Monday, October 19, 2015


     [Before I begin: This rant is rantier than most. It will strike even some of my most faithful Gentle Readers as incomprehensible, even bizarre. Be not afraid. Just remember that your host is an old crank venting mainly to keep his blood pressure down, and all will be well...I think. -- FWP]

     You have them. I have them. Everyone has them. And the overwhelming majority of Americans are taught to constrain them, such that they animate us only under certain morally and socially acceptable circumstances.

     Everyone has appetites...but not everyone learns to constrain them, at least not as thoroughly as we do. Indeed, in recent years Americans have begun to lose some of the historically critical constraints – the ones necessary to public peace and a tolerable social order.

     What we call our culture is, in large part though not exclusively, the matrix of constraints we apply primarily to ourselves in the name of public peace and order. And as the late Andrew Breitbart told us, culture is upstream from politics.

     “The lowest common denominator of the universe will be both low and common.” – R. A. Lafferty, “All But The Words.”

     Among the subjects least often discussed in the Blogosphere is the qualitative difference between “popular culture” and “culture” with no modifier attached.

     Time was, we spoke of “culture” in an aspirational tone. It was generally agreed that “culture” is a domain entry to which requires education and the acquisition of tastes above those of the common appetites. One had to want to appreciate “culture,” and therefore to put in the necessary effort at learning its characteristics and acquiring a taste for it. By corollary, “culture” wasn’t “for everyone.” (Or to recur to humor, “you can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”)

     I’ve written in the past that there are tastes whose acquisition strikes me as senseless. Needless to say, not all my Gentle Readers agreed with me about that. It’s why the French say Chacun a son gout and the ancient Romans said De gustibus non est disputandum. But the truth of the matter is plain: tastes are personal, as is the willingness or lack thereof to acquire a taste for any particular flavor of “culture.”

     With the advent of inexpensive books, inexpensive audio recordings, and the broadcast media came a significant shift in popular attitudes toward “culture.” Those who perceived the essential elitism of “culture” – and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense – also perceived the possibilities in using those new media to offer a much wider spectrum of persons a form of “culture,” loosely interpreted, that they could enjoy without strain or effort. That was the birth of what came to be known as “popular culture.”

     Note that “popular culture” isn’t just “culture that’s popular;” it’s a commodified product consciously designed to be popular: i.e., to appeal to the greatest number of persons possible. To achieve that end, the elements of “popular culture” must be:

  1. Inexpensive;
  2. Easy to enjoy;
  3. Accessible by large numbers of persons with little effort;
  4. Acceptable under the prevailing social norms.

     Because of that fourth constraint, the early “popular culture” of the West was esthetically oriented. One of the human appetites, though all too infrequently mentioned among them, is for beauty. Beauty proceeds from certain principles, including symmetry, regularity, harmonious design, and fitness for a particular purpose. We generally regard nature scenes as beautiful not because of artifice but because Nature itself is governed by principles of symmetry and organic harmony. Similarly, we are able to perceive the beauty in certain musical compositions because their regularity and harmony is evident to our ears. (If you’ve ever wondered why music-theory courses stress classical composers’ emphasis on the rules of harmony and “thematic development,” now you know.) In contrast to the “culture” from which it departed, that early “popular culture” presented the consumer with less austere, more easily perceived beauties: beauties one didn’t need to study at length to appreciate and enjoy.

     The “popular culture” of today is a great distance from those misty origins.

     One of the cleavages between today and the birth era of “popular culture” is the difference in acceptability of “pop culture” displayed in public. For example, it was once considered indecorous to sing, whistle, or hum a tune when in public. That might have been out of a sense of reverence for the products of great composers; more likely it proceeded from the subconscious awareness that what strikes Smith as music might strike Jones as cacophony. Whatever the reason, even the “common folk” would observe that constraint when outside their homes. To violate it was to invite the displeasure of the censorious – and most people are censorious. Thus, even as “pop culture” took hold among the many, its consumption was initially confined to private places and venues.

     In America, the Great Depression and the New Deal brought changes to that standard for public deportment along with many others. The Roosevelt Administration funded songwriters to write catchy, upbeat, relentlessly optimistic tunes for popular consumption, and indirectly encouraged people to sing, whistle, or hum them even when in public. The contrast between that “liberated” public musicality and the previous decades was more dramatic than an American of today – one less than a century old, at least – to appreciate. Significant changes in acceptable modes of public dress came not long afterward, though the inclination toward the concealment of all but the hands and face remained strong for many years.

     The esthetic addressed by “pop culture” had gained not merely acceptance but confidence. It cheerfully withstood the sneers of those who considered it vulgar. The strength it had found in numbers overcame the desire for the approval of the social elite.

     Further changes were afoot. America’s sacrifices and privations during the Depression years and from the War that concluded them further loosened many previous constraints. Not all those developments would be widely regarded as positive.

     Nothing has altered the American sociocultural landscape nearly as much as the flowering of the mass media, particularly television. As television sets proliferated and Americans became accustomed to consuming some part of their entertainment through that medium, so also did the masters of the medium gain influence over the tastes of the populace. It was in those first, happy years after World War II, when the United States bestrode the world and American manufactures were every nation’s first choice, that the alliance between broadcasters and advertisers became the principal influence on the tastes and consumption of the general public. Neither could have done it without the other.

     Note that before television, it was highly uncommon – essentially impossible – to glimpse a star of the screen other than “in character.” Only after television did such persons “enter our living rooms” to tug at our tastes and aspirations. Celebritarianism got its start almost entirely through our TV screens.

     As the patterns of dress and deportment of celebrities joined forces with the advertisers and the broadcasters they supported, so also did Americans’ behavior generally. Be it noted that the late Fifties and early Sixties brought us several other important developments: the motel; the Pill; transistor radios; the two-car family; the working wife. These too synergized with the mushrooming “pop culture” and the intensifying tendency for our common mores and norms to flow toward those of the celebrity elite.

     Before those years, it was said among movie and TV scriptwriters that “you can’t even put a man and a woman together in a bedroom to fix the curtains.” And so it was. But the burgeoning “pop / celebritarian culture” did not separate the products of the culture from the behavior of the producers. It might not have been inevitable that ever more “common folk” would regard the behavior of celebrities as suitable for emulation, but that’s what occurred. The plague of affairs, divorces, illegitimate births, and other social pathologies we suffer today flow from those origins. Vulgarisms and terms of condemnation never before tolerated in public poked their heads out of the outhouse.

     Appetites whose public gratification had previously been regarded as unthinkable emerged from the darkness to wander the streets. The broadcasters and advertisers would not be long in seizing upon that development.

     The pattern of the century behind us has featured the steady release of constraints upon our appetites, from the highest to the lowest. Time was, there were things one simply didn’t do in public, whether because one had internalized the constraint or out of fear of reprobation by others. Which of our common appetites are constrained that way today?

     Today few persons regard it as unthinkable to eat any and everything in public, and to toss the trash into a city gutter. Utterly vile “music” can be heard on any public street. Deliberately ripped and otherwise defiled clothing is commonplace, especially among American youth – and no small number of older persons eager to be viewed as “with it” are emulating them. We are beginning to see public nudity and public sex acts of every kind. Discourteous jostling and open acts of minor violence have been multiplying, especially in crowds.

     You might not think you have an appetite for lowering yourself, Gentle Reader. Forgive me for saying so, but every last one of us has every appetite anyone has ever had, including the appetites for displaying one’s naked flesh, for rutting with strangers, for soiling oneself, and for exhibiting physical dominance over others. What distinguishes you from the hairless simians who gratify those appetites is that you observe constraints those others have eschewed.

     In describing Times Square before Rudolph Giuliani, columnist Russell Baker put the underlying message of that pit of squalor thus: “You and I are ugly, base, tasteless and depraved, so let’s admit it and have a good wallow.” The appetites Baker fingered were not of the essence of his comment; rather it was their liberation from the constraints that had previously reserved their gratification to our most private places, times, and moments.

     But constraints on our public behavior are the indispensable ingredient to public peace and order, as we have learned. Appetites released from all constraint lead straight to the reign of Cthulhu. And rather than beat this all the way into the core of the Earth, I believe I’ll close here.

     Have a nice day.


Dystopic said...

This is why the move to a Police State has gripped the nation. A populace unwilling to exercise self-restraint must, instead, be restrained by someone else.

Of course, even that much is now coming off the rails.

Reg T said...

Thanks to the Internet (haven't watched television since '87), I have read of San Francisco's maps of places to urinate and defecate on the streets, of it being so pervasive that light poles have fallen over from the corrosion to their metal structure from constant urination upon them.

When I was a peace officer in San Diego, public urination - even in an alley - was good for a ticket and fine, plus the embarrassment of showing up in court to explain what you had done in front of a lot of other people.

Now in SF the city offers directions on where to go to do it right out in the open? Talk about Sodom and Gomorrah. Sex (and Defecation) in the City

BTW, I've been trying to put together in my mind the fact that a wether was a _castrated_ ram, so a castrated ram was made to wear a bell and lead the flock where the shepherd wished them to go - often it was where they were to be slaughtered. If we substitute "lobotomized" for "castrated" I see an even closer congruence with media bellwethers. They have indeed led a gullible public to where they - or at least their culture - was to be slaughtered.

That traitorous bitch Hanoi (Jane) Fonda springs instantly to mind (especially to those of us from that generation), although back then she and her ilk (such as Kerry) were fringe. Talking heads such as Dan Rather and even Cronkite were on the front of that wave, before people began to accept the worthless spew from losers like Whoopi ("it wasn't rape-rape") Goldberg and other brain-dead media darlings.

(The color purple referred to the neck veins of any rational person forced to listen to her insane rantings and black-communist pronouncements. One of the reasons my TV is only used for DVDs. I sometimes wonder if she isn't one of Reverend Wright's numerous illegitimate children - children of his filthy, hate-filled mind, not literally, since part of his anger probably stems from an inability to function in that biological fashion).