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Politicizing Ourselves to Death: Is the Culture War Over?

Only time will tell how people respond to a culture out of synch with reality.

by
Chris Yogerst

Bio

November 8, 2012 - 11:00 am

As post-election hangover sets in, we continue to witness incivility rolling like a tidal wave through this great nation. Much of this is due to the culture war, which grows more intense every day. One should wonder, is it worth fighting anymore? Or, has it already been won?

The answer lies in our ability to find reality amidst an amalgamation of data constantly coming at us through our television, computer, and smartphone screens from untrustworthy media outlets. A highly mediated and politicized culture has many challenges and it is up to us not to get sucked into the machine.

It is becoming more and more difficult to decipher the truth through a nonstop stream of information. Today we see an increase in what Daniel J. Boorstin referred to in 1961 as “pseudo events,” which are a close relative to propaganda. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America, Boorstin writes, “while a pseudo-event is an ambiguous truth, propaganda is an appealing falsehood.”

Ambiguous truths behind words like “forward” (to where?) and “hope” (for what?) and “change” (from what to where?) can easily join with propaganda that appeals to those eager for convenient falsehoods. Boorstin continues, “propaganda oversimplifies experience, pseudo events overcomplicate it.” The mess that is our current state of politics begins to make more sense when considering Boorstin’s model. What we have today is an oversimplification of rhetoric and an over-complication of hidden meanings.

Another problem, the fear mongering and political intimidation, will also continue in the coming years. It is the so-called cultural progressives who scare women, homosexuals, teachers, environmentalists, and minorities into thinking that they have no say in society and someone must rise to fight for them against a malevolent 1%. This conspiracy theory derives from a pre-constructed reality sold as truth with intent to frighten. French philosopher and post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard wrote about the lack of reality in his 1981 study Simulacra and Simulation:

The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control – and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational. In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.

This is where our media and culture have us positioned. At this point, it would be smart not to support any group or candidate that exploits certain people for political gain because it is all used for purposes of control and veiled as support in subjective terms like “equality” or “fairness.” Equality for whom? Fairness according to what? This tactic can be viewed as simulacra brought on by pseudo-events. In this postmodern digital age, truth is subjective and whoever has the most appealing truth, not the actual truth, rules the day.

There wouldn’t be the amount of mass-mediated simulacra and pseudo-events today if not for the 24/7 television and digital news cycle which perpetuates an unrealistic hyper-reality. In his famous text Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that our desire for distraction could very well be the end of us. This is what Aldous Huxley feared when he wrote Brave New World in 1931. Today, it appears that Huxley was right and there is no better proof than the current state of television. Today we can see how television news as well as fake comedy news poison the well of intelligent thought. In 1985, Postman wrote:

I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.

Ahead of its time, Postman’s book nailed how our news cycle works to influence us today. The flow of information through myriad filters makes the truth almost impossible to find. In addition, the influx of comedy news such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report leaves ignorant viewers thinking they are actually informed. This, if it weren’t alarmingly true, would be the stuff of satire.

Postman’s notion that TV culture creates a sense of anti-communication still holds. What we have seen is a shift in our politicians that has transitioned from leader and policy maker to celebrity. In 1999, Neal Gabler wrote Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality: “By the late twentieth century the chief business of Americans was no longer business; it was entertainment.” Our culture obsesses with entertainment — not only have we had an actor in the White House (who was a celebrity turned politician in Ronald Reagan), we currently have a politician turned celebrity with Obama. From talk shows to fundraisers and back again, Obama has taken America on a ride that touts style over substance. As the line between politics and entertainment continues to blur, Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to appear in an episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Gabler continues:

The great cultural debate that loomed at the end of the twentieth century and promised to dominate the twenty-first, then, was one between the realists who believed that a clear-eyed appreciation of the human condition was necessary to be human, and the postrealists who believed that glossing reality and even transforming it into a movie were perfectly acceptable strategies if these made us happier – a debate, one might say, between humanness and happiness.

Entertainment truly has conquered reality. The question is not just how can we get it back, but can we get reality back at all? Have we fallen too far down the well of celebrity obsession to crawl back out again? Does media illiteracy render the culture war a mute point? This is a question that is difficult to answer; only time will tell how people will respond to a culture that is out of synch with reality. The truth remains that we are still a harshly divided country and our primary means of information are unreliable. This is why everyone is currently losing the culture war.

The best we can do is continue to move forward by asking questions, thinking critically and independently, and refusing to take marching orders from any politician or media outlet. We must understand that with a media-saturated culture, motivations are not always clear, strings are always attached, and that finding the truth takes effort. We as consumers may not always get to choose the information we receive. What we can do, however, is decide which values we use to interpret it. Remember, the power remains with the end user and not the supplier of information. Understanding that notion will give us more power than we might imagine.

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Image courtesy shutterstock / Vlue

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A lifelong cinephile, Chris is currently working on his PhD in communication with an emphasis on American film history. Chris teaches courses in film, mass communication, and popular culture for the University of Wisconsin Colleges and Concordia University. His research areas in cinema include American film genre, auteur studies of Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg as well as Hollywood history during the Studio Era. Chris is also the "Hollywood Studio System" area chair for the national Film & History conference. His work can be found in Senses of Cinema, the Journal of Film and Video, and The Atlantic Monthly.
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