The media circus over “hockey mom” Sarah Palin–at the expense of any real examination of where she stands on the issues–might be causing a serious rise in your blood pressure. But the superficiality of mainstream media coverage is just one of the many annoyances Americans confront on a daily basis. From the clueless jerk who bumps into you while tapping away on his Blackberry to the spam pouring into your inbox, we’re constantly irritated by market-obsessed and gadget-driven culture.
Veteran journalist Dick Meyer has been writing about Americans’ disenchantment with their own culture for years. As a self-described “professional bullshit hunter,” Meyer produced a segment called “Reality Check” for The CBS Evening News in the late ’90s. On the hunt for fakery and fraud, he found phoniness lurking not just in the high offices on Capitol Hill but on buses, airplanes, sidewalks and, most of all, in the media, the ubiquitous marketing machine he dubs “Omnimedia.”
I spoke with him recently about what is it exactly that makes us “hate us” and where do we go from here.
Who is the “we” and who is the “us” in Why We Hate Us?
“We” is we in everyday life–as parents, as partners, as colleagues, as bosses, as consumers, as citizens, as news readers. And the “us” is a collective “us,” not just the public culture of politics, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Wall Street but us as we behave in public. It is the “us” we see in restaurants when the person at the table next to us starts wailing into a cell phone, or the “us” that is hogs the left lane on the highway or cuts us off in traffic. I’m referring to the “us” as how we comport ourselves in public, whether we’re public people or private people.
You mention the huge response you received to your CBSNews.com columns on this subject and how these responses show a nearly universal frustration with the direction of American culture. But do you really think that people who wear diamonds at PTA meetings or drive incredibly expensive cars are going to be open to your message?
I don’t think I’ve encountered anybody who isn’t open to the message. What is universally true about human beings is that it is easier for us to spot unpleasant behavior in others than to recognize it in ourselves, and in our families and friends. So I honestly can tell you that I haven’t encountered anybody who’s looked at my book and said that they think I’m nuts.
Many people think I’m cranky, curmudgeonly and hopelessly nostalgic, but they all know what I mean and they all can relate. Everybody has their own different measure of what is tasteful and what is ostentatious, what is rude and what is not. I have had a lot of people re-examine things they do, and at least think about what they might have previously considered to be trivial choices–consumer choices, like what kind of car they buy or how much time they spend watching TV–in new ways. Do I have any grand illusions about how many people will do that? No. Examining our choices is a difficult thing to do, and we all have busy lives. I think people, especially as parents, are incredibly conscious of trying to resist what they think of as toxic forces in the prevailing culture.