USS Clueless - The Culture of the Commons

Stardate 20030812.1701

(Captain's log): Bret writes:

You wrote:

"But most of the soft power he described is unconscious and undirected; it isn't a deliberate strategy, and as such it isn't really possible to change it. Hollywood will continue to make movies with the goal of making lots of money, with little consideration of indirect political effects."

Europeans seem utterly incapable of understanding that something with profoundly powerful political effects can just be unintended side effects of a well functioning market economy. They remain firmly convinced that such effects must be intentionally directed by America's ruling elite as part of that elite's lust for power and world domination. They believe that only a central authority could make those things happen, when of course the exact opposite is true - that only because there is no central authority they happen with such vigor and apparent cohesion. Europeans seem certain that if they could just control Bush and the imagined central authority of soft power, the problems would significantly attenuated, as Joffe implies in his article.

I think it's inherent in the European psyche that they will continue to fail to grasp your point that soft power is unconscious, undirected, decentralized, and in fact just a side effect of Americans living their lives mostly uncontrolled by their government. Since Europeans can't even grasp the necessary concepts, they (and we) are doomed to their continuous ridiculous attempts to balance our soft (and maybe hard) power, each attempt having foreseen and unforeseen negative and destructive consequences.

There are traditional cultures, and things like folk tales and folk music and traditional dances which are associated with them, but most of the world's culture is new and recently produced.

It's also a luxury, and it will be consumed by those who have leisure and money. Which is why most of the produced culture in the world until just recently was tailored to the tastes and sensibilities of the upper classes: they were the only ones who could and would pay for such things.

This American cultural flood into the world is actually a fairly recent thing. There's been some degree to which it took place before the beginning of the Twentieth century, but it only really begins to have influence in the 1920's. It then was put on hold by the Great Depression and by World War II, so it only begins to switch from being a trickle to a major flow starting in the 1950's, and becomes a torrent by the 1970's, and it has never let up since. There are a lot of reasons why this happened; it's a combination of cultural, economic, political and technological events which combine together, plus certain advantages we have in terms of memetic competition.

When culture was a product consumed by the upper classes, it wasn't viewed by them as being subversive or tasteless since it was created for them. However, when you start getting a growing middle class who were not aristocrats but who did begin to have the kind of money and leisure to consume culture, there is the beginning of strain. Cultural products could be produced to appeal to the middle class sensibility, and to the upper classes this was low brow, unsophisticated, something to be scorned, and also perhaps something to be feared, because it could be politically subversive. So the upper classes generally used their disproportionate influence with the government to impose varying degrees of censorship to suppress that which was considered vulgar or dangerous (to their dominance).

As the technology of distribution of this kind of material becomes cheaper, the amount of money needed to experience it goes down. Leisure is easier to come by than money, and popular entertainment becomes broadly experienced mostly when it becomes cheap. The movie industry exploded in the 1920's by distributing films to theaters which may only have charged their viewers a dime.

But when, in the period after WWII, there was a very broad expansion of the Middle Class in the US, with newly-found wealth and leisure, there is suddenly a huge market for cultural products, and the potential buyers don't share the tastes of the upper class. And there wasn't really any upper class here trying to maintain control, the way there was elsewhere. And we went through a national wave of liberalism during that period, with censorship increasingly being eliminated and more and more tolerance for diverse points of view and lifestyles.

There's a belief among many that the Evil Capitalists try to manipulate us to make us consume what they want us to buy, and it's true that some of them make the attempt. But as Bret points out, the usual trend is for free markets to provide ever more broad offerings to appeal to a broader range of tastes. There can be temporary situations in which a small number of companies have major control over a large cultural area, but in the long run the march of technology and the general pressure of market dynamics works to eliminate that kind of artificial scarcity.

There was a time, in the 1950's and 1960's when television was very popular, extremely influential, and mostly controlled by only three major corporations in the US: ABC, NBC and CBS. Television broadcasting was extremely capital intensive at every level, and that is why even large cities usually only had a small number of TV stations. For instance, for most of the time when I was growing up in Portland OR, there were only five. Three of those were affiliates of the three major networks, the fourth was an independent, and the fifth was KOAP, which was part of PBS and was owned by the state.

Young people may not realize just how strongly the big three networks influenced American politics and culture through their control over the flow of TV news and entertainment through the middle of the 1960's. Which is why it was notable in cases when they didn't try, and why it is notable that their monopoly was eventually shattered.

Popular music has long been seen as a cultural threat by older people. You go back and look at books and magazines from almost any time after the end of WWI, and you find old people lamenting the way that popular music is corrupting the young. (A wag defined "being old" as when you start to dwell on the moral failings of the younger generation.) Still, through the first half of the century, the progress of popular music was rather evolutionary.

With influences from Sousa-style brass bands and Strauss-style waltz orchestras, along with a healthy dose of black Dixieland from New Orleans and the south, in the 1920's you get such musical styles as Ragtime, which was originally more of a black style. White performers adopted it, and morphed it, and that ends up as the Big Band sound of the late 1930's and the 1940's. But in the 1950's there's an entirely new sound, which came from another tradition entirely. Again, it tapped American black music from the South, taking a lot from the Blues, and some from Gospel. Some of the most popular performers were black groups. But it also borrowed quite a lot from white Appalachian music, and what emerged with such groups as Bill Haley and the Comets was the beginning of something we'd recognize as Rock and Roll.

They Were Giants In Those Days, and it's two acts in particular which solidly founded Rock music as the phenomenon it is today. First was Elvis Presley, and then came The Beatles. The development of Rock music was a cultural collaboration between the British and Americans, and it was the lower classes in both nations which did it. This was not the music of the elite; it was the music of the gutter. The black music which contributed to this was music of the poor, and no one ever accused the Appalachian hillbillies of being rich or sophisticated.

Elvis Presley was white trash. There's no other way to put it. And the four members of the Beatles all came from the poor part of Liverpool, which is not the kind of place people then were proud to come from. (For Americans, it's about like saying you're from the Bronx.)

But Elvis exploded on the scene, and created fallow ground on which The Beatles later planted a musical revolution.

And for both, one of the most important career-making events was appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Ed Sullivan was the last of the great vaudevillian producers, and his show broadcast every Sunday night on CBS consisted of a number of variety acts. Sullivan himself had no charisma whatever; he was short and funny looking and had a strange voice and was subject to constant satire and mockery for that reason. But his program was immensely popular. It was broadcast from a theater with a very large live audience, and was also broadcast live, this being before the development of video tape.

And most of what was shown on it was, by modern standards, banal and often outright offensive. For instance, comedian Bill Dana was a regular performer on the show (as regular as anyone ever was) with the portrayal of his signature character Josť Jimenez.

This was a deeply offensive and highly racist characterization of Mexicans, which portrayed them as being shiftless, immoral and utterly stupid. And it was immensely popular at the time.

Sullivan was mostly interested in ratings and popularity; he wasn't on any kind of cultural mission. So he had Presley on, though notoriously he only broadcast him from the chest up so no one could watch Elvis' trademark hip rotations, which were then considered salacious and more than a bit immoral.

And later, he invited The Beatles onto the show. At the time they were rising stars, but after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show they were full-fledged cultural icons.

The concentration of talent in those four young men is amazing. Of course, given that at the time there were hundreds of such groups competing in the night-club scene in Europe and the US, with groups breaking apart and members of different groups forming new groups, I suppose it was inevitable that there should be one case where four extraordinarily talented men should come together in that way, and with a bit of luck get a break. Still, I think it is defensible to say that Harrison and McCartney and Lennon had more influence overall on popular music in the 20th century than any other performers or composers. And though Richard Starkey, who used the name "Ringo Starr", was not musically at the same level as the other three, he contributed something else entirely which turned out to be essential.

Ringo has always struck me as being the kind of guy I'd really like to know. It's not that I have any interest in sucking up to celebrities, it's just that he seems to be the kind of guy I'd like to have as a friend. The other three members of the group were pretty-boys, but Ringo with his big nose and strange voice wasn't one, and didn't seem to care. He was totally natural, and was then and remains today completely unpretentious. Where he really contributed to the group was in the personal appearances, the press conferences, and in particular in the movies Hard day's night and Help!

Ringo played the drums, and he was a good drummer but not really outstanding. He sang backup vocals but didn't solo. And he showed no signs of feeling that he was somehow being neglected; Ringo didn't have that kind of ego.

Some of the popularity of this new music came from a sort of anti-snobbery; it was embraced to some extent precisely because it came from the lower classes. Both Presley and The Beatles became popular in particular with girls, and there was definitely more than a bit of animal sexuality involved in it. There's always been something of a feeling that the lower classes were more earthy, more sexual, precisely because they were less refined, and both made the most of it. And other successful groups capitalized on that same appeal.

The Rolling Stones were also out of the lower classes and didn't care who knew it. They didn't really succeed based on their alleged musical talent; rather, it was the sassiness, the irreverence which helped make them popular. Their music as music was never remotely as good or creative as the stuff that Lennon and McCartney turned out, but that didn't matter.

(I myself could never stand to listen to their music, but that's because I have what's called "perfect interval". It's not quite the same as "perfect pitch" but it's related, and it means I can sing a 5-minute a capella solo and end in exactly the same key I began, without drifting either up or down at all. Because of that, it has always been intensely painful for me to listen to performers who didn't sing in key. It approaches the discomfort of fingernails on a blackboard. I cannot listen to Jagger, or Bob Dylan, or Doctor John, because they sing flat much of the time if they're even singing identifiable notes at all. I like a lot of Dylan's music when other people perform it, but I will run screaming from a room when I hear his voice. And it's no use trying to convince me otherwise, so don't write letters.)

The Beatles exploded a bomb in the popular music scene with the successive releases of Magical Mystery Tour and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, and popular music hasn't been the same since. These albums and the ones which followed were where they showed that there was more to them than pretty faces and awesome voices. It showed that they were genuinely talented and innovative composers, and for a few years things got pretty yeasty in the rock world as a lot of other rockers (e.g. Roger Waters, Frank Zappa) took the opportunity to break out of the mold and experiment. They and other groups which became popular at the time ended up founding an industry.

Hi-fi went from being a niche market to a mass market. Suddenly every young person wanted to have a hifi stereo and quality records to play on it. And the technology to make it work just happened to be there, with the invention of the transistor a few years before, and with the technology in place to mass-produce transistorized consumer products.

Hifi became a commodity market, with volume feeding economy of scale in turn feeding even more volume, and there were fortunes to be made. Production and distribution and sale of LPs also became a mass market, and music production and distribution and retailing became big business.

Sometimes niche markets can piggyback on the market success of other markets, and that's what happened here. Once all that infrastructure was in place, none of which was content specific, someone noticed that the same stereo that could play The Beatles could also play gospel music, or reissued Big Band, or Lawrence Welk, or piano-bar Jazz, or classical orchestral music, or Broadway musicals. Those records could be produced with the same recording equipment, reproduced in the same factories, distributed and sold through the same retailers. And there was money to be made, so inevitably someone gave it a try, and when they made out others did the same.

The only criteria for success was sales, and sales came from reaching a mass audience with a product they were willing to buy. You could do quite well with a moderate sized niche such as R&B or Motown or Country. And sometimes you might produce something that would break out and become far more broadly popular, making you even more money.

What all of this means is that most of us in the US can drive less than a mile and walk into a music store and purchase a wider variety of music than has ever been available to any other people in history, and can take those recordings home and hear them with unprecedented clarity, for an astonishingly low amount of money. An even larger selection is available online, which can be delivered directly to our homes in just a couple of days. No one agrees on what's good and what isn't, but for every person there's going to be something in that store that appeals to them, even if someone else thinks it is crap. There is no attempt whatever to try to make everyone listen to the same thing.

All of this was done mostly for internal consumption. Those niche markets existed in the US and the UK. But with all the kinds of music we now have available, from Rap and Hip-hop to Gospel and a dozen kinds of Jazz, to Bubblegum music and Grunge and New Age and Country and Folk and probably dozens of other kinds I'm not even aware of, it also means that for nearly anyone elsewhere in the world there's also going to be something we produce that they'll like, and we are willing and able to sell it to them cheaply, in quantity, if they're willing to buy it. Just as with us, not every recording will be liked by every customer. But there's going to be something we produce that nearly any given person out there will like.

Meanwhile, a technological enabler finally appeared which broke the big TV networks' monopoly: cable TV, and cheap satellite distribution. Where previously all TV had required ownership of at least one transmitter, which made the capital expense huge and involved getting a government license and "operating in the public interest", the new technology made the cable-only channel possible.

Before this happened, there had been a lot of attempts to suppress what were viewed as subversive voices in network broadcasting. The Smothers Brothers had established a name for themselves working in night clubs and selling albums, and were offered the opportunity to produce a variety series on one of the major networks. It wasn't a match made in heaven, as Tom and Dick constantly ran afoul of the network's censors. It turned out that unlike their nightclub act, the TV show followed in the humor tradition of comedians like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, where much of the humor derived from the willingness to tell the truth and puncture pretension and delusion. Despite consistently high ratings, the show was eventually cancelled. But that was one of the last times that the networks were able to suppress that kind of thing. Soon their monopoly was broken, by the rise of cable-only TV stations.

Visionaries came along. Ted Turner created the Cable News Network and then created ESPN, and it became clear that these channels could operate cheap and appeal to niches and make a profit on lower revenues by keeping overhead down. Nickelodeon and A&E and Discovery and USA network came along, and now most of us who have cable have access to dozens of channels if not hundreds. And some of them routinely carry material which might actually have gotten broadcasters arrested 40 years ago.

And that is also being sold overseas to other nations.

None of this stuff was being produced with the intent of delivering some sort of ideological message, but it turns out there is one, and it runs deep, and it's one of the big reasons it's popular in the world and why it is scorned by the elite everywhere.

The deep message is the essential philosophy of liberal humanism (with both words taking their traditional meaning). It is that you, a given person in the audience, don't have to like what you're told to like. You can, or should be able to, decide for yourself what you want to listen to, and what you want to think. You are an individual and not a cog in a machine; you don't have to slavishly do what you're told. You don't belong to anyone. You are not a slave. You can be, or should be, free to make your own decisions, to live the way you want to, and to not be punished for doing so.

You, the audience member who comes out of the lower class or caste, don't need to be ashamed of your background, nor do you need to think that you're automatically worth less than those in the upper classes. They're not inherently better than you; it's just that they have a lot of advantages you didn't have.

This is inherent in nearly every cultural product we sell, though it isn't necessarily intentional. This cultural product we offer wasn't produced to please the elite; we don't give a damn what the elite thinks. It was produced entirely to please the emerging middle class in the US, and those people nearly all came out of the lower classes.

A consistent theme in our TV shows and movies is the "principled loner", the guy who is more concerned with doing what's right than with following the rules. He is more dedicated to staying true to himself and his principles than with following the crowd, and if he thinks he needs to he'll act entirely alone in defiance of public opinion. If the system stands in his way, or if the system is the problem, he'll work around the system

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004