You Must Remember This; What's Right with American Culture
Medved, Michael, Policy Review
When The Heritage Foundation asked me to address the subject, "What's Right About American Culture," I was particularly challenged by the idea. My wife, Diane, immediately commented "That will probably be a very short speech." Praising the current state of our national culture does not come naturally to me. I talk much more frequently about "What's Wrong with American Popular Culture."
But recently, I had the great privilege of giving a lecture in Warsaw. And what struck me there--as I think it strikes any Americans who travel in Eastern Europe--is the absolute fascination with all things American, the tremendous eagerness to learn about American culture.
And after all, let's understand that our popular culture, including many aspects of that popular culture that conservatives disdain, is hugely accepted, in fact enthusiastically accepted, around the world.
In every country on earth, the most popular form of movies is American movies. The most popular form of music is American music. And even when it comes to television, American television shows are disproportionately popular. Now, clearly, something is right about American culture, not only because of its popularity abroad but because of its impact on the wider world.
This is a point that Ben Wattenberg makes, with great glee, as a rebuke to those of us who criticize American popular culture. He offers a challenge: If this popular culture is so terrible, then why is it that the liberating force of American music, movies, and television helped to inspire, by all accounts, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe?
We all remember the inspiring example of the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia. Would that those young people in the streets who helped to bring that about were singing Dvorak or Smetana or Janacek, their great national composers.
But they weren't. They were singing American rock music. They were craving American jeans. They were interested in, God help us, Madonna and the rest of what we would call American trash culture. Somehow this popular entertainment, which seems to have such a negative and devastating impact here at home, has exerted liberating influence abroad.
So, how can that be? What, after all, is right about American culture?
There are three underlying themes that have always been part of the American experience, of our national culture, of that unique outlook that we would describe as American, and those elements are still palpably present in American popular culture:
First, an overriding and transcendent belief in self-improvement, in the ability of the individual to transform himself into virtually anything he wishes;
Second, a great emphasis on tolerance and diversity.
Finally, an underlying rude, rowdy, and very consistent disrespect for all established authority.
All of these tendencies have been present in this country and played a role in our national consciousness since colonial days. And all of them are still there, even in the sometimes frightening and barren worlds of popular music, television, and motion pictures. After sketching out how these cultural themes have helped to shape the country for the last 350 years, we also have to ask why their influence has become somewhat problematic for our society today.
ONE BY ONE
The idea of self-improvement, the ability to transform oneself into something new, is almost a direct product of our unique geographical circumstances.
To get here, everybody had to cross an ocean at one time or another. That necessary voyage has always represented a defining experience. That act of crossing an ocean meant that you left your old world behind and came to a new world.
This inevitably conveys the idea of a fresh start, becoming a new person. Perhaps this nowhere is more dramatically illustrated than in the instance of Georgia, which, of course, a lot of us think of as the home of Scarlett O'Hara and Tara. Georgia began as a penal colony. It began as a place where James Oglethorpe could settle a new land with former prisoners. And those former prisoners became new people; and some of them actually became very successful landowners, plantation owners and, later, Georgia aristocrats.
This kind of change was true not only for the early colonists and early settlers, but for all subsequent waves of immigrants.
You see this very often with the propensity at Ellis Island to change names. I know, in my own family, my grandfather, whose name was Medvyed in Ukraine, came with his brother; and just because they were in different lines at Ellis Island, his brother became Kaufman because, famously, the immigration clerk couldn't pronounce Medvyed or didn't want to write it down.
This whole idea of a new identity, a new person, has been very fundamental to America. Frederick Jackson Turner is correct in saying that the frontier experience is the formative experience for all of American consciousness. This has always been a country where you could recreate yourself, pull up your roots and start again, and become, ultimately, anything you want--by building your own empire.
Millions of 19th century and early 20th century American young people were inspired by the story of Andrew Carnegie, a poor Scottish boy who came to these shores at age 13, worked as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory, then worked his way up, and became a great industrialist and a great philanthropist.
Or stories of Abraham Lincoln, coming from literally the most impoverished circumstances imaginable. All those stories about him learning to read by candlelight are basically true, a miraculous tale of a humble child who recreated himself as not only a great statesman but also one the great prose stylists in the history of the English language.
Horatio Alger wrote more than a hundred novels extolling such transformations and became one of the great best-selling authors in history before his death in 1894. And even if you go forward to the 20th century, perhaps the great American novel of this century, The Great Gatsby, tells precisely such a story.
Jimmy Gatz becomes Jay Gatsby, and recreates himself in the image of elegant party giver and lord of the manor in West Egg, Long Island, in order to impress his lady love, Daisy Buchanan: He goes through this transformative American experience.
When it comes to Hollywood, the very creation of Hollywood involved the same kind of transformation. Former furriers and junk dealers--nearly all of them Eastern European Jewish immigrants--go west and become moguls, and live in homes that seem to recreate either old Tudor manor houses or Southern plantation homes.
Such transformation is true in all the real-life Hollywood stories that everybody loves, like the story of Charlie Chaplin, poor, unhappy English boy, who becomes fabulously wealthy and, before he reaches the age of 30, is making--in real-dollar terms in those days $2 million a year, a figure which puts to shame many of the very highly paid stars of today.
The slogan that Huey Long, the "Kingfish," used, "Every man a king," may have been abused by a dangerous political demagogue in the 1930s, but it touches a profound American chord. This notion of "Every man a king," setting up a home, a spread, a place of his own, changing his family's destiny, is a profoundly, uniquely, seductively American idea.
Even today, this idea of transformation and self-improvement lives on in Hollywood. One of the two leading box office stars in the world right now is a profoundly American figure with that old-fashioned, down-home American name of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
How can I say that the Austrian Oak is a profoundly American figure?
Well, I'll tell you how. It's very funny, when you travel abroad, Schwarzenegger is not identified as an Austrian. He's identified as American.
What is it about him?
It's certainly not the way he speaks English that leads people to describe him as an American.
It is the whole idea of this young man who devoted virtually all of his time to building up his body, to changing himself--because, God knows, no one is born with a body like that--who becomes a world-famous bodybuilder and then becomes the world's greatest star. What a testimonial to the old American idea of self-improvement, of building yourself up.
And other American popular stars in motion pictures, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis--all were people who were street kids, whose entire appeal is based upon the fact that they are underdogs who somehow lived out this fantasy life of going from knocking about, struggling for a living, to becoming multimillionaires and vastly admired figures.
A Clint Eastwood movie that I like very much speaks particularly eloquently about this self-transformative principle of American life. It's a film called Bronco Billy.
I think it's Eastwood's best film. He starred in it and directed it. He plays this contemporary rodeo cowboy who goes around doing a Wild West show and is defending all of the old classic Western ideals and sees that the world has passed them by.
It turns out that the punch line of the movie is that Billy was actually a shoe salesman in New Jersey, before he decided, through an act of will, to make himself a cowboy. How wonderful. How appealing. How profoundly American.
And the other aspect of this ability at self-transformation that has been so attractive to the whole world, is precisely what it implies about the lack of class distinctions in the United States.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who is a screen writer got an assignment to do a TV movie that was going to be an American version and an update of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. No one has ever accused Hollywood of being original, right?
So, they were going to remake Pygmalion, which, of course, was the basis for My Fair Lady, but what they found was it didn't work. What they were supposed to do was bring it up to date in contemporary New York. And somebody comes out of a Broadway theater and sees somebody who is begging on the street corner.
But the whole idea that someone would be consigned to a working-class life or worse, to a life on the streets, because of accent--that might work in England. But in America? Not a chance.
This openness, this ability to change, this emphasis on self-improvement, are all part of what has drawn the affection and attention of the whole world.
EARLY AMERICAN TOLERANCE
And so, too, has the second theme, our great tolerance of every unprecedented diversity.
This was not something that our early settlers, the original colonists, set out to establish--with the singular exception of Roger Williams in Rhode Island, which was very much an exception, as a tolerant colony.
But the other Colonial experiments were not set up to be tolerant. Massachusetts Bay Colony, the largest of the New England settlements, was hardly a tolerant place. As you probably know, they did not particularly welcome religious dissent in Massachusetts Bay.
In the Colonial period, it would be hard to say that, in fact, tolerance and diversity were particularly American traits. Each colony had it own unique identity and its own officially or semi-officially established church.
But the American Revolution changed all of that by bringing the 13 colonies together. And all of a sudden, the Puritans of Massachusetts had to confront a reality. They joined in the struggle for independence alongside Pennsylvania Quakers.
Now, less than a hundred years before, four Quakers were hanged in Massachusetts Bay Colony for resisting religious authority there. But if you're going to weld a new country together out of 13 greatly diverse colonies, then suddenly diversity and tolerance must become national priorities.
If you look at the composition of the Continental Army, there were Scotch-Irish people from the Highlands, particularly in North Carolina, and German immigrants from Pennsylvania. There were generals named Kosciusko and Pulaski and von Steuben and Lafayette. The principle of diversity has been part of the American experience from the beginning of this nation.
And, of course, the waves of immigration, particularly from Ireland and Germany, that followed shortly after the establishment of our nation only confirmed this tendency toward diversity.
Yes, there was tremendous nativist reaction. There was a Know-Nothing Party which ran a former president, Millard Fillmore, and did fairly well at the ballot box in 1856. But those nativist reactions never overcame the fundamental American ideal, because this tolerance of diversity was somehow necessary, was somehow fundamentally American.
Inevitably, this principle of toleration, though occasionally frayed and strained, encouraged not only diversity, but eccentricity.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, numerous utopian groups created their own "heavens on earth" in the American heartland, ranging from the Shakers, to Robert Owen's "New Harmony," to the Oneida community. In the 20th Century we may have the Joy of Sex, but in the previous century they celebrated "The Joy of Sects." Though these often marginal groups might be occasionally persecuted--the Mormons, for instance--they still managed to thrive and proliferate in America as nowhere else in the world. In fact, I would submit that part of our national birthright involves not only a tolerance of eccentricity, but a downright affection for it.
Consider the story of the Emperor Norton, who was a failed Jewish businessman named Joshua Norton in San Francisco in the mid-19th century. After his business enterprises all failed, he "went around the bend"--I think that's the clinical term--and he proclaimed himself the Emperor Norton I and Protector of Mexico. He wore a blue uniform with gold epaulets, and a high beaver hat, and printed his own currency with his likeness on it.
For almost 30 years, the merchants of San Francisco humored him and honored his script. Newspapers published his proclamations and crowds flocked to his state occasions. His funeral in 1880 was the largest funeral up to that time ever held in San Francisco, with an estimated 30,000 people attending.
He became a beloved figure because he was nuts and he hung around and declared himself the Emperor of the United States and the Protector of Mexico. This somehow is uniquely American--tolerating and indulging such an eccentric.
The result of all of this is the message to the world that "there is no one way to be American." In movies and in TV today, there is greater diversity than ever before, not only with the presence of African Americans, but with specific characters of every ethnicity.
In the early days in Hollywood, there was a great tendency to take rye and pumpernickel that might be very flavorful and turn them into bland, flavorless Wonder Bread. But now, characters appear all the time with their own ethnicity intact. And this certainly would be is the American tradition of tolerance of diversity and is part of the tremendous energy that still exists in this culture. And it still appeals to the rest of the world.
BOISTEROUS, ROWDY CULTURE
And that brings me to the final theme, the basic disrespect for authority. This one also goes back to the very beginning, even to the Plymouth Plantation. The Pilgrims in Plymouth were very few in number, barely 200, but already in 1627 they had to deal with a rebel named Thomas Morton, who, 25 miles away, founded his own rival colony called Merry Mount.
Morton was a remarkable fellow who probably would have been much more at home at Berkeley in the 1960s than he was in Massachusetts in the 1620s, because he began trading rum to the Native Americans, which made him very popular with them.
Morton set up an 80-foot Maypole and practiced and preached free love, particularly among Native Americans and the loose-floating, consistently drunk eccentrics who gathered around him.
Plymouth Plantation continually tried to suppress Thomas Morton. Eventually there was a military expedition, with the full military might of Plymouth Plantation, which was 16 men led by Captain Miles Standish, who was referred to by Thomas Morton as "Captain Shrimp." This led to a confrontation where various rum caskets were smashed, and one of Morton's men was injured because he was so drunk he fell on his own sword. The Maypole that Thomas Morton had set up at Merry Mount was torn down, and Morton was led back to Plymouth in chains--only to challenge the Pilgrims again one year later, with similar results.
But in any event, this great disrespecter of authority was later immortalized in a fine American opera, called Merry Mount, by the American composer Howard Hanson. And this was only the beginning of the American tradition of disrespect.
We have Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, Shays' Rebellion in 1786, and later the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, and the American Revolution itself, in which the Sons of Liberty played such a prominent role.
The Sons of Liberty were not nice guys. They were rowdy. They were boisterous. They were mean. And they particularly turned their sights on stuffed shirts, on wealthy merchants, who they would often tar and feather or hoist to the top of Liberty poles, which was apparently a very unpleasant experience for the victim.
And American political culture continued on its boisterous, rowdy, indecorous course throughout our history.
Consider the edifying example of a particularly colorful early congressman. In 1798, Matthew Lyon, the representative from Vermont, was notably a hothead. His opponents once described him as "...a strange, offensive brute/too wild to tame, too base to shoot." Once, he spat in the face of one of his colleagues, Roger Griswold from Connecticut, and Griswold stewed over that insult for two weeks, until one day on the floor he picked up his cane and started bashing Lyon over the head.
And not to have the better gotten of him, Lyon picked up a pair of tongs--very hot tongs from the fireplace, which was then heating the House chamber, and immediately applied the tongs to the two sides of Roger Griswold's face and head.
And all of this was immortalized in what became a very famous portrait, with Speaker of the House Jonathan Dayton looking on, bemused and doing nothing, as these two people are fighting one another.
This event represented a popular early image of our House of Representatives and how it conducted business. It showed great disrespect for authority.
Lyon went on to criticize then-sitting President John Adams, in defiance of the Sedition Act, which President Adams had applied, making it a crime to personally criticize the president. The congressman was sentenced to four months in a tiny one-room jail in Vergennes, Vermont.
A vigil around his jail cell was staged by the Green Mountain Republicans, who supported him, held torchlight rallies, and conducted his campaign. From that jail cell, he was reelected by a 2 to 1 margin--a rather happier result than Dan Rostenkowski recently experienced.
American culture has never emphasized straightlaced, decorous, polite behavior. Our culture is much in tune with the spirit of another congressman, Davy Crockett, or Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. This spirit of youth, this spirit of disrespect for authority, is an appropriate spirit for a country born, after all, of revolution.
And, again, this applies to Hollywood. Though it may be distasteful to talk about it, the first huge national hit was fully within this spirit. Birth of a Nation reached a higher percentage of the American population than any subsequent movie.
Birth of a Nation, to our embarrassment, glorified the Ku Klux Klan, as rebels against authority, guys who took matters into their own hands. This was a romanticized and completely mendacious view of the Klan, of course, but that was what the movie was selling. Part of the charm of Forrest Gump--which is now close to $300 million at the box office--is when it shows a young man who is having a tough time controlling his bladder while he's visiting a rather stuffed-shirt President of the United States. Here is a hero who is silly and innocent and charming around all kinds of real-life newsreel footage of great figures in our history.
The very essence of the appeal of American popular music is this rude, boisterous, rowdy, disrespectful atmosphere; the Rebel Without a Cause legacy of youth versus age. Rock music is popular precisely because its attitude, its disrespect for authority, its disregard for convention, is profoundly liberating.
And by the way, this disrespect for authority and for the establishment, is alive and well in the American electorate. The November ballot results reflect this consistent American theme of challenging establishment authority and resentment for any establishment that seems too dominant and too impregnable.
Why, then, does American culture look so dysfunctional? Why do so many of us look out and see that the old values that this country has cherished are in disrepair?
The answer is that we have so far only told half the story. It would be the same sort of thing as if Arnold Schwarzenegger were building himself up by only working with his left arm, while letting his right arm shrivel. He would be something of a freak and would certainly not have enjoyed the popularity that he does.
Because we have discussed only certain underlying themes, without at all mentioning the countervailing institutions and values that have always balanced those themes and allowed them to work.
And it's precisely those countervailing forces that are under attack and that have turned what are, after all, very positive, very attractive, very nourishing American impulses into very destructive ones.
The self-transformation impulse has always been balanced by an emphasis on family.
The tolerance of diversity has always been balanced by a tremendous sense of underlying patriotism and pride in the United States.
And the disrespect for authority has always been balanced by a reverence for higher authority, religious faith.
And when these three countervailing forces, family, patriotism, and faith, are under attack and are undermined, the previously healthy American impulses become corrosive and dangerous.
When you talk about the idea that you can be anything you want to be, this is most commonly transposed in American tradition to the idea that your children can be anything they want to be.
We have had a tremendous emphasis on nuclear family in this country. In fact, many socioligists suggest that America essentially invented the idea of the nuclear family to replace the old idea of the extended family. It's precisely because so many people came here and left extended families behind, or people moved to the frontier and left extended families behind, that this little constellation of mother and father and children became so enormously important.
In other words, as Americans were cut off from their past, they emphasized their future. But they kept a longterm view. That emphasis on future, on children, on nuclear family prevented the emphasis on self-transformation from being merely selfish.
And this balance provided by an emphasis on family offered a very necessary safety valve, because there was a recognition that not everybody can transform himself in one generation in the way that he or she wants.
But the entire American ideal, the refrain of everyone's immigrant grandparents, of everyone's frontier grandparents, of everyone's slave grandparents, was: "My children are going to have things better than I did."
TRADING UP: TROPHY WIVES
But without a commitment to family, what does this impulse to transformation lead to?
On the most obvious level, it leads to a phenomenon that is particularly prominent in the Hollywood community today, which is the idea of constantly shifting family alliances, of winning trophy wives, of trading up.
You want to transform yourself? You get a younger and prettier model, sometimes literally a model, sometimes a young actress, whatever it happens to be. But that seems to be the most obvious, the most easy way to transform your life. If you don't have a countervailing balance of family and commitment to family, then the impulse to transformation can lead even to that kind of shallow and destructive behavior.
Without the emphasis on family, which is the longterm view connecting this transformative impulse to the future, the model of transformation becomes not a business builder, but a lottery winner. And this notion, of course, breeds all sorts of impatience, a sense of being cheated, class envy, bitterness, and sourness. The desire for change--without family--becomes an acid, eating into the very soul of the country.
And that brings us to the second healthy American impulse, the tolerance for diversity. This has always been balanced by a great depth and passion of patriotism: the sense that for all of our different backgrounds, for all of the variety of history that we brought to this country, or for all of our quirks in the present, we were all part of a larger, higher, and better American adventure.
I think of my own grandfather, who came here from Ukraine in 1910. When he died in the 1950s, one of the things that he left behind was the book that he had used to study for his citizenship exam. The book was in Yiddish, and it was amazing to look at the pages of this book with pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, with the Yiddish writing underneath.
And, of course, there weren't only Yiddish books. There were Polish books, Italian books, and German books. Everyone was taught the same ideal, the notion that America was something better.
You didn't have to erase who you were or where you came from, but you did have to join this larger enterprise and recognize that this new identity was preferable to what you left behind, which previous generations of immigrants were only too ready to do.
That's why the scenes we recently had in California with demonstrations against Proposition 187, where people proudly carried Mexican flags, came as such an unpleasant shock to so many people.
If there is one thing--and as a Californian, I can tell you--that assured that the proposition would pass with 60 percent of the vote, it was having 75,000 people in the streets of Los Angeles carrying Mexican flags. That was exactly the kind of thing that the advocates of the proposition didn't like.
'OUT OF MANY, ONE'
The American tradition of tolerance of diversity is now undermined by the lack of a corresponding will to form a united country.
The vice president of the United States apparently doesn't understand our national motto, properly translated "E pluribus unum." That means "Out of many, one." Al Gore recently translated it "Out of one, many," and used that mistranslation as a defense of multiculturalism!
The American ideal was that you take these disparate parts and form a united country. You can keep your uniqueness within the greater whole, but there needs to be a greater whole where you are proud and confident that what you are doing is noble and important.
How many American schoolchildren today are taught that America is noble and important--especially now that we have new history standards that mention the Ku Klux Klan twice as frequently as they mention Lincoln, and have no mention at all of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, or the Wright Brothers.
Without patriotism, without the confidence in the inherent worth of the United States, the otherwise healthy impulse toward tolerance and diversity becomes a tendency toward fragmentation, toward balkanization: a balkanization otherwise known as multiculturalism.
Without that corresponding patriotism, the essence of what is going on today is not the acceptance of differences but our insistence on differences. And that leads to a fragmented society with no sense of community and no sense of connection.
DISRESPECT FOR AUTHORITY
Similarly, the disrespect for authority has always been balanced in the past by acknowledgment of a higher authority--by faith in God and the importance of religion. That's the very essence of our colonial past. We celebrate this every year at Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims showed disrespect for authority. They left England: left persecution there, rejected authority there, and came to the United States under the higher authority of God Almighty. The same was true of people in many of the early colonial settlements, leaving behind what they viewed as a corrupt, temporal authority, but bending their will to the higher authority of the one God. It's extremely important to remember that the marching song of the American Revolution, highly popular in its day, was not Yankee Doodle. It was a hymn written by William Billings of Boston called Chester, which virtually all members of the Continental Army sang.
In its final verse, it declared: Let tyrants shake their iron rods/Let slavery clank its galling chains/We fear them not/We trust in God/New England's God forever reigns.
Look at Thomas Jefferson, a rebel. Disrespect for authority? Sure. Disrespect for the established Anglican Church in Virginia? Yes, even that. But an atheist? Hardly.
Go to the Jefferson Memorial, and you will see inscribed on the wall: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Atheists don't usually swear on the altar of God. Nor do they spend a great deal of time, as Jefferson did, editing his own version of favorite biblical passages--the famous "Jefferson Bible."
Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s looked across the United States and was amazed at the religious enthusiasm he saw. He found the American people far more religiously active than any people in Europe, with much greater passion for their church worship and for their emotional expression of faith in God.
That enthusiasm was specifically related to their lack of fealty to dukes or princes, that notion that we serve God alone. We bend our knee to no temporal authority; we have disrespect for temporal authority. But we do bend our knee to the Almighty.
Other countries, such as Great Britain, could view temporal authority as some kind of intermediary between man and God. After all, the anthem there, God Save the King, suggests that the king comes between the citizen and the Almighty.
But contrast that with God Bless America, a popular song here, composed by a Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin and written originally for a Hollywood movie, but suggesting:
God Bless America/Land that I Love/Stand beside her/And guide her/Through the night/With a Light/From above.
This entire notion of America blessed by God, of the individual's relationship to the Almighty, is absolutely essential to balance our national tendency to disrespect authority.
Without the notion of ultimate authority, without some notion of ultimate responsibility, without some sense of ultimate right and wrong, some ultimate code, you're a savage; you're a slave to your impulse. And that's exactly what has gone wrong for so many younger Americans in this country today.
It's great to be independent, to be rowdy, to be cheeky, to be rebellious and disrespectful. Those are all good, solid American traits, but they're only positive if they're set within a context of decency, of an overriding commitment to do the right thing, to live by a code.
You see it in movies very clearly. The western hero is a great disrespecter of authority, but he lives by a code. That's why he's a hero and that's why there's a world of difference between movies like The Searchers or Stagecoach or Fort Apache, old, classic John Ford Westerns, and the utterly barbaric, nihilistic world of Pulp Fiction.
And you can see it in baseball. We disrespect authority. We argue with the ump. We boo the umpire consistently. But there is the idea that the game is played by ultimate rules. That there is a higher authority. You can argue with the umpire, but you don't question those ultimate rules, which are bigger than winning or losing.
And if you play without rules, if you have disrespect for authority without an underlying faith, that not only leads to the savagery and behavior that we've talked about, but it leads to cynicism in the soul.
If institutions are corrupt, they deserve a Bronx cheer, which is a good, rude, classic American sound. But if there's no higher truth, no reigning God behind the temporal and temporary corruption, then the entire universe gets a Bronx cheer. And that is not a robust American sound. It is the noise of nihilism.
That's the noise which we hear around us too often today from the radio, not only the so-called music but from the likes of Howard Stern. And we hear the same noise of nihilism from the current national chorus of whining, from people who not only have no respect for authority, but who, because of a lack of overriding faith, have no respect for anything at all.
So, where does that leave us?
Without countervailing forces of family, patriotism, and faith, the old American impulses that are still so dominant in our culture can't play the healthy role they once did. We must resolve to restore balance, to re-establish that equilibrium so that these American themes can become nurturing and energizing once again, not destructive and corrosive.
Otherwise, we're left with individuals yearning for transformation and feeling cheated and frustrated, with no family ties, no stake in the future.
We're left with a nation of diverse, disconnected, atomized individuals who are never linked together by a unifying vision of national pride or purpose.
And we're left as an assemblage of angry, cynical people who have no respect for authority, for standards of any kind, or for one another, or for a higher power.
And what is the common element in each of those dilemmas?
That common element is loneliness. Our great national plague is isolation, a lack of community or continuity.
Forty years ago, David Riesman, the sociologist, wrote about "the lonely crowd," people living in crowds and yet feeling unconnected to the other members of that faceless group.
Today it's even worse. People are afraid to go out in a crowd. Today the metaphor wouldn't be "the lonely crowd," it would be "the lonely watcher," isolated 28 hours a week, holding a remote control, channel-surfing, with no satisfaction and no connection.
'HEAR,' NOT 'LOOK'
And this brings me, at long last, to my concluding point, which concerns what we all must do to restore that balance, to help the American impulses become invigorating again.
How can you rebuild the countervailing forces of family, patriotism, and faith? One thing you can say for certain is that television is definitely part of the problem.
I'm not now talking in the Hollywood versus America sense that I've written about before, about the specific themes of television that challenge family, patriotism, and faith. I am talking about the nature of the medium itself.
When it comes to transfromation, television tempts and tantalizes with the ads, with the visions of sexuality in the programming and in the commercials. And it also breeds impatience, showing us a world where everything is settled in 30-minute shows or 60-minute shows or, at most, 90-minute shows. Everything is taken care of, neatly dispatched.
And those tempations and that impatience are the enemy, the profound enemy, of the self-discipline that's necessary to preserve family.
In place of diversity, we have a focus on the bizarre, the dysfunctional, the so-called reality-based programming.
But we also have a focus on everything that's going wrong in this country in the news. And that, of course, is the enemy of any sense of patriotism or national pride or purpose.
And when it comes to disrespect for authority, TV becomes the only authority and enslaves us with a tyranny of the eyes. And that, of course, is the enemy of religious faith. You'll notice, in the Bible, when God speaks to people and addresses human beings, it is never through the eyes. You never see God. You hear God. You hear the voice of God.
In the Bible, it says, "Hear, O Israel," not "Look, O Israel."
Because the eyes lead us to trouble. And the eyes, in fact, in Biblical terms and in real terms, lead to idol worship, and to false gods. And television has become the great idol of our time.
Does this sound extreme? Perhaps.
But ask yourself, even if through some miracle TV could be instantly cleansed of all the violence and all the smut, would you, then, feel very comfortable about the idea of your children spending 28 hours a week watching TV? Of course not.
The problem in the country isn't too much violence on TV, and it isn't too much promiscuous sexuality in popular culture. It's too much television, period. We are at a crucial stage in the evolution of this discussion.
Years ago, when the surgeon general announced to the public that smoking might not be the best thing for all Americans, you know the first thing that people did? People didn't urge that we stop smoking. They tried to take the tar and nicotine out of cigarettes.
Now, that was a useful thing, in and of itself. It might make cigarettes a little bit less damaging. But did it solve the problem? Not at all. Eventually we had to go to the stage of actually getting people to reduce smoking.
We're in the same stage with television. The emphasis on violence and smut on TV, and their destructive impact--that's like reducing the tar and nicotine. But the problem of the addiction remains.
The difference between good television and bad television is like the difference between good heroin and bad heroin. Even if you spent all of your 28 hours watching C-Span--or watching "Sneak Previews" on PBS--that amount of time sitting passively, engaged in watching flickering images on a cathode ray tube, would be bad for you. It's obviously bad for family relationships--when you spend more time watching fictional TV characters than you do talking with your own loved ones. It's clearly destructive to any sense of community when we come to know Roseanne's TV family better than we know the real-life neighbors next door.
It's incontestably undermining to a sense of higher authority, of Godliness, when we spend such a heavy percentage of our few, precious moments on this earth in an activity that is fundamentally worthless.
The census bureau tells us the average American now lives for 75 years, 6 months. That means that the average American will invest 13 years of life--that's 13 uninterrupted years of 24 hours days, 7 days a week--watching television! Do you want that on your gravestone, "Here lies our beloved husband and father who selflessly devoted over 13 years of life to his TV set"?
Your TV set doesn't need your time. But your family does. Your community does. Your country does.
We need your time, we need your focus, we need your commitment to re-establish the countervailing forces of faith, patriotism, and family, so that what's right with American culture can, once again, work for the benefit of this great and this noble country, which continues to be, in Lincoln's phrase, "the last, best hope of earth."…
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Publication information: Article title: You Must Remember This; What's Right with American Culture. Contributors: Medved, Michael - Author. Journal title: Policy Review. Issue: 71 Publication date: Winter 1995. Page number: 45+. © 1999 Heritage Foundation. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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