Does Culture Matter Any More?
Septmber 1999

What is this thing called "Culture," anyway? What we see bought and sold like some vegetable or grain or mineral, like some kind of commodity, used to be available for free. This thing called Culture is composed of such common social elements as verbal mannerisms and sayings, "taste" or commonly accepted norms of conduct, humor, values, beliefs, goals, and desires of people. We used to get these things for free, before such concepts as Intellectual Property (IP), the multinational corporation, and the pigeonholing effect of mass-marketing combined to make American culture a tasteless, boring, mentally empty and morally bankrupt "soup".

The original fountain of culture in society was once religion. People knew what was taboo or off-limits, and when society was localized to a village or a small city, everyone conformed to the local value system. Non-conformists were browbeaten and ostracized, but at least they could always leave and find a more suitable culture in a different state or nation. "Go West, young man" has more to do with cultural freedom and the opportunity to establish a new cultural norm from a fresh perspective than it does with money-making opportunities.

Later, a desire for radical egalitarian tolerance caused a lowering of cultural barriers. As cities grew and non-mainstream cultures gained the critical mass to achieve separate, recognizable cultural enclaves, the desire to avoid conflict and establish norms across larger cross-sections of society made it necessary to accept lowest-common-denominator morality, values, and even religion. Culture became something to sneeze at, to reject as a kind of reactionary attempt to prevent assimilation, something to hate and rebel against. The word Culture now carries a negative connotation to many people.

However, nature abhors a vacuum: now that the influence of such institutions as Religion and Tradition have become small, there has been a corresponding growth in the influence of Commerce and Greed as the arbiters of what is considered normal and acceptable social conduct. The normal reaction to drug use has changed, for example. In the 1950's, can we imagine a popular song that would glorify the regular use of a product like cocaine or other deadly substances? Back then, we could hear the scornful tunes that even labeled cigarettes as "coffin nails".

In order to assemble a greater number of people under the aegis of a single global culture, the lowest-common-denominator was enforced by commercial decree: You can sing about what is bad, but if you sing about what is good then you are an absolutist, and exclusivist, a religious zealot. Move over to the end of the dial; we have a fringe spot reserved just for people like you! It is not just a matter of the desire for social freedom, but rather the goal of commercial inclusiveness that drives the media machinery. Commerce now has a firm upper hand over all of the more traditional moral influencers, which is why children know Mickey Mouse and Joe Camel but are unaware of the names of the 12 apostles of Jesus or even the first ten Presidents of the U.S. Culture is no longer based on free information, but rather on the expensive advertisements force-fed through the video pipelines into our homes, our schools, and our workplaces.

This is why the Internet and the ownership of major media conglomerates seems to be moving in the direction of consolidation and the tasteless, boring, and brain-dead emptiness of the new culture. It is as if every form of humor has been reduced to a hybrid mix of Playboy and the Three Stooges. It is as if every form of athleticism is bent on greater levels of violence and conflict. The new culture doesn't matter any more; it is just a veneer or thin outer coating that we use to make ourselves appear respectable, civilized people. In a civilization that brags about its material prosperity but has nothing else to brag about, it is only a matter of time before the veneer wears off. You can put a suit and tie on a caveman, but if you don't put something of value on the inside -- well, he's just a neatly dressed caveman.

Most recent revision: September 5, 1999
Copyright © 1999, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.