Monday, August 29, 2005

Exhibitionists vs. Eccentrics

Tunku Varadarajan has a kind of critique of obituaries that misuse the word 'eccentric' in the Wall Street Journal. It leads him to make a distinction between 'eccentricity' and 'exhibitionism' that is entertaining if not actually true:

That said, and with readers' permission, I will progress to a broad but defensible generalization. Americans . . . tend to make very good exhibitionists. By contrast, and famously, the British make much the better eccentrics. Americans, in fact, are not very good at eccentricity, just as Brits are clumsy at exhibitionism. (This is not to suggest that no Britons attempt public display. Some--mainly professional soccer players--do, but they seldom manage to pull it off with style.)

What is the wellspring of American exhibitionism? Life in this country--large and competitive--is largely about calling attention to oneself, it matters not in how vulgar (and noisy) a way. Ours is a loud culture: This is perhaps because, at the subsistence or immigrant level (or at the level of folk memory), most start in crowded rooms and one has to shout to be heard, or to get fed. In a society of immigrants, "outsiders" find that they can become "insiders" by extra oomph. The struggle for integration is an especially American drama and the immigrant knows that he may need braggadocio.

It's in response to a series of obituaries of 'eccentric developer magnate' Abe Hirschfeld, who died last week. The titles of the Hirschfeld obituaries support Varadarajan's point about the word eccentric: see the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Houston Chronicle... and the list could go on.

Anyway, I like Varadarajan's point about the prevalence of 'exhibitionism' in America's immigrant culture, though the distinction he's making may not really be true. (Americans love a good nutty celebrity, though it's true that Madonna now lives in England.)

And needless to say, as a blogger I fully support and encourage both exhibitionism and eccentricity, and think they complement each other nicely.


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