Does Culture Matter Any More?
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
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.