However, back when Frank said it, culture was still actually the thing we chose to do together. For three quarters of a century, our cultural industries had wielded mass media to craft a middlebrow common culture that erased the old distinctions between high and low, the opera and vaudeville, to bring us songs we could sing, jokes we could laugh at and stories that made us feel.
We were so good at it that American culture became the world’s culture. Hollywood’s movies, Broadway’s musicals, Tin Pan Alley’s songs, and Literary Row’s books spread everywhere. You can still see Coca Cola logos in far off lands and African kids wearing NBA t-shirts. Fiddler on the Roof has been playing in Japan for decades and country music is a hit in Zimbabwe.
America didn’t just become a world power by economic and military power, but culture. And when we were done, much of the world wanted to be an American, as it had once wanted to be Greek or English. We conquered the world without intending to or even realizing it.
That culture is mostly dead now except as a bunch of corporate properties being beaten to death. The machinery of mass culture is still there, but it has no soul. The $500 million comic book spectacles and the oversaturated autotuned payola music makes money, but much of it performs better around the world than it does in America. The days when it brought us together are long gone. Mass culture now reminds us of how little we have in common.
“Politics is downstream of culture,” was once true, but culture is now downstream of politics. Culture is politics and politics is culture. Politics has killed culture and what’s left is politics telling stories, singing songs and writing books about its imperatives, world views and agendas.
We don’t have movies, songs or novels anymore. We have propaganda, scolding, preaching, sneering, hectoring, and smirking by the elites who control the cultural machine. Politics is their life and they want it to be ours. They can’t conceive of anything important that’s apolitical.
A common culture springs from the things we agree on. What do we agree on anymore? Motherhood, apple pie and the flag? Maybe apple pie. Maybe not.
Comedy was the first cultural casualty. All too easy to appropriate into a humorless political weapon, as Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert and their legion of successors did. The soul of comedy is our ability to laugh at ourselves. The new comedy didn’t laugh, it sneered. It used the rhythms of comedy to hector, pontificate, scold and berate. Eventually everyone realized that there was no punchline coming. The only remaining joke was that comedy was dead. Ha ha.
But drama suffers just as much because it asks what people want and what drives them. Politicized, drama becomes agitprop, instead of exploring human nature, it offers a sham that suits its agenda. “Tar,” is hailed by the New York Times as a “great movie about cancel culture” because it validates it with a villainous protagonist who offers the familiar defenses of culture and condemnations of identity politics, and concludes triumphantly with her humiliation.
The politicization of drama, like that of comedy, takes art from an inward exploration of who we are, to an outward projection of hatred onto the political “other.” Politicized culture weaponizes art and robs it of its capacity to enrich and transform us. Instead of seeing ourselves in art, we can only see our enemies. Culture becomes just another means in a culture war with no end.
And that kills culture dead.
At the upper and lower ends, culture offers neither enrichment nor entertainment. All it offers is the vicarious pleasure of destroying stand-ins for Republican enemies to the 23% of the country that lives for nothing else. And the other 77% are starting to tune out.
There’s a reason that the customer base for entertainment products now appears virtually indistinguishable from the political base of the Democrats. Upper-class urban and suburban millennial white and black women are the targets of most television, cable and streaming programming. If you doubt that, watch a few commercials and see who appears in them. Or just watch the shows themselves.
Theatrical releases still occasionally try to appeal to men with blockbuster comic book movies, but their targets remain narrowly confined to urban and suburban millennials of a certain bent. When a movie like Top Gun: Maverick gets released, it’s a breath of normalcy that brings in audiences while showing just how artificially claustrophobic the state of theaters has become.
The state of affairs in literature, art and music is far worse, having calculatedly left behind most of the country to wallow in their own incoherence, decadence and desperate insanity, high brow for the former two and lowbrow for the last, but riding their political obsessions all the way.
Culture hasn’t consolidated politics, instead politics has consolidated culture. Entertainment is just another adjunct of the Democrat Party. The producers, directors and actors don’t just finance the party, they make party-approved entertainment for party members. Our culture has become an echo of that of any Communist country’s agitprop entertainment. But there are no official censors or production boards, the industry took a knee and did it to itself with shareholders, advertisers and investors being taken for a ride or joining the party.
The mass propaganda power remains impressive, but so is a guy with a megaphone on a street where no one else has one. The power to project is not the same as agreement. And without some kind of consensus, there’s no culture, only volume and noise. The guy with the megaphone is shouting, but without meaningful interaction, he runs out of things to say.
Culture develops a dialogue. People build on the work of others and on the responses of audiences. Without a dynamic creative marketplace, the entertainment industry has become incapable of creating new things. Instead it endlessly reworks the old, updating its intellectual properties so that they match current political dogmas without adding anything original to them.
“Representation,” the entertainment industry vogue, reveals the underlying creative bankruptcy. Having run out of taboos by pushing everything to the edge and over it, mining nihilism, cynicism and contempt for everything they’re worth, the only thing left to do are identity politics remakes of everything from The Wonder Years to Superman with black protagonists.
What happens after the black Superman, the gay Superman, and the transgender Superman?
Totalitarian culture is boring. It has no imagination or vision. It’s stuck within the narcissistic loop of “Triumph of the Will” worship of the regime and the “Eternal Jew” demonization of the other. It’s not free to laugh, to imagine, to doubt, to believe and to become something more than it is.
Culture, at its best, low, middle and high, can touch the chords of the soul and find common ground in what it means to be human. That was the genius of American culture. Now it’s the one thing it can’t do. Americans are leaving behind mass culture for something and for anything else. Curtains are falling and lights are going out in theaters across America.
Mass culture, for all its flaws, convinced very different people that we had things in common. The politicization of mass culture has convinced us that we have nothing in common at all. ✪