When Salon recently referred to crappy but well-connected movie director Robert Altman as "Hollywood's ultimate outsider", the self-styled maverick news operation and 1996 TimeWeb Site of the Year was doing more than just filling out a subtitle with a blatantly false bit of aggrandizing hyberbole. It was participating in a grand American tradition every bit as far-fetched and fishy as the four-time Oscar nominee's latest flick, the gynecological flop Dr. T and the Women.
Something there is in American culture that loves "outsiders." Or at least ones who can get tables on demand at chi-chi Beverly Hills bistros (like O.C. & Stiggs auteur Altman), flash Ivy League diplomas (see below), or regale audiences with personal anecdotes about the rich and famous (like that self-styled exile who never fails to mention that his family owned slaves in the good old days and that he snapped Jackie Kennedy's bra during the Camelot years, Gore Vidal).
How else to explain that the Flab Four of the current presidential campaign have all either described themselves as "outsiders" or have been thus characterized? It's commonplace to note that you can become anything you want in America, regardless of your origins. What's less remarked upon is that such a dynamic allows you to become an "outsider" even or perhaps especially if you're more connected than John Gotti, Jr.
Hence, George W. Bush has consistently billed himself as a political renegade who only happens to share not only the name but the gene pool of a recent POTUS (let's skip that education section on Dubya's resume: Andover, Yale, and Harvard). Al Gore's many recent biographers describe the lonesome, poorly performing Tennessee senator's son as a regular misft at fair Harvard who just didn't fit in with those Northeastern elite types (it seems that Al Jr., who actually grew up in a D.C. hotel and attended the ritzy St. Albans Prep, was more of a Southern elite type). In discussing the Art Garfunkel and Andrew Ridgely of the Big Race, The Hartford Courant mentioned in passing that Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney, who both matriculated at Yale some 40 years ago (only local booze kingpin's son Joe would finish up there, alas), were "two outsiders in the bastion of Eastern elitism." Which is to say, of course, that they were total insiders (at least to the poor saps doing time across town at New Haven's
Southern Connecticut State University).
As a result of the basic contradiction in publicly asserting outsider status, there's something inherently and hilariously phony about its invocation, whether it's coming from the likes of helmet-haired politico Al "I'm
an outsider" Sharpton or Harvard-trained
Jedediah "I was an outsider" Purdy or goggle-eyed bazillionaire Steve
"I'm an outsider" Forbes or Dudley Do-Right star Brendan "I
like an outsider" Fraser
or even Nazi schatze Dee Dee "I'm an
of everything" Ramone.
As with many things ascribed to the "American character" (or lack thereof), the outsider pose received perhaps its first full-fledged articulation via the fella that D.H. Lawrence once dubbed "the first dummy American," Benjamin Franklin. Old Ben's autobiography, we
learn early on, is all about being an outsider, about being "the youngest Son of the yongest Son for 5 generations back." Which is to say that Franklin had little to no hope of ever inheriting wealth or position. Like that other great American some years later, Mary Tyler Moore, he was going to have make it on his own. After being apprenticed to his own bastard of a brother, young Ben flees Boston and scampers down to Philadelphia, where he "knew no Soul, nor [even] where to look for Lodging" but nonetheless becomes rich and famous.
courtesy of Mr. Mxyzptlk
pictures Terry Colon