Two generations ago, the USofA found itself in something like a Baroque Era. There was unprecedented wealth distributed widely through manufacturing jobs, and many families found they could opt for “stay at home mothers” for the first time. In this world of chrome and fins, one thing was clear: outside of the ongoing scare from the Russkies, America was on top of the world.
One of the great features of this world was an incredible amount of cultural cohesiveness. There were two teevee networks, for those that could go out and by a tiny set, and most radio stations played a form of Top 40 music. Naturally, this didn’t include everyone since black artists were confined to the “R&B” category while their songs were ripped off by Elvis for the regular Top 40. The black and white of the media was very white in the end, and the scenes we can still see are stunning in their conformity and dorkiness.
Back then, every major newspaper had a column on books. Authors would regularly be invited on talk shows to share their opinion of the world as raconteurs, professional wits and wise men (since they were nearly exclusively men). If they were a little more racy they might take a spin on the Tonight Show with Jack Parr just to show their more feisty side. Other artists would appear alongside them, sharing their vision of the world to an eager audience.
One generation ago, something happened. It was often called “counter culture” to depict a world that didn’t conform to the dorky mainstream. It wasn’t exclusively white, but it was surprisingly uniform in its own way. The reaction to monolithically baroque America was monolithically folk.
When the two collided it was something like matter and anti-matter. The resulting supernova gave off a lot of heat but little light. We moved to many cable networks and then to the internet for our teevee, and music became so fragmented that there is a distinction between “college rock” and “alternative rock” (that I don’t understand). This, along with an increasing number of people born in foreign lands, gave rise to the idea of multiculturalism – that many cultures exist at that same time.
That brings us to today. Authors are invited on talk shows to plug their books, not share their views of the world; only the New York Times still has a reliably snooty column on books . Musicians struggle for any airplay at all, black or white, that isn’t sanctioned by a large radio conglomerate. Other artists are largely invisible unless they are successful in getting someone to demand they be censored. The media has become so completely fragmented and competitive that it finds more reward dividing its audience than creating a cultural cohesiveness between arcane segments.
This may not seem important, but it is critically important for our nation. The reality of cultural fragmentation is at the heart of most of the disputes, political and social, that define who we are today.
There are two major responses to the lack of a common culture. On the right, critics deride multiculturalism and insist that we are still a nation that has a common culture that looks an awful lot like the black and white teevee shows from two generations ago. On the left, proponents of a vanilla view of multiculturalism tell us that we have to be accepting and open to new experiences.
Both of these common views are hopelessly naïve. We can’t go back anymore than we are willing to watch a 4” wide teevee screen. But multiculturalism requires a lot of effort if we are to remain a democratic society, given that understanding our neighbors is the bedrock of organizing and forming a coherent community. The right is correct that we have be able to at least understand each other, and the left is correct that multiculturalism is the reality of the day. But how do we make that work?
An American culture that is monolithic is not going to be the answer. But a kind of cultural understanding that fills in the spaces between people and cultures is absolutely essential. The various experiences that we all have can be placed into a context by the arts if they are only given a chance. That will have to be outside of our existing media, of course, but it has to happen.
How we might make this happen is what I’ll write about next, and I hope you will join in with your opinion in the comments. Thanks.