America's Love/Hate Relationship With Itself
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.
It's difficult to do and people disagree on what their enemies are, what their pet peeve list is. But it's a pervasive feeling. I think that everybody hates a lot of things. Nobody hates everything. We don't all hate the same things, and the "hate" that I'm talking about, it's not red meat "hate." It's sort of a low-grade irritation, a social infection that can be treated with Neosporen, it doesn't need super-antibiotics. It's not a cruel hate, people don't hate each other as individuals.
One of the things American seem to particularly hate is their extreme dependence on portable electronic gadgets. This is a phenomenon of just the last few years, but it is much less ubiquitous the further away you get from cities and suburbs. Do you feel that it is easier to find authenticity in a rural setting?
I think it's easier to find authenticity where there is organic community regardless of whether it's rural or urban. I think it is in human relationships and community with a small "c," not an idealistic sense of community but simply knowing the people you live around. Living near your family, knowing the merchants around you so you can form relationships, and having intergenerational relationships, is what I'm talking about. Wherever that occurs people are more likely to have a life that feels un-phony, that feels natural, that feels authentic and that creates contentment and happiness. So the enemy of authenticity in that regard is mobility--geographic mobility. Therefore, the places where you're least likely to find it and where you're most likely to find the discontents of phoniness are fast growth areas--exurbs and suburbs. Old urban neighborhoods, old suburban neighborhoods and rural neighborhoods are where you're most likely to find a sense of authenticity.
In your book you cite studies that show that consumers actually buy less when they are confronted with an overabundance of choices. Why do you think this is true?
Too many options create anxiety, It's understandable, it's something everybody instinctively knows. But it's almost like a consumerist indoctrination program that we're on--a treadmill of consumerism--so they're always jiggling products so something is marginally different than it used to be or different than the similar product. And somehow we feel compelled to track this, we pay attention and it just takes up head space in a really destructive way. You don't have to be a Buddhist to feel frustrated about this. You can be a happy hard-working capitalist or whatever, and still see the absurdity of commercial culture in this country. In fact, I think you have to be either a goofy cheerleader or an ostrich to not find it unappealing.
The sexualization of girls in marketing has been discussed quite a lot, as well as the use of the beauty myth to target women's insecurities and get them to buy more product. But you bring up something less discussed in modern marketing critiques--the "moronization" of boys. What is this phenomenon and how is it getting young males to spend more money and at the same time disconnect from their true natures?
There's a new kind of character that you see everywhere in commercial media and in pop culture, he's in TV commercials, in movies and in sitcoms. It's the young man as oaf--as a beer-swilling, TV-obssessed, Gameboy-addicted, mannerless lummox. Beer ads absolutely glorify this character. There's this one sequence, I think it's Ted Ferguson, Beer Daredevil, and he does these amazingly moronic things. For instance, he tries to skip football and beer on a Sunday to go shopping with his girlfriend but it turns out to be an act of heroism that he can't actually accomplish.
Or you have a series of movies by Judd Apatow like 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, where the male characters basically haven't left boyhood. These are men who have reached their 20s or their 30s but they're literally like virgins, or children. This is the way males are being portrayed and marketed to, and it's every bit as destructive as the sexploitation of females in marketing. It's a little harder to tie it to this chain of consumerist behavior, but it's easy to tie it to what you might call a kind of sluggishness in the performance of young men. College admissions now are 57-58 percent female, which doesn't reflect the population. For some reason the allure of certain kinds of technology, of video games, TV, Gameboys and handheld gadget toys is higher for males. I don't know whether that fact is a result of marketing and is commercially created. But I do know that it is a real vulnerability and I think it's a social cost we're not paying enough attention to.
Is it possible to be a consumer of media and popular culture--be part of this modern world--and still maintain authenticity, character and manners? How do we know when to unplug?
I think the first thing you have to do is commit to two things, and both of them are pains in the neck. We must be self-aware and self-conscious about media and consumer choices, and then must continue to make an effort on a sustained basis. I have enormous faith in the capacity of individuals and families to do that, but there should be no illusions that it won't take time and effort to step back and think about it and then repeat. It takes discipline to use the "off" button, to unplug, to be more discreet as a media consumer and as a material consumer, and to budget our time differently to make more room for the stuff that we all know in our hearts is more important. And those things are basically other people, our relationships to them, and things that contribute to other people--to giving rather than taking. It's an ancient recipe, really, it's just hard to follow in this ultra-busy kitchen of life today.
In the book you talk about the "potential for evil" in our new connected technologies. For instance, because of e-mail and blogs (and their comments) people are empowered to be much crueler to each other than they would be when speaking face to face or even over the phone. It's true there is a lack of personal responsibility when using the Internet, but of course it also has so much potential for good. How can someone who strives for authenticity in their life reconcile this?
I don't think the technology is intrinsically good or evil, what's important is how it is used. I do think that new communications technology for some reason has an addictive quality, an immersive quality. It's an extraordinary time-sink, and that's one of its greatest challenges. There's also something about being behind the screen of technology, on the other side of an e-mail, that allows us to use our manners less and to be more boorish. What's weird is that this is translating into how we act when we're in public--the touching technology. So we can be completely oblivious to people around us physically when we are using a Blackberry, it's as if we're in a different room. What all of that points to again is that we need to be more mindful of how we use technology and probably be a bit more obnoxious about how we allow people to behave around us. I mean my children live in fear of me as a sort of manners and technology vigilante. And when people take out their Blackberries at dinner or at parties, I'm on them.
You spend some time talking about hypocrisy in the book, and making the distinction between phonies versus hypocrites. How are these two different?
On one level there are people who put themselves actively forward in public life as role models, as exemplars, as leaders, in their life both public and private--who then are revealed later to be phonies by their actions. Mark Foley led a group in Congress to protect children from sexual predators, but he was one. Bill Bennett wrote books about virtues but he was a big gambler. On a different level are people who just have minor hypocrisies in their lives, which is most of us, but who don't set themselves out as exemplars in their private and public life. This can still be a problem of course. People can say that I'm a hypocrite about any number of things, I have used my cell phone rudely in public, I have used my Blackberry for evil, not good. Like most humans, I am hypocritical on many levels. Unfortunately, what we have in society now--especially for people who venture into the public arena at all--is this cannibalistic impulse to tear down people for the most minor hypocrisies. We enjoy it, it's like blood sport. But as a result people are more reluctant to enter the public square and we end up with people of less quality in public life. I believe this impulse to tear down the hypocrites is so strong because we are so surrounded by true phoniness. We all have our little inconsistencies, what's important is to avoid the big time phoniness and to call it out with gusto when we see it.
Your chapter on "The Character Gap" laments the fact that we no longer have any true heroes or leaders with character in our society. Do you think that Barack Obama has the potential to be such a leader in our time for some people? Why have our heroes disappeared?
I might have failed to make it clear in the book that I think people of great character, honor and heroism still exist and probably in the same proportion as to any other time in history. What I'm wondering about is if we are capable of recognizing great character anymore because we learn about it through the media. And I don't know if modern media--this Cuisinart of marketing and info-schmutz--can communicate character anymore, because everything just gets swirled up into this whirl of celebrity and fame in media. So, I don't know if we can perceive character in leaders when it does exist.
My belief is that both Obama and McCain are men of high character. I think in many ways the country is lucky to have these two candidates and that people should be able to recognize this, regardless of whether they agree with either candidate on the issues. But I'm finding it almost impossible to hold to this position in a twenty-three-month-long campaign. That's because the tactics that they both are using, the ads that they're running, the little games that they're playing, are so ignoble. It's like there's no choice but to get down into the gutter. And I think that is the tragic dilemma of politics as a vocation today. Is it possible to maintain power without completely giving up both character, and actually the ability to govern? It's an ancient question.
You seem to seek a middle pathway between the self-indulgent new-agey Me Generation approach to life and the hard-edged moral superiority of religious conservatism. But where is the fun in your approach to a life well-lived?
I think it's absolutely the most fun way because it appreciates the incredible diversity and wild pluralism of what human beings do in best possible light. I mean it is taking joy in the "pluribus" of e pluribus unum without a lot of the sanctimony that we think of when we consider the politics of identity or multiculturalism. In terms of the simple philosophy of life, what it says is that there is so much to enjoy. There's an incredible plethora of virtues and goods to pursue. The ironic truth of "I gotta be me, I gotta reinvent me, I gotta discover me" is that this is a terrible recipe for happiness. When everything is turned in on yourself, it caves in.
It's much more fun to try to get sustenance from the outside world and from other people. For those who need certainty, for those who need something that is catholic--with a small "c"--it's kind of like you either have it or you don't. It's hard to choose that, and people who choose to become new converts can be very zealous. So, I would say that it's dangerous to buy into a belief system that doesn't come naturally, and in this modern world if you are actually blessed with a belief system, you need to use it responsibly because it collides with others. So, yes, I think this a route to fun. No Sweat.