Culture. It’s one of those strange words that people throw around all the time, but when one tries to pin a distinct definition on it, things become slippery and elusive. A free association list might include things like: Values, Tradition, Holidays, Art, Food, Fashion, Language, etc. These are all accurate, of course, but do they create that distinct definition we are looking for? The best I can do is this: A group of people bound together by some commonality (usually beginning with a sense of place and then further solidified by language) who decide what the world is. Right? Religion regards the origins of the world. Cuisine translates the local flora and fauna of the world into sustenance. Art celebrates our relationship to the world, honoring the world itself and our place in it. My concern today is about the definition of American culture. Does this standard definition fit?
The quick answer is no, but that “No” reverberates and echoes off many corners of concern. The biggest problem we face is that the American people no longer create their own culture. We consume it rather than create it, and this act of consumption is only possible because our culture comes from some ephemeral centralized location that is neither part of America nor separate from America. I’m talking about mass media, and its most insidious vehicle called Television. Via mainstream media we consume our very definition of reality. Besides the obvious framework laid out by news programming, every time a character on a sitcom kisses his wife, succeeds in a job, raises kids, tickles a sense of humor, we are offered a definition for the way things are. The status quo is perpetuated. We look toward this little box for an understanding of who we are and where we are going. Even beyond programming, advertising provides us with an understanding of our own desires, fears, and our very identity.
OK, so aren’t sitcom writers and ad executives American? Aren’t they human beings? Yes. But, the prime motivation behind American culture is profit. Once the motivation behind culture becomes profit, it ceases to be about genuine human expression; it ceases to truly be a culture at all. There is a certain dishonesty, a certain untruth buried beneath the veneer. American serial television is a great example of this. Even the most revered shows, the ones that even the harshest critics have to admit are pretty damn good, drag on for something like seven seasons. That’s something like 91 hours of storytelling. Is that necessary to the story or is that necessary to selling commercial time? Furthermore, a homogenization of culture develops as the potential customers for bottom line corporations fall under the category called “All of Them.” The “mass” of mass media and the push for centralized corporate culture obliterates regional lines. Travel across the country by car and find the same foods and drinks in all gas stations, in all supermarkets, in all chain restaurants. The outposts of true regional culture are disappearing.
Why does any of this matter? It matters tremendously because the bond of community and culture is what makes us thrive, and it’s exactly what we are missing. We are isolated and we trust our HD rectangle more than we trust our neighbor who lives next door when it comes to defining reality. How many times have you encountered an argument in which the phrase “that’s just the way things are” is used? That phrase is the result of an infantilized population dependant on a system of extortion. We are the creators of our own destiny. If we spent more time talking to each other, we just might discover that we want the same things. That all our secret hope and all our secret love for the world is not what makes us different but what makes us the same. That we all kindle within us the quiet flame that wants peace and justice and joy beyond all party lines and all profit margins. Then we could make decisions with each other. We could begin to sculpt what we want out of the world around us. The system be damned. We don’t need to wait for permission to change. We need the courage and creativity to implement change beyond the restrictive boundaries drawn by the system.
The scariest part is when the status quo reacts to the emergence of decentralized culture: recent stories out of Boston that speak of cops making a concerted effort to shut down DIY music venues; the effort to suppress the use of Bitcoin as an alternative currency; the effort to crush and defame WikiLeaks. But, ironically, effort often speaks of fragility. Exorbitant amounts of time, energy, and resources are spent trying to maintain the centralized stranglehold of American culture, and that can only mean that the powers that be know how important it is to maintaining their power.