I try not to take personal wars personally....
America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.

-- Oscar Wilde

Taking into account that Wilde may have been ahead of his times, here's a video of the Grateful Dead (a personal favorite of Ann Coulter), attempting in 1967 to explain their lifestyle in a documentary by CBS's Harry Reasoner:

While there wasn't any such thing as a formal, officially declared "Culture War" in those days, that was only because people hadn't had time to fully catch up with and process the power of the new medium of television, and all its implications. The Baby Boomers were the first generation to really grow up with something in common -- and that something was a gigantic roving eyeball which enabled the phenomenon of monkey-see/monkey-do as nothing ever before in American history. To a large extent, America has no readily definable or identifiable "culture" before television. There were regional cultures, various class structures complete with particular ways of dressing and even accents which could enable a skilled listener under certain circumstances to discern which part of town someone came from, but no one culture. Well there was American individualism, but that had to go. For how do you wreck a "culture" of individualism?

In order to wage war against a culture, a culture first must be created. TV Culture supplied the stage. As a play (a regular "feature," really), the Culture War was thus inevitable.

Culture War is the nexus where the personal becomes political. Where the details of your life become someone else's business, and where someone else's business becomes your personal life.

It is both a war for and against shame which arose as a result of the television, and it was enabled by the people who thought they could control others through it (and who were of course themselves enabled and fueled by the money and power it brought them).

I blog because I often imagine that the Internet offers an escape.

All I ever asked for was the right to be left alone to live my life as I saw fit without being bothered by anyone as long as I never bothered anyone else.

But as the above television program demonstrated way back when, that's a very elusive "right." Because people are bothered -- and then they bother those they deemed to be bothering them, who then bothered back.

At its heart, the Culture War is personal.

"I have nothing against you personally, I just think you people belong in prison."

Nothing personal, but it's just personal.

I've been a Deadhead since 1970, and one of the things they taught me was that avoiding politics offered no escape from the Culture War. That's because everything is political. Your money, your property, your tastes, your body, and even your genes.

It's been hard, but I've tried to learn (and I'm still trying to learn) not to take any of it personally.

How I envy the sociopaths.

MORE: Not to completely disagree with Wilde's smartass Victorian observation, but I should probably add that I think it would be nice not to try so hard to destroy that in between period of civilization before we've really been able to appreciate it. (Thus, I've tried to warn about the dangers of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.)

UPDATE: My thanks to regular commenter Loren Heal for linking this post, and for reminding me that in my zeal for oversimplification, that I ignored some of America's cultural attributes, which she lists:

While it's hard to distinguish our myths about the culture of our forebears from their actual culture, there is little doubt about the commonality of:
* Freedoms of speech, press, firearms, and religion
* "Manifest destiny" and westward expansion: gold rushes, cowboys, indians, cavalry
* Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Bill Hickok, et al
* The town square containing the courthouse
* Public schools (first small, then bigger)
* Tent revivals
* The Civil War
* Social mobility
* Baseball
* The automobile
* Prohibition and the Great Depression
Undeniably true. It's all our common heritage and much of it is our common history as a people -- which will always be with us, until history ceases to be taught and is replaced with multiculturalist scolding.

But I'm not sure that these various attributes (known to most Americans only through the filtering lens of television, btw) can be all said to be culture in the traditional sense of the word -- when means cultivation of the mind as one would till land. My etymological dictionary refers to "intellectual training and refinement."

Wiki accurately states the anthropological view:

Anthropologists most commonly use the term "culture" to refer to the universal human capacity to classify, codify and communicate their experiences symbolically. This capacity has long been taken as a defining feature of the humans.
My point is that television became the one primary, dominating feature which reached out and touched everyone with the same programming, and it allowed American culture to be defined and created for the first time according to a common denominator which, though passively experienced, was communicated to an entire generation of people at the same time -- a first in American history. While it can be called a lowest common denominator, it made it possible for the entire American public to look in the mirror at the same time and see themselves. (Or at least imagine that they were seeing themselves.)

It is my opinion that America's culture of rugged individualism was replaced by a culture of oneness the likes of which had never been seen before. A cultural stranglehold, if you will.

I think what we now call "the culture" happened before people realized what was happening.

One of the problems with this analysis is that "culture" is not readily defined. When I was a kid, culture meant education, refinement, the arts. I'd like it to mean that again. I'd also like "American culture" to mean individualism again, as opposed to programs which destroy by defining. (The best way to end the culture war I'm talking about here might be to simply turn it off.)

MORE: I didn't mean to write an extended essay about television, but I think I should add that it's more complicated than those-who-watched-it versus those-who-didn't. The early Boomers are the Howdy Doody generation, often control freaks who grew up watching ABC, NBC, and CBS with the "fairness doctrine" and common sets of values and ideals shaped by the early tube. As more and more choices in programming appeared, television persisted, but the number of choices led to a loosening of control, and right now, we are on the verge of anyone being able to be his own TV program, which makes the old medium increasingly moot. To that extent at least, "the culture" is pretty close to being back in the hands of individuals.

Which is good. Unless the Howdy Doody control freaks fight back!

MORE: Proving you don't have to be a first generation boomer to be a Howdy Doody control freak, Eric Alterman sounds off in favor of gatekeepers:

Ever since the beginning of blogging-time, I have worried -- in public and on blogging panels -- about the loss of the media's gatekeeper function. Now, I believe I literally wrote the book on this topic -- and it's about to go out of print for the second time, so if you don't own it, hassle Cornell University Press -- and I am as aware as anyone on earth, I believe, of the dangers of the misuse of that function. Almost all of my books deal with this tension in one way or another. But the fact is, the function is absolutely necessary.
(Via Ann Althouse, who pretty much wipes the floor with Alterman.)

posted by Eric on 02.28.07 at 11:05 AM


Excellent work, as usual.

I define "culture" as the unspoken expectations of a group for its members. "What you know everyone knows". So while I agree that television had a dramatic impact, I think it's wrong to say there was no unique American culture before that.

A more detailed comment is at the Academy.

Socrates   ·  February 28, 2007 1:07 PM

Oh Oscar, still immortal.

Flea   ·  February 28, 2007 8:33 PM

OMG Nick, your comment frightened me for a second, as I thought it was in response to my earlier post about the Academy Awards!

Eric Scheie   ·  February 28, 2007 11:18 PM

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