A Bug's Life

What is pornography?

As the cliche goes,

“I know it when I see it.”

United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that quote during a trial regarding obscenities in 1964. What is cultural appropriation? Though the Supreme Court has yet to rule on that question, any decent person will probably also tell you, “I know it when I see it.” In Right-wing circles, cultural appropriation has been trivialized and rendered a signifier for the Left’s excesses. But if you walk down Santa Monica Boulevard during the annual Halloween Parade, you will likely see countless examples of it—there goes Pocahontas, followed by a lone geisha in a sea of ponchos and sombreros, and oh, another white girl dressed as hippy donning an afro wig. Perhaps we really need more think-pieces. Perhaps, we really need a Supreme Court intervention. Perhaps, “I know it when I see it,” isn’t enough.

What is a bug’s life?

In 1998, before snowflakes cancel culture and our collective addiction to discourse, two insect-infested computer animated films debuted within weeks of one another—Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and Dreamworks’ Antz. While A Bug’s Life is your standard optimistic childhood tale of ants that eerily have human breasts, Antz is a tad more dystopian and stars, well, Woody Allen as a horny ant. I was only five when I watched these films so my memory of them is meshed together. During my freshman year at Reed College, when I watched the annual bug eating contest at Renn Fayre—a three-day music and arts festival—I thought of the movies’ colorful, computer-animated insects, and I imagined a subplot that could have potentially happened in either of those films. After a series of unfortunate events, a bug with boobs ends up on a liberal arts college brat’s plate and then gets rapidly devoured while a crowd of maniacal hippies cheer on and laugh. EAT IT! EAT IT! EAT IT! OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!! According to Colonial Pest Control’s website, the question “How Long Does An Insect Live?” is as nuanced as a Reed College Socratic seminar:

“Some insects only live for hours; some insects live for years! There’s a huge range in life expectancy from one insect species to another. A German cockroach can live from 3 to 6 months (unless it meets up with an effective pesticide, or a predator, or a shoe!).”

How long does a tradition live?

Last week, I believe I encountered an “effective pesticide.”

Within the numerous highly reactionary, sensational think-pieces regarding cultural appropriation, there’s a tendency to highlight the rare instances in which this idea has gone too far. In these essays, righteous college students are made out to be the most powerful people in the United States of America and their PC quest to undo the sins of the past is rapidly turning universities into an Orwellian hell. So, I will acknowledge the stakes of the situation right now. I am a 26-year-old cisgender, white Jewish man who is sad that something he loved has been killed by an undergraduate Pest Control.

Last weekend, I visited Reed College to celebrate my friend’s graduation and partake in his last Renn Fayre. Back during the Obama era, he was inspired to attend Reed after going to one of my Renn Fayres. This weekend was as cyclical, cathartic, and Judd Apatow-esque as real life can get. I wanted to see old friends, I wanted to eat those glorious Pok Pok wings, I wanted to drink Portland’s mouth-watering Bloody Marys, but I also wanted to bask in the nostalgia of old traditions. On my first night back, I casually mentioned to some friends my plans to go see the bug eating contest on the Saturday afternoon of Renn Fayre. Let’s be real—like any liberal arts college, a majority of Reed’s traditions revolve around releasing pent-up sexual energy or doing drugs. The bug eating contest is something a five-year old could enjoy within the company of their grandparents. The spectacle is rather simple: a few brave souls compete to see who can eat the grossest, slimiest bugs and not succumb to vomiting. One year, I witnessed someone eat a live tarantula. It was Fear Factor in the flesh; a form of entertainment that I surely will find amusing decades from now when I am merely wrinkles and bones, floating in a space pod and streaming pixels from a Disney Dank Content Pad. But then my friend told me the terrible, terrible news: the bug eating contest had been #cancelled. It was labeled problematic because it was cultural appropriation—although no one was quite sure exactly which culture was being appropriated. After doing some investigating, I learned that a small militia of students insisted that the event trivialized actual cultures which rely on bugs for sustenance. Like dressing up as Pocahontas, the bug eating contest became something You Simply Shouldn’t Do.

My first impulse was to write a reactionary, scorched earth op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. I was angry, I was bewildered, I couldn’t really understand what had happened. But life moves on. It was a sunny weekend in Portland, Oregon, a rare occurrence. Why not soak it all up and maybe create new lasting memories? What could possibly go wrong?

The bug eating contest had been replaced with a spicy food eating contest (which they shockingly felt was an improvement). I attended in jest, indulging in a tiny bit of masochism. The new contest had no stakes or theatricality. Going from spicy pepper to slightly spicier pepper was not even vaguely entertaining. It was an event devoid of drama; nothing that could rival the narrative trajectory of eating mealworms, ants, and then somehow surviving to munch on a live scorpion. And so, I left and decided to sunbathe before the day was cancelled into the starry night.

I can write an entire polemic about the utter lack of logic here. If eating bugs is problematic, then surely the cafeteria should stop serving their half-assed attempts at Vietnamese or Mexican food. If you’re going to cancel the spiders, you will have to cancel the lukewarm quesadillas. If this contest is trivializing the realities of societies who consume bugs—not for no other option, but rather because they actually enjoy them as a form of sustenance—then go ahead and stop drinking $10 smoothies because that shit is trivializing the lived experiences of astronauts. I could also write about how well, actually, we should be eating more bugs because it’s good for our planet, and for you. I could go on and on. At this point, I have probably typed enough and should get back to work.

But I will close with this:

Behind the notorious rivalry between A Bug’s Life and Antz lay many insidious egos. On one side you had Disney—a corporation that doesn’t pay many of their employees a living wage and is arguably building a content monopoly that’s destroying art—and Steve Jobs, a glorified Reed College dropout who made a fortune by exploiting thousands of faceless factory workers. On the other side, you had, um, Woody Allen, a pervert who for some reason only met the wrath of our culture’s Pest Control fairly recently. When everyone graduates, they encounter Steve Jobs and Woody Allens everywhere. The world is crawling with them. In my last four years, I have worked for several. I know many friends who have had it much, much worse. The thing about a bug’s life is that it is ultimately interchangeable and meaningless: you can control the pest for a few weeks, months, or even years, but one day more will pop up and you will be back to square one. Once you join the Pest Control, your task becomes endless; and that’s probably the allure of it all. So suit up, throw that gas bomb into the basement, and vacuum it all away. But what you will never be able to eradicate are the joyful memories that serve as moments of respite, offering us a sense of fleeting escape. Yes, that is cheesy. But it’s also fucking true.

I will always remember the bug eating contest and I will remember it as quirky, whimsical, irreverent, and fun. Has the discourse gone too far? Perhaps. What’s the feeling of knowing that you’re finally getting old?

“I know it when I see it.”