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The End of our Culture?

How little we've really changed in the past 50 years.

by James Leroy Wilson
June 22, 2010

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The End of our Culture?

About twenty years ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote a ground-breaking paper on "The End of History." His thesis is that the democratic capitalist ideology has triumphed, and that there will be no new threats to it.

People can look back and laugh at how wrong he was. They assume that "9/11 changed everything" and that history was going to last a little longer.

I'm not convinced, however, that 9/11 proved Fukuyama wrong. He did not say there would be no more conflicts and struggles; there would still be a lot of mopping up to do before history ended.

I do think, however, that Fukuyama missed the mark in three key areas.

First, the explosive growth and heavy migration of Muslims into Western lands could change the dynamics and politics of the West. I'm not suggesting they are all extremists or fundamentalists, but rather that they do not have the secular outlook of the West and there's no reason to assume they'll suddenly embrace our culture once they get a flat screen with two hundred channels.

Second, in opposition to the West's democratic capitalism is China's bureaucratic nationalism. Unlike Soviet communism that was still rooted in European philosophy, the people of the East do not share the West's individualistic instincts. I do not assume that China will necessarily collapse or dissolve under the weight of its authoritarianism.

Third, the internal contradictions of fiat money and the Welfare State suggest that the West can just as easily fall apart as the USSR did (see Greece). I would have more confidence in "democratic capitalism" if it was fully committed to personal responsibility and economic freedom.

Having said these things, I look around and wonder if Fukuyama was on to something. "History" may not have ended quite yet, but what about culture? It seems like it "ended," or at least is in a rut.

June 20 marked the 35th anniversary of the release of Jaws. According to Wikipedia, it was the first movie with a nationwide release and national advertising campaign, and it was the most successful movie of all time -up to that point. Star Wars, released two years later, had an even bigger impact.

Hollywood was never the same again.

But since then, Hollywood hasn't really changed. Most of the "groundbreaking" films of the past thirty years are technical marvels of the Jaws/Star Wars mold, and almost none of them are as well-written and well-acted as Jaws. The comedies follow the pattern of Airplane! or Animal House. What makes someone like Quentin Tarantino exceptional is, well, he's an exception. For the most part, the movies we see today are not much different from movies we've seen before.

(Maybe in this movie, the heroine's best friend is a gay guy, whereas in the last movie the gay guy's funny lines were delivered by a profanity-laced, wise-cracking grandmother. It's still the same damn movie - called a "romantic comedy" - that we watch, over and over again.)

Music isn't much different either. Does the Top 40 really sound different from the Top 40 of a decade ago? What feats of engineering and re-mixing have changed the way we experience popular music? Nine years ago, Steve Sailer advanced the idea  that the number of really good, catchy tunes is limited. We're not hearing the next Beatles because the Beatles already wrote those songs. And yet, we're still listening to the same tired genres.

Saturday Night Live broke new ground in 1975. Today, it's an institution. The Simpsons broke new ground when it debuted in 1990. Twenty years later, it's still around. Reality television broke out ten years ago with Survivor. Ten years later, people still watch it, just as they watch American Idol - which has produced just a few superstars - most of whom didn't even win.

Does anyone know when the last ground-breaking or culture-changing novel was written?

The Internet and mobile gadgets keep more of us entertained more often, but unless one gets kicks out of video games or mixed martial arts, there aren't new or groundbreaking forms of entertainment. Fashions come and go in one sense, but in another sense everyone still wears blue jeans. People still use drugs and still get arrested. There are more open homosexuals and pornography is more available, but these were to be expected from the long-term trends. There is also more legal gambling, but only because it raises money for the State. There is still no nudity or profanity on commercial television.

The house, the yard, the car, the garage - in concept, these are no different from fifty years ago. The gas stations off the interstates are cleaner with a wider variety of junk food, but I wouldn't call that cultural transformation. The flying cars and moon bases aren't even on the drawing board. (Going to the moon appears to be a more expensive and more daunting task than it was in the 1960's - hmmm.) While we have Star Trek-style communicators (cell phones), video phone conversation tools (e.g., Skype) are still new.

Sure, we look it up on Wikipedia instead of asking the reference librarian. But in essence, Americans drive and watch television - just as they did fifty years ago.

All of this raises a question - what if Fukuyama is proven right after all? What if we weather the economic storm, the Muslim immigrants embrace secularism, and China democratizes?

Is this all there is? New generations rising up, each grasping to find new ways to be amused, forever?

In one sense, this kind of world seems empty and meaningless. In another, more enlightened sense, it's still far better than anything else we've experienced. Lives of relative peace and relative prosperity are to be preferred to lives torn by war and burdened by poverty.

But I get the feeling broad changes are in store.

Think of American culture as broken up into 50-year segments. Of course, there would be contributing antecedents and lingering elements after each segment phased out. But consider:

  • 1765-1815 (from the Stamp Act to the end of the War of 1812): Struggle to establish and maintain Independence
  • 1815-1865 (to the end of the Civil War): Sectionalism, expansion
  • 1865-1913 (to the creation of the Federal Reserve, direct Election of Senators and Income Tax Amendments): Settlement of the West, rise of big cities, waves of immigration
  • 1913-63 (to JFK assassination):  Creation of the permanent Welfare-Warfare State
  • 1963-??? Social upheaval, consumerism

Major changes may be headed our way in just a few years, altering the way we think about ourselves, our nation, or our planet. The end of the consumerist culture may well be at hand. It will be up to each of us to make the best of any changes that may come.

Me? I'm just waiting to see if they finally make a movie that's better than Jaws.

Comments (4)

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James Schwartz from Toronto, Canada writes:
June 22, 2010
Great article and interesting perspective!

We always talk about how fast things are changing with technology, but it's so true that many aspects of our culture have been stagnate for quite some time.

One could also argue that the Chinese government is starting to move more towards democracy with the various methods of communication introduced in the last decade or so. I mean, the government needs to keep its people happy and it's harder now to censor people with the different methods of communication we have now. I would argue it's just a different way of implementing a democracy.

I think the next big cultural shift will be urbanization and people starting to move away from single occupancy motor vehicles. But then again, this isn't "groundbreaking" in comparison to cultural changes that have happened in the last 50 years.

PECB writes:
June 23, 2010
"(Going to the moon appears to be a more expensive and more daunting task than it was in the 1960's - hmmm.) "

Actually not.

It's a solved engineering problem, and not all that monetarily expensive in real terms. The impediment has been state interference, and downright supression -- of which there are a variety of reasons, though primarily it's a preservation of power thing (think "ultimate high-ground").

Ayn R. Key from http://aynrkey.blogspot.com writes:
June 23, 2010
Last truly groundbreaking novel? Probably "Stranger in a Strange Land" which caused a religion to be founded on the philosophy in the book.

Puzzled from Westbrook, CT writes:
July 22, 2010
Hmm, I'd say another sci fi writer achieved much more as far as building an effective, growing religion.

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