EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 4, 2013

Column: Fractured culture makes for a fractious nation

Barbara Anderson
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Last week I wrote about feeling overwhelmed by consumer choices, which led into equating consumer distractions with voters’ inability to focus on the issues they need to understand before making election decisions.

Then I thought of something I was told years ago by former state Rep. Richard Voke, D-Chelsea. We were talking for some reason about problems with “the culture.” He noted that while the entire family used to watch the same television show in the living room, they now (in 1989) each watch alone: father and mother watching different channels in the living room and parent bedroom, the children in their own rooms with their favorite teenage shows. He said this would make as great a long-term difference in the family structure and then in society as anything else.

In my own television childhood, my parents and I laughed together through “I Love Lucy”, cried (my dad behind his newspaper) through “I Remember Mama”, were riveted by “Perry Mason”, and just enjoyed “Bonanza” and “Wagon Train.” Many years later, my own family watched “Roots”, the show that changed racial attitudes across generational divides, as did “All in the Family.” We discussed these shows with the rest of the nation for weeks — just as for years Americans had talked about the new talent they saw on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, come Monday morning at work and school.

Voke’s point: We were once one American culture, connected not only by the typical American holidays and by major news events, but by our entertainment. The latest movie, at the one-screen local theater, was there for two weeks, until everyone in town got to see it if they wanted. Most of us readers were reading the same best-sellers; only a few seemed to be printed each year, so we were all sharing and discussing “Exodus”, “Peyton Place”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the odd lesson of “Lord of the Flies.” Now it seems a best-seller is coming out every week!

The sharing phenomena still happens occasionally with particular movies or books that “catch on”, and all age-groups tuned into new television concepts like “Survivor” and “American Idol.” Now and then we’ll drop everything and find the nearest television to watch a news event; I recall strangers crowded into my Boston office to watch the O.J. Simpson jury returning in 1995.

The recent Zimmerman trial also attracted wide interest. For some reason, years after “Roots”, the subject of race connects us as it still seems to divide us, mostly I suspect because the division serves a political end. However, other political events, once viewed by wide, diverse audiences, like presidential debates, have lost their impact. We get excerpts, chosen by a media that, even when not biased, is overwhelmed like the rest of us. Even as we get those short blasts of news stories moving quickly from subject to subject, more news and previews of programming-to-come travel across the bottom of the television screen: we have no time to absorb and think. One day’s leading story is gone the next day, rarely followed up.

Newspapers, which give us more in-depth coverage, are losing readership, as people choose to grab whatever shows up on their computers and related gadgets. The entertainment things catch on with an age group: my grandchildren’s entire generation seems to have learned something called “the Harlem Shake” on YouTube. But I’ll bet the other generations reading this don’t know about it — and trust me, you don’t need to — as all generations knew about, even if they didn’t approve of, Elvis and the Beatles.

When it comes to news for adults, without reporters and editors the information from the Internet may or may not be accurate; so not only are people easily learning a wide variety of things, what they learn may not be so. This causes a further cultural divide, among those who know, those who don’t know, and those who “know” what isn’t true.

Remember the Tower of Babel, in Genesis? Men wanted to build a tower to heaven, and because for some reason God didn’t want them to do this (as if it were technically possible?), He made them all speak different languages so they couldn’t cooperate.

Well, we Americans are no longer speaking a common language, and that’s not just because many newcomers, unlike earlier immigrants, aren’t learning English; we who have grown up here speak from different cultural backgrounds. Our different generations are also getting different educations, with some of what we elders learned — like patriotism and relevant history — having moved “out of fashion” for students that followed us. So it’s really no wonder that we can’t cooperate in building political consensus and an ongoing republic, is it.

During my Ayn Rand phase I thought that if someone would make a “Roots”-type mini-series of her “Atlas Shrugged”, most Americans would consciously turn from socialism to individualism. Too bad this wasn’t done when I thought of it, in the 1960s, when there weren’t so many channels. However, the musical “Hair” as a cultural phenomenon did catch on at that time, and we moved on together to the Age of Aquarius, where we got lost in overwhelming, crowded space.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a regular contributor to the opinion pages.