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More Perfect Union: Literature

They were walking down Flagler Street in Miami like they might any other day, nothing more than two men that appeared to be strangers. The fact that one was Black and one was Latino would give them little reason to acknowledge each other at all, unless one wanted to start a fight. This was just 5 years after the bitter McDuffie Riot that filled the city with acrid, chocking smoke for three days. But on this day, they shared a quick high-five as they walked past each other, an audible smack of comradeship that split the tension of a big city day. The reason for this was simple: the Miami Dolphins were in the playoffs, and both men were proudly wearing their white, aqua and orange shirts with Dan Marino’s 13 on the back.

That may not seem like a lot to build a common culture on, but it’s one Hell of a start. Two people who might otherwise be at least suspicious of each other had a moment together, plain in public, which put a lot of bad memories into a new context. There’s probably not a single sports team that will claim racial healing as one of its goals for the season, but when it works you just have to go with it. I certainly will remember it for the rest of my life.

Building a common culture has to start from cultural reference points that go beyond the usual divisions between us. The lines of race, income, religion, generation, ideology, and all the other silly things that we think stand between us have to have something that crosses them before we can talk about a common culture. Otherwise, all we have are the lines and not what we might call a nation.

Beyond sports teams, there are common cultural references that cut across the lines easily. Television and movies, such as Star Wars or American Idol often have an appeal that is so broad they can bring people together. But what’s needed for a real culture is more than just a reference point; we need to have a common language with icons that allow us to talk about complicated ideas easily. That is the value of literature in a society.

Literature always starts with the classics. Stories from the Bible, the ultimate classic, are easy ways to pull out an icon that everyone understands – as long as they know the same Bible. Huckleberry Finn has great icons for understanding and getting past the ravages of slavery, assuming the reader can get past the dreaded “N word”. Our changing and often hypersensitive world is leaving many of the classics behind as stories that divide, not unite.

Films can be a kind of literature, but even culturally important works like Do the Right Thing can become flashpoints to people who want to pick a fight. Since most movies that provide the icons we can use to explain our world start out as books, however, it may be enough to ignore film for now.

So what do we have in the way of books that provide a cultural understanding that cuts across lines and produces a common culture by developing a common framework or iconography? Doodly-squat, if we’re lucky. The last such work I can think of was Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s epic depiction of life in the 1980s that gave us Gordon Gecko and “Greed is Good”. Wolfe’s depiction of the time is now universally used as a shorthand for understanding the excesses that led us to today.

No one has even come close in today’s world. Many serious critics have declared literature dead in one way or another, meaning that no one is even trying to meet the cultural need for common frames of reference.

I used Bonfire of the Vanities as an example in part because it was written in chapter length installments in Rolling Stone starting in 1984. No one set out to publish a work of literary fiction, but one developed a following through the efforts of a magazine. The world of publishing demands a safe, proven work because of the high costs of printing, distributing, and promoting. This is reasonable, but the lack of a minor league to identify and develop talent that can produce literature has left the industry without its cultural purpose. Reading has become little more than another form of entertainment, and one that requires a lot of work.

A common culture that unites the USofA is certainly desirable to the extent that it is possible. Without literature in our lives, however, the best we can hope for is the comradeship that comes from being fans of the same team. While a high-five on a hot sidewalk can say one Hell of a lot, it’s not the same as being one people of one nation. That takes a common language, and that language requires something like literature. Why we don’t have that literature is something I’ll discuss next time.

Other posts in the series More Perfect Union:
More Perfect Union

15 thoughts on “More Perfect Union: Literature

  1. What you didn’t talk about are the words that are already in our language which are supposed to be rich with meaning, even if they aren’t – like “liberal” and “conservative”, or other cliches. You should link to that post!
    And the words of the tech divide, too.

  2. We are a species that seems bent on seperation. We respond to the negative more then the positive. As individuals we must strive to be open to those people, ideas, beliefs and lifestyles that differ from our own.

    The question we must answer on every level of interaction is can we respect the right of others to be not like me? If we can life could be really exciting if not we will simply continue to move farther apart. On our current course without major changes we will become a completely disfunctional society in 30 years or less.
    A constitutional republic requires people who respect the law and the process. Once we lose that cohesion as a society we will have revolt and violence. The next 10 years will be very important. Will we have a transcendance of our petty differences or will they engulf us?

  3. Absolutely, Brian. What I’m getting at here is a point that Simon Bolivar made that is generally lost on the USofA, at least in the sense that we don’t like to talk about it generally. A common culture is necessary to make a stable constitutional republic functional – in that sense, I agree with the right wing. However, I don’t see their narrow view of culture (defined on their own terms) as viable. Literature, to me, is important because it gives us some common language that can’t be hijacked ala 1984 by those who would enslave us. There are many aspects to a common culture, but the language, icons, and frames are critical to me.
    Yes, this is all about our Republic and the freedom that it embodies. It may seem abstract, but I’d like to open a broader discussion of our culture than we usually allow.

  4. When I was in high school, the music you listened to dictated how you dressed and who your friends were. This had nothing to do with what marketers fed us – they WISHED they had the power to evoke such fervent response from kids, and would do anything they could to try to tap into that.

    I realize that some of this response was a product of adolescence. But there is a part of adolescence that, though it fades, never really goes away. That is the need to belong to something. We all have it to some extent – everyone who would participate in shaping a culture still has that need.

    There is a focus on product, though, that has never been there before. This focus has grown exponentially in the past few generations. People use what they buy as a yardstick for whether or not they belong.

    As the world grows simultaneously larger and smaller, somehow we need to drive home to people that what you do – what you say – not what you buy – is what makes you a part of things.

    When enough people truly believe that, there will be a shift in the culture.

  5. Excellent point, but I think I’ll have to hold off until Monday. I want to say a little about the publishing industry and how literature died on us, plus need a few days to think about it. 🙂

    But I will think about it. It’s what my old friend Craig called the “fat yet full” problem – how do you know when you have enough? Usually people wind up “fat and hungry” in this way of looking at it. Why is that? Why do we always seem to want more? A big hunk of this is indeed defining yourself by what you own, which is to say letting it own what you think is you.

    Why does this happen? Why does it persist? I don’t know. We must be awfully insecure to give in so willingly.

    I’ll think about it. I promise.

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