The Children of E.D. Hirsch

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In a mostly clueless review of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, Marc Gunther repeats my least favorite complaint about the decline of mass culture:

Big stars, hit TV shows and even commercials help knit a society together. Think of the feeling that comes a few times a year—the morning after the Super Bowl or the Oscars—when tens of millions of Americans share a common experience….[I]t's worth slowing down, now and then, to think about what we are losing as we retreat into that "mass of niches."

Maybe we already have slowed down, given that I've been hearing this argument for well over a decade now. For that matter, you can see an earlier version of the same anxiety in the '80s panic over the alleged loss of our "common culture," which began with dark ruminations about the closing of the American mind but soon evolved into a friendlier series of middlebrow quiz books aimed at testing the reader's "cultural literacy." A generation later, we apparently no longer feel the need to pretend that it's the grand heritage of the West that binds us together, and declinists fret instead about the fading power of football games and celebrity fashions.

Personally, I was more sympathetic to an earlier complaint: that TV was erasing America's regional differences. I can hardly grumble now that the country's diversity is finally creeping back into our mass media.

[Via Jim Henley.]

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  1. “Personally, I was more sympathetic to an earlier complaint: that TV was erasing America’s regional differences.”

    Jessee,

    I think that was a huge downside to mass culture not an advantage. I love the fact that people in Atlanta talk differently and eat different things than people in Boston or Chicago. Now that it has been 140+ years since we were killing each other over regional differences, regional differences make the country more interesting. As far as the need for common experiences, Jesus can’t we do better than the Superbowl or the Oscars? Maybe the Superbowl, but the Oscars? What a monumental waste of time and energy.

  2. I agree that it was a downside. As I said, I was sympathetic to the complaint.

  3. “Think of the feeling that comes a few times a year — the morning after the Super Bowl or the Oscars — when tens of millions of Americans share a common experience…”

    Oh Jesus Christ.

    If the goddamned Super Bowl and the fucking Oscars are the best we can offer up as a common cultural event, then this society sodding well deserves to have it’s citizens retreat into a maze of interesting and eclectic nich?s.

  4. We don’t need TV to bind us together in a common experience. That’s what religion is for!

    On that note, what time are the Oscars on again?

  5. I think there is some validity to the idea that television once was a medium that brought people together with common experiences but now tends to separate people by offering so many choices.

    This may be true of many aspects of our consumerist culture, however.

  6. Yeah, Dan T., I’m with ya. I’ve about had it with all of these pesky ‘choices’ too.

  7. Many years ago (possibly in the 1980s) I saw Tom Shales of the Washington Post addressing this issue on Nightline. The discussion was more about programming moving to Cable and the somehow the fear that the World Series and Super Bowl would move to cable or pay-per-view.

    The other guess said (paraphrasing) that there was no constitutional right to watch sporting events on free tv. Shales responded if the founders knew how important these events were to national consciousness perhaps they would have included it in the constitution.

    I threw my shoe at the tv.

  8. Yeah, Dan T., I’m with ya. I’ve about had it with all of these pesky ‘choices’ too.

    What you’re implying is not what I’m saying.

    Having choices is generally a good thing, but like anything else there are sometimes negative consequences as well.

  9. Other things that unified the country: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Kennedy, 9-11. Having the country come together isn’t always such a good thing.

  10. Having choices is generally a good thing, but like anything else there are sometimes negative consequences as well.

    I must have read you wrong. Sorry. Just out of curiousity, name a few instances when having a choice would be a bad thing.

  11. Television surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the country together. Or is that duct tape? I’m always mixing those up.

  12. Television surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the country together. Or is that duct tape?

    No, you’re talking about midichlorians, bro. easy mistake.

  13. These ivory tower guys think culture is planned. They expect us to come together as observer-units to participate in whatever minutely-planned artificial event they think will give us communal warm fuzzies and become a checkmark on the list of stuff they think we should know about. God forbid there should be a moment of spontaneity, say a misplaced nipple-cover.

    Culture happens. And it usually bitch-slaps you. 9-11. Challenger. Katrina. How the elements come together is a mystery. Why did Monica, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Joey, and Phoebe break so many sitcom rules, and rule?

    Tangential to topic. My wife works for a weekly newspaper, the Hill Country Community Journal. She just finished a story about the 50th anniversary of Old Yeller. (The author’s son lives in Kerrville.) That was culture.

  14. I agree with Jennifer and Larry A. The culture unifies in response to tragedy and adversity. Thank God that it does. That said, however, I would should love to live in a world of peace and prosperity where everyone has the freedom to retreat into thier respective self absorbed niches and never have to comtemplate anything really serious or heavy. Yeah, the early 1940s were interesting times to live and there were certainly advantages of the country being united (although it wasn’t as united as everyone believes), but I am quite sure the people getting shot at and dying or sitting at home praying a telegram doesn’t arrive telling them of the death of their son, father, or husband, would have gladly traded that unity for peace.

  15. I’m not into bondage.

  16. I must have read you wrong. Sorry. Just out of curiousity, name a few instances when having a choice would be a bad thing.

    Some observers have theorized that excessive choice, especially in consumer products, leads to anxiety. For example, when you need some toothpaste and find that the store stocks 50 varieties of it, how do you know which one to pick? That sort of thing.

    It’s not so much that having choices is bad, I’m suggesting that there are both good and bad elements to having choices.

  17. For example, when you need some toothpaste and find that the store stocks 50 varieties of it, how do you know which one to pick? That sort of thing.

    Easy: if you’re a cheapskate, pick the cheapest one. If you’re a snob, pick the super-expensive “deluxe” brand. If you’re the parent of a pre-schooler, pick the one with the picture of Spongebob on the tube.

    If someone found himself incapable of brushing his teeth because he just couldn’t bring himself to choose a tube of toothpaste, he’s the type of idiot that a healthy society can’t afford to accommodate anyway.

  18. Erasing regional differences can only go so far, because you end up killing the tourism industry. Why go someplace to see what you can see at home free of charge?

  19. No offense, but getting jittery over colgate vs. rembrandt just isn’t a good enough example. I thought you were going to hit me with Power companies or something. I’d even admit that having many competeing power companies lay power cables all over the city may be too many choices, but tarter control vs. total care?

    Then again, now that I see the name of your website, I’m going to assume you are just fucking with me anyway.

  20. Having choices is bad when you are stuck shopping with a person who has trouble deciding. You know the type who says “Should I buy this one, who has X, or this one which is cheaper, or this one, or this one?” And then conducts a long disquisition on the advantages and disadvanteges of both for a full 15 minutes. I tell you that after one such experience my mother was ready to kill her sister….

  21. “Television surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the country together.”

    Yes, television is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television (of course!). You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

  22. What, is TV the freakin’ Force now? Surrounding us, binding us, penetrating us… It’s purely unscientific, but it seems that the rise in TV has created a culture war, not a closely knit society.

  23. No one can be told what television is, Lamar.

  24. No offense, but getting jittery over colgate vs. rembrandt just isn’t a good enough example. I thought you were going to hit me with Power companies or something. I’d even admit that having many competeing power companies lay power cables all over the city may be too many choices, but tarter control vs. total care?

    Actually, I choose toothpaste because all toothpaste is basically the same. Yet instead of just going to the store and picking up a tube, now it’s become yet another situation where choices have to be evaluated.

    Basically, choices make life more complex for people. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes maybe not.

  25. Where I have found that too many choices / options tends to scare me off is with consumer electronics. Picking a receiver for a home audio system, or deciding between types of TVs (Plasma/HD/projection/LCD etc) — with the amoung of money that something like that costs, I feel obligated to do the reasearch…and once I start doing it, I start to feel overwhelmed with choices and decide I don’t really need it and that I should just save my money and stick with what I’ve got….
    I dunno if thats a good or bad thing…I mean it has saved me from droping a few hundred bucks at a time on things that I don’t really consider necessities.

  26. Yet instead of just going to the store and picking up a tube, now it’s become yet another situation where choices have to be evaluated.

    Why? If instead of making a conscious choice you merely grab the first tube you see, or limit yourself to the cheapest tube they sell, what harm have you suffered? What terrible consequence will you face if you do not “evaluate” your choice?

    Personally, I just go to the store and pick up a tube.

  27. Erasing regional differences can only go so far, because you end up killing the tourism industry. Why go someplace to see what you can see at home free of charge?

    How do you explain men in relationships frequenting strip clubs then?

  28. I have a cunning plan. I will start a new service where I will make decisions for those overwhelmed by the multitude of choices out there. Whether it’s what to buy, what to watch, who to date, I’m here to decide for you. . .for a nominal fee. Here’s a freebie–you shall use Crest Multicare, Cool Mint. Yes, you shall.

    Of course, I disclaim all responsibility for the consequences of my decisions. But, after all, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice 🙂

  29. In Communist Russia, the toothpaste chooses YOU.

  30. We econogoobers have a name for these things that are so similar as to be nearly indistinguishable from one another: perfect substitutes.

    I imagine that toothpaste is one such category for most people, as would things like the brand of nail polish or glue stick or such things. Jeebus.

    How do you explain men in relationships frequenting strip clubs then?

    Obviously, breasts are not perfect substitutes for one another.

  31. Ah, Clean Hands, that’s why my solution is so elegant–rather than a Nanny State, I offer Nanny, Inc. No laws or oppression needed. Want direction? Come to Nanny. Want to ignore Nanny? No problem–we get paid, either way.

  32. I’ve actually taken to flipping coins or rolling dice to decide things I don’t care about, it saves a damn lot of hassle for picking where to eat lunch or which crappy movie to see.

  33. Dan T. , you finally have me agreeing. There are too many choices. After reading your posts, I could hang myself, take a lot of pills, shoot myself in the temple, or deep throat my exhaust pipe. Which to choose, which to choose.

  34. “Ah, Clean Hands, that’s why my solution is so elegant–rather than a Nanny State, I offer Nanny, Inc. No laws or oppression needed. Want direction? Come to Nanny. Want to ignore Nanny? No problem–we get paid, either way.”

    Pro Liberate, I think someone beat you to it. I beleive it is something called “Scientology”.

  35. I’ve figured Dan T. out — the “T” stands for Troll. Duh. Let’s don’t feed the trolls anymore, and maybe he’ll get tired of nattering on to himself and go bug the folks over at DU or LGF.

  36. John,

    Good point. And they’re tax exempt as well! However, I intend to brand Nanny, Inc. in a more broad-based manner than Scientology?, without the indoctrination. And without the bad science fiction. Also, celebrities will play no role in the decision making, though I expect that they will be among my most loyal customers.

  37. How do you explain men in relationships frequenting strip clubs then?

    I’ll take the bait here. The answer is that they don’t get to see it at home.

    As far as toothpaste, I just buy the same brand every time. Why? Because it works.

  38. I think you guys are being a little hard on Dan T. I think he was just making an observation, not advocating less choice.

    You can be pro-(consumer)choice and still recognize that sometimes when choices are limited, there’s a better chance for “shared experiences” – whether it’s toothpaste or The Grande Ole Opry.

  39. It ain’t just his comments in this thread, Kneejerk — it’s his constant “observations” and his particularly poorly-argued stands.

  40. I suspect my comments are not too popular over here because I don’t fall into the neat categories of “libertarian” or “fascist”.

  41. My generation, which grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, is the last to really have a shared TV experience, before the rise of cable and competiton from video games. All this means is that we can have pointless, if amusing, conversations about Mr. Owl, the Time Out for Timer guy, Schoolhouse Rock, and the comparative sexiness of Isis vs. Wonder Woman. Shared experience is overrated.

  42. What bothers me about Gunther’s critique is this:

    Politics in America has become polarized for many reasons, but a big one is the fact that people can now filter the news and opinion they get to avoid exposure to ideas with which they disagree.

    This is nothing new. It may be the case that the idea of the non-partisan, pseudo-objective newspaper with a “chinese wall” between the news and editorial departments was just a temporary aberration in American history. It is certainly the case that prior to the 1950s and the transformation of newspapering from an industry where consumers chose among competing local papers, to one where there is usually only one hometown rag, which competes with several national papers (WSJ, NYT, USAT) and many electronic media outlets, local newspapers were reliably connected to one or another political faction. Somehow we managed the republic’s business.

    Kevin

    ObFilm: Robin Williams’ character in Moscow On The Hudson confronts the coffee aisle at the local A&P.

  43. Oh, in case you were wondering: Wonder Woman.

  44. Kevin,

    ObTV: The final story of the original “Doctor Who”: The Doctor contronts an aisle of cat food. (The whole story is rather an outdated critique of capitalism as “survival of the fittest.”)

  45. I suspect my comments are not too popular over here because I don’t fall into the neat categories of “libertarian” or “fascist”.

    What a flattering thought.

  46. “Politics in America has become polarized for many reasons, but a big one is the fact that people can now filter the news and opinion they get to avoid exposure to ideas with which they disagree.”

    What do you mean “became polarized”? When exactly was it not polarized? Have you ever read what people said about Lincoln? Or what Republicans and Democrats thought of each other during the FDR administration. To think that politics is any more polarized today than it has been in the past is to betray a complete lack of understanding of the past.

  47. Yeah, the toothpaste question is easy.

    You buy the one that is the proper combination of “cheapest” and “least-terrible tasting”. If that’s too many variables, you buy “cheapest”.

  48. The cheapest toothpaste? Who are you kidding? You buy the toothpaste that has the sexiest people kissing in the commercials. Duh…

  49. john:

    Agreed, politics was a lot more polarized in Lincoln’s time. So polarized that before you knew it, they were using real guns.

    Polarization in politics is not a minor thing. It is a warning sign that the political system may be in need of serious repair, and that if left unattended, the system may be beyond repair.

  50. I buy baking soda. I gag on foamy toothpastes.
    At 39 cents a box, it does a better job and costs much less.

  51. I love the fact that people in Atlanta talk differently and eat different things than people in Boston or Chicago.

    Agreed. I participated in a market research group for CarMax where they showed us a bunch of their commercials while we turned a dial one way when liked it and another when we didn’t. At the end they asked if we had anything we wanted to let them know. Big mistake on their part. I had already been complaining at home any time one of their ads aired. I ranted about the big soulless building that appeared in all of their spots and that only one ad had anyone with anything but a “Standard American” accent. I had a laundry list for them of other complaints as well. Needless to say they probably wiped out any record of my participation in the study since I was such an obvious crank.

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