John Beckman on “American Fun”
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Staring at a small screen may be growing less enticing by the day, but the best forms of fun never go out of style.
OZY: So what does an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy know about fun, anyway?
John Beckman: Yeah, you might assume I’m some kind of a drill sergeant, but I’m really just your average English professor. That said, when you consider the funnest American fun has been had in reaction to authority figures, the Naval Academy is a hotbed for it. Our students are expected to keep each other under constant surveillance, so, for many of them, much of their waking lives is an occasion for pulling pranks and stunts. Plus, they’re more often satirists than cynics. They know you’re toast if you don’t get the big joke.
OZY: How did you come up with your thesis that we belong to “a raffish national tradition that flaunt[s] pleasure in the face of authority”?
Outrageous fun has generally been healthy for our society, something the nuns and priests never told us.
— John Beckman
JB: The terrible answer would involve all the theory that I try to keep hidden in the book’s background. The basic truth comes from 12 years of Catholic school, where my friends and I pretty much devoted our lives to breaking rules and taking risks — like Footloose with profanity and altar wine. I never quite got over that kind of fun, and when I looked deeper into American history, I found it just about everywhere.
I also discovered that outrageous fun has generally been healthy for our society, something the nuns and priests never told us. It can bring people together under the damnedest conditions. It can even keep them from killing each other.
OZY: Between recession, terrorism, Congress and closing bookstores, is America even less fun than it used to be? If so, what can we do to get the fun back?
JB: That’s quite a list. You forgot hate groups and rampant gun violence.
Actually, I don’t think social, political and economic adversity has ever really threatened our fun. On the contrary, that’s exactly where it comes from — from conflict, from struggle, from lawful oppression and from the people’s drive to set themselves free. In the 1970s, kids invented hip-hop, punk and extreme sports out of some really abject conditions. The nation’s most varied and innovative fun comes directly from antebellum slave culture.
But I do think our fun is seriously threatened, maybe more threatened now than ever, and the menace is nothing new, only much more sophisticated. Commercial entertainment has us surrounded, and it’s amazingly good at passing off spectacle as if it were real, rollicking activity.
I could go on about this — how fun evaporates when you stare at your phone, how Instagrammed fun is fun once removed — but I’d much rather get to the second part of your question. We’ve never lost the fun, and these days even our hypermediated culture creates great opportunities for immediate fun. Mass pranks, mass stunts, political demonstrations. Over the past decade, strangers in incredible numbers have found marvelous new ways to get themselves into rowdy, playful conflict, and the best ways haven’t cost them anything at all.
OZY: Your book pretty much acknowledges that attempts to repress fun have been around in America as long as fun has. So why do you think fun is any more in the genetic American grain than repression?
JB: Repression is the great American way. Puritanism. Slavery. The Indian Removal Act. From Jim Crow laws to our overcrowded prisons, Americans have always sided with repression. That’s well known. Less well known, or less appreciated, are the fun and creative ways others have resisted such repression. This dance has been going on for hundreds of years. That’s the story I try to tell in this book.
Why do Californians have more fun? What else can you do while you wait for the Big One?
— John Beckman
OZY: More of the book is about California than any other region, what with the Gold Rush, the zoot suit, the Pranksters, etc. Are we all just out here having fun in the warm California sun? If so, why?
JB: California Über Alles! It’s true, this book devotes two chapters to California, but it also devotes two to New England and gives a bunch of attention to NYC, NOLA, Nevada and countless other places. Still, as a native Iowan who has spent more than a decade in California, I have to say the 49ers’ skylarking spirit has only gotten richer over the centuries. Also, I think it’s telling that the really edgy, really innovative fun hasn’t come from Hollywood or Silicon Valley. It’s straight outta Compton, Venice, and the Haight. Why do Californians have more fun? What else can you do while you wait for the Big One?