The Common Good
June 1994

Pop Culture

by David Batstone, Bill Smith | June 1994

What's faith got to do with it?

No mistake about it, there is a revolution going on in the way people communicate and receive information in this country. Conventional media outlets are suffering drastic declines in their constituency. The percentage of people under 35 who say they "read a newspaper yesterday" plunged from 67 percent in 1965 to 30 percent in 1990. The same age group admits getting one-third of its political information from late-night entertainment shows.

But it is not just the young who are tuning out network news in favor of cable channel-surfing (perhaps catching snippets on CNN in between TV sitcoms) or who turn to the movies for help in making some sense of their personal lives. Increasingly, the lingua franca of U.S. social life is popular culture: politics, personal expression, and entertainment all rolled into one.

Though many of us might grieve these changes, none of us can afford to ignore them. Religious and political movements now must communicate and influence in their wake. If they do not, they risk losing a generation, and perhaps eventually maybe even a voice. Popular culture is here to stay; just wait, the "information highway" will soon run straight through your living room!

Our feature section is self-consciously a construction of popular culture. (Could it be otherwise? Rule #1 of pop culture: "The medium is the message.") The "frame of the house" is a dialogue between myself and Bill Smith, an African-American gay liberationist. We "sample" a diversity of images, voices, lifestyles, attitudes, political rhetoric, and public events. Into our dialogue will be spliced remarks from a host of voices who will add rooms, bend 2 by 4s, tear down walls, embellish designs, and tighten the structure Bill and I have pieced together.

Didactic argument is utilized only occasionally in the text itself. Persuasion is more fully played out in the mix of images and the "bass line" that lies beneath the text. Our aim is to draw the reader "into the house," not to describe the "house" objectively from the outside. Once "inside," the reader’s vision can never be exactly the same. (Rule #2 of pop culture: Every new image will adjust the lens you use to see the world, if ever so slightly.) —David Batstone

Batstone: Michael Jordan retires from basketball at the peak of his career. A living legend just wakes up and decides he has had enough. Enough? Of what? Most of us drones push on day and night for just a small slice of his American Dream. Sure, money is part of it. But it is also the fame. "Air Jordan." "Be like Mike." "Dream Team." See a hoop and you will find a kid making a strong move to the basket and thinking Jordan. Spread his fame evenly across our nation and everyone really would get their Warholian 15 minutes.

Mike walks and takes his basketball home with him. Now that is news. It pushed a few stories to the bottom of page one in my San Francisco daily. A Marine’s corpse has been dragged through the streets of Somalia and Congress debates U.S. military presence. Yeltsin speaks on Russian television for the first time since the storming of the parliament and announces that elections will happen. A bipartisan coalition of conservatives proposes an alternative health care reform to Clinton’s. None of these stories can compete with His Airness.

I made a joke about the lead story to my neighbor whom I ran into picking up his own newspaper. Jerry, an upwardly mobile salesperson from solid working-class stock, failed to see the irony. "Hey, people are tired of bad news," he said, then quickly added, "Anyhow, there’s nothing wrong with being entertained."

Now, I hate to admit that I learned something about culture from a man who spends the weekend fixing his television aerial so he can pick up the Rush Limbaugh show. But there was a ring of truth to Jerry’s comment. News is entertainment. It is handled, spun, sanitized, massaged, and manufactured. No event is self-interpreting. Somalia no less than Michael Jordan. Then, before it gets to my front porch, it is sensationalized, personalized, packaged, and marketed.

SO POPULAR CULTURE is all about interest. Public interests demand, consumer interests are produced, material interests are served.

That is why popular culture is so intriguing. Power is forever trying to control it, use it, channel it. But it can never completely be tamed. Fresh and dissident images can spontaneously spring up like weeds.

Which brings me back to Jordan. A poor kid from North Carolina shoots the ball straight and suspends himself in the air like a spider. He becomes a cultural icon, then a breathing, moving advertisement for a list of products longer than his arm span. (McDonald’s law: A cultural phenomenon will become a sales phenomenon. Exhibit A: Who ever thought we would see "X" hats selling next to Mickey Mouse ears at K-Mart?) That Mike is willing to take his own icon down off the wall—at least for the moment—sends us reeling. Maybe he finally is doing what we have suspected him of all along, defying the laws of gravity (better yet, the gravity of the market).

Smith: Running from Jordan into the Reginald Denny trial. It sure is funny seeing so many black folk on TV and in all the print media. When I was a kid I never saw anything about black folk until Martin Luther King. I never saw a black man beating up a white man. And here we are.

Take the Denny trial. We were treated to video clip after video clip of the Los Angeles riot scene. Denny smashed in the head with a brick, another man is kicked and stomped while lying helplessly on the ground. Now that’s entertainment. So is the analysis of the trial, repeated verbatim on channel after channel, building the suspense to a feverish pitch.

Will there be "unrest" (read riot) over the result? Can justice be served? Whose justice? This is LA, the land of Watts, Yorty, Parker, Gates, and 60 percent black male unemployment. History keeps on intruding, even when the media attempt to forbid it.

The trial is over. White folks calling into radio stations, frightened to death because a black man was not sentenced to life imprisonment for beating a white man. What is this world coming to, niggers so uppity they can do anything they want and get away with it. Where is justice?

Now back to the show in progress, Cops. The camera is on six cops crashing into a suspected drug dealer’s house, dragging people to the ground, removing all traces of humanity from them. It’s a rodeo. Only in this one the animals don’t stand a chance. Five people arrested for selling $200 worth of crack cocaine. They’ll probably get 20 years for possession with intent to kill. You want justice? Television will give you justice.

Why can’t this black man just turn it off?

Batstone: So you have a hard time tuning it out? Is that what makes it popular culture? Like Chevy Chase getting cancelled after several false starts out of the blocks is "unpopular" culture.

I suppose in part that is frightfully true in the United States. Even if we are not on the cutting edge, most of us are at least vaguely aware of what is "in" and what is "out." Take some of the most trivial lifestyle decisions. Why do so many of us wear jeans (black ones if you’re postmodern) rather than plaid polyester pants? It is the people who are really "in"—actors, musicians, models, etc.—who are most likely to wear a bright plaid number from time to time. Then it is cool for the rest of us to follow their lead, at least for a while. (Was anyone else amused that those old lumberjack shirts we had in our closets were recently hip gear again after Northern Exposure-mania teamed up with the Nirvana/grunge rock scene to "discover" a new look?)

Of course, most of us do not have the time or desire to run around making fashion statements. But we do want at least to avoid looking like nerds, and jeans are a safe bet .

Don’t get me wrong, popular culture is more than fashion and entertainment. It just often seems that way in a consumer society so dominated by media outlets. Culture happens whether TV cameras are there to report it or not. It naturally flows out of human community. Randomly throw a group of people together and they will create a culture. They will form beliefs, limits, desires, establish institutions, lay down acceptable behaviors, find a language, and tell stories.

In the real world, of course, we are thrown into a culture that already exists. We get scripts at birth. The drama of community life is how those scripts are acted out, as well as the struggles over how to rewrite the story line. And the cursed thing is we can never just throw the script away, even if we don’t like the way it was written. We are all stuck on this stage we call history.

What makes a piece of culture "popular"? That is the unpredictable part, the element of transcendence. Now, I hesitate to classify either Madonna or Cheers as transcendent. But they, like all other products of popular culture, move beyond the singular imagination and tap roots that feed a collective social mind. Their images fit, represent, speak, titillate. With unique intensity, popular culture absorbs images and events and sends them back into the world, altogether altered and disguised. It both mirrors the society and modifies it.

Back to Cops and all the other "real life" police dramas. Justice is one side of the coin. The flip side is anxiety. Injustice breeds conflict breeds anxiety. The middle class on up the ladder is freaked out about crime and personal violence. A few rappers come along and point guns at cops (Ice-T) and a president (Paris). Who among us is safe? Lawlessness and disorder reign. Anxiety mounts. Law-and-order sitcoms put the world back together again. Peace through strength. Eliminate the bad apples. Just say k(no)w your enemy—he is usually poor and black.

Now the funny bit. White suburban teen-agers are consuming rap like it came with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion, and a sesame seed bun. Rebellion? Alienation? A righteous beat? Ebony and ivory? You tell me.

Smith: It’s really all in the mix. It’s time for me to get in my Blues licks. Time for me to find that back bass beat. Like what is driving this car that I can’t get out of, can’t turn off, can’t stop? Like what is the beat that popular culture dances to?

No matter what I turn on or pick up, the beat is familiar. Whether it’s Beavis and Butt-head, CNN, Doonesbury, M. Butterfly, Whitney Houston, Public Enemy, Guns ’N Roses—a kind of doubling beat working with and against itself, running like a subtext through the event.

The Denny trial, the LA riot, Rodney King, true crime dramas, the LA fires, the northern Midwest flood, HIV/AIDS benefits and demonstrations, the Christian Right, Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson’s divorce, Clinton’s health care plan, new designer drugs, raves, crack, gangs, TV and radio talk shows with the unmasked reality of America spilling its guts. All of these are part of the discourse of popular culture. All have the same double beat. Politics and economics drive popular culture.

And since the ’60s, popular culture is where the major struggles have taken place: civil rights, women’s rights, Vietnam, homelessness, Agent Orange, the rise and fall of presidents, sexual ethics and behavior, Legionnaire’s disease, crime and punishment. It is impossible to talk about true control of it, because what’s supposed to happen seldom does. Except the bass beat is kept and a Blues keeps playing.

You have to learn to work popular culture. And once you do, you’re a player no matter what your race, gender, class, sexual orientation, size, age, health status. And if you’re a good player, you win a lot. No matter what the field or the skill level in that field, if you can work popular culture you get to play a long time and reach the hearts and minds in ways the IRS can’t even touch.

My question is, If popular culture is where the action is, where are progressive Christians? Getting up to dance when the song is nearly over?

Batstone: Why are we so hesitant to dance? ’Cause we aren’t sure whether it just might not be the devil’s music.

No getting around it, spirituality is played out here. You want to talk "cultural wars"? How about "spiritual battles"? Well, get on your "breastplate of righteousness" because here we go.

Feeling alone? Disconnected? Home is where the heart breaks? Wonder whether anyone will really be there for you when it comes to the crunch? Or maybe just depressed that it’s hard to round up a few people to carry boxes each time you shift residence? Hey, don’t worry, because you’re part of the Pepsi Generation! Sure, a can of cola might be a tenuous link upon which to build an identity. But it does give you the fizz of togetherness without the aftertaste of commitment. You’re still free to follow your dreams in the market.

Or maybe you just find it hard to believe in anything anymore. The shifting sands of relativity got your lofty castles of certainty tumbling down? Just once wouldn’t it be nice to say "I BELIEVE..." without harboring those nasty doubts? I’ve got just the litany for you. "I BELIEVE desserts you eat on vacation do count" (after all, you’re only as good as you look). "I BELIEVE liposuction is not the answer" (that’s cheating). "I BELIEVE the best scenic overlooks aren’t marked by signs that say scenic overlook" (c’mon, be your own person). Now, just as you’re dripping with conviction, say together with me, "I BELIEVE LIFE IS SHORT. PLAY HARD, REEBOK."

You can do these archaeological digs of Western spirituality yourself at home. Get an extra long playing tape and set your VCR for 18 hours of network television. Then go back and watch only the commercials. Very bright people are paid exceptional money to figure out what makes you and I tick—what makes us feel accepted, loved, valuable, at home, secure, turned on sexually and otherwise, frightened, vulnerable, alive. We’re talking identity here, shaping a spirit to conform to an image. They’ll let us have our Sunday worship. They just want our identity the rest of the week.

Moving over to the political battleground, collective spirituality is what is at stake in the so-called "cultural wars." Conservative pundits lament the loss of a "single American culture," an erosion of the traditions and institutions "that made this country what it is." Liberal pundits promote not a nationality per se, but "America as an idea," the progressive embodiment of universal ideals. The battles are fought with images: Right to Life, multiculturalism, strong America, new covenant, political (in)correctness, Willie Horton, Murphy Brown, Sister Souljah, spotted owl, Ted and Whoopi, Howard and Rush. Images too many to count, too important to discount.

Back to the peace and justice crowd, who randomly jump on and off this dance floor. Despite their distrust of popular culture, most groups are thrilled when their demonstration, lobbying effort, direct action, press release, or community project gets the attention of the public eye. And it goes deeper than a "Did you see me on the evening news" buzz. It’s about influence. Imaging alternative ways to shape a spirit. Embodying values as if the world and its inhabitants mattered. Taking spirituality to the streets.

Long ago a Palestinian peasant stood up on an ox cart and started the first of many public speeches with these words, "The kingdom of God is at hand." He took an image that was part and parcel of his popular culture and resonated it with meaning. His later speeches joined to it with other images that moved his hearers: sowing a field, pouring wine in wineskins, hosting a banquet; dishonest stewards, persistent widows, and ethnic rivalries. He then took his movement to the center of cultural life, Jerusalem, where he was executed (the image stuck to the end: "Here hangs King of the Jews").

Only three decades or so later, a Roman citizen with a Hebrew background took up the cause of this peasant prophet (who they say was risen from the dead) and became a key leader of the movement. Funny thing is, in his many letters to city folks he never once talked of the "kingdom of God," not to mention sheep and goats. Though he claimed continuity with the prophet, his message wore completely different images, "popular" to the urban cultures of his day.

Today we live far removed from either the rural life of the prophet (who they say is risen) or the cities of the Roman letter writer. To be spirit-moving prophets in our own time, the message must find space in our consciousness. Elitist and separatist language is out, that is unless we want an elitist or separatist movement. Popular culture, with all its pitfalls, is all we’ve got. It’s the only game in town.

(And since we’re already on the stage, we might as well join in.)

Smith: The beat goes on....Maybe we’re just real polite and are just waiting for someone to ask us, to dance that is. Maybe we’re wallflowers that ain’t never been approached ’cause of the funny clothes we wear. We so-called progressive Christ-ians are kind of weird, you know. And now we’re moving onto the electronic highway at speeds faster than the eye can blink, into virtual realities that make St. John’s vision an everyday event, with 100, 500, 1,000 channels of viewing pleasure to swim in, unlimited opportunities to explore. It’s no longer science fiction. It is real and it is here.

And the revolutionary hopes of the 20th century are just so many starving bellies in Cuba, Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia, Russia. So many military regimes in Nigeria, Libya, Algeria. So many bloated bureaucracies in China, India, Brazil. So many colored people beaten in Germany, Britain, the United States of America, France.

This was the century that would end poverty, end the color line, end colonialism, end capitalism, usher in a new age of plenty. And here we are. History won’t let us create a real heaven; only visions, false ones, that seem to be built on someone else’s suffering. Popular culture, in part the marketplace of these visions of false heaven, is also the primary incubator of hope. Some of it false, for sure, but nonetheless it does "keep hope alive."

It might sound blasphemous, but popular culture is also God’s creation. Like you said, that jobless, homeless Palestinian was an inhabitant of popular culture, spoke in the vernacular, hung out with the populi. Yet he discovered and passed on the Wisdom that he found there, using the imagery that he found in this discourse of everyday people’s lives to demonstrate a way of paying the costs of history, while teaching how to maintain the community God had intended for God’s people.

The problem that he discovered with popular culture, and that is still true, is that many are left out of the discourse, except as objects, objects of ridicule and exploitation, despised objects that have become today’s CNN entertainment. The poor, the sick, the stranger, the enchained are still left out. They are now often the objects of worldwide extravaganzas that milk the compassion/pity response vein of those of us who are within the circles of discourse to pull in millions, pull in the viewers, and pull in the advertising value, and baby, everybody walks away with a bundle. And it’s all for a good cause.

We have turned the Palestinian’s concerns into inexhaustible re-sources for the satisfaction of our own needs. It’s all part of the negotiation of the costs of history by means of popular culture.

So if we are going to get up to dance, we are going to have to dance in very tricky and changing rhythms. We are going to have to maintain the beat as the music changes. I read somewhere that an "infinite diversity in an infinite number of combinations" is a way of talking about God’s creation. I would add, "creating an infinite number of contradictions," the source of much of the suffering and pain.

So if we dance in the larger dance, and here’s my Blues riff, we must recognize that popular culture is neither the cause nor the origin of the problems. It is only the place where the music is played, the dance occurs, and the fun is trying to be had. We have to look closer and farther for the cause and origin, lying in history. We can’t escape those costs, even in religion.

So maybe one way to keep the beat as the music changes, if in fact we do get up to dance, is to follow the example of the Palestinian who created a way of reducing the costs of history, especially the cost to those who bear the heaviest burden, while living heartily. His way was not to avoid the contradictions, but rather to suffer, that is, to feel and experience fully the passions of the contradictions. He did get up to dance, wherever this took him, even unto death, with an understanding that history is not the final word.

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