Megan McArdle says there is no such thing as mass culture anymore, and she’s right. She notes that the final episode of “Lost” drew what is today considered a large viewership — over 13 million — but that compared to the final episode of “M*A*S*H”, which was seen by 106 million Americans, that’s nothing. Says Megan:
We live in a different world, one where there’s something for almost everyone –but not the same thing.
That really came home to me when my 17-year-old niece Hannah was here last week. We didn’t talk much about pop culture, but she seemed a lot more open to musical experimentation than my generation was at her age. And we were far more open to it than people 10 years older were, because the rise of MTV, college radio and “alternative” record labels made it possible to expand our listening choices. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a teenager today, to try to make her way through a seemingly infinite number of musical choices. Believe me, I’m not complaining about this. I played some classical French pop for Hannah — Piaf, Brel, Chevalier, et alia — and she loved it. A friend dropped by the new Rolling Stones reissue of “Exile on Main Street” on Sunday afternoon, and I played a couple of cuts for Hannah. She wanted her own copy. I think of a friend, in her early 50s, who played her own music for her kids, and got them interested in it, but who was also eager to keep up with the music her kids listened to as teenagers, and who genuinely shared some artists in common. Again, this is all to the good. When I think about how relatively monotonous the culture of pop music was in the 1970s, when so much was driven by radio play, I think kids today must be living in a kind of paradise.
That goes for TV too. And, thanks to Amazon.com and similar retailers, books as well. A Catholic priest friend gets tired of Catholic laymen bellyaching about how the local parish is not teaching the faith adequately. He keeps pointing out that any Catholic with a credit card and Internet access has open to him the possibility of putting together a library of Catholic theology, philosophy and literature that Aquinas could only have dreamed of in his time. This is a great blessing of our time.
That said, culture is more fundamental to a people’s sense of itself than politics. It’s interesting to think about what the spectacular diversity of choice a cultural consumer has in this society does to forming one’s sense of belonging, and solidarity with others. That many more Americans watched the same TV shows, listened to the same music, got our news from the same sources, in the past did create a sense of blandness and monotony that is not to be missed; but it also created a sense of belonging and shared experience that is to be missed, I think. How do you unify a nation or a people when their cultural experiences and passions diverge so greatly? Is the diminishment of the possibility of unity something to be mourned, or celebrated? Why or why not?
I would say your answer depends on the degree to which you believe in the importance of the individual, and individual choice. Does a culture represent anything more in time than the aggregate of the choices made by individuals who live within it, and identify with it? Or is there something transcendent about a culture? A few years ago, I was talking with an agnostic colleague who is an Islamophile, and who ventured the opinion that it would be fine with him if Europe went Muslim. So what? he opined, if their choice is free? I was shocked by this statement, and frankly, appalled by it — and not because I am a Christian, but because I am a man of the West. The idea that all that accumulated cultural history — architectural, artistic, and so forth — could be said farewell to with a shrug, because it had ceased to matter to people, was to my mind, monstrous. I could far more easily understand a Muslim who expressed a wish that Europe would convert, because at least he would grasp the stakes of such an epochal event. But for this colleague, an easygoing agnostic, to see 2,000 years of Christian European culture — which also entails the Enlightenment, whose values are unthinkable apart from the Christianity to which they were a reaction — as something the loss of which is neither to be mourned nor celebrated? Well, it really was a kind of barbarism, insofar as barbarism implies a lack of historical consciousness or appreciation. Cultivating and inculcating that insouciant, deracinated attitude is, I think, the great danger in the cultural diversity we celebrate today.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s far more pleasant to live amid the beautiful fragments provided by technology in postmodernity. But there is a down side to this, one that we, conditioned by a consumer culture of choice, are strongly disinclined to see, or to contemplate.