The New Culture War
1997/ Ken Sanes
There is a culture war brewing in America. It pits two groups of
people with very different ideas about the future shape of this society. On one side, are
cultural elites who are defending their own power and position. On the other is a smaller,
less powerful, group of people who believe they have morality on their side, and who
accuse the first group of undermining America's values.
But this culture war isn't the deadening conflict between the left and
right that has been going on for the last two decades. The people who claim to have
morality on their side aren't the Robert Borks and Pat Robertsons. Nor do they want to
return America to the kind of family-centered society we had in the 1950s.
This is another political conflict, one that could end up occupying
center stage in the next few years. On one side are many of those who control television,
politics, news and the most of the rest of public culture. It includes not merely
Hollywood producers and other favorite targets of the right, but also many leaders of both
the major political parties, the corporations and the burgeoning computer industry.
On the other side, pointing the accusing finger, are critics who say
that those who control America have sold us out. Although they may phrase it in different
ways, all complain that America's power elites have given us a new kind of culture that
turns much of what it touches into a form of fiction. It specializes in converting reality
into "unreality" and producing simplified and exaggerated images that it can
sell to us or use as marketing ploys to sell virtually everything else.
The critics who are making this complaint have been around for some
time, as has the culture of unreality they oppose. But this fight is only now beginning to
break out into the larger society as this culture becomes so pervasive, it is eclipsing
virtually every other element of public life.
Lets look at some of its products to understand why it is provoking so
* In the realm of "nonfiction" television, this culture is now
giving us a new kind of virtual news program that has many of the qualities of science
fiction, with computer-generated images and newsrooms that have become futuristic stage
sets. A growing number of the news stories that are part of these programs are designed to
keep us from reaching for our remote controls, with absorbing plots and characterizations
that look suspiciously like what one might see in television's dramatic series.
* In politics, this culture is giving us candidates who falsify their
identities with scripted performances and television commercials designed to evoke a quick
emotional response. Last year, it gave us the politics of special effects, with
conventions that were turned into a fictional realm of bright colors and luminescent
lighting that had no discernible relationship to anything in the actual world. No longer
satisfied merely falsifying reality, the politicians took the next logical step and
invented their own.
* In zoos and museums, it now offers us a growing number of
"educational" displays modeled after theme parks. One of its specialties is
walk-through rain forest exhibits that look like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
* In advertising, it has long since given us an endless number of
20-second mini-comedies full of instant happy endings, in which people seem to be
perpetually emerging from swimming pools with perfect bodies and perfect lives. These ads
play shamelessly on whatever will sell, going so far as to offer us faux religious
epiphanies with heavenly choirs that suggest some products can lift us into a more
spiritual plane of existence.
* In our cities, this culture threatens to turn some urban and suburban
areas into immersive forms of fiction. It has already done so in Las Vegas where many of
the hotels are giant material images that look like they were lifted out of the movies.
If we examine the roots of this culture, we find that they go back to
the beginning of the modern age, with mass communications, marketing and advertising, and
theme parks. Perhaps the first social critic who understood the implications of what was
taking place was the historian Daniel Boorstin, who described it in a book appropriately
titled The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. In the book, Boorstin hit on
many of the central dynamics of this culture. One of his many insights is that as images
become more important, they replace values. What we see, today, is just that -- a culture
of contrivance that specializes in creating the appearance of values in place of their
In particular, this culture offers us one value over and over: it
promises to give us an escape route from the limits of life. From the consumer utopias
depicted in advertising to the false promises of the politicians, we are forever being
told that we can lift off into another realm if we buy or watch or vote the way others
want us to.
In effect, what this culture offers us is phony transcendence -- the
hope of a better, more interesting, world, shrink-wrapped in plastic. Like your typical
con artist, it promises us everything for nothing, while it picks our pockets.
But its excesses are now inspiring a growing number of people to speak
out. Their ranks can be seen in the emerging industry of media critics such as James
Fallows; in intellectuals on the left who have begun to see something oddly sinister in
Disney's realm of manufactured joy; in the criticism of junk entertainment that has come
from Ralph Nader and William Bennett, and in the widespread resentment over the rhetorical
manipulations of politicians.
Although not all these critics would agree with this assessment, they
certainly look like they are part of a single movement that spans many of the traditional
differences between the left and right. Most subscribe to the same set of ideas, based on
the belief that we need to create a system that relies less on deception and manipulation,
and more on full disclosure and responsibility to the public. Whether they are critiquing
fiction or nonfiction, they seek fewer exaggerated and simplified images, and a greater
willingness to challenge audiences with detail and nuance.
Beyond that, there is also another, more profound, complaint behind this
movement. It is based in the belief that this culture doesn't merely convey a false
impression of people and situations. It also tries to give us a false image of life,
encouraging us to adopt a set of standards based on entertainment values and a vision that
is shaped by television. Ultimately, it tries to draw us into a virtual world in which
stories and political theater and spectacular images replace spontaneous and authentic
Unfortunately, those who control the levers of communication in this
country have a great deal to lose if opposition to this culture begins to catch on. That
means this culture war, like the other one, will involve a struggle for power. Like every
political issue, today, it will end up as a battle of images and ideas that will be played
out on television.
However things evolve, those of us who
oppose the excesses of this culture will have an additional burden placed on
us. We will have to be civil in the way we make our case, of course. But we
will also have to find ways to influence public opinion that don't rely on
the forms of manipulation we are trying to stop. We owe it to ourselves and
to those growing up with these influences to make our voices heard.
Here are other essays relevant to the new
culture war. You can also go to the Transparency homepage,