Left Intellectuals & Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America

By Paul R. Gorman | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION: The Specter of Mass Culture

In 1988, the federal Department of Education published a study designed to reach a definitive judgment about whether television watching was harmful to children. The investigators sorted through scores of analyses that had been produced over decades to try to determine what findings about the medium were most reliable. Once the survey was complete, however, they were no closer to a clear answer. What they found instead was that this body of research revealed more about the analysts of television than about their subject. The authors of the study were less convinced of the noxious effects of television claimed by many of the researchers than that there was an obvious bias in their work. Flawed or sloppy methods and unreliable evidence marred a number of the analyses. More important, the study found that most of the research had been designed to support the foreordained conclusion that television was necessarily dangerous.

Such an insistent indictment of the nation's most popular entertainment betrays an assumption about the mass arts that has prevailed among America's intellectuals over the past century. As one author of the report put it, beliefs about the harmfulness of television "seem to satisfy some kind of need among educated people." He described this practice of ascribing malign effects, based on scant evidence, as "almost an American mythology." Negative preconceptions about the medium became more accepted the more times they were repeated. 1

This kind of prejudice has extended well beyond television. TV bashing is only the most recent expression of a general bias against mass entertainments that has been held by American intellectuals in the modern era. The nature and sources of that bias are the subject of this book.

Since the late nineteenth century, intellectuals in the United States have mounted a consistent criticism of the mass arts. The critics have included purveyors of ideas from academia, politics, and the arts and letters. They have charged that entertainments ranging from popular theater, motion pictures, and dance halls to hit records, romance novels, and television are harmful to the public. This criticism has often overlapped with an older distrust of local ethnic or working-class amusements and with religious proscriptions against certain recreations. But the blanket condemnations of

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