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Jewish World Review August 7, 2001 / 18 Menachem-Av, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

Junk science might explain summer junk -- SUMMER is supposed to be the season for junk entertainment. When we have the leisure and languor to read junk novels on the beach and feel our ears ring from the exploding automobiles of summer movies.

At least we do if we don't have children. Or full-time jobs.

Even if summer leisure is a myth, summer junk isn't. Lately, I'm fascinated by it. Not the junk itself. The whole junk concept.

You put the modifier "junk" in front of any perfectly respectable or blandly neutral noun and a remarkable transformation occurs. Yes, you're saying this thing is bad. But bad in a particular way. Bad, not evil. Bad, but in an insubstantial, shallowly inviting, waving-a-shiny-object way. A summer kind of bad.

Junk food, junk novels, junk movies . . . interestingly, nobody talks about junk television. Even in this season of what is laughingly called "reality television." It's as though we already suspect such usage would be redundant.

Politicians wind up for fall elections by proposing junk legislation -- often based on junk science.

Junk legislation used to be called "feel-good legislation." But if people aren't convinced that feeling good is bad, the term doesn't have much punch. Junk legislation calls for zero tolerance, sending messages, coming up with catchy bill names, raising consciousness and building and costuming juvenile-offender boot camps.

Junk legislation may not have helped schools, but it has transformed the Florida House's old "Education Committee" into the "House Committee on Education Innovation." And it must be doing amazing work or it wouldn't be called that. Right?

I learned of this change from political junk mail. I have come to appreciate my junk mail. It comes from identifiable companies and seemingly real places. My junk e-mail, by contrast, seems to be from a lurid alternative universe. A bizarro world where a smart guy like yourself can make millions in his spare time while tossing back vials of herbal Viagra -- 100 PERCENT LEGAL!!! and getting on the ground floor of new-tech stock offerings paid for by automatic bank deposits that will roll in automatically from the government of Nigeria!

It makes one yearn for the simpler days of 1980s junk bonds.

Lest this sound like simple-minded junk moralism, let me reiterate: not all junk is bad junk. Gaining the prefix "junk" implies only that the subject has an innate cheap allure. In a junk-oriented consumer society there are new vistas for the designation all around and not all of it bad.

I enjoy junk furniture because you get to assemble it with nothing more than a screwdriver and it's an evolutionary step above milk crates. The venerable beanbag chair -- a breakthrough in child-friendly decor -- might be considered junk furniture by the snobs. Even though you can repair them with duct tape.

And some junk clothing becomes cool with time. No, not the Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts. But flip-flops, Hawaiian shirts, work boots, chukka boots and polyester-blend guayaberas. All made the trek from trashy to junky to ironically cool. (Are they still cool if you aren't ironic and have been wearing this stuff for years? There's a question for experts in junk culture.)

I don't like junk travel because it involves lines, voices from loudspeakers and parking lots the size of airfields. But a lot people do and this is a very good thing for the Interstate 4 economy. Junk buildings have sprouted at every exit to serve it.

If this were a junk column, I'd assert this trendy little adjective marks a turning point in Western cultural and a milestone in social decline. That it explains everything from the Backstreet Boys to fanny packs.

But that would be junk sociology. I'd need an agent and a book and would be forced to go on junk radio and talk with people filled not with rage, but with a kind of junk anger.

And that would leave no time for the junk of summer.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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© 2001, M. R. Lane