Harold Ramis was a sort of poet of the rude gesture, of the symbolic humiliation. Our reaction to his work, both now and when it was fresh, is almost mechanical: We see the square on the screen get shamed, and our mind shouts liberation. It is almost Pavlovian. Our culture-masters have been gleefully triggering this kind of reaction for nearly fifty years now—since the rude gesture first became a national pastime during the 1960s—and in that time the affluent, middle-class society that produced the Boomer generation has pretty much gone the way of the family farmer.
These two developments are not unconnected. One small reason for the big economic change, I think, is the confusion engendered by the cultural change. The kind of liberation the rude gesture brings has turned out to be not that liberating after all, but along the way it has crowded out previous ideas of what liberation meant—ideas that had to with equality, with work, with ownership. And still our love of simple, unadorned defiance expands. It is everywhere today. Everyone believes that they’re standing up against unjust authority of some imaginary kind or another—even those whose ultimate aim is obviously to establish an unjust authority of their own. Their terms for it are slightly different than the ones in “Animal House”—they talk about the liberal elite, the statists, the social engineers, the “ruling class.” But they’re all acting out the same old script. The Tea Party movement believes it’s resisting the arrogant liberal know-it-alls. So did Andrew Breitbart, in his brief career as a dealer in pranks and contumely. So do the people who proposed that abominable gay marriage discrimination law in Arizona. Hell, so do the pitiful billionaires of Wall Street—even they think they’re standing bravely for Ayn Rand’s downtrodden job creators.
Maybe the day will come when we finally wake up and understand that insults don’t always set us free. But until that happens, my liberal friends, don’t ask for whom the bird flips: the bird flips for thee.