Tom Matlack regrets the influence of America’s pernicious popular culture.
“Once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign again the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again.” —Andy Warhol
I’m pretty sure that Andy Warhol is turning over in his grave right about now. Pop art is a way to critique reality. It’s a way of seeing a deeper truth in the most mundane as well as the most famous. But it was never intended to stand in for the thing itself.
America of 2011 is a world where fantasy and reality have traded places. Where popular culture has become our center point of gravity, our common language, a replacement for the grave problems of our time that are too ominous to take seriously. We get our news from Jon Stewart and Chelsea Handler, while The New York Times and Walter Cronkite’s old CBS have become a joke. The feminist movement of the 60s and 70s has culminated in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills delivering 2.2 million viewers after the show induced the husband to one of the stars to commit suicide. Not to be outdone, Jersey Shore delivered 8.5 million viewers.
So where are exactly are we when more people care about Kim Kardashian—a heroine, by virtue, of a leaked sex tape and a mindless television show—than war, famine, poverty, or prison? Dead, I would argue.
As a nation, we’ve always loved fantasy, from science fiction books to Hollywood celebrities. Television, radio, and print have been filled with mindless drivel from day one as a way to ease our troubled minds. The switch isn’t our need to escape from the harsh realities of the world, but that the escape has become the way we actually define the reality. We are no longer escaping from the world into pop culture, we are living it 24 hours a day without really caring about the truth. We’ve entered a deep sleep and resent anyone who tries to wake us from our slumber with the downer of facts, figures, and true life.
True Life is an MTV show after all.
How is it that we’ve fought three wars that no one really seems to care about, allowed mortgage scams and national debt to crater our economy, and squandered an immense human capital lead on the rest of the world?
I don’t know, but it sure does feel like some odd mixture of video games and The Bachelor doesn’t it?
Propaganda has historically been used by totalitarian regimes to justify their existence. Many of our greatest writers and artists have pointed out the hypocrisy of the capitalist system here in America. They touched the truth known by the thinking populace but not spoken out loud.
Pop culture of the past relied on a populace that was thinking, grappling with the deeper meaning of life and our collective challenges. It had an edge that forced us to look at ourselves more critically.
The truth is that reality television and our current obsession with celebrity has no such underlying social commentary. It’s the kind of propaganda used in the past to control the minds of masses of humanity who are actually suffering unspoken atrocities. The difference here is that there is no dictator shoving this stuff down our throats. There is an enemy, and it’s us. We have chosen to tune out.
What the hell do we do when most people care more about Jesse James’s marital plans than the inability of the majority of 10th graders to read at grade level? Do we need some sort of national shock treatment?
For better or worse, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech makes it impossible to ban reality television and the likes of Kate Gosselin on the grounds that they are rotting our collective minds. We actually need to change the pop culture dynamic by means of inspiration, not coercion.
One of the central factors driving the change in our national consciousness is exactly how we get information. It used to be the case that there were a limited number of trusted news sources that were held accountable to exacting journalistic standards. The national debate was framed out by facts presented by the likes of Woodward, Bernstein and Halberstam. The nation watched Walter Cronkite report on the shooting of JFK and didn’t question his motives.
Today there’s Fox on the right and MSNBC on the left. We really can only take hard news with a large dose of humor, like The Daily Show. And most people get what news they consume on Internet blogs like the Huffington Post that have no journalistic aspirations whatsoever. It’s all one big rush for page views. Even the most supposedly erudite news sites have to stoop to celebrity and, yes, porn to generate economic return. One of the favorite techniques on HuffPo and the like is to post two scantily clad young women, celebrity or not, and ask readers to vote on who is hotter. It’s a fair cry from reporting on the ground in Vietnam.
One could certainly argue that this fatal flaw in the American system has existed from the beginning. The potent combination of freedom of speech and commercial news has inevitably sent us down this rat hole of replacing the truth of our world with soap operas and fully believing the fiction is real.
Newspapers have always been ad supported. Broadcast news had to push product. It’s been a shotgun marriage doomed to fail. Provide the most reliable news possible, expensive to produce, to attract eyeballs that you can allow Madison Avenue to convert to revenue. The measure of success really isn’t the quality of the news, it’s the power of the advertising buried inside that news wrapper.
So now we no longer have the news or the wrapper. It’s just junk selling junk—and a country in a state of meltdown, blissfully unaware of what is really going on. Many more Americans know Charlie Sheen than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the key player in trying to save the Euro and stem the tide of national debt defaults that has already had a profound impact on our economy.
As BBC Trust Chairman, Lord Patten of Barnes, said:
The BBC is a core part of our civic humanism in this country. What do I mean by civic humanism? I mean our sense of shared citizenship, regardless of our different backgrounds. I mean the understanding that citizenship is underpinned by a common set of values, a common conversation. And an acceptance of mutual responsibility for our individual and collective welfare. How does the BBC fit into that? By providing a public space for argument and creativity. By being a party to the public’s engagement with democracy. By allowing citizens to test the trustworthiness of the information they get from those in authority. The BBC is both personal to each of us and universal for all of us. It creates a form of social capital.
How about if we created an independent trust in the United States whose only mission was to report on issues, with objectivity and impartiality, with direct impact on our democracy?
With Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and many other billionaires expressing concern about doing something concrete to save the world, perhaps they would match a grant by the Federal Government to endow this organization. Citizens could contribute too, but there would be no on-air telethons or sponsorships. When I listen to NPR or watch PBS, I am not sure if it is public or private service. I also don’t think the charge of liberal bias is without merit. These organizations could be folded into the new American Media Trust, but they’d have to alter their mission and give up their fundraising techniques.
Rather than creating a national platform to monetize through ad dollars, the trust would create a national platform to engage citizens in thoughtful debate via excellence in journalism—the kind no paper, or broadcast network, or website in their right mind can now afford. Wars, famine, education, poverty, prison, race, the economy, unemployment, art, and science are just a few categories that need a national discourse based on deeply-rooted facts. I am sure there are many others.
I don’t believe that we are innately stupid. Or that our diminished attention span for serious material is anything but a habit born out of the vacuum created when pop culture-combined-with-technology took over brains.
The world and our country, in particular, is at a tipping point. There are serious issues to discuss. And as much as I love Jon Stewart, I am not convinced that laughing at his jokes is moving the ball forward. Our love affair with Snooki most certainly isn’t.
In a politically divided country where every factual statement is broken down along party lines, each side with an alternative view of the “truth,” it’s all the more imperative that well-meaning citizens have an independent source of news and information. One that isn’t fighting off a financial death-spiral but is chartered with doing important work, solely because it’s important.
—Photo CBC.ca (AP)