Whoa is me!

(Why I should stop braking for Cultural Hallucinations . . .)
The bus came by and I got on, that's when it all began. There was Cowboy Neal at the wheel of the bus to never ever land...
-- Grateful Dead

A primary reason I find the "Culture War" so endlessly annoying is that so many of the arguments involve bitter haggling over artificial constructs. Superficial things like depictions in movies and on television which are said to influence something called "the culture." But that puts the cart before the horse, as what is called "the culture" is usually defined by these depictions. People who believe Americans are hopeless victims of monkey-see-monkey-do behavior see "the culture" (film, music, TV, and to a degree, print media) as a sort of vehicle controlling how people think and how they live their lives. In their view, "winning the Culture War" means taking control of the wheel and putting their people in charge, thus making the culture (and of course, the world) a "better" place.

By stating the case this way, I don't mean to single out the people on either side. The people who are seen as being "in control" of "the culture" (and attacked by self-styled Culture Warriors) are equally irritating -- at least to me. Not for wanting to remake the world as they'd like it to be, for who doesn't want the world to be a better place? Rather, there's a certain arrogance in the assumption that there is or should be any sort of Great Steering Wheel of Culture, that they're behind it, and that they're running (or "changing") people's lives.

Yes, I hate both sides of this mentality, and I freely admit it. It's one of the tragedies of my personal life, and it is a major motivating force behind this blog.

Manipulative language, which drives me crazy, is almost everywhere I look. I can't even pick up a newspaper or a magazine without some manipulative snippet staring me in the face. Attempting to read about someone's accomplishments earlier today, "granddaughter of slaves" was the first thing I read. I suppose her daughter could be called a "great-granddaughter of slaves," and so on, as if this is something that belongs on a CV. Injecting the slavery argument into places it does not belong, while minor as these annoyances go, is just one example. (Almost makes me want to put "descendant of invaders" on mine.) There are endless similar examples, and I think I've provided more than a few in previous posts.

At the heart of the Culture War is an assumption that people can be manipulated, and that they should be. For the most part, the cultural manipulators and their "countercultural" counterparts are the ones clinging to this assumption -- as if for dear life.

I think the Internet is a dire threat to those who want to control or to seize control. It is inherently a force for individualization, and decentralization, of culture.

If you dislike turning on the TV and seeing crass attempts to steer your mind, why, you can find thousands of alternative views, left and right, right and wrong, sane, or insane, on any subject. Or contribute your own. Or not. If, like me, you think there's cleverly dissembled manipulation in a film like "Brokeback Mountain", you can say so, and you might discover that a few kindred spirits agree with you. (Likewise, you can ridicule the view that such a film means the end of Western Civilization.)

Fortunately, there is no Minister of Culture. There's no official "wheel" for anyone to seize. That's because the people who produce TV shows and make music or films have no tangible constitutional power. They're limited by market forces, and if people don't like what they crank out, they'll lose money. They have no more legal right to tell anyone what to do than even the lowliest blogger. (Or "highliest" blogger, for that matter...)

The people who want to grab "the wheel" need to understand that there's no wheel to grab, and that even if there was, they'd need an attractive product. (How do you counter a successful niche film like "Brokeback Mountain"? With another niche film showing the Marlboro Man dying of AIDS? Good luck getting people to line up.)

In light of the decentralizing cultural force of the Internet, I'm wondering . . . As the very idea of a cultural steering wheel (much less who controls it) becomes increasingly irrelevant, might there be some kind of ratio?

The more loss of the ability to control, the higher the volume of noise made by people who want to be in control?

Decentralization of control means loss of ability to control. This means more attempts to struggle to control by those imagining they're in control, and more attempts to "seize" the ever-more-dysfunctional controls by those who aren't.

The more noise that's made, the more people tire of the noise.

I'm afraid that will mean an increase in the volume of the noise.

Battle fatigue sucks. Especially in an increasingly irrelevant "war."

AFTERTHOUGHT: What worries me a lot more than the issue of "who controls" are attempts to reestablish systems of control by people who correctly perceive this overall loss of control. The reinstitution of the "Fairness Doctrine," the regulation of speech as "campaign contributions," UN controls over the Internet, and calls for government limitations on "offensive depictions" are but a few examples. The ability to impose culture by government force -- that's the Culture War people should be worried about.

posted by Eric on 02.16.06 at 08:30 AM


I think the Internet is a dire threat to those who want to control or to seize control. It is inherently a force for individualization, and decentralization, of culture.

Pure wishful thinking. As certain Internet firms' kowtowing to Chinese tyrants proves, large segments of the Web can indeed be controlled, and the big computer- and Web-related firms that pretend to offer freedom, also offer plenty of tools for monitoring and censoring Internet communications. Also, have you noticed certain things disappearing from the allegedly-uncensorable Web? Remember Mary Cheney's fiction? Those Diebold memos? Web releases by NASA climate-scientists? Uncut footage of Rummy squirming at tough questions from his own troops? That college-paper bio of Alito's son? The Web can indeed be censored, and powerful people all over the world are working overtime to censor it more. I'm surprised that a libertarian like yourself can be oblivious to such events.

If you dislike turning on the TV and seeing crass attempts to steer your mind, why, you can find thousands of alternative views, left and right, right and wrong, sane, or insane, on any subject.

And most of them just as crass and manipulative as the crap we see on TV, but even less grounded in observable reality; and sometimes offering the same old talking-points disguised as thousands of individual opinions that all -- coincidentally -- sound exactly the same at the same time. Not much of an "alternative," is it?

Raging Bee   ·  February 16, 2006 11:03 AM

Fortunately, China (which I have repeatedly criticized) is not the United States.

Are you seriously maintaining that the government is stopping anyone from writing about "Mary Cheney's fiction, Diebold memos, Web releases by NASA climate-scientists, uncut footage of Rummy squirming at tough questions from his own troops or college-paper bios of Alito's son?"

As to the "same old talking-points disguised as thousands of individual opinions," is anyone making anyone read them? Or preventing anyone from adding his own? None of this freedom guarantees that anyone will like the content, take it seriously, or even read it. I'm just glad it's there. Others aren't.

Eric Scheie   ·  February 16, 2006 12:32 PM

While I agree that there is no Cultural Steering Wheel to manipulate, I do think there is a need to oppose our overall culture. Let me give you a sort-of parable and try to explain what I mean:

When I was growing up watches were special. Not only were they moderately expensive pieces of complicated machinery, being given a watch meant that I was "grown up" enough to be trusted with a moderately expensive piece of complicated machinery.

(Through luck and my father's pack rat tendencies) I still have a watch he gave me when I was 6 or 7 - and it still works. I had it refitted with an adult band and I enjoy showing people my "Charlie the Tuna" wrist watch.

My children, on the other hand, find watches and watch-like devices everywhere; in their cereal, in their happy meals. To this day I get slightly twitchy when I find the shattered remnants of time pieces among their toys - but that's hardly their fault, they have been taught that watches are mere disposable junk.

This is a cultural shift - no one set out to denigrate watches, but the world changed and their world-view is different than mine. This is a difference that extends to all material possessions. I grew up in a world where material goods were rare while they grow up in a world where almost everything is disposable.

I'm not sure I like this attitude, but I can't really combat it by myself. Even if I, personally, restrict their access to toys and so on, the rest of the world continues to shower them with things - and so my children are quite jaded.

Now, let's extend that to a more serious issue: sexuality. For the past 30 years or so, young people have been exposed to the fruits of the sexual revolution. And when the subject of, say, sex ed and condoms comes up, I frequently hear young people say "you have to give out condoms because people are going to have sex anyway."

They are? I mean, they didn't used to. For most of western history sexuality was the most tightly controlled of all activities. True, there were always people who broke the rules - but the vast majority did not. Culture - that thing which had informed people of what to do and what not to do - prevented them from behaving in a way which might compromise their health and social standing.

Yet, today, when people say "kids are going to have sex anyway", I believe them. Because these kids have been taught - by our western culture - that sex is easy, fun, and that they are judged by how sexually appealing and successful they are.

I do not care for this. I do not like it that our culture teaches my daughter to value her tits more than her brains, and that it teaches my son that women are disposable receptacles for sperm.

Sex as socialization does not empower people, rather it is yet another thing that teaches them to value their youth, their appearance and their popularity at the expense of the things that are really important - stability, happiness, security.

And, with all my ability, I will continue to do everything in my power to protect my children from this belief, despite the fact that we all exist in a culture that treats sex as just another happy meal toy.

Mike Heinz   ·  February 16, 2006 2:48 PM

we all exist in a culture that treats sex as just another happy meal toy.

Excellent, Mike! If I use that phrase, I'll credit you with it.

Eric, I too agree that there is, to a certain extent, no official (government) steering wheel on culture. However, there are institutions that do have a profound influence on them... a lot of it driven by technology, too. Our culture profoundly changed with the migration from rural to urban centers, with affordable automobiles, with widespread electricity ... everything from the demise of child labor to women entering the workforce in significant numbers, this was influenced by combinations of economics, technology and pop culture.

When Clark Gable took off his shirt in "It Happened One Night" to reveal ::gasp:: a bare chest ... t-shirt sales plummeted through the floor.

It's a given that The Pill facilitated the Sexual Revolution.

Even if someone wanted to make a counter-Brokeback, could they in today's Hollywood? Certainly the only way The Passion got made was because Gibson did it all himself and at odds with the Industry. Spielberg was able to make Schnidler's List because it's ok to cast Nazi's as bad people, but in making Munich he had to portray both sides as being morally equivalent. I note by way of its absense, any major Hollywood film on 9/11 or Islamic terrorism. When was the last film with a priest or clergy person as "hero?" Narnia (a delightful film) was thrashed by some as "hate-filled Christian propaganda."

The steering wheel might not have two hands at 2 and 10 on it, but American pop culture sits shotgun with a hand at 5.

Darleen   ·  February 16, 2006 8:46 PM

Lots of food for thought in Mike's comment...

While I lived through most of it, I didn't find the sexual revolution all that thrilling. If I had kids, I'd hope they'd realize that there was more to life than sex.

Is it really "our culture" that teaches girls to value tits more than brains, and that women are disposable receptacles for sperm? Why is it that not all people behave that way?

Because they are "against the culture"? Whose culture? The implication is that people are not individuals, that children are not raised by their parents, but must be told what to do and how to behave by the culture. I'm 51, and this was not my experience. My father was born in 1909 and it wasn't his either.

And as a matter of fact, he recommended that I use a condom if I was stupid enough to have sex.

Eric Scheie   ·  February 16, 2006 8:52 PM

Darleen, I'm not defending Hollywood, but it's market driven. If enough people want something, someone will come along to give it to them. You mentioned The Passion, which succeeded despite Hollywood. Gibson's film "Signs" had a priest hero and so did "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." Just because Roger Ebert didn't like them doesn't mean other people won't.

"Munich" is a miserable box office flop, which is as it should be. Hopefully, the filmmakers will learn that Americans won't line up to see terrorists as the moral equivalent of the heroic Israelis.

My problem with the Culture War is that it's led to a demise of individualism. On both sides. That's because there shouldn't be "sides" to personal issues like sexuality.

Eric Scheie   ·  February 16, 2006 9:05 PM


Ooo. I'm 51 too so we should have a lot of the same cultural references. ;-) Though my dad was born in '28.

People and parents don't exist in a vacuum. And most people do want to belong, be part of the "in" crowd. Don't tell me you didn't wear bell-bottoms in high school or let your hair grow beyond your shirt collar. Why did we do it?

I remember when my high school first changed their dress code to allow girls to wear slacks..and my mom swearing to God in Heaven she'd only allow me to wear SLACKs once in a while and NEVER JEANS. I wore her down on that because I didn't want to be "out" (and I did wear jeans within HER comfort zone). So there's a lot of give and take between parenting and pop culture. We may follow out own paths, but they tend to run fairly parallel to the dominate culture.

Sub-cultures or counter-cultures (heh) will always exist too. Some people enjoy the notoriety of belonging even to an "out" crowd.

Darleen   ·  February 16, 2006 9:13 PM


Whoops...forgot about "Signs"..and I saw that film (mildly disappointing, probably why I forgot).

Certainly I'm saying pop culture is market driven. And sometimes the market drives the appetite. Hollywood has taken a shellacking at the boxoffice this past year and not because of DVD's or the net. They are just not producing enough films that people want to come watch. Maybe they'll take a clue. Notice though, their own industry awards the best film nominees combined gross is less than Narnia's! But those films will get "star treatment" come the ceremony.

Yes, I'd like to see more individualism, too. I don't see how there can not be "sides" to sexuality when you have two fairly irreconciable moral POVs about it. That it is an activity for adults who are mature enough about its consequences and who enter into relationships with as much consideration for their partners wants/needs as for their own - v - if you're old enough to think about it..DO IT..any way, any how, with any one, at any age...just wear a condom. And if you're a 'virgin' past 16, you're a loser.

Darleen   ·  February 16, 2006 9:22 PM

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