Did our generation invent the douchebag?

This guy exists:

You can see where I got the photo, because there’s a logo (looking a lot like a Bud Light logo, by the way) on the bottom of it. This photo was taken at a club in Kansas City’s Power & Light district called Mosaic. I’ve never been there, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot of house music and Ed Hardy shirts. There’s an entire gallery at inkkc.com.

The captions don’t have names, so we can’t really Facebook stalk him, meaning all we know about this guy is what we see in the photo, and that he was at Mosaic last Saturday.

I kind of prefer it that way, because it allows me to ask a broad question about a specific person.

Where did this guy come from?

Let’s back up a minute, and not focus on Mosaic or 2010. Let’s think in broad terms. Let’s look at some photos of American nightlife over the years.

Here is a photo that came up in a Google search for “speakeasy.”

Note the absence of douchebags.

Speakeasies were places where people — generally on the wealthier side — went to illegally consume alcohol during Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Speakeasies tended to be a little swanky, and they were extremely profitable, despite police raids. This probably was because most of them were run by the mob.

Here is a photo taken at some club in the 1940s.

They were doing the jitterbug. No, seriously.

This is a photo called “nightclub,” that came up on a Google search for 1960s nightclub.

Somewhere between "the jitterbug" and "pop, lock and drop it."

This is a shot taken at Studio 54 in 1974.

We're starting to get a little douchey.

More Studio 54.

These are "punks," according to the Web site.

This is a bus boy at Studio 54 in 1977.

I guess that's one way of saying it.

This is the result of a search for “1990s dance club.”

Things were a little heavy in the 90s. Thanks, Nirvana.

So far as nightlife is concerned, I’d say the decade we just finished was completely defined by this (preposterous) song:

So now I take you back to the guy at the top. Where did he come from? What had to have happened between speakeasies and Lady Gaga to make that photo possible? The inexplicable shirt, the Zoolander face, the cigarette, the trimmed eyebrows, the hours upon hours spent in the gym. It’s all so perfect as to seem unreal. This guy isn’t real, is he? He looks like he’s at some theme party. What must a conversation with him be like?

This is the No. 2 definition of “douchebag,” on Urbandictionary.com: An individual who has an over-inflated sense of self worth, compounded by a low level of intelligence, behaving ridiculously in front of colleagues with no sense of how moronic he appears.

I think that’s a pretty good definition, and I think helps bring us to the point of this post (finally!): Have douchebags always existed, or did our generation create them?

I am not suggesting that our generation created self-importance. Walk through any airport in the country, and you’ll soon be walloped upside the head with self-important Baby Boomers or the sons of Baby Boomers having meaningless business conversations.

"I just wanted to touch base."

So these guys have been around forever. There have also obviously always been idiots.

I think what’s new, and mostly unique to our generation, is a lack of self-awareness and a disinterest in dignity. Free expression has some along way since the 1920s, and even since the 1960s. Socially, more kinds of behavior are considered acceptable than ever before. I see this as not necessarily good or bad. It simply is.

Because people are less likely to govern themselves according to social norms, they are much more likely to look inward and express outward. It makes for a lot more decisions. For example, our culture used to expect men to wear suits and hats in public. This made dressing for the speakeasies utterly thoughtless. You’ve got a black suit, a gray suit and a blue suit. Pick one. But since this social norm has evaporated, men have a lot more options, making it much more likely you’re showing up wearing an undershirt with duct tape on it.

Furthermore, men have become more feminine than ever. Or, they’re allowed to be more feminine than ever. I read a study recently that attempted to explain this. Through scientific testing, the study found that for most of history women were most attracted to what you might call “manly men,” square-jawed guys with lots of  chest hair.

"Can't talk right now. All these women keep chasing me, trying to bear my children."

This was because, biologically, they were drawn to men who would most likely give them strong, healthy babies and something in their hormones told them men like this would do that.

Well, enter The Pill.

Friend of girly men.

The pill, first approved in 1960, works by tricking a woman’s body into thinking she’s already pregnant. The hormonal effect, the study hypothesized, is that women on the pill (about 12 million these days) lose part of that urge for manly men, because, Hey, their body figures, I’m already pregnant, I want someone to help nurture this kid, not just knock me up again.

"Score."

This has produced a generation of men who know they can wear shiny shirts and wax their chests and still get jobs at awesome ad agencies.

"Over my dead body."

Ironically, the more people look inward for guidance as opposed to outward, the less self-aware they become. This is part of the reason so many weirdos live in big cities. In a small town, where everybody knows everybody, someone will eventually tell you to stop walking around in Army fatigues, talking to yourself. In a big city, where everybody knows nobody, they just ignore you.

The more our guy at the top looks in the mirror, the less aware he becomes how ridiculous he looks. And the more people do that, the less ridiculous it becomes to look ridiculous.

So I don’t think our generation invented the douchebag any more than it invented The Internet Tough Guy. The traits in human nature have always been there. It just hasn’t been until now that we’ve allowed them to fully manifest themselves.

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Either McDonald’s is killing us to make money, or people are telling you that to make money.

Get ready to freak out.

Ok. My reaction to that is just like everybody else’s reaction to that. I’m disturbed. I wonder why McDonald’s food seems to have better self-mummification instincts than Joan Rivers. It makes me regret eating there.

But then there are these quotes from the “expert”:

“Why are our kids eating this stuff?”

“This can’t be real food. It can’t be.”

Well, I have a question, too:

“Why am I taking health advice from someone who’s 50 pounds overweight?”

But that is not the point of this post. The point of this post is that this kind of demonstration with McDonald’s food has become popular since the hysteria-inducing documentary Super Size Me came out in 2004. Morgan Spurlock did the same thing in the film, comparing aged McDonald’s food with aged food from other sources, and it was equally disturbing. Why doesn’t mold grow on McDonald’s food? the movie wondered. And then the movie ended.

Well? What’s the answer? Why doesn’t McDonald’s food decay? Does anybody know? Anybody at all?

Do you see the problem here? These people act like asking the question also answers the question, and that the answer is: “Because McDonald’s is willing to kill its customers for the bottom line.” Yet as far as I can tell, none of these people ever actually tries to find a real, scientific answer to that question.

Could it be that people like Julia Havey — who writes diet books — are afraid the answer is not nearly as terrifying as the question, and are capitalizing on the terror?

See, anybody can do it!

I’m not defending McDonald’s, here. I’m defending rhetoric.

I’ve done a little research on my own. Here is some information from sources I can neither vouch for nor discredit.

McDonald’s gets its french fries the same way other restaurants do:

Their distinctive taste does not stem from the kind of potatoes that McDonald’s buys, the technology that processes them, or the restaurant equipment that fries them: other chains use Russet Burbanks, buy their french fries from the same large processing companies, and have similar fryers in their restaurant kitchens.

The only difference is the oil in which they’re fried. Since 1990, McDonald’s has used pure vegetable oil and something called “natural flavor,” an additive that comes from laboratories where scientists mix chemicals to produce smells and flavors for candy, food and perfume.

The FDA doesn’t require these companies to disclose the ingredients in their flavor compounds as long as the chemicals therein are “generally recognized as safe.” The only thing McDonald’s has revealed is that the “natural flavor” in their fries is partially derived from “an animal source,” most likely beef.

"Oh crap."

Ironically, until 1990, McDonald’s simply used beef tallow to cook its fries. But in 1990 it caved to criticism over the cholesterol in them, and began using the mysterious “natural flavor.” So you got what you asked for, health nuts*.

*And I’m not going to get into the victim mentality that would cause someone to complain about the fat in a restaurant’s french fries. Yes, these potatoes are cooked in beef fat. That’s why you like them so much. It’s not healthy, and you know that. Everybody knows that. You don’t like it, don’t eat them.

But we can’t expect people to be held accountable for their own decisions.

So there’s that. The “natural flavors” thing is a little bothersome, but it doesn’t really explain why the food would preserve itself, and doesn’t even necessarily suggest the food is unhealthy. The FDA, after all, recognizes the components as safe.

I did find something that helps explain the preservation of the food.

McNuggets contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasiedible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but form a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed food possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the “leavening agents”: sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable fats involved in a nugget from turning rancid. Then there are “anti-foaming agents” like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry.

It gets scary, here.

According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it’s also flammable. But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to “help preserve freshness.” According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.” Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.”

Keep in mind, though, that the previous paragraph was written by a personal injury lawyer. A little more research softens the TBHQ hysteria.

In high doses, it has some negative health effects on lab animals, such as precursors to stomach tumors and damage to DNA.[2] A number of studies have shown that prolonged exposure to high doses of TBHQ may induce carcinogenity,[3] especially for stomach tumors.[4] Other studies, however, have shown opposite effects including inhibition against HCA-induced carcinogenesis (by depression of metabolic activation) for TBHQ and other phenolic antioxidants (TBHQ was one of several, and not the most potent).[5]

So TBHQ either causes cancer, or prevents it. Basically, we don’t know anything except that it preserves food and that McDonald’s (and, presumably, almost every other manufacturer of processed foods) uses it.

So there’s your answer, Diet.com. And it turns out the answer makes Julia Havey either a) wrong, or b) a liar when she says there are no preservatives in the food. There are definitely preservatives. So while she’s cryptically suggesting McDonald’s burgers are made of styrophome or something — “This can’t be real food.” — the most basic possible research would have revealed that a McDonald’s burger is a beef patty with preservatives in it. It is real, chemically preserved food.

Another of Havey’s questions: “What is this doing inside our body?”

"Well, it's either killing us, or saving us. Lunch?"

You’d think someone who is writing books on the topic would at least have a cursory knowledge of what modern science thinks this food might be doing in our bodies.

So while we can’t come to any real conclusions about McDonald’s food, we can probably provide ourselves a nice platitude by which to navigate life: Whenever listening to someone described as an “activist” or “master motivator,” suspect that you’re not getting a full, honest story.

Yet — and this is a big yet — I think this topic says a lot about America, and I think most of what it says is good.

As I said, this isn’t a defense of McDonald’s. I am sure that it, as with pretty much any company, will do whatever it can to maximize its profits. A government agency, the FDA,  is there to keep these companies from hurting us. But nobody is trying to pass off burgers and fries as health food. Business owners are for the most part free to make whatever kinds of foods they want, and we’re free to choose the ones we like best. That’s free enterprise and it’s good.

But we also have free speech and a free press, and that keeps everybody honest. It allows people like Morgan Spurlock and Julia Havey to say to McDonald’s, “Hey, what you’re doing is legal, but that doesn’t make it right.” And it allows me to say to Julia Havey and Morgan Spurlock, “Hey, what you’re saying is true, but that doesn’t make it honest.”

And in the end, we all get to make our own (informed) decision and spend our dollar where we want to, whether at McDonald’s or Taco Bell or the local farmer’s market. That’s capitalism. That’s freedom.