Silicon Valley, Donald Trump, "Joe & The Juice" and self-censorship as subversion
Sitting at SFO at 8am last Friday morning, I was surprised to look up from my Us Weekly and discover I had been transported to an episode of Jersey Shore.
“Ey, fuck you man.”
“No, fuck you.”
The whir of a blender. A female voice and then, apparently in response...
“You wanna banana smoothie? You like a big banana?”
If you’re like me - that is to say, old - you might not be familiar with “Joe & The Juice”, a Dutch-owned chain of coffee shops and juice bars which have recently begun “rolling out” across America. Including, apparently, to the International Terminal of San Francisco airport.
Joe & The Juice, per Business Insider, is a “notorious Danish juice chain” which “only hires hunks” and “[is] conquering the world”
It seems to be that the company hires only cool hunky guys and promotes a very bro culture. The company's recruiting videos have been met with ridicule, but apparently it's working.
Hunkiness, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder but certainly the "very bro culture" was much in evidence amongst the cafe’s all male employees who - 8am bedamned - gleefully cursed at each other and tossed innuendo at any female customer misguided enough to wander in for a banana smoothie. At 8am. At an airport.
I’m not sure what angered me the most - the “you like a big banana?” line delivered to a flabbergasted young female customer, or the “ey, fuck you” exchange quoted above, delivered comfortably in earshot of the mother and children ordering breakfast.
What I know for sure is that, even a week later, I’m still stunned and depressed by the encounter. Stunned that anyone working the morning shift at a coffee shop - bro or no - would feel comfortable screaming obscenities in close proximity to children, or be bold enough to ask a female traveller whether she prefered “a big banana.” And thoroughly depressed that San Francisco International - Silicon Valley’s major business hub - would think a bro-themed coffee shop might make an appropriate and appropriate addition to their catering options.
(Ever the journalist, I emailed Joe and The Juice to ask if my experience was typical. A corporate representative insisted it was not, and promised to speak to the local managers. SFO didn’t have anyone available for comment when I called.)
Anyone even vaguely familiar with my work here at Pando, and certainly with my books, might be surprised to hear I’m such a prude, or a stickler for propriety. After all, didn’t I once write an entire chapter of a book, explaining the difference in usage of various curse words between America and Britain? And didn’t I once address a letter to NSFWCORP subscribers “Friends, Romans, C___s”? Yes and yes.
I’d certinly be lying if I claimed that I had never in my life - even in a professional setting - used profanity when there was a possibility that children may overhear. (Although I pray that, even in the depths of my former alcoholism, I never employed lazy fruit-based sexual innuendo, even consensually.)
So why did the Joe and the Douche incident bother me so much? Have I become, to paraphrase Trump Trolls, a “snowflake”, unable to handle a little profanity mixed in with my (godawful, tepid) latte first thing in the morning?
Certainly spending more time with Sarah’s children has made me more sensitive than before to what kids see and hear. And years covering Valley bro culture has absolutely made me far more attuned to, and disgusted by, the kind of causal harassment delivered by Joe’s Bros.
But I suspect there’s something more going on here. In recent weeks and months I’ve noticed that I’ve become far more likely to self censor my language, even in adult company. Fewer fucks, and more “fricks” and “f’s; a preference for milder curses when previously only something stronger would do. During a writing session a couple of weeks back, I spent a good hour and a half debating with myself whether a (fictional, British) character really needed to call another character a particular offensive word. (Eventual conclusion: yes, but only once.)
And then, last week, I read Ryan Lizza’s bombshell New Yorker transcript of his conversation with Anthony Scaramucci -- and it hit me. The casual, lazy profanity of the Trump administration - the yobbish, braying, ugliness of the new Reality Show Masters of the Universe - has ruined swearing for the rest of us.
To understand what I mean, you need only compare and contrast today’s America with the America of 1962 when Lenny Bruce was arrested for (amongst other things) a bit he called “Eleanor Roosevelt Had Nice Tits”
"The most beautiful body I've ever seen was at a party in 1945. I was in the bedroom getting the coats. The powder-room door had been left intentionally ajar, and I viewed the most perfect bosom peeking out from the man-tailored blouse above a tweed pegged skirt .... Eleanor Roosevelt had the prettiest tits I had ever seen or dreamed that I had seen ...."
Of course nobody believes that the president in those days - Kennedy - was averse to cursing, nor that he would be genuinely offended by Bruce’s words. But nor would anybody in the White House, or any major public office, or in most of American public life, admit to finding the bit funny.
Bruce’s genius - and his fame - stemmed from his willingness to say the unsayable; to utter his famous Dirty Words, knowing they were likely to get him carted off to jail. He used profanity (and blasphemy) to mark himself out as a rebel; as the antithesis of those in power.
Fast forward to 2017 and a performance like Bruce’s would more likely see the comedian carted off to a job as White House Communications Director.
“I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” he said, speaking of Trump’s chief strategist. “I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the President. I’m here to serve the country.”
Or maybe even elected President...
“I did try and fuck her. She was married… Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything… And when you’re a star, they let you do it… Grab them by the pussy… you can do anything.”
I suppose it’s possible a modern day Lenny Bruce, seeking to distance himself from (and position himself above) the ruling elites he despised, would be able to figure out a way to be that much more offensive than Trump and his allies. But I have no idea what that would require, short of actual murder. (And even then.)
More likely he would need to move sharply in the other direction. Contrasting the yobbery and gleeful ignorance of Trump and Co with a deeply subversive intelligence and adherence to basic standards of decency. I mean, what could be more shocking in Trump’s America than to treat others with basic respect, to choose good words over bad, and to do everything one can to make the world a less violent, ugly place for our children?
In the Orwellian bizarreness of Trump’s America, the only language that is truly subversive is good language. The only truly subversive trait is dignity.
The same, of course, is true in Silicon Valley. If nothing else good comes from the ugly bro culture demonstrated by the Valley’s most powerful and wealthy leaders - none more so than Travis Kalanick - then surely we can at least hope is for an intense backlash of respect, tolerance and ethical business practices. A new breed of entrepreneurs who realize that truly disrupting bro culture means behaving in the exact opposite way to folks like Kalanick, McClure, Caldbeck and Sacca.
Such a world would be good news for any of us who have reached our limit with the debasing of public discourse and our breaking point with headlines about sexual harassment and assault in the tech industry. It would also, of course, be very bad news for the juicing bros at SFO and the Disruptive sexual predators ones assumes constitute their target audience.
In other words, a win-win.