You may not believe this, but I get a fair amount of mail. I don't mean coupon books and solicitations to buy X-rated videos. (Man, you buy one "porn bloopers" tape and they're after you for life. And FYI, if you were thinking of buying a porn bloopers tape, don't. Maybe it's just my Three Stooges imagination, but you buy porn bloopers because you want to see people with implants farting and falling out of bed, when their idea of a porn blooper is somebody muffing a line, so to speak.) I mean that I get a fair amount of e-mail, generated from this column. And while some writers tell me I need to find Jesus (I can't even find Waldo) or ask how dare an ignoramus like me make fun of Ronald Reagan (a sentiment I'm sure the writer verified with the toaster), I get some nice mail, too. Sometimes they say, "I hope you never sell out to a bigger paper and move away."
That's a nice thing to say, and it gives one the warm squishies to be appreciated on one's own turf. But my answer is this: I can't wait to sell out. If I had a left nut, I'd fork it over gift-wrapped for a shot at some real money, an entourage and an invitation to the next celebrity funeral. I'd be gone like the Road Runner; all that would remain in my place would be two lines and a cloud of dust. Provided, of course, that I still could write about porn bloopers and old people talking to the toaster.
Selling out used to be the worst thing you could say about someone. It suggested they had abandoned their heart to become part of the soul-deadened capitalist Borg, had traded their credibility for credit. You just couldn't trust them anymore. But according to Swing magazine, which dedicated this month's cover to the intriguing question, "Are you a sellout?," the line has become a little more murky.
And, indeed, it has. No one ever could have pictured an anti-hero like John Lennon shilling for Crest ("Imagine there's no toothpaste ..."). Then an icon like William Burroughs showed up in Nike ads. It even seemed kinda cool. That may be because, as a democratic bunch, we prefer an icon who will leap willingly off the pedestal to join us in a little pop culture. Or that we no longer view "take the money and run the ad" as such a bad thing. If, as they say, a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, maybe a cynical culture is an idealistic culture that has acquired mortgage payments.
It's ironic that, in a capitalist country, selling out is even considered a moral dilemma. The right to get rich and keep it is one thing that makes the United States so appealing to outsiders. But in another example of America's twisted self-loathing, rich people are viewed with more suspicion than the moody loner next door; we want money, but we don't trust anyone who has it. In the same backhanded way, we pay big lip service to ideals but laugh at the people who have them. If we see a former hippie wearing a suit and driving a Lexus, he's a sellout. If we saw the same guy still sporting a long gray ponytail and chaining himself to redwoods to prevent logging, he's a crazy-ass tree-hugger who never made it out of the '60s. You just can't win for losing.
Swing highlights several people who have not broken their personal rules for financial success but merely bent them a little, including one artist who started a commercial business called ioe -- "in order to eat." This generation's attitude toward selling out seems less cynical than it does practical, less an "us against them" and more a "we all have to do stuff we don't love sometimes" approach that's a lot more adult than their baby-boomer forebears. When public schools take money from Coke or Pepsi in exchange for advertising on scoreboards and granting exclusive vending-machine rights, and when NASA gets what it can for painting logos on space-bound rockets, it's hard not to evolve from purist to pragmatist about financial solvency.
Politics is another story. Asked who they consider to be sellouts, survey respondents named only one politician: Bill Clinton. And still some would call his methods "diplomacy" or "picking your battles."
As he often does, Woody Allen nailed it long ago: In a standup routine about answering the phone and finding a vodka company exec on the other end seeking his endorsement for their product, he related, "I said, ‘No, I don't drink vodka. And if I did I wouldn't drink your product.' They said, ‘Too bad. It pays $50,000.' I said, ‘Hold on ... I'll put Mr. Allen on the phone.'"
Still, Woody Allen remains a guy who has never sold out, and who you will never see advertising anything.
Well, except maybe a public service announcement for overseas adoption.