Friday, April 01, 2011

Capitalism and The Export of American Culture

Being a card caring member of the evangelical church, I often hear the rant that America "has changed so much in the last so many years". The sense is that our cultural values have changed from innocence and honesty to selfishness and sexual promiscuity. It would be a good study to determine to what extent this perception is true, but, for now, let's assume that things have changed culturally. Why is this so?

The reason for this I believe is obvious. Capitalism caters to our appetites. Couple this basic fact with the rise of media in the home and in all our culture, and you end up with a culture that is immersed in images that cater to immediate gratification and our lowest selves. So, if you judge the culture by media and teenager fascination with all that is celebrated in the media, you will inevitably believe that the culture has radically changed.

Pop media is a tool of what sells, and what sells will always point to the least common denominator. I think it is best to realize that this "for the masses" approach is the way markets work. For a company to be BIG, it has to sell to all of us and appeal to what we all have in common. We all have in common our appetites and our weaknesses with respect to our appetites. Therefore, privately owned, profit driven media will necessarily and always target shallow and emotion driven content. Media has to be big to effect us all. Therefore, what effects us all will always be shallow and sexualized. That is just the way a profit driven media works. 

Think about it. When I was a kid, we used the term "sell out". To sell out meant to go pop. To go pop means to change your content to sex. Competition has driven a rush to the bottom. Think about talk radio. The more black and white the discussion the higher the ratings. To succeed, a person has to be dumb enough to preach passion without nuance. Nuance and analysis doesn't sell. 

So the moral to the story is that pop culture is simply a reflection of our appetites. What has changed is the volume of media not us. This process has been evolving for a long, long time. We haven't changed but the capitalist market has become a greater part of the cultural noise. 

The solutions are simple. We need to fast from pop culture and media in the home. We all need to take back the home from the market place. We need to teach our children that what you see on TV and in pop culture by definition represents only what is the least common denominator of our nature. If we desire to have dignity and to stand above the crowd by being honorable men and women, we must become distinct from pop culture. We need to simply realize that all that media is the market not our identity. We are people not merely consumers. 
enough for now,
peace, brad


Sharaya Crossan said...

Completely agree with final paragraph. Our family does not have cable TV and only a few months ago got a television (for good movies and so we could host our Bible study which now is using some DVD's as part of the study). We super teach our children to discern in their choices of web browsing, gaming, etc. All electronics are limited access, etc.

A few thoughts:

"Capitalism caters to our appetites." Yes, if often does. But it also caters to our values, too. I could pay for a ticket to see ____ (fill in the blank with the most morally perverse and plainly mediocre movie even filmed) or to see ____ (fill in the blank with a film that exalts truth, beauty and or wisdom). After all, the Holy Bible is still the best seller book of all time. I part with my money bec. I want something that is valuable enough to me to part with it. That may be bec. I want to gratify my base desires or because I want to support a little more truth and grace in the world. Capitalism facilitates both.

"For a company to be BIG, it has to sell to all of us and appeal to what we all have in common." Perhaps. But not to be wildly successful. A friend of mine became a multi-millionaire in a few years by... creating software to help baseball card collectors organize their cards and sell them. No kidding. He found a niche, an underserved niche, and gave them something they wanted for a price they were willing to pay for the value it brought them. There were enough ppl. with those values, not what all of us have in common.

And about profit driven media, I generally agree. Are you implying that non-profits never do this, too? Of course, they do. They are a business and run on the same principles. The only diff: They don't have shareholders. Less accountability, one might argue.

I think nuance and depth not "selling" (it does, just not as much) is more an issue of our education system than capitalism.

How is there more capitalism now than there was in the 1950's? There is actually less. There is more govt. regulation than before. Stuff for sale is more seedy bec. it is tolerated more, fewer social taboos, and less homogeneity in culture.

Lastly, the greatest export America can give is the greatest one is received: the Gospel.

brad said...

First there is far less regulation now than there was after the war. There were actually price controls etc in the '50's. Regulation began disclining in the 80's and has declined ever since.
Also, my point was also the power of BIG business, large capital ventures. These have to be most popular and are the main drivers of what we see as trends which as it evolves will always get more and more appetite driven.

Sharaya Crossan said...


Thanks for the reply... Quick thoughts:

Yes, there was much deregulation in the 80's, after a sharp increase in regulation in the 70's. And you are probably right that the net is more to the side of deregulation. But the trend is now swinging back in the other direction.

I agree with your point about how much of the marketplace is appetite driven. But your point was also that capitalism caters to our appetites and is to blame. My point is that capitalism's affect is much more broad than that. You have not replied to my point there. You appear to blame capitalism for people paying for what feeds their appetites. The blame rests in our sinful nature. And people will pay to cater to that regardless of what economic system they have before them. Capitalism is merely a way for individuals to freely exchange one thing they value (usually currency, but also property, labor, etc.) for another thing they value.

My main point: Capitalism is a means. It is people's sinful or redeemed nature that determines the morality of what they do within that system. Capitalism is not evil, nor is it good. It just is. What we do with it can be evil or good. I can participate in society via capitalism for good or for ill.

So while we ought to be aware if we catering to our baser appetites, let's not shift the blame on a system. We will give an account for our decision regardless of what the economic system is. And that is where your closing paragraph is so right on. So your warning is good.

Fortunately, now in a global internet, not only the BIG companies have sway. There are so many alternatives and niches that can be influential and successful. I no longer, for ex., have to rely on the three big broadcast news channels. (And I don't since I don't watch TV.) In fact, they are hurting. And not just bec. of Fox, but bec. of the diverse internet.

(Also, regarding one of your points, competition has also resulted in a rush to the top. I now have great alternatives in Christian radio, TV, Christian books sold in secular stores, etc. that didn't exist earlier in my life. I just think your post is too one-sided.)

Meant in love... sometimes hard to convey when things are only written...

brad said...


You are 100% correct about capitalism being simply a means to exercise our baser sinful nature. That is my point as well. Sorry if I wasn;t clear. My point is that governments job its restrain our evil nature so we balance our nature with rational commitments to media that caters to our virtue and problem solving.