Post-Pandemic Dispositions

While America has always had regional and political differences, for much of American history technology and infrastructure projects knit the country closer together. Steamboats transformed river traffic. Both goods and people could move more quickly and efficiently than had been imaginable, and cities on the same river, and later lakes, became, in essence, closer and more involved with each other. 

          Canals were built that tied sections of the country together that were not previously connected by rivers or coasts. The most famous, the Erie Canal, made it possible for goods to flow from the Midwest to the East and back making these areas interdependent in ways that they were not before. The extensive networks of other canals helped amalgamate what had been separate localities into regions.

          Railroads made almost every part of the country closer to each other. The West Coast and the East Coast for the first time were truly part of the same nation. With railroads and their kid brother, streetcars, city neighborhoods, outlying areas, and downtowns became part of a single metropolis.

          Air traffic and the interstate highways furthered the process. Although many differences remained, regions were bonded into one country because of transportation improvements, almost all of which were government funded or subsidized.

          Communication advances also knit the country tighter. With the telegraph, interregional business became more efficient. The telegraph allowed the same national news to be read throughout the country on the same day. Speedy communications between friends, acquaintances, and relatives in distant parts of the land became possible. And, of course, all this was immeasurably furthered with the telephone.

          Technological advances allowed people throughout the country to experience the same culture. With the phonograph masses could hear Enrico Caruso, Gene Austin, and Bessie Smith far beyond the limited audience of a performing space. Movies made Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and many since then into nationwide stars. With the national distribution of movies, fashion and other trends now quickly spread throughout the country as masses saw Veronica Lake’s hairdo and that Clark Gable was not wearing an undershirt. Newsreels allowed Americans throughout the country to experience Hitler rallies, the invasion of Ethiopia, and World Series highlights in ways that were not possible before.

With radio, millions could hear at the same time fireside chats and Edgar Bergen in their living rooms. (I still don’t quite understand ventriloquism on the radio.) Television intensified that trend as huge portions of the country simultaneously watched the same entertainment, sports, and news. Conversations around the country the next day would be about the same topics—Lucille Ball’s antics, Alan Ameche plunging for a touchdown as the Colts beat the Giants in overtime, JFK’s funeral, and the moon landing.

For much of our history, technological and infrastructure changes moved Americans more towards being one people. Now, however, we often see a land with many increasing and unyielding divisions. Much of this talk of a new divisiveness is overblown. Even as the United States became more united in some ways, strong factions always existed. However, it is true that some recent trends and technological advances have meant that Americans’ sharing of common experiences has lessened. Cable television may have started this. With the hegemony of three television networks destroyed, we no longer had common TV shows. The goal of reaching a mass audience has now been replaced by targeted audiences. Michiko Kakutani in The Death of Truth maintains, “New Star War movies and the Super Bowl remain some of the few communal events that capture an audience cutting across demographic lines.”

What communal media events do we have now? I had heard and seen many comments about the end of Game of Thrones as its finale approached. A mass cultural event was about to happen, or was it? The initial showing of the last episode was watched by 13.6 million people on HBO and 19.4 million on all platforms within a day or so. That is a lot of people experiencing the same event at almost the same time. But compare that to the finale of M*A*S*H in 1983 when 105.9 million watched without the advantage of immediate replays and with about 100 million fewer people (234 million) in the population compared to 2019 (330 million).

The M*A*S*H audience was indeed extraordinary—77% of TV viewers. Even so, the final episode of Cheers in 1993 and of Seinfeld in 1998 drew 84.4 million and 76.3 million viewers when the country’s population was about 260 million. The viewership of many other final episodes including All in the Family at 40.2 million in 1979 and Gunsmoke at 30.9 million dwarf Game of Thrones in both raw numbers and the percentage of the population. More than a half century ago, in 1967, 78 million people watched the final episode of The Fugitive (72% audience share) when the country had 199 million people.

It is true that the Super Bowl remains an American communal event. The last one drew 102.1 million viewers which made it the tenth most watched Super Bowl and eleventh most watched TV show ever—that M*A*S*H finale again.

A similar change in communal movie watching has also occurred. Movie success is measured in dollars, not audience size. The last Star Wars offering had a box office take of $177 million for its opening weekend in 2019. This was less than for the 2017 Star Wars opening ($220 million) and the 2015 opening ($247 million.) Rough calculations using what I pay for movie tickets—expensive New York but senior-citizen rates—the last Star Wars opening had millions fewer viewers in that weekend communal event than even the Game of Thrones finale. (continued April 27)

Postmodern Trumpism (continued)

          The postmodern view that truth is subjective has important epistemological consequences. We no longer have to listen to each other: we don’t have to try to reconcile competing claims and information. If you maintain that thousands were massacred at Wounded Knee on that day in 1890 while I contend that no one was killed, if we believe that there is an objective truth, we would engage each other. We would investigate what support there is for the competing positions, and perhaps do more research. As a result, we might abandon or modify our original assertions. If, however, truth is subjective, if truth is what is true for each individual, we will not undertake this shared enterprise seeking a better understanding of the truth. Thousands dead is true for you. Nobody died is true for me. End of story. It’s all relative.

          The notion that truth was relative wedged its way into a wider world and crept into many areas of thought outside of academia. For example, Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote: “What is true is what is true for you. No one has any right to force data on you and command you to believe it or else. If it is not true for you, it isn’t true. Think your own way through things, accept what is true for you, discard the rest. There is nothing unhappier than one who tries to live in a chaos of lies.” (Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.)

          It also entered an Ivy League seminar room. I don’t remember the topic discussion for the class I was recently leading, but when I called on one student, she said, “Don’t you want to know what my opinion is?” I snapped “No!” The bright young woman had a shocked look. Surely her opinion was valuable. Others around the table were concerned. Many looked as if this was the first time a student opinion was rejected. I went on to say, “I want your facts; your information. What relevant experiences have you had? Then you can tell me how your opinion arises out of those data.” She went silent. But in a world where truth is subjective, all opinions are equally valid, and she probably thought that I should have allowed her to present her truth no matter how it was derived. (I got one bad teaching evaluation from this seminar. I assume that it was she, but that is just my opinion; I don’t have facts to back it up.)

          Postmodern thinking has affected diplomats. Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth quotes a Russian propagandist. “All narratives are contingent, Surkov suggested, and all politicians are liars; therefore, the alternative facts put out by the Kremlin (and by Donald Trump) are just as valid as everyone else’s.” Surkov “invoked Derrida-inspired arguments about the unreliability of language—to suggest that Western notions of truthfulness and transparency are naïve and unsophisticated.”

          Postmodernist thinking even invaded science. On The Big Bang Theory it is a laugh line when Penny’s not-overly-bright boyfriend says to Leonard and the rest of the Caltech crowd: “Agree to disagree. That’s what I love about science. There’s no right answer.” But supposedly bright people began to maintain that science was merely socially constructed and that science could not claim to be neutral. Science could not seek universal truths because it was fatally affected by a scientist’s identity and cultural values. (Tell that to the scientist spouse and watch her seethe!)

          One of my leftist academic colleagues adopted this anti-science position. The United States Supreme Court had written an opinion about what scientific evidence could be admitted into trials. I appeared with my colleague on a panel at a neighboring law school discussing this decision. My colleague denigrated the decision by glibly saying that science like other knowledge was merely “socially constructed” and subjective. On the other hand, I knew that she had taken an elevator to the conference room, and I wondered if she truly thought that the principles that allowed that lift to ascend and descend were mere subjective social constructions. If we truly believed that there was no objective scientific truth, we could not operate in the world. No one really believes what she was trying to peddle. Instead, a more sophisticated approach might have allowed that science does not produce absolute truths because it is always trying to refine its knowledge or that scientific funding, which influences what gets studied, can be affected by cultural and society forces. But we all know that there is a universal truth behind the physics of gravity and friction.

(continued January 10)