“In Hollywood, no one knows anything.”
— William Goldman (author/screenwriter)
There seems to be an overrepresentation of select places in American media. It seems like at any time there is at least one movie in the theaters that takes place in or features characters from Los Angeles or New York City. Every major network station has primetime shows in these locations as well. This should not come as much of a surprise, as writers write about what they know, and NYC and LA are strongholds for the entertainment industry. This ends up meaning that there is a huge overrepresentation of these locations and their local culture in popular media. Less than 4% of Americans live in LA and NYC combined. For comparison, roughly 4.5% of Germans live in Berlin and 12.5% of the United Kingdom’s population lives in London.
“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
— John Updike (writer)
Problems arise when these writers and others in the industry show their misunderstanding and disdain for the rest of the country when they do include it in their work. The Midwest and South, in particular, are commonly written off as “fly-over states” or portrayed as backward and ignorant. Someone who does not know any better would believe that these areas have nothing of value to offer the nation and should be actively avoided. Americans’ perceptions of distant fellow citizens in a vast country are being informed by people who do not know any better than they do. Many of these writers have never been to or know anyone from these places and their perception is informed solely by the previous generation’s media. At best, they are creating a caricature of a caricature.
This greatly affects the international perception of America as well. The American entertainment industry dominates internationally. People around the world watch American movies and TV shows. A very small number of people in a limited area are controlling the perception of America to the world. The international community think that they know American culture because of the bombardment they receive from the entertainment industry but in reality, they only see a sliver of a funhouse mirror.
“If you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won’t all lie to you, but a lot of them will, and it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes.”
The West Wing
In the South, there seems to be a massively large segment of voters who vote based on the self-proclaimed values, religious or otherwise, of those running for office. In Alabama at least, this is getting results that the voters obviously did not intend or anticipate. There has been a slew of resignations of elected government officials in the last year, most recently the (now former) Governor Robert Bentley. Despite Robert Bentley’s campaign ads that proclaimed his family values, he was cheating on his wife with a married woman who was 30 years younger and using state resources to carry out and cover up the affair. This is not a new phenomenon as three Alabama governors have now faced criminal charges since 1992.
That Bentley campaign ad is nothing unusual in Alabama either. Election ads always seem to be an arms race of holiness (and most recently Obama bashing). Maybe voters should start paying attention to the actions of office seekers, instead of their words, to figure out the real values of politicians. This hints at a larger problem in politics nationwide. Soundbites are more appealing than policy. Despite news being 24/7, it seems to have an incredibly short attention span and would rather spend 20 minutes overanalyzing a soundbite with “experts” instead of providing the context of the statement. Much of the blame can be placed on the questionable practices of the media and politicians but voters need to take some responsibility as well. If voters stop eating up the crap they are shoveled than it will still stop getting shoveled.
“They were all kinds of men—literate men and ignorant men, clean men and dirty men—but all of them had restlessness in common.”
John Steinbeck. East of Eden
Restlessness and discontentment seem to be very American attributes. Many people came to America in the days of British Colonialism in hopes for something different than their life before. They risked death coming to a hostile, unknown, and extremely distant land for that. This restlessness germinated itself into American culture from the beginning. Succeeding generation’s discontentment with their lives would lead to some of the most rapid mass migrations in human history. Manifest Destiny had a lot of cultural baggage attached to it, but it was also a continuation of the nearly unbridled expansion that had already been going on for over a century. What was considered the frontier in America was constantly shifting westward as settlers always assumed that better land and prospects were just beyond that next hill. Americans could not wait for the gears of government to settle new lands so they did it themselves, often at the ill-fortune of both settlers and Natives.
“It’s like getting up. I don’t want to get up and I don’t want to stay down. I don’t want to stay here and I don’t want to go away.”
“You make me itch,” said Charles.
“Think about it, Charles. You like it here?
“And you want to stay here all your life?”
“Jesus, I wish I had it that easy. What do you suppose is the matter with me?”
John Steinbeck. East of Eden.
This restless nature did not end when America reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. It still manifests itself today in the minds of Americans. It has helped drive America to become the largest economy in the world and discover new scientific breakthroughs. It also drove America to become a country that serves the interest of a few at the expense of the many. As Ronald Wright put it, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Americans like to believe that once they work hard enough or that golden opportunity presents itself that they will be part of that top economic tier and all their dreams will be fulfilled. Of course, for the vast majority of people, this will never happen.
This restlessness is moving away from attempted economic antidotes. Younger generations are feeling increasingly exploited by crony capitalism. Perhaps this is why Americans have been on a downward trend for happiness for the last few years (Happiness Report). Will this trend stick or will the younger generations “buy-in” to the system as the baby boomers continue to move out? What effect will this have on our culture, economy, and way of life? It is probably too early to tell.