Worldviews for sale

Culture | Communist nostalgia & other cultural buzz

Issue: "The Jonesboro puzzle," April 11, 1998

Marxism as retro fashion
A specter is haunting America-the specter of postmodern marketing. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Now their fans are celebrating its sesquicentennial with a way-cool hardcover anniversary edition designed by two Soviet-born artists. Radical chic lives, sort of. Barneys department store in Manhattan is thinking of using the book as a window display (perhaps next to some red lipsticks) when Verso Books releases it on May Day. The publisher says the stylish little number is elegant enough to grace a coffee table, in case Chinese President Jiang Zemin is coming over for a cappuccino. Borders and Barnes and Noble plan to give the tract special prominence. In fact, Borders at the World Trade Center will greet passing businessmen with the red-and-black cover displayed in front of the store. (Never mind that unlimited free copies of the Manifesto can be downloaded off the Internet.) Marxist purists will be reaching for the airline sickness bags come May 1, since their sacred screed is being exploited by profiteers. The Communist Manifesto joins disco music and tie-dyed T-shirts as another piece of cultural debris to be recycled as an in-joke for the hip and elite. After all, in the eyes of the culture industry, Marxism, Christianity, and even Scientology are all interchangeable. Since there is no truth, one belief system is as good as another. So a worldview becomes nothing more than a fashion accessory. Yesterday's elite cared about ideas-their own. Now that they know their ideas don't work, the new elite only wants to look trendy. Workers and salesmen of the world, unite! A nice-guy action hero
Jackie Chan is so popular worldwide that he supposedly had to hide his marriage for fear his female fans would commit suicide. Yet his movies are so silly they make old Roy Rogers westerns look like masterworks. The Hong Kong megastar's films mix amazing stunts with bad slapstick comedy. Yet Mr. Chan goes out of his way to make his movies inoffensive. The body count is kept as low as the budget. The star's boyish charm, silly scripts, and endless energy give his movies a so-bad-they're-good tinge. The acting is unspeakably rotten and the plots exist only to hold together the action scenes. Mr. Chan's latest, Mr. Nice Guy (New Line Cinema, rated PG-13 for pervasive action violence, some sensuality and drug content), trades Hong Kong for Australia and Chinese for English, but the formula stays. He plays a goofy TV-cooking-show host who wanders into an alley and meets a bunch of gangsters, thus setting the scene for action scene after action scene. Jackie and crew fight in such locales as a construction site, a biker wedding, and a pile of Pepsi cans. Mr. Nice Guy's cheesiness can become grating. To reach an international audience, this movie has three leading ladies with three different skin colors. The big supporting role goes to a monster truck that Jackie uses to mow down the bad guys. The villain crimelord (Richard Norton) bumbles around saying things like "Give me the videotape" and "Where is my cocaine?" Overall, Mr. Chan at his worst is a change of pace from the bloated Nietzschean figures in domestic action flicks. At his best, he makes good bad movies. Knowledge at a click
One of Bill Gates's greatest victories wasn't with Windows. It was his conquest of the encyclopedia world. Five years ago, Microsoft launched one called Encarta that was published on disk for a fraction of the cost of the $1,500 hardbound editions. It posed stiff competition for the old, paper models that weighed a ton and required monthly installment payments. Old media caught on quick. IBM publishes the World Book on CD-ROM. Encyclopedia Brittanica (the dethroned king) now has a competing model. Users can even buy a subscription to look up articles online without buying disks. Both Encarta Encyclopedia's 32,000 articles and Britannica's 72,000 entries fit on a hard drive instead of a bookshelf. Updates can be pulled off the Web every month. The package includes piles of pictures, sound clips, games, and other educational goodies. Yet don't expect this development to kill off the public library like it's killing off those 32 thick volumes. Reading on a computer screen isn't as easy as looking at a book or magazine. Imagine reading Moby Dick or Augustine's Confessions on a typical 15-inch monitor. Encarta succeeds for the same reason the Bible software industry and Internet search engines keep growing. People like having indexed collections available so a tidbit can be found when needed. Today's high-capacity data storage offers all the benefits of being a pack rat without the clutter. It also makes literacy cheap. Too bad America doesn't have enough schools that can use these resources properly. All the CD-ROMs in the world can't stop the nonsense that rules public schools. All this technology came just in time for the rise of homeschooling.

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