Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Bourgeois Virtues

This past Saturday I had occasion in a sports bar to catch parts of several college football games. Periodically, they would show shots of increasingly deliriously happy fans of the team that was winning at that particular time. In the bar, too, fans of one team got happier and happier as that team’s fortunes improved. In both the bar and in the stands on TV, the fans appeared to me to run the whole ethnic gamut of an increasingly diverse society, and that they were all so happy together, united in common purpose, prompted me to think about American mass culture and its effect on ethnoreligious harmony.

Mass culture is not without its faults in this regard, and is often marketed to targeted ethnic groups. The old WB television network, for example, was seen as the “black network,” and different kinds of music are routinely pitched to different audiences. I suspect that producers of country music or the guys who run Larry the Cable Guy’s career don’t spend much time targeting blacks or Asians, for example.

But I think mass culture, particularly its American incarnation, has a surprisingly (and beneficially) corrosive effect on the walls that divide us, walls often erected purposefully by the modern multicultural industry. While president, Bill Clinton once gave a speech to one of the civil-rights organizations (unfortunately, I cannot remember which one), in which he didn’t mention civil rights at all. Instead, he talked about foreign policy and other issues of equal concern to the entire country. Either in or after his speech, as I recall, he went out of his way to note that blacks care just as much about the foreign policy of their country as members of any other group. Of course he is right about that, and it was right of him to give a speech like that in a place like that.

But companies like Starbucks, General Motors, and Microsoft knew this long ago. In their world, black, white, red, and yellow are not the most important color; green is. They have tried to create coffee, cars, and software that appeal to the buying power of all our politically fractious citizenry. People of all groups want quality products and pleasant experiences; the incentives for the mass-culture producers to give them that is a force for assimilation, for common ground. Even mass culture initially targeted at or created by particular ethnic groups does not remain within those cells for long. Nonblacks buy hip-hop music, young Latinos watch the Simpsons, and everybody sees the other as considerably less strange. Linguists too have noted the tendency of young people to consciously adopt speaking styles of young people and other groups. Slang spreads across racial lines very quickly among teenagers.

As far back as the nineteenth century, people like Marx and Engels knew that one of the most compelling effects of a rising middle class – which they scornfully dismissed as the bourgeoisie – was that it annihilated traditional class distinctions. Engels at least found much to mourn in this, which is a little surprising in that Marx saw the rise of the bourgeoisie as scientifically inevitable, a necessary precursor to socialism. And Engels’ scorn for ordinary middle-class values and culture is far from unique. In an essay that got a lot of attention when it was written, David Brooks traced some of the history of what he somewhat clumsily called “bourgeoisophobia,” a hatred of achievement and commercial drive by ordinary people who were seen as not really deserving their success. Success and recognition, in the minds of such people, ought to derive from what university you went to, what family you come from, whether you are the holder of a traditionally respected occupation, etc. But the bourgeoisie grant respect not on the basis of who you are, but on the basis of what you can do. And in the minds of people used to getting respect simply by dint of tradition, this is unacceptable.

But the beauty of seeing the world in these terms is that you are less inclined to make ethnoreligious identity the defining feature by which you judge someone you just met. And mass culture in particular is wonderful because it is accessible to all. If the Buckeyes or the Gators or the Longhorns are succeeding, the fans of those teams are equally happy to share their delight with anyone, no matter what he looks like. So too, interest in what the latest celebrities are doing or a new flavor at Starbucks cuts easily across ethnic lines. Mass culture, in other words, is good for harmony.

To be sure, there is much about mass culture to lament; ten minutes watching reality television is enough to convince me of that. And there are no guarantees that mass culture promotes getting along. The soccer stadiums in Europe are often filled with vile racism; black players are taunted with monkey chants and bananas, and players on road teams traditionally associated with Jewish ownership are greeted with threats to send them all to Auschwitz. There may be something peculiarly American about this effect. But I doubt it; such pop culture as manga and movies has done much to allow people in the Northeast Asian societies of Japan, Korea, and China to see the neighboring societies not as foreign devils, but as the source of tremendous creativity, which they admire. It is not the sort of plan for fraternity that a rarefied, ivory-tower intellectual would draw up. But perhaps for that very reason it is better.



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