Hey, Stupid, It's the Culture!
Young George W. Bush and his allies have figured this out far ahead of the hip liberals, the Greens, the anarchists, maybe you and (almost) me. Have you noticed how we're being deluged with feature stories building the case?again?for W's coronation? All this summer you'll probably see a variant of the king-in-waiting story at least once a week in the big media, from the Los Angeles Times to Tom Brokaw to Newsday. This spring you've heard about his "charm offensive" rather than his overflowing war chest, originally designed to scare Pat Buchanan off (it succeeded). These days you're hearing how pleasant and relaxed he is, in private. How he pals around with liberal Democrats. How he agonizes over his all-time execution record. How he reads books, listens to music, chats in Spanish to Hispanic kids while they dance. How his media directors are real sweet, nonnegative guys.
Brilliant stuff, superbly fed to us through the media CEOs dying to get their taxes reduced and the Democrats off their antitrust drive against Bill Gates. I don't deny the presence of sincere W Lovers/ Clinton Haters among the producer-editor ranks. In The New York Times several months ago we saw the penultimate move to co-opt what I will shortly call Culture 3: W is the first GOP presidential candidate, said the dazzled reporter, who tolerates tongue rings.
Tolerates them? You see my point? Whose "culture" is W?followed, shortly, by Al and the big media?about to define? On the lowest level, the neoconservative sharpies feeding ideas to the media bosses stole Culture 3?the Virtual Real culture?from us long ago. The neocon premise, beloved up in the tower suites if not downtown, goes like this: the real, true culture is a closed, coherent body of knowledge, wired into certain classics we all must read, if we love the late Allan Bloom and Daniel Bell, not to say the now totally discredited views of Milton Friedman.
The point of this culture?let's call it Culture 1, still lurking behind most newspaper editorials?is that it follows rules. Known rules. You see it saluted constantly in the columns of William F. Buckley Jr., who is celebrated, publicized and guested on tv endlessly, most recently by Yale. Not far away from this elitist position is Culture 2, which is also likely to blind us, and our pols, to the truth of the present situation. Culture 2 is in fact a kind of populist guerrilla front for neoconservatism. You won't see its leaders getting honorary degrees from Yale. The tabloids are handing "cultural politics" over to politicians like John McCain, Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and Rick Lazio?that is, to monogamy, feudal decency and "life" for the unborn. For Culture 2 fanatics, Gore and even W are vulgar utilitarians, and Hillary is Satan in drag. Worse, anything remotely vanguard, provocative or hip is not "culture," period. McCain summed it up when he called contemporary art "pornography."
Culture 2, while linked to Culture 1 because it shouts about rigid rules and unyielding beliefs, appeals to a different market. It's the voice of small-town entrepreneurs and blue-collar workers. Culture 2 defies elitist intellectuals and global CEOs. Culture-2 types not only have no specific right-wing cast, some of them even took to the streets lately in Seattle and DC to badger Motorola, Microsoft and Sony. They include relatively decent libertarians, blue-nosed greens like Ralph Nader, blue-nosed antisex feminists, antigay nuts like Dr. Laura Schlessinger, inventive millionaires like Donald Trump, even Jesse Ventura, who hates intellectuals and religion yet loves sex, as does Trump.
Now, Culture 3 is where the most of us really live, over here with Lars Von Trier, American Beauty, the Web, Copenhagen, Backroom Seats and Bathroom Stalls, gigabyte chips about to turn your microwave into a think tank, quantum theory, our manic, uncontrollable, unstoppable info-based economy, Ventura when he is mischievous, and the progressive, self-driven, often self-employed middle class. The essential insight of Culture 3, which many of us share, both consciously and subliminally, is this: Get Ready for Anything. No way that W, given his advisers, can make himself over into a 3 in any substantial way, beyond declaring tolerance for tongue rings. By rights, Gore ought to get it, though there is not yet a scintilla of evidence in his campaign, beyond the dialogue he had earlier this spring with Chuck Close and a band of contemporary artists. For some reason he seems even to be declaring himself against medical marijuana, which is a pariah only to Culture-1 types (libertarian Culture 2 voters actually endorsed it in Arizona and a clutch of Western counties). No signs yet that Culture 3 is on Hillary's radar, but we know she has a high IQ tempered by the madness of the impeachment/affair?she is surely ready for anything.
The candidate who touches the steadily building consensus Culture 3 represents will make a political fortune. The only barriers are the obvious barriers: Culture-1 types control our media, and Culture-2 types scream the loudest. If you take them seriously you'd guess that our society is about to deconstruct, spiral into a depression and revive official Victorian morality. Yet you and I know the situation is open, not closed, that a society earning its living on Palm Pilots and self-driven URLs, in which health, professional and gender independence, sexual diversity, innovative forms of family and lifespans are all expanding, is a distinctly new kind of society. Nobody knows where this profound and fundamental change is heading us, but surely it won't be the fragile society that greeted Carville in 1992.
At the end of Copenhagen, the clone of Werner Heisenberg, who spends an intensely fateful and theatrical night on Broadway debating the morality of atomic weapons with his old friend Niels Bohr in 1941, sums up Culture 3 when he says: Beneath all these events, these exchanges, these passions we will find in the end a powerful?and inspiring?uncertainty.
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