Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Demise of National Discourse

 I was talking to someone about Garrison Keillor of the former Prairie Home Companion and he had heard of neither. In recent workshops, I referenced the movie “Where’s My Roy Cohn,” and no one had seen it. I find myself talking to folks about a book I read recently titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” and no one had ever heard of it. 

At the moment, I’m reading a book by Rob Kapilow (who?) titled Listening to America: Inside the Great American Songbook. This look at musical theater mostly covers territory I know quite well, but always interesting to hear a few new stories and get a couple of new insights. And the one that really struck me were these passages: 

“The iconic status of the Wizard of Oz reflects one of the most important trends of the 1930’s— the development of a shared national culture.(Boldface mine) Before the 1920’s and 30’s America’s voice was largely a compilation of diverse regional voices. Country and western music, jazz and the blues grew up and flourished in different parts of the country, and cultural activities were locally defined.. However, new technologies like the automobile, records, radio, and films made it possible for the first time for a single message to reach the entire American population at once. People listened to the same music, heard the same radio programs, read the same news, followed the same sporting events, and saw the same movies…the end result was the creation of a common set of cultural references, a common, national voice that became the American voice.”

It was the technology of radio and movies and later television that created this new possibility, whereby a local singer in Mississippi or Harlem or Texas could become a national icon heard and/or seen by many outside of their locality. Likewise, the increase in national literacy, a thriving book industry and national newspapers contributed as well.  And part of the move to a shared national culture came from the people in the various media who had the power to define who and what was worthy of national exposure. One would hope that there were folks in charge who had the ability to distinguish between quality and pap and that there would be a public discerning enough to affirm or negate the choices based on their response. And though we will never know what geniuses may have been unfairly tossed to the side, the rise of poets, musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers, etc. that ended up defining the American mythic landscape is proof that someone was doing their job. 

Of course, the downside was that national mood of the time could both be affirmed, sustained and created by folks in power who thought it was just fine to film singers in blackface, cast most every African-American as a porter or housemaid, make Indians the bad guys, make Tarzan a hero and on and on. And yet that same media could make films like Inherit the Wind, Stormy Weather, A Gentleman’s Agreement, Adam’s Rib, It’s a Wonderful Life (where Trumplike Potter is the bad guy!), The Defiant Ones, films that had the power to shift the national discourse towards more inclusive and just attitudes. Likewise, books like Native Son, 1984,  songs like Strange Fruit, Mississippi Goddamn, the long legacy of free speech given voice and often rising to prominence in the national discourse. 

The point is that growing up in the 50’s and 60’s up through the 80’s, it felt like the country had a shared point of reference. There were a few nationally-known newspapers,  a couple of short (not 24 hour) news shows so just about everyone knew Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace, 3 major TV channels, a limited number of radio stations, a dozen record labels and just about everyone knowing about the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell and John Coltrane and James Brown etc. Not everyone would have read Soul On Ice, but most folks knew about Catch 22, The Catcher in the Rye, would understand references to Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music, the Graduate and more. 

Fast-forward to today and the new technological breakthroughs that have radically changed culture. Amidst all the pluses and minuses is the breakdown of a shared national culture. We have become again a "compilation of diverse regional voices" only now we are choosing our region of like-minded or similar-looking people. Now with the dizzying array of choice, everyone and their sister can make a Podcast, write a Blog (!), stream their music on Youtube. TV has some 500 channels, news is 24 hours and many channels (FOX news) with the manufactured lie of  being “fair and balanced” when they clearly have a biased agenda, the chance to talk only with your Facebook friends who agree with you. Add to that the fuel of identity politics and groups hunkering down to connect only with the same race, gender, sexual preference, political persuasion, etc. and what we have is a complete breakdown of anything approaching a shared national discourse where we tend to know the same things and be exposed to common references. As I mention in the opening paragraph.

This topic too big for a mere short Blogpost and too much to wrestle with to bring into coherence. For now, suffice it to say that I believe we are suffering from the loss of shared points of reference and any possibility to engage in meaningful national discussion when we know and are exposed to such different things. For now, just food for thought—with 27 different brands of mustard to choose from as a condiment.

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