Of Douches, Philistines, and George Bernard Shaw

by Sam Buntz

Recently, Vice published two enlightening articles on a pressing issue: The (Sad) Young British Douchebag. As someone who spent about four months in Scotland on a study abroad trip a few years ago, I’ll vouch for the extreme importance and timeliness of this inquiry into young British male douchery. I can assume the problem has only worsened since I was there… For one thing, Scotland is the only place I’ve ever visited where some douche—who I didn’t know— walked up to me in a bar, plucked off my glasses, and dropped them on the floor from about five feet. (An emcee at a stand-up show in Edinburgh also stole a slice of pizza off my plate—so, he was kind of a douche, as well.) Not to seem bitter about such ancient history—but obviously, this issue has personal relevance, and ties in with some long-simmering grudges.

Vice’s first piece, written by Clive Martin, was resolutely anti-British-Douche, though with a certain degree of pensive melancholy. It didn’t merely despise and deride the douche: it felt for him a bit, as well—if from a safe distance. Martin writes, “…[W]hile it’s easy to scorn the banality—and the vanity—of the modern British douchebag, they’re only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them any more, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of wellbeing have been ripped apart.”

Martin represents what I suppose we might call the “received reading” of the British douche—and I very much agreed with it, at first. Yet, my opinion was somewhat swayed by the second piece, authored by Jack Blocker, which was pro-British-Douche in a manner I found surprisingly reflective—I mean, for an article written by an admitted douche. It argued that being a guy obsessed with working out and with sheer physicality is really just the inevitable result of having lowered economic opportunities, and actually isn’t, given the circumstances, such a bad way to live: “Like it or not, we are the new normal, a roaming mass of men pursuing aesthetic perfection because it’s the only activity our limited talents permit us to draw reward from.” (By “aesthetic perfection” he means working out—not writing sonnets or anything, in case you were confused).

However, I submit that the male sub-species we’ve all decided, in our decadent 21st Century patois, to label “The Douche” is actually a continuation of a human type with a much longer history of derision: “The Philistine”. If we’re going to insist on categorizing contemporary human beings according to archetypes, like the “Sad Young (British) Douchebag” or the “Basic Bitch”—and I’m not inherently opposed to this, at all—we’re going to need to go back and connect with this Super-Archetype. And it’s not a specifically British thing. It’s universal.

“Philistine” became a common synonym for “culturally ignorant person” thanks to Matthew Arnold, but George Bernard Shaw provided a more intellectually awakened appraisal of the Philistine as a sort of proto-douche. Shaw liked to divide the world into three kinds of people, and if we’re going to figure out what he meant by a “Philistine”, we’re going to need to run through the other two accompanying categories, the “Idealist” and the “Realist”—terms that Shaw also uses in ways fairly different from how they’re typically applied.

Surprisingly enough, Shaw’s main villain isn’t the Philistine (who’s more of a neutral character): it’s the Idealist or Romantic. The Idealist-Romantic isn’t someone who scales alpine peaks in search of sublime vistas, like a 19th Century “High Romantic” figure. He or she is someone who crowds-out real life by clinging to illusions—typically by over-idealizing the opposite sex, and polishing up societal golden cows, like marriage and the family, instead of wrestling with the underlying economic realities that condition everything. The Realist does just the opposite—like Shaw, he or she is probably a socialist, trying to put a finger on the lever of the world’s real power source (which, underlying even the economic sources of power, is ultimately the Shavian “Life Force”).

But the male Philistine has no idea what these other two types are talking about. He just wants to ride horses, shoot elephants with some sort of old-timey British Raj Era gun, and get laid. And this is where Shaw’s analysis of the Philistine converges with Vice’s: in a world where patriotism and duty have started to seem corny (thanks mainly to the aftereffects of the Vietnam War, and the collapse of the various European empires), the Philistine—who formerly could’ve easily found a place as a socially “respectable” bad-ass, pulling James Bond-style tricks for various spy agencies, or, in an earlier time, slaughtering Native Americans in the pursuit of the “Manifest Destiny”—gradually and inevitably morphs into a simple douche. (That last “Manifest Destiny” example was meant to refer to American douches, not British ones, of course—but it’s all really the same phenomenon: just substitute a different brand of imperialism).

The male Philistine once found a place of constant athletic stimulation in what Shaw called “Horseback Hall” (if he was well-off) or in a coalmine or in the army (if he wasn’t), or doing any number of jobs that required “honest” and intense physical exertion (not that non-Philistines didn’t also work in coal mines or serve in the army). But, as Martin’s article and Blocker’s article both pointed out, the Philistine—thanks to diminished economic opportunities—is now forced into accepting the slave-wages of mere douchery. Without any outlet for his natural physical and energetic tendencies, the contemporary Philistine becomes pathetic and vain, mainlining Creatine (or, uh, however that works) and taking endless selfies of his comically bulging bis and tris… and, apparently, picking strangers’ glasses off their faces.

Both Vice articles bounced some valuable observations off each other. But neither of them really suggested a solution to what ails the douche—I mean, to what makes him a douche. So, I’m going to try to offer the synthesis to their Hegelian thesis and anti-thesis—to resolve their master-slave dialectic.

I don’t exactly have any incredibly specific solutions—but I’ll give it my best shot. The problem seems pretty simple: whereas the Idealist is intellectually directed towards attractive illusions, and the Realist is pulled towards disturbing realities, the male Philistine is simply a reserve of physical energy that can be used for any project. He is amoral and unallied. If he’s needed to serve Imperialism, he’ll serve it and take grotesque pride in whatever battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers he’s been appointed to. But this is true of the Philistines in any movement—they’ll serve Bolshevism, The Enlightenment, Nazism, Social Democracy, or whatever, with the same kind of physical energy and pride in their work. But when the Philistine is morally unallied, left to his own devices, he’s unable to be proud of anything except his own muscles—hence the vanity and all the selfies.

So, the solution is simply to find a movement that doesn’t still seem tacky—doesn’t seem like a bygone relic—and find a way to channel the Philistine’s energy into it. This is up to Shaw’s “Realists”—it’s an “If You Build It, They Will Come” kind of thing, with a Realist Kevin Costner begetting meaningful labor for some resurrected baseball players.

It’s a matter of human will and initiative: whether the douche simply remains a douche or develops into something greater. For isn’t every douche—in Vice’s sense of the term—really just a stillborn Philistine? And isn’t every Shavian Philistine just a stillborn Hercules—that is to say, a stillborn hero?

(For reference, here’s the link to Clive Martin’s article: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/anatomy-of-a-new-modern-douchebag

And to Jack Blocker’s: http://www.vice.com/read/in-defence-of-britains-sad-young-douchebags).

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