It seems every week brings a well-researched, provocative denouncement of contemporary culture. I have no reason to assume this journalistic plague is any more widespread “these days,” but it warrants a critical glance nonetheless. Some such articles are useful, but those tend to be the ones less concerned with making huge, things-have-never-been-this-bad proclamations and more concerned with analyzing a specific and quantifiable trend (the GOP’s recent and violent invasion of women’s bodies, for example). It’s the difference between Eat, Pray, Love and Don Quixote: the more work is expended in metanarration about how important what you’re saying is, the less important it feels.
Am I the only person in the world whom Facebook makes less lonely? Most of these cultural criticism pieces stem from people misunderstanding a new idea or trend as a replacement of something rather than a new permutation: Kids these days have 900 Facebook “friends” — they don’t even know what a “friend” is! The family is being undermined by gay marriage and elective single motherhood and the return of unemployed college graduates to their parent’s homes! These articles fail to rise above the level of middle-school concerns with “authenticity.” “That band sold out — I knew about them first. Everyone else doesn’t get it like I do.” Dan Savage has a term for this unsolicited critique of other people’s habits and taste: “You’re Doing It Wrong.” Such commentary is made about the personal choices of people entirely unrelated to the speaker and come from a place of defensiveness and fear. Just because I don’t write letters doesn’t mean I don’t have authentic friendships. The signifier, not the signified, has changed.
This concern is the backbone of (little “c”) conservatism. It calls each new cultural permutation weird and threatening (think Sinatra’s line about rock music being made by “cretinous goons”). Just as politically conservative ideas often look silly with some perspective (gay marriage will soon be as much of a non-issue as interracial marriage) so do the ideas of cultural conservatism (Plato protested against books). Popular culture has always been bemoaned as degrading and numbing — think the rowdy groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe or George Eliot’s wonderful essay, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” about the sorry state of popular fiction. The problem with articles that claim the downfall of culture is that they believe people are watching reality TV instead of attending Mozart concerts — that they are consuming today’s “low culture” instead of today’s “high culture” — when in fact they are watching reality TV instead of reading silly novels by lady novelists; they are consuming today’s “low culture” instead of yesterday’s. The answer is not to eradicate pop culture, but rather to encourage a healthy consumption of it. It’s about integration, not exclusion.
I, of course, can be exclusionary in my thoughts. It is easy enough for anyone to be convinced of his or her moral superiority watching news stations we don’t agree with. Yet I am becoming convinced that the antidote to the social pessimism built into conservative thinking is best countered not with loud sighs over op-eds in the New York Times, but rather by cultivating its antidote: optimism. There was an article in the Chornicle of Higher Education called “Why Being Optimistic is a Moral Duty,” arguing that as long as we are sure of the coming doom of society, we will make no honest effort to fix it. Having faith in the ability of society to fix itself, to become more inclusive, more free, more supportive, is a “moral duty” because the condescending pessimism we espouse when we casually remark that some new form of culture is threatening and base is anti-social; it elevates us above other people and assumes that they (and we) are unable to integrate that new form of culture in a healthy way.
I have recently been pausing over a line from “Soonest Mended” by John Ashbery:
Of our conforming to the rules and living
Around the home have made — well, in a sense, “good citizens” of us,
Brushing the teeth and all that, and learning to accept
The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out
A two-fold definition of citizenship: learning to do the mundane and mandated things like brushing your teeth without any fuss, and learning to “roll with the punches.” This is something we are more likely to think of as a tool of personal resilience, something our parents told us when we came home with a bad grade. But it is more importantly a social tool that greases our daily interactions. If everyone took offense at every mean thing life did to them, we would all have the confrontational, victimized attitudes that preclude not only the ability to empathize with another person but the desire to. We must be optimistic about our own lives in order to be optimistic about society. One new reality TV show doesn’t mean people are stupider today. And to get there, we must submit to society every once in a while and see how its rules apply to us and even benefit us — brushing the teeth and all that really is a good idea.
The problem with the barrage of articles about the death of common decency or the increasing rate of single motherhood is that it makes society a zero-sum game — the listeners Lady Gaga gained are the fans Bach or the Beatles or the Ramones lost; every person who raises a “non-traditional” family is a proponent of threatening values; everyone who isn’t firmly in my camp is firmly against me. What is the opposite of the zero-sum society? A cooperative one, where what you gain not only doesn’t take away from me, but it helps me gain, too. And what is more basic to the concept of society than cooperation?