The problems lurking inside our culture are numerous, but they are also extremely difficult to uncover, due to the fact that we are immersed in our culture, and we have bias towards what we believe people should and shouldn’t do.
Are things better or worse than they were sixty years ago?
Are people nicer or meaner to each other? Do more or fewer people participate in the so-called American Dream?
Are we healthier mentally and physically?
Is the rest of the world better or worse off from having American innovations and culture exported to it unevenly for about seventy years?
It becomes easy to rely on anecdotal examples, which are always prone to bias and cherry-picking, but an over-reliance on statistics can yield results that are just as biased.
The first question is impossible to answer, because in all likelihood, there were aspects of the American culture and the global human condition that were much better in 1956 than they are today. However, it is probably easier to find things that are better today. Primarily, technology has accelerated the ability for more humans to have access to an American middle-class lifestyle (at least as it was defined in 1956), and more people, like minorities and women, have as much of a chance at achieving this lifestyle as white males do. I will loosely define the 1956 American Dream a little later–obviously, minorities and women do not have as much chance as white men do at achieving the 2016 American Dream–which is to say that we have evolved but still have a long way to go.
So, it becomes incredibly easy for both Liberal and Conservative optimists to pooh-pooh the chicken littles of the opposite party.
For example, Conservatives are going to claim that there is little or no racism and preference for males in leadership roles, because more minorities and women do have leadership roles and live middle class lifestyles. They will also ignore the fact that many different yardsticks to measure manmade global warming all point to the fact that this is a real issue that needs to be addressed immediately.
Meanwhile, Liberals laugh at Conservative notions that people are meaner and more rude to each other because they no longer have a moral compass guided by faith, and our moral fabric in general has torn our culture beyond repair. Liberals tend to ignore concerns of there being bias and preference in the media for language that is godless, and global human rights violations toward Christians.
It is also easy to create a narrative of things getting worse for the majority of people who matter in a society, and blame the condition on the President or majority party when they are not members of your party. And so, even though the process of sending overseas high-paying American manufacturing jobs for men with high school educations started almost forty years ago, the sitting Liberal President gets blamed for bad economies, high unemployment and low-paying service jobs. Both parties attempt to wrap themselves in the Flag and the Constitution, and sometimes the Bible, when it is convenient. The sitting Conservative President tends to generate more opportunities for lower income people to participate in military endeavors around the world.
Nobody wants to be seen as a non-supporter or even detractor of “The Troops,” but “supporting The Troops” can easily become a way to have pork spending sent to a given congressperson’s state or district to produce weaponry that isn’t needed or wanted by the military. It becomes a standard election-year trope to trot out veterans who are homeless and/or are not treated well by the VA, and blame it on the other party’s lack of concern for “The Troops.” This Senator voted against a bill that would have given troops better healthcare coverage, and that Senator voted against a bill that would have given them access to more education and employment opportunities after their service. In all likelihood, they didn’t even read the bill, but were simply told by their particular special interest group or party whip not to vote for it.
It all makes for great television, and generally, people can rest easy knowing they are members of the party that has the moral upper hand when it comes to “the troops” and the Constitution, and will be seen as being on the right side of history. But, often it also seems that nothing really changes from President to President and Congress to Congress.
Anyone who would dare propose to take a completely objective look at our society/culture/political system is probably going to be met with certain ridicule if they state anything that around half of the country finds offensive. The way an historian from two hundred years from now will objectively view our culture is probably bound to make all of us squirm a little.
Are we too caught up in fantasy television and sporting events?
Are we no longer passing on certain moral truths and wisdom to our children, in favor of having clever, money-making offspring?
Are we enjoying our middle-class lifestyles at the expense of people worldwide who are virtual slaves to their governments and big companies that receive handouts from the U.S. government to keep them repressed?
Have half of Americans determined that they and American companies can freely pollute the earth as much as they like because they don’t believe in global warming (which they used to, while only objecting to the man made piece of the puzzle)?
Are Americans more interested in seeing their candidate/party “win” than considering the impact that particular candidate will have on the future health of our country?
Are we the proverbial happy frogs in a pot, enjoying unsustainable lifestyles that will soon cause us or our children to be cooked to oblivion?
Are we more interested in the appearance of Truth than Truth itself?
Are we more inclined to defer personal responsibility (both talking about it as a correct way that others should conduct their lives as well as living this notion by example) when the President is with the opposing party?
Are we too easily lulled into a bubble of information that confirms all of our tenuous opinions and beliefs, instead of seeking out many diverse facts and opinions? And, of course, if we are so easily upset by conflicting beliefs and viewpoints, are we frightened that we might have a completely inaccurate picture of the Truth and reality?
Almost everyone runs the risk of being happily lied to by someone who has a “tell-it-like-it-is” persona, even if that person lies all of the time. This is probably a timeless human characteristic–why we find John Wayne such a beloved paradigm of masculinity even as he played soldiers during WWII instead of being one.
People who love myths and the process of mythmaking end up constituting a large enough section of the population, that once you get a sizeable majority to agree upon the same myths, you see a revolution or at least a significant change in the way things are.
Almost all of us do some amount of mythmaking–it’s how we live with ourselves and those around us. The man who is an accountant, lives in a suburban home with a small yard, and drives an oversize pickup truck to work, forcing it into a tiny parking space and stepping out in his cowboy boots, spitting his chewed tobacco where he pleases–this sort of man has the myth that on the inside he is a big cowboy, trapped in an era where cowboys are no longer needed or even welcome. This man might hunt occasionally, and has fantasies about how he would be a survivalist patriot in the coming collapse of our civilization, but in all likelihood he is ill prepared to do anything but follow everyone else to get in line for bread and soup when that time comes.
The intellectual snob–or even the cultural snob–he believes himself to possess exquisitely good taste–knowing when it is cool and hip to appropriate lowbrow culture and when it is not. This person, if he becomes successful enough to establish a modest following of people who believe that his taste in everything from hockey teams to barbecue joins is superior to theirs–this person is held up as an example for other would-be snobs to aspire to.
Nobody wants to be average–everyone wants to believe that they will eventually discover something that they are the best at in the world. Many people want to believe that they have as much of a chance to be a billionaire if they just work hard and think hard enough. Any government interference–including making them pay for more expensive health insurance that will keep them healthier longer and avoid having taxpayers foot the bill in their emergency room visits–any perceived interference is looked down upon–unless the government adopts a head of state who can help them with their myth-making narrative–then, they are convinced that they are part of a righteous cause to go defend the homeland.
Most people do not want to hear facts; cold, hard examinations of Reality, the Truth, etc. They want to participate in a mythological narrative that “holds up” when held to their half-lit, poorly trained lights. It doesn’t matter if they are Liberal or Conservative. The Liberal wants to create her mythology as much as the Conservative does. She may want to eat vegan, drive a hybrid and march in a rally that is for what she believes to be a game-changing and worthwhile cause. She will seem just as painfully willing to put her fingers in her ears and blabber nonsense if you attempt to show her facts that run contrary to what she believes. She surrounds herself in an information bubble of friends and likeminded individuals as much as the staunch Conservative does.
Indeed, anyone who has set up their own personal narrative to be one of “looking outside the bubble”, and only gets this far, will find themselves in a new sort of information bubble that may very well be less truthful and full of factual information than the one they were in.
The other error that often occurs is the false sense of security one gets from seeing and hearing cultural things that haven’t changed much sense one’s childhood, or even one’s parents’ childhood.
Perhaps sixty years ago isn’t long enough–the mid 1950s are a yardstick not because I believe they were a better era than the present, but they were the first time that a significant portion of a population (of any country) had access to all of the basics, plus a low-cost secondary education and the commonly thought-of “American Dream” creature comforts: home ownership, at least one car, one television, a refrigerator, probably air conditioning and a washer and dryer, an annual vacation to another part of the country for at least a week. While it is clear that women were still not treated equally in most professional environments and minorities in the U.S. had almost no access to the American Dream and upward mobility–I am attempting to abstract the kinds of tangible things most people would expect to have before they are even deemed lower middle-class.
People of the 1950s also still contended with polio to some degree and smallpox. So, the 1950s certainly isn’t a golden era to return to, but it was the first time that mankind got to witness a significantly large demographic having access to enough creature comforts that enabled more time to be spent in leisure than in work.
Is it simply a coincidence that the children who were born or grew up in the 1950s in America went on to create or help usher in several cultural revolutions that also changed us irrevocably? Was it access to more leisure time and technology like the television, phonograph and electric guitar that prompted widespread adoption of rock n’ roll as a preferred genre of music, or were larger cultural forces at work that prompted the mass protests, changes in dress, speech, mannerisms, sexuality, etc.? This would be worth deep study, but it is clear from seeing political campaigns and candidate archetypes change with the introduction of newer technologies, that technology plays a significant role in pre-empting whatever humanitarian cultural shifts we’d hope to trace as occurring independently of the technology changes.
However, my original assertion that we can’t take a snapshot of a culture in its time and place and view it objectively against some higher moral and intellectual standards needs a closer look at an example. Take the Beatles–almost no one is going to argue that listening to rock music is the key to a depraved existence (ie, a moral point of view), and likewise, few people in our society would clamor for cessation of rock music due to the way in which it “dumbs down” the developing brain. Yet, someone arriving from an era where classical music was still often played in wealthier homes that had a piano, and was in many cases indistinguishable from more popular and folksy forms of music as being music worth listening to–that someone might indeed look at all music created for the masses since about 1955 as being dangerous to our brains in the sense of dumbing them down. This is to say that we have assimilated certain art forms as being legitimately high art forms, and what once was generally thought of as being exclusively high art is now most likely to be considered fit only for extremely sophisticated and/or wealthy palettes.
Are we then, dumbed down from generation to generation by the popular culture art forms that are presented to us? Are we headed for an Idiocracy kind of society? Probably not, since more people have access to all kinds of information, and being at least modestly literate is a general requirement for participating in the technologies that send and receive this information. While you can probably get by with a third grade reading proficiency online, you are exposed enough to sentences and words that stretch your mind to the point where it must change to keep up with everyone.
But, if we are to become objective analyzers of our own culture, we must at least consider the idea that most of our favorite forms of music are greatly simplified (fewer chords, simple lyrics, no time changes, repetitive notes, etc.) from where they once were, say, one hundred years ago, and the listening to the Beatles may be just as dangerous to our ability to see our reality clearly as listening to, say, Kesha.
However, the standard isn’t music as it was a hundred years ago, but either some imagined, exulted world of the most nuanced, sophisticated and complex music one can think of or simply a world without music at all–temporarily, we do without music so that we can see if having it with us, even if only while we are in the car and hearing it on television, we are losing out on the ability to develop ourselves in a noble, perfected sort of way.
But, what is the most perfected way of being? That could obviously be debated forever. Atheists will contend that people of faith are contaminated and imperfect and people of faith will assert that Atheists lack the profundity of human experience as spiritual beings. Christians will contend that Muslims are less noble for maintaining a tit-for-tat imperative in many areas of the world that practice Sharia law, and Muslims will claim that Christians are too permissive of morally degrading behaviors. And all of them are probably correct.
Is it possible to have a “local” perfected way of being, that is peculiar to individual tastes and a “global” one that could/should be practiced by every adult human being of sound mind?
Probably not, but we humans certainly strive for such with each enactment of a civilization, moral code, constitution, body of laws, etc. We want there to be a “global” one so that we can all feel to some degree like things are fair, but a “local” one is welcome so that folks of a certain “tribe” can flock together and keep each other in line.