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
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 parents’ 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.
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