Ferguson: America’s cultural segregation fault lines
What’s wrong with living in your own private America
The crisis in Ferguson, Missouri., has refocused attention on racial divisions in the United States, specifically segregation. On a police force of 53, only three officers are black in a town that is roughly 67 percent African-American. Yet in some ways this attention obscures an even larger form of segregation that has been overtaking us for the past 40 years — cultural segregation.
Americans have managed to fracture themselves into clusters of the like-minded, the like-looking, the like-earning, the like-music listening, the like-TV watching and the like-movie-going.
We don’t live in America anymore. We live in thousands of Americas, many no farther away than our computer screens and the Internet. These are self-identified Americas. Beyond the usual suspects, Fox America and MSNBC America, we have hip-hop America, gun America, tree-hugging America, Tea Party America, drug America, sci-fi addict America, and on and on and on.
The fact that we have different interests, different perspectives, is certainly not new, nor is the fact that we band together, often through the Internet, with others who share our interests and values. What is new is that these many Americas that once cross-pollinated one another now exist in total isolation. Folks finally got the means to do what folks may have always wanted to do: Make the world cater to them. And the country is endangered because of it.
The late sociologist Robert Bellah in his path-breaking 1985 book Habits of the Heart described a country ghettoized by culture. He noted the rise of “lifestyle enclaves” — to which people could retreat largely because, in our increasingly diverse and mobile society, they needed something to, as Bellah put it, “express their identity thorough shared patterns of appearance, consumption and leisure activities.”
Bellah realized this form of identity came at the cost of community. That was his point. He could not have foreseen, however, all the mechanisms that now contribute to this kind of segregation — or the ways it would alter American life.
Not so long ago, the cultural — and for that matter, the political — majority ruled. The culture-making apparatus wasn’t interested in addressing different slices of the country; it was interested in addressing the whole thing — meaning largely those who are white and middle class. Hollywood made movies that it hoped would appeal to everyone – young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural, and, yes, black and white. Not any more. Now Hollywood targets certain movies to kids, others to teens, others to the middle-aged (no one cares about seniors), and even a few to racial or religious segments of the population.
In a sense, the United States had a shared culture because of a lack of choice. In 1980, for example, 55 million Americans watched the three national network news broadcasts, which gave everyone just about the same framework. Today that figure is 22 million in a country with 80 million more people.
Obviously, Americans are still getting news. They just aren’t getting it as a community. Beyond the big cable news outlets, even more are getting information on tens of thousands of Internet websites. This fragmentation is true for almost every aspect of American life. There are very few nationally shared experiences anymore.
For all the talk about globalization and a flat world, one of the deepest impulses in modern culture has been just the opposite: to “nichify” ourselves, not only to find people who are exactly like us but also to make those cohorts ever narrower. Not globalization but individualization – what journalist Bill Bishop called “the big sort.” The advent of cable television with its 500 channels, the overwhelming diversification of music, fashion, consumer goods and, above all, the dominance of the Internet have all served to give each of us what we want. This has made each of us a member of smaller and smaller exclusive cultural clubs, since few of us want the same things.
The basic idea behind this cultural balkanization, beyond the obvious commercial implications, was that no one need be subjected to anything he or she didn’t really want. The tyranny of the majority and of the homogenization that went with it was over. You could call this an especially rampant form of democracy, and there is certainly something to be said for a society in which almost everyone seems to have an independent voice. The effects haven’t all been salutary, however. The need to cross cultural boundaries on the way to homogenization had fructified the country, exposing each of us to different forms, attitudes and styles.
We wouldn’t have had rock ‘n’ roll without black blues having been transformed by Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and later the Rolling Stones. We wouldn’t have had modern comedy without the Jewish Borscht Belt comics infiltrating mainstream life. We wouldn’t have had Pop Art if the low-rent culture of comic books, B-movies and mass consumption hadn’t entered the sensibilities of fine artists.
The best in American culture was usually not the product of segregation but often recombination. We formed a vital common culture out of many sources.
But there is another, more pernicious effect of cultural segregation. It shrinks the world rather than enlarges it — reinforces what already is, circumscribes people within their own worldview. In a segregated world, especially the virtually segregated world we now have thanks to the Internet, we need never leave our own cultural ghetto.
This creates a terrible form of narcissism, as well as self-satisfied extremism: You know what you know and that is all you need to know. As Bishop explains in The Big Sort: “Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”
What we are seeing in Ferguson, where black and whites seem to perceive the world differently, is a mirror of the national condition in which so many enclaves each see the world differently so there is less and less empathy that would help us cross the borders among those enclaves.
We live within the prisons of ourselves. Unfortunately, we are not likely to escape.
PHOTO (TOP): Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones and Little Richard. REUTERS/Combination/Files
(INSERT 1): Visitors play “Hearthstone” at the World of Warcraft exhibition stand during the Gamescom 2013 fair in Cologne, August 21, 2013. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender
PHOTO (INSERT 2): A man listens to Beats brand headphones on a street in New York, May 29, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Painting by Roy Lichtenstein. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer