New York-New York Themed Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas

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 much opposition:

* 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 substance.

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 experiences.

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, linked above.

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