A Dour Cultural Week
Cultural events have done little to raise the spirits during this dour winter season. To the contrary, the culture, to the extent that one can speak of it as having motives, is definitely exploring the end of the continuum that has to do with the sad and pointless. Some recent events suggest that will remain the case until the cultural weather, like the atmospheric weather, breaks in four to six weeks after yesterday’s Groundhog Day.
First, Downton Abbey, which still claims the interest of everyone I know, even though it was never as good as The West Wing or Mad Men, or a standard PBS production of Persuasion, which also deals with the disposition of an estate and family intrigue while doing nothing with the downstairs staff, who would be far less interesting than they are on Downton. Moreover, the serial has lately descended into a parody of itself, the characters all caricatures of themselves, indicating how limited people were back then, in the Twenties, with their bare and grudging acceptance of the most elemental of modern ways, whether technological or social. The height of this week’s episode was that the niece of the family, living with them because she is difficult to manage, is caught kissing a black musician whose otherwise all white band had played at the manor, the music performance scandalous enough to raise eyebrows and allow pauses while the aristocrats and the house staff caught up with the fact well enough so that they could be pleased with their liberality, something amusing to the audience who would find it quaint that anyone would object to a black musician, while Lady Mary is left with the dilemma of what to do about the secret kiss, whether to reveal it or not and what to think about it. That was the cliffhanger.
All this is quite repellant to someone like myself who remembers Emmett Till being tortured and executed in Fifties Mississippi for having whistled at a white girl while visiting relatives,very far away from his home in Chicago. I guess it is a good thing that we can make fun of people who are put off by interracial mingling, but it is untrue to what was the case, even if there were no lynchings in Yorkshire. Like the Second World War, the Civil Rights Era will not be over until I am dead, and so I won’t make light of the prejudices, especially about sex, that held such sway back then, much less in the Twenties, which were the high point of the revival of the Klan. The series is becoming increasingly frivolous, as is perhaps inevitable for a television series when it runs out of steam.
The second desultory event this week was the Superbowl. The game itself was so overwhelmingly one sided that the best that could be said for it was that it supplied a clear story line in a production that would have seemed to not to have cared whether it conveyed any love for the game of football, given as it was to unrelenting noise and quick cuts between commercials and the field and constant voiceovers by the sports announcers about forthcoming events on the Fox network. And so many of the commercials were about the voosh voosh of automobiles as if all drives were taking part in an action movie. I liked Dinah Shore singing, “See the USA in your Chevrolet”.
The unrelenting pace of the Superbowl is very curious because even World Series games allow a viewer to get into the game itself aside from the hype of it being a World Series game, and I daresay that my wife likes the ice skating however much I declare that all it seems good for is selling commercial time and, as in The Catcher in the Rye, showing off the rumps of girls. But the Superbowl was, all of it, a highlight reel, in that it had none of the ebb and flow of a sporting event. I like that baseball players stand around pounding their gloves and moving around behind the runner on first or second while the pitcher checks the bases and reads signals and prepares to pitch. That is multitasking I can envy. The stretches of eventless time make the moments of excitement all the more thrilling, while the Superbowl coverage robs the game of the cycle of preparation, play and then the setting of a new play based on what has just happened. That is not multitasking though it is a fast sequence that makes silly the idea that there are only eleven minutes of play time in a football game. It is all play time--except for the commercials.
Then there is the Tiger Mother and her (Jewish) husband plugging their new book on which immigrant groups are successful and why. It is a controversial subject because the thesis goes contrary to the platitude that everyone has an equal chance to succeed and that it is prejudicial to think some groups are better at mastering the rat race of upward mobility than are others. They know they will be criticized, and so taking along her husband is a good defensive maneuver: she obviously is in favor of more ethnic groups than just her own. Now it happens that what they say is unexceptionable and covered in every introductory sociology text and course I am aware of during the week that ethic relations are discussed. But I was aware, when I taught that material, that it was contrary to accepted wisdom and that students had not previously considered what were the historical circumstances under which various ethnic groups came to this country, and what were the cultural resources they brought with them, and what the process of immigrating itself contributed to the making of a golden window of two generations or so when fast rising immigrant groups would make headway. Nobody remembers what they learned in Freshman Sociology, which is the sad message of this story, and so it is worth reintroducing if only to make people a bit more aware of the social forces that impinge on individual life, even one as keenly felt as one’s own ethnicity. So this was a relative upper during this dourful week: a bit of public education.
Less enlightening were the Sunday shows. The host on Meet the Press, David Gregory, asked the President’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, why the President has not been given enough credit for what the chief of staff sees as all these foreign policy successes. Knowing the rules of the game,McDonough did not answer by saying that the moderator was in a better position than he to know why talk show hosts insist that the President’s foreign policy has been feckless. McCain and left over Neo-Conservatives like Bill Kristol may want to start another war in the Mid-East, but the American people certainly don't. I think, on my part, that we should be thanking Obama every day for keeping us out of war in Syria, Bahrain and Egypt and other places yet another day. The United States couldn't possibly make a difference; we would get blamed for everything; and there would be body bags coming home. I don't know why Obama is not more praised for his forbearance. But that is not a new story.
All of these items are just bits of flavor that contribute to the overall taste of the moment,
“taste” meaning both the idea of what it feels like, a social sense equivalent to the taste for food, and taste also in the sense of a judgment about what is worthwhile, as in a taste in clothes or manners. We have no general formula whereby to understand how matters of taste arise or how they are related to other matters, only that cultural tastes have their ebb and flow, like ball games, and so we look at their components to get a sense of them, like a cook who can sense what are the spices used in a dish concocted by someone else. We retreat here to Hume’s notion of taste as a judgment about what lies underneath without knowing what it is that does lie underneath. Cultural studies are in their infancy, even if the sociological study of ethnic groups by and large has all the tools it needs.