Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Culture War and Television

Over at CV, Eric has another post on the Culture War, the thesis of which (I think) is that television is at its root. He's probably right about that, but he also says:

To a large extent, America has no readily definable or identifiable "culture" before television. There were regional cultures, various class structures complete with particular ways of dressing and even accents which could enable a skilled listener under certain circumstances to discern which part of town someone came from, but no one culture.
That seems like it comes from a fairly shallow definition of culture, which concerns me because Eric is nothing like shallow.

I define "culture" as the unspoken expectations of a group for its members. "What you know everyone knows". So while I agree that television had a dramatic impact, I think it's wrong to say there was no unique American culture before that. While it's hard to distinguish our myths about the culture of our forebears from their actual culture, there is little doubt about the commonality of:
  • Freedoms of speech, press, firearms, and religion
  • "Manifest destiny" and westward expansion: gold rushes, cowboys, indians, cavalry
  • Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Bill Hickok, et al
  • The town square containing the courthouse
  • Public schools (first small, then bigger)
  • Tent revivals
  • The Civil War
  • Social mobility
  • Baseball
  • The automobile
  • Prohibition and the Great Depression
As far as the spread of culture goes, railroads and the telegraph brought people together remarkably well, as did radio. But the points above (and many others) put stamps on the culture in uniquely American ways, and took place before television had any real impact.

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