Written By Patricia Rouzer
Back in the 1930s, songwriter Cole Porter wrote a ballad called “Anything Goes,” in which he decried the increased substitution of four-letter words by authors “who once knew better words.” He could not have known how prescient his lyrics would be.
Judging from the 21st century’s revealing clothes, denigration of women, drug-drenched rap music and sexually explicit, violent movies to public museums exhibiting “works of art” forged from excrement and broken bottles, in today’s culture it certainly seems “anything goes.”
Good manners seem pass, simple civility is increasingly rare and people routinely pepper their conversation with the “f-bomb” as if it were an ordinary socially acceptable expression.
Some communications experts and social critics ascribe these and other changes–dare we say, corruptions of American culture–to rampant consumerism, the growing failure of public education, a decline in critical thinking and an excessive sense of individualism reinforced by a 24/7 barrage of images, commercials, infomercials, docudramas and babble from a burgeoning number of omni-present electronic sources.
Some pundits even say that these cultural changes are serious indicators that American society and the country’s position in the world are on the wane.
Deborah Clark Vance, Professor of Communications at McDaniel College, holds that America is a consumer-based culture and that the influence of corporate America invades everyone’s life. And, she believes, the primary motivation of corporate America is not to improve people’s lives – it is to pad corporate profits.
“If people didn’t buy revealing clothes, rap music CDs about killing cops and exploiting women, violent movies and lascivious magazines, they wouldn’t exist,” she said. “Companies exist to make money, and when what they produce doesn’t sell, they find something that will, or go out of business. We’re buying what they are selling, even when what they are selling is trash.”
Welcome to the age of “way-cool,” where marketeers work overtime to help companies not just meet market needs, but create them. And consumers–young, middle aged and old–obligingly work themselves into a frenzy and flock to lay down their money (or their plastic).
For example, America’s marketing proficiency was vividly demonstrated by the recent hysteria over release of Apple’s iPhone. People camped out in front of Apple’s Manhattan flagship store for days to assure they would be among the first to have the touch-activated cell phone cum minicomputer that sells for $500-600. Why? Said one eager buyer to a reporter, “I’ve got-got to have it. It is the next great thing.” Another potential purchaser offered to sell his place in line for $5,000, according to one news report. No word on whether he got his price. But almost certainly, Apple reaped even greater sales of its newest gizmo as a result of this “news” story.
News outlets are subject to considerable pressure from commercialism. “The airwaves are owned by the public. Public service law says that broadcasters must serve the public interest, convenience or necessity,” said Dr. Vance. “That means that broadcast stations have to give us news. It didn’t take much for the people who own the television stations and the advertisers who buy airtime to realize that if they gave us sensational news they could attract larger audiences. If we didn’t watch it, advertisers wouldn’t advertise and broadcasters wouldn’t broadcast it.”
The same is true for entertainment. “No seven-year-old child was born wanting to wear thong underwear. But Brittany Spears wore them and she was everywhere,” said Dr. Vance. “She was perceived by many seven-year-olds as Ôcool.’ A child may not even understand thong underwear as a sexual thing. She might just want them because Ôeveryone is wearing them.’ Many parents give in to the pressure exerted by children who want to have the cool thing, even when it is inappropriate.”
Because cable networks do not use the public airwaves they are not subject to the same kind of regulation as broadcast stations. So cable networks regularly pipe into American homes a variety of reality and drama programming featuring sex, violence, drugs, foul language and other assorted bad behaviors that traditional networks cannott rival, although they continue to pushing the envelope.
In Dr. Vance’s mind, news today is sometimes just another form of marketing. She believes news should not be a for-profit business. “There is a tremendous pressure for these organizations to produce news,” she said. “And often, particularly in smaller markets where papers and television and radio stations are struggling to compete, increasingly raw news releases from corporate public relations departments wind up on the air or in the news columns.”
The “news” is neither unbiased nor, in some cases factual. Nor is it always attributed to the corporate source from which it came; marketing becomes fact.
But we continue to seek it, whether it is broadcast or cable, newspapers or the internet, regardless of its quality or veracity. We watch it, read it, seek it, for the most part uncritically: The exploits of a vacuous, intoxicated Paris Hilton, the diapered astronaut who drove cross-country to confront a romantic rival, and, of course, “news” of the dead Anna Nicole Smith, her six month old daughter and the “who’s your daddy ?” saga. All were covered as “news,” even by so-called serious news outlets. All netted hours, indeed, days of continuous coverage.
And then there is the internet. It offers a smorgasbord of selections from high culture to the most disturbing pornography, instructions for building car bombs and dissemination of the most radical religious, social and ethnic propaganda, without regard to whether the user is five or 85, all the while flashing unsolicited advertisements for goods and services in our faces.
“I’ve raised two children and I’m a grandparent. It is hard to raise children in an environment where corporate America regards them as nothing more than a target market-for McDonald’s-that puts toys in their ÔHappy Meals’-for Teletubbies, complete with stuffed dolls, coloring books, and all of that,” said Dr. Vance. “Do you know the Wiggles? We grew up with the Grateful Dead; our grandchildren have the Wiggles. They are a music group marketed to children. They do concerts, they sell CDs and they make more money than any rock group.”
Morris Berman, a social critic and former adjunct professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has authored two books portending the fall of U.S. culture and the decline of America’s power as a nation. He likens the current cultural climate in our country to that of Rome during the waning days of its empire.
In his book, The Twilight of American Culture, Berman states emphatically, “As the twenty-first century dawns, American culture is, quite simply, a mess.”
He notes that we are constantly bombarded with the next new electronic gadget, and “the media is brilliantly adept at drowning the country in all kinds of spectacles that keep our minds focused on the trivial and the sensational; O.J. Simpson’s trial, Princess Di’s death, Bill Clinton’s sex life and the CNN-style infotainment that one media rebel, David Barsamian, rightly refers to as Ônuzak.’”
In a recent public radio interview, Berman declared, “Civilization in America is going down the tubes. American society is not just declining, it is entering a dark age, marked by the triumph of religion over reason, the rejection of intellectual life, the breakdown of public education and an absence of critical thinking.”
Berman believes that the decline in our culture has resulted from a variety of factors. He cites our development as an individual-based rather than community-based culture as a major contributor to our current cultural climate. “Within each of us there is a desire to do things for our own good and a desire to do things for the good of our community,” he said.
People in a healthy society, when required to choose between doing something that benefits them and something that will benefit the community, often choose the community good over than their own, Berman said.
“Our whole training is built around extreme individualism. There is something in the DNA of individual Americans; they are not interested in community,” he said. Extrapolated to its logical end, Berman’s view is that American society no longer believes it isn’t whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. It is win at all costs.
Berman cites the breakdown of education as another crucial influence on America’s cultural decline. “Children are showing up to school drunk or on drugs. Eleven percent of American school children can’t find the United States on a map and creationism is now taught in some public schools,” he said.
Berman points to a host of sociologists and social scientists who echo his concerns over crumbling school systems, widespread functional illiteracy, violent crime, apathy, cynicism and the shrinking of the middle class; the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the middle class is struggling to remain solvent.
We are no longer a nation of critical thinkers, challenging conventional wisdom and questioning what we read and hear, he believes. We accept the opinions of politicians, pundits, pollsters and the talking head on our wide-screen TVs with little regard for the quality, quantity and source of knowledge and information on which those opinions are based.
We neither know nor care how the rest of the world regards us, a fact Berman believes makes us attractive targets for a variety of discontents, including those who blew up the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon. It is an attitude he believes will continue to attract enemies to our shores. And, he says, the majority of Americans initially favored the Iraq war but now want to bring the troops home, “not because it is the right thing to do, but because they think we are getting our butts kicked.”
Berman shares Dr. Vance’s concerns for the constant encroachment of corporations into Americans lives, dictating what we need, when we need it and where we should get it. Our society has become increasingly conservative, unimaginative and intolerant of different points of view, he believes.
Like Dr. Vance, Berman feels that the constant barrage of new electronic “communications” gadgets does more to pull us apart than bring us together. They isolate us, render relationships impersonal and discourage real debate and a lively exchange of ideas.
In short, he believes that they simply serve the corporate masters that create them, increasing their revenues and driving their profits up while doing little for their owners. Witness the American Psychiatric Association’s recent debate about whether chronic computer game playing is an actual addiction:
“Technological advances were once created to save us back breaking labor,” he said in his radio interview. “Now they are used frivolously. Who really needs a new CD player? Or the new 2-inch disk player that will take the CD’s place? Companies are constantly spewing out new toys and we buy them.”
The pervasive influence of an uncritical media, uncritically viewed, plus an aggressive advertising industry that pushes us–from cradle to grave–to buy new stuff can only be countermanded by people who understand how the system works and make critical decisions.
In Dr. Vance’s view, it is particularly crucial that parents know what their children are watching on television and viewing on the internet and that they not succumb or allow their children to succumb to every marketing pitch that comes down the pike.
And she encourages people to be savvy consumers of information. “Media literacy is so important, not just because it is my field, but because it changes the way you focus. You have to question, you have to be critical, you have to think for yourself. If you do that, you’ll never watch TV the same way again,” she said.
“You have to teach your children to think that way, too. And maybe, as importantly, you should encourage them to disconnect from the television, their iPod, their computer, their cell phone, take a look at the world around them and think about what they see.
“I deal with young people all the time who don’t know how to sit and breathe and be quiet and listen to themselves and not crave every latest thing that comes on the market. They don’t know how to disconnect from all media and just be human, and that is a real shame.”