Once we understand that the American culture of the 1950s was far from being a monument to conformity and was actually a strong promoter of individualism, self-expression, and questioning of conventions, the origins of our present cultural schizophrenia become much clearer. We are still experiencing — and enduring — the consequences of the spread and intensification of the ’50s mentality throughout American society.
Certainly the “Do your own thing” mindset that was a by-product of this passion for individualism has had its disadvantages, and these continue to this day. In the sports world, for example, misdeeds abound. During just the past couple of months, various NBA players have been arrested for marijuana possession, assault on a police officer, pushing a female real-estate agent; and even rape. One recently pled guilty to a contempt charge in a federal perjury trial. At the college level, grading scandals abound, coaches have been fired for drunkenness and sexual misdeeds, and a Baylor University basketball player was murdered, with a former teammate emerging as top suspect.
Such things, of course, have always happened in America, Land of the Free, but their frequency increased significantly in the decades after the 1950s culture took hold, and rates have not declined much from their 1990s peak.
The culture still reflects this individualistic, rebellious mentality to a great extent. Today we have Hollywood stars liberally exercising their God-given right to protest against the Iraq war in ignorant and incendiary terms; actor Sean Penn even visited Iraq before the war and decried his country’s intentions there. Art installations demonstrate a deliberately increasing idiocy and repulsiveness. Colleges are well under the sway of a coterie of bullying, anti-American, anti-Western, and ultimately anti-civilization professors. Sleazy television programming is still highly popular. Journalistic standards are widely ignored at even the most prestigious outlets. Popular music is still in throes of the individualistic passion for ugliness and self-abandonment. Gambling is on the rise across the nation.
But then there are so many good signs. Cyclist Lance Armstrong overcame cancer to continue his streak of victories, now five, in the Tour de France bicycle race. Basketball star David Robinson gave several million dollars to start a private school for disadvantaged children. Melody is returning to popular music. Heroes are replacing antiheroes in movies. Decent TV programming is on the rise, including at the top five networks. Comedians such as Dennis Miller are pointedly questioning political and social orthodoxies that have stood for decades.
In the July 3, 2003, edition of The Christian Science Monitor, writer Gloria Goodale summarized some of these changes:
From popular music and TV to Hollywood movies and fine art, the importance of being earnest — last seen so definitively in America during Norman Rockwell’s era — is back in vogue, particularly among the young. In music, it’s heard in the heartfelt tunes of the band Coldplay and Texas chanteuse Norah Jones. On TV, dramas such as NBC’s American Dreams celebrate wholesome family values. Hollywood’s Legally Blonde 2 continues the “bright makes right” story of pretty-in-pink Elle Woods. . . . [I]n the art world, the public is flocking to shows in which beauty and cheeriness take precedence over the oh-so-’90s ironic or shocking.
At the “Matisse Picasso” retrospective in New York, curators have noted that the colorful, cheerful Matisse has drawn far more visitors than Picasso. And in Los Angeles, “Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse” showcases the passionate, bohemian context of the 20th-century artist and the sheer beauty of his work.
Goodale notes that the curator who organized the Montparnasse show described the artists’ time period (the early years of the 20th century) as “inherently optimistic and sincere.” The exhibitions are popular, said contemporary art curator Carol Eliel, because Matisse and Modigliani “are visually beautiful and fun to look at,” the story reports. “This is what people want to look at now.”
This attitude resonates particularly strongly with today’s young people. Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, director of Moulin Rouge, a cult hit among eighteen to twenty-five year-olds, said that this generation has seen it all and is not impressed. “They want something more meaningful, something from the heart,” said Luhrmann. “They’re tired of irony.” Author William Strauss, who works with high-school theater groups across the country, noted that young people want their stories to have traditional beginnings, middles, and endings.
Even clothing and grooming styles reflect this change. Unlike the ’60s generation, which effaced the differences between men and women by adopting long hair and creatively decorative clothing for all (though many men did wear facial hair), today’s styles differentiate the sexes strongly. Younger men today commonly wear beards, and many shave their heads. (Some wear earrings, of course, but given that they are worn with beards and short hair, these bits of jewelry do not make the men look in any way feminine.) Bodybuilding is a ubiquitous phenomenon among today’s younger males. Women wear their hair long, and many go in for lip and breast enhancement. Men wear huge gym shoes or clunky boots, and women show off their legs in miniskirts. (Real hippies, of course, didn’t wear them.) For women, softness is in, and for men, styles that project toughness are the hottest thing.
As noted earlier, however, there are plenty of unhappy things in both the culture and the society at large. Actually, there’s plenty of everything for everybody. As I noted four years ago in American Outlook (“The Everything Culture,” Summer 1999), today’s American culture is the world’s first omniculture, a place where you can find nearly anything your heart desires. From Puritanism to paganism, from depravity to piety, the Omniculture has a media-delivered lifestyle to help you Be All That You Can Be. While some rock-and-roll musicians are increasingly incorporating Christian spirituality into mainstream fare, there are numerous bands exploring the other end of the scale, such as Marilyn Manson, Rotting Christ, and Cannibal Corpse.
Cable and satellite television and the VCR began to break down the reigning cultural orthodoxies a couple of decades ago, and the personal computer, inexpensive digital storage media, and the Internet moved the process to the next level. The distinctions between different levels of culture, which were undermined by the 1950s culture of individualism and its consequent moral egalitarianism, and the media of the Omniculture have nearly erased those distinctions altogether. Cultural artifacts mix and match in bewildering profusion.
A new comic-book series by DC, creators of Superman and Batman way back when, illustrates this vividly. In the first episode of The Demon: Driven Out, the protagonist “cuts a deal with a cult of modern-day alchemists to divorce him from the Demon for good. But when the ceremony goes horribly wrong, Etrigan must mix it up with street racers and the Yakuza mob!”
The new film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on the comic book of the same name, functions similarly: several prominent characters from Edwardian-era fiction are mixed together in a fantastic story of adventure. Numerous television shows, comic books, novels, and other media products of our time do much the same thing.
What this all means is anybody’s guess. But because we are in an omniculture, it is unlikely to entail either a “return” to previous cultural eras or a “new” culture with no trace of what we experienced in the last several decades. There is no guarantee that the present American culture will ever again cohere as it is commonly believed to have done in the past. Then again, it can be argued that America has always had something of an Omniculture, thanks to the relatively great freedom Americans have always enjoyed, and that today’s world is only a more technologically advanced version of it.
Surely, however, there must be some sort of consensus in any society that merits the name. There certainly was such an agreement in America during the past half-century, even if it was only a passion for individualism and a consequent, grudging agreement to disagree. It seems likely that this accord is about to change, indeed has already begun to do so.
One suspects that the new culture will involve an increasing rejection of individualism and an embrace of what has come to be called communitarianism. As Neil Howe and William Strauss observed in their year 2000 book about today’s young people, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, “a new Millennial service ethic is emerging, built around notions of collegial (rather than individual) action, support for (rather than resistance against) civic institutions, and the tangible doing of good deeds.”
Exactly how these new attitudes will play out in culture, politics, society, and our individual lives, of course, is entirely up to us. That’s life in the Omniculture.
— S. T. Karnick is editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO contributor.