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Is there no more “American Culture”?

The other night I was watching an episode of a TV show (Breaking Bad—outstanding show) and there was a scene in which the president of a small company had a birthday party and one of his employees sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” in the voice of Marilyn Monroe. I thought about how every single American above the age of 13 must get that reference—how it’s such a famous bit of American culture—and then I thought about how we might be past the time when events of such huge cultural significance can take place.

During the Marilyn Monroe era, there really seemed to be one over-arching “American Culture”. There were only three TV channels. Nearly everyone watched “I Love Lucy” and got their news from Walter Cronkite. When Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the moon, the entire country was watching.

These days there are thousands of channels as well as the internet, and the only thing that most of America gathers together to watch is the Super Bowl, and even then it’s barely half the country. I suppose you could say the final episodes of “American Idol” are today’s moments of cultural significance, but it’s nowhere near the way it used to be.

Instead of one, mostly homogenous “American Culture” and a few scattered sub-cultures, today we seem completely divided into a slew of non-overlapping sub-cultures. Whether it’s hippies, gangstas, tech geeks, tween girls, college frat-guys, liberal bloggers, or what have you—there’s enough entertainment and news targeting each specific group that each can remain relatively isolated from one another. A moment of cultural significance to one group—say, basketball fans watching LeBron James announce the next team he’ll play for, or tween girls watching the latest escapade of Miley Cyrus—the other groups couldn’t care less. Each culture seems to operate in its own individual sphere, more or less separate from the rest.

Has the drastic change in the media landscape completely undermined the concept of “American Culture”? Are we now just a nation of many cultures with almost nothing to do with one another, or is there anything that still binds us all together?

The question is significant if we’re going to say, as I like to say, that we’re fighting for a better America. Anyone can just look at us and ask, “Better for who?” At best, we can say “the majority of average Americans” but what is an “average American” these days? And considering how polarized we are, is there any majority significantly greater than 50 percent?

At the very least, we should recognize this issue and consider its effect on national discourse. Indeed it threatens the very notion of “national discourse” as it’s really only one segment of the population that pays much attention to matters of national significance in the first place, while everyone else is off in their own little world, remaining within whatever niche within sports or entertainment that most appeals to them.

The only remedy I can suggest is for those of us who do care about political issues to try and draw more people in. News and entertainment have become so intermingled that we lose sight of the fact that beneath all the surface layers of ratings-driven talk-shows, bloviating radio hosts, and gimmicky-blogs, the subject matter actually does matter, and we’d be much better off if everyone from every sub-culture paid attention to it.

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