituency that comprises the backbone of his support.

During my biweekly visits for a haircut and shave, my barber always chooses the most advantageous time to turn the conversation to politics.  “And, so, what do you think of our  Tayyip?”  he asks, always at the exact moment that he quickly and firmly draws his straight razor upward against the grain of the two-week stubble on my neck.  My response is dictated more by context than truth-function:  “One  excellent  prime minister,” I always reply with uncharacteristic speed and momentary fluency in Turkish, “… one very excellent prime minister, indeed.”

The television that blares in the barbershop has brought  both the English language and the words of leaders other than Tayyip — Barack Obama among them — into the lives and speech of my barber and his family.  A few weeks ago, my barber made a slight change the cut of my hair, razoring away some sparse, lonely hairs, hold-outs from the former expanse of my once lush hairline.  “Well, do you like it?”  he asked.  As I contemplated my newly high forehead, my barber’s eight-year-old son, visiting the shop on a day off from school, expressed his judgment before I could form a verdict of my own.  “Number One!,” he shouted in self-consciously American-accented English, “Number One … ‘Yes We  Can’, ‘Yes We Can’, ‘Yes We Can!’.”

Although my barber does not speak English as well as his son does, his ear for the language is no less refined.  On my most  recent visit to his shop,  the voices of a group of  American women enthusiastically eying goods in a third-world market blared  from a Discovery Channel documentary.  Cringing at the sound, my barber raised his voice a few octaves, adopted a nasal tone, and screeched: “Quack,quack, quack,  Oh-My-God … Oh-My-God, quack, quack, quack.”

An American Penchant

My barber’s imitation of American speech was no surprise.  Go anywhere in the world and the nasal screech of  American female (and sometimes male) voices will cut through the softer tones and relatively low murmur of local speech.  Strangely, a third of a century ago, American voices sounded quite different.  In the years since, flat Boston accents and rounded New York ones, crisp mid-western twangs, and lilting southern drawls somehow have all mutated into a uniform high-pitched, high-speed nasal buzz.  And, sometime during the same period,  “Oh-My-God” and the feigned tone of surprise with which it is blurted emerged as even more stereotypical of  the limits of American vocabularies than the overuse of the stop-word “like” and repeated interjections of  “cool” and  “awesome”.

The rise of “Oh-My-God” represents a flattening of emotions as well as of language.  Repeated screams of “Oh-My-God” — as often as not underscored by spastic body movements and flailing  arms — have become Americans’ stock responses, positive and negative, to unexpected  events from the banal, to the awe-inspiring, to the tragic.  Office gossip, sunsets, double-entendres, items on sale, moments of erotic ecstasy, deaths in the family,  unexpected appearances of rock stars, and tragedies as immense as the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the current disaster and suffering in Haiti all elicit the same response —  “Oh-My-God,” indeed.  Could it be that the biblical prohibition against taking the name of God in vain was offered in part to yield the secular benefit of ensuring that we match our responses and emotions to the significance and worth of what conjures them forth?  And what about the deity or deities that screamers of “Oh-My-God” claim as their own?  Is it not unwise and unkind  to distract him/her/it?them from higher concerns with repeated screams for attention?

Still, “Oh-My-God,” represents but a humorous sideshow in the misuse of the divine name.  During World War I, Allied propaganda made grist of German artillery shells  stamped with the words “Gott ist mit Uns,” (God is with Us). (And, by the way, look at how far Imperial Germany’s divinely sanctioned munitions got them.) . To use another example from the same conflict, those who know theater history (New York’s “Group Theatre,” specifically) might remember the haunting scene from the Kurt Weil musical  Johnny Johnson (an absurdist take-off on Jaroslav Hasek”s satire of war Good Soldier Schweik) in which identically dressed priests simultaneously bless and invoke God’s name in English and German on behalf of the troops massed for battle on their respective sides of the front lines.  Even in the course of my my own lifetime, I remember, from the hottest days of the Cold War,  the mandatory insertion, as a talisman against the specter of nuclear attack, of the words “(one nation) under God”  into the compulsory Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States once recited each morning by public school students throughout the country.

To return to the present, all US currency, paper and coin, bears the words “In God We Trust,”  an apt statement of the hiving off of human responsibility and avoidance of  intervention that could have staved off fiscal and economic calamity and prevented the dollar’s nose-dive fall against the non-divinely-protected Euro.  During American political campaigns, candidates from  “both sides of the aisle” refer to and invoke God just about as often as do the leaders of countries that America  labels “fundamentalist.”  Could it be that the mealy-mouthed piety of American politicians and the collective din of millions upon millions of needless “Oh-My-Gods” constituted a sufficient violation of “…not taking the name of God in vain” as to prompt a divinely-afflicted plague of financial disasters, mortgage defaults, and unemployment? Sound absurd? It is no less absurd than what follows …

A Nation Without Infrastructure

A recent “Op Ed” article in the New York Times by author James Wood described the patent danger of Pat Robertson’s idiotic pronouncement that the recent  earthquake in Haiti was divine retribution for its people’s history of “idolatry.” However, the article also treats the less obvious dangers of Americans’ smug pronouncements of “… there but for the grace of God go we.”   Better to leave the deity alone and to look first at tectonics and geophysics and then, as odd as it may first sound, turn to a topic I’ve posted on extensively in the past on this site  and hope to return to in the weeks to come:  Infrastructure.   Stronger earthquakes than the one in Haiti have struck locales in the “developed” world and occasioned far less destruction, carnage,and suffering.  In such cases, the infrastructure of urban and regional life could far better withstand the shock, and the infrastructures of  transportation, medical, and social service could were sufficient to handle the aftermath.  As a poor country in the shadow of a rich neighbor, Haiti is infrastructurally weak on all counts.  Where could the money come from to finally begin to boost Haiti’s economy and bring its infrastructure  up to snuff?  In a recent Facebook post, Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer noted that the annual gross national product of Haiti is but 20% of the bonus pool of one of the major investment banks!  And to that even I, albeit with an old-fashioned Lower East Side accented growl rather than a nasal whine, am almost tempted to say:  “O-My-God!”  But, rather than “take the name in vain,” I’ll simply quote the words of an old-fashioned Harlem heavy in Gordon Parks’s original version of “Shaft” as he described his partner having been tossed out of a window by the film’s hero. “That’s some cold s*#@,” he said slowly; some very cold s*#@, indeed.

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3 Responses to ““Oh-My-God … Quack, Quack … Oh-My-God”: My Barber’s Wisdom, the American Penchant for Blasphemy, and a Nation Without Infrastructure”

  1. Tom said

    And don’t forget that the texting phenomenon has offered us a distillate that avoids open religious transgression in the form of OMG along the lines of HECK for HELL, etc. Mouthing the letters independently O M G relieves us of the hubris that we might otherwise have set in motion!

    As always, Steve, I love your posts.

    • Thanks, Tom. Actually, I wrote this while in the midst of writing about gods of the cities and gods of the country, religions of prohibition and commandant and religions of fecundity, religions of ritual and religions of pilgrimage and beseeching, and about Robert Graves and — a Carrol Feagins recommendation — Otto”s “Idea of the Holy” which I then only read in part but now would like to read in full. I’m finally ready to pick up where I left off a lifetime ago.

  2. penka said

    This has been interesting to me as well.How come the American in the room usually has the most audible voice!? Not only the volume, but that particular pitch makes the conversations audible from a huge distance, even if speaking is not so loud. This is one interesting phenomenon..I’m thinking that the process of “hardening” or “savage(nation)” of capitalism caused these organic changes in people as you confirm that at previous times people still were able to use their natural voices. It is as simple, i’m thinking. If you have to be heard immediately in a crowd of speaking people (as there is no precious time or need for each person to be heard speaking alone), you may want to shout. Then all people will be shouting, and your smart move would be to alter the sounding of your voice into a buzz or something else different than a normal voice. Your only way of “standing- out ” is to be audible in that case..

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