"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Prince On The Front Page? Of Course - In America Cultural Icons Always Trump Hard News

A conservative friend of mine was grousing over the coverage of the death of Prince (2016), especially its front page news. “As if there weren’t other things to feature”.


She didn’t get it.  The coverage of Prince’s death was not a comic interlude – the brief pauses in the seriousness of events that Shakespeare always included in his tragedies to give his audiences a break– but a true reflection of the American ethos, culture, and image that the world has come to expect.
Europeans may think us a nation of bullies, ignorant and naïve exceptionalists, faux adventurers, and petty bourgeois content with Walmart and fast food; but they too miss the point. 

Donald Trump is not some twisted caricature of Las Vegas and Hollywood.  He is Beverly Hills and The Strip – a circus performer, vaudevillian, star of stage, screen, and television, hero to those who love his glitz, bimbos, and gaudy towers.  We in our love of reality TV, People Magazine, E!, McMansions, show trials, WWE,  and celebrity chefs are not just as outrageously tacky.  We made Donald Trump possible.  We are him.


Most reporting in the mainstream media is about sideline issues which make good headlines.  Balance of trade; diplomatic negotiations with Syria, Turkey, and Russia; and the legal, historical, moral, and ethical subtexts underlying race, immigration, abortion, and civil rights do not make good copy.  Bathrooms, violent political protests, tabloid stories about Planned Parenthood and dismembered babies; and endless feel-good stories about poverty, urban misery, lost children, blight, and injustice sell papers.

Why is it that our most respected journals have resorted to such coverage? Where is the Washington Post of Watergate fame, or the New York Times of The Pentagon Papers?  Because we love dreck and will pay to read it.  Because dreck requires no in-depth reporting or analysis.  Because no one really cares about the complexities of energy supply, the intricacies of financial markets, or the religious foundations of conflict.

This explanation begs the question, however.  The real issue is how we have become a more plastic-minded, image-driven society than we ever were?  Yes, of course there have always been snake-oil salesmen, carny barkers, and big tent evangelists since the founding of the Republic; but not like this.  A number of factors have contributed to our dumbing down.

The first is the exponential growth of the Internet which has become the breeding ground for exaggerated images, hyperbole, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and pandering.  The Internet was meant for a generation weaned and bred on Hollywood fantasy, fast-and-loose facts, sexual allure, glitz, glitter, and big egos.  Because we are Hollywood at heart, and fantasy always trumps fact, then the Internet - free and open to more fanciful ideas than the studios could ever have thought of – is the perfect medium for us.


The Internet allows us to create our own Hollywood fantasies.  We can write anything, photo-shop our Facebook portraits, mix fact and fiction in our posts and stories enhancing our appeal and legitimacy; and subscribe to causes, movements, and political groupings according to desire rather than rational commitment.  We then have two personas – the invented, fanciful one so carefully curated on Facebook; and the real, shy, overweight, insecure, rather dim real one.

Virtual reality which will allow us to discard facts altogether and live in a fanciful world which we have created out of our dreams and desires, mediated together with billions of other fancies and illusions, will be the final Hollywooding of America.


Another reason for our focus if not obsession on image is ‘political demographics’.  Not only is America more varied in its racial and ethnic composition than ever before, but that identity politics and a culture of ‘diversity’ have eroded the national fabric so carefully woven by Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams that there is no longer a common cultural core around which to frame, define, and debate issues that affect not only the individual but the republic.  If we have been conditioned to believe than only our causes matter whether gay, black, Latino, women, disabled, disenfranchised, abused; and taught that confrontation, contention, and protest are the best ways to get media attention and political consideration of our grievances, of course we will Hollywood it.

The lack of civic or political harmony today did not just happen.  It was the result of an increasingly economically and socially diverse population, forced into ethnic and racial ghettoes not by discrimination but by calls to celebrate diversity.

The combination of an image culture already willing to suspend rational judgment, and a diversity culture in which hundreds of sub-groups feel they must howl to get attention is heady and lethal to coherent reflection.

Perhaps the most telling reason for Americans’ easy acceptance of the beautiful, the glamorous, and the seductive is because our version of popular culture is the world’s. it is what everyone wants.  Despite French cries of cultural imperialism, no one forced every movie-goer from Chad to the Orkneys to prefer Hollywood over anything home-grown or regional. 

The French may have played an important role in updating cinema with The New Wave, interior films like Hiroshima Mon Amour, political dramas like The Battle of Algiers, and subtle movies about sexuality, intellectual art films are passé; but Hollywood rules the day.  Europeans, Asians, and Africans want our movies because they – like all people – are bourgeois at heart.


The difference is that other cultures still consider movies apart from their lives – escapes, temporary fantasies in a world of metro, boulot, dodo, and a pleasant way to spend an evening.   In America Hollywood is pervasive.  Its fantasy is in our blood.  We have been conditioned by, demand, respond to, and expand its ethos.

Only educated senior citizens complain about the purple Prince front-page stories.  The rest of us implicitly, instinctively know, that Prince is the real news and that farm subsidies, derivatives, the decline of the Euro, and North Korea or not. 

Any of these serious issues could make it to the front page if – and only if – there are some graphic images or human interest stories to go along with them.  The execution of Daniel Pearl, the American journal killed by Pakistani extremists, an event that reflected the growing political dysfunction of Pakistan, the growth of Islamic terrorism, and questioned the already dubious ties the United States continues to maintain with that country – but it didn’t.  The most notable outcome?  A Hollywood movie., A Mighty Heart.


The image of Alexander Hamilton was permitted to stay on the $10 bill (and replaced by more modern icons of American politics) because of the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton, a show which limits any serious treatment of his ideas (how to sing about the Department of the Treasury?) and focuses on his personal life.


The institutionalization of Hollywood popular culture in America is a given.  We could not generate so many films for the rest of the world if fantasy, image, and emotional simplicity were not in our veins.  It is a win-win situation, really.  Movie-goers get what they want.  Americans can be proud of their influential and financially rewarding export; and the world can take its mind of serious things for a while.  Or in our case, permanently.

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