November 29, 2004

Culture Wars: The Soundtrack

The Andy Griffith Show

I don't watch prime-time American network television any more, nor the HBO and other comparable cable fare that increasingly dominates evening viewing and day-after conversation in its stead. To the amazement and despair of friends, family, and other die-hard friends of "Friends", I have thus far refused to watch even a single episode of "The Sopranos", as I steadfastly refused "Sex and the City" before it. Mine is an almost un-American inactivity in relation to TV.

Nevertheless, the stuff does manage, thanks to my wife, to snake its way into my house. The result is that, for the past decade or so, I've had what might best be described as a distant, occasional listening relationship to that vast swath of America's collective imaginative life. Poor anti-social me, I no longer know all the latest "funny" or "cool" commercials. Television is something that literally goes on in the other room of my life. And most of the time, I just blot its ambient noise out of consciousness.

A couple weeks ago, however, I suddenly found myself listening attentively from the kitchen to what was happening in the living room. I don't know which show was on, but I was awestruck at what I heard and, more specifically, what I didn't hear and, as I then realized, hadn't heard in decades.

It's worth noting that this occurred right in the midst of the post-election spin-fest that saw pundits of every political stripe grappling not retrospectively, with the reality of the campaign season through which we had just passed, but, without the least acknowledgement, prospectively, with Karl Rove's opening salvo of the 2006 mid-term elections: that "Values Voters" had tipped the scales for Bush. How much more reasonable to conclude that the Swift-Boat Veterans smear campaign had. But of course that dirty-trick operation and its once-upon-a-time real impact had gone right down Orwell's memory hole; little doubt, with the help of Rove's well-timed orchestration of "Values Voters. Did they or didn't they?" Always claim victory in a way that distracts from the way it's actually achieved. These were the issues uppermost in my mind when I suddenly found myself listening attentively to the television.

What I heard and heard as missing from any recent experience of mine of the pervasive background sound of American television was the chorus of southern and regional American dialects that filled my childhood and early adolescence in the 1960s, when "The Andy Griffith Show" and its spawn rode the charts, and into the 1970s when Burt Reynolds was considered a sex-symbol heartthrob. In their once familiar places, I suddenly heard nothing but an offensive cacophony of greedy, empty, consuming, status-jockeying, utterly self-absorbed and selfish New York and LA voices, and straining to be something they weren't quite yet, a sub-whirl of would-be New York and LA voices -- years and years of them -- as if, now, even actors and actresses from elsewhere had grown up picking out and hearing only the Long Island and Valley sounds they aspired to become.

Now, I must quickly point out that these missing southern, regional American voices were neither those of my own family nor of our typical television viewing during the 1960s and early 1970s. My sisters and I grew up hearing two languages beyond English spoken daily in our home and in our extended family's homes during holidays: Spanish and Chinese. My middle sister and I, in kindergarten and first grade, were isolated once a day to "Speech Therapy" along with other potential "retards," when we first moved to California. So thick did our Philadelphia accent sound to unaccustomed ears that our very capacity to learn was in doubt or at least thought imperiled. It's thus from a rather different vantage than personal or cultural nostalgia that I hear the relative absence of southern, regional voices in American television.

And it's not that they are completely missing. I don't need anyone writing with a list of shows with southern actors and actresses. I won't watch. And I will try my damnedest not to listen. I'm simply noting that once upon a time southern, regional voices were as unavoidable as commercials no matter how often or when one flipped the channels. It's hard to believe now, even for those of us who can remember it, that once that range of American voices was almost co-extensive with television itself. It's hard to remember that once upon a time people also regularly remarked, in protest, the disappearance of this dimension of American television. But that, too, was a long, long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

No wonder so many people, today, living in "The Red States" feel assaulted by "The Media" as something distant and culturally alien forced upon them.

No wonder so many can be led to believe that "liberal elites" elsewhere are to blame for the divorce, abortion, and teen pregnancy rates that soar higher than any Massachusetts record in their own communities, broken and re-broken economically and socially by the continued drain of their "best and brightest" youth to Blue State education and career opportunities.

It's critical to grasp the truth of what they see and hear. They have been assaulted. They have been culturally beaten. And what comes over the air waves, through the cables, and to the movies houses is for all intents and purposes an oppressively narrow cultural monocrop targeting the densest, most affluent demographics Hollywood and Madison Avenue (and their now more distributed ilk) can hunt down, pick up, net, corral, or cultivate.

Black Friday in Kansas

But no amount of prayer in school, no rededication to family values, no ban of abortion, no re-closeting of gays and lesbians, no euphemistic return of white pride, no number of guns on the rack or by the bedside, no amount of patriotic flag waving or jingoist America-First chest-beating over the dead bodies of foreigners around the globe, and not even the return of regional programming to American television will restore these communities.

Because the enemy is not elsewhere. It's your own hand, reaching into that same Black Friday Devil's Cornucopia Sale Bin for that same intoxicating, media-fashion, must-have crap that's poisoning us matter what we sound like.

Posted by Raoul

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